portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article commentary united states

political theory

Civil Disobedience Prevents Substantial Change from Occurring in this Country

The effectiveness of civil disobedience...
Civil disobedience holds absolutely no practical value in terms of an effective social and political change strategy in the United States. By teaching civil disobedience, one is instructing people how to be submissive to the state, how to be lambs to the slaughter. Please do not trust revisionist history. Gandhi's civil disobedience campaigns did not on their own compel the British to evacuate India. It was a combination of the political atmosphere of the British being drawn into multiple international conflicts along with the sizable armed and violent independence movement in India. The second primary icon typically praised for successful civil disobedience campaigns is Martin Luther King, Jr. True, "his" desegregation and enfranchisement campaigns did achieve some progress, but the visible advancement of the civil rights movement came only after the addition of the black power contingency which forced the federal government to identify King as the less threatening of two opponents.

Civil disobedience holds as a necessity the classic belief in nonviolence, that if the applicant performs an act of self suffering, she/he will win the opponent over with love and "soul force." The opponent is allegedly supposed to be able to see the errors in her/his own ways and voluntarily change. This voluntary change, it is argued, will create lasting results - a typical solution to the circle of violence theory.

The problem with civil disobedience is that it requires the opponent to have a healthy, working conscience for any significant change to occur. Only a healthy and working conscience would allow someone to see the evils in her/his own actions and voluntarily change. Yet, I would argue the overwhelming majority of those performing large scale acts of injustice in the United States do not have this healthy conscience. If they did, would severe and conscious acts of injustice be performed in the first place? If our Commander in Chief had a healthy and working conscience would he have thrust the U.S. into a war in Afghanistan and Iraq? Would he be leaving U.S. troops there only to be picked off one by one in a guerilla war? Would automobile manufacturers such as Ford continue to pump out larger gas guzzling vehicles such as the excursion if the corporation's executives had healthy and working consciences? Would companies continue to use sweat shop labor overseas or chop down old growth forests, or engage in genetic engineering if the executives had healthy and working consciences? The mere act of injustice in these annd countless other examples demonstrates that these individuals to not have a healthy and working conscience. Otherwise they would not be engaging in these acts in the first place. To believe that an individual without a healthy and working conscience could be effected by a civil disobedience campaign demonstrates a lack of understanding of the civil disobedience strategy.

Certainly, there are a few varied goals for any civil disobedience campaign. One goal may just be to create media attention about your given "issue." If your civil disobedience campaign action is unique and lengthy, perhaps you may get yourself on the evening news, but as a former public relations representative I would suggest that most often the soundbites aired from these actions are specifically chosen by corporate media to discredit your cause. Additionally, there are other methods of acquiring attention for your cause without resorting to media stunts that only serve to get your group members arrested and, often times, injured.

A second goal of a civil disobedience campaign may be to use nonviolence to compel the opponent into changing their unjust acts. One way many argue this can be accomplished is by using self suffering to appeal to a third party that will, in turn, place the needed pressure on the original opponent to change. For example, if the anti-war movement in the United States engaged in large-scale civil disobedience campaigns against the U.S. government, the government would respond with an increasing degree of repression. This repression, it is argued, would be visible to the international community and some third party - so outraged by the treatment of the anti-war demonstrators, would place the needed pressure on the U.S. government to stop its unjust war policies. The obvious problem with this scenerio is that in the international community, the U.S. government does not listen and respond to anyone - not the U.N., not any European or Asian power, no one. Therefore this particular nonviolence goal is not only impractical but arguable impossible.

A third common goal of a civil disobedience campaign is to directly compel the opponent into changing their unjust acts. Addressed earlier in this essay, this approach relies upon the belief that the opponent has a healthy and working conscience. Clearly, one who is engaged in overt, horrific atrocities does not have this most crucial necessity.

The only other goal of a civil disobedience campaign that is frequently asserted is that people just feel they need to take a stand against injustice. They want to lay their bodies on the line as a personal act of protest and defiance against an injustice and its creator. Yet, this approach is ineffective at best and suicide in the worst case scenerio. The prison industrial complex in the United States has no problem growing and it is far too simple for the state to pick up a morally righteous protester and lock them away. This does nothing to realistically disrupt the protested act of injustice or its creator. Additionally, this morally righteous strategy holds little in the way of practicality while having substantial religious undertones. Just as the "good Jews" in ghettos and deaths camps in Nazi controlled Eastern Europe felt that they could do nothing and somehow the higher power would save them, many civil disobedience practitioners believe that as long as they "take a stand" nonviolently goodness will prevail. Of course, the failure of the Jewish response was horrifically demonstrated in the near completion of the Final Solution program and it took the politically violent actions of the Allied forces to finally close the camps. The higher power belief, as applied to the civil disobedience pratitioner in the United States, is just as hopeless.

I write these comments on this beautiful Thursday morning not to initiate another furious (and likely troll instigated) debate over strategies, but to share some of my knowledge and understanding. I, myself, used to be sold on the civil disobedience and nonviolence religion. I used to teach nonviolence and civil disobedience workshops and classes across the country. Additionally, I was so compelled by the ideology that I took part in a dozen or so nonviolent civil disobedience actions. After my experiences, after years of research on nonviolence ideology and civil disobedience strategy as well as history, I seriously question the value of civil disobedience and its potential to actually confront the murderous and diseased U.S. government. I do believe the practice of civil disobedience is another deterrent preventing substantial change from occurring in this country. Enjoy this weather.

In building a revolutionary consciousness...

homepage: homepage: http://www.arissa.org

Craig You Are A Blowhard 10.Jul.2003 12:29


Hey, that's useful, Craig. Tell folks who are amping up their resistance how useless it all is. So we're back to the options: do nothing or pick up a gun, eh? Guess which one will happen? Sure, revolution in India and black resistance in the US didn't happen solely because of non-violent cd, but they sure didn't happen without it , either. Guess who was on the front lines first.

You, Craig, are a deterrent preventing substantial change from occurring in this country

And your solution is...? 10.Jul.2003 12:35


Craig, do you ever actually do anything for the revolution (besides endlessly rewrite your graduate thesis?) Of course, civil resistance doesn't cause some cosmic soul-change in the bankrupt consciousness of the ruling class. Change is never going to come from the top down, it's only going to happen when people feel united enough to rise up together. Civil disobedience is one way of performing acts of resistance that people can take public responsibility for and, hopefully, organize around. Sure it's not the only tool in the chest. But it's one way of breaking through the fear factor that keeps most of us, most of the time, isolated and ineffective.

p.s. You're certainly correct that "the prison industrial complex in the United States has no problem growing and it is far too simple for the state to pick up a morally righteous protester and lock them away." Our comrades who have engaged in your preferred methods of resistance: blowing up SUVs and logging trucks (and I totally applaud these actions, by the way) are doing years, and maybe decades, for their actions. We need to unite against the prison-industrial complex, not against the protesters.

mis-placed focus 10.Jul.2003 13:17


Civil disobedience holds as a necessity the classic belief in nonviolence, that if the applicant performs an act of self suffering, she/he will win the opponent over with love and "soul force."

The flaw in this argument is that it focuses on winning over an opponent. The real goal of most protest, IMHO, is winning over those who have not yet come to a firm decision. You're never going to win over a George W. Bush, for example, but by motivating enough of the American people you *may* be able to force him to change his policies. Alternately, you may be able to get him voted out of office (of course that would require a unbiased Supreme Court.) In any case, the target audience is never the immediate opponent.

