Waging Nonviolence

How free lunch and daycare are bolstering the Oklahoma teachers’ walkout

by Max Zahn

Students at Taylor Park in Oklahoma City holding bagged lunches. (Oklahoma City Public Schools)

Oklahoma City elementary school teacher Madeline Scott told her students about the statewide teacher walkout on the last day of classes before it began on April 2. Their reaction surprised her.

“The students were weirdly supportive, even though they are 10 years old,” Scott recalled. “They said, ‘We do need glue sticks.’”

She said one student, Miguel, was anxious. “What am I going to eat?” he asked. Miguel, a fourth grader at Adams Elementary, depends on school for free breakfast and lunch. Scott said his four siblings do, too. (Scott declined to give Miguel’s last name.)

“Will there be food for all of us?” he asked. Scott assured him there would.

Since Monday last week, thousands of Oklahoma teachers in at least 50 school districts have refused to work until the Oklahoma Legislature gives them a $10,000 raise, a $5,000 raise for support staff and $200 million in additional education funding. Each day, hundreds of schools have closed.

Days before the walkout, the legislature passed a $6,000 teacher pay raise. Teachers said it wasn’t sufficient. On Friday, lawmakers passed two additional tax bills that generate $42 million in education funding, though the legislature also repealed a hotel tax that raised $47 million as part of the original pay-raise measure.

The Oklahoma Education Association, the top union in the state, vowed to continue the walkout this week, urging the legislature to raise an estimated $100 million through the closure of a capital gains tax loophole.

Despite widespread school closures, districts have supplied meals to students and connected them with daycare providers. In West Virginia, striking teachers paid out of pocket to buy food and deliver it to students. But in Oklahoma, school administrators have coordinated a large-scale effort, in collaboration with community organizations, to help vulnerable children and their families. The provision of these services shows how the teachers’ bosses — superintendents, school boards and principals — have quietly bolstered the teachers as they enter a potentially lengthy standoff with the Republican-controlled legislature.

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“To support the teachers, I need to make sure they don’t have to worry about the kids,” said Rebecca Kaye, the acting superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools, the largest school district in the state. “Our community jumped right in with both feet to take care of our students.”

Oklahoma’s education establishment has supported its teachers, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of labor studies at University of California, Santa Barbara. “In that sense it’s not just a movement of the employees, but their employers,” he said.

Across Oklahoma, 62 percent of public school students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, which amounts to 366,000 kids. Due to high student poverty levels, Oklahoma City Public Schools and Tulsa Public Schools, the two largest districts in the state, qualify for a federal program that subsidizes free breakfast and lunch for every student. The state ranks 43rd in food insecurity, the proportion of households who at a given time do not know the source of their next meal.

“Many kids don’t have enough food at home to get through the week,” said Katie Fitzgerald, the chief executive officer of Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. “They depend on their schools.”

On March 7, the Oklahoma Education Association announced a teacher walkout scheduled for April 2. That gave schools almost a month to prepare for a possible closure. “We immediately began collaborating with our faith and nonprofit community,” said Deborah Gist, the superintendent of the Tulsa school district.

Throughout the walkout, thousands of teachers have stormed the capitol, and over a hundred are in the midst of a seven-day 110-mile march from Tulsa to Oklahoma City. But as the walkout enters its second week, these meal and daycare offerings may prove crucial for preserving community support.

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Since the walkout began, at least 150 sites in Tulsa are providing food and other services for the 41,000 students in Tulsa Public Schools and thousands more in neighboring districts. In the Oklahoma City school district, 107 bus drivers are taking 40,000 meals each day to over 70 sites, said Kaye, the superintendent.

“School buses will act like a mobile food delivery unit,” she said. “They will deliver sack lunches at one site, pick up more and go to another site. It’s a really massive undertaking.” Kaye is holding a nightly conference call to make adjustments as needed. In the Oklahoma City school district, bus drivers and cafeteria workers are not walking out; they are delivering and serving these meals, Kaye said.

Many other school districts have coordinated meals for students, including districts in rural areas such as Clinton Public Schools, in western Oklahoma.

“In smaller districts with less capacity there’s an even greater need,” Fitzgerald said. She explained that her organization, which serves an area that spans two-thirds of the state, has spent $300,000 to put together a network of between 15 and 20 hot meal sites, as well as a fleet of trucks that deliver 20,000 boxes of food over 14 days. Each box contains pasta, mac and cheese, peanut butter, canned fruits and vegetables, tuna, Vienna sausage and milk, among other items.

If the walkout lasts more than two weeks, each additional day will cost the group $25,000, Fitzgerald said.

The provision of daycare is just as important as that of food, said Scott, the elementary school teacher in Oklahoma. “It’s a huge advantage for parents to know their kid is safe,” she said. “Free childcare will make this walkout go a lot more smoothly.”

The Oklahoma school district posted a list of 40 community organizations that offer daycare, of which 16 are free and open to all children. One of the free providers, Henderson Hills Baptist Church, signed up almost 200 students. “The demand from parents has been overwhelming,” Pastor Chris Wehunt said. “Our website shut down.” Students attend a morning service, followed by bible study and camp-style games.

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In Tulsa the daycare offerings, spearheaded by the Tulsa Area United Way, include 10 full-day providers for up to 1,900 students. “The walkout is a disruption for working families that rely on the normal day-to-day schedule of their children at school,” said Gist, the Tulsa superintendent. “Organizations have stepped up to provide safe and engaging activities for students.”

Representatives of Oklahoma Regional Food Bank and Henderson Hills Baptist Church said their organizations do not side with or against the teachers. “We’re here for the kids,” said Wehunt.

Kaye and Gist, the superintendents, said the efforts intend not only to take care of students but to support teachers. “Even though there are short-term challenges like the nutrition and interrupted school,” said Gist, the superintendent of the Tulsa school district. “The long-term benefits are more important.”

The teachers have not set an end-date for the walkout. But Kaye acknowledged that she and her colleagues don’t want to spend long running a food service operation.

“We hope all the political drama is resolved quickly,” she said. “We want to get back to the business of teaching.”

How do you tell the kids that Grandma is in jail for resisting nuclear weapons?

by Frida Berrigan

The seven members of the Kings Bay Plowshares, who entered the Georgia naval base on April 4 to protest nuclear weapons, white supremacy and racism. (WNV/Kings Bay Plowshares)

“Our grandma is in jail,” Madeline tells a woman wrestling a shopping cart at Target.

“She went over a war fence and tried to make peace,” Seamus adds helpfully. “They arrested her, and she is in jail now.”

“Where?” the woman asks, looking from them to me in disbelief and maybe pity.

“We don’t remember,” the kids say, suddenly done with their story and ready to make passionate pleas for the colorful items in the dollar section over the woman’s shoulder.

“Georgia,” I say, but I don’t have a lot of energy to add detail to my kids’ story. They hit all the high points.

“There’s a lot going on these days,” she says. I agree, and we move on into the store and our separate errands.

I was happy not to say more at that moment, happy to avoid a sobbing breakdown at Target, happy to wrestle one little bit of normal out of a very abnormal day.

My mom, Liz McAlister, who turned 78 in November, had been arrested deep inside the King’s Bay Naval Base in St Mary’s, Georgia in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Along with six friends, she carried banners, statements, hammers and blood onto the base. They started their action on Wednesday, April 4: the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Their statement made connections between nuclear weapons, white supremacy and deeply embedded racism. It is a long statement, but given that they were carrying it into a free-fire zone — where military personnel are authorized to use deadly force — there was no particular need for brevity: “We come to Kings Bay to answer the call of the prophet Isaiah (2:4) to ‘beat swords into plowshares’ by disarming the world’s deadliest nuclear weapon, the Trident submarine. We repent of the sin of white supremacy that oppresses and takes the lives of people of color here in the United States and throughout the world. We resist militarism that has employed deadly violence to enforce global domination. We believe reparations are required for stolen land, labor and lives.”

They walked onto King’s Bay Naval Station just hours after Saheed Vassell was shot and killed in a barrage of bullets by New York City police officers, just hours after hundreds of demonstrators filled the streets of Sacramento for another day, shouting “Stephon Clark, Stephon Clark, Stephon Clark” and demanding accountability after the young father of two was killed by police officers on March 18. These seven white activists know that when you are black in this country, your own corner, your grandmother’s own backyard, is a a free-fire zone more dangerous than any military base.

There is indeed a lot going on these days.

The statement continues: “Dr. King said, ‘The greatest purveyor of violence in the world (today) is my own government.’ This remains true in the midst of our endless war on terror. The United States has embraced a permanent war economy. ‘Peace through strength’ is a dangerous lie in a world that includes weapons of mass destruction on hair-trigger alert. The weapons from one Trident have the capacity to end life as we know it on planet Earth.”

Carmen Trotta and Liz McAlister holding a protest sign on the Kings Bay Naval Station. (WNV/Kings Bay Plowshares)

Kings Bay is the largest nuclear submarine base in the world at about 16,000 acres. It is the home port of the U.S. Navy Atlantic Fleet’s Trident nuclear-powered submarines. There are eight in total, two guided missile submarines and six ballistic missile submarines. These submarines were all built in Groton, Connecticut — right across the river from our home in New London. Each submarine, my mom and her friends assert, carries the capacity to cause devastation equivalent to 600 of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima, Japan.

“Nuclear weapons kill every day through our mining, production, testing, storage, and dumping, primarily on indigenous native land. This weapons system is a cocked gun being held to the head of the planet. As white Catholics, we take responsibility to atone for the horrific crimes stemming from our complicity with “the triplets” [of evil]. Only then can we begin to restore right relationships. We seek to bring about a world free of nuclear weapons, racism and economic exploitation.”

That is not the end, you can read the whole statement and their indictment of the United States on their Facebook group.

These sorts of actions — called Plowshares — have a nearly 40-year history, since my father and uncle and six others broke into the King of Prussia plant in Pennsylvania in 1981 to “beat swords into plowshares.” They struck at nosecones with hammers and marked the weapons with blood to reveal the human costs and mess and suffering the weapons are built to wreak in the world.

My father participated in five of these Plowshares actions in his lifetime and helped organize countless others. Committed conspirers, steeped in active nonviolence, have carried out more than 100 of these actions since 1981. This is my mom’s second action. She and her current co-defendant Clare Grady, were part of the 1983 Griffiss Plowshares in upstate New York.

My parents estimated that they spent 11 years of their 27-year marriage separated by prison, and it was mostly these actions that kept them apart and away from us. Countless life events in our family — birthdays, graduations, celebrations of all kinds — were stuttered by the absence of one of our parents. I say this with pain and loss, but no self-pity. Dad was able to attend my high school graduation, but not my brother’s. We went straight from my college graduation to visit my dad in jail in Maine. I missed all the raging keggers, sweaty dance parties and tearful goodbyes that marked the end of college for my friends to sit knee-to-knee with my father in a cramped and soulless room. On chairs designed for maximum discomfort, I tried to share my momentous day and all my 22-year-old big feelings while ignoring the guards and the room crowded with a dozen others doing the same thing. We wrote thousands of letters. They often crisscrossed each other so that there was a constant weaving of story and sharing across the miles.

