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Zimmerman: The Fruits of Civil Disobedience

June 23, 2011

When the young (former) senatorial page Brigette DePape held up her ‘Stop Harper’ sign she intended to spark a widespread movement against Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Majority Conservative government and their agenda.  DePape has used the media spotlight that was subsequently shone on her to speak out against the trends of non-transparency, militarization, austerity measures, and the lack of environmental stewardship that have arguably increased under Harper’s tenure.  A majority government run by the Conservatives, she reasons, will likely be disastrous in the long run for the country and specifically for her generation and no doubt the subsequent generations to follow.

Conservative Members of Parliament and pundits from the right, the centre, and even the “left” were quick to criticize her actions.  Even Jack Layton, our man of the people, felt it necessary to criticize her actions and that her timing and location were inappropriate.  DePape has responded by stating that there is no inappropriate place for civil disobedience and that we must “think of creative ways that we can to resist it (Harper’s Agenda) in our workplaces and in the streets.”  Democracy, that is the people’s rule, is not limited to merely voting every few years (in an archaic system from a colonial past…but let’s not get into that here), but consists of the people taking control of their own destinies through direct political action and peaceful civil disobedience if necessary. We have a guaranteed four years of a Harper Majority Government that about 75% of Canadians did not vote for.  Some say stick it out, hold your breath, respect the institution of “democracy” that we have and simply wait.  The Brigette DePape’s of the nation say otherwise.  If the majority of Canadians do disagree with Harper’s agenda, then why should we take it?  Can we mobilize massive peaceful resistance against this agenda?  And if we do, will it work?  How useful is large-scale civil disobedience?

There are instances of civil disobedience in Canada, but for most successful large scale mobilizations one has to look outside our borders.  Of course we have the examples from the Arab Spring where the people en masse managed to oust their dictators from power through civil disobedience.  The movements appear to be growing, with notable examples from Saudi Arabia where women have started defying the laws against them driving, and the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have now largely opted for peaceful resistance.  From the past we have the civil rights movement from the 1960s in the United States, the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, and the anti-colonial Indian movement led by Mohandas Gandhi.  These are among the most popular instances from the past, but I wish to focus briefly on a lesser known chapter from the Second World War where civil disobedience and peaceful resistance managed to win the day over one of the most, if not the most, tyrannical regime in history.

I refer here to the case of Bulgariain World War II.  I refer to this example because it is one where a clear separation between the top, that is, the leaders of the nation, and the bottom, that is, the people of the nation. Bulgaria was part of the Axis Powers and thus an ally of Nazi Germany.  Like the other states under the satellite influence of Nazi Germany there were moves to begin the mass deportations of Bulgarian Jews to the concentration camps and death camps of Nazi-occupied Poland.  In the run-up to the attempt at rounding the Jews in Bulgaria up and deporting them, there were anti-Semitic laws passed by the government.  These laws were opposed by civil society groups, including labour unions and members of the Orthodox Church.  One Parliamentarian, Dimo Kazasov, after having written a letter to the king and Prime Minister deriding them and other members of government for allowing such legislation and getting cozy with their guests, the Nazi troops and political envoys, was imprisoned by the regime.  He was released shortly after due to his popularity among the Bulgarian public, but was given a stern warning not to interfere against lest he would share the fate of the Jews.

The Bulgarian regime allowed the deportation of Jews from newly acquired territories in Yugoslavia and Greece.  Once news of the brutality of the Nazi death camps reached Bulgaria proper and the mass deportation of its own Jewish minority became eminent people took to the streets, both Jewish and non-Jewish alike, to protest this injustice.  Bulgarian sewers refused to sew any more yellow Stars of David, claiming they had run out of sewing machines.  Bishops from the Church performed false and subsequently nullified public conversions of Jews to Christianity, all for show to the Germans.  At one central train station a prominent Bishop by the name of Kyril of Plovdiv prevented the deportation of between 1,500 to 1,600 Bulgarian Jews by threatening to lie across the railway tracks.  The government could not deal with such bad public relations with its population already undermining its plans for deportation through collective action.  In the end 80% of Bulgarian Jews survived the war and did not share the fate of many other Jews in Europe.

By no means do I directly compare our current predicament to that of Bulgaria in World War II, I simply use this example to illustrate how potent a force simultaneous civil disobedience can be in the face of the highest stakes. This seldom-told example from history of massive grassroots mobilization and peaceful resistance is significant for a number of reasons.  It displays how, despite such high odds stacked against them, the people of Bulgaria, Jewish and non-Jewish, resisted through civil disobedience and ultimately succeeded against the juggernaut that was the Nazi’s “final solution”.  It also shows how people on the ground can carry out change no matter what occurs at the top.  A machine cannot function without all its pieces and parts moving in unison and states operate in the same manner.  If people simultaneously refuse to carry out something that the top orders then the action simply will not get done.  We must at times separate ourselves from the top, always remembering that those who are in leadership positions do not always know what is best or will act with moral conviction.  The government of Bulgaria did eventually back down, but only after the bottom (the people) forced them to realize that they could not complete the deportations.

