Civil disobedience, the refusal to follow unjust laws and customs, is a fundamental act of omission. It has led to genuine successes, as in the civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. In the 1960s Birmingham was among the most racially segregated cities in the US, with segregation legally required and vigorously enforced.13 The Commissioner of Public Safety was “arch-segregationist” Bull Connor, a vicious racist even by the standards of the time.14 Persecution of black people by the police and other institutions was especially bad. The local government went to great lengths to try to quash any change; for example, when courts ruled segregation of city parks unlawful, the city closed the parks. However, civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King Jr., were able to conduct a successful antisegregation campaign and turn this particularly nasty situation into a victory.
The Birmingham campaign used many different tactics, which gave it flexibility and strength. It began with a series of economic boycotts against businesses that promoted or tolerated segregation. Starting in 1962, these boycotts targeted downtown businesses and decreased sales by as much as 40 percent.15 Black organizers patrolled for people breaking the boycott. When they found black people shopping in a target store, they confronted them publically and shamed them into participating in the boycott, even destroying purchased merchandise. When several businesses took down their segregation signs, Commissioner Connor threatened to revoke their business licenses.16
The next step in the civil disobedience campaign was “Project C,” the systematic violation of segregation laws. Organizers timed walking distances between the campaign headquarters and various targets, and conducted reconnaissance of segregated lunch counters, all-white churches, stores, federal buildings, and so on.17 The campaign participants then staged sit-ins at the various buildings, libraries, and lunch counters (or, in the case of the white churches, kneel-ins). Businesses mostly refused to serve the protesters, some of whom were spat on by white customers, and hundreds of the protesters were arrested. Some observers, black and white, considered Project C to be an extremist approach, and criticized King and the protesters for not simply sticking to negotiation. “Wasteful and worthless,” proclaimed the city’s black newspaper.18 A statement by eight white clergymen called the demonstrations “unwise and untimely,” and wrote that such protests “incite to hatred and violence” when black people should focus on “working peacefully.”19 (Of course, they blamed the victim. Of course, they cautioned that an action like sitting down in a deli and ordering a sandwich is only “technically peaceful” and warned against such “extreme measures.” And, of course, it’s never the right time, is it?)
The city promptly obtained an injunction against the protests and quadrupled the bail for arrestees to $1,200 per person (more than $8,000 in 2010 currency).20 But the protests continued, and two days later fifty people were arrested, including Martin Luther King Jr. Instead of paying bail for King, the organizers allowed the police to keep him in prison to draw attention to the struggle. National attention meant the expansion of boycotts; national retail chains started to suffer, and their bosses put pressure on the White House to deal with the situation.
Despite the attention, the campaign began to run out of protesters willing to risk arrest. So they used a controversial plan called the “Children’s Crusade,” recruiting young students to join in the protests.21Organizers held workshops to show films of other protests and to help the young people deal with their fear of jail and police dogs. On May 2, 1963, more than a thousand students skipped school to join the protest, some scaling the walls around their school after a principal attempted to lock them in.22 Six hundred of them, some as young as eight, were arrested.
Firehoses and police dogs were used against the marching students. The now-iconic images of this violence drew immense sympathy for the protesters and galvanized the black community in Birmingham. The situation came to a head on May 7, 1963, when thousands of protestors flooded the streets and all business ceased; the city was essentially defeated.23 Business leaders were the first to support the protestors’ demands, and soon the politicians (under pressure from President Kennedy) had no choice but to capitulate and agree to a compromise with King and the other organizers.
But no resistance comes without reprisals. Martin Luther King Jr.’s house was bombed. So was a hotel he was staying at. His brother’s house was bombed. Protest leader Fred Shuttlesworth’s house was bombed. The home of an NAACP attorney was bombed.24 Some blamed the KKK, but no one was caught. A few months later the KKK bombed a Baptist church, killing four girls.25
And the compromise was controversial. Some felt that King had made a deal too soon, that the terms were less than even the moderate demands. In any case, the victorious campaign in Birmingham is widely regarded as a watershed for the civil rights movement, and a model for success.
Let’s compare the goals of Birmingham with our goals in this book. The Birmingham success was achieved because the black protestors wanted to participate in economy and government. Indeed, that was the crux of the struggle, to be able to participate more actively and equally in the economy, in government, and in civil society. Because they were so numerous (they made up about one-third of the city’s population) and because they were so driven, their threat of selective withdrawal from the economy was very powerful (I almost wrote “persuasive,” but the point is that they stopped relying on persuasion alone).