So, when I explained that grandma was in jail to my kids — 11-year-old Rosena, 5-year-old Seamus and 4-year-old Madeline — I felt the weight of a lifetime of missing and provisional family experiences, frequently lived in prison visiting rooms and through urgently scrawled letters.

I tried to figure out a way to talk to them that would make sense and, in thinking it through, I realized that none of this should make sense to anyone! Nuclear weapons? Absurd! Police brutality and white supremacy? Senseless! Plowshares actions with their symbolic transformation and ritual mess making? A foolhardy act of David v. Goliath proportions!

So, I didn’t try to make it make sense. I just forged ahead, grateful that they had some context: We had participated in the Good Friday Stations of the Cross organized by Catholic Worker friends at our local submarine base a few days earlier, and — the night before — we had gone to hear a dramatic reading of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

“Hey guys, know how we went to the sub base on Friday? Grandma was arrested in a place like that late last night. She is in jail now. She and her friends broke onto the base to say that nuclear weapons are wrong. Remember how Dr. King talked about just and unjust laws?” They nodded and remembered that King said “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” I told them that Grandma thinks that nuclear weapons — things that can destroy so much life on our planet — shouldn’t be built and protected and paid for when so many people are hungry, so many kids don’t have good schools to go to, so many people don’t have good homes. I went on and on.

“Wait, these nuclear weapons… They are war things?” Seamus asked.

“Yep, they are war things, bud.”

“Good for grandma,” he said, and that was the end of our serious conversation.

Mom and her friends are charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass and two felonies: possession of tools for the commission of a crime and interference with government property.

The kids and I didn’t talk about the kind of jail time that could mean for their grandma. It is all I am thinking about right now, but they moved on, imagining out loud and with a lot of enthusiasm how grandma got by the attack dogs and police officers they had seen at the Groton Submarine Base. They were sure there was a similar set up in Georgia. “Grandma needed a ladder and a cheetah,” said Madeline. “A cheetah is the only animal that can outrun dogs and police officer’s bullets.”

I am pretty sure no cheetahs were involved in the Kings Bay Plowshares, but I am happy my daughter sees her grandmother as a fierce and powerful anti-war activist astride a wild cat.

Why our elders didn’t fail us

by Lucas Johnson

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In the Spring of 2012, I had the honor of assisting the late Vincent Harding — a historian, veteran of the civil rights movement and beloved mentor to many — in teaching a course at Morehouse College titled “The Last Years of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Life and the Future of American Democracy.” For nine weeks, I was able to watch Harding attempt to distill not only the history of the movement — its key dates, places and legislative goals — but, more importantly, the meaning of the movement for the people involved and the country as a whole.

He would not do this alone. Modeling one of his lessons on the importance of community, he often invited other civil rights veterans to speak about the transformative experience of the movement. Aljosie Knight Harding, Quentin Samuels and I would complete the teaching team that helped distill these stories. It felt like an important moment. For one thing, Trayvon Martin was killed just as the course began, and people were still hurt and angry.

There was a gap that was on display — not just in the classroom, but in the black community at large. We all had to deal with the fact that the lives of our students, like many young black men and women, were shaped as much by what the civil rights movement did not accomplish as they were by what it had. This gap is something I still encounter in conversations among activists and organizers — not only in the United States, but also around the world. I think it is exacerbated by things about the movement that too many of us still don’t understand.

Michael Brown was still alive in 2012, and the Ferguson uprisings had not yet occurred. What we talked about in that room over those weeks prepared us for the years ahead. It was the gap that would again be on display in Ferguson in 2015. The gains of the civil rights movement gave way to yet another form of social control and state-sanctioned violence in the forms of mass incarceration and police killing. The persistent lack of equity, persistent discrimination and dehumanization of black and brown people is all rather crushing in the wake of all that was sacrificed in the 1960s.

That frustration has led too many to talk about “the failures of the civil rights movement” in a way that I have come to find quite disturbing. I understand the allure of talking about the movement as having failed. It is in part a response to people who try to insist that everything should be better now, that the 1965 Civil Rights Act defeated racism. That has been, after all, the official narrative taught in public schools. For many, that narrative breeds resentment, and that resentment somehow manifests itself as a criticism of the movement.

Describing the failures of the civil rights movement — as well as attacking King and the nonviolent struggle — can have a soothing effect precisely because his legacy is so easily juxtaposed with gains that seem remote and the all too potent experiences of racism in our lives. People who seem incapable of dealing with the reality of injustice today use King’s image in ways that are both ahistorical and de-contextual. Nonviolence has too often become an expectation imposed on the powerless by the powerful and King’s name is evoked in order to do so. As a result, describing the failures of the civil rights movement is a way to lash back and repudiating King is a way to show one’s self as more radical.

All of this perpetuates ignorance about both King and the movement he came to represent. What’s more, it’s just simply misdirected. To focus one’s energy on the failures of the movement is to miss the fact that the civil rights movement was never responsible for our problems: White supremacy was and still is. The movement was an attempt to confront white supremacy and the problems it caused.

While the elders I’ve come to know sometimes use the world failure when grieving for the suffering we still must confront, they are far more likely to express a profoundly radical commitment to hope. These are people who have bled, who have been beaten and who have watched their friends get murdered on a scale incomprehensible to many of us now. To them, the suffering experienced today is not a failure of past movements, but rather the “work we have yet to do.”

Lucas Johnson (center) with Vincent Harding (left) and Andrew Young (right).

At an award ceremony years ago, while looking at his peers Andrew Young and Dorothy Cotton, Harding told me, “You’ve got to be prepared for the long haul. You’ve got to surround yourself with people you can be in the struggle with for 50 years.” What he didn’t say at that moment — but what I understood being among people forced to grieve the loss of their beloved brother Martin — was that you may not make it that long. You may be shot down by an assassin while you’re young and, for that matter, you may be imprisoned and beaten. The repression may become so difficult that you flee to Cuba, or it may cost you your sanity. I knew that this was what was also meant by “You’ve got to be prepared for the long haul.”

To describe something as a failure is to concede that there was a vantage point and narrative embraced by perhaps the country at large — that we had reached some point of achievement where we could sit, rest, celebrate and evaluate. This narrative was never represented by the lives of Vincent Harding, Bob Moses, Ruby Sales, Grace Lee Boggs, and many of their peers who joined us at Morehouse. If one considers it carefully, how could it be? You don’t go from watching so many of your friends suffer and be killed to acquiescing to a status quo. If you do, it’s a result of severe trauma. In 1968, many watched their friend, whom they loved, be gunned down. They witnessed and endured the massive FBI assault on the movement that was COINTELPRO. They watched the backlash against all the progressive forces that would move the country decisively to the right in the Reagan years. But none of them stopped fighting.

Among the most important lessons I learned about King from those who knew him is that you need to understand the movement he came to represent in order to understand him and his legacy. In fact, we dishonor him if we celebrate him out of the context of the movement that produced him. The people around him, singing and marching hand-in-hand towards armed policemen, water canons and dogs sent to attack them, give definition to the person we celebrate. That movement — commonly called the American civil rights movement — was actually just one moment in a centuries-old struggle for freedom and dignity stretching back to when the first Africans were enslaved and brought to the “New World.” In recognition of this history, Harding was reluctant to call the struggle in the 1950s and ’60s the civil rights movement. He saw it not as some clearly defined and unique moment of history, but rather as another chapter in a series of moments in world history, where the people Europeans sought to colonize and enslave decided to resist — sometimes en mass, sometimes in individual acts of conscience, dignity and defiance. It is more accurate to describe it as the “black freedom struggle.”

Understanding that sense of continuity helps one appreciate the fact that King existed not just because of the courage of his mother and father, but because of the courage of black teachers, barbers, mechanics, nurses and lawyers in Atlanta. They created the community that produced the man who King would become. If one understands the black freedom struggle in the United States, then one gains a sense of appreciation for how King’s radical thought came to be. It was all made possible by the courage and hope of everyday people. If one considers carefully the inhumanity of the segregated Southern United States, one realizes the defiance that mere survival sometimes required. In an environment where the world around you is convinced that you are less than human — and meant to be the permanent servant class of the nation — the small things you do to assert your humanity can require tremendous bravery. Daring to learn, daring to send your children to school, daring to aspire to something more than the circumstances into which you were born could be punished with death.

White supremacy was enforced with brutal terrorism. In 1906, just over 10 years before King was born, Atlanta’s black community experienced a horrendous massacre, when white mobs descended on black neighborhoods killing 24 people and injuring several others. The memory of this massacre loomed large in Atlanta’s black community and, without doubt, it impacted King’s parents and the community around him. And yet, it was in this environment that parents chose to send their children to school and taught them not to believe themselves to be inferior.

As a result, King’s ideas and insights were shaped in conversation with those who came before him. There were the well-known names like the abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglas, as well as people like W.E.B. Dubois, who had already left the United States for Ghana, believing it to be irredeemable. King also had his father’s contemporaries, including his mentor Howard Thurman. I am confident there were also the minor legends of church mothers and deacons at Ebenezer and Bethel A.M.E., and at the barber shop around the corner, which no doubt impressed upon him a sense of memory and continuity.

The Martin Luther King Jr. we know — the preacher, scholar of Hegel and movement leader — had his ideas tested in conversation with his contemporaries in the black freedom struggle. There were people like Ella Baker, a remarkable organizer who challenged sexism within King’s organization. At the same time, younger people in the movement often pushed King to do more, or say more. He had a deep love and appreciation for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee workers and would express this often, rarely uttering a critical world in public. King’s critics contributed to his development as a leader and strategist, including Malcolm X, who is too often contrasted with him, as if they were polar opposites; they were not. Such a contrast often ignores the broader movement and the underlying point that both men, more than any differences between them, wanted to end the suffering of their people.

King is often celebrated for his commitment to nonviolence, peace and many other things. Yet, people seem reticent to celebrate the fact that King was committed to black lives and the fullness of black life, and there is something pernicious about this reticence. The choice to emphasize King’s universal relevance is often made as if a commitment to black life in some way conflicts with a commitment to humankind. I believe King’s commitment to humanity grew out of his love for black people and existed because of the love he received from black people. Using the language of the struggle today, it is because black lives mattered to him that he understood all lives matter. Without belief in the former, it is impossible for anyone to proclaim the latter.

