We’ve learned from Henry David Thoreau that civil disobedience may be justified when one morally objects to particular government actions. Thoreau in his time was opposed to lots of things, including slavery, the Mexican-American war, and political corruption, and for that he advocated breaking the law, as well as failing to pay taxes and support the injustice that one opposes in the first place. In “Civil Disobedience”, Thoreau writes, “…if it [the injustice by the government] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine” (p. 73-4)
With the Occupy protests ongoing, we have seen a lot of civil disobedience around the country, perhaps inspired by Thoreau to a degree. Consequently, there have been several violent reactions by the government towards protesters of various Occupy movements, namely at UC Davis and Occupy Oakland. It goes without saying, that many found the police’s reaction to a nonviolent demonstration largely disproportionate. As a result, even further outrage towards the government has ensued, in addition to several investigations into the seemingly unprovoked and disproportionate violence by law enforcement.
Thoreau himself didn’t seem to mind imprisonment for civil disobedience: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison” (p. 76); “I did not for a moment feel confined…” (p. 80); “The night in prison was novel and interesting enough” (p. 81). And sure enough, a lot of Occupy protesters have been jailed for their protests. Recent violence against the civil disobedient, however, begs the question: is it justified? Imprisonment is one thing, but is a violent reaction going much too far? What would Thoreau think about the government’s reaction? The civil disobedient are inherently breaking laws, but like they say, two wrongs don’t make a right…
Seemingly, Thoreau is advocating non-violent resistance in his essay on civil disobedience: “If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible” (p. 76). However, he does imply that violence is prevalent throughout history (i.e., the Mexican-American Wars). And, in his essay “A Plea for Captain John Brown” written a decade later, Thoreau supports Brown’s violent rebellion on Harper’s Ferry. So, where does Thoreau stand?
Initially, I would assume Thoreau would be incredibly opposed to violence against non-violent civil disobedience. He does, however, also advocate violent rebellion later on in his life, but perhaps in reaction to violence, violent oppression or an institution as terrible as slavery. Regardless, is there any difference between violence against non-violent civil disobedience, and violent disobedience against perceived (and non-violent) governmental injustices? Are the injustices the Occupy movement is protesting over so bad that it would justify violence by either party?