by Kirsten Anderberg
May 24, 2003
Knowledge is power, in street protest, as much as in any other genre. There are certain basics of street protest and tactical physics that can improve protesters' safety, and/or improve effectiveness, considerably. With the LEIU conference "welcoming events" soon to come, it seems a good time to review some of these basics. From individual precautions that are simple, such as thinking through possible scenarios and your choices of reaction to them beforehand, to rehearsed group precautions, such as group pointing and having scouts, street protest information is valuable and should best be learned before it's needed.
It is not foolish to practice street tactics. Starhawk, noted activist and writer, works with The Rant Collective (www.rantcollective.org), teaching street tactics exercises. For example, they get a group to divide up. One part of the group rolls newspapers into fake batons, and gets into a line, pretending to be police. The rest of the group mills around as protesters. The mock police line approaches and moves the crowd, with batons in both hands, step by step, with a solid line formation. Now the same exercise is repeated. But this time, when the police line approaches and tries to make the group move, everyone sits down. It becomes immediately apparent to everyone at these workshops that moving groups of people that are sitting is much harder than moving groups of standing people.
The Rant Collective, also teaches group tactics, such as the "amoeba" move. These moves are basically defensive moves, due to police aggression and violence, in my opinion. At workshops, protesters practice situations where police attack one person in the crowd. Protesters immediately "absorb" the person being attacked by cops, by quickly pulling him from behind, pulling at his arms and sides, and pulling the person back into the crowd, as the crowd swells and squeezes in around the person. The reason it is good to practice this is to know how to do it without pulling people's arms off, etc. Additionally, other people should alert the media, quickly, to the "amoeba" action area. This is when "group pointing" can be helpful.
The "puppy pile" is another group tactical move. When protesters are sitting, and police attack one person, the puppy pile begins. The person next to the one being attacked, throws himself in an arch, as a bridge, over the attacked person, on knees and hands. The one being attacked rolls into a small ball. Then a few pile on top, being careful to protect stomach and head areas, and to not crush people by piling too many high. Again, practice in this is valuable. Practice these things with your friends at your next party!
People have many things dictating their level of risk-taking. A single mother may need to get home to pick up her child, others may have current health issues, or may already be on probation. It is not good to judge, but rather it is wise to acquaint ourselves with each others' comfort levels. One way to do this is to have a group do some risk assessment work. Have people wear flags, like in flag football for the exercise. Green flags mean you can take no risk, yellow means you will take some risk, red means you will take risks. Then explain that one side of the room represents no risk, the other full risk. Or one side is "you would do it," and the other "you wouldn't do it." Steps towards either side from center, show willingness towards taking risks, or toward not taking risks.
Scenarios are given to the group. For instance, you are in a moving crowd of protesters with a legal permit to march, and police line up and tell you to disperse or risk arrest. What do you do? Some will want to bolt for safe space at the "no risk" wall. Others will attempt to break through the police line, and so they would move far to the "risk" wall. Another group may want to sit down immediately. The sitters would be more toward the "risk" wall than the "safe" zone folks, but not as far to the wall as those willing to break through the police line.
Another possible scene is one in which police begin to close in on all sides in riot gear. What is your reaction? It is good to think these scenes out in rehearsal, honestly. What would your reaction to that be, honestly? Or what if you are in a group in "valuable territory," and police start to put on gas masks? What would you like your reaction to be? Make up your own scenarios. This is valuable information. Using the flags while doing the exercise will help you visualize, later on the street, without the flags, who is at what level. Getting familiar with fellow activists' risk levels can help with on-the-spot communication and decision making later.
Remember, practice makes perfect.
Kirsten Anderberg is an activist whose article above first appeared in Eat The State, Seattle’s excellent biweekly publication (www.eatthestate.org).