Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience - the deliberate violation of a law for a social purpose. To violate a law for individual gain, for a private purpose, is an ordinary criminal act; it is not civil disobedience. -- Howard Zinn

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? ... It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, as so much for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. -- Henry David Thoreau

It's easy to look around and see what you need freedom from. But when the fight is over you are left stranded with your anger. It is better instead to know what you need freedom for, and that will always tell you what you need freedom from. -- Bishop of Bath & Wells, Glastonbury Festival 1994

As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. -- Nelson Mandela, Inaugural speech, 1994

Environmental issues are not academic. They are fucking real, and it is up to us to take action now. We can ALL do this. We HAVE to. In our day to day lives, and when big things kick off. And we can make things happen. We are more possible than they can powerfully imagine! -- merrick

When you are committed to doing what is right, the power of righteousness will never betray you ... -- John Africa

Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself then providence moves too ... whatever you can do or dream you can begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now. -- Goethe

Civil disobedience, direct action, has a long and honourable tradition dating from Henry David Thoreau, his essay 'Civil Disobedience' and his refusal to pay taxes to support the American land-grabbing war against Mexico. We could go back much further, the act of Jesus Christ kicking over the tables of the money changers in the temple must be one of the first recorded examples of direct action.

John 2:13-15 (New Living Bible):

It was time for the annual Passover celebration, and Jesus went to Jerusalem. In the Temple area he saw merchants selling cattle, sheep, and doves for sacrifices; and he saw money changers behind their counters. Jesus made a whip from some ropes and chased them all out of the Temple. He drove out the sheep and oxen, scattered the money changers' coins over the floor, and turned over their tables.

Jesus Christ may have been more of revolutionary, political activist, than the Church has been willing to admit. The New Testament draws a picture of a man of little substance, existing in a historical vacuum. For a history of his time, in which his life was played out, we have to go to other contemporary sources, where he only appears as a minor bit player. John gives us a tantalising glimpse of his character. A direct action more than acceptable by today's standards of non-violent direct action, but on the scale of the Christian doctrine of pacifism, turning the other cheek, well towards the violence end of the scale. Other anomalies which have managed to creep through the filter of the Church are the arming of the Disciples with swords at the Garden of Gethsemane, and Peter slicing through the ear of a Priest with his sword. Were the Disciples more than religious followers, an armed guard to protect their leader, a forerunner of the Knights Templar? The execution of Christ was a form of execution used by the Romans for revolutionaries.

History is littered with direct action, civil disobedience, proving pivotal - Diggers and Levellers during the English Civil War, Tolpuddle Martyrs, campaigners against the slave trade on both sides of the Atlantic, Suffragettes, Gandhi and the salt marches, Black civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam War protests, poll-tax riots, anti-road protests, direct action against genetically modified crops.

Non-violent direct action has many dimensions: the destruction of something undesirable, the generation of publicity, part of a strategy to generate awareness, open up closed minds. Direct action is never an excuse for mindless violence

Christ understood direct action, he'd already got himself noticed as a trouble maker, disrupting the accepted social order. He visited the Temple the evening before he kicked over the tables. Was he simply carrying out a recce, were there too few people around? The day he carried out the action, he may have been preaching, working up the crowd, it was Passover, tensions would have been high, Romans on guard, ready to stamp on any trouble makers. He timed his action to create maximum impact.

Mark 11:11:

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the Temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out ...

Had Christ not turned over the tables, disrupted the social order, got himself arrested, then crucified, where would Christianity be today?

Democracy is not advanced through the actions of politicians. Politicians have only two interests - self-interest and vested interest, the public is not counted as either of these. The public is a bloody nuisance. The only time politicians take an interest in the public, have any contact with the public, is at election time. This is not because politicians have suddenly become interested in the public, the interest is still, me, me me, but they now need the help of the public to get re-elected, to keep their snouts in the trough, the public soon to be forgotten until the next election.

