Breaking new ground on direct action escalations

kings piccie

The King’s College Climate Emergency Campaign.

Breaking new ground on direct action escalations.

Roger Hallam April 2017

This is a report on the King’s College Climate Emergency campaign (KCCE) to get total divestment from fossil fuels. It goes into quite a lot of detail about the design elements of the campaign and therefore assumes a certain amount of background knowledge on nonviolent direct action. However hopefully it can be understood by people new to this sort of activity. And of course if any reader is interested in the campaign and has questions about it with a view to designing their own campaigns then please do contact me and we can have a chat[1].

In brief I wish to make the claim that this campaign won for three main reasons:

  • The power of decentralised (post consensus) decision making as a way of releasing radical innovation.
  • The power of rapid escalations of “illegal” direct actions which take nonviolent direct action (NVDA) to new heights not seen in the recent past.
  • The power of maintaining an open and positive attitude to the opposition in order to more easily facilitate “a win” from the campaign.


Background and contextual limitations.

I have been involved in several campaign designs now as part of my PhD research at King’s College on effective radical campaigning. This case was the last study for my PhD proper and significantly different in several respects. First and foremost, I initiated and led the campaign. Previously I have helped design elements but not taken a frontline position. I felt I could and should do this because King’s is my home turf and I am now in the third year of my research. Also I have grown frustrated with the various limitations of working within other people’s campaigns where I cannot have fuller control over testing ideas which I think have massive potential to be used more widely. Lastly since the election of Trump I have made the decision I am not going to hold myself back and if I think that I can create radical change more effectively by leading the charge, as it were, then I have decided to do so. I am not sure if this is a good idea in the longer term, and it is certainly challenging for me, but in this case it has been very successful.

Obviously the particularities of this campaign need to be seen in context and therefore there are arguably limits to the application to other contexts. For example, the campaign was led by myself and so bears the stamp of my experience and abilities such as they are. Also the campaign was relatively small scale and the aim not too difficult to attain (though this may be said with the benefit of hindsight). However as I hope to argue there are key elements of this campaign which are transferable to far larger and more important contexts. In fact, having now spent 3 years studying this area full time, I do believe we have “cracked the code” on effective radical campaigning and the whole neo-liberal/feudal edifice of elite power in society can be taken down. The knowledge is there and we can do it. This is of course a massive claim and of course I could be wrong. However it happens to be my genuine view and through explaining how this campaign was conducted I hope to persuade you that I am right. If so then we have something very exciting here – a set of methods for effectively creating equality and liberation in society without the compromises of involvement in existing institutions and political structures.


The beginning of the campaign and the organisational structure.

I have a particular interest in climate change – both because of my background as an organic farmer and also because of the growing realisation we are all experiencing – that this problem is fucking big! Every year it comes back and hits us that climate chaos in on the way and the urgency sits in our stomachs like a dead weight. It therefore seemed to me that it would be good to do a campaign to get Kings to divest from fossil fuels. I wanted to test a rapid escalation routine and thought this would be a great opportunity. I went to see the fossil free group but they were hesitant about doing direct action as they had just won what they saw as concessions on divestment from coal and tar sands. However this left the rest of the fossil fuels and on closer inspection the commitment to divest such that it was, came with various confusing caveats.

The upshot was that we agreed I would set up a new campaign – KCCE and at this stage I was unsure where it would lead. In particular it was uncertain to what degree students could be mobilised. Myself and one other student decided on putting up posters about climate change (CC) and we would see where it led. Note that this was the first design element which worked to our advantage. We did not put up posters asking people to come to a meeting. We started acting. The design here then was to act first as it is acting which leads to mobilisation, not the other way round.

This then was part of more overall radical design which I think is crucial for effective mobilisation – the post consensus organising principle. There are of course variations on the theme but the basics of the design are as follows:

The aim of the campaign is set and (if needed) a general set of good practices laid down (e.g. all actions should be nonviolent – not needed in this case as this was well understood). Once an achievable and clear aim (i.e. you know when it is won) had been set then as people join the campaign they are free to take action without the permission of others in the campaign. As various literatures confirm in practice this does not create chaos or disorganisation but a release of creative energy. People still do check with each other what they want to do but know the final decision lies with them. It therefore enables innovation and edgy ideas to fly, in contrast to the old consensus model where people are consciously or unconsciously pressured to come up with ideas the whole group is already comfortable with “in order to get to consensus”. More radical direct ideas can go ahead – whereas in consensus based processes such ideas would likely not be agreed by the group.

I think this is a fundamental break with a long tradition of unthinking attachment to consensus and its consequences cannot be underestimated. This is because radical direct actions, as I will soon argue, are the backbone of how and why campaigns succeed. But without this open source model they will not take place as they will get blocked my more conservative and hesitant members of the group.

Of course there is plenty of nuance to be discussed around such open source structures and in larger groups some things needed a consensus structure (e.g. how people are to be treated) but the beauty of this new structure for KCCE was that radical actions could happen thick and fast without the bureaucratic hold up of consensus meeting consideration.

Indeed what was amazing about how this campaign proceeded was that there was no proper formal meeting during the whole campaign. I did not intend this in the design but it emerged as a structure as things progressed. It is worth going into some detail here about how the organisation worked as it has implications for how we see the massive organising capacity of social media.

The campaign was structured around two facebook pages – an open one for public announcements , articles on CC, and promoting events etc. Then there was a closed FB group for people wishing to be involved in the campaign. The basic process of recruitment was as follows. About twice a week I would send friend requests to all the people who liked the main FB page – and then a message asking if they would like to be involved in which case I would make them part of the FB closed group. Around 25% of people got back in touch and the closed group grew through this process. Additional members of the group were added by existing members and a few others through face to face encounters.

I also initiated two “meet ups” each week on Tuesday and Wednesday lunch times. However although the FB group grew significantly (see below) to over 100 member no more than 3 people turned up to any one meeting and usually there was only one or two. At these meet ups I would generally introduce new action ideas for the campaign and then post them on the closed group page. I would also, as admin of the page, personally send a message to each person in the group (copying and pasting a set text) – this would take no more than an hour. I would put a link in this copied text to the facebook event if there was one. I would also post details of events and general updates on the closed facebook page.

