What if, when government agents showed up to hassle people for engaging in some activity that didn't harm anybody but was officially disapproved, friends and neighbors turned out to send the agents packing? That's what happened in the Hermitage neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee, on Monday morning, where residents chased away Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who attempted to take custody of a long-term resident. It's a frankly heroic model that bears emulation in a variety of circumstances involving enforcers of unjust laws, malicious officials, and the people over whom they claim to exercise authority.
"Neighbors say the man and his son were in a van parked in their driveway, with a white pickup truck driven by an ICE agent parked behind them, blocking them in. Soon more than a dozen neighbors were gathered outside the home, along with immigrant rights advocates, as the man and his son sat in their van, beginning a standoff that lasted several hours," the Nashville Scene reports. "As the hours passed, witnesses say, neighbors brought food and water to the man and his son and also put more gas in the van so they could keep it running."
Ultimately, the neighbors formed a human chain through which the man and his son walked from their van to their house. They've since relocated to a new home. The incident was captured on video and posted to Facebook.
To an extent, the success of this particular confrontation between good people and federal enforcers hinged on the fact that the ICE agents, as is usually the case, relied on the warrant version of Confederate money.
"An 'ICE warrant' is not a real warrant," notes the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. "It is not reviewed by a judge or any neutral party to determine if it is based on probable cause. Because it is not issued by a judge, an ICE warrant does not give the immigration enforcement officer the authority to demand entry to a home or private space in order to make the arrest."
ICE's self-issued documents allege civil immigration violations and so also don't authorize local authorities to make arrests in the absence of separate criminal violations. That's a big part of why Metro Nashville Police was on the scene but only observed the confrontation and did nothing to intervene.
Which is to say, obstructing ICE comes with minimal risks.
There can sometimes be greater dangers involved in interfering with government enforcers of other unjust laws—restrictions on drugs, guns, consensual sexual activity, intrusive regulations, and confiscatory taxes, for instance. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't get in the way when the opportunity arises to help ourselves or others without assuming excessive risk.
"Political authority is an illusion," writes the philosopher Michael Huemer in The Problem of Political Authority. "No one has the right to rule, and no one is obliged to obey a command merely because it comes from their government." To the contrary, he continues, the same moral rules apply to governments as apply to everybody else, and government employees have no more right to roust people for behavior that annoys their bosses than does the prickly guy who lives on your street.
"The government and its agents do not have any kind of special immunity against defensive action," adds Jason Brennan in When All Else Fails, building on Huemer's argument. "When government agents commit injustice, they are liable to be deceived, sabotaged, injured, or even attacked, in the same way civilians would be."
Examples of such active resistance abound, from the Whiskey Rebellion, to the Underground Railroad, through Prohibition, and the Stonewall uprising. In all instances, people actively obstructed law enforcement in ways great and small to protect their liberty and that of other people subject to unjust laws.
That such push-back against government enforcers remains effective is obvious not just from the ejection of ICE agents from a Nashville neighborhood, but from the buckets-full soaking of police officers in Harlem and Brooklyn this past weekend. To be clear, it's not obvious what laws, good or bad, the police were enforcing—"officers were responding to an unruly crowd," according to one report—and the New York City Police Department (NYPD) has yet to respond to my inquiries. But police meekly retreated in both cases without further action.
And pushback can have a larger impact beyond the immediate incident. Police departments across the country, as well as the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI, are facing recruitment shortfalls amidst complaints about low morale and resistance from the public at large.
"The American policing profession may be facing the most fundamental questioning of its legitimacy in decades," wrote Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, in a 2017 organizational newsletter.
That crisis of legitimacy has a lot to do with exposure of abusive police conduct, made much easier by modern electronics and the internet facilitating the sharing of video evidence. Such incidents include the brutal and unjustified killing of Daniel Shaver by a Mesa, Arizona, police officer, the equally contemptible killing of Philando Castile by a Minnesota police officer, and litany of similar incidents nationwide.
On a larger scale, systematic problems worsen perceptions of government enforcers.
"Militarized policing is ineffective in decreasing crime and protecting police, and may actually weaken the public's image of the police," researchers found last year.
"Racial profiling and other types of biased policing undermine the public's confidence and trust in law enforcement," warned a recent report about the NYPD's failure to deal with allegations of biased enforcement.
As the cherry on top, we have growing concerns about the law being used not to address perceived social problems, real or imaginary, but to punish political enemies who support the "wrong" policies and candidates, or who just won't submit to the will of those in government office. Fighting for control of that government and its enforcers are dominant political factions that despise each other to the point of seeing each other as "evil" and wishing each other's members "just died", in the words of a paper published earlier this year.
Under the circumstances, it's not hard to justify throwing some hurdles in the way of the government's enforcement apparatus.
That doesn't mean it's safe to stand between government enforcers and their intended victims. In many instances it will get you arrested if not subject to violent assault. The good neighbors in Nashville were fortunate that ICE operates under constraints that don't universally apply to law enforcement. But if the opportunity arises to protect your friends, neighbors, loved ones, or yourself from malicious officials and enforcers of unjust laws, you're certainly justified if you do so.