The Aldermaston Ethnography, 2010 (abridged)

Activists removed from road by Police

 

Aldermaston 2010: context

The context of this ethnography is the February 15th Aldermaston blockade, an annual event in a half-century long tradition of resistance and direct action against nuclear weapons. The ‘Big Blockade’ is a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and Trident Ploughshares joint action. The stated aims of the blockade are multifaceted. Most immediately the plan was to shut down AWE Aldermaston, the facility near Reading at which Britain’s Nuclear Warheads are manufactured. In blockading the seven gates into the site the aim was quite simply to prevent the workers from getting to their jobs in the morning, thereby meaning that no further work towards the manufacture of nuclear weapons could take place, even if just for a few hours. The blockade is always guided by the principles of non-violent resistance, and manifested through activists using their bodies, and often equipment such as D-locks, arm tubes, and superglue to attach themselves to one another. The addition of such equipment serves to lengthen the amount of time the blockade can be held, as police protocol and equipment is required to cut through the d-locks and arm tubes, and solvents to break down the adhesive. Such action is illegal, and can result in arrest.[1]

This direct action is obviously limited in the grand scheme of things, but it has a greater immediacy or importance given the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review is scheduled for May 2010, at which time Trident’s future will be finally determined.[2] The action arguably has additional aims.

As the CND’s namesake would suggest, ultimate disarmament is the long-term goal, predicated on the logical assumption that nuclear weapons make the world a more dangerous, rather than safer place, and that national security will not be undermined through disarmament, (as is frequently asserted), and as the case of South Africa has proven.[3]

What might be considered ‘welcomed collateral’ as a result of this type of blockade is that the established nature of the organisers, and the predictability of the action makes it a good first action for new or young activists, as unlike the G20 in Bishopsgate, 2009, the police know what to expect and their use of force is subsequently less volatile. The free legal advice and seasoned legal support teams mean that those risking arrest will undergo the process in a more controlled environment than a more spontaneous or clandestine action might allow. Outside of national and international activist circles, the non-violent principles of the CND make for a sympathetic media response, particularly when participants include Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Catholic and Anglican bishops, and MEPs.[4]

 

The Warwick affinity group: introduction

Rather than a single section which focuses chronologically on the preparation of the group for the Aldermaston action, I feel it is more insightful to split the analysis into a number of subsections, including the background of the affinity group in its University context, activist identity, consensus decision making, internal power relations, the tension between solidarity and efficacy, amongst other things. Many of these sections will necessarily follow a roughly chronological order.

 

The Warwick affinity group: background and development

Our affinity group[5] has a fairly organic structure, by virtue of the fact that activist circles at universities are subject to frequent reinvention, by losing members to graduation and ‘the real world’ every year, and taking on board new members. This reinvention process means that each year the group may contain 80% or so of the same core members that it did the previous year, but that three years later an inverse percentage (20% or less) of members may still be active.

At Warwick university activists tend to come from a modest variety of backgrounds. Either via one of the Union’s left wing political party societies (usually the Socialist Students Society –affiliated with the Socialist Party (SP)-, the Socialist Worker Party’s (SWP) student group, Labour, or the Liberal Democrats), People & Planet, Amnesty, Vegetarian and Animal Rights groups, anti-Sexism, anti-Racism and LGBTUA+ campaign groups. Less formally, Warwick has an active, if small, anarchist group. This group is not a society in the same manner as other groups because of the contradiction that having a ‘president’ would invoke. Interaction with this group tends to come from shared involved in Warwick’s activist scene, and via Dissident Warwick, a termly magazine produced by a student collective. Whilst not an anarchist publication or formally associated with the anarchist group, its anti-capitalist, radical leftwing ethos means that there is significant overlap between contributors and the anarchist group.[6]

As has historically been the case with anarchist groups, uninitiated onlookers find the Warwick anarchists to be clandestine and their power structures confusing. Student journalists at the Boar recently responded to the defacing of mainstream political posters by asking me “who’s the president of Warwick Anarchists?”[7] Similarly, one member of the Aldermaston affinity group jokingly asked me a few months ago how one became a member, as to him, the society was as intangible as rumour.

The Aldermaston affinity group, by which I mean the ten people who took part in this action, was comprised of a majority of self-defining anarchists or libertarian communists[8], with a further two or three who were unable to attend the action on 15th February, and so took no part in the group’s preparations.

Without delving too deeply at this point into the strengths and weaknesses of affinity groups, we should note that the apparent exclusivity of the Warwick anarchist group (and therefore this affinity group, and affinity groups in general) is potentially problematic. For example, in conversation with a Warwick Amnesty society member about the upcoming Aldermaston protest, I was in a position where I had to decline the enthusiastic offer of publicizing our plans, because the potential influx of new members at such a short notice would both jeopardize our logistical arrangements (transport, accommodation etc) and the close-knit trust that weeks of preparation had nurtured. With an action that bore the possibility of arrest, accommodating new members whose opinions about the ethics and efficacy of illegal direct action would undermine most of the decisions the group had taken together. The problem then, which I will not attempt to answer here, is one of reconciling wider solidarity with sympathetic campaigners and the affinity group’s internal trust and solidarity. How can such support be welcomed when it would undermine the workings of the group structure, and how would any solution keep intact the non-hierarchical nature of the group, without creating a core and periphery of influence? These are questions that have been raised since the time of the FAI-CNT[9], and before.

Without conflating the Aldermaston affinity group, and my usual, campus-based activist affinity group, or the Dissident collective –both of which have significant shared membership- it is worth taking a moment to register recent actions and events from the last few years in the run up to Aldermaston 2010. In this way we can note the background of the members, so as to help us understand the developing dynamic of the group.

In 2007 the Faslane blockade in Scotland was attended by an earlier Warwick affinity group. This CND action resulted in the arrest of two of the Aldermaston group’s members. It was also the last action that had a significant risk of arrest. Subsequent to this, attended by the older members of the group was the Kingsnorth Climate Camp in 2008, which achieved notoriety for the Police’s disruptive and underhand tactics[10]. By the time of the Solidarity Sit-in in January 2009, and then the G20 protest in April, the majority of the Aldermaston group’s members were students at Warwick, with at least some campaigning or direct-action experience. Of those at Warwick in the 2008-2009 academic year, only one member of the current group had little to no activist experience. Two members of the group came to Warwick in the 2009-2010 academic year.

