Monday, May 22, 2017

The Problem is Civil Obedience

1970, from the Zinn Reader, Seven Stories Press

By Howard Zinn

Transcript of my opening statement in the debate at Johns Hopkins. It was included in a book published by Johns Hopkins Press in 1972, entitled Violence: The Crisis of American Confidence. - Howard Zinn

I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth. I start from the supposition that we don't have to say too much about this because all we have to do is think about the state of the world today and realize that things are all upside down. Daniel Berrigan is in jail-A Catholic priest, a poet who opposes the war-and J. Edgar Hoover is free, you see. David Dellinger, who has opposed war ever since he was this high and who has used all of his energy and passion against it, is in danger of going to jail. The men who are responsible for the My Lai massacre are not on trial; they are in Washington serving various functions, primary and subordinate, that have to do with the unleashing of massacres, which surprise them when they occur. At Kent State University four students were killed by the National Guard and students were indicted. In every city in this country, when demonstrations take place, the protesters, whether they have demonstrated or not, whatever they have done, are assaulted and clubbed by police, and then they are arrested for assaulting a police officer.

Now, I have been studying very closely what happens every day in the courts in Boston, Massachusetts. You would be astounded-maybe you wouldn't, maybe you have been around, maybe you have lived, maybe you have thought, maybe you have been hit-at how the daily rounds of injustice make their way through this marvelous thing that we call due process. Well, that is my premise.

All you have to do is read the Soledad letters of George Jackson, who was sentenced to one year to life, of which he spent ten years, for a seventy-dollar robbery of a filling station. And then there is the U.S. Senator who is alleged to keep 185,000 dollars a year, or something like that, on the oil depletion allowance. One is theft; the other is legislation. something is wrong, something is terribly wrong when we ship 10,000 bombs full of nerve gas across the country, and drop them in somebody else's swimming pool so as not to trouble our own. So you lose your perspective after a while. If you don't think, if you just listen to TV and read scholarly things, you actually begin to think that things are not so bad, or that just little things are wrong. But you have to get a little detached, and then come back and look at the world, and you are horrified. So we have to start from that supposition-that things are really topsy-turvy.

And our topic is topsy-turvy: civil disobedience. As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem.... Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That's our problem. We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them. Even in Stalin's Russia we can understand that; people are obedient, all these herdlike people.

But America is different. That is what we've all been brought up on. From the time we are this high and I still hear it resounding in Mr. Frankel's statement-you tick off, one, two, three, four, five lovely things .~ about America that we don't want disturbed very much. But if we have learned anything in the past ten years, it is that these lovely things about America were never lovely. We have been expansionist and aggressive and mean to other people from the beginning. And we've been aggressive and mean to people in this country, and we've allocated the wealth of this country in a very unjust way. We've never had justice in the courts for the poor people, for black people, for radicals. Now how can we boast that America is a very special place? It is not that special. It really isn't.

Well, that is our topic, that is our problem: civil obedience. Law is very important. We are talking about obedience to law-law, this marvelous invention of modern times, which we attribute to Western civilization, and which we talk about proudly. The rule of law, oh, how wonderful, all these courses in Western civilization all over the land. Remember those bad old days when people were exploited by feudalism? Everything was terrible in the Middle Ages-but now we have Western civilization, the rule of law. The rule of law has regularized and maximized the injustice that existed before the rule of law, that is what the rule of law has done. Let us start looking at the rule of law realistically, not with that metaphysical complacency with which we always examined it before.

When in all the nations of the world the rule of law is the darling of the leaders and the plague of the people, we ought to begin to recognize this. We have to transcend these national boundaries in our thinking. Nixon and Brezhnev have much more in common with one another than - we have with Nixon. J. Edgar Hoover has far more in common with the head of the Soviet secret police than he has with us. It's the international dedication to law and order that binds the leaders of all countries in a comradely bond. That's why we are always surprised when they get together -- they smile, they shake hands, they smoke cigars, they really like one another no matter what they say. It's like the Republican and Democratic parties, who claim that it's going to make a terrible difference if one or the other wins, yet they are all the same. Basically, it is us against them.

