Studying direct action at the university of life…

I find myself in two minds about the student protest.

On the one hand I’m relieved that there’s some resistance and that it’s (at least for now) sizeable. In recent months and years we’ve missed so many opportunities for making change as a nation, and as a species. The immediacy of climate change should have spurred a rethink of the way we structure our society, the way we trade internationally and so much more. The banking crisis should have catalysed a change to a more human-centred and sustainable economic analysis. It would be devastating if the current round of cuts went through without significant resistance.

But on the other hand I’m left wondering about the efficacy of what’s happening. Student protest? Another march, another occupation. Tried and tested or lacking imagination and effectiveness? These tools are succeeding in making the student voice heard. But that’s only effective if the powerholders are listening.

A massive majority of people opposed GM food, but the government and their corporate pals went right ahead anyway. It took a persistent campaign of direct action to set them back 10 years. Over a million marched through London against war and their voices were ignored. The government may listen, but the voice of the people is often a whisper compared to the roar of the voice that really calls the tune – the voice of the $, £ and €.

For me it’s the difference between resistance that’s essentially an act of lobbying – that is pressuring someone else to make change, and direct action. Direct action is about making the change regardless, with or without permission and co-operation from our “lords and masters”. At the very least direct action amplifies the voice of the people. At it’s best it also makes change along the way. I’d urge students to look wider than their own movement for ideas for action. And to those that condemn direct action so freely to the media, read your history. Think civil rights movement, think the roads movement of the 1990s…

Are the sit-ins, marches and occupations making real change? Would we be better placed organising to withhold fees or student loan repayments? Organising cheap, co-operative or squatted accommodation for students? Organising food co-ops? Setting up a free university (ideally ‘teaching’ in more empowering ways, and having a more enlightened political analysis). We’d certainly be better taking the time to ensure all action was focused at the real heart of the issue. Who is driving these cuts? If in doubt, follow the money trail and ask who stands to profit most. That’s where to focus the action.

Of course it’s easy to sit here and commentate from the sidelines. Rhizome will be making a small contribution, by facilitating some of the So We Stand nonviolent direct action trainings. The first is at Leeds Uni tonight. We’ll take a whistle-stop tour of some of the ideas behind direct action and nonviolence, practice a few techniques for making action more effective, and for dealing with confrontational situations. We’ll also cover the all important legal rights. And, if we have time, we’ll do an introduction to action planning. We’ll let you know how it goes.

Preparing for a Crude Awakening

Another day, another journey to London… this time to run a workshop to help people prepare for A Crude Awakening, October 16th’s mass action against oil. Numbers were low and it took a while for enough people to gather to run the session (on holding space creatively with everyday equipment such as bicycle locks) effectively, but run it we did.

At the end of the session, I was asked to give an impromptu interview about some of the techniques covered in the workshop. I hope it gives you a flavour of what we used the time for:

As always the focus was on safe, well-supported and effective action. All too often actions and action-training focus on ‘frontline’ activist roles and forget the vital support roles. That’s all well and good until you find yourself with both arms ‘locked’ into an arm tube and no-one there to help you eat, drink, stay safe from traffic and so on….

If you couldn’t make this chance to prepare for the action, there is another opportunity in Manchester. Alternatively, at the very least check out the following links for ideas on holding space effectively:

For working effectively with others and for possible legal implications look at

Lights, cameras, direct action!

Guide to Petrol Station Actions

Those nice folk at South Coast Climate Camp have been putting their video cameras to good use and producing a series of short guides to effective direct action.

Guides include 4 different style of petrol station action, including outreach, rooftop occupations, blockades, and interviews. Refreshingly humourous, and not above highlighting their own mistakes.

There’s also the weird and wonderful ideas lab, innovations on direct action techniques… I’ll leave you to judge whether they’re techniques that will revolutionise protest or not.

Thinking outside the ballot box

So the UK election is over, although we don’t yet know who’ll be forming a government. How does it feel? Are you convinced that we’re going to be living in a fairer, more just society within the next few years? Me neither. Personally the old adage – “whichever way you vote the government always gets in” still rings true for me.

I can’t help it, but I just don’t believe this is real democracy.

