These days, civil disobedience is usually done in the form of a public protest among several people. It works best with acts that are (apparently) victimless crimes; if 100 people protest the war on drugs by selling crack on the steps on the capitol, they are not going to get much support.

Acts of civil disobedience need not be related to the law that is being protested...note that Thoreau didn't object to the poll tax per se, but he refused to pay as a way of protesting slavery.

The Man has gotten wise to acts of civil disobedience, and is sometimes canny enough to know when not to play along. For instance, police in Madison, WI might spend their day at the Weedstock event on the sidelines maintaining order, make a note of who is seen in posession, then quietly bust them at a later (and less public) time.

Many, in their readings of Civil Disobedience have seen the refuals by Thoreau to pay his taxes as a protest against the Mexican War and fail to see anything further in the passages. Others see just the issue of the slavery. Thoreau was protesting the Mexican War (which he saw as an extension of slavery) and slavery itself. Civil Disobedience was published in 1849, 11 years before the Civil War.

Selected Passages:

There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing;

When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote.

If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient. But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it. This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.

I have heard some of my townsmen say, "I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico - see if I would go"; and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute. The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war;

It is plain from these quotes that Henry David Thoreau was opposed to both slavery and the war in Mexico, and speaks out against both in Civil Disobedience.

What follows is an essay I had to write about Civil Disobedience for high school English class, during I think my sophomore year. I was just going through all my old stuff, found this, and decided to node it. I was a stupid high schooler then, as opposed to being just stupid now, so read it as such, and not necessarily as an essasy on Thoreau. It can't be that bad, I passed the class. I present it to you now exactly as it was submitted to my english teacher way backwhever, except I added in the hard-links.

Civil Disobedience

In the beginning, Thoreau starts off by telling us, that essentially, government is a "can't live with it, can't live without it" situation. He does admit that government can be good, in fact necessary, but Thoreau takes issue with the goodness of the very existence of government itself. He sees government as an obstacle that man will have to overcome, as "when they are ready" man will not need it anymore. Thoreau then turns his attention to the military, telling us that soldiers do not serve their country "as men", but instead as machines. Thoreau has a very special definition of what is it to be a man, and he seems especially bothered by the military, seeing it as a symbol of oppression for this country, and what makes a man not a man. What Thoreau really gets into later though, is that what makes a man not a man is not being an individual, and he tells us in the end that the ideal government will not be one that sees majorities and minorities, but one that treats each individual as they deserve. Along these lines, Thoreau tells us that "we should be men first, and subjects second".

Thoreau also writes about the concept of majority rule, providing some interesting insight into it. He claims that majority rule was not instituted because they would be the most fair, but simply because the majority has the most power, and power wins.

Another thing that Thoreau sees as making men not men, is indifference. He is very passionate about doing more than just standing up for your rights, he sees it as the goal for everybody, and that indifference is the bane of this nation. He sees good men as being one in a thousand. Indifference, according to him, is more often than not a vote for the wrong side.

Finally, Thoreau makes known his dislike of slavery, and the war in Mexico (which is a little harder to pick up) which seems to fit right in with the rest of his views. He also talks about his time in jail, and how he spent it gladly, because he believed that he should not pay taxes that finance wars. It should be noted that he has no problems with paying the other taxes, such as for the schools and roads. The whole point of this was really to highlight the importance of being an individual, and to do what is right, always searching for the best answer for yourself.

This is something I wrote a while ago, I apologise for the somewhat out of date references, but I feel that there are good points in the article nonethless.


“There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to war, who yet in effect do nothing to put and end to them; who esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they do not know what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free-trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both. What is the price-current of an honest man and a patriot today? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret.” H.D. Thoreau

It used to be that activism was a noble and honourable thing. Becoming involved in politics, or at least striving for some concept of democracy, was encouraged, even enforced as Rousseau argued for. Even today, we more or less recognize the foresight and intelligence of historical revolutionary movements and leaders such as the Abolitionists, Suffragists, the National African Congress, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr. However these days the media labels contemporary activists ‘Anarchists’, regardless of their beliefs, and sensationalizes the protests, blurring facts into indecipherable nonsense. Governments no longer permit open criticism of their policies and actions, choosing instead to push society back into the nineteenth century.

Activism implies activity, doing something to get involved in making decisions and affecting policies in one’s society. Whether this means protesting out in the streets, writing letters, boycotts, or joining a political party all require some thought and conscious action. Activity promotes involvement in our communities and neighbourhoods, activity creates a more democratic society by ensuring that everyone’s views are heard. Activity requires people to care about our neighbourhoods, our environment, and humanity. Activity is by nature contrary to apathy, which is the same thing as indifference.

Over the last few years there has been a resurgence of activist movements. Some scholars will argue that calls for revolt and change increase when the people become desperate. We ARE desperate. What with government controlled unemployment rates, increased corporate globalization, environmental disaster, and inequality galore, just to name a few, the people are becoming active.

The activist movement gained new support in Canada during the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) Summit in 1997. What began as protest against Human Rights violations escalated into something much more when Indonesian President Suharto asked that Prime Minister Chretien guarantee that there would be no protests to embarrass him while in Canada. Eventually, Chretien declared the entire campus of the University of British Colombia (UBC) a “Charter-free zone” in order to keep protesters away. What this meant was that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would not apply to anyone on UBC property, including those students that lived in residence, and anyone working at the university. This showed to what extent our government was willing to go to keep activism quieted. Thus, activity that is not succumbing to apathy is being suppressed by those in control.