Two members of the affinity group, both of whom had completed their undergraduate study by 2010 are from what could be called the ‘Faslane’ generation[11]. The majority of the group took part in either the Sit-in or the G20 (or both). Most of the younger generation in the group first encountered police aggression at the G20-, whilst neither of the Faslane generation attended G20. Of the newest members, all but one took part in various Weapons Out of Warwick[12] disruptive actions at careers fairs on campus during term one. Two of the group have a background with the Quakers, and another has activist experience in Turkey, her country of origin.

In addition to the ten members of the affinity group, four other members had intended to come to the action, but dropped out for reasons ranging from illness, to clashing plans, to emergency situations developing on the day of travel that meant participation was no longer an option.

The idea of organising a group to go down to Aldermaston was raised in the pub at an early stage of term one, and then brought up again at a larger activists’ group bring-and-share meal and planning meeting. Little substantial planning took place until early term two however. At this time a variety of means of communication were used to explore the idea. The Dissident mailing list, People & Planet weekly email, and Facebook threads and groups are all lists of people frequently used by their subscribers to advertise actions. The role of internet technology in organising activist activity has increased vastly in the last few years, and as with student event organisation in general, has been spearheaded by Facebook, the social networking site, which allows for events, groups, and multi-party message threads to be used in order to communicate between people. Whilst a significant social phenomenon, no matter how ephemeral it might ultimately prove to be, Facebook is not the focus of this study. Suffice it to say that these various means were used to start the Aldermaston discussions.

A useful point of analysis on this, relating to the nature of student activism and affinity group structures, is that the above are all fairly closed forms of communication, as any email lists or Facebook threads require subscription or invitation. What this demonstrates –assuming that activists aren’t deliberately elusive- is that, firstly, the activist community at Warwick University is reasonably tight-knit, and the basis of its relationships is more often than not friendship, and nearly always of affinity and solidarity in action. This friendship means that there is always a risk of excluding more passive, albeit sympathetic people; affinity groups for specific actions like Aldermaston tend to recruit from a common pool of known friends/activists. This is arguably their biggest strength and weakness: the trust needed for some kinds of action is best found among small, close-knit groups of friends and comrades. This is necessarily exclusionary however, as with my example of the conversation with the Amnesty member. Given their size (usually between three and fifteen people[13]) affinity groups tend to be prone to extreme volatility then when a member leaves; student groups doubly so, due to the accelerated generational shift.

 

The Warwick affinity group: use of space

The Aldermaston group’s membership are anti-capitalist, if not all anti-authoritarian. This fundamental principle or analytical standpoint is borne out in looking at previous policy motions presented to Students’ Union Council, and through the involvement of many in the group during the anti-marketisation of education demonstrations of the last few years -most recently the ‘No to Lambert; no to fees’ demonstration and related council motion.[14]

One objection to the marketisation of education is the impact the process has on space, and the shift in the use and purpose of space on campus. As Warwick’s numerous ‘Intellectual Capital’ signs indicate, along with the New Labour connection[15], and the overtly commercial nature of the university’s retail space, (despite more ethical commitments owed to its ‘Fairtrade university’ status[16]). A similar process of marketisation has taken over the traditionally student-run space of the Union. Not only is the charitable status of the Union in doubt, but the new building itself has significantly less private member space than its predecessor, and non-profitable ventures like the media centre and even Oxfam’s outlet have not been catered for.

Activists’ use of space on campus and in the vicinity of the university has unsurprisingly been outside this trend towards the neo-liberal spatial agenda. On campus, common locations for planning and conducting actions include the meeting rooms in Social Sciences, most notably S0.21, which has attained an evocative and venerable status since its nine-day occupation in the Gaza Solidarity Sit-in in early 2009. Additionally the SUHQ meeting rooms, Lounge, and upstairs area of the Arts Centre are all haunts of Warwick’s activist community. Significantly, none of these locations have strict policies relating to food and drink. As we will cover later, the activists’ ‘bring-and-share’ meal is a strong identity marker and act of solidarity and reciprocity. Therefore the occupation of space where one is not obliged to engage with the capitalist system on its terms of consumption is a recurrent theme in campus activism.

Without much further digression it is noteworthy to mention how even the campus pub, the ‘Dirty Duck’ is occasionally host to impromptu ‘bring-and-shares’, despite the taboo of eating your own food in a food-serving venue. The act of disengaging from the capitalist relation of consumption and appropriating the space as somewhere in which food can be shared without a hierarchical relationship present (buyer and seller) is a small but significant act of resistance.

Taking all the above into account, it is logical therefore that the majority of the Aldermaston preparation meetings took place off campus.[17] The Leamington area, in which most of the Aldermaston affinity group lives is logical for pragmatic reasons, but is also preferable over campus as the space is less overtly commercial. Notwithstanding the inferno that engulfed Bath Place Community Centre at the start of the academic year, Leamington hosts a number of sustainable, green, or otherwise ‘left wing’ centres. The annual Peace Festival is the most overt of these, but along with Bath Place, the central Leamington shop Gaia is notable. Gaia is a shop which specialises in vegetarian and vegan food, and organic, local and Fairtrade produce. It also has a converted out-building, perhaps four metres in width, and seven or eight metres in length with no designated purpose. Our group booked this space free of charge for three consecutive weekends in the run up to February 15th. The group bought quite a large amount of food from the shop during our visits, but no formal remuneration was asked for. This act of solidarity on behalf of the shop owners constitutes an important part of the activist community, and the space was the most appropriate that could probably be found in the Leamington/Coventry area as a result.

 

Activism and Identity

The politics of the activist community, as we have briefly explored, is a broad church of the left, and with a few exceptions, the anti-capitalist left. This anti-capitalism is manifested in a number of environmental and social campaigns on campus and in the West Midlands area. The politics of Warwick activism should be understood as such, and whilst an interesting subject in itself, it doesn’t require a separate section in this report.

