Monkeywrenches or Hammers:

Should nonviolent activists keep their identities hidden?

In praise of covert action

A two-metre Pink Panther sits in the Annual General Meeting of Lloyds Bank nonchalantly swinging its tail and ensuring that the meeting is disrupted by its presence; a gaggle of activists sing songs on top of a road-building machine at Newbury whilst one of their group studiously fills the petrol tank with pebbles; a team of costumed Superheroes Against Genetics occupies Monsanto's head office for a day and tells callers to the Soya Bean Information Line the real facts for a change. What do all of these have in common! As well as being fun, they are also all covert forms of action - in which the identities of those involved are kept secret. Definitions of a "good" action will vary, but I believe that covert protest offers a good way to meet my criteria for effectiveness. These criteria include the following: · to communicate why the action is being taken; · to cost the target company/oppressor money; · to allow those who are taking part to feel like they are making a difference · and to allow others to feel that they too can take action.

Covert action almost by definition does not make an issue out of the identity of the activist. By avoiding martyrdom at a trial, and by keeping the focus on the activity itself rather than the activists' moral purity, covert action results in the issue at stake being "the issue", thus meeting my first criterion.

Let's take the second criterion: costing a company money. While companies are largely responsible for environmental destruction, they must be pressurised to change their behaviour. Openings for dialogue with these corporations can only come about through us speaking the only language they understand - money, and by us hitting them where they most feel it - in the pocket. For example, last month in England saw the a road widening scheme in Guilford, Surrey. The establishment of tree-houses and tunnels on the proposed route had to be a contributing factor to the U-turn by the road's proponents. Faced with the possibility of resistance as seen at Newbury, Fairmile and Manchester airport - with all its accompanying and massive security costs - those who propose major and polluting developments on our limited green space are being made to think again.

The occupying of machinery and sabotage by an unnamed group which is part of this sort of resistance is not only effective at making companies recount the cost of their destruction, but is also effective in meeting another of my criteria, that of empowering and involving people. A group of people overcoming the road-diggers and stopping them from working not only generates healthy disrespect for the machinery but also demonstrates how these weapons of destruction are merely machines which we can defeat when we come together. Realising your strength as a movement opens countless opportunities for action. The burning of the crane at Newbury in January, for example, may have caused controversy. But for those who were present on the day, and for those who had witnessed first-hand the devastation caused by this machine, to put it out of action was to find inspiration through the knowledge that together we can have an effect.

The realisation of our strength as a movement comes from the understanding that our actions are accessible and that involvement can come through a number of ways. Though the risks are great in both covert and open actions, they are different. To many people with families, jobs, and priorities other than campaigning, increasing the risk of imprisonment through greater openness would mean a corresponding decrease in their readiness to get involved. Some of the delay in construction work which was carried out at the M65 motorway campaign in 1995 was done by locals who would slip onto site at night to sabotage the machinery: this was the most direct way in which they felt they could take action. To insist that they should carry out this activity in broad daylight whilst declaring their identities was simply not an option. This would have meant limiting their cost to the company and, more importantly, denying what they felt was their most effective contribution to the campaign, as they were not able to commit themselves to live on site full-time or to write letter after letter to some faceless bureaucrat.

Covert action not only allows for lesser commitment in terms of lifestyle but also does not demand that trust be put in institutions which are a core part of the concerns that activists are opposing. Covert action questions the legitimacy of the legal system's handing out punishment - surely a necessary question to ask of an institution which has proved time and time again that its priorities are not to end injustice nor to stop ecological degradation. While the odds are stacked against us and the system does not share our interests, covert action has a part to play in an effective strategy.

Sam Bombadill

Stephen Hancock responds:

Covert actions might in some way challenge the validity of the state to punish us, but they also uphold the state's power by somehow making us "ashamed" of our actions. To openly accept the consequences of one's actions, indeed to use these consequences as an important part of the power of your action, can undermine and confuse the state no end, and opens up an arena in which vital debate can take place. I guess the smaller your opponent's resources, the more tempting it is to financially squeeze or bankrupt them. Having mainly been concerned with institutions like the United States Air Force and British Aerospace, the temptations rarely come my way. I can see that it could be a big one. But whilst it may seem gratifying in the short-term to employ covert action to this effect, if it creates cultural and organisational forms incapable of wider, radical change, then it's a reformist strategy rather than a revolutionary one. And that's a major point: I don't think the cultural and organisational forms necessary for covert actions are suitable foundations for the broad, participatory, accessible movements necessary for radical change. Of course, we in the ploughshares movement have got a long way to go on this one too...

