In Depth

A history of civil disobedience

Extinction Rebellion’s central London blockade is latest in long history of protests aimed at changing the world

More than 300 activists from Extinction Rebellion have been arrested in London as the environmental group launches a two-week campaign of civil disobedience in the English capital.

The Independent reports that the movement’s supporters have “blockaded key sites in central London including Westminster Bridge, Trafalgar Square and the roads outside Downing Street, with some gluing and chaining themselves to roads and vehicles”.

The group was launched in October 2018, when activists responding to a damning climate change report gathered in the city’s Parliament Square to announce a “declaration of rebellion against the UK government”.

Extinction Rebellion has repeatedly made headlines in recent months by taking over some of the country’s most popular tourist destinations and commuter routes. The second day of the current action in London has seen protesters occupying Smithfield meat market, where butchers’ stalls have been replaced with organic fruit and vegetables.

The group describes itself as “an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimise the risk of social collapse”.

Such tactics have been employed for many decades worldwide by those seeking to effect change, of whom notable examples include Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

So how did this long history of civil disobedience begin? 

Where did the term come from?

Encyclopedia Britannica defines civil disobedience as the “refusal to obey the demands or commands of a government or occupying power, without resorting to violence or active measures of opposition”.

“Its usual purpose is to force concessions from the government or occupying power,” the encyclopedia adds.

The concept has existed for millennia, but the phrase was not coined until American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau published his 1849 essay Civil Disobedience.

Thoreau argued that “just because something is enshrined in law, that does not mean it is necessarily just”, explains Samuel Alexander, a University of Melbourne lecturer on environmental issues, in an article on The Conversation. As such, the theory goes, non-violent breaches of law can be justified.

“Throughout history, many laws and policies produced in democracies were grossly unjust,” writes Alexander. “These include laws which institutionalised slavery, legally entrenched racial segregation, criminalised homosexuality or particular religious practices, or prohibited women and people of colour from voting.”

To what ends has civil disobedience been employed?

Perhaps the two most famous uses of civil disobedience in modern history were by Indian independence leader Gandhi and civil rights activist King.

The former discovered Thoreau’s famous 1849 essay while serving jail time in South Africa for refusing to obey a law requiring that all Indians register with the police and be fingerprinted. Gandhi adopted the term civil disobedience to describe his strategy of non-violently refusing to cooperate with injustice, but he preferred the Sanskrit word satyagraha, which translates as “devotion to truth” , says the website of the Constitutional Rights Foundation.

“Following his release, he continued to protest the registration law by supporting labour strikes and organising a massive non-violent march,” the California-based organisation continues. “Finally, the Boer government agreed to end the most objectionable parts of the registration law.”

Gandhi went on to use similar tactics to facilitate the withdrawal of the British from India.

His actions great influenced those of the American civil rights movement, which came to prominence during the 1950s.

The movement sought to end racial segregation in the southern US by “adopting the tactics and philosophy of civil disobedience through such protests as the Greensboro sit-in (1960) and the Freedom Rides (1961)”, says Encyclopedia Britannica.

“Martin Luther King Jr came to be most associated with the movement’s non-violent action,” which would pave the way for greater racial equality across the country, the site adds.

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