5. Rolling the snowball on

In this section...

""There is a contemporary form of violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork.

The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence.

The frenzy of the activist neutralises his or her own work for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of one's work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."

Thomas Merton.

5.1 Forming an "affinity group"

We recommend that you do your action as part of an affinity group. An affinity group is a small group of up to about 15 people who come together to take nonviolent action. They get to know each other's strengths and weaknesses through working together and by making a commitment to supporting each other they can build up trust. This "affinity" makes preparations and decision making easier and sustains everyone through the challenges of taking nonviolent action.

If you have more than fifteen you might want to consider dividing into two groups. (See also section 5.11 on roles). You may already be part of a group who would like to join the campaign. If not, you could start one with friends or people with whom you know you can work well. Otherwise, you could organise a public meeting and invite people to form a group at the end of the meeting.

5.2 Group preparation

The first step is for everyone to read the parts of the handbook which are relevant for them. We recommend that everyone reads sections 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Taking nonviolent action can be difficult because we are challenging our own obedience which constrains our beliefs about what is possible. Get to know each other. Talk about how you got involved, the steps which led you this far, your hopes and fears, best and worst case scenarios. Use your time to build up trust and friendship within the group. Discuss your concerns and worries - of doing the action, of possibly getting arrested, being injuncted or sued for damages, being in the media limelight, how to cope with the responsibility that goes with becoming more powerful. Start making practical preparations where possible. For example, in case you are sued for damages (see section 6.6 for more details), the best way to keep all your assets is to give them away! For useful reading on group process see appendix 5.2.

Establish how much time each person has to contribute; it is important to be realistic and honest about what you can offer so that the group can look for more people if necessary. Be aware that your commitment may be needed for quite some time, before, during and after the action with varying levels of intensity.

5.3 Making decisions

Consensus decision making (when everyone in the group agrees with the decision) is a good way to ensure that you go into a risky situation with everyone feeling good about the decisions made. However, there are times when consensus is not appropriate; especially when you are short of time, you have yawning differences in your group, when you don't have enough information, when the issue at hand is trivial. At times like these, defer to experience, take a vote, or for trivial matters - flip a coin. See appendix 5.3 for a guide to consensus decision making.

5.4 Timelines

The genetiX snowball actions can happen on the first and third weekends of every month (see section 3.2.3). You will need to consider when is the best time to remove the crops (see appendix 5.5.3). You may also want to invite a trainer for a nonviolent action training session or join in a training in your region. Work out a plan to get more people involved and consider re- visiting the same site on a regular basis. Create a detailed timeline to help you get your preparation work completed with plenty of time. When we evaluated the first snowball action the point which came out most strongly was that we always underestimated the amount of time we would need to complete any task.

5.5 Choosing your release site

One of your most urgent tasks to be done - partly because it may take you considerable time - will be to choose and locate your release site. See appendix 5.5.

5.6 Writing to the farmer

See also below section on choices to make.

The minimum degree of openness required for genetiX snowball is to write to the farmer before the action. Writing as an initial contact may avoid making the farmer feel threatened, as s/he might be by a knock on the door, or a phone call. Your letter to the farmer could refer to the general genetix snowball letter which has already been sent (see appendix 4.1) and go on to introduce yourselves as a genetiX snowball group. Explain that as a small group you are planning to do an action on his/her land; remember to explain that you will be nonviolent. You do not necessarily need to give the date or time of your action (remember also that whoever signs the letter could be arrested or injuncted before or during the action). We recommend that you give a contact address which will not risk yourselves or anyone else with whom you live (it is possible that companies may send a private investigator to monitor your movements). If you are not sure which site you will choose then you could write to all those farmers connected to the most likely sites.

5.7 Choices to make

We recommend that you explore the following issues in your group and come to consensus on what you will do. Please let us know what you decide and how it goes so that we can advise others based on your experiences.

5.7.1 Becoming even more open

We were very cautious about giving out details of our action beforehand. Our action was the first and we had very little idea what would happen. We had to be ready for nothing at all or all being arrested and remanded for conspiracy before we could do our action. We also had a high media profile which was an extra stress over the need to come up with the goods.

