“I can’t breathe”: Expressing civil disobedience through books


With crowds chanting “I can’t breathe” in protest of a New York grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer involved in Eric Garner’s chokehold death, not to mention riots in Ferguson, Mo., over a similar grand jury decision, it may be instructive to look back on some of the best books about civil disobedience that have informed our culture.

Authors and activists have long used the written word to inflame passions against or for political and social ends. There are works of nonfiction that may rightly be called civil disobedience Bibles, but today’s budding activist should really read more than Thoreau.

3264616-henry-david-thoreauWe’re referring, of course, to Henry David Thoreau, who literally wrote the book on civil disobedience, titled, Resistance to Civil Government. This is the essay that inspired Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority,” he wrote, “it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.”

Gandhi’s For Passive Resisters owed much to Thoreau, whom he credited with abolishing slavery in the United States, as did King’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.

“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair,” King wrote.Martin Luther King

The Hunger Games, too, is about civil disobedience. Yes, there is a significant amount of violence in the book (there is, after all, a revolution), but the books and films are filled to the brim with acts of nonviolent civil disobedience—the three-fingered salute, for example, displayed against the expressed wishes of the ruling elite. It’s the nonviolent straw that breaks the camel’s back and launches the resistance into action.

gandhi1The Hunger Games is fully ensconced in the tradition of civil disobedient science fiction, along with, perhaps most notably, works by Ray Bradbury and George Orwell.

Orwell’s work 1984 and “Big Brother” have become synonymous with fights against “The Man.” What better image is there than the Thought Police?

Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 presents the lovely idea that the key to the revolution may be to memorize the greatest works of literature and keep them alive within us, which is too nice an idea, perhaps, for our jaded time.

Moving away from sci-fi, Bertold Brecht used avant-garde theater to challenge commonly held artistic, political and societal notions. Though not often thought of as works of civil disobedience, in the way Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, his plays were certainly intended to challenge both audiences and the establishment. He did so at a most difficult time in our history, too—during and after World War II.

Lastly, poet and playwright Federico García Lorca was killed during the Spanish Civil War, though his poems are very often on the subject of love. A romantic poet, who wrote “In the green morning I wanted to be a heart. A heart,” was nonetheless murdered for his political views.

Did we forget about any other important works of civil disobedience? Let us know in the comments below.

About The Contributor

Jordan N. Fenster is a journalist and father of three. He's a breaking news junkie and a culture vulture, with a particular obsession with and outright disdain for whatever happens to be popular at the moment. He is the author of several unfinished novels and several as-yet unpublished works for children. You can usually find him watching a movie or listening to some new music. He lives with his brood in bucolic Connecticut.

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