Before we look any further at the development of the group in relation to the Aldermaston action, it might be a point of interest to look at some of the key identity markers within activist communities. Identity markers can be found in everything ranging from clothing, humour and language, to food and drink. Without delving too deeply into any one of these we can observe how the politics of activism is often applied in day-to-day life.

 

The bring-and-share meal

As was touched upon in the previous section, the bring-and-share is a lynch pin of student activism. Members of the Aldermaston affinity group frequently joked about the pulling-power of the bring-and-share over and above any sense of social duty or conviction. Facetiousness aside though, the act of sharing a meal that everyone has in some way contributed towards is a tangible and enjoyable example of the anarchist principle of reciprocity and mutual aid.[18] All but one member of the Aldermaston group was vegetarian, and among those a significant minority tend to live on a vegan diet. This is fairly common amongst activists, either for ethical reasons or environmental reasons[19], or a combination. In the case of the latter particularly, a vegetarian/vegan diet is an example of reflexivity and the day-to-day application of politics.

Last year’s S0.21 sit-in coincided with ‘Go Vegan Month’, and the arguably difficult transition to a vegan diet –most beers, snack foods, and even meat substitute products contain animal produce- was made easier by the support of an entire group which shared the responsibility for cooking good vegan food on a massive scale. The bring-and-share lunches in the Gaia space offered, on a smaller scale, the same support. Whilst members of the group bought some foods from Gaia, a significant number of dishes were home made, including risotto, falafel, salads, and vegan cakes.

Perhaps the most notable food combination connected with activism is pitta bread and humous. This, along with falafel is a staple part of any bring-and-share. Evidently neither originate from Western Europe; the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine suggests a cultural import possibly associated with the pro-Palestinian ethos of many activist groups. This is an unsubstantiated claim, but arguably not without some merit. Humous was voraciously consumed by the Aldermaston group to such an extent that one group member brought twelve pots with her on the outward journey!

 

Smoking

The act of smoking amongst activists is something that has been covered in David Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography, and whilst only two members of the Aldermaston group were regular smokers, it is still worth mentioning how the idea was often mooted that support roles for non-arrestables should include rolling cigarettes –all three arm-tubers would be incapable of doing this themselves with at most one free arm.

 

Language and humour

By no means are all of Warwick’s student activists studying for degrees in politics, sociology or history, however the use of certain vocabulary indicates at least a passing acquaintance with these fields of study. Conversation often includes esoteric terminology. Frequent reference to ‘prefiguration’, ‘reflexivity’, and ‘heteronormativity’ is a distinctive trait of Dissident Warwick, and the collective that produces it. This type of language’s use in everyday speech is perhaps more remarkable. It is also fairly problematic. One of the Warwick anarchist group –and broader activist community’s- oft-voiced concerns is how many people perceive it to be a revolutionary vanguard. The common usage of academic and esoteric language seems to perpetuate this perception.

Perhaps aware of this, or at the least aware of how bizarre the straight-faced use of the above terms in a social environment is, the use of academic language has begun to inform the humour of the group. In an equally perplexing and exclusionary fashion, the group’s humour has become largely self-referential. For reasons all but forgotten –though usually cited as originating during the Faslane preparations in 2007- the group finds great amusement in suggesting actions or protests that take place ‘in waves’.

Another saying that has become commonplace in the last few years is the disparaging remark, “X has/have no analysis”; mostly used to decry the ‘reformism’ (another black word) of the moderate left.

In reference to the group’s constant use of compound phrases like ‘anarcho-feminism’, ‘anarcho-pacifism’, ‘post-Marxist’, ‘neo-liberal’, such prefixes are used to describe seemingly incongruous nouns. ‘Neo-laddish behaviour’ and ‘post-sexist’ can be understood without the prefix, which is solely used to denote the fact that a member of the group is doing or being it in a facetious manner.

Drawing more directly from the PAIS degree programme, a mock-credence is given to J.S. Mill’s notion of ‘lower pleasures’ and hedonism. If someone wishes to make fun of another person in the group, accusing them of preferring ‘lower pleasures’ will suffice.

This should not be understood as a permanent or embedded aspect of activist identity. As we have explored, affinity groups at university are inherently transient, and so to are the stylings of its humour.

Arguably more analytically important is the prominence of foreign languages –most particularly Spanish- in activism. A number of the chants, slogans and songs most associated with socialism, communism and anarchism aren’t in English. The Internationale (French), and Bella Ciao (Italian) are both notable, deriving, in the case of Bella Ciao particularly from the anti-fascist struggles of the twentieth century.

Spanish is the predominant influence however. ‘Compañero’ is used among the Warwick group interchangeably with ‘comrade’, and in written form the male-centric grammar that gives primacy to the masculine in a mixed address (compañeros) is rejected in favour of the gender-neutral ‘compañer@s’.[20] Four members of the Warwick affinity group (although not of the Aldermaston group) have spent around a year in Latin America, two of whom spent the majority of their time in Chiapas, Mexico, visiting the Zapatista liberation movement. As a result, eight out of 24 pages in the latest issue of Dissident were given over to studies of the Zapatista struggles for autonomy and in gender issues.[21]

 

Clothing and symbols

The rejection of capitalism and the unjust relations of production that capital entails means that activists’ clothing tends to reflect this. The collusion of many high street labels in sweatshop labour has been both the focus of campaigns, and informs the dress habits of the community. Most recently in early 2009, Russell Corp, a subsidiary of Fruit of the Loom, sacked over 1,000 workers in its Honduran factory for attempting to unionise. Fruit of the Loom are a major provider of apparel to universities. A pan-Atlantic universities boycott, including support from People and Planet in the UK eventually led to the reinstatement and compensation of the sacked workers.[22]

In terms of identity, the Aldermaston group’s clothing tended to reflect the politics or musical taste of the wearer. In this respect there is no profound distinction (in using clothing to express your identity) between the activist community and anyone emblazoning a Top Shop design across their t-shirt.

