Memo to a Federal Judge on Civil Disobedience: Really? Are You Kidding Me?
We’ve heard it from the bench in Oak Ridge city courtrooms and from state judges in Clinton, Tennessee. And on February 18 we heard it from a federal judge—there are two variations. The first: There are plenty of ways for you to protest and deliver your message without breaking the law. The second: If you people would just put this time and energy into working for the change you want in the political system, you might get the change you seek.
Both sentiments are either disingenuous or naïve.
I. There are plenty of ways for you to protest and deliver your message without breaking the law.
As one who has spent hundreds of hours in nonviolent protests outside the gates of the Y12 nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where workers are, right now, making thermonuclear cores for W76 warheads, the judges who lecture us—and who have never so far as I know troubled themselves to protest in any way at all from the security of the bench—have no clue. Sure, you can go to Y12 and protest all day long to the wind. It’s the preferred option of everyone who wants to maintain the status quo, second only to “Why don’t you shut up and leave us alone to do our dirty business.”
Gandhi knew, and Martin Luther King, Jr. after him, that the point of nonviolent direct action is to confront injustice in a way that can not be ignored.
There is no sign at all that it is effective. We don’t do it because we think President Obama will drive by one Sunday evening and notice us and say, “Wait a minute! Didn’t I say something in a speech in 2009 about how we are committed to a world without nuclear weapons? Then why am I spending nineteen billion dollars on a new bomb plant? And we promised the world in 1968 that we would disarm? Gosh, these protesters are right!”
Not gonna happen, judge, and I suspect you know that. But we do those legal protests anyway.
We do it because it is important not to be silent whether anyone is listening or not. We do it because a commitment to nonviolent social change includes being present to say “No” when the government is preparing for crimes against humanity and crimes against creation. There is an old story activists tell of an old man who day after day goes out to the sidewalk with a protest sign to hold a lonely vigil. One day a young man stops. “Man, I’ve seen you out here for months. What in the world are you doing? You’re never going to change the government this way.” The old man smiles. “I’m not out here to change them. I’m out here to keep them from changing me.”
I go out every Sunday to stand for peace because I have two daughters to answer to and “I was too busy to do anything,” is not an acceptable excuse.
There have been times, at demonstrations I have attended, where hundreds of people came out to protest and the media ignored it. No TV cameras , no newspapers. The next day, it was as if nothing happened. But I have also been at demonstrations where people got arrested for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Guess what—front page of the paper. Lead story at 11:00. When the first goal is to raise awareness, to provide people with information the government would like to keep secret, media coverage is essential. And with only a few exceptions, most media require the drama of arrests before they will cover a story that includes criticisms of the regions largest economic powerhouse.
So to judges and prosecutors who say, “You can protest all you want as long as you keep it legal,” at least be honest enough with yourself and us to say, “even though—or especially though—it means no one will know you are there.”
We do it because it is important not to be silent whether anyone is listening or not.
Of course, that is one of the fundamental tenets of nonviolent direct action, a truth that was lost on the last judge who lectured us, in federal court. The judge said he was “obviously” a fan of Gandhi—but he’s like a fan that cheers for Derek Jeter but has no clue how hard it is to field a hard, low one-hop line drive just outside the baseline behind third base, turn, and deliver the ball on target to first base. The fan admires the pure beauty of it, knows it was hard as hell, knows he could never do it, but that’s as deep as the understanding goes.
Gandhi knew, and Martin Luther King, Jr. after him, that the point of nonviolent direct action is to confront injustice in a way that can not be ignored. When the powers and institutions that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo react by punishing good people for their audacity—breaking a little law to expose a greater crime, or ignoring an unjust injunction—it is a question posed to the rest of society who, seeing good people being punished, is awakened to ask, “Wait—dogs and firehoses? On children?” or “What is going on here that these good people are going to prison?”
II. Channel this energy into working to change policy—make democracy work.
The second suggestion, offered by Judge Amul Thapar from the bench in federal court in Knoxville, Tennessee, was even more tortured. He praised the defendants before him for their intellect and clarity of thought. He noted that they had legions of supporters because he had gotten hundreds of letters and thousands of signatures on a petition. “Channel this energy toward changing policy in Washington, DC,” he said, implying they could not help but be effective.
Only two problems with that, Judge. One: without the Transform Now Plowshares action, there wouldn’t be hundreds of letters and thousands of signatures. The action was the stimulus which created the response. That’s how nonviolence works—it’s a dynamic and unpredictable thing. “Extraordinary,” Gandhi said, “and then it becomes a miracle.”
Second problem: Really? Do you really think smart, articulate people have not written hundreds of letters to Congress, haven’t signed petitions, haven’t gone to the nation’s capital to press the case? I’ve met with three different Secretaries of Energy and dozens of other officials; I’ve done briefings on Capitol Hill with former Arms Control Ambassadors and the President of the Union of Concerned Scientists. I’ve served on state and federal advisory committees. I’ve spoken at scores of public hearings, written op-eds in the local newspaper, penned letters to the editor, been quoted in a dozen major national newspaper and magazines, been interviewed hundreds of times, done radio and TV for half a dozen international media outlets. And I’m here to tell you, judge, it doesn’t work that way.
