“Now renegades are the people with their own philosophies
They change the course of history
Everyday people like you and me
— Rage Against the Machine
In U.S. history courses, high praise was heaped upon those figures who dared to defy group-think mentality, who fought for what they believed was right. We were taught that people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi and other peaceful protestors had a kind of magnetic courage.
They showed up and in some cases stood up for people who could not advocate for themselves. And other people stood with them. And collectively, they changed the course of history.
For some reason, though, in the midst of an unprecedented level of political division and animosity, political corruption and police misconduct, there’s a creeping wariness by so many well-meaning folks I know regarding peaceful protests like the one in Pittsburgh spurred by the Antwon Rose tragedy.
Yes, the protestors blocked Pittsburgh streets, jamming traffic for hours. They inevitably inconvenienced thousands. The story inevitably became national news — as it should have been.
While social media platforms like Facebook DO have some redeeming qualities (the plethora of pet pictures and absurd memes, for example), the platform it provides for the ignorant, the racists, and political shysters who take advantage of both groups.’
I’ve seen their posts, and I bet you have, too.
“I’m not racist. I have black friends. I get it. But I don’t understand why they have to block traffic. Why can’t they stand on the side of the road?”
Or one like this:
“Protesting never changed anyone’s mind.”
My question? When did Americans eschewing the concept of civil disobedience? Because it was kind of the reason America is….America.
For those unfamiliar with civil disobedience, here’s the official definition:
Civ·il dis·o·be·di·ence, noun
the refusal to comply with certain laws or to pay taxes and fines, as a peaceful form of political protest.
The concept is one that was championed by Henry David Thoreau, who wrote an essay by the same name. In that essay he wrote:
“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”
Which leads me back to those protestors. No, they may not have changed anyone’s opinion. But that’s not the point of civil disobedience — the point of peaceful protest to change the paradigm, not your mind. To have law and policymakers do more than hear them, but to listen to them.
People choose to participate in peaceful protests — pickets, sit-ins, boycotts — to initiate meaningful change, to engage like-minded people unaware of the issue in question, and to ultimately make the world a better place.
I can already hear the collective sigh of some of my more conservative friends as I type this, but I mean it: At this point, continued civil disobedience might be the ONLY way to make the world a better place under the current U.S. administration. It might be the only thing that can save it.
Every historical horror had its hero. And most of the time, they were people like you and me.
We can’t keep waiting for another Martin Luther King Jr., or another Fred Rogers to lead the resistance, give us hope, and someone to follow. We need to start standing where and when we can get behind our friends and neighbors who’ve had the courage to do the right thing for the right reason.
Because it still matters: The right thing, and whether we do it.