Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Civil Disobedience or Mob Rule?

Yesterday I was conversing on-line with a couple of people who are British citizens, but who live in the United States.  We were discussing the rioting and violence that is happening in Britain.  One of the gentlemen commented that this was a day of shame for Britain.  In an effort to make him feel better, I told him that this is more than Britain's problem, it is a world wide problem.  It's mob rule.  I told him that the United States has also had "days of shame."  He asked me to point to a time in the United States where there had been rioting.  I told him that I hadn't seen it to the extent that I'm seeing it now in Britain, but that I remembered the Rodney King riots in Southern California, and that I also remembered the race riots of the 1960s and 1970s.  He conceded that he did remember the Rodney King riots, but told me that he put the riots of the 1960s and 1970s in a "different class" because they were for a "purpose."  It was at that point that I extracted myself from the conversation.

So is rioting ever justified?  Is mob rule okay, because it's for a cause?  Who determines whether the cause warrants the violence?  Is there a visible line in the sand between "civil disobedience" and "mob rule?"  Merriam Webster on-line gives this definition for civil disobedience:  "Refusal to obey governmental demands or commands especially as a nonviolent and usually collective means of forcing concessions from the government."  That does not sound like the race riots of the 1960s and 1970s to me, and it certainly is not the rioting and burning of London and other British cities.

I have always been a big proponent of civil rights, and as a teenager tested the limits at home because I did not want my parents to apply for a variance from the high school that the district wanted me to attend for desegregation reasons.  I lost that battle, but it was a battle worth fighting.

I watched in horror the police brutality during the 1968 Democratic National Convention after a year of over a hundred riots in cities across the nation.  I also remember with disgust the Kent State Massacre in 1970 after a student protest of the American invasion of Cambodia.  Both these incidents prove to me that there is also potential for wrong doing within our own government agencies--even mob rule.

I've always treated people as I would want to be treated, regardless of the color of skin, nationality, or what religion they are (or aren't).  Things are still not perfect for all segments of society, but I'm glad that we've had a great deal of success in my lifetime.  However, I would never set fire to a city, beat people with sticks, kick a person's head in with cowboy boots (an incident I remember from my childhood), throw rocks through windows, and terrorize my neighbors "for the cause."  There is a right way and a wrong way to bring about change.

My Dad used to say that mob rule is ugly, and "when you find yourself in a crowd, be on the 'outside looking in,' not on the 'inside looking out.'"  That's an incredibly vivid picture for me that I've always remembered.  I've been in the middle of crowds, and I've watched things begin to turn sour.  At some point, you have to remove yourself from the crowd and then take a look at what is happening around you.  If it smells foul, back away.  That foul smell is mob rule.

I don't live in Great Britain, and I won't pretend to understand what is happening, or the reasons behind what is happening.  I do agree with my on-line friend that it is a very sad day in British history.  I don't agree with him that it would have somehow been justified "for cause."  Civility is paramount to the survival of society.  How we treat our fellow human beings and their property shouldn't be based on some "theory" of who is right or wrong.  There is a line in the sand that I will not cross, no matter how justified the cause.


  1. Very powerful topic! I believe that there are causes worth standing for, though always in the kindest and most civil way possible. There are many courageous people that want to correct what they see as an unacceptable wrong, and are willing to give a lot to accomplish that. I have to respect their principles and their passion, while still not condoning their methods. It is, indeed, a fine balance to strike.

  2. Music Mama -- Thanks for stopping by. It is a difficult subject, and I agree, it is a fine balance to strike.