Famous Examples of Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience and peaceful protest has been the mainstay of ordinary people protesting against governments for many centuries. It arguably began in England with the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 when Wat Tyler along with a group of activists attempted to protest to King Richard II at the critically high taxes. Sadly, the situation quickly turned violent but it would soon bring about the end of serfdom. Here is a list of ten of the most important civil disobedience cases of modern history

1. Poll Tax Protests

Poll Tax Protests
Poll Tax Protests

Some say it was the beginning of the end of Margaret Thatcher. Replacing Council Rates with the much-hated Poll Tax, demonstrations began in London in March 1990, shortly before the introduction of the tax. This was the first time active protests had taken part against the move. What started as a peaceful demonstration soon became violent when the Police penned people in at Whitehall. Similar protests against the tax spread across the country but few turned violent. The government soon replaced the tax, seeing how unpopular it was

2. Boston Tea Party

Boston Tea Party
Boston Tea Party

It was the episode of civil disobedience that started a revolution. A political protest started by a group known as The Sons of Liberty, activists seized a shipment of tea from the East India Company in protest at The Tea Act and dumped it into the harbour. Escalation on both sides led to the break out of the American Revolution but it was never intended that way, the protestors felt that as Englishmen they had had no representation as colonies in the Parliament across the Atlantic

3. Singing Revolution

Singing Revolution
Singing Revolution

The end of the Communist era wasn’t bloody everywhere and didn’t end in bitter civil war as it had in the former Yugoslavia. In Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for example a series of peaceful protests that lasted over four years acquired a most unusual name. For four years, people went out at night often against curfews to sing songs such as hymns and national tunes in protest at the continued attempt to cling to power. The trend spread to official music festivals. No government had ever been brought down by singing before!

4. Soulforce

Soulforce
Soulforce

Anybody who thinks that most religious groups are vocally opposed to gay rights should think again. Soulforce are a well-organised social justice groups who use civil disobedience as a major tool of their protests to encourage churches to change their position on things. Their biggest campaign was Right to Serve, highlighting the rights of gay, bisexual and transgender people the right to serve in the US military. They also stood against the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy. Right to Serve was largely a reaction against that

5. Yo No Coopero Con La Dictadura

Yo No Coopero Con La Dictadura
Yo No Coopero Con La Dictadura

Cuba is one of only a handful of Communist governments which is surprising considering this group is a well organised group dedicating itself to regular acts of civil disobedience against government action. Its aim is to undermine Castro’s government at every opportunity and seek the release of people it says are purely political prisoners. Their slogan is: ‘”I do not repudiate, I do not assist, I do not snitch, I do not follow, I do not cooperate, and I do not repress.”

6. Petrol Protests

Petrol Protests
Petrol Protests

If the Poll Tax Protests were the biggest challenge of the Thatcher government then three years into the Tony Blair’s first Parliament saw the biggest protests for a decade. With fuel prices exceeding inflation by a concerning rate, people began blockading refineries and distributors to cut off the fuel supply, stating that the government was refusing to bring down the tax rate while retail prices rocketed. At one point, the protestors let out the tankers but by then the tankers had joined with the protestors and refused to leave the depot

7. Keystone XL

Keystone XL
Keystone XL

One of the biggest ongoing protests in the US from 2011 until the present day is the protest at the fracking of shale gas and the massive building project known as ‘Keystone XL’ ‘ bringing the Keystone pipe from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Despite promises to respect the environment and despite evidence that it is not entirely safe, President Obama allowed the building project to go ahead. Celebrities including Daryl Hannah have been arrested at the various protests up and down the length of the planned pipeline

8. Purple Rain Protest

Purple Rain Protest
Purple Rain Protest

Nelson Mandela was well-known for civil disobedience and peaceful protests against the South African policy of apartheid. The purple rain was a new method of dispersing protesting crowds dyed with a purple colour so that protestors could be later identified and arrested. Protestors though, managed to seize the water cannon and turn it on the government building where the segregated vote was taking place. It smashed windows and damaged a nearby church. The phrase ‘The Purple Shall Govern’ became a mark of the anti-apartheid movement

9. The Orange Revolution

The Orange Revolution
The Orange Revolution

Ongoing problems in Ukraine in 2014 began nearly ten years earlier when pro-western activists, concerned about a pro-Russian movement, began a series of protests, sit-ins, general strikes and street demonstrations to remove president Yanukovych after what was believed to be a corrupt election. His opposite number Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned during the course of the campaign. Yanukovych would later go on to become President leading to demonstrations in 2013 and the escalation of problems through the early part of 2014. It seems that the Orange Revolution is yet to see its end

10. Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall
Berlin Wall

The media reported it rather differently from the reality ‘ the world looked on in joy as a ‘first’ section of wall was torn down and people shook hands through the gap. In reality, Germans on the east side had begun tearing down the wall weeks before against government advice who was already creating more checkpoints to allow the free passage between east and west. The 9th November (the night when it is said to have ‘come down’) the majority of the wall was still standing and it would be guarded for many weeks. Still, the act of hastening its demise is now seen as an important act of civil disobedience

Conclusion

People power does not always lead to positive change but it happens often enough that a popular protest can be a powerful force for change. It is and should be the right of all free-born people to protest against government actions that they do not agree with. As the graphic novel character V states in V for Vendetta: ‘People should not be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of the people’.

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