Civil Disobedience

Eight years ago tomorrow, two amazing things happened. My nephew was born, making “Auntie” the most important piece of my identity, and a black man became President of the United States.

With the inauguration looming like a dark specter, my first impulse with this entry was to start there. With the bad news. But the truth is, there is so much more good news, and that is what I want to talk about. Trump has gotten enough free publicity, and I’d rather talk about people who are truly newsworthy.

My nephew turns eight tomorrow, and even though Trump will be inaugurated, record-breaking numbers of protesters are expected. According to The Washington Times, between 25,000 and 30,000 people protested Nixon’s inauguration, around 20,000 protested George W. Bush’s inauguration, and 200,000 are estimated to protest Trump’s election. The following day, up to 200,000 people will gather in Washington, DC for the Women’s March and there are 616 Sister Marches around the world with more than 1.3 million estimated attendants.

Not to mention that the Women’s March released its Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles and they are inclusive and intersectional and were collaborated on by some amazing women in amazing women’s organizations.

Last I checked, 65 members of Congress were boycotting the inauguration and flitting around Facebook today were all of the things people were planning to do instead of watching the inauguration. Not that there will be much to watch, what with Trump’s inability to book relevant artists to perform. In confirmation hearings in the Senate, Trump’s nominees for his cabinet have been met with a phalanx of Democratic (and independent) Senators who, while not having the votes to stop the nominations, have been able to create distance between the positions of the nominees and the president-elect, and in some cases have exposed exactly how unqualified and ethically compromised these people are.

I was thinking about my nephew today, an almost-eight year old who wears his heart on his sleeve, loves Star Wars and legos, would do almost anything to get a dog, and who writes notes to tell you about his feelings when they’re too hard to express out loud. I was thinking about how cool it was that he was born on Inauguration Day when Obama was elected, and how that joy was soured by him having to share his day with a monster.

I was thinking about the example of masculinity set by Obama and Biden, two men who are unafraid to be emotional, to be openly loving and demonstrative not only with their wives and daughters but with their sons (well, Joe’s) and with each other. It is rare to see such an openly loving male friendship with this kind of public spotlight. I was thinking about how powerful that was, but also that my little man will probably not remember this.

But he will remember Trump, and the example of masculinity that he sets–exploitative, competitive, full of false bravado and insecurity, viewing everyone in his world, but especially the women, as his present- or future-property. My nephew doesn’t have to like (he doesn’t) or directly emulate (he won’t) Trump, because that toxic masculinity will seep into and out of the culture that he has to live in.

This had me fretting. You might not know this about me yet, but I’m a fretter.

But writing this blog helped me put this in perspective. He’s not sharing his day with the monster, because the monster can’t even get people to treat it like his day. My nephew gets to share the day with people standing up and taking action to fight for the future world he deserves, and that’s something to be proud of.

With Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday and a slew of racist bills being proposed here in North Dakota and aimed at weakening the protests of indigenous peoples and their allies at Standing Rock (#NoDAPL), the idea of protest has been especially present in my brain this week. In the early days and weeks of the protest at Standing Rock, I realized that because of the success of MLK’s non-violent protests in the Civil Rights Movement, and the way it’s been taught to us and packaged in the popular culture, people have the belief that non-violent protest is and always has been the only acceptable way to protest. There seems to be this idea that this is not–and has never been–up for debate.

People have forgotten, or maybe never knew, that Malcolm X made compelling arguments to the contrary. They’ve forgotten too that the Civil Rights Movement involved breaking the law, trespassing, risking arrest, causing a disturbance. MLK is cited repeatedly, as if these detractors genuinely believe that if he were here today, he would be on their side.

But I think it’s important to set the theoretical record straight.

MLK believed in non-violent civil disobedience, not least because he knew it could be effective. He was borrowing Gandhi’s playbook. It was illegal not to give up your seat on the bus to a white person. It was illegal to sit at  “Whites Only” lunch counters. They did it as a calculated action to challenge unjust laws, raise awareness, and garner sympathy from more moderate white people who may have been on the fence. They knew they were risking their physical safety and their lives, and prepared ahead of time so that in the anger and embarrassment and panic of the moment, they would not have the all-too-human response of striking out in self-defense. They were mocked and cursed, beaten, attacked with dogs, sprayed with high pressure hoses, and arrested.

