Behind the Bike Lock and Pink Duct Tape

By Funky Flamingo and Island Lime

A lot of us have read about actions that other people have done and said “that sounds great, but how do I do that?” We show up for actions other people have organized, but still don’t feel confident that we can pull off our own. This article is about a group of people who organized a “lockdown” style blockade at a Bank of America (BOA) branch in Boston, MA, on April 1st. Four people attached themselves to one another with lockboxes, with one of their necks attached to the bank’s door with a bicycle U-lock. Although there were varying levels of experience among the participants, none of us had ever been the primary organizers of this type of action before, so while none of us can claim to be experts, we thought we’d share some of the lessons we learned with other people who might want to try their hand at this sort of thing for the first time.

The action was planned to coincide with the Fossil Fools International Day of Action called for by Rising Tide, Rainforest Action Network (RAN), and others. Our target was chosen based on an existing campaign pressuring Bank of America (BOA) to recall its loans to corporations involved in mountaintop removal (MTR) and other forms of strip mining for coal, not to mention industries that burn coal, and those who tout so-called “clean coal” technologies. We felt that BOA’s high profile, with branches opening all over the Boston area like spreading cancer cells, made it a ripe target for a highly visible action to send a message that people in the Northeast know about Bank of America’s links to coal and plan on holding them accountable.

This action wasn’t organized by a particular group with a particular name. Our strength came from friendships and social ties, whose importance can’t be overemphasized. A persistent obstacle to successful organizing among the majority white, young, anarchist-identified subculture in Boston is its tendency for a shifting cast of characters to move through or disappear before ever becoming a really cohesive community. This has prevented solidarity work with some amazing and well-established community organizations from becoming as powerful as it could, and created a situation that at times feels like continually reinventing the wheel. It’s encouraging to see a group of people come together and carry a plan through to fruition, and hopefully this is an indicator that something stronger and more lasting is developing. If we can do this, you can too.

Beginning at the Beginning

One problem we had to overcome was that we didn’t really get our act together until a fairly short time before the day of action. This was an instance where priorities on maintaining security culture resulted in a simple lack of communication, and it wasn’t clear who was doing what, who knew what, and what still needed to be done. Once it became obvious how much needed to be done in a short time, we laid out a plan of how to accomplish our goals, and we found it useful to make a backwards time-line. First, what did we want to achieve? We wanted to prevent business as usual for a clear reason, spread information to as many people in the surrounding area as possible, serve as an inspiration for action, and get useful media coverage that connected BOA’s name to the practices they fund – all the while keeping all participants in the action as safe as possible. We then created a list of roles that would need to be filled and support infrastructure that would be helpful on the day of the action.

Roles that helped make this a successful action (success in terms of our short-term goals; we know we haven’t won yet):

Highest Risk Arrestable People
These are people who went into the action with the highest likelihood that they would be arrested, because they were the ones who physically blockaded the bank’s entrance. It was important for these people to assess their legal, emotional, and physical state to make sure that they wouldn’t be putting themselves into a position that was too dangerous. It would have been wise for us if we had planned on having backup people who could switch out with any of these people who decided that they couldn’t fill this role, for whatever reason.
Direct Support for High-Risk People
These people would also be at significant risk, because they would be the ones physically closest to the people who were locking down, providing physical and emotional support. This group, including several trained action medics with first aid supplies, carried food, water, and emergency blankets for the people locked down. Direct support people also provided a link between locked-down activists and a larger support rally nearby, and an extra layer of support in the event of a need for de-escalation of situations where emotions run high.
Police Liaison
A person whose designated role is to talk to police when they arrive, explaining the situation and carrying messages back and forth between activists and cops (which also happens to take up time). They give the cops someone to focus on and ask questions of, which may be advantageous in terms of keeping them relatively calm and relaxed. Of course, there’s always a chance that the highest ranking officers will just ignore the liaison. Still, it can be reassuring to people locked down to have someone designated as a police liaison so they can feel less pressure to talk to the cops themselves.
Media Liaison
People locked down or taking part in a rally might not feel comfortable being drilled with questions by the media, but we wanted positive media coverage of our action, so we needed someone prepared to talk to people from the media when they arrived. This person needed to be knowledgeable and well-spoken on the issue at hand. It’s important to remember that the media is focused on brief sound bites, so we prepared certain points that we wanted to emphasize in our messaging, and we made sure to always have our answers return to these key points when we answered reporters’ questions.
Off-Site Media Team
This group kept in touch with the media liaison, while staying close to a computer in order to send press releases and updates, and field e-mails from media contacts. In the event of some kind of mass arrest netting the primary media liaison at the scene of the action, an off-site media team could serve as backup to communicate with the press.
Legal Support
This role was filled by someone who staffed a landline for people to call when they’d been arrested (everyone at the action had this phone number written on their body). The person staffing this line would also call the police station where arrestees were being held to get updates, and was prepared to write down any important information provided by arrestees over the phone. It’s useful for the legal support line to be a landline because many cell phones can’t accept collect calls from jails.
Legal Observers
If you’re lucky enough to live in an area with an active chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), they conduct trainings in how to be a “legal observer” at demonstrations, and there may already be people who are trained in what to watch for (as far as any police misconduct, etc.) that could prove useful in court later on. We were lucky to have two legal observers present. However, we learned that if this is a role you want filled, you should contact the NLG in your area well ahead of time to find out if it is a possibility (which should have been obvious). Two things to keep in mind are that observers are not simply “on call” in large numbers, and that someone trained by the Guild must have NLG approval to act as a legal observer at a particular demonstration.

