Democracy starts the day after the election…..Days like today can seem

There’ll be a lot of people in the community activist groups, the campaigning organisations, and the co-operatives that we work with who will be feeling the anger, frustration, disbelief, despondency, resignation, powerlessness and more that an election result like the one we’ve just had here in the UK can bring about. So much time, energy, hope has gone into making change and we’re still left with a government who divide and rule, who pit us against each other – those in work against those on benefits, those from the UK against migrants and refugees, the non-disabled against the disabled and so on.

Here at Rhizome we believe in community and we believe in action. Neither of those things is election dependent. There’s been a lot of talk about promises, pledges and vows this election. Our promise, pledge and vow is to continue to work with you, to the best of our ability, to support you to make change, to build community, and to take action that delivers real democracy.

Support is out there if you want to work by more genuinely democratic processes like consensus decision-making, or to take action despite the political system through nonviolent direct action. Here’s a quick run down – whether it’s for formal advice or an informal chat, mentoring, training, facilitation of meetings, try:

  • Rhizome – that’s us. We can help you with your group and organisational processes to build a culture of cooperative democracy. We can also help you strategise and plan for action, as well as train you in the ethos of nonviolent direct action and its techniques. We have lots of free resources on this website

Then there are our sister organisations who can make a similar offer:

Days like today are hard. But this is where democracy really starts – when we decide to set aside mere formalities such as election results and engage in real democracy – in our workplaces, community groups, families, and neighbourhoods. Relearning and rekindling the values of community, of empowerment and of relentless nonviolent action. Get in touch.


working with conflict taster/freebie

Hello to the multitudes that read our blog. I am running a taster session for Talk Action on the afternoon of 7th May, in central London, near Old Street tube. The taster will cover elements of a working with conflict programme I’m developing for them. In the taster, specifically, we will explore states of mind, active listening and how to avoid escalating conflict and getting the most, rather than the least, out of a conversation.

I’ve been told I can have a few friends along for free – let me know. Soon.



The practice of nonviolent direct action

Saturday’s ‘peaceful resistance’ session for the Combe Haven Defenders went pretty well. We got very practical very early on in the day. Nothing new there, at least not in a nonviolent direct action workshop. But we started with the stuff that’s often seen as more “advanced” – locking on. That’s bike locks, handcuffs and all that other stuff that’s designed to prolong an action by making it harder to remove the activists. The group had a lot of enthusiasm for these practical sessions. There’s nothing like having a road driven through a beautiful stretch of countryside on your doorstep to confirm the necessity of these tactics. And besides it’s fun (at least in practice sessions!)

Contrary to some media reports these folk were far from the predictable young / student protesters. The age range was good – from teenagers to pensioners with everything in between. Indeed the older women there were the ones who had already notched up arrests and court appearances for action to stop the tree-felling that prepares the way for the road.

I’m sure there was a lot of useful learning about personal perspectives on nonviolence and direct action, about specific action techniques, about confrontation, about the law. But the real strength of this kind of workshop is that it builds community. It’s hard to spend several hours with others practicing linking arms, linking legs, locking yourselves together by the neck, without some group-building happening whether you like it or not. In many respects the workshop was a 6 hour long team-building exercise, which should stand the campaign in good stead. And this was reinforced by a the desire for a closing conversation, at the group’s request, about how the group could stay in touch and mobilise for action together.

Obviously, from a facilitation perspective, there was plenty of room for improvement. There always is. It turned out to be quite a large group, so the biggest improvement might have been to have a co-facilitator, especially for the hands-on sessions, of which the day was mostly comprised. I have a tendency to want to micromanage lock-on practices because I like to ensure safety and support messages are hammered home. This kind of action can easily lead to injury. After all that’s the premiss of the tactic – you can’t move us without hurting us. With two groups practicing with different equipment simultaneously that was harder. But maybe no bad thing? Maybe finding out for yourself in a relatively safe space is good enough, if not better. The evaluations bear out both perspectives. There was a comment about wanting more direction in some of the practice sessions, against an overall back drop of appreciation for the chance to get physical and learn by doing.


