Civil Disobedience in the Trump Era
For which principles am I willing to take a stand? And if I do take a stand, am I ready to accept the consequences of my resistance?
By Sarah Sentilles
In the wake of the election of President Trump, I ask myself these questions every day. It seems there is always something new to protest: the limiting of women’s access to reproductive rights, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, anti-immigrant policies, travel bans, climate change denial. #Resist is a trending hashtag on social media, and many Americans, some of whom have never before been politically active, are holding meetings in their homes, calling their senators and members of Congress, writing letters to the editor, and marching in the streets to protest local and national policies.
Even the former head of the FBI, James Comey had to confront what he was willing to do in the face of something that didn’t seem right to him. When asked by the president of the United States to promise loyalty, Comey promised honesty instead, and was, eventually, fired.
The day after I attended the Women’s March in Washington DC, I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where I witnessed exhibits documenting the long history of slavery and racism in the United States and the powerful and ongoing resistance against those injustices. Abolitionists, civil rights activists, and the Black Lives Matter movement teach what protest looks like; they model what it means to imagine a more just world and to stake your life on that commitment.
Civil disobedience entails both a refusal to follow an unjust law and a willingness to accept the consequences for your refusal. It’s a readiness to take a stand even when that stand will have drastic effects on your life, sometimes violent effects, including death.
This readiness is part of what drew me to Howard Scott, one of the central figures in my book Draw Your Weapons. A conscientious objector during World War II, Howard worked in Civilian Public Service (CPS), fighting forest fires. His former college roommate, Gordon Hirabayashi, and his family – who were Japanese Americans – were ordered to internment camps, and when Gordon refused to go and was arrested and imprisoned, Howard decided being a conscientious objector was not protest enough. To resist war, conscription, and internment, Howard walked out of the CPS work camp without permission. He, too, was arrested and imprisoned, for years.
Unlike Howard, President Trump was not a conscientious objector. He didn’t protest military service or war itself; he dodged it. Though he appeared to be in good health, Trump received five deferments – one for bone spurs in his heels, the other four for education – which allowed him to avoid going to Vietnam. Like other US presidents who managed to get out of military service – Bill Clinton and George W Bush, for example – Trump wasn’t willing to sacrifice his own body, but he seems perfectly willing to sacrifice the bodies of others.
I’ve been a pacifist for most of my life, and I’d thought my pacifism let me off the hook somehow, as if being against the wars my country fights means they have nothing to do with me. But then I met a veteran who challenged my thinking – a man in one of the college classes I taught, who’d been stationed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He’d signed up for the army reserve because he needed money for school. He went to war so he’d be able to afford to sit in classrooms like mine. Getting to know him, listening to his stories about the violence he witnessed, forced me to confront my own complicity and to recognise that my philosophical disagreement with war was not protest enough.
The election of Donald Trump highlighted my complicity even more. It’s easy to talk about the policies I disagree with. Easy to lampoon politicians I can’t stand. But it’s harder to defend what matters to me. To put my attention toward the kind of world I want to help create. To stake my life on what I think is right. To use my body and my privilege to protect members of my community who are more vulnerable than I am.
In a letter Howard Scott sent to his wife from prison, he wrote, ‘I know it is futile to attempt to extricate myself from the evils in which we are involved. I remain a part of the crimes committed by us … And I do not wish to separate myself from society or my group. I need to intentionally make myself more a part of it.’ For me, Howard’s letter captures exactly what civil disobedience is – not a withdrawal from the world, but an immersion in it; not a separation of oneself from others, but a deep commitment to community in all its difficulties.
When I turned on the radio to listen to President Trump announce the US was pulling out of the Paris Accord, all I could hear were birds singing in the background. I understood their song as call to protect the earth and the beings with whom we share this planet. How will I use my privilege? What will my resistance look like? What consequences will it bring? To live by peace and principle means to live with integrity, to align your inner commitments with your outer life, and in a political system that seems to operate by greed and dishonesty and fear, that seems to willing to do anything to anyone to maintain power, such alignment may come with great cost.
• A former theologian, Sarah Sentilles was a college professor for over a decade before becoming a full-time writer and is now a passionate advocate for life lived by peace and principle. She is appearing at Byron Writers Festival on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Tickets at www.byronwritersfestival.com.
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