This organisational structure then was very simple and happened almost entirely online, with me being a central coordinator (sometimes helped by others). People seemed happy with the system and would message me directly to say they would come to an event/action after which we would communicate one to one on FB to confirm any details (e.g. stuff to buy and bring).

What was amazing about this system, apart from the fact that we never all met up, was the efficiency of the structure. In my observations of campaign groups the ratio of time spent on organisation/ decision making to the time taken undertaking (direct) actions is in the region of 9:1 if not more. However in this new system the ratio was close to the opposite. Each week there would be two small 30 minute meet ups and the rest of the organisation would be done on line (about 5 hours work by myself) and then the action would take place, followed by several people sending out press releases etc. There were no minutes, organisational clogs, ego conflicts, or ideological disputes. It seemed like a whole universe of supposedly vital campaigning practice had slipped away while the actual amount of action massively increased compared with other campaigns. Of course you could argue that a sense of solidarity was lost here – there was no close bonding, and political education was missing. All this might be true but again the main point is that far from undermining the level of action it led to a significant increase in actions.


Escalation design and process.

The post consensus structure then enabled the rapid escalation to go ahead. Usually actions are sporadic or even just one offs. Such activities rarely if ever create any real political change. Of course they can have some justification for consolidating oppositional identities and in creating a groundswell of connections upon which can be built more effective campaigns. However the bottom line is that politics is a battle between two forces of power. The force with the most power wins. The question then is what constitutes such power and how does a challenger force acquire this power. Although we can conceive of power in its many facets  – psychological, cultural, economic etc – in the context of a campaign there are two main battles going on – a psychological battle and a material cost battle. It is important not to over emphasise either as both are important.

The point of an escalation on one level is to continue to increase the costs to the opposition to the point where they concede to your viewpoint. However this is only one aspect of the design. Doing something repeatedly is fine but we need to look at what that something is. The point here is that the something has to create a “dilemma” for the opposition.

I have written about this extensively elsewhere but to summarise political actions can fall into three camps. First there are actions which have no material or psychological impact upon the opposition. They are merely ritualistic and performative – at best simply reinforcing the oppositional culture of the activists. Although context matters here – broadly speaking marches and petitions fall into this category. Then at the other extreme are actions which are deemed so anti-social that they unite the opposition against you and thus you are presented with a full united force response from the authorities which will most likely destroy your ability to carry on, or you only can do so with such little capacity that you are no longer a credible threat. The most obvious example here is violence. For instance, hitting the Principal would have elicited this sort of response!

In between these two extremes lies the sweet spot of the dilemma action which splits the opposition – with half wanting to go for repression and half wanting to give into demands. This is where you want the opposition – weakened so it can no longer speak with one united voice (a reversal of the old ruling class routine of divide and rule). Probably the best thing about this campaign for me was the ability to see close up the working out of this theoretical proposition in reality. Although what is said by people from the opposition has to be seen through the impression they want to make, it was clear the painting of the entrance hall created a clear split in the response of management and senior academics. One camp wanted robust repressive action  – namely the charging of myself and maybe others with criminal damage. The other camp wanted negotiation and to resolve the dispute – presumably to prevent further conflict which would have the reputational implications for the college. The thinking here was that prosecuting students for protests on climate change, however justified in former legal terms, was not in their political interests. Although this general description of internal dispute has been confirmed by several sources it would be useful to talk to some of the protagonists to get a fuller and more nuanced view of the power conflicts involved. At the time of writing I am planning to do a number of anonymous interviews with some of the main power players involved in the drama.

The central design challenge then is to identify these sweet spots and to aim your direct action at this spot for maximum effect. The second set of dynamic regards the effect of direct actions on the audience which might join with you. There are two main dynamics here:

First, and this is maybe the most important dynamic in nonviolence theory and practice is the effect of seeing people of your own cultural group repressed by the opposition. This relates to the acute dilemma oppositions are under in these confrontation conditions and this is the reason why all social power is relational rather than possessive/absolute. The powerful only have power to the extent that people do what they want them to do (relational). Once some of them stop doing this, the necessity of punishing them is liable to provoke further disobedience. Hence the dilemma and hence also the essential structural precariousness of all power structures.

Secondly the effect of seeing people transgress these rules of behaviour enforced by existing power structures has a “demonstration effect” – the showing it can be done in actuality. This is profoundly influential in affecting the ideas of what is “possible” by those witnessing or reading about such acts. Again there is a balance here. If the direct action is too timid then it does not attract much attention as it is not significantly transgressive. If the direct action is so full-on that people cannot imagine themselves copying it, either for moral or lack of courage reasons (as in the case of physical violence), then again there is little demonstration effect. At best people will admire it but think it is “not for me”. The sweet spot is to do something which a critical mass of people would like to do – or realise they would like to do, once they see it in action. A classic example then is Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white person during the during the civil rights protests in 1950s America. Many black people may have dreamed of doing this but once when they saw it done they felt they could do it themselves.

We can see here then a number of way the power resources of a campaign can be enormously enhanced simply by the design of the confrontation itself rather than simply by deploying power resources already at the campaign’s disposal, as in a traditional battlefield scenario. What we see here then is that our power can increase if it is deployed in a smart way. And this explains why seemingly powerless situations can be transformed into powerful situations – David can overcome Goliath.

So let’s apply these explanations to the design and outcomes of the KCCE escalation. The campaign started with action – the putting up of posters by just two people. This action led to the recruitment of 8 people in the last two weeks before the break up of the first term. My hope had been to get some momentum built up in the first term so that we could hit the big time during the second term, which is the best time for student mobilisation (during the first term people are just getting to know each other and the third term is dominated by exams). The start of the escalation got delayed due to negotiating with the Fossil Free group. However the shape and potential of future mobilisation was in place by the time we broke up for Christmas. By the end of the first term I had the plan of the mobilisation worked out in my head. I also knew the pilot mobilisation outcomes of putting up posters showed definitive material evidence that student mobilisation on a larger scale was possible. This was a successful pilot – x would produce y mobilisation. So by deduction 5 x would produce 5 y and if we need 4y to win the campaign then I knew that doing 5x would produce a win. I therefore knew before Christmas that on paper we would win the campaign, although on an emotional level I doubted my “figures” in the same way as you study for an exam which you know you will pass, because you have studied sufficiently, but you still “irrationally” worry that you will mess it up.

