Crimes of Dissent: Civil Disobedience, Criminal Justice, and the Politics of Conscience

By Jarret S. Lovell | Go to book overview

spectacle on the evening news of local police arresting vegetables. Other times, the challenges are somber or even harshly confrontational, such as when a woman pours her own blood on the walls of the Pentagon in protest of war or when activists block access to a medical clinic where abortions are performed or when animal-rights activists chain themselves to the entrance of a national department store that trades in fur, while carrying a blood-red banner that reads “Fur Is Murder,” or when a man places his body on railroad tracks to prevent the delivery of weapons to a military base.

Call these actions by their traditional nomenclature of civil disobedience, nonviolent resistance, and direct action, or refer to them as those who actually perform these actions do by using such labels as publicspace activism, creative action, carnival, divine obedience, street theater, and even taking theology to the streets. In truth there are as many names for these acts of dissent as there are strategies, and there are as many strategies as there are actors. And although each strategy differs in its level of confrontation, risk, and playfulness, they all share one unifying component: each requires a modicum of criminality in its staging and execution, rendering these protest strategies what I refer to collectively as crimes of dissent.

When confronted with a policy or practice that is found to be morally objectionable, many individuals feel that they have little choice but to choose a path of resistance over the politically accepted (and expected) course of unwavering obedience to established law or social practice. For choosing this path, dissenters run the risk of being branded dangerous, irrational, destructive, subversive, and, of course, criminal. Yet these crimes are not behaviors common to hardened criminals. Instead, they are protests staged by conscientious individuals committed to a given ideology or to a particular way of life.1 Whether these individuals are antiwar or environmental activists, whether advocates for AIDS research dollars or pro-life “rescuers,” or whether they are religiously inspired or firmly rooted in secular politics, all have chosen to place themselves in direct conflict with the very laws—not to mention with the very law enforcers— that maintain the prevailing social structure, triggering what is sometimes a rather sizeable response from the criminal justice system.

But why do activists need to break the law? When confronted with an offending law or practice, why not simply use the democratic structures and procedures already in place to address these grievances? What motivates an individual openly and deliberately to disobey a law as an act of

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Crimes of Dissent: Civil Disobedience, Criminal Justice, and the Politics of Conscience
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Acknowledgments xiii
  • 1 - Crime and Dissent 1
  • 2 - Society and Its DisContents 31
  • 3 - Dissent as "Pure" Crime 65
  • 4 - Policing Dissent 103
  • 5 - Working the System 139
  • 6 - The Impact of Dissent 175
  • Appendix - Activist Profiles 207
  • Notes 215
  • Index 231
  • About the Author 239
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