“Americans engaging in civil disobedience and nonviolent action have assumed the task of policing themselves, thus providing inestimable value for the state and diluting any real effect their actions might otherwise have.”
The notion that a people can free itself literally by allowing their captors to walk all over them is historical fantasy.
It is not easy as a mother, sister or wife to watch those you love disappear before your eyes.
—Jamila al-Shanti of Bayt Hanoun, Gaza
Education and Self-policing
Civil disobedience as defined by Wikipedia “encompasses the active refusal to obey certain laws, demands and commands of a government or of an occupying power without resorting to physical violence”.  Made famous by Thoreau, Gandhi and King, civil disobedience and its correlate non-violent resistance have been largely of western construct and promotion. It is one of the key values of Green Parties worldwide and enshrined in the charters of countless western progressive and religious organizations. Spokespeople for such organizations do not hesitate to sanctimoniously recommend civil disobedience and nonviolence to third world humanity under the boot of empire.
By virtue of the trinity of Thoreau/Gandhi /King the tactics of civil disobedience and its nonviolent correlate have been elevated in the west to near holy status. But have such tactics by themselves ever produced any concrete social change? Michael Neumann handily demolished this well-loved myth which has been promoted so enthusiastically by western progressives. He argues that although Martin Luther King’s sit-ins and marches provided arresting photo-ops exposing the dark underbelly of U.S. apartheid thereby tweaking the conscience of liberal America, in reality the south was effectively desegregated by force of arms, not by the sit-ns. It was the troops of the National Guard sent in by presidential order that enforced – at gunpoint – the desegregation of American schools and other public places. In India, for all of Gandhi’s humble posturing, a Britain weakened by WWII had long determined to jettison this increasingly troublesome and expensive chunk of empire. And in South Africa, the ANC used both violence and nonviolence to achieve its aims and never exclusively relied on the latter. Neumann sums up the matter succinctly:
… non-violence, so often recommended to the Palestinians, has never ‘worked’ in any politically relevant sense of the word, and there is no reason to suppose it ever will. It has never, largely on its own strength, achieved the political objectives of those who employed it. 
In a word, no significant or sweeping social change or justice has been achieved without some use of violence. Yet in spite of its dismal performance, civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance are enthusiastically promoted by American progressives whenever an action is contemplated; pre-demonstration workshops are held in which eager attendees are solemnly taught how to form affinity groups, and how to go limp while being roughed up or arrested by the police. Those contemplating such civil disobedience are advised on appropriate clothing to wear to such actions, scolded against arguing with or otherwise antagonizing the police and admonished to regard the police not as the enemy but as fellow human beings.
Herbert Marcuse famously opined that western governments only countenanced civil disobedience because it preserved the status quo by providing a safety valve for the dissatisfied to blow off steam. However the repressive tolerance theory falls apart when one considers the long history of close police and FBI monitoring, infiltration and subversion of nonviolent progressive groups opposing, for example the Vietnam War which history instructs us how little the state actually tolerates dissent and civil disobedience, even in peaceful, non-threatening forms. The only way repressive tolerance might possibly come into play is for the purpose of external propaganda for after all it proves that “we” are democratic by allowing “dissent”. Examples of American civil disobedience and nonviolent actions themselves have become ever scarcer in these grim days, constricted not only by the aforementioned external forces but also forces internal to progressive organizations. Thus have American progressive activities devolved into passive demonstrations that are all but useless.
Over the years, the state has increasingly put conditions on demonstrations and actions which limits spontaneity and criminalizes expressions of anger. There are permits to be gotten, march routes to be negotiated over, distances to be kept from the object or site of protest, limits on allowable musical instruments (drumming is usually banned), materials that can be used to hold signs are strictly stipulated and adhered to (no wood allowed lest it become a “weapon”) and so on. During demonstrations miles of metal stanchions are thrown up and demonstrators are threatened or arrested if they venture beyond them. Huge numbers of police, armed and helmeted, menacingly ring demonstrations announced to be peaceful. Even worse, American police have now taken to constructing “free speech zones”, metal cages often distant from the object of protest, into which demonstrators obediently file and from where they are allowed to express their views. Internally, progressive organizations, in the name of “consensus”, suppress calls for more vigorous actions and censor demonstration slogans all which might ruffle mainstream opinion or sensibility.
In reality, therefore, Americans engaging in civil disobedience and nonviolent action have assumed the task of policing themselves, thus providing inestimable value for the state and diluting any real effect their actions might otherwise have. In other words, American progressive groups take great care – in the name of nonviolence – to make sure their protests do not escalate, that protestors are not dragged off to jail, that the protests remain peaceful, all of which effectively defangs such actions and shifts them to realm of ritual or, as George Bush famously likened the enormous protests leading up to the 2003 attack on Iraq, as little more than a “focus group”. Although widely derided for that characterization, Bush was in that case entirely correct.
This curious western passivity in the face of state injustice was recognized long ago by a 19th century English traveler in the Levant who witnessed the “Asiatic” method of effecting political change and shuddered. “In Turkey”, wrote J.S. Buckingham in 1825, “where education is almost unknown, an unpopular Sultan is secretly dispatched…an unpopular vizier is strangled…an unpopular pasha in the provinces is cut off by poison…without even asking him to change his ministers or reform his administration”. Shades of visceral English fear which first surfaced after the French Revolution!
Buckingham continues to analyze the difference between West and East in relationship to unjust rule and concludes:
In Scotland, where the lower orders are generally instructed, they are more honest, industrious and orderly than the same classes in any other country, America, perhaps, excepted…In Ireland, where the lower orders are grossly ignorant, there is a constant tendency to crimes and disorders of the most violent nature. In England, the well-educated among the lower orders bear with exemplary patience the constant pressure of an overpowering and disheartening demand on the produce of their labour for the support of extravagance in the state, and will yield a ready obedience to laws and mandates that they pronounce in public and private to be pernicious and iniquitous…while the manly fortitude with which they suffer, the forbearance which keeps them from violent measures…presents a triumphant proof of the commanding powers of education over the human mind, which should make every lover of his country in its superiority, to almost all others on this account. 
The commanding powers of education over the human mind indeed. It is little wonder that Pink Floyd’s 1972 song Another Brick in the Wall was banned as subversive in numerous countries. And it is instructive to learn that when Soweto schoolchildren faced apartheid policemen across the barriers they sang: “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control”.
Mothers Courage and their Children
“Education” therefore provides a powerful force that neuters the act of civil disobedience. It would seem that excess of one in the first world combined with superfluity of material comfort inhibits effective activism by engendering an unconscious self-policing whenever an “action” is contemplated. Obedience to the state, its laws and its official narrative is a pervasive subtext in American curricula from the earliest grades through university – constantly reinforced by the mainstream media – and in this sense does education create a citizenry prepared to obediently follow the letter of the permit (a legal document surely) and police their own actions in the name of avoiding violence so as not to “alienate” the greater population.
In the third world, where “education” in the western sense is lacking, an authentic sort of nonviolent civil disobedience arises organically from unbearable conditions and takes on a heroic cast with its urgency and spontaneity. In this manner, third world civil disobedience is far removed from the affinity groups and nonviolence training workshops promulgated in countless American church basements. Two notable examples involved entirely female contingents who, with a courage forged by long experience of violence and poverty, were able to halt albeit momentarily the depredations of their oppressors.
In 2002, a contingent of nearly 600 women and children launched a sit-in at the facilities of Chevron Texaco in Nigeria’s oil rich delta where they blocked shipping and receiving for nearly two weeks. When the company refused to consider their demands for jobs, clinics and schools, the elderly women in the group threatened to strip off all their clothes, a Nigerian method of shaming. The oil executives caved in directly. 
More recent examples of effective civil disobedience – and the appalling response of “educated” western social justice groups to it – occurred November last when women of Gaza spontaneously hastened en masse to a mosque where their menfolk were trapped by Israeli soldiers and tanks. The crowd of women surrounded the mosque to protect their men and provide them cover for escape. The Israeli soldiers opened fire killing two of the women and injuring many others, justifying their actions by claiming that some of the men were hiding amongst the women. Shortly thereafter, two Gaza men accused of being militants by Israel received the feared and sinister phone call from the Israeli military warning them that their homes were to be demolished in one half hour. The men summoned crowds of supporters who gathered around and on the roofs of the targeted houses which action halted their destruction and baffled the Israeli army.
After these incidents in Gaza, Human Rights Watch – allegedly a supporter of nonviolent resistance – issued a breathtaking condemnation of this exemplar of civil disobedience. A certain Sarah Leah Whitson, who rejoices in the title of Middle East Director at HRW, simpered: “There is no excuse for calling civilians to the scene of a planned attack. Whether or not the home is a legitimate military target, knowingly asking civilians to stand in harm’s way is unlawful.” To be sure, after receiving criticism for this stunning display of hypocrisy, HRW backpedaled directly, but in a manner so tepidly sickly as to leave the original indictment intact. 
Thus have the alleged humanitarian, liberal organizations of the west assisted in the criminalization of non-violent resistance, just as armed resistance to occupation and colonization has been inexorably criminalized by the “terrorism” smear since the 1970s. Their employees, doubtless all graduates of western educational institutions, cite international law to condemn groups and forces that they pretend to support, thereby revealing their complicity in oppression and confirming the freshness of Buckingham’s 150-year old observation.
On one level Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage is meant to symbolize human heedlessness to war and violence. I take exception to Brecht’s choice of a woman for such a representation since war has historically been an overwhelmingly male activity. Yet at the end of the play when Mother Courage shoulders the harnesses of her cart and pulls it away herself, she is also woman continuing on with and supporting life in spite of the death and cruelty all about her. The Mothers Courage of the third world propelled by love for their families and with a spontaneous courage honed by oppression have grasped the essence of true, effective civil disobedience that utterly escapes its western proponents preaching from their pulpits, their NGOs and their workshops. We should applaud the Mothers, Fathers and Children Courage of the third world – emulate them if we dare – as they take up the harnesses of their own burdened carts when all others have fallen and heave to, pulling ever forward.
1. Wikipedia definition of civil disobedience.
2. Michael Neumann, ‘Nonviolence, Its Histories and Myths’, Counterpunch, 2003.
3. J. S. Buckingham, Travels among the Arab Tribes Inhabiting the Countries East of Syria and Palestine (London, 1825).
4. ‘Nigeria Women’s Protest Wins Oil Company Attention’, Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 20, 2002.
5. Jamila al-Shanti, ‘We Overcame Our Fear’, November 9, 2006.
6. Human Rights Watch Statement on our November 22 Press Release and OPT: Civilians Must Not Be Used to Shield Homes Against Military Attacks.
J.A. Miller is a grandmother activist from the Middle West who spent many years traveling and studying in the Middle East. She has published essays on Counterpunch and DissidentVoice as well as poems in the manner of the Burma Shave highway signs of her youth at www.PoeticInjustice.net, some of which will be included in their upcoming anthology, Poets for Palestine. Miller is currently writing a book on the Protestant origin of the Zionist project. She can be reached at email@example.com