Reflections from 1985: The Obligations of Conscience

This article from the February-March 1985 issue – following in the tradition of civil disobedience – lays out how sometimes obeying the dictates of conscience requires violating human law, here in the words of two DSA activists who put their bodies on the line for what they believed.  The Harvest of Shame’s immediate focus was the persistence of homelessness in midst of affluence, but it also highlighted a US foreign and military policy – which in 1985 included intervention in Central America and a wasteful nuclear arms race – that squandered billions of dollars that could be used to meet urgent human needs.  Thirty-five years after their arrests, Lucy Duff and Woody Woodruff – a married couple in living in Lanham, Md. – remain active DSA members.  A panel of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals declined to review the denial of their appeal by the District Court.
-Bill Mosley

The Obligations of Conscience

By Lucy Duff and Woody Woodruff

Lucy Duff and Woody Woodruff, local DSA activists, were arrested on October 31 in front of the White House as part of the Community for Creative Non-Violence’s Harvest of Shame protest.  The following is a statement they submitted to the D.C. Circuit Court in support of their plea of not guilty.  They were found guilty and have filed an appeal.

Today we stand in court not only – not mainly – to plead innocence for having exercised what we believe to be our constitutionally protected rights to freedom of expression.  We have come here, to the legal authority of our home country, to explain that we had the same reason for both valuing the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and for violating one of the laws of our land, even had we deemed it a valid one.  We chose to use our right to free speech as a tool for dissenting from the prevailing political powers and for presenting an alternative proposed by the Democratic Socialists of America.

The two of us decided to reinforce DSA’s verbal message with the symbolic action of breaking a law, thereby indicting the social system which made and enforces it.  Any legal violation that did not bring patent harm to anyone else would have let us carry out this purpose in good conscience – would have let us show respect for the principle of lawful social order yet demonstrate disrespect for certain current policies harmful to the interests of most Americans, indeed to the right of all humanity to a just and peaceful world.

We are here to try to defend, against arbitrary if not deliberate encroachment, freedoms of communication that cannot everywhere be safely used, which for that reason seem to confer on us a special obligation to use them on behalf of our own and other peoples of the world.  It is appropriate to do so in this privileged corner of the world; and it is appropriate to seize this time, when economic and militaristic forces threaten everyone’s security.

The concerns of the Secret Service and the Park Service for the security of the White House and its environs, though reasonable in themselves, strike us as vastly disproportionate to the concern any thoughtful citizen must hold in these times for the long-run security of our country and of the world with which it has become ever more interdependent.  We suspect that the authorities’ ostensible fear of terrorism on the part of demonstrators at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is an exaggeration masking a realistic fear that the dissent of small political groups, like DSA and other Harvest of Shame participants, is likely to swell into a protest by the great majority of Americans.  Though we were representing a numerical minority, we certainly were expressing support of the interests of all who still believe in the basic humanitarian ideals long upheld in theory by these United States and by the international consensus.

Indisputably we did the deed with which we are charged.  We offer this explanation of a complex motive.  The core of it is the individual citizen’s responsibility, enunciated in the Nuremberg Principles, to avoid complicity in the crimes of his or her government:  Article VII states that “complicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity . . .is a crime under international law.”  And the Nuremburg Judgment said with stunning clarity, “individuals have international duties which transcend. . .obligations of obedience imposed by the individual state.”

Now when thousands are dying in wars of aggression, millions are starving from economic exploitation, and billions are threatened by “defenses” set on hair-trigger alert for nuclear strike, the individual’s obligation to protest weighs on each of us more heavily and urgently than ever.

If civil disobedience is needed to prick the consciences of a number of us sufficient to avert a new global tragedy, then we are obliged to practice it.  Gandhi wrote that “when there is war, the poet lays down the lyre.  When all about one are dying for want of food, the only occupation permissible to me is to feed the hungry.”

In our own lives, professional training respectively in journalism and librarianship reiterated our high school civics lessons in teaching us to respect, protect, and employ the constitutional guarantee of free, open communication within and about American society.  Many others who have been led by simple decent human conscience to obey a higher law than that of a single nation have risked much more than we.  The feature distinguishing our joint act of civil disobedience from theirs is that rather than force us to “lay down” our usual occupations, it allowed us to defend our professional values along with the higher ones.  It graced us with an opportunity to bespeak at once our patriotic, professional, political, and human beliefs.

The Washington Socialist ’s other reprises of archival articles from Metro DC DSA’s previous decades have been “DC Labor’s Struggle” (from 1986, republished December 2019) and “Dorothy Healey: DSA’s period of transition” (from 1984, republished November 2019).

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