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Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

New World Encyclopedia definition:

Civil disobedience encompasses the active refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government or of an occupying power without resorting to physical violence. Based on the position that laws can be unjust, and that there are human rights that supersede such laws, civil disobedience developed in an effort to achieved social change when all channels of negotiation failed. The act of civil disobedience (CD) involves the breaking of a law, and as such is a crime and the participants expect and are willing to suffer punishment in order to make their case known.

You’ll find that all civil liberties that we hold so dear came by forcing them from the establishment of the day. We’ve become so accustomed to them that we have forgotten that history and, as George Santayana said, “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it”.

Biblical CD

Let’s start with Jesus, the clearing of the temple of the money lenders and the many other acts of defiance of the law that he and the disciples performed in order to change things for the better.

Freedom from Crown oppression

King John signing the Magna Carta at Runnymede, 1215

King John signing the Magna Carta at Runnymede, 1215

The Magna Carta in 1215 was a massive act of CD against King John and the establishment, especially nobles close to the King. It makes strange reading today but it promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown, to be implemented through a council of 25 barons. This is seen by some as the birth of parliament. It’s real value is its perception through the ages as the document that established the basic rights of Englishmen and eventually us.

Free speech

This is hard to trace because it’s not a positive right in the UK, with no entrenched Bill of Rights, having no constitution to entrench it in, but a negative right to do what the law doesn’t forbid. The UK has the most onerous defamation laws in the English Speaking World.

In US and since 1982 in Canada, free speech is entrenched in the Bill of Rights, thus can only be altered or repealed by Constitutional Amendment. Until the 2008 SCC case of Simpson v. CKNW and Mair the defamation laws in Canada were much like those in Britain.

Free Speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly are invariably anathema to the Establishment and down through the ages civil disobedience has been a common response by the people. It is constantly under challenge by authority every day even to ban rudeness!

Right to vote and have representation

The right to participate in the governance of the country was very restricted in Britain until quite recent times. Under Liverpool and Castlereigh in the early 1800’s voting rights were for the aristocracy but that spawned s demand for more voting rights bringing the watershed Peterloo Massacre in 1819 in Manchester. Workers demanded parliamentary reform along with extension of the franchise and, defying the law, marched to St. Peter’s Field. They refused to disperse and the cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000-80,000 that had gathered peacefully, killing 15 and injuring 400-600. This woke up the general populace and reform was demanded of a surprised parliament that thought that everyone loved them. A demand for justice, a refusal, civil disobedience and finally parliament got the message and started down the road to Sir Robert Peel’s Reform Act of 1832 followed by a long, reluctant process punctuated with more civil disobedience, leading to the extinction of rotten boroughs and eventually to the vote being granted o property owners and then finally in 1917 to women.

The American Revolution of 1776

The American Revolution was a major act of civil disobedience to taxation passed by the English Parliament. The revolt was based on the principle of “no taxation without representation” which threatened the entire Empire. Moreover the notions of Liberty contained in the Declaration of Independence and the writings of such people as Jefferson, Madison, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton were unsettling to say the least. Probably the most disturbing voice came from one of Britain’s own, a failed woman’s stay-maker and disgraced customs collector, Thomas Paine, whose writings inspired and sustained the revolution. (Incidentally he is one of my great heroes.) The fragility of free speech is demonstrated by The second president, John Adams, who passed the Sedition Act where “sedition” was defined by the president and carried heavy fines and imprisonment. It resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of 25 men for violating the Sedition Act, some by insulting President Adams!

The French Revolution

The French Revolution was a huge influence on rights in Britain. It violently overthrew the establishment, called for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and popularly elected government, all of which took time, to say the least! It spawned a marvelous exchange of views between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, well worth reading today.

Perhaps the French Revolution was summed up by Chou En-Lai in the 1970s. When asked what the impact of the French Revolution was he replied “it is too soon to know”.

Right to membership in parliament

Membership in parliament came slowly and painfully and only by reason of defiance of the law by Jews particularly. There was many heroes including Baron Lionel De Rothschild who was elected, expelled because, it was said, he couldn’t take the Christian oath, elected again, expelled, got back in again and so on until his breaking the rules brought the necessary reforms.

In 1963, Labourite Sir Anthony Wedgewood-Benn was expelled from the House when his father died and he became a Peer. Calling himself Tony Benn, he ran again, was elected. Expelled again, Harold MacMillan eventually passed legislation in 1963 allowing for the renunciation of titles.

