What's wrong with civil disobedience?
August 4, 2000
Web posted at: 6:40 p.m. EDT (2240 GMT)
By Roger Cossack
Law Center Contributing Editor
I am back from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where we aired "Burden of Proof" during the Republican National Convention. This was my first political convention and it was dynamic and exciting, to say the least.
I must say, however, that the protestors were, well, disappointing.
Please understand, I am in no way advocating civil violence. But civil disobedience is as old as this country. In fact, it was in Philadelphia that Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and other American heroes combined to produce our most honored documents of civil disobedience, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The protests that occurred during the convention seemed to have no particular focus, but seemed to be aimed at various different enemies: big corporations, cruelty to animals, the legalization of marijuana.
My favorite was the one protestor who carried a sign that said, "Revolution is inevitable, why not now?" I think he was pro-revolution and anti-everything else.
The First Amendment to our Constitution guarantees that we not only have the right to protest by sign or voice, but that we also have the right to assemble. Of course, the tension that exists is always between these inalienable rights and how they are implemented.
Quietly protesting sounds like an oxymoron. Citizens who have points to make, wish to make them so that the greatest number of people will either hear them or see them. Sometimes the best way to guarantee that is to act in such a manner so as to guarantee that there will be as much press coverage as possible.
How do you do that? Well, by acting as outrageously as possible. Many protestors are willing--and even see it as their duty--to get arrested, even when the police really don't want to arrest them.
How do you get arrested? How about failing to disperse when ordered by the police, or lying down in the street and disrupting traffic? That seemed to be the plan of the Philadelphia protestors. Although it seemed to me that most of them left when the police told them to, a few refused and got picked up and put in jail.
Usually the charges against these folks are low-grade misdemeanors punishable by a fine or at the very worst a few days in jail. Most judges and police recognize that whatever else the protestors are, they are not criminals.
However, in Philadelphia, a few of the protestors are being held on huge bails. The protestors are charging that the police targeted certain well-known activists and arrested them before they engaged in any kind of protest. The protestors argue that they were arrested not for what they did, but what they might do.
If the police had reason to believe these leaders of the protests were organizing illegal demonstrations however, they were acting within their rights by arresting them.
Conspiracy is defined as agreeing to commit an illegal act. It does not matter whether the illegal act is prompted by a desire to have things change in a positive matter, or by greed.
That part of the equation is handled by the sentencing judge -- if it gets that far. But it seems to me that keeping these protest leaders in jail behind bails of million is somewhat heavy-handed.
After all, while some protestors may be charged with conspiracy, the crime they were conspiring to commit was, most of the time, a misdemeanor like failing to disperse or blocking traffic.
Yes, the Philadelphia police have a duty to keep the city safe, but the protestors have a right to demonstrate.
We're not talking about major disruptions here, merely some discomfort for the citizens who are trying to get home during rush hour.