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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 8/16/12

The Power of Training for Direct Action

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Message George Lakey

"A lot of things," he said, "but I'll bet one of the most important ones was that closing circle. The spy could see the members' determination. I'm sure they don't want to deal with that!"

This incident reminded me of something much larger, a decade before in New Zealand. Many New Zealanders opposed the South African rugby team coming to play New Zealand's national rugby team, planned for 1973. Their slogan was, "Don't import apartheid sport!" The New Zealand protest was part of a series of sports campaigns in the British Commonwealth putting pressure on South Africa to abandon apartheid.

The New Zealand campaign invited me to facilitate a series of training camps in preparation for their direct action. The training was to serve three purposes: to bring together organizers from a variety of movements (including environmental, Maori, and women's) to learn popular education methods of training, to train trainers for the anti-apartheid campaign itself, and to create a context for the main leaders of the anti-apartheid campaign to gain more unity and strategic cohesion.

New Zealand's right wing got wind of my being invited and launched a national petition drive to ban me from the country, on the grounds that I was a known foreign agitator whose work threatened the public order. But the government allowed me in, and the petition drive ensured that our three weeks of trainings were done in the glare of media attention--a positive thing in itself.

The last of the three trainings focused on the anti-apartheid activists and leaders. I knew ahead of time about the differences that divided them and their competitiveness with one another. I led an intense simulation that lasted over 12 hours and brought the entire camp to the point of exhaustion and fresh insights. At that point, the training turned into a planning session that brought the movement into strategic unity for the first time.

At the end of that training, the head of New Zealand's national police force asked to see me, "off the record." He said that after all the media attention and national controversy I'd gotten, he needed to meet me personally. We had a vigorous interchange, and when the conversation turned to the South African rugby team, he said he would recommend to the government that it prevent the team's visit. "You've won," he said.

"How?" I asked.

"The leadership at the camp created a strategy we can't beat," he said, "and the nonviolent training program reinforces the strategy. If the rugby tour happened, it would be a disaster for the government."

I tested his conclusion, asking about various repressive options the government might have at its disposal, like calling out the troops to back up the police. He explained why each option would end poorly for the government and probably cost it the next election.

From back home in Philly, I followed subsequent events and, indeed, without the grassroots movement having to implement its direct action campaign--and to the fury of hard-core rugby fans--the government canceled the South African rugby team's tour.

It may be time to experiment more with using training as a form of action. In April, the Earth Quaker Action Team climaxed its 200-mile Green Walk for Jobs and Justice with a training in Pittsburgh, on the sidewalk in front of the national headquarters of PNC Bank.

First, there were attempts to deliver an invitation to PNC's CEO to meet with us. Then, people from Appalachian coal country talked about the suffering they experience from mountaintop removal coal mining and called on PNC Bank to stop funding extreme extraction, including fracking.

Finally, the walkers staged a practice action, complete with role-playing police "arresting" demonstrators in a sit-down on the sidewalk.

The excitement of the training slowed traffic on the busy downtown street. EQAT staff organizer Zach Hershman, who facilitated the training, said through the bullhorn, "We need to practice so we're ready to return to Pittsburgh and stage a sit-in in the bank."

After the role-play was over, Zach asked for a show of hands on how many had previously done direct action. Many had not. After the event was over I turned to a gray-haired woman next to me who had not raised her hand and asked her about that. Her face turned thoughtful.

"When I was young in the civil rights days, I knew racism was wrong but I didn't join the sit-ins. I was scared. Then the anti-Vietnam war protests started and I agreed with them, but I was too scared to join."

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George Lakey is the director of Training for Change. He has led 1,500 workshops and activist projects on the local, national and international levels. He has written several articles and books on strategizing for activism, including (more...)
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