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(en) US, Pittsburgh, Media, Hot trends in protest technology by PATRICK YOUNG

Date Sun, 09 Dec 2007 17:20:53 +0200

On March 2 members of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group* used lockboxes, bicycle
"U locks" and a 22-foot tripod to blockade entrances to the National Robotics
Engineering Center in Lawrenceville. The latest in a string of anti-war protests
directed at Carnegie Mellon University's relationship with the Department of
Defense, this action marked the first large-scale use of lockboxes and lockdown
devices in the Pittsburgh area. --- But these tactics are not new. Activists
have been using heavy-duty hardware and homemade devices to lock themselves in
front of weapons factories, banks and trade summits for decades. --- To be sure,
locking down is not a pleasant undertaking. The general range of possibilities
-- pepper spray, chemical weapons, tasers -- is terrifying; and for most
protesters, the prospect of facing almost certain arrest is frightening. These
tactics also tend to be physically taxing. Most activists experience numbness
and circulation problems after one to two hours in position. In many situations,
the weight and awkward construction of the devices forces activists into
strenuous positions.

Good planning and proper equipment and training can go a long way to alleviate
some of these problems. But the fact remains : There is no comfortable way to
use these devices.

They do, however, help people get their point across.


Forest-defense activists popularized the "tree sit," occupying a platform high
in the tree to thwart a cut. Dedicated tree-sitters have occupied these
platforms for months or even years.

THE USE OF LOCKDOWN DEVICES in protest situations first gained popularity in
North American protest culture during anti-nuclear protests in the 1960s and
1970s. Most of these early lockdowns included handcuffs or chains with padlocks.
Protesters would string chains around their waists or handcuff themselves to the
front gates of nuclear power plants, research centers or weapons manufacturing

While this tactic created dramatic images and even allowed activists to hold
space for a while, these early lockdowns were very limited and often
short-lived. Police departments quickly adapted to the tactic. They began to
show up at protests with a simple set of bolt cutters, which could easily defeat
these early devices. Some handcuff manufacturers also marketed a "universal" key
to police departments that would allow officers to unlock activists without even
bothering to cut through the devices. Stories of protesters being unlocked and
then carted off to jail in their own handcuffs were not uncommon.

It wasn't long before these lockdowns were adopted and adapted by early
forest-defense campaigners. As major paper and lumber companies moved to cut
centuries-old redwood trees in the Pacific Northwest, forest-defense activists
supplemented years of legislative and advocacy work by taking direct action to
block these projects.

The bane of bike thieves, a sturdy "U lock" puts a protester's neck on the line.
Simply insert head and attach to structure of choice.


These early forest-defense activists combined centuries-old traditions of civil
disobedience with tree-sitting tactics first tested and employed by Native
Americans. Using the sturdiest and most advanced hardware available, they
developed a new model for direct action. With a bicycle "U lock," protesters
locked their necks to demolition equipment and logging vehicles. Heavy steel
tubes dubbed "black bears" were fashioned to lock protesters' arms into the
ground or around trees. The climbing gear used for outdoor adventuring provided
for a relatively quick, although not-so-easy, ascent high into the forests' canopy.

Perhaps the most iconic tactic used in these forest-defense campaigns are the
months-long occupations of platforms mounted in trees, hundreds of feet off the
ground. These "tree sits" put activists out of reach of loggers and law
enforcement officials, preventing the cutting of both the occupied trees and
trees in some radius of the platform.

Forest-defense work shot into the mainstream political dialogue in 2000 with
Julia Butterfly Hill's bestseller "The Legacy of Luna." The book chronicles her
2-year vigil in a thousand-year-old Northern California redwood tree and her
successful effort to stop the clear-cutting of an old-growth forest grove.

But well before Julia Butterfly ever ascended to her legendary perch in Luna,
many environmental groups had already taken their tactics out of the woods and
into the streets.

Throughout the 1990s, groups like Rainforest Action Network employed many of the
tactics that had been developed and tested in the Pacific Northwest woods to
target the corporate giants that were perpetrating the degradation of the
rainforest. RAN, Greenpeace and other major environmental action organizations
used lockdown tactics to blockade everything from corporate headquarters to
retail stores to shareholder meetings as part of broader "corporate campaigns"
aimed at pressuring corporations to act more environmentally and socially

Then, in the late 1990s, the global-justice movement exploded with inspiring
actions at trade summits and annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank -- most
notably the shutdown of the 1999 World Trade Organization summit in Seattle.
Many of these activists were veterans of earlier environmental campaigns. Not
surprisingly, many of the tactics that had been made famous by earlier
forest-defense campaigns appeared deep in the urban jungles -- only now
activists were blocking traffic, not loggers.


