In this article, you will learn how to organise a civil disobedience action. We will discuss whether it is an effective tactic, looking at the impact of civil disobedience actions in history. Then we explain in detailed steps how to organise your own civil disobedience action.
Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal of a citizen to obey certain laws, demands, orders or commands of a government. By some definitions, civil disobedience has to be nonviolent to be called 'civil'. Hence, civil disobedience is sometimes equated with peaceful protests or nonviolent resistance.
Extinction Rebellion is an example of a movement that uses civil disobedience to draw attention to the climate crisis.
Is civil disobedience effective?
It can be effective, but it is not always the most effective tactic. Sometimes other tactics, such as negotiation or education, may be more effective.
Improve this section: Do you have information about how effective civil disobedience actions have been in history?
How to organise
Below, we will explain in detailed steps how you can organise a civil disobedience action.
0. Decide where to do civil disobedience (points of intervention)
Point of destruction: where resource extraction is devastating intact ecosystems, indigenous lands, and local communities
Point of production: where workers are organizing in the sweatshops and factories of the world.
Point of transportation where the products are moved from one point to another
Point of consumption: where the products that are made from unjust processes are sold
Point of decision to confront the decision makers who have the power to make the changes they need.
1. Justify the need for civil disobedience
Your action tactics should be appropriate in the context of what you are fighting for. You will need to balance the following three things:
Urgency and severity of the problem you want to address: For example, the climate crisis has severe negative impacts on humanity, and it is really urgent that we come into action.
Potential positive impact organising a civil disobedience action could have (see ‘Potential impact’ section above): For example, not enough is being done to solve the climate crisis, even though the scientific proof is more than sufficient, and it is unlikely things are going to change for the better without major intervention. Many other tactics have already been tried and failed. Civil disobedience actions have a good historical track record of accelerating societal change.
Potential harmful effects of your civil disobedience action on participants and outsiders: For example, participants may get arrested and outsiders will likely be disturbed. But this might be worth it, given the previous two factors.
You need to justify both to potential participants and the public that civil disobedience really is the right approach:
Convincing participants: Do not try to force or trick people into participating in a civil disobedience action. It must be their own conscious choice. For example, do not invite people to a legal action, and let it suddenly turn into a civil disobedience action. People must be able to make a personal balance to determine if the potential risks are worth it. They must be given the opportunity to prepare and train themselves beforehand. You might be able to get away with trickery if everything goes well (e.g. the police do not intervene). But if things go wrong (e.g. people get arrested without being prepared for that), you risk doing serious mental and physical harm. For example, someone might panic and hit a police agent. This will then be an excuse for the police to escalate violence toward all action participants.
Convincing the public: You do not have to convince everyone that civil disobedience is the right approach. Many people will not like you disturbing their daily lives, and that is ok. You just have to make sure that a significant portion of the public is sympathetic to your actions ("I wouldn't do it myself, but I appreciate you speaking out about this"). In other words: do not let some criticism put you off civil disobedience as a tactic. It has been proven to be a very effective tactic in many circumstances, even when most of the public seemed to be opposed. However, you should still make an active attempt to justify your actions to the public. Having public support makes your life so much easier, and more importantly, it helps you further your cause.
2. Build trust & get out of comfort zone
For most people, engaging in civil disobedience is very much out of their comfort zone. Even if they agree with your tactics rationally, this does not mean they will join you straight away.
You will need to practice getting out of your comfort zone. This requires a lot of trust between the people who get out of their comfort zone together. Here are some steps that you can take to build trust and get out of your comfort zone together:
Practice in a safe environment: Start by practising in a safe environment, where all people that are present participate in the comfort-breaking activity. A small bit of group pressure is good, but allow people to take their time and ease into it. People must be willing to be challenged in their comfort zone, do not force them.
Create a safe environment by getting people together in small groups. Let everyone introduce themselves, and do a check-in round to see how everyone is doing. Encourage everyone to be open about their current wellbeing.
Do something crazy. It does not really matter what, as long as it is different from what people are used to doing. For example, get everyone to shake their whole body to get the blood flowing. Say a few statements, and get people to respond by standing on one side of the room (agree) or the other (disagree). Shout all your frustrations away. Or stare at each other silently.
Prepare & practise your action. Try to make participants experience what it is like to participate in your civil disobedience action, without actually doing the action yet. See more information below in the next section ‘Train participants’.
Practice in public: Organise low-risk actions that involve getting out of your comfort zone. For example, get everyone to make lots of noise. All wear the same strange clothes. Or lay down on the pavement, without blocking anything. Make sure to check your local laws on what things you can do to get out of your comfort zone, without breaking the law. Be creative! The additional benefit is that you might actually be able to draw some attention to your cause and grow your movement, without having to break the law (read more about this in Section 4 on how to grow your group).
Allow people to participate in civil disobedience actions in low-risk roles. Organise civil disobedience actions in which people who do not want to get arrested can also participate, so they can get more familiar with your action tactics. For example, have them be present as legal observers (keeping track of who gets arrested, and making sure the police follow the law), as wellbeing facilitators (handing out food and giving mental support) or as first aid. This also makes actions more comfortable for people who are getting arrested.
3. Train participants
Agree on action principles: Make sure to agree on some basic principles of what kind of behaviour is expected of all action participants, to create a safe space for everyone. For example, you can agree not to bring any drugs like alcohol or weed. You can also agree to refrain from violence in all circumstances, even if the police start using force (this requires practice!).
Practice your action tactic: For example, do a role-play to see what it is like to be arrested, using the going floppy tactic to resist arrest passively (with some playing the police, and others the activists). Practice making a human lock-on.
Talk about the legal aspects of participating in a civil disobedience action and talk about what kind of police practices to expect so people know what to expect.
4. Grow your group
It is important that you engage in civil disobedience actions with as many people as possible. The smaller your group, the easier it is for law enforcement to break up your action and prosecute the participants.
5. Organise your action
Read more about how to organise a protest action.
Small groups of people, decentralised: Action organisation is easiest with a relatively small group of people. The larger your group, the more risk-averse it will become. You need to be able to take a certain level of risk as an activist movement.
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This page is an adaptation of the following articles:
Civil disobedience by Wikipedia
Civil resistance tactics in the 21st Century, page 28 by ICNC (2021)