In his famous essay “On Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau explained why he went to jail in 1846. He said he refused to pay taxes to a government that was pursuing the extension of slavery. To support such a government, Thoreau argued, was to be complicit in its worst deeds.
With this essay, Thoreau helped inspire the modern tradition of civil disobedience, his footsteps followed by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others.
This summer, I joined that tradition by getting arrested for demonstrating without a permit at the United States Capitol — along with about 100 others from the Poor People’s Campaign, including Reverend William J. Barber II. The arrests were part of a larger wave of nonviolent civil disobedience over six weeks that resulted in about 2,500 arrests of clergy, activists, and poor people across 40 states and Washington, DC.
As we marched up to the Capitol to face a line of police officers, we chanted and sang songs about our intentions: “Everybody’s got a right to live.” “I went down to the Capitol and took back my dignity.” “Before this campaign fails, we’ll all go down to jail.”
The chants and songs helped us stay connected and calm in an anxiety-inducing situation. I met marchers from Maine and Washington State as we shared cigarettes and stories of our backgrounds amid the mild tension.
The campaign’s goal is to draw attention to the voices and situations of the 140 million poor and low-income people who make up 43 percent of the U.S. population. Almost half us! We’re hoping that the arrests and other actions will help begin a mass movement.
The truth is, our political, economic, and social systems are broken — and most Americans know it.
Three individual people have as much wealth as the bottom half of the country, and most of the latter can’t withstand a $400 emergency without going under. The police are shooting black people like Antwon Rose with abandon, and getting away it. The president is hell-bent on incarcerating families in camps at the border, including young children, and the U.S. is sleepwalking through wars in at least seven mostly Muslim countries.
Oh, and climate change is about to literally destroy human civilization.
Without intervention from the American people, our government is going to drive us off a cliff. And so people are taking action.
Of course, getting arrested isn’t right or safe for everyone. But you don’t have to get arrested to make change. All over, people are taking action in other creative ways.
For example, members of the Democratic Socialists of America publicly shamed Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in Washington, DC while she was eating at a Mexican restaurant. The Red Hen, a Virginia restaurant, refused to serve White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Both of these tactics generated widespread discussion, all without a single person getting arrested.
Whatever it is, we’ve all got to do something, or else we’re going to be in a lot more trouble than a $50 fine and an arrest record (which is what I got).
So what are you waiting for? Check out poorpeoplescampaign.org and take action.
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