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Contrary to popular belief, civil disobedience is neither passive nor inactive. It has proven to be an effective means of changing laws and protecting liberties. It also requires that we take responsibility for our actions and accept our moral duty to disobey an unjust law. Acts of civil disobedience also require personal discipline and training. In fact, organisers of civil disobedience in southern Ontario insist that all participants must have nonviolence training, and, usually, that they mutt be part of a non-hierarchical, mutually supportive affinity group. This training goes far beyond simply learning how to go limp when being dragged off by the police. It has implications for one’s life which remain long after the particular action is over.
In 1981, the Cruise Missile Conversion Project (CMCP) began conducting civil disobedience and nonviolence training sessions in Toronto as part of its non-violent campaign against Litton Systems Industries’ participation in the development of the cruise missile. Recently, however. this training function has been taken over by the Alliance for Non-Violent Action (ANVA), a coalition of groups involved in disarmament, human rights, women’s and other issues, and whose purpose is to promote non-violent action techniques in its member groups.
Recently I attended an intense day-long training session conducted by Ruth McMurchy and Paul Murphy, members of CMCP who had been trained by ANVA. This particular session was in preparation for the July civil disobedience action at the Griffiss Air Force Base in New York state, the base from which B-52 bombers are scheduled to carry cruise missiles to the test site in Alberta. The object of the training session was to teach the fundamentals of non-violent action and to build group spirit for the affinity group participating in the Griffiss action.
Before our training session started, everyone took 5 minutes to say who they were and why they were there. Some people said they had felt a need for a more direct participation in the peace movement. Others had found that peace marches were not satisfying enough, and wanted to put themselves on the line more. Others simply wanted to learn what civil disobedience was about, because of the actions at Litton. The participants included a school teacher, some students, and a journalist.
Ruth began our session by saying that civil disobedience is only one technique of non-violent direct action. Non-violence is a theory based on the understanding and manipulation of power. Since the exercise of power depends on the consent of the ruled, they can, by simply withdrawing their consent, diminish end even destroy that power. In Gandhi’s words, “you must strive for a psychological shift away from passive submissiveness to one of self-respect and courage. The subject must recognise his part in making a regime possible, and you must build his determination to withdraw his obedience and co-operation. It will take a stout heart.”
What distinguishes civil disobedience from other non-violent tactics is that a person practising CD invites arrest and accepts the punishment he knows his actions may provoke.
However, while the decision to sit down and be arrested is a serious one, the role of jail support, or keeping track of someone who has been arrested, is also vital. Both Paul and Ruth emphasised that no star status is allowed to those who have chosen to be arrested rather than to give support. Both people are equally important members of the affinity group.
The affinity group is a non-hierarchical group of 10 to 15 people who have agreed to participate n an action together, and who work out together, by consensus, a plan of action which all agree to follow.
The next stage in the training was to role-play the “hassle-line” which puts what each person has learned about acting non-violently to the test. Because the training session I attended was in preparation for the Griffiss action, one group of us played the demonstrators, and another the air base soldiers, who taunted and dragged the ‘demonstrators’ away. At first people smiled awkwardly as they tried to yell and tug convincingly, but as the tension mounted, someone’s anger flared, and the demonstrators realised that this would really be happening to us.
After this aspect of the training concluded, Paul and Ruth asked the group to share their feelings, thoughts and fears.
It was at this point that three people decided to leave. One woman felt that she could not remain calm in the face of someone disagreeing with her, and someone else felt that the action simply did not go far enough.
Those who remained discussed the anger and emotion provoked by the role-playing, and wondered how they would react in the actual situation. The rest of the afternoon was spent role-playing the process of being arrested, again with the sharing of personal reactions.
The day was wrapped up with an evaluation of what went right and what could have been improved.
No one was pressured to commit him or herself to doing the action, and some expressed their concern about earning a criminal record and the ramifications for future jobs and entry into the U.S.
Non-violent action has been used throughout history. Civil disobedience actions, such as peace tax withdrawals and the Viet Nam war protests in the U.S., are frequently a means of resisting war and military preparation.
As Martin Luther King so effectively demonstrated, CD is a dramatic means of forcing those in authority to look at a problem they have tried to ignore. This thought is also expressed in Henry David Thoreau’s classic essay “The Duty of Civil Disobedience.” “When a person’s conscience and the laws clash, that person must follow his conscience.”
Non-violent civil disobedience also defines, often in a way which fundamentally affects one’s deepest reaction, a means of dealing with human conflict. Confronted with the potentially explosive situation of civil disobedience, one must maintain direct human contact with the antagonist. He must be seen as another human being, and not as some “other” if the anger and hostility in him (and inherent in the situation) are to be diffused. An act of non-violent civil disobedience thus can become a means of both insisting upon one’s humanity and of recognising the humanity of the antagonist.
For further information on the next civil disobedience training session to be offered in Toronto, contact ANVA at xxx-xxxx.