“If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth – certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”
– Henry David Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience”
When Henry David Thoreau wrote his essay “Civil Disobedience”, our country was led by a government that allowed slavery as an institution and waged war on Mexico. Not long after, we had the Civil War.
Thoreau, an American Transcendentalist, declared in his treatise that men (and women) should follow the convictions of their own conscience over unfair laws and practices that are in place created by those in power to benefit those in power. In other words, if the laws of the land were unjust, one should “wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.”
Thoreau was not a nihilist by any stretch of the imagination. His diction, imagery, detail, language, and syntax are of an age where people read to get their news and information. His use of figurative comparisons harken to the Industrial Revolution. His words are a product of the time. But his message is timeless and has been a catalyst for many these past 150-plus years.
I don’t believe Thoreau was anti-government. I believe he was anti-bad government. And he certainly didn’t hurt people or use arms against others or take over buildings and hold people hostage to practice his civil disobedience. He just simply refused to comply and politely disobeyed to bring light to an existing injustice.
Civil disobedience is a refusal to support laws seen as unmerited. People like Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. practiced civil disobedience. Look in the history books and read up on the Salt March in India or look at the sit-ins and marches during the Civil Rights Movement. Look at Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat. These non-violent acts of civil disobedience became the foundations for positive change that helped change unjust laws into just ones.
Not long ago, I walked through downtown Greensboro, NC and saw the Woolworth’s where one of the most iconic displays of civil disobedience during the Jim Crowe era took place.
And there are still unjust laws and unfair policies. There are laws that could be strengthened and more that could be made that could better help our citizens.
Take for instance gun control. A large majority of Americans favor stricter gun control measures like background checks and gun show regulations. However, even in the wake of the largest mass shootings in U.S. history, Congress did nothing because a strong NRA lobby has pretty much “bought” the necessary votes. Let’s call it for what it is.
Thoreau would have called this unjust. Look at the March For Our Lives movement.
There was civil disobedience nearly two years ago in the form of a sit-in led by John Lewis, a representative from my home state of Georgia. He should know something about civil disobedience. He was a leader with MLK during the 60’s and the Civil Rights Movement. He and other democrats are literally sitting on the House floor. Rep. Paul Ryan has called it a ploy and even banned television from video casting. Republicans on Capitol Hill are pretending it is not happening.
Yet video of that did leak. The press covered it. Why? Because civil disobedience works.
Now, go to the teachers who were arrested in June of 2016 in Raleigh for protesting. They did not get audience with Governor McCrory who could have given them time and they held a sit-in – on Hillsborough Street – in Raleigh – at 5 PM. That was civil disobedience.
Did they break a law? Yes. Were they arrested and charged? Yes. Did their actions speak volumes? Hell, yes!
The first thing people may wonder is why these teachers did what they did. And they will tell you it had to do with kids getting what they deserve like more resources in schools and Medicaid expansion. They will tell you that public officials did not do the job they were elected to do in protecting and nurturing kids. They will tell you that West Jones Street has not done a good job of carrying out its duties for the populace.
- A populace in which over 20% of kids live in poverty.
- A populace whose schools are receiving less money per pupil than before the GOP took over the governor’s mansion and both parts of the General Assembly.
- A populace that cannot even legally know what chemicals are being used in fracking on land they may live near.
- A populace that has been fighting against the strictest Voter ID laws in place which discourages many minorities from voting.
- A populace that has been fighting against some of the most racially charged gerrymandering seen in ages.
- A populace that watched as HB2 cast a shadow over the state for all to see.
- A populace where many have had drinking water contaminated by unregulated coal ash ponds and GenX.
- A populace that is governed by many who look at greed and bigotry as foundations for policy.
Thoreau would have seen an unjust government here working for a few but punishing the majority. He would have done the same thing those brave teachers did. Actually, he may have lain down on Hillsborough Street.
Imagine the effect of civil disobedience on May 16, 2018 when NCAE sponsors the March for Students and Rally for Respect in Raleigh.
Henry David Thoreau would definitely be there.