The final issue to examine in more detail is that of ethics: what is acceptable activist behavior and what is not, and why? Ethics must be considered in any activist endeavor, but they are of the greatest importance in those situations that demand the strongest tactics, in other words, civil disobedience, direct action and agitation. Said another way, where does activism end and rebellion begin? What are the most extreme steps (or means) that we can justifiably take?

(Note: this analysis is an extension of the discussion in Section 11 of Chapter 6.)

To begin, civil disobedience is acceptable in many circumstances, and it actually enjoys something of a historical tradition. American revolutionaries helped set this example, as in the Boston Tea Party, and we can emulate them. Indeed, in dictatorial countries you are civilly disobedient merely through expressing your own opinions and your right to freedom of assembly.

In more democratically developed countries, though, the issue is never this clear. Each case where you are tempted to civil disobedience must be considered on its own merits. But, in general, those actions that a substantial portion of the public supports are, prima facie, justifiable. Law also evolves, but sometimes it has to be helped – even pushed – along.

Of course, all of the consequences must be considered. If the civil disobedience injures other people, particularly if it physically injures them, then it is almost certainly unjustifiable. Financial injury, though, particularly if it is not suffered by a person, but rather by an institutional entity, is a different matter.

As a case example of this, consider trespass, such as the lock-down by activists of a company logging road to an old growth forest, a forest that via influence peddling the government has given to the company for free. In this case the company may feel that it owns the forest, and that it is suffering an injury if it can’t cut the trees down right now. However, I, for one, would consider such trespass, such civil disobedience, justifiable, and I am certain that many other people would think this way as well. (This has been proven by the public support given to Earth First! actions in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere. Indeed, even the mass media has at times supported these types of actions, such as with CNN’s coverage of Julia Butterfly Hill’s Headwaters Forest treesit, and through the favorable representation of the Earth First! character in the Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World.)

As an analysis of such direct action, the ethical end is to protect forests, and other wild habitats, and other forms of life that are exploited by humans. The justifications for this are that the social system has broken down, the rule of law is false – it is fundamentally and insupportably unfair – only for the wealthy and institutional few; and that nature and life must be defended from such a system, and from torture and extermination. The ethical means, then, include trespass, and, in certain cases, property destruction and animal liberation. The unethical means, which are never used, are violence against individuals.

But, what about the earlier question of violence directed against activists? Aren’t you entitled to defend yourself?

Accepting violence against one’s person is a form of condoning it.”

- Ramona Africa

It is interesting that the struggle for gay rights really began at the Stonewall riots in 1969 in New York City’s Greenwich Village, when gays fought against police harassment and abuse. This uprising initiated, and served as a symbol of, their resistance to the discrimination to which they were (and still are) subjected.

There is a significant debate in the activist community over this issue. Some activists argue that civil disobedience should always be non-violent; that you do not fight back when you get a police boot to your head. This group is effectively arguing for an unethical means to an ethical end: not defending yourself (in this sole case unethical is not also unacceptable), to limit escalating the violence, and also to avoid giving the police and the media a reason to label activists as revolutionaries, rioters and terrorists. The opposing side says, basically: “If someone kicks me in the head, I fight back!

Since, as was demonstrated with the Civil Rights movement, non-violent civil disobedience can achieve significant gains, the tactic of not fighting back should be preserved. However, no one who practices self-defense should be maligned, as this is his or her right. Also, another option, for activists who will not submit to assault, is to pursue other tactics.

The next type of situation, that of agitation, has similar ethical issues. By agitation, I mean such things as encouraging indigenous groups to defend their homelands against corporate exploitation that has been permitted by distant, central governments. For instance, much of northeast Cambodia, which is known as Rattanakiri Province, is pristine rainforest occupied by such fauna as tigers, and also the Kreung people. (They are a minority group in Cambodia; the majority are Khmers.) But the central government in the capital Phnom Penh, run by Hun Sen, who though the head of an “elected” government is essentially a dictator, sold logging rights to the province to an Indonesian timber company. (This occurred while Suharto was still dictator of Indonesia.) Agitation in this instance means encouraging the Kreung to defend themselves, to destroy the bulldozers making logging roads, and also the chainsaws and the sawmills, on their land.

(Note: last year Hun Sen sold logging rights in Mondulkiri Province, south along the Vietnam border from Rattanakiri, to a Chinese company. Mondulkiri is also a highland area with great cultural diversity. The local people are fighting the destruction of their ancestral forest, including with direct action tactics.)

In this case the ethical end is the protection of homelands and forests, and the wildlife and indigenous cultures that occupy them. The justification is that the sale of exploitation “rights,” from dictator to dictator, was illegal – it was the act of an illegal regime – and also that it did not reflect the desires of the local people. The ethical means are the destruction of the timber company’s equipment. Unethical means would include killing the actual loggers, or the majority Khmers. (The loggers are Khmers as well.)

