The Problem is Civil Obedience
by Howard Zinn, 1970
from the Zinn Reader, Seven Stories
[By the latter part of May, 1970, feelings
about the war in Vietnam had become almost unbearably intense.
In Boston, about a hundred of us decided to sit down at the Boston
Army Base and block the road used by buses carrying draftees off
to military duty. We were not so daft that we thought we were
stopping the flow of soldiers to Vietnam; it was a symbolic act,
a statement, a piece of guerrilla the after. We were all arrested
and charged, in the quaint language of an old statute, with "sauntering
and loitering" in such a way as to obstruct traffic. Eight
of us refused to plead guilty, insisting on trial by jury, hoping
we could persuade the members of the jury that ours was a justified
act of civil disobedience. We did not persuade them. We were found
guilty, chose jail instead of paying a fine, but the judge, apparently
reluctant to have us in jail, gave us forty-eight hours to change
our minds, after which we should show up in court to either pay
the fine or be jailed. In the meantime, I had been invited to
go to Johns Hopkins University to debate with the philosopher
Charles Frankel on the issue of civil disobedience. I decided
it would be hypocritical for me, an advocate of civil disobedience,
to submit dutifully to the court and thereby skip out on an opportunity
to speak to hundreds of students about civil disobedience. So,
on the day I was supposed to show up in court in Boston I flew
to Baltimore and that evening debated with Charles Frankel. Returning
to Boston I decided to meet my morning class, but two detectives
were waiting for me, and I was hustled before the court and then
spent a couple of days in jail. What follows is the transcript
of my opening statement in the debate at Johns Hopkins. It was
included in a book published by Johns Hopkins Press in 1972, entitled
Violence: The Crisis of American Confidence.]
I start from the supposition that the
world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong
people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that
the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of
power, that the wealth is distributed in this country and the
world in such a way as not simply to require small reform but
to require a drastic reallocation of wealth. I start from the
supposition that we don't have to say too much about this because
all we have to do is think about the state of the world today
and realize that things are all upside down. Daniel Berrigan is
in jail-A Catholic priest, a poet who opposes the war-and J. Edgar
Hoover is free, you see. David Dellinger, who has opposed war
ever since he was this high and who has used all of his energy
and passion against it, is in danger of going to jail. The men
who are responsible for the My Lai massacre are not on trial;
they are in Washington serving various functions, primary and
subordinate, that have to do with the unleashing of massacres,
which surprise them when they occur. At Kent State University
four students were killed by the National Guard and students were
indicted. In every city in this country, when demonstrations take
place, the protesters, whether they have demonstrated or not,
whatever they have done, are assaulted and clubbed by police,
and then they are arrested for assaulting a police officer.
Now, I have been studying very closely
what happens every day in the courts in Boston, Massachusetts.
You would be astounded-maybe you wouldn't, maybe you have been
around, maybe you have lived, maybe you have thought, maybe you
have been hit-at how the daily rounds of injustice make their
way through this marvelous thing that we call due process. Well,
that is my premise.
All you have to do is read the Soledad
letters of George Jackson, who was sentenced to one year to life,
of which he spent ten years, for a seventy-dollar robbery of a
filling station. And then there is the U.S. Senator who is alleged
to keep 185,000 dollars a year, or something like that, on the
oil depletion allowance. One is theft; the other is legislation.
something is wrong, something is terribly wrong when we ship 10,000
bombs full of nerve gas across the country, and drop them in somebody
else's swimming pool so as not to trouble our own. So you lose
your perspective after a while. If you don't think, if you just
listen to TV and read scholarly things, you actually begin to
think that things are not so bad, or that just little things are
wrong. But you have to get a little detached, and then come back
and look at the world, and you are horrified. So we have to start
from that supposition-that things are really topsy-turvy.
And our topic is topsy-turvy: civil disobedience.
As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying
our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem....
Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of
people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the
leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions
have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is
that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys
march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people
are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation
and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people
are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all
the while the grand thieves are running the country. That's our
problem. We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the
problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People
obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they
should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have
showed them. Even in Stalin's Russia we can understand that; people
are obedient, all these herdlike people.
But America is different. That is what
we've all been brought up on. From the time we are this high and
I still hear it resounding in Mr. Frankel's statement-you tick
off, one, two, three, four, five lovely things .~ about America
that we don't want disturbed very much. But if we have learned
anything in the past ten years, it is that these lovely things
about America were never lovely. We have been expansionist and
aggressive and mean to other people from the beginning. And we've
been aggressive and mean to people in this country, and we've
allocated the wealth of this country in a very unjust way. We've
never had justice in the courts for the poor people, for black
people, for radicals. Now how can we boast that America is a very
special place? It is not that special. It really isn't.
Well, that is our topic, that is our problem:
civil obedience. Law is very important. We are talking about obedience
to law-law, this marvelous invention of modern times, which we
attribute to Western civilization, and which we talk about proudly.
