Civil Disobedience: The Good vs. The Bad

How Is It Most Effective, and Will We Need to Resort To It?

(Posted 8-25-2015)

The number of Americans demanding reform is rapidly growing. In fact, the numbers of Americans calling for extremely obstructive civil disobedience and even violent revolution is growing. So this article is intended to intercede and offer a reasonable point of view to help cooler heads prevail.

The message on this site suggests that ultimately the people will be liberated and empowered by a comprehensive Reformation of their government, and that will occur as the ultimate result of a peaceful grass roots populist movement driven by ordinary Americans who object to a government that does not represent or serve their interests, but instead serves the interest of the wealthiest few.

However, since such a Reformation can take place only by legal means through a Constitutional Convention, that will not take place easily. Since it cannot happen legally without the approval of two-thirds of both houses of Congress or at the request of the legislatures of at least two-thirds of the states, it will not happen until a grass roots populist movement becomes so large that it becomes very apparent that it represents the will of the majority of the people.

That will probably not happen without some form of civil disobedience, because it is civil disobedience that attracts television news cameras. Therefore, all those who desire peace, freedom and justice should examine what kind of civil disobedience is the most effective.

The academic term Civil Disobedience is usually defined as it was advocated by Henry David Thoreau, and the idea he shared could be summed up by saying that citizens should do whatever is necessary to stop their government from overruling their collective consciences, or denying their rights or perpetrating wrongful acts or permitting injustices. If government does any of those things, citizens should try to stop it, even if they have to resort to civil disobedience to do so.

When Thoreau wrote about that in 1849, he was motivated by his objection to the U.S. Government’s failure to prohibit slavery, and to its waging an unjust war over a Mexican-American border. However, while that was the context in which he wrote, there was a wider and greater context as well, because Thoreau was actually expressing the same independent, democratic spirit that was expressed by America’s Founders in 1776, perhaps most notably by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

Of course, both Jefferson and Adams were writing about much more than civil disobedience in 1776. By the time they declared that it was the right and duty of the people to alter and reform their government (and even to abolish it and establish new government if need be), the civil disobedience of Americans had already escalated to the point of revolution. So they wrote to justify it and provide the rationale for it.

Today, the situation is different. Even though Americans definitely need to alter and reform their government to liberate and empower ourselves, civil disobedience need not escalate so far as revolution to accomplish that. In fact, we may not even need to resort to civil disobedience, if enough people recognize that there is a legal avenue with which to establish meaningful, comprehensive constitutional reforms through Article 5 provisions.

However, if resistance and even civil disobedience becomes necessary, we all should keep in mind that in an interview in The Nation , Erica Chenoweth, a leading scholar of authoritarian regimes, says that her research shows that nonviolent campaigns were nearly twice as effective as armed campaigns over the past century. In her book, Why Civil Resistance Works, she compiled 323 cases of nonviolent and violent campaigns in order to assess which were more successful in achieving their stated goals of regime change. Chenoweth says that along with using nonviolent campaigns or movements, the most effective variable in toppling a dictator is the number of people participating in a movement. She also concludes that many more people—and more diverse groups of people—participate in nonviolent campaigns than in activities perceived to be violent, and this means nonviolence is not merely a moral choice for an individual, but a strategic necessity for a movement.

Keep that in mind, because if we are smart, and if those wielding the police and military power do not over-react, we will be able to use the legal means available to us, peacefully.

The problem is that the legal avenue will not be open to us unless and until we, the people, convince elected legislators to open it. Therefore, if legal, permissible boycotts, protests and demonstrations do not convince them to do so, we need to be prepared to use civil disobedience as a last resort. If that becomes necessary, we not only have to be prepared to use civil disobedience, we have to be prepared to use it in the nonviolent ways that have proven to be the most effective.

The Best Example of Effective Civil Disobedience

Americans should remember or learn that it was in the independent, democratic spirit expressed by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams that Martin Luther King, Jr. resorted to civil disobedience in the 1960s. But we should remember that King assumed leadership of the Civil Rights movement not to start a revolution to overthrow the government. Rather, he assumed leadership to merely protest government’s complicity in wrongdoing, and to help the voice of the people grow so loud and powerful that government would have to correct the terrible wrongs that it was either perpetrating or permitting.

