Monday, December 5, 2016

The Case for Civil Disobedience

Millions of disheartened people across the country and many organizations are trying to figure out how to respond to the recent election.  The common denominator for most seems to be anger.  Some want to protest.  Some seek to prevent Democrats in Congress from working with Trump in any way, regardless the worth of the project.                                                  

I would urge a different tack in dealing with the very painful and serious situation we face.  I would make the case for civil disobedience on a massive scale in the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The United States is a representative democracy.  Once the President and representatives are elected, the democratic tradition is for all to respect the vote and abide by majority rule.  Opposition both in the legislature and among the populace continues to play an important role in the formation of policy, but that opposition is expected to be civil and the laws obeyed.

But as Thomas Paine famously wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  In the history of our country, we have had various times that have tried men’s (and women’s) souls.  To name just a few:  the debate over slavery, the Depression, the McCarthy witch-hunts, the Vietnam War,  the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Robert Kennedy, and now the simultaneous election of Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress.

The public has reacted differently to these various crises.  The debate over slavery ultimately resulted in the Civil War, but most of these times have been met by the public with a spirit of resignation, broken only by scattered violent outbursts.

The civil rights movement and Vietnam War were however major exceptions for two basically different reasons.   The civil rights movement was a cause against such moral injustice that it ultimately became impossible for many black and white citizens to continue to react with resignation to racism and segregation.  

Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr, that upwelling of spirit demanding justice became a force of dignified civil disobedience, a la Gandhi, and not violent demonstrations or riots.  And as in the case of Gandhi, MLK’s tactics worked, not in bringing about peace and harmony, but in bringing about laws that protected civil rights and made equal opportunity a priority.

With Vietnam, I don’t believe it was so much the immorality of the war or its futileness that brought about the protests, it was the direct impact that the war had on almost the entire population because of the draft.  And because the country was clearly not under attack or direct threat, unlike WWII, people felt free to oppose and protest.

But the Vietnam protests were not dignified peaceful protests in the spirit of Gandhi.  These were typically angry, ranting, often violent, protests.  And they did not bring about an end to the war.  Instead, I believe they helped Richard Nixon in his 1968 Presidential campaign.

Now we once more face a crisis because President-Elect Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress appear hell bent on striking out at various groups in a decidedly un-American fashion.  Whether it’s Muslims, undocumented Latinos, LGBT people, or women, fundamental human rights (not always legal ones) are being threatened.  Certainly the spirit of the words of our Declaration of Independence are being violated.  

And although Trump and elected Republicans have clearly not spoken out against Jews, the white supremacy groups that have been empowered by Trump’s hate-filled campaign rhetoric are unleashing violence against Jews, as evidenced by an increase in hate crimes this year reported by the FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Together with increased attacks against the groups that have been vilified by Trump, this poses a real threat to our civil order and any civilized concept of human conduct.

Given the scope of these threatened un-American and immoral acts, it is the civic responsibility of the populace to protest such actions through peaceful civil disobedience.  There is no need to wait till Trump moves forward with his plans; indeed, by then it would be too late.  The people must act now in order to show Trump and his Republican colleagues that their proposed actions and the actions of the more extremist of his supporters do not have the support of the American people … even those who voted for him out of desperation. 

A number of cities have already stated that they, and their police departments, will not cooperate with efforts by the Federal government to deport undocumented Latinos.  Many people have signed a pledge to register as Muslim, even though they are not, if Trump proceeds with a proposal to initiate a registry for all Muslims in the country.  These statements show the beginnings of a movement of civil disobedience. 

But to be effective, we need peaceful demonstrations of civil disobedience that are massive, held across the country in every state, and visibly inclusive of Americans of every faith, color, ethnicity, walk of life, gender, sexual orientation, and political party, as well as those who don’t subscribe to any party or religious faith.  Ideally they will include people who voted for Trump.  Only in this way is there a chance of convincing those in government to back off from their more extreme plans. 

This does not, however, mean total non-cooperation.  If Trump and the Republicans propose, for example, infrastructure projects that would benefit the American people, it would be irresponsible for Democrats in Congress to not support such measures.  Such support would not be incompatible with the spirit of civil disobedience.

This is a time for all 64,000,000 of us who voted for Hillary Clinton as well as the millions who voted for Trump out of economic despair and other reasons, not hatred, to come together and say to Trump, “Yes, rebuild the country’s infrastructure, create jobs, but be, as you pledged, the president of all Americans.  Respect human dignity and the equality of all.”

For this to happen will require extraordinary leadership, cooperation among organizations, and discipline.  The leadership and cooperation necessary is obvious.  The discipline is needed to keep these demonstrations from degenerating into anti-Trump, anti-Republican rants and to keep them peaceful.  The object here is to persuade, not beat up.  If it is not done properly, it should not be undertaken at all because the result will only make the people look weak and ineffective.

The choice is the people’s.   We can either sit silently by while our fellow citizens are singled out for legal attack by the government and physical attack by vigilante mobs or we can stand together with those under attack, peacefully, massively, in a show of civil disobedience against this violation of the American spirit and in support of government’s duty to respect the human dignity of all people.