Here are some lessons learned and tips from 350.org about making escalated actions bold and safe. These tips were learnt after an action in Brazil against fracking in 2015. These lessons have been shared with you through the 350.org Organising Story-telling Lab to help with planning for your next actions.
Case study – Brazil
What happened in Brazil?
On 7 October 2015, Brazil auctioned 266 parcels for fracking around the country.
Nicole and the coalition of Brazilian activists she’s involved with organised response actions. By the end, they were threatened with arrests, were bugged by security forces, and had their offices broken into.
How did they manage to do their action and what are some security precautions they made?
Let’s start by reviewing what they did.
The Activists’ Plan
The coalition had promised their base that at the auction they would have escalated actions. To prepare, the months leading up to that action were a series of actions in increasing frequency and size. By the time the auction was happening, people were ready for escalation and had the trust in the organisers.
For the auction they planned three distinct, mutually supportive actions. All of these actions would be at the same 5-star hotel as the auction. All carried some risk, but had a wide range. All fit with their movement’s confrontational but playful tone and each spoke to different people:
- Signs at the auction (low-risk where people would hold signs)
- Seminar for indigenous leaders (which served as educational and gave a way to connect with and support indigenous leadership) and seminar for rural unions and agriculture businessmen
- Fracking magicians (who would throw glitter and do magic tricks as disruption of the event)
Action 1 – Signs at the Auction
This was the lowest-risk action. It was not very disruptive: just holding signs.
They knew media would be heavily attending the action so this was about getting the message out to the public. To a lesser degree it was about sending a message to the oil companies attending.
Though the action was perfectly legal, they knew the Brazilian police may not act appropriately. The most likely scenario is that people would be kicked out of the meeting.
However, if worse was to happen, organizers put three people in the role of security for the action (including a 73-year-old). If anyone had any safety problems, they were designated to help out.
Among other precautions, they created a “safe word.” If the safe word was spoken, then everyone would meet at a particular room in the hotel – no questions asked. They had a second safe word which, if spoken, would have everyone meet at a second spot away from the hotel.
Action 2 – Indigenous Leaders Seminar
Because many Brazilians haven’t met or heard from indigenous leaders, this was a chance to allow indigenous people to tell their story about petro and petro-gas.
At first, the hotel did not want to let them in. The indigenous people came with arrows and bows and weapons. But, according to Brazilian law, nobody can touch them except federal police chief.
The head of security team showed up. Juliano, the first name of the security team, argued with the hotel security: “This is an open event. If you prevent them from coming in, you are committing a crime.” He was very imposing and was filming everything with his cell phone.
Organisers had booked two seminar rooms at the hotel for the event. They also booked 4 rooms in the hotel. All this gave therm legitimacy to be at the hotel-so they couldn’t just be kicked out
Action 3 – Fracking Magic
This was the most creative-and also the most risky. The idea was people would be “fracking magicians” and perform at least one “magic trick.” This was classic disruption, but with a playful use of theatrics. Burning your water – it’s magic!
Each of the eight people who agreed to do this action would have a different task.
Nicole, for example, was prepared to throw glitter at the agency director.
Hours before they would do the action, federal police and security from the event stopped them. The police freely admitted to tapping their rooms. Police showed they had obtained the names and addresses of all the people in the action. They even played recording of the previous night’s meeting preparations.
As a gesture of “goodwill, if protesters agreed to not do the action, they would be allowed to speak before the auction committee-but during a break.
The organisers began a tough negotiation. Eventually, they got the auctioneers to agree to give them 15 minutes to speak (09 for indigenous leaders and 06 for the organizers of the action). Most significantly, their 15-minutes would open up the session. Because of Brazilian law, the tape cannot be edited which means their 15 minute talk against the industry is the first thing on the oil agency website and their words were broadcast live across the country.
Later, Nicole said the chief of security kept worrying: “Please don’t throw glitter”. For action, they did not.
9 Steps Organisers took to Make their Action Safe and Secure
You have already seen a number of steps the organisers took to make their action safe and secure. Here are a few others.
1. Get Lawyers – Good ones
Organisers brought in two high-profile human rights lawyers during the action. They paraded them around the hotel with big name tags
Security were noticeably intimidated by this and stepped back due to this.
