Where would we be without Henry David Thoreau? On the occasion of his 195th birthday today, it’s an apt question. Little-noticed in his lifetime, Thoreau’s “experiments with truth” gained traction after his death in 1862. Like Gandhi’s experiments, they were rooted in personal experience and framed in accessible but compelling prose. Though only two of his books were published while he was alive (and neither sold very well), all of his writings eventually were printed, including his journals that, brimming with two million words, came out in 1906.
Through these volumes, Thoreau’s vision and practical philosophy has percolated across space and time. From the vantage of nearly 200 years it is clear that his writing played an important role in the emergence of the modern environmental movement. Most of all, his essay about his night spent in jail in 1846 after refusing to pay taxes as a way of protesting slavery and the then-raging Mexican War — “Resistance to Civil Government,” later re-named “Civil Disobedience” — has exerted enormous influence on the thought and action of many agents of nonviolent change, including Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Through them and others, its power has rippled across the planet.
Both his years at Walden Pond and his willingness to be incarcerated were rooted in a vision of deliberate resistance to the way the world is organized. Thoreau famously wrote of walking to the beat of a different drummer, an image that evokes both the curse of modernity and its liberation. In an increasingly commercialized world, we are unconsciously absorbed into the machinery of production. We risk becoming machines ourselves, enmeshed in a regimented choreography of efficiency and control and subject to the incessant backbeat of whatever drum (progress, militarism, consumerism, racism, sexism, economic inequality) society happens to be thumping. Get free from the lockstep soundtrack, Thoreau advised. Move to another beat.
Thoreau took his own advice — and we are the lucky beneficiaries. His night in jail and his reasoning supporting it (if a law “is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law”) crystalized a key method of principled resistance that has been used and elaborated in countless social movements. He was not the first to engage in or ruminate on civil disobedience (with his classical education at Harvard College, Thoreau likely read Antigone, Sophocles’ play that turns on this dynamic), but he was the first to lay it out in a clear and accessible way. It has been replicated and refined ever since, down to the present moment.
Which brings us to an act of civil disobedience that took place this week in Texas — the state that, ironically or not, was birthed from the war Thoreau protested all those years ago. On July 5:
Gay couple Mark “Major” Jiminez and Beau Chandler of Dallas, Texas applied for a marriage license at the Dallas County Clerk’s office marriage bureau, and when refused, engaged in an act of civil disobedience by sitting down on the floor, refusing to leave. They promptly handcuffed themselves to one another and held hands, before they were arrested and taken to jail by Dallas county police. After posting a $500 bond each, they were released [that] night to freedom and the cheers of Texas LGBT activists.
The video says it all. The men are composed and clear. The clerk is nervous and doesn’t seem happy about having to say out loud that same sex couples aren’t welcome to apply. When Jiminez and Chandler calmly sit on the floor and handcuff themselves together, there is a solemnity to the whole business, as if the marriage they are being denied is nonetheless being performed on the premises of the government that has turned them down. When they are told to leave, they say that they will stay until they are issued a marriage license. An hour later, they are under arrest and are being hustled out to a waiting police car. They have an August 2 court date, where they face a potential jail sentence of six months and a $2,000 fine.
The power of Thoreau’s archetypal civil disobedience action over a century and a half ago rings through this one: withdrawing consent from the state’s policies that offend core values and one’s own conscience; doing so by delivering the message “in person,” using the most powerful language at our disposal, the vulnerable but resisting body; the potential effect which conscientious, centered and nonviolent action can have on those carrying out the policies in question and on those who chafe under them, as well as the larger population of self-described bystanders.
In the case of Thoreau there is the likely apocryphal story in which Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau is said to have replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?” In the Texas example, Thoreau’s question might properly be directed to the rest of us.
Jiminez and Chandler’s action is not the first act of civil disobedience for marriage equality. Sheila Schroeder and Kate Burns were similarly arrested in 2007 in Denver, Colorado, when they refused to leave the Clerk and Recorder’s Office after being denied a marriage license. There has also been a spate of civil disobedience actions supporting marriage equality legislation. Perhaps the most dramatic act of civil disobedience for marriage equality to date was San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s 2004 decision to order the San Francisco city-county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in violation of the then-current state law. Over the next couple of months some 4,000 couples took out licenses. Though the California Supreme Court eventually annulled these marriages because they conflicted with state law at the time, Newsom’s action undoubtedly played an important role in advancing the movement, including the recent decision by President Obama to support same-sex marriage.
Whenever movements create the conditions for more justice, equality, freedom and peace, they have likely been strengthened by the willingness of individuals and groups to engage in courageous and controversial acts of conscience, including acts of civil disobedience. Wherever this is the case, Henry David Thoreau’s legacy lives on — even in Texas.
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