With a showdown looming, Miami’s “Eliánistas” have vowed a “civil disobedience” campaign to prevent the return of 6-year-old Elián González to Cuba. By invoking the sacralized language of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement to describe their impending face-off with the government, the Eliánistas imply they’re acting from a sense of conscience and in a noble tradition. To their critics, though, the civil disobedience call is just a cynical ploy.
When is “civil disobedience” honorable, and when is it a cover for self-serving lawlessness?
Arguments for civil disobedience date at least to Socrates, who disobeyed an unjust Athenian decree against teaching his ideas and was condemned to death. More recently, the doctrine was articulated (and acted upon) by Henry David Thoreau, who in the 1850s urged Massachusetts residents to withhold taxes so as not to support slavery or the Mexican war. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Mohandas Gandhi began his nonviolent protests of British rule in India. But it was King who put the phrase into the American vernacular and the practice into American history books.
Besides being a practitioner, King was also a philosopher of civil disobedience. Having studied Thoreau, Gandhi, and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, King knew you can’t break laws—even patently unjust laws—lightly. You need philosophical justification. In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” written when he was imprisoned in 1963 for trying to desegregate the city’s public facilities, King offered his best-known encapsulation of his philosophy.
To justify disobedience to the law, King wrote, the law itself has to be unjust. Unjust laws include those that degrade people’s humanity and those inflicted on a minority that had no say in enacting them. Alabama’s Jim Crow statutes clearly fit both categories.
E qually important is the manner of disobedience, King wrote. “One who breaks an unjust law,” he insisted, “must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” This approach and spirit demonstrate, King noted, that the disobedient “is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” (This idea also goes back to Socrates, who cooperated in his own punishment by stoically quaffing the fatal hemlock he was given.)
Taking his cues from King, John Rawls, the pre-eminent postwar liberal philosopher, distilled the principles of civil disobedience in his famous work A Theory of Justice. (This summary is a little unfair to Rawls. Click for an explanation.) An act of civil disobedience, he noted, is motivated by conscience. Yet it is also political in character. The protester appeals to political—as opposed to, say, religious—principles in order to redress a basic and thoroughgoing injustice in the political system.
Further, a civilly disobedient act is nonviolent. This shows that the violator, despite his disobedience, is operating, as Rawls put it, “within the limits of fidelity to law.” For similar reasons, a civilly disobedient protester accepts the penalty for his action, as did Socrates and King. Finally, the act occurs publicly. It is a good-faith effort to submit to one’s fellow citizens a considered opinion that the law is unjust. While philosophers have quibbled with Rawls’ definition, it can serve as a sensible, moderate way to judge whether a violation of law—such as the Miamians have promised—amounts to civil disobedience.
So how do Elián’s Miami boosters stack up? Let’s assume they genuinely believe that returning the boy to Cuba would be morally wrong. This meets one requirement of civil disobedience—its conscientiousness. They also meet the requirement of acting publicly. They aren’t spiriting the boy away in the night.
On two other counts—nonviolence and willingness to accept punishment—the Eliánistas don’t seem to be honoring the tradition of King, although to be fair they haven’t been put to the test. Certainly some of their rhetoric—such as Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas’ suggestion (since retracted) that his police won’t enforce the law—has been menacing, apparently meant to scare the federal government into backing off (a game of chicken) rather than to win sympathy by passive surrender in the face of injustice (à la King). It’s hard to imagine that if faced with G-men, the Miamians would crumple to the pavement in the fetal position, let alone be willing to endure the savage beatings visited on the civil rights protesters.
On the final consideration—the purpose of their disobedience—the Miamians come up woefully short. Unlike the soldiers of the civil rights movement, they aren’t trying to redress a systemic problem. They aren’t arguing that the country’s immigration policies are fundamentally unfair. They just object that the laws must apply to Elián as they do to everyone else. They’re arguing for an exemption from the law, not an improvement of it in accordance with principles of justice. And this makes their appropriation of the term civil disobedience seem cynical.
A better parallel to the Miamians than King might be the white Southerners who engaged in “massive resistance” to federal laws in order to thwart integration. During the civil rights years, Southern defenders of Jim Crow vowed they would not comply with Supreme Court rulings or federal executive orders. Govs. Orval Faubus of Arkansas and George Wallace of Alabama won followings by threatening to defy federal law enforcement officials to protect white supremacy—a tradition in which Mayor Penelas seemed to be inadvertently placing himself before retracting his fighting words. In the end, the Dixie governors knuckled under to the feds, but their shows of resistance stoked Southern pride.
The Jim Crow defenders never claimed to be the heirs of Thoreau and Gandhi. But their lawlessness gave ammunition to those who impugned King’s actions, allowing liberal fence-sitters to disparage both camps of “extremists.” Their actions made it harder for King to justify his own lawbreaking to the moderates whose support he needed.
King acknowledged this. “Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us to consciously break laws,” he wrote in his Birmingham letter. “One may well ask, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ ” It was precisely this allegation that led King to spell out the principles distinguishing civil disobedience from massive resistance. “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist,” he insisted. “That would lead to anarchy.”
But if Mayor Penelas and Miami’s Cuban-Americans belong more to the tradition of King’s adversaries than to that of King, they aren’t going out of their way to say so. In that respect, their language, if not their actions, amounts to an ironic testament to King’s stature.