Two members of the grassroots group Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) were arrested last week while monitoring hazing operations being perpetrated against Yellowstone buffalo. When I found out that one of them was injured by a police officer, a man I had met named Dan Brister, I became upset. In part, I was upset over what happened to Dan; in part, I was upset because I was pretty sure that the media and the casual observer would tend to take the police side on the issue. Because of that, I wrote a short essay honoring Dan Brister. I meant in the essay to draw upon my firsthand experience both of Dan and of my firsthand experience with the way police often act in protest situations. Being used to the criticism both from people on the right who trust the institutions of law and order and from liberals, especially in the peace movement, who claim to be followers of nonviolence, I wrote my short piece about Dan in order to challenge the natural assumptions that these camps make.
Of course, and not to my surprise, a blogger in Montana criticized the BFC arrestees for not following the principles of civil disobedience. The blogger focused on police allegations that Peter Bogusko kicked out the rear window of the police car, of which he is expected to plead not guilty. However, writing about both arrestees, the blogger writes:
Perhaps Bogusko has some sort of internal moral compass by which he is cosmically not guilty -- but didn't the gentlemen make a clear decision to break the law? No bison were going to be "saved" by their actions and the effort would seem to be at least in part to attract attention, in filming the happenings and perhaps also through being arrested.
Since the two men intended to break the law - a fact not at all obvious to me - they should accept the punishment afforded to them by pleading guilty. This is classically in line, the blogger asserts, with the theory of civil disobedience practiced by early Christians up through the present. However, since the two are pleading not guilty, the blogger offers this criticism:
What is a bit incomprehensible is the spectacle of someone making a point of breaking the law, and then claiming that they didn't -- or looking for legal loopholes to get out of punishment. Today, civil disobedience is something most associated with liberal causes, but there are other examples. For instance, there are radical abortion opponents (precious few compared to the hysteria mounted on the left about them -- but they have certainly been there) who have bombed abortion clinics using the moral justification that they are trying to save lives.
Fine -- well, not really fine, but fine for the sake of argument. But then such an individual should show up at the police station and take credit for the bombing, taking his legal lumps -- acting like a man and accepting the punishment prescribed by law. If someone was killed in the bombing, this means pleading guilty to murder and going to jail for life or accepting the death penalty without appealing it.On many levels, this analysis of the situation is mistaken. For one thing, no matter the actual facts of the case (whether the police are right, whether the BFC activists are right, or something else altogether), no one was attempting anything that should be confused with civil disobedience. Secondly, even if the original intent was civil disobedience, there are plenty of situations I can imagine where the appropriate response against injustice does not require martyrdom.
I will not be commenting on the merits of the case. As I mentioned from my own experience, I have much greater trust in the accounts given by Buffalo Field Campaign than by the police. I am much more interested in this essay in pursuing the way this event has been framed as people make moral judgments. There seem to be several assumptions that need to be challenged. One is that people engaged in resistance are necessarily looking to break the law. So, when a report about an arrest happens, there is an automatic assumption that this had to be the aim of the action. Another assumption is that people engaged in resistance are morally bound to take their lumps when arrested. So, when someone fights a charge, many assume that they are going against the higher ideals of civil resistance.
So then, let us turn to this analysis.
First of all, it is impossible to imagine that the BFC activists were engaged in civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is the intentional breaking of a law that one deems to be unjust. The aim of civil disobedience is the soundness of the law itself. Let's contrast that with what the BFC activists were doing. The BFC activists were not aiming to break any law in order to question the soundness of the law; they were engaged in trying to document and thereby use that documentation in the longterm struggle of Yellowstone's bison population. In other words, they are engaged in resistance against the policies of the government in stopping the free movements of the buffalo population. That is, their act was one not of disobedience but of resistance. In the course of resistance, people may actually be following or breaking laws depending on the tactic of resistance, but the resistance itself is the motivation for the act, not the particular law itself that has been alledged to be broken.
Thus, even if the BFC activists did as police claimed, it would be mistaken to say that their actions were intended to be acts of civil disobedience. They were acts of resistance against policy. Many acts of resistance are perfectly legal. You cannot draw an assumption about the intent of the protest simply because an arrest happened.
