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.” http://the99spring.com

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.


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.


Learning to be more flexible and creative

Last Sunday I ran a short 4 hour NVDA training session for People and Planet at Leeds University, an interesting experience as, because it was the same weekend as Shared Planet , only 3 people attended which meant I had to really re-think what we were doing and how. It was actually wonderful to have the opportunity for an intimate discussion about violence and nonviolence, and where we draw the line. We also spent longer than usual talking about examples of nonviolence in the photos I had brought with – cuttings from newspapers of recent events in Libya, Syria, Egypt and Greece, photos of tar sands actions in Otttawa, and actions by Indian and Turkish villagers to stop the building of nuclear and coal plants. Some nonviolent actions are so simple – just sitting quietly occupying a space – and others moving in the attempts of rebels or protesters to speak truthfully and honestly, human to human, to ranks of armed police and soldiers.

I had decided early on that with only 3 people the hassle line, which practices responding nonviolently to anger and aggression, would not work, so dropped that exercise completely and moved on to physical exercises – blocking techniques and passive resistance – but later, on the packed train back to Manchester realised I had become so fixated on the method – the line – that I hadn’t even tried to think about a different technique of exploring how to experience aggression and still control your own fear and remain calm. I felt very annoyed with myself, because it is such an important part of NVDA training to go through, and began to work through ideas; there are in fact lots of different things we could have done. For example, I could have taken on the aggressor role and the others sat together in the line, practicing different responses. The 3 Leeds students were not the only ones to come away feeling they had learnt something new, which, as a trainer, is always one of the real rewards of training or facilitation. That and the privilege of spending time with enthusiastic thoughtful people wanting to bring about change, asking great questions and making me think and laugh.


So many tactics. So little time….

The Academy of Change (credited with a significant role in preparing the ground for the Egyptian uprising) have posted Political activists reveal 65 ways to start a Syrian revolution, which gives some examples of the range of tactics open to activists. Clearly Gene Sharp, and others, have compiled similar lists in the past, but it’s always good to see what’s current and is working in what context. Here’s a significant chunk of the post handily broken down for individuals, groups, and society as a whole:

The first 18 suggestions include ways that individuals can participate in the Syrian revolution, and this includes: providing food and medicine to protesters, utilizing the internet to convince people to participate in the revolution, transferring news and information to those demonstrating and protesting in Syrian cities, putting up pro-revolutionary posters, raising revolutionary flags, conducting dialogue with pro-government soldiers and police to convince them of the merits of the revolution, providing financial support to revolutionary activities, providing financial support to the poor, amongst other suggestions.

As for ways that groups (between 3 – 5 people) can participate in “developing the revolution”, this includes: painting the walls of certain important buildings in pro-revolutionary colors, changing the names of streets so that they bear the name of martyrs of the revolution, carrying out campaigns to convince neighborhoods of the merits of the revolution, defacing and fabricating official state-affiliated newspapers, making pro-revolutionary banners, obstructing certain streets with cars, creating a new constitution, and preventing government officials from going to work.

The website also included 25 suggestions for ways that groups of thousands of people can contribute to the Syrian revolution, and this includes: acts of civil disobedience, marching in the streets, including marches with demonstrators all wearing the popular anti-establishment Guy Fawkes “V” mask, taking part in strikes, bicycle rallies, withdrawing funds from government banks, not doing business with companies or shops loyal to the regime, amongst other suggestions..

As for the AOC’s suggestions for ways that millions of Syrians can join together to participate in the revolution, this includes; refusing to pay electricity and water bills, refusing to pay government taxes, boycotting official state celebrations and events, disobeying unjust laws, and other widespread acts of civil disobedience.

Am I advocating these specific tactics for the Occupy movement or others? No. Tactics are context specific. A tactic that forces the hand of a dictator may not even register here in the UK and vice versa. But we do need to be thinking of possibilities, customising tactics that work elsewhere, finding action that ordinary citizens can engage with, breaking down ideas and making them accessible, and of course getting the ideas out there.

Essentially this is an appeal to be strategic on some level or another. Strategy is a hard one – there are those I’ve spoken to who argue that we simply need to go where the energy for action is, which is as good a criterion to use as any since we can’t ever know the outcomes of our actions. Others advocate understanding theories of change, and planning each and every tactic like moves in a game of chess.

The Occupy movement has of course named itself by a tactic, which may limit its range. But a friend of mine reminded me the other day just how many ways there are to occupy. Clearly there’s the occupation of public space – bridges and squares, but, for example, there’s also the occupation of switchboards and websites (what used to be called phone or fax blockades – a constant barrage of calls, faxes, emails to a corporation or government that strains its communications systems to the point of breaking). I’m sure others spring to your minds as you read.


