“Civil disobedience” evokes a range of reactions when people hear the term. Some instinctively wince, regarding it as anti-social or subversive.
Others, like me, want to know more before we judge. What is prompting someone to engage in it? Who will be affected and how? What does the “disobedient” person hope to accomplish? Are there alternative actions that might be more effective?
One of my earliest memories from childhood was an act of civil disobedience. My family resided near Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, about 11 miles from the Ohio border town of Negley. At the time, Pennsylvania prohibited the unauthorized introduction and sale of milk from Ohio. On many a Saturday in the late 1950s and early 1960s, my father and I would drive over to Negley and fill the back seat of our car with good, cheap milk. During the drive back home, he would caution me to “keep it covered and don’t say anything if the cops pull us over.”
For me, milk smuggling was a thrill ride. It was downright exciting to evade a stupid law while keeping an eye out for a cop who might have nothing better to do than bust a couple of notorious dairy dealers. I know my dad made a few bucks when he re-sold the milk to happy neighbors. We never had any regrets or pangs of conscience for committing this victimless crime. We were simply supporting a cause that even Abraham Lincoln may have endorsed when he said, “The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly.”
Government officials hate civil disobedience because it’s a disgruntled citizen’s way of thumbing his nose. If we’re unhappy with laws or policies that are stupid, destructive, corrupt, counterproductive, unconstitutional, or in other ways indefensible, they advise us to do the “democratic” thing—which means hope for the best in a future election, stand in line to be condescended to at some boring public hearing, or just shut up.
My go-to expert on the issue is not a politician or a preacher or an academic. It’s Henry David Thoreau, who famously asked, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree,