Civil Disobedience Training


Legal Issues/Risking Arrest

The decisions that we make are political, not legal. The reaction of the government to what we are doing, to what we stand for, will also be political. We can have quite an impact on what happens to us in jail, in court and during processing, if we are prepared. It can be as important a part of our nonviolent opposition as anything that comes before the arrest.

In a large demonstration, the police may separate us from each other, breaking up affinity groups' and possibly isolating individuals. In order to maintain our spirits and effectiveness, we must develop an ability to deal with the legal system, while trusting in the solidarity of other demonstrators. Solidarity is, in reality, more a state of mind that unites us through a long struggle than a specific course of action that everyone follows. Solidarity does not demand that everyone make the same choice in every situation. It is an internal force within each of us and among us as a group. It is our commitment to one another and to our common cause; it is our dedication to support one another and to pursue our common goals at all times, in every situation, to the best of our ability. Solidarity cannot be broken by courts, jails or other external forces. If we hold fast to it, it is ours.

Our approach to the legal system is up to us. We retain as much power as we refuse to relinquish to the government -- city, state or federal.

The criminal "justice" system functions to alienate and isolate the accused individual, to destroy one's power and purposefulness and to weave a web of confusion and mystification around any legal proceedings. If we are well prepared for our contact with this system, we can limit the effect it has upon us, both personally and politically. It is extremely important that we be firmly rooted in our own spirit and purposes, our commitment to one another and history and tradition of social struggle of which we are a part. We should try to maintain our nonviolent attitude of honesty and directness while dealing with law enforcement officers and the courts.

Nonviolent action draws its strength from open confrontation and noncooperation, not from evasion or subterfuge. Bail solidarity, noncooperation and other forms of resistance can be used to reaffirm our position that we are not criminals and that we are taking positive steps towards fleeing the world from oppression.

Discuss the issues raised in this legal section with your affinity' group -- particularly noncooperation and your attitude toward trials. Think out various hypothetical situations and try to understand how you will respond to these situations.

Some demonstrators refuse to cooperate partially or wholly with court procedures; they refuse to enter a plea, to retain or accept a lawyer, to stand up in court, to speak to the judge as a symbol of court authority (but rather speak to him or her as a fellow human being), to take the stand or question witnesses. They mav make a speech to those assembled in the courtroom or simply lie or sit on the floor if they are carried in, or attempt to leave if not forcibly restrained. The penalties for such noncooperation can be severe, because many judges take such action to be a personal affront as well as an insult to the court. Some judges, on the other hand, overlook such conduct, or attempt to communicate with the demonstrators.

Physical noncooperation may be sustained through the booking process and through court appearances; it mav continue through the entire time of one's detention. This might involve a refusal to walk, to eat, to clean oneself and one's surroundings. It may even lead prison officials to force-feed and diaper the inmate.

Another form of noncooperation is fasting -- taking no food and no liquid except water, or perhaps fruit juice. While abstaining from food can be uncomfortable and eventually risky, abstaining from all food and liquid can be extremely dangerous almost immediately. Five or six days is probably the longest a human can go without liquid before incurring brain damage and serious dehydration. Usually authorities watch persons who are "water fasting" closely and take steps to hospitalize them before serious consequences occur, but no demonstrator can ever count on such attention and should therefore be prepared to give up the fast or perhaps be allowed to die, as did several Irish freedom fighters during the H-Block hunger strike in 1981.

There are other forms noncooperation mav take and other reasons for it to occur. The refusal to give one's name undoubtedly springs from a desire to resist and confound a system that assigns criminal records to people, that categorizes and spies upon them and that punishes organizers and repeat offenders more strenuously. It relays amessage that none of us should be singled out: we'll be doing this again and again.

Many nonviolent activists, however, acting with the openness and confidence that characterizes and strengthens nonviolent action, do not choose to hide their identifies. They may still noncooperate, however, by refusing to reveal an address, or by refusing to promise to return for trial, increasing the burden on the courts to quickly' deal with the demonstrators and enhancing their solidarity and strength as people working together, filling the jails.

ACT UP Direct Action Guidelines

History of Mass Nonviolent Action

Nonviolent Response to Personal Violence

Practicing Nonviolence

Nonviolence Training

Affinity Groups and Support

Steps Toward Making a Campaign

Consensus Decision Making

Legal Issues/Risking Arrest

Legal Flow Chart: What Happens in an Arrest and Your Decisions

Legal Terms: What They Mean

Jail Solidarity

see also the following:

The Demonstrator's Manual (crucial)

Marshal Training Manual

Getting Arrested: Why do we do it?