The substantial evidence for my analytical confidence was that these 8 students were happy to spray chalk dots on the posters and on the walls by the posters – crossing a line into technically disciplinary territory. This showed that the demonstration effect of doing the postering and chalking myself had levered 8 others to not only to join the campaign, but crucially to transgress norms and enter the potential dilemma action zone of campaigning. This would lever exponentially more mobilisation of both general support and, again crucially, many others who would engage in dilemma actions. Obviously the upward exponential curve of mobilisation would not be smooth. There would be lots of “noise” and local effects, as in any real life system, but the underlying dynamic would win though. That was my thesis.

My main worry was that the escalation would not be fast enough and get caught by the structural limits of the context – namely the time limit of the second term. I had seen this problem happen several times – that by the time student campaigns had gained momentum (delayed by consensus clogging) they were prevented from reaching their climax in the third term when the pressure of exams inevitably drains away resources. So I decided to start with a big bang but not so big that it would alienate the audience I wanted to mobilise but enough to inspire sufficient recruitment to take matters quickly to the next stage of the escalation. On the first Tuesday of the second term an activist friend brought some ladders to Kings and I took them to spray chalk the wall above the entrance of the main building. For whatever reason security seemed to know about it and I had to go back and rethink matters. I then decided to chalk the columns the following day. I would not need any ladders (I am no good with heights so that was a big relief) and could easily get up on a ledge which gave access to the columns. This time the action went like clockwork. I spray chalked in bright red letters “out of time – divest from oil and gas now” across five columns and security only arrived as I was doing the last one. I prioritised the main part of the message in case I got stopped. I was questioned by the head of security who had come out to view the situation and after assuring him that I was not going anywhere and was happy to give my details the initial panicky atmosphere calmed down. After giving my details I was free to go.

A video was made by Real Media and posted online within 4 hours of the action and a press release sent out that afternoon. The video provoked a fine amount of criticism in the comments thread and this in turn provoked a lot of supportive comments – the action then created what it set out to achieve – a political controversy and drama. The video was viewed over 5000 times and “likes” on the open FB page increased to over 200 from a previous 50. I contacted all the new people one by one by sending them a friend request and then messaging a cut and pasted message. If they responded I would make them a member of the closed FB group for the campaign so they could see all the organisational stuff that was happening for the campaign. The number of people who were members of this group rose from around 15 to 40 within the week after this action.

This action then provided the audience to recruit for the next action the following week. I already had planned that 5-10 people would spray chalk the central gothic hall of the main Kings building with slogans and dots. I spoke one to one to a number of possible recruits and got around 5 people into taking the action. Then they in turn recruited 2-3 others. By the day of the action we had 9 people who met an hour before the action to learn of the location and the plan and be legally briefed. Note the recruitment situation was quite fluid – I did not know actually who would take part till the day and some people arrived late and so had to be briefed quickly. The FB event for a rally was advertised for people to gather outside the front of Kings and 2 people were briefed to tell people to come to the main hall once the action has started. This way we managed to get around 20 people to come and give support to the action without worrying about it leaking out where the action would take place. The nine of us had precise instructions on who would paint where and what slogans would be used. We split into four groups followed by the video guy and approached the hall from four different directions. This “military” style preparation ensured we did not attract attention.

The upshot was that the hall was covered with slogans within a minute or two and dots of chalk were put all over the walls. The security were quickly on the scene telling people what they were doing was criminal damage but not physically stopping anyone from acting. Later the head of security arrived together with the vice principal, dean and various other officials. By chance an open day was happening at the same time so there was also a milling around of various bemused sixth formers as our supporters arrived to do a good ten minutes of chanting.

The head of security told myself and one other campaigner that the police would be called and we would be arrested because the seriousness of the situation left him with no choice. The other campaigners, although filmed and nearby, were ignored and later left. The two of us who were taken to the head of security’s office, were later taken by police to the local police station. There we were put in police cells, interviewed and fingerprinted and released at 3am the following morning. We were not charged but told the university might press criminal damage charges.

We can see here – even in the immediate response to the action – clear signs of a dilemma action at work. The security opted to not stop us physically – this policy rightly foresaw that to drag students away from the wall would have given us many times more publicity (“if it bleeds it leads” dynamic) – but the downside was it enabled us to paint much more of the wall – this was their first “lose lose” problem. Secondly they only arrested two of us when “technically” they should have arrested all those involved. Again the thinking might have been a divide and rule tactic – make an example of the two of us – but as we can see this did not work. These two policies then were clearly political – related not to the letter of the law which was clear enough but to the political power calculations of the authorities.

The week or so after this action was in many ways the turning point of the campaign. The action had in some ways done more than was intended – the amount of painting was dramatic. The location was highly symbolic – and it turned out that chalk on this type of stone needed specialist contractors to remove it, costing around £10-15,000. It was enough to prompt a letter to be emailed to all 29,000 students at the university justifying the university’s climate policies and criticising our actions. The fossil fuel group after “not condoning” my spray chalk action now put out a statement saying our action was “juvenile vandalism”.  The video got over 12,000 views and created even more controversy on the comments thread. The number of likes of the open FB page rose to over 400 and the number of members of the closed organising group rose to around 70-80 people.

I subsequently found out that the action created something of a major crisis for the university management. Nothing had ever happened like this before, and as in such cases a bureaucracy reactd in an inconsistent and chaotic way. I was suspended two days after the action and several people not involved in the spray chalking were sent letters accusing them of taking part and with criminal damage. One student from UCL was banned from coming to King’s.

It turned out that broadly speaking, as the theory predicts, a dilemma had been created – many top managers wanted a repressive response – to charge me and possibly others with criminal damage – while others including the vice principal, who came to talk to us after the action, wanted negotiation and a resolution of the dispute. The opposition was beautifully split – which is aim number one of the dilemma action – and subsequently the “liberals” as you might call them overcame the “hawks” and the policy of constructive engagement won out. The VP contacted the two of us who were arrested “for a coffee” and so from this point the policy of the opposition moved from ignoring the campaign to ever greater engagement to meet our demands. The clear causal factor here was the direct action in the main call. This is the crucial lesson of this text – direct action works – but only if it is sufficiently robust!


