Democracy & Justice

Civil Disobedience and Its Effects in Recent History Through 12 Examples

What does civil disobedience mean? What are the types of civil disobedience? Why do people do it? What are the effects? Illustration through 12 examples over two centuries and four continents.

by Jascha Galaski

Updated on 21.05.2024 by Una Glatz

Knowledge is power.

What is civil disobedience: Defintion

Paint thrown on a Van Gogh? Mashed potato flung at Monet? You might be wondering how these extreme actions help prevent global warming, but they follow a long tradition of protest that has been instrumental to civil rights movements throughout history.

Civil disobedience is an intentional breach of law for a social purpose. The aim usually consists of bringing changes to laws or government policies. The American philosopher John Rawls defined civil disobedience as a “public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government”.

With the term “public”, Rawls meant that protestors should identify themselves and take responsibility for their actions. Their acceptance of the personal consequences demonstrates their commitment to the social cause. This in turn will make it more likely that the general public supports their actions. However, it can be argued that anonymity can be essential to protect the activists from disproportionate retribution.

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The aspect of non-violence is disputed. Some theorists, including Rawls, argue that acts of civil disobedience can only be non-violent. Although gratuitous acts of violence can undermine the cause, some will argue that certain forms of violence may be justified, especially if there is no choice.

Acts of civil disobedience should not purely serve a person’s self-interest, otherwise the legitimacy may be questioned. Although it can be argued that no act is selfless – protestors will also benefit from achieving more justice – most theorists agree that lawbreaking can only be justified if the purpose is not solely self-centered.

Still, civil disobedience is a controversial form of protest, as it can cause disruption in the daily life of our societies. Sit-ins of environmental activists on highways are seldom popular with people on their way to work. Critics will argue that regardless of the motive, protestors have no right to put themselves above the law. However, when questioning the legitimacy of civil disobedience, it is important to remember that organizers will usually have tried – and exhausted – all other forms of protest. Environmental organizers have been shouting for years about how we need stronger action to prevent climate change, and it has mostly fallen on deaf ears. If politicians choose to ignore more subdued forms of protest, organizers are forced to come up with more creative ways to get the urgency of their message across.

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas argued that civil disobedience is a key component of a mature democracy. The way a state treats its citizens who break the law for a social purpose does indeed say a lot about its political culture.

In a well-functioning democracy, citizens who engage in acts of civil disobedience are often treated leniently. Judgements will be less harsh if the acts were nonviolent, proportionate, selfless and based on commonly accepted values. Judges may impose trivial punishments or even dismiss the charges. In contrast, in a dictatorship, activists might be locked up, or even tortured or murdered.

What are the main types of civil disobedience?

There are different ways of distinguishing between types of civil disobedience. One could look for example at the difference between direct and indirect acts of civil disobedience. Direct civil disobedience is when citizens directly transgress the law they protest against. For example, when Sophocles’ Antigone buries her brother Polyneikes, directly opposing the orders of her uncle, King Creon. Indirect civil disobedience on the other hand is when one breaks a legitimate law in order to protest against an unjust one. This usually happens when it is more difficult or even impossible to break the latter. For instance, when Friday for Future activists contravene compulsory education – an arguably just law – to march in the streets and demand climate justice.

Disobeying a law to fight for progress and social purpose can take different forms. Activists can resort to various tactics to bring their cause on the political agenda. They include:

  • Leaking sensitive documents: people who have access to sensitive information, such as human rights violations, may decide to leak it to the press. This type of whistleblowing transgresses at a minimum legally binding non-disclosure agreements and, in extreme cases, espionage laws.
  • Unauthorized demonstrations: in most countries, organizers of demonstrations, marches or rallies must notify the authorities. There are good reasons: authorities must ensure that the gathering is safe, and that the disruption caused by the event is limited. In some cases, however, authorities do not allow demonstrations or gatherings. This mostly happens in illiberal, autocratic regimes. Here, citizens have no choice but to organize “illegal” demonstrations.
  • Sit-ins and roadblocks: this tactic is used to create chaos and raise awareness for a specific cause. It is often used by climate activists. Roadblocks can also serve to obstruct access to critical infrastructure.
  • Occupation: citizens can use protest occupations as a strategy to achieve social change. They occupy buildings, universities, train stations, parks and other public spaces to bring attention to their cause. This type of civil disobedience is often declared illegal when protestors occupy the space over an extended time.

