I’m very sorry to tell Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) that the protestors who disrupted the opening day of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings are not guilty of “mob rule” as he said Tuesday. Ditto to the University of North Carolina leaders who also called “mob rule” on those who toppled Silent Sam, the Confederate statue had stood front and center on the Chapel Hill campus since 1913. Both are actually contemporary examples of civil obedience, a form of resistance that has its roots deep in the American experience.
Civil disobedience is, in fact, as American as apple pie.
Our nation was founded on civil disobedience
Let’s jump back to the Boston Tea Party in 1773. On December 16, under cover of night, a number of colonists disguised in Native American dress boarded British ships and dumped 342 chests of tea overboard. This act of resistance was a protest against taxes levied by a parliament in which the colonists had no voice – thus the “no taxation without representation” mantra driven into American schoolchildren for the past 250 years. The protest, however, was not universally admired at the time. In fact, far from it.
George Washington, future general and president, denounced the protesters as mad and decried the destruction of property. Benjamin Franklin insisted that the British East India Company be compensated for its loss — estimated at $1 million in today’s dollars. This seemingly flagrant disregard of private property could certainly be labeled as the actions of a mob — but we don’t remember it that way at all.
In fact, American history counts the Boston Tea Party as one of the first and most widely admired acts of civil disobedience in this soon-to-be-separate nation, and among the seminal events that led to the start of the American Revolution. We hold up these early “tea party” activists — colonial leaders such as John Hancock, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and Patrick (“Give me liberty or give me death”) Henry — as textbook examples of principled political protest and civil disobedience, not of mob rule.
U.S. history is replete with so many acts of civil disobedience that it’s impossible to list them all. But consider the abolitionist movement, which led Henry David Thoreau to coin the term in his now famous “Civil disobedience” essay. The Rev. Martin Luther King,Jr. and Rosa Parks relied on civil disobedience techniques during the civil rights movement, as did anti-Vietnam war protestors later in the 1960s and ‘70s. In the 1980s AIDS activists took loudly to the streets trying to speed up the pharmaceutical pipeline for much-needed treatments. Yes, civil disobedience can be messy, discourteous, and often entails breaking the law.
The language of protest shapes our view of it
Throughout our history protesters have been characterized as unruly masses, hell-bent on damage and disorder. That’s why it’s disconcerting that nonviolent dissent and protest are being castigated once again. The very choice of the word “mob” to describe protesters is reflective of the attempt to discredit and devalue them. Dictionary.com defines a mob as “a large crowd of people, especially one that is disorderly and intent on causing trouble or violence.” Synonyms are all pejorative: horde, rabble, mass and gang. A protestor by contrast, is “a person who publicly demonstrates strong objection to something.” Synonyms include demonstrator, opponent, and dissident. The language we use is highly reflective of the values we hold.
John McGowan, a professor of English at UNC-Chapel Hill, took issue with the term “mob rule” in an opinion piece in the Durham Herald Sun about the toppling of Silent Sam: “A mob would have broken windows, overturned cars, rampaged across campus… A mob would have … acted indiscriminately, not with targeted precision.” But they did not. These individuals — protestors — stayed true to their purpose: The removal of the statue. As McGowan wrote: “Civil disobedience entails breaking the law. It does so when the established modes of redress for a wrong have proved unavailing, and it does so in the name of a good that it claims the law is flouting.”
The protestors in the Senate hearing did the same, voicing (very loudly) their opposition to having 42,000 pages of documents delivered so late that the senators could not possibly review them before questioning began. Their action, however, was not simply an overnight reaction. It was steeped — and planned — in their ideological opposition to Kavanaugh, especially on issues like abortion access, LGBTQ rights, and voting rights. With no established mode of redress for that wrong, the protesters did what generations of principled Americans have done. They spoke up.
Civil rights leader Rev. William Barber II once told me forcefully that “[civility] cannot mean just stand down, or that you just pray, or you don’t be disruptive.” I couldn’t agree more. After all, if those Bostonians had stayed polite, too civil to be disruptive, we might have remained a colony.