Does civil disobedience work?

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Does civil disobedience work? There isn’t a clear “yes” or “no” answer to this question, rather the correct answer is “sometimes.” There is no denying that Martin Luther King, Jr. had a great deal of success with civil disobedience, the same can be said of Gandhi. However, there are people who will discount any act of civil disobedience, regardless of the issue or the goal.

Just as there are good causes, and not-so-good causes; there are right ways, and wrong ways to do civil disobedience. Before going any further, I feel I should define the term. Civil disobedience is “the refusal to comply with certain laws or to pay taxes and fines, as a peaceful form of political protest.” For the most part things like jaywalking, speeding, prostitution and selling drugs are not civil disobedience. Those actions certainly could be civil disobedience if the intent of the actor is to protest the unjust laws that make those actions criminal, though in most cases the actor doesn’t have that intent.

But I digress.

Within the past week, there have been a couple of fairly big news stories about people committing civil disobedience. One of which involved a 90 year old man getting arrested, not once but twice in as many days in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The Tampa Bay Times reports, “[Arnold] Abbott now faces two counts of breaking a week-old Fort Lauderdale ordinance, each charge carrying a possible 60-day jail term and $500 fine.”

Abbott was arrested and rearrested for doing something that he’d been legally doing for nearly 24 years, giving hot meals to homeless people in the seaside community. The Times adds that the city tried to stop him from giving out meals 14 years ago, but Abbot prevailed in two different court cases. However, at 2 am on October 22 the City Commission adopted an ordinance that limits where outdoor food distribution sites can be located, requires the permission of property owners and says the groups have to provide portable toilets. Abbott says he’s trying to keep people from dumpster diving in order to get a meal, whereas Mayor Jack Seiler wants the homeless to rely on government assistance, not charity, for their meals. It is not yet known if the international publicity caused by multiple arrests of members of Love Thy Neighbor will cause the City Commission to repeal the ordinance. However, one goal of civil disobedience is being met: gaining publicity for the cause!

Another incident of mass civil disobedience took place on election day in New Hampshire. A new state law making it illegal to “tak[e] a digital image or photograph of his or her marked ballot and distribut[e] or shar[e] the image via social media or by any other means” went into effect just before the primary election in September. During the general election, hundreds of people joined an event on facebook titled “Picture of your ballot November 4th 2014” which had a description encouraging people to vote for candidates who would repeal the new law. Two of the “attendees” to the event, John Burt & Leon Rideout, also happened to be members of the NH Legislature, and say they will introduce a bill to repeal the prohibition. In addition to hundreds of people, myself included, posting photos of their ballots online in defiance of the law, the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union filed a formal challenge to the law in federal court arguing the prohibition violates free speech by banning “pure political speech.”

Like the ordinance in Fort Lauderdale, it is yet to be determined how the challenges to the “ballot selfie” law will turn out. Though in both cases, and in many more, there is no denying that civil disobedience definitely plays a role in bringing about change. To those who are still opposed to the concept of civil disobedience, I want to remind you “that no man has a moral obligation to obey an unjust law!