“Non-violent direct action” from the Right

The threatened trucker shutdown of DC as a reductio ad absurdum of “civil disobedience.”

Civil disobedience – nonviolent direct action – is, in my view, a justified alternative to violent revolution, to be used when the democratic process is unavailable, as was the case during the Second Reconstruction era. Blacks denied the right to vote in the South, and their white supporters, took direct action – facing both arrest and illegal violence by law enforcement officials and others – against an intolerable and undemocratic system.

But when the ballot box is available, direct action to coerce the majority and its elected representatives into yielding to your policy demands is not justifiable. I thought that in the context of the Vietnam War, when the “shut it down” folks managed to enrage the very voters they need to so persuade and thereby helped re-elect Richard Nixon and keep the war going, and nothing that has come along since has changed my mind.

On the other hand, it’s fair to say that I have utterly failed to persuade anyone of my viewpoint on this. “Civil disobedience” as a tactic is hallowed by its use in the Civil Rights era, and the invocation of that slogan serves as an effective argument-ender. (Nor have I persuaded anyone, so far as I can tell, to read the original Thoreau essay, which is about withdrawal of obedience as a revolutionary strategy against a government engaged in imperialism and slavery, not a mere pressure-group tactic.)

But history, it is said, is philosophy teaching by example. Whether or not a group of lunatic truckers following the lead of a failed C&W singer actually succeed in nonviolently paralyzing the Capital next week (more, that is, than the Republicans in Congress have already paralyzed it) by their (fully nonviolent) tactic of making their trucks a “moving roadblock” on the Beltway, the fact that the tactic is being used in support of a group of incoherent but obviously right-wing demands ought to help clarify the moral issues involved for some progressives.

So, some questions for RBC readers:

1. Do you hope that the FBI has infiltrated the group and is able to identify those coming to DC for the purpose of shutting down the city?

2. Would you support the pre-emptive arrest of those who have entered into the conspiracy when they are found to be moving toward DC with their eighteen-wheelers? Or should the police stand by helplessly until the city is blockaded? If the truckers carry through on their threat to lock their brakes and walk away, the process of clearing the roads could take days.

My guess is that this will fizzle. But the extremist political rhetoric and actions of the right-wing media and political elite both heightens the risk of this sort of behavior and raises the stakes enormously. I’d like to hear Rand Paul and Ted Cruz discourage their followers from participating, but I’m not holding my breath. The scariest thing about the U.S. News article is that every single right-leaning commenter supports this lunacy.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

49 thoughts on ““Non-violent direct action” from the Right”

  1. I’d like to hear Rand Paul and Ted Cruz discourage their followers from participating, but I’m not holding my breath.

    Paul and Cruz? Forget it. What about so-called “respectable” conservatives? Have you asked your pal McArdle to comment? Or your fellow UCLA faculty member Eugene Volokh?

    How far does the lunacy have to go before we can no longer regard anyone on the right as not implicated in the massive destructive stupidity that current conservativism in the US represents?

  2. Mark clearly doesn’t speak French. The French have what most folk consider to be a functioning democracy, and they do this kind of stuff all the time. They can live with it, and so can we, if necessary. Democracy is a lot more than the ballot box and free speech. I don’t think democracy is consistent with violence, but it is consistent with some disorder. Indeed, if one thinks about Singapore, maybe a bit of disorder is necessary for democracy.

    I’m not particularly worried about right-wing civil disobedience. Remember, the truculent right is the small-penis society. They’re noisy, but they wilt easily if faced with any serious resistance. Do you really think, for example, that the Westboro church would do what they do if a policeman’s baton was in the picture? And in the unlikely event that they’re willing to walk their tough talk, their trucks are probably forfeitable. Which makes it all the more unlikely that they’ll follow through. Economic insecurity is one of their planks.

    1. I was going to make this exact comment, but probably not as well. Thanks for handling it.

    2. Yes. Strikes and marches and demonstrations and sit-ins are all part of the democratic picture. It´s a way of conveying the information that a significant minority cares a lot about an issue; information that polls and ballot boxes do not convey.

      We are starting to see civil disobedience against the Keystone pipeline, and we are likely to see it on campuses as students press their universities to divest themselves from fossil fuels. Fine by me.

