Last week, Washington, DC Mayor Vincent Gray was arrested for “disorderly conduct” at a demonstration protesting the ban on financing abortion in Washington that Congress had just enacted as part of the budget deal. While at first it might seem strange that a mayor would get arrested at a protest, Gray’s action is simply part of a long tradition of dissent that even precedes the founding of the republic.
During that long history, getting arrested usually carried a stigma with it, but it seems that in recent years just about everybody has engaged in some form of civil disobedience or another.
Perhaps it is because so many famous (many of them revered) figures in American history were arrested for civil disobedience that there is more a badge of honor associated with the act than a stigma: from Susan B. Anthony to Martin Luther King, from Henry David Thoreau to Cesar Chavez, from John Brown to Eugene V. Debs.
Of course, the issues that have motivated hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of protestors to take to the streets have been as diverse as the dissenters themselves. From narrow local political issues (like the one that motivated Mayor Gray) to broad universal human rights issues like the fight against slavery, from antiwar dissent that motivated Debs’ stance during World War I and the broad coalition of activists marching on the Pentagon during the Vietnam War, to such global issues as Greenpeace’s environmental militancy and Pete Seeger’s Clearwater campaign to clean up the Hudson River, protestors have fought to create the type of society they wished to see.
No matter what their viewpoint, no matter how much they would disagree with each other, all of those exercising civil disobedience share at least one trait in common: the courage to risk imprisonment, vilification, and even at times physical injury to see their vision of America come to fruition.
Ralph Young is a Professor Department of History at Temple University and author of Dissent in America. Young was also a panelist during last month’s “Civility and Democracy” conference at the National Constitution Center.