Friday, March 25, 2011

Non-Violent Direct Actors: Heroes, or Extremists?

In class earlier this week, we watched a documentary called “The Last Mountain” (check out my review here). “The Last Mountain” tells the story of a small town in West Virginia that rises up against Big Coal to fight the mountaintop removal that is polluting their town and killing their children.

Among many other tactics, the townspeople – particularly a group called Climate Ground Zero – utilizes non-violent civil disobedience. Such direct actions included protesting on Big Coal’s property, occupying the governor’s mansion, and chaining themselves to trees and mining equipment. All of these actions resulted in arrests.

Does any of that, by the way, sound familiar to you? GetEQUAL utilizes similar tactics, holding protests, occupying congressional offices, chaining themselves to the White House fence, shutting down roadways with large banners, etc. These actions are arrestable and make a strong, compelling statement: that LGBT people will do what they need to do to bring attention to their discrimination and to fix it.

Well, while we were discussing the documentary in class, one student referred to these people as “environmental extremists.” A bit of a push by our professor resulted in his walking-back of the statement, but this struck me as extremely odd. Are people who resort to non-violent (and let’s remind ourselves that these actions are non-violent) civil disobedience really “extremists?” Was Martin Luther King, Jr., an extremist for organizing one of the most effective boycotts in history? Was SNCC an extremist organization for holding its lunch counter sit-ins? Were the women who chained themselves to the White House fence to demand the right to vote extremists? Were the labor unions – including teachers, police officers, and firefighters – who flooded statehouses in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio to protect their rights extremists?

In “The Last Mountain,” the director refers to these people, as a matter of fact, as “heroes of American democracy.” I consider this to be the more accurate depiction. There is nothing extreme about expecting, and demanding, your rights from your government. The people of this little town in West Virginia are being mined out of house and home; they are literally unable to continue living there, as their homes get flooded from misdirected streams, their children succumb to cancer and autism, and their air and well water get polluted. Just as people deserve the right to vote and to work, so too do people deserve the right to live where they so choose, without fear of disease and pollution. And when those rights are not being given to them, they have the responsibility – the obligation – to demand them of their government.

As Martin Luther King said, "An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law." There is nothing “extreme” about utilizing non-violent direct action to demand your rights. Those who do – whether they be the women of the 1920’s, the African Americans of the 1960’s, or the LGBT people, the labor unions, or the environmentalists of the 2000’s – are heroes of our democracy. Their sacrifice is admirable, heroic, and anything but extreme.

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