Honorable Civil Disobedience

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

Having seen over the years protesters engaged in voicing their grievances in fashions ranging from the peaceful to the violent, I believe it is incumbent to provide guidelines in the hope of furthering a cause without the distractions that spill over into not only silencing important messages but preventing consequences that hurt others.

I propose the idea of Honorable Civil Disobedience.

(This article was published here nearly four years ago and I offer an updated version for today. Given current news events, I believe some of the readership might find it applicable.)

I must first state that these guidelines do not constitute legal advice or the need to foster discord. Such actions might result in arrest or civil implications. And while I do not encourage law breaking, for those who choose to engage in this strategy there are ways to go about such acts to minimize negative effects. Every individual should gauge the cost/benefit of their own actions and the wider costs that can lead to others behaving badly. One should also be realistic about what to expect from politicians, government or police in the country in which they live since many authoritarian nations have little if any tolerance for dissent and punish protesters severely.

What is noteworthy is that history shows more often than not that those who refuse to engage in violence or property damage better succeed in establishing a legacy that associates their names with social movements having a positive change. Well known figures such as Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Thoreau, and Gandhi are some of the most memorable and effective. Those who choose to engage in civil disobedience should at least follow an honor code to be effective in conveying the intended message.  What I mean by civil disobedience for the purpose of discussion is engaging in visible but minor violations to attract attention to a grievance or cause that ordinary public discourse or authorities fail to address.

I belive it is incumbent on those seeking change to attempt using minimal measures that are effective, to avoid demonstrations if possible and utilize proper channels to facilitate positive change. Use one’s own free thinking to decide a course of action and be especially skeptical and suspicious of opportunists, politicians, or influencers who might use you to do their bidding while insulating them from the consequences. But if you do so decide to protest or engage in civil disobedience try to understand the “big picture” and be prepared to be responsible for your own actions, especially in dealing with law enforcement and others.

It is important to recognize that the police on duty at the time are not the enemy of the cause. They are merely civil servants and generally do not make policy. The police who are assigned to the area of a demonstration are there to secure the peace and most always simply want to do their jobs and go home. They should be given a measure of respect, else if greatly pressured they are more likely to react unfavorably.

There are those who in the furtherance of the visibility of their grievance choose to be arrested, typically for minor offenses such as trespassing. This not only draws the attention of the media but conveys that their grievance is of such importance to them, they are willing to sacrifice a degree of freedom as a gesture in conveying their resolve.

The sit-in is a classic example of this. The sit-in is designed to result in a minor disruption of the target of the protest. Police will declare a protest to be unlawful and issue a warning of impending arrest to those who do not vacate.

Active resistance to the police in a sit-in is not honorable: that is, resisting arrest and engaging in tumultuous behavior. Again, the local police do not set policy and are not the enemy. It is better if one chooses a course of action that will lead to an arrest to not fight the police or members of the public. Instead some suggestions I propose to foster Honorable Civil Disobedience are as follows:

