What is Civil Disobedience?


On July 4th, 2012, my neighbor, Travis Henry, attempted to commit an act of civil disobedience, which led me to study the definition of civil disobedience.  Travis documents his actions here.  Travis was arrested and charged with two misdemeanors: Entering a Closed Federal Area and Interfering with a Federal Officer.  He was released the next day, fined $375 and required to attend a court appearance.  On October 25th, 2012, Travis wrote a “Letter on the Nation’s Probation” to the U.S. Probation Office, which you can read here, in which he refused to pay the fine and attend the court (besides also stating his aim of replacing our current system of government with what Travis calls a “Threefold Republic.”  On Nov 19th, 2012, ten U.S. marshals showed up next door to where I live to arrest him, apparently for failure to pay the fine.  To further understand why Travis took those actions, you can read more about Travis’ Threefold Declaration here and download the declaration here.

The discussion that follows is not concerned with Travis’ agenda, nor is it concerned with the response of the U.S. government in his arrest by ten U.S. marshals.  What is of concern in this discussion is the understanding of civil disobedience, the confusion that can surround the topic, and why this confusion exists.

Concepts of Civil Disobedience

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent essay on the topic of Civil Disobedience (see footnotes.)  Among other things, this essay identifies that the characteristics of civil disobedience fall into two camps, one fairly narrow and the other broader, encompassing / permitting more varied forms of law breaking but still falling under the concept of civil disobedience.  There are several characteristics of civil disobedience in which this division is present:

Narrower Definition Broader Definition Summary
Direct Indirect Pertains to whether the person is breaking a law that is also the law they are protesting
Open and Public Covert Pertains to how the person notifies the authorities of their actions
Non-Violent Violent Pertains to whether the action harms a person or property
Fidelity to the Law Continued Disobedience Pertains to whether the person accepts the consequences of their action or uses refusal to pay fines, etc., as further protest

Direct vs. Indirect Action

The distinction between direct and indirect civil disobedience was brought about as a result of the 1991 court case United States v. Schoon.4  A direct act of civil disobedience is one in which the law being broken is the same law that the person is protesting against.  Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger, protesting bus segregation.  Thoreau refused to to pay the state poll tax – this was in direct response to the taxes being used to fund the war in Mexico and enforce the Fugitive Slave Law and constitutes an act if direct civil disobedience because a portion of the taxes funded the war and the slave laws.

A broader definition of civil disobedience does allow for what is termed “indirect” civil disobedience:  “civil disobedients can … breach a law … they do not oppose in order to demonstrate their protest against another law or policy.”1   An example of indirect civil disobedience would be “[t]respassing on a military base to spray-paint nuclear missile silos in protest against current military policy..”1

The acts of civil disobedience most often cited are direct, showing a clear correlation between the law and the protestation of the law, and are preferred from a strategic perspective.5

Open vs. Covert Action

A narrower characteristic of civil disobedience is that it “is never covert or secretive; it is only ever committed in public, openly, and with fair notice to legal authorities.”1  Furthermore, “Openness and publicity, even at the cost of having one’s protest frustrated, offer ways for disobedients to show their willingness to deal fairly with authorities.”1  This touches on the subject of fidelity to the law, discussed in the next section.  Lastly, among some thinkers “usually it is essential to the dissenter’s purpose that both the government and the public know what she intends to do.”1

The broader characteristic states that “publicity sometimes detracts from or undermines the attempt to communicate through civil disobedience. If a person publicizes her intention to breach the law, then she provides both political opponents and legal authorities with the opportunity to abort her efforts to communicate…For this reason, unannounced or (initially) covert disobedience is sometimes preferable to actions undertaken publicly and with fair warning.”1 An example of covert disobedience would include “releasing animals from research laboratories or vandalizing military property; to succeed in carrying out these actions, disobedients would have to avoid publicity…”1  However, note that: “Such acts of civil disobedience nonetheless may be regarded as ‘open’ when followed soon after by an acknowledgment of the act and the reasons for acting.”1

Fidelity vs. Continued Disobedience

Fidelity to the law, in which the “the persons who practice civil disobedience are willing to accept the legal consequences of their actions”, appears to be one of the defining features of civil disobedience:  “…as Martin Luther King Jr observes: ‘If you confront a man who has been cruelly misusing you, and say “Punish me, if you will; I do not deserve it, but I will accept it, so that the world will know I am right and you are wrong,” then you wield a powerful and just weapon.’ “1  Fidelity to the law is pertinent not just to whether the person accepts the consequences of their actions or not.  It is also relevant to obeying laws before (such as communicating intent) and during (such as non-violence) the action.  “Non-violence, publicity and a willingness to accept punishment are often regarded as marks of disobedients’ fidelity to the legal system in which they carry out their protest.”1

Conversely:  “Barkan writes that if defendants plead not guilty, ‘they must decide whether their primary goal will be to win an acquittal and avoid imprisonment or a fine, or to use the proceedings as a forum to inform the jury and the public of the political circumstances surrounding the case and their reasons for breaking the law via civil disobedience.’ “2 “Those who deny that [non-violence, publicity and a willingness to accept punishment] are definitive of civil disobedience endorse a more inclusive conception according to which civil disobedience involves a conscientious and communicative breach of law designed to demonstrate condemnation of a law or policy and to contribute to a change in that law or policy.”1

Non-violent vs. Violent Action

The definition of violence is itself difficult to reach.  “If the significant criterion for a commonsense notion of a violent act is a likelihood of causing injury, however minor, then these kinds of acts count as acts of violence.”1 The salient point of this view is that any act, that causes injury is considered an act of violence, no matter how minor the act.