Left to their own devices, politicians will always act against democracy and the public interest. In the UK, the Criminal Justice Act was a Draconian piece of legislation, that severely restricted civil rights; Tony and his cronies, with their friends in the biotech industry, have pushed ahead with genetic engineering, even though it has no public support and poses serious threats to health and the environment; electronic monitoring is being pushed through increasing the powers of the Police State. In the UK, it is possible to count on one hand the number of politicians of integrity who sit in the House of Commons. Ironically there are more members of integrity, there by accident of birth, in the unelected House of Lords (soon to be replaced by a chamber of political appointees and party lackeys).

The secret discussions between Chile and Spain (July 1999) to allow the murderous General Pinochet to walk free is a graphic illustration of why governments and politicians can not be trusted to act on behalf of the people. Both England (holding Pinochet under house arrest) and Spain (request warrant for extradition of Pinochet), as signatories of the Torture Convention, are under a legal as well as a moral obligation to try Pinochet.

Direct action, civil disobedience, is not an adjunct to the normal political process, it is the only political process that retains and advances human rights, civil liberties and democracy.

Civil disobedience, direct action, is often undertaken when all else fails, when rational debate achieves nothing, when the planning process has been exhausted. For a growing number of people it is where democracy starts, part of empowering the people, bringing responsibility and involvement direct to the people who are effected by the decisions. We don't seek permission from those in power to do what we want to run our own lives, we just do it. For Deep Ecologists and their Jesuits, Earth First!ers, direct action, civil disobedience, together with a deep respect for all communities, natural and humankind, is an essential component of the philosophy.

Obedience to law and order is so ingrained it has become almost hard-wired. Liberals feel uneasy about breaking the law, obedience to authority precedes potty training. Laws are man made, men are infallible, men are greedy, men are evil. Laws are interpreted by lawyers and judges, the State decides which laws will be upheld, who will be prosecuted.

Tommy Trantino, poet, artist, inmate of death row, learnt at an early age 'The Lore of the Lamb' (cited by Howard Zinn):

i was in prison long ago and it was the first grade and i have to take a shit and ... the law says you must first raise your hand and ask the teacher for permission so i obeyer of the lore of the lamb am therefore busy raising my hand to the fuhrer who says yes thomas what is it? and i thomas say i have to take i mean may i go to the bathroom please? didn't you go to the bathroom yesterday thomas she says and i say yes ma'am mrs parsley sir but i have to go again today but she says NO ... And i say eh ... I GOTTA TAKE A SHIT DAMMIT and again she says NO but I go anyway except that it was not out but in my pants that is to say right in my corduroy knickers goddamm ...

i was about six years old at the time and yet i guess that even then i knew without cerebration that if one obeys and follows orders and adheres to all the rules and regulations of the lore of the lamb one is going to shit in one's pants and one's mother is going to have to clean up afterwards ya see.

It is fear that chains us to blind obedience of the law and authority. When we conquer that fear, anything is possible.

Merrick, writing of the Battle for the Trees on the route of the Newbury bypass:

I've lost my Fear of Authority, that self-policing that is the most powerful force holding us back. Fuck it, I'm here cos I'm right. I'm not scared of that, so I'm not scared of them. Let them deal with me.

When Greenpeace trashed a field of GM maize (July 1999), allegedly causing £750 worth of damage, the State decided to prosecute; the farmers who are deliberately contaminating the countryside with hazardous biological material, who chased activists around a field with a mechanical digger endangering life and limb, who caused thousands of pounds worth of damage to vehicles have not been charged. One of those who participated in the action was a former senior police officer responsible for security at the House of Commons.

Howard Zinn:

The legislators decide which laws to put on the books. The president and his attorney-general decide which laws to enforce. The judges decide who has a right to sue in court, what instructions to give to juries, what rules of law apply, and what evidence should not be allowed in the courtroom.