King was the transformative leader that he was because of the courage of those around him, and because he was humble enough to allow them to challenge and shape him. He came to understand that his own life was one to be lived in service to the beloved community, and he gave himself to the struggle.

During those classes in the Spring of 2012, Harding painted for us a picture of the grief that was felt at the moment of the assassination. It is not difficult to imagine the pain felt by Coretta and their children. Many have spoken about the funeral and all who came. Images show footage of the people we think of as celebrities in a way that may obscure the pain they felt — people like Harry Bellefonte or Mahalia Jackson. Harding felt it was important for us to also see another image: He painted for us the picture of the people who poured into the streets to watch the mule carrying King’s body down Auburn Avenue, along with the ordinary men and women who streamed into Sisters Chapel at Spelman College throughout the day and deep into the night to weep, wail and to say goodbye. The murder hurt in a particular way that seems difficult to describe, but I think the feeling is accessible even to those of us who were not yet born. It was the death of hope. It was clear that bullet was meant for us, all of us who dared.

King was not the last one of us to be killed in the struggle; others were yet to die. In the subsequent years, those who opposed the movement succeeded in stopping the marches and in confusing, co-opting and obfuscating organizations and activists. Some veterans may blame themselves for letting that happen, but the assault was massive and unparalleled. I don’t have enough hubris to be critical of those facing such an assault.

If hope died that day, it should not be lost on us that King was someone who believed in resurrection. Nelson Mandela would tell the world years later that the journey towards freedom is a long one. Harding used to echo that sentiment in a variety of ways. The bullet that rang out at the Lorraine Motel that fateful day in Memphis simply wasn’t powerful enough stop that journey. If the gunman had understood who King had come from, he might have known that. Our ancestors have given us far too much momentum and too much resilience to stop us so easily.

There are important criticisms about class and gender to be made, many of which were also made at the time. I’m not attempting to disparage any of that. Unearthing those critiques and amplifying forgotten voices is part of telling the truth about what happened. But there is a tendency to want to define efforts today in contrast to earlier manifestations of the struggle, rather than in continuity. This is done, in part, by attacking nonviolence and spreading the false narrative that its champions, our elders in the civil rights movement, failed. I will never forget the eloquence of veteran SNCC activist Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons’ response to a young brother in Brussels when he proclaimed “the fact that you used nonviolence is the reason why police are still killing you today.” With, calm, grace and precision she told him “most of us chose nonviolence because when you love the people you are organizing, you don’t want to see them hurt, or killed.” This statement was more than just a concession to the superior weaponry of the Jim Crow state, it is a testament to where the struggle began and must always begin: in love.

The long haul means that at one point we may be marching and at one point we may be teaching. It is a radical commitment to a life of struggle for a goal we may never see. I bear witness to the fact that many never stopped, and I give thanks to them for that. They didn’t fail us. The United States failed us, laws failed us, humanity may have failed us, God may even have failed us, but those who participated in what’s called the civil rights movement didn’t fail us. Let’s not speak as if they did. Vincent Harding joined the ancestors in 2014, and we’ve lost many others since. It’s up to us now to continue, and we’ve got to be community to each other for the long haul, however long that may be.

Martin Luther King’s critique of capitalism is more relevant than ever

by David Ragland

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As we remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and assassination, 50 years ago today, there is much to reflect upon considering the current events, ranging from increased militarism from this administration to gun violence that includes police violence, mass shootings and the protests that have responded and pushed for deep freedom and liberation.

Since the Ferguson uprising, the question of who is violent — and who has the right to wield it — has been on the lips of many officials and police, who often tell protesters they should be more like those from the civil rights era. Yet, as we remember King’s murder, too often we tone down the radical, progressive, and at times depressed man at the heart of a movement that transformed the nation, making him into to a passive angelic figure. The memory of his life, like our own memories — unless meticulously recorded — are fragmentary.

We sacrifice him all over again by turning him over to the conservative, religious and ideological interests invested in watering down his magnificent life. King offered a moral challenge and call to transform American values that instrumentalize humans, and most often black, brown and non-white lives.

King’s dynamic complexity was rooted in his understanding of peace as a condition that necessarily includes justice. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which was addressed to the faith leaders who could not understand his forceful approach, King wrote that peace was not just the “the absence of tension” but also “the presence of justice.” The inauthentic claims of concerns with the methods of the emerging black freedom movement are reflected among the detractors of most social movements, Ferguson and Parkland included.

Most of those in power who critique the methods of change agents often do so because change is not in their economic interests. King’s message challenged the moral heart of the American system by highlighting the three-pronged evils of of racism, militarism and materialism. These are interconnected evils that he saw as constituting the very nature of this society’s ills.

It was not enough to name the United States government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” but to challenge this country in the urgent task of social transformation that might see our society shift from its rampant materialism to a community focused on human dignity. Such a morality is as the center of an instrumental view of people as things to be used.

In his 1958 essay “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” King wrote about the “danger of the profit motive as the sole basis of an economic system” and said, “capitalism is always in danger of inspiring men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life. We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles, rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to humanity.”

In a speech to staff in 1966, King explained: “There must be a better distribution of wealth.” We get a sense of the threat he posed when we stop to realize that just two years prior to his assassination he dared to say that “America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

Scarcity underlies how Western economic systems interconnect with war and racism. What if abundance was the guiding principle of our values and policy? Since the people in communities like the one I grew up in on the northside of St. Louis — a few miles away from Ferguson — are exploited through crack-era policing and housing policies that reinforce racist worldviews, we are often viewed from a deficit perspective. This perspective understands the world as a place to be policed and fixed as opposed to one filled with people who can deal with their own conflicts if supported with resources they actually need.

King recognized that the United States’ violent approach was not limited to the wars it wages, but the violence of the colonial mentality of occupation and racism in communities of color, which includes economic injustice. We see this in the Center for Investigative Journalism’s recent report on mortgages denied to blacks and Latinos, which examined over 31 million mortgage records in 61 metro areas. It points out how banks under Obama, and now Trump, used the Fair Housing Act to drive gentrification. What should have been a federally-mandated program to help black people buy homes is now being used by most banks — including Chase, Santander and Wells Fargo — to provide loans to whites who in many cases have worse credit and very little cash to put down.

A different report by ProPublica — entitled the “Color of Debt” — describes the likelihood of bill collectors to go after black people as opposed to similarly situated whites and the focus of law enforcement on black communities, instead of white communities that have more drug traffic and crime.

With the public currently deeply engaged in addressing mass school shootings, we have to remember how the response to Columbine was the implementation of “zero tolerance” policies, which disproportionately impacted urban schools that black and Latino students were likely to attend, even though these demographics were far less likely to experience that kind of violence. Instead, those policies contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which has resulted in a higher proportion of black students being suspended and expelled, increasing those students’ chances of incarceration. Black students often face harsher discipline than their white counterparts. Much of that has to do with teacher bias toward black and Latino students.

Studies that demonstrate how little progress African Americans have made — in terms of home ownership, employment and the increase of black incarceration — do little to change the mind of many. Rather than attributing this lack of progress to racial discrimination, a disturbing percentage of white people believe blacks are less intelligent and more criminal, sadly reinforcing a sense of moral superiority that justifies awarding mortgages and employment opportunities to less qualified whites. This should make white people question the very notion of fairness and the sense that they worked hard to get where they are and what they have.

Derek Bell, Harvard Law professor and founder of critical race theory, critiqued the civil rights movement on the grounds of interest convergence, which suggests that legislation of that era only passed because it aligned with the interests of white elite liberals who were still unwilling to change the economic order.

But the narrow view of King misses how he connected the dots between the triplets of evil, with racist ideologies allowing the lynchings of black folk while encouraging their military service for a society using similar bias to justify murder in the Global South through war or economic policy. King expanded on his evolving perspective clearly in his final book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”

“The Constitution assured the right to vote, but there is no such assurance of the right to adequate housing, or the right to an adequate income,” he wrote. “And yet in a nation which has a gross national product of $750 billion a year, it is morally right to insist that every person have a decent house, an adequate education and enough money to provide basic necessities for one’s family.”

Part of what we fought against in Ferguson was the violence of poverty, its intersection with militarism, and the plain fact that economically-challenged folks make easier targets for the police. I remember standing outside of the courts in New York City waiting on protesters to come out and having a conversation with a clerk who said that it is in the interest of police to arrest protesters and impoverished blacks and Latinos because, “from my perspective, this keeps us in business.”

When the underlying economic model is one of scarcity, there is an expectation of unemployment and poverty, which reinforces the political use of people as instruments to maintain power. The assumption of scarcity makes it easier for us to be indifferent to poverty and violence against economically-challenged people. We are beyond past due for the revolution of values that King called for, so that we cherish “people, not things.”

What if we had a model of abundance?

This movement for black lives and liberation seeks to transform the very nature of how we deal with each other and the way we see each other. We have a choice in how we see the world around us. Can we envision a society that doesn’t profit from the human misery of war and violence, or economic and environmental degradation? Can we envision a new way of relating and (re)structuring society and the way it works?

Instead of spurring economic growth by building prisons, we should build more schools and educate those who commit crimes, because most crime is economic, not racial or moral. We must be creative and grow economically without profiting or allowing human misery and causing oppression of the human family in the Global South. Even our social movements must call people in to decolonize their lives to reduce the suffering of others. A philosophy of abundance — which is how King understood nonviolence — is not only about not using violence, but also about the possibility for creative ways to transform ourselves and our society.

Zapatista women inspire the fight against patriarchy

by Shirin Hess

Zapatista women take the stage to deliver their speeches collectively from each Caracol, or administrative center. (WNV/Shirin Hess)

Dawn had only just broken over the mountains. While most of the women and children on the camping grounds were still asleep, others were already wide awake, huddling together in the first rays of sunlight and drinking coffee.

To a casual observer, this place might have seemed similar to any mainstream festival campsite. A distinguishing factor, however, was that there wasn’t a single man in sight. The sign on the main entrance left no one in doubt that only women and children were welcome at this event: “Men not permitted to enter.”

Women’s participation in Mexico’s 25-year-old Zapatista National Liberation Army, or EZLN movement, has represented an incredible organizational achievement since its original uprising in 1994. On International Women’s Day, the female militants of the EZLN did not fail to meet expectations when welcoming 7,000 people to the “First International Political, Artistic, Sports, and Cultural Encounter for Women who Struggle.”

Two thousand indigenous Zapatista women from various parts of Chiapas state and 5,000 visitors from all over the world came to Caracol Morelia, near the northeastern town of Altamirano, to hear what they had to say.

Uniting women

The event was entirely initiated by women of the EZLN. They planned it from beginning to end, and made sure everyone who attended was allocated a sleeping place, had access to drinking water and was cared for in the case they fell sick during the three days the event took place. Zapatista events such as these have commonly been accessible via invitation only. This event differed from most of the EZLN’s previous “Escuelitas,” or “Little Schools,” summoning all women and children who were interested in the struggle to overcome misogynistic culture.

