Disobedience Checks Unjust Laws

Russell Jaffe, Columnist

Is it ever acceptable to break the law? This question has gained new urgency under the oppression of the Trump presidency. For example, is it morally acceptable to hide our neighbors and friends from violent deportation raids? Can we destroy government property to slow the progress of unconstitutional proposals like Trump’s border wall? How can we stand up against an incompetent administration that refuses to recognize our most basic human rights?

These questions are not new. In fact, this country was founded through lawbreaking when the 13 colonies decided to reject an oppressive government that did not fairly represent their interests. Countless other examples of disobedience — from Rosa Parks to the Stonewall Riots that sparked the modern movement for LGBTQ equality — have been defining moments in U.S. history.

The key point is this: There is sometimes a difference between what is legal and what is right, and understanding that distinction is a critical part of what it means to be a patriot in the United States. Standing up for one’s country does not mean blind obedience. As the famed Civil War General Carl Schurz said, “[The U.S. is] my country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” In some cases, setting the country right may involve working within the system and following the rules, but other times it may not. Perhaps in a perfect world the need for disobedience would not exist, but sadly, this world is far from perfect, and an unjust law is no law at all. Our actions, therefore, must be dictated not by legality but by our conscience.

When the law is found to be lacking in morality, crime can be a powerful force of good. For example, in 2014, a 90-year-old Floridian was repeatedly arrested for feeding the homeless — an illegal act punishable with a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail. This goes to show that the law is not always representative of justice or the will of the people — it is simply a tool for the purpose of establishing and maintaining the status quo. However, the act of breaking the law can reject a corrupt status quo, inviting a new status quo to take its place. As a result, disobedience becomes an unofficial last resort in a system of “checks and balances.”

Now, I’m not advocating for anything malicious. Disobeying the law does not necessarily require one to harm another person in any way. In fact, one should be disobedient only when there are no alternatives that may be taken in good conscience, such as in cases of defending oneself or others from police brutality or unjust deportation raids.

Some argue that breaking the law can be detrimental to one’s own cause. The “alt-right” movement has used crimes against white supremacist leaders as propaganda, disguising themselves as victims rather than oppressors. A prominent example of such propaganda is the alt-right’s use of the viral video of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer being punched by a protester. Ultimately, it is important to remember that lawbreaking is an inherently risky activity — especially for anyone who lacks the protection of social privilege — and should not be taken lightly.

So if you choose to break the law in any way, choose an issue that matters — one that is worth the consequences, whatever they might be. Productive crime is only necessary because legislation is fallible. Laws are only as fair as the people who write them — sometimes less so — and if they are not constantly questioned, then our democracy is already lost.

In the end, well-behaved, law-abiding citizens seldom make history. Bystanders are well-behaved. These were the people who shrugged as the slave trade thrived, who allowed the Nazis to commit their atrocities, and who now turn a blind eye to police brutality, immigration raids and the cruelty of the rising “alt-right” movement, simply because these injustices were — or are — considered legal. A petition and a nice speech are rarely enough to change the world. Sometimes, when the rules are rigged, the best thing to do is break them.