Blind obedience to Law and Order does not lead to a better society, any more than direct action, civil disobedience leads to anarchy and chaos. Military rule in Indonesia, authoritarian rule in Singapore and Malaysia may have led to 'efficiency' of the sort desired by global corporations, until the stresses of the artificially imposed system cause it to break down in social chaos, riots and civil disorder, but it does not lead to justice or fairness.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Serb action in Kosovo, the Nato bombing of Serbia was contrary to International Law, carried out under the US/UK New World Order of 'do as we tell you or we'll kick the shit out of you'. Serbs were only obeying orders. World War II, the Holocaust, was only Germans obeying orders. Indonesian occupation of East Timor, Chinese occupation of Tibet, Turkish occupation of Kurdistan and northern Cyprus, is contrary to International Law and International Treaties. Turks practising genocide against the Kurds are only obeying orders. Global corporations break laws daily with their poor working conditions and wages, faulty products, environmental practices. US bombing of Cambodia, Vietnam, Libya, attacks on Nicaragua, invasion of Grenada and Panama were contrary to the US Constitution and breaches of International Law, the supply of arms to Iran and the Contras was a breach of US Law, the CIA has trafficked in narcotics in South-East Asia, Central and Latin America. Richard Nixon had a guaranteed pardon before he stepped down from power.

Gertrude Scholtz-Klink, chief of the Women's Bureau under Adolf Hitler:

We always obeyed the law ... Even if you don't agree with a law personally, you still obey it. Otherwise life would be chaos.

It was upholding law and order that led to the beating of demonstrators at the Democratic Convention in Chicago (1968), the National Guard to gun down students at Kent State University (1970), the Chinese Red Army, the People's Army, to massacre hundreds of students in Tiananmen Square (1989).

voices in the wilderness uk exported equipment from UK to Iraq without an export licence, a clear breach of the law. The export was a flagrant breach of the US/UK imposed embargo on Iraq. The equipment shipped was much needed medical equipment - disposable syringes, disposable gloves, intravenous drips etc. To use starvation as an instrument of war is a breach of the Geneva Convention. The US/UK imposed embargo on Iraq has caused the death of hundreds of thousands of children. The UK has an 'ethical foreign policy'. The UK readily issues export licences for the export of weapons to Turkey and Indonesia. Turkey has a human rights record far worse than that of Iraq.

The direct action by voices in the wilderness uk, apart from shipping much needed supplies to the citizens of Iraq, attracted publicity through its illegality and thus helped to push the issue up the political agenda. This is not to say more conventional methods of campaigning are eschewed, voices in the wilderness uk also have an on-line petition calling for an end to sanctions.

Laws are artificial, made by those with the most power. Corporations will often say they are not breaking the law, conveniently forgetting that it was they, through corrupt politicians and intense lobbying, who made the laws.

Merrick, writing of the Battle for the Trees on the route of the Newbury bypass:

Laws are made by a few people to protect their own interest, and laws are only passed to benefit the wider society when those in power can no longer refuse ... what we're doing here is proving these laws wrong, making them unworkable. We are part of the move to reform unjust laws.

Blacks were breaking the law when they sat on white only seats on buses, when they sat in the white only areas in restaurants; Suffragettes were breaking the law when they chained themselves to railings.

Howard Zinn:

I had not thought seriously about the problem of civil disobedience (that is, not seen the real problem as civil obedience) until I became involved in the Southern movement against racial segregation. As black people were arrested again and again for violation of various local laws, the distinction between law and justice became starkly clear.

Daniel Berrigan:

As Daniel demonstrates, there is obedience and obedience. One form tends to servility and shallowness; it hides out in the shadow of him-who-has-the-last-word. Over such conduct no cloud of witnesses hovers, no ancient ancestry, no text ... no whispers and dreams beckoning. Servile obedience is like a clamorous parental voice at our ear, spelling out details, moral precepts, footnotes, jots and tittles. The law, is always the law!

Justice of the case rarely decides who is found guilty, who is found innocent. The wealthy win and the poor lose. O J Simpson got off, whilst Mumia Abu-Jamal, on trumped up charges, waits on death row. Judges decide what evidence is admissible and what is not.

Mumia Abu-Jamal:

Let us never forget that the overwhelming majority of people on death row are poor. Most of them cannot afford the resources to develop an adequate defence to compete with the forces of the State, let alone money to buy a decent suit to wear in court. As the O J Simpson case illustrated once again, the kind of defence you get is the kind of defence you can afford. In Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, in Florida, in Texas, in Illinois, in California - most of the people are there because they could not afford what O J could afford, which is the best defence.

