Civil disobedience

Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal of a citizen to obey certain laws, demands, orders or commands of a government or occupying international power. Civil disobedience is sometimes defined as having to be nonviolent to be called civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is sometimes, therefore, equated with nonviolent resistance.[1][2]

Although civil disobedience is considered to be an expression of contempt for law, Martin Luther King Jr. regarded civil disobedience to be a display and practice of reverence for law; for as "Any man who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail in order to arouse the conscience of the community on the injustice of the law is at that moment expressing the very highest respect for law."[3]

Historical Overview

Its earliest successful implementation was brought about during the lead up to the nonviolent Glorious Revolution in Britain, when the 1689 Bill of Rights was documented, the last Catholic monarch was deposed, and male and female joint-co-monarchs were elevated. The English Midland Enlightenment had developed a manner of voicing objection to a law viewed as illegitimate and then taking the consequences of the law. This was focused on the illegitimacy of laws claimed to be "divine" in origin, including the "divine rights of Kings" and the "divine rights of man", and the legitimacy of laws acknowledged to be made by human beings.

It later became an effective tool by various peoples who objected to British occupation, such as in the 1919 Revolution, however, this was never used with native laws that were more oppressive than the British occupation, leading to problems for these countries today.[4] Zaghloul Pasha, considered the mastermind behind this massive civil disobedience, was a native middle-class, Azhar graduate, political activist, judge, parliamentary and ex-cabinet minister whose leadership brought Christian and Muslim communities together as well as women into the massive protests. Along with his companions of Wafd Party, who started campaigning in 1914, they have achieved independence of Egypt and a first constitution in 1923.

Civil disobedience is one of the many ways people have rebelled against what they deem to be unfair laws. It has been used in many nonviolent resistance movements in India (Mahatma Gandhi's campaigns for independence from the British Empire), in Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, in early stages of Bangladesh independence movement against Pakistani repression and in East Germany to oust their communist governments.[5] In South Africa in the fight against apartheid, in the American civil rights movement, in the Singing Revolution to bring independence to the Baltic countries from the Soviet Union, recently with the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the 2004 Orange Revolution[6] in Ukraine, among other various movements worldwide.

One of the oldest depictions of civil disobedience is in Sophocles' play Antigone, in which Antigone, one of the daughters of former King of Thebes, Oedipus, defies Creon, the current King of Thebes, who is trying to stop her from giving her brother Polynices a proper burial. She gives a stirring speech in which she tells him that she must obey her conscience rather than human law. She is not at all afraid of the death he threatens her with (and eventually carries out), but she is afraid of how her conscience will smite her if she does not do this.[7]

Following the Peterloo massacre of 1819, the poet Percy Shelley wrote the political poem The Mask of Anarchy later that year, that begins with the images of what he thought to be the unjust forms of authority of his time—and then imagines the stirrings of a new form of social action. According to Ashton Nichols, it is perhaps the first modern statement of the principle of nonviolent protest.[8] A version was taken up by the author Henry David Thoreau in his essay Civil Disobedience, and later by Gandhi in his doctrine of Satyagraha.[8] Gandhi's Satyagraha was partially influenced and inspired by Shelley's nonviolence in protest and political action.[9] In particular, it is known that Gandhi would often quote Shelley's Masque of Anarchy to vast audiences during the campaign for a free India.[8][10]

Thoreau's 1849 essay Civil Disobedience, originally titled "Resistance to Civil Government", has had a wide influence on many later practitioners of civil disobedience. The driving idea behind the essay is that citizens are morally responsible for their support of aggressors, even when such support is required by law. In the essay, Thoreau explained his reasons for having refused to pay taxes as an act of protest against slavery and against the Mexican–American War. He writes,

If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man's shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, "I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico;—see if I would go;" and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute.

By the 1850s, a range of minority groups in the United States: Blacks, Jews, Seventh Day Baptists, Catholics, anti-prohibitionists, racial egalitarians, and others—employed civil disobedience to combat a range of legal measures and public practices that to them promoted ethnic, religious, and racial discrimination. Pro Public and typically peaceful resistance to political power would remain an integral tactic in modern American minority rights politics.[11]


Benjamin D. Maxham - Henry David Thoreau - Restored - greyscale - straightened
Henry David Thoreau's classic essay Civil Disobedience inspired Martin Luther King and many other activists.

Henry David Thoreau's 1849 essay "Resistance to Civil Government" was eventually renamed "Essay on Civil Disobedience". After his landmark lectures were published in 1866, the term began to appear in numerous sermons and lectures relating to slavery and the war in Mexico.[12][13][14][15] Thus, by the time Thoreau's lectures were first published under the title "Civil Disobedience", in 1866, four years after his death, the term had achieved fairly widespread usage.

It has been argued that the term "civil disobedience" has always suffered from ambiguity and in modern times, become utterly debased. Marshall Cohen notes, "It has been used to describe everything from bringing a test-case in the federal courts to taking aim at a federal official. Indeed, for [US] Vice President [Spiro] Agnew it has become a code-word describing the activities of muggers, arsonists, draft evaders, campaign hecklers, campus militants, anti-war demonstrators, juvenile delinquents and political assassins."[16]

LeGrande writes that

the formulation of a single all-encompassing definition of the term is extremely difficult, if not impossible. In reviewing the voluminous literature on the subject, the student of civil disobedience rapidly finds himself surrounded by a maze of semantical problems and grammatical niceties. Like Alice in Wonderland, he often finds that specific terminology has no more (or no less) meaning than the individual orator intends it to have.

