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The memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. is often honored with acts of civil disobedience in the days surrounding the anniversary of his birth. His legacy of righteousness and refusal to obey unjust laws has carried on to younger generations who still engage in civil disobedience in an effort to address the same struggles Dr. King fought, and who often still hear the same criticisms leveled against Dr. King by his detractors, often invoking the name of MLK himself in an effort to shame his contemporaries into the respectability he so eloquently rejected in his actions and in his Letter from Birmingham Jail.
We constantly hear complaints that people are being “inconvenienced” by protests, by acts of civil disobedience. We consistently hear criticisms that these political actions are impacting the ability of people who do not care about the issues being protested in going about their business as usual, and we frequently even hear that civil disobedience alienates people from the causes it seeks to further. If a riot is the language of the unheard, then civil disobedience is the language of the ignored. If a riot is shouting loud enough to be heard, then civil disobedience is pointed discourse too disruptive to be simply ignored in the way that the polite requests and gentle pleas favored by liberal moderate society so often are. Civil disobedience is a firm, unwavering demand to have the humanity of the disenfranchised recognized and acknowledged, and a refusal to allow business as usual to continue until that goal is realized, because for the marginalized, business as usual is simply not sustainable.
What those who complain about the inconvenience of civil disobedience fail to grasp is, not only is it inconvenient by design, but it is not so inconvenient for anyone as it is for those who engage in it. As frustrating as it may be to be stuck in traffic, to have a city council meeting disrupted, to be unable to do one’s grocery shopping, or impeded in one’s daily errands, it is far more inconvenient still to engage in an act of civil disobedience. The organizing of such an undertaking is disruptive to the lives of those involved long before the action itself ever takes place. The action is, of course, inconvenient for everyone present, whether participant or bystander, and the aftermath often involves time spent in jail as well as months worth of legal proceedings that continue to disrupt the lives of those engaged for their duration. Civil disobedience IS inconvenient, and that is the whole point.
People who engage in acts of civil disobedience are doing so because the alternative is infinitely worse. The alternative is suffering in silence while the injustices of the world wreak havoc on their daily lives. The alternative to civil disobedience is waiting patiently while hoping the world will choose to combat systemic inequality on its own, despite clear indications that this will never happen. The alternative is for parents to watch their children continue to be slain by racism, by poverty, by ableism, by a whole host of oppressive institutions who will not be overturned simply because it is asked of them. People engage in civil disobedience, because to do otherwise is to suffer in silence, hoping for change and knowing it will never come. Civil disobedience is inconvenient, but the absence of civil disobedience is fatal.
It is particularly reprehensible to insinuate that civil disobedience and the inconvenience associated with it alienate people from causes they might otherwise support. Not only do people have every opportunity to support those causes in their every day lives, but the idea that someone would have been a staunch proponent of equality, and willing to fight to achieve it, if not for being swayed to opposition by being late to work, or yoga class, or wherever else they were headed is actually ludicrous and insulting. One cannot be a staunch proponent of equality in the face of structural injustice, yet be swayed to abandon it by inconvenience, because to exist within the struggle is to abandon convenience in favor of liberation, whether for one’s self or for others. To engage in a struggle against the status quo is to accept the inconvenience of doing so, so to pretend that people might embrace this major inconvenience if not dissuaded by another, relatively minor inconvenience, is disingenuous.
Civil disobedience absolutely is inconvenient. It is disruptive, it is illegal, it impedes the ability of people to go about their daily business, and that is the entire point.