From Civil Disobedience to Civil Defiance


School of the Americas (SOA) Watch protesters in Ft. Benning, Georgia, November 22, 2009. (Photo: alexis.lassus)

“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience … Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves … [and] the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.” -Howard Zinn 

Over the years, I’ve been jailed numer­ous times. Each such event arose from what is loose­ly cal­led “civil dis­obedi­ence.”

The tact­ical value of ar­rest and en­su­ing “court wit­ness” and “prison wit­ness” is that they can generate news help­ing to bring vital, often neg­lected, is­sues to pub­lic notice. These mind­ful acts can boost sol­idar­ity and the grassroots cam­paigns in which they are em­bed­ded.

At a per­son­al level, court and trial wit­ness help us keep our “edge,” main­tain our focus, clar­ify our values. Such pub­lic stands im­pede co-optation. Court wit­ness pro­vides the op­por­tun­ity to craft trial state­ments ar­ticulat­ing why one has taken part in a given di­rect ac­tion. Along with such state­ments, the tes­timony of de­fen­se wit­nesses can be used to turn the t­ables on the pro­secutors. They can put militar­ism (or whatev­er issue is at stake) “on trial.” And they can be pub­lished, rea­ch­ing well be­yond the co­urtroom.

Those will­ing to do jail and court wit­ness are often de­ep­ly af­fected. The sol­idar­ity and com­mun­ity that may be generated can be trans­for­mative. And for privileged folks, and per­haps es­pecial­ly privileged white folks, it’s eye op­en­ing to ex­pose our­selves to the “just­ice” sys­tem of this over­ly in­car­cerat­ing na­tion. Given the dis­propor­tionate numb­ers of peo­ple of color in every jail and prison, any con­sci­ous per­son can’t help but be­come more aware of our society’s stark and sys­temic rac­ism.

Thanks in large part to court and prison wit­ness, one grassroots or­ganiza­tion I’ve long wor­ked with has grown by leaps and bounds. De­ter­mined to ex­pose and close the Pen­tagon’s School of the Americas (SOA) – aka the “School of As­sas­sins” – more than 200 SOA Watch ac­tiv­ists over the years have wil­ling­ly end­ured trial and in­car­cera­tion. In­spired by them, each Novemb­er, thousands from all over the co­unt­ry con­ver­ge on Fort Be­nn­ing, Geor­gia to pro­test the SOA there for fos­ter­ing large-scale bloodshed and human rights abuse in Latin America. (In re­spon­se to our per­sis­tent pre­ssure, the SOA has un­der­gone a PR makeov­er: it has chan­ged its name to the Wes­tern Hemisphere In­stitute for Secur­ity Co­opera­tion, WHIN­SEC.)

Most of us vote. Howev­er, mere­ly vot­ing is tokenis­tic. It’s gett­ing a free ride, not pay­ing our fare. It’s not doing our part to neut­ral­ize the toxic power struc­ture im­pact­ing every­one the US im­perium touc­hes, i.e. the en­tire planet. De­moc­ra­cy is far more than vot­ing and elec­tions; de­moc­ra­cy must be struggled for. Each non­violent di­rect ac­tion (“civil dis­obedi­ence”) is a vote multi­plied many times over. If more middle-class citizens would risk ar­rest and in­car­cera­tion for non­violent acts of sol­idar­ity and con­sci­ence, ours might well be a bet­t­er na­tion, a bet­t­er world.

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Many of us have valid rea­sons not to risk ar­rest. But some of us are in a posi­tion to take the plun­ge … or we’re in a posi­tion to make chan­ges in our life style or cir­cumstan­ces so we can risk ar­rest and its con­sequ­ences when that im­perative calls. In any case we can ac­tive­ly sup­port those non­violent­ly tak­ing such risk. Brad­ley Man­n­ing, the young sol­di­er who al­leged­ly pro­vided WikiLeaks with sec­ret files ex­pos­ing – among much else – US milita­ry mas­sacres of civilians in Iraq, is de­ep­ly at risk. For near­ly a year, Brad­ley – per­haps the pre­mi­er pat­riot of our day – has lan­guis­hed in Abu Ghraib-like con­di­tions in the Quan­tico Marine base brig. For his whistleb­low­ing, he faces pos­sible ex­ecu­tion. (Up­date: In the wake of the March 20 de­monstra­tion at Quan­tico, Brad­ley has been trans­fer­red to Leaven­worth Peniten­tia­ry in Kan­sas.)

* * *

This past win­ter’s events in Tunisia and Egypt have much to teach us. These North Af­ricans em­body what Gandhi taught: when en­ough of us with­draw our co­opera­tion from it, tyran­ny crumbles. Tyran­ny can’t be sus­tained if good peo­ple re­fuse to go along. To avoid or re­move tyran­ny, we need to cul­tivate the will to dis­obey, the will to defy.

“Civil dis­obedi­ence” isn’t the best term for what’s been hap­pen­ing in Cairo and el­sewhere throug­hout the Is­lamic world – and in Wis­consin. More apt and brac­ing is “civil de­fian­ce.” “Civil” be­cause it in­vol­ves citizens act­ing civil­ly, i.e. non­violent­ly. That Cairenes may ig­nore cur­few and crowd-control ord­ers (i.e. they dis­obey) is less re­levant than that they have col­lec­tive­ly ris­ked life and limb to oust Mubarak – and that they con­tinue to do so in the face of his milita­ry suc­ces­sors.

“Civil de­fian­ce” is the term em­braced by Har­vard’s Gene Sharp. Sharp’s tally of “198 Met­hods of Non­violent Ac­tion” is re­prin­ted in the ap­pendix of his semi­n­al 93-page “From Di­ctatorship to De­moc­ra­cy,” fourth US edi­tion, May 2010 (origin­al, 1993). This how-to manu­al has been trans­lated into many lan­guages – in­clud­ing Arabic – and is download­able free from the Al­bert Einstein In­stitu­tion web site. Sharp isn’t just about the grassroots mobiliz­ing to de­pose a tyrant; Sharp seeks to as­sure that the tyrant isn’t re­placed by an­oth­er tyrann­ical re­gime – a com­mon fate of palace coups and violent re­volu­tion. Not to men­tion out­side in­ter­ven­tions.

Egyp­tian ac­tiv­ists have li­ke­ly read “From Di­ctatorship.” We also would do well to study it to un­derstand not only the rise of peo­ple power throug­hout the Mid­dle East … but to bet­t­er see how togeth­er we, too, might co­unt­er any moves toward tyran­ny here.

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