  • Stand up and submit to the arrest. Allow the cameras to photograph the event for the news. Your credibility before your intended audience will elicit more sympathy or identification with you and your message.
  • The police will follow procedures that require all arrestees to be handcuffed. Passive suspects will be cuffed in a manner that is less uncomfortable. Otherwise, when arrestees fight the arrest often the cuffs might not be double-locked and could result in tightening of the cuffs. This can be painful for you and accomplishes nothing for your cause. Plus you will subject yourself and others to possible injury and greater criminal charges such as resisting arrest or worse.
  • Bring only what is necessary to identify you during the issuance of a citation or a custodial arrest and in the latter case, a nominal amount of cash to arrange for bail or pay a fine if that is your intent. Do not bring weapons or contraband to the protest. This can result in additional charges that are outside the minimum level to get your message across, without distractions.
  • Do not voice contempt for the police by yelling, screaming, or playing the victim.
  • Do not shout profanity or encourage others to commit violence.
  • If you are passive in the arrest, you might have the opportunity to talk with reporters on your way to a jail van or patrol car. Being troublesome results in a quick march away from the scene and you will be blamed for causing your arrest due to your own reprehensible actions.
  • If a custodial mass arrest happens, your group might be in and out of jail faster if you act honorably. If you face the court, what would you rather experience; a judge who views your actions simply as a benign act of civil disobedience or being labeled as the cause of a riot that caused damage and breech of the peace? In the former you might receive a token fine. The latter can lead to significant penalties levied by a judge wanting to send strong rebuke. In that case expect to face a longer period of incarceration and punitive fines.
  • Bring the minimal amount of items with you and be courteous and forthright in the process. This results in a more expeditious booking process and minimizes the time you might spend in custody
  • Show respect for those watching the events unfolding. Do not insult them or their intelligence. Focus on the message and do not attach to your demonstration unrelated matters that tend to dilute your message.
  • Respect the property rights of nearby homes and businesses. They have nothing to do with your grievances. They do not deserve to pay for damage caused by you. Maurading also ruins your credibility.
  • Inform the police of your intended act of civil disobedience so that they can arrange for containing the situation and also protect your right to protest. You will also take some of the edge away from a stressful incident and the police might be actually friendly to you. Remember, such a request also will allow for any emergency services such as fire or ambulance departments to continue their duties unabated. This also affords you with the ability to receive protection against counter-protesters who might not hold the same Code of Honor you possess.
  • If you so desire, contact various news outlets of your scheduled protest. State your desire to have a peaceful demonstration and be respectful and clear in informing them of your grievances. Allow media time to organize a team to cover the event. If you act with integrity you will control the message and they will be your messenger.
  • Appoint a respectful manager or leader who will act as an agent who represents your demonstration and cause. This will provide for a mechanism to organize the event, news, police services and prevent misunderstandings. You will also foster an image of professionalism.
  • Do not demonize the target of your grievance. It is important to offer a way for your opponent to save face if they decide to agree to your demands. If you give them no option to change their behavior they will simply dig in or dismiss you as simply an opportunist who chose them as a convenient target. Keep a door open even if you expect your opponent to never acquiesce to your demands. That way you maintain a higher moral ground and if your honorable actions win the hearts of your audience, they will look at your opponents with scorn for not listening or trying to change their ways.
  • Remember, as the old adage goes, “A man’s name is his reputation”. If you are inclined to peacefully demonstrate or act as a spokesperson in the future in advocating your cause, you will maintain your credibility by adhering to the tenets of Honorable Civil Disobedience.

I found in the below videos there is much to be said in how to properly and honorably engage in civil disobedience. The actors held true to their message, arranged for reporters to hear grievances, and acted with dignity. They were met with great praise from observers and were very effective in drawing attention to their cause. They are a credit to what they hold dear.



And now for the fruits of Mr. Clooney and others’ Honorable Civil Disobedience. In playing the below video, there will be a link to view the video externally on YouTube. Click the link to view.


As you can see, the demonstrators accomplished national attention drawn to their cause. They were also successful in that the media then brought into their program images of the suffering residents of The Sudan, along with the imperative need to resolve the problems facing that nation. Consequently the demonstrators received a token fine of a hundred dollars and an immediate release from jail. Mr. Clooney left no doubt as to his resolve to sacrifice his freedom for an oppressed people. Yet in actuality, he paid a rather small price–all things considered–for the world-wide attention he earned.

Let us now contrast Honorable Civil Disobedience with dishonorable and disruptive behavior riotous actors show in practice: fighting; looting; attacking ordinary people and police. In the past few years in parts of the United States, and elsewhere certainly, we’ve all had to suffer the annoyances of rioters’ onslaughts. What have they earned for their criminal behavior; certainly contempt and often labels ranging from being thugs to useful idiots?

You have to wonder sometimes what actually is the message riotous demonstrators attempt to convey. Do they even know? Look at the usual result: Armed police in riot gear and counter demonstrators fighting against them. Ordinary citizens simply want the protesters run out of town and few had any sympathy for the demonstrators, much less their cause.

Nearly everything violent protesters do here serves to work against their cause and garners only contempt for them as individuals and their movement collectively.

If a particular group continues with reprehensible actions each time they organize a protest, eventually every time this protest group shows up in a city to demonstrate, they will be regarded as pariahs unworthy of respect. The message they actually conveyed focused on their actions, not their grievance. And nothing good results from their efforts.

Generally it is much better to not break the law and act with honor in all things. Don’t hurt others, leave people alone, and don’t become the evil you are advocating against. Take these tenets to heart and change the world for the better.

By Darren Smith

Video Sources: News2Share; Enough Project; and The Telegraph

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

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