In terms of mobilising the audience, the action led to  a big increase in support – but also a falling away by some more sensitive/liberal students. We can see here then the outline of the political space of the delimma sweet spot – if the action had caused say £50,000 of damage and if our behaviour had been aggressive, the falling away of support might have been greater than the increase in support indicating the boundary between the dilemma action “zone” and the “over the top “ zone. It would seem then that the action slightly over did it but was still was substantially within the dilemma action zone. Another piece of evidence was that a right wing student threatened to do a counter demonstration at our next action. And it would be fair to say a large number of students “agreed with the cause but not the method”. However this response by some students was not strong enough to actually lead to any counter mobilisation. So again the action hit its target and but did not overdo it.

On the plus side around 20-30 students now contacted us and wanted to join the campaign explicitly empowered by the demonstration effect – saying things like “I want to join because I can see how this campaign can win”. The campaign had established a credible pathway to success – its actions were not symbolic or ritualistic but created the material basis for a breakthrough. This attracted a certain sort of rational radical – people who actually wanted to see results – rather than just wanting to be part of a “radical scene”. The former group was much larger than the latter but only a solid dilemma action can mobilise this group.

Evidence for this was that a week later we did our next action outside the front of King’s and this time used poster paint was used to put dots on the wall along with flowers, balloons and statements. Around 30 students were now involved. The police were quickly on the scene and three students were taken to one side and told they would be arrested for criminal damage for putting poster paint blobs on the wall. However at the last moment they were released (probably on the request of the university security) but then sent letters to say they would be suspended if they did the action again.

The following week the policy seemed to have changed. Around 40 students and non student supporters turned up this time and the police only asked people not to put poster paint blobs on the wall and didn’t take any further action. They were told that the paint would come off easily. The police did not take anyone to one side or arrest anyone. Our power to act transgressively without repression had clearly expanded. The “decorating” carried on unimpeded for over an hour. And the frontage was covered with over 300 flowers and dozens of balloons and posters. I personally spoke to the head of security who was present and told him it was only kids poster paint and he indicated that this was okay. Afterwards one of the cleaning staff told us it was no big deal and they would wash it off.

The following week was reading week when not many students were around. I was concerned that the momentum might slide so I decided a small group of us would repeat the first week’s action of painting on the pillars but this time just with poster paint (i.e. extremely easy to take off). One of the students was late and so by the time we went up to the pillars the police had arrived and immediately told us we would be arrested for criminal damage if we painted the columns. I told them it was only poster paint and it was ok with security and carried on. I was then manhandled away from the pillars and put into hand cuffs and arrested. I was again taken to the local police station and spent the night in the cells. This time I was informed by the solicitor that I would be “bound over” not to go back to Kings if I pleaded not guilty (I was to go to court the next morning) – which meant I could go to prison if I broke these conditions. I opted to plead guilty so I could make sure I could get back to Kings as I needed to continue to organise the campaign and also conduct the hunger strike I planned to start that week. I was fined £500 for the various paintings I had done and then released.

At the time of the arrest the filmmaker caught on film two of the top security people saying that they did not want me arrested. So it seemed the individual decision by the police officer to arrest me (following the letter of the law) was not part of the political plan of the university.

A final painting event look place the following week on the following Saturday and involved around 40 people including many people from the outside the university. No painting of the walls was undertaken and while there were police there no action was taken by then. The event was attended by London Green Party mayoral candidate and the event finally got covered by the national press as well as the London and student press.

By this time I had been on my hunger strike for 10 days. A week after I started, I had my first face to face meeting with the VP. We had a constructive two and a half hour meeting, and covered a lot of ground from the existential threat of climate change to the nitty gritty of the policy changes the campaign demanded. At this meeting it was clear that the university was willing to give in to our demands as long as they could be framed in a way that didn’t look like they were giving in to us (i.e. to save face). I was pleasantly surprised by their flexibility, but cautious that the agreement would have to be agreed by other people in top management and that the devil would be in the details of any written statement. However on the face of it, it looked at this point like the campaign would win. I met again with two managers the following Monday and we agreed a draft statement. It was agreed total divestment would happen by 2022.

On the Wednesday ten of us occupied one of the main meeting rooms for the university’s top management and put out a banner supporting the divestment campaign. We were treated well by management and we explained that we would only be in occupation for 24 hours as long as the statement was signed. The following day the VP came to the occupied space with his press officer. In the presence of the president of the union and reporters from the student newspaper, the final statement agreeing to the campaign’s demands was agreed. The document was signed and we all shook hands. We vacated the space as we had found it and I started eating again after a 14 day hunger strike.


Analysis of the escalation.

As mentioned it seems like the tipping point of the campaign was the full on-ness of the painting of the hall. However it would be reasonable to assume that without the continued weekly actions the campaign would not have succeeded. My hunger strike then created added impetuous at the end of the campaign – provoking a lot of interest both within the university and in the press. In fact I sensed that we could have pushed for an earlier date for divestment but I was aware that we were playing a sort of real life poker game and while it was clear they were freaked out by the hunger strike, I was equally keen to end it as soon as we could agree a deal. The VP actually said to me as I passed day 10 words to the effect that whatever we wanted he would try to get agreed. In other words we both wanted a deal because the stakes were high for both parties.

In another series of developments, the university changed course on my suspension. The week after my suspension I decided to challenge the ban on coming onto college property including the student union lobby. I had a meeting with some of us there and the security came and asked me to leave. I said I thought I should be allowed to be in the student union area and would not move but would not resist them moving me either. I took off my glasses and two guards carefully dragged me out of the building (videoed of course). I also communicated via my supervisor that I would not be giving up because I was suspended and would be carrying out with the escalation of civil disobedience even if this landed me in prison. I was genuinely fully prepared to be permanently expelled from the university. In the face of this firmness of approach the management blinked first and after a week they sent me a letter saying it was neither in my nor the university’s interests for me to be suspended and I was reinstated from the date of the letter. Once I was reinstated I informed the university fees office that I would not be paying my fees until I got an agreement. I was then suspended again a week before the deal was confirmed. Once the agreement was signed I paid my fees and have now been reinstated again.

The take away lesson from this is that high level non co-operation with an opposition in the context of a general escalating mobilisation is very powerful. It quickly became clear to the authorities that they were dealing with a clear, prepared and firm opposition. The hunger strike was I think the icing on the cake in this particular context. My sense was we had clearly overwhelmed them and liberals in the power structure rightly outgunned the hawks in making clear that negotiation was preferable to the continued and growing reputational damage of continuing to repress such a determined campaign.