Maybe you can ring up Mitch McConnell and get put through to the Senator, but I have to shame our local Senator into even sending a staff person to meet me outside—they refuse to allow more than three people to visit in their office at one time. I’ve gone to DC to meet with a Representative for an appointment and instead had a five minute meeting in the hallway with his aide who, for most of the time, found the woman down the hall behind me far more worthy of his attention. I’ve talked to dozens and dozens of Congressional staffers, most of whom have this issue in their portfolio, and the level of ignorance is stunning. I don’t blame them—they have a million things to keep track of. But when I take a Department of Energy document to them, open it and show them where it says the new bomb plant will cost 2,400 jobs, and they insist on denying it—well, it doesn’t encourage me to put a lot of faith in your way.
I tell you what might work, though, Judge. If you called up the prosecutor and said, “Let’s look into this business about the Nonproliferation Treaty and the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. It might be nothing, but we did take an oath to uphold the Constitution, and these people are intelligent. And Ramsey Clark says there’s something to it.”
Or, another thing I am pretty sure would work, because I’ve studied a little on how things get done in Washington: How about if we just give some major campaign donations to our Senators—it would only take half a million dollars, I bet, to outbid Babcock & Wilcox, Lockheed Martin and Bechtel. Then my eight page letter to Lamar Alexander would probably warrant more than a form letter with a paragraph inserted about nuclear energy (though I wrote about nuclear weapons) and a machine signature. I’d go in the “first name file.” They have those, you know. One summer, I helped a friend who was interning file the first name file letters for a Congressman from South Carolina. That’s how democracy works, Judge, in case you don’t know. The chance of Michael Walli getting an appointment with a Senator or Representative are zero or less (those DC people don’t actually have a real one of either, you know).
What I’m equally sure won’t work is 16,000 signatures on a petition. The White House requires 100,000 signatures before it will take a petition seriously enough to read it. Nuclear weapons are not a hot enough issue to inspire that many signatures—partly because they are so horrific people don’t want to think about them and partly because they sound so technical people don’t think they can do anything about them and partly because some people are afraid to say they might not be safe without them, but mostly because the fix is in—the money fix, the fear fix, and the politics fix. There is no conversation (without something like a Transform Now Plowshares action to create one) about nuclear weapons these days. About our nuclear weapons, I mean. Lots of talk about Iran’s.
Don’t take my word for it. Set aside this case you drew and ask yourself: how many times in the last year, two years, decade, have you given any serious thought or any thought at all to US nuclear weapons production? How many times have you wondered how many warheads and bombs we have? How many times has the nuclear nonproliferation treaty crossed your mind? Even when you heard a news story about North Korea or Iran’s nuclear ambitions, how many times have you questioned our own nuclear practices? See what I mean?
Martin Luther King, Jr. said nonviolent direct action seeks to create a kind of crisis in a community, to make a space for a creative tension that challenges the status quo or even makes it untenable, and opens a space for a new reality. That’s the point, Your Honors. The discomfort you feel, looking at these people in front of you who are among the best and brightest in your community, having to sentence them or fine them as though they are bad people or have done something wrong—that’s the tension. That’s one of the reasons we are there, in front of you.
Nonviolent direct action has as its fundamental goal shaking things up. It is an honorable tradition. In this country it goes back at least to the Boston Tea Party (though if you consider property sacred you might argue about the nonviolent part of that party). It’s not your normal kind of crime, not committed by your typical criminal. The law can’t take that into account very well, though. Because the law loves order and the beautiful clarity that it brings. The law doesn’t so much like dynamic things like nonviolence when it is loosed in the world or the courtroom.
But when things are really messed up, really—like a nation that preaches nonproliferation to others but is busy building bombs and bomb plants—and no one in power wants to do anything about it, and most people in power actually have disincentives to do anything about it—what is a responsible citizen to do? If the mess up is obvious enough, and distant enough, and done by someone else—trains full of Jews heading for Dachau, for instance—we know what a responsible citizen is to do, and judges and prosecutors, too. We wrote the Nuremberg Code, we the US. But God help the citizen in the United States who sees a terrible wrong being done by the government and tries to raise the alarm.
Some years ago, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the country of Belarus voluntarily relinquished the nuclear weapons that ended up on its sovereign soil, the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, praised them and welcomed them into the community of nations. I remember thinking, “Really? That’s the entry card into the community of nations—renouncing nuclear weapons? So what is Clinton doing there? Is he the doorkeeper? Because if that’s the entry card, we sure aren’t in the community of nations.”
I could go on, but I think my point is clear. Nonviolent direct action is required of us because the government responds to nothing less. It is required of us because our consciences and our unborn grandchildren—and yours—insist we do all we can on behalf of the planet and the future. It is required of some because they feel a divine imperative; the God they follow requires them to beat swords to plowshares and blesses peacemakers. It doesn’t seek an end in itself—it seeks to open a conversation, to encourage jurists, prosecutors, defense attorneys, the public, to search themselves to see what they can do and what they should do.
Of course there is a price to be paid. That’s why Ramsey Clark said the main thing it took was courage—more than most of us have. But to those rare few who listen to voices; who don’t throw caution to the winds but carefully, thoughtfully, gently lay it down and then pick up a hammer; to those who find themselves surprised to be doing courageous things and go on and do them, we owe a debt of great gratitude. We may even owe them the future.
This article first appeared at the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance website.
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