Civil Disobedience: Why direct action is necessary

On Monday, February 24, Greenpeace International’s Executive Director Kumi Naidoo presented a lecture at the Oxford Martin School in the UK on civil disobedience. History shows us that civil disobedience is often necessary when the relatively weak face the relatively strong. When power is out of balance, as in most cases of social justice advocacy, civil disobedience may be one of the few tactics left for citizens.

Kumi Naidoo speaking at the Oxford Martin School

Two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire invaded Judea, established a puppet government, and placed Roman icons in temples as part of a campaign to eradicate the people’s culture. Rome assassinated those who resisted with strength, using public displays of violence, which intimidated others. In response, the Jerusalem community marched to Caesarea on the coast to confront the Roman governor in an act of peaceful civil protest. The people – men, women and children – offered themselves up en masse to be killed. This show of peaceful commitment so confounded the Romans – ironically avoiding state power by submitting to it – that Rome relented and removed the offending symbols from the temples.

And thus, the weak have confronted the strong throughout history: The Quakers, Gandhi, the Chipko movement, the suffragettes, labour movements, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Greenpeace, and countless others. Peaceful confrontation, not just words, creates social change.

In 1846, American poet Henry David Thoreau refused to pay a poll tax because of his opposition to slavery and the American war on Mexico. After police arrested Thoreau, his colleague, writer Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him in jail and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau – who knew that Emerson shared his opposition to slavery and war – famously replied, “Waldo, what are you doing out there?”

Moral beliefs require action. When private citizens confront the injustice of governments, empires, bankers, royalty, or corporations they face an opponent who typically profits from the injustice and who will use its power to preserve the inequality for its benefit. For example, the peace and social justice movements typically face governments and corporate interests who: (1) Possess most of the money; (2) possess a monopoly on official violence, the police, military, and jails; (3) control most of the media; (4) possess the ability to spy and infiltrate; and (5) who gain public support by intimidation or by selling access to power or money. All of these practices are typical of powerful regimes from ancient kingdoms to modern alleged democracies.

In such circumstances, the relatively weak must find tactics of confrontation that avoid the opponents’ strengths, avoid their own weakness, take advantage of the people’s limited strengths, and which simultaneously illuminate the issue (peace, women’s rights, ecology, economic justice.)

Although the people may not possess the money and institutional power, they may possess: (1) moral truth, righteousness; (2) each other, strength of numbers; (3) creativity; (4) the real wealth of a sharing community; (5) genuine moral leadership; (6) commitments to work for the moral truth without personal gain; and (7) they possess the power to tell their story.

This last tool, the power of narrative, can be used to expose the fraudulent story of the colonizers, plunderers, and oppressors. In our time, this fraudulent narrative, told by the corporate elite, includes not only a delusion of economic justice, but for example, also the outright deceit of climate denial funded by wealthy corporate owners, who profit from a hydrocarbon economy that causes the warming. So, the relatively weak, the people, must find a way to offset this institutional power.

Non-violent direct action does not work without moral truth. But it always works when it possesses moral truth, because the narrative is shifed. - Rex Weyler

Simply explaining injustice – explaining the moral injustice of slavery, or gender bias, or ecological devastation – is not enough. Why? Because the powerful benefit from the injustice. The logical or moral truth does not necessarily matter to oppressive regimes. Today, for example, we hear 99.9% of the scientists explaining the very simple biophysical reality of global warming, and yet the elite appear eager to follow the advice of 0.1% of the scientists – typically funded by oil interests to conjure up nominal evidence to deny the truth.

Thus, as a tactic, logic itself is limited. The truth needs public outcry. This was the case in Gandhi’s India, in Mandela’s South Africa, and in today’s global ecological crisis.

However, the moral and biophysical truth does matter to the common people. The activist, who wishes to change society, must find a means to enter the large-scale public discourse where truth can gain traction. The people must tell their story, and the dynamics of narrative requires drama, characters, encounters, and visible commitment. Thus, we witness Gandhi making salt at the seashore, Rosa Parks refusing to move from her seat on the bus, the Quakers sailing boats into nuclear test zones, or Greenpeace sailing boats into whaling fleets or Arctic oil grounds.

When Greenpeace began, in 1970, people had been writing and talking about ecology for decades. Rachel Carson had written Silent Spring, which had stirred interest, but had not yet moved masses. At Greenpeace, we wanted to create an ecology movement on a global scale. Explaining ecology was not enough. We had to engage with the public discourse on a scale greater than writing an article explaining the dangers of toxins or species extinction.

Greenpeace had to help create a new narrative that would expose the errors of the status quo narrative. The narrative of the industrial, financial, and imperial powers claimed that these powers “created wealth” while in fact the status quo was destroying the real wealth of our productive ecosystems and our communities. The new narrative had to show, not tell, the world’s people that we could create a new society based on compassion not only for humanity, but for all of life. The new narrative had to expose how the industrial narrative degraded our world, and offer a new world based on a more modest place in nature’s patterns and processes.

In the 1970s, we knew we were on the right path, that we possessed or at least approached a moral truth, the importance of ecological balance. Protecting Earth’s productive ecosystems would help ensure long-term social stability. Industrialism faced very real biophysical limits. These limits would not be universally popular, but they were universally true.

