Let Lockdown Protesters Protest, but Let Law Enforcement Enforce the Law

A police officer walks near demonstrators in vehicles protesting against lockdown measures during a demonstration calling for the reopening of the state of Virginia in Richmond, Va., April 22, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
We want to enjoy the pleasures and benefits of civil disobedience without paying the price for them.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he Republican political power of the state of Texas has deployed itself in the cause of protecting from legal sanction a hairdresser who repeatedly and willfully violated the law, in this case a Dallas County order that had required businesses such as hers to suspend operations as part of the social-distancing regime.

Salon owner Shelly Luther refused to comply and was given a seven-day sentence for her violations. Senator Ted Cruz called the sentence “nuts.” Governor Greg Abbott called the sentence “excessive,” and Attorney General Ken Paxton, denouncing the move as “outrageous,” demanded Luther’s immediate release — an extraordinary thing for a state’s chief law-enforcement officer to do in the case of an offender who is guilty, prima facie, on the charge, in this case contempt of court. Talk radio and cable news made the case a cause célèbre.

In Owosso, Mich., members of the self-style Michigan Home Guard militia staged an armed protest on behalf of a local barber reopening in defiance of the law. In Texas, bars and tattoo parlors witnessed similar scenes, with the familiar props: the Gadsden and Gonzales flags, red MAGA hats, black guns. Polite coastal progressives, among them the headline writers of the Washington Post, are scandalized and repulsed. That isn’t a question of public safety (the District of Columbia’s murder rate is four times that of Texas) but a matter of aesthetics, in much the same way that the corporate response of well-scrubbed progressives to the Tea Party protests was “Eww, gross.”

But the Tea Party gang was a law-abiding bunch. Rhetorical flourishes from constitutional street scholars notwithstanding, the armed protests in Texas and Michigan and elsewhere are being organized on behalf of people who are breaking the law — not ordinary protest but civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience is a necessary item in the libertarian toolkit, but a dangerous one. The problem, as I wrote in the matter of Cliven Bundy, is “the fact that every Timothy McVeigh thinks himself a Paul Revere.” The theory of the American militia movement is that organized but decentralized groups of armed citizens are desirable in cases in which local social order breaks down and, in extremis, as a check on tyranny. Progressives scoff at that notion on tactical grounds — they simultaneously denounce the scary black guns as “weapons of war” and insist that those guns are insignificant as weapons of war — but the question isn’t who’d come out on top in a pitched battle between the Michigan Home Guards and the Green Berets. The question instead is that of the citizen’s relationship to the state. Progressives see the state as a magisterial and tutelary power over and above the citizenry — as individuals, businesses, churches, etc. — while the American order is founded on the assumption that the state is the instrument of the people. A conflict between a British king and an army led by a Virginia farmer implanted very deeply into our political culture the belief that the right to keep and bear arms is the difference between a citizen and a subject.

And for that reason, the American tradition of civil disobedience is not remarkable for its nonviolence. For every Henry David Thoreau or Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. we have a Patrick Henry, standing up in the general assembly and calling for the murder of the king, or a John Brown organizing a massacre in Kansas. The American self-conception is right there on the Virginia state seal, among other places: Virtue treading on Tyranny, Brutus over the bloody corpse of Julius Caesar. You may think of that as delusional, and you may be correct, but if it is a delusion, it is a delusion that is central to the American political character.

But we are greedy, and we are childish. We want to enjoy the pleasures and benefits of civil disobedience without paying the accompanying price for them. King George would have been doing his duty to hang George Washington et al. We hanged John Brown. Henry David Thoreau spent time in jail for his antiwar activism, as did the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in the cause of civil rights. Thoreau did his time happily. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” he wrote, “the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

That is part of the deal, too. If we were to take leave of our senses and take seriously the proposition that Dallas County’s coronavirus order is tyranny in the sense the Founding Fathers had in mind, then surely seven days’ imprisonment would be only a modest price to pay for opposing that tyranny. By way of comparison: Sister Megan Rice, 84 years old at the time of her sentencing, served two years in a federal penitentiary for her lawbreaking anti-nuclear protests, and she might easily have spent the rest of her life there had not her conviction been overturned.

Set aside the usual snobbery from our progressive friends, who take it as an article of faith that right-ish protest is categorically unacceptable. (Remember not only the tea parties, and the dishonest accounts of them, but the so-called Brooks Brothers Riot and other incidents of that kind.) Consider instead the perversity of having a state’s chief law-enforcement officer extend himself so far in the cause of programmatic law-breaking: If that is not the politicization of the attorney general’s office, then what is? And such politicization should be resisted, reversed where possible, and punished where necessary. The protests against coronavirus orders may resonate culturally on the right, but the attorney general’s job is not to be the Right’s cultural champion in Texas, any more than it is to be the Left’s cultural champion in New York. Shelly Luther’s part is to break the law. The part of law enforcement is to enforce the law.

There is a time for willful lawbreaking. But if you are going to open up that can, you’d better be prepared to eat it all.

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