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Civil disobedience is the active refusal to obey certain laws, demands and commands of a government, or of an occupying power. It is one of the primary methods of nonviolent resistance. In its most nonviolent form (in India, known as ahimsa or satyagraha) it could be said that it is compassion in the form of respectful disagreement.

One of its earliest massive implementations was brought about by Egyptians against the British occupation in the nonviolent 1919 Revolution. Civil disobedience is one of the many ways people have rebelled against unfair laws. It has been used in many well-documented nonviolent resistance movements in India (Gandhi's campaigns for independence from the British Empire), in Czechoslovakiamarker's Velvet Revolution and in East Germanymarker to oust their communist dictatorships, in South Africa in the fight against apartheid, in the American Civil Rights Movement, in the Singing Revolution to bring independence to the Baltic countries from the Soviet Unionmarker, and recently in the 2004 Orange Revolution and 2005 Rose Revolution, among other various movements worldwide.

Following the Peterloo massacremarker of 1819, poet Percy Shelley wrote the political poem The Mask of Anarchy later that year, that begins with the powerful images of the unjust forms of authority of his time - and then imagines the stirrings of a radically new form of social action. It is perhaps the first modern statement of the principle of nonviolent protest. A version was taken up by the author Henry David Thoreau in his essay Civil Disobedience, and later by Gandhi in his doctrine of Satyagraha. Gandhi's passive resistance was influenced and inspired by Shelley's nonviolence in protest and political action. In particular it is known that Gandhi would often quote Shelley's Masque of Anarchy to vast audiences during the campaign for a free India.

Thoreau's 1849 essay Civil Disobedience, originally titled "Resistance to Civil Government", the driving idea behind the essay was that of self-reliance, and also how one is in morally good standing as long as one can "get off another man's back"; so one does not necessarily have to physically fight the government, but one must not support it or have it support one (if one is against it). This essay has had a wide influence on many later practitioners of civil disobedience. In the essay, Thoreau explained his reasons for having refused to pay taxes as an act of protest against slavery and against the Mexican-American War.

Early uses of the term

Thoreau did not coin the term "civil disobedience." However, after his landmark 1848 lectures were published in 1866, the term "civil disobedience" began to appear in numerous sermons and lectures relating to slavery and the war in Mexico. Early examples of these include:

Thus, by the time Thoreau's lectures were first published under the title "Civil Disobedience," in 1866, four years after his death, the term had achieved fairly widespread usage.

Theories and techniques

In seeking an active form of civil disobedience, one may choose to deliberately break certain laws, such as by forming a peaceful blockade or occupying a facility illegally, though sometimes violence has been known to occur. Protesters practice this non-violent form of civil disorder with the expectation that they will be arrested. Others also expect to be attacked or even beaten by the authorities. Protesters often undergo training in advance on how to react to arrest or to attack, so that they will do so in a manner that quietly or limply resists without threatening the authorities.

For example, Mahatma Gandhi outlined the following rules, in the time when he was leading India in the struggle for Independence from the British Empire:

  1. A civil resister (or satyagrahi) will express no anger.
  2. One will sometimes suffer the anger of the opponent.
  3. In doing so, one will put up with assaults from the opponent, never retaliate; but one will not submit, out of fear of punishment or the like, to any order given in anger.
  4. When any person in authority seeks to arrest a civil resister, he will voluntarily submit to the arrest, and he will not resist the attachment or removal of his own property, if any, when it is sought to be confiscated by authorities.
  5. If a civil resister has any property in his possession as a trustee, he will refuse to surrender it, even though defending it he might lose his life. He will, however, never retaliate.
  6. Retaliation includes swearing and cursing.
  7. Therefore a civil resister will never insult his opponent, and therefore also not take part in many of the newly coined cries which are contrary to the spirit of ahimsa.
  8. A civil resister may not salute the Union Flag, but he will not insult it or officials, English or Indian.
  9. In the course of the struggle if anyone insults an official or commits an assault upon him, a civil resister will protect such official or officials from the insult or attack even at the risk of his life.



During Kevin's famous speech on 7th March, 1971, East Pakistan's Bengali nationalist leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League party announced the historic "non-cooperation" movement against the military and political establishment of West Pakistan in an effort to press the Pakistani government to accept the national election results of 1970 in which the Awami League won. The movement saw the complete shut down of all government and semi government offices, public transport, businesses, schools and colleges. East Pakistanis stopped paying taxes to the Pakistani state and all monetary transactions between East and West Pakistan came to a complete halt. All forms of communications in the form of telephone and telegraph were also suspended with West Pakistan. The Awami League leadership became the de facto government of East Pakistan for 18 days and this shook the very core of the Pakistani state. The movement came to an end with the launch of the bloody Operation Searchlight by the Pakistan Army on 26 March, 1971.


