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

By Earl, Jennifer | Law & Society Review, March 2011 | Go to article overview

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


Earl, Jennifer, Law & Society Review


Crimes of Dissent: Civil Disobedience, Criminal Justice, and the Politics of Conscience. By Jarret S. Lovell. New York: New York University Press, 2009. 239 pp. $23.00 paper.

Crimes of Dissent attempts to provide a broad overview of principled law-breaking through dissent by tracing the experiences of a subset of protesters who are serially arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience. As such, these activists typically expect to be arrested and prepare themselves and their affinity groups for arrests (sometimes by choreographing the arrest with authorities). Perhaps surprising to some, these protesters are not uniformly progressive; right-wing civil disobedience practitioners (e.g., pro-life activists who block clinics) are featured prominently in the book.

This book takes on a number of distinct agendas. Theoretically, the book is arguing for a cultural criminology for dissent that that would see civil disobedience as principled law-breaking, or as a ''pure'' crime (see Chapter 3 for a discussion of characteristics of pure crime). Lovell's application of cultural criminology has three prongs. First, cultural criminology has generally tried to show how everyday behaviors are criminalized and to explain how law-breaking might help resolve ''psychic conflicts'' (p. 20) arising from tensions between cultural and moral beliefs on the one hand and legal and political restrictions on the other. By arguing for a specific brand of anarchism that champions individual moral responsibility over legality (pp. 43, 52), Lovell applies this tenet of cultural criminology to argue that ''many of the so-called crimes of dissent are in actuality cultural reactions'' to progressive or conservative political agendas (p. 20). Indeed, he argues that ''what society sometimes treats as criminal behaviors is later heralded as the starting points of justice'' (p. 206). Second, cultural criminology has focused on the pleasure that can result from law-breaking, and Lovell stresses the positive aspects of participating in civil disobedience, such as the ''pleasure to be derived from openly fighting the system'' (p. 20) and from ''the transgression of legal norms'' (p. 23). Finally, cultural criminology often locates lawbreaking within a subculture that supports legal transgression, and Lovell suggests that affinity groups and larger networks of activists create subcultures that support illegal forms of dissent.

This book also has a clear normative dimension, advocating throughout for a particular brand of anarchism. Showing his cards fully, Lovell concludes the book noting that ''hopefully . . . through a discussion of anarchy, readers have gained a sense of the extent to which we as a citizenry have become (too) dependent on government and the legal system to reverse the injustices that it originally set in motion'' (p. …

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