About Civil Disobedience by Wendell Berry

10 01 2012

from The Progressive in the December 2011 / January 2012 issue

Last February, in protest against coal mining by “mountaintop removal,” I committed myself to an act of civil disobedience in the office of Kentucky’s governor. In fact, I have made that commitment three times. The first was on June 3, 1979, in opposition to a nuclear power plant then being built at Marble Hill on the Ohio River near Madison, Indiana. The second was in Washington, D. C., on March 2, 2009, in protest, with a host of others, generally against mountaintop removal and air pollution by the burning of fossil fuels, and immediately against the burning of coal by a power plant within a few blocks of the national capitol. The third was on the eleventh of last February: the aforementioned attempt to discover conscience in official Frankfort.

Only one of these adventures resulted in actual civil disobedience and arrest.

After we crossed the fence at Marble Hill, we were arrested and booked—and turned loose.

In Washington, the number of us offering to get arrested—two or three thousand, maybe—overwhelmed the police, who, thinking perhaps of the hours it would take to write down our names and addresses, declined the opportunity to know us better. Or so we thought. We then had to choose between climbing the fence, potentially a felony, or, after far too many speeches, dispersing. We dispersed.

In Frankfort, the governor, somewhat delightfully, outsmarted us. Instead of calling the police, he invited us to camp in his waiting room, which we did, from Friday until Monday morning.

And so my career in civil disobedience, so far, has been an exercise in anticlimax. Also it has been, by any practical reckoning, pretty useless. Owing probably not much, if anything, to our civil disobedience, the power plant at Marble Hill finally was stopped. But nothing that my side has done has come anywhere near to stopping mountaintop removal.

At a time when virtuous behavior tends to be measured in degrees of misery, I had better confess that all three of these episodes were mostly pleasant. The police and other officials in Indiana were nice to us, and we were nice to them and to one another. The march in Washington, in spite of cold weather, was a social success, better by far than any cocktail party I ever attended. And our weekend in the governor’s office was, I think, for all of us, an extraordinarily happy time, even a joyful time. We were warned only that if we left the building we could not return; we were, to that extent, confined. We stayed put, we worked hard at getting our message out to the media, we told stories, we laughed a lot, we ate the good food sent in by allies, and slept well on bedding likewise sent in. The security people, the office people, and the police were kind to us, and we reciprocated. I am proud to say that we were model guests. We damaged nothing, and we cleaned up after ourselves.

It may seem odd to speak of pleasure as a result of trouble, but there is nothing wrong with decent pleasure, however it comes. It is a gift, and we should be grateful. The pleasures I have mentioned certainly do not reduce the seriousness of civil disobedience. I am sure that all who have undertaken it have felt intensely and complexly the seriousness of it. There are a number of considerations that come in a hurry and are inescapable. I will list them, not in the order of their importance, but as I have thought of them in my own efforts to decide.

Civil disobedience will likely be considered, first of all, as an inconvenience. It will, and not for a predictable length of time, interrupt one’s life and one’s work. I have always been suspicious of people who seem to devote their entire lives to forms of protest. We all ought to have better things to do. Ken Kesey once said that the reason not to resist evil is that such resistance is dependent on evil; it makes you dependent on evil. He was right. And Edward Abbey said that saving the world is a good hobby—though he worked hard to save at least parts of it. As for me, the older I get, the less happy I am to leave home. All the places I go seem to be getting farther away. Frankfort, Kentucky, now appears as far off as the planet Saturn, and I wish it more remote. Reluctance, then, may be a dependable enforcer of thoughtfulness. Protest becomes properly a part of a citizen’s life and work after political and legal processes have failed, and other recourse is exhausted. Civil disobedience is properly the last resort.

It is also an unhappiness of citizenship. By it, you make yourself, publicly, an exception. It involves a kind of loneliness. I, at least, have felt no pleasure in opposing constitutional authority, however corrupt and irresponsible I have found it to be.

Civil disobedience is also plenty scary. At least to me it is. I have never felt one bit brave even in thinking about it. It involves a strange and risky paradox: You and your friends will be exploiting your obvious powerlessness to recover to your cause, and to your own citizenship, a just measure of power. But your acknowledged condition is powerlessness. Your commitment to nonviolence makes you vulnerable to violence. You can get hurt, or worse. It is fearful also to make yourself available to be treated with contempt. And you are, in effect, volunteering to go to jail.

During the Washington protest, some genius with a microphone asked me, “Do you want to go to jail?”

I said, “Hell no! ”

There is a world of difference between wanting to go to jail and being willing to go.

Wendell Berry is a farmer and writer in Kentucky. This is a but an excerpt of his piece in the special Dec/Jan issue of The Progressive, “The Global Uprising.”




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