Organising civil disobedience for newcomers

At Ende Gelände nearly 1,500 people shut down one of the world’s largest open-pit mines, with the world’s biggest diggers.  Afterwards Olivia wrote, “We were two vans of divestment campaigners from Sweden joining the action, all completely without experience of civil disobedience. Let me just say that after the action (despite bruises, aching bodies, hair and clothes covered in pepper spray) they all said they’d do it again. Most of them are very excited about Paris and upcoming actions.”

Given the police violence (which was worse than the news reported), how was the action organised so that people emerged and wanted to do it again?  These are a few lessons from a conversation with Olivia, Tine and Emma with Daniel facilitating.


Before the Action

Build trusting relationships (over months or years)

This seems obvious, but is absolutely necessary. 350 had been growing relationships through the Fossil Free Europe network for a couple of years. But there was also a sense of timing: a year earlier and there weren’t as many successes in Europe. Now there were more partners, local groups and organisers  ready to lend support for a higher-risk action.

Plus, they built momentum two months earlier by organising a skill-share with Fossil Free European campaigners in Eindhoven.  That face-to-face event was a key moment to share skill and increase trust.  In a way, Eindhoven “tested” the strength of the relationship – by directly inviting people to join. Afterall, we can never know that a relationship has enough trust to do a high-risk action until we ask. But at Eindhoven there seemed a sense that people were ready for more.  

(It wasn’t only Eindhoven, of course.  People had been invited step-by-step over many months with local/national momentum—to get people to go to the skill-share, then to the action, where each step follows a process of deepening engagement.)

The result: the majority of participants recruited by Tine, Olivia and Emma, had been part of these (and other) face-to-face gatherings.

Talk about escalating in the context of a bigger plan

Part of what worked was that Paris has helped drive a narrative.  Emma explained that “the context of Paris makes people feel that there’s more urgency and therefore legitimacy and necessity to take risks. There’s some psychology in that.”  Olivia adds, “During all trainings or gatherings, we’ve been emphasizing the timeline with Paris and the bigger plan .”

But it’s not just the Paris factor.  Tine emphasized how they had been talking about a bigger timeline for a long timeand we’re inviting everyone to come along.  “They now trust 350’s judgement, which I am really grateful about.”

So the civil disobedience wasn’t just “announced,” but was part of building people’s confidence in us by explaining a bigger strategy—by talking about the need to escalate.

Powerful, compelling and empowering narrative

To do civil disobedience, people who have never done it before (unlikely allies) need to see that we’re strategic.  In Sweden they have been using the narrative: “It’s not about switching light bulbs, it’s about power.”

Teaching people about power steps away from individualising the climate movement by making it about power and politics.  “It’s about showing people who are the powerful players,” says Olivia, “and through the divestment campaign, people are identifying those players and finding a way to confront them.  I feel as though one of our biggest achievements with this campaign in Sweden is to redirect people’s attention from their own guilt about emissions/actions at home, towards clear action against the ones actually in power.  I think it was a lot about frustration being built up — and us giving people this platform to challenge power holders.”

The narrative was not merely rhetorical. There was a sensible theory of change: this coal mine has climate, environmental, social and economic impacts and so we will shut it down for as long as we can.  And it was successful.  Participants could see the direct impact of putting their bodies on the line—actually preventing climate killing CO2 emissions.

Said another way: help people find their frustration, direct it, and understand how they can use their power, not just their consumerist behaviour.  (Daniel recommends this handout.)

Prepare for repression

Organisers had lawyers and legal support ready.  Tine affirms, “I knew there was a big network of organisations behind me and I would never have to go through legal problems alone.  That is a big thing.”

This isn’t to say all eventualities were figured out.  For example, for most of the participants it wasn’t clear exactly how money would be raised if legal fees became very expensive.  But there was a collective agreement that nobody would face the risks alone—and the German organisers had researched likely implications of jail time, lawsuits, charges, and litigation.  But there was trust the organisations would be behind the people who took risks.  A necessary ingredient.


During the Action

More relationship-building, more training

A week before the action an extensive camp was organised.  At the camp there were action trainings, spokescouncils, and time to eat, talk, and celebrate.  The camp was organised horizontally – people stepping up in leadership roles and with skills where they could.  The organising structure was built upon a consensus organising model that had been developing via smaller working groups in the lead up to the camp – working groups were open to all.  The collective spirit and force of the camp was a sum of its parts.   Tine and some of the divestment organisers hosted “Fossil Free” check-ins where new people connected on common issues and challenges.

