Civil Disobedience

By Bruce Firestone | Uncategorized

Oct 29

Here’s what

American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau (in his essay, Resistance to Civil Government, first published in 1849) said about civil disobedience:

That government is best which governs least… The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way… Trade and commerce, if they were not made of… rubber, would never manage to bounce over the obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way.

I am inclined to agree with Thoreau as governments at all levels create yet more rules hoping to regulate practically everything. 


I am particularly galled by NIMBY (not in my back yard), BANANAS (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) and CAVE (citizens against virtually everything) people in cahoots with their political puppets on municipal councils gaming zoning systems that have been put in place in most cities, towns and villages across the globe. They are killing urban design and innovation by putting urban areas in straitjackets. 

I talk about the concept of civil disobedience with many of my coaching and real estate clients. 

It’s defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary (which BTW has been around since 1828) this way:

civil disobedience, noun

-refusal to obey governmental demands or commands especially as a nonviolent and usually collective means of forcing concessions from the government

Certainly, one of the best-known examples of civil disobedience was the Indian independence movement against British rule led by Mahatma Gandhi (2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948).

Here’s what he said about his non-violent movement:

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. 

His successful campaign led to the Indian Independence Act being passed by the parliament of the United Kingdom in 1947. It partitioned British India into two new independent dominions–India and

West and East Pakistan (which later became Bangladesh)–and came into effect from 15 August 1947.

Municipalities pass all sorts of inane rules, bylaws, rules, regulations, and ordinances often aided and abetted by senior levels of government. 

Every time I hear another local politician “champion” the idea of providing more affordable housing, after having passed zoning regulations limiting building heights, restricting expansion lands from being used to increase the supply of homes, mandating minimum sizes of apartments and homes, banning tiny houses, limiting compatible commercial uses in existing residential zones and so forth, I choke.

Here’re a few things you cannot do in many places, you:

-cannot have roommates

-cannot have both coach house (granny flat) and basement apartment or sometimes either

-cannot rent any part of your principal residence (mortgage rules often prevent this)

-cannot have second driveway or frontyard parking

-cannot have garage office or micro retail

-cannot rent workshop to non-resident

-cannot rent backyard shed to non-resident

-cannot live

year-round in your RV or tiny house (mainly because anything on wheels cannot be assessed for realty taxes/property taxes)

-cannot have a home


by more than four women (this is an actual case–it was passed as an anti-prostitution ordinance) 

etc etc etc

So, while I preach that you must pay careful attention to your local building code (for health and safety reasons obviously), I also tell folks that many people are doing what they have to do to survive and if that means renting out a couple of extra rooms to make their mortgage payments, well, I am OK with that. Of course, it’s up to them whether they feel comfortable doing this…

When I was teaching at Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism, their new president threatened to cancel the hugely successful annual party put on by third year students as a fundraiser called KOSMIC.

Students would theme the event and transform the school into a well-attended weekend phantasm of design and music. 

The reason the prez canceled the event? The previous year, there had been a fight and police were called.

So, student organizers came to see me and this is what I told them:

“What’s the one thing university administrators fear most? Bad press.

“So what you are going to want to do is to organize 100 students to go over to the president’s suite of offices with picket signs, and handheld loudspeakers to peacefully but noisily protest. If he doesn’t cave right away, organize a sit in–occupy his office!”

I also mentioned that they would want to call local media (television, newspapers and radio) to give them a heads up on what was going down.

They also went into it with a 

reasonable counter proposal to beef up their own security and ban alcohol. 

How long do you think it took the prez to turtle?

I can’t really recall exactly how much time it took for him to reverse his position but maybe it was 45 minutes.

It also helped that David Letterman (who had sent a crew to cover KOSMIC a few years earlier for CBS’ Late Show) volunteered to focus attention on the students’ plight from his nightly pulpit. 

Hey, I was at UCSC in 1969 (an hour south of Berkeley); I must have learned something from student protests against the Vietnam War…

Prof Bruce

Bruce M Firestone, B Eng (civil), M Eng-Sci, PhD, Ottawa Senators founder, Real Estate Investment and Business coach, ROYAL LePAGE Performance Realty broker, 1-613-762-8884


postscript: if you have time, check out this post too–

and Poverty

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About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.