A manifesto for civil obedience 2013-06-06 Creative Commons by-nc-sa licensed

Police routinely1 use their power to intimidate people into giving up their rights so that they can obtain evidence for criminal prosecution. Refusing to permit search or seizure when one is "asked" to, ignoring questions one is not obliged to answer, walking by when there are no grounds for detention — these seem "impolite".2 It's necessary, though; rights not asserted in the face of intimidation are lost. Rights are not rights if they can be taken away at the whim of authority.

I will therefore no longer accord any deference not required of me by law, and I will give no quarter in asserting every inch of my rights and those of others around me.

  1. I will know my rights and those of police — and I will spread that knowledge.
  2. I will record the entirety of every interaction I or others have with any government agent likely to abuse or exceed their authority, such as police officers or TSA agents. To ensure my ability to do so, I will always carry on me a notepad, two pens, and at least one video recording device (fully charged and with plenty of recording space available).
  3. When I travel, I will not be deterred from bringing with me anything that is lawful to carry.3
  4. I will not help government agents remedy failures of their duty to know policy and law.4 Instead, I will record evidence of and prosecute any breach of that duty.
  5. I will not answer any questions asked of me by police or TSA except those that I am required by law to answer, unless the interaction is initiated by me or I have a lawyer present.5
  6. In any non-voluntary interaction with police, my first action will be to ask if I am detained or free to go. If I don't get an answer, I will simply leave. I will give no room for doubt as to whether a stop is "voluntary".
  7. If I am detained, I will actively refuse consent to any search, seizure, or questioning. I will say nothing except to assert my rights or obtain evidence of illegality in the officer's actions. I will ensure that the devices I carry are encrypted and secured against any use I do not authorize.
  8. I will file formal administrative complaints with every relevant agency whenever a government agent violates the law against me. If the complaint does not result in adequate resolution, I will file civil suit.
  9. I will thank government agents for their assistance and professionalism when they deserve it, and file formal written commendations for those who go out of their way to be polite or professional, to defuse tense situations, or to defend civil rights. I will enable good actors to grow in power and thus improve the system as a whole.

I am very well aware that the actions I describe are likely to subject me to further abuse of authority. This fact should encourage not deference, but open defiance demanding their obedience of civil liberties. Feeling deterred from engaging in freedoms that are clearly protected by law, because of a fear of power, is the very essence of what I oppose.

I aim to give up a little temporary safety to obtain essential liberty.6 I will obey the law, and I will demand that government agents do the same.

I encourage you to do likewise.


  1. It is true that many police officers and TSA agents don't do so routinely. Some are steadfastly polite, professional, and scrupulous about their obedience to the Constitution despite the temptation to do otherwise in the face of severe stress, and those that do deserve praise. We should encourage people with a deep respect for civil rights to enter the police force and raise in rank, so that the system can become less adversarial than it is now.

    Many, however, abuse their authority — by preventing the recording of their actions, by demanding to search when they have no probable cause, by detaining people without suspicion, by seizing items that are perfectly legal. This abuse is common enough that I can no longer grant a presumption of trust that my rights will not be violated.

    I'm truly sad that this is the case, but it would be irrational of me at this point to conclude otherwise. It is simple self-defense to proactively protect against such actions.  

  2. I have been in many situations where I felt detained, but was legally not. This is because of a tendency we all have to equate civil respect with deference. Yet why should we defer to someone attempting to commit a crime that harms us?

    Respect must be earned, and deference even more so. I accord a presumption of respect to police, because I recognize that their job is both difficult and important to a well functioning civil society — not because they are in a position of authority. Mere power is not a source of respect.

    I consider it deeply offensive for an officer to use their power to intimidate. Such an act violates any presumption of respect — and mandates an assertive limitation of their power to the boundaries of what they can lawfully demand.

    I will try to be scrupulously polite where I can, and I won't go out of my way to do something I am not interested in doing. (For instance, although I believe that people in the US have a right to openly carry guns, I am not personally interested in doing so.) But I will not shirk from asserting a right merely because it is impolite or subject to intimidation; to the contrary, intimidation is an indication of a greater need to stand up for one's rights. 

  3. For instance, I will travel with at least two quarts of water or juice with me on every flight. I will declare them as medical liquids, because that is the current administrative rule. However, I consider this rule to be clearly unlawful under the 4th amendment (as interpreted by US v Davis), and I am currently taking legal and political action to abolish it. 

  4. For instance, I have previously brought with me printouts of the TSA's Special Needs Memo when flying. However, it is not my job to educate the TSA, and indeed it is an unlawful imposition on my rights that I should have to do anything of the sort to be allowed to travel freely.

    Having to argue with the TSA, furnish printouts of their own policy, etc., is itself an unlawful detention which I will no longer tolerate.

    I would rather make systemic change by ensuring that the government takes educating its agents about their duties to obey civil rights seriously, than get only myself through a checkpoint more easily by doing that job for them in a particular situation.

    I consider it deeply unjust for only privileged people like myself (having more legal knowledge, financial resources, assertiveness, etc than most) to have the effective enjoyment of rights that all should have. 

  5. To be clear, I do not support an omertà. I believe that a society founded on rule of law is, overall, more just than one based on an honor culture and vigilantism — and I wish that we lived in one where the rule of law was more widely respected by those who enforce it. Unfortunately, my stance is necessitated by their repeated coercion, deception, and abuse of police power to harm those who do not harm others, intruding on privacy and speech, etc. 

  6. "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." - Benjamin Franklin

    I hope that someday the United States will evolve to have in practice the liberty and rule of law that we claim as our birthright. When that day comes, the effort of civil defense against abusive state power will no longer be needed.

    I hope also that someday the privileges I enjoy, in being able to resist and prosecute such offenses, will be shared by all. I believe that it is an incumbent duty of privilege to use it to help make systemic changes that will give it to those who lack it now. 


This essay is © Sai and licensed CC by-nc-sa. Feel free to share it in any form you like; just give me credit (with a link http://s.ai/copcards/manifesto), don't make money off of my work, and share any changes under the same terms. I thank my friends for their feedback on an early draft.