Defenders, destruction and deja vu

Spoof Bayeux Tapestry graphic showing George Osborne on a digger

The Combe Haven Defenders are making news in their resistance to the new Bexhill to Hastings link road. I’m getting a strong sense of deja vu. It’s all a bit 1990s – people being evicted from trees, tunnels being built. It’s even being called the Second Battle of Hastings echoing the Third Battle of Newbury as that anti-bypass campaign was often referred to. And this is just the start of a new road-building extravaganza if the UK government gets its way.

Back in the 90s the monumental and majestic struggle against the Newbury Bypass led to the phrase “noisy defeats and quiet victories”. Whilst the Bypass was built the wider roads programme was dropped. Or shelved as we now know.

These protests are vital. At the risk of sounding too detached, they’re crucibles in the heat of which the movement develops, learns and moves forward. Old tactics will be resurrected, but they’ll also inevitably be improvised upon. Innovative variations or new tactics will emerge. Lessons will be learnt about how we work together; about avoiding, surviving and succumbing to burnout; about how the law is being applied in 2013. Absolute beginners will, within a few weeks and months, become some of our most experienced direct activists. It’s a boot camp for the activist community. If only it were a simulation. Sadly another swathe of the beautiful English countryside is at stake, not to mention the impact on climate change that the increase in traffic the new road generates (if it’s built) will have.panoramic view of Combe Haven

Much of my day today is going into planning and preparing a 1 day session for the Defenders on “peaceful resistance”. I’ll be down there on Saturday. In many ways the session needs to be a crucible in its own right – a space in which participants can meld their experience, forge connection, hone and sharpen their inspiration, skills and resolve. No pressure there then. Of course it’s not all about preparing for the “front line” – it’s also about finding a role that works for each and every participant. And the joy of this kind of campaign is that those support roles are so very valuable.

I’ll let you know how it goes.You can follow the campaign through the Defenders blog. Or of course you can call in sick and join them…


Direct action – on a positive note….

I saw a tweet from Holly at Plan To Win (@HollyPTW) about taking nonviolent direct action (NVDA) for something positive. Is the implication that our actions are usually negative ( “No!”… ” Down with….!” … “Stop….!”). Plenty of folk would say so. It may not be exactly what Holly was pondering, but it made me think of one of the classic NVDA arguments, and an important one.

The argument often runs that NVDA is all about stopping bad stuff happening. That makes it an essentially negative force (however necessary). I think it’s an argument we need to challenge because it leads to a number of problems that weaken us as a movement.

Disconnection – if we get into a mindset of NVDA as only about stopping stuff, of it as a negative, we risk losing our connection with the aspects of our psyche that help keep us balanced, sane and happy – the positive forces in our lives – the natural world, the sun on our faces, friends, family. And that way burnout lies

Burnout – if we internalise the argument that NVDA is negative it becomes hard to maintain our activism. In short it contributes to burnout. Even the most ‘hardcore’ of us requires some positivity, something life-affirming in our lives. Running round trying to ‘stop’ stuff, especially when you can’t succeed every time, isn’t sustainable. No wonder people move on from NVDA to spend more time with family, children, growing veg, getting more involved in community arts and so on.

Splitting the movement – once internalised the argument also opens a rift within the movement. I saw this very clearly a recent Transition Town debate over transition and activism in which several contributors dissociated Transition from activism. Their choice of Transition over activism was about exactly this, it seems – wanting to be making a positive difference which they perceive activism as failing to do.

So it’s not surprising that the forces of darkness like to paint NVDA in this negative light, and prey on our own doubts about it. When a large corporation rolls into town kindly offering to tarmac the latest the last green space to provide us with a wonderful retail experience (cue Joni Mitchell), they accuse activists of saying “no” to jobs, “no” to progress, “no” to choice. Doesn’t really matter what the argument is, as long as they can portray us as the ones saying “no”.

But can we really counter that argument? Am I being disingenuous when I say that I see NVDA as a positive force for social change, one that says “yes” to life, to real choices, to our basic humanity, to liberation? You decide.