We hope that groups will experiment with pushing the frontiers of openness out much further than our minimum ground rule. You could contact us to find out what other groups have tried out, and please let us know what you have tried yourselves and the results. The following is a series of possibilities you might want to explore: Giving the farmer more details beforehand, or not

Preparation for the launch snowball action included letters to all farmers with GM release sites. We did not write a special separate letter to the farmer who was hosting the site where we did our action, since he had only just received the general one. One of us did go to visit this farmer and discussed the issue of GM crops, but this was before he had received our letter and before he knew anything about genetiX snowball.

There are pros and cons of giving the farmer more than minimal details before the action, such as the date and time, or of asking to meet with the farmer. You may get a chance to find out a bit about the farmer's circumstances. We changed our initial chosen release site after inadvertently meeting with the owners of a small garden centre which had a release site (which we were checking). They were both older people and seemed to be very upset and threatened by the possibility of the action happening on their land. The situation was made worse by the fact that the release site was close to the farm buildings which meant that they might feel personally threatened. We strongly recommend that you avoid these situations; it may be difficult to reassure them that we are peaceful and we don't want people to feel afraid.

If the farmer is likely to be aggressive it may help to reassure him/her if s/he knows what to expect. People are usually violent because they are afraid, and people are often afraid when they don't know what is happening. On the other hand the farmer may well perceive advance notice of the action as a threat and worry about what might happen.

The farmer may try to prevent you from doing the action. S/he is most likely to tell the company since it is their release site and may also inform the police. It is also possible that the farmer will be there with his gun and his dog! Giving the company more details beforehand, or not

All the companies responsible for GM release sites in Britain have been sent letters from genetiX snowball (see appendix 4.1). Informing the company of your action would give the advantage of creating more openness and give you an opportunity to ask them again to remove the GM crops themselves.

You could ask to meet with the company beforehand to explain why you think their practices of genetically modifying plants are wrong. You could also discuss alternative methods of food production which are ecologically sustainable, safe and secure. In this case you could all be injuncted at the meeting or you may come under pressure from them to change your plans in a "let's talk whilst we continue to contaminate" situation.

The farmer is likely to inform the company, so writing a letter to the company giving the same amount of information as to the farmer may not change the circumstances of your action very much. However, if you give any more information, such as the date and location, the company may hire their own security guards, inform the police or serve an injunction on you before, during or after the action. Giving the police more details of the action, or not

The police are already aware of the genetiX snowball campaign. We wrote to Thames Valley Police (see Appendix 4.1 for our letter) before our action and we also responded to a telephone call. We asked them to investigate the crimes we believe companies are committing, but so far they have not taken legal action against the biotechnology companies. Their attitude during our action was to listen to us first, they gave all the appropriate warnings before arresting us and gave us opportunity to leave of our own accord. They were polite and reasonable and did not use any force at any time. They reported our action to the press as a peaceful action.

We feel there is no need to give the police any further details since we have already informed them about the crimes the biotechnology companies are committing. However, there is an argument for letting them know the date and location; especially if you fear the farmer may be aggressive, in which case you might want the police to be there! On the other hand the police may arrest you for breach of the peace if the farmer is being violent. Yes, they can do this!

The police may try to arrest you as you are arriving and prevent you from reaching the site; however the intention to remove the crops has an importance of its own and if you are released later without charge, then you can simply return and try again. Some additional openness possibilities

5.7.2 How many "pull-ups" can you do?

To be a part of the genetiX snowball each individual can pull up anything up to, but no more than, 100 plants. This limit has been set to protect participants and to encourage a sense of unity in our actions. If we all pull up a similar numbers of plants, we should all be treated equally and no 'unspoken hierarchies' of action or of our abilities will develop. The genetiX snowball is designed so that everyone can take part on an equal basis and so encouraging some people to do more than others could manage would be to go against its principles. In addition, limiting the number of plants we pull up at any one time allows more room for dialogue and opportunities for the companies or farmers to pull up the GM plants themselves.

Arguably, genetiX snowball could be effective in two ways: (a) literally uprooting all the GM plants, or (b) symbolically uprooting all the GM plants. The former could be effective simply because all the plants are gone which in itself has a powerful symbolism. The latter could be effective because the symbolism brings the issue into the public domain; it is here, not in the field, that the action can realise its potential power. Whichever you believe, both methods are possible. genetiX snowball is about ordinary people taking responsibility and encouraging others to do the same; so if you want to get all the plants out of the ground just get more people to join in!

