A large protesting crowd in the streets, a protestor holds up a sign that reads, “No Justice, No Peace”

In 2016, one month before the presidential election, Katie Couric asked Ruth Bader Ginsburg about athletes like Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand for the national anthem. This act of peaceful protest against the police killings of Black Americans was meant to highlight the hypocrisy of a nation whose anthem celebrates freedom yet doesn’t afford that freedom to Black citizens. “I think it’s dumb and disrespectful,” said Ginsburg, likening the act to flag burning and going on to call the protest “arrogant,” “stupid,” and “offensive.” Although many progressives were disappointed, many in the mainstream press defended Ginsburg’s criticism as “independent-minded liberalism.”

In the immediate aftermath of Ginsburg’s death four years later, many liberal media commentators made threats about how they would thwart a third Trump appointment to the Supreme Court. Former CNN host Reza Aslan declared: “If they even try to replace RBG, we burn the entire fucking thing down.” And the Washington Post’s Laura Bassett warned, “If McConnell jams someone through, which he will, there will be riots.”

These two episodes illustrate the limits of the liberal approach to protest and disobedience. As we all know, the Supreme Court was not burned down. There were no riots. Aside from some candlelight vigils and unfocused marches, not much happened. Trump successfully appointed his nominee to Ginsburg’s vacant seat, thereby significantly altering the trajectory of American politics. Invoking civility to condemn peaceful protest or making angry statements that are not backed up by action rarely challenges or changes the status quo.

The ongoing wave of protests calling for a ceasefire in Gaza is no exception. Activists have blocked traffic or interrupted speeches to draw attention to US complicity in the Palestinian genocide, and many liberal commentators have echoed Ginsburg’s message from 2016. Instead of amplifying the fundamental message of these actions—to stop the slaughter of Palestinians—figureheads in the liberal media and Biden administration have criticized the activists and downplayed the impact of uncivil disobedience as a means of effecting change.

Two Types of Civility

Civility is a basic norm that we seek to uphold in our day-to-day interactions. It is a value that we strive to impress on children, reprimanding them when they behave rudely to others in the hopes that doing so will socialize them. Likewise, when our friends act unkindly, or we do so ourselves, we expect to be held accountable. In fact, it is paramount that we are called out in such cases because repeated social infractions can alienate friends and family.

Enforcing civility is not just a demand for respectability. It is an important precondition for living together in a society and ensuring our relationships are regulated by mutually agreed-upon expectations about what is and is not permitted. This idea of civility is what philosopher Olúfẹḿi O. Táíwò calls “society’s moral social structure.” Civility is not merely about rules and manners, which can be easily transgressed, but rather about “making space for other people and for our communities in all of our interactions.”

This distinction—and how civility is enforced or obscured—has important consequences for how we interpret incivility in the face of injustice. In his article “Civility is Overrated,” Adam Serwer provides two definitions of civility. The first definition demands kindness to others, what Sewer colorfully calls “not being an asshole.” The second definition demands passive acceptance of the status quo. The first type of civility affirms the grammar of social life, ensuring the integrity of social norms. The second type of civility, commonly exploited by the elite, demands acquiescence to how the rules are enforced.

Living in society requires the basic recognition that there are structures regulating how we behave—norms that separate what is permissible from what is transgressive. But deciding what is permissible also depends on the context of bad behavior. Recurring instances of uncivil behavior tend to weaken the foundation of society insofar as they generate interpersonal discord. But now and again, you might do something that one person thinks is uncivil and another doesn’t. And there are degrees to how uncivil someone might be. Most importantly, sometimes being uncivil is necessary; it challenges the rules that exclusively afford the right to be uncivil to one group.

If a society’s social grammar is immoral, we must change its rules to allow us to live morally. Doing so is not always a peaceful and seamless transition. It requires disruption and disobedience, interfering in the material structures that produce injustice. This is what acts of protest seek to achieve by disrupting the material flow of things and challenging the patterns that uphold the status quo. They signal a refusal to shut up and put up, an oppressive demand that the powerful often cloak in calls for civility.

The liberal appeal to civility reproduces an order that marginalizes the powerless but cloaks these efforts behind appeals to social harmony.

A History of Inaction

“The liberal is more hypocritical than the conservative. Both want power, but the White liberal is the one who has perfected the art of posing as the Negro’s friend and benefactor,” Malcolm X once said. While liberals and conservatives in the United States both vie for the same access to power, the liberal acts as a friend to the oppressed while exercising power in an opposite manner.

