I started focusing full time on supporting nonviolent resistance when I saw the impact that a small amount assistance could have on a community fighting back.
I did this because I found it nourishing and it felt valuable, but also I saw a need — a need that would only increase as we saw greed and corporations dominate our political processes — meaning action outside of the system — civil resistance was not only necessary but needed to be grown, nurtured and deliberately supported.
And so it has grown. Since 2012 when CounterAct was conceived, when working on the ultimately successful campaign to protect the Kimberley from a massive gas refinery, I’ve trained thousands of people. I’ve watched many campaigns blossom, some win, but, just as importantly, I have seen many people step into their power. Realise they have agency. Many of them what we’d call “unusual suspects”. They have included priests and farmers, national party voters, grandparents, people impacted by gambling, and early childhood educators. Lawyers and doctors and nurses and teachers.
The amount of “mainstream” people stepping into civil disobedience is both remarkable and not. Its clear to many that current political systems are failing us, as are the institutions that are supposed to protect us and the environment. Unions can seem remote and disconnected for young people (shout out to Hospo Voice as one of those bucking that trend), large environmental non-government organisations are still calling on people to sign petitions to “save this important thing” simply to build their lists… directed to conservatives who don’t care… The broader progressive movement seems to bring out speaker, after speaker from other countries advocating for civil disobedience as part of a bigger strategy — and yet, crickets, from our risk averse charity sector, when it comes to boots on the ground, or supporting civil resistance.
So, we see what I call “the leap-frog effect” — people who have otherwise been disconnected politically, who are ready to jump into escalated action… they are not following some neat NGO “ladder of engagement” — sign a petition, donate money, form a group that turns out tactics from a strategy pre-determined by well paid campaigners— they are jumping in the deep end dammit :) — they see the emergency and are experiencing cognitive dissonance from what they see in their news feeds compared to the “don’t scare the horses” gently gently approach from the big NGO’s… ie; Let’s not scare Labor too much by calling out their massive fossil fuel gas hand out of 1.5 billion for fracking… that was so bizarre even Labor supporters didn’t believe it because they hardly saw any enviro groups speaking against it….. so there are all these civic minded people out there who see civil disobedience as a fitting solution — an urgent response for an urgent situation.
And I LOVE IT. And I am mainly patient with it, even when people suggest the same ideas that people have been at since the 1970’s. Even when middle aged men mansplain civil disobedience to me. It certainly comes with a set of challenges when people are navigating non-hierarchical spaces and don’t have years of development of political thought, and shared values, but movements need people — and we work through this stuff.
But what I really struggle with? “We’re not activists”.
Actually, you are.
Actually, you are using a *heap* of organising tools and methods that anarchists have been using for decades. Affinity groups and consensus decision making have been used by all kinds of groups for large scale organising for decades.
We’re not protestors.
We’re protectors. Sure, you can be that too. But there is something quite odd about it. A sense of moral purity. A weird sort of righteousness. Is that it? That somehow the issue you are talking about is more important than those that came before. That you are more rational, than those darned protesting types.
Why on earth would we buy into the frame that the Murdoch media wants to set for us, when we rebel against everything else they do?
Like heck yes, please big up the diversity in the crowd. Talk about mums and dads (oh the sacred embiggening of the procreators!), and accountants and doctors and lawyers. Absolutely, we should talk about “ordinary folks doing extraordinary things.”
But protest isn’t bad. Activism isn’t a scarlet letter of shame. And you might even find out you have a great deal in common with anarchists if you read…. Errrr… Teen Vogue (actually do read Teen Vogue, they have great politics)
And please don’t call people “rent a crowd” — there are those of us that care about more than one issue — and in small cities and towns we have to work together. Of course it makes sense for people who care about the environment to also care about people seeking asylum. People who turn out to multiple events, in particular, (and often on top of paid work) are extremely dedicated and deserve your thanks, not your ridicule.
How is your issue more important than the suffragettes? Or the people that froze their butts off in Tasmanian winters to protect the great guardian trees of the Florentine? Why are you more reasonable than the people protesting the Vietnam War? Or those who planted an umbrella in the grass at Parliament house and conducted the longest running direct action — the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in the country?
What about folks traversing continents to protect Kakadu from further uranium mining, or the Franklin from being dammed, or stopping Walmadan/James Price Point from destruction in the Kimberley. With all your awesome new enthusiasm for urgent climate action are you somehow coming with a more nuanced critique than people who were arrested ten years ago protesting coal exports?
Protest is a term that can mean many things to many people — but it sure as hell isn’t wrong. It has a stunning, proud history. You are connected to great and inspiring people by a handful of degrees of separation.
I’ve seen thousands of people take civil disobedience action on climate. And thanks to Extinction Rebellion, building on the momentum of decades of civil resistance on climate and social justice… I think we may see thousands more. And they will come from all walks of life. This is absolutely to be celebrated. One of my favourite unusual suspects is dear Bill Ryan… 97 years old, arrested nearly 10 times since his late 80’s and a role model for aging disgracefully for all of us. A solid rolled gold legend. Hear his take on ferals.
As more and more people step up to take civil resistance as the only reasonable path to challenge the status quo, this trope will continue to be rolled out “I’m not an activist … but…”
Whether you call yourself an activist, or a protestor, or a protector, or an organiser, or a campaigner, or a rebel or a revolutionary, or an intergalactic superstar challenging capitalism and colonialism in a glitter cape…. We’re on the same team. We are working for progressive ideas, justice, and against oppression. We are working to redress colonialism (or bloody well should be). We are working for a safe environment and a liveable climate. We are working for a society that includes everyone (cept nazis), and values everyone.
But please don’t dishonour those that came before you. Don’t belittle people who worked it out quicker than you did. They probably have heaps to teach you, and guess what — almost all of them will welcome you with open arms. Some of them might be a bit burnt out cos they have been at this longer than you, but once they have had a rest, and realise you are on the same side and here to help, they will welcome you too.
You’re standing on the shoulders of giants. Learn their stories before you distance yourself from them.
With love, and welcoming arms.
PS — You can read more about lots of campaigns and case studies on the CounterAct website, including history and context for Aboriginal resistance.