He encourages a distinction between lawful protest demonstration, nonviolent civil disobedience, and violent civil disobedience.[17]

In a letter to P. K. Rao, dated September 10, 1935, Gandhi disputes that his idea of civil disobedience was derived from the writings of Thoreau:[18]

The statement that I had derived my idea of Civil Disobedience from the writings of Thoreau is wrong. The resistance to authority in South Africa was well advanced before I got the essay ... When I saw the title of Thoreau's great essay, I began to use his phrase to explain our struggle to the English readers. But I found that even "Civil Disobedience" failed to convey the full meaning of the struggle. I therefore adopted the phrase "Civil Resistance."


In seeking an active form of civil disobedience, one may choose to deliberately break certain laws, such as by forming a peaceful blockade or occupying a facility illegally,[19] though sometimes violence has been known to occur. Often there is an expectation to be attacked or even beaten by the authorities. Protesters often undergo training in advance on how to react to arrest or to attack.

Civil disobedience is usually defined as pertaining to a citizen's relation to the state and its laws, as distinguished from a constitutional impasse, in which two public agencies, especially two equally sovereign branches of government, conflict. For instance, if the head of government of a country were to refuse to enforce a decision of that country's highest court, it would not be civil disobedience, since the head of government would be acting in her or his capacity as public official rather than private citizen.[20]

However, this definition is disputed by Thoreau's political philosophy pitching the conscience vs. the collective. The individual is the final judge of right and wrong. More than this, since only individuals act, only individuals can act unjustly. When the government knocks on the door, it is an individual in the form of a postman or tax collector whose hand hits the wood. Before Thoreau's imprisonment, when a confused taxman had wondered aloud about how to handle his refusal to pay, Thoreau had advised, "Resign." If a man chose to be an agent of injustice, then Thoreau insisted on confronting him with the fact that he was making a choice. But if government is "the voice of the people," as it is often called, shouldn't that voice be heeded? Thoreau admits that government may express the will of the majority but it may also express nothing more than the will of elite politicians. Even a good form of government is "liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it." Moreover, even if a government did express the voice of the people, this fact would not compel the obedience of individuals who disagree with what is being said. The majority may be powerful but it is not necessarily right. What, then, is the proper relationship between the individual and the government?[21]

Ronald Dworkin held that there are three types of civil disobedience:

  • "Integrity-based" civil disobedience occurs when a citizen disobeys a law she or he feels is immoral, as in the case of abolitionists disobeying the fugitive slave laws by refusing to turn over escaped slaves to authorities.
  • "Justice-based" civil disobedience occurs when a citizen disobeys laws in order to lay claim to some right denied to her or him, as when blacks illegally protested during the civil rights movement.
  • "Policy-based" civil disobedience occurs when a person breaks the law in order to change a policy (s)he believes is dangerously wrong.[22]

Some theories of civil disobedience hold that civil disobedience is only justified against governmental entities. Brownlee argues that disobedience in opposition to the decisions of non-governmental agencies such as trade unions, banks, and private universities can be justified if it reflects "a larger challenge to the legal system that permits those decisions to be taken". The same principle, she argues, applies to breaches of law in protest against international organizations and foreign governments.[23]

It is usually recognized that lawbreaking, if it is not done publicly, at least must be publicly announced in order to constitute civil disobedience. But Stephen Eilmann argues that if it is necessary to disobey rules that conflict with morality, we might ask why disobedience should take the form of public civil disobedience rather than simply covert lawbreaking. If a lawyer wishes to help a client overcome legal obstacles to securing her or his natural rights, he might, for instance, find that assisting in fabricating evidence or committing perjury is more effective than open disobedience. This assumes that common morality does not have a prohibition on deceit in such situations.[24] The Fully Informed Jury Association's publication "A Primer for Prospective Jurors" notes, "Think of the dilemma faced by German citizens when Hitler's secret police demanded to know if they were hiding a Jew in their house."[25] By this definition, civil disobedience could be traced back to the Book of Exodus, where Shiphrah and Puah refused a direct order of Pharaoh but misrepresented how they did it. (Exodus 1: 15-19)[26]

Violent vs. non-violent

There have been debates as to whether civil disobedience must necessarily be non-violent. Black's Law Dictionary includes non-violence in its definition of civil disobedience. Christian Bay's encyclopedia article states that civil disobedience requires "carefully chosen and legitimate means," but holds that they do not have to be non-violent.[27] It has been argued that, while both civil disobedience and civil rebellion are justified by appeal to constitutional defects, rebellion is much more destructive; therefore, the defects justifying rebellion must be much more serious than those justifying disobedience, and if one cannot justify civil rebellion, then one cannot justify a civil disobedients' use of force and violence and refusal to submit to arrest. Civil disobedients' refraining from violence is also said to help preserve society's tolerance of civil disobedience.[28]

The philosopher H. J. McCloskey argues that "if violent, intimidatory, coercive disobedience is more effective, it is, other things being equal, more justified than less effective, nonviolent disobedience."[29] In his best-selling Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order,[30] Howard Zinn takes a similar position; Zinn states that while the goals of civil disobedience are generally non-violent,

in the inevitable tension accompanying the transition from a violent world to a non-violent one, the choice of means will almost never be pure, and will involve such complexities that the simple distinction between violence and non-violence does not suffice as a guide ... the very acts with which we seek to do good cannot escape the imperfections of the world we are trying to change.[31]

Zinn rejects any "easy and righteous dismissal of violence", noting that Thoreau, the popularizer of the term civil disobedience, approved of the armed insurrection of John Brown. He also notes that some major civil disobedience campaigns which have been classified as non-violent, such as the Birmingham campaign, have actually included elements of violence.[32][33]