The rule of law, oh, how wonderful, all these courses in Western
civilization all over the land. Remember those bad old days when
people were exploited by feudalism? Everything was terrible in
the Middle Ages-but now we have Western civilization, the rule
of law. The rule of law has regularized and maximized the injustice
that existed before the rule of law, that is what the rule of
law has done. Let us start looking at the rule of law realistically,
not with that metaphysical complacency with which we always examined
When in all the nations of the world the
rule of law is the darling of the leaders and the plague of the
people, we ought to begin to recognize this. We have to transcend
these national boundaries in our thinking. Nixon and Brezhnev
have much more in common with one another than - we have with
Nixon. J. Edgar Hoover has far more in common with the head of
the Soviet secret police than he has with us. It's the international
dedication to law and order that binds the leaders of all countries
in a comradely bond. That's why we are always surprised when they
get together -- they smile, they shake hands, they smoke cigars,
they really like one another no matter what they say. It's like
the Republican and Democratic parties, who claim that it's going
to make a terrible difference if one or the other wins, yet they
are all the same. Basically, it is us against them.
Yossarian was right, remember, in Catch-22?
He had been accused of giving aid and comfort to the enemy, which
nobody should ever be accused of, and Yossarian said to his friend
Clevinger: "The enemy is whoever is going to get you killed,
whichever side they are on." But that didn't sink in, so
he said to Clevinger: "Now you remember that, or one of these
days you'll be dead." And remember? Clevinger, after a while,
was dead. And we must remember that our enemies are not divided
along national lines, that enemies are not just people who speak
different languages and occupy different territories. Enemies
are people who want to get us killed.
We are asked, "What if everyone disobeyed the law?"
But a better question is, "What if everyone obeyed the law?"
And the answer to that question is much easier to come by, because
we have a lot of empirical evidence about what happens if everyone
obeys the law, or if even most people obey the law. What happens
is what has happened, what is happening. Why do people revere
the law? And we all do; even I have to fight it, for it was put
into my bones at an early age when I was a Cub Scout. One reason
we revere the law is its ambivalence. In the modern world we deal
with phrases and words that have multiple meanings, like "national
security." Oh, yes, we must do this for national security!
Well, what does that mean? Whose national security? Where? When?
Why? We don't bother to answer those questions, or even to ask
The law conceals many things. The law
is the Bill of Rights. ;'~ fact, that is what we think of when
we develop our reverence for the law. The law is something that
protects us; the law is our right-the law is the Constitution.
Bill of Rights Day, essay contests sponsored by the American Legion
on our Bill of Rights, that is the law. And that is good.
But there is another part of the law that
doesn't get ballyhooed- the legislation that has gone through
month after month, year after year, from the beginning of the
Republic, which allocates the resources of the country in such
a way as to leave some people very rich and other people very
poor, and still others scrambling like mad for what little is
left. That is the law. If you go to law school you will see this.
You can quantify it by counting the big, heavy law books that
people carry around with them and see how many law books you count
that say "Constitutional Rights" on them and how many
that say "Property," "Contracts," "Torts,"
"Corporation Law." That is what the law is mostly about.
The law is the oil depletion allowance-although we don't have
Oil Depletion Allowance Day, we don't have essays written on behalf
of the oil depletion allowance. So there are parts of the law
that are publicized and played up to us-oh, this is the law, the
Bill of Rights. And there are other parts of the law that just
do their quiet work, and nobody says anything about them.
It started way back. When the Bill of
Rights was first passed, remember, in the first administration
of Washington? Great thing. Bill of Rights passed! Big ballyhoo.
At the same time Hamilton's economic pro gram was passed. Nice,
quiet, money to the rich-I'm simplifying it a little, but not
too much. Hamilton's economic program started it off. You can
draw a straight line from Hamilton's economic program to the oil
depletion allowance to the tax write-offs for corporations. All
the way through-that is the history. The Bill of Rights publicized;
economic legislation unpublicized.
You know the enforcement of different
parts of the law is as important as the publicity attached to
the different parts of the law. The Bill of Rights, is it enforced?
Not very well. You'll find that freedom of speech in constitutional
law is a very difficult, ambiguous, troubled concept. Nobody really
knows when you can get up and speak and when you can't. Just check
all of the Supreme Court decisions. Talk about predictability
in a system-you can't predict what will happen to you when you
get up on the street corner and speak. See if you can tell the
difference between the Terminiello case and the Feiner case, and
see if you can figure out what is going to happen. By the way,
there is one part of the law that is not very vague, and that
involves the right to distribute leaflets on the street. The Supreme
Court has been very clear on that. In decision after decision
we are affirmed an absolute right to distribute leaflets on the
street. Try it. Just go out on the street and start distributing
leaflets. And a policeman comes up to you and he says, "Get
out of here." And you say, "Aha! Do you know Marsh v.
Alabama, 1946?" That is the reality of the Bill of Rights.
That's the reality of the Constitution, that part of the law which
is portrayed to us as a beautiful and marvelous thing. And seven
years after the Bill of Rights was passed, which said that "Congress
shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech," Congress
made a law abridging the freedom of speech. Remember? The Sedition
Act of 1798.