Coates was horrified at this cavalier sacrifice of black bodies, said Malcolm spoke to him more than MLK. Malcolm X advocated fighting for freedom using any means necessary. He said he only believed in being non-violent to people who are non-violent to them. This seems radical by today’s standards, because non-violence has become the default. But there is an argument to be made for minorities not to sacrifice their bodies to gain something that should have been theirs to start with. Freedom is a human right. Equality is a human right. Minorities fighting for their human rights should not have to accept physical violence as a result, and can and should defend themselves with physical violence if need be. None of which addresses the fact that denying someone their human rights is, in itself, an act of violence.

This is not to say that protests should be violent, but that our cultural expectation that grievanced parties engaging in civil disobedience should accept violence against their persons without a human response is a flawed expectation.

Let’s take this to a micro level.

Two men are in a bar, they get into a disagreement, one jumps on the other and starts hitting him. Is the second man allowed to fight back? Is he allowed to hit back? Most people would say yes; he has the right to defend himself from physical harm.

A high school girl shows up to try out for her school’s football team. The coaches inform her that their school district only has a boys football team and that she needs to leave. She does not leave because in her mind this is an issue of equality; she remains sitting on the bench, among her peers, and attempts to join them in running drills etc. In response to this girl breaking the rules, her male peers and her coaches physically drag her away from the bench, refuse to allow her onto the field, push and hit her, verbally berate her, and then the principal is called and she is suspended. If in the course of this interaction, while she is being shoved and harassed by multiple people, she shoves someone back, she defends herself, she does not allow herself to be pushed to the ground and kicked, even if that means hitting back, most people would say that she was well within her rights to do so.

Why, then, when individual people are in these kinds of interactions, can we not understand this basic human tenet–this right to defend one’s self?

Let’s take this a step further. Nelson Mandela is hailed as a champion for civil rights in South Africa and the world. He was originally a peaceful protester, but when police opened fire on peaceful protesters in Sharpeville, killing 69 people, he co-founded and led an armed resistance. At his trial, he explained that when peaceful protest had been met with force and they felt that they had exhausted their other options, they made the decision to pursue violent forms of political struggle. “It would be wrong and unrealistic,” for leaders to continue to advocate peaceful protest in the face of violence.

You might argue that what is acceptable for individuals is not acceptable for political groups, despite the fact that they are made up of individuals. We have a lot of rules about how people should or shouldn’t behave in society, and it’s important to understand what that is so that we can evaluate whether these rules make sense and whether or not they are fair. There’s something called a Social Contract, and different people have different opinions about what exactly should be included in it, but the basic premise is this:

Individuals have certain rights and also certain responsibilities. In the absence of a society, a person is responsible for providing for all of their needs. This is food, clothing, shelter, but also protection from individuals who might harm them, protection against natural forces, against illness. Each person, existing on the planet as an evolutionary marvel and yet owed nothing by the ground on which they stand, must do all things at all times.

Humans, being the intensely social creatures that we are, have found that it is more beneficial to work together. Together, some of us could hunt and some of us could grow crops and some of us could build houses and some of us would care for the children and together, we would all do better collectively. This does not mean that there is no individual responsibility, but it does mean that our fortunes are intrinsically linked.

So if someone murders my family, as an individual I would seek my own justice. It’s entirely likely that in retribution I would kill the wrong person, or that even if I kill the right person, their family will believe that I was wrong to do so and seek retribution against me, and on and on. Instead, as a member of society, I give up my right to seek out personal vengeance and I entrust justice to the police and the courts. In turn, I am given the reasonable expectation that they will do all they can do to provide that justice. Society is safer, justice is served, win-win.

The problem arises when this social contract is one-sided. When people are expected to give up those primal, individual rights associated with being a living thing on this planet, fighting for survival, but those essential needs like safety and justice are not being provided by the society they have given them up to.

