Civil disobedience and the United States of America have a unique relationship. On the one hand, there is the loyalty one feels to one’s country. The certainty that comes with supporting its endeavors and the sense of determination one feels in supplementing its values as your own. Many Americans feel intrinsically tied to their country and the government at its helm. Yet, the ever-present sentiment of protest and resistance to oppression in all its forms is bound deeply into what it means to be an American. Our very founding was an act of civil disobedience in itself. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum one falls, for one to call oneself an American it is necessary to take a stand for what you believe is right. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, but obliged to do so." In that spirit here are five historical instances of American Civil Disobedience.
LGBT- Stonewall Riots
The struggle for equal rights can take shape in a variety of ways. Some struggles are violent. Some are peaceful. All are necessary. The struggle for LGBT rights can be traced to a single event in American history called the Stonewall Riots. On June 28, 1969, the NYPD raided the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, a well-known LGBT-friendly establishment. The raid itself was to catch the Stonewall Inn in the act of serving alcohol without a license, which incidentally it was.
The situation devolved when a crowd formed around the police who had forcefully arrested a lesbian patron and three drag queens and forced them into a police vehicle. The homosexual community of New York, who by this time had had their fill of police harassment of LGBT club owners and patrons decided to not so civilly disobey the police orders to back down. They hurled projectiles at the police until they were forced to take shelter. The protest grew in magnitude as remnants of the New York LGBT community joined the demonstration. The now appropriately named Stonewall Riot continued in the adjoining neighborhoods until the NYPD riot police were able to restore order.
Though the riot and demonstrations were relatively small compared to their potential size. The impact they had on the LGBT community can still be felt today. Because of the Stonewall Riots organizations like the Gay Liberation Front and the Equal Rights Movement were projected to the forefront of the overarching struggle for equal and civil rights for everyone.
Standing Rock Sioux-Keystone XL Pipeline
There are a plethora of reasons to oppose the construction of an oil pipeline. They are a ticking time bomb of environmental disaster and they proliferate our continued reliance on fossil fuels.
The Keystone XL Pipeline, however, took opposition to an entirely new level. The Standing Rock Sioux band of Native Americans call the South Dakota land transited by the pipeline home and have done so for centuries. Besides the fact that the tribe was neither consulted nor compensated by the U.S. Government before construction began, the pipeline also represented a potentially catastrophic environmental disaster if it were to ever spill. Which likelihood said it would. The pipeline would have traveled below and contaminated the primary water source for the Sioux in the region and would have bisected ancient and sacred burial sites to the tribe.
Civil protest to the pipeline was undertaken by thousands of Americans who braved epically sub-zero winter temperatures, violent pipeline security personnel and sheriff's police armed with fire hoses and attack dogs to stand with the Standing Rock Sioux in a valiant reversal of history. Yet throughout the turmoil, civil disobedience and the public won out over the corporate politics of Washington insiders. The Keystone XL Pipeline was vetoed by President Barack Obama.
Equal Rights- Chicago Open Housing Movement
The sixties in Chicago were dangerous. Well… just about every decade in Chicago is dangerous but the sixties were an especially dangerous and politically charged time to live in Chicago. From 1965 to 1967 the Chicago Open Housing Movement, lead by Dr. Martin Luther King, became the most ambitious civil rights campaign to ever come out of Chicago. In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King, in the same manner as the Christian monk whose name he shared Martin Luther, posted a list of demands on the door of Chicago City Hall in order to improve the horrible, bigoted and unequal political and housing situation for African Americans living within the City.
Dr. King organized a rally in Soldier Field where an estimated 35,000 supporters showed their support for the movement. Subsequent rallies and marches to end slum and tenant housing brought the movement to the forefront of the civil rights issue in country. In 1968, as a direct result of the movement, congress enacted the Fair Housing Act guaranteeing fair and equal access for all Americans
Anti-War- Chicago 1968 Democratic Convention
The same year the Fair Housing Act was passed as a result of the civil rights situation in Chicago, the 1968 Democratic National Convention came to town and tossed the city on its head. Following on the tail of both the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy the political situation in Chicago was reaching the tipping point. That point finally came when the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, the Youth International Party, better known as Yippies, and the Students for a Democratic Society held a demonstration in Grant park during the 1968 Democratic national Convention.
Over 10,000 demonstrators gathered in Grant Park to protest the current political climate in the United States and the war in Vietnam. Clashes erupted between demonstrators and Chicago Police. The demonstration moved from the park to the city streets when the riot police loosed tear gas on the crowd. The CPD fired so much tear gas that it could be felt in high rise buildings and on the breeze in neighborhoods nowhere near the demonstration. The police assaulted the front of the Hilton Hotel which became the iconic image of the demonstration. The entire episode was filmed on live television for seventeen minutes while the crowd chanted, "The whole world is watching".
The situation was so confusing and devolved so quickly that Dan Rather, arguably the most recognizable TV personality at the time, was assaulted and beaten by CPD on live television. When the dust and gas had finally cleared two things were evident. Police brutality was thrown into the spotlight and exposed on national television and national support for the Democratic Party had eroded after the convention. Republican Richard Nixon would become president the following year.
Civil Rights- Montgomery Bus Boycott
Easily the most recognizable instance of civil disobedience is the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The now-famous civil rights leader Rosa Parks kicked off the boycott when she bravely and famously refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on the bus. She was subsequently arrested. That moment would be a pinnacle moment in the civil rights movement. The next day the African American community would initiate a boycott of the public transit system that would last one year and fifteen days.
The boycott would come to represent peaceful civil disobedience and resistance to segregation in the United States for its effectiveness in bringing about the decision by the city of Montgomery to prohibit segregation on its public transit, but also for propelling the civil rights issue to the forefront of the American psyche. Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and John Lewis rode the wave of change propagated by the boycott to bring real and lasting civil rights to all African Americans.
Bonus: Resistance to Tyranny- House Democratic Boycott of the 2017 Presidential Inauguration.
At noon on January 20th, 2017 Donald J. Trump became the commander and chief of the United States of America. In an act of civil disobedience over fifty democratic house congressmen and woman decided to stand in opposition to the election of a tyrant to the most powerful position in the world.
Initiated by the then president-elect's social media assault on prominent congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, who had very appropriately questioned the validity of the election results due to obvious Russian intervention, democratic congressmen and woman have boycotted the 2017 presidential inauguration to stand together with those Americans whose civil rights are now threatened by the new regime. This act of civil disobedience represents solidarity with those who have felt the hand of oppression and refuse to bow to the election of bigotry, intolerance, misogyny and amateurism.
State troopers use clubs against participants of a Civil Rights Movement voting march in Selma, Alabama. Congressman John Lewis, center right.
This country will need solidarity as we move into the rapidly darkening future. We must remember that this country is greater than its leaders and that we the people are the ones with the power. Be strong in the coming years and remember our moral obligation to stand against those who would challenge equality, tolerance, civil rights and progress.
"Support your country always, and your government when it deserves it." - Mark Twain