Obligation to the State is often mentioned, without a pause for breath, together with Law and Order. We have no obligation to the State. Our only obligation is to fellow sentient beings, to our community and the Gaian hierarchy (see forthcoming Life the Universe and Everything for a detailed discussion of Gaian function and hierarchy, or Edward Goldsmith's excellent The Way). It is blind obedience and obligation to the State that has led to two World Wars and many other tragedies of the twentieth century. It is the State that wages war, the State that carries out judicial executions.

Direct action can be mass civil disruption, extra-legal activity - sit-ins, sit-downs, mass demonstrations, blocking of roads. Reclaim the Streets will hold an impromptu street party, even if the 'street' just happens to be a six-lane motorway or Parliament Square.

Mass demonstrations closed Hillgrove Cat Farm (where a sick individual, Farmer Christopher Brown, bred cats to be tortured). RSPCA (animal welfare group) were forced to go in and rescue 800 abandoned cats on the day Hillgrove closed (Friday 13 August 1999). The cost of policing the demonstrations was estimated by Thames Valley Police to be not far short of £3 million. At one time an exclusion zone was declared around Witney (Oxfordshire).

The first protest meetings against the Vietnam War (spring 1965), were a few hundred people gathered on Boston Common, addressed by Howard Zinn. By October 1969, 100,000 people were gathered on Boston Common, with similar large-scale protest rallies being held across the country. Lyndon B Johnson feared to escalate the war, as he feared mass civil unrest, and refused a request for 200,000 extra troops from General Westmoreland. Richard Nixon was eventually forced to sue for peace by the level of protest outside the White House (which gave Henry Kissinger the opportunity to fraudulently claim the Nobel Peace Prize).

Pentagon report:

The growing disaffection accompanied as it certainly will be, by increased defiance of the draft and growing unrest in the cities because of the belief that we are neglecting domestic problems, runs great risks of provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.

Richard Nixon (from memoirs):

Although publicly I continued to ignore the raging antiwar controversy ... I knew, however, that after all the protests and the Moratorium [the nation-wide protests of October 1969], American public opinion would be seriously divided by any military escalation of the war.

Howard Zinn:

In the summer of 1965, a few hundred people had gathered in Washington to march in protest against the war ... But by 1970, the Washington peace rallies were drawing hundreds of thousand of people. In 1971, twenty thousand came to Washington to commit civil disobedience, trying to tie up Washington traffic to express their revulsion against the killing still going on in Vietnam. Fourteen thousand of them were arrested, the largest mass arrest in American history.

During the US/UK led Gulf War against Iraq, mass civil disobedience caused major disruption of San Francisco. Similar actions took place along the West Coast. During the height of the US/UK led bombing of Kosovo, major anti-war allies took place in London, many smaller rallies across the country. These actions went largely unreported by the mainstream media.

William Lloyd Garrison, a rabble rousing opponent of slavery, when criticised for his intemperate language, replied 'Sir, slavery will not be overthrown without excitement, a most tremendous excitement.'

Direct action does not have to involve law breaking. Newbury protesters squatted on the route, claimed their residences as dwellings. The site contractors were obliged to take action through the courts to repossess the land, though they weren't above using violent eviction (ie acting against the law) if they thought they could get away with it and no one was looking.

Civil disobedience does not have to involve direct action. The very act of resisting is disobedience of the ruling class. The most powerful act of resistance is that simple word, 'no'. The 'no' when Vietnam draft dodgers burnt their draft cards and said 'no to Vietnam', the act of Daniel when he said no to the royal diet of meat and wine, and instead requested a simple diet of vegetables and water.

Daniel 1:8-16 (New Revised Standard Bible):

But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine ... Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink ...

