A Non-Violent Direct-Action, Training Day in Cumbria

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By Lawrence Freiesleben

“Leave it to me, Sunshine!” may never have actually been spoken by Jack Reagan of the Sweeney, before he proceeded to kick down some miscreant’s door; but for anyone with a memory of such scenes, the words can hardly be mistaken for the gentle endorsements of a solar panel salesman. Rather they’ve become – if time-tempered by humour – a prelude to violence: violence against doors if not against people.

How
differently each of us perceives violence, was one of the early
questions asked last Sunday in Kendal, where the South Lakes
Extinction Rebellion Group, hosted a Non-Violent, Direct-Action,
training day.

The
turnout was good, the age-range wide – from students to pensioners:
though I’d guess the majority were between 50 and 60?

Regardless
of the potential chaos of XR’s non-authoritative ethos,
impressively, our training day, as well as practical role-playing
exercises, managed to incorporate numerous digressions into moral and
legal issues as well as a delicious cooked lunch, yet still ran to
time. Not an easy task in a crowded hall hampered by poor acoustics.

Guided
by Joel and Kyle, young, enthusiastic, national representatives of
XR, the day began by reminding us – lest there was any chance of
forgetting – why we were here: the disastrous situation; the
negative facts and figures escalating. Not nearly enough is being
done – that much is frustratingly obvious. Even without the folly
of Brexit (rather
than heads-in-the-sand isolation, surely, we need all the connection
we can get?)
, most
of the media would still be wallowing in celebrity scandal, sport or
trivia. Meanwhile our current ‘government’, always a poor joke in
bad taste, stumbles on like a maudlin, terminal, drug addict. Someone
needs to commandeer all their single-malt for redistribution. Though
preferably not
Jack Reagan.

That
it may already be too late for humanity, was a fear many people
visibly shared that overcast Sunday. When, at a later point in the
afternoon, we indicated our agreement with the anxieties of
individuals, by moving from the large circle of our chairs towards
their imaginary axle point, the voicing of this particular worry,
created a tight knot in the centre of the room.

A
knot that contradicted the result of our first exercise:

Intended
to introduce about forty people, many of whom had never met before,
groups of eight or so were asked to form circles – randomly taking
hold of two other hands or wrists. Without letting go, we had to see
if this knot could be untangled. Ours looked impossible. But to our
amazement, despite aged, aching limbs or heavy walking boots, by
patient mutual persistence it was, eventually, untangled. Not that
anyone took too much encouragement from this – despite the humour
that one member of the circle, Liz, was somehow facing outwards. The
crisis of climate emergency and the blithely suicidal tendency of
humanity is far more twisted; our consumerist habits, a matted
confusion of selfish carelessness. Our world is a mess, and our
controls set for destruction – the auto-pilot resistant to every
striving influence. That Ring a Ring o’ Roses may only connect with
bubonic plague in urban legend, didn’t stop me feeling when we
stood in a ring at the end, some doom-laden overlap with the current
global situation.

Joel
was the more experienced of the speakers and obviously used to
dealing with varied groups of XR volunteers. His softly spoken
colleague Kyle was acting as back-up for the very first time and
visibly gained confidence as the day went on, despite being
interrupted and being asked to speak “LOUDER
AND MORE CLEARLY”

by several members keen not to miss a word. The situation of Joel and
Kyle was not one I envied – all the more so after another exercise
amply displayed how easy it is, even in moments of simulated
stress, to literally forget everything useful in your head.

This
was during one of the exercises in which the group divided into two
lines to represent peaceful demonstrators versus, a) an irate public,
and b) the police.

I
don’t know if the ‘opponent’ opposite me, was an actor famed
for local or national dramatics, but his angry desire to get to an
imaginary job and later his pathetic pleas to be allowed to gain
access to his ailing hospitalised wife, were so convincing that I
couldn’t help but laugh. Attempting (badly) to fulfil my role as
activist, I tried to take refuge in gently explaining the
demonstration’s purpose – that we were protesting “for the sake
of everyone. For the future. For our children,” and so on – all
very easy theoretically while able to access the facts and figures .
. . In practice, most of these arguments went out of my head and
though some friends might think of me as a talker with a tendency to
dominate conversations, I literally couldn’t remember what to say.

Far
more effective was the woman opposite me, when next I became a police
officer: However much I “Please
Madam-ed!”
her,
she just smiled and beamed. Again, it was hard not to laugh.

Joel
next became a demonstrator to show how much harder it is for the
police to move those who can manage to remain floppy rather than
becoming rigid. Naturally enough, it’s harder still to move
protestors whose arms are linked. I asked if he knew of any instances
of the police tickling people to get them to desist. He laughed, and
we assumed such levity would be beneath both protocol or dignity.

