Monday, August 17, 2009

Appropriate or Excessive Use of Nonviolent Force, Part I

The recent conversation in the news about conservative protestors shouting down Democratic Senators and Congressmen trying to hold town hall discussions of health care reform, brings back memories, some ancient and some merely old.

First, I guess a brief description of the current controversy is necessary. Democrats trying to hold town hall meetings to discuss health care reform were shouted down by conservative protestors. You can see stories about what happened here (Politico):, or here (CBS):

You could just turn on your favorite cable news network for coverage—CNN for more or less neutral, Fox for the conservative view and MSNBC for the liberal position.

Much of the controversy grows out of the fact that these apparently grassroots protests were actually organized by an organization called FreedomWorks, which is led by Dick Armey, the former Republican Majority Leader of the United States House of Representatives. Apparently, a volunteer with this lobbying organization work a widely distributed memo explaining how to disrupt the town hall meetings. You can read a copy of the memo, and FreedomWorks sort of denial of responsibility, here:

I don’t find the question of where the information on how to disrupt a town hall meeting came from very significant. In the age of the internet, it’s best to assume that every group is organized and in communication across the country. I’m more interested in the question of whether the actions are ethically proper—at least as far as I know all the actions of the conservative protestors have been legal [Apparently things have continued to worsen in the days since I wrote this, so this may or may not be the case any longer].

To my mind, this is an issue of whether the force used is appropriate or excessive. I start with the premise that almost all protest, even nonviolent protest, involves the use of force. Shouting someone down is force. A sit-in blocks people’s ingress and egress and that qualifies as force to me. I think all of these nonviolent tactics are justified in certain situations, but not in all situations. Let me start by defining two cases where I think nonviolent protest is justified, and then later we can talk about whether the health care debate fits into one of these categories.

Even before that, however, we need to distinguish between efforts to make your position known by exercising First Amendment rights and acts that escalate to the use of “nonviolent force”—an oxymoron if there ever was one.

If someone starts to speak, and the crowd boos, then I think that’s only speech, protected by the First Amendment. If the boos continue so long and so hard that you make it impossible for that person to be heard, then that’s nonviolent force. The same logic applies, for example, to a picket line. If you make it uncomfortable for someone to cross a picket line, then that’s free speech. If you make it impossible, that’s nonviolent force.

To look at a real case, let’s take the infamous Brooks Brothers Riot of 2000 (so named because of the preferred wear of the recipients).
In Dade County Florida, the canvassing board was in the process of a recount in the Bush-Gore Presidential election, when a large group of angry protestors appeared and intimidated the election board into abandoning the recount.

For the purposes of our discussion here, it doesn’t matter either that the protestors were an organized group of Republican operatives, mostly from out of state or that the Election Board of Dade County must be the most easily intimidated group of people in the world. The protest served the purpose of ending the recount, and therefore it was nonviolent force, not mere free speech.

In Part II, I’ll talk about when I think nonviolent force is justified.

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