MIT Will Award $250,000 For Breaking Unjust Laws Well

A new MIT award for civil disobedience will sink $250,000 of the technology institute’s money into the efforts of an activist or organization engaged in breaking unjust laws. The intellectual left values civil disobedience theoretically. The Ghandian strategy encourages marginalized people and their allies to break unjust laws to pressure society into changing them. In my experience, Ivory Tower support for civil disobedience does not stretch as far as taking action or risk. Professors and well-paid organizers are more likely to attend ineffective lobbying sessions with their elected officials, talk tough about voting them out, and then try to fundraise off of their electoral threats from the well-meaning people on their email lists.

Members of Citizens Climate Lobby meet Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow (center). Photo credit: Elizabeth Dell.

The civil strategy is not inherently bad. It is respectful and it invites participation from people who cannot afford to risk their freedom or pay bail. But, it is ineffective. According to the Princeton ‘oligarchy’ study, public opinion had a near-zero percent influence on whether policy was passed. The results come from 1,779 policy decisions made between 1981 and 2002. This is not saying that meeting with politician is useless, it has strategic use. Citizen lobbyists can get ammunition to use against politicians by asking them for commitments, and publicizing their responses as leverage for their reelections.

Mountain Justice and Climate Ground Zero activists take action against Mountaintop Removal in 2009 in WV. Photo credit: Antrin Caskey

Well-planned, high-participation, resource-rich actions have the power to create immediate change by attacking the profits and brand-perceptions that corporations and investors care about. Unfortunately, there is risk involved in effective actions and people are generally risk-averse. If the actions you coordinate and participate in are well-targeted and ambitious enough to be effective, then the law is going to try to prosecute the participants to its fullest effect.   

MIT requests nominations for their Media Lab Civil Disobedience Award at their website, here. The nominator of the winning activist or organization will be flown to Boston with the winner for the ceremony in late July. The award will go to a living individual or current organization engaged in, “work that impacts society in positive ways, and is consistent with a set of key principles, including non-violence, creativity, courage, and responsibility for one’s actions”.

Now, I will highlight American organizations who I think could win. However I hope that the winner of the award is a person I have never heard of who engages in civil disobedience in the face of an authoritarian government and brutal industrialists. Somebody similar to the murdered environmental activist Berta Caceres, or the Western figurehead of human rights and feminism in the Middle East, Malala Yousafzai. This award is hopefully for someone similar to these heroines before violence radically altered, or ended, their lives.


Chelsea Manning – The military whistleblower’s leaks exposed war crimes, and cover-ups, committed by American forces. She leaked the evidence to Julian Assange at Wikileaks and was extensively punished with years of solitary confinement. She received a, now commuted, sentence of 35 years for espionage. Her sentence was considered excessive by many because her case is actually covered by whistleblower protections.

Climate Disobedience Center, Peaceful Uprising – The organizations founded by Tim DeChristopher, an activist famous for a 2008 action where he bid on land in a Bureau of Land Management auction which failed to perform, or later pass, many proper environmental reviews. DeChristopher spent 2 years in prison and was fined $10,000 for his actions. PU and CDC continue to engage in direct action with the ND Water Protectors, at the Disrupt J20 inauguration day events, and with action-oriented groups across the country. Eight of DeChristopher’s peers are currently under trial and facing decades of jail time for shutting down all 5 pipelines between Canada and the USA. The action was taken in solidarity with the Water Protectors.

Chase Iron Eyes campaigning for Congress. Photo credit: Tom Stromme | Bismarck Tribune

Chase Iron Eyes – Iron Eyes is an ND Sioux attorney and, so far unelected, Democratic political candidate. He led and engaged in civil disobedience with the ND Water Protector camps and caught my attention through the media in 2016. He is currently being tried for, “inciting a riot”, an unproven charge that he denies. The felony holds a maximum sentence of 5 years.

Mountain Justice – MJ invites people from across the country to their action camps every summer. The organization uses civil disobedience to oppose the environmentally destructive practice of Mountaintop Removal coal mining. They have hosted the camps for 10 years now and brought hundreds of people together to learn about social justice issues and planning actions of civil disobedience. MJ taught me how to be a street medic for protests, and how to use PVC piping, barrels of concrete, adult diapers, chains, and bike locks to barricade a road. Also, the organization’s seeming matriarch, Carol Judy, died early this year. RIP to a woman whose nature walks could entertain a group for hours.

Carol Judy, RIP, Mountain Justice elder. Photo credit: Harriet Smalls | Facebook

Democracy Spring – In early 2016 DS organized a march of over 150 people from Philadelphia to DC. The march was followed by a week of symbolic actions whereby hundreds of people, thousands over the course of the week, sat-in on the unused steps of Congress. The first day of actions broke record for most arrests at the Capitol Building in a single day. More than 400 people were arrested. The goal of the action was to pressure Congress to pass a basic campaign finance reform package, and to ignite support and copycat actions across the country. DS then planned actions at the Democratic National Convention, the GOP debates, the 45th President’s Inauguration, and at hearings for his old, rich, white cabinet. The organization also leads workshops across the country on digital organizing and direct action planning.  


Tahir Square, Egypt after the uprising learned their Dictator had stepped down. Photo credit: Jonathan Rashad | Flickr

The organizations highlighted above represent a tiny percentage of Americans engaging in civil disobedience. And civil disobedience in the US, unlike military expenditure, is no greater than across the world. Activists grow in soil across the world. Westerners have less to fear from their more liberal governments, so they engage in protest more readily. In Washington, D.C. we regularly, legally claim the streets for unpermitted marches. Fear, however, did not stop young Middle Easterners from occupying their communities and toppling their American-backed Dictator in the Arab Spring. A young Pakistani woman who insists on attending school despite the risk of death requires more courage than a Western graffiti artist whose tags lambast power. A hacktivist stealing the data of powerful individuals and unveiling their exploitative plans, is physically more secure than a journalist uncovering corruption in Latin America.

My above list highlights my peers involved in civil disobedience in the US. The list is majorly white. Also, interestingly, the only movement above that is not majorly led by white people, #NODAPL, is also the movement that received the most violent state repression for its nonviolent activities. I look forward to seeing a more detailed map of people and organizations engaged in civil disobedience internationally.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: