In August 2015 I wrote an op-ed called: Confusing Civil Disobedience. I called attention to the National Day of Civil Disobedience that was organized around the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. In Ferguson, Mo., protesters blocked traffic and the entrance to the federal courthouse. Hundreds of people were arrested over several days of protesting, among the arrested was civil rights activist and scholar Cornel West.
West stated, after his arrest, he went to Ferguson to get arrested. (He was among the group blocking the entrance to the federal courthouse calling for the U.S. government to end racist law enforcement practices.) West also stated, he was part of a collective fight back against the criminal justice system, the economic and educational system, and a political system that has been a failure. West concluded, they will continue to go to jail until justice is done.
So, what’s the confusion?
West participated in a civil disturbance in the tradition of civil disobedience, but it’s not the same thing. MLK Jr. characterized civil disobedience as breaking a law (such as Jim Crow laws) because your conscience tells you the law is unjust and you willingly stay in jail in order to arouse the conscience of the community against the injustice of the law. West wasn’t arrested for breaking any immoral law to bring attention to its immorality. He was arrested because he chose to bring awareness to social ills by willfully disturbing the peace in a nonviolent demonstration. MLK Jr. believed breaking an unjust law to point out its immorality was a principled act and it demonstrated the highest respect for law, but the arrests during the National Day of Civil Disobedience are not analogous, blocking traffic and the entrance to the federal courthouse doesn’t demonstrate the highest respect for the right to assemble.
Now, the latest confusion.
Last month, another unarmed Black teenager was shot and killed by a White police officer in the borough of East Pittsburgh. As expected, there were protests and demonstrations calling for justice, but what wasn’t expected was the spontaneous spillover that created the confusion of the terms in question. For example, a demonstration outside of East Pittsburgh’s police headquarters, spontaneously evolved into a “no justice, no peace” march, which spilled over onto Interstate 376 halting traffic for over five hours. (The state police eventually cleared the highway.) At this moment in time, these events had national media coverage. Many wondered if this was going to turn into another Ferguson, and Ferguson is synonymous with riots. The spontaneity didn’t turn into Ferguson, but when violence is anticipated disturbing the peace is a tolerated alternative, and it’s often referred to as peaceful because it’s nonviolent.
Here’s the question. Was detaining people on a major interstate highway peaceful?
Apparently, City of Pittsburgh officials appreciated the nonviolent nature of the protesters, but felt the need to react to their spontaneity. Pittsburgh officials instituted new guidelines for public gatherings last week. The new guidelines prevent protesters from blocking major intersections and streets, especially during rush hour, and protesters aren’t allowed to block entrances to hospitals, special events, or tunnels and bridges. Pittsburgh officials said these guidelines respect free speech rights while protecting public safety.
Some might accuse Pittsburgh officials of overreacting, but it’s clear they don’t confuse the terms peaceful and nonviolent.
(J. Pharaoh Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier.)
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