An act of civil disobedience is powerful.
It refutes laws that are unjust. It disobeys in protest. It calls out injustice.
When we talk about civil disobedience, the way we talk about it matters as much as the act itself. What is its history? Who practiced it? Why did they practice it?
Henry David Thoreau took part in civil disobedience in 1846, and went to jail (he wouldn't pay poll taxes, because of his opposition to the Mexican–American War and slavery). He represented a minority/outside-voice, and used nonviolent action (and arrest) to show it.
The Boston Tea party was an act of civil disobedience, and one of the acts that sparked the beginning of the United States. Members of the colony of Massachusetts snuck onto a British shipped and literally dumped all the cargo (tea from England) overboard. Why? Because they didn’t want to pay taxes to a power that did not hear, know, or see them.
The very fabric of this nation of immigrants, the United States of America, was built on the civil disobedience of a minority, to a major power. That is our history.
Some things to note, as we look at a few more examples.
The Women’s Suffrage Movement (mid-1800s to 1920) was also built on civil disobedience. Women marched, took part in hunger strikes, and went to jail. The Underground Railroad, with some of the most famous conductors being Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, is another prime example of civil disobedience, which continued operating until the end of the Civil War (1865).
Let’s stop and consider something. The “Women’s Suffrage Movement” began when Harriet Tubman (in the 1850s) and The Underground Railroad was in full operation.
Question: Whose “Women’s Suffrage Movement” was it in the 1850s?
Answer: White women.
Question: Whose “Women’s Suffrage Movement” was it *not* in the 1850s?
Answer: Black women. (Or Black people, for that matter.)
When white women in the United States were (admirably) fighting for the right to vote, black women were fighting for the right to live; literally, for the right to be free (eat, breathe, and work on their own time, let alone vote).
Here is a blindspot I want to point out (which many of us are aware of in theory, but not in practice):
In the United States (and many places in the world), humanity for white folks (or those that can pass as white) comes first; and the humanity of black and brown folks comes last.
Okay, Lauren. You made a point about race in the United States. Who cares?
Well, the point above is important; not for our past, but for our present.
It is important for my white, progressive, advocacy-hype friends (me included); for those showing up at your local community's actions; for those wanting to advocate and be present for the marginalized folks they show up for*, read ahead.
Getting arrested for a few hours, I’m sure, is a scary thing; I haven't been, so I can't say. But I imagine it is an uncomfortable experience, and a world many have never seen; it is a fear of permanency in loss of image, or tainting of record. This is an important experience to process for anyone practicing civil disobedience.
But the act of participating in civil disobedience for black and brown folks vs. white and white-passing folks is inherently different.** History tell us this.
As white and white-passing folks, we must remember that our place of solidarity and action-taking is not for the story, or self-fulfilling feelings. For many, a few hours in jail is all that must be endured. Processing happens. You sit. You leave.
But the experience is different for non-white folks. The story of racism in the US and its part in the enslavement, lynchings, killings, and now imprisonment of an outrageous amount of black and brown folks, is close. The stories of routine traffic stops turning into last words. The stories of segregated bathrooms and schools (stories that are barely fifty years old - the age of some of our parents).
This does not mean that our hope and action is bad; but it means we are offered an extra moment of recognition and solidarity. And in that, we are engaging with the truth that (again) life and action in the United States is not the same for everyone.
The way we tell our stories matters. The way we engage with our advocacy—and the reason behind our advocacy—matters.
Because civil disobedience for white and white-passing folks again reveals the privilege of whiteness in the United States. It offers us the chance to stand with our siblings in action, but it also offers us a moment to consider how much more actions like these could cost them.
It offers a moment of communal understanding, where we stand together, take hands, and walk forward—offering our body for our sibling’s, and remembering that this act (in and of itself) reveals a privilege, and broken system***, we must acknowledge.
Notes (marked above by "*"):
*POC events and things are not for white folks' consumption or disengaged entertainment. We get invited to spaces (if we do), because we are trusted to know that this may be a sacred place, that we are visitors, and that we (as white folks) get to take part only if we are invited.
**We must always remember that while nonviolent action may seem the highest ideal for people of a particular faith, the pain and trauma which create a need for more physical action are real and true as well, and they are a result of prior violence inflicted, and an attempt to create equity from said-violence.
***More intricacies reveal themselves within this broken system that bring nuance to the conversation of race and oppression in the United States, which were not included in the discussion above. Some of these include class, sexual identity, and gender identity.