Another
XR member with a friend in the police force, passed on this friend’s
insider view of how frightening it can be to suddenly be called on to
‘police’ a demonstration.

Thankfully,
few of the police nowadays, resemble those I remember from
demonstrations in the 70’s and early eighties. Very few are like
the notorious SPGi
using unauthorized weapons to disperse protesters. In fact, almost
every policeman I have personally encountered in the last thirty
years has been respectful and friendly. Which is the whole point
about XR and non-violence. XR is trying to speak for all of us, and
doesn’t wish to make enemies of anyone. To quote a recent report on
the traffic block in Sheffield (19th
March), in Newsletter
#17 – Paint the Streets
:ii
“The
Police were marvellous, supportive and protective.” 

On
the other hand, Joel’s experience of arrest (it’s happened to him
three times) was more sobering to a claustrophobic, than other
first-hand accounts I’ve heard. XR generally advise giving only
your name and date of birth, although a new law now states that you
must disclose your nationality – an insidious development perhaps
connected to Brexit and all the threats we’ve been hearing about
martial law? Not that one can blame the police for the follies of the
‘government’.

As with the military, a sense
of unity or invincibility has long been a principle of more extreme
forms of policing – an appearance of being inhuman or robotic,
their ideal. One wonders how society might have developed if all this
warring, macho, colonial bullying type stuff could have been avoided.
Whether the human race could have gone in an entirely better
direction? Yet no doubt cavemen practised cruder versions of similar
intimidation, and only the most mindless guard dog is not checked if
you suddenly appear to double in size by opening your coat. In a
sense, XR is saying that all such tactics need to be defused and
resisted. It is us as a race, of whatever colour or creed, that XR
seeks to preserve. The question I can’t help asking is: do we
deserve another chance?

Back
in January, the inauguration of the South Lakes XR group, felt like a
great day, felt like the beginning of this chance, but was sadly
marred a few weeks later when one of its prime movers, Andy Mason,
died. I only knew him for a few hours during and after that first
meeting, yet already thought of him as a friend. When the steering of
my 55-year-old car broke as I was setting off for home, Andy, was as
helpful to me as if we’d known each since childhood. When it was
obvious that the car was beyond safe temporary repair, he and his
wife of more than 46 years, Maggie, took me back to their home while
I awaited a tow truck. Later he insisted on standing with me by the
car to be sure I would not somehow be abandoned at the roadside. More
than the act of a good Samaritan, his reassuring presence was
something I’ll never forget. Key to so many local progressive
causes, Andy’s burning desire was to see a fairer world and a more
sustainable society.

Pleased
to see Maggie at the training day, tentatively I asked how she’d
been. Her reply was: “When
you’re fighting a war you don’t stop just because the comrade
next to you falls. You have to keep going.”

Which is the best tribute I can think of to both of them.

Lawrence
Freiesleben, March 2019

Afterword:
This morning, near the end of writing this report, a friend in York
drew my attention to George Monbiot’s article in today’s
Guardianiii,
(see links below) honouring Polly Higgins – a campaigning lawyer
who reminds any of us who have become cynical about the misuse of law
by powerful corporations, of the better purposes to which it can be
comprehensively put. For many years her aim has been to make Ecocide
a crime. If you have the time, read the article and watch her talk –
to which the article provides a link.

Better
still, join the Rebellion in London on the 15th
of Apriliv.

Notes:

i

ii

iii

The
destruction of the Earth is a crime. It should be prosecuted |
George Monbiot

iv

General
XR Information

Welcome Pack for New Affinity Groups – XR Doc

Action Consensus

Participatory Decision Making – People & Planet

Regenerative Culture & Preventing Burnout – XR Doc

Extinction Rebellion Handbook

NVDA Literature

For
Specific Affinity Group Roles

Legal Support Team Handout – XR Doc

Wellbeing Bundle for AG Wellbeing Coordinators – XR Doc

Legal
Information

On
the legal side, you might want to find out what it might mean for
you, personally, to get arrested/convicted. You need to decide what
is the right course for you, bearing in mind what is at stake for
our planet; also remember that many actions carry a low risk of
arrest and that there are many other ways to make your contribution.

Legal Briefing & Likely Charges – XR Doc

Legal advice/support for activists, bust cards – Green & Black Cross

Criminal records, DBS-checks, travel, employers – Unlock

Likely sentencing guidelines

Sign up with Mission Life Force ASAP – Mission Life Force

Conscientious Protector / Self-Representing in Court – Mission Life Force

Prison Workshop Video

Briefing on Prison – XR Doc

XR
Legal are also here for support – xr-legal@riseup.net

Further
Reading

 has
links to many more documents, including ‘action templates’ with lots
of ideas for different types of action.

Beautiful Trouble

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