In the year 2015 there are many good reasons to protest: police brutality, injustice, the war on (some) drugs, the war on (some) terror, etc. One thing from Martian Luther King Jr.’s legacy that seems to be lost and something we should rediscover is the art of the peaceful protest and civil disobedience.
King understood that for positive change to occur, he had to truly win the hearts and minds of his fellow Americans. Being a positive example by showing the world that he and his followers would take a stand against injustice without resorting to violence was even more important than the words he spoke to that end. Certainly, not everyone believed in using the non-violent approach. Malcolm X and the Black Panthers believed that violence was necessary to achieve their shared goals.*
Who was right?
Personally, I find the pictures and the videos from the non-violent protests and the acts of civil disobedience to be far more compelling. There’s just something about seeing people refusing to act in a violent fashion against the state which inherently IS violence. This has a way of changing hearts and minds.
Contrast this with today’s protests in Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere concerning the police. For the most part, the protesters are peaceful and are using tactics which King would likely be proud. Unfortunately, however; it’s the nasty protesters that are violent, incite riots, or cheer at the news of cops being ambushed which receives far too much of the publicity. Even holding up signs like “The only good cop is a dead cop” or “fuck the police,” though certainly permissible as recognized by the First Amendment, turns people off who might otherwise be sympathetic to one’s cause.
Sadly, it’s not just a few misfit protesters who think that aggression is sometimes warranted to get one’s way. No less than the pope himself last week in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks said: “(If someone) says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
The leader of the same Catholic Church which normally advocates finding non-violent solutions to conflict (such as the Just War Doctrine) says that because someone says something offensive about one’s parents or faith it is permissible to use violence against that person! People’s feeling are more important than the concept of free expression.
I’m not interested in living in a world where I cannot insult the pope or his religion nor do I want to live in a world where the pope cannot insult me or my atheism. The world I am interested in living in is one where we can have passionate, even hurtful disagreements without fearing physical harm to my family, my friends, or myself.
Let us all rediscover the art of peaceful protest and civil disobedience on this Martian Luther King Jr. Day.
With the plethora of news stories about police misconduct, excessive force, non-indictments, and the understandable corresponding outrage to such perceived injustices in the waning days of 2014, certain law and order types thought it proper to offer some advice to stop the bloodshed. Quite simple advice really: obey the laws and/or cooperate with the police.
But maybe instead of “simple” I should say “simplistic.” It seems most of those who offer such advice are middle aged white guys who don’t fit the profile the police look for when they decide to stop someone who “looks suspicious.” Take this jackass by the name of Kelly Ogle for example:
It use to be simple… when you come in contact with a police officer, you do what they say.
Unfortunately, an unrealistic distrust of police officers is being fostered by some protesters, even some public officials, which is disgraceful.
Just “do what they say” and everything will be just fine huh?
Don’t tell that to NY Jets RB Chris Johnson. Johnson was recently pulled over in Orlando, Florida for rolling through a stop sign. According to a source close to Johnson, the police asked permission to search his vehicle. Because Johnson didn’t feel like he “had anything to hide” or wanted to “be cooperative,” he foolishly waived his Fourth Amendment rights and allowed the police to search his vehicle.
What did “cooperating” with the police get him? A second degree misdemeanor charge for having his lawfully owned firearm improperly stored in the vehicle according to Florida law. There’s a good chance that Johnson didn’t know he was breaking the law. As we have heard ad nauseum, ignorance of the law is not a legal defense for breaking the law (unless of course, you happen to be a cop).
Just over a month ago, I offered what I believe to be more constructive advice than that the aforementioned badge worshiper. There is a way to be respectful of the police while firmly and intelligently asserting your rights. It seems that had Johnson followed advice similar to mine than that similar to Kelly Ogle’s, he would likely not have been arrested.
Here’s their promotional video explaining the project:
Even if this project doesn’t quite get off the ground, its good to see that there are people out there thinking about how to mitigate the reality of the numerous criminal laws on the books. But until that day comes, understand that when you are stopped by the police, they stopped you because they have some suspicion that you are breaking a law that you may or may not be aware of. Don’t help them by waiving your rights (“just cooperating”) as Chris Johnson did. You can’t assert your rights if you don’t know what they are. Now that you have found these links (here,here, and here), there is no excuse for ignorance of these rights.
Some laws are so egregious they ought morally be resisted, however destabilizing such resistance might be. Only the most mindlessly authoritarian would disagree.
The hard part is knowing where to draw the lines.