'Test site' at Model Farm, Oxfordshire, scene of the first
genetiX snowball on 4th July 1998. Photo Hugh Warwick

We recommend that within your group you discuss what each member feels comfortable doing. You may also want to consider whether it is best if you all pull up the same number of plants so that the risks for all are equal. Here are some ideas of what you or your group could do at the site within the maximum limit of 100 plants:

5.8 Getting support

You do not need to be invincible, have all the answers or re- invent the wheel. Contact the genetiX snowball office if you have any problems or need help with anything. There are many other groups working on the issue of GM crops and/or are experienced in either campaigning or taking nonviolent action. You could get help with your work from other campaigns (see Appendix Contacts & Resources), for example, briefing sheets on GM crops and up to date information.

5.9 Practising nonviolence

You can get very good information about this without us duplicating what has already been done, see appendix 5.9. We strongly recommend that you follow up our references and organise a nonviolence training for your group. Turning the Tide is a Quaker organisation which specialises in nonviolence training for actions. They do trainings free of charge if you cover their expenses and they have trainers throughout Britain.

5.10 Reaching into your community

This is more democratic than a small isolated action which does not make reference to its locality. Some people may not feel able to form a snowball group but will be very keen to help in other ways; you might be able to get help with legal advice, banner making, transport, child minding, making food, conflict mediation. Local people who may be interested in supporting your group include organic farmers, allotment associations, churches and temples, women's groups, health food shops and grocers, local 'green' groups. Tell your friends and colleagues, put up posters, distribute leaflets, hold a meeting, organise a debate - use your imagination ....

You will find a poster and leaflet design which you can photocopy to use locally in the appendix 5.12.

5.10.1 Generating dialogue and debate

In preparation for the action you could write some letters to voice your concerns about GM. You can get a list of addresses from the genetiX snowball office. You could arrange to meet with representatives of the company responsible for the release, your local supermarket manager, your MP. These letters and meetings will open dialogue with others in a position to influence the issue and give space for them to use their power to stop the GM release site experiments. At least one farmer, in Wiltshire, has cancelled a proposed contract to plant GM crops after hearing about the dangers.

Public meetings and debates are an excellent way of informing people about the arguments around the issue of GM. You could invite speakers from the various campaigns against GM and from the GM companies. Create displays detailing arguments against GM for people to wander around.

5.11 Roles to share out

There are a number of tasks which you will need to cover before, during and after the action. Ideally you should have at least five people who are doing essential support work i.e. not doing the hands-on decontaminating. Some support tasks need the attention of at least one person, others can be doubled up. The most likely roles for arrest are obviously the decontaminators; the support members who will be on site are also possible candidates; whereas support members who are off site should be almost completely safe.

Support Roles, though outside the media spotlight are crucial to a successful action.
Shown left-to-right: Film maker, Police Liaison, Farmer Liaison, Action Observer, Photographer.
Second genetiX snowball 18th July 1998. Photo: Paul Kingsnorth

5.12 Preparing your equipment

All the equipment you take to the action is an opportunity to give a message about your action. You could make a banner or some flags (which are quick and easy to erect). Avoid tools which might give a scary message - like scythes. Brightly coloured headscarves or hats look more friendly than hoods. We decorated our protective clothing and hand tools. We didn't wear masks because we thought they made it very difficult to communicate with people.

See appendix 5.12 for a complete checklist list of equipment and where to obtain things.

5.13 Media

See George Monbiot's media guide in appendix 5.13 and press releases from the first snowball action in appendix 4.3.

5.14 The scene of their crime

Before the day of the action work out a programme for the day which includes when, how, who and what will happen. Start by going through a checklist of what you need to take (see appendix 5.12), have all your transport details fine tuned and give some thought to each stage of the action.

These plans will be made according to an ideal scenario. However, it is worth going through some contingency plans. There are so many possible scenarios that the best way to deal with them all might be to work out a system for emergency decision making. Practice making decisions quickly and role play some scenarios. What will you do if the bus doesn't show up, if somebody in a crucial role cannot make it at the last minute, if the police are already there when you arrive, if the farmer has harvested the crop?

Prepare for action: gloves, protective clothing
and spade. Photo: Nick Cobbing