Throughout the saga of so-called “Moral Mondays,” protest organizers and media talking-heads drew frequent comparisons to the civil rights movement. William Barber, the protest ringleader, often invoked the term “civil disobedience” to describe the actions of protesters. But Barber seems to be conveniently forgetting a crucial part of civil disobedience: consequences.
Three of the most famous advocates of civil disobedience were Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But all three of those great men insisted that civil disobedience should come with penalties. Thoreau went to jail for not paying taxes that he believed would fund an unjust war in Mexico. He was furious at his friends when they bailed him out, because he thought they had undermined his actions. Gandhi never tried to flee British authorities: in fact, he openly defied their warnings and demanded the harshest possible punishment. And Dr. King perhaps best sums up the noble purpose of civil disobedience when he said:
In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
King knew that true civil disobedience requires sanctions. Otherwise people could just break the law whenever they feel like it. This would necessarily undermine the rule of law and lead to anarchy. And yet William Barber and the other arrestees have done exactly that. Most of the 900 arrestees are pleading “not guilty” to trespassing – actively seeking to be acquitted for a crime that they did in fact commit. This is “civil disobedience lite,” a spurious tactic that undermines the very concept of civil disobedience, in addition to undermining the rule of law.
“Civil disobedience lite” has serious consequences for the people of Wake County. In trying to avoid sanctions, Barber has forced the Wake County District Attorney’s office to waste inordinate amounts of time and money. Police officers, bailiffs, court reporters, judges, and prosecutors will spend months tied up for frivolous trials – all because the protesters are unwilling to accept responsibility for what they did.
There is a word for this cynical tactic to keep media attention fixated on a budget that purportedly strains public resources, all by further straining those resources: Hypocrisy.