By Max Obuszewski
In 2002, the Iraq Pledge of Resistance was formed to prevent a war
with Iraq. While we failed, we continued to engage in nonviolent
direct action to end the war and the occupation. Eventually, the
group, in expanding its focus, became the National Campaign for
Nonviolent Resistance [NCNR].
In light of the massive Capitol Climate Action on March 2nd, we would
like to take the opportunity to describe what we as a campaign have
committed ourselves to. We celebrate this opportunity to share our
thoughts with other progressive activists.
As a group with lots of direct action experience, NCNR has
consistently encouraged organizations and individuals to recognize the
difference between civil disobedience and civil resistance. We see
the difference as being important in the struggle for nonviolent,
positive social change.
The classic definition of civil disobedience, as practiced by the
civil rights movement, is the breaking of an unjust law with the
intent of changing it. In Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, Rosa Parks
broke an immoral law when she refused to give up her seat on a city
bus to a white person.
It is rare for today's actvists to do "civil disobedience," as it
removes the onus from the government to prove a defendant was engaged
in criminal activity. Doing CD can cause a majority of the people to
plead guilty and pay a protest tax. Doing CD eliminates the argument
that the government, or a corporate entity, is the lawbreaker.
Today, NCNR activists engage in civil resistance, which means taking
action to uphold the law. For example, we repeatedly challenged the
Bush/Cheney government which disavowed the rule of law.
Using the term civil resistance is important for several reasons.
First, in every statement about an action we point out that a
government, or a corporate entity, is breaking the law. Second, we
stress our Nuremberg obligation to act against the government's
lawbreaking. Finally, there is the matter of speaking in court after
the action. A defendant who states s/he was engaged in civil
disobedience not only is pleading guilty, but is letting the
government off the hook for its failure to prosecute the real
If we are arrested, we encourage participants to go to trial and then
use the courtroom to state that the action was lawful since its intent
was to expose actual violations of the law—starting an illegal war,
torturing prisoners or destroying the environment.
In court, we point out citizens have a Nuremberg obligation. At the
Nuremberg trials, the court determined that citizens must challenge
the government when it breaks the law.
Using the term civil disobedience today can confuse activists new to
resistance. An activist would assume first that the rationale is to
get arrested in order to change the law, and second that one is guilty
Reporters and prosecutors will make the case, you wanted to get
arrested. No, the intent of the person involved in civil resistance
was to end torture or to close down a nuclear power plant or to uphold
the Constitution. One reason a prosecutor asks such a question is
that most charges have a "mens rea" [guilty mind] component to the
charge. The government will argue that the defendant's intent was to
get arrested. No, the intent, for example, was to try to get a
meeting with a senator who voted to fund an illegal war.
On January 3, 2008 twelve activists arrested on September 15, 2007
outside the Capitol had their case dismissed. Over 180 people
arrested that day pled guilty and paid a citation fee. Once the case
came to court, it became evident that the police line was illegal. If
possible, activists should take these "open and shut" cases to court.
Not only did the Bush administration break innumerable laws, but
police consistently violate First Amendment rights. Even if one is
found guilty after engaging in an act of civil resistance, an
absurdity can become obvious: prosecute an activist who stated the war
is illegal, but ignore the criminality rampant in the Bush
In closing, we reiterate the importance of using appropriate language.
Those of us with experience have a duty to mentor those who are just
now contemplating acts of resistance. And when we act, we engage in