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A Tribute to Mahatma Gandhi



I Am a Citizen. I Have Rights!


Did you know that sometimes, breaking the law might be the right thing to do? It can be if you are forced to follow an unjust law. This is called civil disobedience and it has been practiced for centuries all over the world. It means peacefully refusing to follow a law if your conscience does not agree. All over the world, activists, protestors, and even ordinary people have used this tactic to call attention to unjust or unfair laws and situations. Doing this can be very difficult and many people have been hurt, or thrown in jail. The reason they persist is that civil disobedience has proven to be a useful tool in protecting rights for humans and the environment.

The history of civil disobedience in America goes back to the start of our country's history. In the 1800s, Henry David Thoreau objected to slavery during a time when few others did. Coincidentally, he was imprisoned for not paying his taxes. He felt that a government that let slavery exist, did not have any moral authority. He therefore did not pay his taxes to protest the government's position on slavery, even though that meant staying in prison. Another early example of civil disobedience was the Boston Tea Party. Reacting to what they felt was an unjust system of taxation, by a parliament in England that neither represented them, nor aided their cause, American loyalists threw tea into the Boston harbor. In both of these cases, ordinary citizens stood up to their government for better laws. What would you do if your government denied you freedom?
During the 1950s and 60s of this country, segregation was the law of the land. This meant that African-Americans were denied equal access to public and private places. They were not even allowed to be served at many restaurants. Lead by Reverend Martin Luther King among others, civil rights activists would organize sit-ins. The demonstrators would enter a business and sit at the counter until forcibly evicted or their grievances were heard. This tactic was extremely effective, because although they were being passive, the people removing them were often violent. This show of force, when broadcast on television was crucial in changing America's mind as a whole, and lead the way to equal rights for all of its citizens.

Civil disobedience has also been a rallying cry for much larger groups of people for the same result. In India a few decades before, Mahatma Gandhi used the ideals of non-violence to organize the people of India in revolution against the British Empire. At that time, the British had control over much of the world, and they would have been nearly impossible to beat in an armed struggle. Instead, by uniting most of India in the cause, Ghandi was able to defeat the world's biggest empire, without raising a hand. He correctly reasoned that the British would not be able to stop an army of millions, even if that army was non-violent.

Even today, there are still many people engaged in thoughtful acts of civil disobedience to bring about change. Organizations such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club are confronting large companies who pollute, endanger animals and damage, or destroy the environment. On the individual level, there are people putting themselves at risk to protect the things they love because they feel it is the right thing to do. One such person, is Julia Butterfly. In March 1997 she climbed 180 feet to the top of an ancient redwood, and stayed for over 730 days refusing to come down. Due to her tenacity, she was able to stop timber companies from cutting down the old growth trees in the headwaters of California. Some of these trees are amongst the oldest living things on earth. Most have been cut and we are now left with just three percent of what previously existed. What remains is due largely to Julia, and the people, and organizations on the ground that helped support her mission.

I'm sure everyone has seen by now the TV footage from the protests in Seattle. Those and similar demonstrations in Prague, have been to protest international organizations that consistently place the interests of large multinational corporations over the environment or those of ordinary people. These corporations such as Nike, or Exxon, are not held accountable to any single country's laws because they do business all over the globe. This makes it easier for them to get away with human rights abuses, or environmental crimes. In the case of companies like Nike, other country's worker protection laws may be weaker than ours, so they produce their shoes in overseas factories. Some of these factories use sweatshop like conditions, with minimal pay, and hire kids as young as fourteen years old. The protests have brought these issues to the forefront, and now everyone is aware of the conditions, and companies are slowly being forced to change.

Another tactic that people have used is billboard swapping. Billboard swapping is a way to strike back by changing the ad on a billboard to become a statement of a different kind. These ideas developed in response to the amount of ads that constantly invade our world. Everywhere you look, TVs, radios, web-sites, even schools are full of advertisements. Another way of accomplishing this, that doesn't involve climbing, is altering web-sites. In one case, the Nike web-site was altered to make a reference to their human rights abuses. This is very different than simply hacking a web-site, because in this case, the hackers were trying to make a point, and not just destroy the site. This is similar to the protestors in Seattle, who had to block traffic in order to make their message heard by some of the largest organizations in the world. All of these are examples of civil disobedience, and it is important to note that they not doing it for personal gain. The goal is to peacefully bring attention to an unjust and unfair situation that needs to be changed.

Making a difference can be a very difficult thing to do but it is possible with some organization and the proper cause. Civil disobedience comes in many varieties and determining when it is appropriate is up to you. There are no guidelines but here are some helpful suggestions, to begin impacting the world in which you live.

  • Find something you feel very strongly about, like the environment, or politics, or whatever, and research the issues.
  • Find out the major players both for and against the issues and read their arguments. The internet is a terrific source for this, as it will also give you ways to contact the organizations. A lot of times, they may be currently involved in something and need people to write letters, or send emails in support of their cause.
  • Think local. Issues that you are concerned about could be local, such as the demolition of a park or public space to build a mall or development. Talk to your neighbors, teachers at school, and your classmates, and put pressure on your local government to either stop the construction, or create an alternative.

The Team


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphe - What They Did Was Treason!
Teddy - Did a snowball fight start the American Revolution?
Kevin - And justice for all of the rich and powerful
Teddy - The first day of war is always the longest...