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Civil Disobedience: The Only “Weapon” We Have Remaining?

By Camillo "Mac" Bica

February 16, 2013 "Information Clearing House" - Mario Cuomo, commenting on the political process, once observed, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Though candidates for public office frequently campaign on a platform of change, when elected, promises remain unfulfilled and what they inevitably deliver is more of the same. Beholden to the special interests and the Super PACS, they govern solely in the interest of the wealthy and the privileged, and remain blatantly unresponsive to the general will, the needs of the majority of the people, and to the dictates of law and morality. Consequently, respected social commentators such as Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, Cornell West and others have argued that our system of government is broken. Perhaps as a perceptive and realistic appraisal of the current political situation in this nation or as an expression of frustration with the lack of progress achieved after many years of activism they have concluded that if change is to occur, if justice and morality are to prevail, activists can no longer be content supporting one political party or another or with picking up a sign and participating in a demonstration. Rather activists must ratchet up the frequency and scope of nonviolent direct action – civil disobedience. Chris Hedges proclaims, "Civil disobedience is the only weapon we have left to save not only the ecosystem that sustains life but the nation itself. Corporate forces, unregulated, unfettered corporate forces exploit everything; human beings, the natural world, until exhaustion or collapse."

Is the situation in this nation so dire that civil disobedience is the only recourse remaining, the final option? Can we expect civil disobedience to accomplish what voting, demonstrating, etc., could not? Most importantly, perhaps, should civil disobedience prove ineffective as well, must activists admit that further struggle for justice is futile and the prospect of non violent change unlikely? To answer these questions, it will be necessary to consider in some detail the nature of civil disobedience and the conditions required for it to be effective.

Civil Disobedience (CD)

Though not all acts of refusal and noncooperation will fit nicely into one of the following categories, for purposes of explication I will identify two types of civil disobedience, and then focus upon the one most relevant to social activism. What I term "Private CD" are acts of personal, non public, non compliance with law or policy one determines to be unjust and/or immoral. Acts of Private CD may be motivated by a perceived legal and/or moral obligation to act rightly, to live in accordance with one's principles and the dictates of one's conscience. Henry Thoreau writes, "The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right." Dr. Martin Luther King sees civil disobedience not as a choice, but an obligation. He writes, ". . . non cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good." Though indicative, perhaps, of one's moral character and integrity, since Private CD are acts of personal defiance known only to the civil disobedient, it has little, if any, social value as a means to implement change in the state.

Civil disobedience as social activism, what I will term "Public CD," are acts of public non compliance with a law or policy intended to focus attention and raise awareness regarding a social/political injustice for the purpose of creating "tension," perhaps even outrage, and a public outcry and demand for change. Dr. King explains,

Non-violent direct action (Public CD) seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. (Italics mine)[1]

The Necessary Criteria for Effective Public CD

Unjust/immoral law or policy can be the consequence of either a willful criminal act or of a yet unnoticed mistake, oversight, or misinterpretation of law by legislators and/or policy makers. For Public CD to be an effective tool for remedying injustice, several necessary criteria must be satisfied. First, effective Public CD requires that both the occurrence of the act and the civil disobedient’s legal and moral reason/justification for her actions are made public. This requires, of course, an independent, competent, responsible, and in this day and age, courageous media/press that will accurately report the event, rigorously investigate, and make public whether the civil disobedient’s allegations regarding the injustice/immorality of the law/policy have merit. Second, effective Public CD requires a citizenry concerned with issues of justice and morality. That once made aware, they would likewise be outraged and motivated to speak out and demand that the crime, misinterpretation, mistake, or oversight be rectified. Third, effective Public CD requires that principled political leaders put justice and morality before personal, corporate, and national interest, recognize and take responsibility for their oversight or mistake, and initiate appropriate changes in law and/or policy. For those unprincipled political leaders whose actions are criminal, effective Public CD requires that they yield to the public outcry and to the demands for justice by those they represent.

