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The American author Henry David Thoreau pioneered the modern theory behind this practice in his 1849 essay, originally titled "Resistance to Civil Government", and later retitled "Civil Disobedience". This essay has had a wide influence on many later practitioners of civil disobedience. In the essay, Thoreau explained his reasons for having refused to pay his taxes as an act of protest against slavery and against the Mexican War.
Civil disobedience has served as a major tactic of nationalist movements in former colonies in Africa and Asia prior to their gaining independence. Most notably Mohandas Gandhi developed civil disobedience as an anti-colonialist tool. Martin Luther King, a leader of the US civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s also adopted civil disobedience techniques, and antiwar activists both during and after the Vietnam War have done likewise. More recently, in the 2000s, people have used civil disobedience to protest the war on Iraq and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Many who practise civil disobedience do so out of religious faith, and clergy often participate in or lead actions of civil disobedience. The Berrigan brothers in the United States, for example, are priests who have been arrested dozens of times in acts of civil disobedience in antiwar protests.
In seeking an active form of resistance, those who practise civil disobedience may choose to deliberately break certain laws, such as by forming a peaceful blockade or occupying a facility illegally. Protesters do so with the expectation that they will be arrested, or even attacked or beaten by the authorities. Protesters often undergo training in advance on how to react to arrest or to attack, so that they will do so in a manner that quietly or limply resists without threatening the authorities. For example, Mohandas Gandhi outlined the following rules:
- A satyagrahi, i.e., a civil resister, will harbour no anger.
- He will suffer the anger of the opponent.
- In so doing he will put up with assaults from the opponent, never retaliate; but he will not submit, out of fear of punishment or the like, to any order given in anger.
- When any person in authority seeks to arrest a civil resister, he will voluntarily submit to the arrest, and he will not resist the attachment or removal of his own property, if any, when it is sought to be confiscated by authorities.
- If a civil resister has any property in his possession as a trustee, he will refuse to surrender it, even though in defending it he might lose his life. He will, however, never retaliate.
- Non-retaliation includes swearing and cursing.
- Therefore a civil resister will never insult his opponent, and therefore also not take part in many of the newly coined cries which are contrary to the spirit of ahimsa.
- A civil resister will not salute the Union Jack, nor will he insult it or officials, English or Indian.
- In the course of the struggle if anyone insults an official or commits an assault upon him, a civil resister will protect such official or officials from the insult or attack even at the risk of his life.
- See also: dissent, non-violence, non-violent resistance, pacifism, activism, demonstration, satyagraha, Civil and social disobedience, direct action, non-violent direct action, electronic civil disobedience, Solidarity
- Direct Action on Nonviolence.org