The core argument to me is all about intention. What is our motivation when we find ourselves sat on the bulldozer with our “Down with all this sort of thing!” placard? To me it’ firmly about preservation –

  • preserving the integrity of the natural world (and recognising our small part in that web),
  • preserving meaningful human interaction – local jobs, meaningful jobs, not factory farm jobs
  • preserving the possibility of a better future – putting a foot in the door to ensure some light still gets in

The Man may argue a good case, put a wind turbine on the roof of the new shopping centre, and call it something meaningful like ‘Oaklands’ (in honour of the acres of Oaks they felled to build it) but his intention is clear: profit before people, profit before planet.

Method in our madness

Good NVDA walks its talk – it doesn’t wait for some utopian future, it tries to work in utopian ways here and now. For me that’s the main rationale for affinity groups – building small utopian communities now, so that when we take action we’re doing so in a way that speaks to our values, that models the possibilities of future human relationships.

Scale that up and you have mobilisations such as Climate Camp. Now, I’m not an uncritical fan of Climate Camp, but it did try, did intend, to create a temporary, autonomous utopian space. Run by consensus (however flawed), powered by the sun and the wind, grey water systems, organic vegan food, creativity, art, music and of course action (again, however flawed).

The joy of resistance

Personally I’ve found NVDA is the only thing to sustain me in moments when the world really does seem to be going to hell in a handcart. It’s not the winning, nor coming close to winning. It’s the vision of something better, of standing up for that in the face of destructive power. Resistance in that light isn’t wearing or negative, but as vital as the air we breathe.

Action taken from this base is not negative, but an expression of a wildly optimistic view that humans can build a better future, at least for ourselves, and possibly for the non-human species we share the planet with. It’s an affirmation of life and liberty, and frankly there needs to be more of it

It’s no surprise that many direct activists also regard many overtly ‘positive’ activities as NVDA – community gardens, community co-ops, housing co-ops, social centres and much, much more – these are all part of the holistic view of NVDA. All part of the same positive picture. So, can we do positive NVDA ? I think many out there would say they already do.

Linking arms. Stopping arms

Lat month Adam and I co-facilitated an nonviolent direct action training for activists from the Stop The Arms Fair coalition. These dedicated folk work hard to pop the bubble that surrounds the arms trade. You know the one – it allows those that work for the trade to pretend that it’s all about our defence, that they’re keeping the world safe, and that airshows such as those at Farnborough and Fairfield are harmless entertainment for all the family, rather than arms trade fairs.

It’s been a few years since Adam and I worked together on NVDA training. In the intervening time, we’ve both developed activities and exercises. This was a great opportunity to share some of those ideas and see them in practice.

Within a week of the training: An arms dealer steps over a protester in the doorway of the Imperial War Museum

We took the group through a range of activities to explore the ideas behind NVDA, but also the practical skills of holding a space, actively (but nonviolently) disrupting the events of the Arms industry, passively resisting removal and arrest, dealing with confrontation, and more. We ended with time to prioritise and plan their next steps – at least one of which came very soon after the session.

We threw them into some very dynamic roleplays early in the session. I have to admit watching with some anxiety as our role played police got well and truly stuck in to the activists holding some space. Too much, too soon? If you’d asked me in that moment, I’d have said an unequivocal “yes”, and was itching to tone it down a little. Adam was leading on the activity. He’s firmly grounded in best practice (I’ve learnt loads from him over the years), and he’s done this before this way. In hindsight, whilst it clearly challenged the group in many ways, it also seemed to accelerate their formation as a group and deepened the learning from the day. One of those examples of the best learning coming when people are uncomfortable, and that sometimes we facilitators need to get uncomfortable too.

We evaluated using weather metaphors. “Stormy” came up quite often, so we inquired into how people were using the word. I think it’s fair to say that the interpretation was “challenging, energetic, dynamic, even difficult, but in a good way”. Feedback after the event was as you might expect, mixed.  A friendly, relaxed session with good energy, but perhaps failing to make use of all the resources in the room – both in terns of having two facilitators on tap, and in terms of drawing enough from the considerable experience present in the participants.

Occupying direct action

I spent Sunday morning in Southend-on-Sea at the Occupy National Conference. I was there running a short (2 hour) nonviolent direct action (NVDA) workshop, as well as getting a feel for this particular moment in Occupy UK.