Daniel Berrigan:

His 'no' is all Daniel can offer - and there is no altar to offer it on. We hear that word, that refusal. We hear it repeated, echoed down the centuries, perhaps even more strongly than in our own day. We know, or know of, those who dare to utter it. And of some who die for the utterance. A puny monosyllable ... Daniels's 'no' shakes the thrones and the enthroned where they sit ... And one thinks of ... Nelson Mandela, of Oscar Romero ... the 'no' of my brother Philip ... of peacemakers far and near, some awaiting trial, others already convicted and imprisoned. And across the world, how many thousands, unknown, swell that sublime chorus! ... In another place (Dan 2:24-35) the initial 'no' of the resistance is likened to a stone that gathers fierce momentum and eventually topples the superhuman image of the king. It is a stone that grows, a living stone; as alive as the 'no' of resistance that echoes across a spiritual void.

Direct action should be creative and imaginative. Newbury protesters did not just occupy the route of the intended bypass. They blocked coaches in their depots being used to transfer security guards and other site personnel, AGMs and corporate offices were targeted, senior executives were visited in their homes. One director had his lawn re-engineered to the road and his flowers re-potted in his car.

In the UK, the Draconian Criminal Justice Act has left activists with no choice other than to become creative. Previously minor civil offences like trespass are now major criminal acts of aggravated trespass, the very act of assembly has become a criminal offence, protest has been criminalised. In response, coordinating groups have become non-membership, activist form into small, autonomous, extremely fluid mobile units. There is no top-down, centralised hierarchy. Activists often belong to no groups, having nothing other than a common shared purpose on a single issue, for a single event. The Stop the Crop Rally at Watlington was a classic example. People opposed to GM crops assembled from all over the country for speeches and a picnic, conveniently located across a country lane from one of the major large-scale field trials. As the rally wound down, people assembled into two groups with the declared intention of walking around the field, then without any signal or warning, they all, spontaneously and individually, wandered into the field. The crop was then trashed. Activist are networking, not just locally, but internationally. The June 18 events could not have taken place without the network par excellence, the Internet. The dark forces of the state are in a tizz, no groups to infiltrate and disrupt, no evil mastermind to make an example of.

In the UK, the dark forces of the state are planning to strike back. Having already criminalised activists, a recently released consultation document, Legislation Against Terrorism, is planning to redefine activists as terrorists. The Prevention of Terrorism Bill being fast-tracked through Parliament will be used to target environmentalists, animal rights protesters, indeed anyone with a conscience and a sense of social justice, who is prepared to stand up against government, Big Business and many of the ills and injustices in the world. Terrorism is to be redefined as 'the use of serious violence against persons or property, or the threat to use such violence, to intimidate or coerce a government, the public, or any section of the public for political, religious or ideological ends.' The term serious violence would be redefined to include 'serious disruption'. Roads protesters, crop protesters, activists on the street in the City of London on June 18, all would be redefined as terrorists. The Home Secretary would be granted the powers to proscribe, ie ban, any group promoting or engaging in terrorism and seize their funds and assets, fund raising for such groups would be illegal. The police would be granted new powers of stop and search and of arrest, normal civil rights would not apply. It would be an offence to collect, record or possess any information which might be of use to 'terrorists'. Possession of the genetiX snowball Handbook for Action would be a terrorist offence, as could be these Web pages.

SchNEWS 242:

Are you digging a tunnel to prevent a road from being built through your neighbourhood? Have you pulled up a few Genetically modified crops from your local test site? Maybe you spoke at a meeting where a member of the Animal Liberation Front, for example, also spoke? Well I'm afraid to tell you that you are soon to be deemed a TERRORIST!

Proposals to redefine activists as terrorists are only the beginning, there are also proposals to make it difficult, if not impossible, to use hard encryption. Hard encryption, such as PGP, is essential for advanced planning and surprise attacks. It is also essential to preserve the basic human right of privacy. We do not expect to conduct our written correspondence on the back of postcards and to be treated as criminals if we don't, neither should we be expected to make our activities in cyberspace transparent and be treated as criminals if we refuse.