Yossarian was right, remember, in Catch-22? He had been accused of giving aid and comfort to the enemy, which nobody should ever be accused of, and Yossarian said to his friend Clevinger: "The enemy is whoever is going to get you killed, whichever side they are on." But that didn't sink in, so he said to Clevinger: "Now you remember that, or one of these days you'll be dead." And remember? Clevinger, after a while, was dead. And we must remember that our enemies are not divided along national lines, that enemies are not just people who speak different languages and occupy different territories. Enemies are people who want to get us killed.

We are asked, "What if everyone disobeyed the law?" But a better question is, "What if everyone obeyed the law?" And the answer to that question is much easier to come by, because we have a lot of empirical evidence about what happens if everyone obeys the law, or if even most people obey the law. What happens is what has happened, what is happening. Why do people revere the law? And we all do; even I have to fight it, for it was put into my bones at an early age when I was a Cub Scout. One reason we revere the law is its ambivalence. In the modern world we deal with phrases and words that have multiple meanings, like "national security." Oh, yes, we must do this for national security! Well, what does that mean? Whose national security? Where? When? Why? We don't bother to answer those questions, or even to ask them.

The law conceals many things. The law is the Bill of Rights. ;'~ fact, that is what we think of when we develop our reverence for the law. The law is something that protects us; the law is our right-the law is the Constitution. Bill of Rights Day, essay contests sponsored by the American Legion on our Bill of Rights, that is the law. And that is good.

But there is another part of the law that doesn't get ballyhooed- the legislation that has gone through month after month, year after year, from the beginning of the Republic, which allocates the resources of the country in such a way as to leave some people very rich and other people very poor, and still others scrambling like mad for what little is left. That is the law. If you go to law school you will see this. You can quantify it by counting the big, heavy law books that people carry around with them and see how many law books you count that say "Constitutional Rights" on them and how many that say "Property," "Contracts," "Torts," "Corporation Law." That is what the law is mostly about. The law is the oil depletion allowance-although we don't have Oil Depletion Allowance Day, we don't have essays written on behalf of the oil depletion allowance. So there are parts of the law that are publicized and played up to us-oh, this is the law, the Bill of Rights. And there are other parts of the law that just do their quiet work, and nobody says anything about them.

It started way back. When the Bill of Rights was first passed, remember, in the first administration of Washington? Great thing. Bill of Rights passed! Big ballyhoo. At the same time Hamilton's economic pro gram was passed. Nice, quiet, money to the rich-I'm simplifying it a little, but not too much. Hamilton's economic program started it off. You can draw a straight line from Hamilton's economic program to the oil depletion allowance to the tax write-offs for corporations. All the way through-that is the history. The Bill of Rights publicized; economic legislation unpublicized.

You know the enforcement of different parts of the law is as important as the publicity attached to the different parts of the law. The Bill of Rights, is it enforced? Not very well. You'll find that freedom of speech in constitutional law is a very difficult, ambiguous, troubled concept. Nobody really knows when you can get up and speak and when you can't. Just check all of the Supreme Court decisions. Talk about predictability in a system-you can't predict what will happen to you when you get up on the street corner and speak. See if you can tell the difference between the Terminiello case and the Feiner case, and see if you can figure out what is going to happen. By the way, there is one part of the law that is not very vague, and that involves the right to distribute leaflets on the street. The Supreme Court has been very clear on that. In decision after decision we are affirmed an absolute right to distribute leaflets on the street. Try it. Just go out on the street and start distributing leaflets. And a policeman comes up to you and he says, "Get out of here." And you say, "Aha! Do you know Marsh v. Alabama, 1946?" That is the reality of the Bill of Rights. That's the reality of the Constitution, that part of the law which is portrayed to us as a beautiful and marvelous thing. And seven years after the Bill of Rights was passed, which said that "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech," Congress made a law abridging the freedom of speech. Remember? The Sedition Act of 1798.

