Extinction Rebellion activists disrupt London Underground services at Canning Town in October. (Extinction Rebellion/Ben Gillespie)

How to be sculptors and architects of skillful change

Too often we choose to either smash our way to justice or march around in circles that lead nowhere. Instead, we need to choose actions that serve our goals.
Extinction Rebellion activists disrupt London Underground services at Canning Town in October. (Extinction Rebellion/Ben Gillespie)

French electrical workers are on strike over pension cuts. Power outages have been blacking out parts of the country for weeks. But unlike the rolling blackouts of California’s electric debacles, the French workers are picking their targets. After all, why should the poor suffer for the rich’s greed? Over the Christmas holidays, the electrical workers reconnected poor families’ power while keeping government offices, police stations and large businesses in the dark. This careful targeting of the impact of the strike is a powerful move for the electrical workers.

What the French workers are doing offers an important lesson to all of us as we work for change.

In nonviolent campaigns, we engage or withhold sources of power — political, social, economic, labor, participation, etc. — to pressure a set of power holders (politicians, bosses, heads of organizations) to make a change. Sometimes, we’re trying to galvanize a secondary group into taking action on behalf of our cause. For example, the French electrical workers recently shut down power to the world’s largest wholesale food market, which is located near Paris. This use of a blackout is intended to galvanize the supplies, sellers and buyers to pressure President Macron to leave the electrical workers’ pensions alone. It’s a strategic choice to show the power of the electrical workers in a way that impacts business groups rather than the average citizen.

Nonviolent action can be wielded more or less skillfully — and all too often, it’s less. Sometimes, we seem to opt for sledgehammers or feather dusters when we need to use more nuance when employing the tools of nonviolent action. With over 300 tactics in the nonviolence toolbox, we can have the finesse of sculptors and the structural precision of architects. There’s no need to smash our way toward justice using direct action like a sledgehammer. Nor do we need to wave signs like feather dusters while marching around in circles in protests that lead nowhere. We want to choose types of actions, target groups and locations that serve our goals. Otherwise, our movement will fizzle out and fail. Or our actions will backfire on our movements, alienating people from our cause.

Extinction Rebellion learned this lesson painfully with a subway station shutdown that enraged working-class people and brought sharp criticism upon the movement from both allies and opponents. The action was perceived as ill-conceived and unjust, impacting working-class people instead of the real climate culprits: politicians and wealthy elites. In contrast, earlier bridge blockades that shut down the financial and political center of London stirred immense public reaction — but the movement was able to focus the outcry on the causes of the crisis and the proposed solutions. Likewise, when an Extinction Rebellion group in Switzerland shutdown a private jet airport (vs. a large commercial airport), global response strongly applauded the disruption, seeing the connections between wealth holders with private jets, fossil fuel consumption and climate inaction. The targets, location, culprits and messaging were all in alignment with the demands of the movement.

In our planning meetings, we can all ask the question: Who do you want to do what? And what tactics and messaging are most likely to get those groups to shift? Map out the impacts of your actions. Use the Spectrum of Allies as a tool to think through the ways different groups will react. Mitigate the impacts on those who aren’t your targets (like the French workers who reconnected the power of the poor families). Be ready to turn potential allies’ outrage at the disruption of their daily lives into precise calls to action (such as making sure the produce market supplies and sellers pressured the government to protect pensions). Make sure those groups don’t call for a crackdown on your movement or scapegoat the people calling for change (as irate commuters did in 2016 when Black Lives Matter activists shut down highway traffic). Remember that adversarial groups and media companies will often try to slant the story and create backlash against the movement. They’ll do this almost no matter what, but we can avoid giving them unnecessary fuel for their fires.

There is an art and a science to using nonviolent action. We can all learn it, study it and use it to make change. Writers at Waging Nonviolence offer reflections on movement strategies to deepen our knowledge. In addition, each of the 30-50 stories in the weekly Nonviolence News can be used to discuss what worked (or didn’t) for our fellow change makers. Form a Sunday coffee group, read the weekly news and discuss it together.

We can all be precise and effective sculptors and architects of change. Indeed, the world needs us to step into our power — and skill — in this way.

This story was produced by Metta Center for Nonviolence

We provide educational resources on the safe and effective use of nonviolence, with the recognition that it’s not about putting the right person in power but awakening the right kind of power in people. We advance a higher image of humankind while empowering people to explore the question: How does nonviolence work, and how can I actively contribute to a happier, more peaceful society?

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.