So sure, in today’s society, we have this rule that political action should be non-violent, should be civil, should follow a certain set of norms. But if one end of the social contract is not being upheld, it’s unreasonable to expect groups of people to uphold their end rather than seeking survival and justice as needed.

I want to reiterate here that I’m not advocating violent protest, in large part because I think that violence has a way of making us lose sight of our higher purpose and wearing away at otherwise righteous foundations. What I am doing is stripping away some of the social rules we have to look at the mechanism behind them. Why do we believe certain things? Why is this the status quo?

We have a constitutionally-protected right to protest, and to be violently attacked and maligned by people in power for doing so breaks that social contract. At that point, the morality of a peaceful vs. a non-peaceful protest is thrown into question. At Standing Rock, much like in the Civil Rights movement, peaceful protesters were attacked by dogs, sprayed with high-pressure hoses in frigid temperatures. Concussion grenades and rubber bullets were used. Police destroyed property, engaged in strip-searches, and used excessive force.

The commentary from conservatives here in North Dakota is that law enforcement was doing their jobs, removing trespassers from private property, keeping the peace–and that protesters, because they had broken the law, were subject to these abuses of power without question. But we as a culture revere the Civil Rights Movement, despite knowing that they broke unjust laws, on private property, and created a disturbance. Isolated and rare reports of protester violence or retaliation in Standing Rock were treated as justification to scrap the entire constitutionally-protected protest and to paint the entire movement with a broad, violent brush.

Conservatives see these protests as misguided and unreasonable, despite evidence that the easement was moved away from Bismarck, a largely white city, because of concerns about water contamination, to just a few short miles from the reservation. Because who cares if brown people are poisoned, apparently. In response, several bills have been raised in the North Dakota legislature.

One is seeking federal money to recoup the costs North Dakota has incurred through constant, aggressive policing. Another would ban masks at protests. The third would protect drivers who “accidentally” hit protesters who are on or near the road, creating an open-season on protesters with whom you disagree. Let’s be clear here, these are unapologetically targeted at indigenous people seeking equal protection under the law and respect for their holy sites. And they are being sold and justified and rationalized using these scattered reports of the occasional protester who is momentarily unable to control his or her all-too-human response to violence. Responses which we know are not, strictly speaking, breaking any kind of moral law.

In the coming months and years, there will be protests. There may even be riots. People will be rising up against the forces of bigotry and oppression that make trial-less public execution via police officer commonplace, that seek to justify morally reprehensible actions in the name of law and order.

I hope that all protesters do pursue a path of non-violence, because of its efficacy and because violence begets violence and because the culture at large will not be sympathetic. But I think it is on us, liberals, artists, conscientious objectors to the status quo, and practitioners of radical empathy to keep this moral ambiguity in our brains, and to employ that radical empathy.

Coates talked about how when a black person is gunned down by a police officer, or even just a white person with whom they’ve had a confrontation, the larger cultural response is to ask whether that black person had done something wrong. The possession of marijuana, the illegal sale of cigarettes, the possession of a gun, legal or otherwise, the appearance of resisting arrest. When police or attack-dog-wielding security guards attack indigenous protesters, the larger cultural response is to ask whether they were trespassing, whether they had engaged in even the slightest attempts to defend themselves from violence, whether there was any appearance of resisting arrest.

We are in the habit, as a society, of rounding up. Breaking the law makes you a criminal/morally bankrupt. Enforcing the law makes you a saint/beacon of morality. Defending yourself against violence makes you a violent protester. Accepting the violence inherent in the status quo means you are not harmed by it. These statements are categorically untrue, and yet they are the assumptions that underpin a lot of the judgments we make concerning social movements.

This is the crux of my argument here: We need to be challenging the underlying and fallacious assumptions we and others use to assess civil disobedience and determine who is in the right.

In the coming months and years, we must not forget:

Groups are made up of individuals.

Brown bodies are not morally required to sacrifice themselves to achieve equality and justice.

Denying someone equality and justice is an inciting act of violence.

The social contract has been broken for centuries.

Unjust laws are made to be broken.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Thanks, Nicole, for your reflections on the social contract and civil disobedience. Got me thinking!


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