A brief History of Civil Disobedience
Civil disobedience is and has been crucial in social change. Types of civil disobedience are outlined below with examples of successful actions from the past, right up to current day actions.
1. Sabotage of trade and business activity
Actions include disrupting trade, boycotts of products and deliberate damaging of goods. Stores have been brought to a standstill by several customers checking through a trolley full of items, only to say at the end they can’t pay and don’t want the goods. Similarly banks have been clogged up by customers bringing in quantities of change for processing.
1811-1830 Luddite Uprisings and the Swing Riots
Issue: The introduction of free market economics coupled with a massive erosion of workers’ rights and the resultant breakdown of their communities in the late 1700s and early 1800s
Action and result: Groups of people across England targeted the most exploitative employers by machine breaking. In the north this manifested itself as the Luddite uprisings, destroying machines in factories and in the south, the Swing Riots breaking threshing machines. These groups were pro workers' rights and not anti-technology as they are often historically smeared.
1773 The Boston Tea Party
Issue: Britain’s East India Company was allowed to sell tea in North America without paying any of the regular taxes. This meant they could undersell American merchants and monopolise the colonial tea trade.
Action and result: 3 ships were boarded by fifty men and the tea was thrown into the harbour- spurring similar acts of resistance across other seaports and helping to spark the revolutionary war between America and Britain.
1970’s – 1986 Boycott of Barclays Bank during Apartheid
Barclays bank was known overseas in the financial industry in the 1980s as 'Boerclaysbank', due to its continued involvement in South Africa during the apartheid regime. A student boycott, which began in the 1970’s of the bank led to a drop in its share of the UK student market from 27 per cent to 15 per cent by the time it pulled out in 1986.
2. Labour resistance
Traditional strikes can be the least effective if labour laws or zero hours contracts allow replacement of workers or actions to be taken against the organising union. Other options exist:
- Slowdowns- staying on the job but drastically slowing down effectiveness
- Work-to-rule – employers often wish to speed up tasks by cutting corners, working strictly to the rules (In a post office dispute, workers checked every single package had the correct postage). It’s hard to sack someone for following the rules!
- Sick-in – where all employees call in sick on the same day
- Good work strike – when people support each other in solidarity by providing goods or services for free. Examples include bus workers letting passengers on for free or café workers giving our free coffee. Nurses in one hospital went to work during a strike to protect patients but “forgot” to charge them for any prescriptions.
Labour, rent resistance and the word “Boycott”
Captain Charles Boycott, was a land agent in County Mayo, Ireland, who was subject to social ostracism organized by the Irish Land League in 1880. As harvests had been poor, protesting tenants demanded a twenty five percent reduction in rent, which was refused. Boycott then attempted to evict eleven tenants from the land. Rather than resorting to violence, it was agreed everyone in the locality should shun him. Despite the short-term economic hardship to those undertaking this action, Boycott soon found himself isolated – his workers stopped work in the fields and stables, as well as in his house. Local businessmen stopped trading with him, and the local postman refused to deliver mail. The concerted action taken against him meant that Boycott was unable to hire anyone to harvest the crops in his charge.
3. Breaking unfair laws
1955 Rosa Parks and the American civil rights movement
Issue: “Jim Crow” laws segregated black people from white people and were a key part of preventing black people from full participation in American society
Action and result: Rosa refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white man. Such actions became common in the civil rights movement in American with black activists deliberately breaking “Jim Crow” laws that segregated black people from white people.
Current: Seed swapping and saving - Vandana Shiva
Renowned environmental and agricultural activist Vandana Shiva has called on called on citizens and farmers to ignore laws, which she says will rob farmers of the right to save and exchange seed, and further corporatize food systems. International days of action have been organised as well as ongoing civil disobedience. Vandana Shiva:
“After having identified laws for seed slavery, let us commit ourselves to not obey these unethical and brute laws which threaten life on earth, including our lives and the lives of our children. Gandhi had reminded us 100 years ago, that “As long as the superstition remains that unjust laws must be obeyed, so long will slavery exist”.”
1970 Drink a pint in a pub - Irish feminism
Issue: In 1970, some Irish pubs refused to allow women to enter at all, some allowed women only if accompanied by a man and many refused to serve women pints of beer.
Action and result: Women's groups staged protests in the early 1970s. In one instance, Nell McCafferty led a group of 30 women who ordered, and were served, 30 brandies. They then ordered one pint of Guinness. When the pint was refused, they drank the brandies and refused to pay as their order was not served. (Service can be refused only if there is a reasonable risk of disorderly or criminal conduct.) In 2002, the Equal Status Act banned gender discrimination in the provision of goods and services. It defined discrimination as "less favourable treatment".
