Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Evictions and Nonviolent Resistance

Dara is a 16 year-old young man. His family are members of InnerChange and serve on the Cambodia team in Kampot city. Our families were team together for 7 years.

Dara contacted me on Facebook a week or so ago saying that their English class is reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and it's theme of structural injustice was related to my work with Cambodian activists. Would I come and speak to his class about my work?

I decided that I wanted to make use of my emerging pedagogy of experiental training.

the mattress game
The Mattress Game

My main concern was that I didn't know the participants at all and what their familiarity with nonviolence might be. I guessed that being young they would be more likely to be drawn to exciting political events and have some knowledge of the recent and ongoing Arab Spring, but I didn't want to risk relying on that assumption.

After connecting my laptop to the large screen TV and a short introduction by Dara, I mentioned my work with Cambodian activists who were trying to resist injustice and oppression and that, just as in the Grapes of Wrath, knowing where to identify the source of injustice can be quite difficult.

I briefly introduced the 3 main forms of nonviolent action: protest and persuasion, noncooperation and nonviolent intervention, giving several examples of each. I then asked the group, 14 students, to number off (remember, if you want 6 groups have them count off to 6) and arrange themselves in their groups. I handed out the descriptions of sources of power from The Mattress Game and went through each one. Then asked them to watch the following video on Cambodia 101 East Cambodia Land Grab part 1 with their particular pillar in mind.

At this point I was feeling nervous. I felt I'd given a whole lot of information and wasn't sure if they were with me or not. I started the documentary and sat down to watch it. I watched the students throughout the video and as far as I could see they were engaged.

Afterwards I asked each group to report back what they observed from each pillar perspective (Authority, Human Resources, Skills and Knowledge, Material Resources, Intagible Factors and Sanctions). Each group shared what they saw and demonstrated a good grasp on the various pillars. Few! I hadn't raced beyond their capacity, and infact, they were proving to be insightful young teenagers.

I invited everyone into the large space where the mattress was waiting for us. I asked each group to think for a moment, if you were to counter your source of power with a nonviolent action what kinds of actions can you think of? We spent a moment then I asked if anyone was having trouble. One group put up their hands and we brainstormed possible actions for this. I think I ended up suggesting one. I think next time I could open this up to the whole group for suggestions. I wasn't sure how this part would go, either, and is why I did the opening introduction to the 3 forms of nonviolence and give everyone a chance to think about different actions they'd come across.

One person from each group lifted up the mattress above their heads. And one-by-one each group announced the action they would use to counter their source of power and removed the pillar. “A prayer vigil”, “sitting in front of a bulldozer”, “blocking a road” … . As each pillar was removed the pillars left had to move around as the balance shifted. Finally, the last pillar was left balancing the mattress (a stiff spring mattress) on top of her head. As she left, the mattress fell to the floor.

We stood in a semi-circle around the fallen mattress and began debriefing the exercise. I asked people what they noticed about the excerice? “Small actions add up to a big effect” was one reply, “power really does rest on people's consent to an authority,” was another. What did people holding the mattress notice? “As pillars were removed we had to shift around a lot to keep the balance.” As the reflection came I spent time affirming them and at times expanding on them, giving some examples of how I saw that in Cambodia or a reference to The Grapes of Wrath. What did you feel in the exercise? One tall youth said, “I felt like a traitor! But when the mattress fell I felt so happy.” Wow. What an incredible insight into the psychology of unjust power.

At that point time was up. I thanked everyone for their participation and they thanked me with a surprising (and pleasing!) amount of applause.

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