Revolutionary vs. non-revolutionary

Non-revolutionary civil disobedience is a simple disobedience of laws on the grounds that they are judged "wrong" by an individual conscience, or as part of an effort to render certain laws ineffective, to cause their repeal, or to exert pressure to get one's political wishes on some other issue. Revolutionary civil disobedience is more of an active attempt to overthrow a government (or to change cultural traditions, social customs, religious beliefs, etc...revolution doesn't have to be political, i.e. "cultural revolution", it simply implies sweeping and widespread change to a section of the social fabric).[34] Gandhi's acts have been described as revolutionary civil disobedience.[20] It has been claimed that the Hungarians under Ferenc Deák directed revolutionary civil disobedience against the Austrian government.[35] Thoreau also wrote of civil disobedience accomplishing "peaceable revolution."[36] Howard Zinn, Harvey Wheeler, and others have identified the right espoused in the US Declaration of Independence to "alter or abolish" an unjust government to be a principle of civil disobedience.[33][37]

Collective vs. solitary

The earliest recorded incidents of collective civil disobedience took place during the Roman Empire. Unarmed Jews gathered in the streets to prevent the installation of pagan images in the Temple in Jerusalem. In modern times, some activists who commit civil disobedience as a group collectively refuse to sign bail until certain demands are met, such as favourable bail conditions, or the release of all the activists. This is a form of jail solidarity.[38] There have also been many instances of solitary civil disobedience, such as that committed by Thoreau, but these sometimes go unnoticed. Thoreau, at the time of his arrest, was not yet a well-known author, and his arrest was not covered in any newspapers in the days, weeks and months after it happened. The tax collector who arrested him rose to higher political office, and Thoreau's essay was not published until after the end of the Mexican War.[39]


Choice of specific act

Civil disobedients have chosen a variety of different illegal acts. Hugo A. Bedau writes,

There is a whole class of acts, undertaken in the name of civil disobedience, which, even if they were widely practiced, would in themselves constitute hardly more than a nuisance (e.g. trespassing at a nuclear-missile installation) ... Such acts are often just a harassment and, at least to the bystander, somewhat inane ... The remoteness of the connection between the disobedient act and the objectionable law lays such acts open to the charge of ineffectiveness and absurdity.

Bedau also notes, though, that the very harmlessness of such entirely symbolic illegal protests toward public policy goals may serve a propaganda purpose.[35] Some civil disobedients, such as the proprietors of illegal medical cannabis dispensaries and Voice in the Wilderness, which brought medicine to Iraq without the permission of the US government, directly achieve a desired social goal (such as the provision of medication to the sick) while openly breaking the law. Julia Butterfly Hill lived in Luna, a 180-foot (55 m)-tall, 600-year-old California Redwood tree for 738 days, successfully preventing it from being cut down.

In cases where the criminalized behaviour is pure speech, civil disobedience can consist simply of engaging in the forbidden speech. An example would be WBAI's broadcasting the track "Filthy Words" from a George Carlin comedy album, which eventually led to the 1978 Supreme Court case of FCC v. Pacifica Foundation. Threatening government officials is another classic way of expressing defiance toward the government and unwillingness to stand for its policies. For example, Joseph Haas was arrested for allegedly sending an email to the Lebanon, New Hampshire, city councillors stating, "Wise up or die."[40]

More generally, protesters of particular victimless crimes often see fit to openly commit that crime. Laws against public nudity, for instance, have been protested by going naked in public, and laws against cannabis consumption have been protested by openly possessing it and using it at cannabis rallies.[41]

Some forms of civil disobedience, such as illegal boycotts, refusals to pay taxes, draft dodging, distributed denial-of-service attacks, and sit-ins, make it more difficult for a system to function. In this way, they might be considered coercive. Brownlee notes that "although civil disobedients are constrained in their use of coercion by their conscientious aim to engage in moral dialogue, nevertheless they may find it necessary to employ limited coercion in order to get their issue onto the table."[23] The Plowshares organization temporarily closed GCSB Waihopai by padlocking the gates and using sickles to deflate one of the large domes covering two satellite dishes.

Electronic civil disobedience can include web site defacements, redirects, denial-of-service attacks, information theft and data leaks, illegal web site parodies, virtual sit-ins, and virtual sabotage. It is distinct from other kinds of hacktivism in that the perpetrator openly reveals his identity. Virtual actions rarely succeed in completely shutting down their targets, but they often generate significant media attention.[42]

Dilemma actions are designed to create a "response dilemma" for public authorities "by forcing them to either concede some public space to protesters or make themselves look absurd or heavy-handed by acting against the protest."[43]

Cooperation with authorities

Police officer speaking to demonstrator during civil disobedience action
A police officer speaks with a demonstrator at a union picket, explaining that she will be arrested if she does not leave the street. The demonstrator was arrested moments later.

Some disciplines of civil disobedience hold that the protestor must submit to arrest and cooperate with the authorities. Others advocate falling limp or resisting arrest, especially when it will hinder the police from effectively responding to a mass protest.

Many of the same decisions and principles that apply in other criminal investigations and arrests arise also in civil disobedience cases. For example, the suspect may need to decide whether or not to grant a consent search of his property, and whether or not to talk to police officers. It is generally agreed within the legal community,[44] and is often believed within the activist community, that a suspect's talking to criminal investigators can serve no useful purpose, and may be harmful. However, some civil disobedients have nonetheless found it hard to resist responding to investigators' questions, sometimes due to a lack of understanding of the legal ramifications, or due to a fear of seeming rude.[45] Also, some civil disobedients seek to use the arrest as an opportunity to make an impression on the officers. Thoreau wrote,

My civil neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is the very man I have to deal with—for it is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I quarrel—and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the government. How shall he ever know well that he is and does as an officer of the government, or as a man, until he is obliged to consider whether he will treat me, his neighbor, for whom he has respect, as a neighbor and well-disposed man, or as a maniac and disturber of the peace, and see if he can get over this obstruction to his neighborliness without a ruder and more impetuous thought or speech corresponding with his action.[36]

Some civil disobedients feel it is incumbent upon them to accept punishment because of their belief in the validity of the social contract, which is held to bind all to obey the laws that a government meeting certain standards of legitimacy has established, or else suffer the penalties set out in the law. Other civil disobedients who favour the existence of government still don't believe in the legitimacy of their particular government, or don't believe in the legitimacy of a particular law it has enacted. And still other civil disobedients, being anarchists, don't believe in the legitimacy of any government, and therefore see no need to accept punishment for a violation of criminal law that does not infringe the rights of others.