In theory these actions should fit into a growing escalation of our ever bigger and more audacious actions. However as things turned out there was a slightly different tactical progression being played out. This might be called a zig zag strategy. The second action in the hall was the biggest transgression of the campaign. Its function in happening at this point was to set the high political drama for the following weeks. The bureaucratic response was improvised given they had not seen anything like this before – and below the legal norm (ie everyone should have been arrested). However on the second action we moved to poster paint use and again they were caught off balance – looking silly for threatening people for putting kids paint on the wall. This time they were arguably too repressive. By the time of the second painting event they found some equilibrium and just allowed us to get on with the decorating. And then with the poster painting of the walls the following week they messed up again letting me be arrested when we have clear evidence of this not being the plan (i.e. a film of the top security people saying they did not want me arrested).

What this shows is a bureaucratic system overwhelmed with a zig zag of rapid and different transgressions. It did not have time to create a well thought out approach to these dilemma actions and consequently went for sub optimal and contradictory responses. It could not control all parts of the responsive system – and hence part of it went “off message” i.e. in the case of me being arrested the second time. The effect of this was to demoralise and confuse the opposition. And again I believe this led to the majority of the management wanting to negotiate rather than continue to fight against a resolute and unpredictable opponent.

The key there then is speed and preparation. As in any military conflict the advantage is with the side that takes the initiative and can manoeuvre rapidly on the basis of a well thought out plan. This is how an opponent far more powerful on paper, can be overcome.

The key benefit of escalations then might not be so much a clear increase in transgressions but a rapid sequence of unpredictable transgressions. That said it would seem reasonable to argue that against a more powerful opponent the “high end” activism of not paying fees and going on hunger strike would have been necessary at the end of the escalation to bring the opponent to the negotiating table.

There are three other elements to the success which I want to mention before going onto the final discussion on how to relate to the opposition.

Social media and press

A key design was to have smooth process for the promotion of the campaign and the absorption of new people. This was provided by a number of student journalists who would post pieces within a few hours of each action with a link to the open FB page. The Real Media team would also video each action and have a smart professional video done for us the same day as the action. These videos were watched thousands of times and again promoted the open FB page and the date of the next action. The next step was to contact each person one to one who liked the FB page and then make them members of the closed organising group. I would then personally message each person to ask if they would come to the next action and link them to a FB event for that action. By the end of the campaign there were 120 people in the organising group, up from the 2 of us who had started the campaign 10 weeks beforehand. The vast majority of these people I met only on actions. The whole bureaucracy and time overheads of meeting, minutes etc was bypassed in a dramatic way with this structure which as the success of the campaign showed is no longer necessary for rapid, digitalised escalation campaigns. Often these administrative processes is not organised properly as they are given little attention or status compared with the drama of the direct actions. However it is crucial that absorption processes are tight and efficient to maximise the recruitment of people after an action.

  1. The decorating of the walls proved to be a great success – not least because it was so much fun. I was keen to do this sort of action not just because of its ability to tease out the sweet spots of dilemma actions for the opposition but also because of its freshness, accessibility, and surreal attractiveness. Instead of boring rallies (and even more boring speakers no one can hear properly) this type of protest enabled each person to pro-actively co-create the protest through their bodily actions. There is plenty of research to show that such designs create satisfaction and empowerment. These actions also enabled people new to activism to enter the field at a very safe and controllable level – just putting up a statement on a wall for instance involved no risk but at the same time felt like something was being done. This positive experience then provided the basis for taking more risks and certainly being involved in more such actions. The atmosphere of these actions then was very different to the traditional lefty repertoire of leaflets, speakers and staid seriousness. Lastly there was a certain “culture jamming” element to the activity of putting up balloons and flowers on a university wall. On the face of it there was no connection between this and the cause of climate change – but this was the whole point – it broke the cultural codes of what activism is and what opposition looks like. Such “surrealist” actions create confusion and thus interest – this was different and this was good in itself. Politics then I believe through these actions reconnects with the rest of life – it has social, creative and fun aspects and thus becomes animated and alive.
  2. There is no denying that the campaign had me as its figurehead – or sacrificial lamb . I was key organiser and “led the charge” – this had the benefit of having someone the press could link onto and thus personalise the campaign. Of course this goes against much of the horizontalist and consensus based orthodoxy of radical campaigning which has grown up in the last 20 years – and for good reason there are major problems and dangers with the personalisation of campaigns. This includes the problem of having white men at the top, the challenge of the concentration of power and unaccountable egos, and then the danger of co-option and/or losing direction if the leader is “taken out”. Of course I am not in a position to give a detached judgement on this issue but I personally felt like it was worth taking the risk on this occasion. I was totally clear in myself that I was not in it for the attention or for egotistic reasons, but wished to actually make the process work. Also unlike some ongoing organisation, a pop-up, rapid, escalating, social media powered campaign is by its nature transient and so it would be difficult to build up any “institutional” power. In a sense I felt like given all the potential benefits of such a campaign (which proved correct) it was worth me “going for it” on this occasion. For the record this was quite emotionally scary – particularly in the initial stages. But now a team has formed to do new campaigns I feel the situation is a lot more sustainable both for myself and for creation and escalation of new campaigns (see below).


Being firm – and nice!

One of the major personal discoveries of this campaign was to experience first hand the dynamics of negotiation. As mentioned I prefer by temperament to remain on the design side of campaigns – in the back room as you might say. This was the first time I had thrust myself into a leading role and therefore to a certain extent was making it up as I went along on dealing with the opponents when it came to face to face meetings. I want to spend a bit of time going over the interpersonal dynamics involved in this process as I think they are vastly underestimated in conventional explanations of social and political conflict. The fact is that decisions in such situations are made by individual human beings. We have come a long way in social research from the simplified models of human nature which we have inherited from the eighteenth century Enlightenment – that humans are information processors, that they are self interested, and that they are functions of the ideology of their economic class. Drawing upon empirical evidence and testing, rather than deductive reasoning subject to philosophical and political prejudices, it turns out that humans are not one-dimensional calculators but have a rich mix of fluid individual and social motivations rather than just being “political animals”. To cut to the chase, this means that people are persuaded as much by how much they personally like you than by your argument. Much psychological research could be cited here but maybe the key findings are summarised in a book called “Getting more”, describing Harvard research that meta-surveyed all the research on the determinants of success in negotiations. It found that the most important determinant was whether members of the other side personally liked you or not.

