I felt a little ball of excitement in my belly this month watching 350.org’s fortnight of action unfold. The Guardian reported Break Free as the largest ever global civil disobedience with protests happening in multiple countries including the UK, US, Australia, South Africa and Indonesia. Hugely inspiring actions took place like the shutdown of an opencast coal mine in Germany and the closure of a coal port in Australia – both of which had thousands of participants.
What’s interesting as a campaigner, is the way these actions were organised. 350.org’s model exemplifies open source campaigning, the new buzz for organisations trying to put people-power at the heart of their advocacy. Whilst maintaining organisational structure and strategy, 350.org invites anyone to initiate a local 350 group. The groups have a significant amount of autonomy to mobilise and co-ordinate their own events and protests.
For Break Free, 350.org put out a call to action, inviting anyone to stage a protest under the Break Free banner. It published a number of basic ground rules, such as non-violence, that protests were expected to adhere to. Participants were supplied with simple resources, like media packs, and left to lock-on to the fossil fuel installation of their choice.
In some places the 350 national office coordinated actions but ensured as wide as participation as possible. Here in NZ, for example, 350.org invited members of the public to blockade branches of the ANZ bank as part of its fossil fuel divestment campaign.
Clearly working in this way carries with it certain risks. What happens if people don’t follow your guidelines and set fire to something or worse? What levels of support do you give to individuals who face unexpected legal consequences? What if a participant claims they were misled or never informed of potential repercussions? What if a ‘spokesperson’ starts making inflammatory comments to the press?
It’s these kinds of concerns which keep some more centralised campaigning organisations from allowing activists more autonomy – even for lawful activities. I have worked for a number of organisations who, at the time, were beginning to recognise the power of movements to create change but struggled with letting go of control. That’s now changing and the trend for bottom-up campaigns and people power seems to be taking hold.
I’ve been working with Greenpeace New Zealand on an evaluation of a mass civil disobedience at an oil conference in Auckland in March. For the first time, the organisation openly invited members of the public to participate in a non-violent direct action – a blockade of the industry event. This might not seem like a big deal but for an organisation used to controlling who does what and when on its activities, it was a new departure. Inviting the proverbial woman or man off the Clapham omnibus to participate in a confrontational activity carries with it a reasonable amount of risk.
What’s great is that organisations like 350.org and Greenpeace are balancing that risk with the needs of their mission. The urgency and enormity of issues like climate change require an equally kick-ass response. Enabling thousands of ordinary citizens to stand up to polluters, by putting their bodies on the line, could be a game-changer and definitely seems worth a gamble.
Cover photo: Climate activists shut down one of Europe’s largest opencast lignite mines. Photo: Tim Wagner May 2015, Creative Commons.