Proposals to regulate encryption were originally seen as a trade issue, but following concerted attacks from all sectors of industry who see strong encryption and protection of keys as essential if we are to have viable e-commerce the mask has dropped, the proposals have been taken over by Jack Straw and the emphasis is on terrorists and criminals (Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill). We could all be criminals just for wishing to safeguard our privacy. Failure to provide keys could lead to two years in gaol, tipping someone off that their e-mail is being monitored five years. The proposals as they stand are a breach of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). Jack Straw is granting himself the kinds of powers Robert Mugabe could only fantasise about.

Increasingly direct action is taking place in cyberspace. This can be hacks, denial of service to virtual sit-ins. Jose Ramos Horta, the exiled East Timor leader, has threatened the corrupt Indonesia government with all out war in cyberspace should the referendum on East Timor independence not be honoured. This is in addition to destruction of the lucrative tourist trade. During the June 18 global day of action, Electronic Disturbance Theater coordinated an international attack on the Mexican embassy in London. Browsers used a program, FloodNet, that made multiple requests of the embassy Web server. More than 18,000 people from 46 countries were involved in crashing the server. 1 January 1999, when financial institutions are reeling from their failure to fix the millennium bug, is likely to see a coordinated cyber attack on global capital. CAAT are planing an attack on BAe (Beyond All ethics) to coincide with the disruption of the BAe AGM (4 May 2000).

We may be raising the next generation of activists. The publishing phenomena since Bilbo Baggins strode forth in Middle Earth is the Harry Potter series. In a discussion with the author, J K Rowling, a young reader said what he (it may have been a she) liked about Harry Potter was that 'he always does what is right, even if it means breaking the rules'.

Activists engaged in direct action experience a strong sense of community, a common purpose binds them close together, they are doing what is right, what they believe in, they are not doing it because they are paid to do it.

Merrick, writing of the Battle for the Trees on the route of the Newbury bypass:

We HAVE to be dedicated. We're up against a lot of power. And they're scared; why else are we watched by private detectives? Why else do we have low flying helicopters over our camps half a dozen times a day? And it must anger them, these roadbuilders, these ministers, these oil executives, these believers in MONEY=POWER. There's a few hundred skint people costing them a fortune. With simple tools, but imagination, wit, resourcefulness, drive and a little absurdity, we're hindering all these trained people and expensive plans. And the country is watching, realising the score and loving it.

It has not been rational argument, damage to the environment, that has made it difficult, if not impossible, to grow GM crops in the UK, but their destruction by activists. 500 activists attended the Stop the Crop Rally at Watlington (near Oxford), than went on to destroy a 23 acre field of GM oil seed rape. One of the biggest acts of civil disobedience seen in the UK. It was activists who slowed down the construction of the Newbury bypass, escalated its construction costs to such a level, that in doing so, although they did not succeed in stopping the bypass have killed the UK roads programme stone dead. Most people remember the protests at the Newbury bypass, how many remember the transport minister?

Tony Benn, on the Newbury activists (The Benn Tapes):

... however they are harassed, arrested or imprisoned, they will be remembered long after the transport minister, the Highways Agency, the police and the bailiffs sent against them have been forgotten. They have refused to be mere spectators of their fate and are making history for themselves. This, I suspect, may be the most important lesson - to learn that all the greatest advances come when people organise themselves instead of waiting for some charismatic figure at the top to do it for them.

Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

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Marie Woolf & Geoffrey Lean, GM police to guard crop trials, The Independent on Sunday, 15 August 1999

Stefan Wray, On Electronic Civil Disobedience [paper presented to 1998 Socialist Scholars Conference, 20-21 March 1998]

Angie Zelter & Arya Bhardwaj (eds), Snowball: The story of a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign in Britain, Gandhi-in-action, 1991

Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States: From 1492 to present (2nd edition), Longmans, 1996

Howard Zinn, The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, Seven Stories Press, 1997

Gibby Zobel, Jail these evil fiends, Big Issue, 14 February 2000

Gaia index ~ Deep Ecology ~ Watlington ~ May Day 2000 ~ Cyber Activism
(c) Keith Parkins 1999-2000 -- May 2000 rev 22