Briefly returning to the notion of a pro-Palestinian ethos mentioned in the bring-and-share section, the keffiyeh is a common accessory in the Warwick group, and the activist community internationally. This is hardly a recent import, but it is less and less a distinct marker of activist identity, or as an identifier of sympathy with Palestine. The keffiyeh has been increasingly co-opted by high-street shops as a generic fashion item. The name keffiyeh has been shed in favour of the anglicised ‘desert scarf’. According to Amazon.co.uk’s webpage, the desert scarf is ‘stylish and versatile…[a] must have fashion accessory for both girls and guys- 8 colours available’.[23] For the activist at Warwick then, authenticity and foreign origin seem to be the crucial distinguisher (along with referring to the keffiyeh by its ‘proper’ name), now that the identity marker has been diluted to include any fashion-conscious person.

In a final digression about the co-opting of once potent symbols of resistance or radical politics by the capitalist system[24], one of the Aldermaston group was canvassing for support on a new green initiative on campus in late 2009. In spotting a student wearing a t-shirt with a large CND ‘peace’ logo he approached her, expecting to find a kindred spirit. The girl, looking perplexed as to why he would walk across the entire length of the Piazza to speak to her, told him that she had “no interest in politics”. Our group member apologized, explaining how he had made an assumption about her based on her t-shirt. She cited the logo’s fashionableness and continued on her way.

In summary then, whilst there are some markers that the activist community continues to identify with after a decades-long history, the continued depoliticisation and marketisation of some of these symbols and items of clothing by capitalism has led to a nuanced reinvention of the identity marker, be it through the language used to describe the item (as with the keffiyeh/desert scarf binary), or its authenticity. Is it perhaps an understandable response to the alienation of many identity markers that certain elements of activist identity, such as the use of overtly political language in everyday speech, have been emphasized, as if in compensation?

 

Activist Identity: conclusion

It seems fitting to finish this section with a brief look at the politics of identity in relation to activism. In The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey puts forth a dichotomy between the ‘politics of being’ and the ‘politics of becoming’. Whereas liberalism, Marxism, and particularly anarchism are exercises in the politics of becoming –where the focus is less about what you are than what you can become; they all see themselves as universal, and not applicable just in a particular time and space- the predominant trend now, Harvey argues, is the politics of being, which, conversely is less about becoming anything than what you are. It is a form of identity politics located exclusively in the present tense, where geography, ethnicity and language are particularly relevant.

In the postmodern world, where so much is in a state of flux, he posits that the politics of being, and the often sectarian identity politics that this entails, has risen in prominence to counteract increasing casualisation and fluidity in the labour market, and social relations, and in doing so, provide some much needed psychological stability.

When we consider the above sections on activist identity through Harvey’s analytical standpoint I believe we can show that despite immediate appearances, the activist community is still within the framework of a ‘politics of becoming’. Whilst some traits of activist identity might indicate an exclusionary or vanguardist community, as with the use of language or the perceived fundamentalism that an anti-capitalist stance comes with, others, such as the bring-and-share, are the epitome of mutual aid and an inclusive community. Indeed, the ‘prefigurative’ politics of most activists (where the ‘modes of organization and tactics undertaken…accurately reflect the future society being sought by the group’[25]) are inherently forward looking. The simultaneous feminist, green, and LGBTUA+ agendas that particularly define Warwick activism are the politics of emancipation, tout court.

 

The Warwick affinity group: consensus decision-making

As with a significant portion of the activist community, the Aldermaston group introduced ‘consensus decision making’ as its decision-making process early on in the preparation period.

Consensus, briefly, is a method of arriving at decisions that emphasises the importance of the process, as much as the outcome. Unlike a majoritarian voting system, where a majority can prevail over a minority of differing opinion –perhaps creating tension and dissent within a group- consensus incorporates all parties’ concerns through discussion, and attempts to incorporate all these concerns and desires into a proposal, which can, if necessary, be amended and ultimately voted upon.

A participant can opt to ‘stand aside’ from a decision. This means that person removes themselves from a discussion as it is directed towards a decision he or she does not feel comfortable with. It differs from a ‘block’ inasmuch as the person is still happy for the group to continue. The use of a ‘block’ has been compared to throwing a hand grenade into the discussion. Differing from a ‘stand aside’, the individual who blocks a proposal does not wish to take themselves out of the process, but rather prevent a particular avenue of discussion developing. The hand grenade analogy is less facetious than it might appear, as blocks are rarely used, and only in situations where the proposal stands violently in opposition to the will of the blocker. A block ends all discussion surrounding the pertaining proposal, and another discussion and ensuing proposal must be carried out.

This method of decision-making might seem cumbersome and prone to discursive sabotage, but in the one-month period that our group met, a block was only ever used once, during the day of action itself.

Because of the need to achieve consensus on any and all decisions, the process may take longer than a traditional voting system, wherein a decision can be passed through a bare majority of shared opinion. Acknowledging this, the consensus process has a series of hand gestures which speed up the process. To limit irrelevant discussion, rather than putting your hand up and waiting to voice agreement, one simply waves your hands. Onlookers to consensus processes may find themselves confused at the scene of ten or more people all making ‘jazz hands’ at one another. Where the participants cannot all see one another (as in a lecture hall like S0.21), the noise of knocking on a hard surface is used to register the mood of the room. Other hand gestures for technical points, direct points, proposals and amendments exist.

Consensus processes will usually have a facilitator. This is someone who simply channels the discussion, but who has no decision-making power over any of the other participants. As consensus is often adopted by anti-authoritarian movements who disagree with hierarchical or particular power relations, the rotation of the facilitator is important, to ensure that no one voice becomes dominant, and conversely, that everyone is given the opportunity to facilitate discussion in a more active role. This can build up confidence, and help empower each person. As I mentioned before, the process is as important as the outcome.

Quick-fire consensus is a similar process, employing the same gestures and process, however, it is intended for use in scenarios where time is limited and a decision is needed quickly. The aim here is to arrive at a proposal as quickly as possible, and eliminate ordinary points of discussion by almost exclusively using proposals and amendments to work towards consensus.

