Civil disobedience, hard work and time

We tend to forget how long it takes for the dreamed of, planned for, struggled for change to actually take place. It is very easy for activists to feel disheartened and defeated after the early exhilarating stages of a campaign, or the excitement of an act of civil disobedience. It’s a long slog and much of it is just sheer bloody minded persistence. The anniversary this week of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 reminds us how very long it can take. I don’t just mean the 68 years from 1932 till the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was passed in 2000, but all the centuries of struggle by poor and oppressed people for equal rights to the land, appropriated by the wealthy and powerful for leisure and profit. The line of dissent runs through the Peasants’ Revolt in the 14th century, which conjures the names of Wat Tyler and John Ball, through to Wynstanley and the True Levellers in the 17th, with radical writers such as Blake and Thomas Paine in the 18th, and the 19th century liberals and radicals who founded the Open Spaces Society keeping the energy flowing. We’re talking 700 years and there is still work to be done on the issue of open access for all.

The trespass on Kinder was an act of civil disobedience. It was planned and advertised and organised, one group coming from Manchester, another from Sheffield. Hundreds made the walk, there were some scuffles with keepers, six people were arrested and charged with riotous assembly and five imprisoned. But a few weeks later thousands did the same, such was the inspiration and strength that it produced, and many years later new laws on access to open land began to be drafted. The centuries of protest and writing and preaching and talking and pamphleteering seemed to culminate in this iconic action – a few hundred men and some women (who were kept back from the actual trespass) speaking truth to power, saying it is our land too. Rosa Parks on a seat on a bus, black students at a lunch counter, the crowds in Tahrir Square last spring, Occupy at St Paul’s – all are events which, like the crest of a strong wave, contain beneath them the persistence of many people fighting for change over a long time, and it is still ongoing. It is not just the act of civil disobedience alone which changes things, it is the work, the planning, the effort, the time – and the support and desire for justice of those who cannot take part in this one event – which the act represents.

Like many other actions of resistance and dissent, the trespass was remembered in song, “The Manchester Rambler” by Ewan MacColl. A version, combining another song, by John Tams and Barry Coope is worth a listen, not only for their beautiful voices but for the line “nothing changes, it all stays the same” ringing like a warning bell.



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.

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.

Riots, revolution, reflection

I opted out of blogging about the recent riots on the streets of Britain. Who needs another mouthy blogger chucking around half-formed and ill-informed opinion about what goes on in the minds of disenfranchised youth? But via the Transition Newsletter I came to Laura Penny’s Penny Red blog and her post Panic on the streets of London which articulates sensible stuff on power:

Months of conjecture will follow these riots. Already, the internet is teeming with racist vitriol and wild speculation. The truth is that very few people know why this is happening. They don’t know, because they were not watching these communities. Nobody has been watching Tottenham since the television cameras drifted away after the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985. Most of the people who will be writing, speaking and pontificating about the disorder this weekend have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up in a community where there are no jobs, no space to live or move, and the police are on the streets stopping-and-searching you as you come home from school. The people who do will be waking up this week in the sure and certain knowledge that after decades of being ignored and marginalised and harassed by the police, after months of seeing any conceivable hope of a better future confiscated, they are finally on the news. In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything:

“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”

“Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”

Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere ‘’’

There are communities all over the country that nobody paid attention to unless there had recently been a riot or a murdered child. Well, they’re paying attention now…

…Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all.

Looking around Penny Red I followed a link to Another Angry Woman‘s post Fuck the lot of them. Not for those of you averse to the odd expletive. She’s talking about the dismantling of the NHS:

And so we feel powerless. Those of us who care feel betrayed by our government, betrayed by those who are supposedly on our side. We did what we could, but it was not enough.

Imagine if we had tried. Imagine if the message had got out and the people had mobilised. Rioting in the streets, and every single person whose life has ever been touched by the NHS standing outside Parliament, daring the fuckers to vote the wrong way. Imagine if the fuckers voted the wrong way, then.

Imagine if we did without the fuckers entirely. Democracy is rule of the people. Democracy is power. Democracy is not trusting some crooked bastard who throws your letters into the shredder to somehow represent your interests. We could have saved the NHS. There’s a remote possibility we still can.

And we’re back to power and riots. Power’s at the heart of activism. Many of us choose to organise by very specific models of power (power with). Fundamentally it’s about trying to ensure power is used for social and ecological justice, whether you lobby someone else to do so, or take it back direct-action style and make the world more just yourselves. But riots? Not our scene, right? But what are we doing that has the equivalent force? What are we doing to ensure we can’t be ignored? Of course there are loads of example of inspiring direct action every day of the week. But what are we doing on a scale that can’t be ignored and can take effect quickly enough to deal with the increasingly urgent need for change?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since getting back from the Peace News Summer Gathering and having a semi-joking conversation about training 15,000 people here in the UK in nonviolent civil disobedience – our version of the riot. So now, without the joking – fancy giving it a go? Get in touch…..