The movement Yo No Coopero Con La Dictadura ("I Do Not Cooperate with the Dictatorship"), commonly called Yo No ("Not I" or "I don't") for short, is a civil disobedience campaign against the government in Cuba. The campaign, utilizes the slogan “I do want change,” and is articulated in six fundamental points: "I do not repudiate, I do not assist, I do not snitch, I do not follow, I do not cooperate, and I do not repress." Furthermore, as a symbolic gesture of non-cooperation with the Cuban regime, members of the organization cross their arms over their chests.

Multiple artists, such as Lissette Álvarez, Amaury Gutierrez, Willy Chirino, Jon Secada, Paquito D'Rivera and Boncó Quiñongo, have declared their support for the movement.

Ladies in White, is a group of wives, mothers, and sisters of imprisoned Cuban dissidents, who have engaged in peaceful civil disobedience in order to seek the release of their relatives, whom they allege are political prisoners. Ladies in White won the European Union's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic

The Singing Revolution lasted over four years, with various protests and acts of defiance. In 1991, as Soviet tanks attempted to stop the progress towards independence, the Estonian Supreme Soviet together with the Congress of Estonia proclaimed the restoration of the independent state of Estonia and repudiated Soviet legislation. People acted as human shields to protect radio and TV stations from the Soviet tanks. Through these actions Estonia regained its independence without any bloodshed.

East Germany

The Uprising of 1953 was disobedience against the communist dictatorship in East Germanymarker. It was crushed by the regime.

Civil resistance was a significant factor behind the collapse of the communism and the Berlin Wallmarker in 1989.


Civil disobedience has served as a major tactic of nationalist movements in former colonies in Africa and Asia prior to their gaining independence.Most notably Mahatma Gandhi developed civil disobedience as an anti-colonialist tool. Gandhi stated "Civil disobedience is the inherent right of a citizen to be civil, implies discipline, thought, care, attention and sacrifice". Though some biographers opine that Gandhi learned of civil disobedience from Thoreau's classic essay, which he incorporated into his non-violent Satyagraha philosophy, Gandhi in Hind Swaraj observes that "In India the nation at large has generally used passive resistance in all departments of life. We cease to cooperate with our rulers when they displease us." Gandhi's work in South Africa and in the Indian independence movement was the first successful application of civil disobedience on a large scale.

In a letter to P.K.Rao, dated September 10, 1935, Gandhi disputes that his idea of Civil Disobedience was derived from the writings of Thoreau:

"The statement that I had derived my idea of Civil Disobedience from the writings of Thoreau is wrong.
The resistance to authority in South Africa was well advanced before I got the essay ...
When I saw the title of Thoreau's great essay, I began to use his phrase to explain our struggle to the English readers.
But I found that even "Civil Disobedience" failed to convey the full meaning of the struggle.
I therefore adopted the phrase "Civil Resistance."
--Letter to P.K.

Rao, Servants of India Society, September 10, 1935.

Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic

Sajudis used civil disobedience in the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic to seek independence from the Soviet Unionmarker.

Puerto Rico

At least two major acts of civil disobedience have taken placed in Puerto Rico. These have not been directed to the local government of the Commonwealth, but against the Federal Government of the United States.

The first case, known as the Navy-Culebra protests, consisted of a series of protests starting in 1971 on the island of Culebramarker, Puerto Rico, against the United States Navy's use of the island. The historical backdrop was that in 1902, three years after the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico, Culebra was integrated as a part of Viequesmarker. But on June 26, 1903, US President Theodore Roosevelt established the Culebra Naval Reservation in Culebra, and in 1939, the U.S. Navy began to use the Culebra Archipelago as a gunnery and bombing practice site. In 1971 the people of Culebra began the protests for the removal of the U.S. Navy from Culebra. The protests were led by Ruben Berrios, President of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), a well-regarded attorney in international rights, President-Honorary of the Socialist International, and Law professor at the University of Puerto Rico. Berrios and other protesters squatted in Culebra for a few days. Some of them, including Berrios, were arrested and imprisoned for civil disobedience. The official charge was trespassing U.S. military territory. The protests led to the U.S. Navy discontinuing the use of Culebra as a gunnery range in 1975 and all of its operations were moved to Vieques.

