Civil Disobedience in the New Millennium Corey N. White September 2, 2003
Civil disobedience is a term that describes non-violent acts of protests against governments that do not necessarily avoid circumventing the law. When dissidents engage in civil disobedience they do so prepared to face the consequences of their actions. The charges usually pressed against activists are disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and trespassing. There is also a history of radicals being assaulted by police, or labeled insane and given lobotomies. Despite the dangers and consequences of being involved in protesting the government amazing people throughout history have stood up to miss-guided authority and continue to press on into the new millennium. This essay is an attempt to examine the new climate that is emerging with modern activism. I try to convey to the reader how I look past the new storm of legislation that paints an ugly picture of dissidents by applying these new laws to activists of the past who have now been given national recognition for the laws they have broken. The points I draw from my sources and from growing up in the digital age, electronic civil disobedience in new media, is not unlike older more conventional forms of civil disobedience. It is no more dangerous than in my parent's generation, and there are many new causes, that surround modern civil disobedience, which could not be approached outside of new media. While new forms of civil disobedience are being targeted by the media and government as being more dangerous, the older forms are not immune to the growing wave of conservative delegation.
People who we now consider to be heroes in the fight for civil rights and democracy are immortalized for their direct-action or civil disobedience. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, and Mohandas Gandhi. Even the original patriots of democracy engaged in civil disobedience before the American Revolution. During their lives they were viewed as dangerous and radical, but now we remember them for the great victories they won for human rights.
While it has always been dangerous for activists, today because of increasing anti-dissident legislation the pitfalls of civil disobedience are increasing. After September 11, 2001 the United States passed legislation to help combat the threat of terrorism. Some, including the American Civil Liberties Union see these new bills as a threat to citizen's rights. The ACLU website quotes the US Patriot Act which was passed into law October 26, 2001: "Under Section 802 of the USA PATRIOT Act, a person commits the crime of domestic terrorism if within the U.S. they engage in activity that involves acts dangerous to human life that violate the laws of the United States or any State and appear to be intended: (I) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping. ". The ACLU publishes their opinion that this bill can be unfairly used to prosecute people engaged in civil disobedience with the sweeping new powers of the rest of the Patriot Act. While the ACLU says, "The ACLU does not oppose the criminal prosecution of people who commit acts of civil disobedience if those acts result in property damage or place people in danger. That type of behavior is already illegal and perpetrators of these crimes can be prosecuted and subjected to serious penalties. However, such crimes often are not 'terrorism.' The legislative response to terrorism should not turn ordinary citizens into terrorists." Merriam-Webster online (www.m-w.com) calls civil disobedience "refusal to obey governmental demands especially as a nonviolent and usually collective means of forcing concessions from the government", thus civil disobedience always breaks the law, and is almost always viewed as dangerous by authority.
The actions of many of the leaders in the civil rights movement and in democracy can be easily viewed as dangerous. In 1913 a mob attacked a Women's Suffrage parade inspired by Susan B. Anthony and no arrests were made. April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Often, activists involved in civil disobedience are dangerous because of necessity. The Black Panthers, who did many great things for civil rights, also carried guns because they needed to protect themselves, among other reasons. The original patriots of this country and our founding fathers engaged in civil disobedience before the war and due to British resistance their efforts escalated into the American Revolutionary War. Today with the Patriot Act looming over activists heads even a connection with a dissident who is seen to be a 'terrorist' under this loose definition is at risk.
The atmosphere of modern civil disobedience has changed also because of new causes activists have found, and new methods of protest. Hactivism, culture jamming, and guerilla communication are some of the new ways dissidents voice their protests. Economic, Anti-corporate, and Anti-consumerism activisms are some of the modern causes. Activists still fight the old battles of civil rights and stand up to governments when they go to war. Demonstrations are still held, and protesters still worry about the environment. Modern methods of civil disobedience are focused within the new media we find in today's world. Guerilla communication, which includes hactivism and culture jamming, is simply a way for protesters to make their unconventional cause known either through existing communication channels or through more unconventional means. One form of guerilla communication, culture jamming, is when existing propaganda or corporate trade marks are taken and redistributed and modified to support another cause. Nike's slogan "Just do it" was modified to "Just do it… or else" to protest the company's sweat shops. Culture jamming is usually done through graffiti or performance art, but can also be demonstrated through hactivism. Hactivism is the name for electronic civil disobedience. More often it is referred to as cyber terrorism, perpetrated by ignorant teenagers. Culture jamming happens in cyberspace all the time, one example of it is cyber squatting. Cybersquatting is when someone outside the company uses a company's trademark as a domain name. That person then usually covers the site with slanderous material and offers to sell the domain name back to the company at inflated prices. One recent example of this is www.jesus.com, which sold for $10 million dollars. The previous owner of the site claimed to be Jesus himself. Another site which preys on this notion is www.whitehouse.com, a hard core porno site which gets traffic from people trying to reach the real white house website. Hactivism also takes many other forms. To fight piracy some computer hackers clog up search engines and peer-to-peer networks with dead links and advertisements to make the real illegal code hard to find. Recently hackers also released the Nachi worm, which was a 'good virus'. It infected computers that were already infected with the Blaster Worm and acted like anti virus software to remove the blaster. The blaster worm hit us hard early August.
Hackers also do many things in the name of civil disobedience that can be easily viewed as cyber terrorism. In 1986 'Captain Midnight' broadcasted a pirate satellite signal overpowering HBOs satellites with the message: "GOODEVENING HBO FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT $12.95/MONTH? NO WAY! (SHOWTIME/MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE)". They arrested John R. MacDougall, who was considered a threat to national security not long after. China's human rights website was defaced with the message: "China's people have no rights at all, never mind human rights. How can the United States trade millions of dollars with them and give them the most favored trade status when they know what is happening?" The list goes on and on.
The modern civil disobedient, the 'hactivists', are rarely caught. Hackers are also rare to begin with. The ones who get caught are novices, teenagers who have no real experience. The ones who do not get caught take steps to prevent their identities from being known. They can penetrate one unsecured system and use it to redirect themselves to another system, routing their connection through as many countries as possible.
Some people may accuse the modern dissidents of the new millennium of being dangerous. That 'hactivists' have the ability to bring down power grids, hospital computers, and critical military systems. This is no different than the older generations of activists that were capable of going to war in their own way; using more conventional means of direct-action. Rarely if ever does a hactivist do these things. They tend to engage in non-violent electronic protests. Angst fueled teenagers who know very little about computers are the true terrorists. In conclusion I argue that to call a true hactivist a cyber terrorist for defacing a objectionable website (i.e. China's human rights site) because it shows he is capable of doing more dangerous things is no different than calling Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks a terrorist. Martin Luther King Jr. Inspired a whole generation to fight for their civil rights in a non-violent manner and engage in peaceful civil disobedience. He could have easily gone the road of the black panthers and led an army capable of defending themselves. It could be argued as well that Rosa Parks endangered the lives of the people on that bus, and the rest of traffic that day. It is too easy to forget the fights we remember in the past for what they were once viewed as.
Work Cited: Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia, “Civil Disobedience.” [Online] 2 September, 2003. <http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_disobedience>
Sniggle.net The Culture Jammers Encyclopedia, “Hactivism.” [Online] 2 September, 2003. <http://www.sniggle.net/hacktivism.php>
American Civil Liberties Union, “HOW THE USA-PATRIOT ACT WOULD CONVERT DISSENT INTO BROADLY DEFINED ‘TERRORISM’.“ [Online] 23 October, 2001. <http://archive.aclu.org/congress/l102301d.html>