4. Mass Trespass and land rights protests
1932 – Kinder Scout Trespass UK
Issue: Workers in cities and towns were not allowed access to walk on land around their homes and areas of natural beauty nearby. The land was privately held and often used as hunting grounds for the wealthy.
Action and result: In 1932 over 400 people from Manchester and Sheffield participated in a mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District. They notified the local press and as a result were met and had scuffles with game keepers and then the police; five men were subsequently jailed. The movement that was kick started by this action led to the creation of our National Parks after World War II.
The 60th anniversary of this event in 1992 was celebrated with another mass trespass. This started a new movement that lead to the 'Right To Roam' Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000. This act gave a new right of access to most areas of open country in England and Wales.
"Sooner than part from the mountain, I think I would rather be dead" from 'The Manchester Rambler' by Ewan MacColl.
Current – Polish farmers blockades calling for land rights
Thousands of Polish family farmers turned out to protest in over 50 locations across the country in 2015. Over 150 tractors blockaded the A2 motorway into Warsaw and hundreds more continue to close major roads and picket government offices in other regions. The farmers are vowing to continue the struggle until the government agrees to enter talks with the unions and commits to addressing what the farmers see as a crisis in Polish agriculture. Issues of concern include land rights (the need for regulation to prevent land-grabs by Western companies), the need to legalize direct sales of farm produce and a call for a ban on genetically modified organisms.
Current - Grow Heathrow
In 2010 Transition Heathrow members swooped on an abandoned market garden site in Sipson; one of the villages to be completely tarmaced to make way for a third runway at Heathrow. 30 tonnes of rubbish were cleared and the site has been transformed from a derelict mess into a beacon of community strength and sustainable living. The land had previously been problematic –it was often a site of anti-social behavior. The project aims to return the Berkeley Nurseries site back to its intended purpose – a thriving market garden that will provide locally produced, organic fruit and veg as well as a venue for new and interesting projects and workshops. Grow Heathrow is under threat of eviction since August 2014; the squatters are seeking to buy the land.
1999 Genetix Snowball - the fight against GM crops
Led by 5 “ordinary” women the Guardian said have been “condemned as eco-terrorists, scientific hooligans and farmland anarchists. America's biggest multinational biotech companies have sued them for millions in damages, and supermarket bosses want to ban them from the soft fruits aisle.” Their actions to remove GM crop trials and share information in a toolkit on how to do that, were supported by Anthony Worrall-Thompson and Prince Charles.
5. Unofficial Marches, Occupations and Blockades
Powers that be have attempted to suppress or manage into ineffectiveness marches and occupations. Legislation and pressure to stop marches and occupations have included:
- Laws to stop more than 12 Suffragettes gathering in Parliament Square, London to petition the Government for votes for women.
- Laws to stop the use of loud hailers, musical instruments and sleeping equipment in Parliament Square, London (and apparently an umbrella and pizza boxes count as sleeping equipment!). These laws have been used against Occupy Democracy, as well as fencing and policing costing £250,000 for ten days.
- Payment for protest- the Campaign against Climate Change march was asked to pay a private security firm to police a peaceful protest march, having been told the met Police could no longer provide road management services. (Whereas money was no object in policising the Occupiers in the bullet above!)
- Following police brutality at a march in London, a leading British newspaper described the protest as “violent”- which discredited the protestors, even though it was known the violence came from the police. A court of law ruled that it was OK for a newspaper to describe a protest as violent, without specifying that it was the police that were the violent ones!
1965 - Selma – Voting Rights Act
Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally desegregated the South, discrimination was still rampant in certain areas, making it very difficult for blacks to register to vote. In 1965, the black community of Alabama decided to hold a march to protest about the killing of a protester, but Governor Wallace refused to allow the march. The march nevertheless took place and demonstrators, whilst kneeling in prayer, were attacked by state troopers wielding tear gas and batons. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers pressed forward on an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, and their efforts culminated in President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
2008 - ongoing Ecuador – mining law protests
A controversial mining law which would allow for large-scale, open pit metal mining, has been opposed by days of protest including blockades that shut down highways throughout the country's Southern Andean highlands and Amazon rainforest. Protestors were seeking Laws to protect water resources and consultation with indigenous communities over mining projects.
2013 – Disabled People Against the Cuts and the Royal Courts
The financial crisis of 2008 has been used to justify ideologically motivated austerity measures in the UK, with disabled people bearing the brunt of savage cuts to funding support. Legal Aid to support cases against discriminatory changes to welfare arrangements has also been cut, meaning access to justice has been severely restricted. Protestors including Disabled People Against the Cuts and UKuncut, closed down the road outside the Royal Courts of Justice as part of an ongoing struggle.
