The Power of Training for Direct Action
Training for acts of civil disobedience can delve deeper than the actions themselves.
By George Lakey
Direct action training at Occupy Tampa last October. By Jason, via Flickr.
Usually, direct action training is what it sounds like: training in preparation for a direct action. Sometimes, however, the training itself is the action.
Consider this story. The members of a hospital workers union were frustrated because their strike was being disregarded by the employer. The formerly locally owned Pennsylvania nursing home where they worked had been taken over in the 1980s by a Canadian corporation that wanted to break the union. The workers had never had to go on strike before and felt uneasy about picketing on the streets of their small city; they saw themselves as the “solid citizens” of the working class who didn’t make trouble.
Still, the corporation wasn’t willing to negotiate seriously, and they felt forced to do what they thought of as an undignified thing by going on strike. But even then, the strike wasn’t working; the employer stonewalled.
The union’s organizer called me and asked for a civil disobedience training. “The members don’t want this,” he said, “but they are willing to explore the C.D. option because they are running out of patience. They want a full evening of training.”
Barbara Smith of the Jobs With Peace Campaign agreed to co-facilitate. We found over 60 workers in the union hall when we arrived — virtually the whole staff who were free to come. The main part of the workshop was role-playing a sit-in in the offices of the nursing home management, with some members playing police who came in to arrest the workers. I marveled at the courage of these longtime residents of the town, blue-collar people who prided themselves on never having been in trouble with the law, pretending to be handcuffed and led off to police vans. Some were visibly shaking, but they did it.
At the end of the evening, we did a closing circle. Barbara initiated it and asked each person to say why they cared so much about this struggle that they were willing to take the risk. I was moved by the depth with which they spoke. The youngest said that she was taking the risk “because Mildred” — nodding to an elderly woman across the circle from her — “is close to retirement and deserves for her last year to be treated with respect.”
I saw the tears in Mildred’s eyes, and when it came to her turn in the circle, she said, “It’s amazing that Karen said what she did, because I was going to say that I’m taking this risk because she’s just started her life as a worker, and I want her to know the dignity of being in a union.”
The next day I got a phone call from the union organizer. “The boss called me,” he said. “He wants to restart negotiations on a serious basis.”
The organizer laughed. “Of course we assumed there was a company spy in our training last night, so the boss would find out what we were planning. But I didn’t expect a turnaround right away. Looks like they don’t even want to face the civil disobedience—they just want to settle!”
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“What do you think was involved in that?” I asked.
“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.”
She paused, and looked right at me. “But now,” she said, “I’m not scared any more.”
George Lakey is Visiting Professor at Swarthmore College and a Quaker. He has led 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national, and international levels. Among many other books and articles, he is author of “Strategizing for a Living Revolution” in David Solnit’s book Globalize Liberation (City Lights, 2004). His first arrest was for a civil rights sit-in and most recent was with Earth Quaker Action Team while protesting mountain top removal coal mining.