This is a citizen’s right. A right of defiance, of distrust towards a State and its institutions when we are convinced that our rights are being violated
By Makhtar DIOUF | SENEPLUS.COM
Civil disobedience, carried out by an individual or by a group, is not an act of rebellion, disrespect, an offense against public authority materialized by acts of violence, ransacking of public and private property, attacks, insults or threats towards representatives of the State. Civil disobedience is not a crime, an act prohibited by law.
On the contrary, civil disobedience is a citizen’s right. A right of defiance, of distrust with regard to a State and its institutions when the citizen or group is convinced that their rights are violated to the point that they feel that they no longer be trustful, that they are cornered, harassed, victims of injustice.
The acts taken by a State are in principle consistent with the law as enshrined in the Constitution, the supreme law. This is the domain of legality. But it can happen that what is legal is not legitimate. Legitimacy corresponds to morality, to what is just, equitable, reasonable. The ideal is that the legal agrees with the legitimate. That is not always the case.
Throughout history and throughout the world, it is injustice that has provided the basis for civil disobedience. It is a process of passive, civilized and peaceful resistance, not punished in a truly democratic regime. The goal of civil disobedience is to promote positive change through the advent of justice.
History is full of cases of civil disobedience. Let us cite some of the most famous examples.
The term “civil disobedience” comes to us from the English language; “civil disobedience” [comes] from the pen of the American intellectual Henry David Thoreau. In 1849 he wrote an essay entitled Resistance to Civil Government, which he re-titled Civil Disobedience in 1866. Democrat, anti-slavery, Thoreau practiced civil disobedience by refusing to pay his taxes to the American government to protest against slavery, the extermination of American Indians and the war against Mexico which will lead to the annexation of its richest territories such as California and Texas (which are currently the richest regions of the United States). For Thoreau, no moral man can patiently comply with injustice.
His ideas were taken up in the 20th century in works (translated into French) by eminent thinkers such as the German sociologist Max Weber (The Scientist and Politics, 2002) and the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (Reason and Legitimacy. Problems of Legitimation in advanced capitalism, 1978).For Habermas, civil disobedience is an important key to a mature democracy.
One of the first to read Thoreau’s book for inspiration was Mahatma Gandhi. Under British colonization, Indians had to pay a tax on salt extracted from the sea by the authorities and were forbidden from extracting the salt themselves. On March 12, 1930 Gandhi undertook the ”Sal March” (salt march) with a few faithful: Arriving at the seaside, they bathed and took seawater which they evaporated to extract the salt, thus obtained for free. Gandhi, the apostle of [non]violence, understood that at a given moment when we reach the end of our rope, we must resist arbitrariness. This act was a catalyst for the independence of his country, a little over fifteen years later. An independence that he will not see.
Another famous person for civil disobedience was the African-American pastor Martin Luther King.
Martin Luther King (MLK) said he encountered Thoreau’s book in 1944 and read it several times. He was also inspired by Gandhi and visited his family during a stay in India in 1959.
To understand MLK’s struggle, you need to have an idea of the situation in his country at this time . MLK lived in America at the height of racial segregation, especially in Birmingham, the capital of Alabama. Buses were banned for black people. On buses where they were tolerated, black people were required to give up their seats to white people. African-American Rosa Parks became the first to refuse to give up her seat on a busy bus; which triggered a vast resistance movement.
It is in this context that MLK took action through his words and actions.
His I Have a Dream speech on August 28, 1963, in Washington in front of the bust of anti-slavery activist Abraham Lincoln is memorable. MLK began by paying tribute to President Abraham Lincoln, architect of the 1863 “Emancipation Proclamation” relating to the abolition of slavery, and immediately added:
A century later, the Negro is still not free…
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live the true meaning of its faith: We hold these truths for granted, that all men are created equal…
…We are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until the day when justice rolls down like a torrent and righteousness like a mighty river.
Every apostle of non-violence that he is, in April 1963, to white priests who told him that the battle against racial segregation must take place in the courts and not in the streets, then in prison for having started a demonstration, he responds in an Open Letter:
Not only is civil disobedience justified in the face of unjust law, but everyone has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws… Without direct and powerful action, civil rights will never be achieved… Good, even temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.
MLK also fought against the Vietnam War, poverty and unemployment, especially affecting Blacks.
During his lifetime and after his death, MLK was vilified by his adversaries, including the FBI: ”communist,” ”hypocritical preacher,” ”the most famous liar,” ”homosexual,” ‘unfaithful to his wife’, ”cheater having plagiarized his Doctoral Thesis”… Headphones were placed in the rooms of the hotels where he resided during his travels.
His successful actions included the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act. ” of 1968. These measures legally eliminate all forms of racial segregation in the country. But in practice?
Still, 40 years after his assassination, an African American was elected President of the United States. Barak Obama understood that Martin Luther King’s fight paid off, by putting his bust in his Oval Office at the White House. Which African has not felt a certain pride on the occasion of this event which cannot be detached from the civil disobedience of Pastor Martin Luther King?
Another American who distinguished himself in civil disobedience was the boxer Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay). In 1966, anchored in his religious and ethical convictions, he refused his incorporation into the American army to go and kill Vietnamese who had done nothing to the Americans and their country. He was sentenced to 5 years, and stripped of his boxing titles and his license. He appealed to the Supreme Court. After many adventures, he was restored to his rights. What African, even a non-boxing fan, has not admired this man for his performances, but also for his act of civil disobedience in the face of the unjust Vietnam War?
In the United Kingdom, in 1989, Prime Minister Margareth Thatcher introduced the “poll tax”, a direct poll tax paid per capita. The most unfair, unjust tax there is: A billionaire would pay the same amount of tax as his servants. There was an immediate outcry across the country. Faced with the scale and duration of the protest movement with thousands of demonstrators brandishing Don’t pay poll tax signs, the intransigent Margareth Thatcher nicknamed The Iron Lady) was forced to resign in 1990.
In France, the “Yellow Vest” demonstrations led President Macron to remove the fuel tax he had introduced. Sooner or later he will end up abandoning his plan to extend the retirement age of workers.
Civil disobedience carried out individually or collectively against arbitrariness, always and everywhere aims for the same purpose: to bring back to reason, to justice, the holder of power of whatever nature.