There was an interesting picture with caption that circulated around my Facebook feed this last week about protestors who block traffic to draw attention to their protesting. The Picture is reproduced below.
I got into a rather heated debate with a friend about whether this was A) prudent, and B) actually a moral thing to do. My friend believed it was justified for the reasons the captions lists: it is not done to win support, nor even to simply express a feeling. It is done to make other people feel what you feel. That at least is the primary objective. We are left to hope whether that will make the victims of this protest feel any sympathy for the protestors’ cause….. The caption ends by saying that as soon as you learn to feel the rage these other people feel, they won’t do these things to you (“the sooner you won’t be stuck in traffic”). I cannot help but conclude from this that the protestors are of divided minds on why they are doing what they are doing. Is it only to make other people feel their pain, or is it to change the minds of others? The two are not the same thing, but the poster seems to hold that if they can make you feel as angry as they do, you will join their cause.
If you wish for a revolt, anger is your greatest weapon. If you wish for reform, wisdom is your greatest tool, and wisdom does not come about through anger. Wisdom comes through thought, debate, experience, and long-concerted effort to find the best means to achieve your ends. This what the Greeks called ‘prudence.’ The history of English and American law (especially the common law) is one of incremental reforms and nuances. It did not come about by violent revolution or sweeping reform by a Napoleon or a Caesar.
Protesting has a long a noble history in the English speaking world, and has a rightful protection in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, reading “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . . or of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Notice however that the right to petition the government is not unlimited. The petitions must be directed at the government, and they must be peaceable. This has been long incorporated into the Supreme Court’s doctrine of “time, place, manner” restrictions; that in traditional public forums such as streets there are reasonable restrictions for safety and peace that the government can impose without violating the rights of protestors.
Thus, it has never been a first amendment right to block traffic, and so endanger public safety. A protest need not be overtly violent to potentially endanger public safety. Now, that’s the legal side. What about prudence and justice?
The great strength of protest is to show by argument, by mass of people, and by overt (though peaceable) action that a portion of the people are united for or against a particular cause. It is also to persuade the government and others of the rightness of your cause. No man is persuaded to join a cause by abuse. Prudence would dictate the use of some other means of protesting to win people to your cause.
Forgetting prudence, which is not always the test of justice; is it right to inflict pain, injury or any wrong upon another because you have been wronged? I think not.
Even self defense does sink to such a level. Revenge alone is so base as to say ‘I will hurt you, as you have hurt me, though it bring me no benefit or joy.’ And far apart from that, these people are not unleashing their vengeance upon the police or the government, but upon innocent bystanders. Not only is this revenge, but it is blind revenge gone foolish.
What then is the solution? I leave you with a quote from one of my heroes:
When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all the laws, let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws, nor that grievances may not arise, for the redress of which, no legal provisions have been made.–I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say, that, although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed. So also in unprovided cases. If such arise, let proper legal provisions be made for them with the least possible delay; but, till then, let them, if not too intolerable, be borne with.
There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law. In any case that arises, as for instance, the promulgation of abolitionism, one of two positions is necessarily true; that is, the thing is right within itself, and therefore deserves the protection of all law and all good citizens; or, it is wrong, and therefore proper to be prohibited by legal enactments; and in neither case, is the interposition of mob law, either necessary, justifiable, or excusable.
–A. Lincoln, Lyceum Address, 1838.