What is a mob? What is civil disobedience?

The Washington Post reports that Republicans are gleefully spreading the word that Democrats and the “liberal mob” are out of control and that Republicans represent the bulwark against this chaos.

We must challenge the characterization of nonviolent protests as “mob rule.” It is not. It is an expression of our First Amendment right to free speech.

To counter this fabrication, we have to ask: What is a mob? What is Civil Disobedience? In my Law and Social Change class at the University of Arizona, we open with these two questions. For the first, students read Frances Fox Piven’s Challenging Authority. Piven’s history recounts the uses of mobs and violence in the American Revolution — incidents like the Tea Party and tar-and-feathering British loyalists. Piven’s definition of a mob includes violence and/or the destruction of property.

To answer the second question, the class reads Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he challenges a group of white clergymen who accuse him of “inciting violence” through his organizing of nonviolent civil disobedience. His response is still relevant: “In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?”

We have always experienced troubling gray areas between the definition of a mob and the expression of civil disobedience. When the Berrigan brothers used napalm to destroy draft records, during the Vietnam War draft, anti-war protestors debated whether the destruction of property was within the scope of “nonviolent” civil disobedience. Poet Adrienne Rich thought it was a justified use of napalm and wrote a poem about “the burning of paper instead of children.” Others disagreed.

The Watts riots destroyed property and lives. That was a mob. Rodney King was beaten and nearly killed by a mob. And generations earlier, black citizens were beaten and lynched by mobs who then cheered and celebrated by having family picnics under the swaying corpse(s).

What were the protestors who confronted Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Ted Cruz and their families in restaurants? There was no destruction of property or persons. We would have to stretch the definition of a mob considerably to call those incidents attacks by mobs. In the Senate during the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, protestors disrupted the proceedings and inconvenienced some who were going through the halls or using elevators.

But these actions hardly qualified as an “out of control mob” as some have characterized them. There was no destruction of property, and in spite of the vitriol being expressed on both sides, there was no tar, no feathers. Being embarrassed by protesters shouting “shame shame” is not to have been the victim of a mob. And none of these protesters was out of control, not in the demonstrations in the Capitol, nor in the demonstrations in restaurants and even in front of homes. Not like the angry driver of a car in Charlottesville, VA, who drove into a crowd of anti-white suprmacist demonstrators, killing one and injuring nineteen.

First Amendment Rights

Candidate Trump supporters beating a demonstrator who carried a sign against Trump were certainly within same description as the police in Birmingham who beat nonviolent demonstrators during Civil Rights demonstrations. People exercising their First Amendment rights should not be confused with those who respond to their message with violence.

Nonviolent civil disobedience may be messy, it may be embarrassing to some, it may be confusing to observers. The nonviolent demonstrators may outnumber those against whom they are protesting or those to whom they want to bring a message.

But are they a mob? No.

Judith McDaniel, PhD, JD, teaches Law and Social Change at the University of Arizona. Her book, Sanctuary: A Journey, was published by Firebrand Books in 1986

Judith McDaniel, PhD, JD, teaches Law and Social Change at the University of Arizona. Her book, Sanctuary: A Journey, was published by Firebrand Books in 1986