The Reverend Doctor King resorted to civil disobedience to oppose racial apartheid, segregation, repression and oppression (and he later opposed the unjust and ill-advised war in Vietnam). But King’s civil disobedience was non-violent. Its purpose was to speak truth to power honestly and frankly, regardless of the consequences. It was not designed or intended to provoke anger or retaliation. It simply asserted a collective demand for fairness and justice, by organizing boycotts, sit-ins and mass marches, and it refused to obey laws that were unfair and unjust.

Even before King became the leader of the Civil Rights movement, the spirit of the movement was reflected in its humble beginnings. For example, Rosa Parks politely but with righteous confidence refused to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. And in 1960 four black students politely but righteously and confidently dared to sit at a segregated lunch counter in a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro.

That was civil disobedience at its best, because it didn’t hurt anyone or even cause much inconvenience to anyone (except the protesters). It merely ignored traditional societal “norms” because they were racist and wrong. It didn’t accept those norms, or the status quo.

More importantly, the spirit of that movement grew enormously because it was completely righteous. It was the right thing to do, and it was necessary. That’s why the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s became a concerted movement that garnered immense support from millions of black and white people all over America. And because of that, it achieved much success.

For example, the 1963 Freedom March On Washington was attended by some 250,000 people who heard Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and the march, gathering and speech was so effective it pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which President Kennedy had been working on in 1963 before he was assassinated. That Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and it ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation, in schools, at the workplace, and by facilities that served the general public.

Then, in 1965, when authorities in Alabama remained stubborn and defiant and refused to obey the laws in that Act, the Freedom Marches from Selma to Montgomery began. And, after a bloody beginning, they too succeeded, as much as was possible at the time.

At first, of course, the police in Selma reacted violently to the Freedom Marchers. There was a blood bath as passive, non-violent marchers were clubbed and beaten by police. But the Freedom Marchers persisted. They did not let rioting police stop them, and they succeeded because by then the whole world was watching by television. And as the Freedom Marchers gathered together at the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, most of the people in the world applauded.

That was Civil Disobedience that made a difference. In fact, the whole Civil Rights movement of the 1960s made a difference because it produced many good outcomes. And as years went by it at least enabled many black Americans who were gifted with beauty or talent or skill or education to rise to positions of affluence, and ultimately even to positions of power.

Unfortunately, most Americans did not see what was looming ahead.


The Rise of Reactionary Obstacles

In 1973 Southern racism exhibited itself in a new way when a Southern rock band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, defiantly displayed the Confederate flag on concert stages where they sang a song called Sweet Home Alabama, which has lyrics that had a dual purpose. On one hand it blatantly and defiantly dismissed and rejected criticism of Southern racism, and on the other hand it appealed to Southerners’ pride in their homeland.

The lyrics mentioned a notable progressive, Neil Young, by name, because he had condemned Southern racism in his song titled Southern Man. In that song Neil sang “Southern Man, better keep your head. Don’t forget what your good book says. Southern change gonna come at last. Now your crosses are burning fast, Southern Man.” So Lynyrd Skynyrd got personal and sang “I hope Neil Young will remember, a southern man don't need him around any how.”

But that’s not all. Their song also sang in support of the racial segregationist Governor, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon. Specifically, the song says: “In Birmingham they love the Gov'nor. Now we all did what we could do. Now Watergate does not bother me. Does your conscience bother you?”

This was quite a defiant song, implying that Southerners should not feel guilty or let their conscience bother them. In effect, Lynyrd Skynard was thumbing its nose at the Civil Rights movement and everyone else who was critical of Southern racism and apartheid. And their song even threw in approval of Richard Nixon even after the Watergate scandal.

These days, of course, many people simply ignore that part of the lyrics, and they like the song because appeals to Southern Pride.
Indeed, the song Sweet Home Alabama helped to spark a Southern Pride Movement, and it was very successful. Over the decades since it written it helped significantly in gradually spawning the Neo-Confederacy and New Dixie movement, which behind the scenes is very nostalgic for days of the Antebellum South prior to the Civil War.

