The past few years have been marked by a series of extrajudicial murders of Black people by police and vigilantes and by the emergence of a nationwide protest movement loosely united under the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” The Black community and their activist allies have expressed outrage in the wake of the killings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and many others, and have organized rallies, vigils, and direct actions in cities across the United States. Black Lives Matter has sought to ensure that these actions remain nonviolent. Many have been intentionally disruptive, however, including the shutting down of intersections, interstate highways, and public transportation; die-ins in public places including malls; graffiti, such as the spray-painting of “Black Lives Matter” on Confederate memorials; interruptions of middleclass white brunch-goers, a tactic known as “#BlackBrunch”; proathletes expressing solidarity with protestors; and, most recently, Bree Newsome’s scaling a flagpole near the South Carolina State House to remove the prominently displayed Confederate Battle Flag.
In large measure, prominent media outlets have failed to join Black Lives Matter in condemning both the killers and a justice system that criminalizes Black people. Instead, they have expended a great deal of energy critiquing Black Lives Matter actions as misguided and counterproductive. #BlackBrunch protestors, for example, were criticized in the online magazine American Thinker for “guilt-trip[ing] [patrons] about being white, or having the disposable income to go out for a nice brunch, or something (in my view mostly anger about being losers)” (Lifson). FOX News anchor Bill O’Reilly chided athletes for not “knowing what they’re taking about” and “protest[ing] on the company dime” (qtd. in Feldman). And the popular conservative website Brietbart dismissed Bree Newsome’s removal of the Confederate Flag as a publicity “stunt” designed to further her career as a filmmaker (Stranahan). The common theme in all of these reactions is that Black Lives Matter does not know how to protest effectively.
Sometimes pundits seemed at pains to suggest that these disruptive protests crossed the line into violence. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, went to great length to detail the “inconveniences” that blocking traffic had created—including diminished income for taxi drivers, late school busses, and “far more serious” ramifications, such as ambulances “stuck in a tie-up caused by protestors” (Vilensky). The increasing severity of these listed effects implies that while the protests were designed to call attention to the plight of Black people, they instead tipped over into destruction and violence: lost wages, inaccessible education, and medical damages. Not only does the Journal suggest that Black Lives Matter protests are alienating those who might otherwise be in solidarity with them, it also claims that Black Lives Matter has lost control over the consequences of its actions. Many in the media extended this critique and conflated the civil disobedience of Black Lives Matter protestors with incidents of looting and arson in Ferguson and Baltimore precisely because they see Black protests as inherently violent and always already unacceptable (Ross).
None of this is surprising, however, for despite a professed commitment to free speech, the right of assembly, and resistance to state power in the name of personal liberty, U.S. culture often celebrates such practices only in retrospect. Contemporary examples of direct action and civil disobedience are typically scorned by prominent figures in the media and elsewhere, especially when those actions are led by people of color, from whom any political protest or public display of frustration is responded to as violence. At the same time, pundits, especially those on the Right, are careful to critique only strategies and try to avoid addressing the underlying frustration and motivations of Black protestors. As such, criticism of #BlackBrunch does not take seriously their statements about privilege, gentrification, and segregation but instead focuses only on establishing this form of protest as ineffective or counterproductive. To maintain a veneer of “colorblindness,” therefore, pundits focus on tactics rather than grievances. As the history of white supremacy in the U.S. makes clear, however, racism is dynamic and constantly evolving, and it manifests itself today not only in explicit attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement but also in critiques of the movement’s tactics. In other words, pundits who impose on people of color certain ways of acting in public space and who lecture them on how to engage in political discourse enact a legacy steeped in the white-supremacist history of Jim Crow, the Black Codes of the Reconstruction era, and the Slave Codes of the antebellum period.
As the examples above suggest, the media has joined state forces in policing the protests. More precisely, their criticisms reiterate a paternalistic, pedantic, and ultimately racist exhortation: that angry Black protestors do not understand civil disobedience. In particular, the right-wing media, desperate to prevent Black Lives Matter activists from attaching their movement to the now-sanctified Civil Rights movement, often deploy the image and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a transcendental signifier of civil disobedience, of protesting the right way. One could hear this on FOX News, for instance, when viewers were told that Black Lives Matter “has got to have people like Dr. King spinning in their grave” (“Activist”). Ventriloquizing Dr. King proves especially valuable as a means of lecturing Black people while seemingly insulating the condemners against charges of anti-Black racism, with the added benefit of coopting Dr. King’s message and legacy.