Choice of plea

An important decision for civil disobedients is whether or not to plead guilty. There is much debate on this point, as some believe that it is a civil disobedient's duty to submit to the punishment prescribed by law, while others believe that defending oneself in court will increase the possibility of changing the unjust law.[46] It has also been argued that either choice is compatible with the spirit of civil disobedience. ACT UP's Civil Disobedience Training handbook states that a civil disobedient who pleads guilty is essentially stating, "Yes, I committed the act of which you accuse me. I don't deny it; in fact, I am proud of it. I feel I did the right thing by violating this particular law; I am guilty as charged," but that pleading not guilty sends a message of, "Guilt implies wrong-doing. I feel I have done no wrong. I may have violated some specific laws, but I am guilty of doing no wrong. I therefore plead not guilty." A plea of no contest is sometimes regarded as a compromise between the two.[47] One defendant accused of illegally protesting nuclear power, when asked to enter his plea, stated, "I plead for the beauty that surrounds us";[48] this is known as a "creative plea," and will usually be interpreted as a plea of not guilty.[49]

When the Committee for Non-Violent Action sponsored a protest in August 1957, at the Camp Mercury nuclear test site near Las Vegas, Nevada, 13 of the protesters attempted to enter the test site knowing that they faced arrest. At a pre-arranged announced time, one at a time they stepped across the "line" and were immediately arrested. They were put on a bus and taken to the Nye County seat of Tonopah, Nevada, and arraigned for trial before the local Justice of the Peace, that afternoon. A well known civil rights attorney, Francis Heisler, had volunteered to defend the arrested persons, advising them to plead nolo contendere, as an alternative to pleading either guilty or not-guilty. The arrested persons were found guilty nevertheless and given suspended sentences, conditional on their not reentering the test site grounds.

Howard Zinn writes,

There may be many times when protesters choose to go to jail, as a way of continuing their protest, as a way of reminding their countrymen of injustice. But that is different than the notion that they must go to jail as part of a rule connected with civil disobedience. The key point is that the spirit of protest should be maintained all the way, whether it is done by remaining in jail, or by evading it. To accept jail penitently as an accession to "the rules" is to switch suddenly to a spirit of subservience, to demean the seriousness of the protest ... In particular, the neo-conservative insistence on a guilty plea should be eliminated.[50]

Sometimes the prosecution proposes a plea bargain to civil disobedients, as in the case of the Camden 28, in which the defendants were offered an opportunity to plead guilty to one misdemeanour count and receive no jail time.[51] In some mass arrest situations, the activists decide to use solidarity tactics to secure the same plea bargain for everyone.[49] But some activists have opted to enter a blind plea, pleading guilty without any plea agreement in place. Mahatma Gandhi pleaded guilty and told the court, "I am here to ... submit cheerfully to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen."[52]

Choice of allocution

Some civil disobedience defendants choose to make a defiant speech, or a speech explaining their actions, in allocution. In U.S. v. Burgos-Andujar, a defendant who was involved in a movement to stop military exercises by trespassing on US Navy property argued to the court in allocution that "the ones who are violating the greater law are the members of the Navy". As a result, the judge increased her sentence from 40 to 60 days. This action was upheld because, according to the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, her statement suggested a lack of remorse, an attempt to avoid responsibility for her actions, and even a likelihood of repeating her illegal actions.[53] Some of the other allocution speeches given by the protesters complained about mistreatment from government officials.[54]

Tim DeChristopher gave an allocution statement to the court describing the US as "a place where the rule of law was created through acts of civil disobedience" and arguing, "Since those bedrock acts of civil disobedience by our founding fathers, the rule of law in this country has continued to grow closer to our shared higher moral code through the civil disobedience that drew attention to legalized injustice."[55]

Legal implications of civil disobedience

Steven Barkan writes that if defendants plead not guilty, "they must decide whether their primary goal will be to win an acquittal and avoid imprisonment or a fine, or to use the proceedings as a forum to inform the jury and the public of the political circumstances surrounding the case and their reasons for breaking the law via civil disobedience." A technical defence may enhance the chances for acquittal, but increase the possibility of additional proceedings as well as reduced press coverage. During the Vietnam War era, the Chicago Eight used a political defence, while Benjamin Spock used a technical defence.[56] In countries such as the United States, whose laws guarantee the right to a jury trial but do not excuse lawbreaking for political purposes, some civil disobedients seek jury nullification. Over the years, this has been made more difficult by court decisions such as Sparf v. United States, which held that the judge need not inform jurors of their nullification prerogative, and United States v. Dougherty, which held that the judge need not allow defendants to openly seek jury nullification.

Governments have generally not recognized the legitimacy of civil disobedience or viewed political objectives as an excuse for breaking the law. Specifically, the law usually distinguishes between criminal motive and criminal intent; the offender's motives or purposes may be admirable and praiseworthy, but his intent may still be criminal.[57] Hence the saying that "if there is any possible justification of civil disobedience it must come from outside the legal system."[58]

One theory is that, while disobedience may be helpful, any great amount of it would undermine the law by encouraging general disobedience which is neither conscientious nor of social benefit. Therefore, conscientious lawbreakers must be punished.[59] Michael Bayles argues that if a person violates a law in order to create a test case as to the constitutionality of a law, and then wins his case, then that act did not constitute civil disobedience.[60] It has also been argued that breaking the law for self-gratification, as in the case of a homosexual or cannabis user who does not direct his act at securing the repeal of amendment of the law, is not civil disobedience.[61] Likewise, a protestor who attempts to escape punishment by committing the crime covertly and avoiding attribution, or by denying having committed the crime, or by fleeing the jurisdiction, is generally viewed as not being a civil disobedient.