So the Bill of Rights was not enforced. Hamilton's program was enforced, because when the whisky farmers went out and rebelled you remember, in 1794 in Pennsylvania, Hamilton himself got on his horse and went out there to suppress the rebellion to make sure that the revenue tax was enforced. And you can trace the story right down to the present day, what laws are enforced, what laws are not enforced. So you have to be careful when you say, "I'm for the law, I revere the law." What part of the law are you talking about? I'm not against all law. But I think we ought to begin to make very important distinctions about what laws do what things to what people.

And there are other problems with the law. It's a strange thing, we think that law brings order. Law doesn't. How do we know that law does not bring order? Look around us. We live under the rules of law. Notice how much order we have? People say we have to worry about civil disobedience because it will lead to anarchy. Take a look at the present world in which the rule of law obtains. This is the closest to what is called anarchy in the popular mind-confusion, chaos, international banditry. The only order that is really worth anything does not come through the enforcement ... of law, it comes through the establishment of a society which is just and in which harmonious relationships are established and in which you need a minimum of regulation to create decent sets of arrangements among people. But the order based on law and on the force of law is the order of the totalitarian state, and it inevitably leads either to total injustice or to rebel lion-eventually, in other words, to very great disorder.

We all grow up with the notion that the law is holy. They asked Daniel Berrigan's mother what she thought of her son's breaking the law. He burned draft records-one of the most violent acts of this century- to protest the war, for which he was sentenced to prison, as criminals should be. They asked his mother who is in her eighties, what she thought of her son's breaking the law. And she looked straight into the interviewer's face, and she said, "It's not God's law." Now we forget that. There is nothing sacred about the law. Think of who makes laws. The law is not made by God, it is made by Strom Thurmond. If you nave any notion about the sanctity and loveliness and reverence for the law, look at the legislators around the country who make the laws. Sit in on the sessions of the state legislatures. Sit in on Congress, for these are the people who make the laws which we are then supposed to revere.

All of this is done with such propriety as to fool us. This is the problem. In the old days, things were confused; you didn't know. Now you know. It is all down there in the books. Now we go through due process. Now the same things happen as happened before, except that we've gone through the right procedures. In Boston a policeman walked into a hospital ward and fired five times at a black man who had snapped a towel at his arm-and killed him. A hearing was held. The judge decided that the policeman was justified because if he didn't do it, he would lose the respect of his fellow officers. Well, that is what is known as due process-that is, the guy didn't get away with it. We went through the proper procedures, and everything was set up. The decorum, the propriety of the law fools us.

The nation then, was founded on disrespect for the law, and then came the Constitution and the notion of stability which Madison and Hamilton liked. But then we found in certain crucial times in our history that the legal framework did not suffice, and in order to end slavery we had to go outside the legal framework, as we had to do at the time of the American Revolution or the Civil War. The union had to go outside the legal framework in order to establish certain rights in the 1930s. And in this time, which may be more critical than the Revolution or the Civil War, the problems are so horrendous as to require us to go outside the legal framework in order to make a statement, to resist, to begin to establish the kind of institutions and relationships which a decent society should have. No, not just tearing things down; building things up. But even if you build things up that you are not supposed to build up-you try to build up a people's park, that's not tearing down a system; you are building something up, but you are doing it illegally-the militia comes in and drives you out. That is the form that civil disobedience is going to take more and more, people trying to build a new society in the midst of the old.

But what about voting and elections? Civil disobedience-we don't need that much of it, we are told, because we can go through the electoral system. And by now we should have learned, but maybe we haven't, for we grew up with the notion that the voting booth is a sacred place, almost like a confessional. You walk into the voting booth and you come out and they snap your picture and then put it in the papers with a beatific smile on your face. You've just voted; that is democracy. But if you even read what the political scientists say-although who can?-about the voting process, you find that the voting process is a sham. Totalitarian states love voting. You get people to the polls and they register their approval. I know there is a difference-they have one party and we have two parties. We have one more party than they have, you see.

