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.

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.