Civil Disobedience – a Primer of Sorts

By John Gascoyne

Let’s start with a definitional reality check: Civil Disobedience (CD) is an intentional, non-violent criminal act, committed in support of a perceived worthy public need or ambition. Inherent in an act of CD is that it will be done in public and that the actor makes no effort to conceal her/his involvement.

John Gascoyne is a writer and lawyer living in Fort Collins, Colo. Learn more about him…

If you engage in civil disobedience and are arrested, be aware of some of the consequences to you and to those close to you:

  • Your freedom of movement will be immediately curtailed for an unknown, but usually fairly short, period of time – e.g. overnight or over the weekend. Yes, it could be for a longer time. This time frame contemplates your being able to make bail; it does not consider a possible jail sentence following a trial.
  • Your access to other people, to work, to school, etc. will be severely or completely limited for an indefinite period if you are serving time as a result of your involvement
  • If convicted for your action(s), you will carry some kind of criminal record – one that may very well stay with you. Consider having older activists perform the civil disobedience with younger folks being part of the support group – and thereby avoiding the stigma of a career-endangering rap sheet.

On the other hand:

  • Historically, acts of civil disobedience generally have been regarded as both noble and effective. Henry David Thoreau coined the term in 1849 and his writings influenced the thinking and actions of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and thousands of other heroes. Thoreau said, “Let your life be a counter friction to the machine.”
  • If someone is convinced that the stakes are great enough, and that other redress isn’t going to work, civil disobedience can be a meaningful personal response.

Some do’s and don’ts if you plan to engage in CD:

  • Carry yourself and your objectives with dignity and reserve.
  • If arrest is imminent, you can submit to law enforcement peacefully. If you choose to not do so – e.g. by going limp – you may face additional charges such as resisting arrest. Try to chart your own course ahead of time. There is never good reason for you to physically engage with or be aggressive toward authorities.
  • Don’t insult or demean arresting authorities. On the other hand, the deputy sheriff or police officer is not your friend – during arrest, transportation, or incarceration. No digas nada – don’t offer anything beyond your name and address.
  • Historically, some political and social movements have been infiltrated by government agents. Be wary of the stranger who wants to run the show or who is encouraging excessive actions.
  • Don’t assume that the friendly stranger in your cell can be confided in. Jailhouse snitches earn points by ratting on you.
  • Plan ahead – let one or two non-participating friends know your intentions. Carry their contact information with you. Consider giving them access to your rainy day bail money.
  • If necessary, carry prescribed medications with you. You will be searched after arrest, so don’t carry anything that will embarrass you in front of Officer Friendly.
  • If you have attorneys who will likely represent you, keep their card with you if possible. Memorize their phone number or write it on your arm or leg. Be aware that advising your attorneys in advance of the particulars of an act of civil disobedience will put them in an awkward position as they cannot condone a criminal action of which they have prior knowledge.
  • If you do have an attorney, or intend to have one, the first thing you should say to the police is, “I want to contact to my lawyer.”
  • The Public Defenders are extremely busy and tend to handle mostly serious offenses. It may be difficult for them to engage on your behalf.
  • Try to record everything about the action, about your arrest, and about your post-arrest experience. If possible, keep a pen and paper with you after the initial search.
  • Have non-participating confederates witnessing from a secure position and recording the action on cell phones and video cameras. These witnesses should avoid impeding arresting officers; on the other hand, they cannot legally be ordered to stop recording. Not every authority will respect the law in this regard; you may have to verbally stand your ground.
  • Develop rapport with local and national media personnel. Advise them of when and where they should be on hand.
  • Some CD actions can result in the use of tear gas or other irritants. Your handkerchief, soaked in water and tied behind your head, can offer some protection for your breathing.

One organization’s How-To Guide and Suggestions

In order to move from the abstract to the real, the following commentary depicts one successful group’s operating procedures:

Direct Action means the overall effort to achieve an important social or political objective at a particular location. We employ circles of Direct Action and Civil Disobedience – Green, Yellow and Red-zoned participation levels. These are designed as concentric levels of support at levels which participants feel they can comfortably contribute to the issues and actions.

Naturally, all factors must be discussed and thoroughly evaluated before an action is taken. Every part of every element for every person and action must be analyzed and projected in order to assure the advancement of the social objective. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu states: “Those who can see the outcome before they start will always win the battle.

Red: Imminent arrest. A situation where a known law(s) will be broken and where the participant faces almost assured arrest. The participant is well aware of the laws that may be broken at this time, the subsequent consequences, and their effect on the direct action as a whole. If arrest is not going to escalate, i.e. serve the purposes of the direct action issue, then arrest is generally avoided where possible.

Yellow: This is an immediate outer circle layer of support of the “arrestables”. The word “support” has many meanings, some of which can include, but not be limited to film, photography, equipment, and safety in support of the person in the red zone. Yellow participants assume a certain level of risk of arrest, but generally do not participate directly at the same level of involvement in the direct action as someone in the Red Zone.

Green: The green zone is generally the safest of all and arrest is unlikely. This zone generally provides legal observation, scouting, communications with a legal team, media agencies, social networks and other resources.

Have legal support

One of the most critical aspects of what we have done nationally or internationally has been to always have legal support. If someone is going into the red zone, they use a permanent marker and write, on the inside of the thigh or arm, the phone number of their personal legal counsel and any other phone numbers necessary to their release from custody. No phone numbers should give away extra information regarding the group or their tactics.

Volunteer legal observers – lay persons – are always on site and document every movement of persons in the red zone, any interactions with authorities, etc. These documents can be utilized in court actions to defend an arrested person. This is also true of any video or audio content that might be captured from the location and the direct action.

If a person who is engaging in civil disobedience “goes limp” when given lawful orders by police authorities, they may have to deal with an added charge of resisting arrest.

Location “lock downs” are usually considered among the most effective tactics. For example, where someone’s arms are handcuffed inside of a large iron pipe, it can take a great deal of time to arrest them, thus providing lots of time for media coverage – one of the main goals of civil disobedience.

Lastly, protection of all parties is paramount. The safety of participants, law enforcement agents, and observers must be maintained.

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