We Were Never Taught How to Civilly Disobey

We might know the broad strokes of previous protest movements, but the details are elusive — which is exactly why we must document them now

What did we learn in high school history about civil disobedience? 

I remember the Boston Tea Party, and how guerrilla fighters helped incite a revolution. I learned about uprisings from slaves before the nation combusted into civil war. I remember reading short chapters in my history book on the fight for the 14th Amendment and the suffragette movement. I remember watching all three hours of Gandhi, and reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s letters from a Birmingham jail.

What I don’t remember is anyone, or anything, hammering home the reality and frustration of protest movements dragging on for months and years. I don’t remember learning how organizers mobilized crowds, or how those young marchers planned for violent police backlash. I saw photos of Black youth getting firehosed and attacked with police dogs, but never learned how they ended up there or how they got home. 

The vast majority of Americans learn in school that civil disobedience is a world-changing force. But the education never gave us the truth and perspective of life on the ground floor of a movement — the stumbles, the negotiations, the tactics and even the sacrifice. As such, the granular lessons of civil disobedience live primarily in the embodied histories of activists and political thinkers who stood on those historic front lines. 

This matters today as ordinary Americans try to figure out their place and force in a wide spectrum of civil disobedience. For those dipping their toes into direct action, it can be an overwhelming task — the standard classroom experience teaches us nothing about why or how we should get involved. It’s partly the result of glaring whiteness in the education system that skews what perspectives students are exposed to. Fundamentally, though, there’s just a horrible track record of history education in the U.S. school system. Even with the mainstreaming of progressive liberal ideals, multiple generations lack a working understanding of civil disobedience in all its forms and aims. 

No wonder we’re left with so many still wondering aloud why protesters need to shout at a riot line and get tear-gassed. Meanwhile, conservatives and racists continue to troll the world with lectures on what constitutes a peaceful protest, garnished with out-of-context MLK quotes because they don’t get irony. 

The thing is, we’re now living in perhaps the most visible, documented civil rights movement the world has ever seen — like the 1960s in high-definition, with multiple GoPro angles and an endless stream of live Twitter commentary. It’s a history lesson, unfolding live, in front of eyes that can no longer disbelieve. We’re receiving real-time narratives of how agonizing the punishment for civil disobedience can be, even with all public eyes on police behavior. No history book taught us how to deal with a police officer beating you with a baton, stalking you for 20 yards and pepper spraying you straight in the eyeballs just for good measure

The only way to learn, really, seems to be by joining in. But in 2020, that doesn’t necessarily mean taking part in a march or occupying a public space (even if those strategies remain the bedrock of modern protest). Flooding police apps and racist hashtags with fancams of Kpop stars? Definitely civil disobedience. Crashing government websites that encourage people to snitch on others over “employment fraud” during a pandemic? That surely qualifies. Same for virtual sit-ins, which use the power of a crowd to disrupt and hijack sites — or public meetings taking place on Zoom. Let’s throw in old-fashioned fax flooding, while we’re at it. 

People are already wondering what comes after the protests, but the nuanced question may be to wonder how direct action must evolve to keep fresh energy in the movement. We can’t all keep marching every other day, not with the very real threat of COVID still in the air. But that doesn’t mean civil disobedience has to stop — far from it. 

I’ve been heartened by some visible changes in protest planning, including the emphasis on putting white and white-passing people in between police and the crowd, as a symbolic and practical defense of Black lives. We know that the police can and will lie about the harm it does to those who disobey, whether you’re a young Black leader or an old activist who’s never stopped fighting. But modern organizers are educating crowds on how some forms of civil disobedience are more dangerous for certain groups, whether it’s minorities, the poor or those with previous criminal records. 

In the long view, mass civil disobedience is proving once again to be the tool that shapes the national conversation; it’s recently impacted legislation for police transparency, and pushed one of the world’s biggest tech firms to stop its police contracts for surveillance tech. The critical part is for us to document, analyze and sharpen best practices amid the chaos, to create a living record of how efficient and powerful American protest can look. 

Part of it is for eager people to link up with grassroots groups and organizers on the ground floor, and learn and listen from their planning and strategic agenda. But it’s also time that everyone bolstered the education we didn’t get in school. 

After all, there are no end to causes that can be pushed ahead through the force of will and nonviolent disruption. The job just gets much clearer when we all have a proper grasp on what came before — and what remains useful today.