  3. Mark, please don’t play into their hands. Freedom of assembly, and all that. Freedom of movement, too, though I can’t recall if that’s a Constitutional Right, a Human Right agreed by treaty, or just a Good Idea. Keeping an eye on them and being ready is perhaps reasonable, and legal sanctions and intervention may be available proportionate to their eventual actions – but not their plans, nor their rhetoric. You want to charge people for criminal conspiracy, for nonviolence? OK, maybe – after the criminal conspiracy has born fruit.

    Also, infiltration is almost always a bad idea; it seems to result not only in accusations of Agents Provocateur, but extremely often also in pretty solid documented evidence of same. Look up what happened around the 2008 Republican National Convention, for a sterling example. Or read up on the Coal Miners’ Strike in Britain, which involved exactly the same of preventative action against putative demonstrators that you seem to endorse.

    Shorter me: just because these people are proposing to be assholes in a bad cause doesn’t mean we should contemplate endorsing police-state tactics in a good cause.

    1. “but extremely often also in pretty solid documented evidence of same.”

      No kidding: They used to say in the Michigan Militia, that if you wanted to identify the federal infiltrators, all you had to do was look for the people suggesting that you rob a bank, or something else illegal.

      As I recall, the big scandal about the OK bombing was the extent to which they discovered it had been facilitated by government agents playing provocateur.

        1. I don’t know if you think this qualifies. Mind, the government isn’t usually in a hurry to document it’s own screwups.

          1. Brett, you wrote: the OK bombing was […] facilitated by government agents playing provocateur.

            That is an extraordinary, highly inflammatory allegation. But the “proof” you link to — a seven-page article in Mother Jones — doesn’t say anything remotely like that. I mean, not even in the ballpark.

            Explain yourself, please. Or apologize to the RBC for making such a disgusting claim and then being unable to support it.

      1. Yeesh. No.

        The “big scandal” about the OKC bombing was that a right-wing domestic terrorist murdered 168 people and injured hundreds more, via a truck-bomb attack on a building housing various government offices and a day-care center.

        1. I think you’re confusing “scandal” and “outrage”; The concepts are only vaguely similar.

          1. No word games, please. For one thing, you’re wrong: googling scandal definition provides this as the very first result: “an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage”.

            More importantly, you’re dodging the point. The outrageous aspect of the OKC bombing was not that it was “facilitated” by a government “agent provocateur” because there is no evidence whatsoever to support your paranoid conspiracy theories.

            The primary outrage here is that a right-wing domestic terrorist truck-bombed the Murrah building and murdered 168 adults and children. A comparatively minor but non-trivial secondary outrage is that you apparently are sunk so deep in your right-wing fantasies that you deny reality in favor of conspiracy theories.

      2. This is a new low in my experience of the RBC. Brett is claiming that government agents provocateurs “facilitated” the Oklahoma City bombing.

        What’s next? The Newtown school shootings were a false flag operation? Hillary Clinton personally murdered Vince Foster?


        1. I wonder, when these truckers try to arrest Pelosi, are they prepared to be peacefully arrested themselves? To have their trucks towed off and pay whatever fines and towing charges are appropriate?

        2. I’m getting the impression you don’t understand what I mean by “facilitate”. It’s the difference between handing somebody the noose at a lynching, and, in an effort to give them enough rope to hang themselves, accidentally giving them enough rope to hang somebody else.

          The government facilitates crimes all the time. What do you think undercover cops do before the final arrest? They facilitate crimes.

          As I said, they used to say in the Michigan Militia that you could identify the government’s infiltrator, because they were the ones urging you to rob a bank. Why? Because if you didn’t instantly shut down that line of talk, and throw them out of the organization, anything you did which they could claim furthered a plot to rob a bank, (Even though you might have been doing it for some other reason.) could be used to bring conspiracy charges against the whole group.

          So, what do you suppose has happened, if the government’s infiltrator urges the group to rob a bank, and then some of the group members think, “Great idea. But that guy’s a dweeb, we won’t invite him along.”? That’s right, a bank gets robbed because of the government.

          So, let’s suppose some dude named Robert Millar is advocating violent action against the ATF, and circulating copies of the Turner diaries. And somebody decides, “Hey, great idea, let’s go off on our own and do it!”. And Robert Millar just happens to be working for the FBI as an informant and agent provocateur.