Are we overly occupied with occupation?

The Occupy movement is spreading. The Occupy LSX camp outside St Paul’s in London continues to make it into the news bulletins (even if a lot of the coverage isn’t about the real issues). And yet I feel dissatisfied.

I get the reasoning. The Arab Spring has galvanised people, created hope that systems can change for the better, left us in awe of what people power can achieve. And occupation of symbolic spaces was a key element there. No wonder that we’re inspired to do the same. I also get that there’s a powerful upside to the tactic. Starhawk’s blogging about her involvement with the movement in the USA. In a recent post for the Washington Post she says:

At its essence, the message of the Occupations is simply this:

“Here in the face of power we will sit and create a new society, in which you do count. Your voice carries weight, your contributions have value, whoever you may be. We care for one another, and we say that love and care are the true foundations for the society we want to live in. We’ll stand with the poor and sleep with the homeless if that’s what it takes to get justice. We’ll build a new world.”

And I don’t doubt any of that. I also recognise there are other positives.

What I do doubt is that the holy trinity of Strike: March: Occupy! is, in our context, what an occupation of Tahrir Square was in Egypt, and that it has the same revolutionary potential. What happened in Egypt and elsewhere was so much more powerful. In occupying space, making a public stand, activists there risked everything. I recently heard a snippet of a documentary in which an activist said that they went out on the streets expecting to never return. Arrest, torture, death.  The unholy trinity of the repressor. These were the likely outcomes of protest. These regimes could not tolerate such public shows of dissent. And that was the power of the movement. It forced the intolerable onto a regime. The regime had to respond and in doing so escalated the resistance and ultimately guaranteed its own demise. Of course it’s never clear-cut as to whether the resistance can take the increased repression for long enough to overthrow a regime, but there are enough case studies of nonviolent resistance to suggest it’s a distinct possibility.

Are we doing that here? Are we consciously choosing tactics that will force the system we protest about to show its hand? Is our action intolerable to the state, the financial system? I think not. And I think if we’re serious about revolution it needs to be. So occupy if that’s the appropriate tactic. But occupy spaces that genuinely stop the system functioning. Be creative in making it happen so that the police cannot repel us (more or less anything is possible to a well organised affinity group and there’s experience to support that). And escalate continuously. Don’t get stuck in a tactical rut. I’d call on folk to connect with the intention behind the Arab Spring, with the level of provocation and protest, and not the tactic used.

I’m not on the streets right now, so easy said. At least those in the tents are there in body as well as spirit.

Of course we don’t have a brutal dictator to depose. Our system is far more subtle and seductive (at least for now). Mother of all parliaments, NHS free at the point of delivery and so much more. But the repressions still there, and getting more obvious by the day. Our job is to bring it out into the sunlight. And we need to find tactics that do that most effectively. I’ll hand over to Martin Luther King Jnr to end:

“we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” Letter from Birmingham Jail

History of nonviolent action

Thanks to Plan to Win for bringing together three essential tools for anyone involved or interested in nonviolent action in one place.

They include the very recent Global Nonviolent Action Database which pulls together case studies of nonviolent action from around the world and from different historical periods in enough detail that we can learn useful lessons for our own campaigns and struggles:

UK Case studies

It can seem hard to find decent case studies (which is why the database is so welcome). For UK activists even recent history gets forgotten. If you fancy a meander through recent UK activist history here’s some possibilities:

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…..

Nonviolence for a Change

From September 2011 to June 2012 Turning the Tide in collaboration with Huddersfield Quakers and other local peace and social justice groups are hosting a series of workshop called ‘Nonviolence for a Change.’ This is a training programme for people with some experience of working with others to address injustices and make changes.

Dates and Themes for the Huddersfield 2011 – 2012 course

  • 24 September 2011: Nonviolence, a dangerous idea
  • 15 October: Playing with power 1: Understanding the system
  • 19 November: Playing with power 2: Changing the system
  • 17 December: Campaigners do it together! How we make change
  • 21 January 2012: Don’t just sit there! Exploring direct action
  • 17- 19 February: Is everybody happy? Tools for effective group work (This session is residential and for year-group only – see beolw)
  • 17 March: The living revolution: building the alternative
  • 21 April: Inner and outer: spirituality and activism
  • 18 – 20 May: We can do that! Empowerment for social change (This session is residential and for year-group only)
  • 16 June: Celebrating nonviolence

Year-long or Drop-in

As in previous years, you can sign up for the whole course, or just dip into the sessions that interest you. This course tends to be oversubscribed and we anticipate a similar response for the 2011-2012 course. So get in touch as soon as you can if you’d like to participate either in the whole course or particular workshops.

