The lawman’s voice is blaring into the hot desert at the boundary of the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. It’s 1988. We are not to cross that line. Crossing the line will be a breach of the law. My friend Marilyn and I and a couple dozen other people hear him clearly. I’m terrified but certain, trembling and holding still at the same time.
I was not raised to cross forbidden lines or commit civil disobedience (CD). I won the Good Citizen award twice in elementary school. But my peace and justice activism has led me to a new idea of what constitutes a good citizen [I use the term citizen to mean the people of a place, whether documented or not]. I feel less afraid of being arrested than of my nation’s cruel, nihilistic path toward using nuclear weapons. My biggest fear is to not do all I can do to prevent it.
Crossing lines, paradoxically, can also be immoral. In the present, President Trump’s unboundaried attacks on immigrants, the climate and democracy all violate human rights and the common good. In an ocean of injustice, finding the right lines to cross can be hard. How do we know where and when to commit civil disobedience? The famous frogs that stay in slowly warming water even as it boils them alive show us the stark necessity of line-finding. Refusing to take strong action can lead to slow, painful death, whether of human rights, our climate, or our democracy.
Some people found their line last summer when about three thousand immigrant children were forcibly separated from their parents by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). A group of U.S. Representatives attempted it (the D.C. police declined to arrest them) and 575 people, largely mothers, did deliberately get arrested. Here in Portland Oregon, 22 faith leaders committed civil disobedience at the local ICE building, with the witness and support of many more, including myself. They were arrested and booked, all of them calm, some of their faces radiating joy. I’ll attend their upcoming hearing, listen to how the clergy articulate the necessity of their action. The abolition and civil rights movements were both faith-led.
Back to the Nevada desert in 1988. We walk across the line, together (community is crucial to doing CD). I receive plastic handcuffs and trespassing (misdemeanor) charges, which our training in a Las Vegas church the prior day led us to expect. A few months later I receive a letter that the charges have been dropped.
The dropped charges reflect that many people in the 1980’s had crossed that line in the desert before me, including at least one mayor of a progressive city. They normalized the action. I was following in their footsteps, but more fundamentally following those of Thoreau, Gandhi, King and less famous but equally courageous women like Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth. Civil disobedience played a key role in the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and civil rights. These leaders crossed the lines of their own times, pointing up the jarring truth that government and laws are sometimes wrong. They shaped our baseline understandings of justice and morality. We can’t imagine our world without the results they achieved.
But working politely inside the lines like traditional good citizens was not what achieved those results. And staying inside the lines is not working now. Email and online petition campaigns, phone calls to legislators and conventional rallies and demonstrations are achieving no changes except making us feel better. I suggest that good citizenship in the Age of Trump* should look like civil disobedience, for those who can do it, and support of CD in various ways for those who can’t. It does carry costs, like misdemeanor charges, possibly time in jail, maybe impacts on current or future employment. Relatively privileged people, including me, are better posed to take on these costs than more vulnerable people.
Moreover, as noted above, when lots of people join together in CD, adhering to nonviolent principles and eventually normalizing the practice, it costs law enforcement too much in social capital and human resources to be sharply punitive. Cameras and thousands of witnesses hold them accountable to act reasonably. Judges too, when they mete out consequences for CD, are influenced by the moral code of the citizenry that emerges through public actions, though they can’t officially admit this.
Activists and supporters of activists need to get trained in nonviolent CD (lots of good resources and teachers exist), form affinity groups and identify the lines we should be crossing. What if one in ten people at any given demonstration were to cross a line and commit nonviolent CD, i.e. 300 people risking arrest at events attended by 3,000? It would change our nation. The abolitionists of the 1800’s were small in number, as were the suffragettes in the early 1900’s, and later the civil rights activists. Change is always led by a small minority who become influential. Gandhi, King and the other leaders I mentioned lived on the thought-margins of society. They were fringe. Now their radical beliefs – slavery is wrong; women get to vote; equal rights no matter your color — are mainstream values. Human rights for immigrants and asylum-seekers can become mainstream. So can protecting our shared climate, and preserving our democracy.
Gandhi once stated that he and his fellow citizens of India were “detaining” the British who had colonized their country and were ruling it in despotic fashion. He meant that living under the oppressive status quo was a choice, not the duty it appeared to be. Complying with business-as-usual and the fabric of daily life were keeping the British in power. “Detain” even implies responsibility for keeping the British physically in India.
This approach seems harsh, like blaming a rape victim. Gandhi led India to freedom, though, with this perspective, with nonviolent disruptive actions like the Salt March. Sacrifice was involved, because the British had no similar scruples against violence. But British rule ended because ordinary, committed people kept crossing the lines of unjust laws and answering instead to higher laws.
I suggest that we are detaining our amoral, unboundaried, aspiring dictator of a President as we go about our daily lives, staying inside the lines, refraining from committing civil disobedience. I’m as guilty, so far, as anyone. I would so love, have secretly been waiting for years, for a new Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King to appear, someone wise and stellar, luminous with spirituality, whom I can trust and follow across the necessary lines. I’m still sure there are dynamic activists I have yet to meet, whose leadership will be excellent. But I’ve also become convinced that I can’t wait for the Great One to appear. I’m a frog in rapidly heating water.
It’s been 30 years since I crossed the line with nonviolent, committed others in the Nevada desert. The situation is more dire now, with new lines needing to be crossed. My experience taught me that civil disobedience takes preparation, people joining to do it together, and a much larger number of people supporting them.
*I use the phrase Age of Trump for brevity, not because Trump and his actions are our best focus. Our best focus is the world we want.