          Then the government has just facilitated the Oklahoma city bombing, without intending to.

          1. So, let’s suppose some dude named Robert Millar is advocating violent action against the ATF, and circulating copies of the Turner diaries. And somebody decides, “Hey, great idea, let’s go off on our own and do it!”. And Robert Millar just happens to be working for the FBI as an informant and agent provocateur. Then the government has just facilitated the Oklahoma city bombing, without intending to.

            Except you’ve provided no evidence at all that such a thing happened. When asked for proof of your allegations, you linked to a 2007 article in Mother Jones. Here’s the sum total of what it says about Robert Millar:

            (1) “Elohim City’s inhabitants were followers of the late Robert Millar, who taught a doctrine known as Christian Identity, which holds that black and brown people and other ‘non-whites’ (including Jews) are ‘mud people.'”
            (2) “Millar himself shared some information with the fbi, according to his former attorney, Kirk Lyons, in hopes of avoiding a Waco-style raid.”

            “Sharing some information with the FBI” is by no means the same as “working for the FBI as an agent provocateur”. For someone who likes to quibble about other people’s use of language, you sure manage to make some huge leaps of interpretation yourself.

            My guess is that you’ve read allegations that the FBI provoked McVeigh into bombing the Murrah Building on various wingnut websites and have absorbed the idea, but recognize that you can’t cite them as a credible source. So you tried and failed to come up with a more reality-based source to support your views, then gave up and pointed to the Mother Jones article in hopes that you could just kind of gloss over the vast gulf between:

            (A) Robert Millar’s lawyer claims that he shared some information with the FBI about the white supremacist community at Elohim City,


            (B) Robert Millar was working for the FBI as an agent provocateur and he facilitated the Oklahoma City bombing.

            You are claiming (B) but your source only claims (A). And even that claim is basically third-hand.

  4. What… everybody said.

    Plus, if they don’t come we’re going to miss out on some epic interviews, like when they have no idea what their favorite part of the Constitution (the 2nd Amendment) actually says. It is, after all, one whole sentence.

  5. This isn’t an assassination plot or anything, right? I don’t think I see a justification for prior restraint or pre-emptive arrest. They want to block the interstates–let them. Arrest them, seize their vehicles, and prosecute them to the fullest extent. There’s probably a way to take away their commercial licenses for that kind of nonsense. If they think this stunt is going to be a Selma moment…well, let’s put it to the public and see.

    1. Isn’t a “rolling blockade” the practice of lining up across the lanes, and then viciously driving at the speed limit? I think you don’t have to be a libertarian to raise an eyebrow at the notion of preemptively arresting people for threatening to refrain from violating traffic laws.

      1. As I’m sure you are only pretending not to know, slower vehicles are required to keep right, so even if they’re driving the speed limit (or slower), it’s unambiguously illegal to do it while blocking faster traffic.

        That said, I don’t see any need to infiltrate the group with undercover cops, or pursue them before the fact. It’s not as if prosecution will be challenging: the guilty ones are the ones those trucks were impounded after being found parked on the highway.

        1. IIRC, you’re, technically, only supposed to be passing vehicles which are traveling slower than the speed limit; If you’re traveling AT the speed limit, you’re not, (Except with respect to emergency vehicles.) legally the ‘slower’ vehicle, because any vehicle traveling faster is doing so illegally.

          1. I don’t know about the states in question but there are plenty of them where it is illegal to force someone to pass you on the right even if they are going over the speed limit.

          2. If only there were some method by which once could check the veracity of one’s recall: DC Municipal Regulations, Rule 18-2201:

            “Upon all roadways, any vehicle proceeding at less than the normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing shall be driven in the right-hand plane then available for traffic, or as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway, except when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction or when preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road, driveway, or alley.”

            The rule doesn’t mention the legal speeds; instead it says that any vehicle proceeding at less than the normal speed. So, yeah. They’re obliged not to block traffic. That said, I think infiltrating a group planning non-violent demonstration is a really bad idea.

          3. Is any part of the Beltway inside DC? I think we need to look at VA and MD regs, instead.

  6. My favorite part: “We’re going to go the 55 mph speed limit.”

    On 495? Yeah, right. If they are able to go the speed limit they’ll keep traffic moving pretty well.

