Reality Television meets the Justice department; who is the villain and, who is the hero? Tim DeChristopher, also known as “Bidder 70” is now a convicted felon serving a total of two years in prison for bidding on land being illegally auctioned off in Utah. The protected land was being sold to private oil corporations illegally by the Bush Administration in 2008. The New York Times
Journalist Kirk Johnson reported that DeChristopher had no intention of paying for the $1.8 million dollars of land he bid on in protest (1). He is now credited with saving nearly 200,000 acres of land from environmental destruction.
The auction was eventually deemed illegitimate by a Federal Judge under the Obama Administration and, the 77 parcels of land will continue to be protected thanks to Bidder 70. According to the justice department he is a felon. To an environmentalist he is a hero. This is not a reality television show depicting a modern-day Robin Hood but, it is the reality that many peaceful activists are dealing with now. In the United States, we have a rich history of peaceful, non-violent direct actions also known as civil disobedience that have helped shaped the nation. However, civil disobedience remains controversial because the actions violate and ignore laws. This is typically done peacefully with sit-ins, human blockades, public statements or creative demonstration designed to disrupt the status quo. This can allow activists to be arrested in a public setting in order to make a political statement to gain public awareness or sympathy. Recent fear of domestic terrorism since September 11th resulted in the passing of the U.S. Patriot Act in 2001. According to Professor Patricia Nell Warren, author of The Front Runner, charges that were usually in the misdemeanor category can now be upgraded to criminal felonies (2). This may very well be dangerous to democracy. Since the Act is up for an extension, this is an important debate to have. Many people have argued that civil disobedience can lead to anarchy, violence, encourage criminal behavior and, is detrimental to a democratic society. Philosophers who support civil disobedience argue that nonviolent direct actions are an important part of a democratic society and may very well be protected by The First Amendment. In the end, I am convinced that actions which qualify as civil disobedience are important to a healthy democracy because, they produce large-scale public support, awareness and, sympathy in order to challenge unjust laws or unpopular policy.
In order to understand the history of civil disobedience one must also explore the ongoing debate for a definition. According to Stephen Nathanson who is an attorney at law and has written extensively on the issue, defines civil disobedience as having four features which are “(1) illegal, (2) nonviolent, (3) public, and (4) done to protest a policy or law” (259). This can also include an act of conscientious refusal or conscientious objection. A conscientious objection or refusal is an act that blatantly ignores a specific law and justifies it by claiming a moral high ground or religious reason. Some also consider that for an act to be qualified as civil disobedience, demonstrators must also accept punishment from authorities. However, that may not be possible in all cases. Accepting punishment for a peaceful direct, non-violent action can allow an act to be claimed as a “civil” disobedient act and shows the public that the participants are willing to accept responsibility for their actions. This can be an important step for public acceptance on a controversial issue. Usually for large protests, an overwhelming number of participants will result in a relatively small amount of arrests due to a lack of police manpower. Overwhelming authorities with large numbers of peaceful participants is the ideal model for a successful action in which the government is temporarily overpowered and, is unable to carry out enforcement for a certain law. Historically, this is the catalyst in which civil disobedience forces a social or political reform and, public ideology. Another area of debatable controversy arises over the connotation of non-violence. Does property damage count as non-violent or is it only personal injury? This argument is usually debated in absolutes, and is subjective to opinion.
In order to understand the importance of civil disobedience in a democratic society, we must also look at important points in history that civil disobedience forced a transformation of thought or policy. The Boston Tea Party is credited as the first true American act of civil disobedience. Citizens of the colony of Massachusetts broke trespassing laws on a British sail boat and, threw the tea overboard in order to resist paying taxes without representation in 1789.
Controversial Anti-war Movements date back to Henry David Thoreau who is widely credited with coining the term “civil disobedience” through conscientious refusal of paying taxes to fund slavery and The Mexican American War in 1849. Thoreau also wrote extensively on the benefits of civil disobedience in a democratic society. Many experts continue to reference his contributions to the subject. It should also be noted that Thoreau never actually used the term “civil disobedience” but, after his death, a reprinting by his publisher created the phrase.
Before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed into law in 1863, slavery was a controversial issue in United States. Activists of the era harbored runaway slaves and, organized the underground rail systems in order to protest slavery laws. We can also look to the Women’s Suffrage Movement which lasted from 1848 until 1920. Thousands of women marched in the streets without permits and, submitted to arrest to protest for the right to vote. This forced changes to the constitution, the addition of the 19th Amendment in 1920 and, removed gender discrimination laws. The Women’s Suffrage Movement activists participated in the first documented picket lines outside of the White House.
