The story is that the American philosopher, abolitionist and pond lover Henry David Thoreau had been sent to jail in 1846 for refusing to pay his taxes. He objected to the fact that those taxes would have gone to support slavery and the Mexican War, which threatened to expand the reach of slavery into newly conquered territories.
While in the local lock-up, Thoreau received a concerned visit from friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson shared Thoreau’s goals, but thought his method a useless gesture.
"Henry," the conversation supposedly began, "what are you doing in there?"
"Waldo," the riposte supposedly followed, "the question is, what are you doing out there?"
The point being that when the law is evil, good men belong in jail.
More than a few Americans, in Utah and elsewhere, have noticed the double standard applied in these parts to those who protest selflessly, in support of the greater good, and those who protest selfishly, in furtherance of their own economic or recreational goals.
The former go to jail, for a night or for years, because they are relatively easy to arrest. Sometimes, getting arrested is the whole point. It calls attention to your cause and, possibly, wins sympathy for the protest and scorn for those in power.
The latter get away with their greedy actions because they are armed and dangerous. And not getting arrested is the whole point. It calls attention to your cause, establishes that you are the meanest SOBs in the valley and makes all public officials afraid to cross you for fear that a firefight will erupt and the government, which we rightly hold to a higher standard, will get the blame.
Getting arrested worked, eventually, for the Indian independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi and the American civil rights movement personified by Martin Luther King.
Not getting arrested is working, so far, for the scofflaws such as Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who refused to pay grazing fees for running his cattle on federal land, and for San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, who led an illegal ATV stampede through off-limits federal land.
Getting arrested might work, eventually, for today’s environmental activists, including the 21 nabbed last week for the direct action against the machines that are part of a dubious experiment to wring something like petroleum out of the tar-laden rocks of eastern Utah.
The activists of Peaceful Uprising and the Utah Tar Sands Resistance hope to stand in the tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi and King. It’s a bit difficult to draw a direct line from the great names of civil disobedience because those most noble acts of past centuries have been directed at evil perpetrated by government, which is supposed to listen and serve, while those who chain themselves to privately owned bulldozers lack such an obvious claim to act.
The boss of the doubly misnamed US Oil Sands (it’s from Canada and it is mucking about in tar sands) took advantage of that opening by portraying the protestors as thugs who were not engaged in free speech — which is aimed at government — but were literally taking the food off the tables of his workers and their families by preventing them from doing an honest day’s work.
Yes, he went there.
Given the sucking chest wound that tar sands exploitation has already left in the forests and prairies of Alberta, Canada, and given that no government agency at any level has examined, much less approved, the supposedly safer method to be used in Utah, the corporations clinging to the fossil-fuel economy are clearly those who are acting out of self-interest. And those who are trying to stop them are those who care about the rest of us.
And look who’s in jail. Again.
George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, thinks he has chosen a profession where he can serve the public and make a living. And he can be just insufferable about it.
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