Civil Disobedience is an invaluable tool for any people and an inalienable right of a free and democratic society.  From those who rebelled against the rule of British crown to create the world’s first democracy to great social commenter’s like Henry Thoreau to social justice leaders like Martin Luther King Jr, civil disobedience has been seen and used as an incredibly powerful and meaningful way to work towards achieving a redress of grievances from the people to their rulers and exploiters.  For as many people there are in the world, there are probably an equal number of opinions and comfort-levels with CD, yet it is hard ignore the tactics effectiveness: the founding of a government which is meant to represent ‘the people’, the end of laws which legitimize racism and sexism, the end of wars, the achievement of worker’s rights and workplace and product regulations…. as a tool for outraged citizens acting in rebellion against the way things are, in hopes of making society better and more equitable, CD has done us a whole lot of good (not to say that CD has done all the work in achieving such things- but to note that CD has been an effective tactic in all such campaigns).

Yet, Burlington-area activists who recently engaged in acts of CD at General Dynamics in Burlington in hopes of drawing attention to what they consider to be the immoral actions (and political powers) of that corporation have been circulating a letter in which they reveal a shocking betrayal of the public trust: Chittenden County District Attorney Donovan, in prosecuting these activists, is seeking unusually severe sentences for them, and declared his intent to “put an end” to civil disobedience in his district.  His stated motivation: the City of Burlington, in these tough economic times, lacks the financial resources to handle such things.

Writing about their experiences in this recent case of civil disobediance, the activists note:

While, for the most part, our interactions with the Burlington Police Department were pofessional and even quite amicable (some police even voiced their support for our cause) our dealings with the State’s prosecutor have been less so.  Threats and needless acts of intimidation greeted us at our arraignment.  While the district attorney’s office was not successful in forcing $1,000 in bail to four of those arrested, District Attorney Donovan expressed his desire to seek from us over $6,000 in “restitution” costs: $4,043 to pay for City of Burlington police and fire personnel, $890 for the Chittenden County Sheriff and (outrageously) $1,228.17 in cleaning costs to General Dynamics themselves.

Perhaps Mr Donovan would have liked to see the perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party charged for the tea they threw in the Bay, or Southern African Americans forced to pay restitution’s to the Birmingham transit system for lost revenues following their boycott of segregated buses; perhaps factory workers should have been made to pay for the bullets fired at them as they went on strike, demanding safe working conditions, fair pay, and an end to child labor.  Perhaps Ghandi should have been made to pay for all the clubs that were broken over the heads of Indians demanding their own freedom.

None one (that I know of) is disputing the fact that these are tight economic times, and that acts of civil disobedience and public protest do use public resources (police, courts, etc).  However, a free people’s right to protest, to act out of conscience for the greater good of society even if it is in defiance of the law, is an invaluable right and tradition that must be protected.  Over-burdensome fines and prosecutions are by no means a reasonable way to “protect” the community from itself: rather, it is an unjustifiable use of (economic) force against a people, wielded by those with power against those without it.