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  • Saying “No” to the State
  • Staughton Lynd (bio)

Civil disobedience, Protest, Resistance, Nonviolence, Henry David Thoreau

Civil Disobedience: An American Tradition. By Lewis Perry. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. Pp. 407. Cloth, $35.00.)

At first glance, the front cover of this book seems to be an arbitrary patchwork of blacks and grays. When one looks again, the cover is seen to display the shadow on a sidewalk of a group of persons standing hand in hand to form a human chain.

Between its covers the book explores the substance of an American tradition of popular resistance to authority known as “civil disobedience.”

Viewed in an academic manner, this subject loses some of its vitality. Professor Perry begins his discussion with a heroic effort to overcome that obstacle. He insists that words alone cannot explain all that is meant by “civil disobedience.” Is the word “civil” intended to indicate that the protagonist is civilized, that is, nonviolent, respectful of antagonists, and prepared to accept punishment by the courts? Must “disobedience” be directed against a particular law or policy or may it challenge a more comprehensive orientation, such as expanding slavery or maintaining capitalist control of the workplace? And are there not some activities in this tradition that seek to compel obedience, as the Freedom Riders sought compliance with decisions of the United States Supreme Court mandating racial integration in interstate bus travel? [End Page 113]

Accordingly, Perry sets aside semantics, and, after a few introductory paragraphs, plunges into a narrative of two episodes of civil disobedience at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC.

Student protests in 1988 and 2006 resulted in the dismissal of two Gallaudet presidents. In escorting the reader through these events, Perry shows that the words “civil disobedience” can be used to describe conduct with outwardly similar results but dramatically different overtones. If measured by the criterion of whether or not the protest furthered the creation of a “beloved community,” the 1988 protest activities unquestionably did so but the later campus insurgency did not.

The reader is asked to compare two sets of blogs assessing what happened in 2006. The author of one series of comments was Jane Hurst, chair of the Philosophy and Religion Department. Hurst characterized the 2006 events as threatening, retaliatory, and vindictive. The other perspective was articulated by a blogger known as Ridor. Ridor rejected a civil disobedience that is required to be polite. As he saw it the idea was to be effective, by any means necessary.

Professor Perry asks whether one or the other of these contrasting views of civil disobedience can be considered “the right one” (10). He answers, persuasively in my opinion, No. As a matter of historical fact, each of these perspectives has frequently been projected, acted out, and justified to the wider world. Perry states that “the point-counterpoint implicit in the dialogue at Gallaudet can be taken as identifying my core subject” (10).

Having imaginatively offered these general observations about civil disobedience, Professor Perry reverts to a more conventional chronological journey through his subject.

Many Americans suppose that this country’s tradition of civil disobedience began with the “Boston Tea Party” of December 1773. Perry is not so sure. Unlike nonviolent protestors who willingly identify themselves and expect to be punished, the men who threw chests of tea into Boston harbor dressed as Indians, blackened their faces, and have remained substantially anonymous for more than 240 years. That they concealed who they were suggests that the protagonists feared they might be criminally prosecuted, and sought to avoid it.1 [End Page 114]

As an alternative starting point for the tradition of civil disobedience, Professor Perry presents religious protest, first by dissenters (like the Baptists and Quakers) to an established church (Puritan or Anglican), then against the removal of Native Americans from their homeland in the South. The second of these mini-histories is especially interesting.

The compromises of the Constitutional Convention opened the door to the expansion of plantation slavery into the future states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. However, as a practical matter the Native Americans who lived in that part of the world had first to be gotten rid of...


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pp. 113-122
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