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Civil Resistance vs. Civil Disobedience

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

So, you want to protest. How should you go about it? In this lesson, we're going to examine civil resistance and civil disobedience, and see how each has been used to communicate the will of the people.

Power to the People

One of the basic tenets of a democracy is that power should rest with the people. The political system is supposed to provide ways for the people to influence the government. While this is great in theory, what happens when people in a democracy don't feel that their voices are being heard? And what about all those people who don't live in a democratic system? In either case, the people may often turn to protest.

Protesting is a time-honored way to show the government that the people oppose a political policy, action, law, or even the government itself. But how should this be done? There have been many ways to answer this across history, but two big ones are civil resistance and civil disobedience. These are both actions of protest, meant to demonstrate the will of the citizenry, but they're not the same. As it turns out, there are multiple ways to give power to the people.

Civil Resistance

Let's start by looking at civil resistance. Civil resistance is a broad term, encompassing nonviolent actions that demonstrate opposition to a policy, law, or government. The people are resisting something by protesting against it, generally in a nonviolent way. Nonviolent tactics associated with civil resistance include marches, demonstrations, and boycotts. From holding a rally to simply refusing to stand for a national anthem, acts of civil resistance demonstrate your opposition to a political action, justified through your authority as a citizen. We can think of countless examples of these, from the civil rights marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr to the strikes against oppressive regimes of the Arab Spring, to the spread of political hashtags on Twitter that promotes resistance and protest.

Acts of civil resistance can be subtle, like offering the black power salute on the Olympic podium
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It's important to note that civil resistance is almost always presented as a lawful action. Even if municipal codes like trespassing or loitering are broken, the intent of civil resistance is not to break the law. Often, these kinds of protests will be defended by appealing to a higher moral, or legal code, like a constitution or international treaty of rights. This is an important distinction, and that sort of jurisdictional argument has been used many times to defend the rights of protestors arrested for conducting civil resistance.

Civil Disobedience

So, what's civil disobedience? Civil disobedience, unlike civil resistance, is an act of intentionally breaking the law. The point of civil disobedience is a refusal to cooperate with unjust laws, policies, or government demands. You are not only breaking the law, you are doing so intentionally, as an act of protest. This same logic can be applied to social norms as well; by breaking from expectations about gender, race, or class, protestors can undermine the social norms, that justify oppressive policies, like segregation or denying women the right to vote.

Protestors sit at a segregated lunch counter in 1960
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There are many examples of this in history as well. American author Henry David Thoreau, who coined the term ''civil disobedience'' as we know it, refused to pay his taxes because he didn't support the Mexican-American War or slavery. Later, activist Susan B. Anthony publically went to a voting booth and cast a ballot, breaking the law that women weren't allowed to vote. In the Civil Rights Movement, young African-American protestors sat at segregated lunch counters and refused to move, violating the Jim Crow laws of the South.

In all three cases, the protestors were arrested, and that's kind of the point. The protestor utilizing civil disobedience knowingly breaks the law and does so with the acknowledgment that they will be arrested for their actions. So they don't fight the arrest or sentencing, and, as a result, the prison sentence ends up becoming part of the protest. Many protestors employing this tactic use this time to build up media attention and thus gain public support.

Civil disobedience often uses arrest as part of a prolonged protest
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Comparing and Contrasting Civil Resistance and Civil Disobedience

The best way to appreciate the differences between civil resistance and civil disobedience is to look at some closely related protests. Luckily, we have some from America's colonial past.

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