Saturday, February 28, 2009

Civil Resistance Rather than Civil Disobedience

Excerpt: we reiterate the importance of using appropriate language. Those of us with experience have a duty to mentor those who are just now contemplating acts of resistance. And when we act, we engage in civil resistance.

By Max Obuszewski | Inside the Belly of the Beltway Beast

In 2002, the Iraq Pledge of Resistance was formed to prevent a war with Iraq. While we failed, we continued to engage in nonviolent direct action to end the war and the occupation. Eventually, the group, in expanding its focus, became the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance [NCNR].

In light of the massive Capitol Climate Action on March 2nd, we would like to take the opportunity to describe what we as a campaign have committed ourselves to. We celebrate this opportunity to share our thoughts with other progressive activists.

As a group with lots of direct action experience, NCNR has consistently encouraged organizations and individuals to recognize the difference between civil disobedience and civil resistance. We see the difference as being important in the struggle for nonviolent, positive social change.

The classic definition of civil disobedience, as practiced by the civil rights movement, is the breaking of an unjust law with the intent of changing it. In Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, Rosa Parks broke an immoral law when she refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white person.

It is rare for today's activists to do "civil disobedience," as it removes the onus from the government to prove a defendant was engaged in criminal activity. Doing CD can cause a majority of the people to plead guilty and pay a protest tax. Doing CD eliminates the argument that the government, or a corporate entity, is the lawbreaker.

Today, NCNR activists engage in civil resistance, which means taking action to uphold the law. For example, we repeatedly challenged the Bush/Cheney government which disavowed the rule of law.

Using the term civil resistance is important for several reasons. First, in every statement about an action we point out that a government, or a corporate entity, is breaking the law. Second, we stress our Nuremberg obligation to act against the government's lawbreaking. Finally, there is the matter of speaking in court after the action. A defendant who states s/he was engaged in civil disobedience not only is pleading guilty, but is letting the
government off the hook for its failure to prosecute the real criminals.

If we are arrested, we encourage participants to go to trial and then use the courtroom to state that the action was lawful since its intent was to expose actual violations of the law—starting an illegal war, torturing prisoners or destroying the environment.

In court, we point out citizens have a Nuremberg obligation. At the Nuremberg trials, the court determined that citizens must challenge the government when it breaks the law.

Using the term civil disobedience today can confuse activists new to resistance. An activist would assume first that the rationale is to get arrested in order to change the law, and second that one is guilty as charged.

Reporters and prosecutors will make the case, you wanted to get arrested. No, the intent of the person involved in civil resistance was to end torture or to close down a nuclear power plant or to uphold the Constitution. One reason a prosecutor asks such a question is that most charges have a "mens rea" [guilty mind] component to the charge. The government will argue that the defendant's intent was to get arrested. No, the intent, for example, was to try to get a meeting with a senator who voted to fund an illegal war.

On January 3, 2008 twelve activists arrested on September 15, 2007 outside the Capitol had their case dismissed. Over 180 people arrested that day plead guilty and paid a citation fee. Once the case came to court, it became evident that the police line was illegal. If possible, activists should take these "open and shut" cases to court. Not only did the Bush administration break innumerable laws, but police consistently violate First Amendment rights. Even if one is found guilty after engaging in an act of civil resistance, an absurdity can become obvious: prosecute an activist who stated the war is illegal, but ignore the criminality rampant in the Bush administration.

In closing, we reiterate the importance of using appropriate language. Those of us with experience have a duty to mentor those who are just now contemplating acts of resistance. And when we act, we engage in civil resistance.

For more on the various arguments and concerns regarding the movement to establish a Special Prosecutor for War Crime Investigation and related issues, please go here

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