Learning the Ropes of Direct Action

By Tooker Gomberg, Screwdriver Creek, Alberta.

Eighty people share non-violent, direct-action techniques from rope-climbing to urban-blockading. All this in anticipation of the World Petroleum Congress in June in Calgary, Canada.

In two weeks, Calgary’s streets will be filled with hundreds of cars full of soil, vegetables and sunflowers, and bighorn sheep puppets will roam amidst the couches, drummers, trampolines and music – if the imaginings of activists turn into reality.

These are just some of the many ideas hatched at a recent, week-long civil disobedience training camp in the heart of oil country. Trainers from Co-motion, a new Canadian organization dedicated to teaching people the art of non-violent direct action, worked with 80 campers to think through how to turn their concerns into practical direct actions.

While Alberta police prepare for the largest police operation in their history, and the Calgary media stoke up fear with stories of imminent violence and confrontation, the people camped in southern Alberta learn skills for cracking open debate around the World Petroleum Congress (WPC).

From June 11 to 15, 3,000 principals from the largest corporations ever to roam the planet will descend on Calgary. Every three years, these delegates from companies and countries representing over 80 per cent of the world’s oil/gas production and comsumption gather to strategize how to drill, pump, refine and transport ever-growing quantities of oil and gas.

“Particularly with oil, the stakes are really high, and we have to stop the human rights abuses and genocide the oil industry is responsible for. In order for our voices to be heard, we feel it is necessary to take to the streets in a peaceful and non-violent way, take democracy back,” says 20-something Angela Gabereau from Calgary. She’s with the End of Oil Action Coalition, which is planning street rallies and other activities during the WPC.

We’re camped 5,000 feet up in the Alberta foothills, on the edge of the continent’s spine, at the headwaters of Screwdriver Creek. Mike Judd, who owns this land, is our host. He earns his living as an outfitter – in the summer running horse pack trips into the mountains, and in the winter dogsled excursions.

But in this part of the country, the bulk of the economy is built on the lucrative gas and oil industry. “I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to make some change here with regard to how the industry treats the land, with no results. I’ve been at endless government hearings and round tables and meetings with the industry to try to come up with an area that’s off limits to them and a different way of doing what they do now, with no success whatsoever.”

Judd participated in a six-day blockade against Shell Canada when the company wanted to drill two gas wells on the very top of a mountain considered some of the very best winter bighorn sheep range in this area. That was in 1986, and since then things have gone from bad to worse. A recent decision allows for five new gas wells. The landscape will change from relatively pristine to industrial.

It’s a microcosm of the rapid destruction of Alberta’s wilderness, from wholesale deforestation to oil and gas exploitation. Of 20,000 wells requested annually, all but a handful are approved by the government. “The fact is this,” Mike Judd continues. “Direct action is the final result of people who are frustrated with a system that doesn’t work. Although I feel very sad and not just a little bit frightened about using it, I feel that it’s the only tool we have left.”

Leslie Weigel from Edmonton brims with enthusiasm. “I was in Seattle, so I had that crazy taste of activism and I wanted to learn more. Hopefully, in Calgary I will take on a fun, sort of alternative, positive role rather than being tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed and feeling like the police are the enemy.”

The week-long camp is packed with workshops ranging from media skills to meeting facilitation, from conflict resolution, to legal rights to a native sweat ceremony. We learn about prussik hitches and water knots, key knots for climbing ropes and scaling six-story scaffolds in order to hang banners.

Decisions are reached by consensus. Everybody can contribute, and anybody can block a decision if they feel strongly enough. Most of the time it works smoothly, but on occasion simple decisions get stuck on the rocks of endless discussion among 80 people in a large circle.

One workshop teaches how to build a tripod out of three felled 25- to 40-foot trees. It takes about 15 people to carry and raise the tripod safely. The handout explains: “Tripods have been described as quite a sexy type of direct action. They are very visually powerful and can be extremely effective. Three poles are lashed together and stood up on a road, blocking all or most of the traffic and machinery in the area.”

Actions are best undertaken with a small group of like-minded people who get to know each other and are ready to work together for change. This affinity group should have support people who are unlikely to get arrested, and a shared understanding of members’ aspirations and fears.

The best-dressed activist wears layers, so that if s/he is tear-gassed, the outer layers can be removed. And being able to change your appearance in a flash is useful if you want to confuse the police. Wear a sombrero that you can ditch if necessary, or a bicycle helmet that will come in handy if the truncheons come out. Bring water, food, a book and notepad, as you may be detained for hours or more. A bandanna pre-soaked in a vinegar solution in a plastic bag is handy if tear gas is used, and be sure to bring ski or swim goggles to protect your eyes.

Write a lawyer’s phone number on your arm. If you’re arrested, all you’re required to give is your name, address and date of birth. If you want to get out of jail quickly, have some ID with you.

It’s cold here, with nighttime temperatures dropping below freezing and daytime winds lashing our skin. We sit around the campfire under a waxing crescent moon, watching it silently sink behind the darkened snow-capped hills.

A funky converted school bus is the kitchen, and this army of radicals moves on vegetarian fare ranging from wholesome barley-and-vegetable stews to scrumptious breakfasts of pancakes and hot cereal. Coffee and tea are always on tap. (Why do anarchists drink herbal tea? Because property is theft.)

At the discussion on Advanced Public Order, we try to understand how the police work, and how to behave when they show up. You can sit down and link arms. Don’t stand still – keep moving and confuse them. Know the lay of the land, where water sources are, where materials are that can be used if a defensive barricade is needed. Horses fear fire, so if police on horseback appear, spark up the fire-breathers.

Placards are a good line of defence from police clubs. Be sure to try to talk and relate with the cops. Music also helps defuse tension.Radical Jeerleaders in Seattle and D.C. added a dash of humour with their chants.

At the Urban Blockading workshop, campers learn defensive manoeuvres. Newspaper boxes can be used to block roads. Bicycle U-locks can lock necks together, and “lockboxes” are steel pipes designed so that two people’s arms can be inserted and hands locked inside the pipe.

As we drive back to Edmonton after seven days of chewing over the meaning of non-violence in those snow-swept hills, we stop to visit the dozens of wind turbines that line Cowley Ridge near Pincher Creek. The blades swoosh gracefully as we marvel at how electricity can be generated in such a benign fashion. Southwestern Alberta boasts some of the best wind resources in the country, and they are seriously underutilized.

At the other end of Alberta, in the northeast, is the largest known reserve of oil on the planet, the Alberta tar sands. A third of the world’s known oil is locked up in the sand, and the large oil companies are lining up to get it out. Projects worth $40 billion are on the drawing board. As they proceed to construction, we inch closer to climate catastrophe.

For more information: Co-Motion and No Oil.