Did Kentucky obey your basic laws


Civil disobedience. There is a hint of revolution in the term. He callsImages emerge of protests, posters and emotional speeches; Martin Luther King, action art, pussy riot, Gandhi, climate youth and people who let the police carry them away. But what is really civil disobedience? And what if it wasn't civil disobedience?From Lisa Kwasny

The term "civil disobedience" says a lot about its nature. It is supposed to be a decent disobedience carried out by residents of a state. The term civil ’is also used in the word civilization’ or in civilized behavior ’. Disobedience describes the practice through which existing norms are deliberately acted or laws are broken. "Civil disobedience" seems to be an odd pair of words when you think about it. How can a breach of the law be decent when compliance with the law is a basic requirement of the decent citizen?

A form of protest

Basically, civil disobedience can be understood as a form of protest against injustice. From the forefather of civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau, to other practitioners and theorists of civil disobedience, such as Martin Luther King, John Rawls, Joseph Raz, Hannah Arendt, and Robin Celikates, everyone would probably subscribe to this point. But how exactly is this protest carried out, what does it include and what does not? There is the example of Henry David Thoreau, who lived alone in the woods in a wooden hut in the middle of the 19th century and refused to pay the tax because it would have been used for slavery and a war, which Theoreau rejected. In most other cases, civil disobedience is a group issue. In the protests sparked by Rosa Parks' civil disobedience in 1955, many people were mobilized to demonstrate against laws that discriminated against part of the US population. Rosa Parks broke the law at the time because she did not vacate her seat for a white person. The subsequent Freedom Rides of the 1960s, in which black and white people drove through the southern states of the USA together with intercity buses, and did not adhere to racial segregation in public transport, received widespread public attention. For the Freedom Rides, the participants were not only arrested, but were also regularly assaulted and almost murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and other racists. The group that organized and carried out the Freedom Rides was not particularly large. However, they generated very large media reactions and are at the beginning of a series of protests and acts of civil disobedience within the US civil rights movement.

The public as a central element

This public attention is another important characteristic of civil disobedience. Thoreau carried out his civil disobedience alone, but by justifying his tax refusal in front of the entire village community, he made his protest public. The philosopher Joseph Raz writes that the public is an important aspect of civil disobedience. An unjust state or law can only be denounced through the public. But in some cases the disobedience has to be done in secret before it goes public. Examples of this are animal liberation campaigns, which would be impossible if they were communicated in advance. Edward Snowden, the US whistleblower and ex-CIA employee, has published documents on illegal espionage and surveillance practices in the US and the UK. He leaked the secret state documents anonymously before going public with them. And David Thoreau was active in the “Underground Railroad” network, which helped slaves escape to Canada. This act also had to be done in secret, as it was illegal under the Fugitive Slave Act. So there are many examples in which a state so suppressive that disobedience would not be feasible if the action were announced in advance. In any case, for an act to be considered civil disobedience, the public must be consciously confronted with the injustice at some point.

Communication of concerns and the democratic way of protest

Often civil disobedience does not directly break the law that is being criticized. Much more, other laws are broken, often with publicity, in order to draw attention to various injustices. For example, civil disobedience can show that existing laws are not being complied with, as happens in some cases of livestock husbandry or human rights violations. It can also be communicated that existing laws are considered illegitimate, such as racial laws or discrimination against homosexuals or women *. A third possibility is to show that there are no laws, such as climate protection or occupational safety laws in the digital space.

In order to communicate the respective concerns, streets are blocked, houses are occupied or taxes are not paid. These violations of the law do not happen out of mere pleasure, but as an attempt to make the state more just. Civil disobedience is therefore an inclusive debate about the structure of a constitutional state. At this point, a conservative objection is often raised in the public debate about the legitimacy of civil disobedience. It is said that in a democratic state the politicians and the government are elected through democratic processes. The government and each party always have a specific government program. If she gave in to the "pressure of the street", she would not only betray her own program, but also circumvent the democratic system. This is a legitimate objection, but there are strong arguments against it. One type of counter-argument concerns the inclusiveness of the democratic state. Because even in a democratic state like Switzerland there are people who are excluded from political decision-making processes. It is aimed at minors, foreigners and also sans-papiers. The discussion about the inclusion of foreigners and sans-papiers is too long to go into here. In the case of minors, it is easier to show that there has to be an opportunity for them to have a say in a policy that will shape their own future. The best example of this are the climate protests, which are strongly influenced by the underage part of the population. Apart from civil disobedience, there is no direct alternative for minors to participate politically. Through civil disobedience, they can show the population the urgency of their concerns and put pressure on governments so that measures can be taken to give these minors a future.

Even people who could otherwise vote are not included in all decision-making processes that affect them. For example, a single citizen entitled to vote cannot have a say in how the distribution procedures in the asylum system are decided, even if every citizen entitled to vote has the opportunity to have a say in politics, the effect is often too late. Initiatives can bring various concerns to the population and politicians, but sometimes the political path is too lengthy because the law needs to be changed now and not in a few months or years.

