I recently had some time to consider the peculiarities of my character while sitting in the Wake County Detention Center, shoelaces and belt gone, waiting to be booked, fingerprinted and charged after walking into the Legislative Building in Raleigh with 48 others, standing in front of the closed doors to the Senate chamber and singing hymns.
That night we sat for hours on metal benches, moved from one holding area to another. Sometimes we sat quietly, sometimes we cracked wise and sometimes we talked about what we had just done. The conversation turned to whether what we had done in getting arrested amounted to anything. We agreed it did, which you would expect. But as to the why of being arrested on that particular day in the history of this state, we all had our own reasons.
The culture of American protest—meetings, tight quarters, slogans, loud voices, singing, drama—is not really my thing. I spend a lot of time in my head. I tell people I live by Flaubert's injunction, "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work," though on most days I have to search hard for the violent originality in my work. People don't notice me on the street and I like it that way.
Sitting on the bench waiting for the magistrate, I thought to myself, What else should I be doing? A clear enough question which, that morning, I hadn't been able to answer to my satisfaction. I am a great griper when I am among friends and an eloquent teller of truth to power in my imagination, but finally I had become sick of hearing myself talk.
Take your pick of the transgressions our Legislature has made against common sense, justice, fairness, compassion and science. I myself happen to be concerned—a mild word—about the effect of proposed laws on the ability of every North Carolina child to receive a free and high-quality education. I'm angry that, because the Legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory refused to sign on to the Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act, more than 500,000 North Carolinians will remain without health insurance. I'm baffled and infuriated by the transfer of wealth to the wealthiest via the expansion of regressive sales taxes. My list expands every day. I assume that many people reading this have their own bill of particulars to post against this Legislature. Of the 49 of us who were arrested in the Legislative Building on May 13, I'd guess we had 49 different sets of overlapping grievances. Even when we agreed, that agreement was shaded and nuanced.
No justice movement that I'm aware of has flourished for long without being joined by the sorts of people who don't normally protest. The vanguard leads the way, and eventually people like me come trotting along behind when the injustice at hand finally outweighs our own dearly held ideas about who we are and the sorts of things we don't normally do.
I am a middle-class man. I was raised in the American middle class, and (so far) I remain a member. These issues—the resegregation of public schools, the withholding of affordable health care from half a million North Carolinians, clean water and clean energy—are my issues too. My children attend a public school, as I did; uninsured people forced to seek medical care in emergency rooms drive up my health care costs; I like it when my water doesn't poison me. These issues naturally draw my attention. The middle class—such as it is, ever shrinking—has vested, obvious interests in resisting certain laws coming out of the Legislature.
But the unfettered pursuit of one's own interest is also the animating principle of those currently seated in the Legislature. Given the chance, they would organize North Carolina in a state of nature ruled by tooth and claw. This is where I think a recitation of my own interests misses the mark. If I really dig down to the one true reason I participated in civil disobedience at the Legislative Building, I come up with this: I am philosophically, morally, ethically, practically, culturally, religiously and psychologically opposed to the idea that the clash of selfish interests is the best way to conduct our affairs and organize our society.
I reject the idea that I am the sum of things I want for myself. I'm pretty selfish, but I hope I'm more than that. This is where our Legislature stands, though, firmly on the side of getting mine without limit, of letting the strong survive and to the victor go the spoils.
The Legislature, in a backward way, has done us all a favor by drawing these sides so vividly. I come honestly by my middle-class love of compromise and moderation, and I generally balk at the choosing of sides. (I like to say, "I'm not much of a joiner.") But the sides have been drawn, and our Republican-led state government has made it very clear that if you're with them they'll listen to you, but if you're not with them then you're against them—and they don't have to listen to a thing you say. They've posed the same question to North Carolinians that the old labor song once put to mining communities: Which side are you on?
The Legislature has made clear that it's time to pick sides. The human instinct is to hope that this too shall pass, but this is no longer operative. We want to think bad things are just temporary and that eventually right-minded people (to be named later, but people with more strength and greater resources) will put this thing right. We want to believe this because we want to believe that the universe is essentially just.
But things do not just pass. And while we're waiting, things are being done that can't be undone. We can undo laws, but we can't undo the years a child loses in overcrowded and undersupported, segregated classrooms led by overworked and underpaid teachers. You can't undo the deaths of those denied timely and affordable health care because our legislators wanted to score political points against the Affordable Care Act. You can't stand on the edge of newly poisoned Jordan Lake and say I take that back and expect those words to mean anything. It's done, no do-overs. None of these are abstractions; they're not merely how we keep score in the game of partisanship. Lives are being changed permanently. Again: Which side are you on?
I committed civil disobedience because I have a supportive employer. My profession, such as it is, doesn't require me to keep myself free of all marks to my permanent record. I am not an undocumented teenager standing up at a legislative hearing and risking deportation. I don't work the second shift and didn't risk being fired for being arrested. I'm not housebound by illness. I had the time and the means of making this particular gesture of protest. The fact that I could participate, with minimal risk to myself, was the most compelling reason for doing it. I had an obligation because I know there are many more like-minded people who risk far more and could not be there.
I committed civil disobedience because I needed to act. Outrage that never spurs action inevitably turns inward to undermine the very idea that one could act. The world is out of my control and, look, again I'm weak. My complaint devolved into a system of shorthand words—legislature, cruelty, poverty, insanity. I was well on the way to going preverbal and speaking in grunts and hisses before, finally, not speaking at all. At the same time, the object of my complaint, at first traced in bold lines and fixed on a map of Jones Street, became an amorphous, pervasive and numbing cloud of ill will, bad faith and shortsightedness. It was in the air everywhere and seemed entirely resistant to me.
The most startling effect of walking into that Legislative Building was the dissipation of that cloud. Here were the actual legislators, giggling like ninnies at us; here were the actual offices they worked in, and the actual chambers where they sat, and the actual corridors of their power. In this specificity it all became smaller, material, human and more manageable. I reconnected to the real condition of things—as dire as they may seem—and left behind my endless, rambling, undirected, echoing complaint.
This connection of word and language to the world as it is, instead of the world imagined or feared, clarified for me the answer to the question, Which side are you on? There are definitely sides now, and it turns out I'm on the side of those who would stand up for me and others, though we have little in common but our shared humanity. In turn I'm standing up for them. I'm on the side of people who act.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Civil. And disobedient."
Duncan Murrell is the writer in residence at the Center for Documentary Studies. He lives in Pittsboro.