As acts of resistance, however, it would not, of course, follow that any act of resistance is a just act of resistance. And, even if it were a just act of resistance, it would not necessarily amount to the best tactic of resistance. Surely, even if one would not be wrong to break a law does not mean that it would be smart to break the law. If you are in a group with limited resources, and you have to spend a great deal of your time in prison, all your righteousness in the world will not make up to your group the loss of resources you represent. Sometimes, people follow laws they don't believe in because it makes tactical sense for them to do so. I am guessing, for instance, that most anarchists pay taxes (sales taxes and/or income taxes) even though they do not believe in the legitimacy of the government. They do so not because they are hypocritical but because they could not survive long otherwise.
To the question of resistance particular to BFC, is it right to resist what's happening to the buffalo? I believe that it is; the blogger does not question that in the blog. So, we will leave that question in this essay to the side. We will also leave to the side the question of whether breaking the law is sometimes just since by affirming civil disobedience, the blogger affirms that it might be possible to break a law in order to obey a higher law. That would certainly apply to resistance as well. The only question of relevance, then, is whether someone who has been arrested for breaking a law should ever plead not guilty.
Of course, there are two cases now that we need to keep in mind. There is one case where someone did not actually break a law and was arrested for doing so, and there is another where someone did actually break the law. We are assuming that the cause of resistance is just and that it is sometimes just to break the law.
In either case, whether one actually did break the law, there are different circumstances that would dictate whether it makes tactical sense to plead guilty or not guilty. Let us consider for instance one theory of resistance. In Gandhi's theory of satyagraha, the resister is using the force of one's suffering in order to bring a change of heart. In this case, the person resisting breaks the will of the perpetrator by in some sense showing the incompatibility of the perpetrator's force with his stated benevolvent intentions. The point is in some sense to speak with one's enemy in a unique way. In Gandhi's thinking, this act is meant to be forceful and active. In his time, one way to express that act was to fill up the prisons and do so cheerfully, never giving in to the supposed force of the punishment. This is exactly what the early Christians cited in the blog intended to do through their faith.
However, is this the only way to express resistance justly? Today, people fast just as Gandhi did, they rot away in prison for years just like Gandhi did, some march off to jail just like Gandhi did, and the world no longer notices. They do not notice because the act of resistance no longer speaks. It has become a caricature of itself. People go through the mechanics of a "march to the sea" without any sense that what they are doing is intended to be an act of active resistance first and foremost. Their means no longer match their ends, and they waste away hungry for no purpose, languish in jail for no purpose, and pretend to be strong when in fact their imitation of a method of resistance has become weak. It is not resistance; hell, it's not even satyagraha. It is simply passive; people know the results, they know how the game is played. They, then pat themselves on the back for a job well done.
What happens to BFC if all their volunteers plead guilty to crimes whether they have committed them or whether they have not? In what way is their cause advanced? What happens to the people in the field who are watching out for the bison? Will anyone notice or care, especially after each arrest, one is bound to read reactionary responses like the one offered by the blogger, assuming guilt when there may not have been any? Does pleading guilty do anything but add to their burden? How is resistance served?
If we believe that BFC's cause is just, then we should support our friends without asking ourselves whether they are guilty. That is not relevant. We should also not expect them to lay down and accept their punishment as though that is the "nonviolent" and only ethical thing for them to do. They speak loudly enough through their witness and their action in support of the bison. There is nothing unjust about pleading not guilty if it helps to serve their resistance, and it's not a means inconsistent with the ends. If breaking the law can be consistent, so too can pleading not guilty (or pleading guilty as the case may be). If the higher law rests somewhere else, then it's to that law that people must conform.
We can talk about the merits of Buffalo Field Campaign, of resistance in general, but if we are going to chastise people whose resistance we do not question for choosing not to suffer needlessly and passively, forgotten in jail, in the name of a caricature idea of civil disobedience, then we don't understand a thing.
Those of us who accept that what is happening to Yellowstone bison is an act of oppression should stand in solidarity with our friends. I know I do.
For all the stories on this, see the Yellowstone Newspaper.