  7. Agree with Joel, Ebenezer, Warren, and yes, Katja. And really, your recollection of the events of 1972 is not the one I share. Your hippie bashing has deep roots indeed

  8. Letting these nutters do this may have some benefits, such as:

    1. A group of right-wing truckers loose their economic security and power, by loosing their trucks.

    2. The government arresting these folks, taking possession of their rides, and hauling them off would be a form of stimulus. Yeah, the truckers would curtail economic activity for a few days, but for mostly government workers and contractors, they can work from home or take a further extended vacation.

    So yeah, I am kinda interested to see this all play out…


  9. I agree with Mark on the general impropriety and usual ineffectiveness of civil disobedience in most situations. I agree with everyone else about the undesireability of prior restraint. If this comes to fruition, let it happen and then hammer them.

    1. Hammer them for what, exactly? For causing a traffic jam? I think they should get the appropriate traffic citations and their trucks should be towed if they are blocking traffic. Apart from that, I am every bit as opposed to bashing truckers as I am to hippie bashing. Power to the people! And all that jazz, right?

      1. I think that’s most of the “hammering” people are talking about. These people make a living with their trucks, so if they feel so strongly about…whatever it is…something about Syria?…that they want their trucks impounded, fine by me.

  10. There’s a difference between the kinds of civil disobedience practiced during the civil rights era and the kind of mass vandalism being proposed by these asshats: sit-ins and boycotts didn’t deprive the public of the use of public works, and they didn’t endanger public safety.

    I live in the D.C. area, and it is generally pretty difficult to get around the area without using 95/495 (A.K.A. “the beltway”). You can travel North/South pretty easily, but not East/West. Emergency vehicles rely on the interstates just to get around the “down-county” parts of Montgomery and Prince-Georges counties in Maryland (and the mid-county parts of northern Virginia). If the beltway were effectively blocked people would die because ambulances would not be able to get to local hospitals quickly (not to mention what kind of excess chaos and traffic accidents the truckers will cause while snarling traffic).

    That said, I’m not sure that these truckers know what they’re getting themselves into. They’ll be pulling this stunt in some of the most Democratic leaning counties in the country, which likely means that the local prosecutors will go heavy on them. I’m sure that they will have their commercial licenses revoked (possibly permanently) for pulling this kind of stunt. I’d hope that they would also have their trucks confiscated, rather than just impounded (which will certainly happen).

  11. Am I wrong to take this as an implicit endorsement by Kleiman of the infiltration of left leaning groups by government agents and preemptive arrest of non-violent activists? I’m honestly stunned.

    1. I think perhaps you are wrong to take it as such. I read this as a challenge to resist such visceral responses to what seems to be baseless vandalism. My emotional response to theses idiots would be to shut them down preemptively by any means. But these questions starkly outline the comparison to abuse of power used against the left in the past, so they remind me that no matter how ignorant and baseless the accusations made by these truckers may be, they must be allowed to assemble and protest.

      So my restrained and reasonable response, no matter how much I hate the wrong headedness of these truckers, is to answer no and no to these two questions, in spite of my gut wanting to say yes and yes.

      These truckers want to complain about fuel prices, which is something it is unreasonable to demand the government change. They falsely believe there are intentional policies to raise prices, and that they should be catered to with artificially lowered prices. They make unreasoned claims of dereliction of duty by Democratic politicians only, and they state angry support for impeachment without articulating any case for it. I have to think these truckers believe they have legitimate grounds for anger when they do not because they have been systematically lied to by right wing media and the self reinforcing bubble of epistemic closure, originally intended to rile up Republican voters to get them to the polls, but now seemingly it is getting out of control and is dishonestly inflaming the passions of sincere but ignorant people to insurrection.

      As far as comparisons to Civil Rights or anti-war movements, it’s hard to find any moral equivelance between the urgent call to stop the actual slaughter of millions of Vietnamese, or the actual systematic violence and intentional denial of dignity and opportunity to millions of people based on skin color, and the belligerent angry self-entitled reaction to imaginary conspiracies to socialize the economy or Islamify our laws. I could only pick out one claim of these truckers that seemed a legitimate complaint that may have validity, which was protest against fourth amendment violations of their cabs.

