Are Violent Reactions to Civil Disobedience Justified?

We’ve learned from Henry David Thoreau that civil disobedience may be justified when one morally objects to particular government actions.  Thoreau in his time was opposed to lots of things, including slavery, the Mexican-American war, and political corruption, and for that he advocated breaking the law, as well as failing to pay taxes and support the injustice that one opposes in the first place.  In “Civil Disobedience”, Thoreau writes, “…if it [the injustice by the government] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine” (p. 73-4)

With the Occupy protests ongoing, we have seen a lot of civil disobedience around the country, perhaps inspired by Thoreau to a degree. Consequently, there have been several violent reactions by the government towards protesters of various Occupy movements, namely at UC Davis and Occupy Oakland.  It goes without saying, that many found the police’s reaction to a nonviolent demonstration largely disproportionate.  As a result, even further outrage towards the government has ensued, in addition to several investigations into the seemingly unprovoked and disproportionate violence by law enforcement.

Thoreau himself didn’t seem to mind imprisonment for civil disobedience: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison” (p. 76); “I did not for a moment feel confined…” (p. 80); “The night in prison was novel and interesting enough” (p. 81).  And sure enough, a lot of Occupy protesters have been jailed for their protests.  Recent violence against the civil disobedient, however, begs the question: is it justified?  Imprisonment is one thing, but is a violent reaction going much too far?  What would Thoreau think about the government’s reaction?  The civil disobedient are inherently breaking laws, but like they say, two wrongs don’t make a right…

Seemingly, Thoreau is advocating non-violent resistance in his essay on civil disobedience: “If a thou­sand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a vi­o­lent and bloody meas­ure, as it would be to pay them, and en­able the State to com­mit vi­o­lence and shed in­no­cent blood. This is, in fact, the def­i­ni­tion of a peace­able rev­o­lu­tion, if any such is pos­si­ble” (p. 76).  However, he does imply that violence is prevalent throughout history (i.e., the Mexican-American Wars).  And, in his essay “A Plea for Captain John Brown” written a decade later, Thoreau supports Brown’s violent rebellion on Harper’s Ferry.  So, where does Thoreau stand?

Initially, I would assume Thoreau would be incredibly opposed to violence against non-violent civil disobedience.  He does, however, also advocate violent rebellion later on in his life, but perhaps in reaction to violence, violent oppression or an institution as terrible as slavery. Regardless, is there any difference between violence against non-violent civil disobedience, and violent disobedience against perceived (and non-violent) governmental injustices? Are the injustices the Occupy movement is protesting over so bad that it would justify violence by either party?

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6 Responses to Are Violent Reactions to Civil Disobedience Justified?

  1. Nicole Y says:

    I think that it is difficult to say when violence is justifiable, as illustrated by disagreements during our discussion today. I would assert that violence is justifiable as a last resort. That is, if no other means of “change” are possible then violence could be justified. For example, John Brown’s actions could be justified given that the government would not act against slavery during his time. This makes me think of the applicability of this in the modern day. That is, my theory for justifiable violence begs the question: could violence be justified for the Occupy protesters? Many could (and would) argue that the government will Not intervene in the “1%” to create any kind of change. Thus, would it be justified if they used violence to get their point across? I think it’s difficult to say.

  2. hengk says:

    Awesome connection between Thoreau and the Occupy protests/ensuing violence. As you know, this blog post is presented to a group of twenty-something liberal-college attending students who probably (overwhelmingly) think the police violence is unjustified. And I would place my opinions there. Of course, Thoreau would oppose the police violence. It attacks generally peaceful protests, and oftentimes youth. Additionally, I can’t imagine Thoreau advocating the protestors to use violence on their side. For whatever the Occupy movement is protesting against, it does not equate to slavery (I can see how this could be argued, though). Maybe if the Occupy movement had a more concrete argument, Thoreau would promote steps beyond peaceful protest. But I think where the Occupy movement is now, violence is unfair on both sides.

  3. Amanda Gayer says:

    I would agree with Nicole, in that it appears that Thoreau regards violence as a last resort. He supports John Brown because Brown recognized that all other nonviolent options had been exhausted. As mentioned in class, it seems that no matter what, the conflict over slavery had become impossible to resolve by democratic means. It seemed that ultimately, the only way to determine who would win the argument was through civil war. In such a situation, Thoreau would certainly say that violence was justified, and even necessary.
    As for the question of whether violence is appropriate in the OWS movement, Thoreau’s approval would also be dependent on whether all other options had been exhausted. I would argue that this is not the case. The OWS protests are spreading and gaining momentum and influence. I believe it is likely that they will be effective without necessitating the use of violence.

  4. andycraft says:

    I have been torn with such discussions of violence and have not yet solidified a stance on the justifiability of violence. We have been talking about shock factor in section and the reaction it receives by using violence on what is seen as unjust. Civil Disobedience can take years to be effective whereas violence does seem like a last resort. With the Occupy Wall Street Movement that you portray as Civil Disobedience, Police forces have violently interrupted efforts using violence as a means to quell what is seemingly a peaceful organization. Because the Occupy Wall Street Movements are not necessarily violent or detrimental, why should violence be reciprocated in kind?
    At the start of the semester, we distinguished from European and American political thought where American thinkers and writers put an action to their words unlike the armchair philosophers of Europe. Thoreau does not exhibit any violent disposition in any of his protesting actions. He says, “I do not wish to kill, nor be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable.” I find this inconsistent due to the fact Thoreau is seen as a peaceful predecessor to iconic figures of peaceful protest like Gandhi and MLK.
    I have a feeling that my gut instinct on using violence is still in the works.

  5. krisskrosswillmakeyou says:

    The problem with saying that violence is only acceptable as a final option is that people all have different points at which they think they’ve faced the “last straw.” Some people may have a lot more rope than others, leading some to take action much sooner than others as well. With relation to the Occupy movements however it seems clear that violence should not be used amongst the portestors. I would argue that a large reason their support is increasing and the movement hasn’t died is that police brutality has given faces and sympathy to the movement. With police pepper-spraying handcuffed students and old ladies and breaking the spine of a US Marine, sympathy for Occupy protestors makes them more acceptable to the public. By turning to violence now as their power is spreading, would be a mistake and a PR nightmare.
    As for the police, Thoreau would obviously disapprove of their violence. Its unwarranted and seemingly illegal. Interestingly, I think it can be argued that police violence has been used as a scare tactic to prevent others from joining the movement. Perhaps more people would join, if they weren’t afraid of being assaulted. So it’s also debatable to whether or not the violence has been effective in addition to whether or not its justified.

  6. dfox13 says:

    I would argue that violent actions can be necessary to combat civil disobedience because the government should be able to re-assert their authority and power over its citizens. In doing so they would show other citizens that breaking the law is wrong, and that change should be brought about through legal means, thus making them respect the government. I have modeled this view after Abraham Lincoln’s views on lawlessness because I agree that following laws created by a government is necessary for a nation to succeed, and for a democratic nation to truly succeed, the government and the people will need to adapt through legal means. People in the occupy movements should try to influence policy and government by becoming part of the process of policy and law-making, rather than breaking the law.

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