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Reclaiming the American Civil Disobedience Legacy

Reclaiming the American Legacy of Civil Disobedience
By Sari Gelzer
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Tuesday 11 October 2005

What can all Americans do about their desire to see change in America? Practice civil disobedience.

This flavor of action is not just for radicals. Civil disobedience is the role of citizens within the political system and has a much broader legacy than one was taught to think. Civil disobedience, practiced by various movements of people, has been responsible for forcing politicians to comply with the demands of its citizens. Civil disobedience is how "slavery was ended, civil rights were won, it's how women won the right to vote, and it's how Vietnam ended," says Anthony Arnove, a writer, editor and activist based in New York.

Arnove believes that it's important to realize that: "Civil disobedience is how we have won any change that we ever brought about in this country and it's something that's absolutely needed today if we want to challenge the course of the Bush administration and the Democratic Party."

Civil disobedience may sound unappealing. After all, the very term makes this action seem deviant, and the common image is of protestors being arrested. But civil disobedience comes in many forms. It is the active refusal to obey certain laws or demands of government without resorting to physical violence. By understanding and reframing what civil disobedience is, it is easy to remove inhibition and see civil disobedience as a responsibility, rather than as a marginalized act.

Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove highlight the ever-present role of American civil disobedience in their new book, Voices of a People's History of the United States. Selections from this collection of first-hand accounts, journal entries, speeches, personal letters, and published opinion pieces were read dramatically by actors including Danny Glover, Marissa Tomei, Sandra Oh, and many others at a Los Angeles event this month.

The parallels of history to the current situation were glaring. The audience could not help making sounds as they recognized this concordance of past and present.

In the first reading, actor Viggo Mortenson read Bartolome de Las Casas, a contemporary of Columbus in 1542, and reminded the audience that the founding of America was done under false pretensions of Christianity and with the ulterior motive for gold. An editorial from the North Star, an abolitionist newspaper, reveals that citizens of the past were disgruntled with the two party system, especially in times of war: "The friends of peace have nothing to hope from either [party]," says the newspaper in 1848, protesting the lack of political climate during the war with Mexico.

While these readings raise the continued presence of American maladies, they more importantly reveal the continued struggles of Americans against them. Arnove comments that so many of the speeches in the book convey a "spirit of confidence in resisting unjust wars and a confidence in resisting oppression," but he believes that this confidence is something Americans of today need to regain.

That is why, at the end of the Los Angeles event, Marisa Tomei read Cindy Sheehan's speech, which was originally given at the Veterans for Peace Convention in Dallas, Texas (a speech too recent to be included in the book). In her speech, Sheehan describes her path toward civil disobedience. "My son was killed in 2004, so I'm not paying my taxes," says Sheehan, following a philosophy pioneered by Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau chose not to fund the violent government activities of his time, slavery and the war with Mexico, and Sheehan does not wish to fund the War in Iraq.

Martin Luther King Jr. is also an activist Sheehan follows in the footsteps of, but she is inspired by an additional connection: her son was killed on King's death date. A civil rights activist, King organized and led marches against Jim Crow Laws in the 1960s. Once media attention was gained, a sympathetic public was aroused, and Civil Rights became the major political issue of the decade and was eventually instituted into American Law. Sheehan declares in this speech her intent to camp at Crawford,Texas. Camping at Crawford allowed her to connect with the many Americans against the war through media attention as well. Hopefully, once public sentiment is fully aroused, the policy of withdrawing from Iraq will be instituted.

Sheehan cites 58% of the American population as against the war, but she qualifies this statistic citing the disconnect between those that are against the war and those taking action on their belief: "We are preaching to the choir, but not all are singing. If all were singing this war would end," says Sheehan.

Since Sheehan's speech in 2004, Americans have been connecting their beliefs with action, and this Septemeber 24 was the largest protest against the Iraq war to date. Two days later was a day of civil disobedience in front of the White House. Arnove suggests that, in the future, civil disobedience be incorporated into the protest, because he sees the strategy of mass civil disobedience as most effective. Arnove says that with mass civil disobedience the goal is to disrupt "the normal operations of the system so that the ruling class of this country is forced to retreat from their imperial adventures."

Voices of a People's History of the United States reveals the different strategies of civil disobedience practiced by successful movements throughout American history. Civil disobedience can take many different forms. It can be done by an individual or in a group, by speaking or by listening, by writing letters to Congress or letters to your neighbors.

Civil disobedience is about the voices of the American people shaping the government they live in. It is important that voices of resistance are heard so that Americans gain knowledge and momentum in the struggle. Arnove suggests that Americans access voices of resistance by finding alternative media, whether its source is in the United States or abroad. Education must incorporate these voices, and his and Zinn's books are one way that these voices have entered classrooms. And finally, Arnove says that "building social movements that create alternative forums for people to exchange ideas," through theatre, public meetings and protests, is integral for an organized movement for change.

"Everyone has a turning point in their life when they realize that action is necessary," says Arnove. This turning point is reflected in a speech by Yuri Kochiyama, "Then Came the War." She says that she grew up as a Japanese American, very "red, white, and blue." But once her family was interned she began to question the American government and realized this:

"If we can see the connections of how often this happens in history," Kochiyama says referring to Americans being put behind walls," we can stem the tide of these things happening again by speaking against them."


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