Courts have distinguished between two types of civil disobedience: "Indirect civil disobedience involves violating a law which is not, itself, the object of protest, whereas direct civil disobedience involves protesting the existence of a particular law by breaking that law."[62] During the Vietnam War, courts typically refused to excuse the perpetrators of illegal protests from punishment on the basis of their challenging the legality of the Vietnam War; the courts ruled it was a political question.[63] The necessity defence has sometimes been used as a shadow defence by civil disobedients to deny guilt without denouncing their politically motivated acts, and to present their political beliefs in the courtroom.[64] However, court cases such as United States v. Schoon have greatly curtailed the availability of the political necessity defence.[65] Likewise, when Carter Wentworth was charged for his role in the Clamshell Alliance's 1977 illegal occupation of the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant, the judge instructed the jury to disregard his competing harms defence, and he was found guilty.[66] Fully Informed Jury Association activists have sometimes handed out educational leaflets inside courthouses despite admonitions not to; according to the association, many of them have escaped prosecution because "prosecutors have reasoned (correctly) that if they arrest fully informed jury leafleters, the leaflets will have to be given to the leafleter's own jury as evidence."[67]

Along with giving the offender his "just deserts", achieving crime control via incapacitation and deterrence is a major goal of criminal punishment.[68][69] Brownlee argues, "Bringing in deterrence at the level of justification detracts from the law's engagement in a moral dialogue with the offender as a rational person because it focuses attention on the threat of punishment and not the moral reasons to follow this law."[23] The Lord Hoffman writes, "In deciding whether or not to impose punishment, the most important consideration would be whether it would do more harm than good. This means that the objector has no right not to be punished. It is a matter for the state (including the judges) to decide on utilitarian grounds whether to do so or not.".[70] Hoffman also asserted that while the "rules of the game" for protesters were to remain non-violent while breaking the law, the authorities must recognize that demonstrators are acting out of their conscience in pursuit of democracy. "When it comes to punishment, the court should take into account their personal convictions", he said.[71]

Biblical origins

According to Rabbi Michael Mishkin of Temple Beth Israel in Port Washington, New York, the story of the heroic midwives, Shifra and Puah (Book of Exodus, Chapter 1, verses 15-16) (who disobeyed Pharaoh's order to kill the Israelite baby boys), is the first recorded instance in history of civil disobedience.[72]

See also


  1. ^ Violent Civil Disobedience and Willingness to Accept Punishment, 8 (2), Essays in Philosophy, June 2007
  2. ^ John Morreall (1976), "The justifiability of violent civil disobedience", Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 6 (1): 35–47, JSTOR 40230600
  3. ^ Brooks, Ned. "Meet The Press: Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Selma March". NBC Learn. NBCUniversal Media. Retrieved 22 November 2017.
  4. ^ Zunes, Stephen (1999:42), Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective, Blackwell Publishing
  5. ^ Michael Lerner, Tikkun reader
  6. ^ "The Orange Revolution". Time Magazine. 12 December 2004. Archived from the original on April 10, 2010. Retrieved 30 April 2010.
  7. ^ Sophocle's Antigone, Project Gutenberg, F. Storr translation, 1912, Harvard University Press
  8. ^ a b c [1] Archived January 5, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Thomas Weber, Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor, Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 28–29.
  10. ^ Weber, p. 28.
  11. ^ Volk, Kyle G. (2014). Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.
  12. ^ The Gospel Applied to the Fugitive Slave Law [1850]: A Sermon, by mayur (1851)
  13. ^ "The Higher Law", in Its Application to the Fugitive Slave Bill:... by John Newell and John Chase Lord (1851)
  14. ^ The Limits of Civil Disobedience: A Sermon..., by Nathaniel Hall (1851)
  15. ^ The Duty and Limitations of Civil Disobedience: A Discourse, by Samuel Colcord Bartlett (1853)
  16. ^ Marshall Cohen (Spring 1969), Civil Disobedience in a Constitutional Democracy, 10 (2), The Massachusetts Review, pp. 211–226
  17. ^ J. L. LeGrande (Sep 1967), "Nonviolent Civil Disobedience and Police Enforcement Policy", The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, Northwestern University, 58 (3): 393–404, doi:10.2307/1141639, JSTOR 1141639
  18. ^ Letter to P.K. Rao, Servants of India Society, September 10, 1935, Letter quoted in Louis Fischer's, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, Part I, Chapter 11, pp. 87-88.
  19. ^ ACLU of Oregon (October 2017), Your Right To Protest
  20. ^ a b Rex Martin (Jan 1970), Civil Disobedience, 80 (2), Ethics, pp. 123–139
  21. ^ McElroy, Wendy. "Henry Thoreau and 'Civil Disobedience'". Future of Freedom Foundation. Archived from the original on 18 September 2015. Retrieved 5 September 2015.
  22. ^ Ken Kress and Scott W. Anderson (Spring 1989), Dworkin in Transition, 37 (2), The American Journal of Comparative Law, pp. 337–351
  23. ^ a b c Kimberley Brownlee (9 November 2006), "The communicative aspects of civil disobedience and lawful punishment", Criminal Law and Philosophy, Criminal Law and Philosophy, 1 (2): 179, doi:10.1007/s11572-006-9015-9
  24. ^ Stephen Ellmann; Luban, David (Jan 1990), "Lawyering for Justice in a Flawed Democracy", Columbia Law Review, Columbia Law Review, 90 (1): 116–190, doi:10.2307/1122838, JSTOR 1122838
  25. ^ A Primer for Prospective Jurors (PDF), Fully Informed Jury Association, archived from the original (PDF) on 25 August 2013, retrieved 28 June 2013
  26. ^ Magonet, Jonathan (1992) Bible Lives (London: SCM), 8
  27. ^ Bay, Christian, Civil Disobedience, II, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, pp. 473–486
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Further reading


Bandh is a form of protest used by political activists in South Asian countries such as India and Nepal. It is similar to a general strike. During a bandh, a political party or a community declare a general strike. For eg. A Bharat bandh is a call for a bandh across India, and a bandh can also be called for an individual state or municipality.

