Beyond protest-resistance

by Stephen Hancock and Per Herngren

This article first appeared in Peace News 2005, # 2467, Read more: Vine & Fig Tree Planters.

In March of this year we attended the first trial of the Pit Stop Ploughshares in Dublin (see PN 2460). Despite the eventual mistrial, it was an inspiring scene, both inside and outside court. Harnessing the momentum generated by the stand of the five defendants, we met in a pub opposite the courts to plan further nonviolent resistance. We decided to mark the 60th Hiroshima and Nagasaki anniversaries by planting vines and fig trees at a British nuclear base. With another friend we drew up an international invitation to act, which included the following:

“This will not be a protest action. We will not use the language of protest: we will not say ‘No!’ nor will we ask leaders to do the job for us. Instead we will use the language of creative nonviolent resistance: that of invitation, dialogue, conversion, poetry.”

We returned to our respective countries excited both by the prospect of acting, and by our proposed non-protesting approach. What exactly was a protest-free action? What different understandings would people bring to this element of the invitation? What would such an action look like in practice? How would it be received?

Nine others eventually responded – from Australia, Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands and England – and all twelve of us met in Oxford at the end of July to begin a week of community building, political discussion, nonviolence training and action planning-and-preparation.

We discerned several elements to protesting: protesting is by definition against something rather than for; it involves a tone of complaint; it appeals to others – usually political leaders – to do something about the issue. Protest reinforces both our passivity and the hierarchy’s power. It leaves us, at the end of the day, with dog-eared placards and our fate still in the hands of distant leaders reassured by our protesting that they are the ones in power.

In the anti-war protests of 2002 and 2003 a dominant slogan was “Not In My Name.” The powers that be concurred, and launched a war that wasn’t committed in our names. They also used the fact of permitted protest to bolster the reasonableness of their cause, whilst millions of protesters went home, deflated, not sure what to do next.

We also realised a further distinction needs to be made between protest-resistance and creative nonviolent resistance. Protest-resistance might break a particular law, but, like lawful protest, it suggests that the power to change lies in someone else’s hands, and concentrates on a negative rather than positive vision.

Applying our discussions to our planning, we decided not to use banners or placards on our action, instead to concentrate on the power of the planting. We would not ask others to do something on our behalf, nor would we be apologetic about our action – instead we would invite others to join in with us. We decided to carry grapes, fig-biscuits, grape juice and wine to offer to our arresting officers.

We also challenged and outlawed protest within our own group dynamics – especially the ways in which we drained the energy of the larger group by voicing complaints that could be dealt with directly or with the help of one of our sub-groups. We realised that protest is a disempowered and disempowering mentality that affects many areas of resistance life. It stops us being imaginative and innovative, and instead makes us both reaction-ary and conservative.

Sometimes protesting felt a bit like an addiction and it took quite a bit of writing and rewriting to come up with our protest-free action statement:

“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. Instead, everyone shall sit underneath their vine and fig tree and none shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4:3)

Disarmament, economic conversion and nonviolence are vital ingredients for creating a just world in which everyone enjoys the earth’s abundance.

“In these fearful, suspicious times, we invite people all around the world to transform military bases into gardens of peace in which beauty and life shall flourish.”

On the Thursday 4th of August we went to AWE Aldermaston and planted vines and fig trees outside the base, familiarising ourselves with the place and the police and informing the latter that we would soon return to carry on the planting inside the base. The following dawn we kept to our word, cutting a garden gate in the perimeter fence and entering with a disarmoury of garden tools, twelve young vines and fig trees and various thematic picnic items.

During our subsequent arrest and imprisonment for a night at nearby Newbury Police Station we tried, in a variety of ways, to maintain community not just between one another but also with the police and security personnel we came into contact with. Some of us assisted with finger-printing, others informed junior officers of correct procedure; we expressed gratitude for good and friendly practice and avoided complaining. The police and security were an important part of our process. And neither of us found one person who disagreed with our planting. One of the officers rightly chastised us for not bringing fairly-traded grapes. At times Stephen found himself missing the old feelings of us and them, “the reassuring self-righteousness that comes with oppositional identity and practice”, “but some quiet hours in a solitary cell helped me pull through another phase of protest-withdrawal.”

After we were all eventually released from custody, we finished the first phase of our community process by planting our last vine and fig tree at nearby AWE Burghfield, with four new pairs of hands particularly attracted to the non-negativity of our approach. It was good to see and feel the vision spreading.

The main problem some of the police and court officials have had with our action is the fact that we cut the fence to gain access. And, to be fair, they’re not the only ones who got hung up on that fence. When the MoD police arrived to arrest us, several of us quickly climbed the inner security fence to delay capture, in the moment forgetting our agreed spirit of non-defensiveness and non-apology.

The fence comes to symbolise a self-fulfilling protest mentality that both “sides” find hard to let go of, and which easily distracts and detracts from the work at hand: the collective, creative conversion of these vineless and figless places.

At our last court appearance we signed over the apprehended vines and fig trees to the Scene of Crimes officer, who promised to replant and look after them. In return we were handed back a bottle of wine, which we promptly drank in tired celebration on the merry banks of the Kennet and Avon.

The case continues.

Stephen Hancock and Per Herngren

The Vine & Fig Tree Planters go to trial at Newbury Magistrates Court 7-10 February 2006.


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