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The Rise of Civil Disobedience: Why?

John Slaughter  |  Issue: June | July 2014
Philadelphia protest against budget cuts.

Philadelphia protest against budget cuts.
PHOTO: Harvey Finckle


In North Carolina a growing movement has arisen to confront a government and political structure that are standing in the way of the people receiving even the most basic necessities of life. In the course of their protests and demands for justice and a moral society, over 900 were arrested. These acts of civil disobedience are an expression of the moral outrage over conditions which can no longer be tolerated.

The Moral Monday Movement has spread to Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and other Southern states, and in every case they find themselves confronting conditions that are virtually identical: those on the bottom–the have-nots–are seeing unemployment benefits cut, food stamps cut, drastic cuts to education, being cut off from health care, especially Medicaid–and all of this in a time when more and more jobs are being eliminated and when the jobs that remain are low-paying, part-time or temporary with no benefits. For the undocumented workers, legislation blocks any access to health care, housing, unemployment benefits, education or any kind of worker rights. They find themselves increasingly criminalized and excluded.

In addition the government and political system is moving to create a culture of violence with the passage of laws like Stand Your Ground that allows people to be shot down for almost no reason and to get away with it.

In the face of this we see that the wave of civil disobedience across the South is only a part of a much larger movement that is developing across the country. We see people in Michigan going to jail in opposition to the building of an oil pipeline that threatens the environment. Others are arrested in California and Arizona who oppose police violence directed against the homeless and others. In Alabama 7 protesters chained themselves to the gates of a private prison holding undocumented immigrants, demanding “Not one more deportation.”

Why civil disobedience? Why now?  That same question confronted a movement on the verge of taking giant strides in the South in the middle of the last century. At that time millions of African Americans were held in check by one of the most brutal and repressive systems the world has ever known, what has come to be known as the rule of Jim Crow. At that time it was illegal to sit at a lunch counter, illegal to ride in the front of the bus, illegal to seek an education, illegal to find housing in certain areas, illegal to find work in certain areas, and illegal to vote.

But change was in the air, and civil disobedience was the catalyst that sparked a massive movement for change. People began to sit at lunch counters and were arrested for it; people refused to go to the back of the bus and were arrested for it; children committed acts of civil disobedience by going to school; and people committed acts of civil disobedience when they protested for the right to vote. And when the right to assemble and to protest was denied, the people braved fire hoses and police dogs and beatings and bombings and went to jail by the thousands to express the aims and dreams of a movement that would not be denied.

Now, as then, we are in a time when the people are confronted with intolerable conditions, and when we face a government that is itself standing in the way, that turns a deaf ear and a blind eye to the plight of the people. But civil disobedience is not just a way of getting the politicians’ attention. It represents a fundamental change in the posture of the movement. We will no longer beg. We will no longer be on the defensive, trying to hold on to what is already lost. Instead, civil disobedience represents a forward-leaning posture that is intent on fashioning a transformed society that is just and moral, and a government that operates in the interests of the people.

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