Last night I was watching the Youtube video Free Keene From the Free Keene Stigma and it fostered an interesting question: is it better to practice reform that goes largely unnoticed or better to practice activism that gets negative publicity. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, so answering the question is not as simple as it may appear.
For those of you unfamiliar with Free Keene, it is a offshoot of the Free State Project which encourages activists to move specifically to Keene rather than just New Hampshire. In the video, it appears activists who are a part of the general Free State Project and Free Keene (and possibly others) are having an open discussion on the activism tactics used. The fact that such an open forum takes place and does so civilly is encouraging. Free Keene has become the hub for civil disobedience within the movement.
Many Free Keeners have used tactics that have gotten negative local publicity and have even captured national headlines at times. The Keene City Counsel drinking game, public nudity, feeding the homeless, public marijuana use (YouTube video), and many other acts of civil disobedience are among the most notable. The “drinking game” contested open container laws (no alcohol was involved), feeding the homeless challenged the public ordinance, public drug use challenged the victimless crimes and the public nudity challenged unfair sexism in America. The Free Keene movement relies primarily on civil disobedience as activism, which is where many free staters disagree. In fact, many activists in Keene, New Hampshire, have intentionally been arrested because of acts of civil disobedience.
Some activists feel that acts of civil disobedience fall into a negative public light, which is not easily disputable. There are other ways to go about activism that have less of a negative stigma, such as protests, running for office, petitioning, and so on. They argue that these alternative forms of activism shed a more positive light on the liberty movement.
The concern is that by practicing acts of civil disobedience that offends sheds a negative light on the movement and may alienate the people the movement needs to reach. Free Keene has falling into a negative light with some locals, though the movement has also created some support even from local law enforcement.
While acts of civil disobedience do make headlines, they may indeed create negative publicity, unintended consequences, and could hurt the movement. If we alienate the locals, how are we supposed to build the movement locally? If blatant disobedience is received negatively, how can we expect repeal of unjust laws? While I believe civil disobedience can be a valuable tool, I think these questions are worth asking. Activists need to choose their battles carefully. For example, feeding the homeless, if done charitably and not simply to disobey, absolutely can be seen in a positive light and could be beneficial to the movement. Acts of civil disobedience such as public marijuana use is also a great tactic not simply because it combats an unjust law, but because unjust drug laws are beginning to be recognized by the public. In my opinion, the city counsel drinking game hurt the Free Keene movement. Yes, the members involved were technically in the right; they had open containers that had merely water but looked like an alcoholic beverage bottle. However, I can’t help but notice that the video reminds me of people disobeying just to challenge authority and without much foresight. They very likely created enemies within the Keene city counsel. The need to be making allies and engaging the members of the community, especially the leadership, in civil dialog that helps them question convention and consider the liberty movement in a positive light.
When choosing activism tactics and deciding if a group should pursue civil disobedience, I think there are three things that must be considered: image, intent, and consequences.
Consider how the movement will be portrayed publicly by the media. Consider how locals will react to the civil disobedience. Consider how one’s actions will effect the view of the public on the movement as a whole. It is undeniably important to keep a positive image for the movement as a whole if we intend to persuade others to join our cause. I believe the public is more open-minded to our message now than they have been in some time; if they think that liberty activists break laws just to cause trouble, I think this hurts more than helps.
I believe it’s also important to question one’s intent when practicing civil disobedience. Yes, the law may be unjust. If one practices civil disobedience because the law is unjust or because they feel they have an obligation to fight an unjust law through civil disobedience, I absoutely support you. This is one of the best reasons for any type of activism, in my opinion. It appears that some activists have participated in disobedience for the sole purpose of garnering more press. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, one must keep in mind the image of the movement in the public, as I mentioned above. Additionally, we should consider the type of activists this may attract. Civil disobedience just to disobey is perhaps the worst kind. I’m not accusing members of Free Keene of doing this, just to be clear. However, I think that if one disobeys just because they like to challenge authority, they need to reconsider their motives. It’s not about disobedience or merely challenging authority; it’s about long-term, pro-liberty reform. Please keep the end goal in mind – liberty in our lifetime.
Lastly, keep in mind the consequences. Falling into a negative public stigma (both locally and nationally) should be avoided. This alienates us and hurts the cause. While practicing civil disobedience, jail time is a very real possibility. To those in Free Keene, I admire your willingness to spend time behind bars to make a statement. Don’t forget that you can do very little activism while locked up. We need our activists free, not in a cage. Civil disobedience may also attract particular types of activists and reformers. Civil disobedience that garners a negative public light will attract members who enjoy that sort of thing. While this is not inherently a bad thing, it should be kept in mind because it will shape where the movement goes from here. Is this really going to be a peaceful revolution, or a violent one? One can peacefully practice civil disobedience. However, constant lawbreaking will more often than not lead to arrests, not reform. If civil disobedience is the primarily method of activism, it is very possible that sects of the movement could become alienated by the public and promote violent revolution or secession because of alienation. These should be methods o last resort only under completely tyranny. Peaceful revolution and reform should be the goal.
In my opinion, I think balance is best. I admire the fact that some activists are willing to disobey and are willing to spend time behind bars. I also admire those of you who are taken a different approach and are making allies and working within the system. For our movement to succeed, I think that a variety of techniques must be used and that achieving a balance of them should be a common vision. We need people to practice civil disobedience. We also need people to run for office. Achieving a blend of activism that exercises everyone’s strengths while creating a positive balance is the best way to go.
Keep up the fight Free Stater’s, I hope to make a visit this summer.