The Case for Civil Disobedience

Updated on January 30, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

There comes a time when over-reaching leaders go just too far and the people go into the streets and protest or refuse to obey the law. Civil disobedience has a long and, usually, honourable tradition.

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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.”

Under our democratic system, power is given to the strongest group. But just because the most powerful group gets to govern doesn’t mean that group necessarily has the best ideas.

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.’ ”

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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 Ghandi 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 the British law.

The British arrested Ghandi 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. | Source

Poll Tax

In 1989, the British government brought in 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 a 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.

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Extinction Rebellion

People in at least 35 countries are frustrated at the lack of progress made by governments on the issue of climate change and 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. Then, the World Wildlife Fund reported on a 60 percent decline in vertebrate (birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals) species since 1970.

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.

In December 2018, leaders from 196 countries met in Poland to advance the Paris Climate Accord of 2015. However, environmentalists criticized the final result as too little.

In early December 2018, thousands of students in Canada walked out of classes in what was billed as a “climate strike.” The same action has been taken in countries around the world by young people who are the ones to bear the brunt of inaction on global warming.

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Yellow Vests

While the Extinction Rebellion is using peaceful protests to urge governments to cut carbon emissions, other activists in France were doing the opposite. The government of President Emmanuel Macron raised the tax on diesel fuel to help pay for renewable energy programs. Huge crowds of angry protesters gathered in the streets of Paris in November and December 2018. They wore high-visibility vests that all drivers in France are required to carry in their vehicles.

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The protests soon grew to embrace other issues “including calls for higher wages, lower taxes, better pensions and easier university entry requirements. The movement’s core aim, to highlight the economic frustration and political distrust of poorer working families, has widespread support” (BBC News).

The protests turned into violent riots; cars were set on fire, people were injured, and at least two have died.

The rioting became so disruptive that President Macron gave in to some of the demands. The minimum wage was raised and the fuel tax dialled back. The leaders of other protest movements will certainly have taken note that the yellow vests made gains through violence.

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 unfocussed 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.

Sources

  • “Civil Disobedience.” Henry David Thoreau, University of Virginia, undated.
  • “Thoreau and ‘Civil Disobedience’.” Constitutional Rights Foundation, undated.
  • “John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry.” History.com, March 4, 2010.
  • “Salt March.” History.com, June 10, 2010.
  • “National Archives: Thatcher’s Poll Tax Miscalculation.” Nick Higham, BBC News, December 30, 2016.
  • “Extinction Rebellion Goes Global in Run-up to Week of International Civil Disobedience.” Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, December 10, 2018.
  • “France ‘Yellow Vest’ Protesters Defy Government to Gather.” BBC News, December 15, 2018.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

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