Tag Archives: Civil Disobedience

Civil Disobedience French-style: May ’68

By Lucille Stott

“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”
― Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

Paris 1968 credit: Lucille Stott

I stood on the balcony of the Roberts’ apartment overlooking the Boulevard de Strasbourg, watching students and riot police face off against each other. On this mild, sunny afternoon in mid-May, the scene felt surreal, like a bewildering moment in a Buñuel film. I don’t remember who charged first, but suddenly the two groups were on each other. Students hurled rocks, wielded tree branches, and yelled obscenities. Riot police fogged the air with tear gas and swung their nightsticks as they charged forward in a bloc.

I had my Kodak Instamatic camera in hand and started snapping photos. Two of the riot police knocked down a protester, and while one held him down, the other pummeled him again and again with his nightstick.

When I raised my camera again, I heard a cry from behind. My French mother, Madame Robert, was yelling for me to get back inside. I had never seen her so upset, and she had never once spoken to me in anger in the more than six months my roommate and I had been boarding with her family during our junior year in Paris. After getting me out of sight and back into her living room, Madame Robert started to cry. What if the riot police had spotted me? She was sure they would have stormed upstairs, smashed my camera, arrested me, and punished the Robert family.

Usually calm and reserved, Madame Robert had grown increasingly anxious as the street violence in Paris had escalated and the blare of sirens had become the soundtrack to our nights. After hauling me in from the balcony, she told me she had been suffering terrifying flashbacks to her childhood during the Nazi Occupation, when sirens had raged all night throughout the city, and she’d cowered in her parents’ bed. Her son was out there with the protesters, she reminded me, and even at home during the daylight hours, she didn’t feel safe.

For the first time since the student-led riots had begun in early May, I felt connected emotionally to what was happening around me. At 21, I was in Paris with the Hamilton College Junior Year Abroad program mainly to have fun and grab a bit of learning on the side. Most of our university classes had been suspended by then, and my American friends and I felt justified in not cracking our books. As we told each other repeatedly, history was being made in front of our eyes. The slogans scrawled on walls bore us out: “Power is in the streets!” “It’s forbidden to forbid!”

Youth uprisings like this one had been occurring in other countries — Mexico, Poland, West Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Brazil, even the Soviet Union — since early in 1968, and were to continue throughout the spring. The rebellion at Columbia University in the U.S., which had erupted in early April, had definitely grabbed our attention from afar. Yet of all the youth protests that occurred around the world during the first half of 1968, the Paris riots in May have become the most romanticized probably because, well, they happened in Paris. Immortalized in books and on film, the student uprising in the City of Light became lasting symbols of student disillusion and alienation.

For weeks, our tendency to treat the street riots as performance art had kept me immune from the dark side of these events. But witnessing the reality of the violence and seeing Madame Robert so shaken changed all that for me. I felt her fear and hated that what was happening in the street below was causing her to relive long-ago trauma. And I still have the Kodachrome reminders of what it looked and felt like to watch brutality up close and be powerless to do anything to stop it.

A big factor in the way I experienced those weeks was the fact that I wasn’t sharing my life on social media. I had no cell phone, no email, no Twitter, no Instagram, no Internet. There was no such thing as a 24-hour news cycle. It took five days for an airmailed letter to cross the Atlantic. International calls were hard to manage and very expensive. Out on the street, I was on my own. I couldn’t text a friend, my French family, or the director of our program with a question or concern. Today, the joke is, “If it’s not on Facebook, is it really happening?” It was really happening.

This month, France is marking the 50th anniversary of May ’68. When I think back on the passion that galvanized a small, but visible segment of my generation in France and at home, so many years ago, I do so with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m sad to have lost the wide-eyed, youthful exuberance that made optimism so natural and imagined positive change to be within reach. On the other hand, I took away from that month in Paris a lifelong aversion to extremism, no matter what side it professes to support. Back then, we over-estimated how much our generation could change the world, and the causes we fought for were undermined at times by the things I found so troubling in Paris: fanaticism, exploitation, self-interest, macho posturing. But the world did change after May ‘68—sometimes because of us, sometimes in spite of us. As someone who came of age in 1968 and is now merely “of age,” my years place me squarely with the old but my hope still rests with the young. What would be truly radical would be for us to bridge our generational divide and share what we have — melding knowledge with vision; experience with energy —and change the world together. Now that would be a revolution.

Lucille Stott is a charter board member emerita and former president of Thoreau Farm Trust. Check out the three entries on Lucille’s new blog, “Touchstone,” for a more in-depth look at the events of Paris ’68.

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Filed under Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

200 Years and Counting: Thoreau’s Work Still Relevant

By Harriet Martin

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. ― Henry David Thoreau

It takes only one click of a button to be assaulted by conflicting and contradictory opinions from both sides of the aisle. The country we live in today is at a turning point in its history. With so many opinions vying for our attention, it provides great insight to look back at the words of a pioneer of civil disobedience for desperately needed guidance today.