Ironically, Macmillan’s successor, Alexander Frederick Douglas-Home, Baron Home of the Hirsel, could only take over because he could now renounce his hereditary title and become Sir Alec Douglas-Home, a mere Knight!

Votes for women

Obtaining the vote in Great Britain was a long, arduous struggle which didn’t end until World War I had nearly ended. There was much Civll Disobedience involved over the preceding decades but the classic case, came with the Votes For Women movement. The great heroes, the Pankhursts and others, went to jail, were force-fed and generally berated by society until finally they got the franchise. It was hardly the generosity of the Establishment that won the day – rhe vote was given to women in 1919 but only after massive demonstrations and CD resulting in jail, torture, serious injuries and many deaths.

The struggle in Canada was long and arduous but fortunately violence free.

US civil rights struggle

How quickly we forget the civil rights movement in the United States. As good a starting point as any is 1944 when Second Lieutenant Jackie Robinson was ordered to move to the back of a bus, refused to do so, was court-martialed, convicted and ultimately acquitted on appeal.

Then came Rosa Parks in 1955 who, when ordered by a bus driver in Montgomery, Alabama to go to the back of the bus, refused, was convicted and the result was a boycott by all Blacks of buses for more than a year. A group composed of local activists and ministers, organized the boycott and chose a young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. as leader.

In 1956, sparked by Ms. Park’s illegal action, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the segregation law was unconstitutional and the Montgomery buses were integrated, beginning a revolutionary era of non-violent mass protests in support of civil rights in the United Sta

Autherine Juanita Lucy was born on October 5, 1929, in Shiloh, Alabama, A keen student who was the youngest of 10 siblings on a family farm, Lucy went on to earn a teaching certificate from Selma University before attending Birmingham’s Miles College, graduating with a bachelor’s in English.

There she met Pollie Ann Myers, a more outgoing and activist-focused student who suggested that they enroll at the all-white, state-backed University of Alabama for its graduate school program. They were accepted in 1952 with standard procedures commenced until university officials realized the two women were African American. Upon Lucy’s and Myers’s arrival to the admissions office, they were barred from enrolling.

Having already enlisted the NAACP’s aid, with attorneys Arthur Shores and Thurgood Marshall the two petitioned for university admittance.

In the summer of 1955, a federal judge ruled that the school had to admit the two women, though the institution denied Myers’s admission on the grounds that she had been pregnant out of wedlock. After much prayer, Lucy decided to attend by herself and, on February 1, 1956, became the first African-American student to enroll at the school.

In a key event of the American Civil Rights Movement, nine black students enrolled at formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957, testing a landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The court had mandated that all public schools in the country be integrated “with all deliberate speed” in its decision related to the groundbreaking case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. On September 4, 1957, the first day of classes at Central High, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas called in the state National Guard to bar the black students’ entry into the school. Later in the month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the “Little Rock Nine” into the school, and they started their first full day of classes on September 25.

On May 4, 1961, a group of 13 African-American and white civil rights activists launched the Freedom Rides, a series of bus trips through the American South to protest segregation in interstate bus terminals. The Freedom Riders, who were recruited by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a U.S. civil rights group, departed from Washington, D.C., and attempted to integrate facilities at bus terminals along the way into the Deep South. African-American Freedom Riders tried to use “whites-only” restrooms and lunch counters, and vice versa. The group encountered tremendous violence from white protestors along the route, but also drew international attention to their cause. Over the next few months, several hundred Freedom Riders engaged in similar actions. In September 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued regulations prohibiting segregation in bus and train stations nationwide.

James Meredith

James Meredith

Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, on June 25, 1933, James Howard Meredith was raised on a farm with nine brothers and sisters, largely insulated from the racism of the time. His first experience with institutionalized racism occurred while riding a train from Chicago with his brother. When the train arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, Meredith was ordered to give up his seat and move to the crowded black section of the train, where he had to stand for the rest of his trip home. He vowed then that he would dedicate his life ensuring equal treatment for African Americans.

After high school, Meredith spent nine years in the Army Air Force before enrolling in Jackson State College-an all-black school-in Mississippi. In 1961, he applied to the all-white University of Mississippi. He was admitted, but his admission was withdrawn when the registrar discovered his race. Since all public educational institutions had been ordered to desegregate by this time (following 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling), Meredith filed a suit alleging discrimination. Although the district court ruled against him, the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor.

When Meredith arrived at Ole Miss to register for classes on September 20, 1962, he found the entrance blocked. Rioting erupted, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent 500 U.S. Marshals to the scene. Additionally, President John F. Kennedy sent military police, troops from the Mississippi National Guard and officials from the U.S. Border Patrol. On October 1, 1962, James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi.

