When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955, technically, she was breaking the law. On city busses, the first ten rows were permanently reserved for white patrons, and any non-white person occupying them could be arrested. And that’s exactly what happened to Rosa Parks.
Of course, Rosa Parks was not a criminal. She was a committed and strategic organizer and advocate for social change. And her brave act of Civil Disobedience that day helped draw attention to an unjust system of racial oppression and build the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement. Imagine a world in which Parks had taken her assigned spot at the back of the bus simply because she didn’t want to break the law.
In practicing Civil Disobedience, Parks was following a long tradition of non-violent protest used by generations of oppressed people to push back against the systems that held them down. From the Suffragettes fighting to win right to vote, to Gandhi’s Salt March to oppose British oppression in India, to the Indigenous communities in Minnesota fighting to stop the Line 3 oil pipeline today, Civil Disobedience is an essential form or protest that has been responsible for massive social change and inspired millions to wake up and take action.
For many of us, the term “Civil Disobedience" might be a phrase you’ve heard of, but you always wondered what it truly meant. So what is Civil Disobedience? And why is it so important?
In the simplest terms, Civil Disobedience is a peaceful, non-violent form of protest. While the practice has been around since well before it was known as civil disobedience, the term was coined by Henry David Thoreau in his 1849 essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” In it, Thoreau, who was inspired by his disgust of American slavery, argues that when a government is unjust, it’s our obligation not to participate in that injustice. He said to “Follow your conscience and break the law on moral grounds rather than be a cog in an unjust system.”
That’s what Rosa Parks was doing in 1955, and it’s what some Indigenous communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin are choosing to do to oppose the construction of the Line 3 oil pipeline.
At Seventh Generation, we are proud to amplify the Indigenous-led effort to stop Line 3. Line 3 will bring nearly a million barrels of oil every day from Alberta, Canada to Minnesota and Wisconsin, threatening water, crops, and the health and livelihoods of the Indigenous communities who live and work in the pipeline’s path.
How can these communities protect themselves, their land, and this and future generations? They have already filed lawsuits and tried to Stop Line 3 through legal channels, but to no avail. They have actively opposed Line 3 on the basis of treaties upheld by the United States Constitution—but they have been ignored .
These are exactly the sorts of moments Thoreau was talking about. Gandhi said that “The function of a civil resister is to provoke response,” and that’s what Water Protectors like Gina Peltier, Winona LaDuke, and others are doing when they choose to block the construction path of Line 3, or peacefully delay it to get the outside world to notice such obvious injustice.
While we know some individuals may not condone actions that go against standing laws, it’s important to know why protestors throughout history have practiced Civil Disobedience. It’s also important to remember that even though we all live within systems, those systems are not necessarily fair, just, or equitable, even if they feel fair to some. Nor are they historically on the side of those who are most vulnerable, and most likely to experience oppression. The Indigenous communities whose treaty-protected crops and water will be harmed by the building of Line 3 know this all too well.
President Biden has the power to stop Line 3 through executive action, and those practicing Civil Disobedience to stop Line 3 are doing so, in part, to draw the world’s attention to the President’s inaction. How he’s not yet living up to his promise to be the “Climate President.”
We at Seventh Generation oppose oppression in all its forms. And we stand proudly with those who are peacefully standing up for themselves and trying to inspire the world to stand with them.