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Rowan Tilly asks, "Why is it that some individuals experience extreme trauma following arrests, while others come through it empowered?"
Feeling the fear but doing it anyway
Some actions can be traumatic and disempowering. In my experience, public genetix (GM crop-pulling) rallies are most likely to produce these situations. But much of this can be avoided through careful preparation and good support.
Typically, at open/public genetix rallies, people surge on to the GM crop,apparently “spontaneously”, but in reality many have inwardly planned it.
Often a few inexperienced and unprepared people get swept up by the tidal wave and end up getting arrested and charged and have to endure various degrees of trauma afterwards. This can include anger, stress, anxiety, fear, paralysis, isolation, confusion, humiliation, defeat, indecision, feeling like a victim,powerlessness.
It often seems to be the most vulnerable people (eg with a disability, with a child, inexperienced) that get arrested and experience trauma. And sometimes this person's difficulties will get transferred to the rest of the group of defendants and this may result in serious conflict emerging within the group, dragging everyone down.
Making the case
So, given all that: how can four women take the risk of destroying #13 million worth of war plane, go through six months of remand in prison and come out strong?
How come they survived that and were empowered by the experience (even before they were acquitted). How come two of them went on to do further high-risk actions and go to prison again and again.
They claim there is nothing unusual or heroic in their characters, but it makes the case for careful preparation before an action and the need for support afterwards.
How trauma can be avoided
Most experienced activists confirm repeatedly that the most important step to avoiding trauma is to be well prepared, especially emotionally and psychologically - and spiritually if so inclined.
This simply means to reflect on what is ahead, imagine how it will feel, think about what you can do about it. Emotions like fear are usually about the unknown and will dissolve if you think about the things that could happen and plan what to do.
There are lots of practical solutions to the negative stuff, most are common sense and easy to find before the action,but not so when you are locked in a cell. For example, if you think you might get bored or frustrated in the cell take a book to read, if you are afraid of being isolated stay together with a buddy.
The best kind of preparation for open public rallies is an open public preparation session, including a legal briefing, encouraging everyone to attend. This will reduce the likelihood of “action casual-ties” occurring.
Of course preparation means that some people will decide not to go ahead, or to do something less risky like support someone else. Better that they avoid the trauma and hopefully decide to go ahead when they feel more prepared.
Knowing our limits
However “brave” we are, there will always be a limit to what we can cope with, something worse they can do to us. The trick is to get familiar with our personal limits and go up to those limits but avoid going over them. Some of us live in a secure setting that means we can stick our necks out further. Nobody is invincible and we don't need to be. Perhaps the greater effort needed to prepare for actions will mean that initially the actions are less frequent with fewer people — but perhaps they will be so improved that eventually the net result is better.
If the preparation as above doesn't happen then the very least we can do is provide good post-action support. Be on the look out for anyone experiencing trauma(they may try to hide their feelings) and be sensitive about offering support to everyone (including the ones who might be irritated by the person who is traumatised).
Often organisers don't want to provide public preparation because this might alert the police or the company. A solution to this would be for all organisers to make it standard practice to provide a verbal and written legal briefing prior to rallies or actions at bases or sites, whatever the intentions of the organisers — we don't necessarily know the intentions of others.
The experience of going through the court/punishment process when well prepared and supported means that though you are likely to experience some of the emotions already mentioned — anger, stress, anxiety, fear — it will likely be less intensely. And you are also likely to experience clarity, feeling alive, inspired, a sense of achievement, centred, in control,vulnerable yet powerful — and sometimes very intensely.
From participant to organiser?
Some people say prepared actions seem to have more depth and meaning which go beyond their own experience — touching others more deeply too.
These positive experiences make it possible to walk through the negative ones:”feeling the fear but doing it anyway”. They also inspire other people to take action. So it's understandable that people who have had a few of these experiences carry on, become more effective and many also become organisers.