I’m no stranger to traffic, growing up in the DC beltway, so the hour-ish commute between Raleigh and Hillsborough in rush hour is generally no big deal. But when that commute more than doubled last Thursday, due to anti-Israel protesters, that was a different story.
I don’t want to make a bigger deal than necessary of any harm caused to me, but I was forced against my will to sit in gridlock traffic, with no clear way out, for over an hour — which was an hour of time with my wife and two young children lost. It also caused harm to my wife, who had to go-it-alone for an extra hour, juggling cooking and watching two toddlers without help.
This was comparatively minimal harm. But nobody asked me if I would voluntarily give this time and inconvenience to help end Israeli military operations against Hamas terrorists. My answer would have been no, had they asked.
But many others undoubtedly faced much greater harm by being trapped in their cars, some for the entirety of the three-hour blockade of Durham’s major thoroughfare. I’m not aware of any comprehensive effort to poll those trapped to see how they were effected, but there are enough past examples to know what likely happened.
There were likely emergency situations made worse by the inability to travel through the area. The fact that the Duke Hospital is very close to the chosen protest site only amplifies this possibility.
There likely were pregnant women who needed to get to that hospital that could not.
There were likely people having heart attacks or other serious medical problems that couldn’t reach the hospital.
There were likely people who suffer from conditions like chronic pain or panic attacks (or even just those who really needed to use the bathroom) for whom being trapped for hours in a car was pure torture.
There were also impacts on the lives of those trapped beyond their health and safety.
Someone close to me once had very limited time with their child after a divorce, and because of DC traffic, sometimes they would leave directly from work, wait two hours in the car, then get to their ex’s home with only 15 minutes of visitation left. Were any of the trapped really hoping to visit a loved one and were unable to — maybe a relative in prison or even a last chance to speak with a dying parent?
Others may have had more urgent, but no less important, places to be. The driver below begged climate protesters to open “one lane” so he could get to work, because his parole dictated he would go to jail if he missed work. For confronting the protesters, police arrested him well before the protesters were removed. His life was likely permanently altered by this course of events.
Others may have had a particularly promising first date that took a while to arrange, or the first chance in a long time for a night out for exhausted parents. Maybe some just wanted to get home and relax after a particularly hard day at work.
But these protesters took away the freedom of all of these people to make those choices and to live their lives unimpeded — a form of kidnapping.
Civil disobedience, in its righteous form, is when someone nonviolently breaks unjust laws and accepts the consequences. It is not when someone causes harm to others while breaking just laws and expects no consequences.
In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement had examples of both violent and nonviolent civil disobedience. Martin Luther King Jr was not comfortable with blocking traffic and said the tactic pushed the line of acceptability and would create a backlash. Selma was more justified in his eyes because, as a march, it did not block, but simply slowed, traffic, but he opposed the complete blocking of the roads around the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens.
His instincts were proven correct, as an extensive study by Harvard University Professor Erica Chenoweth found much more success in nonviolent civil disobedience than in more violent campaigns, like riots or armed rebellion.
“Countries in which there were nonviolent campaigns were about 10 times likelier to transition to democracies within a five-year period compared to countries in which there were violent campaigns — whether the campaigns succeeded or failed,” Chenoweth found.
Those sitting in at segregated lunch counters or sitting in the back of a bus were breaking unjust laws peacefully and then using the consequences to highlight how unjust their treatment was, and they were successful. They were in effect asking their neighbors, “Are you willing to have an old woman thrown off a bus or a young man beaten with a baton to maintain this system of segregation?”
But taking many thousands of people hostage to prove a point is much less likely to gain any traction for your cause. In fact, it’s much more likely to gain enemies, as social media comments on the incident suggested.
The arbitrary nature of the target is also unjust. The pregnant woman, the man trying desperately to get to his first date, or the parolee trying to get to work are not connected to the cause in any meaningful way. This was also the case in 2020 when rioters would smash glass windows in small business store fronts and then, when someone complained, would ask, “What’s more important, those killed by police or your windows?”
But the reasoning is absurd. If I were to walk around town punching random people in the face on behalf of the 1.7 million Afghans being expelled by Pakistan, could I justify it by asking, “What’s more important, your precious nose or protecting hundreds of thousands of women and children from the Taliban?”
You cannot simply declare you are harming someone for a cause and thereby excuse it. Taking us hostage in our cars on behalf of Gazans was no more justified than gathering us in a warehouse against our will to draw attention to childhood cancer.
The anti-oil protesters are another frequent offender. They have been on a rampage in the last recent years, damaging priceless pieces of art “to draw attention to the Climate Emergency.”
Their logic is something like: The world will end if we don’t act now. So, people urgently need to be made aware. Destroying masterpieces will get people’s attention. Then they’ll see our shirts and visit our website. Then the world will be saved. Let’s go destroy some art.
There is literally no limiting principle to this reasoning. If it’s a utilitarian calculation where on the one side of the ledger is “the entire world and all living things,” putting pretty much anything on the other side as a sacrifice becomes completely justified in their view.
We can’t live in a society where words are violence, silence is violence, but vigilantes, for example, trapping a stadium full of sports fans in their seats for three hours or taking a hammer to Michelangelo’s David is innocent protest.
Once harm is being done to random people (including to their property, freedom, and time), these kinds of actions are not legitimate protest at all. In fact, the actions are closer to terrorism, which Oxford Dictionary defines as “The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”
The Durham district attorney should find and prosecute every person responsible.