Whilst you can’t satisfy everyone in every workshop, the energy, engagement, and conversation afterwards spoke to a decent workshop. My sense of the Conference was that it had involved (and would go on to involve) a fair bit of sitting and talking. So we focused on doing – exploring a few physical aspects of NVDA (holding a space, passive resistance and so on) and using those as stepping-stones to talking about communication, safety, comfort, mutual support and more. There were those in the group with considerable experience of NVDA, so it felt very much like an informal co-facilitation. And that’s a good thing. I recently wrote that I thought Rhizome hadn’t engaged enough with Occupy. Nice to redress that balance, if only slightly…


Spring into action

The 99% Spring has started. From 9th to 15th of April, US activists will:

“gather across America, 100,000 strong, in homes, places of worship, campuses and the streets to train ourselves in non-violent action and join together in the work of reclaiming our country.”

So what about here in the UK? What if you’re a community, activist group, NGO, trade union wanting to prepare for nonviolent action? I thought it was worth reminding ourselves of the resources out there. Sources of training include:

Rhizome trainers will be at work in public sessions at:

We’re more than happy to tailor something specific for your organisation. We can also help you develop your own pool of nonviolence trainers. Get in touch. And of course there are plenty of reading and self-study materials out there including on The 99% Spring website.

Dealing with power

Anti-oppression training and large-group work
An advanced training for trainers with George Lakey, Manchester, UK. 20-22 July 2012

Legendary US activist trainer George Lakey is making a rare visit to the UK, where he helped to train a generation of nonviolence trainers in 1970. As well as increasing the number of training and facilitation tools that participants can use effectively, George will be helping us to deal with diversity, power and privilege within training and large-group facilitation and decision-making. He will be helping participants examine how conflict develops in activist groups around issues of oppression (to do with race, age, class, disability, sexuality, gender or other forms of discrimination) and how to turn these conflicts into opportunities for liberatory steps. This is a unique opportunity to draw on 50 years of activism and training with one of the most experienced cross-cultural activist trainers in the world.

This training has been organised by Milan Rai, co-editor of Peace News, as part of George Lakey’s Peace News speaking tour of the UK, and supported by Rhizome. Peace News is seeking the greatest possible diversity of participants in the training, and people from the widest spectrum of radical social change activism and community organising.   

If you would like to participate, please read the notes below, fill in the application form and submit it to by 30 April 2012.

This training is aimed at people who are experienced activist trainers (nonviolence, direct action, facilitation, consensus decision-making and so on) or who have helped facilitate large-scale activist or radical community organising group processes (Climate Camp, Occupy, G8 and so on). 
Participants are expected to be actively planning to engage in activist training or large-scale facilitation in the next two years. After you submit your application form, someone from the organising group will phone you to talk through some of the issues.

The charge for the weekend is £30-£70 on a sliding scale for income. Peace News does not want to exclude anyone on the grounds of cost, so please do contact us if the charge for the weekend, or the travel expenses involved are a barrier to participation: 020 7278 3344; 07980 748 555;

Download Application form

Resisting NHS reforms – join the ‘health resistance’

A few weeks ago I was talking to activist and organiser friends about the National Health Service “reforms”. We talked about what civil disobedience might look like for healthcare professionals and others working for the NHS. Given that even then it looked likely the government’s bill would be passed, we talked about how an individual or collective of individuals could resist implementing reforms whilst maintaining an effective service. We didn’t get to the definitive answer.

So it was with interest that I read Dr Alex Scott-Samuel talking about ‘the health resistance‘ in Monday’s Guardian – here’s what he said:

“The Health and Social Care Act is now law – and the health resistance is up and running. A website is being set up to log accounts of inadequate and poor quality care and charging for NHS services. I have produced a leaflet – The Courage to Refuse – for use in sympathetic GPs’ waiting rooms and other NHS settings — which encourages patients to request GP referrals only to publicly provided services. Ideas are also needed re civil disobedience, nonviolent direct action and other legal means of challenging the government’s healthcare market. Uncut, Occupy and other resistance groups need rapidly to co-ordinate NHS-related activities.

