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The Case for Civil Disobedience

Man being arrested for civil disobedience.

Man being arrested for civil disobedience.

Civil Disobedience

There comes a time when overreaching leaders go just too far and the people take to the streets and protest or refuse to obey the law. Civil disobedience has a long and honorable tradition.

Thoreau on Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay in 1849 in which he expressed his doubts that governments were much use: “That government is best which governs not at all.”

Thoreau argued that by permitting slavery, the American government was acting unjustly. To counter this injustice, he wrote: “I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.”

In 1846, the United States invaded Mexico. This prompted Thoreau to withhold his taxes as a civil disobedience protest against his government. He was arrested and jailed. Someone paid his back taxes and he was released. The episode prompted him to write his essay calling for citizens to engage in civil disobedience in the face of bad government policy.

As the Constitutional Rights Foundation points out: “Thoreau declared that if the government required people to participate in injustice by obeying ‘unjust laws,’ then people should ‘break the laws’ even if they ended up in prison. ‘Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,’ he asserted, “the true place for a just man is also a prison.’ ”

The state isn't likely to react kindly to civil disobedience.

The state isn't likely to react kindly to civil disobedience.

Violence, If Necessary

Thoreau did not rule out violence being a part of civil disobedience. He supported the armed attack on the U.S. military arsenal at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859.

Under the leadership of John Brown, the raid was an attempt to spark a revolt among slaves. The raid failed, Brown was captured and several of his followers were killed.

John Brown was executed for treason, and as he was headed to the gallows he gave a piece of paper to a guard. On it he had written:

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Henry David Thoreau was echoing the thoughts of Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the country’s third president from 1801 to 1809.

He wrote that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

However, many of the movements that have taken up Thoreau’s call for civil disobedience have insisted that their protests be non-violent.

“If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.”

— Thomas Jefferson

The Salt Marches

Between 1858 and 1947, Britain ruled India; prior to 1858, the sub-continent was governed by British companies for 250 years. For the most part, this arrangement was for the benefit of the British rather than Indians. One example was the salt laws, which prohibited Indians from collecting and selling salt. This meant that India had to import salt from Britain.

In 1930, the Indian activist Mohandas Gandhi began a campaign to overturn the salt laws. With a few supporters, he began a 380 km march from his home to the Arabian Sea. The plan was to make salt from seawater and defy the salt laws. Along the way he made speeches and gathered more marchers, stressing that the protest was non-violent.

When the marchers arrived at Dandi on the Arabian Sea they numbered in the tens of thousands. There, they picked up crystallized salt from the beach and defied British law.

The British arrested Gandhi and 60,000 others and they tried to crush the salt march with violence. This only served to inspire others to join the protests. Soon, millions of Indians were engaged in civil disobedience aimed at the colonial masters.

The salt march was the start of the process that led to Indian independence in 1947.

Gandhi (centre) leads his fellow salt marchers.

Gandhi (centre) leads his fellow salt marchers.

Poll Tax

In 1989, the British government brought into the United Kingdom what it called a Community Charge and what its opponents called a Poll Tax. Instead of taxing the value of property to pay for local services, the new tax was a fixed amount paid by each resident of a property.

The effect was to transfer some of the tax burden from wealthy people to poorer folks. Many people refused to register for the tax; they clogged up the legal system with appeals against the tax, and, finally, simply refused to pay the tax. Collection became almost impossible.

The Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came under enormous criticism, some of it from their own supporters. A rally of 200,000 poll tax opponents in London, in March 1990, turned into a riot.

The government scrambled to find a way out of the mess it had created. The answer, it turned out, was for the Conservative Party to dump Mrs. Thatcher and let her successor, John Major, cancel the tax. Mr. Major then brought in a property tax much like the one that had existed before.

Extinction Rebellion

People in at least 35 countries were frustrated at the lack of progress made by governments on the issue of climate change and the loss of biodiversity.

Under the banner of the Extinction Rebellion (XR), the protests started in mid-2018 and have exploded in numbers across the globe. In November 2018, thousands of activists blocked traffic on five bridges in London, England, while others glued themselves to public buildings.

There’s nothing new about using civil disobedience to highlight environmental issues; Greenpeace has been doing it for decades. But the Extinction Rebellion comes amid some shocking news about the state of the world’s ecology.

In October 2018, the United Nations climate change investigators warned that drastic and immediate social and economic changes have to be made or irreversible and devastating damage will be done to the planet.

This was followed in 2021 by the UN declaring a "code red" on climate change. Climate scientist Michael E. Mann “Bottom line is that we have zero years left to avoid dangerous climate change, because it's here.”

Open Democracy notes that XR is employing new tactics: “While environmental movements typically combine urgency and optimism (‘if we act now, we can still solve this problem’), XR is clearly emphasising catastrophism and disaster (‘We will not be led quietly to annihilation by elites and politicians’ writes the group).”

The activists believe that holding rallies and marches, chanting slogans, and signing petitions are not enough. They say civil disobedience aimed at disrupting society will force governments to do more to counter global warming. Protesters must be willing to face arrest.

U.S. Capitol Insurrection

Former U.S. President Donald Trump refused (and still refuses) to accept that he was defeated in the November 2020 presidential election. He claims, without a shred of evidence, that the vote was fraudulently rigged against him.

He summoned his followers, including hate groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oathkeepers, to Washington for a January 6, 2021 rally. After stirring up the crowd with comments such as “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” he then urged his supporters to march to the Capitol to “Stop the steal.”

This was to be done by preventing Congress from certifying the ballot, as it is required to do by the Constitution.

Trump's followers arrived armed with metal poles, chemical sprays, baseball bats, and other weapons. The crowd overwhelmed police and entered the Capitol where they trashed offices, smashed windows, defecated in the halls of Congress, and threatened the lives of any person they deemed to be an enemy.

This included chants to hang the Vice President, and they erected a gallows to do the job. By the time it was all over, five people were dead and almost 150 police officers were injured.

The above are all facts, not interpretations, exaggerations, or, in any way, opinions. The repercussions of the events are still playing out with some members of the crowd being given prison sentences. There remains a seething cauldron of defiance in places where there should be calm and thoughtful reflection.

In February 2022, Trump's Republican Party described the events of January 6, 2021, as “legitimate political discourse.”

Bonus Factoids

  • Between 1987 and 1991, the people of Estonia gathered for mass singing events in protest over the Soviet Union’s control of their country. In what became known as the Singing Revolution, people sang and formed human shields around TV and radio stations to protect them from Soviet tanks. Estonia won its independence, in part, through this peaceful civil disobedience.
  • The Occupy movement was a call to end social and economic inequality. In 2011, people began occupying public spaces around the world. Protesters spoke out against corporate greed and the influence of money in politics. However, their protests were unfocused and were largely ignored by politicians and corporate leaders.
  • In the 1880s, Russian political prisoners refused to eat food as a protest against the appalling conditions under which they were held in Siberian prison camps. The use of the hunger strike as a civil disobedience tactic has since been used many times. Sometimes it works and an embarrassed authority succumbs to public pressure resulting from media coverage of the hunger strike. Authoritarian governments simply ignore the hunger strike protest.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor