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Civil Disobedience: The Only "Weapon" We Have Remaining?

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Mario Cuomo, commenting on the political process, once observed, "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose." Though candidates for public office frequently campaign on a platform of change, when elected, promises remain unfulfilled and what they inevitably deliver is more of the same. Beholden to the special interests and the Super PACS, they govern solely in the interest of the wealthy and the privileged, and remain blatantly unresponsive to the general will, the needs of the majority of the people, and to the dictates of law and morality.   Consequently, respected social commentators such as Chris Hedges , Noam Chomsky , Daniel Ellsberg , Cornell West and others have argued that our system of government is broken. Perhaps as a perceptive and realistic appraisal of the current political situation in this nation or as an expression of frustration with the lack of progress achieved after many years of activism they have concluded that if change is to occur, if justice and morality are to prevail, activists can no longer be content supporting one political party or another or with picking up a sign and participating in a demonstration. Rather activists must ratchet up the frequency and scope of nonviolent direct action -- civil disobedience. Chris Hedges proclaims, "Civil disobedience is the only weapon we have left to save not only the ecosystem that sustains life but the nation itself. Corporate forces, unregulated, unfettered corporate forces exploit everything; human beings, the natural world, until exhaustion or collapse."

Is the situation in this nation so dire that civil disobedience is the only recourse remaining, the final option? Can we expect civil disobedience to accomplish what voting, demonstrating, etc., could not? Most importantly, perhaps, should civil disobedience prove ineffective as well, must activists admit that further struggle for justice is futile and the prospect of non violent change unlikely? To answer these questions, it will be necessary to consider in some detail the nature of civil disobedience and the conditions required for it to be effective.


by World Can't Wait

Civil Disobedience (CD)

Though not all acts of refusal and noncooperation will fit nicely into one of the following categories, for purposes of explication I will identify two types of civil disobedience, and then focus upon the one most relevant to social activism. What I term "Private CD " are acts of personal, non public, non compliance with law or policy one determines to be unjust and/or immoral. Acts of Private CD may be motivated by a perceived legal and/or moral obligation to act rightly, to live in accordance with one's principles and the dictates of one's conscience. Henry Thoreau writes, " The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right." Dr. Martin Luther King sees civil disobedience not as a choice, but an obligation. He writes, ". . . non cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good." Though indicative, perhaps, of one's moral character and integrity, since Private CD are acts of personal defiance known only to the civil disobedient, it has little, if any, social value as a means to implement change in the state.

Civil disobedience as social activism, what I will term "Public CD," are acts of public non compliance with a law or policy intended to focus attention and raise awareness regarding a social/political injustice for the purpose of creating "tension," perhaps even outrage, and a public outcry and demand for change. Dr. King explains,

Non-violent direct action (Public CD) seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. (Italics mine) [1]

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The Necessary Criteria for Effective Public CD

Unjust/immoral law or policy can be the consequence of either a willful criminal act or of a yet unnoticed mistake, oversight, or misinterpretation of law by legislators and/or policy makers. For Public CD to be an effective tool for remedying injustice, several necessary criteria must be satisfied. First, effective Public CD requires that both the occurrence of the act and the civil disobedient's legal and moral reason/justification for her actions are made public. This requires, of course, an independent, competent, responsible, and in this day and age, courageous media/press that will accurately report the event, rigorously investigate, and make public whether the civil disobedient's allegations regarding the injustice/immorality of the law/policy have merit. Second, effective Public CD requires a citizenry concerned with issues of justice and morality. That once made aware, they would likewise be outraged and motivated to speak out and demand that the crime, misinterpretation, mistake, or oversight be rectified. Third, effective Public CD requires that principled political leaders put justice and morality before personal, corporate, and national interest, recognize and take responsibility for their oversight or mistake, and initiate appropriate changes in law and/or policy. For those unprincipled political leaders whose actions are criminal, effective Public CD requires that they yield to the public outcry and to the demands for justice by those they represent.


Before Recommending Civil Disobedience

The law is clear regarding the legality of policies such as indefinite detention without charge or trial in places like Guantanamo and Baghram, extraordinary rendition, warrantless wiretaps, torture, preventive war, occupation, Disposition Matrix (kill lists), targeted assassinations, drone attacks, etc. Consequently, these acts and policies are not misinterpretations of law, nor are they oversights or mistakes. Rather they are willful violations of treaties, Conventions, international, domestic, and moral law intended to enhance the profit, power, and interests of the ruling elite and their corporate benefactors. I know for some, civil disobedience, getting arrested, has become an activist's badge of honor, a rite of passage. However, we live in an era in which the President has claimed authority under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to imprison and assassinate without due process, with no transparency or accountability, even American citizens he deems a threat (however interpreted), in which a paramilitary police force is empowered to violently suppress protest and dissent, and in which acts of civil disobedience are designated as terrorism and civil disobedients as terrorists. [2] Consequently, before advising activists to place themselves at risk of long term incarceration, personal injury, even death, it would be prudent and responsible to determine whether Public CD's necessary criteria for effecting change can be met g iven the social and political environment in which we live.

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The Press/Media Coverage Criterion: Tragically for our "democracy," responsible mainstream reporting and investigative journalism has compliantly succumbed to the pressure and influence of manipulative politicians and corporate power brokers. As was evident during the buildup to the Iraq War, the corporate-controlled media/press not only ignored questions of legality and failed to investigate the need and justification for war, but happily and enthusiastically embraced its role as cheerleader. By failing to credibly investigate and report the findings of those who adamantly disagreed with Bush/Cheney's claim regarding weapons of mass destruction [3] in Iraq, by cooperating with efforts to quiet, discredit, and even endanger the lives of activists and/or of those who spoke truth to power, and by under- and/or misreporting the occurrence and magnitude of demonstrations and acts of Public CD opposing the war, the mainstream media/press became a co-conspirator, part of the problem rather than of the solution. As illustrative of this unholy alliance, consider what has become known as the CIA Leak Case .

"Joseph Wilson is the husband of Valerie Plame, a covert CIA operative who was unmasked in July 2003 by columnist Robert D. Novak, after Wilson criticized President Bush for stating that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein bought nuclear weapons-grade uranium in the African nation of Niger."

To punish Wilson for exposing Bush Administration lies in its rush to war with Iraq and as a deterrent to others who may be contemplating similar truth telling, Novak utilized his status as journalist to commit treason by revealing the identity of a covert CIA agent. In doing so, he not only compromised Plame's mission, but recklessly endangered her life and the lives of other operatives and informants who may have worked with her.

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Camillo "Mac" Bica, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, a long-time activist for peace and justice, a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the coordinator of the Long Island Chapter of Veterans for Peace. His books include "Beyond PTSD: The Moral (more...)

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