The community or political party declaring a bandh expects the general public to stay at home and not report for work. Shopkeepers are expected to keep their shops closed, and public transport operators of buses and cabs are expected to stay off the road and not carry passengers. There have been instances when large metropolitan cities have been brought to a standstill.A bandh is a powerful means of civil disobedience, and because of its huge impact on the local community, it is a much-feared tool of protest.Burglary, forced closures, arson attacks, stoning, and clashes between the bandh organizers and the police are common during the period of closure.

Civil Disobedience (Thoreau)

Resistance to Civil Government (Civil Disobedience) is an essay by American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau that was first published in 1849. In it, Thoreau argues that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and that they have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice. Thoreau was motivated in part by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican–American War (1846–1848).

Electronic civil disobedience

Electronic civil disobedience (also known as ECD, cyber civil disobedience or cyber disobedience), can refer to any type of civil disobedience in which the participants use information technology to carry out their actions. Electronic civil disobedience often involves computers and the Internet and may also be known as hacktivism. The term "electronic civil disobedience" was coined in the critical writings of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), a collective of tactical media artists and practitioners, in their seminal 1996 text Electronic Civil Disobedience: And Other Unpopular Ideas. Electronic civil disobedience seeks to continue the practices of non violent, yet disruptive protest originally pioneered by Henry David Thoreau who in 1848 published "Civil Disobedience."A common form of ECD is coordination DDoS against a specific target, also known as a virtual sit-in. Such virtual sit-ins may be announced on the internet by hacktivist groups like the Electronic Disturbance Theatre and the borderlands Hacklab.Computerized activism exists at the intersections of politico-social movements and computer-mediated communication. Stefan Wray writes about ECD:

"As hackers become politicized and as activists become computerized, we are going to see an increase in the number of cyber-activists who engage in what will become more widely known as Electronic Civil Disobedience. The same principals of traditional civil disobedience, like trespass and blockage, will still be applied, but more and more these acts will take place in electronic or digital form. The primary site for Electronic Civil Disobedience will be in cyberspace.

Jeff Shantz and Jordon Tomblin write that ECD or cyber disobedience merges activism with organization and movement building through online participatory engagement:Cyber disobedience emphasizes direct action, rather than protest, appeals to authority, or simply registering dissent, which directly impedes the capacities of economic and political elites to plan, pursue, or carry out activities that would harm non-elites or restrict the freedoms of people in non-elite communities. Cyber disobedience, unlike much of conventional activism or even civil disobedience, does not restrict actions on the basis of state or corporate acceptance or legitimacy or in terms of legality (which cyber disobedient view largely as biased, corrupt, mechanisms of elites rule). In many cases recently, people and groups involved in online activism or cyber disobedience are also involving themselves in real world actions and organizing. In other cases people and groups who have only been involved in real world efforts are now moving their activism and organizing online as well.

Examples of civil disobedience

The following are examples of civil disobedience from around the world.

Flag Satyagraha

In India, Flag Satyagraha (Hindi: झंडा सत्याग्रह) is a campaign of peaceful civil disobedience during the Indian independence movement that focused on exercising the right and freedom to hoist the nationalist flag and challenge the legitimacy of the British Rule in India through the defiance of laws prohibiting the hoisting of nationalist flags and restricting civil freedoms. Flag Satyagrahas were conducted most notably in the city of Nagpur in 1923 but also in many other parts of India.

Greenpeace East Asia

Greenpeace East Asia is an office serving the East Asia region of the global environmental organization Greenpeace. It is one of the largest international NGOs in China.


Hartal (pronounced [ɦəɽ.t̪ɑːl]), also bandh (pronounced [bənd̪ʱ]), is a term in many South Asian languages for a strike action and was used first during the Indian Independence Movement (also known as the nationalist movement). A hartal is a mass protest, often involving a total shutdown of workplaces, offices, shops, and courts of law, and a form of civil disobedience similar to a labour strike. In addition to being a general strike, it involves the voluntary closing of schools and places of business. It is a mode of appealing to the sympathies of a government to reverse an unpopular or unacceptable decision. A hartal is often used for political reasons, for example by an opposition political party protesting against a governmental policy or action.

The term comes from Gujarati (હડતાળ haḍtāḷ or હડતાલ haḍtāl), signifying the closing down of shops and warehouses with the goal of satisfying a demand. Mahatma Gandhi, who hailed from Gujarat, used the term to refer to his anti-British general strikes, effectively institutionalizing the term. The contemporary origins of this form of public protest date back to the British colonial rule in India. Repressive actions by the colonial British Government and the princely states, which infringed on human rights and on peaceful movement protests to demand an end to British rule in India, often triggered such localized public protests, as in Benares and Bardoli.Hartals are still common in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and in parts of Sri Lanka where the term is often used to refer specifically to the 1953 Hartal of Ceylon. In Malaysia the word is used to refer to various general strikes in the 1940s, the 1950s, and the 1960s such as the All-Malaya Hartal of 1947 and the Penang Hartal of 1967.