Before Recommending Civil Disobedience

The law is clear regarding the legality of policies such as indefinite detention without charge or trial in places like Guantanamo and Baghram, extraordinary rendition, warrantless wiretaps, torture, preventive war, occupation, Disposition Matrix (kill lists), targeted assassinations, drone attacks, etc. Consequently, these acts and policies are not misinterpretations of law, nor are they oversights or mistakes. Rather they are willful violations of treaties, Conventions, international, domestic, and moral law intended to enhance the profit, power, and interests of the ruling elite and their corporate benefactors. I know for some, civil disobedience, getting arrested, has become an activist's badge of honor, a rite of passage. However, we live in an era in which the President has claimed authority under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to imprison and assassinate without due process, with no transparency or accountability, even American citizens he deems a threat (however interpreted), in which a paramilitary police force is empowered to violently suppress protest and dissent, and in which acts of civil disobedience are designated as terrorism and civil disobedients as terrorists.[2] Consequently, before advising activists to place themselves at risk of long term incarceration, personal injury, even death, it would be prudent and responsible to determine whether Public CD's necessary criteria for effecting change can be met given the social and political environment in which we live.

The Press/Media Coverage Criterion: Tragically for our “democracy,” responsible mainstream reporting and investigative journalism has compliantly succumbed to the pressure and influence of manipulative politicians and corporate power brokers. As was evident during the buildup to the Iraq War, the corporate-controlled media/press not only ignored questions of legality and failed to investigate the need and justification for war, but happily and enthusiastically embraced its role as cheerleader. By failing to credibly investigate and report the findings of those who adamantly disagreed with Bush/Cheney’s claim regarding weapons of mass destruction[3] in Iraq, by cooperating with efforts to quiet, discredit, and even endanger the lives of activists and/or of those who spoke truth to power, and by under- and/or misreporting the occurrence and magnitude of demonstrations and acts of Public CD opposing the war, the mainstream media/press became a co-conspirator, part of the problem rather than of the solution. As illustrative of this unholy alliance, consider what has become known as the CIA Leak Case.

Joseph Wilson is the husband of Valerie Plame, a covert CIA operative who was unmasked in July 2003 by columnist Robert D. Novak, after Wilson criticized President Bush for stating that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein bought nuclear weapons-grade uranium in the African nation of Niger.

To punish Wilson for exposing Bush Administration lies in its rush to war with Iraq and as a deterrent to others who may be contemplating similar truth telling, Novak utilized his status as journalist to commit treason by revealing the identity of a covert CIA agent. In doing so, he not only compromised Plame’s mission, but recklessly endangered her life and the lives of other operatives and informants who may have worked with her.

There are journalists, however, mostly from alternative news agencies and the foreign press – Amy Goodman, Jeremy Scahill, Greg Palast, and Peter Arnett immediately come to mind – who maintain their journalistic integrity and strive to report the news accurately and fairly. Such outliers however, are systematically denied access to public officials, barred from areas of protest or are themselves arrested as was the case during the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street activists from Zuccotti Park and elsewhere.

The Citizenry Must Have a Conscience Criterion: As evidenced by the public's support for or indifference to these criminal acts prosecuted in their names, their disinclination to hold policy/law makers responsible for their crimes – to prosecute those who violate the law – and their willingness to vote against their self interest and the interest of this nation by (re)electing them to public office, indicates that many, perhaps even a majority of citizens, are unaware, or apathetic, or untroubled by injustice/immorality, or preoccupied with their consumerism driven lives, and/or easily mislead by those in power. When the President declares proudly that he intends to or has successfully assassinated, without due process, an individual or group in some remote corner of the world while neglecting to mention that civilians were “collaterally” injured/killed as well, not only does his approval rating not suffer, but it significantly increases as Americans celebrate his "accomplishments."[4]

The Political Leaders' Response Criterion: For at least the past 50 years, the ease and frequency with which our political leaders' violated international, domestic, and moral law, as well as their impudence and arrogance in rejecting or ignoring the will of the people is both apparent and appalling. President Lyndon Baines Johnson continued his war of lies and deceit in Vietnam despite protests, civil unrest, and riots that profoundly divided the nation. President Nixon regarded as "enemies" those who opposed his policies. While promising "peace with honor," he ordered the invasion of Cambodia, the bombing of Haiphong, and created an atmosphere of intolerance and paranoia culminating in the slaughter of student protestors at Kent State and Jackson State Universities. Former Vice President Dick Cheney viewed dissent and free speech not as American values and rights guaranteed under the Constitution, but rather as traitorous and as emboldening the "enemy." Demonstrating the intransigence that typified the George W. Bush Presidency, when asked by a journalist about the escalating protests and diminishing support for the Iraq War, Cheney defiantly responded "so what." President Barack Obama shed tears over the tragic deaths of children in Newtown, Connecticut, but remains unmoved by public pleas that he end his policies of targeted assassinations and drone warfare that have killed hundreds of innocent children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere.