(Apologies if this gets posted twice, the "new comment" form behaved strangely when I hit the commit button)

interesting but . . . 10.Jul.2003 13:28

max max_cap@hotmail.com

some interesting points but I disagree strongly.
No one expects revolutionary change to immediately spring from blocking the entrance to death merchants or staging a die-in and anyone
who has half a brain alrady knows that the majority of news coverage will focus on making direct actioneers look bad. The point is that what is done empowers not only individuals who are there but MAY also inspire people who witness something happening first or second-hand. The fact that people are willing to suffer incarceration and worse in bettering society is inspiration in itself. Civil disobedience's strength is in it's ability to inspire and whehter that works only in the presence of greater menaces or not, it shouldn't be abandoned as one tactic among many . . .
voting and letter writing has its place, just ask the corporate lobbyists who actually make changes to laws that just make things more and
more shitty for you and I. They would be more than happy to agree with you!

rasputin's got it right! 10.Jul.2003 13:37

max - again

Completely right Rasputin!
We don't expect W to have an epiphany and suddenly stop being a murderous bastard, we hope there may be discussion, communication and debate when someone watches CNN and sees a grandmother willing to be hit with batons while standing up for somebody she may never have met. It's all about builidng unity and we see that when police in S America refuse to carry out their instructions and march on the other side of the barriers.
we are growing larger every day and we will not stop
unlike craig

And what are you doing? 10.Jul.2003 14:45

I'm a Hypocrite too?

And what the fuck are you doing, exactly, Jeebus? Putting out academic columns like this? Woo. You don't even have the balls for cd, you sit around writing shit and waiting for other people to blow stuff up, and you have the nerve to criticize people who actually do shit, as opposed to sitting around and writing endlessly about doing shit ? Go fuck yourself, Comrade.

bring it on 10.Jul.2003 15:42

dancin' outlaw

Having worked like a donkey all my life, while watching pretentious nancy-boys like you flip the government off with one hand, while the other is eagerly thrust foreward for grant money, I just had to comment. Do you have any idea what the kids of poor working class people think of you ? Any clue ? All but a tiny fraction of a percentage have never heard of your stillborn "Movement", and those that DO have it thrust in their face on the evening news know instinctively that you hail from the same caste that has barked orders at them their entire lives. They (and I) can see it in your faces, body language, and soft, uncalloused hands. These people who you probably look down upon, at the end of the day, really, are your prolateriat. And believe me, they (and I) will defend their meager possesions when the mob comes to "liberate" them. Not counting those people who have made it out of the heap through years of hard work...they will fight you even harder. And fighting is one thing you cannot learn in University.

So, my dear "Comrades", I say to you : Put your money where your mouth is. Put down the pen and try to organize a real armed uprising...I guarantee you that it will pan out a little differently in real life as compared to Grad School.

The truth hurts - deal with it 10.Jul.2003 16:39


Civil disobedience wins over the populace. True. Great. THEN what? Does what the majority think matter? Voter fraud is a fact. The ruling elite only make rules that allow them to continue their reign. Money trumps people, in our shitstem. Sad but true. Has anyone here read Zinn's history of the US? How can you believe that we live in a democracy? Reformism only gives way under threat of violence from normal, average people.

So you've been working for "peace" for many years. And now, upon reading and contemplating Craig's words, you are scared that you've wasted a portion of your life. Time to stop reacting and start thinking. Violence is all that the "leaders" ever respond to. Yes, it's easy for Craig to talk schitt. And I have no doubt that he is surveiled by the state. For him to involve his high-profile, academic/schitt-talking self in actual plots would be suicidal. Everyone has their place in a revolution, and some people are talkers, not doers. Craig is a talker.

"Gandhi's" revolution was far from non-violent - success came as the movement finally pushed Gandhi aside;

Vietnam was ended because US soldiers killed their officers and crippled the army, not because of protests;

your argument in incomplete... 10.Jul.2003 18:05

bad penny

You put forth three possible reasons to engage in civil disobedience, then proceed to discedit them. I don't practice civil disobedience, nor do I regularly ask people who do what their motives are. That being said, I think it seems rather obvious that what compells those in our society who you describe as lacking a conscience is personal monetary gain. Acts of civil disobedience seem to primarily attempt to inform the masses, the idea being that, once made privy to the information, those with a conscience will be able to see for themselves whatever it should be that the actors have a greivance with. Assuming that there are more consientious people than pure egoists in the society, the majority opinion will then be against the opponent. All of these consientious people will then feel compelled to put an end to whatever the atrocity should happen to be.

