Who you gonna call?

We regularly report back via the blog on workshops, meetings and events at which we’re working. We often don’t find time to mention the support we offer by phone. I type this because towards the end of last year I seemed to be doing this quite a bit. And it’s something I find quite satisfying – one less train journey, and more importantly, helping a group or organisation to be more self-sufficient.

  • In the latter weeks of 2010 I spent time on the phone with a facilitator from Climate Camp helping explain the intricacies of Open Space and coaching him through the process.
  • Having delivered one workshop at Leeds University, I wasn’t able to make another date, but was able to offer support from a distance to 2 students who felt confident enough to take the workshop on themselves with appropriate support. We talked through possible tools they might use to achieve their ends (forming affinity groups for upcoming protest at education cuts)
  • And then So We Stand wanted an external facilitator for an internal visioning meeting. Again, not able to be there in person, I was able to be on the end of the phone a day or two in advance. A discussion and some (hopefully) well-chosen questions clarified the aims of the day and the agenda needed to meet those aims.

At other times we’ve been asked to spend half an hour commenting on an agenda for a training session, asked  to suggest a specific technique for a certain part of an agenda, asked to support groups through the development of a co-operative structure and so on.

So to quote Ray Parker.. “Don’t get caught alone, no, no….. who you gonna call?”

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…

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.