Drawing upon this solid research foundation, and following personal intuitions on the issue, I consistently framed the conflict in terms of the policy outcome not as an attack upon management as individuals – or their employees (eg security). In fact I went out pro-actively to create positive relationships with all of the opposition. Concretely this meant:

  • Talking vigorously but politely with the VP after the painting of the hall.
  • Talking to the security staff to tell them what we are doing and saying stuff like “obviously we respect you are just doing your job” and once they knew us, going up and checking in with them “hey yeah it’s us again – how are you doing – okay?”
  • Engaging in small talk with the head of security in his office and finding common areas of interest (holidays in wales, background in conservation concerns).
  • Sending a salad pack (from my farm) to the head of security, the principal and VP, together with a letter politely explaining our demands and the reasons for them.
  • Engaging in polite but firm exchanges of views with the VP on our first meeting – this involved finding common ground outside the area of the demand, not judging or being aggressive about our opposing views but coming to a common ground on the way forward

It is worth noting that this approach reflected similar ways of communicating internally in the campaign – a positive non-pressuring encouragement to be involved towards new people which made entry into the field of activism easier and less scary.

The upshot of this approach was that the main actors in the opposition were quickly assured that they were not dealing with people who personally disliked them. The issue was the policy not the individuals. Of course this is easy to say so I shall point to some evidence. The head of security was clearly relieved that we were not aggressive with him at the painting of the hall. Both he and the police decided to not handcuff us when we were later taken out the police van to be taken to the police station (this contrasted with the second occasion when the police officer did not know me and I was hand cuffed). After talking with the head of security for a good hour before we were taken off, a personal relationship was established. The following week when I refused to move out of the student’s union we had a short dignified conversation when I calmly informed him that I would not move but respected that he had to do his job. He was visibly upset, almost on the verge of tears, as he ordered his security guards to drag me off the premises. I talked to some of the security guards the following day who are involved and it was clear they all respected my actions – many of the these black guys were fully aware of the political nature of the situation – several having come from South Africa. By acting in a friendly and respectful way it enabled them to connect with me and express their solidarity with me, which was how they felt privately. If I had been aggressive, stand offish or just ignoring of them, no doubt they would have reflected that behaviour themselves regardless of their private orientations on the political issue.

More concretely in the actual negotiation process itself it was said to me explicitly by the VP that he considered it was clear we were not out to create material damage to the college and that my practical approach to resolving the matter was appreciated as it enabled him to build upon a strong case when approaching other hawkish members of the senior management. And this then I think provided an additional key to the explanation for the success of the campaign.

In dilemma action theory we see the opposition not as a monolithic block but as a normal distribution of positions – outliers at the extremes but most people on a distribution from hawkish to liberal. The dilemma action then creates a split in the opposition – the hawks wanting repression the liberals wanting negotiation. The point here is by being “nice but firm” with the liberals we make friends with them – literally. This means that they start to feel more affinity with us than with the hawks. They are able to argue that we are okay people and therefore that opposition should go for the negotiation option, while also arguing the campaign would continue should they continue to go for the repression option and thus incur more reputational damage.

It was clear to me that once the opposition system knew I was “an okay guy” then it started to come out of its shell and find a way to resolve the problem. Once this turning point was passed then we had effectively won and the only issue was how to construct our victory in such as way then enabled them to save face. Again “being nice” meant we were sympathetic to this vital requirement and the necessary public relations which such organisations require. Our aim then was not to humiliate them but to get to our goal  – divestment from fossil fuels.

It is very important not to misinterpret this approach with being fluffy or being co-opted. We never compromised on getting a deal on divestment, and there was no let-up in the campaign until this demand was agreed to in writing and signed for. For instance during the last week of the negotiation the VP continually expressed concern about my health due to being on hunger strike. At every opportunity he asked me to start eating again using the argument that we have effectively made an agreement. I respectfully reminded him each time that I was publically on record for saying that I would continue the fast until an agreement was in document form and signed off. Each time I told him this he accepted my point and we focused on getting to this goal.

This “firm but nice” approach I would argue fed into making the dilemma action structure of the campaign all the more effective. It reinforced the dilemma action creating more confusion in the opposition – the collective thought process being: these people are doing terrible thing but they are nice people. This “cognitive dissonance” undermined the consensus for a repressive response and enabled the liberals to win the power battle and come and negotiate.

The underlying point here is that human beings are social more than political. This challenges both the right and left wing ideologies of the past two hundred years which assert the primacy of political belief and interest over interpersonal dynamics. The fact is the evidence points to the opposite conclusion. Once you like someone you find it very difficult to do nasty things to them. And being liked and feeling a personal connection is more important than “winning”. Therefore a key part of the our strategic approach should be to proactively foster these connections – through the giving of gifts, the engagement in small talk and jokes, and the consistency of polite but firm communication. It would not be too much to say that this is a form of seduction! And it works.

There is a last significant bonus here. Being aggressive and in “fight or flight” mode with other people over an extended period of time is psychological exhausting. Although I have no direct evidence for this I suspect this is a cause of activist burn out. However the fostering of cordial relations with the opposition is good not just for instrumental reasons but also for our own psychological well-being. I came out of the conflict not bitter or exhausted but with extra energy and profoundly relaxed by the experience. My relationship with the VP is now solidly positive and we communicate regularly on practicalities. As I say, not only did we win but we are all the best of friends again! A bit like one of the films about the perfect sting. Not only do you get what you want but the other guys still like you at the end of the movie.


Some implications and conclusions.

The world is in a big mess and it could get a lot worse very quickly. The arctic is melting and once melted there will be an exponential increase in extreme weather events. There is a fascist in the White house, the nationalist right is on the rise everywhere, leading again to the prospect of war and outright racism. This is no time for radicals to be repeating the same old failed strategies and tactics. We need to be ruthlessly searching out and testing what works and then doing what works. I have been banging on about this for the last three years since I got to London and we are not in a position where we no longer afford to piss around – the crisis is upon us.

