Civil disobedience is a way of expressing political opposition that pushes beyond what the law allows you to do, in terms of resistance. It is an act that says “we are deliberately breaking an unjust law.” We often talk about it as a problem. In fact, I would argue that our problem is civil obedience. People too readily accept governments that do not hold to their promises.
My first brush with civil disobedience was when I was 15 and in the years since, I’ve learned a few things about its power, and its limitations. Here’s a few of my lessons:
1. Nothing important comes without sacrifice
I was one of thousands of young people in South Africa that joined the national student protests against inequality in apartheid education. At that age, you don’t always understand the wider context of your actions. The slogan at the front of the march was “we want equality”, and at the back it was “ we want a colour TV”.
Despite this, what we were doing was important: we were resisting by refusing to go to classes and challenging the law that legally prohibited more than four people to march in the streets together. It was only here that I discovered that Nelson Mandela actually existed, and learned about the bigger picture of apartheid in South Africa. The media were restricted in how much they could report on him and so I had never seen his picture.
Following this I led a protest in my community with between 3,000-4,000 people, where the police charged at us with tear gas. The experience of participating in these acts early on affected me in a very direct sense. They taught me the important lesson that nothing important will come without sacrifice, commitment and courage.
2. Stay positive: first they will fight you, but then you will win
South Africa has a strong connection to Gandhi. It was during his time there that he learned his politics, and honed his Satyagraha, which means passive resistance or civil disobedience as we now tend to call it.
There was always a photo of Gandhi in my family home and he was an influential figure for me as I was growing up. I developed a strong adherence to his notion of “soul force”. For me, this translated as the importance of being willing to take the violence of the state. The moral authority to take this stance means that ultimately you will succeed in your mission.
My favourite quote is from Gandhi and it is one that is so relevant to civil disobedience today: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win”. If you look at the situation Greenpeace is in, they are fighting us really hard in the courts, they are invading our privacy and preventing our actions. But Gandhi’s philosophy makes me optimistic that this is a positive indication that we are closing in on the changes we are campaigning for.
3. When governments respond with force, they help to grow the movement
The power of civil disobedience as a strategy lies in its moral authority. If you have numbers, diversity of voices, and are able to maintain a peaceful event, then it can be immensely powerful. It speaks to the oppressed and the oppressor in different ways. To the oppressed, or the people affected, it gives them strength to continue their struggle. To the oppressors, exceptional acts of moral courage force them to listen.
The recent Arctic 30 campaign and the arrests it incurred on many activists, myself included, is a good example of this. It is clear that when I was up a rig on the oil ship being bombarded with water for 15 hours, I wasn’t doing it for selfish reasons, and nor were any of the Arctic 30 doing it for personal gain. It was remarkable how many heads of state then came out and called for the release of the arrested activists. Governments badly miscalculate when they respond to civil disobedience by throwing activists in prison and assuming this will terrify the public. In fact, the effect is always the opposite: it helps to grow the movement. It forces those in power to recalibrate and recognise the democratic intent of what activists are trying to achieve.
4. Be patient, failure is integral to the path to progress
You could say most acts of civil disobedience fail because they don’t get results immediately. In the case of Arctic 30 they failed because oil was eventually drilled and removed from the area. But on the flipside, we now have more than 10 million people campaigning to have the Arctic declared a global sanctuary with no industrial activities. It is important to remember that not everything that counts can be measured.
We can learn from those who have engaged in civil disobedience in the past that it wasn’t their first action that delivered their result. For Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, it was an accumulation of lots of different actions over a long time.
5. Explore the potential of digital civil disobedience
Wikileaks and the Edward Snowden NSA revelations created an opportunity for people to know what governments were hiding from them and have changed the whole debate around privacy. These are good examples of digital civil disobedience.
I think the social media space has thrown up a lot of possibilities for civil disobedience, protest and the strengthening of civil society generally. When you look at resistance during the Arab spring, people used Facebook to spread the word, Twitter to tell people where to be when, and YouTube to document and share what they experienced and what they achieved. The question is what laws do you break online in terms of pushing that space? At Greenpeace we are trying to make sense of this new area but the future looks promising.
Today, unlike 50 years ago there are lots of forums for engagement between civil society and those in business and government. This is evident at UN meetings, where national civil society groups are invited to take part of the consultative process. I think we’ve long chased after some sort of explosion of democracy, and the idea that success would be when governments wanted to talk to us. But I think we should beware of the value of some of these engagements. Sometimes they are more insults than anything else, just a box-ticking exercise. We may need a different measure of meaningful progress.