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I live just up the road from the Old North Bridge. At this time of year, when autumn foliage is at its peak, the historical landmark always attracts a lot of visitors. Leaf peepers, we call them. As someone who drives past the Bridge on a daily basis, I have never been overly fond of leaf peepers. They drive slowly, are frequently lost, and arrive in tour buses that clog up the town of Concord and snarl traffic. It’s an inconvenience. But this year something’s happened that’s made me change my mind.
The leaf peepers are practicing Henry David Thoreau’s call for Civil Disobedience.
[The leaf peepers] are willfully, determinately, civilly disobeying the law of the land.
The Minute Man National Historical Park, as a non-essential government entity, is now officially closed. The parking lot across the street from the Bridge is chained shut. Park rangers, before departing, placed signs at the entrances to the park saying it was closed to all foot traffic until further notice because the federal government had shut off its funding.
The leaf peepers — uniformly well-dressed, many white-haired, seemingly law-abiding citizens — are ignoring the signs. In droves. They are parking their cars and tour buses to the side of Monument Street, stepping around the “Park Is Closed” signs, and walking in to admire the bridge where a bunch of local farmers fired the first shots of the American Revolution. They are willfully, determinately, civilly disobeying the law of the land. Thoreau would be proud. And it makes me proud to see them.
Whether by accident or design, the local authorities aren’t trying to stop these retirement renegades, either. The illegally parked cars aren’t being ticketed. No one is being arrested or harassed for trespassing. And to my eye, attendance at the Bridge is as robust as ever since it was closed.
Everyone seems to understand that, whatever your politics, civil disobedience is the only appropriate recourse of an engaged and discerning populace. That it should be so boldly on display in Thoreau’s hometown is cause for hope, not dismay. Our federal government may be dysfunctional, but the American people it is supposed to represent intuitively knows the difference between right and wrong.
Perhaps that’s why they won’t be turned back from the Old North Bridge. The place is a vivid, visual reminder that some things are worth fighting for, and insisting on: wise governance being one of them.
“I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons,” Thoreau wrote in “Civil Disobedience” in 1849, “and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.”
This program aired on October 8, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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