Civil disobedience is a term coined by Henry David Thoreau in the 1800’s to describe a form of nonviolent resistance. In Thoreau’s essay, it meant doing things like refusing to pay a portion of your income tax that was being used to fund a war you did not support. In modern times, the term has also come to encompass being an active participant in a nonviolent protest. A relevant example of civil disobedience is the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy Wall Street is a series of protests of a variety of modern day problems including economic and social inequality, high unemployment, corporate greed, etc. The protests have now spread throughout the country and are largely peaceful in nature.
However, this weekend, protestors in San Francisco at UC Davis were pepper-sprayed by police during an Occupy Wall Street protest. The incident involved passive protestors who were not fighting police and were not being violent in any way. They were seated on the ground and had their arms crossed in front of them. The protestors flinched and covered their faces but had no other reaction to the attack. Videos of the incident have been widely spread over You Tube and other social networking sites. University officials are now facing criticism for getting the police involved in the non-violent protest.
Occupy Wall Street protests have spread to Florida as well. In Orlando, 19 protestors were arrested by police for trespassing in a city park after hours. While they are free to voice their beliefs, and such freedom is protected by the First Amendment to the constitution, they aren’t necessarily free to do so wherever and whenever they wish. The Government is allowed to put restrictions on where protestors can congregate, what hours they may remain on the premises, and they can even be required to obtain a permit to do so. These are considered reasonable restrictions on free speech.
But should the protestors not comply with these restrictions, should they be subject to violence by law enforcement to end the protest? At worst, they can be arrested for trespassing, a second degree misdemeanor. If they refuse to stand and allow the officers to handcuff them, police may become more aggressive. But resorting to using pepper spray on a group of people who are not being violent or threatening violence is overly harsh and criminal conduct itself. Any other citizen who did the same would be arrested and prosecuted for battery and the fact that those involved are police officers doesn’t justify their actions. If anything, it makes their actions subject to a higher scrutiny because they are entrusted to serve and protect the public.