So the Bill of Rights was not enforced.
Hamilton's program was enforced, because when the whisky farmers
went out and rebelled you remember, in 1794 in Pennsylvania, Hamilton
himself got on his horse and went out there to suppress the rebellion
to make sure that the revenue tax was enforced. And you can trace
the story right down to the present day, what laws are enforced,
what laws are not enforced. So you have to be careful when you
say, "I'm for the law, I revere the law." What part
of the law are you talking about? I'm not against all law. But
I think we ought to begin to make very important distinctions
about what laws do what things to what people.
And there are other problems with the
law. It's a strange thing, we think that law brings order. Law
doesn't. How do we know that law does not bring order? Look around
us. We live under the rules of law. Notice how much order we have?
People say we have to worry about civil disobedience because it
will lead to anarchy. Take a look at the present world in which
the rule of law obtains. This is the closest to what is called
anarchy in the popular mind-confusion, chaos, international banditry.
The only order that is really worth anything does not come through
the enforcement ... of law, it comes through the establishment
of a society which is just and in which harmonious relationships
are established and in which you need a minimum of regulation
to create decent sets of arrangements among people. But the order
based on law and on the force of law is the order of the totalitarian
state, and it inevitably leads either to total injustice or to
rebel lion-eventually, in other words, to very great disorder.
We all grow up with the notion that the
law is holy. They asked Daniel Berrigan's mother what she thought
of her son's breaking the law. He burned draft records-one of
the most violent acts of this century- to protest the war, for
which he was sentenced to prison, as criminals should be. They
asked his mother who is in her eighties, what she thought of her
son's breaking the law. And she looked straight into the interviewer's
face, and she said, "It's not God's law." Now we forget
that. There is nothing sacred about the law. Think of who makes
laws. The law is not made by God, it is made by Strom Thurmond.
If you nave any notion about the sanctity and loveliness and reverence
for the law, look at the legislators around the country who make
the laws. Sit in on the sessions of the state legislatures. Sit
in on Congress, for these are the people who make the laws which
we are then supposed to revere.
All of this is done with such propriety
as to fool us. This is the problem. In the old days, things were
confused; you didn't know. Now you know. It is all down there
in the books. Now we go through due process. Now the same things
happen as happened before, except that we've gone through the
right procedures. In Boston a policeman walked into a hospital
ward and fired five times at a black man who had snapped a towel
at his arm-and killed him. A hearing was held. The judge decided
that the policeman was justified because if he didn't do it, he
would lose the respect of his fellow officers. Well, that is what
is known as due process-that is, the guy didn't get away with
it. We went through the proper procedures, and everything was
set up. The decorum, the propriety of the law fools us.
The nation then, was founded on disrespect
for the law, and then came the Constitution and the notion of
stability which Madison and Hamilton liked. But then we found
in certain crucial times in our history that the legal framework
did not suffice, and in order to end slavery we had to go outside
the legal framework, as we had to do at the time of the American
Revolution or the Civil War. The union had to go outside the legal
framework in order to establish certain rights in the 1930s. And
in this time, which may be more critical than the Revolution or
the Civil War, the problems are so horrendous as to require us
to go outside the legal framework in order to make a statement,
to resist, to begin to establish the kind of institutions and
relationships which a decent society should have. No, not just
tearing things down; building things up. But even if you build
things up that you are not supposed to build up-you try to build
up a people's park, that's not tearing down a system; you are
building something up, but you are doing it illegally-the militia
comes in and drives you out. That is the form that civil disobedience
is going to take more and more, people trying to build a new society
in the midst of the old.
But what about voting and elections? Civil
disobedience-we don't need that much of it, we are told, because
we can go through the electoral system. And by now we should have
learned, but maybe we haven't, for we grew up with the notion
that the voting booth is a sacred place, almost like a confessional.
You walk into the voting booth and you come out and they snap
your picture and then put it in the papers with a beatific smile
on your face. You've just voted; that is democracy. But if you
even read what the political scientists say-although who can?-about
the voting process, you find that the voting process is a sham.
Totalitarian states love voting. You get people to the polls and
they register their approval. I know there is a difference-they
have one party and we have two parties. We have one more party
than they have, you see.
What we are trying to do, I assume, is
really to get back to the principles and aims and spirit of the
Declaration of Independence. This spirit is resistance to illegitimate
authority and to forces that deprive people of their life and
liberty and right to pursue happiness, and therefore under these
conditions, it urges the right to alter or abolish their current
form of government-and the stress had been on abolish. But to
establish the principles of the Declaration of Independence, we
are going to need to go outside the law, to stop obeying the laws
that demand killing or that allocate wealth the way it has been
done, or that put people in jail for petty technical offenses
and keep other people out of jail for enormous crimes. My hope
is that this kind of spirit will take place not just in this country
but in other countries because they all need it. People in all
countries need the spirit of disobedience to the state, which
is not a metaphysical thing but a thing of force and wealth. And
we need a kind of declaration of interdependence among people
in all countries of the world who are striving for the same thing.