Conclusions

A case can be made, perhaps, that in the past civil disobedience may have contributed to implementing change in this country – the civil rights movement, ending the war in Vietnam. It may as well have enjoyed a measure of success elsewhere in the world today – aspects of the Arab spring. But the social and political situation in this country has changed dramatically and the ability of the government to suppress information, influence thinking, and control the populace has never been greater. What Hedges and others overlook in advocating civil disobedience as the only weapon we have remaining is that these changes, this implementation of police state tactics of surveillance, intimidation, and control negatively impact upon the effectiveness of all the weapons in the activist’s arsenal whether it be petitioning, demonstrating, letter writing, parading with signs, etc., or Public CD. Even should the truly unlikely occur and civil disobedience become so widespread as not to be ignored, even should members of the police and military refuse to “enforce the law,” to use violence against the civil disobedients, change is not assured as the praetorian guard of the ruling and corporate elite, the private contractors/mercenaries, will quickly fill the void and use whatever means necessary to restore “order.”

Despite the bleak picture I paint, I am advocating neither non-action – apathy and indifference – nor violent revolution. Certainly, activists must continue to express their points of view, even though the corporate media will choose to ignore them. Activists must continue to demonstrate, petition their representatives, and make speeches condemning injustice even though the police will attempt to stifle their voices. Activists should continue to violate the law if accepting personal risks of severe reprisals from an NDAA-empowered presidency remains a personal moral obligation in response to immorality and injustice. Sometimes we must overcome frustration and do things not because we are certain of achieving the desired ends (and here I betray my deontological leanings), but because it is right.

Despite the lack of progress and my skepticism regarding the effectiveness of Public CD, I am not without hope. I am convinced that there is yet another powerful and time-tested weapon in the arsenal of those who struggle against injustice. That weapon is education. As activists for social change, we must gain access to our schools and dialogue with students to counter the copious lies and misinformation promulgated by our political leaders and the corporate media. Activists must become teachers and teachers activists. We must make clear to young minds that there is objective truth regarding law, morality, and our nation's behavior in the world, and that the injustices and immoralities – the wars, occupations, torture, assassinations, exploitation, greed, inequality, etc. – are real and not merely the consequence of differences in interpretation, ideology, or perspective. We must inform students that despite what they've been told, such laws, policies, and behaviors are neither in our nation's interest nor legally or morally acceptable whether practiced by our "enemies" or by us and/or our allies. We must instill in them a sense of responsibility for the policies and actions of our political leaders, for how they govern, and for the effect such policies and laws have on human beings and the environment. We must motivate young people to become socially and politically engaged, to speak out, make demands upon their elected officials and not be satisfied with or mislead by deceptive rhetoric and further lies. I am realist enough to recognize the difficulty of what I propose and the hurdles to be negotiated and overcome. Surely, change will not come quickly nor will those who benefit from the status quo, from injustice, sit idly by and watch their power diminish. So we must be patient, courageous, imaginative, and resilient. History has taught us that violence begets violence and education creates an enlightened, aware, and motivated citizenry that is revolutionary. So I remain optimistic, motivated by my sense of right and by the somber realization that if we are beyond even this, if opening the minds of the youth to truth and justice is no longer possible, then this nation, perhaps even our species, is truly at the edge of extinction.

[1] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter From a Birmingham City Jail, http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[2] Dave Gorczynski, a member of Occupy Easton (Pennsylvania), was arrested recently and charged with Attempted Bank Robbery and Terroristic Threatening, both felonies, and one misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct. According to a spokesperson for Occupy Easton, Gorczynski “was at the bank protesting the theft of our tax dollars, our homes, and our economy by the criminal banksters.” The District attorney has subsequently dropped the attempted bank robbery charge but the Disorderly Conduct and Terrorist Threatening charge remain.

[3] Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, United Nations Weapons Inspectors Hans Blix and Scott Ritter, to name but a few.

[4] According to a February 2012 Washington Post-ABC poll, 83% of Americans support the Obama Administration’s use of unmanned drones.

Camillo "Mac" Bica, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, a long-time activist for peace and justice, a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the coordinator of the Long Island Chapter of Veterans for Peace.

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