Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Pussy Riot and the Next Phase of Civil Disobedience

I will not begin this blog entry by repeating the facts of the Pussy Riot case. The Internet has covered the matter, and continues to do do. Suffice it to say that a group of performance artist/musicians have been sentenced to two years forced labor for the crime of criticizing the government. These events are unfolding in Russia, and they have revealed how little criminal justice has changed since the fall of communism (or perhaps since the Inquisition, it's hard to say). Of course, it does no good to point the finger at Russia as if the US were much better. Russia and the US are actually tied for the number of people incarcerated. Both nations out pace China in this regard. Rather than offer any critical comparison of those three top offenders, I'd rather dwell on something common to all three: social unrest in the face of injustice.

Since the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, social unrest across the globe has been on the increase (perhaps there is just increased attention, it's hard to be sure). Due to crushing social injustice, income inequality, or outright suppression of dissent, people are rising up in protest, demanding change from their leaders. In a well-ordered society, as defined by John Rawls, these things should not happen because citizens have satisfactory channels for redressing grievances or preventing injustice in the first place. Clearly, we do not live in such a society, and neither do many other people, so we are left with public demonstrations, media outlets (now social media more than traditional journalistic media), and even a good amount of hacktivism. One tool widely employed in these efforts is civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience has a long history, but it certainly has some high points in modern history. Henry David Thoreau's one night stint in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax gave us an American perspective on the matter, though Percy Shelley's “Mask of Anarchy” contains earlier foreshadowing of things to come. The tool was taken up in India by Ganhi, and in the US by Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. The method is simple: when citizens perceive that a law is unjust, they simply break it. Ideally, they do so in open defiance, challenging government to enforce its unjust policy in the light of day, in hopes that other citizens will see the act and enforcement and agree that the law is unjust. The sit-ins at lunch counters are an archetypal example, but any sustained resistance to either an unjust law or an unjust government is, in essence, civil disobedience.

In school, I learned about all of this because of Thoreau and Civil Rights, but I find that the dialogue around civil disobedience is somewhat vexed. I've heard some people comment that civil disobedience is only valid when one accepts the punishment without resistance (G. Gordon Liddy is the guy I'm thinking of here, not a paragon of virtue by any means). To put that charge another way, for an act of civil disobedience to be effective, the protesting citizen must not only defy the law, but do so in such a way as to invite enforcement, and then accept the punishment without “sniveling” (Liddy's words in a debate with Timothy Leary held sometime in the 80's, I believe). That image has some attraction, the noble protester sacrificing himself for his cause, holding himself up as a symbol for others to follow his example. I suppose the idea there is that if everyone does it, no government can imprison its entire population (though I point to public school as a dedicated effort in that direction), so under the pressure of mass disobedience, the government will have to cave. It worked mostly like that for the Civil Rights movement (though, as with anything, that's hardly the whole story).

Now that we have an image of what civil disobedience is, let's make clear what it's not. According the view stated above, civil disobedience does not mean furtively breaking the law, doing so in secret or in some way hiding one's identity (ie Anonymous) to avoid capture. In addition, it means, taken to its extreme, not defending oneself at trial. I imagine that this version of civil disobedience would demand court conduct worthy of Jesus, pleading nolo contendere (I do not contest) to all charges, a rough approximation of the “You say that I am” Jesus offered to the Sanhedrin in response to their charges against him. In this version of civil disobedience, one does no less than break a law and ask to be punished.

As a student of popular resistance movements, that version of civil disobedience both asks too much of protesters and effectively gelds any power civil disobedience may have. Furthermore, protest movements have in fact embraced a more wide conception of civil disobedience. Consider the Occupy movement's recent example. When the police moved in to arrest citizens exercising their right to assembly (this will be the sticking point for opponents, so note simply that I am taking sides here), some protesters remained seated rather than obey the police, stand up, and submit to arrest. Instead, they went limp, demanding that officers haul them into paddy wagons bodily, demanding more effort on the part of the police and providing a vivid demonstration of resistance. Here, we have the essence of civil disobedience: disobeying an unjust law. Remember, “civil” in this phrase is not “docile” as in “let's be civil” but “civil” as in “civitas” and “cive” the Latin roots of “citizen.” In other words, one does not disobey in a polite fashion, but so as to address the struggle as one that takes place between citizen and state. There need be nothing polite about it.

With these considerations in mind, it seems to me that civil disobedience may be considered as a spectrum of resistance. When we are close to a well-ordered society, polite disobedience may be sufficient to draw attention to the relevant injustice, bringing swift and responsible remedy. When we are much further away from a well-ordered society, civil disobedience may be something much less polite, much more firm, and will likely serve as the foreshocks of revolution or civil war. In such a setting, such as eve of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, or the October Revolution, protesters may defend themselves vociferously at trial, evade arrest, or even carry out their operations in secret. The French Resistance would not have maintained had its members simply walked up the occupying force, stated their intentions, and requested arrest.

What does this have to do with Pussy Riot? These remarkable, brave, and talented women performed a massive, visible, and powerful demonstration of civil disobedience, in flagrant disregard for the oppressive policies of the ruling regime. They were then subjected to a mock trial of medieval proportions, convicted of blasphemy, and sentenced to a gulag. I think they've been good sports about it, but two years in a Russian prison is nothing to accept politely. In Russia, and elsewhere, we may be seeing the signs that more extensive civil disobedience is required. The Wikileaks witch hunt, the treatment of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, as well as the mainstream media silence on Occupy encampments, demonstrate that Anonymous's hacktivism is required. To continue to shed light on corruption, some activists, the ones doing the most dangerous work, have to shield their identities. Evading arrest does not mean acknowledging that what they are doing is wrong; it acknowledges that the work must be done, and they have shouldered the responsibility of doing it. For Pussy Riot, and their supporters, the next step may be an even more flagrant disregard of the “justice” system: breaking those noble heroines out of prison, helping them evade custody, and possibly find asylum somewhere more free, or at least more sane (if there is such a place).

Resisting a corrupt government means many things: disregarding unjust laws, resisting enforcers of those laws, and evading punishment for things that should not be crimes.