Civil Disobedience Guidelines

civil-disob-1The Streets Beckon

As we move forward, and especially during the first 100 days of the Trump regime, it will be important for communities throughout our Nation to  demonstrate opposition to the gutting of our civil and economic rights, the dismantling of our strategies for addressing climate change, and any number of other possible injustices. One thing I think we all know is that we are heading into uncharted waters, that Donald Trump is not an easy man to predict, and that there is a high likelihood we will need to raise our voices in many ways and forms. We can learn from those who have come before us.

We will provide civil disobedience training at our Conference in February, and a Civil Disobedience Action Team is forming (sign-up here). Today, we offer links to two articles on Civil Disobedience. One is a tremendous NY Times article, The Art of the Protest the New York Times, and from ACTUP: civil disobedience, a Gandhian-based handbook on non-violent civil disobedience.

We chose the NY Times article because it drew upon several of the seminal movements of the last 60 years: the Civil Rights movement, HIV/AIDS movement, the environmental movement, as well as movements in Serbia and Poland. We chose the ACTUP Guidelines because their advocacy is explicitly based on Gandhian principles and was developed by about as marginalized a population as you can imagine, largely gay men afflicted with HIV/AIDS during the age of Reagan. And yet ACTUP changed the entire conversation around HIV/AIDS. ACT UP started a global AIDS activist movement. It played a major role in changing the rules to expedite new AIDS medicines — and then it helped to bring down their cost. It forced insurance companies to cover treatment. It procured a patient voice in treatment. It was a major force behind the Ryan White CARE Act, a federal program for uninsured and under-insured people with AIDS. They got things done. Below are some brief excerpts. Before we initiate civil disobedience in Santa Fe, it would be good for all of us to take some time to become more familiar with the movements summarized in these resources. Of course, most all of us know of the Civil Rights movement, the HIV/AIDS movement and ACT UP, and the other forms of rebellion that have taken place since the 50s, but these articles go beyond describing what happened to analyzing what specific forms of action worked and why. An important lesson.

“Those who profess to favor freedom, yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

— Frederick Douglass, African-American abolitionist

The Art of The Protest.  

The-Art-of-the-Protest-the-new-york-times is a relatively short article that reflects on lessons learned from the civil rights movement, anti-nuclear move, Serbian rebellion, Polish resistance to draconian abortion regulations, and the ACT UP movement in the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Among the key takeaways, the one I feel is most important is that in an unpredictable world, the need for civil disobedience will erupt unexpectedly and we need a well-organized, broad constituency that is nimble and able to organize and respond quickly. That is a primary goal of Retake Our Democracy.  Other takeaways from The Art of the Protest include:

Swift Large Actions Can Deter Even the Strongest Regime. Even when faced with a highly organized, undemocratic regime, the sudden, large eruption of mass protest can deter and even stop oppressive initiatives. For example, just this October, Poland’s right-wing Catholic-dominated government proposed abortion laws that would have imprisoned women for five years for having an abortion. Tens of thousands of women dressed in black took to the street on Oct. 3, and the size of the protest and the speed with which it erupted stopped the right-wing government and this legislation in its tracks. This success is directly relevant as we now face an erratic, right-wing President with both branches of Congress ready to do his bidding. The challenge is daunting, but no more daunting than what was faced by the courageous Polish women.

civil-rights-dogsPlanning, Imagery, Sacrifice & Training Matter. During the civil rights movement, leadership treated the movement as a war, albeit a non-violent one. And so, they strategically planned each action to build on what came before and consciously sought visible symbols that would move the American public. Early on, over the objections of Malcolm X, children as young as six years old were recruited to face down the police and their hoses and dogs. Civil rights leaders recognized that the sacrifice of protesters could move America, and  images of dogs attacking protesters, even children, and the blasting of demonstrators with water hoses were powerfully published across the media. Quite obviously, this strategy is a big part of our Water Protectors in Standing Rock. In addition, civil rights leaders invested heavily in training protesters to ensure they understood the principles and practices of non-violent disobedience. Retake Our Democracy will be presenting training at the Conference in February, but a review of the two articles included here is a great way to prepare for what is to come.

Use humor. The Art of the Protest describes how Serbian leadership frequently used humor to their advantage, “If the joke is good, even the police get it.”

When appropriate, be confrontational. ACT UP used highly polarizing language that even offended many gay men, but Act Up demonstrated the power of the extreme outsider strategy: change through confrontation. It was noisy and angry. It was the first group ever to close down the New York Stock Exchange. Members scattered the ashes of loved ones on the White House lawn. They held a “Stop the Church” demonstration in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Even those who were offended recognized that anyone who would go to these extremes must be in serious need of redress. And the strategy worked.

Exploit Galvanizing Events.  “Events that galvanize public attention occur frequently. Most lead to nothing. But a few become sparks for sweeping change. What makes the difference is the existence of a prepared movement.”  The article sites the meltdown at Three Mile Island as being a seminal and galvanizing event that slowed the development of nuclear plants to a crawl. But Three Mile Island came 13 years after another partial meltdown, at the Fermi 1 reactor outside Detroit. Haven’t heard of it? One reason is that when the reactor outside Detroit suffered a partial meltdown, there was no movement ready to respond. There was when Three Mile Island had its meltdown. The takeaway:  We need to build our base and be ready to act.

act-upACT-UP Civil Disobedience Training.

For those of you who are going to play an active role in civil disobedience, actup_civildisobedience is required reading, especially if you plan to coordinate these activities. It includes brief summaries of the following topics:

  • ACT UP Direct Action Guidelines
  • History of Mass Nonviolent Action
  • Nonviolent Response to Personal Violence
  • Practicing Nonviolence
  • Nonviolence Training
  • Affinity Groups and Support
  • Steps Toward Making a Campaign
  • Consensus Decision Making
  • Legal Issues/Risking Arrest
  • Advantages/Disadvantages to Disclosing Your Status when Arrested
  • Legal Flow Chart: What Happens in an Arrest and Your Decisions
  • Legal Terms: What They Mean
  • Jail Solidarity


  • The Demonstrator’s Manual [crucial]
  • Marshal Training Manual
  • Getting Arrested: Why do we do it?

Retake the Roundhouse is planning a training in Civil Disobedience to be held at our February Conference. Updates on this and other actions will be forthcoming from our blog.



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