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

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

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.

Intention

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.

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.

Strategic direct action – new guide

Tools for Change have uploaded a new Ruckus Society guide to strategic direct action.

An initial glance says it looks promising –  accessible, well formatted and coherent with case studies to boot.

 

Take the flour back….

The campaign against a resurgence of GM crop trials in the UK is gathering pace. If you missed out on the action the first time around, now’s your chance.

So dust off your gardening gloves and take a look at the Take the flour back website for details of the action.

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

Nonviolent direct action and action consensus – training materials

Earlier this year we worked on some example training materials for Stop New Nuclear to use in preparation for their Fukushima anniversary blockade of Hinkley power station. There are trainings planned for Oxford, Leicester and Birmingham, and hopefully more in the pipeline.

It seemed a shame to use the materials for just one campaign, so we’ve uploaded them to our Resources page – an example agenda and pdfs of the various supporting materials. The trainings are: nonviolent direct action and consensus decision-making (quick decisions, and spokescouncils, in this case).

We don’t expect anyone to use them exactly as they are. For a start you’ll need to replace the nuclear power based examples with ones relevant to your campaign. But they give you a foundation on which you can add your own stamp, tailoring them to the time available and the group’s needs. If you use them and have any feedback, good, bad or indifferent, we’d receive it gratefully.

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.

Jo

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…..

Reporting back from UK Feminista

I co-facilitated a short taster in nonviolent direct action (NVDA) at the UK Feminista Summer School, alongside Gill. It’s the first time we’d worked together. Bit of a baptism of fire, given that we had over 50 people and not enough time (just 75 minutes), but that’s the way with conference sessions. We walked down the canal, back into Birmingham and had a natter afterwards. From a co-facilitation perspective we agreed we’d be happy to work together again – always a good sign.

We focused on giving the participants a taste of the realities of NVDA – potential confrontation, physicality, exploring where power lies, how we can best use our bodies and voices, and so on. It seemed a sensible choice as there’d already been a panel discussion on the whys and wherefores of direct action., so we wanted some doing to accompany the thinking.

We haven’t seen the official evaluations, but the participants left buzzing. And here’s one of them quoted in the Guardian, talking about our session:

After just one day of classes at her summer school of choice, Emily Birkenshaw had already learned a crucial lesson: how to “go floppy” when facing arrest. “You’re heavier then, so you can’t be carried,” she said, with the genuine delight of a new recruit.

The 24-year-old been practising by linking arms with her classmates and singing loudly at a pretend policeman. “It just felt really empowering,” she said. “If that happened [in real life] – and I hope it wouldn’t – I’d know how to do it without getting hurt.”

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

Cycling to Palestine – P.E.D.A.L

Towards the end of last year I spent a day with a small group of folk planning a bike ride to Palestine. The plans are now complete and the group is now P.E.D.A.L. an acronym that stands for their aims:

  • Popular resistance movements
  • Environmental justice
  • Direct action on BDS
  • Art and culture
  • Linking stories of struggle

On 19th and 20th March they’re holding a weekend of workshops before they head off for their 100 days to Palestine. Read their blog for more info.

Studying direct action at the University of Life – in Sheffield

Following the support we gave to Leeds Uni students at the end of last year, we were asked to facilitate a 3 hour nonviolent direct action (NVDA) workshop on Saturday, as part of a weekend of activities at Sheffield Uni. People & Planet staff were on tour supporting their university groups. Our workshop made up a part of the programme.

I think it went well, and the overall energy and ‘vibe’ from the 24 participants were good. They were engaged and threw themselves into the practical exercises with enthusiasm. And I kept it very practical with the exception of a more discursive opening activity to explore personal definitions of effective action.

I was acutely aware that some of this group have an action in mind for the not so distant future,and it seemed appropriate to ensure that they had some experience of working together behind them.

Yes we could have used more time. There are so many facets of nonviolent direct action we could have covered. I was particularly hoping to get time for a quick decision-making exercise. It’s a favourite of mine which teaches a practical skill whilst giving the group an experience which can help bring them closer and point up any group dynamics issues they need to be wary of. But what we did cover was covered in-depth. We finished with a legal rights activity which led to loads of questions. The group had plans to eat together, and the table reservation saved me (and them) from a long discussion. Sadly it also knocked my 5 minute evaluation on the head, but feedback received by email has been good.

The group was very mixed – some exploring NVDA for the first time, others already veterans of several actions. One or two had been at the Leeds workshop. It felt like a safe space for all concerned. The more experienced were both generous and supportive in sharing their experience without alienating the less experienced.

I’ve already been in touch about next steps – possible workshops with students from Leeds and Sheffield (and elsewhere?) on odds and ends we’ve not had time to cover, plus legal support and legal observing. You’ll hear about it here.

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?

Studying direct action at the University of Life – in Leeds

Students discuss nonviolence using a 'spectrum line'. As the photo illustrates there was a wide range of opinion

Last night’s workshop went well. Over 20 energetic, thoughtful and committed students came to share their views and experiences of nonviolent direct action, and to build on their knowledge and skills. The workshop was moved to the building currently occupied by students as part of their protest against cuts. A fitting venue.

We explored what people felt made actions effective, stimulated by images of actions of many kinds from the UK and elsewhere. We debated nonviolence – if an action caused anyone any distress was that violent? Was intention the key to our actions being nonviolent? Many seemed to feel that was the case. For some, some actions like damaging property (cutting through a fence, for example) were inherently violent but could still be acceptable if the wider intention was a noble one.

We also looked at some practical aspects of taking action. Using hassle line roleplays we explored interactions with the police which threw up as many questions as they answered. How come many of nonviolent tactics such as linking arms and sitting down left those in the role of police officers feeling more frustrated, even angry and therefore more likely to use force? Was that still nonviolence?

Practicing holding space using a circle of linked bodies. There was much debate over facing in or out...

Two lines, using their legs to form a strong blockade

We then ‘occupied’ an area of the building and looked at techniques that offered the best support, communication, and feeling of strength in the face of the threat of removal.

Finally we spent some time looking at legal rights – what actions could trigger arrest? What might you be arrested for? What might the consequences of that arrest be?

As an aside, one participant commented on how easy they had it – they hadn’t been aware that there was so much the police could find to charge them with if they felt like it. Interesting in the light of today’s power and privilege post. Do university students have more power to protest and take action? If so, let’s hope we see them using it! The group left to head to the pub and talk about their next steps…