Another variant which is common in Hindi-speaking regions is bhukh hartal or hunger strike.

The word is also used in a humorous sense to mean abstaining from work.

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (see name pronunciation; July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an American essayist, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, yogi, and historian. A leading transcendentalist, Thoreau is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay "Civil Disobedience" (originally published as "Resistance to Civil Government"), an argument for disobedience to an unjust state.

Thoreau's books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry amount to more than 20 volumes. Among his lasting contributions are his writings on natural history and philosophy, in which he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern-day environmentalism. His literary style interweaves close observation of nature, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore, while displaying a poetic sensibility, philosophical austerity, and Yankee attention to practical detail. He was also deeply interested in the idea of survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay; at the same time he advocated abandoning waste and illusion in order to discover life's true essential needs.He was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the Fugitive Slave Law while praising the writings of Wendell Phillips and defending the abolitionist John Brown. Thoreau's philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced the political thoughts and actions of such notable figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.Thoreau is sometimes referred to as an anarchist. Though "Civil Disobedience" seems to call for improving rather than abolishing government—"I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government"—the direction of this improvement contrarily points toward anarchism: "'That government is best which governs not at all;' and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have."

Non-cooperation movement

The Non-Cooperation Movement was a significant but short phase of the Indian independence movement from British rule. It was led by Mahatma Gandhi after the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre and lasted from 1920 to February 1922. It aimed to resist British rule in India through non-violence

. Protesters would refuse to buy British goods, adopt the use of local handicrafts and picket liquor shops. The ideas of Ahimsa and non-violence, and Gandhi's ability to rally hundreds of thousands of common citizens towards the cause of Indian independence, were first seen on a large scale in this movement through the summer of 1920. Gandhi feared that the movement might lead to popular violence. The non-cooperation movement was launched on 1 August 1920 and withdrawn in February 1922 after the Chauri Chaura incident.

Norwegian resistance movement

The Norwegian resistance to the occupation of Norway by Nazi Germany began after Operation Weserübung in 1940 and ended in 1945. It took several forms:

Asserting the legitimacy of the exiled government, and by implication the lack of legitimacy of Vidkun Quisling's pro-Nazi regime and Josef Terboven's military administration

The initial defense in Southern Norway, which was largely disorganized, but succeeded in allowing the government to escape capture

The more organized military defense and counter-attacks in parts of Western and Northern Norway, aimed at securing strategic positions and the evacuation of the government

Armed resistance, in the form of sabotage, commando raids, assassinations and other special operations during the occupation

Civil disobedience and unarmed resistance

Occupation (protest)

As an act of protest, occupation is a strategy often used by social movements and other forms of collective social action in order to take and hold public and symbolic spaces, buildings, critical infrastructure such as entrances to train stations, shopping centers, university buildings, squares, and parks. Opposed to a military occupation which attempts to subdue a conquered country, a protest occupation is a means to resist the status quo and advocate a change in public policy. Occupation attempts to use space as an instrument in order to achieve political and economic change, and to construct counter-spaces in which protesters express their desire to participate in the production and re-imagination of urban space. Often, this is connected to the right to the city, which is the right to inhabit and be in the city as well as to redefine the city in ways that challenge the demands of capitalist accumulation. That is to make public spaces more valuable to the citizens in contrast to favoring the interests of corporate and financial capital.Unlike other forms of protest like demonstrations, marches and rallies, occupation is defined by an extended temporality and is usually located in specific places. In many cases local governments declare occupations illegal because protesters seek to control space over a prolonged time. Thus occupations are often in conflict with political authorities and forces of established order, especially the police. These confrontations in particular attract media attention.Occupation, as a means of achieving change, emerged from worker struggles that sought everything from higher wages to the abolition of capitalism. Often called a sit-down strike, it is a form of civil disobedience in which an organized group of workers, usually employed at a factory or other centralized location, take possession of the workplace by "sitting down" at their stations, effectively preventing their employers from replacing them with strikebreakers or, in some cases, moving production to other locations.

The recovered factories in Argentina is an example of workplace occupations moving beyond addressing workplace grievances, to demanding a change in ownership of the means of production.

The Industrial Workers of the World were the first American union to use it, while the United Auto Workers staged successful sit-down strikes in the 1930s, most famously in the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-1937. Sit-down strikes were declared illegal by the US supreme court, but are still used by unions such as the UMWA in the Pittston strike, and the workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, inspired amongst others by the Arab Spring and the Indignados movement of Spain, started a global movement in which the occupation of public spaces is a key tactic. During these protests in 2011, the tactic of occupation was used in a new way as protesters wanted to remain indefinitely until they were heard, resisting police and government officials who wanted to evict them. In contrast to earlier protest encampments these occupations mobilized more people during a longer time period in more cities. This gained them worldwide attention.

Prison strike

A prison strike is an inmate strike or work stoppage that occurs inside a prison, generally to protest poor conditions or low wages for penal labor. Prison strikes may also include hunger strikes.


A protest (also called a remonstrance, remonstration or demonstration) is an expression of bearing witness on behalf of an express cause by words or actions with regard to particular events, policies or situations. Protests can take many different forms, from individual statements to mass demonstrations. Protesters may organize a protest as a way of publicly making their opinions heard in an attempt to influence public opinion or government policy, or they may undertake direct action in an attempt to directly enact desired changes themselves. Where protests are part of a systematic and peaceful nonviolent campaign to achieve a particular objective, and involve the use of pressure as well as persuasion, they go beyond mere protest and may be better described as cases of civil resistance or nonviolent resistance.Various forms of self-expression and protest are sometimes restricted by governmental policy (such as the requirement of protest permits), economic circumstances, religious orthodoxy, social structures, or media monopoly. One state reaction to protests is the use of riot police. Observers have noted an increased militarization of protest policing, with police deploying armored vehicles and snipers against the protesters. When such restrictions occur, protests may assume the form of open civil disobedience, more subtle forms of resistance against the restrictions, or may spill over into other areas such as culture and emigration.