Have you ever had Neapolitan ice cream? You know the one – 3 flavours in one tub. I’ll let you decide who’s strawberry, who’s vanilla and who’s chocolate. The issue for me is it’s not the flavour of ice cream that’s meaningful. It’s the tub they’re in. If the fundamental structure isn’t conducive to democracy you won’t get a democratic result. In this case the tub is capitalism. The people calling the shots here are the big corporations. Many of them have more cash than many small countries. They certainly have more power. Through their lobbyists they have the ear of government every day of the year at the highest levels. You and I get their ear for a day every 4 or 5 years. Not quite the level playing field we’re so fond of in this country.

Voting alone is not enough for us, the people, to be truly empowered and for there to be real change in society. The best we can hope for from the current system is a change of flavour. But what if we don’t want ice cream? I don’t want to downplay the value of the actions taken to secure the vote for all of us – whether the fight for women’s suffrage or the formation of the labour party to get the working man and woman’ voice heard. But the world has moved on and labour is now new labour, and the corporations are running the show.

Let me give you an example. If I ever doubted who was calling the shots, the attempted introduction of genetically manipulated (GM) crops crystallised things for me. In 1996 US corporation Monsanto tried to import GM soya into the UK. Fortunately Greenpeace were there to stop them by occupying loading cranes and obstructing the boats. They had hoped to get the GM soya into the food chain unnoticed so that by the time we became aware of it, it was too late. How do we know this? Because that’s exactly what they did in the USA. Simultaneously Monsanto and Agr-Evo (now Bayer CropScience) were quietly growing trials of GM potato and oilseed rape across the UK. Each and every trial contaminated the ecosystem with invisible, self-replicating, unstoppable genetic pollution.

The point is that they did all of this with the blessing of the government of the time. In fact as public opinion raged against GM the government’s response was to talk of educating us at the supermarket checkout through pro-GM adverts. The government never ceased in its unswerving loyalty to the corporations. What stopped the corporations in their tracks was not our government representing our views, protecting our environment, our health, our economy. No it was people taking action. People like Greenpeace. People like the dozens of autonomous activists who went into supermarkets and fields.

Yes, much of that action was through the parliamentary process – lobbying MPs and the like. But what caught the headlines, what forced GM into the daylight, what threw the biggest spanner into the works was nonviolent direct action. It’s no surprise that many activists refer to direct action as direct democracy. People together making the change they want to see. Now that’s real democracy!

For me making real change involves thinking outside the ballot box. It involves people working together in all the days between elections to change their communities. It’s for us to inject humanity back into society on a daily basis. And humanity can’t be squeezed into an ice cream tub.

NVDA – negative, violent, divisive and alienating?

I’ve been using nonviolent direct action (NVDA) as my technique of choice for making change for a long time now. Indeed I’d say it went way beyond technique to ideology, philosophy, ethos – take your pick. In that time I’ve heard many arguments for why NVDA doesn’t work:

  • it focuses too much on saying ‘no’, campaigning against, stopping stuff happening
  • it often involves confrontation, may involve damage to property, and that’s at least borderline violence
  • it divides the activist community. NVDA is for the macho, hardcore activists and it’s not accessible to newcomers or those with concerns about arrest or physical injury
  • for all of the above reasons and more, NVDA alienates the public from our cause. It’s too irrational for the reasonable folk that are Joe and Josephine public

Maybe you’ve shared the same or similar thoughts? If so, please humour me whilst I try and explain why I think none of the above are actually the case. You’ll have to take my word for it that I’m a pretty ordinary human being in most ways, and yet I was inspired to get involved in direct action. Yes inspired, not alienated, but inspired. So I obviously believe that NVDA can be inspiring and can attract new people to our causes.

I was a teenager in the 1980s amid another eruption of interest in the environment. There were countless ways I could have got involved in making change, but NVDA stood out precisely because it seemed to be having an effect in stopping  ‘the bad stuff’ happening. I could join the dots from taking action to ‘less bad stuff’ and see a direct and clear connection, and frankly that was me sold on NVDA. Inspiring and effective. Still works for me to this day.

So what about negative? What’s wrong with stopping injustice or standing up against the more inhuman and inhumane aspects of our society? As long as there has been injustice there have been people opposing it and I have no problem with that at all. But the good news is that NVDA encapsulates a whole range of ‘positive’ action. Whether it’s a Food not Bombs action, reclaiming a plot of land for a community garden, or setting up a housing co-operative to provide affordable and self-organised living spaces, all of these are radical action providing alternatives to an unjust system. I know very few direct activists that aren’t involved in these kind of projects in one way or another.

