Civil disobedience is an art … and there’s more to it than simply “getting arrested.” The term comes from an essay by Henry David Thoreau, whose classic, “On Civil Disobedience” was written in relation to slavery and the Mexican-American war. Thoreau felt it was the duty of citizens to resist through noncooperation and disobedience the machine of a system or government that produces injustice.
More specifically, civil disobedience has been used in relation to deliberately disobeying laws that are perceived as unjust. Gandhi upped the ante on the concept, organizing mass civil disobedience to specific British laws, whereby making them completely unenforceable. In this way, Gandhi not only achieved the repeal of many laws, but also undermined the authority and control of the British colonial government.
Sometimes, civil disobedience is practiced in the United States in a manner that is largely symbolic (i.e. “getting arrested” in front of the White House to make a statement). To confuse matters further, the media often reports any activism-related arrest as civil disobedience, regardless of the intentions of the demonstrator or the specificity of the charges of arrest.
Strategically, organizers should consider all these dimensions carefully. Why are you getting arrested? What are the costs? Can the movement sustain those costs? Is there another tactic with which to achieve the same purpose with lower risks/costs? How are you using the arrests to further the goal of the movements? Is mass noncooperation a possibility in your situation? Can you engage mass noncooperation without being arrested?
Wise strategy examines tactics with deep scrutiny, seeking the lowest risk for the highest possible gains. Hold the use of civil disobedience to these same standards of strategic analysis … it will help your movement conserve its resources and achieve its goals.
Author/Activist Rivera Sun, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of The Dandelion Insurrection, Billionaire Buddha and Steam Drills, Treadmills, and Shooting Stars, the cohost of Love (and Revolution) Radio, and the cofounder of the Love-In-Action Network. She is a trainer and social media coordinator for Campaign Nonviolence and Pace e Bene. Sun attended the James Lawson Institute on Strategic Nonviolent Resistance in 2014 and her essays on social justice movements appear in Truthout and Popular Resistance. www.riverasun.com