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.
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.
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