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Howard Zinn: In Defense of Civil Disobedience

The activism, writing, and teaching of the late US historian Howard Zinn has inspired generations of historians, organizers, movements, and artists; his life and work have indelibly shifted the way Americans understand the role of historians in public life. Howard Zinn was not only a brilliant and principled chronicler of history, he was also a participant in some of the most important social and political movements of the 20th century. Here, we present an example of his insightful interventions into the political dynamics of his time: an excerpt from his powerful and still relevant 1968 book, Disobedience and Democracy (republished by Haymarket in 2013): 

It is strange. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, thoughtful Americans speak earnestly about how much change is needed, not just elsewhere, but here in the United States. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, disturbed by the tumult of the previous evenings, when various people (blacks, students, draft resisters, mothers on welfare) have, in a disorderly way, demanded change, the same people call for “law and order.”

On Sundays, our dilemma is solved. The New York Times tells us change is necessary and protest desirable, but within limits. Poverty should be protested, but the laws should not be broken. Hence, the Poor People’s Campaign, occupying tents in Washington in the spring of 1968, is praiseworthy; but its leader, Ralph Abernathy, is deservedly jailed for violating an ordinance against demonstrating near the Capitol. The Vietnam war is wrong, but if Dr. Spock is found by a jury and judge to have violated the draft law, he must accept his punishment is right because that is the rule of the game.

Thus, exactly at that moment when we have begun to suspect that law is congealed injustice, that the existing order hides an everyday violence against body and spirit, that our political structure is fossilized, and that the noise of change—however scary—may be necessary, a cry rises for “law and order.” Such a moment becomes a crucial test of whether the society will sink back to a spurious safety or leap forward to its own freshening. We seem to have reached such a moment in the United States.

The signs are everywhere. Urban uprisings, exploding out of poverty and racism, have brought a flood of contrite words (the Kerner Commission report), but no concrete action to redistribute the enormous wealth of the nation; in the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the most enforceable section will be that which provides five years in prison for those who “encourage” a riot, and one of the Titles of the Act is called, appropriately, Civil Obedience. Student rebellion, culminating in the occupation of various university buildings all over the nation, has evoked from those who once decried student silence, not praise, but a shower of Commencement Day warnings against going “too far.” Resistance to the draft and the Vietnam war brought the conviction of Spock, Coffin, Goodman, Ferber—with a clear message from judge, jury, and prosecutor: the making of speeches, the holding of press conferences, the distribution of petitions, may be used as evidence of a “conspiracy,” punishable by five years in prison.

This current rush back to “law and order” finds its theoretical exposition in a recent booklet by Justice Abe Fortas of the Supreme Court, Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience. Having been made uncomfortable on certain days by war, racism, poverty, and politics, and on other days by disorderly demonstrations, we seek comfort in the balanced judgement of Mr. Fortas. His essay has been widely distributed across the nation; his views on civil disobedience are probably those of the majority of the Supreme Court; the tone of his essay is very close to the statements on law and order we find everywhere today—in newspaper editorials, on radio and television, in the pronouncements of political leaders. Therefore, what Mr. Fortas says is important. If he misled us, that would be very serious.

Mr. Fortas does mislead us…What I will suggest in this essay is that Mr. Fortas’ brief on dissent and civil disobedience is exactly that sanctification of law which provided a failure in the two greatest crises in American history. In the 18th century, we had to go beyond British and colonial constitutions in order to gain independence. In the 19th century, we had to go beyond our own constitutional limits in order to end slavery.

Those crises were followed by what seemed a peaceful and successful national development, because American liberalism buried its corpses quickly (Indians, blacks, the young sent off to war) and kept its injustices (the human debris of racism, industrialism, urbanization) locked in the basement of the nation, where millions lived, silent and invisible. Those who fought their way to the surface to break the silence were met with just the right combination of repression and reform (jail for the Industrial Workers of the World; New Deal sweets for Progressives and Socialists) to restore domestic tranquility. In this way, American society could be said to be a success; its machinery was greased by the misery of the many; but for many others—for a swelling, contented middle class—it “worked.”

Today it is no longer working. With the Vietnam war, urban disorder, black anger, student disaffection, this country has run out of that time and space it once had; it has moved right into the thick of the world’s turbulence as a main participant—not just a hanger-on to the coat tails of the Western European empires. We are now the direct antagonist of revolution abroad and unrest at home, and thus face the crisis of power that England, France, and others have faced.

This is hardly a time, then, for traditional solutions. Our national policies are going to have to change drastically, and fast. We are going to require torrential shifts of wealth and power. We will need ingenious new forms of political action to represent the wants of the hitherto unrepresented at home and abroad (several billion people in the world are taxed with our power or our presence, but with no representation in our councils).

For this crisis of our time, the slow workings of American reform, the limitations on protest and disobedience and innovation set by liberals like Justice Fortas, are simply not adequate. We need devices which are powerful but restrained, explosive but controlled: to resist the government’s actions against the lives and liberties of its citizens; to pressure, even to shock the government into change; to organize people to replace the holders of power, as one round in that continuing cycle of political renewal which alone can prevent tyranny.

We cannot have a new politics for the citizen with an old approach to law. The demands of our time will not be met by the narrow approach to civil disobedience suggested by Mr. Fortas. We are tempted to follow his advice because the Supreme Court has been in many ways the most adaptable of our three branches of government. But we should keep in mind that the Court is still a branch of government, and that in the never-ending contest between authority and liberty that goes on in every society, the agencies of government, at their best, are still on the side of authority…

More books by Howard Zinn…

  • Disobedience and Democracy

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