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In Defense of Disobedience

Image by Gerry Lauzon via Flickr. Image by Gerry Lauzon via Flickr.

As the fires of the Baltimore riots burned down, and the blanket of ash and shattered glass was swept from the tired city’s streets, many so-called conservative writers took to the airwaves to decry the tragedy and violence that had so powerfully gripped the “Monument City.”

Radio show host and writer Laura Ingraham’s quip that Baltimore protesters had “no sense of right and wrong” seemed the norm for mainstream conservatives’ responses. Kurt Schlichter, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Geraldo Rivera, and Donald Trump all expressed dismay as civil unrest escalated throughout the city. Bill Kristol wondered if the GOP couldn’t capitalize on combating “anarchy and chaos, at home and abroad.”

For the most part, these writers were right to condemn the events in Baltimore. The actions of several rioters badly soured the events in Baltimore. Looting stores, starting fires, assaulting police officers, smashing cars to pieces—these are all condemnable actions. But while the death of Freddie Gray does not justify rioting, the socially-complex antecedents to the “Baltimore Uprising” (Gray’s death included) might arguably justify social unrest. Not all civil disobedience is “anarchy and chaos.”

In fact, conservatives ought to applaud those protesters who voiced and (continue to voice) their anger with what many see as yet another development in a long history of injustice.

Civil disobedience has long been part of the American political-cultural tradition, from the Boston Tea Party to the Alamo, from the Vietnam protests to the Civil Rights movement, from Jefferson to MLK. More than an American virtue, civil disobedience has long been valued in the political tradition of the West. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas—all condone acting “illegally” when injustice demands it. “It is not always the same thing,” Aristotle points out in his Nicomachean Ethics, “to be a good man and a good citizen.” Although they were written centuries apart, both Aquinas’s Summa Theologica and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” reflect the same political tradition.

Does the situation in Baltimore demand civil disobedience? There's room for debate on this point. The Baltimore PD is not, as some of the protesters seem to think, an unchecked agent of racism, and neither is America’s justice system as broken as they claim. More importantly, the officers connected in Gray’s death almost certainly did not intend to include themselves in the death of a human being, innocent or otherwise. While race is an important factor, it’d be hard to blame racism squarely for Gray’s demise.

But riots don’t happen in vacuums, either. Gray’s death is not an isolated case, and the social forces in Baltimore and across America are tricky. Economic disparity, absentee fathers, alarmingly uneven arrest statistics, and growing poverty rates do create volatile situations and enough of a problematic social justice issue, such that we’d be hard-pressed to condemn the Baltimore protests full-stop.

Politics aside, we cannot stigmatize civil disobedience as inherently anti-conservative. Indeed, conservativism encourages civil disobedience in the name of social justice. A Catholic company that refuses to provide contraceptives to its employees is civilly disobedient. Conscientious objectors to unjust wars are disobedient. A pizzeria that refuses to cater gay weddings is civilly disobedient. These are all cases of illegality, but are any immoral? Violent though it was, maybe the protests in Baltimore have merit, too, and, at any rate, “disobedience” is not the barometer of their worth.

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