The last time Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson was arrested, the 28-year-old mother was handcuffed and carried off the ground by police — one held her arms, the other her legs — out of a Nashville legislative committee room, where she and six others had come to do all they could to block passage of laws that would weaken labor unions in Tennessee.
The time before that, after witnessing firsthand the moonscape-like destruction of mountain-top removal, she had sneaked onto West Virginia coal mine land and chained herself to a mining truck.
"We shut down the mine for five hours," she said. "We got arrested for forced trespassing and conspiracy to commit a crime against the state."
That's what the law calls it: crimes against the state. But Henderson, an Ooltewah High graduate and leader in the local Concerned Citizens for Justice, doesn't see it that way. Her actions are born from her conscience: that part of ourselves that feels like a fire, pushing us to do the right thing, come what may.
When laws are unethical, when every other option has been tried, when lives are at stake, sometimes, whispers the conscience, breaking laws is the most moral choice of all.
"We need people who are willing to make significant sacrifices," she said.
Our country was built on conscience. Early colonial resistance was considered by the British crown to be a crime against the state, meaning that U.S. freedom was forged out of civil disobedience. Since then, like a best supporting actor, it's had a long history in our national drama.
Give me liberty or death. Suffragists, abolitionists, anti-war, anti-abortion, anti-tax. The Sons of Liberty, Rosa Parks, Tim DeChristopher, the Pentagon Papers.
And most recently, Edward Snowden.
All eyes have been following the story of Snowden, the once-National Security Agency contractor who's now a global fugitive after leaking to the world the news that the American government has created an empire of surveillance directed at its own citizens.
(In other news: sales of Orwell's "1984" spiked by 6000 percent this week).
"He's a traitor," House Speaker John Boehner said to ABC.
Snowden is anything but.
Blind allegiance and mouthpiece, zombie-conformity to the state paves the road to fascism and police state destruction. A government that arms itself with widespread surveillance powers against its own people is not operating under the principles of democracy and liberty but something else entirely.
"Why does [the government] not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults ... ?" wrote Thoreau in "Civil Disobedience."
"Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?"
The state does these things because it is interested not in matters of conscience, but in maintaining power. Our naton's laws and policies are not divine; at times, they need challenging.
That work falls to the people, the ones Bayard Rustin called "angelic troublemakers."
Without acts of dissent and disobedience, America would still be bound by slavery, the male-only-vote, segregation, child labor and on and on.
So we rejoice, then, in the power of citizens to do what is right, come hell or high water, and the conscience that guides them like a north star.
"Everybody's got it," said Henderson. "They have to figure out what issue is their issue."
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...
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