SIT-INS, FREEDOM rides, marches and boycotts were crucial to America’s civil rights movement, because they forced white people to see the indignities and dangers black people faced as they simply tried to live their lives. White people of good will were horrified by what they saw, and enough of them joined with black people to force political change — desegregation, voting rights, fair housing and more.
Nonviolent resistance and even civil disobedience are the most powerful tools that members of a disenfranchised minority have to change a political system that oppresses them, and the components of it that don’t cross the line into rioting, looting or damaging property have become a widely accepted part of any political effort. Crossing that line is a different matter — a matter that cannot be justified except in the most extreme cases, when there are no reasonable alternatives.
Perhaps there are some places and some times when vandalizing public property can be justified. For those who want to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds, South Carolina in the summer of 2015 is not such a place or such a time.
For the first time in 15 years, there are more than just reasonable alternatives: There is a near certainty that our government is poised to retire the flag to a museum.
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If ever there was a time when climbing up a flagpole and ripping down that flag could be justified, this most certainly is not it. If ever there was a time when splattering paint on a statue of a murderous white supremacist could be justified, this most certainly is not it. (It’s nearly impossible to believe that the attack on the Ben Tillman statue could have been a random act of vandalism, but what a tremendous relief it would be to find out it was.)
These actions cannot be dignified with the name “civil disobedience.” They are acts of vandalism, pure and simple, and the people who committed them need to be treated as vandals, not as heroes.
People who want the flag removed are not a disenfranchised minority — at least not when it comes to this issue. They, we, are the majority. We have the support of our governor and both of our U.S. senators and at least 33 of 45 state senators and 83 of 123 state representatives. The people of South Carolina have concluded that the flag must go. Our Legislature has taken the extraordinary step of bringing itself back into session next week to go through the orderly process required by law to remove the flag from the grounds.
We must allow that process to play out, because we are a nation of laws. We might not like a law, but we understand that the way to change it is through the democratic process — not by violating it. We refrain from vandalizing the flag or other monuments to the Confederacy not because they necessarily deserve our respect, but because our cause is better than that.
Besides being wrong, vandalism is foolish at best, counter-productive at worst. At this point, those who worship the Confederacy and its flag cannot win. But those of us who want our state to stop causing our neighbors pain most certainly can lose.
If we engage in criminal acts that turn public opinion against us, we will lose.