Guest post: A Thousand Spanners In The Works

This is a guest post by @robsafar from Political Dynamite

When I done lived back in Norfolk and got me learned how to write proper-like, I came across a demonstration somewhere around North Norfolk. They were residents of a small, slim village on a road that was getting heavily congested due to industrial developments – they had only a single crossing to get from one side to the other and it was growing dangerous for them. They’d lobbied the council who’d approved these developments, but to no avail.

So they set up a demonstration, a really intelligent one. They made the congestion much worse. They took it in shifts to keep their only crossing in use, all day, every day. They would cross the road and then cross it again, causing traffic to backlog for miles. Genius.

Because the road users were spending more time stationary, it allowed time for the drivers and the protesters to chat about their situation and spread the message – and for the most part everyone was agreed. A contributing factor to this was that the protesters were making it clear that they were targeting their council, not the road-users, which few road users seemed opposed to!

Their number was comprised mostly of retired people and mothers with young children (people who could attend mid-week protests). My point is, they weren’t beatniks or anarchists or fanatics, they were regular people, everyone could see mothers and grandparents, they were everyone. Concerned citizens, if you like, who were using a versatile tactic in a way I’d never seen before. It put a real smile on my face.
Traffic jams - the 'service' of the road is 'denied'
You may have heard of a tactic used online called DDoS. That stands for Distributed Denial of Service and it’s really not as complex as it sounds. In fact, if you’re involved with activism, you may have already used this tactic. The Norfolk protesters were certainly using this tactic, knowingly or not.

Basically, a website is bombarded with requests for information, so many requests that it can’t handle the volume and shuts down. It’s essentially a pretty old tactic that’s been applied really effectively to internet activism. Anyone familiar with the classic Berners Street Hoax might also recognise the philosophy.

Wikileaks came under attack using DDoS methods shortly after they released certain documents, an attack which resulted in the website being inoperable. In a truly uplifting show of web solidarity, various unconnected sympathisers set up a series of identical sites to Wikileaks, so no matter what happened to the original site there would still be a Wikileaks site that people could reach. That kind of mobility is only really achievable online – static businesses have no such solution. They simply can’t set up a hundred other shops.
So what’s going on here that we can apply – and have applied – in the real world? DDoS tactics don’t involve ‘hacking’ or anything so complicated, it involves taking the essential purpose of the target and straining it beyond its limits.

Think of your front door. It works perfectly fine letting you in and out of your house. Great. If you invite friends around your door can handle a couple of people at a time, but more than that and you’ve got a queue on your hands. What would it be like if twenty friends tried to use your door at once? Fifty? Your door’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to, but there are limits to what it can do.

Now think of your high-street bank. It works perfectly fine (ha!) providing people with bank accounts and making transactions of various kinds. But there are limits to how much it can handle. Saul Alinksy once recommended getting thousands of people to set up $5 or $10 savings accounts to paralyse the system – if one spanner in the works can be taken out easily, try putting a thousand spanners in there.
Spanners - the activist's role model
If you’re looking to use these tactics in your demonstration, you’ll want to really brainstorm your approach. Here’s some food for thought.
What is your target? What do they do? What’s their purpose? How do they sustain themselves?
Can they operate without this purpose? Will it be easy for them to ignore you?
What’s their capacity? How much do they do it? What’s their turnover?
Do you have enough people-power to clog up the tubes? Can you take it in shifts or does everybody need to get in at once? How many individual disruptions can one person cause in a day?
How will you react to staff members or officials asking you to stop? How will you react to members of the public asking what’s going on?
How long can you keep it up for?
The thing to remember, with any kind of activism, is that you’ll be up against an organisation that does not want to change. So they’ll be unlikely to change after a day of disobedience. Most organisers will be more inclined to wait for a week to see how your numbers peter out. Fine. Your stamina will be much stronger if you pledge to demonstrate on the busiest day of the week for a month or two, rather than spending every day getting tired out.
As much as they won’t like to admit it, big organisations don’t tend to have their own moral compass. They rely on the resolve of their customers and the public to let them know when what they’re doing is unacceptable. Your job is to help them to realise that their policy decision is so unpopular that their business practice will be unsustainable. So you’ll need to not only keep it up yourself, but get enough support that you’re not doing this alone.
The most important asset any activist can have is resolve – and plenty of it. You’ll probably have that already if you care enough about your issue to protest.
Just bear in mind your own capacity as well as the capacity of your target.