It is not desirable to cultivate respect for the law, so much as for
the right. ‘ --Henry D. Thoreau
‘How does it become a man to behave toward this American government
today? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. --Henry
‘Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall
we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall
we transgress them at once?’ --Henry D. Thoreau
I doubt that any sane person would argue that civil society can or should operate
without at least some laws. Society exists in part because it has come to some
kind of agreement about what is acceptable conduct and what is not. Perhaps some
people will argue that there are too many laws. Others would argue that there
are unjust laws. I would place myself into the latter camp.
Civil law cannot set us free. Only our respect for the rights and welfare of
others can do that. Good laws exist—laws that were written to protect
people from discrimination; laws that were designed to protect life, liberty
and property. Unfortunately, in too many instances those laws are not applied
to everyone equally. Too often in the course of American history those laws
were not applied to certain groups of people. Those groups included but were
not limited to the American Indians, people of color, women, laborers and immigrants,
and the millions upon millions of people trapped in the lowest socio-economic
We operate under the assumption that the laws of the land are in place to protect
our human welfare and to safe guard property from being unjustly taken from
us. It may be argued that that is the intent of the law; but it is often not
how the law is applied. It is the application of law that determines outcomes,
not the intent of law. History is replete with examples.
America is a class society. There are the haves and the have-nots. Viewed in
this way, one can see the law, or shall we say—authority—as existing
to protect the haves from the have-nots. Thus it can be seen that both law and
authority, mean different things to the different classes. So the government
does not consider all people, both citizens and non citizens alike, as equal
under the law. As it is applied to real life situations, the laws of the land
are quite often unjust.
Now we find ourselves in a moral conundrum. Should just people obey
unjust laws? Should they obey authority that does not have their own welfare
at heart? Should they be loyal to authority that takes from the poor and gives
disproportionately to the rich? Should they lend their support to a military
industrial complex that uses them as cannon fodder in wars in which they have
no stake? Should they obey the authority of heartless and soulless corporate
entities—legal fictions—who behave like sociopaths but write many
of the laws governing corporate behavior? The answer is a resounding NO!
When the government operates in the corporate interest and against
the public interest, the citizens do not owe it their allegiance. Indeed, they
have an ethical responsibility to resist and dismantle a government that does
not protect the public interest. They have a moral obligation to act in their
own self interest. After all, it is a matter of survival. When the
political system is broken beyond repair they have both a right and an obligation
to revolt. I would argue that that is the situation today.
So the question becomes: how do people concerned about social justice accomplish
those ends? Can they be affected by operating within a corrupt and unjust political
system? The answer lies in an examination of American history.
The most important advances of American society have come from citizens who
operated outside of the law. Examples include winning the eight hour work day
by organized labor, ending child labor laws, shutting down chattel slavery,
winning the right of people of color to vote, ending the Viet Nam war, and ending
racial segregation. Those victories were won not through obedience of the law,
or by respecting unjust authority—they were won through acts of civil
As long as people obey unjust laws we will have unjust government. Like our
predecessors in the labor and civil rights movements, we have to be willing
to take protest to the next level. When the government—I hesitate to call
it our government—turns a deaf ear to the concerns of its citizens and
the rest of the world, we have been absolved of all ethical obligation to that
government. It is the government that is disloyal, not the citizenry. Our intent
must become ‘Death to the state.’
Millions of people have taken to the streets in an effort to halt the invasion
and occupation of Iraq. Clearly, it has been demonstrated time and time again
that the huge majority of American citizens do not want war. Only the suicidal
are anxious to throw their lives away. The majority does not support American
imperialism and colonialism. We do not sanction the destruction of sovereign
nations that threaten no one and the wholesale looting of their resources for
the sake of corporate profiteering. These are atrocious acts of barbarism against
our fellow human beings—people who are like us---and against the earth.
We do not want them committed in our name. These acts of war benefit the corporate
bottom line but do not serve the interest of the average American. As a nation,
we must refuse to send our young men and women to fight for pathological corporate
values, while betraying our own values of life and liberty for all.
So we must oppose corrupt government with every fiber of our being. We must
become a friction to the war machine and bring its insatiable lust for gore
to a grinding halt. We must fill the streets with dissenters and cause the jails
to overflow with those who demand justice and accountability. We must sabotage
the machinery of war and throw a monkey wrench upon the apparatus of social
and economic injustice. We must throw our bodies onto the gears and levers of
the machine and make it stop. We must organize huge general strikes and hit
at the soft economic underbelly of the oppressive beast. Let us bring back the
general strike. Let us organize nationwide work stoppages.
We must commit ourselves to organizing the masses in our communities. We must
educate. We must agitate. We must challenge authority. We must fan the flames
of dissent, if we are to save our country and sow the seeds of hope and freedom.
We must prepare to make personal sacrifices. Like our brethren in the social
justice movements around the planet, we must prepare to die. That is what it
is going to take. Nothing else has ever worked. We must understand that fact
and all of its ramifications.
Remember that when Dr. King and his followers marched for the rights they were
supposedly granted by the constitution, that the police and the National Guard
turned their water canons, billy clubs and rifles against them, rather than
their oppressors. We know that when confrontations occur that the police and
the National Guard are always called forward to put down uprisings and to protect
the property holders—the haves from the have-nots. We cannot count on
them to help us. They too are the enemy—an extension of state authority.
The same thing occurred when organized labor took to the streets in search of
justice. This is a very telling truth.
If the more radical elements of society had not defied authority we would have
remained under English rule. Slavery and segregation would still prevail. We
would have the twelve hour work day and the seventy-two hour work week. We would
still find strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees of the Deep South. Young
children would continue to work in dangerous mines and filthy factories scarcely
fit for human habitation. Rosa Parks would continue to obediently sit in the
back of buses, with whites at the front. After working ourselves to exhaustion
under deplorable conditions in the nation’s factories and mines, we would
be forced to buy all of our goods from the company store at a net deficit.
All that is good and decent in America was won and paid for with human blood.
Nothing was ever given. Blood is the currency of emancipation. Let us bring
back militant unions like the Industrial Workers of the World that fight like
hell for worker’s rights, rather than making concessions to the straw
bosses in industry. Let us have unions that view the employers as the enemies
of the working class. Let us demand accountability from those in government.
Let us remind them that we the people are in control, not them. Let us undo
the horrendous mistake of Corporations as persons and force them under the control
of the people.
In our desire to appear reasonable we have lost the willingness to fight for
what is good and decent. We have marginalized and prostituted ourselves. We
cannot expect any help from either the Democratic or the Republican parties—they
are a part of the problem. They are essentially one and the same—a party
of the corporate oligarchy. Our loyalty does not belong to political parties
that do not serve the interests of the working class people. It belongs to truth.
It belongs to justice. It belongs to one another. Together—united---we
are an irresistible force for revolutionary change in America. Let us purge
the corruption from the veins of government. Let us organize around the principle
of social and environmental justice. Let us go forth into the streets and wreck
havoc upon the economic machinery of war and injustice.
The kind of America we envision is possible. A terrible price will probably
have to be paid. But in the end it will be worth it if we can find the courage
now to go forward. Future generations will be glad we did.