Getting Arrested on Purpose: The Power of Civil Disobedience

May 19, 2016

A large group of police officers

We know that you love ice cream. And based on how many of you stand in line for a scoop of your favorite flavor on Free Cone Day, we know what you’re willing to do to get your hands on something sweet and cold.

But as hard as it is to admit, there’s more to life than ice cream. What else matters to you? The environment? Voting rights? Racial equity? If you’re willing to wait hours for some delicious dessert, well, what are you willing to do for the things that mean the most to you?

Would you get arrested?

Ben & Jerry being arrested

Wake Up

At Democracy Awakening in Washington, D.C. this past April, members of our team, including our founders, Ben and Jerry, were arrested along with hundreds of others. Why? Because as Ben put it, “The history of our country is that nothing happens until people start putting their bodies on the line and risk getting arrested.” They, and all the others who stood on the steps of the Capitol that day, decided that getting big money out of politics and protecting the right of American citizens to vote mattered more to them than anything else, and they put their bodies on the line.

Direct, nonviolent actions like this have been used by activists—everyone from Henry David Thoreau to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.—for hundreds of years to affect change all over the world.

Breaking the Law on Purpose

In 1846, Henry David Thoreau was arrested for not paying his poll tax. Thoreau detested slavery and was against the Mexican-American War, and he saw the poll tax as contributing revenue to both. So he refused to pay it. It’s said that while he was in jail, his good friend Ralph Waldo Emerson came to visit. “Why are you in there?” Emerson is supposed to have asked. “Waldo,” Thoreau replied, “the question is what are you doing out there?”

Thoreau was only in jail for one night, but the essay he wrote about that experience, “Civil Disobedience,” has influenced everyone from Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. to those who fought against Apartheid in South Africa. Thoreau states that we have a moral obligation to stand for our principles, even if, or especially if, those principles are in opposition to the law of the land.

Gandhi broke the law.

Rosa Parks broke the law.

Greenpeace breaks the law.

Bill McKibben breaks the law.

Does civil disobedience work? Gandhi helped India gain its independence from Britain through nonviolent protests against racism and British rule that proved hugely popular. Martin Luther King, Jr. defied the Jim Crow South and transformed America through acts of civil disobedience—his letters from jail highlighted the injustice and brought many around to his side. More recently, thousands of activists routinely risked arrest while protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline, and President Obama ultimately rejected the project. Yes, it works. It works when people put their bodies on the line, and keep at it until they’re joined by others – by thousands, tens of thousands – marching and gathering peacefully, demanding that their voices be heard. And that’s how change happens.

The Media and the Message

It’s easy today to connect with friends and allies all over the world. But the very technology that brings us together also amps up the noise all around us: from our televisions, laptops, phones, watches...

How do you get your message across when everybody on earth is trying to do the very same thing?

Thousands of people came to Washington, DC to protest our broken democracy last month, and it barely merited a mention in most mainstream media outlets. One study found that only two segments about Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening were run during the week of protests: a total of 29 seconds! But the news that Ben and Jerry were arrested ran on cable TV for days and flashed across the internet incessantly. Ben and Jerry broke through the noise by risking it all and getting arrested. And the attention meant that they were able to tell their story, the story of our broken democracy, and inspire others to join the movement.

Stories That Inspire

The causes we and so many others fight for can sometimes be difficult to understand, or so overwhelming as to make it hard for people to know what to do. But practicing civil disobedience changes things dramatically: rather than a story about a giant complicated problem, it becomes a story about ordinary people acting out of love and a devotion to justice. People defying odds. David vs. Goliath. Gandhi vs. British imperialism. Ben and Jerry vs. a corrupt democracy.

Stories like that inspire. They bring more fired-up people to the movement. And when the people lead, the leaders will be forced to follow.

Keep Hope Alive

We’ve supported many causes over the years, and what we’ve found in every case is that change doesn’t happen until people act.

It’s exciting and inspiring to see how something you care about (fighting climate change, for example) is shared by others, by hundreds of thousands of others. When we marched in NYC with the People’s Climate March, all the energy in the crowds gave us hope. The will of the people cannot be denied.

Of course, change may not come as quickly as we like, but it will come. As long as there are people willing to take risks for what they believe in, then there’s nothing we won’t be able to accomplish.