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.

Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean…..

Here in the UK undercover cops infiltrating activist movements has become big news. We’re not alone. In response to increased repression in Australia, Holly, over at Plan To Win has pulled together a very comprehensive list of security-related resources in her latest post: Spy vs Activist. Some snippets from a very thorough and full post:

How can activist groups respond? One option is to ‘call the bluff’ on repression. If one of the intentions behind surveillance is to intimidate activists into taking less action – respond with more!

Another response is to plan and prepare to protect the security of your group and its members. Depending on how public your group is, and the kind of activities it engages in, will determine how much of a priority you make security.

Remember, paranoia is never a useful response!

“Unfounded paranoia is not helpful to anyone but your enemies. Indeed, paranoia is not part of the security process; it is an unhelpful state of mind often built on emotion. Your fears need to be grounded in facts and rational consideration to be part of your security in a useful way.
Fortunately, the problem of insiders working against us is not as big as we might suppose, and those who sponsor them spread disinformation about the extent of it. It suits their purpose to keep people guessing. It is always good to remember there has been and remains a long history of successful campaigns and actions despite the informers operating inside our groups.” Infiltrators, Informers and Grasses: how, why and what to do if your group is targeted, page 2, download from ActivistSecurity.org

There’s a whole related conversation to be had about overt and covert direct actions, and which is actually more secure; open and closed groups and movements, and which are more effective. But another time! If you have thoughts on that feel, free to start the ball rolling by leaving a comment.

Facilitating occupation

In another recent post Chris Corrigan (see our previous post) has also collated a few links to support Occupy protests in facilitation.

Plan to Win have done the same in their #Occupy 101 post, with some specific tools for general assemblies of the kind being used at Occupy Wall Street.

The resources include a fantastic 8 minute video about consensus at Occupy Wall Street, which gives a passionate introduction to the process. I’m sure it’s not all perfect there (where is it?) but it’s a great reminder of the energy and joy that consensus can bring to a movement. I’ve embedded it below. Watch it!. 8 minutes well spent. But that’s not an excuse for not visiting Plan to Win’s site. The other resources are well worth checking out.

In the spirit of signposting resources, here are more links taken from our resources page (many more where these came from). All of these sites have invaluable materials on them on topics like facilitation, but also nonviolent action and strategy:

And of course there’s our own materials.

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:

Plan to win

Welcome on board to Plan to Win, a new organisation supporting social action and learning in Melbourne, Australia. The folk at Plan to Win say:

 

Plan to Win assists individuals, groups and campaigns to develop the skills and clarity required to win change in the world.

The challenges we face on our planet today require powerful social movements made up of passionate, skilled and resilient leaders.

There are lessons to be learnt from past movements, useful tools and theories, and abundant creativity to keep coming up with fresh solutions. There’s no power like people power – connected, strong, principled and hopeful.

Let’s work together to make our dreams a reality.

We look forward to learning from you.

Hat tip to Dwight Towers.