Saturday, May 10, 2014

History of Civil Disobedience

Do we have to obey the laws even when they are unjust? Or just the opposite, is it right to disobey unjust laws? Who can decide whether the laws of state are fair or not?.. Humanity has been unable to satisfactorily reply these questions for centuries. Here comes up the concept of civil disobedience where the citizens try to amend laws they regard to be unjust by performing events that violate them in a non-violent way. In 1849, American activist-author Henry David Thoreau mentioned about civil disobedience for the first time in history in his book named as “Resistance to civil government, civil disobedience” . Thus, he can be considered as the eponym of the term. In his book, he expressed in brief that citizens had to prioritize the voice of their conscience over the laws of state.
As it is violation of laws, civil disobedience has always been identified with anarchy, chaos and crime by the governments. However; civil disobedience is not an action against democracy or a state of law. On the opposite; it is a must for democracy and the acquisition of civil rights and it is almost as old as democracy. The first known civil disobedience in history, i.e. the Athens rebellion of 507 BC helped the emergence of today’s democracy. Consequently; democracy and civil disobedience are inseparable, it can be said that one wouldn’t emerge without the other.
Now let’s discuss the first civil obedience act known in history and emergence of democracy;
In the 6th century BC, Athenians founded an assembly under the leadership of Greek philosophers and the statesman Solon after a struggle that had lasted centuries. Though final decision was given by the oligarchic administration, the society voted in significant issues and participated in the management. In 507 BC, Isagoras seized control of management and closed the general assembly with an intention to become tyrant. The people rebelled in the evening of the day the control of management was seized and the general assembly was closed. They cornered Isagor and his Spartan soldiers in the main square of the city following a rebellion that had lasted for three days. Isagoras and his soldiers ran away to save their lives. The people, who had dismissed the tyrant, assigned the reformist statesman Cleisthenes into power and re-opened the assembly. They gave equal voting right to every citizen and gave the right of decision to the assembly exclusively and thus, they established the first democracy known in history. The history is full of thousands of rebellions before and after that event, indeed. The thing that differentiates this rebellion from others and makes it the first known civil disobedience act in history is that, it does not have any leader or an organization behind. Athenians went out to streets with a collective anger on that night when their general assembly was closed. The anger did not rise out of an organization or guidance of a rebel leader who intended to overthrow the dictator Isagoras, everybody acted on their own and went to the main square of the city. They had resisted against their brand new tyrant and his Spartan soldiers until they overthrew him and founded their own management.

 It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen.

American Constitution and the abolition of slavery

American historian and author Howard Zinn said “civil disobedience and protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy, it is absolutely essential to it”. When we look at the emergence story of the American constitution which is regarded as the world’s most liberal constitution, we can see that the very basic human rights were gained through civil disobedience acts. Foundation story of America is in fact a civil disobedience act against the British government. In 1773, Americans threw the teas into the sea from Boston port to protest against the unjust taxes taken by the colonist British. Thus, they not only founded the Boston Tea Party but also planted the seeds of an independent country.
The fugitive slave act organized in 1850 in America required that the slaves who had run away from Southern states and taken shelter in Northern states were returned back to their owners and it imposed not only a penalty fine but also imprisonment for the citizens who helped those fugitive slaves and for officers who had ignored these slaves. The Americans in Northern states who did not surrender the slaves that had run away from Southern states were also violating the laws by listening to their conscience. This was an individual civil obedience act, indeed. Many American citizens violated that law under the leadership of Thoreau (mentioned in the beginning of the article) by listening to their conscience. They helped fugitive slaves and they even hid them at their homes when necessary. This civil obedience act was the most significant step for the complete abolition of slavery.

 One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.

Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights
Abolition of slavery in America was the first step in the long path for gaining civil rights for African Americans. This struggle continued in the following century under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. with non-violent civil obedience acts and reached a result. Montgomery bus firm which had been conducting discrimination gave up this attitude after Luther King’s boycott which had lasted for 13 months and discrimination imposed on the black people in buses came to an end. Luther King and his fellows entered into parks, public areas and restaurants where black people were banned from. They sat there and waited for the police to come then they got arrested without any resistance. In that way, they drew attention to the unjustness of the ban and they had these bans lifted one by one. In his non-violent civil disobedience acts Luther King took inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi who had brought the Great Britain down in that way. 

