Civil Disobedience

America has a long tradition of peaceful protest when our government forgets the deeper ideals of our nation.

I grew up around New York City but this summer was the first time I took a boat ride around the island of Manhattan. I was back east on vacation so we decided to try the tourist thing. It was a rare, clear brilliant blue August afternoon and the Circle Line boat pulled up close to the Statue of Liberty. Maybe it was that I am now indeed a tourist in this city or maybe it’s that the divisiveness and injustice that is running rampant in our country was weighing heavy on me, but it was a powerful moment. I imagined my ancestors, whose stories have now been lost to time, sailing in here from tough times in Europe. How couldn’t I have been stirred by this symbol of the greatest of American ideals, that here we huddled masses can all have a chance to build a life of individual freedom? But in this current political climate, and with the growing realization that for so many people today, as Langston Hughes wrote, “America never was America to me,” what the statue represents felt under siege.

Earlier in the week, I visited Walden Pond in Massachusetts, where Henry David Thoreau wrote his classic book on American individualism. Thoreau’s words on civil disobedience resonate loud right now for those of us who love the wild and feel helpless in the face of a government that is hellbent on trashing ecosystems, poisoning waterways, willfully denying climate change, shrinking national monuments, removing public input from public lands discussions, weakening the endangered species act, planning to sell off federal lands and God knows what other horrific idea some troll who calls into AM radio dreamed up. I, for one, cannot simply allow this to continue. These places and values, this future, this hope we find in public lands and wild places is worth fighting for.

But what exactly to do? Thoreau certainly had no respect for a government that embraced wrongs like slavery and poll taxes. He wrote: “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”

After the Circle Line cruise, I walked along the Hudson River and came upon a group of anti-ICE protestors blocking the busy West Side Highway in order to call attention to the inhumane way this crackpot government is treating immigrants—“the homeless, tempest-tost” of Lady Liberty’s famous poem. The protestors sat down peacefully and let police officers arrest them. Both sides acted admirably. Will this change anything? Probably not until we vote out the ones who think injustice is a form of freedom. But it means something to see Americans practicing Thoreau’s civil disobedience and I thought of the words of another great practitioner of peaceful protest, Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s time to do something.

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