However, in public and on television the Southern Pride movement is presented as if it is purely a patriotic and religious movement, which is why it has been successful in mainstream media, in television shows and in movies. It has brought Southerners into the spotlight in many respects -- usually in conservative, right-wing political ways — through the political rhetoric of of Southern televangelists, politicians, television personalities, celebrities, and movie actors who espouse right-wing views.

It has been successful because the Southern Pride movement merged with the Neo-Confederacy movement, and in the 1980s it merged with a concerted movement combining Reaganism, Libertarianism, and right-wing conservative evangelical “Christian” Dominionism, all of which in the political arena are cloaked in a “patriotic and religious” guise.

That right-wing movement completely avoids revealing or showing any hint of racism or class distinctions. In fact, it is touted as being driven by “the people,” and since the 1980s its proponents thump their bible as they wave the flag.

Its hero and champion is the late Ronald Reagan, or, more accurately, the image of Ronald Reagan that Reaganites have carefully built over the last three decades. That is why, after several decades of pushing right-wing Reaganite propaganda with all its trimmings, that whole movement has succeeded.

It is what controls the U.S. Government.

How It Stands Now, and How to Progress Forward

In 2015 most Americans either don’t think about that background or they are simply not aware of it. They are not aware of the impact of Reaganism or Ronald Reagan’s Real Legacy. All they know is what is painfully apparent to most Americans — that all three branches of the U.S. Government have failed the majority of the people in order to favor and provide entitlement and privileges to the wealthiest few.

That fact has now become obvious to the great majority, even though the great majority is obviously not yet aware of exactly how and why things got this bad, or how bad things really are for many Americans.

Even the widely announced fact that about 20 percent of American children suffer from the consequences of poverty doesn’t seem to register. It is as if most Americans are in denial, in spite of all the evidence of how bad things have become -- not only regarding racism, but regarding income disparity, inequality, social injustice, climate change, militarism, war, and all the other terrible things from which we suffer.

Why is that? Well, it is because the cunning propaganda of Reaganism and The Reaganite “Gospel of Prosperity” has thoroughly convinced mainstream America of its “rightness,” and most Americans are not yet aware of just how wrong America has become.

That is why most Americans need to awaken to the truth and learn how we the people can fix it, because there are innovative legal ways to demand and establish needed reforms. And whether you start with emails or social media online, or local community political action, or more nationally oriented efforts, we can begin a grassroots populist movement that will grow and even culminate in another huge March On Washington For Freedom and Justice.

Granted, it may turn out that such a movement may have to include civil disobedience. However, if that is the case, we should be very cognizant of how we should proceed.

If legal ways fail or are insufficient and we are forced to resort to civil disobedience, it should be in the same non-violent, peaceful way that Martin Luther King, Jr. espoused — the way of the peaceful, passive martyr who speaks truth to power regardless of the consequences — the way of Jesus of Nazareth, the Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi, and Reverend Doctor King.

That is the best way, because it makes observers sympathetic to the demonstrators’ cause. It does not give police any excuse for being violent. And, if police do react with violence, it exposes their unfairness and blatant abuse of power.

Of course, we also need to be cognizant of how and why our situation now is different than it was in the 1960s. After all, the commercial network news media is now biased in favor of government (even though and even when it is wrong), and the law enforcement and criminal justice system has been rigged — just as the whole political economic system has been rigged — in favor of the wealthiest few and to the detriment of the great majority, and especially to the detriment of the working poor and poor minority populations.

That is why a populist movement to liberate and empower us, the people, must be based not only on an educated assessment of the present reality, but also on an educated view of the past, and an educated view of how a brighter future may be established.


What Reaganism and The Neo-Confederacy Has Wrought

The truth is that under the Reaganite Police State, protesters and demonstrators are at risk. And while we can mitigate that risk by obeying all laws and ordinances and being smart about speaking truth to those in power, it will help if we fully understand how and why we are in this predicament.

The American law enforcement and the criminal justice systems are rigged in large part because in 1984, in order to quell and discourage dissent, and ostensibly to establish "law and order," President Ronald Reagan produced the unforgiving and inflexible legislation known as the Comprehensive Crime Control Act.

