Civil Disobedience

According to Aquinas, "if a civil law conflicts with the natural law or with the eternal law, not only may we violate it--we must violate it... For him, civil law, no matter how well crafted, can never be the final authority; there is always a "higher law" that must be considered and must be obeyed. Claiming the obligation to obey a "higher law" has led many people to break civil laws by taking actions called civil disobedience. Mohandas K. Gandhi used this practice effectively in India when he led thousands to nonviolently oppose the laws of British colonial rule, which he believed to be unjust. In 19th-century America, Henry David Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay taxes he felt were being used for immoral purposes. In our own century, Martin Luther King, Jr. found himself in a Birmingham jail for a similar refusal to obey the civil law." (Mitchell, 364).

"Malcolm X concluded.. that the government and the people have an implied contract; if the government does not uphold its end of the contract (by protecting the people), the people are free to disregard their obligations (to remain law-abiding citizens) as well" (Mitchell, 365).

Civil disobedience, especially since Gandhi, is synonymous with nonviolent dissent. The rationale is that a people's basic moral sense will eventually be outraged enough to change things if they are constantly confronted with nonviolent events (at least on the side of the dissenters) which showcase the problem which should be addressed.

" 'take the law into your own hands.' That is exactly what civil disobedience is: the temporary taking of the law into one's own hands, in order to declare what the law SHOULD be. It is a declaration that there is an incongruence between the law and humane values, and that sometimes this can only be publicized by breaking the law.

"Civil disobedience can take two forms: violating a law which is obnoxious; or symbolically enacting a law which is urgently needed. When Negroes sat-in at lunch counters, they were engaging in both forms: they violated state laws on segregation and trespassing; they were also symbolically enacting a public accommodationgs law even before it was written into the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"Most of us, I assume, would support civil disobedience under SOME circumstances: we would commend those who defied the Fugitive Slave Act by harboring a Negro slave, and those who symbolically enacted emancipation by trying to prevent soldiers in Boston from returning Anthony Burns to his master. Otherwise, to declare that the law in ALL circumstances is to be obeyed, is to suppress the very spirit of democracy, to surrender individual conscience to an omnipotent state. Thus, the issue becomes: under what circumstances is civil disobedience justified and is the Dow Chemical situation one of those circumstances?" (Zinn 304-5).

"Gertrude Scholtz-Klink, chief of the Women's Bureau under Hitler, explained to an interviewer after the war the Jewish policy of the Nazis, "We always obeyed the law. Isn't that what you do in America? Even if you don't agree with a law personally, you still obey it. Otherwise life would be chaos"" (Zinn 369-70).

"In the 1960s, a student at Harvard Law School addressed parents and alumni with these words:

The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might. And the republic is in danger. Yes! danger from within and without. We need law and order! Without law and order our nation cannot survive.

"There was prolonged applause. When the applause died down, the student quietly told his listeners: 'These words were spoken in 1932 by Adolph Hitler.'" (Zinn 370).

"Every nation uses the power of law to keep its population obedient and to mobilize acquiescent armies... Thus the law that inside each nation creates conscript armies leads to the unspeakable disorder of war, to the bloody chaos of the battlefield, and to international turmoil" (Zinn 371).

"Socrates's position--that he must accept death for his disobedience--has become one of the cardinal principles in the liberal philosophy of civil disobedience... It is usually stated this way: it's your right to break the law when your conscience is offended; but then you must accept your punishment.

"Why? Why agree to be punished when you think you have acted rightly, and the law, punishing you for that, has acted wrongly? Why is it all right to disobey the law in the first instance, but then, when you are sentenced to prison, start obeying it?" (Zinn 378).

"The idea behind 'accept your punishment'... is that whatever your disagreement with some specific law or some particular policy, you should not spread disrespect for the law IN GENERAL, because we need respect for the law to keep society intact.

"This is like saying because apples are good for children, we must insist that they not refuse the rotten ones, because that might lead them to reject all apples.." (Zinn 382).

"...civil disobedience gives an INTENSITY to expression by its dramatic violation of law, which other means--voting, speaking, and writing--do not possess" (Zinn 382).

"Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it. It is a corrective to the sluggishness of "the proper channels," a way of breaking through passages blocked by tradition and prejudice. It is disruptive and troublesome, but it is a necessary disruption, a healthy troublesomeness" (Zinn 383).

"If I approve your act of civil disobedience, am I not honor bound to approve ANYONE'S civil disobedience?

"The test of justification for an act is not its legality but its morality.

"The principle I am suggesting for civil disobedience is not that we must tolerate all disobedience to law, but that we refuse an absolute OBEDIENCE to law. The ultimate test is not law, but justice.

"This troubles many people, because it gives them a heavy responsibility, to weigh social acts by their moral consequences. This can get complicated and requires a never-ending set of judgments about practices and policies. It is much easier to lie back and let the law make our moral judgments for us, whatever the law happens to say at the moment, whatever the Supreme Court interprets the law at the moment...