  • Examples of civil disobedience and their impact

    Throughout history, citizens have disobeyed laws to achieve social change. Some succeeded in overthrowing oppressive regimes and others achieved policy change. From pro-democracy to climate justice movements, activists have taken many risks, determined to change society for the better. Liberties has selected 12 examples of civil disobedience that have had an impact on our societies. They differ in terms of the methods used, the geographic location and period, as well as the causes behind the acts. They are listed in chronological order.

    Henry David Thoreau

    Henry David Thoreau was an American author and philosopher from the 19th century. One of his best-known works is his essay “Civil Disobedience” in which he argues that individuals have a moral duty to object to unjust laws. Thoreau himself was a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery. He also condemned the extermination of Native Americans and the American war against Mexico (1846-1848). To protest against these injustices, Thoreau refused to pay taxes. He also played an active role in the Underground Railroad, a network of clandestine routes used by enslaved African-Americans to escape.

    Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March

    One of the most famous and impactful acts of civil disobedience is certainly Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March. Gandhi was an Indian lawyer who campaigned for independence from British colonialism. He was a proponent of non-violent resistance, which he termed satyagraha. The Salt March was a symbolic act to protest the tax imposed by the British ruler on Indian salt and the salt law that forbade Indians to produce it. Instead, they had to buy British salt, which was a large source of income for the British empire. Gandhi started his march on 12 March 1930 with 78 dedicated volunteers. Over 385 kilometers to the sea, more and more people from the villages and towns joined the march. Accompanied by international press they reached their destination after 24 days. On the last day, Gandhi took a bath in the sea and collected salt, showing Indians that they could get salt for free. Millions followed him, placing bowls with saltwater in the sun for the water to evaporate and collect the free salt. Gandhi and thousands of his followers were arrested. While the Salt March did not have an immediate effect, it led to the rise of further civil disobedience actions and built the base for the Indian independence movement.

    The British suffragette movement

    The suffragette movement started in the Victorian era. At that time, women were supposed to devote their life to home and family. Once married, a woman became the property of her husband. Women’s rights in society were extremely limited. In 1903, the activist Emmeline Pankhurst and others founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) a woman-only political movement. The members of the WSPU were determined to obtain the right to vote. Frustrated by the lack of impact of peaceful tactics, they started using more militant actions. In September 1908 the leaders of the WSPU organized a rush on the Parliament. They distributed leaflets to encourage the public to join them. Despite the arrest of Pankhurst and other leaders, 60,000 people gathered on 13 October 1908 to rush the Parliament, but none succeeded in breaking the police cordon. The WSPU continued its militant action. They organized demonstrations, attacked property and set fire to public buildings. They also engaged in hunger strikes in prisons and were infamously force-fed. With these tactics the activists gained a lot of attention. After World War I, the electoral system was reformed to give women over the age of 30 and who met certain property qualifications the right to vote. It took ten more years for women to gain electoral equality.

    Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott

    Rosa Parks was an African-American civil rights activist who fought against racial segregation policies, the so-called Jim Crow laws. On 1 December 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat in a city bus to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. Parks was arrested but bailed out the same day by Edgar Nixon, the then president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights organization created to advocate social justice for African-Americans. Park’s act of defiance inspired the Montgomery bus boycott campaign, during which African-Americans refused to ride city buses in Montgomery. The protest led to Browder v. Gayle, where a district court decided that bus segregation is unconstitutional. The state and city appealed but the Supreme Court of the United States later affirmed the decision.

    Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid

    Nelson Mandela was a South African lawyer and the most famous anti-apartheid activist of the 20th century. After his studies, he joined the anti-apartheid African National Congress (ANC), a South African political party. Mandela’s involvement and leadership in protests and civil disobedience campaigns made him a threat to the ruling party. In 1961, as non-violent protests were leading nowhere, he co-founded ANC’s paramilitary wing and led a sabotage campaign against the government. Actions included bombing military installations and power plants. Mandela justified his actions, saying that this type of sabotage was the least harmful form of violent civil disobedience, as it did not involve killing anyone. On 12 June 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent 27 years in prison, the first 17 of which on Robben Island. Mandela was ultimately released in 1990 and started a peaceful campaign for the end of apartheid. He successfully led the negotiations with the government to abolish apartheid and was elected president of South Africa in 1994.

    Muhammad Ali’s rejection of the draft

    One of the greatest boxers of all time, Muhammad Ali was also an influential anti-war and racial justice activist. In 1966, he refused to be drafted into the military and fight in the Vietnam War. Ali, who previously converted to Islam, said that war was against his religious beliefs and personal ethics. He was arrested in 1967 and found guilty of draft evasion. He was sentenced to five years in prison, his boxing license was suspended, and he lost his boxing titles. Ali appealed the ruling and the United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction four years later. During this time, Ali remained free on bail. His refusal to be inducted into the military and his outspokenness against war and racism made him an icon for the civil rights movement.

    Occupy Wall Street

    Occupy Wall Street was a protest movement that started in 2011 in New York City. The initial protest started with a call by the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters. The idea was to hold a peaceful protest against social inequality and the influence of big corporations in politics. Many were angry that some of the people responsible for the financial crisis of 2007-2008 were not held accountable for their actions. On 17 September 2011, thousands of Occupiers gathered in Zuccotti Park in New York City. They installed tents and built barricades, held marches and attracted global media attention. Two months later, on 15 November, police in riot gear started evacuating the protestors, arresting about 200 people. However, during that time, the movement had grown far beyond Zuccotti, inspiring protests across the world. From Latin America to Europe, the Middle East and Asia, the occupy movement engaged citizens and placed the issue of economic inequality on the political agenda.

    Pussy Riot against Putin and Orthodox church oppression

    Pussy Riot are a Russian punk artist collective fighting for human rights and civil liberties. In 2012, the group gained global notoriety when five members entered Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior and performed a song targeting the regime of President Vladimir Putin and the Orthodox church. The group was consequently prosecuted, and some members imprisoned. Their guerrilla actions, such as the football pitch invasion in the 2018 World Cup finals, have made Pussy Riot a global phenomenon. From politicians to artists and human rights organizations, the group has strong international support. Pussy Riot are specifically outspoken in their support for women and LGBTQI+ rights. More generally, they oppose authoritarianism and are committed to socio-political change. The Russian government has not adopted more human rights friendly policies as a result of Pussy Riot’s stunts. However, the group succeeded in raising global awareness about social injustices and inspired people to stand up and fight oppression.

    Edward Snowden

    Whistleblowers play a crucial role in bringing to light illegal or unethical activities. One of the most famous whistleblowers is Edward Snowden. Snowden worked at the United States National Security Agency (NSA). In 2013 he leaked classified information that disclosed global surveillance programs run by the NSA. The NSA not only spied on its own citizens but also collected data about companies and foreign politicians, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The leaks prompted a global discussion on government surveillance and the right to privacy. New products addressing privacy concerns were developed by the tech industry. Facing indictment back home, Snowden left the United States and decided to settle in Russia.