Under both liberal and conservative administrations, the US government has expanded the influence of the elite and shrunk the powers of the public; fortified the security state and enfeebled the welfare system; proselytized radical bipartisanship and criminalized radical dissent. US conservatives tend to be fairly explicit about this agenda, galvanizing support for these measures by demonizing minorities, immigrants, and other marginalized groups. The liberal appeal to civility reproduces an order that marginalizes the powerless but cloaks these efforts behind appeals to social harmony.

Among liberals, it’s almost an article of faith that incivility is counterproductive. “Don’t boo. Vote.” That was the mantra that former President Barack Obama popularized on the campaign trail in 2016 and 2020. “When they go low, we go high,” First Lady Michelle Obama urged at the 2016 Democratic Convention. Booing is rude, rancorous, divisive, and disruptive. It is lowly and polarizing. It alienates and offends. Instead, vote, liberals contend, reaffirming the commitment to democratic and civil norms. But this aversion to disruptive and uncivil disobedience is nothing new.

In 1964, civil rights leaders called on Martin Luther King, Jr. to denounce a planned “stall-in” by activists in New York. The action, organized by the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), sought to draw attention to rampant, citywide inequality by blocking traffic leading to the World’s Fair. Many civil rights leaders charged that the disruption would intrude on the lives of innocent bystanders and could thereby alienate otherwise sympathetic allies and further stall progress on civil rights legislation. They beseeched King to condemn the action in the hopes that doing so would sway the activists to reconsider their tactics. At the time, the media also condemned the action as uncivil, promising that it would win no new friends, provide ammunition to racists, and irritate millions of people.

Freedom is never voluntarily granted by the oppressor but must be demanded.

King refused: “The World’s Fair action must be viewed in the broader context of 20,000,000 Negroes living in an unfair world,” he wrote in a letter to his fellow civil rights leaders. Conceding that the action could be a tactical error and offend potential friends, King nonetheless insisted that movements for racial justice “do not need allies who are more devoted to order than to justice, and who would prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Those alienated by the direct action, King said, “never were real friends” of the Civil Rights movement.

Instead of condemning the potential inconvenience or political backlash caused by the planned protest, King urged attention toward the structures maintaining the status quo; the underlying forces that demanded resistance through disruptive acts, even if one objected to their tactics. “Which is worse, a ‘Stall-In’ at the World’s Fair or a ‘Stall-In’ in the United States Senate?” King asked. “The former merely ties up the traffic of a single city. But the latter seeks to tie up the traffic of history, and endanger the psychological lives of twenty million people.”

In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King defended what he called a “constructive tension,” or a crisis that the activist engineers to “dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” Freedom is never voluntarily granted by the oppressor but must be demanded. Creating and managing a “crisis packed situation,” King emphasized in his letter, is an important resource for bringing the powerful to the negotiating table. If we learn any lessons from the political terrain in 1964, we should understand that protest is not merely a political spectacle but a collective action that halts the routine and repetition of the existing order.

The sanitized image of King that these days enchants liberals is not historically accurate. King publicly differed in his approach to disobedience from more radical activists like Malcolm X. Nonetheless, he was not the prophet of politeness and civility that his name publicly signifies today—his critics fully understood as much while he was alive. “I plan to lead another non-violent march tomorrow,” says a cartoonishly drawn King, standing amidst burned-down cars and destroyed property. The drawing is from 1967, just a year before King was assassinated.

What Is the Point of Protest?

Like the planned traffic stoppages in 1964, protestors blocking traffic today to highlight the US-funded atrocities in Gaza are refusing to sacrifice justice in the name of civility. I spoke to one of the organizers with IfNotNow, who was arrested on the Los Angeles 110 Freeway in December 2023. They told me that the group approached their action with precisely this goal in mind:

We chose to occupy one of the busiest intersections in Downtown LA during morning rush hour traffic to bring about maximal disruption. It would cost the city a lot of money to block the flow of capital—goods, people trying to get to their jobs—and we felt that, at this phase in the siege on Gaza, we needed to escalate the pressure on our political institutions to bring about change. People in power care only when you make them—and they only care when it affects the bottom line.