"What we should be most concerned about is... the inclination of people faced with an overwhelming environment of injustice to submit to it.

"Historically, the most terrible things--war, genocide, and slavery--have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience" (Zinn 387-389).

"...the courts will continue to remain barricades against change, stiff upholders of the prevailing order, unless juries defy conservative judges and vote their consciences, commit their own civil disobedience in the courtroom, and ignore the law to achieve justice" (Zinn 400).

"A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonels, captains, corporals, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences..." (Henry David Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience").

The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercise when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. it is like a storm in the atmosphere.
Thomas Jefferson

"...the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail... In every city in this country, when demonstrations take place, the protestors.. are assaulted and clubbed by police, and then they are arrested for assaulting a police officer.

" are saying our PROBLEM is civil disobedience. That 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" (Zinn 405).

"It's the international dedication to law and order that binds the leaders of all countries in a comradely bond. That's why we are always surprised when they get together--they smile, they shake hands, they smoke cigars, they really like one another no matter what they say... Basically, it is us against them.

"Yossarian was right, remember, in Catch-22? He..said, 'The enemy is whoever is going to get you killed, whicever side they are on.'

"...we must remember that our enemies are not divided along national lines, that enemies are not just people who speak different languages and occupy different territories. Enemies are people who want to get us killed" (Zinn 406-7).

"So the Bill of Rights was not enforced. Hamilton's program [money to the rich] was enforced... And you can trace the story right down to the present day, what laws are enforced, what laws are not enforced. So you have to be careful when you say, 'I'm for the law, I revere the law.'...

"..we think that law brings order. Law doesn't. How do we know that law does not bring order? Look around us... Take a look at the present world in which the rule of law obtains. This is the closest to what is called anarchy in the popular mind--confusion, chaos, international banditry... There is nothing sacred about the law... look at the legislators around the country who make the laws... Sit in on Congress, for these are the people who make the laws which we are then supposed to revere" (Zinn 408-9).

We are told that we don't need civil disobedience because we have the electoral system.

"..the voting process is a sham. Totalitarian states love voting. You get people to the polls and they register their approval" (Zinn 410).

History of Mass Nonviolent Action
(taken from ACT UP at

"The use of nonviolence runs throughout history. There have been numerous instances of people courageously and nonviolently refusing cooperation with injustice. However, the fusion of organized mass struggle and nonviolence is relatively new. It originated largely with Mohandas Gandhi in 1906 at the onset of the South African campaign for Indian rights. Later, the Indian struggle for complete independence from the British Empire included a number of spectacular nonviolent campaigns. Perhaps the most notable was the year-long Salt campaign in which 100,000 Indians were jailed for deliberately violating the Salt Laws.

"The refusal to counter the violence of the repressive social system with more violence is a tactic that has also been used by other movements. The militant campaign for women's suffrage in Britain included a variety of nonviolent tactics such as boycotts, noncooperation, limited property destruction, civil disobedience, mass marches and demonstrations, filling the jails, and disruption of public ceremonies.

"The Salvadoran people have used nonviolence as one powerful and necessary element of their struggle. Particularly during the 1960s and 70s, Christian based communities, labor unions, campesino organizations, and student groups held occupations and sit-ins at universities, government offices, and places of work such as factories and haciendas.

"There is rich tradition of nonviolent protest in this country as well, including Harriet Tubman's underground railroad during the civil war and Henry David Thoreau's refusal to pay war taxes. Nonviolent civil disobedience was a critical factor in gaining women the right to vote in the United States, as well.

"The U.S. labor movement has also used nonviolence with striking effectiveness in a number of instances, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) free speech confrontations, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) sitdown strikes from 1935-1937 in auto plants, and the UFW grape and lettuce boycotts.

"Using mass nonviolent action, the civil rights movement changed the face of the South. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) initiated modern nonviolent action for civil rights with sit-ins and a freedom ride in the 1940s. The successful Montgomery bus boycott electrified the nation. Then, the early 1960s exploded with nonviolent actions: sit-ins at lunch counters and other facilities, organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Freedom Rides to the South organized by CORE; the nonviolent battles against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); and the 1963 March on Washington, which drew 250,000 participants.

"Opponents of the Vietnam War employed the use of draft card burnings, draft file destruction, mass de-. monstrations (such as the 500,000 who turned out in 1969 in Washington, D.C.), sit-ins, blocking induction centers, draft and tax resistance, and the historic 1971 May Day traffic blocking in Washington, D.C. in which 13,000 people were arrested.