12th March 1930, “Salt March”, Gandhi is walking to protest the salt production ban
Mahatma Gandhi and Satyagraha (insistence on truth)
Gandhi protested against the discriminative policies of the Colonist British Government by non-violent civil obedience actions and gained a definite success in the matters of equal rights and independence. Satyagraha (“insistence on truth”) is a concept found by Gandhi. I explained it by the words “insistence on truth” but actually, it is difficult to express its full meaning in just a few words. With this concept, Gandhi aimed to defeat his force-imposing enemies by good means and in calmness without using force and to make them “good”. Many years later, Martin Luther King Jr. used the English correspondence of the Satyagraha, “silent force”, in his speech “I have a dream”.
The first civil disobedience action of Turkey’s recent history; 555K
The first civil disobedience act that took place on 5th May 1960 in Ankara Kızılay was named as “555K” as it occurred in 5th month on 5th day at 5 o’clock in Kızılay. University students gathered in Kızılay to protest against the Democrat Party which had been tensing up the country with their oppressive policies, they did not clear away despite all the warnings and they resisted the police.
Rumour has it that, Prime Minister of the period, Adnan Menderes who had come to Kızılay Square for DP meeting, found himself among the protesters all of a sudden. When Menderes asked “What do you want?”, ex leader of CHP (Republican People’s Party) Deniz Baykal who was as student then, collared prime minister and shouted “We want freedom!”. And Menderes gave his popular reply:
 “You are collaring the prime minister, is there a freedom greater than that?”
A short time after 555K action, the first military intervention of the republic took place on 17th May 1960. Cemal Süreyya, who also joined the action that took place on 5th May 1960, wrote a poem named as 555K. The poem passed to the youth resisting for the future of their country many years later and it became hope for them;
“We are talking in low voice now,
In silence we are gathering together and clearing away
Our mums are steeping tea for the coming happy days
And our darling is putting flowers into the vase
Quietly again we are going to work in the mornings
Yet it doesn’t mean these will go on like that
Now we are coming side by side and mounting up
When we chant the song of freedom together
Then nobody can save you, not even the Gods.”
Cemal Süreyya, 1960

The short history of democracy

With the end of Bronze Age, in the 10th century B.C., the kingdoms surrounding the Aegean Sea collapsed and the Greek city states governed by constitutional monarchy and oligarchy were established instead. In these city states the kings had either a very few power or completely a symbolic position. This oligarchic regime shared by a few noble families within the framework of a constitution was clogged in war-like crisis situations due to the conflict of power among the families. In order to prevent management blockage during these crisis, the ruler named “tyrant” selected for a temporary period and holding all authority; legislative, executive and judicial powers in one hand, were designated. However, as it can be easily guessed, having seized the power once, tyrants did not give up these powers on their own initiative after the crisis or war ended and generally they retained the power until they were overthrown by the oligarchic structures. Greek city states switched between these two regimes for several centuries; absolute monarchy in which tyrants who took control in difficult times and the oligarchy where noble families who overthrew the tyrants and then struggled for power among themselves. But during this whole process, Greeks kept their constitution which provided the authority even to tyrants and improved it step by step.

King Theseus, Founder of Athens; semi-god and semi-king receiving the ruling power from the divine forces.
Theseus, Victor of the Minotaur, Charles -Édouard Chaise, 1791
When it comes to the 6th Century BC, oligarchic system enhanced from a few noble families to a dozen of them sharing the power with the growth of the economies and the cities. In 590 BC, 9 senators called as “Archon” and each of whom selected from the noble families for only one year ruled the city-state of Athens. Decisions were taken in the general assembly with the participation of the noble. Although the power is shifted from one absolute ruler who rules with divine forces and limitless authority to a few noble families sharing the power within the framework of a constitution, yet it is too early to mention about the public’s will and the democracy. In the meanwhile, Athens underwent into a major economic crisis and the great statesman, Solon who was one of the “seven wises” was selected in order to overcome the difficulties resulting from the economy which was on the verge of stopping.