Activists have long challenged the pernicious and ahistorical deradicalizing of Dr. King and his revolutionary critiques of white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialist warfare. The battle against the cooption of Dr. King’s legacy has become particularly crucial over the last year. Groups such as Ferguson Action responded to the occasion of the first Martin Luther King Day following the murders with a call for direct action:
Dr. King’s legacy has been clouded by efforts to soften, sanitize, and commercialize it. Impulses to remove Dr. King from the movement that elevated him must end. We resist efforts to reduce a long history marred with the blood of countless women and men into iconic images of men in suits behind pulpits. From here on, MLK weekend will be known as a time of national resistance to injustice. This MLK weekend we will walk in the legacy of Dr. King and the movement that raised him. We will #ReclaimMLK. (“Reclaim MLK”)
As a corrective, #ReclaimMLK replaces bland, hagiographic recognition of Dr. King as a paragon of genteel protest with an emphasis on his advocacy of direct and radical action. It reminds people, pundits especially, that civil disobedience of the sort practiced by Dr. King is disruptive and provocative and that Dr. King was savaged by the white media of the day. #ReclaimMLK, in other words, challenges sanitized images of Dr. King such as that proffered by FOX News, images that are part and parcel of the Right’s broader move to delegitimize and undermine the Black Lives Matter movement.
Attacks on Black Lives Matter also allude to Henry David Thoreau. Matt K. Lewis, for instance, writing for the right-wing Daily Caller, condemns Black Lives Matter activists for doing civil disobedience wrong and argues that the movement suffers in comparison to figures like Thoreau. Lewis is outraged that activists have stopped traffic on highways in New York, Washington, and elsewhere. That outrage becomes a lesson on civil disobedience. Most of his column is taken up by a definition of civil disobedience and an explanation of how to go about practicing it. One iteration is to disobey unjust laws as, he explains, did Rosa Parks. Another is to refuse to comply with what you take to be immoral practices, such as not registering for the draft if you are a pacifist. The essential lesson is that protest should be related to the “actual problem or people involved” and should not inconvenience those who are just going about their day (Lewis). At this point, he turns to Thoreau; “Thoreau protested taxes by refusing to pay taxes — not by going on a murder rampage” (Lewis).
A few errors to note: first, Thoreau was not protesting the tax-system itself, nor did he refuse to pay taxes. Rather, he refused only to pay his poll-tax in protest against the war with Mexico. Second, no protestors within the Black Lives Matter movement have called for, much less gone on, a “murder rampage,” and so one can assume that Lewis, in dog-whistle style, is referencing the murder of two New York City policemen by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who, while he claimed to be avenging the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, was not linked to the Black Lives Matter movement. Lewis here portrays Thoreau as protesting politely and fits him within a conservative paradigm for how protest, if it must happen, should be enacted: individually and independently, rather than as part of a collective social movement; specifically, in response to a singular moment of injustice rather than to systemic problems; and, in an orderly way rather than disruptively. Thoreau’s act of civil disobedience thus represents everything that Black Lives Matter is not.
The Right’s use of Thoreau’s essay as an anti-tax manifesto and as a libertarian cri-de-coeur is not new, but the partisan deployment of Thoreau in the era of Black Lives Matter is especially problematic. It both misreads the text and context and reflects a willful ignorance of how race operated in Thoreau’s protest and in Thoreau’s era, not to mention how race and the justice system operate in our own time. Thoreau’s position is in fact quite the opposite of what Lewis and others suggest. For Thoreau, civil disobedience is proper when responding to a racist society. It is effective when it targets systemic injustice and when it—like the blocking of traffic—provides “a counter friction” to that machine (74). It is important to consider, then, in the face of reactionary appropriations of Thoreauvian civil disobedience, what it might look like to reclaim HDT.
Reclaiming the radical legacy of Thoreauvian civil disobedience must begin with attending to the title of his famous essay, the ambiguous nature of which has enabled its deployment by those on the Right eager to delegitimize any form of radical protest, nonviolent or otherwise. Known to most as “Civil Disobedience”— supposedly the first use of the phrase—the essay was initially published in 1849 as “Resistance to Civil Government” (Glick, “Resistance” 320). The operative word in both instances is civil, which denotes not only respectability and politeness but also that which is related to the state. The original title makes clear that the essay calls for resistance to the state rather than a polite and genteel form of protest. I don’t mean to suggest a return to “Resistance to Civil Government,” especially as scholars have demonstrated that Thoreau himself likely changed the title (Dawson, Oehlschlager, Johnson). It is easy to see, however, especially with hindsight, how the more popular title could be co-opted by the forces of reaction, eager to appropriate Thoreau, particularly as anti-Black racism frequently holds whiteness as a model of civility and Black people as decidedly uncivil.
