Civil Civil Disobedience

An editorial from the Madison Capital Times
February 28,2001

by John Nichols

Mohandas Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez and other advocates of nonviolent resistance to injustice had two things in common.

First, they willingly risked arrest in pursuit of justice denied by flawed public policy.

Two, they identified nuclear proliferation as a threat that demanded opposition from enlightened and courageous citizens.

Thus, when Bonnie Urfer of Luck and Michael Sprong of Marion, S.D., toppled three poles that support the extremely low frequency (ELF) antenna system the U.S. Navy uses to communicate with submarines carrying nuclear weapons, they were acting in the tradition of Gandhi, King and Chavez.

It came as no surprise that, when they came to trial, Urfer and Sprong were supported by prominent peace and social justice activists. Indeed, David Dellinger, a civil rights and anti-war campaigner who marched at the side of King in the 1960s, flew into Madison to attend the trial before U.S. District Court Magistrate Stephen Crocker.

Crocker denied Urfer and Sprong an opportunity to mount a defense that would have explained their full rationale for protesting at the ELF communications facility in Ashland County. Thus, the conviction of the two was a foregone conclusion - which they courageously accepted, in the best tradition of the nonviolent peace and social justice activism in this country and internationally.

Then the attacks began.

The yahoo caucus attempted to foster the lie that Urfer and Sprong were cowards who attempted to beat the rap by mounting a disingenuous defense. The Wisconsin State Journal editorial page blew up over the assertion by Urfer and Sprong that a lawyer had suggested toppling the poles could be interpreted as a legal act - so long as no one was hurt. This read on the law is hardly new - wise jurists have often found justification for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Several weeks ago, a judge in Washington freed activists arrested for disturbing the peace in the Capitol - they had dared to read the Constitution aloud.

Urfer and Sprong would be the first to admit that, because of the severe constraints placed upon their defense, they did not expect to get off. They have also proven their willingness to face imprisonment in the pursuit of peace. Yet the State Journal editors wrote, "Honorable protesters would accept the consequences of their actions, but Urfer and Sprong tried to beat the rap."

Why the character assassination?

Simple. Like defenders of the indefensible throughout history, the critics of Urfer and Sprong choose to attack individual activists and actions in an effort to divert attention from the larger crime of continued U.S. spending on, development of and preparation for the use of nuclear weapons.

They fear that, if Wisconsinites know Urfer and Sprong are heroic, honorable citizens, they may start asking why these good people are willing to risk arrest. When that sort of questioning begins, the fabric of lies supporting excessive spending on weapons of mass destruction begins to crumble.