The power of civil disobedience

I was arrested once. It never showed up in any opposition research in my campaigns for Congress because it was expunged from the record. But it did happen and even I spent a few hours in a District of Columbia jail cell. My crime was committing an act of civil disobedience. Now when I read about how the Republican legislators in Georgia have essentially banned people from providing drinking water to voters in long lines, I think about that old arrest and consider whether that is worth doing again.

It was in the 1980s while I was working for the American Jewish Congress. At the time, the Soviet Union engaged in the systematic persecution of Jews. A handful of my colleagues and I decided to protest the policies by standing illegally in front of the old Soviet Union embassy. As crime and punishment goes, it was a rather polite affair. We chanted some songs and made some remarks until the police had ordered us to disperse.

After we refused, the police wrapped twist plastic ties around our wrists, loaded us into a van, and drove us to a local jail. It was not exactly a hard time for the hour or two that we spent in confinement. Our prepositioned cadre of lawyers had negotiated a swift release and the expunging of the entire affair from the record. I realize this is trifling when compared to the civil disobedience of civil rights heroes like former Representative John Lewis, but it still felt good. Instead of complaining about injustice, I was doing something that had been at the time at least noticeable.

Today I am ready to do it again. This time the abuse that demands civil disobedience is not the persecution of minorities in the oppressive Soviet Union. Today it is the same repugnant behavior waged in state capitals by our own lawmakers against their fellow Americans, particularly people of color, lower income earners, students, and others who are assumed to generally support Democrats at the polls. Indeed, more than 350 bills in over 40 states have been introduced to infringe on voting rights.

Absentee voters in Georgia are forced to prove their identity. Michigan and Wisconsin have introduced bills to “prohibit election administrators from proactively sending out” mail voting applications. Pennsylvania is trying to eliminate “no excuse” mail voting that passed in 2019. All of this is predicated on a conspiracy theory and the “big lie” that Donald Trump was denied a second term because of election fraud. The claim has been invalidated demonstrably and repeatedly. The sponsors of these bills may as well write emergency legislation to protect us from Big Foot.

The motives for these actions are clear. The supporters of these bills are fighting their war against democracy and demography, and their survival instincts are raging. Indeed, Democratic candidates for president have won the majority of votes in seven of the last eight races. People of color represent a larger share of the electorate. Rather than trying to appeal to more Americans, the Republican strategy has been reduced to building a moat and making it harder for voters to exercise their rights.

The latest infamous law in Georgia includes a ban on giving away water or food to voters within a certain distance of polling sites. Defenders of the law claim that it does not prohibit election workers from making available unattended water receptacles. So I guess if you are standing in long lines because officials have reduced the number of polling sites and have also reduced the opportunities to vote early or by absentee ballot, and you are thirsty, you have to hope there is a drinking fountain nearby.

The law has led to calls for civil disobedience. Reverend Tim McDonald of Atlanta said, “We will make a movement out of that. You know something is wrong when you cannot give grandma a bottle of water and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” Count me in. I support responsible acts of civil disobedience. I can come to Georgia or, if you think it is better, stay on Long Island and support your efforts by contributing to legal assistance funds or even send shipments of water. I want to test whether the act of handing a voter a bottle of water receives the same response by police as invading the Capitol with baseball bats and pepper spray.

What is it about water that seems to define the basic struggle for voting protections, especially in the south? During the 1960s, authorities blasted water cannons against people asserting their democratic rights. Now they are denying sips from dixie cups. Even the Soviet Union had caved to civil disobedience and pressure from around the world. If the communists in Moscow can do it, the conservatives in Atlanta certainly can.

Steve Israel represented New York in the House over eight terms and was chairman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can follow his updates @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags Americans Constitution Democracy Election Government Protests Voting

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