Later sit-ins and strikes organized by labor unions helped improve worker rights, working conditions and, eventually established the 40-hour work week. The Civil Rights Movement progressed with civil disobedience through large-scale marches, sit-ins and, conscientious refusal of segregation laws. This eventually produced Constitutional Amendments and improvements to racial equality.
Anti-War protests for Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s produced nationwide protests, sit-ins, and refusals to enlist in the military. The occupation of draft centers and, large-scale draft card burnings eventually forced changes in military recruiting laws and the end of the Vietnam War.
The new age Environmental Movement has raised concern as activists participate in civil disobedient acts that include sit-ins, blockades, tree sits, forest occupations, illegal marches and, gatherings in order to protest environmental protection. Most recently, civil disobedient acts protesting the War on Terrorism, the war in Iraq and, Afghanistan have been gaining support. Protests to support gay marriage, corporate personhood and, privacy laws are also being seen.
In each case, legal means were also perused with lobbying, letter writing, court orders, petitions and, legal protests. Voting for candidates that represented certain viewpoints has proven to be insufficient. In many, the legal means were ignored until large-scale public support was seen. Acts of civil disobedience were required in order to change the laws, policies and, in some cases, the moral ideology of the public. Many of the points outlined are considered special moments in US history although the first documented case in history dates to Socrates.
Many experts, including law enforcement officials, argue that civil disobedience can lead to dissidence, anarchy and an escalation of domestic terrorism. There have been many violent actions taken by some extremist individuals and organizations. The most notorious is the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). According to James Jarboe, chief of the Domestic Terrorism Section of the Counterterrorism Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, ELF has committed over 600 criminal acts since 1996, resulting in damages of 43 million dollars and the underground environmental extremist group has used arson as a tactic on numerous occasions and it has been reported that several injuries have occurred over the last two decades due to the violent tactics which includes tree spiking and most notably arson (1). As stated by to the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, “From 1990 until June 2004 animal and environmental extremists have claimed credit for more than 1,200 criminal incidents” (Noyes 13). Although there have been documented cases of criminal disobedience, they cannot be grouped with acts of civil disobedience by the definition consensus. Claiming that civil disobedience leads to criminal disobedience can easily be disputed as a slippery slope fallacy. On the other hand some extremist groups claim that the escalation of tactics is justified with an escalation of police brutality and lack of justice. Horrific murders of three Kent State student protesters in 1970 by the Ohio National Guard, and the wounding of nine others for example. Elaine Holstein, the mother of one of the victims explains that the only justice received was a check for $15,000 even after appeals to the Supreme Court resulting in a glaring lack of justice (1). According to Professor Mathew Eagleton-Pierce’s study of the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle ended when martial law was declared and nearly 50,000 peaceful unarmed protesters exercising The First Amendment were fired upon in close range with tear gas and rubber bullets (331). Innocent bystanders were shot at and harmed by government officials as well.
Opposition against civil disobedience argues that violations of law cannot be justified in a democracy. Unjust laws made by a democratic legislature can be changed by a democratic legislature. Those who argue this view-point claim that civil disobedience erodes democracy, and is unpatriotic because better channels exist. Research Professor at Earlham College and leading voice of the Open Access Movement, Peter Suber states the objection, “The existence of lawful channels of change makes civil disobedience unnecessary” (110). In an ideal situation unjust laws can be overturned, changed, or altered to satisfy the moral justification of the public in an expedited fashion. Is this always the case? The evidence suggests otherwise. The Constitution granted all men as equal, yet racial and gender based discrimination continued for nearly three hundred years. The Declaration of Independence urges citizen’s to stand up to unjust and morally reprehensible laws when we consider the laws to be unjust, immoral, and impractical. The United States was founded on that very notion (taxation without representation). Once the legal or diplomatic channels have been rendered useless, it may be time for peaceful action.