The Aldermaston group began its preparations in the Gaia space by explaining the principles of consensus decision-making to the one member of the group who was unfamiliar with the process. He quickly learned how to use it effectively, and whilst initially he occasionally spoke out of turn, by the second meeting he had fully adopted the method, and successfully facilitated discussion on a number of occasions.

Within the group, those with first-hand experience of both blockading and the arrest process (the Faslane generation) were naturally looked upon, if not as leadership, then at least as more authoritative in the preparation stages. Imparting knowledge to the group is obviously not an act of ‘power-over’, however it requires that person to be speaking quite a lot. When the knowledge is quite specific –legal procedure, or first hand experience- the discussion becomes less participatory, and more of a one-way, lecturing style of discussion. Without being the intention, it can still reaffirm a hierarchy between the speaker and the listener, which may not dissipate even after everyone has been informed of, and discussed the pertaining topic; people, particularly those who dislike public speaking, or have lower self-confidence might defer to the opinions of those who appear authoritative, regardless of their expertise pertaining to the topic at hand. This is arguably an innate part of human relations. Nonetheless, what is encouraging is that those who did speak a lot because of technical, legal, or experience specific discussion, on a number of occasions indicated that they would take more of a backseat role in the next part of the discussion, so as not to dominate the procedure.

This reflexivity may not be innate to the consensus decision-making structure, but the participants in consensus tend to understand the empowerment that it can engender, and therefore respond appropriately – for example, by limiting their involvement in discussion for a short time so as to allow others to direct the conversation. A case in point is how one member of our wider affinity group came to an early preparation workshop in Gaia in order to offer advise based on his experiences with Faslane and the legal procedure and implications of criminal conviction. However, as he was unable to attend Aldermaston itself, he largely opted out of the ensuing discussions as he felt it wasn’t his place to make decisions that ultimately would not affect him.

The consensus process was used for all decisions apart from two on the day of action. The first of these exceptions came at 6:30am, on the walk in to the AWE Aldermaston site. Having concealed arm tubes as banner posts, our group walked along in a procession towards our intended gate. Our aim was to arrive and blockade so that traffic couldn’t enter. Before arriving however it became obvious that police presence would prevent us from reaching our destination. When one patrol car stopped around 50 metres ahead of us, myself and the other arm tube/banner carrier made a decision between ourselves to dump the arm tubes on the grass verge, rather than risk immediate confiscation. The consensus process was then used in the wider group once the patrol car had continued on its route, deciding to retrieve them.

The second incident was when two members of the group decided to walk to the nearest gate along –once we had arrived at our destination, Falcon Gate- in order to see the situation there. As the majority of our group had left its mobile phones at our accommodation, or back at University, we had no way of contacting them to ensure they hadn’t been kettled[26] by the police, or arrested for whatever reason. The resulting decision upon their return was to keep the group together, or make sure that we had means of communicating with one another if the group did split in two for whatever reason.

 

The Warwick affinity group: job allocation and roles

For an action like Aldermaston in which some of the group were prepared to risk arrest –in the end there were six arrestables and four non-arrestables- the level of planning needed was significant, and went beyond mental preparation and role-play scenarios. The logistics of transport and accommodation were a crucial task, undertaken largely by one member of the group. With a site like AWE Aldermaston, simply catching a train down for a 7am start was out of the question. Similarly a small budget –being students- meant that finding appropriate accommodation was fairly arduous. We managed to find a sympathetic church around 40 minutes walk from the site who were prepared to let us sleep in their hall on the Sunday night. In terms of transport, a combination of trains, taxis, and walking got us to and from the location.

Other members of the group volunteered to find materials for the arm tubes, investigate the possibility of using d-locks, write a press release and continue research about the day itself. Those with more immediate degree commitments were given less time consuming roles, but everyone volunteered for something. Vital on potentially unlawful actions is the lack of an organizer/participant binary, for legal reasons (organizers of unlawful action face more severe charges) but also for more ideological reasons -egalitarian, non-hierarchical organization being the central tenet of activist affinity groups.

On the whole the job allocations were successful, with each individual carrying out their task(s) without any overseer or person ‘in charge’ to make sure they did what they had been mandated to do. There was one exception to this, though even then the person in question had been ill during the latter half the week, and so whilst she could have fulfilled her role of sourcing arm tube materials earlier rather than later, she had a reasonably legitimate reason not to have done so.

Relevant to this matter is one of the group’s initial decisions regarding membership, and the conditions on which new people could join the affinity group. Consensus was reached that given the short amount of time remaining (as it was, two weeks remained until the action) any prospective individuals would need to attend all subsequent meetings. The basis of this decision was the general agreement that not only was being fully up to speed with the legal side of things necessary, but that the trust at the core of affinity action could not be manufactured in a short period of time; no members of the group were inclined to accept a volatile element after such time and effort had been put into achieving consensus on a plan of action.

The ethos of this decision about membership was applied when the above member of the group failed to come to the day’s workshop due to her illness. Instead of being asked to leave the group it was instead proposed by one of the arm tubers that she become an arm linker[27] instead. Rather than as a punitive measure, he cited his discomfort at having someone use the arm tubes who had been absent from a lot of the ‘what-if’ scenarios and discussions, many of which related to their use. This proposal was agreed upon by the group, though it raised an interesting question as to what configuration constituted the affinity group. The use of consensus as a non-majoritarian process could arguably have been undermined by a truncated group configuration making a decision that affected an absent member. There was no friction as a result of the decision, but this is perhaps a rare example of when the group made a decision that contravened its own principles of inclusive decision-making. Or is it that by failing to make a meeting after having previously agreed to the group’s rules, the group member’s absence equated to a stand-aside? This case has not really been resolved, and raises interesting questions about the nature of solidarity, and the limitations of consensus decision-making.

This was one of a few role changes agreed upon by the group[28]. Another, equally as important case was when the group’s legal observer received an emergency call during the journey to Reading that meant he could no longer participate in the action. Another non-arrestable member of our group volunteered for a thirty-minute crash course in legal observation as we waited for a connection on the station platform. This decision was agreed upon without need for any discussion. The new legal observer had previously designated himself as an arrestable, but following a couple of legal workshops, and his impending Erasmus year he had made the decision to undertake a supporting role instead. His impromptu move into the role of legal observer made him by far the most mutable member of the group.