Other Things to Take Care of Before & After

It was important for us to decide on our message ahead of time and try to make sure that people taking part in the action were familiar with the issues. We wanted to have signs, banners, and fliers that expressed our points concisely and that stuck to our message. The people locked down requested that everyone else focus our message on the demand for Bank of America to stop funding ecologically and culturally destructive industries even while they were being arrested. Even when it’s assumed that people are going to get arrested, and there’s no reason to think yelling at the cops is going to help, it can be hard not to, when they’re taking away people you care about a lot, so it was good that we’d talked about this ahead of time.
Rally Outreach
We also did outreach work to get numbers of people out for a support rally across the street from where the lockdown action was taking place. People at the rally were in a public park, and therefore in a lower risk position, while able to make a lot of noise about why we were there that day. When people were being cut out of the lockdown, most of the rally moved across the street to get close, which helped keep energy high. It makes sense to publicize for such events well ahead of time, especially those scheduled at busy times of the week or early in the day; it’s worth it to have people there.
Creating a Supportive Environment / Convergence Space
It can be so useful to have a common space where people can prepare for the action together. It’s not just the advantage of space to make preparations for the action that’s important, though; more than anything, it’s the “we’re all in this together” feeling of camaraderie and trust that develops among people working intensely toward the same goal in a supportive environment. But whether we’d been able to find a convergence space or not, we’ve certainly learned the value and can’t emphasize enough the importance of people spending time together to bond and get to know one another better. It definitely increased our confidence during the action to not only have large numbers of people, but to be surrounded by the familiar faces of people we knew we could trust. Part of building that trust ahead of time came from talking about what people’s concerns were and what would help them stay calm in stressful situations. It was also important to us that we valued and made space for emotional support and took time to talk about things other than the “action” details. It’s also very useful to make sure there’s a decent supply of food available in the preparation time leading up to an action, since there are enough things to worry about without going into an unpredictable situation hungry!
Press Release
It’s much easier to write a press release ahead of time and have it ready to send out right when you need it than to scramble to put it together when the action is under way. Research how to write an effective press release and remember you can always change small details right before you send it. Composing a press release also made us feel more confident that we could articulate our message during and after the action.
Practicing the high-stress roles beforehand was absolutely necessary to make sure we knew how we would move into place quickly and easily. The unfortunate reality was that not all of the people and props were gathered together until late in the game. Eventually it became too stressful and too late at night to keep practicing, and it was important to just trust that things would work out after everyone had gotten some rest, and they did.
Post Arrest
After the four activists blocking the bank’s entrance were removed from their lock boxes and bicycle lock and arrested, supporters started getting ready for the next step. A group of people gathered bail money and went to the police station where the arrestees were being held after the legal support had heard from most of them that they had been processed. Unfortunately, in Massachusetts, bail commissioners work independently and set their own hours, so it was many hours later that one finally showed up to accept bail money. Lesson learned: be ready to wait a long, long time. The next day after the arrest was the arraignment in court, where the arrestees are asked how they plead. Remember: always plead “not guilty” at an arraignment. You can change your plea later if you want to, but the arraignment is mainly an opportunity to set the next court date, not a time to argue your case. It’s also quite likely (at least here in MA) that the court will enter a “not guilty” plea on your behalf, and you will just need to be present. Arrestees in this case wrote down their recollection of events ASAP, before details faded, in order to be more confident in disputing any false accusations or violations of their rights, and so that the police aren’t the only ones with a record of the day’s events.

Some Conclusions

Somehow we managed to have an element of surprise. The civil disobedience portion of the action was never publicly announced and it was not discussed over e-mail, which has been the downfall of other actions in Boston. The publicly announced rally was vague in its promotion, but a lot of people still showed up, probably as much because of people knowing each other as because of fliers announcing it. The riskiest part of the action was planned and carried out by people who were friends, or at least friends of friends, which helped us feel more comfortable with each other. Perhaps the biggest success of this action was that it strengthened friendships and increased everyone’s experience working together, while shutting down a branch of the one of the largest corporations in the world for half a day. There is also a general resolve to get the word out about how and why the action was planned, making future actions all the more likely. Hopefully, people who gained experience from this day of action in Boston will actively look for ways to become tighter and more effective organizers of direct actions without alienating new folks who want to get involved. If we’re going to win any significant victories, it will be necessary to make it easy for newcomers to plug in and feel comfortable and empowered enough to organize their own actions independently.

While it would certainly be good to see more actions taking place in areas that are being destroyed by resource extraction, we feel that there are a lot of strengths to urban actions also. We should take advantage of our proximity to financial backers and profiteers as much as possible. Corporate headquarters are often in major urban areas, and as major financial centers with large concentrations of capital, big cities hold very important potential pressure points for a variety of campaigns and struggles. When it comes to an issue like mountaintop removal coal mining or coal slurry pipelines, the people of Appalachia or Black Mesa shouldn’t have to shoulder all of the responsibility for resistance while those of us in the Northeast use massive amounts of energy without having to think about its sources or implications. There were certainly mistakes made in the planning process for the Boston Fossil Fools Day Action, some of which are becoming more clear as we talk things over. However, enough elements of the day were positive that people who were involved are excited to continue organizing together and feel confident in our ability to do so. All in all, around 50-60 people from Boston and around the Northeast took part in this action in some way or another, and that’s not including all the passersby who gathered around at the end when the police were cutting the lockboxes. Hopefully it will have a ripple effect, inspiring other confrontations with illegitimate authority and ecological devastation. Civil disobedience is certainly not the only tactic available; it’s not appropriate for everyone, and it can be a drain on time, energy, and money. But as a tool for revitalizing a widespread direct action culture, it might be a good way to involve lots of people in something that is illegal without scaring them away before they get a little more comfortable with high adrenaline, confrontational situations.

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