Meredith graduated with a degree in political science in 1963. He wrote an account of his experience, titled Three Years in Mississippi, which was published in 1966. He went on to receive a master’s degree in economics from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, and a law degree from Columbia University in 1968.

Right of labour to organize and bargain/strike

The right to organize and bargain services collectively was a long and difficult struggle.

In the early 19th century in Britain the notion that labourers could unite for a common purpose was dismissed by the establishment as being a conspiracy against the employers and punishable by Transportation or worse. Probably the most famous early case was in 1833 when a number of labourers in Tolpuddle, to be called the Tolpuddle Martyrs, refused to go to work because their wages has been dramatically reduced. They were found guilty of conspiracy and transported to Australia.

Things went from bad to worse and right up until 1906 unions were considered to be unlawful conspiracies. It didn’t end there and general labour peace didn’t come to Britain until after the Margaret Thatcher era.

According to Labour historians Philip Taft and Philip Ross, The United States has had the bloodiest and most violent labor history of any industrial nation in the world. Labor violence was not confined to certain industries, geographic areas, or specific groups in the labor force, although it has been more frequent in some industries than in others. There have been few sections and scarcely any industries in which violence has not erupted at some time, and even more serious confrontations have on occasion followed. Native and foreign workers, whites and blacks have at times sought to prevent strike replacements from taking their jobs, and at other times have themselves been the object of attack. With few exceptions, labor violence in the United States arose in specific situations, usually during a labor dispute. The precipitating causes have been attempts by pickets and sympathizers to prevent a plant on strike from being reopened with strikebreakers,1 or attempts of company guards, police, or even by National Guardsmen to prevent such interference. At different times employers and workers have played the roles of aggressors and victims. Union violence was directed at limited objectives; the prevention of the entrance of strikebreakers or raw materials to a struck plant, or interference with finished products leaving the premises. While the number seriously injured and killed was high in some of the more serious encounters, labor violence rarely spilled over to other segments of the community.

The most virulent form of industrial violence occurred in situations in which efforts were made to destroy a functioning union or to deny to a union recognition.

In British Columbia we certainly have nothing to be proud of. Well into my time, indeed just a couple of years before I went into the legislature, labour leaders were sent to jail for contempt on a regular basis. The procedure was that the labour leader would disobey the law by calling a strike, then be ordered to rescind that order, he would refuse, be cited for contempt of court, and thrown in jail.


These are just a few general areas where the people, demanding rights inconvenient to those who make self serving laws and enforce them, always maintaining smugly that the law must be obeyed.

In all the instances I have cited the citizens involved defied the law.

The typical situation today has citizens lying down before a front-end loader, the company charges them with civil trespass, the action being repeated, the company then goes back to court and gets a civil injunction, then when the injunction is disobeyed, the citizens are in contempt of court, a criminal matter. In short the law allows an employer to convert a civil tort into a crime so that the penalty is not a civil penalty but jail.

Thus we see that civil disobedience has a long, honourable history. What is also obvious is that the establishment, like the Bourbons, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

Large corporations are given egregiously favourable treatment by Parliament allowing them to pollute, trespass, destroy the environment, interfere with peoples lives, lower their home values and, worst of all, expose them to great dangers.

The only examination of their proposal is done by a government appointed body, such as The National Energy Board where “the fix is clearly in”.

The establishment, through a tame parliament, passes laws giving these special privileges and then says to citizens, you must obey the law because it passed a parliament you elected. If you don’t like it, elect a new Parliament to change the laws, an egregiously tendentious argument that would be laughable were not so deadly serious.

This is the same pattern as the matters I have described above whether it be free-speech, votes for women or whatever. The people were told to obey laws that had been legitimately passed and the fact that they had been passed by those holding the very special privileges under attack, made no difference.

My point is that nothing has changed. An evil is sanctioned by a government, supported by the beneficiaries of that evil, and those adversely affected are told they must obey the law or go to jail.

What is so puzzling is that so many, whose own experiences ought to have taught them better, can’t seem to see this.

Finally, three working principles of civil disobedience

The first principle is that you maintain respect for the rule of law even while disobeying the specific law that you perceive as unjust.

The second principle; you should plead guilty to any violation of the law.

The third principle: you should attempt to convert your opponent by demonstrating the justice of your cause.

Good luck!

Rafe Mair, LL.B, LL.D (hon)
Carthaginem Esse Delendam

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