“Big Brother” laid down the law as he thought it should be, and he was able to do it because he had been very carefully groomed as a charming television pitch man who could disguise the fact that he was a right-wing partisan ideologue, and instead appear as a fellow citizen who wanted the best for you. That is why he became Governor of California and President of the United States.

Reagan managed to recruit many co-sponsors for the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, including many Southern Democrats along with Republicans, so the Act could be considered a bi-partisan effort. However, it was really Reagan's initiative, and it was actually his weapon against progressive dissent and protest because he didn’t want any more demonstrations like there were throughout the 1960s.

In fact, when he became president, Reagan still deeply resented the protesters of the 1960s, and his wrath toward them had been demonstrated blatantly in Berkeley in 1969 when as Governor of California he shut down protests and demonstrations by ordering police violence against those who demonstrated. He even lied about protest leaders, saying they were “against the American way of life” even though they were merely advocating free speech. And in fact, Reagan said “If there has to be a bloodbath, then let's get it over with."

That was the intolerant, unforgiving, tyrannical mentality that created the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. And while it was viewed by many as good "law and order" legislation, it was actually an indicator of the failure of government to serve and represent all the people.
The truth is that dissent and even crime and violence in a society are indicators of a failed government, and the U.S. Government failed because it refused to establish fairness, equity and justice for all the people.

But, rather than admit and correct the real problems, Reagan simply blamed protesters and the victims of injustice, and he established a more rigid and harsh criminal justice system, enlarged, strengthened and militarized police forces, and made prisons bigger and more punitive. That’s what most failed governments do. They become tyrannical while pretending to be motivated by patriotism and religiosity.

That is basically what the U.S. Government has done, especially since 1984, and Reagan's Comprehensive Crime Control Act has proven disastrous and detrimental to the majority. We all suffer from its impact and consequences, which have led not only to the current state of unrest and conflict, but also to blatant abuses of power by law enforcement officials.

That is because Reagan's Act established both procedural and substantive laws that are terribly unfair and continue to haunt the administration of federal criminal justice in America. It severely restricts the discretion of judges and results in terribly unfair prescribed minimum sentences. That’s why the prison population quadrupled since 1984 and includes a disproportionate percentage of black and brown males. And since Reagan’s "War on Drugs" legislation also called for mandatory minimum sentences for all drug related offenses, there are now many people in prison who should not be there. That’s why in America, a greater percentage of citizens are in prison than in any other country in the world.

That’s because Reagan refused to focus on social justice issues or crime prevention and intervention, which would have helped our society. He refused to see that for every dollar invested in crime prevention and intervention, four dollars are saved and don’t have to be spent on law enforcement and punishment. Because he was grossly misguided, he focused on control, law enforcement and punishment.

Reagan’s “law and order” legislation funneled a whole lot of money to equip police forces, not only with highly advanced weaponry and hardware, but also with armor plated vehicles and "riot control" gear, to deal with protesters. The inevitable result, which has been building for 30 years, is what many Americans are now calling a Police State, especially since President Bush’s Patriot Act was added to it, and President Obama has done little to make it better.

The result has produced a law enforcement system in which local police and federal agents of various agencies often get carried away with their power, and they are not ashamed of doing so. In fact, because the whole system has been prejudiced and corrupted, it even allows officers who commit murder to avoid appropriate punishment.

Examples of that are becoming more frequent all across the country. Police have been wounding and even killing people that should have been dealt with properly but were not. Mentally ill people have been arrested and even wounded and killed. Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) agents have targeted and terrorized citizens. And Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents have been performing no knock home invasions merely on the basis of hearsay or rumors.

Most Americans are unaware of most of that. But in recent years police abuse of power has been highlighted by the news media because it has been blatantly demonstrated in violence against the mentally ill and against black people. Recent events are fresh in our minds in the Summer of 2015 because of repeated police killings of unarmed black men. Most of us are aware of the  racial profiling and the blatantly racist attitudes of some police, and many Americans, not just black people, are angry about that.


So. Now What Do We Do About It?

First we should acknowledge that the problem is not just about racism. The problem is caused by a plutocratic, theocratic, hegemonic, racist attitude demonstrated by those who believe their wealth or religion or ancestral nationality or race makes them superior.

