About a month ago I planned to commit civil disobedience in New York — there were some Republicans in town, as you may remember — but circumstances beyond my control put me a few hundred miles further north at the crucial moment, so I did the next best thing: stopped at Walden Pond on my way back to Manhattan. Walden, the book, not the pond, turns 150 this year, but the people at the pond that day were paying more homage to cool water than to cultural history. Most of the swimmers seemed to be locals for whom the site was part of their familiar landscape, not outlanders like us paying homage to the pond and the guy who cultivated beans and contrary thoughts by its side from 1845 to 1847. It wasn’t what I expected: The trees shrouded everything up to the water’s edge; a secondary thoroughfare full of commuters ran very nearby, so that after paying to park in a large lot you had to dodge speeding commuter vehicles. I didn’t mind that it had become a social or a suburban place, for Thoreau, in his legendary sojourn at the pond, never intended to be remote from society for long and reported on the train speeding by his retreat.
If it was a retreat. In one of the most resonant passages in his book, he enumerates among his many visitors “runaway slaves with plantation manners, who listened from time to time, like the fox in the fable, as if they heard the hounds a-baying on their track, and looked at me beseechingly, as much as to say, — ‘Oh Christian, will you send me back?’ One real runaway slave, among the rest, whom I helped to forward toward the north star.”
Politics came tramping through those woods, which were never far from
I did wonder a little about which Thoreau the sesquicentennial of Walden events and reprints was commemorating. The pond is now “Walden Pond State Reservation,” a 411-acre reserve with lifeguards on duty that day, but Thoreau is still unreserved and unsafe in his writings, advocating that “when…a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.” Homages to Thoreau sometimes seem to have domesticated him first, as have the avalanches of books of nature quotes taken from his longer writings. Those passages leave out the dangerous Thoreau, the one who went around suggesting that the abolition of the government might be a good thing and defending John Brown when he was already in jail for taking up arms against slavery.
Of course Thoreau is no longer dangerous in the sense that he was in 1849, the year “Civil Disobedience” was first published. That transcript of an earlier talk, given while he was resident at Walden, inveighs against slavery and the 1846-1848 war with
People in public and private argued about whether demonstrating in
We should always, especially when it is difficult, exercise our freedoms of speech and assembly, and I mean the word exercise. Rights are like muscles, they atrophy and aren’t there when you need them if you don’t use them. The first amendment is in trouble not just because of John Ashcroft and the USA Patriot Act, but because of a pall of self-censorship — some have spoken up with great courage, but many have been silenced not simply by the acts of the authorities but by the prison of their own fear. Still, if people could stand up to Pinochet, if the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo could march in Buenos Aires during the time of the generals, if people spoke up in Prague in the 1980s, we can take a stand here, far more than we do. An atmosphere of repression exists specifically because people don’t speak up against it. When you speak up, you are not repressed — you might be suppressed or punished, but you have freed yourself. Too, a tyranny can rise more easily by shutting up a thousand people than a million, and that’s a reason to stand up and speak out.
Thoreau was more optimistic, writing, “I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name — if ten honest men only, — ay, if one honest man in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be….”
The National Lawyers Guild, in its new report titled “The Assault on Free Speech, Public Assembly and Dissent,” has been more pessimistic of late. “The facts assembled in the following pages attest to the pathology of a government so frightened of its own citizens that it classifies them as probable enemies,” the report’s introduction begins. It’s a statement that might answer quite a different question about the war on terror: Why have the young soldiers in
Those rights are indeed under assault, but they are not unavailable for those willing to take the risks or pay the costs. “No, you can’t have my rights, I’m still using them,” said a sign one woman was carrying in that long, passionate, stymied August 29 march against George Bush, the Republican Party and the war, up Seventh Avenue to Madison Square Garden and then to — wherever — not to Central Park, since the city’s Republican mayor claimed that the right of the people peaceably to assemble was bad for the grass.
Being afraid of how the media would represent us was just part of a larger landscape of fear I met with on the East Coast. “Don’t get arrested,” acquaintances told me over and over, as though getting arrested were some road of no return, as though going to a demonstration with half a million others were a terrible risk even for those of us who won’t ever want security clearances.
Certainly, the mayor, the
Exercising your rights was pretty much, by these accounts, tantamount to terrorism. ABC News reported that the NYPD was tracking “56 potentially dangerous people… the anarchist groups which disrupted the W.T.O. conference in
I saw the widespread arson in
“On the tear gas-shrouded streets of
The police and the media willfully, if not consciously, mistake what kind of danger civil disobedients pose. Martin Luther King, that reader of Thoreau and great advocate of nonviolent civil disobedience, was a dangerous man in his time, because he posed a threat to the status quo, and it was for that reason that the FBI followed him and many hated him. Like Thoreau, he went to jail; like Thoreau he posed no physical danger to anyone. But to admit that activists can be dangers to the status quo is to admit, first, that there is a status quo; second, that it may be an unjust and unjustifiable thing; and third, that it can indeed be changed, by passionate people and nonviolent means. Better to portray activists as criminals and the status quo as the natural order — and only celebrate revolutionaries long after their causes are won and their voices are softened by time, or misrepresentation; for Thoreau and King are still dangerous men to those who pay attention to their words. And so, for my own as-yet unassimilated generation of activists, the fiction of a violent past has been manufactured, just as the fiction of spitting in returning soldiers’ faces was fabricated to damn the activists who opposed the war in
In 1999, civil disobedients in this country changed the world by bringing the conversation about globalization to the first world and joining the movements that brought the WTO into its current state of stalemate. Exercising your rights doesn’t always achieve something so remarkable, but the exercise is important anyway. Rights are only as valuable as their usage. My heroine from the recent spell of first-amendment wrestling matches in New York is a fellow San Franciscan, the sister of a friend, June Brashares, who along with many other members of Code Pink got into the Republican Convention (in her case, she thinks it was her fake pearls, along with a nice blue suit, that got her through security). “I wanted to get inside to show some of that dissent that was not being shown,” she told me, “I’m very much in opposition to the war in
She stood up during Bush’s acceptance speech to unfurl a banner that said, “Bush lies, people die.” June is very polite and didn’t interrupt the president, and she would have left if asked but she was immediately tackled by burly security guards just for holding up dissenting words. And so, as she was dragged away, she shouted the words on her confiscated banner, but was drowned out by the nearby party loyalists attempting to mask her voice by chanting “four more years.” That ruckus was so loud it rattled the president who paused, looked cranky, and lost his place. June says of the many taped versions of the president’s speech she’s watched, “He’s got this frozen moment like the Pet Goat moment and looks to the side and kind of smiles and goes to go on and then he stumbles. It made a lot of activists really happy, it made their night watching him drone on and on and then seeing this protest.” Some television stations showed the disruption clearly, some did not. Thoreau said, “I say, break the law. Let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine.” She did. We should. And could.
The New York Times said that in River of Shadows, Rebecca Solnit’s next-to-last book, “an extraordinary mind seizes hold of an unexpected topic and renders it with such confidence, subtlety and grace that one finds it hard to remember what things looked like before the book appeared in the world.” That “extraordinary mind” is still trying to make the Times retract its statements about widespread arson in
Copyright C2004 Rebecca Solnit
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]