“What we wanted was to meet many women,” said Commander Jenny, who coordinated the event. “We thought that only a few women were going to come, so we are very happy to see how many of you have joined us here.” Although only her eyes were visible, a smile was detectable behind her black balaclava. “It has been hard work, but we are very pleased to see that there are many other women who are fighting patriarchy.”

The event was not only an opportunity to create educational or professional networks, but also a space to consider one’s health and well-being as a woman in the fight for justice. There were activities ranging from workshops, discussion panels and movie screenings to theater performances, art exhibitions and sports events, including basketball and soccer matches. Themes included gender violence, self-defense, self-care, sexism in the media, sexual rights, health and education, misogyny and childhood, discrimination against indigenous LGBTQ communities, women environmental rights defenders, and decolonization. All of the activities were led and held by women, and all of them were aimed at generating consciousness of gender inequality or the restoration of women’s self-confidence and autonomy.

A Biodanza workshop, exercise to promote self-awareness and emotional expression through group dynamics and movement. (WNV/Shirin Hess)

“Capitalism is not only colonial, it is also patriarchal and racist,” said Fernanda Esquivel, a  20-year-old student from Guadalajara. “To come here and see that the Zapatistas are still resisting and have resisted for so many years is a huge inspiration for me. Being with so many women and feeling united also makes me feel hopeful about really creating a change. In academia there is nothing that can show you what it is like to come here, and to feel and share these experiences in practice.”

Young women like Esquivel have grown up watching the Zapatistas evolve and followed their fight through media reports, the Zapatista’s own communication channel, “Zapatista Connection,” and more recently a Facebook page and YouTube account. Women from a total of 42 different countries, some of whom were already familiar with women’s movements or other social, political or environmental activism, attended the event in hopes that they would gain skills and inspiration from the women’s Zapatista struggle.

“Apart from wanting to amplify my vision of how different fights against the extractive industries are developing,” said Katherin Cruz from the National Network of Women Human Rights Defenders in Honduras, which accompanies women human rights defenders involved in territorial conflicts. “I came here so I could recharge my batteries and take home experiences that strengthen me individually and prepare me for the work that I do, and for my political activism within the feminist movement in Honduras.”

The birth of the EZLN

In 1983, a group of indigenous peasants in Chiapas organized in secret, educating themselves politically and creating an entirely unique philosophy that insisted that “another world is possible,” one that focuses on collectivity, serving the Zapatista community and creating an autonomous social and economical environment for themselves within neoliberal and capitalist Mexico. Finally on January 1, 1994 the group went public, calling themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army, named after the hero of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata. That day, the EZLN launched an armed uprising, occupied seven towns in Chiapas, including San Cristóbal, and declared war on the Mexican government.

During their brief occupation, followed by a 12-day battle, the EZLN criticized the effects of global capitalism on local farmers and indigenous land. They drew attention in particular to the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, calling it a death sentence for the indigenous peasants of Mexico. NAFTA would be responsible for dismantling collective land rights secured by the Mexican constitution and prioritizing export manufacturing. The Zapatistas fought for a fairer distribution of wealth, as well as the right to political participation for indigenous people in Mexico.

After their initial uprising, in 1996 the Zapatista organization gained constitutional recognition from the state through the San Andres Accords and formed the National Indigenous Council. The Mexican government did not comply with the agreements and the Zapatistas continued to suffer from violent attacks, such as the Acteal Massacre in 1997, where 45 Zapatista sympathizers were killed in Chiapas. Since then, they have peacefully organized mass marches and protests, created their “caracoles,” or administrative headquarters, formed autonomous governance, justice, health and education systems and launched public campaigns drawing attention to continued racism and discrimination in Mexico. According to the Mexican newspaper El Universal, the EZLN now governs over 250,000 indigenous people living in the Autonomous Rebellious Zapatista Municipalities in Chiapas.

Today, the image of the Zapatista soldiers, clad in red scarves and balaclavas, has reached some of the most remote corners of the world. Their movement is now well known for its transition from armed struggle to nonviolent resistance to advance their demands for indigenous land rights and autonomy, which has triggered tremendous support and solidarity from anti-capitalist activists globally. However, many of the major issues for indigenous communities addressed by the Zapatistas, such as abandonment and marginalization, continue to exist in Chiapas and other parts of impoverished Mexico.

Women’s involvement and participation

During the gathering, Commander Marina took the stage to tell the story of the first female Zapatistas, their struggle for recognition in a male-dominated space and their experience of clandestine meetings prior to their public appearance in 1994. “We took our safety very seriously so that no one would realize where we were going. We had meetings in the mountains, these were very important. We had talks on politics, read books and watched films. We studied the situation of poverty our community was submerged in,” she said. “There was nothing to gain trying to demand things from our bad government.”

The backdrop of the women’s movement within the Zapatista struggle reveals extreme levels of violence against women, poverty and abandonment from any sort of federal health or educational institutions. Intersectional discrimination for being poor, indigenous and women was commonplace, and girls were often forced into marriages or sold by their fathers or families. During the opening ceremony of the encounter, the Zapatistas made it clear that women were sidelined and perceived by the community as second-class citizens. According to Commander Flor, even “midwives would charge less when girls were born.”

Zapatista women playing basketball during their first “encounter” for women. (WNV/Shirin Hess)

Their struggle has led the women in the ranks of the EZLN — which comprise about a third of the organization’s participants — to see themselves from a different perspective and shed light on the problematic behaviour caused by gender inequality. “At the beginning, we were not used to saying our opinions, or having discussions. We would all agree to everything and nod our heads,” Marina said. “We had to fight among our own compañeros, since it took a lot for them to understand the rights we have as women. There is a lot left to achieve but we are convinced that we will accomplish our ideals because we are organized, and we are strong as a collective. We have put fear and doubt aside.”

Many followers of the Zapatista revolution were not aware of the key elements that formed the movement before going public in 1994. Undeniably, one of the key characteristics that shaped the movement was the “Women’s Revolutionary Law,” passed by the Zapatista committees in 1992.

For Sylvia Marcos, a sociologist and expert on indigenous movements across the Americas, the emphasis on women’s rights is a defining factor for the organization. Furthermore, she indicates that these rights were claimed not solely for women as individuals, but were “fully linked and interwoven with collective rights.”

The unique transformations achieved by the Zapatista indigenous movement are manifest in its attempt to re-imagine gender and decolonize oppressive discourse for the sake of personal empowerment.

Enduring inspiration

Over the last three decades, the revolution continues to abide by laws made by the autonomous Zapatista government. With military strategist and spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos “resigning” from his activities, the Zapatistas have moved out of the media spotlight. However, the successful turnouts for their events prove that the Zapatistas are still an important source of inspiration for social mobilizations and women’s movements today.

Not simply an iconic reminder of what indigenous communities were up against in the past, the Zapatistas are engaging in great efforts to revise their strategies and continue to create networks of people who resist, especially among women. Though alternative visions of gender relations have flourished among the Zapatistas, women in the movement continue to suffer gender violence and are battling other issues not uncommon in Chiapas, such as malnutrition, and lack of access to health care and education.

The Zapatistas are addressing some of these issues through their own internal initiatives. Part of their collective work towards independence and sustainability relies on their agroecological farming projects, coffee sales, cooperative shops, community kitchens, traditional medicine and tortilla businesses. However, the fundamental purpose of the Zapatista movement is to promote their way of life and organize collective resistance to resource appropriation, historically-determined economic and social disadvantages and institutional neglect, which exacerbate poverty, sustain the governmental elite and destroy local traditions. Much of their work revolves around inspiring new generations to begin their own journey towards deconstructing norms in their respective societies.

The Zapatista movement currently functions like an organization that promotes constructive dialogue, communication and continued reflection on problems that affect their communities, as well as a support network for other national movements, including the water conflict affecting the indigenous Yaqui community, the 43 Ayotzinapa students missing since 2014 and the recent presidential campaign by the indigenous activist Maria de Jesus Patricio Martinez.

Women’s participation within the EZLN has played a key role in their success and ideology. They have made it clear that there will be no democracy without them. What the event last month demonstrated to many of those who were present, was the need to create safe spaces for all women, which allow them to heal and inspire them to continue fighting their own battles in their own ways. “We made an agreement, and that agreement was to live!” Commander Marina said. “And since, for us, living is fighting, we agreed to fight — each of us according to our means, our place and our time.”

When they couldn’t afford internet service, they built their own

by J. Gabriel Ware


The Equitable Internet Initiative is constructing wireless broadband internet networks across three underserved Detroit neighborhoods. (Detroit Community Technology Project)

This article was first published by Yes! Magazine

Dwight Roston is drilling on the roof of a home in Detroit’s Islandview neighborhood on the city’s east side. Roston is part of a team that is setting up a wireless internet connection. The home is just one of 150 designated households in the city to receive free internet service by the end of the year.

In 2016, a coalition of media, tech, and community organizations launched the Equitable Internet Initiative, a project that will result in the construction of wireless broadband internet networks across three underserved Detroit neighborhoods. Leading the initiative is the Detroit Community Technology Project, a digital justice project sponsored by Allied Media Projects. Each network will provide wireless internet service to 50 households per neighborhood, according to Diana Nucera, executive director of DCTP.

“During the economic and housing crisis, communities had to fend for themselves,” Nucera says. “Media and technology play such a vital role in economic opportunities, but the tech industry doesn’t really think about community organizing.”

That’s why, she explains, “we developed this approach called community technology.”

Detroit has one of the most extreme digital divides in the country, with more than 60 percent of low-income residents without broadband in their homes. According to a recent report from the Brookings Institution, residents in low-income or rural neighborhoods are the least likely to have broadband subscriptions.

Even discounted municipal or corporate broadband subscriptions, if available, are not necessarily alternatives for many families. After all, affordability is relative.

Last year, the United Nations declared internet access a human right. But like running water, which was also declared a human right by the U.N., it is considered a paid service in the United States. In 2016, a U.S. federal court ruled that the high-speed internet service can be defined as a utility, such as gas and electricity.

And as is the case with access to most utilities, there is a large gap between those who can afford internet service and those who cannot. This digital divide, which includes lack of access to computers, is a barrier to success in day-to-day life tasks, so much of which is done online—from paying bills and other financial management to obtaining voting information, from completing homework to communicating with a child’s school.

The coalition raised just under $1 million from local and national foundations to finance the Equitable Internet Initiative. Funds were used to hire employees, buy equipment, and internet bandwidth. They purchased three discounted wholesale gigabit connections from Rocket Fiber, a Detroit-based high-speed internet service provider. Their contract with Rocket Fiber allows the coalition to share its connection with the community—a provision not allowed by other companies.

