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From exposing live-baiting in the greyhound racing industry to demonstrating against the detention of asylum seekers, nonviolent direct action is rising up as a means of protest. By Sam Cooney.

Learning the tricks of nonviolent direct action

The eight of us kneel in a circle in front of the corporate headquarters of the drone manufacturer, discussing tactics. We have only two minutes to co-ordinate our incursion, and then we will storm the building. Emotions are running high; confidence is not. We’re young and inexperienced, but we do have clear instructions: the expected outcome for today’s action is for one of us to end up fastened to a fixed point inside the reception area. From that point onwards, all bets are off. Then we will make a ruckus, and if all things go well we will pop up for a few precious seconds on one of this evening’s national TV news programs. Our cause is just. We shall not be moved.

In lowered voices, led by young Bundjalung woman Amelia Telford, who we admire – she was a key part of the Pacific Climate Warriors’ successful blockade of the port of Newcastle in October last year – we plan. A woman, who I’ve only just met and whose name escapes me, volunteers to be today’s “bunny” – we’ll usher her in and secure our heavy bicycle D-lock around her neck and one of the steel legs of the front desk. Other roles are quickly assigned. I am made responsible for recording today’s action using my phone, and also for uploading the footage to social media.

We burst through the front door into the reception area and I am filming. A couple of security guards are quick to confront us, and one of them calls the police. A member of our group distracts the single bewildered receptionist while others work to secure our bunny to the desk. Before any of the initial hubbub has died down our bunny is locked in place, and because we don’t know what to do now, because we haven’t thought this far, most of our group sit down and begin to chant in a chaotic fashion. The words “drone” and “no way” feature heavily.

I am still filming when the police arrive. When one of the officers begins to jostle and rough up our bunny, I step in closer and say assertively, like I’ve been trained, “Please stop that, you’re hurting her”. The officer’s conduct only becomes rougher, so I let her know that I am filming the incident, and wave the camera under her nose. Suddenly the officer is coming at me, demanding my phone. I refuse because I think I know my rights, but the officer informs me that “evidence of a crime is on that device and it is a criminal offence to withhold evidence”. 

After a couple of seconds’ hesitation, with the officer staring straight into my eyes, I chicken out and hand over my phone. I realise that although I consider myself a fairly resilient and shrewd person, I am wholly underprepared for a scenario such as this.

It’s the middle of a recent Saturday afternoon when the above happens. It is only a simulation – a training session on nonviolent direct action (NVDA) – that plays out in a small back room inside the Ross House Association building on Melbourne’s Flinders Lane. The day is run by CounterAct, an organisation that “provides training, capacity building and resources to environmental and social justice campaigners across Australia”.

NVDA, we are told from the beginning of the day by convenor Nicola Paris, is all about “putting bodies in the way of business as usual”. There are other terms for NVDA: people power, civil resistance, satyagraha, nonviolent resistance, pacifica militancia, and positive action. Gene Sharp, a leading researcher in the field and founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, a non-profit organisation dedicated to advancing the study of nonviolent action, defines it as “those methods of protest, resistance and intervention without physical violence in which the members of the nonviolent group do, or refuse to do, certain things.”

Being a long-time listener when it comes to activism, I’d long been itching to become a first-time caller. When news of this NVDA training day popped up in one of my feeds, the convenience and opportunity were difficult to ignore – jumping in at the next protest that spoke to me would be all well and good, but I want to make sure I know what I’m doing and, more importantly, why I’m doing it. For years now I’ve consumed news stories and watched videos about protests and other actions, and I’ve chatted with interest to activist friends, but I’ve stayed an observer, which somehow always felt a bit wrong. 

So here I find myself learning about the long history of NVDA, and being run through the personal legal ramifications if I should find myself arrested. I am given floor space and a partner to practise my ability to become a total dead weight, so that if I am ever arrested, it will be that much more difficult for police officers to drag me away.

At some stage of the day we are handed an information sheet that lists the “198 methods of nonviolent action”. These methods are broken up into three categories: protest and persuasion (for example, picketing, staging mock funerals, skywriting), non-cooperation (striking, boycotting, orchestrating a sitdown) and intervention (organising a pray-in, guerilla theatre, land seizure). We spend our time very much focusing on the latter, and the war stories from the half-dozen presenters rapidly pile up. 

In fact, too much of the day is spent on reminiscing and sharing. In this small fluorescently lit room, with its meagre tray of snacks and our closed circle of chairs and butcher’s paper covered in childlike drawings showing physical signs and symptoms of a body under stress, the NVDA training could really be a self-help seminar – “How To Be a More Confident You”, perhaps. All it would take is the substitution of a few key words and PowerPoint slides.

After the training day, I meet up with Chris Dite, Socialist Party member and a key participant in recent NVDA victories. His campaigns include halting the sell-off of major public housing by the previous Victorian government, as well as the picketing of Melbourne’s now-abandoned East West Link. He tells me he is wary of these NVDA training days, as they often “take the politics out of politics”. 

I chat with Dite about the super affirmative air of the NVDA training day, and how it was maybe too much about storytelling and sharing and famous activist proverbs repeated with gravitas, such as “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” and “one person can go faster but togetherness can go forever”. I had in fact noticed that any discussion of politics was shunted aside. “Anyone can lock themselves to a drill,” Dite says, “but that’s not going to win any campaign. The key to winning a campaign is involving wide ranges of people in a strategic way that works against the forces you are fighting.” 

It’s impossible to uncover meaningful statistics that point to whether involvement in activist actions is increasing, but at the very least interest in direct activism is mushrooming – or it seems that way in the media, wherein video of any action will probably make the news. 

From the ABC’s recent exposé of live-baiting in the greyhound racing industry – rooted in footage provided by activists – to the groundswell of protest on everything from the budget to refugees, it’s important to consider who is now involved and why. 

The Socialist Party representative on Melbourne’s Yarra Council, Stephen Jolly, believes we’re about to see a spike in participation. “There is an ever-expanding division here in Australia between the rich and poor, and between ordinary people and the political class, and I think we’ll see a whole lot more folks turn to direct action in their attempts to instigate change.” 

The picketing at the East West Link dig sites convinced him: “When I saw ordinary people, mums and dads and tradies and businesspeople, all turning up, forming lines, holding signs and lying down, that’s when I knew that this particular protest movement was heading somewhere. I’ve not seen such public support for any action before.” 

NVDA flattens the playing field; it gives small groups power. As we speed on through the year that marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches in the United States – a time and place where nonviolent direct action proved to be the only genuine way to generate a telling groundswell – perhaps playing at the storming of a drone manufacturer’s office in a pokey little room on a Saturday afternoon is less of a game and much more a rehearsal.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2015 as "Uncivil service". Subscribe here.

Sam Cooney
is publisher and editorial director at The Lifted Brow.