2. Design an Action based on the Law
They consulted with multiple lawyers ahead of the action regularly asking “What might we be charged with if …”
A big consideration for them was to not do actions of such severity that you have to wait for trial in prison (you may wait long time a year or more just for a trial).
3. Create Numerous Back-up plans Just in Case
Planning for police to follow the law is one thing. But, as the lawyers reminded them, that’s not a guarantee.
What if organisers are arrested? What if the hotel kicks us out? What if…
They spent a lot of time creating back-up scenario plans.
4. Chain of Command
Our rule for the action: “when we make a decision, you have to do it.” This is based on trust and understanding our goal is everyone’s security first.
The result: when the magician action was called off, people were disappointed but went along with it – nobody endangered others by going it alone.
5. Limit liability by limiting information
In contrast to Ende Gelände’s open design, only a small group knew exactly what would happen at the action.
The magicians had practised and knew. But people holding signs were only told “something would happening.” They only learned the plan on the night before.
6. Guarantee Entry to the Action, Selecting the Easiest Method
In addition to renting hotel rooms, they had considered multiple methods of entry into the hotel. They had created back-up plans to get in as journalists, a dummy energy company, and more. But their preference: the easiest, safest way.
And how did it go in the end? A successful action
By booking the hotel legitimately, organisers got the hotel to agree to hoist their banners around the hotel. Oil companies were not happy.
Indigenous leaders spoke out and got their voices on permanent record. Oil companies were not happy.
During their 6-minute talk, the coalition assured oil companies that this is a financial sinkhole. “You will get lawsuits, you will get protested…” Oil companies were not happy.
In the end, only 37 of the 266 auctioned blocks were sold. The action was one part of that equation. Oil companies were not happy.
“The industry is scared of us.” Nicole concludes. “They are watching us and trying to get information about our next actions.”
The security situation showed up four days after the action when the activist coalition’s offices were broken into. Pen drives, files, cameras, computers, and phones were stolen.
7. Purchase Travel Insurance for Everyone
If someone gets hurt by the police, how will people get treated? Buying travel insurance was one practical outcome of that conversation.
8. Commitment to Nonviolence
This was communicated to participants and they created a video declaring that commitment.
MAKE A RULE: “You are welcome to jump out of the action at anytime.”
During the prep sessions ahead of the action, this was communicated to all the participants. (None did.)
9. Give space for ‘other groups’
We refused to tell indigenous people what to do. They have their own ethics and culture and traditions. Therefore, if they chose violence (they came with bows and arrows), we saw that as their choice.
To protect us, there was a separation for them to do “their action and at the end, they joined our non-violent action and held signs.
Tips for Creating Bold Safe Actions
Let’s review ways organisers tried to create a bold safe action.
- Create internal security.
Pre-establish some people with that role. Prepare them by thinking through many scenarios.
- Create multiple levels of actions for different levels of risk.
This creates ways to involve people who you don’t know as well.
- Create “safe words” which the organisers/internal security can use to call off the action.
- Get lawyers.
Talk to them ahead of time. If possible, use them during the action, too.
- Design the action with the law in mind.
- What are different consequences?
- Which are legal consequences and which are likely consequences?
- Limit liability by limiting information.
Have few people who know everything that will happen.
- Create a chain of command.
Make it known how decisions are made and that everyone will play their part.
- Create commitment to nonviolence.
Train people for that. Some groups create explicit “guidelines”.
- Make a rule: “You are welcome to jump out of the action at anytime”.
- Be prepared for negotiation.
Have someone appointed to negotiate with police/security forces.
- Create trust by doing a series of successful and escalating actions in the lead-up to the “big” action.
- Create numerous back-up plans.
Ahead of time, have lots of conversations playing out different scenarios. Play out the options and create plans to respond.
- How might police respond?
- Security forces?
- Rogue elements?
- Guarantee entry to the action.
Consider multiple ways you might be stopped from carrying out the action.
- Purchase travel insurance for everyone.
- Give space for “other” groups.
- Read more about this fracking campaign in Brazil, Climate Resistance Handbook, pp. 27 – 33
- Organising Stories and Lessons from the 350 Organising Story Telling Lab
- Introduction to Campaigning and Social Movements (Online Courses)
- Get in Formation: A Community Safety Toolkit
- Staying safe: Protective strategies for activists
- Tools for More Secure Activism
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti mining - Brazil
- Movements_Campaigns - Climate action and justice
- Restrictive Countries_Environments