Each neighborhood is represented by a partnering organization, whose locale is used as the central connection hub for service. In Islandview, it’s the Church of Messiah, a non-traditional Episcopal church. An antenna sits atop the roof and receives a point-to-point wireless connection from Rocket Fiber, which is then shared to the 50 designated households.

The community members are responsible for installation. DCTP trains a representative of the partnering organization, who then trains five to seven neighbors to install the equipment. These digital stewards, who Nucera says had no previous technical experience, are responsible for “building the networks.” They mount CPE (customer premise equipment) dishes on top of the homes, which receive a signal from the hubs. Finally, they run cables from the dishes to the routers inside the homes.

Roston, a digital steward, says the work was foreign to him.

“Being a digital steward was completely out of the range of what I usually do,” he says. “I was so used to using the internet— all the software and everything—but I didn’t know how internet networks work.”

So far, he’s helped with getting 19 of the 50 designated households in the Islandview neighborhood online.

Wallace Gilbert Jr. is responsible for recruiting Roston. Gilbert is the assistant pastor of the Church of Messiah, and he’s also a digital steward trainer. He has worked in tech for 30 years and for the past several years has been teaching neighborhood youth to build and repair personal computers to take home. Digital literacy is among the needs of the community that the church provides.

One day Gilbert noticed quite a number of the children were using the church computers to complete homework assignments. “I asked one of the fellas why was he using the computer [at the church] when I know I helped him build a high-end computer,” he explains. “He told me that he didn’t have the internet at home.”

It was then, Gilbert says, he realized that the computers were useless if the youth couldn’t access the internet.

The Federal Communication Commission’s Broadband Task Force reported that approximately 70 percent of teachers assign homework requiring access to broadband. According to the same report, 70 percent is also the rate of school-aged children in Detroit who don’t have internet access at home.

A mission of both The Church of Messiah and the Detroit Community Technology Project is to increase young people’s access to and facility with technology. This is why Gilbert and the church joined the Equitable Internet Initiative.

Nucera says the three-neighborhood project is about 50 percent complete. The coalition’s contract with Rocket Fiber expires next year, but another internet service provider has agreed to extend service for an additional three years. The next and final phase of the project involves developing a business model so that the residents will continue to have internet after the second contract ends.

This element of self-determination is also motivating, Roston says.

“You don’t ever want to give somebody something that they did not have and couldn’t do without and then take it away from them,” he says.

The bottom-up approach of having residents directly involved in building the internet, Nucera says, is a model that also strengthens community relationships, increases civic engagement, and redistributes political and economic power to otherwise marginalized neighborhoods

“If the community has ownership of the infrastructure, then they’re more likely to participate in its maintenance, evolution, and innovation,” she explains. “That’s what we believe leads to sustainability.”

The project is a model for any neighborhood, though, even at a small scale.

“I don’t want people to think that this can only be done with a million dollars,” Nucera says. “There’s different scales to this model. Two neighbors can come together and share internet, and they continue adding people to the network until it grows as to how big as they want it.”

This article was funded in part by a grant from the Surdna Foundation. 

March on Harrisburg barnstorms across Pennsylvania to restore democracy


by Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

March on Harrisburg on their three-day march from Lancaster to Harrisburg in November. (Instagram/March on Harrisburg)

Last week, the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District made national headlines when the Democratic candidate for the state legislature, Conor Lamb, beat incumbent Republican Rep. Rick Saccone in a district that President Trump won by 20 points in 2016. Lamb’s victory was considered by many a potential sign of Republicans losing their stronghold in conservative districts with possible implications for the midterm elections in November. Behind these front page stories, however, a grassroots movement is gaining ground, paving the way for much more transformative change in Pennsylvania by pressuring for legislative reform in both parties.

Leading this charge is a group called March on Harrisburg, a grassroots movement to restore democracy in Pennsylvania through lobbying state legislators and engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience. Headed by 27-year-old rabbi Michael Pollack and comprised of a decentralized, creative network of 20 core organizers around the state, March on Harrisburg has organized intensive lobbying campaigns at the state legislature, several multi-day marches to the state capitol, numerous acts of civil disobedience and dozens of arrests.

In recent months, activists have held 18 local “barnstorming” events around the state, from the sleepy town of Slippery Rock to downtown Philadelphia. The events — which drew crowds as few as a dozen people to upwards 175 — were held in Unitarian Universalist churches and often featured speakers from local organizing campaigns like Lancaster Against Pipelines and Berks Gas Truth.

Pollack, a former fundraising intern for the Democratic National Committee, got the idea for this statewide pro-democracy movement while sitting in a jail cell in Washington, D.C. It was in April of 2016 and he had just been arrested with over a thousand other protesters as part of a mass civil disobedience led by the Democracy Spring movement, which was targeting big money in politics. Pollack saw how the march broke through echo chambers, allowing people to “do” democracy by walking and talking together. He also saw a need for something similar on the state level in Pennsylvania, and decided that in order to address existing divisions in society, corruption was the place to start.

“We are pro-democracy and anti-corruption,” Pollack said. “[Being anti-corruption] means standing against anything that divides people.” Bribery, he explained, is inherently divisive in how it creates an “in-group” and an “out-group”: Those who give and receive the bribes and everybody else. That division prevents people from connecting with each other and “feeling responsible” for each other, something Pollack said is a core part of his faith.

Living out this philosophy, March on Harrisburg takes a bipartisan approach to democratic reform. The group is focused specifically on the promotion of two pieces of legislation — a gift ban and a gerrymandering bill — which have bipartisan support in the Pennsylvania legislature. The bill limiting gift to public officers (SB 132, HB 39) was written by the recently-ousted Republican Rep. Saccone, while the gerrymandering bill (SB 22, HB 722) was written by four main sponsors — two Republicans and two Democrats — with the support from a nonpartisan statewide coalition called Fair Districts.

“It’s not always clear which is the party of corruption,” Pollack said. He added that March on Harrisburg often must respond to questions about why they engage with Republicans on the “other side,” but maintains that reaching across the aisle and finding solutions is a central part of their work. “We sit down with people who have [Make America Great Again] hats on their desk and talk with them as human beings, often with really great results.”

Forcing the encounter

March on Harrisburg began taking action in January 2017 with a five-month-long lobby campaign. In May, the group marched from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, and conducted five nonviolent direct actions over the course of three days, leading to 28 arrests in total. One low-risk action done in the middle of a “Make the Second Amendment Great Again” rally occurred when the group dropped a banner that read “Make Corruption Illegal.”

During a Second Amendment rally at the State Capitol Building in January, March on Harrisburg dropped a banner that read “Make Corruption Illegal.”(March on Harrisburg)

“We force the encounter,” said Pollack, who draws inspiration from the Serbian Otpor! movement. “We try to get as close to those in power and hope for a human response.”

The group sought to schedule meetings to discuss the gift ban and gerrymandering bill with legislators like Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, who is the Republican Majority Chairman of the House State Government Committee. Metcalfe is notorious for his staunch right-wing views and has gained internet fame for on-screen outbursts, like the time he told a colleague in a committee meeting to “stop touching” him because he is “a heterosexual.”

To promote the gift ban, or House Bill 39, activists sent packages to Metcalfe’s office every day for 39 days that included a range of “gifts” — from plungers symbolizing the need to “drain the swamp” to baby bottles and rattles to office supplies that help schedule meetings to purple “nonpartisan” flowers. They also replaced the bars of soap in the Legislative Office Building with bars stamped with statistics like Pennsylvania being the 45th most corrupt state and 49th most gerrymandered.

When the group delivered gifts in person, Pollack made a grand symbolic gesture by taking off his shirt — along with the traditional Jewish undershirt he wears called a tzitzit — to say that, in effect, all he had left to offer was the shirt off his back. The tzitzit made this message particularly poignant, since it is worn as a reminder to act with responsibility for other people. They placed the gifts at the feet of the Capitol Police who were guarding the door to Metcalfe’s office.

In the video of the gift delivery, Pollack tells the police officers guarding Metcalfe’s door that “I can’t buy you a pizza, but I can give [Metcalfe] a briefcase full of cash.”

The group organized another march in November 2017 — this one from Lancaster to Harrisburg, lasting three days with 25 activists. But, in a move the activists suspect was done to avoid them, the House cancelled their session day and rescheduled it to take place over Thanksgiving week instead. Metcalfe was feeling the pressure after two recent town halls in which he was berated by constituents for not supporting the gift ban.

With the session canceled, the group had to quickly devise another creative action to get legislators’ attention. Activists dressed up as the elusive character from the “Where’s Waldo?” books and went into the legislative office building, where they held a nonviolent sit-in to tell constituents: “It’s easier to find Waldo than to find your representative.”

March on Harrisburg in the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in November. (Facebook/March on Harrisburg)

The group could tell they were making progress when they were featured in two episodes of Metcalfe’s YouTube series, “The Metcalfe Minute.” In the video called “Union-Endorsed Protesters,” Metcalfe said the protesters who occupied his office were “whining and yelling like a bunch of spoiled losers.” In “Rude Antics of the Left,” he decried “thuggery tactics” of “out-of-state protesters” and pledged to never let the bill out of committee because it would reward their behavior.

“It’s amazing how he does our PR for us,” Pollack said.

The movement’s momentum, including Metcalfe’s fiery rhetoric, have attracted the attention of experienced activists like Adam Eichen, who recently co-authored the book “Daring Democracy” with Frances Moore Lappé. Eichen joined March on Harrisburg for their barnstorming campaign this past month, helping to draw larger crowds and media attention. He said he was inspired to join March on Harrisburg’s barnstorming tour because he believes the anger and frustration people feel around the country can be channeled into nonviolent direct action to restore democracy. “Resistance leads to burnout,” he said. “But the democracy ‘movement of movements’ envisions the society we want.”

Throughout the weeks of barnstorming, Eichen recalled people approaching him after the presentation with “tears in their eyes,” saying how meaningful it was to be taking action. Moments like that give him hope that Americans are “not as divided as we think we are.”

A fusion of movements

March on Harrisburg plans to increase involvement by building coalitions with other activist movements in the region and across the country. One example is in the efforts of Kyle Moore, a March on Harrisburg organizer, who has also participated in several other national and state-level struggles in the past few months — from the Washington, D.C. protests against the health care repeal and tax bill to the more recent teachers’ strike in West Virginia. Moore spent two days filming and interviewing the teachers in West Virginia to share their stories over March on Harrisburg’s social media network. The movement shares close ties with the world of labor organizing and receives funding from The Teamsters, a 1.4-million-member industrial workers’ union.

