By Bill McKibben June 3, 2020
Events are now moving at high speed in this country—every day, President Trump and his crew gallop past new lines, so that the morning’s flagrant usurpation is legitimized by the evening’s even more outrageous improvisation. (Firing tear gas at a crowd in order to be able to stand menacingly in front of a church holding a Bible is hard to top, but I wouldn’t bet against it.) A danger of this is that we’re always reacting to what came before. So perhaps it’s worth skipping a few steps ahead, to places where we haven’t gone yet but very well may.
What I’d like to talk about is civil disobedience, and its uses in authoritarian states. I’m not talking about what’s going on in this country this week—I have no more interest in telling people currently in the streets that they shouldn’t be destroying property than they have in listening to me. If you live a life, as black Americans clearly do, in which a police officer could kill you for allegedly passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill, or if you live a life in which the incompetence of the nation’s leaders has helped precipitate an economic crisis that has left you with no job and no prospect of one—well, I’ve been impressed with how peaceful the vast majority of the people in the streets have been. In fact, Tuesday night may turn out to have been significant. Unintimidated by Trump’s heavy-handedness and local curfews, lots of people once again took to the streets, and a frequent chant—“Why you got your riot gear? We don’t see no riot here”—was both a powerful taunt and accurate reporting.
What I’m talking about is what happens if Trump, indeed, goes further still, and manages to make himself a full-on tyrant. It wouldn’t take much. The Justice Department seems to have become his Justice Department. Congressional Republicans seem unwilling to stand up to him about anything; and, at the moment, some of them, such as Senator Tom Cotton and Representative Matt Gaetz, are egging him on. The courts are ever more packed, and the Pentagon seemed willing to funnel troops and materiel to D.C., then participate in Trump’s political stunt on Monday, which is a bad sign. The President’s constant shout-outs to “the Second Amendment people” are not a dog whistle—they’re a clarion call. Even as Trump keeps escalating, one keeps hoping that he’s merely trying to impress his base—but as we near an election in which he trails in the polls, the danger seems to mount. It’s hard to know what, precisely, a coup looks like if the leader is already the President. Try to imagine troops ordered to use live rounds rather than rubber bullets, no social media on which to talk about it, and Fox News as the only sanctioned TV channel.
It seems a stretch, but such things are commonplace in many parts of the world. (Indeed, if you’re black, facing live ammunition is already an outsize reality here.) If they came to pass, Americans would be in a difficult predicament: whether to submit to that rule or stand up to it. And that’s where civil resistance comes in. I’ve spent much of my adult life organizing a certain kind of nonviolent action—I’ve been in handcuffs more times than I might have imagined—and it’s had some real effect on the paths of pipelines and the flow of money. (As it happens, the first big civil-disobedience actions I helped organize were staged from Lafayette Park, the same place that Trump cleared for his photo-op stroll.) But the kind of civil disobedience that I know how to practice happens in the relatively open society that we’ve been living in (and is much harder for people of color). Other people in other places have worked with far less freedom, and accomplished far more—and their faithful chronicler was a man named Gene Sharp, who died two winters ago, at the age of ninety. I first wrote about him for this magazine thirty-six years ago, when he was already well into his life’s work of cataloguing and explaining all the “methods of nonviolent action” that people had used to stand up to authority.