Others claim that any intentional violation of the law is a selfish criminal act which must be punished because, the First Amendment of the Constitution allows for peaceful and legal protests. A moral high ground cannot be claimed to justify actions when ignoring, violating or disregarding the law. This view is also known as the Social Contract Theory, a theory which an agreement is made by a person and the state they reside in. A person utilizes benefits of the state and, is therefore required to uphold the law. Any Violation of the law erodes democracy, and will lead to anarchy and chaos. J. Spencer Clark and Carl Cohen explain, “Breaking the law-under any circumstances-is not justified in a society that respects the rule of law” (Clark 54). Is the law absolute or, is justice absolute? Stephen Nathenson and Philosopher John Rawls explain that “civil disobedience addresses a community’s sense of justice, but this overlooks the fact that a community can have mistaken or conflicting conceptions of justice” (Nathenson 260). Perhaps the concept of justice is subjective to the environment and, moral values of the citizens within that environment. In an evolving and changing society values need to continue to hold up under scrutiny. If there are sound objections to a law, they must be debated in a democratic society, when a concept is not available in a legal debate, is it a democracy? Thought should be put in to the importance of upholding the law but not at the expense of democratic integrity. History provides several examples of unjust laws having a support of the governing body. Our environment is consistently evolving in order to provide a better equality for its citizens, and therefore grievances, will occur with a changing society’s sense of justice. My observation is that this usually happens when younger generations challenge the status quo.
A majority of experts who favor of civil disobedience maintain that nonviolent direct actions are required in order to bring about social change and major political change. They say civil disobedience may be protected by First Amendment because, according to Nathanson, “…opposition to [civil disobedience] requires mindless conformity to governmental authority” (261). Wouldn’t reckless conformity to authority erode democracy in itself? If we look at the history of civil disobedience in the United States it is easy to come to a conclusion in that civil disobedience is required to make dramatic social, political and constitutional changes a possibility. There has yet to be a major political or social reform movement that did not utilize the power of civil disobedience or conscientious refusal. Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights, Labor Rights, Anti-War Protests, Gay Rights and the Environmental Movement have progressed with non-violent direct actions. The tactics of insubordination may have been different, but the effectiveness cannot be argued. It is in the history books after all. It must also be mentioned that civil disobedience did not solely make the social changes possible. When the nonviolent direct actions were coupled with a pursuit through other legal channels, social change was possible and constitutional amendments were made. The public outcry through civil disobedience is the driving force that pressures the governors to listen to the governed. This notion is the very foundation of a democratic society, where the governed have the ability to change the governing laws and, body of government.
According to J. Spencer Clark, who is also a leading education advocate on civil disobedience argues that it is beneficial to a democracy by allowing social and political change to happen over a relatively short period of around the world (54). Citizens are allowed to cast a vote for a politician once every two to four years. This might be insufficient for opinions of the people to be heard properly when rights and liberties are in jeopardy. Suber argues that “to bring an unjust statue to court for review, often a plaintiff must be arrested for violating it” (110). By methodically violating an unjust law and entering the court system through arrest may allow a person or an affinity group to challenge the morality of the law directly. In certain circumstances civil disobedience is the only way to get attention to a particular issue to alert the public in order to pressure representatives into challenging the particular policy. It also forces a legal appeal to the law. There are countless examples of civil disobedience having a major role in producing social and political changes in the United States when the political and judicial system failed to recognize a changing society. For example, segregation continued until the 1960’s even though under the US Constitution all men are created equal. According to Suber, “Activists can always write another letter to their congressional delegation or to newspapers; they can always wait for another election and cast another vote. But justice delayed, [MLK] proclaimed, is justice denied” (110). Would segregation laws be removed without the added pressure of The Civil Rights Movement? Perhaps not, but until large-scale demonstrations became popular, which pressured the legislatures to address the issue in a timely fashion.
Proponents also argue in favor of civil disobedience because, they can inspire democratic revival essential at creating a large-scale movement. They claim that a direct action can trigger a positive emotional response from the public. According to Dr. Morris Aldon, who has written extensively on the history of civil disobedience,
A mass movement had transformed America, both Black and White consciousness were forever altered, and landmark legal changes had passed through Congress. The non-violent direct actions had a major impact at gaining support across the nation, building a large-scale movement which was able to eventually change laws. Civil disobedient actions can inspire others to become active and voice their opinions by conveying an emotional response to the public (14).