Fees and application process

Year-course: Participation on the course is via application due by 10 August 2011. The fee is £350 for the year; £35 per workshop, and concessions and payment plan options are available. February and May residential are for the year-group only.

One-day: Spaces for one-day participants are limited, so please get in touch to put your name on the one-day list as soon as possible. We get in touch before the workshop to confirm that you are still able to come and take care of some administrative business.

For more applications materials and more information see our website, or email: denised_AT_quaker.org.uk or stevew_AT_quaker.org.uk, or call: 020 7663 1061 & 1064

A slap in the face for nonviolence? Musings on nonviolence 2

Steve Biko

  • martyr of the anti-apartheid movement: check
  • founder of the Black Consciousness movement: check
  • practitioner of violent action??? errrr, not so sure

Why do I ask this? Well previous musings on self-immolation took me hop, skip and jumping (mentally, that is) to a scene from Biko’s life. Biko’s in police custody being interrogated by 3 white police officers after giving a speech the South African state didn’t approve of. Whilst 2 officers hold him, the sergeant back-hands him across the mouth because he has failed to be as submissive as white police expect a black man to be. Biko appears to submit and the officers release him. Immediately he springs forward and back-hands the sergeant.

Remember, this is apartheid South Africa and such action could be tantamount to a death sentence – it could make you just one of the many black prisoners to “fall down the stairs”, or “fall from an upper storey window” whilst in police custody or be “shot whilst escaping”. And indeed Steve Biko was killed in custody shortly afterwards.

So the question: violent action? retribution? revenge? I’m still not sure. I know the action inspires me and so maybe I want to see it as nonviolent so it conveniently falls within my belief system.

On what level does it feel nonviolent to me? It directly confronts power and subverts the dominant paradigm that white has power over black, including the power to beat and kill with impunity. It suggests an alternative model – one of equality where Biko is as human as the sergeant and can demand equal treatment. As such it speaks truth to power. These are all qualities I see in the best nonviolent actions, but does that mean they’re exclusive to nonviolence?

“whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with Blacks. They must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior.” Steve Biko

Was Biko’s intention violent or malicious? We’ll never know, but I can’t help feeling he was asserting his right to equality rather than seeking to injure or hurt the police officer. The police, not Biko, framed the interaction as an exchange of blows. Biko merely reflected their action…but if their action was violent, isn’t his reflection? Over to you….

A burning issue: musings on nonviolence

One part of what we do here at Rhizome is to work with activists to explore what it means (for them) to take nonviolent action for change. We’re also practitioners of nonviolence in our own activism. After you’ve been around a while it’s easy to get complacent and to think you’ve heard all the arguments and know the answers.

But then events trip you up and you’re left scratching your head about what it means to be nonviolent.

The media tell us that the spark (forgive the pun) for the uprising in Tunisia was the self-immolation of a young protester. To quote the BBC website:

A desperate act by a young unemployed man on 17 December triggered a much wider series of protests and clashes with the police.

Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself when officials in his town prevented him from selling vegetables on the streets of Sidi Bouzid without permission.

It’s one thing to risk your safety in protesting – something that many activists do day-in-day-out: protesting in oppressive regimes, locking themselves to moving vehicles, placing themselves between whale and harpoon and so on. That serves to give their action power and integrity, and is sometimes the only option. But isn’t it another to make the taking of your own life the protest?

Others have followed in Mohamed Bouazzi’s footsteps. And he isn’t the first to adopt this form of protest. Other examples include members of the banned spiritual Falun Gong movement setting themselves alight in Tiannamen Square; and perhaps best known the use of self-immolation by buddhist nuns and monks. There’s a whole list of political self-immolations on Wikipedia.

Is this nonviolent? How can it be as it ends in death or severe injury to the protester. Does the fact that it’s self-immolation make it nonviolent? And what about accounts like that of Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc who was filmed and photographed burning himself to protest the treatment of buddhists under a Roman Catholic regime? The whole event was highly ritualised. Thich Quang Duc was encircled by fellow monks who facilitated his self-immolation, and bowed to him as he set himself alight. He’s reputed to have sat calmly throughout the experience. With that level of self-control how can it not be nonviolent?

Often I come back to intention as my yardstick – if there’s an intention to be selfless, compassionate and to avoid harming others then the act is nonviolent. How does that sound to you?