What is Civil Resistance? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

When people resist their government, is it civil? In this lesson, we are going to explore the ideologies and methods of civil resistance and examine some examples through history.

Civil Resistance

Can something be civil without being...civil? The United States fought a Civil War that was anything but polite. And when Gandhi called for civil resistance against oppressive British colonialism, he wasn't exactly being courteous. When we talk about the word ''civil'' in this sense, we're talking about something that revolves around the people. It is a civil matter if it is related to the citizenry.

Gandhi leading a march in protest of British imperialism

This is an important concept to define. Throughout history, we'll often hear about people (like Gandhi) who are encouraging civil resistance. This doesn't necessarily mean that they are protesting politely, but that the people, the citizens, are protesting something relevant to their lives. Civil resistance is a form of action that relies on popular support as a way to demonstrate opposition.

Concept of Civil Resistance

Civil resistance is a broad category that includes various acts of protest where the people are united against a specific law, policy, or government. They are, through their actions, resisting by demonstrating popular support against it.

It's important to note immediately that civil resistance is seen as an act of legal or lawful protest. Civil resistance is not generally understood as intentional lawbreaking, even if the resisters are violating municipal or legal codes. The logic here is that their resistance is justified by higher laws. For example, a protestor may occupy public space, but their protest is justified by the constitutional right to protest. If this protest is occurring in a country that does not guarantee the freedom of speech, we can say that they are protected by international treaties of human rights or the codes of ethics that we have agreed upon as a global community. So, civil resistance is about resisting a law, policy, or government and demanding change, but is not an action of intentionally breaking the law.

That's an important distinction to make, particularly within the American legal system. There have been numerous cases throughout the years in which protestors were arrested for trespassing, loitering, or blocking traffic, and then they used the concept of civil resistance as a defense. In many of these cases, the protestors were fully acquitted.


Civil resistance is partly defined by its goals of modifying government behavior by demonstrating against a law, policy, or leader. However, it is also defined by its methods. Specifically, civil resistance is inextricably associated with the concept of nonviolence.

Nonviolent protestors refuse to use aggressive, threatening, or harmful tactics, even if those same tactics would be used against them. This is one of the most important concepts associated with civil resistance. While the people are resisting, they are generally doing so within legal and ethical boundaries. There are both moral and ethical reasons for this.

Morally, people who practice nonviolent civil resistance tend to live in cultures where violence is seen as unjust. In practical terms, nonviolence helps make the protestors look better. Civil resistance often relies on the ability of protestors to gain the sympathy of the public, and violent tactics generally undermine this goal. Violence also breaks the law, which is not the point of civil resistance. So, what does this look like in practice? There are countless forms of civil resistance, but some methods are particularly popular.


Let's start with boycotts, specifically economic boycotts. The basic idea here is that consumers have power through their purchasing decisions. This is actually one of the oldest forms of protest in the USA. Back in the colonial period, the British imposed taxes upon the colonists without giving them representation in Parliament, which they needed in order to fight the loss of self-governance. The colonists responded by boycotting British products. Rather than purchase the taxed goods, they went without. No laws were being broken, but through this nonviolent action, the colonists demonstrated their unified support against the policy.

Boycotts were common strategies in the Chicano and Mexican-American rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s

Protestors can also boycott by refusing to attend or participate in something. When Americans refuse to celebrate the Fourth of July, vote, or attend a presidential inauguration, it tends to be an act of civil resistance, meant to demonstrate discontent or dissatisfaction. It's not a law to participate in something like this, but choosing not to can communicate a strong message.

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