“The police are coming in 10 minutes,” the workshop leader shouts before retreating behind double doors in the basement of the Russian Hall in East Vancouver. The 40 or so attendees discuss what to do: form a line across the “road,” a big circle or circles within circles? It comes down to a vote. Circles within circles it is.
The participants, most in their 20s but with a few greyhairs thrown in, sit down on the floor, each locking their legs and arms around the person in front, making a human chain arranged like a flat coil of rope. By the time the “police,” hard-hatted “construction workers” and “TV camera crews” burst through the doors, they are chanting, over and over:
On stolen native land!
This is a role-playing exercise designed to give wannabe activists a foretaste of the situations and emotions they’ll have to contend with in what’s expected to be an eventful next couple of years in British Columbia’s oil and gas pipeline wars. The event is just one component of a three-day weekend of political rabble-rousing, tactical training, first nations feasting and dissident networking in early April. It’s organized by a group calling itself Rising Tide, which is opposed to what it describes as “carbon colonialism.”
In this workshop, participants are learning about specific tactics to keep a blockade in place regardless of attempts to move it. They learn practical methods of non-violent protest—how to behave and hold your tongue so as not to be charged with a crime. They learn how to link hands in such a way that their wrists are protected from police officers’ attempts to separate them. Holding the group together is key; you can drag one protester away, but not an interlocking mass of humanity—not without resorting to violence.
The participants are cleaner-cut than I imagined. There are no more tattoos or nose rings than in a representative sample of the population. Outfits betray only a faint preference for earth tones. This is not a gathering of the Black Bloc.
The staged “confrontation” starts off politely enough, as the mock police ask the protesters to move off the road. Then it escalates. The “cops” manage to separate a few protesters from the circle and question them. As instructed, the protesters say nothing, just nodding yes or no. But when the “police” try physically removing the seated circles, it proves tougher. It’s hard to extract any one without causing physical harm.
This is the protesters’ objective: to stay in place, blocking the road, with as few arrests as possible, or to force the police to resort to violence for their removal. They learn about using the media to look like the victims of state violence, and about police tactics such as the use of “pain compliance”—holds that cause pain without causing injury that could result in an assault charge.
As Enbridge intensifies its advertising campaign to convince British Columbians to accept the Northern Gateway project—approved in December by a federal Joint Review Panel, though not yet by the government itself—the forces against this and other energy pipelines are marshaling too. And if legal challenges to their construction fail, expect things to get heated again in the B.C. woods.