The underlying problem in such circumstances is: how can activists deal with the fact that in the time that it will take to implement sustainable development worldwide, an untold number of primary habitats, and the cultures and species that inhabit them, will be destroyed? What do you do in the time that it takes for society finally to realize that a one thousand year old tree has a superior right to that of a timber company executive who wants to cut it down to make a profit? In other words, when, if ever, is violence justifiable?

Said another way, in perhaps its most direct statement, would it have been justifiable to kill Hitler in 1938?

I would argue that violence against another person is never justifiable, except in self-defense. The risks of the slippery slope, of resorting to the tactics of the enemy, and thence becoming the enemy, are too great. It is essential always to remember that we are trying to construct a civil society. We are trying to evolve from our present situation where violence is regularly viewed as the solution. Activists must stay on the high ground. Our ends are ethical. Our means must be ethical as well.

In this specific regard, though, in 1938 Jewish and Roma people would have been completely justified in killing Hitler, and by 1941 this would have extended to virtually everyone. (In 1938, large-scale imprisonment of Jews began. But prior to this, in 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and ordered a boycott of Jewish businesses, with the result that many Jews were assaulted. Also, this was the year that the first concentration camp, at Dachau, was opened. Even earlier, in 1923, Hitler attempted a putsch, and more than 1,000 shops were looted in Berlin in anti-Semitic rioting. A case can be made that Hitler would have been a legitimate target as early as this.)

But, to return to the present day, the need to be ethical is why so many activists practice non-violence. However, it is also important to understand that, for the most fervent of activists, this non-violence relates only to people (and other living things). The destruction of property to save other life is viewed as defensible. Of course, company spokespeople regularly refer to such activists as environmental and animal rights “terrorists,” but this is wrong: they are not terrorists. They do not create terror in the hearts of humans. Rather, they seek to end the terror felt by other species that are under the domination of the unethical members of our species. Such company representatives are just attempting to create fear and to cloud the issue. They fight what is right, rather than correct their own wrongs.

Even with these arguments, though, it is important to say one more time that property destruction should only be considered in extreme circumstances. It is a last choice tactic, when there are no other means left to stop the imminent destruction of life.

To continue the discussion, and to make the transition from activism to rebellion, it is also important to recognize that the conditions in Western societies, even with their many reprehensible ills, are nothing compared to the circumstances of millions of people, actually more than two billion, in autocratic nations around the world. Many of these people have to rebel; their circumstances, and the need for self and family preservation, demand it. For example, if you are a member of the Mon or Karen people in eastern Burma, and your government is intent on eradicating you to consolidate its control and to sanitize a pipeline route, you have to fight back. You have no choice. Passive resistance will not work. (This holds for all the people of Burma.)

In such circumstances the ethical end is the survival of self, and family, and the protection of livelihood and culture. The justification, once again, is that the government is illegal. It was not elected. Rather, it is a collection of military criminals. The people therefore are compelled to defend themselves and their culture, and in this fight almost anything is appropriate. It is, after all, a war. The only unethical means include to attack non-combatants (this implies that the battle should be fought without the use of land mines), and to employ torture. Further, associated environmental damage should be reduced to the greatest extent possible.

Now, through all of this we can see that we have moved from a society which, although it has serious problems, retains some order, to one where the social institutions have changed their allegiance completely and actively campaign against the people, and which is characterized by great disorder. And, somewhere along the way, we must broach the issue of vigilantism. This is because when the system of law, of society itself, breaks down to such an extent that people (and institutions) cannot be held accountable for their actions, their victims are justified in taking the law into their own hands. This is a return to our traditional approach to justice: to natural law. “Human Law” will not defend you, so you have to do it yourself.

It is at this point that it is important to discuss the problem of anger. The challenge of activism is to see that it derives from reason, not emotion. However, the latter can be far stronger: obsession regularly exceeds commitment. The quickest way to bring about change is to use volatility, to replace fear not with courage but with anger. And through this you will accomplish a change, a revolution, but it will revert. And in the end you will have accomplished nothing, nothing at all, and caused great harm in the process.

Given the severity of what we are up against, and the seriousness of our responsibility – which is nothing less than the defense of the earth – what can we do? As appealing as it might be to some, you do not shoot timber company executives (or property developers, fur farm owners or laboratory scientists). But, for companies that persist in their reckless destruction, of the environment, of other species, and of the future of humanity, then virtually anything else, including civil disobedience, direct action and agitation, is justifiable.

In a society where money is power and elections are just a facade to maintain corporate control, direct action at the point of production is one of the most effective places we can work.”

- Timber Wars, by Judi Bari, an Earth First! activist who was critically injured when her car was bombed, to stop her coordination of the defense of the Headwaters Forest.

© Roland O. Watson 2005