This same level of control over citizens’ participation in the decision making process was seen at the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) meeting in Seattle, at Queen’s Park in Toronto, at the WTO in Prague, at the G-20 summit in Montreal, and in other unexpected places like the Olympics where governments must promise to prevent all protests while the Olympics are happening. It can be argued that this is part of an increasing trend toward globalization, smaller governments, less social spending, and corporate control of politics.

However, citizens are still the most powerful members of a nation. Activism involves many forms of civil disobedience. Be it Ghandi’s Satyagraha or what the world calls ‘Passive Resistance’, or Malcolm X’s declaration, “By any means necessary.” Civil disobedience and activism ensures that ALL of our concerns are heard and considered before laws are passed, before spending is cut, and before our governments take us back into the nineteenth century when business and money controlled everything, and people had to fight very hard to get minimum wages, shorter work weeks, no child labour, and the weekend.

Civil disobedience is also important during international discussions about free trade, at the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in April 2001; and about the environment, the intergovernmental negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol in the Hague right now. About globalization and loss of national control over quality and safety standards, at any WTO convention or G-7/8/20 meeting; and especially at political conventions like we saw this summer in the US. As citizens are increasingly being excluded from these sorts of important decisions we will see people take to the streets in order to be heard.

There is no end to activism as long as we live in a society that has government. This is especially true in the West where we try to create a democratic system in which to live. With the Federal elections coming up at the end of this month activism and civil disobedience become even more important. It is after all the citizens who can control the politicians, if we are willing to stand up and say something and give our Members of Parliament some direction. This does not just mean merely voting, but talking with politicians to ensure that they understand what is important to all of us, especially the students. Otherwise, we might as well sign over our Charter to the corporations and let them tear it apart.

What is civil disobedience? the question is not terribly simple. for example most people would agree that Martin Luther King’s sit ins at “white only” restaurants constituted civil disobedience. Burning a draft card is an act of civil disobedience. What criteria do these acts need to meet?

Civil Disobedience Is:
-enacted for what the protester considers to be the common good

That is, if I’m protesting peacefully and I have obtained a city permit for my protest and I break no laws that is not civil disobedience. That’s civic action, that is it’s not illegal. If, while protesting I’m harassed and get in a fist fight with someone that is not civil disobedience, that is civic action gone haywire, that is, it was not premeditated. If I’m protesting peacefully and I start marching in the street and this is illegal, but I didn’t know that-- that is not civil disobedience, it’s not deliberate. That’s being ignorant of the law.

Likewise, if I grow tobacco in my back yard and sell it to the neighbourhood kids that is not civil disobedience. That’s being a soft drug dealer. If I wanted to protest the laws that prevent me from selling tobacco to kids, I’d need to notify the press to make the act public.

If I refuse to pay my taxes, not because I think the tax is unjust, or because I object to the way my tax dollars are used, but, simply because I want to buy a CD player That’s not civil disobedience. That’s selfishness, it’s not (even in my own eyes) for the “public good.”

Civil disobedience should be the last resort for a political activist. Actually, it’s the second to last. The real last resort is a revolution.

The heart of civil disobedience is refusing to obey an unjust law, and hence forcing the state to openly display the violence that is inherent in the unjust law. Ultimately the point of the act of civil disobedience is to force the state to use force against you to make you comply, and so highlight the yawning gap between law and objective justice which you believe to exist. This was the genius of Gandhi's nonviolent resistance, in which his supporters gladly marched into beatings because they knew that by so immolating themselves they could eventually win over the opinion of their oppressors, who tired of killing innocent men much more quickly than they would have tired of overseeing people who were passive in the face of the laws.

Civil disobedience hence presupposes a system that is open to change and able to be influenced, and it works best when public opinion can be swayed to pity the plight of the oppressed. I could demonstrate my disobedience to the law against murder by killing a man, but I am unlikely to arouse sympathy; and civil disobedience usually distinguishes itself from activism in that it involves me refusing to discharge an unfair obligation, such as the draft, rather than actively seeking rules to break that I could just as easily leave unbroken.

The ultimate genius of civil disobedience lies in the fact that the individual carrying it out is presumably of some use to the oppressor, but he robs the latter of his own usefulness by the act of disobedience. To take the example of the British in India, the natives were of use to the British because they allowed them to glory in the extent of their dominions and derive economic and military benefits from them; but by refusing to live as slaves and instead sacrificing their own lives, Gandhi's men robbed the British of the prize of ruling over them. After all, no-one can derive benefit from ruling dead men. However, one can only imagine what would have happened if the Jews had decided to use such tactics to contest the Nazis on a large scale, which is yet another reason that their regime is viewed as having constituted a unique evil.

Civil disobedience is a potent form of power under the right conditions because it can stand up so readily against violence. It cannot beat violence in a pitched battle, but it does not have to precisely because it robs violence of its legitimacy. It takes a unique and rare evil to inflict violence on a massive scale against a people who do not fight back, but merely consent to have it inflicted on them; and such an evil is much rarer in this world than the common, banal oppression that lies behind the routine enforcement of unjust laws. For the oppressed, non-violent civil disobedience is a force multiplier, a way to remain right in the eyes of their contemporaries and history by giving all they have and taking nothing but punishment. Such a profound human capacity has so rarely been expressed fully that every story of it still touches us.

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