Up to this point I don't think I have brought in anything that has not at least been considered in, or by the author of, the above argument, but for some reason it leads me to see civil disobedience as worthwile an useful, but leads the author to conclude that it is futile and impotent. I suppose that either the author or myself are confused about what it is that happens after we get to the point where the majority of the society feels compelled. It seems that the appropriate way to act on this compulsion is to impair the ability of the opponnent to gain monitarily, as that seems to be their motivation. Certainly when the majority of the society deems it necassary to do so, it would not be an extremely difficult task.

Perhaps the notion that more people are conscientious than not is the reason that I am unable to accept the author's argument. It is certainly quite possible that this notion is incorrect, but unless someone can offer a reasonable argument that it is incorrect, or show a weakness in my logic, I am simply not convinced by Mr. Rosebraugh.

Civil Disobedience Has Its Uses 10.Jul.2003 20:22

Mother Of Sam

Civil Disobedience can have its uses. It can radicalize onlookers and educate them about a particular issue. It can motivate small collectives to form and develop trust and loyalty with one another. It is also a useful training process for those who want to learn how to confront violence and power. I'd like nothing better than to dismantle this oppressive system entirely. But my vision of the alternative might be different than yours, Craig. Assuming that you do have a conscience, perhaps I might have to resort to civil disobeidnece to influence you? The main problem, as I see it, is that about 75% of the people drawn to any "movement" or "issue" do it instead of therapy, a sex life, or both. It's the remaining 25% idealists that are potential radical allies. Civil disobedience gives folks a chance to sort it out for themselves, costs the city tons of overtime, and is actually fun. The pitfall is in thinking that it will actually influence those in power in any way - Craig is right - it won't. It is not the end of the path, but it's the right direction, and for those lacking in courage or vision to go beyond standard c.d., it keeps them busy and out of our hair.

so, how were the Nazi's defeated? 10.Jul.2003 20:47

Solid Gold

yep, the Nazi's weren't defeated by civil disobediance or love. they were defeated by two things, an armed resistance engaging in direct sabotage and an invading army. craig has a point, CD only gets you so far. do you know why CD will NEVER change this country? the fucking MEDIA! sure, you may light yourself on fire to protest the war, and it may make the news, FOR ABOUT A FIVE SECOND BLURB. seven seconds later, the masses will have completely forgotten your noble act. the masses have no long term memory, why else do you think that 70-80% of people think that Iraqis bombed the Twin Towers? the masses are flooded with information from the media, so they tend to filter it, and the only things that make it past that filter are whatever is broadcast unendingly to them, I.E. war coverage of our "brave" soldiers "liberating" the iraqi people. ask somebody, a co-worker or something if they remember what happened in Panama 15 years ago, and why, chances are, they will have no idea. all fascist propaganda requires is lack of memory, as long as you stay constantly focused on the present, all actions can be justified with revisionism. granted, i don't plan on getting a gun and shooting cops and judges, however, that isn't neccesary, we CAN ALL ENGAGE IN SABOTAGE. economic (buy nothing new, steal from corporations, cheat your taxes, give the police "crimestoppers" fake info, default loans, credit fraud, declaring bankruptcy, send in fake police emergencies especially during politcal actions, be the worst employee nike/ford/intel/etc has ever had costing them as much money as possible, etc, etc) there are a multitude of ways to help sabotage our economic systems which supports the political system of oppression. the more dead weight you put on the system, the better. use the system to ruin the system.

Informing the masses 10.Jul.2003 22:25


So you go out on the street and do something. Doesn't matter what. The cops come, gas and beat a few people, maybe try out some new toys. The corporate media record something happening in a corner that nobody else ever saw. And the corporate media inform the masses.

Anybody remember Rube Goldberg? His contraptions actually work, sometimes.

You want to inform the masses, you gotta find a mass, get him to turn off the TV. Talk to him.

You don't get it 11.Jul.2003 06:31


Okay, so let's assume that you're right (even though you're not) and one hundred years of Passive Resistance hasn't accomplished anything. My question is, what good has the fucking last 10,000 years of war done for human justice?

