Photograph by Steven Higgs

Journalist Bill Moyers, host of PBS's "Bill Moyers Journal," read from his new book Moyers on Democracy in New York City on July 1. Bloomington Alternative editor Steven Higgs attended the event and asked Moyers about the role civil disobedience and resistance plays in American society.

On July 1, journalist Bill Moyers gave a reading from his new book Moyers on Democracy at Barnes & Noble in New York City’s Union Square. Bloomington Alternative editor Steven Higgs was on hand for the event and asked Moyers during the question-and-answer segment about the Interstate 69/NAFTA Highway and the role of resistance and civil disobedience in effecting change in America today.

What follows is a transcript of Higgs’ question and Moyers’ response.


Higgs: First, I’d like to say thank you, Bill, for your words and your work. I am an adjunct lecturer at the Indiana University School of Journalism. I regularly refer my students to your work and tell them that in my opinion you are one of America’s best living journalists, if not the best.

For the past 18 years, as a daily newspaper reporter, a columnist for an alternative newspaper and for the past six years as the editor and publisher of an alternative journal of progressive news and commentary, I’ve written about what I consider to be a great crime against democracy, which is the Interstate 69/NAFTA Highway extension through Southwest Indiana.

In the past week, eight young people have been arrested for engaging in civil disobedience against this highway. This month, Gov. Mitch Daniels, George Bush’s former budget director, is going to break ground on this highway.

As a veteran of the 1960s civil disobedience that you witnessed with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, I’m wondering what your opinion is on the future in terms of what role civil disobedience and resistance is going to play, especially if the system does not respond to the problems that you have elucidated so well.

Thank you very much.

Moyers: That’s one of the toughest questions because Judith and I were in Washington when civil disobedience under Martin Luther King, and before Martin Luther King the Freedom Marchers and all the others, all those anonymous young black men and women who stood up against segregationist Jim Crow laws of the South and were martyred in a sense. But that was a great rolling movement of civil disobedience, and it’s time had come, and there was a government in place that could respond to it. I could go into that in great detail about Martin Luther King working LBJ over to make sure he responded in the right way.

But we saw that civil disobedience didn’t have much effect or get much play in the buildup to the Iraqi War in which the mass mainstream media and the government were colluding to pass along unjustified information and claiming it was accurate. And I don’t see much evidence that civil disobedience is working around the country today, anywhere.

I know a little bit about the story of 69 in Indiana. But there’s a Texas equivalent of it, too. They want to build a NAFTA Highway all the way from the border up through Southeast Texas, right through my hometown in Texas. And there have been some homeowners who have protested. But in that part of the country the ethos is, you know, what is good for commerce is good for us. And there has been very little objection to it. There’s one going through in West Texas, as well.

But in each case, the opposition has generated local coverage, as you just said has happened in your alternative newspaper, but not much general interest. So, at this moment, I can’t say that civil disobedience has a promising future.

But you never know when a tipping point is coming. I mean, I’m not even sure Obama knows what’s happening to him because he is riding some updraft of a feeling in the country that’s ready for some radical change, some important change in this country. And it could carry on beyond Obama, whether he wins or loses, if in fact people suddenly begin to put the dots together, as I try to do in this book, and connect all of these forces, which are not the immutable, invisible hand of Adam Smith working, or the hands of the people who pull the levers. (It's) the power brokers, the people who give the money.

And if the situation in this country continues to deteriorate, our infrastructure, our mortgages, our homes, our foreclosures, all of this. Wages are stagnant in this country. They went up only one dollar in real terms, they only went up one dollar a week so far in the last seven years. People are struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living.

I don’t know, there’s a chapter in the book that’s called “America 101” where I was asked to come out and speak to the Council of the Great City Schools 50th anniversary. And I said our children are being cheated of their revolutionary heritage. Go to urban schools with high concentrations of poor and minority children and you can understand what it must have meant to Native Americans to be segregated on reservations, isolated, powerless, shorn of any chance to participate in shaping your destiny in the larger world.

And I go on to say how the curriculum in our schools does not teach these children that they too are heirs of this revolution, and they have to take it in their own hands if there is ever going to be real change.

Steven Higgs can be reached at .