Since the inception of the War on Terror, the military Stop-Loss policy has been a target of protest and anti-war activists. The U.S. military Stop-Loss policy involves the involuntary extension of a service member’s active duty service. There is a date in which the term of active service contractually ends and this policy (which has been in place since after the Vietnam War) makes it so that the military can extend a soldier’s term of duty beyond what is listed in his/her contract. I observed a Stop-Loss congress protest on Capital Hill while in Washington D.C. a couple of years ago. All of the streets near the Hill were closed off because protesters had handcuffed themselves to each other, creating blockades at various entrance and exits points around the area.
Around a hundred protestors were involved in the event; some were a part of the blockades of building garages and others were handing out pamphlets about their message. The protestors who were blockading garages and streets were sitting on the floor silently handcuffed together. While the atmosphere of the protest was extremely peaceful police did end up interfering and making multiple arrests. We learned later that several activist groups had issued symbolic stop-loss “orders” to all members of Congress and the protest we observed was their symbolical enforcement of these orders by creating human blockades to the entrances and exists of Senate and House buildings.
Before taking this class I believed that in order for an event to be defined as an act of “civil disobedience” it had to involve a worthy and transcendental goal of peace and equality, such as the goals of MLK or Gandhi. After unpacking this term in class and through readings however I now recognize that this protest I observed could be justified as an act of civil disobedience, by John Rawl’s definition. Firstly, the protestors were acting contrary to law in that they were blocking public passages and restricting traffic and free movement. Secondly their actions had a clear political motivation; their goal was to raise awareness of the policy to the public and to get the attention of the members of Congress in the hopes of changing the policy. In addition, their actions were very public, completely non-violent, and they were not attempting to evade punishment or conceal their identities. By Rawl’s definition therefore, this event would be classified as a justified example of civil disobedience.
While I recognize that I just described this event as an example of civil disobedience under Rawl’s definition, something about this classification does not sit well with me still. Civil disobedience is such a loaded term; it evokes such strong emotional memories about specific issues in history that I don’t know whether or not I am comfortable ascribing it to new events. Although I recognize the protest fits the definition, It seems that in order for me to be comfortable classifying something as “civil disobedience” it must be working towards a goal of combating a substantial injustice. The issue with this becomes, who has the authority to decide what counts as a “substantial injustice” and therefore what counts as civil disobedience?
To learn more about stop-loss policy issues: