After Burnaby Mountain (Part 2)

On Civil Disobedience

I’m in the midst of facilitating a special interdisciplinary graduate course and lecture series at SFU (with fellow former Kinder Morgan civil suit defendant Lynne Quarmby) on civil disobedience. Good timing, no? And what I find I’m being reminded has more to do with the limits of civil disobedience (CD), its necessarily constrained definition, and the larger question and range of “actions” and tactics into which CD fits as one potential mode of resistance.

The first speaker in our series, Dr. Kimberly Brownlee, noted that CD is characterized by “civility” (nonviolence), and that it is “communicative” (it’s intention is to be seen/heard, for a “message” to be delivered). CD is not something you keep secret: the dissenter gives themselves over to the state (via arrest), as a way of conveying the message that a particular law or situation is unjust, and so the breaking of the law, and subsequent arrest, are undertaken in order to draw public attention to the injustice. Typically, the person engaging in CD openly announces their intention in advance (I am reminded here of Lynne Quarmby’s speech to the media before she crossed the Kinder Morgan injunction zone and gave herself up for arrest: she did so declaring that she was striving to be “the best citizen I can be”). There is no subterfuge here—everything is out in the open.

A few things are already clear: CD can be distinguished from more militant/radical forms of resistance. It is often noted that CD, strictly speaking, is an act that accepts the state’s legitimacy to set laws, make arrests, and determine consequences, generally; it is a particular law or situation that is the focus of CD—not the system writ large or the state as such. Indeed, the democratic state is being appealed to in CD, and the person(s) engaging in CD often continue to think of themselves as “good citizens” making legitimate “asks” of a system that should, if functioning correctly, respond to their demand for justice. David Graeber, in Direct Action, notes that this is very much the democracy that evolved in the 18th and 19th centuries—while direct citizen participation in governance was limited via systems of representation, the freedom to challenge and lobby representatives was enshrined as a “right”: “public speech and assembly became inalienable rights at the moment they were definitively rejected as a means of actual political decision making.”

Thus, CD is very much part of how contemporary democracy, in principle, “ought” to function. But it makes less sense to refer to the actions of militants and radicals in terms of CD if they have, by definition, rejected the legitimacy of the state and current system of governance. No appeal is made here for the state to “fix” what is wrong; the state, as a tool and manifestation of capitalism and colonization, and despite its democratic pretences, is what is seen as wrong.

In reality, I would argue, life in a contemporary democracy is a constant negotiation with those parts of the democratic system that seem redeemable and (at least in principle or potentially) just, and those parts of it which seem to be beyond repair, or chronically unjust. And this essential unevenness is reflected spatially, across democracies, as well as (and indeed especially) according to the specific position and experience of communities and individuals within democracies (i.e., privilege: in some cases the system seems just, if you are white and gainfully employed; it is clearly unjust, and for the most part systemically so, if you are a recent immigrant, First Nations, poor, etc.).

There are contexts in which we might choose to appeal to democratic mechanisms to change local injustices, while there are simultaneous contexts in which we find ourselves compelled to challenge the entire character of the system and its ingrained, even foundational injustices. It’s for this reason that we need the idea of a diversity of tactics and dual-power forms of organization (which I will turn to in part 3 of this series of blogs): sometimes CD is the right tactic, because there are potential channels in the existing system to adjust/change/respond to the injustice in question. But sometimes we need to be more radical in our demands, because the injustice is a systemic one the current system simply cannot redress adequately, because the injustice in question is constitutive of the current system.

The context for the course on CD at SFU is climate change and climate justice. A question that needs to be asked is this: is the current socio-economic system’s reliance on fossil fuels and industrial extraction something that can be adjusted through popular social movements employing tactics like CD? Or is the system so totally enmeshed with the wealth, power, and infrastructure of the energy sector that it has become entirely unresponsive to democratic processes like CD? In other words, are we facing an adjustment to the system, or system change?

And while part of what I have suggested above is that the very unevenness of contemporary democracies makes the one-size-fits-all approach of many activists problematic, it is becoming more and more difficult to access the mechanisms of justice when not only are “citizens” abilities to participate in the decision process increasingly constrained (the NEB process being a case in point), but the freedom to seek redress through CD is also under increasing attack.


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