In summarizing the different roles of the group, there are a few concluding points worth mentioning. First and foremost, at no point was a hierarchy needed to ensure that jobs were completed. At no point were arrestables pressured into maintaining their status; the ‘default’ position of all members was stressed to be non-arrestable. One tension that can be explored later is that between efficacy of action, and group solidarity. Solidarity took precedence at all times for our group, and so whilst an insufficiency of arrestables could undermine one aspect of our action, the group’s comfort was seen as of higher priority.

Throughout the entire process any perceived hierarchy between arrestables and non-arrestables was fought against. The role of temporarily blocking traffic –a non-arrestable role- to allow the arrestables to establish their blockade safely was of vital importance. Similarly, our group photographer was on hand to ensure that, further to taking posterity snapshots, if any police aggression were to be seen, it could be documented. As with the G20, when activists’ photography and videophones indicted the police in Ian Thomlinson’s sudden death[29], photography is an important act of resistance. Our photographer took a number of pictures of the FIT (Forward Intelligence Team) police whose job it is to gather intelligence on activists to store in their database.[30]

 

The Warwick affinity group: day of action and general observations

In this section we will look at the course of the Aldermaston action itself, and how the group responded to the problems that arose.

The plan as it stood coming into the action was for the two groups of three arrestables to blockade the Falcon Gate at around 7am (where student affinity groups were invited to congregate). Our group would walk towards the entrance road in a procession, then the banner would be removed from the two arm tubes/banner posts and the two groups would link. In the Gaia workshops this process generally took around five seconds. The non-arrestables would provide support in various capacities. The arrestables were anticipating arrest on charge of Obstruction of the Highway.

However, upon arriving at the site proper, large numbers of police were present, and after two inspections of the arm tubes –to ensure no weapons were concealed- they were finally confiscated on suspicion that we would use them to blockade an entrance, as other groups on the Main Gate had already successfully managed. This was not unexpected, but immediately meant that ‘plan A’ was out, although the arm tube group had also practiced linking arms.

For the next couple of hours, until around 9am, our group remained at the Falcon Gate, holding up our banner, talking to the attending police officers, and chanting occasionally with another student group. In a bid to demonstrate to the workers entering the site that our struggle was not directed against them personally, we offered bourbon biscuits. All declined the offer.

It soon transpired that the gate was being used for pedestrian access only, so even had our arm tubes not been confiscated, the efficacy of blockading an entrance gate with no vehicle traffic would have been seriously undermined. Eventually, after sending two members of our group to investigate if there was a single car park from which the workers were arriving (there was not), the group decided to move to another gate.

This ‘gate-hopping’ as it was coined, became a feature of the next two hours or so, until around 11am. All the gates we passed were successfully blockaded. Occasionally you would hear rumour from a CND activist –as few people had mobile phones with them out of fear of an invasive intelligence-gathering stop and search- that a neighbouring gate was ‘open’ –meaning traffic could get through- and that more support was needed to ensure it was blockaded. However, given the slow nature of communication, and even slower means of getting to the appropriate gate[31], when our group arrived at a gate, it was always successfully blockaded again.

The one exception to this was Home Office Gate, the women’s gate. Despite a significant presence at the gate, traffic was flowing, albeit slowly into the AWE site. As it was the only remaining ‘open’ gate, our group decided we would try and help. One purpose of the women’s gate was as a site of female empowerment, and out of respect for this we asked a number of the participants whether they felt comfortable having a mixed group blockading with them. The overwhelming response was positive, though as a few people didn’t feel comfortable with having men at the gate, we decided to withdraw, and moved onto the grass verge nearby to hold a consensus meeting.

This was one example of a recurring theme throughout the day: the juxtaposition of efficacy and solidarity. These two more often than not don’t stand in opposition to each other, after all this is a strength of consensus decision-making. However it meant that we had to re-evaluate how we could best be effective. Our group had valued solidarity higher than efficacy of action in the many ‘what-if’ scenarios we discussed in our preparation workshops, and so this wasn’t a point of controversy on the day.

Eventually we decided to liaise with a group of Spanish women who had made numerous failed attempts to re-block the entrance of Home Office Gate. Our group decided to blockade a strip of road, maybe 100 metres in length, at a half-way point between the gate and a roundabout. The intention was to act as a diversion and an opportunity for the women’s groups to blockade their gate whilst the police were distracted. The lack of arm tubes, which require specific cutting equipment, would mean that our action would only last at most a minute. After a consensus meeting that lasted around twenty minutes we decided to wait for a break in the traffic and then blockaded both lanes of traffic.

The police reaction will be covered more extensively in the following section, but suffice it to say that they were uninterested in arresting activists for obstructing the highway –even a main thoroughfare like the road we blockaded. This was not peculiar to our case. Aside from one incident of (probably) accidental assault which we witnessed, the other arrests were not for blockading.

After we were removed from the road our group started to make its way back to Falcon Gate. On the way we were stopped by a man who introduced himself as an artist. He offered us the use of two arm tubes which he had fashioned into a missile-like prop, complete with nose cone and flashing LEDs. We opted to discuss the offer as a group before accepting it. As all other gates were closed apart from the women’s gate our use of them could only be a similar diversionary tactic, with no guarantee of success. The concern was raised however that as we hadn’t built the arm tubes ourselves we had no way of knowing what could be concealed in them. Whilst we had no cause to doubt the sincerity of the man who offered us use of them, it was still considered to be enough of a risk to decline the offer. Had there transpired to be shards of glass or something that could harm the officer cutting through the material then the wearer could be charged with assaulting a police officer -a charge which carries a jail sentence if convicted. Again, efficacy of action was sacrificed. Arguably, whilst the solidarity it was sacrificed for was not towards another group or individual, the fact that some members of our affinity group were uncomfortable with the idea meant that we rejected the offer out of our own internal solidarity.

