During our visit to Berlin in October 2017 we got in touch with an organisation that provides workshops and training sessions for acts and actions of ‘civil disobedience’. Meaning: protest actions for which you might be arrested as a participant. Since there was going to be another big manifestation a few days later to raise media and public awareness about the German coal-powered plants in the context of an UN Climate Change conference in Bonn, the organisation called Skills for Action gave a workshop about how to protest efficiently against the government. The workshop is for free and the call for participants is published on the website of Ende Gelände, with an address somewhere in Kreuzberg. The training session would take several hours, from eleven am until five pm on a Saturday, so we are curious to see who would show up. And how civil disobedience would be defined in this context: as a form of strong headed anarchy? Or closer to semi-military, collective strategies by citoyens? A little bit of both, as we would soon find out.
“It’s striking how young all the participants are: most of them are twentysomethings, white, polite and even a bit shy at first sight. Is this really the group that wants to learn about civil disobedience?”
Skills for Action, like Ende Gelände, operates ‘under the radar’ and guarantees anonymity to all participants. Discretion is a must. We can take notes on paper from time to time, but photographs of the workshop or any form of recording is strictly prohibited. But we feel very welcome nevertheless. Our two teachers of the day – we will call them Klaus and Heidi – are very sympatico and relaxed in a hippie kind of way. They are both in their forties and have a lot of experience in dealing with strangers and newcomers in general, so it seems. Klaus apologises for not speaking English fluently, so that’s where Heidi takes over. As we finally find the room and the exact location – in a former industrial complex, now taken over by leftist organisations – it turns out that this will be a very intimate working session, since there are only five people present for the workshop, however, during the next fifteen minutes the group keeps on growing, so after a while the session can really start with eleven participants in total. It’s striking how young all the participants are: most of them are twentysomethings, white, polite and even a bit shy at first sight. Is this really the group that wants to learn about civil disobedience? Based on appearances, you might expect it to be a session for university students, or an arts school program. Most of the participants are female. One girl stands out in her appearance: she is all dressed in black, with combat boots on her feet and a very serious gaze. During the introduction we find out that she comes from Argentina and now lives in Berlin for a while. We name her ‘Miss Argentina’ in our notes. Then it is time to form a group and the session begins.
There is a lot to learn and talk about, it seems. The schedule on the blackboard is quite ambitious and sometimes intriguing: a meet and greet, followed by a warming up and a talk about expectations, a lesson about civil disobedience, about affinity groups (‘Bezugsgruppen’ in German), about discussions and how to strive for a consensus as a policy, a lesson about ‘finger tactics’ and how to break through a police line-up, a lesson about forming blockades and, at the end of the afternoon, some insights on legal matters. Like: it is wise to have your ID-card with you, or not, in case you are arrested by the police? And what are your rights?
“In the talk about the definition of civil disobedience, we are encouraged to look for examples in history: Gandhi of course, and Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks. Klaus and Heidi talk about the theories of Henry David Thoreau.”
The sessions are often playful, or so they seem at first. It’s clear that most of the participants are newcomers in the field, that’s precisely why they are looking for tips and guidance from people with years of experience. To get an overview of the individual experiences in protest actions and police behaviour, we are asked to answer a series of questions about raids and blockades: the people with a lot of experience must go and stand on one side in the room, the people without any experience are asked to choose the opposite side. One of the questions is about violence and physical threats. It turns out that Miss Argentina is very experienced indeed. On the matter of violence, she testifies about a blockade some years ago, in her own country, when the police started shooting at the protesters with rubber bullets. Her description of the aggression on that day keeps resonating in the room for quite a while.
In the talk about the definition of civil disobedience, we are encouraged to look for examples in history: Gandhi of course, and Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks. Klaus and Heidi talk about the theories of Henry David Thoreau, an American writer and philosopher. And we discuss about the ways you can use your own body as a tool. A tool to protest against injustice, or to attract attention for a cause. Then there is a debate on how to deal with the property of others, especially the property of companies you protest against, for example the coal-powered plants. Is it illegal to cut a wire around a domain? Klaus and Heidi take it to another level by talking about affinity groups and the collective decisions you need to make beforehand, as a group within the manifestation: how far do you want to go and is everybody agreeing on that? That’s why the focus is on consensus, even for every detail of the action. Because during the action itself there is no time, and it’s much harder to communicate. Especially when there is chaos. So, we form little affinity groups and we imagine how we would react in different situations. Would we chain ourselves to a railroad track, in order to create impact with a blockade? How do you keep it safe?
“Klaus also mentions some recent changes in the German law: how the government now has more ground to limit civil actions and to deal with disobedience, compared to ‘the old days’.”
In the afternoon, the session is continued outside in the park. Once again, it all feels light and playful. Some of us play the ‘bad guys’ – and form a line of police, with the responsibility to keep this line secure and closed. The others have got to get through, one way or another. By that time, Miss Argentina is fed up, it seems. She leaves the session, apparently bored with it all. Maybe, in her experience, this is all too light and innocent. And therefore, a waste of her time. But the session ends on a serious note, eventually, when a member of Ende Gelände joins the workshop for some legal advice and talks about the times he got arrested himself. Klaus also mentions some recent changes in the German law: how the government now has more ground to limit civil actions and to deal with disobedience, compared to ‘the old days’. So, it’s with a hint of melancholy our group dissolves at the end. And with food for thought, like they say. We feel grateful anyway for the company of inspiring and idealistic people.
Interview and Photos by NTGent & Carolina Maciel de França
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Thoreau and Civil Disobedience