Regardless of any ambiguity within the title, the essay is unequivocal in its dual attack on slaveholding society and statesponsored violence. “Civil” disobedience, then, encompasses all sorts of resistance to an unjust political system, but Thoreau is surprisingly vague in describing what sorts of actions are justifiable. He simply calls for resistance, and does not privilege either the nonviolence associated with William Lloyd Garrison or the sort of rebellion that John Brown sought to inspire a decade later. What is clear, nonetheless, is that Thoreau’s protest and his subsequent essay were strongly inspired by instances of radical abolitionist protest (Glick, “Thoreau” 130-31). Those same radical abolitionists were savaged by the conservative media of the day for being un-civil. Even those abolitionists who identified as pacifists or non-resistants refused to condemn violent revolts led by enslaved-people.1
Violence, as Thoreau makes clear throughout the essay, is endemic and systemic, for the slaveholding state, he explains, has a monopoly on violence and creates civil society through that violence. Thoreau speaks of two sorts of violence that exist within the purportedly democratic United States, majoritarian violence and biopolitical violence. Majoritarian violence, or political force invested in the majority, is immaterial but no less violent than more concrete forms of repression. For Thoreau, “a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice” (64-5). Within such a system, the majority have “resign[ed] [their] conscience to the legislator,” becoming “subjects” of the state, subject to its power (65). Majoritarian power, he later explains, is characterized by physical strength, and as such it “never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength” (80). Being subject to the state, even for those in the majority, is to be subjected to biopolitical violence, or the state’s control over bodies. As Thoreau puts it, “The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, &c.” (66). Serving the state does not mean simply surrendering one’s conscience to it, but also subjecting one’s body. In a passage that echoes Frederick Douglass’s famous phrase from the 1845 Narrative about witnessing a man becoming a slave, Thoreau here portrays the individual as becoming part of the machine.2 Surrendering one’s conscience, then, cleaves body from soul. These soulless bodies, Thoreau goes on to suggest, become jailers and soldiers and other enactors of biopolitical violence against the bodies of those who still cultivate their consciences. Having lost their morality, they “serve the devil,” and as such they are deemed “good citizens,” as the violence they enact against others in the service of a violent state affirms their normative status as citizens of good standing (66). For Thoreau, the political system has created a society of implicit and explicit violence. Merely going along, passively and complacently, is not the alternative to violence; it instead means complicity in the enacting of state violence, violence that is sanctioned by law. Paying taxes to the state, thus, is not an inconvenience, an unfair imposition, or even an injustice. It is instead “a violent and bloody measure,” because it supports state violence, in particular an unjust, racist, and imperialist war against Mexico (76).
In the face of such a system, it is impossible to conceive of or actuate a truly passive or peaceful form of protest. This is not to question or discount the long history of effective nonviolent protest but rather to suggest that, for Thoreau, any resistance to statesponsored violence, even when it does not entail traditional forms of violence, is nonetheless read, and responded to, as violence. For resistance to be effective Thoreau believes you must “[l]et your life be a counter friction to stop the machine” (73-4). Just as complicity is embodied, so must be resistance, a point that Thoreau underscores with the jarring image of counter-friction. Resistance, for Thoreau, is effective only insofar as it has material consequences, and one can easily assume, to extend Thoreau’s image, that the owners of the stopped machine would condemn such counter-friction as violence.
Thoreau approaches resistance as both necessary to democratic politics and rooted in the laws of physics. Resistance, thus, is natural, to be celebrated rather than avoided or condemned as ineffective. Without resistance, or in a climate that criminalizes resistance, both individuals and the state ossify, losing their morality and liberty. On one level the problem stems from complacent individuals who have “resign[ed] [their] conscience to the legislator” and who “cultivate a respect for the law,” rather than “for the right” (65). Thoreau thus differentiates legality from righteousness and instead identifies those who align the law with the right as lacking an individual conscience and, thus, by extension, as subject to the state. The resistance that Thoreau calls for, by contrast, and which Black Lives Matter has enacted, is radical and disruptive rather than polite and civil. Disruption as Thoreau articulates it is violent insofar as it seeks to shock, unsettle, and fracture the status quo. Further, those who do the ideological work of affirming and naturalizing the status quo will necessarily read any disruption as violence while simultaneously ignoring and effacing the endemic and quotidian violence of systematic oppression. The burning of a payday loan store in Baltimore is condemned as violence, in other words, whereas the wide-ranging, though less visible, violence done to a majority Black community over many years by the neoliberal troika of subprime-mortgages, hollowed-out-schools, and militarized cops is rarely accounted for.