After completing a case study on civil disobedience Courtney L. Dillard writes, “This power comes from the intensity of conscience that civil disobedience allows the public to see part of the activists. Civil disobedience can be an empowering activity for both activists and the general public,” (15). Due to the controversial nature peaceful direct actions can greatly increases the amount of media coverage and circulation that a particular event will receive. The media has a responsibility to provide information on current events by, providing facts, editorials and coverage of important events. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent techniques were able to gain worldwide attention. Actions by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) sparked the Civil Rights movements by gaining massive support and attention with help from the Media. Millions watched the CBS broadcast of the “I have A Dream Speech” live through television sets. Fair media coverage is essential in a successful movement and, some argue that the sole importance of civil disobedience is to gain public attention and sympathy through the media. Media outlets are more inclined to showcase provocative events in order to satisfy corporate sponsors, sell advertising spots and gain viewership. Likewise, provocative events are likely to obtain a larger audience and increase public interest or debate. An arrest can be an empowering activity that can inspire others to band together to show a moral, legal or political injustice. Dillard also concluded that, “When Civil disobedience is truly effective it can change society’s relationship… and even revitalize our public sphere“, (16). Would the Civil rights struggle be prolonged without large-scale outcries and non-violent direct actions like Rosa Parks? Would the Women’s Suffrage Movement been as effective without peaceful direct action?
Many experts argue that civil disobedience is justified by the Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment. They argue that our founding fathers knew the importance of activism in a democracy and, the value of Freedom of Speech. The founders of The United States of America envisioned an ever-changing legal system that would adjust to the morals and principles of an evolving society. The Declaration of Independence states that “whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form” (US Declaration). The First Amendment also grants the right to address grievances in the public with peaceful protests. It makes no mention of restrictions of the right. The Founders urged citizens to voice their opinions because; democracy is only a democracy with ample participation. Perhaps participation alone allows a system of checks and balances to maintain persistent stability and public acceptance of the Social Contract Theory. When the governing body ignores the will of the people, injustice prevails and democracy has failed. It is up to the citizens to protect the integrity of the constitution, the integrity of democracy and challenge injustices that arise. Conventional thought according to popular author Naomi Wolf, “We tend to think of American democracy as being somehow eternal, ever-renewable, and capable of withstanding all assaults” (25). Suber, paraphrased MLK’s ideology perfectly, “[MLK] asks us to look more closely at the legal channels of change. If they are open in theory, but closed or unfairly obstructed in practice, then the system is not democratic in the way needed to make civil disobedience unnecessary” (110). Democracy is a working function of a collective voice of citizens that are consistently evolving and progressing with intent to become a better manifestation of a moral and righteous civilization. Civil disobedience provides an ability to participate in a democracy and challenge the integrity of the system. Participating in the system of democracy in order to bring about social or political reform is a patriotic function of responsible citizens.
History shows that democracy is a slow and steady process that has many spectrums and routes available to produce a variety of changes to a governing body within a society. Democracy requires dedication, hard work, diligence, intelligence and participation to remain genuine. This is why our legal system was instilled with a system of checks and balances to insure ongoing stability. Most pivotal in the aspect of a continued equilibrium is the freedom for people to express their political and social views with conviction, perhaps the most celebrated right that an American can express. Testing the limits of the First Amendment can provide effective tactical advantages for organic grassroots movements. Looking at the major movements, history provide sufficient evidence that civil disobedience is a catalyst in bringing about changes and igniting large-scale movements to challenge social norms. Civil disobedience has repeatedly been able to hold the process of democracy accountable when a new consensus is reached and legal channels are refused. Large scale movements have the ability to ignite political debate, and eventually amend the way our society governs itself. We consider ourselves to be a free and educated society, yet segregation ended with in my parents’ lifetime, and racism is still an issue in some areas. The government fears change, and it is up the citizens in a democracy to force change. Thomas Jefferson once said that, “In matters of style, swim with the current, in matters of principle, stand like a rock” (Moncur).
The Patriot Act will be up for a renewal soon, which may prove to be an important moment in history. Will our society benefit from upgrading a misdemeanor charge to felony charge? Currently in Washington State, the maximum charge for driving drunk is one year in prison for a first time offender, an offense that recklessly endangers countless people. This is minuscule when compared to the charges that Bidder 70 is facing who endangered only his own freedom. Civil disobedience is a cornerstone of social changes and reform. Americans have historically been proud to express it with an altruistic ideology of standing up for what one believes is right. Any legislation that hinders the evolution and progress of a society should be considered a dangerous assault to the foundation of a working democracy. Violation of civil law can now end in felony charges and a long-term prison sentence for upsetting the status quo and challenging moral principles in hopes of persuading the public or governing body. This is a big part of democracy, and the message behind the Declaration of Independence, isn’t it? Bidder 70 will be serving a prison sentence for disrupting an illegitimate auction for a patriotic and altruistic attempt to hold the legal system accountable through an act of civil disobedience. I ask again, is he a hero, or a villain?
Image by a haynes via Flickr
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