What we are trying to do, I assume, is really to get back to the principles and aims and spirit of the Declaration of Independence. This spirit is resistance to illegitimate authority and to forces that deprive people of their life and liberty and right to pursue happiness, and therefore under these conditions, it urges the right to alter or abolish their current form of government-and the stress had been on abolish. But to establish the principles of the Declaration of Independence, we are going to need to go outside the law, to stop obeying the laws that demand killing or that allocate wealth the way it has been done, or that put people in jail for petty technical offenses and keep other people out of jail for enormous crimes. My hope is that this kind of spirit will take place not just in this country but in other countries because they all need it. People in all countries need the spirit of disobedience to the state, which is not a metaphysical thing but a thing of force and wealth. And we need a kind of declaration of interdependence among people in all countries of the world who are striving for the same thing.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Our Beautiful Land, and the Poisoning of Muskrat Falls

October, 2016 Muskrat Falls solidarity rally at Ottawa's Human Rights Monument includes (sitting) Mitzi Wall and hunger strikers Billy Gauthier, Delilah Miriam Saunders and Jerry Kohlmeister. Kelly Morrissey, standing holding banner, left, wrote this speech below for the Walk the Talk Indigenous Rights Rally in Ottawa on May 13, 2017. (Photo: France Rivet/Polar Horizons)


(This speech was delivered at the May 13 Walk the Talk Rally in Ottawa in support of Bill C-262 to adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples)

Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge this gathering is taking place on unceded territory of the Algonquin nation. Welcome and thank you to all in attendance. To you – from closer locales and others whose passion to stand for what is right has led them here today. And to the walkers – who plainly have so much conviction for this cause. You are truly appreciated for your work. My name is Kelly Morrissey, and I’m an Inuit woman from Labrador. Our traditional territory is called Nunatsiavut, which, in Inuttut means ‘Our Beautiful Land’ – and indeed, it is beautiful.

Nearly half of residents in Labrador identify as a member of one of the 3 Indigenous groups there. These are comprised of the northern Inuit of Nunatsiavut (new-NAHT-see-ahh-vuht), the southern Inuit of NunatuKavut (new-nah-TOO-kah-voot), and the Innu Nation. Although I could wax poetic about the warm-natured people, remote vistas and subarctic splendor, I must spend my time wisely here today to tell you about the ongoing nature of Colonialism in my home. In recent decades, Labrador’s untouched nature has been changing with mining projects and hydroelectric development.

Most recently, the ongoing construction of the Muskrat Falls dam has been at the forefront of concern. In 2016, Indigenous groups and settlers alike were asking the Provincial and Federal government to take heed of a recent study done with Harvard University. It projected a marked increase in toxic methyl-mercury downstream from the project. This would affect the harvesting of traditional foods for locals, Innu and Inuit as the fish would then be polluted and could only be consumed in limited amounts. There were also concerns about a leaking cofferdam and the potential for flooding in the area.

In October 2016, after countless unanswered attempts at communication with government, dozens of Indigenous and settlers cut the gate lock to the Muskrat Falls construction site and walked several kilometers down a dirt road to peacefully occupy it. Hundreds of supporters stayed outside the gate while simultaneously, 4 people went on hunger strike to get the government to come to the table. 1 hunger striker occupied the camp, while 3 came here to Ottawa – at this very human rights monument – to appeal to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. All of this culminated in the Premier of the province flying back from Florida (finally!) to meet with the leaders of the Indigenous community. A deal was struck after a marathon 11 hour meeting, where Premier Ball agreed to mandate the energy company Nalcor, clear some vegetation in the spring.

In many ways, this demonstrates the strength of Indigenous people and Settlers united in the face of extreme colonial forces. However, I can’t help but ask why it’s okay to disregard the concerns of Indigenous people affected by a hydroelectric dam. I can’t help but wonder why it’s okay for the government to complain more about the ballooning costs of this mega-project than the human health effects – about my Indigenous sisters and brothers who’ll wonder if their children, and grandchildren will be born with developmental concerns, about those who wonder if the dam – built on clay and sand – will hold. How often will Inuit and Innu turn away from eating their traditional foods? How will they afford to purchase exorbitantly-priced store-bought foods in the north to replace these poisoned fish and animals? And even if they can, how will this affect their ties to the land? In turn, how will this affect the culture? How many days do my friends have to hunger strike before the government will listen to their concerns about their own land? How many of my fellow Inuk, Innu and settlers have to face criminal trespassing and mischief charges in order to get the government to listen to them?

