This is not a riot: an effective, nonviolent response to attacks by riot police

In my experience, there are few things more intimidating then an advancing line of fully suited, helmeted, baton wielding riot police. They move forward with the full weight of the state behind them (if not the law) and stomp or beat everything in their path with a chilling methodical certainty. Charging riot police are meant to activate our deepest fight or flight instincts. I’ve witnessed both responses, though I’ve always chosen the latter. I never felt like I had much choice as a committed pacifist.

On Wednesday, in London, disciplined climate change activists found a remarkably simple third way. They stood their ground, put their hands in the air and chanted “This is not a riot”.

link to original Indymedia footage

The “this is not a riot” tactic is by no means easy. It requires significant discipline, especially by those directly in front of police. At around 3:25 in the video you can watch a young man with a red scarf stand calmly with his hands in the air while being repeatedly shoved by police. At one point, he is knocked almost off his feet, but he calmly stands up again and keeps on chanting and holding is hands in the air.

The tactic requires some flexibility. At times, people on the front line link arms. From about 4:25 you can see two young women at the bottom of the frame looking a police officer in the eye and talking to them calmly but assertively. De-escalation is also a key component (and hopefully result) of this tactic.

During the entire course of the of the video, the police appear to advance about 30 feet in one part of the line and not at all in the another. More importantly they do not get the violent reaction they need to justify their own aggression (which they managed to get elsewhere in the city). And most importantly, their brutality is exposed for all to see.

This was not the first time climate change activists have used this tactic. In August of 2008, activists set up the annual Camp for Climate Action near the Kingsnorth coal-fired power plant. The police tried repeatedly to disrupt the gathering. Starting at minute mark 10:40 in this video, you can watch the “this is not a riot” tactic take hold among members of a climate camp confronting police trying to enter the camp:See original BBC video

I don’t know if this was the first time this specific tactic was used or not, but it certainly seems to have flummoxed the police. The interview with the police officer immediately after the confrontation shows a man confused, overly defensive and completely unsure of what to do.

More broadly, standing one’s ground under the force of police batons was pioneered during the Dharasana Satyagraha, a non-violent raid of the Dharasana Salt Works at the conclusion of the Salt March. On May 21, 1930, a march led by two Indian women,Sarojini Naidu and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, was attacked by police. The marchers continued to walk forward even as those at the front of the line were beaten to a bloody pulp. 320 were injured. The news stories of this action were critical in bringing world wide attention to the Indian independence movement.

It will be interesting to see whether the video of the attack on the Bishopsgate Climate Action Camp will have a similar effect (so far it has 10,000 hits on Youtube). Regardless, I suspect the “This is not a riot” tactic is here to stay.

Other accounts

  • A first person narrative of the action which include a description of what it was like to be directly in front of police lines: “I found myself in the front line, where I got booted in the leg by a cop whose features, behind the tinted visor of his helmet, were contorted with rage. He screamed ‘Get back, you fuck!’ in my face.” The author points to sheer numbers as a factor in preventing the police from moving forward further
  • The BBC has a nice feature story on the educational festival atmosphere that was present at the camp before the police moved in.
  • The Liberal Conspiracy blog has an account by an observer just outside police lins which includes catching a police admitting he lied about claims of violence in the camp.
  • The Climate Camp 09 site has an overview of the 12 hour action which ended when police came back a second time later in the night.
  • A report from the Guardian on police misconduct describes the second, more effective attack on the climate camp: “Without warning, from around midnight, the police repeatedly and violently surged forwards in full riot gear, occasionally rampaging through the protest line and deliberately destroying protesters’ property, some officers openly screaming in pumped-up rage.”

Update – 4/3/09 2:40 pm

I just got a Skype call from my friend Graham Martin after he read this post. He offered this very enlightening story of how the “This is not a riot” tactic emerged from the Climate Action Camp movement:

What’s even more interesting is how this decision got made.

In 2006, we started talking about the first camp happening. There was almost a decision not to decide whether it would be a non-violent camp. That decision was made as thing developed at the first two camps. The sticking hands in the air tactic with a massive crowd in front of police really sprang out of nowhere really when a group of police without riot gear marched in a line unto the camp outside Heathrow in 2007 [See Youtube video of incident]. There were 22 of them and everyone rushed up and stopped and put their hands up. My understanding is that no one ever shouted, “put your hand up”. No one ever strategized and said, this is how we would handle it nonviolently. The amazing thing isn’t that this was a formal decision, it’s that it just happened and everyone decided at the same time without hours of philosophical discussion that the right thing to do was remain calm and raise hands.

At the 2008 camp, the police tried to raid through the rear gate during the first afternoon. And what was very interesting was how people first started to stand around with their hands up and then everyone started to sit down. And again, that wasn’t a specific decision, just people started saying, we should sit down. And so we sat down and sang songs. If someone needed to leave we had them sit down and take their place. And so we just held that line. And we actually held that line for 24 hours. Food was brought out. Songs were sung. Workshops were held. I think the police were flabbergasted with the whole thing.”

And then, this time [on Wednesday], the whole “this is not a riot” thing. It was incredibly powerful to watch. No one described the historical tradition or the theory. It was just the response straight away. Pretty much everyone pitched in and set the tone for things immediately.

About 5 minutes after the first police surge, everyone in front of the police lines sat down. We got a bicycle trailer sound system up to the south end where the police. We managed to facilitate a decision to contract the camp so it took up less space. We had a consensus process going on despite the fact that police were digging knees into half the people in the meeting.

So people in the line slowly stood up with linked arms and the facilitator counted to 3 and then everyone took 2 steps backward. And the police were pretty surprised by how this worked. And effectively we took the police line with us, because they were leaning against us. I could hear their group commander behind the police line saying ‘Stay with the protestors’, but he was obviously pretty uncertain what to do given that we’d rewritten the rules.

It was clear as people moved back that different individual officers had different responses to our decision. And some of them were very angry that the protesters had control of the situation in a totally peaceful way. We moved at our own speed and they had to move with us. After we reached the line we agreed to move to, everyone sat down again and cheered very loudly. And then we gave people the option to swap with someone farther back. People made an attempt to thank the police nearest to them. Some smiled and some didn’t want to be thanked. Overall, we maintained more control of the situation ourselves through using nonviolent methods.

It wasn’t some big decision that people made to stand and die by. What made it all the more powerful was the spontaneity. It’s something people have chosen to do without making a big thing about it. What’s been interesting is there have been some police officers have really felt threatened by the fact that we’ve been nonviolent and we haven’t played by the rules they thought we’d play by. Others have been appreciative, actually.

I think the police have expected [the Climate Action Camp campaign] to get more violent as they’ve gone on and they’ve actually gotten less violent. It’s been really empowering.

You can read his account of the Prayer-I58 affinity group involvement in the Climate Camp. They were about to have a prayer meeting when the police first showed up.

Comments (8)

  1. Pingback: This is not a riot: an effective, nonviolent response to attacks by riot police » Young Anabaptist Radicals @ Triceratops Tone

  2. TimN (Post author)

    In the post above I didn’t focus on the clashes between protesters and police half a mile away in and around the Bank of England. I had heard about the death of Ian Tomlinson, but I naively believed that it was unrelated to police brutality.

    I was wrong.

    This video makes me very angry.

  3. Jeff Martin

    Thanks for this great source of news!

  4. TimN (Post author)

    Here’s a very helpful map of downtown London from the BBC showing where all these events took place in relation to each other:

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