      It seems the way to treat this protest, if they actually drive at the speed limit and do not intentionally cause roadblocks, is to leave them in peace, but to prepare to arrest, tow, and impound if they actually break the law. Violating constitutional rights in order to prevent a day of snarled traffic seems like terrible overkill no matter how stupidly misguided these hotheads may be.

      1. On rereading I see nothing to support your interpretation. He thinks non-violent direct action is unjustifiable coercion in a democracy, and hopes this event will teach progressives that lesson.

        1. I re-read too, and now it seems you are right. But there is a difference between whether one supports such action, whether one thinks it is effective, and whether one thinks it is constitutionally a right, so there is still some room for ambiguity in the interpretation.

          So “clarify moral issues” does not necessarily mean that the answers to #1 and #2 should be yes. But that might be what is meant here, which does shock me.

          For me considering these questions helped to reveal some political bias that I have. I saw the FBI actions in the 60s as unqualified evil, whereas I found the thought of the FBI shutting these guys down kind of appealing emotionally. But as I explained above, I see that as wrong, even if appealing. It clarifies that I don’t really support direct action meant to disrupt (as opposed to merely publicize or to take constructive action), and don’t see it as effective. I felt the same during the Occupy Movement. I totally supported the motives behind it, but not the tactics. And I also felt the movement suffered from some very wildly impractical idealism, such as the idea that society could be rebuilt from the ground up based on pure direct democracy at all levels. The idea that there was no real leadership, with no focused goals or demands weakened the movement. The idea of sitting around in parks, or taking possession of public space, was also kind of pointless in the end, and turned people against them. I would really rather see more effective democratic organizing, which is much harder to do but more effective in the long run.

          Helping to elect Nixon was a pretty impressive own-goal. I get that point and agree with that point. But using the FBI as a political tool is absolutely wrong, and using the law to preempt these truckers in what appears to be a legal action is also wrong, intentionally disruptive and boneheaded as their action may be.

          I think the moral issues blur a little if we imagine this group to be planning so-called “second amendment remedies”. Watching carefully for any sign of violence seems advisable, and taking action to preempt that is necessary if the evidence is there. But overall I can’t see making arrests until crimes are actually committed, and it seems they need to be given the benefit of the doubt that they are peaceful in intent.

  12. Mr. Kleiman really, really hates hippies, doesn’t he? I missed the hippie era by about five years myself but I never begrudged them the fun they had or exciting changes to US culture they were part of.


  13. I am looking forward to the stimulus to the local economy, as all those truckers buy fuel and pay our Northern Virginia transportation-improvements tax in the process.

    1. I am looking forward to the stimulus to the local economy, as all those truckers buy fuel and pay our Northern Virginia transportation-improvements tax in the process.

      To think nothing of the near term prospects of the towing industry.

  14. One of the things that’s always been fundamental to civil disobedience is that you acknowledge you’re breaking the law and agree that the legal system has power over you. The idea is to get the bad law or the procedure changed, not to have a get-out-of-jail-free card because you’re engaged in political activity.

    1. Right, a fundamental basis of it, since Ghandi making salt by the sea, is to publicly violate the law, in such a fashion that the conscience is outraged by enforcing the law against you. Thus motivating support to change the law. This business of violating an unrelated and justifiable law just to protest something really doesn’t deserve to be called civil disobedience, IMO.

  15. I’ve been peripherally involved in Critical Mass rides; this seems to be the same sort of thing.

    But this is where you lose me completely: But when the ballot box is available, direct action to coerce the majority and its elected representatives into yielding to your policy demands is not justifiable. If you are a minority, no amount of access to voting will protect you. (So I think that even if blacks could have voted, non-violent resistance to Jim Crow in areas where they were a minority would have been justified.)

  16. The cops should pump extra-loud Ted Nugent songs into the protest area. That would make anybody leave, including Ted.

  17. Although I don’t agree with most bicyclist activism, SamChevre makes a good point — if the disobedience is in regard to fundamental rights of minority groups, it can be justifiable. Though if it is backed by arguments unconvincing to the majority/law enforcement, it still won’t work.

    These guys sound pretty incoherent, but otoh, I also think the costs of moving towards green transport should be allocated socially, not just put on indy truckers, regardless of how addled they may be. These are working, 99% people and some of their concerns sound valid to me, even if I still like clean air.

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