Is nonviolence a misnomer? Are our actions worthy, maybe even justifiable but ultimately violent?  I’ll talk for myself – for me intention is the key. I know that I can never set out to take NVDA without the strong possibility that I’ll offend someone, or need to cause damage to property of some kind. Is that violent? I don’t think so, as long as my intention is to be respectful of all living beings. And property? It’s the same argument as kicking down your neighbour’s door in order to rescue them from a fire. Great if you can avoid it, but in the circumstances entirely warranted and certainly not violent in my book.

And for those that think nonviolent direct action is divisive within the activist community, accessible only to the elite – the young, the fit,and those free from responsibilities such as kids or proper jobs. Get out there and look around. there are male and female direct activists, young and old, able and less-able bodies. In many recent mass direct actions there’s been a kids bloc – a dedicated group of adults and their children. Frankly I always feel  put to shame by that generation of ex-Greenham women, mostly at least 10 years older than me, for whom a 10 foot fence or a moving convoy of vehicles is a mere irritation. That’s not to say I’ve never encountered barriers. There was a time in the 90s, when the roads protests were at their height, when it could feel difficult to be a newcomer who’d never lived in a tree. But at the very same time, loads of first time direct activists were inspired by those same protests. And, far from alienated, the communities often rallied round and learnt to bake vegan cake.

Kids Protest at the Climate Camp

The same is true of all the communities I’ve been active within. Not everyone agrees with or gets your politics. Not everyone understands why you took that form of action. Not everyone wants to join your campaign,  but people do understand the positive intention and the passion. Yes it can be harder in an area where the target of a campaign is a major employer. Clearly it’s not in people’s interests to support direct action against their bosses. But many campaigns do build surprisingly strong relationships based on mutual respect.

NVDA’s a bit like vegan cake – it may not sound appealing, it may be outwith your experience. But try it, you may be pleasantly surprised and find that your preconceptions were wrong.

There’s loads more to say, but no doubt we’ll come back to NVDA over the months and years. In the meantime this gives you an idea why Rhizome supports communities to take action.

Don’t vote! It only encourages them

So, the UK election date was called today. On May 6th we go to the polls. No doubt the blogosphere’s crackling with comment, impassioned pleas, and a fair amount of cynicism, even apathy.Don't vote, it only encourages them

Already the news teams are out interviewing Jo Public who are coming back thick and fast with comments such as those I heard on the news bulletin this lunchtime “whoever wins will line their pockets first”, and “they’re all the same”. And once again I’m reminded of the old anarchist sayings “Don’t vote, it only encourages them” and “Whichever way you vote the government always gets in”.

Will any of the parties make real lasting change that will take us towards a genuinely more inclusive, just and ecological society? I have my doubts. Not because of a lack of sincerity on the part of some politicians – I have too many good friends active in the Green Party to believe that. But because of a system itself which seems to grind idealism down under the vast historical weight of the status quo. Sure change is possible, but within tightly defined parameters or when it’s a choice of lose power or deliver change.

But apathy? Doing nothing? It’s tempting. It’s so easy to be a spectator in today’s world. We can even interact by phone vote or twitter. But is it meaningful or does it provide just  enough of a veneer of meaning to satisfy us and prevent us taking real action?

Rhizome’s about activism – working with people and organisations to make activism more possible for them. For some that activism might involve the mainstream political process. For others it’ll be much more do-it-yourself. For some it’ll be a campaign to challenge an injustice through nonviolent direct action. Others will be building a positive alternative. And for a few it’ll be all of the above. Stopping airport expansion, starting a community garden, voting in a local election to keep the BNP out…all of these are vital to a vibrant, changing society. All of them need people to get up and make them happen. The alternative? Another 5 years of Brown-Cameron-Clegg or their sound-alikes talking about a better society whilst our experience of it gets worse.

Each one of us has something we’d like to see changed. Why not start that process of change now. Sure, vote on May 6th if that’s your thing. But don’t leave it at that. There are 364 other days of the year needing you to make change in them.

There are hundreds of organisations out there who can help you make change – whether, like us, it’s by sharing skills, or like 38 Degrees (see our upcoming interview with 38 Degrees director David Babbs) mobilising people to mass action. There’s your local Transition Towns group making sustainable change at a local level, or you might be lucky enough to have an autonomous social centre in your town .

So, in the words of the lovely collective “Get off the internet. I’ll see you in the streets”