New York City cops are in rebellion, taking a de facto hiatus from policing victimless “crimes.” Whether this is an “important step” toward improved safety and constitutional policing, or a dire threat to the rule of law, seems all a matter of perspective. Cops being as diverse as humans generally, their motivations presumably range from “[a]cting like a bunch of high-school jocks protesting a ban on keg parties” all the way to heartfelt questions about the legitimacy of a system that leaves a man dead for the “crime” of selling loose cigarettes.
Either way, the reduced issuance of petty crime summonses and parking violations will starve the city of revenue, while endangering no one. This strategy, of hurting the mayor’s budget without turning a blind eye to real crime, exposes an unpleasant truth about modern policing: that cops are sent out armed with guns to risk their lives ginning up revenues needed to cover budget shortfalls.
Let that sink in.
I understand the importance of the rule of law. But morality dictates consideration of a system that encourages forceful interaction over such trivialities as selling loose cigarettes, and for the purpose of insulating politicians from the consequences of overspending.
The rule of law is but a means to an end, not an end in itself.
“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; . . . .”
On the basis of your personal understanding of this sentence’s meaning (not your knowledge of constitutional law), please indicate whether you believe the following sentences to be true or false.
_____ 1) In time of war, a federal statute may be passed prohibiting citizens from revealing military secrets to the enemy.
_____ 2) The President may issue an executive order prohibiting public criticism of his administration.
_____ 3) Congress may pass a law prohibiting museums from exhibiting photographs and paintings depicting homosexual activity.
_____ 4) A federal statute may be passed prohibiting a citizen from falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.
_____ 5) Congress may pass a law prohibiting dancing to rock and roll music.
_____ 6) The Internal Revenue Service may issue a regulation prohibiting the publication of a book explaining how to cheat on your taxes and get away with it.
_____ 7) Congress may pass a statute prohibiting flag burning.
After exploring ways in which seemingly clear rules of law are malleable to reach different ends, based on the perspective of those with the power to apply them, the piece returns to those initial questions:
If your response to question one was “True,” you chose to interpret the word “no” as used in the First Amendment to mean “some.”
If your response to question two was “False,” you chose to interpret the word “Congress” to refer to the President of the United States and the word “law” to refer to an executive order.
If your response to question three was “False,” you chose to interpret the words “speech” and “press” to refer to the exhibition of photographs and paintings.
If your response to question four was “True,” you have underscored your belief that the word “no” really means “some.”
If your response to question five was “False,” you chose to interpret the words “speech” and “press” to refer to dancing to rock and roll music.
If your response to question six was “False,” you chose to interpret the word “Congress” to refer to the Internal Revenue Service and the word “law” to refer to an IRS regulation.
If your response to question seven was “False,” you chose to interpret the words “speech” and “press” to refer to the act of burning a flag.
… Why did you do this? Were your responses based on the “plain meaning” of the words or on certain normative beliefs you hold about the extent to which the federal government should be allowed to interfere with citizens’ expressive activities?
My own answer would have been that the First Amendment neither permits nor prohibits anything. The First Amendment is nothing more than words on paper, incapable of doing anything. It is only our collective willingness to enforce, expand or modify it that has any function; that sufficient numbers of us agree, consciously or not, to permit the exercise of collective force to do one or the other; and that sufficient numbers more passively do not resist.
We are unavoidably a nation of both laws and men, and needed change comes in many forms. Sometimes it comes because democratically elected representatives vote for it. Sometimes it comes because one person stops allowing her complicity to lend legitimacy to a bad law.
It bears remembering that enforcing the rule of law was what five New York City officers were doing when they placed Eric Garner in a grapple hold for the “crime” of selling loose cigarettes. As Professor Stephen L. Carter eloquently wrote:
It’s unlikely that the New York legislature, in creating the crime of selling untaxed cigarettes, imagined that anyone would die for violating it. But a wise legislator would give the matter some thought before creating a crime. Officials who fail to take into account the obvious fact that the laws they’re so eager to pass will be enforced at the point of a gun cannot fairly be described as public servants.
* * *
Of course, activists on the right and the left tend to believe that all of their causes are of great importance. Whatever they want to ban or require, they seem unalterably persuaded that the use of state power is appropriate.
That’s too bad. Every new law requires enforcement; every act of enforcement includes the possibility of violence. There are many painful lessons to be drawn from the Garner tragedy, but one of them, sadly, is… : Don’t ever fight to make something illegal unless you’re willing to risk the lives of your fellow citizens to get your way.