I genuinely believe over the past three years we have cracked the code on how to progressively bring down the bad guys. This is a scientific exercise, not a process of ideological deduction. It involves the deployment of an interlocking ecology of specific tried and testing mechanisms and tactics. Of course each iteration of their deployment provides empirical feedback from which we can learn more but fundamentally the winning game plan is now in place. Below I will summarise these elements – to effectively guarantee success we need to aim to deploy them all, but even if only a critical mass of them are used the chances of success are vastly increased.

  • The campaign should be clear from the start that it has a specific aim and that all nonviolent actions aimed at achieving that aim that be undertaken without needing consensus approval. A general escalation plan is set and communicated and basic briefings and training given to new people as they join the campaign depending upon scale and resources.
  • The campaign designers have to work out a timeline of dilemma action escalations in advance that maximises the structural advantage of being able to proactively determine the time and place of the conflict (e.g. the second term in a university). This is the major strategic challenge.
  • The dilemma actions need to escalate, but also should start with a big bang event to capture attention and then can zip zag to create confusion in the opposition. At every stage the actions should aim to enable people to join in at a very low level of risk and so enable them to take the first steps to higher level involvement and commitment.
  • Individual actors in the opposition are to be given gifts, and pro-actively engaged with to create personal connections. And this approach should continue throughout the negotiation process.
  • Social media is used to promote the campaign at every opportunity including promotional videos. To prevent “leakage”, at every opportunity people are pointed to the social media site which hosts the campaign and then people are contacted one-to-one to integrate them into the campaign.
  • The internal ambiance of the campaign is that everyone is totally respected regardless of their background or what they have or haven’t done previous to the campaign. There is zero judgement on what they decide to do or don’t decide to do – everyone is treated with respect regardless of their level of commitment. The rule is you can do what you want but if you commit to something you carry it through.
  • The campaign appropriates art and culture as central ways to make campaigning more fun, to confuse the opposition, and to gain positive attention. This should be organised in an “open source” distributed non-gatekeeper way – the place and time of the action is set but people come and do their own thing within this general constraint without needing permission. The question on doing stuff should not be “why” but “why not”.
  • The campaign has to engage in high end activism in the latter stages against determined opposition – this specifically requires arrests, going to prison and hunger strikes. This is the backbone of the escalation and around which all the other points mentioned here are embellishments to this central progression of orchestrated conflict.

There are other aspects of creating successful campaigns which were not used by this particular campaign so this is not an exhaustive list. For instance, other campaigns would want to root the process in offline community meetings and this would involve designing participatory meetings about which I have written a lot elsewhere. Also there exist a range of tactics which are highly effective but were not used in this campaign such as phone blockages and similar blocking of information and material channels in and out of the opposition’s space. However I believe the above list provides the recipe for success in many replicable instances of political conflict.


There are several other broader issues to be considered in the light of this campaign.

In particular it is clear that at the present time within the neo-liberal regime in London, it is entirely possible to bring down institutional opponents. I would go further and say that far from the usual assumption that is very difficult to win – these opponents are largely paper tigers when it comes to facing robust dilemma action escalations. What I mean by this is that 90% of their power is in bluster and threats which they have no intention of carrying out. This is shown by the evidence. Only two protestors ended up in jail overnight, no students to my knowledge in recent campaigns have been suspended for nonviolent political action. The whole system basically relies upon fear. Once they lose that ability to create fear through threats they have not real material defences. This is partially because the neo-liberal ideology is based upon pragmatism and economic calculation rather than an old fashioned reactionary ideology. The question for them is not whether the issue in the conflict is right or wrong (according to a rigid reactionary code) but what is happening to their financial bottom line via the material and reputation damage inflicted through the nonviolent escalation. To the extent that this escalation is fearless and firm and seen to be so, the neo-liberal opposition will blink first as was clearly shown in the campaign. I was reinstated after my suspension, no threats for other suspensions or charges of criminal damage have come close to being carried out. The takeaway message then is to push the envelop – the sweet spot dilemma action is then several points more full on than you at likely to think it is and so you should notch it up.

The second point is the choice of opponent. Here is the biggest problem with contemporary activism. It massively underestimates the importance of demonstration effects which come from actual experiences of campaign success. I would say 80% of activism is a waste of effort because it has no serious prospect of success either because the opposition is too powerful in relation to the activists’ resources or because the activists indulge in one off actions which involve no strategic thinking around an escalation which will lead to material political change. This is not to say that there is no functionality at all in one-off protests, but they are in the present political climate a luxury we can no longer afford.

The oldest and most important military tactic needs to be completely taken on board here – that you should concentrate all your forces on the opponent’s weakness point and carry through to victory. In other words, when accessing an action or campaign the key question is “have we sufficient resources to compel an escalation campaign to win.” If the answer is no then we need the strategic maturity to not attack it just because it is there and are emotionally wound up by it. This problem is particularly acute with reactive campaigning. Something happens which is bad and we feel compelled to do “something” about it. Usually this is a one off protest or action which has no material effect other than registering an opposition. Reactive campaigning also has the disadvantage of us not being able to choose the terrain of conflict and thus we are unable to use it for our advantage. Remember whoever has the initiative has a massive advantage. When the bad guys make a move they have already no doubt worked out that they have the structural advantage and so we are suckers to get pulled into a confrontation which we are unable to win. It wastes energy and resources and leads to activist burnout – the feeling of having too many bad things to deal with.

Instead we need to calmly assess the whole field of social and political conflicts and choose a demand we can with which the resources the resources to win. This is profoundly empowering – we are choosing the field of battle and we have the advantage of initiative.

This then leads to the question of grand or meta strategy. For the serious social change activists the issue is not a campaign in itself but the tactics which can get rolled out to other campaigns – and how to develop these activities to fit into an overall strategy of political transformation. This is especially vital now that it is self evident that the opposition system is heading for an inevitable crash (climate change, financial collapse, nationalist conflict etc). Again we can wait and have to react on a terrain not of our choosing or proactively design an escalation of campaigns in the same way as we design an escalation of actions within a campaign.

