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.



Step outside for a moment…

Occupy London was in court last week. The court found against them and, subject to appeal, the City of London can proceed to evict. The occupation is illegal.

I can’t help feeling that the power of the Occupy movement is tied into that very illegality. In a way I’m glad the court ruled as it did. I’m not glad that the individuals involved have had all their hard work in marshalling and presenting a case dismissed (read one perspective on the Occupy London site). I’m not glad that the encampment outside St. Pauls won’t be there to continue the outreach, education and activism it’s been doing so well. I’m certainly not glad that in the near future activists may be involved in a potentially traumatic eviction. But I am glad that Occupy still occupies the ground outside of the law. Occupy has set itself against the system. The law is part of that system.

It seems to me that there is plenty of organisations that fill the role’s that lawful activism can fill, and with some obvious success. But there is this other role – refusing to allow our activism to be framed in terms of legal and illegal, and instead doing what is right, just and necessary. That seems to be the role that Occupy should stand for, and hold out for.

All this got me thinking of facilitation. Is the same true? Do we all too often try to fit our values, our state of mind as facilitators into roles that the mainstream frame for us? Do we need to occupy ground well outside of the norms of mainstream facilitation-lore? There are certainly folk trying their hardest to create new spaces and explore new roles away from these norms – many of them referred to elsewhere on this blog : Viv McWaters, Johnnie Moore, Chris Corrigan to name a few.

When Rhizome met as a co-op back in November we spent a good while talking about our work. We reiterated that we saw ourselves as radical, but, in honour of our diversity as a collective of facilitators, we consciously refused to define that in any one dimension. We spoke of radical politics, radical process, and radical relationships within Rhizome and without. We also spoke of doing work that was radical for the groups we work with, whatever that may be for them. Seems to me that it’s about standing for the roles that are less comfortable, that are not filled elsewhere, in the mainstream.

We’ve been consciously trying to design our work with that in mind. I felt we were doing that well when Maria and I sat down to plan our recent facilitation training with the staff team at 38 Degrees. From the outset we let them know that we wanted to work with them on shared attitudes, values, and states of mind rather than facilitation technique, tools and skills. Our designing process had real energy and excitement – we tried to be intuitive and innovative. On the day we threw them into learning by doing right from the start with a series games that gave them the choice to compete or to share facilitation and co-operate. Out of their individual and diverse experiences of the same activities we were able to open conversations about their margins and mainstreams and those of the supporter groups they meet with. It felt like we were at least in the region of a radical approach to working with this group – getting to the root of what it means to be facilitating rather than do facilitation. It wasn’t perfect – there were some tools and approaches that at least some of the group would have liked to explore in more depth, for example, but it felt like there was some good learning happening. I know there was for Maria and I.

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.


Post-capitalism – errr, I thought you had a plan?

After my last post on the tactics of Occupy movement an old friend called and berated me (nicely) for not giving an alternative vision to capitalism. So here goes. And before you put the kettle on and settle down for a long read, no need. I’ll be brief:

I don’t know. Nor do I feel the need to know. What I do know is that capitalism doesn’t work. It preys on the worst aspects of the human psyche – limitless greed and the desire to hold power over others.

We need to clear the decks, pause and take stock. We need to make space for alternatives. So my alternative is making space for alternatives. Cop out? Stay with me. Whatever exists post-capitalism needs to be defined in its own terms, not with reference to capitalism. Like the black consciousness movement, or feminism, or indeed any liberation struggle we need to refuse to frame the conversation in the language of the oppressor, or with reference to the oppressor’s values. Let’s get rid of capitalism and not rush to fill the void. That void doesn’t have to be a vacuum, sucking in a new ‘system’ whole and complete.

What I do know about my personal vision is that it involves autonomy and diversity. And it involves continuing, and continuous (r)evolution

Autonomy and diversity?

Many folk involved in grassroots direct action will tell you that when we work in affinity groups we’re not only confronting injustice, but we’re living a structure that provides an alternative to the unjust systems we confront. The autonomous affinity group, often working in a collective with many other groups. That’s my picture of the future, but for affinity groups read communities.

And diversity? You can’t impose autonomy. So other communities may disagree, they may organise in ways that don’t work for me. It’s not just likely, it’s an inevitability. If I can’t tolerate that diversity, then life’s going to be tough, because persuading each and every one of you that I’m right and that I have the one truth is going to take more of my time than I’m prepared to give, and the broad beans won’t sow themselves.

And yet one of the biggest issues for groups that subscribe to this same model of autonomous affinity groups working in collaboration seems to be an intolerance of diversity, an inability to use consensus (understood to be the core process of such an approach) in groups with significant degrees of difference. A challenge then for life post-capitalism.

Continuous (r)evolution?

A wise and radical Methodist theologian of my acquaintance once wrote words to the effect of revolution not being the answer. Revolution, to his mind, implied a single turn of the wheel, moving on a fixed point and replacing it with a different fixed point. Regime change. He advocated being radical rather than revolutionary and thinking in terms of a constant motion of the wheel. Doesn’t every generation have its revolution only to find that its children feel the need to revolt against the new world order their parents created? Yet somehow we find ourselves thinking in terms of regime change rather than expecting, inviting and preparing for continuous change.

Only last week I was discussing utopia with Carl, my Rhizome co-founder. We’re meeting in early November with 5 or 6 others who are interested in getting involved in Rhizome (we’ll tell you more about that as it happens) and we’re planning an agenda that allows genuine space for dialogue about what Rhizome is and could be. It was refreshing to agree that we didn’t have a utopian vision that all potential Rhizome folk have to sign up to, and to acknowledge that our own visions and values already differ considerably anyway. I’m enjoying that diversity and look forward to more of it. Hopefully we can do a little bit of modeling the possibilities of autonomy, diversity, and ongoing reflection and change.

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