As dozens of bare-face protesters rallied tightly together in Michigan’s state capital, Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus response team, described the scene as “devastatingly worrisome.” Additionally, while pressure increases to relax the shutdown of California’s economy, three rural counties north of Sacramento have declared themselves open for business, openly violating Gov. Gavin Newsom COVID-19 stay-at-home order. Beach goers in Florida, Texas and California have openly defied social distancing guidelines. All are examples of civil disobedience or passive resistance.
The concept of civil disobedience can be traced to the origin of Western civilization. Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. all sought to justify their conduct by virtue of its harmony with some antecedent superhuman moral law. Civil disobedience is a symbolic violation of the law rather than a rejection of the system. Due to the fact that acts associated with civil disobedience are considered crimes, they may be punishable based on the discretion of the governing body. By submitting to punishment, the civil disobeyer hopes to set a moral example that will provoke the majority or the government into affecting meaningful political, social, or economic change. This is where the reaction to COVID – 19 civil disobedience differs from prior resistance efforts.
During the Civil Rights era, acts of rebellion by Black activists were met with communistic measures. Water cannons, dogs, tear gas, rubberized bullets and in some cases live ammunition were waiting for the Black protesters. When protesters armed with loaded assault weapons occupied the Michigan State Capital while state legislators were in session, there was no reaction from capitol police. One wonders how the capital police of any state would have reacted if the Black Panthers circa 1965 would have occupied a state building. Keep in mind, the Black Panther movement was nonviolent, and they never brandished loaded weapons during any of their protests. Modern day civil disobedience from African American resistance movements have been met with direct police action. Black protests have always been the result of some type of egregious action on the part of a governing body, not in response to a public health issue that has had a national impact.
In fact, minorities and the underprivileged have as much right to protest over the handling of this current pandemic as any group, considering they are disproportionately impacted because of historic systemic injustice due to marginalized healthcare, insufficient housing, and disproportionate income distribution. One must wonder if the motive behind the COVID -19 resistance is due to the perception that the virus has a lesser impact on whites than any other race or ethnicity.
In any event, the state and federal response to this round of civil disobedience should be a model that is exercised in the future. Civil disobedience is an American institution and all future acts should be met with the temperance currently applied.