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.

Matthew

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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…

Matthew