In the future, March on Harrisburg aims to organize 203 local chapters, one for each state representative. They now have a system of committees for legislation, media, art, social media, and nonviolent direct action — as well as ones that pertain specifically to march logistics, such as medical care, food, safety, police liaison and lodging. The group will continue organizing around the gerrymandering bill, for which the voting deadline is June 30. If it fails to pass this year, it would take another decade to come up for a vote again due to the lengthy process of redistricting. They have also started working on a new bill for campaign finance reform in Philadelphia that could eventually be expanded statewide.

The movement’s next major actions will take place this spring, as part of a larger, national movement: the Poor People’s Campaign. March on Harrisburg has already pledged to be a part of the Pennsylvania Coalition for the Poor People’s Campaign and will participate in that campaign’s 40 days of civil disobedience starting on Mother’s Day.

March on Harrisburg leaders actually got the idea to start holding barnstorming events after hearing one of the leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign, Rev. William Barber, speak about his own cross-country barnstorming efforts. And Barber, as it turns out, was following the example of Martin Luther King Jr., who journeyed to impoverished parts of the United States to promote the original Poor People’s Campaign in 1967-1968.

The connection between March on Harrisburg and the Poor People’s Campaign is an embodiment of what Barber — as well as activists like Pollack and Moore — call the “fusion of movements” coalescing around a set of issues affecting the poor and disenfranchised throughout the United States today.

Moving forward, March on Harrisburg aims to bring more and more people into the movement. Part of this requires a deeper moral questioning of how to engage with people across the political divide who also suffer from the effects of corruption. For Pollack, this makes the work that March on Harrisburg is undertaking a deeply spiritual one — one that requires him to grapple with the difficulty of forgiving one’s enemies in order to move forward.

“There’s this old debate: Can you ever forgive Pharoah for the suffering he caused?” Pollack explained. “I think about that a lot. It’s not easy to love your enemy, there’s no question. But the goal has never been to make peace with friends. The goal is to eventually sit down with [your enemy]. And when he says no, you have to shine a light on that.”

In the months ahead, March on Harrisburg will continue to sit down, whether around the negotiating table or in nonviolent occupation.

Indigenous communities carry on Berta Cacéres’ work by defending nature and health care in Honduras

by Jeff Abbott

A child lights his brother’s torch during the march in memory of Berta Cáceres on March 2. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

On March 2, hundreds gathered in Honduras to commemorate the life and work of the renowned Honduran activist Berta Cáceres on the second anniversary of her assassination.

Carrying torches, Cáceres’s supporters marched to the city center of La Esperanza to demand justice for her 2016 assassination. The march was made up of students from the Honduran National Autonomous University, families from the communities organized by the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH, which Cáceres founded in the early 1990s, as well as international supporters of the late environmental activist.

During the march, chants of “Fuera JOH,” or “Out with Juan Orlando Hernández” — which are a major part of the protests against the fraudulent November presidential election — were mixed with chants of “Berta did not die, she multiplied.”

As the indigenous Lenca communities of western Honduras commemorated Cáceres, Honduran investigators announced the arrest of David Castillo Mejia, who Honduran authorities accuse of being the intellectual author of the assassination. Castillo Mejia, a former U.S. trained soldier, was working as the CEO of the energy firm Desarrollos Energeticos, which was building a hydroelectric project in the community of Río Blanco.

The arrest is a step forward in obtaining justice for the high-profile assassination, but it falls short of identifying the true intellectual authors, who many believe are connected to the administration of Juan Orlando Hernández. Months before the assassination, Cáceres’s name appeared on a hit list distributed to Honduran security forces.

A Catholic mass was held the day after the march to remember Cáceres and her dedication to challenging capitalism and patriarchy in Honduras, as well as across the region.

The assassination of Cáceres by Honduran state forces dealt a great blow to the movement of the Lenca people. But the communities have remained organized to continue the work that Cáceres began.

“It has been hard now that we do not have [Berta],” said Jessica, an activist and resident of La Cuchilla, Santa Bárbara, which is organized within COPINH. “The people who killed her thought that in doing so they would kill COPINH, but I believe COPINH was not just her, it is all of us people who were around her. Berta did not die, she multiplied in the children, the youths, the adults and the elderly.”

The defense of territory and autonomy

Since the founding of COPINH in 1993, Berta Cacéres and the other members of the organization have gained international notoriety for their work to defend the environment from the advancement of capitalist development that favors extractive industries. In 2015, Cáceres won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. But the group has also worked diligently to build autonomy for the Lenca people and defend the Lenca territory from the expansion of energy and mining projects in the region.

Spiritual guides prepared an alter for the commemoration of the anniversary of the assassination of Berta Cáceres. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

“The topic of the defense of territory is one of the most important topics,” said Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, Berta’s daughter and current coordinator of COPINH. “It includes the judicial security of the land of the indigenous peoples, the recuperation of territory that was dispossessed and the expulsion of extractive projects within the territory.”

The Lenca territory extends through western Honduras. These departments have become ground zero for the expansion of mega-projects over the nine years since the 2009 military coup d’état that ousted the democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya.

The construction of the 21.3 megawatt Agua Zarca hydroelectric project on the Gualcarque River near the community of Río Blanco brought great concern for residents. They mobilized to challenge the project over the effects to their lands by holding protests at the construction site and blocking roads. Yet the Honduran government deployed the military to protect the project.

Desarrollos Energeticos had received financing from three international banks, Dutch bank FMO, Finnish finance company FinnFund, and the Central American Bank of Economic Integration, for the Agua Zarca dam. But following the assassination of Cáceres, investors announced in 2017 that they were withdrawing their investments.

The Agua Zarca project is not the only project proposed for the Lenca territory. According to Zúñoga Cáceres, there are over 40 hydro projects and several mining projects proposed in the region. COPINH has supported the communities struggling against projects through the blocking of highways and organizing protests against their construction.

But the organization does not operate in a top down manner. Rather, the Lenca communities play a critical role in how COPINH organizes. “The communities give direction to the struggle and what to do in the defense of territory,” Zúñiga Cáceres said. “With the case of Agua Zarca, it is not because we said that the project was bad, but rather because the community was already worried about it.”

This organization within the communities is further strengthened through the participation of the ancestral authorities, the indigenous governments that once administered in Lenca communities.

“The communities are in charge in their territories,”  said Zúñiga Cáceres. “Within the assemblies they need to take the necessary decisions, no only for the protection of the territory, but to attempt to maintain the integral functioning of the community by resolving affairs, and overseeing questions of the schools and of health.”

All this work has contributed to the ultimate autonomy for the Lenca. By defending their land and nature as well as recuperating land, the Lenca people have laid the foundation of an autonomous system that reflects the knowledge and understandings of their ancestors, while also strengthening their self-determination as indigenous peoples.

This process represents the next step for the communities in the defense of their territory. Among the key efforts is the construction of an autonomous health care system that reflects their ancestral knowledge as well as needs of the Lenca communities.

Working towards an autonomous health care

Honduras faces a health care crisis. Across the country, health centers regularly lack medicine and well-trained doctors. The high costs of health care also prevent many Hondurans from gaining access to medicine.

This situation is far worse in rural areas, especially indigenous zones, where residents often lack basic access to health care and face intense racism from health care providers.

The need for the health program also arose from the situation that many members of COPINH faced within the communities, as well as in national hospitals. In some communities, such as Río Blanco, members of COPINH were ignored by health representatives, and in other areas patients faced discrimination because they were indigenous.

“The Lenca people have always been marginalized,” said Zúñiga Cáceres. In the past, COPINH has signed agreements with various governments of Honduras to improve the access to health care for the Lenca people. These efforts have led to the opening of health centers and improvements to the roads. Yet many communities still lack access.

Faced with the national crisis and historic discrimination, COPINH has promoted the construction of an autonomous health care system that will provide health centers and health care providers in rural Lenca communities. Over the years, COPINH has also sought to recuperate the ancestral knowledge of the medicinal plants, which are key to the promotion of a Lenca health care system.

The construction of this autonomous system is currently in the early phases, with proposals to build six health centers to serve at least nine communities. These regions have also received trainings — and are experimenting — in the use of medicinal plants.

Efforts began in 2016 when a small group within COPINH began the process, along with the assistance of the Colectivo Latinoafricano, which was formed by a group of students from across Latin America and from different professions that studied in Cuba. The collective works alongside communities in resistance across the region in popular education and formation of autonomy.

The group included Pascuala Vasquez, a 76-year-old Lenca spiritual guide and member of the ancestral council. She has worked tirelessly to recuperate knowledge of plants within the communities, as well as the Lenca spirituality.

“If we do not defend the rivers, the mountains and the territory, then we will not have good health,” Vasquez explained. “This is our right. To communicate this to the women within our communities so that they are more organized.”

The project also works to empower the women of the communities. The initiative led to the establishment of the group Lenca Women in Resistance for Natural Ancestral Health, which is made up by the women from the communities of La Jarcia, Río Blanco, La Cuchilla, Guachipilín, Mesitas, and Candelarita that were given the opportunity to be health representatives.

They work alongside COPINH, along with support from the members of the collective to learn how to use local plants — such as the small shrub known as rue, rose plants, and the colorful flowers of the Achillea plant — as medicine. The emphasis on natural medicines reflects the deep connection between the Lenca autonomous health care system and the protection of nature, as the initiative draws heavily from ancestral knowledge of plants and the Lenca spirituality.

A woman shares the medicinal plants in her garden that she uses to treat illnesses in her community. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

“A lot of plants that were used in the past are no longer used today,” said Elsa from the community of Guachipilín, as she explained the uses of the various plants in front of her home. “All the plants that I have found have worked well [to cure sicknesses].”

The project may reflect the local needs and knowledge of the Lenca communities, but it also has an international aspect as well. The health program connects the women to a regional network of healers that utilize natural medicines to treat illness. Since the beginning of the program, the community health representatives have had the opportunity to exchange experiences with members of the network of ancestral healers known as Tzk’at from Guatemala.

These meetings have helped spur the creativity of the women receiving training in autonomous health care. In one such case, Jessica from the community of La Cuchilla returned from a meeting in Guatemala and began producing a medicinal ointment that relieves pain, following the training she received during her trip. After tinkering with the recipe, she developed an ointment which today she sells to other members in the community and at events with COPINH.

But Jessica has had to overcome the stigma that comes with working with natural medicines within the indigenous community. “If someone saw me cutting these herbs, they are going to accuse me of being a witch,” she said.

The health project has an especially important meaning to the residents of La Jarcia. Just a week before the assassination of Cáceres, the community was forcibly evicted from their land by the Honduran National Police, investigators and the military. The residents were left on the street as the state forces destroyed their modest houses.

Today the community of La Jarcia is home to around 25 families, and is advancing quickly with the construction of an autonomous health center. They worked collectively to make a thousand adobe blocks the building. Once it is complete, residents of the small community will no longer have to make the trip to the nearest town to gain medical attention, and pay high costs for medicines.