Some of the loudest complaints about police misconduct are from the same people who demand a leviathan government exercising control over vast areas of our lives. Such control must of necessity be exercised in the form of laws, laws that must be enforced at the point of a gun.
We all draw lines somewhere, between the laws we think ought be enforced, however misguided they might be, for the sake of preserving the legitimacy of the system; laws so egregious and vile in nature, that they must morally be resisted; and those that fall somewhere between, the close calls and grey area where good faith disagreement can be tolerated. The criteria we use, the lines we draw, are inherently subjective.
We should not ask cops to enforce laws that we are unwilling to have them kill to enforce. We should not risk lives enforcing prohibitions against victimless crimes.
If a rebellion by New York City cops is how this change comes—I can live with that.
Yesterday afternoon, two NYPD officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were shot at point-blank range by a man named Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who also shot his girlfriend earlier in the day in Baltimore. Statements made online by Brinsley indicated that he was killing cops as retribution for what happened to Eric Garner, but reports are also coming out that he had issues for a very long time. The reactions to this shooting are predictable, especially from the right. An NYPD police union even declared war on its citizens.
We expect this. I’m going to talk now to those of you celebrating the shooting.
Before I begin this letter properly, I need to let you know: I’m a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union and a donor to the Innocence Project. When protests over Trayvon Martin’s death happened, I stood beside people – as one of only a few white people in the crowd – and protested in Bridgeport, CT. I tolerated Ernie Newton and the Nation of Islam while holding hands with my friends and singing We Will Overcome. I get it. Police brutality is a legitimate issue, it’s one that any honest person will admit affects black people disproportionately, and it must be challenged and ultimately changed.
So believe me when I say: you’re screwing this up. At best you’re burning any currency that’s been built up since the acquittal of Daniel Pantaleo; you’re only going to get more people hurt, or worse.
I’m going to belabor two main points:
1) Speaking solely from a tactical perspective: we – by we, I mean protesters, supporters and others who decry police brutality – are in a position of weakness. It needs to be understood that a lot of people – I don’t have recent polls I trust, but I’m comfortable in calling this a majority – are perfectly fine with police officers using whatever means they have to control “other” people. To them, anything that threatens their sense of security of stability is open game. Remember: when the NYPD was spying on Muslims, most citizens approved of it; it didn’t affect them, if they didn’t have anything to hide, vague reference to 9/11, etcetera. These people are taught that the police are infallible. Yes, we know that there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, but this is about optics. Simply put, we have to convert a lot of people, and rooting for murder is a poor way of going about that. Remember: everyone talks about Martin Luther King Jr., and it wasn’t because of his comments on rioting. Meanwhile, Huey Newton and Fred Hampton are footnotes.
2) None of what I said above takes into account humanity. The accusations people are making about the police is that they don’t hold into account the lives of those they “serve and protect”, particularly those of minorities. Statistics honestly bear all of this news out. But when you sit there and cheer for the deaths of two officers, with families that just lost someone before Christmas, take a look in the mirror and ask yourself what you have become. If you think so low of the police force or anyone in an uniform that you consider them monsters, do you really want to drag yourself to that level? Listen: I know people who are cops, or want to be cops, that I don’t trust with an ice cream cone, let alone a gun. The system needs reform. But when you cheer a senseless murder from an obviously deranged individual, you’re no better than the police. I’d argue you’re far worse, honestly.
I’m sure there will be a chorus of “you don’t get it!” from people saying a white man on a site that prominently uses the Gadsden Flag can’t speak for how to approach the police. I’d argue it’s my position as a suburban white man that gives me a perspective of the people you’re going to have to convert to get real, honest reform, and not just a temporary burst of energy that burns off just as quickly. Trust me: I hold no love for the ignorant white doofus who thinks racism ended on July 2nd of 1964, complains bitterly that life isn’t what it was like in 1986 for some reason he can’t articulate, and doesn’t understand our political system beyond hating Obama. But he has to be converted, or at least made to understand a new normal.
What is happening now is turning off that person. The more of those people that get turned off, the harsher the reaction can be from the NYPD and other police departments across the country. More death, more injury, more protests, more spinning of our tires. If we want true reform, and with it true equality regardless of race, then it’s critically important that we forcefully denounce Ismaaiyl Brinsley, denounce anyone who supports his actions, and keep working towards a better future for everyone.
Christopher Bowen covered the video games industry for eight years before moving onto politics and general interest. He is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus, and has worked for Diehard GameFan, Daily Games News, TalkingAboutGames.com and has freelanced elsewhere. He is a “liberaltarian” – a liberal libertarian. A network engineer by trade, he lives in Derby CT.