Eraldo Souza Dos Santos
“Would you do this again?” a journalist asked state representative Justin Pearson after he was expelled from the Tennessee House of Representatives for participating in a demonstration against gun violence. His answer in the House’s noisy hall, occupied momentarily by activists, was straightforward: “Yes. We’ll never shirk back from civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is what built this country. Resisting the status quo built the United States of America into the institution that it is, and that’s my ancestors’ resistance that got me here.”
In a Twitter thread, former president Barack Obama similarly stated that “[t]his nation was built on peaceful protest.” “What happened in Tennessee,” Obama added, “is the latest example of a broader erosion of civility and democratic norms.” In replying to Obama, Pearson underscored the importance and necessity of peaceful protest: “We must work tirelessly to protect our kids, communities, to end gun violence, and protect our democracy.”
For some, Pearson’s and Obama’s statements seemed to echo a conservative discourse which, since the 1960s, has only deemed peaceful protest to be a legitimate form of resistance and dissent to be acceptable only when delivered with civility. Indeed, it was this very discourse that allowed the overwhelmingly Republican house to oust Representatives Justin Jones and Pearson based on a charge against them for lack of decorum.
Wouldn’t these calls for peaceful protest and civil disobedience be contradictory in this context?
Civil Disobedience’s Family Tree
On April 16, 1963, sixty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., like Representative Pearson, sought in his now celebrated “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to show that civil disobedience is a fundamentally American form of resistance and that, indeed, the United States was founded with a collective gesture of civil disobedience: “In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.” But King seemingly realized how polemic this statement was, as this sentence, which he repeated again and again in multiple speeches between 1961 and 1963, wasn’t included in his original letter. It was added to it in the version published as the central chapter of his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait.
The Boston Tea Party can be considered, as historians like Lewis Perry have argued, to be an inappropriate example of civil disobedience. Being fundamentally peaceful and nonviolent, so the argument runs, civil disobedience wouldn’t be compatible with the destruction of property. From this perspective, what should we make of the historical scene in Boston Harbor where the Sons of Liberty destroyed a shipment of tea of the East India Company in 1773? Moreover, civil disobedience would be, for many and up to today, a way to improve the existing political system rather than a form of revolutionary, anticolonial resistance.
In a context in which liberals and conservatives alike accuse civil disobedience of being incompatible with the American legal and political systems, the Boston Tea Party would be nothing but a bad example.
But the Boston Tea Party points to a more radical, revolutionary genealogy of civil disobedience in King’s “Letter.” And so does Representative Pearson’s statement. For Pearson, civil disobedience is not a form of improving a fundamentally just status quo – it is a gesture of resistance that can be traced back to his African American ancestry. And African American resistance, even when peaceful and non-violent, has actively confronted narrow conceptions of civility and decorum head on.
In his “Letter,” King famously expressed in an unapologetic fashion his disappointment with the white moderate “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” He also advocated “a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth” and for fighting political violence.
He insisted uncompromisingly that the aim of the civil rights movement was “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
Representative Pearson is part of this tradition of American political protest – a tradition that conservative conceptions of civility and peaceful protest mischaracterize and aim to delegitimize; a tradition against which Tennessee Republicans and Obama fundamentally stand, despite appearances. There’s no peace, Representative Pearson reminds us, without confrontation.
In collaboration with Ferenc Laczo and Oliver Garner