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Jorge Silva / Reuters

At first it seemed like a form of political communication one step below standing on a soapbox in Hyde Park. Without even saying very much, you were making a spectacle of yourself, being a public nuisance, in front of people who didn’t count for much themselves and felt free to ignore you. If you were going to confront the state with a public stand, it seemed hard to imagine a lower-status or less effective way to do it. The views of my fellow officials or consultants were mine as well. If you had nothing better to do with several hours of your time than to try to change the minds of a few dozen random pedestrians by handing them leaflets, you must be very powerless indeed. The thoughts, “Why are we doing this?” seemed at first as visible on my forehead as the signboards my neighbors were carrying. I felt ridiculous.

That passed. After all, no one was paying much attention one way or the other. My companions seemed at ease. They all had probably done this before. I wanted to be helpful. I took a bunch of leaflets and began offering them to people walking by. There seemed to be some technique to getting them to accept one. I experimented with different expressions, all pleasant, and various verbal formulas. Some worked: some didn’t. I started to get into it. Before the morning was over, I was offering leaflets, with some success, to cars stopped momentarily in the adjacent intersections. My mood had changed. I was feeling unaccountably lighthearted.

Something very important had happened to me. I felt liberated. I doubt if I could have explained that at the time. But by now I have seen this exhilaration often enough in others, in particular people who have just gone through an action of civil disobedience, wether or not they have been taken to jail. This simple vigil, my first public action, had freed me from a nearly universal fear whose inhabiting force, I think, is very wildly underestimated. I had become free of the fear or appearing absurd, of looking foolish, for stepping out of line.

— Daniel Ellsberg

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