    Hambach Forest occupation 2012-2020

    Climate activists are regularly resorting to acts of civil disobedience to draw attention to their cause. In Germany, environmentalists blocked coal infrastructures to protect century-old trees. They occupied the Hambach Forest, which the energy company RWE AG wanted to clear to extract coal. The occupation started in 2012 and lasted until 2020 although there were several interruptions when police cleared the area and arrested activists. Several protestors faced short prison sentences for violating trespassing laws. In many cases, the police were accused of using illegal violence against peaceful protestors. One journalist fell from a treehouse and died when police forced activists to clear the area. In 2020, the German government finally agreed to preserve the Forest.

    The People’s Revolution: Sudan 2019

    The Sudanese revolution started in December 2018 as a result of rising living costs and increased poverty. Protests broke out in several cities across the country, with demands for President Omar al-Bashir to step down. Protestors were peaceful and well organized. There was a heavy participation of women, who were particularly oppressed during al-Bashir's regime. Al-Bashir was eventually ousted by a military coup on 11 April and replaced by the Transitional Military Council (TMC). The protests however continued, as the people demanded a civilian rule. Tensions rose and culminated in the Khartoum massacre, where Sudanese military killed, raped and injured hundreds of protestors. This tragedy led to nation-wide civil disobedience campaigns. Trade unions and civil society organizations called for non-violent resistance. Across the country, key infrastructure was blocked. Public transportation, medical centers, schools and banks were closed. Electricity, heating and oil and gas stations were shut down. The resulting negotiations between the military and civilian political forces led to the signing of a constitutional document in August 2019. The document defined a transitional period, which would see Sudan return to a civilian democracy. However, another military coup in October 2021 shattered hopes for a democratic future. Since then, civilians continue to resist the military rule.

    Iran "Mahsa Amini" protests 2022

    The 2022 protests in Iran started with the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. She was arrested on 13 September 2022 by the Iranian Morality Police for breaching the country’s mandatory hijab law. She was taken into custody, brutality beaten and died three days later in hospital. Following her death, protests erupted across the country. People demanded justice for Amini and an end to the compulsory hijab. The protests were mainly led by women. They defied the country’s laws by burning their hijab in public and cutting their hair. Images of Iranian women dancing in the streets quickly spread across the Internet, despite government Internet shutdowns. Mass-scale protests against the government and its economic policies in Iran have been ongoing since 2017. However, unlike previous protests, the Mahsa Amini protest involved people from all classes and demanded an end to the theocratic regime of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. While activists organized marches and blocked streets, the government reacted with violence. Police forces cracked down on the protestors, beating and arresting thousands of citizens and killing hundreds. Governments across the world have condemned police brutality but have failed so far to do more than impose sanctions against the Morality Police and Iranian security organizations. The outcome of these protests is still uncertain.

    A new topic of conversation has been the Letzte Generation movement in Germany. The movement has been a highly controversial form of civil disobedience, that demands rather small but impactful changes to everyday German living that work towards climate neutrality. The German expert on conflict research, Felix Anderl, says that this movement has, through its polarization, led to higher awareness and notably increased support for the more moderate climate movements that aim to achieve the same goal. This stimulates discourse in German democracy, ensuring climate issues remain a priority within media and politics. This shows how civil obedience is one step on a journey towards bigger change.

    The student protests in solidarity with Palestine that have swept and grown across the globe in recent months are another active case of civil disobedience. Some of these peaceful protests in the form of sit-ins on various prestigious university grounds were met with pushback from law enforcement, which included police brutality in some cases. But demonstrating the effectiveness of civil disobedience, Ireland’s Trinity College responded positively to its students’ critique. The university engaged in discourse with its students and agreed to the terms they proposed: to cut ties with pro-Israel organizations and narratives.

    Further reading:

    What is Freedom of Assembly: Definition, Importance, Limitations

    What is Civic Space? Why Is It a Keystone in Any Democratic Society? How Do We Protect It?

    Why We Should Value Our Civil Liberties

    Photo credit:

    Patricio Ignacio Valenzuela Muñoz - Flickr
    Alicejack2002 - Flickr
    Matteo Fastigi - Flickr
    Marco Oliveira -Flickr
    Photo of Emmeline Pankhurst - Wikipedia

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