Here's a hint: Civil disobedience isn't just about changing governments. It's about changing yourself.

what is your point 11.Jul.2003 11:47


WHat are we doing? Did you know that your personal attacks on craig in response to his political statements would make Cointelpro proud? Let's play the more revolutionary than thou game, and make ourselves feel important, yay!

It seems to me that the pacifist contingent of the left has become so dogmatic, that any expression of opinion that doesn't echo the dominant pacifist line is torn down. it's not like craig's position has a huge backing here, obviously. He's not the one supressing diversity.

It also REALLY bother me that someone seems to think that a belief in political violence is a luxury that only craig as a grad student has. You might talk about genocide but do you know what it is to have you family, your land, your language, your freedom and health, decimated? How many people do you know in this situtaion, and how many are just willing to put their life back into the hand of the system that's doing this to them? Non-violence as a strategy depends on the morality of the oppressor, or the strength of martyrdom in building a social movement. I am from a small, poor, indegenious community, and I know for a fact that the police, FBI, DEA, and all kinds of mining and other commercial groups were COMPLETELY willing to see our community locked up, and if we fought back, killed. Even in the eye of the media. (because if the victim was brown, it must have been justified). The only solution left to many is to fight and run away.

non-violent civil disobedience may be an outlet for the need to do SOMETHING for many people, but i want to remind you that not everyone has that kind of priveldge. Many many people are fighting for our lives, and it is not about idealogy. I'd also like to remind you that slavery and other phantoms of a living hell exist in this state, and that the worst has and will happen HERE. Reach deeper than your used to, and try to really "Unite and Resist" with someone other than your mirror image.

An excellent article on this subject by Paul D'Amato 11.Jul.2003 14:28



Violence does not necessarily degrade those who use it. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass believed that when an escaped slave used force to prevent a slave-catcher from forcibly returning him to bondage, he or she was helping to lift slaves up from both their physical and mental bondage. It was the persistent lack of resistance in the face of unremitting oppression that had the most morally degrading influence on the oppressed.

"We cannot but shudder as we call to mind the horrors that have ever marked servile insurrections- we would avert them if we could; but shall the millions forever submit to robbery, to murder, to ignorance, and every unnamed evil which an irresponsible tyranny can devise, because the overthrow of that tyranny would be productive of horrors? We say not. The recoil, when it comes, will be in exact proportion to the wrongs inflicted; terrible as it will be, we accept and hope for it. The slaveholder has been tried and sentenced, his execution only waits the finish to the training of his executioners. He is training his own executioners."
-- Frederick Douglass, 1857, "Peaceful annihilation of slavery is hopeless," in Philip S. Foner, ed., abridged and adapted by Yuval Taylor, Selected Speeches and Writings (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999), p. 344.

The above 2 paragraphs are an excerpt of the article I linked to above. The civil war ended slavery through POLITICAL VIOLENCE, not protests and sit-ins. It was ended with guns, not middle-class types exercising some kind of spiritual self-help project. Who here think that slavers were moral and would respect the self-sacrifice of people they considered idiots?

Craig is Spot on 21.Aug.2003 04:21

Ted Kandinsky

Great Article about the utter futility of the methods of this ignorant uneducated mass of Moron Activists. Imagine,, there was someone who thinks having rough hands from menial work is somehow indicitive of knowledge of The Truth!!(Like the ghetto Myth that Reality is in Squalor and the "Street") What Absurd notions the imbecile class have!!!!(This is the Real Class Struggle-Smart versus Stupid) The Fact is,, it really is Hopeless. Lau TSu realized this 2500 years Ago. So Did Heraclitus. All the others that resisted the Planet of the APEs Game Plan of Nihilistic destruction got Killed. Accept it Metaphysical Pussies:"GOD" got hold of a bad Rock. 95% of Humanity are Born Botched under an Ontological threshhold of Evolved consciousness.(Reality is not egalitarian) This is why we are Doomed.