Olivia noted how important quality facilitation was in setting the space.  “When we first came it was really unclear how many people were going to show their ID [if they were detained by police]. It was about half to half. The Climate Camp organisers facilitated in a way in which the group influenced each other’s decisions rather than being directed  from above. They kept asking: How many feel this now—and kept us talking.  It could have gone either way.”  In the end, over 90% of the group decided to not show ID, without demonising those who did.  More than just that decision, the good process was reassuring and created a greater sense of safety.

Offer plans for dealing with repression (even worst case scenarios)

The camp offered a legal briefing.  Olivia explained, “I was worried participants would change their mind about taking part because the information on the ground was much more detailed and had more information than was given to us previously and explained how we could be punished. But that did not unconvince people.  People were still determined.”  

That determination is partially because people had come from so far away.  But it’s also the case that explaining the “worst case scenarios” can relax people!  People who haven’t previously done civil disobedience have many creeping worries and imagined fears. If they hear those articulated by someone who has thought through those options, it often relaxes people who think: see, they have already thought of everything.  Ironically then, even giving the worst case scenarios (and how you have already created plans to handle it) can create more safety!

No pressure for doing high-risk action

It is natural that people are uncertain if they will do a high-risk action—and at the camp there was no sense of “you have to do it.”  Instead, the attitude was “Go as far as you want to go—there are many ways to support the climate movement.”  This was accentuated because the camp felt like it was everyone’s and anyone could shape it if they wanted it to be different.  It didn’t feel like it was run and owned by any one particular organisation (e.g. it wasn’t filled with logos).  Instead it was a grassroots event where people felt solidarity and autonomy to decide for themselves what they wanted to do for themselves, the movement, and the other people who were there.

The lack of pressure created a solid foundation for more layers of trust.  Instead of encouraging people to set aside their fear, the camp gave space for people to make their own decisions.  It gave people true responsibility.

Use affinity groups for logistical and emotional support

Affinity groups are small groups (like five to fifteen people) who serve as nodes of an action. They make quick decisions together and were a key structure of the Ende Gelände action—as affinity groups “swarmed” the coal site, trying dozens of routes to get past police, past fences, and to the diggers.

But affinity groups were more than just a  logistical tactic.  During the camp and elsewhere, affinity groups were encouraged to discuss what would be important to each person in order to feel safe, what they needed from the group in order to trust, how they would react if they could not go further anymore or were held by the police, how far they would like to go, how to deal with police contact and repression, and more. They were also encouraged to take care of each other (make sure people are drinking water, eating, listening to their inner wisdom, making smart decisions).  This creates strong bonds—and strong bonds creates more resilience for civil disobedience actions.  


After the Action

Make time to debrief afterwards

Olivia’s car-ride back home was important time to vent together.  People shared stories with each other.  “A lot of the conversations were around police and their violence.  They hadn’t expected this because the police weren’t the reason that we travelled.  But most of the conversations still focused on that.”  

After civil disobedience actions a lot of adrenaline flows through your body.  When left in the body, that adrenaline can calcify and even become addictive (like sky-divers who keep looking for their next “rush”).  It makes the next 72 hours a great time for exercise and releasing the adrenaline and tension from your body.  It’s good to encourage people to do that physical release—as well as the emotional.

Even without a car-ride, there are ways organisers can support debriefing afterwards— for example planning post-civil disobedience actions, such as dance parties, house gatherings, or other social events.  It’s another way affinity groups can be useful.  Tine’s and Emma’s affinity group have had an email thread exchanging media they read about the action and sharing people’s reactions to their stories (for example from their parents) upon their return home.  Olivia organised skype debrief sessions.  These are important processes to keep people engaged and solidifying their learnings—including normalising the natural “let-down” after big actions.


Create other venues for letting out the emotions (blogs, articles, etc)

After the event, a lot of stories were written in blogs — both by experienced and less experienced people.  They were honest in sharing the excitement and the really tough parts.  There wasn’t a “macho” culture that tried to glorify it.  

Organisers then promoted these articles, which helped reassure people. It increases people’s frustration if they feel alone in their feelings of anger or hurt at the police, so seeing other people writing honestly helped affirm their experiences—so that their experience is validated and they feel more prepared to do such an action again.

All of these tips explain the story of two people that Olivia recruited. They were new to an action like this and experienced a lot of negative violence.  They also hadn’t known people from previous face-to-face meetings.  In the evening after the police arrests, they thought they would never do this again.  Again, there was no pressure from organisers to assume they would.  But one of them hadn’t eaten all day—they were bruised and grumpy.  But whether the strengthened affinity group, the built relationships, or the value of the car-ride debrief—either way, the next day they changed their mind—and they, too, were ready for more civil disobedience.  

Which tips are new for you to use?  How will you use them?  We’re excited to see!