Free Speech and Civil Disobedience, or how we should stop worrying and learn to love the fire hose

It’s time to talk about the purpose of peaceful protest in a democracy.  I have noticed that on social media and in some articles like this one, advocates of resistance to the Trump Administration are failing to distinguish between two types of protest: lawful protest, and civil disobedience.  The difference is not semantic; they are distinct tools with distinct impacts. The purpose of protest in democracy is both to convince those in power that there is overwhelming support for a cause, and to persuade one’s fellow citizens that the cause is just and they should support it. To achieve that purpose, a resistance, like the military, needs individual campaigns, each with an objective, a strategy, and tactical resources. Among our most powerful tactical resources are lawful protest and civil disobedience, and we need to employ them effectively.

The Difference between Lawful Protest and Civil Disobedience

Lawful protest is planned in coordination with the local government, and is intended to obey local laws and ordinances. The Supreme Court has consistently allowed restrictions on speech based on the time, place, and manner of the speech, including restrictions on blocking traffic and sidewalks, harassment, and loud noises. This means that although local government cannot pass laws affecting the content of your speech, they can pass laws requiring permits for large gatherings that will interfere with traffic and the business of other citizens.  In contrast, Civil Disobedience involves deliberately disobeying a law, usually peacefully, in order to protest government action or injustice.

How is Lawful Protest most Effective?

Two great examples of permitted lawful protest are the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and the Women’s March on Washington.  The first obviously had a significant historical impact and is talked about to this day; I suspect the impact of the second will fade with time, no matter how many people participated.  There are two primary differences between the two: 1) the March on Washington had a specific goal – to obtain a civil rights act from Congress and to help oppressed African Americans get jobs, and 2) it had a very disciplined and controlled message.

The March on Washington stuck to its goals and its message.  It talked about jobs and civil rights.  Its leaders forced John Lewis to edit out “militant” sentences in his speech.  It opened the march to all allies who supported its specific objectives. Indeed, Malcolm X criticized it in his Message to the Grassroots for refusing to demonstrate black anger and for allowing white people to participate (female speakers were also excluded, probably for less lofty reasons).   Then, when it concluded, the leaders went directly to the White House to speak to the politicians to whom they had just proven popular support for their positions.

In contrast, the Women’s march had no concrete objective, and the opposite of a controlled and focused message.  Instead of communicating a purpose, it focused on ensuring every issue affecting every woman in America was heard.  Consequently, although politicians did participate, they were not pressed to pursue any specific policy to achieve the goals of the assembled people.  They were simply presented with a policy platform pretty much lifted off the Democratic Party’s books.  The Women’s March did a great job of irritating the hell out of Donald Trump, and that’s a great start, but future protests need to aim to achieve a concrete result. For a template, we can look to the original March.

How is Civil Disobedience most Effective?

Civil Disobedience is most effective when the disobedient citizen peacefully presents himself  to suffer a disproportionate response by those in power. People don’t like watching other people get abused, and the public is usually, if not always, able to identify a disproportionate response.  Some Americans may have initially dismissed the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters as trespassers, but people took notice when the police used water hoses in 28 degree weather. Obviously, this tactic was also used extensively and to great effect by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and was a huge agent for convincing middle America that it, through the government, must act.  These images are part of our national consciousness now: dogs and fire hoses being turned on unresisting people walking down a street in Birmingham;  marchers being beaten for walking across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma; Rosa Parks refusing to sit at the back of the bus.  That kind of suffering makes a lasting impact.

Unlike legal protest, civil disobedience often requires sacrifice. You have to put your personal needs aside in favor of the greater goal. It requires time in jail.  It requires harassment and sometimes physical assault.  And to be most effective, the protester cannot resist. It is probably the most powerful tool available to convince our fellow citizens that the government is wrong, and we are right, because it makes them see government through our eyes.  You can watch a nonresistance training video from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) here.

How to Protest in Trump’s America?

There are going to be a lot of causes we can support with lawful protest and civil disobedience in the coming months and years.  Going forward, we need to focus one protest campaign against each unconstitutional or unlawful overreach by the Trump Administration, because if we focus each campaign on a specific violation of law, we can mobilize across the ideological spectrum.  We will not succeed if we impose an ideological test on resistance. If constitutional conservatives agree that there should not be a religious test on Muslim immigration, work with them.  If a pro-life feminist group believes that access to contraception is essential to the equal protection of America’s women, work with them.  And if Donald Trump orders the executive branch to disobey a federal court order, work with every single American – evangelical christian or radical socialist – who is afraid of losing a functional branch of government and put a human barrier between Trump and his objective. Like the protesters and lawyers in airports across the country have sought to do in response to the Muslim ban. Massive protests and acts of civil disobedience are powerful tactical tools, and in this era of perpetual outrage, the fire hose is our new best friend.


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