But what if you don’t want to participate in capitalism or in the US government? What if you don’t even want those things to exist? Boycotts aren’t very persuasive to business leaders if the boycotts are intended to be permanent. The Birmingham civil rights activists forced those in power to change the law by penalizing their behavior, by increasing the cost of business as usual to the point where it became easier and more economically viable for government to accede to their demands.
There’s no doubt that we can try to apply the same approach in our situation. We can apply penalties to bad behavior, both on community and global scales. But the dominant culture functions by taking more than it gives back, by being unsustainable. In order to get people to change, we would have to apply a penalty proportionally massive. To try to persuade those in power to make serious change is folly; it’s effectively impossible to make truly sustainable decisions within the framework of the dominant system. And persuasion can only work on people, whereas we are dealing with massive social machines like corporations, which are functionally sociopathic.
In any case, what we call civil disobedience perhaps is the prototypical act of omission, and a requirement for more than a few acts of commission. Refusing to follow an unjust law is one step on the way to working more actively against it.
The most generalized act of omission is a withdrawal from larger society or emigration to a different society. Both are common in history. These choices are often the result of desperation, of a sense of having run out of other options, of the status quo being simply intolerable. Of course, if the culture you are leaving is so terrible, good people leaving is unlikely to reform or improve it. Which doesn’t mean people shouldn’t emigrate or try to leave intolerable or dangerous social situations. It just means that leaving, in and of itself, isn’t a political strategy likely to effect positive change.
Perhaps the biggest problem with withdrawal as a strategy now is that civilization is global. Where are you going to go? Where do you think you can escape climate change, for example? And what real effect will withdrawal have on the dominant culture? There is no shortage of labor, so huge numbers of people would have to withdraw in order to make a difference. Not buying things will not end the capitalist economy, and refusing to pay taxes will not bring down the government. If you did have enough people to do such things, you would become a threat, a dangerous example, and would be treated accordingly. As soon as enough people withdrew to become a bad example, civilization would go after them, thus ending their withdrawal and forcing them to engage with it, either by giving in or by fighting back.
History already tells us that withdrawing is not an option that the civilized will allow. First Nations people across Canada and the US, for instance, were not allowed to remain outside of the invading European civilization. Their children were taken by force to be abused—“enculturated”—and forced into settler culture.
It’s a paradox. Withdrawal can only persist when it is ineffective, and so is useless as a resistance strategy.
Other acts of noncooperation can operate in smaller contexts such as individual religious temples, for example, or romantic relationships (as in the Lysistratan example). These smaller social structures may not have as great an impact on society at large, but smaller numbers of people are required to effect change. If nothing else, it’s good practice.
All acts of omission require very large numbers of people to be permanently effective on a large scale. There are plenty of examples of strikes shutting down factories temporarily, but what if you don’t ever want that factory to run again? What if you work at a cruise missile factory or a factory that manufactures nuclear warheads? Is everyone working there willing to go on strike indefinitely? The large pool of unemployed or underpaid working poor means that there are always people willing to step in to work for a wage, even a relatively low one. Failing that, the company in question could just move the factory overseas, as so many have. All of this is especially true in a time when capitalism falters, and attempting to bring down civilization would definitely make capitalism falter.
The same problems apply to economic boycotts. You and I could stop buying anything produced by a given company. Or we could stop buying anything that had been sold through the global capitalist economy. We probably will see widespread acts of economic omission, but only when large numbers of people get too poor to buy mass-produced consumer luxuries. But because of globalization and automation, these acts of omission will be less effective than they were in the past.
Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t undertake such acts when appropriate. Acts of omission are commonly part of resistance movements; they may be implicit rather than explicit. Pre-Civil War abolitionists would not have owned slaves. But this was an implicit result of their morality and political philosophy rather than a means of change. Few abolitionists would have suggested that by refraining from personally owning slaves they were posing a serious or fundamental threat to the institution of slavery.
An effective resistance movement based on acts of omission might need 10 percent, or 50 percent, or 90 percent of the population to win. One in a thousand people withdrawing from the global economy would have negligible impact. Acts of commission are a different story. What if one out of a thousand people joined a campaign of direct action to bring down civilization? Seven million brave and smart people could ensure the survival of our planet.