"Since the mid-70s, we have seen increasing nonviolent activity against the nuclear arms race and nuclear power industry. Nonviolent civil disobedience actions have taken place at dozens of nuclear weapons research installations, storage areas, missile silos, test sites, military bases, corporate and government offices and nuclear power plants. In the late 1970s mass civil disobedience actions took place at nuclear power plants from Seabrook, New Hampshire to the Diablo Canyon reactor in California and most states in between in this country and in other countries around the world. In 1982, 1750 people were arrested at the U.N. missions of the five major nuclear powers. Mass actions took place at the Livermore Laboratories in California and SAC bases in the midwest. In the late 80s a series of actions took place at the Nevada test site. International disarmament actions changed world opinion about nuclear weapons.

"In 1980 women who were concerned with the destruction of the Earth and who were interested in exploring the connections between feminism and nonviolence were coming together. In November of 1980 and 1981 the Women's Pentagon Actions, where hundreds of women came together to challenge patriarchy and militarism, took place. A movement grew that found ways to use direct action to put pressure on the military establishment and to show positive examples of life-affirming ways to live together. This movement spawned women's peace camps at military bases around the world from Greenham Common, England to Puget Sound Peace Camp in Washington state, with camps in Japan and Italy among others.

"The anti-apartheid movement in the 80s has built upon the powerful and empowering use of civil disobedience by the civil rights movement in the 60s. In November of 1984, a campaign began that involved daily civil disobedience in front of the South African Embassy. People, including members of Congress, national labor and religious leaders, celebrities, students, community leaders, teachers, and others, risked arrest every weekday for over a year. In the end over 3,100 people were arrested protesting apartheid and U.S. corporate and government support. At the same time, support actions for this campaign were held in 26 major Cities, resulting in an additional 5,000 arrests.

"We also saw civil disobedience being incorporated as a key tactic in the movement against intervention in Central America. Beginning in 1983, national actions at the White House and State Department as well as local actions began to spread. In November 1984, the Pledge of Resistance was formed. Since then, over 5,000 people have been arrested at military installations, congressional offices, federal buildings, and CIA offices. Many people have also broken the law by providing sanctuary for Central American refugees and through the Lenten Witness, major denomination representatives have participated in weekly nonviolent civil disobedience actions at the Capitol.

"Student activists have incorporated civil disobedience in both their anti-apartheid and Central America work. Divestment became the campus slogan of the 80s. Students built shantytowns and staged sit-ins at Administrator's offices. Hundreds have been arrested resulting in the divestment of over 130 campuses and the subsequent withdrawal of over $4 billion from the South African economy. Central America student activists have carried out campaigns to protest CIA recruitment on campuses. Again, hundreds of students across the country have been arrested in this effort.

"Nonviolent direct action has been an integral part of the renewed activism in the lesbian and gay community since 1987, when ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed. ACT UP and other groups have organized hundreds of civil disobedience actions across the country, focusing not only on AIDS but on the increasing climate of homophobia and attacks on lesbians and gay men. On October 13, 1987, the Supreme Court was the site of the first national lesbian and gay civil disobedience action, where nearly 600 people were arrested protesting the decision in Hardwick vs. Bowers, which upheld sodomy laws. This was the largest mass arrest in D.C. since 1971.

During the Cold War "the FBI tapped wires illegally, kept lists of people to be put in concentration camps, wrote fake letters to destroy personal lives and used dirty tricks to disrupt organizations it didn't like. The CIA opened mail illegally, plotted the murder of foreign leaders and conspired to overthrow a democratically elected government in Chile.

"Families were burned to death in Vietnam, babies were shot in their mothers' arms, Cambodia was bombed secretly and Laos openly, the land and culture of 40 million people in Southeast Asia were laid waste. And then what? Instead of trying Mr. Nixon and Kissinger for mass murder by terror bombing, we scolded their flunkies for breaking-and-entering and gave them a little time in jail...

"What will happen now with these revelations on the CIA and FBI? The usual. A few changes in personnel, a few new laws. But the same exclusive club of corporate billionaires, with their teams of lawyers, accountants, politicians and intellectual advisers hoping to become Secretary of State, will remain in power.

"For profound changes to come about in this country, we will have to start revealing to the American public, and especially to the school kids of the coming generation, the really big secrets...

"First, that there is little difference between Them (the enemy--Communism) and Us (the West, American, "democracy") when it comes to a reckless disregard for human lives in pursuit of something called "national interest."... "Our side".. would sacrifice the lives of its own people, to score points in a game whose concern was not humanity but power...

"The biggest secret of all is beginning to emerge: That "the enemy" of this government is anyone, here or abroad, who won't put up with control of the world by Chase Manhattan, Exxon, General Motors, I.T.& T. " (Zinn 449-451). (Zinn 450-1).

Relevant Links on the Web:

Act Up! --Civil Disobedience Index
Alliance For Justice --Co-motion

Works Cited

Mitchell, Helen Buss. Roots of Wisdom: Speaking the Language of Philosophy. 1st ed. NY: Wadsworth, 1996.

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

Please send comments to: Colby Glass, MLIS

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