From civil disobedience to civil defiance

by Ed Kinane

“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves…[and] the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”
— Howard Zinn

Over the years I’ve been jailed numerous times.  Each such event arose from what is loosely called “civil disobedience.”

The tactical value of arrest and ensuing “court witness” and “prison witness” is that they can generate news helping to bring vital, often neglected, issues to public notice. These mindful acts can boost solidarity and the grassroots campaigns in which they are embedded.

At a personal level, court and trial witness help us keep our “edge,” maintain our focus, clarify our values. Such public stands impede co-optation. Court witness provides the opportunity to craft trial statements articulating why one has taken part in a given direct action. These can be published, reaching well beyond the courtroom.

Those willing to go this route are often deeply affected. For privileged white folks it’s eye-opening to expose ourselves to the “justice” system of this overly-incarcerating nation. Given the disproportionate numbers of people of color in every jail and prison, any conscious person can’t help but be impressed by this underside of the stark and systemic racism of our society.

Thanks in large part to court and prison witness, one grassroots organization I’ve long worked with has grown by leaps and bounds.  Determined to expose and close the Pentagon’s School of the Americas – a.k.a. the “School of Assassins” – more than 200 SOA Watch activists over the years have willingly endured trial and incarceration. Inspired by them, each November thousands from all over the country converge on Ft. Benning, Georgia to protest the SOA there for fostering large-scale bloodshed and human rights abuse in Latin America.  (In response to our persistent pressure the SOA has undergone a PR makeover: it has changed its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation/ WHINSEC.)

Most of us vote. However, merely voting is tokenistic. It’s getting a free ride, not paying our fare. It’s not doing our part to neutralize the toxic power structure impacting everyone the U.S. imperium touches, i.e. the entire planet. Democracy is far more than voting and elections; democracy must be struggled for. Each nonviolent direct action (“civil disobedience”) is a vote multiplied many times over. If more middle class citizens would risk arrest and incarceration for nonviolent acts of solidarity and conscience, ours might well be a better nation, a better world.

Many of us have valid reasons not to risk arrest. But some of us are in a position to take the plunge…or we’re in a position to make changes in our life style or circumstances so we can risk arrest and its consequences when that imperative calls. In any case we can actively support those nonviolently taking such risk. Bradley Manning, the young soldier who allegedly provided Wikileaks with secret files exposing – among much else — US military massacres of civilians in Iraq, is deeply at risk. For nearly a year Bradley – perhaps the premier patriot of our day — has languished in Abu Ghraib-like conditions in the Quantico Marine base brig. For his whistleblowing he faces possible execution.


The recent events in Tunisia and Egypt have much to teach us. These North Africans embody what Gandhi taught:  when enough of us withdraw our cooperation from it, tyranny crumbles. Tyranny can’t be sustained if good people refuse to go along. To avoid or remove tyranny we need to cultivate the will to disobey, the will to defy.

“Civil disobedience” isn’t the best term for what’s been happening in Cairo and elsewhere throughout the Islamic world — and in Wisconsin.  More apt and bracing is “civil defiance.” “Civil” because it involves citizens acting civilly, i.e. nonviolently. That Cairenes may ignore curfew and crowd control orders (i.e. they disobey) is less relevant than that they have collectively risked life and limb to oust Mubarak. And that they continue to do so in the face of his military successors.

“Civil defiance” is the term embraced by Harvard’s Gene Sharp.  Sharp’s tally of 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action is reprinted in the appendix of his seminal 93-page From Dictatorship to Democracy, fourth U.S. edition, May 2010 (orig. 1993). This how-to manual has been translated into many languages – including Arabic — and is downloadable free from the Albert Einstein Institution website,  Sharp isn’t just about the grassroots mobilizing to depose a tyrant; Sharp seeks to assure that the tyrant isn’t replaced by another tyrannical regime – a common fate of palace coups and violent revolution. Not to mention outside interventions.

Egyptian activists have likely read From Dictatorship. We also would do well to study it to understand not only the rise of people power throughout the Middle East…but to better see how together we too might counter any moves toward tyranny here.

Ed was recently arrested – along with over 30 others — at Quantico protesting – along with hundreds of others — Bradley Manning’s captivity. Reach him at