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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Not so civil, please!

When did we become such compliant people?
One of the most striking aspects of COP17 in Durban early this month was the relative tameness of the protests. Altjhough I was told by one policeman at the Global Day of Action that “these people can be dangerous, you know”, little sign of that was seen. And on the night of 9 December, when a number of people seemed keen to occupy the precinct to make their voices heard by the negotiators, the protest seems to have been rather peacefully organised and negotiated away.
Meanwhile, here in Johannesburg, citizens are enraged that we’ve had a road tolling system imposed on us without consultation, which will become active in February. This will significantly increase commuting costs. (Under other circumstances, I’d be in favour of something like this – it’s one of a number of tactics necessary to reduce the number of cars on the road and boost use of public transport. But because, a) public transport is poor, with trains and buses only on limited routes, and minibus taxis notoriously unsafe and driven by badly trained drivers and b) there’s been a huge lack of transparency in the process, it makes me as angry as the next resident.)
It’s a situation that screams for civil disobedience. If even ten percent of vehicles refuse to install the new ‘e-tag’ licence plates necessary for smooth processing, and then refuse to pay fines, the entire system would freeze within a month or two. Yet I have heard many people discussing this, on talk radio and in public spaces, wondering if it’s okay to do something illegal. Does civil disobedience not have to be “within the law”, I heard one person ask.
Good grief, and you live in South Africa, where we have a splendid record of civil disobedience! That’s what civil disobedience IS: a campaign in which numbers of people state that they will disobey laws or regulations with a certain end in mind – usually it’s getting those laws off the statute books. When people burnt their passes, it was an act of civil disobedience, and very much illegal, with the aim of getting the laws about the dompas wiped out.
The roots of a police state are not the apparatus thereof, it’s the willingness of the people to ‘go along’, to accept, to be policed. That, in my view, was the mindset shown on 9 December: security says we must get out of the building, so let’s negotiate the best way to do this. (To be fair, though, I wasn’t there, not being accredited to the UN precinct, so there may have been circumstances I’m not aware of.)
It’s not the negotiators who get us places, in my experience. They’re very useful once the wall has been partially smashed, once the square has been occupied… but action is necessary to shift the blockages. If we want to change the world, we need to grow some more spine!
“Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government, or of an occupying international power. Civil disobedience is commonly, though not always, defined as being nonviolent resistance. It is one form of civil resistance.” (Wikipedia)
“…the refusal to obey certain laws or governmental demands for the purpose of influencing legislation or government policy, characterized by the employment of such nonviolent techniques as boycotting, picketing, and nonpayment of taxes.” (

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