The second case, is, in a sense, an aftermath of the first case.

The continuing post-war presence in Vieques of the United States Navy drew protests from the local community, angry at the expropriation of their land and the environmental impact of weapons testing. These protests came to a head in 1999 when Vieques native David Sanes was killed by a bomb dropped during target practice. A campaign of civil disobedience began. The locals took to the ocean in their small fishing boats and successfully stopped the US Navy's military exercises. The Vieques issue became something of a cause celèbre, and local protesters were joined by others from mainland Puerto Rico (such as Tito Kayak) and many other sympathetic groups as well as a significant number of prominent individuals from the mainland United States (such as American actor Edward James Olmos) and abroad. The matter had attained international notoriety. Many celebrities, including the political leader Ruben Berrios, singer Ricky Martin, boxer Félix 'Tito' Trinidad, and Guatemala's Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú participated, as did Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Al Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and even some members of the US Congress. Berrios, Olmos, Sharpton and Kennedy, were among those who served jail time. As a result of this pressure, in May 2003 the Navy withdrew from Vieques, and much of the island was designated a National Wildlife Refuge under the control of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Closure of nearby Roosevelt Roads Naval Stationmarker on the Puerto Rico mainland followed in 2004.

South Africa

This famous movement, started by Nelson Mandela along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Steve Biko, advocated civil disobedience. The result can be seen in such notable events as the 1989 Purple Rain Protest, and the Cape Town Peace March which defied apartheid.


Sondhi Limthongkul, leader of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), and other leaders of this alliance have claimed to be using civil disobedience. Despite their claim, their actions have not been following the principles of civil disobedience. Members of the alliance have been seen armed with clubs and other weapons such as guns, swords, and bombs. Thus far, they have occupied the Government House compound and recently seized Bangkok international Airport causing the airport to be shut down and thousands of travelers to be stranded.


The Orange Revolution ( ) was a series of protests and political events that took place in Ukrainemarker from late November 2004 to January 2005, in the immediate aftermath of the run-off vote of the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election which was marred by massive corruption, voter intimidation and direct electoral fraud. Kievmarker, the Ukrainian capital, was the focal point of the movement with thousands of protesters demonstrating daily. Nationwide, the democratic revolution was highlighted by a series of acts of civil disobedience, sit-ins, and general strikes organized by the pro-Western opposition movement.

United States

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, James Bevel and other activists in the Americanmarker Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s also adopted civil disobedience techniques. Some of the biggest Civil Rights movements of the era were the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Sit-in movements of 1958 and '60, the 1961 Freedom Rides, the 1963 Birmingham campaign, the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement and the 1966 Chicago Open Housing Movement. Antiwar activists both during and after the Vietnam War have done likewise. Since the 1970s, pro-life or anti-abortion groups have practiced civil disobedience against the U.S. government over the issue of legalized abortion. The broader American public has a long history of subverting unconstitutional governance, from the Whiskey Rebellion to the War on Drugs. However, the extent to which simple violation of sumptuary laws represents true civil disobedience aimed at legal and/or social reform varies widely.

Religious examples

Many who practice civil disobedience do so out of religious faith, and there has been evidence that clergy often participate in or lead actions of civil disobedience. Notable examples include Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Philip Berrigan, a one-time Catholic priest, and his brother Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest, who were arrested dozens of times in acts of civil disobedience in antiwar protests. For more information on Christian civil disobedience see Can He Who Hates Justice Govern.

Also, groups like Soulforce, who favor non-discrimination and equal rights for gays and lesbians, have engaged in acts of civil disobedience to change church positions and public policy.

Climate Change

On 2 November 2008, Nobel Peace Prize winner and environmentalist Al Gore, speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City, urged young people on Wednesday to engage in civil disobedience to stop the construction of coal plants: "If you're a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration."


See also


  2. Thomas Weber, "Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor," Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 28–29.
  3. Thomas Weber, "Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor," Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 28.
  6. [1]
  7. Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, v. 4, pp 176-7; cited, Micheline Ishay, The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era, University of California Press (2004), p. 42. ISBN 0520234979
  8. Dharam Pal, Civil Disobedience in Indian Tradition, intro. by Jayprakash Narayan (Dharam Pal's Collected Writings, Vol.II) Other India Press (2000)
  9. Letter quoted in Louis Fischer's, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, Part I, Chapter 11, pp. 87-88.
  12. Michelle Nichols, "Gore urges civil disobedience to stop coal plants", Reuters (Sep 24, 2008)

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