It is important here to deal with the fundamental error that says that small scale campaigns are irrelevant to or even draw energy away for the big political fights which consume the energy of most political radicals and progressives. What we need to understand is that small scale campaign successes have demonstration effects which are exponential rather than geometrical – that is a campaign success will lead to say 5 more campaigns which copy the same format which in turn will inspire 25 campaigns. This means that in a matter of 3 or 4 iterations it is possible to create a mass movement using these successes as the driving force. It is not a matter of doing a single one campaign and then one more and then one more. Particularly in a modern digital context, there is massive potential for vital take off of social and political routines which work and can be easily replicated. A concrete example has been the first rent strike I helped design at UCL – this has led to dozens of groups aiming to replicate the model.  And just four weeks after the end of this campaign there are at least 5 other divestment campaign inspired by our success and copying our escalation campaign. Note we did not have some big national meeting to organise all these campaigns (which inevitably would have got bogged down by consensus building and organisational rivalries) but instead pro actively went out and got a small campaign win.

We need to move away from reactive “something has to done” response to the big political forces which confront us, to picking off the opposition’s weak spots and then moving on to the big targets, driven by the credibility of in the world actual successes. Like a guerrilla force – it never attacks the big city first off – tempting as it is as that is this is the head of the beast. It works on the periphery building its reputation for concrete action and success and only moves to the centre when it has the overwhelming force to guarantee success.

A related dynamic then is to build teams which can move to ever larger targets. An analogy here is a spacecraft that heading to some distant location. First it heads to the nearest small planet – it spins round it to build up speed (slingshot effect) which gives it the momentum to get to the next biggest planet and so on to the largest and final destination. So following on from the success with KCCE we are rapidly moving to a close but larger (but not too large) target of the LSE (5 minutes walk away) and demanfing a cut to the director’s pay and for the money to be given to improve the pay and conditions of the lowest paid workers. The tactics we are using are the same as those outlined here but on a larger scale and with a team of activists and media contacts in place to start the campaign at a higher level of agitation. The idea is that we develop a team similar to the guys who ran Martin Luther King’s campaigns – totally dedicated, knowledgeable, and effective. So for instance there is a plan to move to a London wide campaign on pollution. The aim might be for the city government to cut levels by 10% a year. We would be looking at a team of around 30 people to organise the escalation –  50,000 people to sign petitions and send emails, 5000 people to do non arrestable creative actions, 500 hundred people to get arrested, 100 to go to prison, and 30 to go on hunger strike. The people ready to undertake these action already exist in the London area, if a credible plan can be created by a team which has the demonstration effect of a line of past successes.

The point here is not the exact numbers just mentioned, but the process of exponential growth of using the mechanisms I have outlined. This is essentially a process that is designed and pushed through by a small number of activists – not agreed by meetings of institutional players. It is not in this sense a consensus based, consultative or even “democratic process”. The process has to be initiated as a “this is what we want to do – join us if you agree” type proposition. Evidence shows this is in actuality how all new and radical things always get started. Calling big meetings with no specific agenda or plan leads to confusion and disempowerment as there is no mechanism for creating a collective action plan around any critical mass of support. Skilled activists who understand the science and art of mobilisation also have to be involved in the design (as outlined here) so that energy is not lost reinventing the wheel. However this necessary top down initial approach should not be at all confused with the consolidation of formal hierarchies. Once the initial plan is in action then the process should be open to all and people explicitly encouraged to use create their own initiatives within the general frame set by the campaign activists. We get then the best of both worlds.

This strategy has to accept that it will be criticised from two directions. Obviously the opposition will want to dismiss it any every opportunity. This a given. But it is also inevitable that criticism will come from other “allied” actors which inhabit the same political space but have failed to make any headway. For instance in the KCCE case we encountered ongoing skepticism from the Fossil Free group who had undertaken several years of conventional campaigning with little success. Indeed a mainstream campaigner who had years of experience thought the escalation plan was “a terrible idea”. It would upset the opposition and lead to them becoming more intransigent to the demands for divestment. This viewpoint is not aware of the dilemma action zone of direct action that is outlined in this document. Often the opposition will simply be due to lack of understanding of the empirical basis for the new strategy. But it will also involve the inevitable territorial/ego reaction of other people doing stuff “on our turf” and “without our agreement”. The appropriate response to this opposition is the same as what has been proposed in relation to the main opponents – to be firm but nice. Engage and explain what we want to do and why it will work. Respect that they see it differently but be firm that no group has the power to prevent others from campaigning separately and with a different strategy. Of course the plan is that the proof will be in the pudding and once the campaign is won the opposition will fall away (indeed the conservative group may even want to claim the success was theirs!)

There are many examples of this problem in the literature. For instance when Martin Luther King’s operation went into Selma to gets blacks registered to vote many local activists resented the intrusion and wanted to continue the “consciousness raising” (i.e. old notion that provision of information alone creates change) approach which was not working. This lack of success was pointed out by King and instead he proposed a rapid escalation of civil disobedience. After a few months of significant mobilisations and sacrifice the campaign hit the national headlines and national political drama forced the federal government to intervene.

The point then is that we have to be respectful to those who disagree with us but still stride ahead with what we know will work best.

Two final points then before I finish.

First, this text is not meant to be on “academic” interest. If you have read to this point you are obviously a key activist or have the making being one. As such you are extremely valuable and, if you live in London, I would be very interested you joining the team based here to take these campaigns forward. Alternatively, if you live elsewhere, then you now have a template to get together with a small number of other activists and start escalations in your own locality. In which case it is very important to contact me or other people involved in such actions to get meet face to face and discuss the nitty gritty of what is planned.

Secondly by way of acknowledgement, although I am making a big and exciting claim in this document – that the code has now been broken on how to create rapid radical political change – I emphatically am not claiming the credit for myself. These mechanisms and processes have been developed with many other activists. And in turn we all stand on the shoulders of the giants who went before us – namely Gandhi and Martin Luther Kings and the many practitioners of nonviolent struggle from around the world. Our contribution has been to systematise the approach for our western highly digitalised context. Similarly, I and others could not do our work without the support of the many people who never get recognised – my research takes place in a university which could not operate without the vital work of cleaners, security and admin staff – and more generally the working people of London and around the world who keep our society on the go. More specifically I wish to acknowledge Clare and Isabel who care for our kids while I am doing activism and the other friends and activists who cover for me and support me in my activities. Social change is a social activity and hopefully by working together and recognising all our efforts we can move forward together and do some great stuff.



[1] You can friend me on Facebook – name: Roger Hallam (penguin picture) or via messaging Rising Up or Radical Think Tank.

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