Your third criterion talks of "allowing those who are taking part to feel like they are making a difference." Surely the priority is something other than feelings! Burning a crane at Newbury might have left some people with good feelings, but there's a real danger here that we lose our critical faculties in pursuit of a dangerous form of self-indulgence.

In praise of openness

Covert and overt nonviolent actions take many forms. Generally, covert activists don't want to get caught whereas overt activists do - or even if they don't actually want to be caught, they think that their public accountability and "capture" are politically beneficial. Some also think that open actions are also more ethically consistent.

When in prison in the early 1990s for disarming an F-111 nuclear-capable fighter-bomber, most of my fellow prisoners didn't have too many problems with my law-breaking or property damaging, or even my anti-militarism and pacifism, but they did part existential company over "hanging around to get caught". A similar head-shaking and scratching has gone on in the anarchist and environmental direct action movements. In the latter, there's been an emerging respect for open actions, especially in response to the Seeds of Hope ploughshares women, and an emerging acceptance of the validity of both covert and overt actions. It's largely viewed as a debate about tactics.

However, I think it's more fruitful to see it as a strategic debate: how does a campaign or movement go about achieving the change it desires, or safeguarding the state of affairs or ecology it values! And, wider still, how do we go about the radical overhaul - the nonviolent disarmament - of society's institutions and culture that we know to be necessary if we are to glimpse anything approximating a peaceful, just and sustainable order!

Social change, like morality, must revolve around the predictable consequences of our actions and strategies. This is especially true on the subject of alienation and participation. Any action which alienates or limits participation must be keenly questioned - this is as true of ploughshares-type actions as it is of nonviolent covert property damage.

What are the main advantages of open actions?

· Usually, only those claiming responsibility endure the immediate legal repercussions - the authorities are much less likely to trawl around picking up other people.

· The potential for communication is enhanced - such actions are easier to talk about, and people find it easier to listen. There is a better chance that the actual issues - of injustice and justice, responsibility and inactivity - get talked about.

· There is the possibility that your opponents trust you - important if one of your goals is dialogue, and absolutely vital if dialogue is your method.

· It is easier to ensure and claim that the action is nonviolent: ifyou destroy property covertly and don't inform the workers, you might be putting them at risk; the wider public often associate covert action with violence.

· Your support and potential activist base is generally widened - the diversity of supporters at the trial of the four Seeds of Hope ploughshares women was testimony partly to the respect across society for people openly taking the consequences of their actions.

· The symbolism of open actions is: "we are not above society, and we need your co-operation"; the symbolism of covert actions is: "we can do it by ourselves, we don't need any help" - an elitist message.

· Democracy needs names and faces - it cannot function with anonymity. This is even more true for radical, participatory forms of democracy than for the anti-participatory, quasi-representative, pro-capitalist forms we currently labour under.

· You can use any consequent trial creatively; the trial becomes part of the action.

· You undermine the power of prison. Prison is far more for those outside than for those inside. By taking part in an action that carries the risk of prison, you have broken the power of the threat.

· Open actions are more disobedient and undermining. The state expects you to be frightened of its powers, to not take responsibility for resistance. Running, or crawling, away thus becomes a form of obedience. Taking responsibility is extremely subversive.

I am not arguing that all nonviolent struggles must be totally open. It is very much a matter of political context and likely political consequence. But I do think that, in western anti-militarist and ecological struggles, open forms and strategies of action represent, by far, the best chance for widespread support, diverse and broad participation, and genuinely radical, sustainable social change or safeguarding of the ecosystem. Furthermore, I think mixing covert damage and overt action is not an effective use of our energies - the two forms of action enioy very different dynamics. As Swedish ploughshares activist Per Herngren writes in Path of Resistance, "Eco-defence cannot be used together with civil disobedience, either theoretically or practically. It would obscure the open struggle that is built up over time."

Stephen Hancock

Sam Bombadill responds:

Stephen posed the question, "How does a campaign or movement go about achieving the change it desires?" The fact that this question receives varied responses demonstrates why its boundaries must not be so rigid that it closes off avenues to those who want to be involved in direct action, but will not or cannot take full responsibility each time. Practical reasons for acting covertly extend beyond this: we cannot sustain large numbers of activists being imprisoned, in terms of our numbers or our energy. Consciously avoiding imprisonment of course means that we are not "free", but this choice has to be weighed against the opportunity offered by covert protest of repeating our resistance again and again.

This is largely a debate about ends and means. I believe that covert protest can share the vision of a more just and sustainable society while admitting the need to embrace a diverse strategy to achieve this. Stephen rightly points out that our actions take place in a political context; open action and acting out our vlslon is an effective part of our strategy for change, but covert action responds to the reality that the change which is needed will take place in the face of considerable resistance from those clinging to power.

From Peace News No.2415, Jul. 1997