Finally, this example shows a unique case of solidarity.  The Jews of Bulgaria were not alone in their struggle.  People who were not Jewish stood alongside them even though they did not share in their state of being so terribly persecuted.  Civil disobedience can only work when people within societies as a whole realize that an injury to one is an injury to all.  This is one example of civil disobedience that was successful from history.  There are numerous other entries in this inspirational section of history, when human beings stood together to help one another gain true positive change.  It is never a waste to be disobedient in the face of injustice and to sweep aside those from the top that tell us to “respect the institution” no matter what.  The greatest work humankind has done has been outside of such institutions from the top.  The real change almost always comes from below.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2011 8:22 pm

    I’m sorry but I still cannot agree with her actions. I am a firm believer in the “respect the institution” mantra. If you want to protest do it from the lawn. Doing it in the houses of parliament is showing the same disrespect that the 75% complain that Harper showed. Every example you gave about Bulgaria is perfectly valid except in the manner that they were still respecting the institution of their government. They didn’t overthrow the legislative buildings or the courts. They did it outside. Had Ms DePape snuck into a conservative rally with all of that security and held up that sign I would applaud her. But she didn’t. She went into the House of the Senate and held up a sign during the Throne Speech. That is disrespectful to the institution that should hold the highest respect in this country no matter who is running the show.

  2. June 23, 2011 11:03 pm

    Such an admirable institution, a bunch of non-elected elites.

  3. June 23, 2011 11:08 pm

    The government of Bulgaria was ready to deport people to death camps. I wouldn’t give a damn about disrespecting that institution. The point is, the institution is irrelevant, only through the threat of being undermined and de-stabilized did this “institution” government obey the popular will of its people.

  4. June 24, 2011 2:16 am

    I think the fact that we have people like Romeo Dallaire in the senate and others like him means that there is some reason I still call it the chamber of sober second thought. I also think that even if she did it in the House of Commons your argument wouldn’t change.

    Point is, I still believe in the institution that is the Canadian Government. The filibuster going on tonight is one of the reasons for that belief. We do have democracy in this country and I find it reprehensible for someone to disrespect that institution. That’s the reason I couldn’t stand it when Harper did it. It’s the reason I can’t stand that she did it. I believe and respect the institution of our government.

  5. June 24, 2011 1:44 pm

    I think, quite plainly, it’s time to stop respecting undemocratic institutions like the Senate. I was not making a direct comparision to standing up to Nazis and standing up to Harper. I was stating that civil disobedience is always the way to stand up to injustices and used an example that I felt was potent. I purposely inserted the sentence that made it clear that I was not comparing Nazis to Harper in any terms. I inserted that sentence so no one would think that I was.

    Just because Canadians have respected them for hundreds of years does not mean they cannot be challenged. She did it in the Senate purposely to get the media attention and if she had done it elsewhere she would not have gotten the attention.

    The point she was trying to make is that those of us who oppose Harper’s agenda. Approximately 39% of the votes went to the Conservative Party yet they have a Majority Government with a close to infinite mandate. This system is not truly representative of what the majority of voting Canadians wanted. This system must be challenged. We can afford four years of Harper’s agenda and the Parliamentary system, an archaic system where entrenched minorities have power, and an unelected Governor General who serves a foreign Monarchy (really, a Monarchy in this day and age) is head of state. Civil disobedience is the only way to make our voices heard.

    A government that only 39% of the people voted for (due to our archaic electoral system) is not legitimate in my eyes. A government that does not take climate change seriously at a time when the effects are only starting to be seen and top scientists are warning of impending disasters and an upcoming extinction phase is not legitimate. A government that spends $1 Billion on security to have a conference where peaceful demonstrators are rounded up like animals and placed into tiny cages for using their freedom of speech is not legitimate. A government that spies on indigenous peoples is not legitimate. A government that has designated itself the sole cheerleader for a racist Apartheid regime is not legitimate. We cannot afford four years more of this. The institution needs to be changed and DePape has lit the spark.

  6. Brent Schmidt permalink
    June 24, 2011 2:03 pm

    zimmerman, you use the scapegoat of saying she did this on the senate floor… yet the agenda she opposed was Harper’s, an elected Canadian official who received far more of the POPULAR vote (you know, that thing in a democracy) than any other party.

    • June 24, 2011 2:05 pm

      39% of the vote, yet he has a majority even though the majority of Canadians didn’t vote for his party. This is a ridiculous system. It’s time to change it.

  7. June 27, 2011 1:09 am

    I find that Brigette DePape made a mockery of the concept of “civil disobedience”.

    Furthermore, there have been no austerity measures under the Conservatives. I wish there were, but those guys ramped up spending the moment they got their hands on the Treasury.

  8. June 24, 2011 1:10 pm

    Mr. Korfmann, you have.completely and utterly missed the point entirely. I think I made it clear that I was not comparing Mr. Harper to Nazis in any sense. I was showing an example of how effective civil disobedienc cqn be no matter the odds. I thought I made that clear and I would appreciate it if you removed the post suggesting that I was as it is misleading.

    I was being sarcastic when I called Jack Layton “our man of the people” which is why I placed it in quotations. I thought it was generally known that that is what quotations meant in print. I was criticizng Mr. Layton as well so I thought it was pretty straight forward.

  9. June 24, 2011 1:27 pm

    I mentioned that the Nazis were mentioned in the same article as Stephen Harper and Canada for that matter.

    The fact that you link the courageous and noble act of standing up to the Nazi regime with the act of Bridgette DePape is also pretty disgusting (in my opinion). She does not deserve that level of respect.

    I must say that despite weather or not you meant to make that comparison, you did.

    I don’t think any of this is misleading, you even brought up the American Civil Rights movements and the Anti-Apartheid movements in South Africa; all of these have no relation to the situation involving Bridgette DePape.

    She is not some hero; she is a delinquent. She broke rules that the majority of Canadians have respected for over a hundred years.

    If she really thinks she can do this, she can do so outside of Senate Chamber.

    Seriously, there is a time and place, and that certainly wasn’t it.


  1. Korfmann: A Response to “The Fruits of Civil Disobedience” « The Opposition

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