A protest itself may at times be the subject of a counter-protest. In such a case, counter-protesters demonstrate their support for the person, policy, action, etc. that is the subject of the original protest. In some cases, these protesters can violently clash.

Salt March

The Salt March, also known as the Dandi March and the Dandi Satyagraha, was an act of nonviolent civil disobedience in colonial India led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to produce salt from the seawater in the coastal village of Dandi (now in Gujarat), as was the practice of the local populace until British officials introduced taxation on salt production, deemed their sea-salt reclamation activities illegal, and then repeatedly used force to stop it. The 24-day march lasted from 12 March 1930 to 6 April 1930 as a direct action campaign of tax resistance and nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly. It gained worldwide attention which gave impetus to the Indian independence movement and started the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement. Mahatma Gandhi started this march with 78 of his trusted volunteers. Walking ten miles a day for 24 days, the march spanned over 240 miles.

The march was the most significant organised challenge to British authority since the Non-cooperation movement of 1920–22, and directly followed the Purna Swaraj declaration of sovereignty and self-rule by the Indian National Congress on 26 January 1930.Gandhi led the Dandi March from his base, Sabarmati Ashram, 240 miles (384 km) to the coastal village of Dandi, which was at a small town called Navsari (now in the state of Gujarat) to produce salt without paying the tax, growing numbers of Indians joined them along the way. When Gandhi broke the salt laws at 6:30 am on 6 April 1930, it sparked large scale acts of civil disobedience against the British Raj salt laws by millions of Indians. The campaign had a significant effect on changing world and British attitudes towards Indian sovereignty and self-rule and caused large numbers of Indians to join the fight for the first time.

After making salt at Dandi, Gandhi continued southward along the coast, making salt and addressing meetings on the way. The Congress Party planned to stage a satyagraha at the Dharasana Salt Works, 25 miles south of Dandi. However, Gandhi was arrested on the midnight of 4–5 May 1930, just days before the planned action at Dharasana. The Dandi March and the ensuing Dharasana Satyagraha drew worldwide attention to the Indian independence movement through extensive newspaper and newsreel coverage. The satyagraha against the salt tax continued for almost a year, ending with Gandhi's release from jail and negotiations with Viceroy Lord Irwin at the Second Round Table Conference. Over 60,000 Indians were jailed as a result of the Salt Satyagraha. However, it failed to result in major concessions from the British.The Salt Satyagraha campaign was based upon Gandhi's principles of non-violent protest called satyagraha, which he loosely translated as "truth-force". Literally, it is formed from the Sanskrit words satya, "truth", and agraha, "insistence". In early 1930 the Indian National Congress chose satyagraha as their main tactic for winning Indian sovereignty and self-rule from British rule and appointed Gandhi to organise the campaign. Gandhi chose the 1882 British Salt Act as the first target of satyagraha. The Salt March to Dandi, and the beating by British police of hundreds of nonviolent protesters in Dharasana, which received worldwide news coverage, demonstrated the effective use of civil disobedience as a technique for fighting social and political injustice. The satyagraha teachings of Gandhi and the March to Dandi had a significant influence on American activists Martin Luther King Jr., James Bevel, and others during the Civil Rights Movement for civil rights for African Americans and other minority groups in the 1960s.

Sitdown strike

A sit-down strike is a labour strike and a form of civil disobedience in which an organized group of workers, usually employed at factories or other centralized locations, take unauthorized or illegal possession of the workplace by "sitting down" at their stations. The attraction for workers of a sit-down strike is that the practice prevents employers from replacing them with strikebreakers or removing equipment to transfer production to other locations. Neal Ascherson has commented that an additional attraction of the practice is that it emphasizes the role of workers in providing for the people, and allows workers to in effect hold valuable machinery hostage as a bargaining chip.Workers have used this technique since the beginning of the 20th century in countries such as United States, Italy, Poland, Croatia, and France. However, sit-down strikes are now uncommon.

Tax resistance

Tax resistance is the refusal to pay tax because of opposition to the government that is imposing the tax, or to government policy, or as opposition to taxation in itself. Tax resistance is a form of direct action and, if in violation of the tax regulations, also a form of civil disobedience.

Examples of tax resistance campaigns include those advocating home rule, such as the Salt March led by Mahatma Gandhi, and those promoting women's suffrage, such as the Women's Tax Resistance League. War tax resistance is the refusal to pay some or all taxes that pay for war, and may be practiced by conscientious objectors, pacifists, or those protesting against a particular war.Tax resisters are distinct from "tax protesters," who deny that the legal obligation to pay taxes exists or applies to them. Tax resisters may accept that some law commands them to pay taxes but they still choose to resist taxation.


Toyi-toyi is a Southern African dance originally created in Zimbabwe by Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) forces that has long been used in political protests in South Africa.Toyi-toyi could begin as the stomping of feet and spontaneous chanting during protests that could include political slogans or songs, either improvised or previously created.

Treatment Action Campaign

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) is a South African HIV/AIDS activist organisation which was co-founded by the HIV-positive activist Zackie Achmat in 1998. TAC is rooted in the experiences, direct action tactics and anti-apartheid background of its founder. TAC has been credited with forcing the reluctant government of former South African President Thabo Mbeki to begin making antiretroviral drugs available to South Africans.

University of Chicago sit-ins

The University of Chicago sit-ins were a series of nonviolent protests at the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois in 1962. The protests were called to end alleged segregation in off-campus university owned residential properties.

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