Despite declining his offer, he nonetheless commended our group, saying how he was impressed with our decision-making process.

After some rest at around midday near the Tadley Gate –blockaded by faith groups- we returned to Falcon Gate to support the other student group, joining in a chorus of ‘Power to the People’ before ultimately leaving the site. On the walk back along the road that runs along the site perimeter we were overtaken by two police vans filled with officers. As we approached the last entrance to the site all the officers formed a line preventing access. Once we passed by the line dissolved; evidently twenty or more officers had been disposed to ensure that our affinity group did not attempt to enter the site.

Whilst our affinity group left the AWE site with high morale, the period of gate-hopping prior to our blockade, combined with factors as prosaic as the bitterly low temperature and dehydration[32] had created an atmosphere of despondency and frustration. The few situations in which our group could provide any useful support, especially after weeks of preparation was problematic, as the reaction was one towards less rational proposals. During the consensus processes some friction began to develop among the group. Whilst it must be noted that part of the act of resistance involved in arrestable blockades is the tying up of police time and of their bureaucracy in the legal process, nonetheless the mood of the some in the group was moving towards getting arrested ‘for the sake of it’.

Fortunately the act of blockading the road leading up to the women’s gate proved tangible enough to dissipate this mood, particularly after some food and the opportunity to discuss amongst ourselves how any further action risking arrest would have been superfluous, given the situation on the other gates was unchanged –i.e. still closed down by successful blockades.

 

Interaction with state authority

This report will not be able to focus on the interaction between police and activist in the context of the police station and arrest process, as none of the group was arrested. Before focusing on the role of the police at Aldermaston, it is worth briefly mentioning our interaction with the other facet of state authority: the law.

Through a number of different sessions in legal preparation our group became acquainted with aspects of the law most important to activists. Civil disobedience has arguably undergone a slow process of criminalisation[33], with an interrelated shift in both discourse –the tendency towards describing protesters as ‘domestic extremists’ for example- and legislation. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA), and anti-terror legislation from the last decade (including sections 43 and 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000) are indicative of the increasingly limited room for legal civil disobedience that, if not the original intent, is the consequence of this process of criminalisation.

Members from our affinity group attended a legal workshop run by a volunteer from the Activist Legal Project. This covered stop and search powers, likely charges, the arrest process itself, and the consequences for your criminal record. This, in addition to the legal support team, and the solicitors firm that provided free legal advise for those taken to the police station, is indicative of the growth of a parallel legal apparatus to that of the state. Of course the rules are still dictated by the authority of the state, but the legal process is being used instrumentally by activists in a bid to educate those who wish to engage in civil disobedience, to subvert what many see as an increasingly illiberal legal system[34] and to counteract the adversarial position of the state’s enforcers (the police) vis-à-vis activism.

On this last point, the right to independent legal advice has recently been modified. For minor infractions (such as obstruction of the highway) you will no longer get to speak on the phone to a solicitor of your choice. Instead a legal advisor will be made available, provided by the state through a scheme called Criminal Defence Services Direct (CDS Direct). It is widely believed that these advisors are often former police officers themselves, and hardly inclined to be sympathetic towards activists.[35]

As for the police on the day of the Aldermaston protest, their behaviour was predictable, undoubtedly because the nature of the protest was predictable, and so volatility on the part of the police was less likely than in a G20 type situation. An ever-present element of our interaction with the police was their intelligence gathering. Under the guise of a friendly chat, many officers attempted to gather information about our affinity group. We were frequently asked where we’d come from, how long our journey was, how many were in our group, our intentions for the day, our views about other protesters, and our knowledge about the organisation of the action. It was easy enough to have a conversation with a number of the officers, although one had to be particularly vigilant not to answer any of these surreptitious ‘fishing’ questions, especially when the natural reaction is to be polite and answer.

Slightly more invasive were the FIT squads, who used video cameras to record our presence at Aldermaston. FIT squads have been used at every large action that I have attended in the last three years, and are a vital element of the police apparatus in documenting the actions of ‘domestic extremists’.

The police’s reaction to our blockade was first to shout at us to “get out of the road, now!” As they reached us their protocol required them to ask if we were superglued together. Replying that we were not, they then asked how we were connected. Facing inwards, with our heads together our bodies partially obscured their view, something that they voiced their annoyance at. Without recalling the exact words, the gist of their speech ran along the lines of ‘how did we expect them to remove us from the road if they couldn’t get access to our interlocked arms?’ Eventually they unclipped the karabiners we had attached to one another, prised our arms apart, and with us passively resisting, they dragged us onto the grass verge. At this point it become apparent that they were not going to arrest us.

The final notable interaction we had with the police was mentioned in the previous section. Suffice it to say, no matter how authoritative and in control the ‘authorities’ may appear to be, the thought of dissent and crucially the dissenters’ unpredictability causes them considerable discomfort. The farewell committee of at least twenty officers that we received is indication enough of this.

 

Concluding remarks

This ethnography has expanded beyond the remit of simply documenting our affinity group’s preparation and involvement in the 2010 Aldermaston ‘Big Blockade’. In examining the background and trajectory of our broader activists’ affinity group at Warwick University we can understand the group dynamic better. Similarly, focusing on the almost mundane elements of day-to-day life gives us insight into the politics and identity of activism, as well as its vision of a future society. Without understanding our motivations, any analysis of our actions will undoubtedly be limited.

The report’s attempts to examine wider national and international activist communities comes solely from my own interaction with them, through events such as the G20, Climate Camps, the Wave, Aldermaston, Shared Planet and collaborative university actions. It is true to say then that many of my observations about ‘activism’ are extrapolations from these experiences. This has not been a historical report either, and perhaps its strength is not derived from any claim at objectivity. As someone immersed in the day-to-day life of an affinity group, my own contribution is best understood as a snapshot into university activism, in the late ‘00s and early ‘10s. Its true value will be realised only in combination with other ethnographies like this one. After all, history is as much about the banality of humour, the sharing of food, and the depressant of a cold wind on a group’s spirits as it is about high politics and the squabbles of governments.