Another contradiction to the argument that a democratically elected government cannot give in to pressure from the streets because it would betray its own government program concerns the legal practice of protests and strikes. Protests and strikes are also an important addition to the democratic system. Through them, concerns can be made visible which are urgent. When working conditions are poor, an initiative cannot be launched first; the need is often acute and a strike is therefore justified. Civil disobedience joins this form of “protest from below”, except that civil disobedience is not legal. This illegality is justified by the urgency of the matter and the non-violence. Even in the context of civil disobedience one cannot legitimize the fact that a person is injured. But you can legitimize that an unauthorized art action is taking place in public space or that a law that violates human rights is broken. In some cases there is no time to collect signatures because the forest is cut down beforehand, the animals are killed beforehand, and people are traumatized beforehand. In other cases, the state itself is involved in practices which, for example, are inhumane. In such cases, reference can be made to Radbruch's formula. According to Radbruch, breaking laws is justified when the laws are extremely unjust and the legislators themselves intended to pass unjust laws. This principle was followed, for example, by the German courts in wall rifle trials when the GDR actors were held responsible for killing the refugees at the wall.

Civil disobedience is often the only means of pressure to force citizens and the state to look when living beings are disadvantaged or important laws are systematically defrauded, when there is an emergency that the state is supposed to remedy or when the state itself is unfair acts. Indigenous protest actions, women's strikes or actions such as those taking place under the Black Lives Matter movement can also be counted under the empowerment of marginalized groups through civil disobedience. When the extreme occurs and the state is unjust, civil disobedience is the only peaceful way to move the state to justice.


One of the many reasons civil disobedience can demonstrate a system's violence so effectively is its own non-violence. The non-violent protests of Mahatma Gandhi in India at the beginning of the 20th century and Martin Luther King's in the USA in the middle of the 20th century are prime examples. For John Rawls and Hannah Arendt's definitions of civil disobedience, non-violence is absolutely fundamental to its legitimacy.

But how is non-violence precisely defined? Are property damage and blockages a form of violence? The Berlin philosopher Robin Celikates finds weak forms of violence legitimate, even if they violate fundamental rights. He argues that sometimes it is not enough to appeal to a moral conscience, but that material and physical confrontations are needed when the form of injustice is too great. According to Celikates, a “real confrontation” is needed to be politically effective. For example, one can defend oneself against the deforestation of forests with occupations or break into stables to take pictures of the conditions of animal husbandry. But does this real confrontation really have to be physical? Isn't it possible to protest in other ways to draw attention to emergencies?

Duty to obey the law?

Civil disobedience is therefore very broadly defined as an appealing and non-violent form of breaking the law. This violation of the law is a thorn in the side of many bourgeois forces. There is a view that laws should be followed unquestionably. But is there really such a duty to blindly obey the law? And if not; under what circumstances can one violate the laws of a state? This question determines the legitimacy of civil disobedience as a form of protest. According to Hannah Arendt, it is legitimate to exercise civil disobedience when the change in the law or the social order cannot be brought about by conventional means, when time is of the essence or when a government acts unconstitutionally. A government loses credibility if it does not adhere to the standards of justice or the rule of law, or if it ignores situations that require urgent action. The above-mentioned Radbruch formula should also be referred to here.

Accepting the punishment

When laws are broken, the state sees itself as the guardian of these laws with the task of condemning the breaking of the law. But if civil disobedience is a form of protest to point out injustices, is it fair to punish someone for protesting? Wouldn't it actually be in the interests of the state for all citizens to point out to the state when something is unfair? In the mid-19th century, Henry Thoreau pleaded for the punishment to be accepted, as did Martin Luther King a century later. There were several reasons for this. On the one hand, acceptance of the punishment should signal recognition of the rule of law. Their aim is not to change an entire system, but to draw attention to injustices within the system. By respecting the law, one's own high moral standard should be shown. In addition - this was central with Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King - the violent practice of the state is more strongly contrasted and emphasized through non-violence, peacefulness and recognition of the system.

Examples of civil disobedience

The list of acts of civil disobedience is long. Mention should be made of people like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Sophie Scholl or Mahatma Gandhi, who have achieved cult status all over the world. But there are also current examples. The aforementioned Edward Snowden, who published the surveillance and espionage practices of the USA and Great Britain via Wikileaks. Sea Watch, who save refugees from drowning at sea, document and publish the actions. Or Pussy Riot, which protested in illegal public art actions against the clergy, Putin's regime, capitalism, gender coercion and homophobia. Their actions were filmed - including the violence used against them by the state. As a result, the public was shown the system in all its might.

Empowering the Powerless

Civil disobedience offers its defenders the opportunity to give a voice to people who have no political participation. It is an empowerment of the powerless, the voice of the mute and a mirror that is held up to society. Current examples show that civil disobedience is an important practice within a democratic system. Civil disobedience makes it possible to be heard when no one is listening. Civil disobedience keeps its finger on where there are gaps in the democratic system. In this way, participation in the political system is always improved - and that is definitely in the spirit of democracy.

Image by Denis Bochkarev, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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