In fact, 37 Labrador Land Protectors, and one journalist have been charged criminally for peacefully occupying the Muskrat Falls site. Yes, the one reporter – Justin Brake - who initially was covering this story in a secluded area, has also been charged criminally. Without his coverage, this story may not have been heard on a national stage – and the police who stated violence was occurring on the Muskrat Falls site may not have been proven false, as they were through live streams showing peace and even camaraderie with workers on the site. This smacks of censorship to me, and of a government and provincial energy corporation that exploits the seclusion of an area to do their dirty deeds, unchecked.

This is why implementing UNDRIP is important. Canada has signed off on this declaration, but just in the past year with Muskrat falls, the Provincial and Federal bodies have violated at least a dozen of these recommendations, paying particular attention to Article 32, which states Indigenous people have the right to determine strategies for use of their land, and that consultation should be done in good faith. I think its clear through my brief synopsis of this complicated scenario, the government did not wish to communicate with the Indigenous communities of Labrador.

And while the fight for the mighty Muskrat Falls continues, I do wish to make this a cautionary tale. Other hydroelectric and resource extraction projects are on the horizon in Canada. In fact, Harvard expanded on their original research, citing 21 more hydroelectric projects that will be affected by mercury levels even higher than those in the Muskrat Falls area. All of these dams are within a 100 km vicinity of secluded Indigenous communities.

It is essential that government be held accountable to their agreements, and if UNDRIP is not adopted into Canadian law, then you can clearly see that governments and corporations will easily disregard it and do what best suits their political agendas or pocket books. I join you all in taking a stand and telling the government – we need to adopt Bill C-262, ensuring Canadian law is in harmony with the tenets of UNDRIP, in order to promote the rights of Indigenous persons in Canada, and to indeed, walk the talk.

Thank you, Nakkumek.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Join the Chain Fast for Freedom for Hassan Diab, May 19 to June 18

Urgent Actions re Hassan Diab:

1. Wednesday, May 17 Rally at Prime Minister's Office, 12 noon, Ottawa

2. Chain Fast for Freedom for Hassan Diab, May 19 to June 18 (see details below)


As many of you have know, Dr. Hassan Diab of Ottawa, Ontario was extradited to France and has been jailed there for 30 months based on allegations his lawyer calls the classic recipe for a wrongful conviction. French investigating judges have ordered him released six times, and, in a move that is seen as unprecedented, each time the French Court of Appeal overturned all release orders at the prosecutor's behest. (see

Supporters of Dr. Diab will rally at the Prime Minister’s office in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 17 at 12 noon, calling on Justin Trudeau to do exactly what he demanded of Prime Minister Harper when journalist Mohamed Fahmy was wrongfully detained in Egypt. In 2015, Trudeau said Harper "has an obligation to use the full force of the Prime Minister’s Office to help Canadian citizens when they are unjustly imprisoned abroad. His inaction must end today.”

We agree. And so, in addition to the May 17 rally in Ottawa, we invite you to join the Chain fast for Freedom for Hassan Diab, running May 19 to June 18, each day representing a full month Dr. Diab has spent behind bars. We invite you to fast for one or more days according to your own traditions and protocol (sunup to sundown, with or without liquids, 24 hours, etc.).

On the day you fast, we invite you to explain why you are fasting to friends and family, in a letter to the editor, and with MPs, including your own and those referred to below.

To sign up to fast, email your name, town, and date(s) to, and we will post this information publicly at

In addition to fasting (and for those who would like to help but cannot fast), we invite all of you to write to Prime Minister Trudeau calling on him to use the full force of his office to bring Dr. Diab home. You can write to Trudeau directly online at

Please also email,,,,

Thanks for your support.