It is also about a right-wing patriarchal mentality that is intolerant, rigid, and unreasonable, and ignores the spiritual and feminine tendency toward empathy, compassion, and unconditional love. That is the problem. And to deal with that problem and resolve it, we must choose the wisest and best path.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness, in a descending spiral of destruction."

It is also helpful to remember that the early 1960s was a time when America as a nation was sleepy, complacent and confident. Washington D.C. had become “Camelot,” and about half of the American population was financially satisfied and comfortable with the status quo. But the other half of the American population was not comfortable, and the status quo was to their detriment. That was pointed out in the 1960s not only by the Civil Rights movement. It was pointed out by many white scholars, including Michael Harrington, who wrote the book titled “The Other America.”

That is why in the 1960s many Americans had to be awakened by the New Left to the reality faced by their less fortunate fellow citizens who were disadvantaged, whether it was because of their race or gender or financial status. And today a similar but even more comprehensive awakening is needed, but it now time to recognize that there are means available to us to accomplish an awakening that have not yet been used.

Many people already know about it. You wouldn’t know it if your source of information and news in mainstream commercial news media, but progressives have been very busy especially during the last dozen years since the message on this site was published. Most progressives are now quite aware of what caused our problems, and many of them have become aware of the solutions suggested here.

As has been mentioned, America’s Founders declared that it is the right and duty of citizens to alter and reform their government when it no longer serves their interests but instead serves the special interests of the wealthiest few who hold most of the wealth and all the power. And what Americans should now be aware of is that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution wisely created a way that we, the people, could do that, without having to resort to violent revolution (and perhaps without even resorting to civil disobedience).

The U.S. Constitution includes Article 5 expressly so that we, the people, can legally and peacefully alter and reform our government when we find it necessary in order to establish equal rights, equal opportunities, equity, peace, freedom, liberty, and justice for all the people.

It has become necessary that we do so now, and rather than be tempted by anger, outrage and an urge to act out, Americans should now use the legal avenue and remedy that has been provided for us in Article 5.

That was suggested in 2006 by Joseph J. Adamson, who wrote The 21st Century Declaration of Independence. The Declaration itself is included in the article by that title, and while the Declaration is an updated and more comprehensive version of the original Declaration of Independence, the article is about how and why Americans should adopt the Declaration and use it as a plan of action, a blueprint for our liberation and empowerment, and an action item agenda for a Constitutional Convention.

Of course, as the article admits, critics of the updated and expanded Declaration claim it couldn’t work. After all, in order to hold a Constitutional Convention, most state legislatures and the U.S. Congress would have to advocate and order it. Furthermore, since most state legislators and members of Congress are currently invested in the political economic system as it is, they would not be inclined to change or alter that system. With the situation as it is, they richly benefit from it and they believe it would not be in their interests to change or alter it. Indeed, most of them would probably claim that altering our government would not be in the interests of the American people.

However, we the people can change the situation.

Since we elected those state legislators and members of Congress, and since we at least still have the power of the vote, we can change it. Even though that power has increasingly been diminished during the last few decades as the system has increasingly been rigged to favor and enable the forces of greed and self-interest, we the people still have enough power to vote incumbent office holders out of office.

That is a threat we can issue by taking political action in a concerted grass roots, populist movement to demand our equal rights and equal opportunities. And, if we do that properly and legally, we can convince legislators that it would be in their best interests to obey the will of the people, call for a Constitutional Convention, and establish government that will be of the people, by the people, and for the people, at long last.

The way to do that is suggested in articles that were the sources for this article, and they are:

The 21st Century Declaration of Independence
An Article 5 Constitutional Convention
Partisan Politics: A Corrupt, Failed System
Poverty: America’s Greatest Shame
Ronald Reagan’s Real Legacy and The Reaganite "Gospel of Prosperity"
The Real Right Wing Conspiracy
Why the Civil War Is Related to the Current Partisan Political Conflict
Why the Meek Shall Inherit the Earth

We can always resort to civil disobedience if legal means fail. But, if we do have to resort to civil disobedience, we should remember the wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi. For while civil disobedience may again become necessary, if it does it should be demonstrated in the same spirit that it was demonstrated by the Civil Rights movement and the Peace, Love and Freedom movement of the 1960s.