Training for Transformation

By Betsy Raasch-Gilman

Miami, Florida, November 20, 2003: Trade negotiators from Canada to Argentina had gathered to put the finishing touches--or so they hoped--on the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement. A huge crowd of ordinary citizens from the affected countries, including me, had also gathered, to oppose the corporate style of globalization that the proposed treaty represented. And keeping the two groups apart, an enormous and heavily armed police force had completely closed downtown Miami.

By legal permit, our large march and rally could go on until 4:00 p.m. At 4:15 the police decided that enough was enough, and began a sweep to force thousands of peaceful protesters off the streets. Firing tear gas and pellets, they advanced on the colorful, jubilant crowd of trade unionists, environmentalists, immigrant rights activists, students and religious leaders. A few protesters tried to slow the police advance by hauling improvised barricades into their path, but the large crowd generally fell back, fearful of the black-suited, shielded, gun-wielding army that had been commanding our movements all day long. Some protesters began to shout and run. It was an unnecessary and dangerous confrontation. 

A group of people who obviously knew each other linked hands and walked slowly away from the police. They chanted in a low, soothing tone. Fanning out across the street, they made a stately moving barricade of their bodies, so that protesters who feared the police could get in front of them. They calmed people around them, and others (including me) joined their procession and their chant. 

Practicing for Conflict

I suspect that the chanters belonged to an affinity group, and that they had been through some kind of nonviolence training. Nonviolence training has been used for at least 60 years to prepare people to stand up for their beliefs with courage, dignity, humor and creativity. Mahatma Gandhi originated nonviolence training for his most disciplined core of followers. A Methodist missionary to India, James Lawson, observed this and returned to the U.S. to develop workshops in nonviolence for his fellow African-Americans who were challenging legal segregation. Since that time, training has become a requirement before many nonviolent direct actions.

In Miami I helped provide that training. This is something I've been doing for upwards of 20 years. On that occasion my workshops ran for about three hours--a short amount of time, really, for such a huge subject--and concentrated on the most practical and immediate concerns. 

We began with a guided meditation that left us feeling centered, calm and determined, knowing that we stood firmly on the side of justice and ecological balance. I encouraged protesters to use the same visualization during the action, if they needed to. We then went on to explore our reactions to common conflicts in demonstrations--hecklers, opponents and undercover police agents (who might try to provoke us into rash or violent actions). I asked some participants to role-play the attackers or hasslers, and other participants to play themselves. After a short exchange we "unpacked" the exercise, to see what behaviors threw the opponents off balance and de-escalated the conflict. Then we reversed roles, so that everyone had a chance to experience both sides. The simple act of role-playing someone we disagree with for five minutes often builds our empathy for those people--and that certainly comes in handy when we meet an opponent in the flesh.

We practiced specific moves to resist police pressure and crowd dispersal tactics, and I explained the trade-offs between being arrested and trying to avoid arrest. Many direct actions rely on civil disobedience for their effectiveness, but in the global justice movement people often decide that they can better advance the cause if they are not caught up in the legal system.

Finally, we explored the importance of affinity groups in nonviolent direct action. These small groups (usually 10 or fewer people) gather because they have something in common--an affinity--and stay together during the action. They may plan an activity such as street theater, or blockading a street intersection, or attempting to deliver a petition to a person in authority. They may simply look out for one another in a very large crowd. If any member of the group is arrested--by accident or by design--the others make sure that person has legal advice and medical attention, and reassure that person's family and friends at home. 

Understanding the Issues

In preparing for other demonstrations, I might explore issues around property destruction (Is it violent or not? Is it effective or not?). In Miami this debate didn't figure prominently, because everyone agreed that property destruction would only play into the hands of our opponents, who were already trying to discredit us as terrorists and anarchists.

Before and after the big public march were days of workshops and discussions about global trade. This has been the case at all the globalization actions I've attended, and in some ways I believe these discussions are the most important part of the "globalization mobilizations." Farmers from the global North and global South compare notes. Unemployed auto workers from the U.S. talk with workers who now make autos in maquiladoras. Women form networks against the sex trade. People gather for the public protests, and the dialogues around them shape and inform the movement for years. 

In Miami, for the first time, trade representatives who had been working on the draft agreement came out from their heavily guarded hotel to report to the protesters in a nearby church. They represented Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela, and were opposing provisions that favored wealthy and powerful U.S.-based corporations in favor of provisions that benefited the majority of their own people. We listened in amazement as they told us that essentially we are winning, and that they had successfully blocked and watered down many of the proposals put forward. "Your pressure in the streets makes a difference," they said. "Keep it up!" 

Nonviolence training is the little piece I contribute, and I feel both proud and humble to be able to offerit.

Betsy Raasch-Gilman is a peace and environmental activist with 25 years of experience as a trainer.