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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Each month we bring you a nonviolence training workshop based on the experience of the Nonviolent Action Training project and INNATE.

Broadbase Organising

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Some basics

Saul Alinsky, the charismatic US American organiser and community activist whose work could be considered the foundation of this approach, died in 1972. Some of Alinsky's tactics - both in theory and in practice - have always been controversial even for activists. His classic exposition is the book "Rules for radicals - a pragmatic primer for realistic radicals", published in 1971. People tend to love him or hate him but there is a tendency not to mention him initially when explaining the approach, on the basis that people are put off or confused - and in any case things have moved on in the couple of decades since (‘broad based organising’ groups may not directly use Alinsky’s thinking or ‘rules’).

In the United States of America it could be said that the direct heir/ess to Alinsky is the IAF, Industrial Areas Foundation. In Britain there is a Citizen Organising Foundation which has worked on broad based organisations in different areas. Both of these target the churches and/or religious groups as their main building blocks. But there are other State-side coalitions which are attempting to build up to a national agenda from the bottom up, such as ACORN and Citizen Action, to put pressure at both state and national level for action on issues of poverty, unemployment and community needs.

It is hard to generalise and some of the following applies only to the IAF/COF model, but here is an attempt to spell out some of the main characteristics of these approaches;

1) Building coalitions on a broad base from the bottom up to work on perhaps one winnable issue at a time. Perhaps nothing new in this you might say, but a lot of work goes into it, the IAF / COF model being to principally use the churches/religious groups. The aim is to be able to make effective demands of power-holders. And it is targeting 'ordinary' people as the ones to get involved, using their own self interest, and based on a pragmatic rather than ideological approach.

2) Tremendous work on preparing for events, whether it's a meeting or other form of action. A meeting with a city official, for example, might have a dozen different scenarios role-played before the actual meeting took place. Mass meetings of members are planned down to the last detail and may include putting officials on the spot. Such meetings are treated like a piece of theatre (made to be exciting), and other actions may be even more theatrical.

3) A particular interviewing approach to really get to know key people locally and others who may be of use at a later date, without initially asking anything of people.

4) Affirmation and appreciation for the part played by people and groups; at mass meetings, groups are welcomed and praised.

5) Efficient and effective assessment both during mass meetings (with roving stewards picking up feelings and perceptions), immediately afterwards, and with a smaller group again later.

6) Organisations are self-supporting, 'dues' (subscription) based; these may be collected on a door-to-door basis.

7) Using the churches' and religious groups’ position in society to pressurise organs of the state, and pushing the churches themselves to put their money where their mouths are.

The United States has a very high proportion of church goers (perhaps 50%) and some people would draw a contrast with European states such as Britain where the church going population might be nearer a tenth of that. Can the churches be used as building blocks for mass movements where church-going is very much a minority activity? And while Northern Ireland may have similar churchgoing rates to the USA there are additional difficulties in that, while the church going population is relatively large, it might be assumed in bringing churches together that you had a different agenda (ecumenism), and many of the churches are in any case very conservative; in the Republic, an ecumenical approach might be less problematic in general but anti-clericalism is now a live issue.

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From “Rules for Radicals”

1. Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.
2. Never go outside the experience of your people.
3. Whenever possible go outside the experience of the enemy.
4. Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.
5. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.
6. A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.
7. A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.
8. Keep the pressure on (with different tactics and actions)..
9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.
10. The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.
11. If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside.
12. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.
13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it

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Facilitator’s Notes:

A. You can familiarise yourself with some of the work by doing a web search for the organisations mentioned above, and if dealing with Alinsky’s tactics from ‘Rules for Radicals’ then reading the book is a good idea.
B. Copy the information above for participants as a handout. Allow people to read it, perhaps giving it to people before the session which will deal with it.
C. In running through the handout, examples you can supply from your preparation (A above) will help bring it home to people what it’s about.
D. You could then do a brainstorm on a topic like ‘How to build a mass movement’. A key question is whether you feel you can use churches and religious groups as ‘building blocks’, or whether there are possibilities with community or voluntary organistaions.
E. If taking Alinsky’s tactics, a spectrum/barometer exercise could be useful in bringing out different approaches and interpretations; those who agree completely with a tactic go at one end of an imaginary line in the room, those who disagree completely at the other end. A few people at different points (either end, and middle, or where people are particularly concentrated, or isolated) can be asked to explain why they have placed themselves where they are. Run though the tactics, or some key tactics, one by one.
F. Subsidiary questions can include (during E or afterwards) “Are these tactics ethical?”, “Are these tactics nonviolent?” if these issues have not already been dealt with fully.
G. General discussion on ‘broad based organising’ and/or on tactics can focus on the relevance to particular campaigns that participants are engaged in.
H. You can conclude with a quick round asking people about one thing they may have learnt, if anything, from the discussion and workshop.

Copyright INNATE 2016