Most people remember Martin Luther King Jr. as a great leader who fought for racial justice. Many people commemorate the holiday set aside to honor him with acts of volunteer service, concerts, sermons, and recitations of his famous 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech. However, this MLK Holiday I honored Dr. King by sitting down in an act of civil disobedience. Along with six others, I sought to enter Colisimos gun store in Philadelphia to ask the owner to sign a Code of Conduct that would allow him to track and identify potential straw purchasers in his store. When we were denied entry to the store, we sat down outside the entrance to block entry to anyone seeking to enter (although we did let people out). Our purpose was to inhibit the sale of guns on that day, and to call attention to Mr. Colisimo’s unwillingness to take steps to keep illegal guns off the streets of Philadelphia and surrounding communities. Two days before five other protesters had done a similar action, so that in total twelve people were arrested and charged with trespassing and criminal conspiracy.
For the past several months, I have been part of a group that had been planning a legal demonstration for Saturday, January 17 and smaller acts of protest leading up to the larger demonstration. All of us also took part in a conference on peacemaking called “Heeding God’s Call” that was running simultaneously to our action. So for the twelve of us, our actions were not only an expression of our desire for peace in our city, but also an expression of our religious faith.
On the Friday (1/16) I was arrested, I did not start the day thinking I was going to commit civil disobedience, though I knew it was a possibility. However, on that morning when the 20 or so of us involved in the planning met, the consensus of the group was that civil disobedience was in order. Despite the fact that Mr. Colisimo had consistently objected to our modest request, I persuaded the group to try and meet with him one more time and persuade him to sign the code. I volunteered to ring the bell to his store and ask to talk with him. When the clerk refused to buzz us into the store, we decided to sit down in front of the entrance.
Some people my age and a few years younger (who were too young for most of the anti-Vietnam protests and missed the Civil Rights movement altogether), feel a need to earn their “activist creds” by committing civil disobedience and getting arrested. I have heard statements to that effect expressed enough times to know it is a sentiment shared by a segment of my generation of a certain political persuasion. I do not have such a longing. In fact I was quite relieved when what had been planned as an act of civil disobedience looked like it was going to become a legal protest. However, when the challenge and responsibility to commit an illegal act in front of Colisimos was presented, I agreed to do so. My commitments and convictions on the issue made that act a natural and necessary next step.
Lest anyone think that committing civil disobedience is somehow “chic” or “cool”, let me be brutally honest. Breaking the law did not come easily to me. My previous acts of civil disobedience (sending in my draft card; withholding my Federal telephone tax in protest of military spending) were safe and mild by comparison. Even though my head was convinced, my emotions ranged from guilt to anxiety. My parents raised me to be a responsibile citizen who honored and respected the law. During the action itself, the police who arrested us were hostile and belligerent, and threatened to “throw the book at us” (one officer’s phrase). Furthermore, spending 25 hours in a jail cell was traumatic. Moreover, I have a court date, which I am sure will cause further strain and disruption in my life. I do not feel like a hero; if anything, I feel quite the opposite. That being said, I would do it again, because the situation called for it.
History has sanitized Martin Luther King, Jr. so that he is depicted as a nice black man who wanted people to love each other. We too easily forget that in his day King was considered a criminal, a Communist, a degenerate, and an enemy of the state. He and his followers were vilified for their use of illegal actions. One of King’s most famous writings, “The Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” was written in response to a group of prominent Alabama white clergy who publicly criticized him for his “disruptive” and “untimely” actions. The strain of being a lawbreaker did not come easily to him. Yet, as King said on many occasions, sometimes one must “stand up to evil and injustice by sitting down.”
In “The Letter From a Birmingham Jail” Dr. King wrote that he and his followers broke the law in order to “arouse the conscience of the community” in hopes that people would see the error of their ways. Time will only tell what effect our action will have on changing the laws and practices around the sale of guns in Pennsylvania. Only God and and Mr. Colisimo know how our action affected him. Even so, I draw inspiration from Dr. King’s unyielding commitment to confront injustice. I leave the results of our actions in God’s hands; for me the action was a natural extension of my faith and commitment, and indirectly a way to honor the memory of a man whose actions changed a nation, inspired movements around the world, and opened the door for people like Barack Obama to believe he could run for president. So this year I remember the radical King who reminds us that each generation has injustices it must confront and when the challenge presents itself, people of conscience must be willing to take the risk of being “uncivil.”