Library of American Congress, Thomas Jefferson Hall.
Solon sculpture. Frederick Wellington Ruckstull
The very basis of the system that brought Athens on the verge of a social and economic collapse was “the debt slavery"; the only way to borrow money for an Athenian was to put up himself and his family as collateral as slaves in case of a failure in paying the debt. As a result of the debt, thousands of Athenians became slaves, agriculture decreased and famine came out. Solon took courageous decisions and not only he removed the debt slavery system, but also by cancelling all the current debts, opened a clean slate for all Athenians. While Athens got rid of the crisis due to the slavery and debt thanks to Solon's courageous decisions, Solon moves his reforms a step further by taking advantage of this public support, sowed the first seeds of democracy in the sense that we know today; and then by redefining the aristocracy by wealth and richness rather than nobility, he expanded the number of the ruling families by adding the ones who enriched by trade. Secondly, he opened the general assembly i.e. the parliament to all the citizens of Athens. Although the main ruler class was still aristocracy which was defined by wealth, the people of Athens could now vote in the parliament on important matters and even act as a jury in important cases. This form of public participation had never been seen in history before. Solon, who solved the economic problems, opened the oligarchic rule to much wider masses by opening aristocracy to merchant families and then by opening the general assembly to the public, he established the first known public participation in the history despite being limited. After completing his reforms, Solon relinquished his power and left Athens, however right before leaving Athens, he asked Athenians to promise to hold his system for 10 years. Yet in less than five years, Peisistratos, Solon’s own cousin, seized control and declared his tyranny. Although Peisistratos was a tyrant, the historians describe his 20 years rule as “fair and good”. However, his sons Hippias and Hipparchus who seized power after his death were cruel tyrants. This situation lasted until Cleisthenes seized control. Cleisthenes is known as the father of democracy today and was a member of a noble family from Athens.

Harmodius and Aristogeiton were two Athenian heroes who killed cruel tyrant Hipparchus in the city center and went down in history as tyrant-killers (Tyrannicides). Their statues were put up in the main square of Athens after the foundation of democracy.
The First Civil Disobedience Act in the History, BC 507 Athens Rebellion

Since Cleisthenes was more interested in reforms rather than power, he opened the general assembly that was closed for a long time to the public again and aristocrat families who reacted to this were united under the leadership of Isagoras. In 507 B.C., Isagoras staged a coup against Cleisthenes with the support of Spartans and by sending Cleisthenes away from Athens, he seized the power. Isagoras closed down the general assembly and gave all the authority to a few aristocrat families. A very bad surprise was waiting for Isagoras who had seized the power with Spartan soldiers and exiled Cleisthenes; Athenians whose council had been closed were so angry that they went out into the streets and rebelled. The history is full of thousands of rebellions but the thing that distinguishes this rebellion from the others and made it the first civil disobedience act is that it didn’t have a leader. Without being organized by a rebellious leader, the Athenians went out into the streets with a massive anger and compressed the Spartan Soldiers in the main square of the city. At the end of the rebellion that lasted for three days, the Spartan soldiers and Isagoras had to leave Athens to save their lives. Athenians opened their general assembly again, and first of all, they called Cleisthenes back and gave him the full authority to continue his reforms. After this event, Cleisthenes would establish the first known democracy with all its proper functions and make the Athenians the first public who manages themselves in the history, and he will went down in history as the father of democracy.
The Birth of Democracy
Cleisthenes gave the right to vote in the general assembly to all the Athenian citizens, regardless of being rich or poor, noble or commoner without any discrimination. Archons turned into a consultancy council, the parliament became the only authority. In order to prevent tyranny, Cleisthenes invented a policy named Ostracism; Athenians had the right to exile a person whom they determined by voting. This system sent the person who strengthen excessively to exile and functions as an insurance to avoid a possible tyranny.
Spartans, the biggest rivals and neighbors of Athenians provided the order of their own city-states by using an excessive education-indoctrination system and by military policy. They thought that this invention of Athenians called as democracy is a naïve relish to end tragically in a short time but they were completely wrong. While Spartans advanced with militant citizens who were looking for ways to escape at first opportunity and kept unity under pressure with aggressive war policies, were fading away, Athens became the super power of his era.

Cleisthenes, the father of the democracy

Anna Christoforidis, 2004