A privatisation indicators set and baseline data are also required to begin monitoring the impacts of the destruction of our NHS. Hopefully the alliance of medical royal colleges, professional associations, trade unions and political parties whose intervention was largely too late to save the NHS will support this.”

I said that my friends and I didn’t get to a definitive answer on how to resist the reforms. That’s no bad thing. The best answers will always be those that come from within the community most effected – those inside the NHS and those most in need of its services. What folk like Rhizome can do is facilitate processes that support those communities to come up with ideas that work for them, train them to make the ideas a reality, and offer an ongoing relationship of reflection, learning and further action. And yes, that is an invitation. We (and others like us) have the experience to help the health resistance stay healthy.

A few weeks earlier still, I was browsing the A Force More Powerful website which has stories of nonviolent resistance from which contemporary movements can surely learn. The Ten Commandments for Danes stuck with me. These were written in 1940 by a young Dane when he saw his townspeople fraternising with invading German soldiers. He typed a handful of copies and pushed them through letter boxes. The idea spread:

1. You must not go to work in Germany and Norway.

2. You shall do a bad job for the Germans.

3. You shall work slowly for the Germans.

4. You shall destroy important machines and tools.

5. You shall destroy everything that may be of benefit to the Germans.

6. You shall delay all transport.

7. You shall boycott German and Italian films and papers.

8. You must not shop at Nazis’ stores.

9. You shall treat traitors for what they are worth.

10. You shall protect anyone chased by the Germans.

What are the Ten Commandments for the Health Resistance? Add your thoughts by leaving a comment.

Peace News Summer Camp 2012

It’s that time of year again when we plug the Peace News Summer Camp, not just because we plan to be there running workshops and facilitating discussion sessions. It’s a great gathering: purposeful but unpretentious, relaxed, small enough that you get to build relationships, and the programme’s good too. See you there?

The 99% Spring

100,000 Americans trained in nonviolent direct action? It’s not a fantasy. It’s planned for 9-15th April.

Thinking that we need the same thing here in the UK? You’re not alone, and the conversation is in a fairly advanced stage. What it lacks at the moment is funds. So, in all seriousness, if you have a few grand to spare (or connections with funders who do), get in touch with us at Rhizome and we’ll get it to the right place.

Hat tip: Casper ter Kuile

Thoughts from Belgrade

I’m visiting Belgrade on family matters, and have been reading through the guide book in the apartment. Up the road is the huge Kalemegdan park and the Belgrade Fortress standing on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. There is a huge column with a statue of the Messenger of Victory at the top, staring out over the rivers with a falcon on one arm and a sword in his right hand. The falcon, says the guide book, represents Serbian freedom and the sword is the sword of peace.  There’s an oxymoron for you.

It took me back to Mark Kulansky’s accessible and popular 2006 book on nonviolence, subtitled The History of a Dangerous Idea, and a quotation from Gerard Winstanley of the Diggers, “We abhor fighting for freedom. Freedom gotten by the sword is an established bondage to some part or other of the creation. Victory that is gotten by the sword is a victory that slaves get one over another.” It’s still a very common belief that sustainable social change, equality and social justice can be established by physical force and causing suffering.  The idea of persistent negotiation and persuasion with respect for and acknowledgement of the other, the refusal to use violence as a tool, the use of Gandhi’s “truth force”  is still seen as both weak and ineffective despite much evidence to the contrary.

This evidence is now gathered in a brilliant book by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan Why Civil Resistance Works It’s not as easy a read as Kurlansky’s as it’s a substantial piece of thorough academic research but it really is worth the (for me!) struggle with statistics and tables.  The website of the International Centre for Nonviolent Conflict is also worth a look.

And, being in Belgrade, I want to find out more about Otpor, the student-led civil resistance movement that through nonviolent tactics – blockades, occupations, poster and sticker campaigns, humorous stunts – brought about the removal of Milosevic in 2000 and inspired some young Egyptians to set up a nonviolence movement for political change in 2006, the Academy of Change, which resulted in the events of Tahrir Square in spring 2011.

So have a look at this inspiring video of Srdja Popovic, one of the organisers of Otpor, who now runs the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies here, even though the statue with his “sword of peace” still stands high above the rivers in Belgrade.