So, rather than try to explain ecology, in 1975, we sailed a small fish boat, the Phyllis Cormack, out into the middle of the ocean to confront Russian and Japanese whaling fleets on the whaling grounds. We blockaded the whalers and returned with images of the slaughter, blood and guts in the water, brave young men and women protecting the whales, and the decaying machinery of industrial plunder.

Killed whales alongside Russian factory ship Dalniy Vostok. 06/26/1975 © Greenpeace / Rex Weyler

A new narrative was born. The modern environmental movement emerged, not because we possessed the logic, but because we told a more truthful story with non-violent direct action. The world’s people responded not to facts, but to images of destruction and bravery. The moral truth became manifest through narrative, and this is one purpose of non-violent direct action.

If we lived in a society that was governed by logic and common decency, then these actions might not be necessary, but we do not live in such a society. We live in a society governed by money and power, hoarded by a tiny elite – the 1% – to the detriment of most people and all of nature.

When Greenpeace first sailed a ship into a nuclear test zone, we employed a tactic borrowed from the Quakers. Gandhi and Rosa Parks were our models. The Chipko people, the original tree-huggers, were our models. We simply applied the tactic of non-violent direct action to ecology. We showed people the beauty and magnificence of whales, of seals, of forests and rivers. Once we shifted the global public narrative – as did Gandhi, Mandela, or the Quakers – we entered a field of battle in which our strengths mattered, truth mattered, moral righteousness mattered, and the power of masses of people mattered.

Non-violent direct action does not work without moral truth, but it always works when it possesses moral truth, because direct action shifts the narrative. From history, we know some truths about power. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The powerful tend to leverage their power into more power for themselves. Power never relinquishes power willingly. Power clings to power. Power covets more power. So the people, the relatively powerless, must find a way to engage the powerful in a sphere that employs its modest strengths: Public displays of moral integrity.

The industrial and financial elite could argue with us – which they do to this day – but once we had shifted the narrative to a genuine story rather than the fraudulent story of the status quo, they could not undo what we had done, they could not un-tell the story. The British could not undo the images of their own brutality in India, exposed by Gandhi. The racists in America or South Africa could not undo the images of their injustice and brutality. Direct action shifts the story forever.

Another reason that direction action proves necessary is that the status quo can and will simply deny its crimes against humanity and nature. For example, in 1978, on good evidence, photographs of waste drums, Greenpeace discovered that the United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were dumping toxic and nuclear waste at sea. Although the London Dumping Convention had banned “high-level” waste dumping at sea, when confronted with the truth, the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) denied the crime, claiming that the waste was “low-level.” They simply lied.

A 300-foot freighter, the Gem, served as the nuclear garbage scow, so on July 11, 1978, the new Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior followed the Gem to their dumpsite near the Sea of Biscay. At the site, the Gem slowed to two knots and began to drop black drums of waste into the ocean. Greenpeace launched small, inflatable boats, positioned them under the dumping platform, and filmed the procedure from the bridge of the Rainbow Warrior. When a 600-pound nuclear waste drum hit a Greenpeace boat, the cameras captured the sequence on film. When we returned to London and showed those films, revealing the danger to the Greenpeace crew, the public demanded change and the UKAEA were forced to admit that the drums contained plutonium, the most toxic substance known. Non-violent direct action had exposed the lie, and regulators finally enforced their laws. This would not have happened without direct action.

Greenpeace inflatable preventing vessel GEM to dump barrels radioactive waste. North Atlantic. 07/01/1978 © Greenpeace / Tony Marriner

Although Greenpeace adheres to a strict philosophy of non-violence against person or property, we have often grown frustrated at the deceit and slow pace of change. We have sometimes been reminded of the words spoken by a despondent Mark Anthony from the third act of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!

Yet, again and again, we have remained meek and gentle. Greenpeace has a 43-year record of peaceful direct action. To be successful in telling a narrative of moral truth, we must remain absolutely peaceful, and this has remained a strength of direct action. Moral integrity, we know, does not always win, but has a chance to win when wielded with peacefulness. When practiced with compassion direct action gains strength beyond the measure of money and violence.

When the powerful over-react to peaceful civil disobedience with arrests and violence, they only expose their own moral failure. When Russia arrested the Arctic 30 and charged them with piracy they exposed their own intolerance and corruption. On February 18, when Russian police attacked members of the punk band Pussy Riot with whips, they displayed their own brutality for all the world to witness. Within 24 hours, the band had released a music video – “Putin Will Teach You How to Love” – showing the attack. Once again, the powerful elite over-reacted to civil disobedience and exposed their own lack of moral integrity.

I have spent time in jail for my actions; I have been mocked, threatened, and spied upon, and these are my proudest moments. These are the times when I have known that I have some power to offset the power of violence and money. These are the moments when I know that my modest actions have exposed the injustice, the deceit of the official narrative, and the destruction of unrestrained industrial and corporate power.

Once the new narrative exists in the global discourse, any violent response – jail, beatings, increased oppression – only serves to expose the corruption of power. We learned this from Gandhi and the Quakers. We learned this from Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela.

If logic, common sense, and common decency worked alone to change society, we would not need direct action. However, history shows that common decency requires action and moral logic needs visible evidence. These values require a narrative to come alive in people’s lives. The people, who want to create a more just world, must engage with direct action because otherwise the truth does not prevail.

If logic, common sense, and common decency worked alone to change society, we would not need direct action. People must engage with direct action because otherwise the truth does not prevail. - Rex Weyler

Rex Weyler is an author, journalist and co-founder of Greenpeace International.

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