 


Footnotes

[1] The 2010 blockade of Aldermaston was attended by between 300-800 activists, resulting in between 25-35 arrests (so soon after the event, sources are contradictory, though the most likely figure is 26 arrests; it is fair to say that there was an arrest rate of less than 10%). http://www.tridentploughshares.org/article1597 (accessed 16/02/10), http://www.democracynow.org/2010/2/16/headlines/26_arrested_at_anti_nuke_protest_in_britain (accessed 16/02/10) etc.

[4] http://blockawe.blogspot.com/ accessed 16/02/10.

[5] Our group has no real name and mostly it was referred to as ‘the Warwick group’, ‘Warwick students’, or ‘Warwick’ to the CND legal support team.

[6] The Dissident Warwick statement of principles offers further insight into the outlook of the collective, describing itself as the product of ‘the campaigners, the activists, the thinkers, the idealists’, as ‘an attempt to engage critically with the social realities that surround us’. Dissident has an online blog at blogs/warwick.ac.uk/dissidentwarwick.

[7] In an article corresponding to the Boar published on 16/02/10, (volume 32, issue 9).

[8] Anarchists of a collectivist persuasion are also often described as libertarian communists. The anti-authoritarian principle being the key differential between state communist/socialist and anarchist thought. For more, see Peter Kropotkin’s Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings (New York, 2002).

[9] Stuart Christie, We the Anarchists: A study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927-1937, (Oakland, 2008), p. 46

[11] Generation in this sense roughly relates to age, although this is an insufficient identifier. All of the ‘Faslane generation’ had completed their undergraduate study by the start of this academic year, but not all the post-graduates in the group had attended Faslane. Generation in this context is perhaps better understood as a marker of experience, knowledge and respect, though of course never applied by those to whom the term applies, and never overtly present in organisational or decision-making processes. The term ‘Faslane generation’ is also explicable because whilst Faslane was by no means the only action that these people attended at that time, it bore the closest similarity tactically to the Aldermaston Blockade, and so in the preparation stages advice was often couched in comparison to Faslane preparations.

[12] A People & Planet campaign against the arms industry presently co-ordinated by the author. Weapons Out of Warwick has disrupted careers events which have invited arms companies to campus for the last four years.

[13] Christie, We the Anarchists (Oakland, 2008), p. 3

[15] Regarding New Labour, the sheer number of government announcements that have taken place on campus is indicative. Mandelson, and most recently Brown (20/02/10) have unveiled initiatives from their kindred university. For more general observations on commercialism of Warwick See E.P. Thompson’s Warwick University Ltd (London, 1971), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Warwick#Commercialism accessed 19/02/10.

[17] Though by no means all. A number of meetings were also held on campus, in the arts centre, and SUHQ meeting room 2/3, as three members of the group were campus residents.

[18] Peter Kropotkin, Anarchism: a Collection of Revolutionary Writings, (New York, 2002), p. 79.

[20] Puneet Dhaliwal and Sarah Reader, Zapatista Caracoles and Indigenous Emancipation in Chiapas, Mexico, (unpublished, 2009), p. 6

[24] The most ubiquitous being Che’s image.

[27] For want of any more appropriate sounding terms, the two groups of three arrestables –those who intended to use the arm tubes to blockade the road, and those who intended to link bodies to the same effect- were referred to throughout as either ‘arm tubers’ or ‘arm linkers’.

[28] Notwithstanding the problematic nature of an incomplete group’s decision. The individual later agreed with the decision, so although imperfect, it can still be validly seen as a group decision.

[31] The AWE site is massive, the walk between any two of the seven gates taking between five and thirty minutes.

[32] The expectation that there would be no opportunity to use the toilet –especially when in the process of blockading a road- meant many of us refrained from drinking until we began our return journey.

[34] Mark Thomas’s campaign against SOCPA in London is particularly. In filing literally hundreds of requests for permission to protest in the 1km radius of Parliament Square, including 20 on one day, the campaign effectively used the bureaucracy of the legislation against it. See the DVD Mark Thomas: Serious Organised Criminal (2007) for more details.

[35] Activists’ Legal Project –The Arrest Process and Your Rights (2008), p. 3. www.activistslegalproject.org.uk.

 

Bibliography

Christie, Stuart, We the Anarchists: A study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927-1937, (Oakland, 2008), p. 46

Dhaliwal, Puneet and Reader, Sarah, Zapatista Caracoles and Indigenous Emancipation in Chiapas, Mexico, (unpublished, 2009)

Kropotkin, Peter, Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings (New York, 2002)

Activists’ Legal Project –The Arrest Process and Your Rights (2008), available online at www.activistslegalproject.org.uk.

Dissident Warwick Issue 8, Spring 2010, available online at http://www.4shared.com/file/200729232/26794245/dissident_081.html

Online materials:

http://www.tridentploughshares.org/ accessed 16/02/10

http://www.democracynow.org/2010/2/16/headlines/26_arrested_at_anti_nuke_protest_in_britain accessed 16/02/10

http://www.nti.org/db/disarmament/country_safrica.html accessed 16/02/10

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/7940128.stm accessed 19/02/10

http://theboar.org/news/2009/nov/23/su-condemns-lamberts-views-fees/ accessed 19/02/10,

http://theboar.org/news/2009/oct/11/lambert-protest/ accessed 19/02/10.

http://theboar.org/features/2009/jun/22/natural-born-cola/ accessed 19/02/10

http://theboar.org/comment/2009/mar/10/grapes-wrath/ accessed 21/02/10

http://theboar.org/comment/2009/nov/8/confessions-domestic-extremist/ accessed 21/02/10

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Warwick#Commercialism accessed 19/02/10

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prefigurative_politics accessed 21/02/10

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kettling accessed 20/02/10

http://www.goveg.com/environment.asp accessed 20/02/10

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Scarf-Stylish-versatile-fashion-accessory-Available/dp/B002J6DSSO/ref=pd_sim_lp_1 accessed 21/02/10

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HECMVdl-9SQ accessed 20/02/10

http://fitwatch.blogspot.com/ accessed 20/02/10

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/oct/25/police-domestic-extremists-database accessed 20/02/10.


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