Civil disobedience is the deliberate and conscious refusal to obey, or violation of, a law believed to be unjust. Civil disobedience has a long history and has played an important role in many activist traditions.
The deliberate violation of laws has played a crucial part in Australian activist history. The Aboriginal land rights and civil rights movement, union struggles for wages and the eight hour day, women's campaigns for the vote, and the modern peace, social justice and environmental movements have all been affected. Hundreds of people have been arrested in large civil disobedience actions throughout Australia at many protests against US bases, uranium mines, asylum seeker detention centres and blockades of old growth logging operations.
A famous and influential theorist of civil disobedience in the western world was Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau refused to pay a poll tax and spent one night in jail. He argued that the tax supported slavery and the aggressive US war against Mexico, both of which he opposed.
Thoreau's essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849), influenced Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and countless other activists.
“It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much for the right Law never made men a whit more just; and by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. . . the demands of conscience are higher than the demands of the law."
The argument that the demands of conscience are higher than the demands of the law is central to all civil disobedience.
Civil disobedience on the individual level tries to influence by example. The peace activist who refuses to obey a ‘Keep Out' sign at a military base may hope that others will oppose militarism or war in their own ways after witnessing this civil disobedience.
Sometimes the civil disobedience is aimed at challenging or undermining the authority of a particular law, such as when Aboriginal and non-aboriginal activists deliberately broke racist segregation laws during the Freedom Rides in the 1960's. Public displays of outright defiance of a law served to delegitimise the repressive law, undermine public acceptance of it and encourage others to oppose it.
Ultimately civil disobedience can aim to influence public and institutional opinion in order to change the unjust law or abolish the unjust policy. In theory, civil disobedience focuses on the law itself and not on the police who enforce it. In its most sophisticated form, civil disobedience seeks to undermine support for the law even within the police, courts and legal system.
Civil disobedience can also aim to "clog the machine" (in Thoreau's phrase) with political prisoners; to get into court where activists can challenge the constitutionality of a law; to put an end to your personal complicity in the injustice which flows from obedience to unjust law - or some combination of these.
‘Direct action' is a term that is often misunderstood.
To act directly is to address the actual issue of your concern. If you're working against hunger, it might be simply giving someone a meal. If you're working against homelessness, it might be taking over an abandoned house and making it habitable. If you want to stop military spending, it might be refusing to pay your income taxes.
Direct action differs from symbolic protest action, which is lobbying someone in authority to change his or her policies. An advantage to direct action is that it doesn't require the cooperation of the authority to be effective.
If the police or authorities intervene to stop your action, you are able to expose the injustice; if they ignore you, you have acted against the injustice and can continue following it further.
Since the action in itself has a direct effect, it has a power and strength. In practice, the most effective actions are both direct and symbolic.
Civil disobedience is often carefully planned and can lead to severe legal consequences. It is often a highly effective and high profile part of a direct action campaign. By itself, civil disobedience is not a strategy, but a tactic that can form an important part of many campaigns and movements for change.
Is civil disobedience justified?
Many people have argued that civil disobedience cannot be justified in a democracy. If democratic processes can change unjust laws then the existence of lawful channels of change makes civil disobedience unnecessary. Others believe that some issues of injustice are so urgent or deeply embedded in society that lawful channels cannot or will not respond. What do you think?
If you are considering civil disobedience look at the training role play Should I get arrested?
Read about the experiences of other activists in Case studies section.