By occupying public space, specifically a major traffic connector in Los Angeles, the organizers hoped to disrupt the flow of daily life during a genocide. Even though many commuters seemed frustrated, the organizers insisted, as King did in 1964, that the inconvenience was necessary to suspend business as usual.

When news of these actions broke, liberal commentators were bewildered. “I am genuinely curious what protests like this aim to accomplish,” said the American author Jill Filipovic on Twitter. “No one could be stupid enough to think that making you miss a flight is a way to convert you to a political cause,” posted Jake Anbinder, a historian at Cornell University, referring to an article about pro-Palestinian protestors blocking traffic in New York and Los Angeles airports. Political scientist Ruy Teixeira took issue with the protestors who interrupted President Joe Biden’s speech at a church in Charleston, SC, saying that they looked “completely idiotic and inappropriate.”

At the core of the disagreement between pro-Palestinian activists and their liberal critics is an important question: What is the point of protest? Liberals believe that acts of protest should be judged based on their efficacy and productivity. If they fail to impress their message on the broader public, they have failed. Their reasoning, in simple terms, reduces to the observation that the public is typically turned off by confrontational and disruptive disobedience.

Uncivil protest points to the exclusionary effects of established rules and invites their reexamination.

Acts of protest do, indeed, need to communicate a message. When too much noise surrounds the message, the message gets lost. Likewise, when protest becomes a vehicle for generating chaos rather than articulating a coherent demand, it may become less effective. By this pragmatic logic, protests should not foreclose the possibilities of future cooperation but rather reinforce and reemphasize the bonds of reciprocity. In other words, they should invite their audience to participate in moral dialogue rather than repel them through confrontation.

But emphasizing pragmatism obscures the point of protest as a disruptive act that seeks to create a spectacle: a dramatic and manufactured crisis that attracts political attention. Acts of protest should have a practical aim whose achievement can be concretely appraised. However, pragmatic impact doesn’t supersede moral import. Whether an act of protest attracts or alienates its audience is secondary to both whether it has a moral warrant and whether it effectively communicates its message.

Protestors who have disrupted President Biden’s campaign events, occupied landmark sites, or confronted politicians inside and outside the halls of power, have succeeded on both fronts. Their disruptive acts have garnered cultural attention in a media landscape where the daily brutalities of life in Gaza are systematically underreported. Disruptive acts demand that we confront these inconvenient truths and recognize that our daily routines implicate us in the cruelties that our tax dollars fund.

In situations of gross injustice, people seek to disrupt the conditions that uphold oppressive structures. Uncivil disobedience seeks to achieve this by emphasizing a simple message: no justice, no peace. Liberals often counsel that protest should enact and foster the ideals of mutual respect and dignity—ideals that a just society should be founded upon. If you want to win over the powerful, liberals insist, you must demonstrate respect for the norms of civility, both as a way of prefiguring your goals and coaxing your audience to engage with your demands.

But the powerful do not listen. For instance, consider the poll released in early December showing that more than 60 percent of likely voters support a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, while only 24 percent of voters thought that we should send additional military aid and weapons to Israel. In contrast, only 11 percent of the lawmakers in the US Congress have called for a ceasefire. The disconnect between the elected and the electorate could not be more conspicuous. In moments like this, norms of public engagement themselves have to be called into question: who gets to speak, where, when, and how.

Uncivil protest points to the exclusionary effects of established rules and invites their reexamination. It disrupts the moral and political consensus by forcing a community to confront the disparity between its moral ideals and political realities. Such disruptions may be inconvenient and annoying, but that is precisely the point. The police and bystanders may even attack protestors, as was the case on the 110 Freeway. This violence brings into relief the inauthenticity of our society’s commitments to the ideals of respect and justice. “The lie of civic friendship is clear in the refusal to grant civility to the opponents of the status quo,” the philosopher Candice Delmas argues. This is the point of disruptive protest—to force a reexamination of collective fealty to ideals of respect and justice.

Protesting grotesque moral violations is not easy, and protestors will often incur the public’s wrath for disruptive acts. These acts of disobedience may not even bring the changes that would restore justice to the order of things. Nonetheless, they are important moral gestures, both in communicating a grievance and expressing public solidarity with the aggrieved. In emphasizing that without justice, there will be no peace, disruptive and uncivil disobedience threatens a political consensus that normalizes the silencing of the oppressed.