Thoreau’s critique of state violence is not a general statement of either pacifistic or anarchistic principles but rather a specific condemnation of the U.S. government’s protection of slaveholding interests, a point that gets lost when he is celebrated as both anti-government and proto-libertarian as well as when he is invoked as an individual pacifistic resistor of injustice. In the years surrounding Thoreau’s arrest, his lecture on the arrest, and the publication of his essay in 1849, many Northerners believed that the government was fully in thrall to a “Slave Power,” a small collection of wealthy slaveholders whose power and influence, they feared, held the federal government hostage. Thoreau, thus, does not call for resistance on principle but rather in reaction to the “American government to-day…the slave’s government” (67). The essay is littered with attacks on the war against Mexico as a war engendered by the Slave Power so as to expand slaveholding territory and increase their political dominance. In perhaps the most notable condemnation of slaveholding hegemony, Thoreau also calls for rebellion, arguing that
when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact, that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army. (67)
The specific problem in this case is slaveholding’s legality and the violence that the state enacts—similar to martial law imposed by a conquering army—to protect it. Not only has the U.S. Army illegally invaded Mexico, but the government's forces have also invaded the free soil of the North to protect slaveholding interests. The nation is under martial law imposed by the Slave Power working in concert with the U.S. government. The invading army, that is to say, is homegrown.
What Black Lives Matter, alongside work by countless other activists and scholars, makes apparent is that we are living under a new system of state-sponsored racial violence. As Michelle Alexander has argued, today’s system of mass incarnation is a racial caste system much like that of antebellum slavery. “Since the nation’s founding,” writes Alexander, “African Americans repeatedly have been controlled through institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow, which appeared to die, but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of the time” (21). The rise of law and order rhetoric in the 1950s and 1960s pushed by segregationists, combined with the Republican Party’s “southern strategy,” the ongoing “War on Drugs,” and the devastation that the 2008 financial crash wrought on Black-majority neighborhoods has created the current state of mass incarceration that Alexander calls “the New Jim Crow,” a criminal justice system that has over two million people behind bars (ninety percent of whom are people of color) and millions more shut out from mainstream society due to housing and voting restrictions as well as debt and education inequality (58). Black Lives Matter is not simply protesting the deaths of unarmed Black citizens but rather a systemic war on people of color, one waged primarily by the same justice system that extrajudiciously killed Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and others.
Although Thoreau’s condemnations of the Slave Power and state-sanctioned violence are explicit, he saves his most bilious and scathing condemnations for those who recognize the problem but who do not respond with the sort of resistance he elsewhere delineates:
There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of freetrade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both. What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot to-day? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with any effect. They will wait, well-disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. (69)
The complacency of well-meaning white Northerners that Thoreau condemns here can be seen to anticipate the “postracial” reaction to Ferguson and Baltimore, where those who call for calm rather than justice are more outraged by broken windows than by broken necks. Thoreau’s critique of that complacency fits within his larger call for resistance, for it is those who resist, in contrast to those who respond with complacency, who bring about an “effect.”
Black Lives Matter protestors, reacting “in earnest,” may have earned the disapproval of commentators claiming to understand civil disobedience, but they also brought about the prosecution of the Baltimore officers who killed Freddie Gray and the Justice Department’s investigation of the Cleveland PD, both of which would likely not have happened without the widespread outrage mobilized under the Black Lives Matter umbrella. Thoreau’s essay, then, comes across not only as a condemnation of the Slave Power and a defense of rebellion and revolution. The essay also serves as a reaction to reaction, a critique of those who either actively or implicitly resist resistance. There is simply no middle ground, Thoreau suggests, between resistance and complicity with statesanctioned injustice, and it is up to us, as readers and teachers of Thoreau, to resist attempts to make his essay enforce the very sorts of white-supremacist violence that he went to jail to protest.
James S. Finley is Assistant Professor of English at New Mexico State University.
1. A popular position among abolitionists, especially Garrisonians, non-resistance was characterized by refusal to participate in systemic forms of injustice. This entailed withdrawing one’s support from and actively protesting any institution believed to support slaveholding, namely the government and the Church. See Perry.
2. Lawrence A. Rosenwald has suggested that Thoreau had read Douglass’s Narrative by the time he composed this essay (158).
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