Take large PVC pipe (1) and fix steel bolt (2) through center. Cover with
chicken wire (3), slather with tar (4) and swirl with duct tape (5). Why? To gum
up saws of police.

To use:
Locate a human being with arm (6), wrap and lock chain (7) around padded
wrist, insert arm into pipe and attach carabiner (8) to steel bolt. Repeat on
other side with another human arm. Continue process to create a "Sleeping
Dragon" and block, thwart, surround object of demonstration.


THESE LOCKDOWN TACTICS and devices did not go unchanged as they moved out of the

Many of the devices used in forest defense work were large and bulky and
constructed out of heavy steel. They also often took hours to set up and deploy.
While time may be a luxury that's available deep in the woods, timeframes and
margins for error are much tighter at urban, heavily policed targets. Because
lugging several 80-pound "black bears" into midtown Manhattan is somewhat
implausible, PVC and chicken wire have often replaced steel lockboxes. Other
devices grew smaller, lighter and easier to deploy.

Today, lockdown tactics are still in use in forest-defense campaigns across
North America and they have become commonplace at global-justice actions. We are
also witnessing the emerging use of these tactics at anti-war, labor and even
student protests.

While these lockboxes and lockdown devices have been used to great success in
myriad actions around a diversity of issues, it is important to note that, as
with any tactic, lockboxes are used inside a complex political framework.

Lockdown actions have drawn attention to important issues. In successful
instances, they have caused some material disruption as shipments are blocked,
clear-cutting is halted or delegates are shut out of their meetings. But, in
virtually every instance of a successful blockade or lockdown, these tactics
have been used to augment, escalate or punctuate a broader campaign employing
other tools of public advocacy: letter-writing, petitioning, public meetings and
permitted marches and rallies.

The participants in these tactics also exist in a complex political landscape.
Activists employing lockdown tactics put themselves in incredibly vulnerable
positions, often literally risking life and limb. Protesters using these tactics
have been confronted with almost lethal doses of chemical weapons and
bone-crushing blunt object force. While this use of police violence on
non-aggressive protesters is overtly illegal, participants have no recourse
until months or years after the fact -- well after they've already suffered
possibly debilitating injury.

It's clear that some political and demographic groups are "safer" in utilizing
these tactics than others. Students locking themselves in their chancellor's
office to protest tuition hikes are much less likely to elicit a violent police
response than a group of working-class people of color protesting a major
gentrification project. Similarly, groups who have already mobilized major
political and popular support for their causes are more likely to use the public
lens as a shield to protect them from state violence.


NOT SURPRISINGLY, PROTESTERS employing lockdown devices often find themselves in
trouble with the law.

After being physically separated and carted off to jail, activists have faced
the traditional charges associated with civil disobedience -- failure to
disperse, trespass, disorderly conduct, failure to obey a lawful order and a
hodgepodge of other misdemeanors and summary offenses.

But recent protests have also brought along new, more serious charges that
include resisting arrest and, most recently, "possession of an instrument with
criminal intent." Because statutes and prosecutors' dispositions vary
drastically from location to location, there isn't yet a clear body of case law
to guide tacticians and their attorneys on these issues. It's likely that many
of the legal questions surrounding the use of lockboxes will be hotly debated in
courtrooms across the country in the months and years to come.


Tripods are the urban version of the tree sit. An activist suspended from a
tripod fashioned out of aluminum poles 20 or more feet off the ground can block
an entire road. It is virtually impossible to remove the activist against his or
her will without serious injury.


GIVEN THE RELATIVE SUCCESS of lockdown devices in dramatizing issues and
non-violently escalating activist campaigns, it is likely that these tactics
will continue to be used in the months and years to come. As the devices become
more and more common, we can expect that law enforcement officials will take
steps to familiarize themselves with these tactics and show up at protests armed
with the appropriate saws and tools to dismantle the lockboxes.

The amount of time and effort that is required to plan, train for and execute
these lockdowns is great. The costs -- both financial and legal -- are
significant. As a result, it is unlikely that we will see any major explosion in
the use of these tactics.

But an unpopular war is raging into its fifth year. The global-justice movement
is rapidly re-emerging. It would not be surprising to see significant use of
lockdown tactics at major demonstrations in Washington, around corporate annual
meetings and during the 2008 Democratic and Republican national conventions.

Patrick Young (patrickyoung@riseup.net) is a 2006 graduate of the School of
Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. He works as a researcher
for United Steelworkers and is a member of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group
* An antiauthoritarian anticapitalist initiative
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