A prominent writer and abolitionist, Henry David Thoreau was famous for his essays on various topics in his era. One of his most profound collection of essays was “Civil Disobedience,” which postulated how much loyalty an unjust, corrupt, or in any way ineffective government deserves from the citizen who cares about the future of the country he or she lives in. Henry was thrown in jail because he refused to pay a poll tax he found unjust.

In this day and age, more freedoms are allowed to people who wish to protest for the issues in which they believe. After a controversial election, many people were concerned about hot-button issues like women’s rights, science, the environment, and taxes. Following Thoreau’s model of non-violent civil disobedience, people took to the streets.

Women march in front of the Capital Building Credit: New York Magazine

Women March in front of the Capital Building
Credit: New York Magazine

On January 2, all around the world, women and their allies left their jobs, homes, and families and organized in massive marches. The Women’s March in DC drew from 470,000 to 680,000 participants, The Atlantic reported. Each participant was armed only with a sign and her voice in the true spirit of peaceful protest. People chanted and marched down streets declaring in one unified voice, “We are Strong.” Other major cities that hosted a Women’s March were New York, Chicago, and in our back yard, Boston. In total more than 550 towns and cities registered protests and marches just in the United States. As well as us common folk, many celebrities turned out to show their support for women’s rights. Gloria Steinem was an honorary co-chair of the Washington March and Scarlett Johansson was an official speaker. Other celebrities marched with the people on the streets.

Another march that took place recently was the March for Science on April 22, 2017. This march focused on our planet and the steps that need to be taken to advance science and protect the environment. After a tumultuous election, the scientific community marched to demonstrate the importance of science to citizens of the earth. Protesters gathered to encourage policymakers to make policy based on scientific evidence; provide funding for research and discourage political attacks on scientific integrity. Many scientific organizations were represented, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the biggest scientific societies in the country. One outspoken co-chair of the march included Bill Nye. The march took place across the country and the world. Major gatherings took place in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. The march in Boston had 70,000 people! Not only modern times have used the idea of peacefully protesting regimes.

From Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr., some of the most ardent advocates of civil rights have used the idea of peaceful protest. Gandhi read Thoreau’s essay on “Civil Disobedience” and it inspired him to persevere in his quest for civil rights. Martin Luther King also read Thoreau’s essays, which highlighted how widespread Thoreau’s ideas became and the impact they had.

Who knows, without Thoreau we might not have achieved much of the social progress we rely on today.

Harriet Martin is a student at Concord-Carlisle High School and a youth blogger for The Roost.

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Grab Those Number Twos!

By Corinne H. Smith

Last month I gave a talk about Henry Thoreau at a public library. More than a dozen people were in the room. I opened the gathering as I always do: by asking the audience members what they remember about the man. Whatever they come up with helps to drive the rest of the presentation. Typical responses are these:

“Didn’t he live at Walden Pond?” (Yes.)

“He followed The Road Less Traveled.” (Well, no, that was Robert Frost. But Henry probably would have liked that poem.)

“Civil Disobedience!” (Yes! What is it? “Uh …”)

“He was friends with Emerson.” (Yes.)

“Didn’t he spend a night in jail for not paying his taxes?” (Yes. That’s where Civil Disobedience comes in.)

“He went home for dinner every night and took his laundry home to his mother.” (What 19th-century man would have done differently?)

Actually, most people know at least something true and authentic about Thoreau. And I can tell when I meet someone who knows more details than the others do. This was the case at this particular talk. The first person who raised her hand asked, “Didn’t he make pencils?”

Yes!

I try to remember to bring up the Thoreau pencils later, if no one mentions it earlier. Sometimes I forget and am distracted by other Thoreau stories. I’m always grateful when someone prompts me for it. Perhaps the topic of pencils came up this time because we all had back-to-school days on our minds.

The Thoreau family came into the pencil-making business through Charles Dunbar, Henry’s uncle on his mother’s side. Eventually Henry’s father took over the firm, and it became John Thoreau & Co. Henry himself figured out a way to get the right clay that would bind well with graphite and produce a better pencil. He then labeled them with numbers 1-4, according to their hardness. The number 2 pencil was about average when it came to hardness and darkness. It didn’t smear as much as heavier pencils did.

pencils

The connection between Henry Thoreau and the pencil-making business is a fun one to think about and to talk about. Maybe this is because it’s something that’s slightly unexpected. We connect Henry Thoreau so closely with nature, philosophy, and social justice that such a small and practical matter like the act of making or using a pencil gets overlooked.

The next time you’re holding a number 2 pencil in your hand – even if it’s just to shade in a few tiny circles on a standardized form — you can thank Henry David Thoreau for the opportunity to do so.

Class dismissed!

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