Matthew Behrens

Member, Justice for Hassan Diab

Chain Fast for Freedom for Hassan Diab

May 19 to June 18, 2017

For the next 30 days – each day representing a month of being wrongfully detained in a French jail cell – we will be sharing a chain fast calling on Prime Minister Trudeau to undertake all possible efforts to return Canadian citizen Dr. Hasan Diab to his family in Ottawa.

Dr. Diab is an Ottawa university professor and father of two young Canadian children who has been jailed for over two and a half years in France as a result of a controversial and legally questionable extradition proceeding commenced by the previous Conservative government.

Dr. Diab was sought by the French for a crime he did not commit. Dr. Diab’s finger prints, palm prints, physical description, and handwriting do not match those of the French suspect sought for a 1980 bombing in Paris that tragically killed four people. Dr. Diab has consistently denied involvement and condemned the violence, while French investigating judges have confirmed he was in Lebanon at the time of the bombing.

Of critical concern is the fact that Dr. Diab has been ordered released on bail six times over the past year by investigating judges in charge of his case, but on each occasion, the Court of Appeal overturned all release orders at the prosecutor's behest. French lawyers have called this situation unprecedented, a political maneuver to look tough on terror even though a vast body of evidence shows Dr. Diab did not commit the crime.

The inability of Dr. Diab to obtain release from a cell in which he is confined 22 hours a day – even while two investigative judges have called for such a judicially-sanctioned release  recalls the frustrations of other Canadians wrongfully held overseas, such as journalist Mohamed Fahmy.

In 2015, Prime Minister Trudeau issued a powerful statement on Mr. Fahmy’s behalf while in opposition, saying then Prime Minister Stephen Harper  "has an obligation to use the full force of the Prime Minister’s Office to help Canadian citizens when they are unjustly imprisoned abroad. His inaction must end today.”

We undertake this chain fast because we believe it is time for Justin Trudeau to consider how to employ the same forceful use of his office in Dr. Diab’s case as well.

Each of us will fast for a day, during which we will write to the Prime Minister, The Global Affairs Minister, the Justice Minister, our member of Parliament; write a letter to the editor; and discuss Dr. Diab’s case with family and friends.

This modest sacrifice is the least we can do to support Dr. Diab and his loved ones as they truly hunger for justice and for their family to be reunited.

May 19, Ria Heynen, Ottawa
May 20, Lyn Adamson, Toronto
May 21, Matthew Behrens, Perth
May 22, Mohammad Al-Rayyan, Ottawa
May 23, Amani Khalfan, Ottawa
May 24, Dima Siam, Ottawa
May 25, Ria Heynen, Ottawa
May 26, Mary Ann Higgs, Kingston
May 27, Jo Wood, Ottawa
May 28, Hassan Almrei, Ontario
May 29, Cym Gomery, Montreal
May 30, Rabea Murtaza, Toronto
May 31, Don Pratt, Berkeley, CA
June 1, Tyler Levitan, Ottawa
June 2, Ria Heynen, Ottawa
June 3, Samiha Rayeda, Ottawa, Murray Lumley, Toronto
June 4, Linda Green, Ottawa
June 5, Janet Siltanen, Ottawa; Larry Rousseau, Ottawa
June 6, Roger Clark, Ottawa
June 7, Don Pratt, Berkeley, CA
June 8, Ria Heynen, Ottawa
June 9, Mary Ann Higgs, Kingston, Sue Goldstein, Toronto
June 10, Rev. Karen Rodman, Ottawa
June 11, Linda Green, Ottawa
June 12, mandy hiscocks, Guelph, Sue Goldstein, Toronto
June 13, Kathleen Copps, Vancouver
June 14, David Heap, London, ON
June 15, Kelti Cameron, Ottawa
June 16, Sharry Aiken, Toronto
June 17, Bessa Whitmore, Ottawa
June 18, Daiva Stasiulis, Ottawa, Sue Goldstein, Toronto