“We are very excited that we are building a health center here,” said Maria Dominguez Hernández, a resident of La Jarcia. “There will be medicine here for all the families.”

How unarmed civilians stopped anti-Muslim mobs in Sri Lanka

by Lisa Fuller

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On March 4th, Sinhala Buddhist mobs began sweeping through Sri Lanka’s Kandy district, hurling petrol bombs at Muslim-owned houses, shops and mosques. The attacks came as a shock, as Sri Lanka has not seen violence on this scale in nearly a decade. The government deployed thousands of security forces, armed with automatic weapons, tear gas and water cannons, but they failed to stop the violence until five days later. By then, mobs had wreaked havoc in a dozen towns and destroyed 465 properties. Yet the death toll was astonishingly low: The mobs ultimately killed just one person.

What accounts for the disparity? Dozens of ordinary civilians and local leaders used a variety of innovative strategies to protect one another and prevent violence from escalating.

Paradise in tears

During Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil war, which ended in 2009, it was often referred to as “paradise in tears.” With pristine beaches, ancient Buddhist temples and diverse wildlife all conveniently packed into an island the size of West Virginia, the country seems like an unlikely backdrop to three decades of ethnic conflict. Since the war ended, it has become one of Asia’s top tourist destinations, but the recent violence has led many to fear that Sri Lanka could be on the brink of another war.

The situation has some parallels to Myanmar’s current Rohingya crisis: Hardliners from the majority Sinhala Buddhist population, including several monks, have engaged in a sustained propaganda campaign, using social media to spread anti-Muslim sentiments, proliferate hate speech and organize attacks. In fact, Buddhist monks organized and carried out an attack on 200 Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka last year. But unlike in Myanmar, anti-Muslim violence is a relatively new phenomenon in Sri Lanka.

Muslims did their best to stay out of Sri Lanka’ civil war, which was fought between the Sinhala-dominated government and a separatist group from Sri Lanka’s other minority population, the Tamils. After the war ended and Tamil separatism no longer posed a threat to nationalist ideals, militant Sinhala Buddhists began to target the Muslim population instead.

Over the last five years, Sinhala Buddhist nationalists have exploited global trends in Islamophobia to bolster myths that the nine percent Muslim minority is plotting to wrest control of the country away from the Sinhala majority and transform it into an Islamic nation. Although Muslims have been over-represented in the business sector for decades, nationalists now see it as evidence that Muslims are trying to economically subjugate the Sinhala population. Rumors suggesting that Muslims are trying to stifle Sinhala population growth have become ubiquitous. Accusations that Muslim restaurants are lacing food with pills that cause permanent infertility have motivated attacks on Muslims. They became so prevalent that the government carried out tests on the food. As it turns out, the “pills” were actually just clumps of flour. Sinhala nationalists also frequently use Muslims as a scapegoat for their economic frustrations, as Muslims have traditionally been associated with Sri Lanka’s business sector.

Yet, despite the prevalence of such divisive propaganda, most Sri Lankans have refused to resort to violence. Meanwhile, Muslims have largely responded to attacks with nonviolence.

During the recent attacks, Muslims leaders used mosque loud speakers (which are normally used for the call to prayer) to urge Muslims to remain calm and refrain from retaliating. In many areas, Sinhalese and Tamils stepped in to protect Muslims, using a variety of strategies.

Early warning

When a mob approached a neighborhood in the town of Pallekele, Sinhala Buddhist families called their Muslim neighbors to warn them.

“We were on the way back from a wedding when the attacks began, but we turned around when our neighbors called us and told us it wasn’t safe to come home,” Hassan, a Muslim father of three explained. With their home and all of their belongings destroyed by fire, the family has been subsisting almost solely on the kindness of their neighbors who bring them food and buckets of water and charge their phones for them every day.

In Kengalla, the town that sustained the most damage in the attacks, Nussair’s friend, who had personal connections to some of the organizers of the attacks, called to warn him the day before the attacks.

“We didn’t think it was really going to happen,” Nussair said. He and his son stayed in the house, but he sent his daughter and four-month-old granddaughter out of town, just in case. Nussair and his son were still in the house when the mob began attacking it, but managed to escape. “We were so scared, we ran out the back as fast as we could,” he said.

In at least one other town, ample warning allowed Muslims to evacuate before the mobs began to attack. In a WhatsApp group that was used to organize the attacks, a group member sent a message saying “when we went to attack, there was no one, they had left,” while another member said, “someone had given them the news.”

Providing safe shelter

The mobs systematically targeted Muslim homes, shops and mosques, but other buildings remained untouched. Dozens of Sinhalese and Tamils were therefore able to provide a safe haven for Muslims during the attacks. Some hotels and families even posted invitations on Twitter.

In one particularly organized effort, a Tamil priest went to each of his parishioners’ homes and asked them to provide shelter for Muslims. He then drove Muslim families to each parishioner’s home, where they remained for the next 48 hours. When they returned home, many found that their homes had been burned down, but the community’s actions allowed them to escape unscathed.

Violence interruption

In Rajawella, a Muslim-majority village, men decided they would defend their homes and their families when they heard the mob was heading their way. Fifty men and boys gathered at the village entrance, armed only with sticks and kitchen knives, and prepared to take on the mob of 300 people. When a local monk heard about the developing situation, he feared that it would end in a bloodbath. He came to the town, and stood in front of the men and boys when the mob began to approach. The mob saw him, stopped and retreated.

“The monk protected us. He was the only reason that we weren’t attacked,” said Hassan, a business leader from the community. Dozens of displaced Muslim families are now living at the town mosque, as it is one of the few in the area that remained unharmed.

Protective presence

In the town of Balagolla, the Muslim community was afraid of being attacked during Friday prayers and reached out to Ven. Thalpotha Dhammajothi Thero, a local monk, for help. In response, the monk and his welfare committee stood outside the mosque throughout the prayers to deter any perpetrators.

“When I arrived, [the Muslim leaders] invited me inside, but I told them I am here to guard the mosque”, Dhammajothi Thero said. He insisted that he stay outside so that he was visible if any attackers arrived. As the mobs were carrying out the attacks in the name of Sinhala Buddhism, he knew that they would not attack if a monk was standing in their way.

Civilians protecting civilians

These interventions were remarkable, but not unprecedented. Civilians have intervened to protect each other in previous conflicts, as well. During the holocaust, Danish communities organized to warn Jews of an imminent Nazi plan to roundup and deport them to concentration camps, and then helped them escape. During the Rwandan genocide, many Hutus saved the lives of their Tutsi neighbors by providing them with safe shelter.

Additionally, civilian peacekeeping organizations such as Nonviolent Peaceforce, Peace Brigades and Cure Violence use similar strategies to systematically protect threatened civilians. For example, civilian peacekeepers deter attacks by providing visible protective presence to deter perpetrators, just as the monk in Balagolla protected the mosque during Friday prayers. Like the community members in Pallekelle, peacekeepers use early warning systems to help targeted communities flee before attackers arrive. And similar to the monk in Rajawella, they prevent clashes by interrupting imminent attacks.

In the wake of violence, the obvious response is to focus on what went wrong. But equally important is to figure out what went right. Violence is, quite literally, contagious, but so is altruism. When we see someone engage in heroic actions, we often feel inspired to take such actions. And when we help others, we feel good about ourselves and are motivated to repeat such actions in the future. By highlighting civilian peacekeeping efforts — both organic and organized — we encourage others to take similar actions in the future.

How to build a progressive movement in a polarized country

by George Lakey

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Whether it’s assault rifles, racial justice, immigration or fossil fuels, the country is rocked by conflicting narratives and rising passions. In a recent national poll, 70 percent of Americans say the political divide is at least as big as during the Vietnam War.

In December, I completed a year-and-a-half book tour in over 80 towns and cities in United States. From Arizona to Alaska to North Dakota to Georgia, I heard a worry in common from people active in struggles for justice. They talk about the political polarization they see around them.

Many assume that polarization is a barrier to making change. They observe more shouting and less listening, more drama and less reflection, and an escalation at the extremes. They note that mass media journalists have less time to cover the range of activist initiatives, which are therefore drowned out by the shouting. From coast to coast activists asked me: Does this condition leave us stuck?

My answer included both good news and bad news. Most people wanted the latter first.

The bad news about divisiveness

We are not dealing with a passing fad or temporary trend. The research of a trio of political scientists found that political polarization follows the curve of economic inequality. For decades after World War II, white male inequality in the United States was relatively low and governance was largely bi-partisan in spirit. But, as income inequality began to polarize, so too did our politics. Not surprisingly, perhaps, by 2015, income inequality was greater than at any other point in U.S. history, according to economists Jeffrey Gale Williamson and Peter Lindert.

The tax bill passed in January will add even more fuel to the fire.

Progressives need to breathe deeply and make our peace with the reality. Division expresses an economic arrangement, and it’s not something we can fix through urging more civil discourse. Even though we’ll want to use our conflict resolution skills in order to cope, we can also expect more drama at the extreme ends of our polarizations, and more ugliness and violence.

Even some of the people who carry progressive values like anti-oppression can be expected to become harsher and more dogmatic, as if inspired by the witch-hunting Massachusetts Puritans of yore. The dynamic of polarization is contagious — it doesn’t confine itself to tweeting public officials, radio talk shows and political junkies. I believe there’s little point in blaming our progressive movement comrades who pick up the infection around us. Instead, it helps to remember that this trend is much, much bigger than we are. We might as well forgive ourselves and each other, and focus on the positive openings that are given to us in this period.

The good news about polarization

In the 1920s and ‘30s, the United States and European countries polarized dramatically. In Italy and Germany, fascists were marching and communists were organizing for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Even on Europe’s northwest periphery, Sweden and Norway faced the most extreme polarization they’d ever had, complete with Nazis marching in the streets.

The outcomes of polarization for those four countries were, however, very different. In Germany and Italy, Hitler and Mussolini came to power. In Sweden and Norway democratic socialist movements pushed their economic elites off their pedestals and invented the egalitarian Nordic economic model. Saying goodbye to their old class-ridden days of poverty, Swedes and Norwegians generated historically new levels of equality, individual freedom and shared abundance.

The contrasting outcomes could not be more dramatic. All four countries experienced extreme polarization in the 1920s and ‘30s. Two fell into disaster, and two climbed out of poverty and oppression to the top tier of progressive national achievement. From these examples we can see that polarization may guarantee a big political fight, but it doesn’t determine whether the outcome will be dictatorship or democracy.

U.S. history also shows that polarization does not determine outcomes. In the United States in 1920s and ‘30s, the Ku Klux Klan was riding high as well as a growing Nazi movement. On the radical left, movements grew as well. The outcome was not fascist dictatorship, but instead Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” Out of that polarization came the most progressive decade of the first half of the 20th century in the United States.