An opposing view states “It is unclear, for example, whether violence to self, violence to property, or minor violence against others…should be included in a conception of the relevant kinds of violence.”1

Agreeing on a definition is one thing, but another thing is determining whether an action even falls in the “however minor” category.  More on this later.

Civil Disobedience, the Political Context, and Further Broadening of the Concept

One of the reasons for the range of characteristics of civil disobedience is the political context in which the action takes place: “it grants that the appropriate model of how civil disobedience works in a context such as apartheid South Africa may differ from the model that applies to a well-ordered, liberal, just democracy.”1  However, one thing is clear – as we continue to broaden the concept of civil disobedience, we start treading on other forms of protest “such as conscientious objection, forcible resistance, and revolutionary action.”1  As the concept of civil disobedience broadens, blurring the lines between these different types of protest, it begins to “weaken claims about the defensibility of civil disobedience and invite authorities and opponents of civil disobedience to lump all illegal protest under one umbrella”1, which might be considered an undesirable consequence.

Civil Disobedience and Travis’ Actions

I encountered confusion resulting from my having a poor understanding of civil disobedience when considering whether Travis’ actions are civil disobedience.  Ironically, I had a few weeks before his arrest read Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience and also found myself questioning whether Thoreau’s views can even be applied in today’s entangled society, in which it is effectively impossible to isolate oneself from “supporting” the very systems with which one disagrees (the issue of taxes falls into this category.)  This led me to do some research on the definition of civil disobedience, and I discovered the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the essay on Civil Disobedience, which mirrored much of the polarity in my thinking and brought further clarity to those and other aspects of civil disobedience.

There are two distinct actions that Travis took:

  1. Crossing the rope and signing his Declaration of Interdependence on the desk of John Hancock.
  2. Refusing to pay the fine and appear in court as a result of the his first actions, which violated various laws.

The answer to the most obvious question, “why?”, is in his Letter on the Nation’s Probation: “I aim to end your Uniform States and…vigorously replace it with a Twofold, and then Threefold Republic.”  It should also be noted that Travis was not arrested for the  views stated in his Letter of the Nation’s Probation but rather for the laws that he broke, although the manner in which he was arrested was likely influenced by his Letter.  “In democratic societies, civil disobedience as such is not a crime. If a disobedient is punished by the law, it is not for civil disobedience, but for the recognized offences she commits, such as blocking a road or disturbing the peace, or trespassing, or damaging property, etc.”1

Here is how I would map Travis’ actions into the narrower and broader concepts of civil disobedience:

Crossing the Rope and Signing his Declaration on John Hancock’s Desk

Narrower Definition Broader Definition Summary
Indirect Travis’ action is clearly indirect.  He is breaking laws that have nothing to do with his convictions of injustice in the political, economic, and social spheres.
Open and Public Covert Travis’ actions were covert to begin with – he did not notify the authorities of his intention before hand, but could be considered open afterwards because he has written about his action and the reason for it.
Non-Violent While I could argue that, if a million people were to do what Travis did the desk would definitely suffer damage from use, this seems a bit far-fetched, and coupled with the ambiguity of the definition of violence, it seems to me that Travis’ act is inherently non-violent.
Continued Disobedience Travis’ actions are clearly not in accordance with fidelity to the law – he did not communicate his intention before hand and he has also continued his disobedience by refusing to pay the fine after his action.

Refusing to Pay the Fine and Appear in Court

Narrower Definition Broader Definition Summary
Direct Here we might consider Travis’ actions more direct, as he is at least protesting the laws of the government, the change of which is one of his aims.
Open and Public Writing his letter is clearly an open (and since it was posted on the Internet, public as well) expression of communicating his intention.
Non-Violent I would find it difficult to argue that writing a letter is anything but non-violent.
Continued Disobedience The reader may disagree, but this strikes me simply as continued disobedience – in the sense that Travis, in writing his letter, continues his disobedience.  Travis is not accepting the legal consequences of his actions, using them instead to further his protest.  At least, this is as much as I know of the situation as I am writing this.

Concluding Thoughts

If anything, Travis’ arrest has brought me to a deeper understanding of the complexity of civil disobedience.  His actions are literally all over the map when it comes to figuring out whether they fit into the narrower or broader conception of civil disobedience, and this can result in confusion.  My aim here has not been to judge Travis’ actions nor the response of the U.S. government.  Rather it is to understand where the confusion regarding civil disobedience comes from, both with regards to Travis’ actions and with the concepts of civil disobedience.  Hopefully I have provided the reader with some understanding of the complexities surrounding the definition of civil disobedience and provided some food for further discussion.

Additional Reading

Civil Disobedience, Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College

Ohio State, Don Hubin


1 – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the essay on Civil Disobedience.

2 Legal Implications of Civil Disobedience

3Civil Disobedience: a legal handbook for activists

4 How Civil Disobedience Has Affected Our Legal System in the U.S.

5Waging Nonviolence: People-Powered News and Analysis


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