Ongoing – Keystone Pipeline
By March 2014 there had been 398 arrests of peaceful protestors who had pledged to undertake acts of civil disobedience in their opposite to the Keystone Pipeline, which would transport the dirtiest tar sands energy across North America. A further 162 were arrested in 2015 and by June 2015 over 97000 people had pledged their willing to participate in peaceful actions which might lead to arrest.
2009 - 2013 PAH Eviction resistance Spain
PAH (Mortgage Holders Resistance in English) responded to a national housing crisis through grassroots organising and direct action. Actions included occupying banks and blockading planned evictions. The movement has prevented over 800 evictions across the country. "We wanted to put an end to this violence that is leaving thousands of families on the streets while financial institutions with serious responsibility for the current crisis accumulate thousands of empty flats, waiting to be able to speculate with them again." - Ada Colau, PAH
6. Debt refusal
Debt refusal is growing as both an idea and a movement. Andrew Ross, in Creditocracy, makes the case for debt refusal, including student loans, credit card debt and mortgages. Citizens Debt audits have been used successfully in countries like Iceland as part of a refusal to pay off toxic debt taken on by Governments from banks. 15 students have begun a debt strike, refusing to pay back student loans taken out whilst at Corinthians- instructors stopped showing up and the college went under, but the debts remained. The students believe that they have both ethical and legal grounds for their debt strike and they are also making a broader statement about the trillion dollars of student debt owed throughout the country.
7. Deliberate debt creation and redistribution – modern Robin Hood
Enric Duran, a Barcelona-based anti-banking system activist took loans of 500,000 euro from 39 European banks, through 68 loan and credit-card operations, with no intention of paying them back. Whilst some of the money was used to pay off part of the loans to keep the circus going, the majority of the money was used sponsoring activism and alternative social networks. He explains how and why he did it.
8. Rent strikes
1915 – Mary Barbour’s Army
Issue: In 1915 during the First World War huge rent increases took place as workers were drafted into Glasgow to work in the munitions factories. The housing shortage that resulted gave the landlords the opportunity to 'profiteer' by rent-racking and evicting all who couldn't pay.
Action and result: Mary Barbour led a group of 20,000 tenants on a rent strike. When the authorities tried to crack down on this, workers in local factories staged a mass walk out. Within weeks Britain's first Rent Act was passed, fixing rent at pre-war levels.
9. Tax resistance
1930 -The Dandi March, Salt Tax resistance- Ghandi
Issue: The East India Company (1757–1858), then the British Raj (1858–1947) ruled India as colonial powers
Action and result: Also known as the Salt Satyagraha, this was an important part of the Indian independence movement. It was a direct action campaign of tax resistance and nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly in colonial India, and triggered the wider Civil Disobedience Movement. The action has been recaptured in the film Ghandi.
1909 Tax resistance and Suffragettes
It was only in 1928 that UK women were finally granted voting rights equal to men. Campaign tactics were diverse and included the Women’s Tax Resistance League, formed in 1909 with the slogans ‘No taxation without representation’ and the more direct declaration: ‘NO VOTE, NO TAX’. 100 members were being willing to take up this form of protest. A two-tier approach was adopted, which meant that some took action immediately (40), while others declared they were willing to become tax protesters once the total number of members reached 500. However, the total never exceeded 200 – this was before the days of social media! (Also, enjoy this film trailer)
1987- 1990 Poll tax refusal - UK
Issue: Margaret Thatcher was reelected for her third term in 1987. Her policy was to levy a flat tax that she called a “Community Charge,” although it became popularly known as the poll tax. A flat tax means that everybody, regardless of wealth, has to pay the same amount. The tax was to be set in the 1989-1990 financial year in Scotland, and in the 1990-1991 financial year in England. However, it was unpopular from the moment she proposed it, and she met resistance from both the people and her party.
Action and result: In Scotland, 880,000 people out of a total 4 million refused to pay the tax. Other demonstrations culminated in 200,000 people marching in London against the tax- the biggest march that decade. The tax was stopped and Mrs Thatcher resigned.
10. Runs on the banking system
2010 - French footballer starts run on the banks
Thousands of French protesters took up Eric Cantona, the former Man United footballer's call for a mass cash withdrawal. "We don't pick up weapons to kill people to start the revolution. The revolution is really easy to do these days. What's the system? The system is built on the power of the banks. So it must be destroyed through the banks.”
"This means that the three million people with their placards on the streets, they go to the bank and they withdraw their money and the banks collapse. Three million, 10 million people, and the banks collapse and there is no real threat. A real revolution.”
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With thanks to Robin Grey from “Three Acres and A Cow” for supporting the development of this history section, Wikipedia and this excellent database: http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/.
Please email us if there are examples you especially like that we have missed!