The extraordinary exercise in nonviolent civil disobedience at the State Capitol Monday, which led to the arrest of 44 citizens and critical national news coverage, linked Idaho to a time-honored but controversial tradition championed by proponents of equality and liberty.
In the Senate chambers, Idahoans calling themselves the “Idaho 44” — thoroughly frustrated by the refusal of the Legislature for eight years to hold even a hearing on Add the Words bills — deliberately and peacefully blocked the entrance to the floor, which they anticipated would place their freedom and treasure at risk, for the purpose of drawing attention to what they perceive to be a grave injustice.
In that moment, time stood still. From the days of the Athenian philosopher Socrates, whose justification of the principle of civil disobedience has fired the imaginations of change agents the world over, to Gandhi, who unsheathed the doctrine to free India from the yoke of British Imperialism, to its use in the struggle against racism and segregation by Martin Luther King, who changed the face — and saved the soul — of America, the principle has been championed by those who would fight for liberty and equality. At the Senate gates, it may be said, Boise met Athens.
Civil disobedience comes with a price. Those who would invoke it, including the Idaho 44, peaceably violate laws and accept arrest and punishment, thus risking their freedom and pocketbooks. It requires courage and conviction.
Why did the protesters bar entrance to the Senate? Because that’s where laws are made or, in the case of Add the Words, not made. Of course, civil disobedience is controversial; it always has been. When four college students assumed empty seats at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., to challenge segregation, they expected to be arrested. But their courage was contagious. Within two months, similar protests were launched at 50 lunch counters across the South. Within six months, segregated lunch counters in Greensboro had been relegated to the ash can of history.
Segregation in America, like discrimination grounded on sexual orientation and gender identity in Idaho, unresolved by indifferent lawmakers, turned champions of equal protection to the doctrine of civil disobedience. At the outset, demonstrators have no way of knowing whether their efforts will be successful, or whether they will be futile and result only in time spent behind bars. Gandhi didn’t know; neither did King. Nor do the Idaho 44.
Across the country today, American citizens, including those who enacted anti-discrimination measures in seven Idaho cities, ranging from Boise and Ketchum to Sandpoint and Idaho Falls, are wondering when lawmakers will hold a hearing on a bill to Add the Words.
It is likely that the protest at the Senate gates was just the first of many to come. Civil disobedience in Greensboro, Selma and Montgomery spawned similar acts throughout the South; it brought national media and camera lights to those cities and Americans demanded an end to segregation.
Idaho, so often in the news over the years when it has come to human rights issues, is back in the lens of the cameras. In their coverage of the Idaho 44, reporters are sure to recount a troubled history for the state.
How will Idahoans react to the drama that unfolded in the Statehouse? Some legislators declared that the protesters had “hurt their cause.” After eight years of legislative indifference, is it possible for advocates of Add the Words to hurt their cause? Discrimination against gays and lesbians remains the most compelling civil rights issue of our time.
David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.