Fast forward to the divided 1960s, which boiled over into the ‘70s, when environmentalists, feminists and LGBT people joined the ferment initiated by the civil rights and other movements of the ‘60s. Once again the Nazis grew along with the Ku Klux Klan, while on the left we remember the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army. Nevertheless, in the midst of strong polarization, the United States made its greatest progress in the second half of the 20th century.

Letting the heat work for progress

While book touring in England, I stayed with a metal sculptor who showed me his blacksmith’s hearth, essential for creating the beautiful designs that filled his studio. I saw a useful metaphor: Progressives need polarization like blacksmiths and artists need heat to make cold hard metal flexible enough to change its shape.

Heat creates volatility, in metal and in society. It breaks up crystalized patterns. It makes possible something new to replace the rigid oppressive structures that express themselves through sexual and racist violence, endemic poverty alongside extreme wealth, environmental destruction, political corruption and militarism.

Since we can expect more polarization ahead, how can we use its heat and volatility to create something as serviceable as a horseshoe, or even a sculpture of beauty? We can give ourselves a head start by learning what worked in previous periods of polarization and strengthening them for our context.

Because planning is an empowering practice, I’ve organized what’s worked for others into a kind of roadmap, consisting of five stages. There is some reason to the sequence, but not enough to be rigid about it.

A roadmap to transformation

1. Tell people you meet that we are creating a plan. Acquaintances may believe you are simply “a protester” or like to hang out with your activist friends — they may not know it’s even possible to create a plan to work together to get ourselves out of this mess. According to the American Psychological Association, 63 percent of Americans say that concerns about the nation’s future are a major source of stress in their lives.

Planning is on the side of positivity, capability and empowerment. Tell people how those are showing up in your life by participating in the plan.

2. Build the infrastructure of the new society. Governmental dysfunction in the United States is becoming ever more obvious. Tourists come back with tales of wonder from Scandinavia, while people stateside see inept responses to disasters like lead poisoning and Hurricane Katrina. The Pew Research Center found that only 19 percent of Americans trust the government to do the right thing.

A century ago the Nordics also had low trust. Organizers supported them to work together through cultural groups and co-ops, empowering themselves to meet each others’ needs. Americans may be ready for this: The same Pew study found that 55 percent believe ordinary Americans would “do a better job of solving problems” than elected officials.

Make the most of this opportunity to reach “beyond the choir,” building groups and institutions with people who didn’t previously know each other. Increasing your range of connection may be easier if people know you are thoughtful about everyone.

3. Build movements through bold nonviolent direct action campaigns. The teenagers in Florida instinctively knew what most adults in the gun control lobby refused to accept — it takes bold direct action to open doors. To keep the doors open, the teens will learn, it takes direct action campaigning. In the process they may turn the lobby into a movement.

Most Swedes and Norwegians came to realize that the economic elite ruled their countries and that their parliaments were pretend democracies. Loving efficiency, they preferred to skip the middlemen and go straight to the top, by focusing their campaigns on the owners rather than the politicians. Making this shift in the United States will help each movement to become sharper and clearer, more visionary, and — by refusing to be co-opted by a political party — more ready to align with others to build a movement of movements. They may also, as did the Nordics, stay close to the alternative infrastructure being built on a local level.

4. Gain unity among movements around a broad vision of what will replace dysfunctional and unjust institutions. Many Nordics understood that politicians’ promises of small reform steps were inadequate, even insulting — something incrementalist Hillary Clinton discovered in the 2016 U.S. election. The large majority of Americans who tell pollsters that the country is “headed in the wrong direction” increasingly match their words with their deeds and stay away from the polls.

The Nordic democratic socialists succeeded because their vision was radical, showed deep respect for the people and made sense at the same time. One example was promising universal services instead of programs for the poor.

Few people want to go with you if they don’t know where you’re going. Nordic movements grew partly because organizers explained the destination. By sharing the vision, organizers showed they respected people more than manipulative politicians. Fortunately, in the United States, the Movement for Black Lives has already offered a vision, and more are emerging. When there is vision, stronger movements may grow out of nonviolent direct action campaigns.

5. Build a movement of movements powerful enough to dislodge the 1 percent from dominance. That’s what the Swedes and Norwegians did. Movements worked together to raise the level of nonviolent struggle to that point, even though their opponents tried to repress them with violence. Movements cooperated because they saw that their individual goals were opposed by the same force — the economic elite.

This is just as true in the United States, where the aspirations of both white and black workers, women and sexual minorities, immigrants and activists for climate justice, students and gun reform activists are all frustrated by the 1 percent. Cooperation for deep struggle becomes more likely when we create a vision in common that speaks to diverse interests.

 

 

 

So, where are we with this roadmap? The good news is that people are hard at work on the second and third steps already. As we gain confidence, we’ll tackle the fourth as well, which will increase our credibility and invite the gain in numbers that makes the fifth possible.

What about polarization?

I lived in Norway 25 years after the struggle that resulted in a power shift. I observed a remarkably peaceful society with a high degree of consensus. The whole political spectrum had shifted significantly to the left — the politics of the Norwegian right-wing was to the left of America’s Democratic Party. The overall direction of the economy was decided by the people as a whole. They enjoyed lively debates about the issues of the day, confident that the majority’s decisions would be carried out without corruption. And they hoped some day, without spending much money on it, to win a lot of Olympic medals.

The challenges of building a united resistance in Duterte’s Philippines

by Joshua Makalintal

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Three decades after the People Power revolution ended the bloody regime of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, Asia’s oldest republic is at a crossroads. Since Rodrigo Duterte became president of the Philippines in June 2016, he has led an extrajudicial killing campaign that has taken over 12,000 lives. Officially cloaked as an anti-crime policy, his “war against drugs” has nevertheless failed to address the genuine roots of the country’s narcotics crisis. It has instead only worsened the situation by victimizing the urban poor at a staggering rate.

In recent months, there has also been a particularly bloody escalation of hostility against the progressive movement under his regime. Over a dozen activists from left-wing groups were executed in December, among them religious leaders and indigenous farmers from the south of the country in Mindanao. The island has been under martial law for nine months, due to the war between government forces and jihadist militants in the city of Marawi, which ended in October. Duterte’s congressional and judicial allies did not hesitate to extend military rule in the region despite the actual absence of rebellion.

Moreover, Duterte’s order to declare the Communist Party of the Philippines, or CPP, and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, terrorist organizations has created more incentives for the military to accelerate its aggressions against the militant left. This has provided a pretext to oppress the CPP’s affiliates on the legal front, a development that has already occurred in recent weeks, when the president publicly vowed to extend his crackdown against these organizations.

More recently, after the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor announced she was opening a preliminary investigation for crimes against humanity surrounding the “drug war” killings, Duterte did not tone down his brutal rhetoric. He explicitly called for summary executions of rebel fighters and incited sexual violence against female rebels, acts that are tantamount to war crimes.

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Yet the government’s increasingly authoritarian tactics are a symptom of its lack of popular support. By targeting the country’s “undesirables” first, he may have provided a useful pretext for today’s broader repression, but the campaign’s brutality has also helped crystallize opposition to his government.

This opposition was on full display during the last week of February, with the nationwide commemoration of the People Power revolt that was celebrated through protests against Duterte’s tyrannical policies. The youth-led demonstrations were one notable event that demonstrated a growing trend of radicalization among the young generation. Considering Duterte’s crackdown is now encompassing dissenting voices from schools and universities, this is a welcome development since it is more important than ever to empower and organize the youth.

The force of this maturing resistance began to blossom last fall when Filipinos all over the country took to the streets to mark the 45th anniversary of Marcos’ declaration of martial law. The “National Day of Protest” on Sept. 21 didn’t just memorialize the suffering that occurred under the Marcos dictatorship. It provided an opportunity for the opposition to flex its popular support against the government. Those who came to speak out against the regime vastly outnumbered Duterte’s supporters.

These oppositional forces represented a broad and popular force in the making. It further proved that even though Duterte has the tools of a repressive state at his disposal, he cannot count on a mass base to come to his defense.

Regrouping the opposition

One of the major formations that surfaced was the Movement Against Tyranny, led by the traditional militant left, the National Democrats, under the Maoist umbrella of the CPP. The CPP allied with Duterte at the beginning of his term, but this coalition became strained as the president neglected to support their comrades in cabinet appointment hearings. Renewed popular outrage gave them a chance to distance themselves from Duterte through the late-August launch of the Movement Against Tyranny. However, they only “officially” severed parliamentary ties weeks later after an ally at the Department of Agrarian Reform was rejected. Such a broad coalition might not have even come into being had their cabinet appointments been approved.

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Indeed one of the greatest sins ever committed by the militant left was giving Duterte the benefit of the doubt, despite the signs that his government’s policies — backed by demagogic rhetoric and authoritarian methods — would only prolong a neoliberal economy and marginalize the masses even further. Duterte’s candidacy served as a litmus test for the National Democrats’ commitment to progressive principles — one that they failed.

Another major political force is Tindig Pilipinas, or “Rise Up Philippines,” launched a few days before the National Day of Protest. It’s a broad coalition that includes minority blocs from congress; figures from the previous Liberal Party establishment; the social democratic party Akbayan, which coalesced with the liberals in the previous administration of Benigno Aquino; and the nationalist, anti-communist Magdalo group, composed of former junior officers of the armed forces led by Antonio Trillanes, Duterte’s most vocal critic in the senate and a former military man who staged a few failed coups against the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo during the 2000s.

When it comes to the influence of leftist parties in Philippine parliamentary politics, Akbayan has the second largest base of support after the National Democrats. Akbayan’s rise was made possible by groups that broke away from the traditional militant left in the 1990s, a decade defined by left-wing setbacks, as the largest mass formation of the militant left fragmented into multiple blocs.

Since then, the party has had some success in getting people elected in both houses of congress and eventually became one of the leading voices behind progressive legislation. However, its social democratic values were called into question when it failed to take a more critical stance against the Aquino administration in its later years when issues of accountability came up, which ultimately led to the rise of Duterte. Akbayan eventually became the liberals’ grassroots wing during the 2016 elections, when it decided to back the Liberal Party frontrunner and Aquino’s designated successor.

The rise of a resurgent alternative

Fortunately for the country’s vibrant democracy, the Philippines’ diverse progressive movement includes various independent organizations. As with the social democrats, most of them were derived from breakaway organizations that resulted from the 1990s split. But unlike Akbayan, their success in recent elections have been almost non-existent, effectively sidelining them from the national political scene.

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But this may change with the new creation of Laban ng Masa, or “Struggle of the Masses,” the third oppositional force encompassing a coalition of socialist-oriented groups who have been consistent in their opposition to Duterte’s presidency from the beginning.

The coalition’s leader is activist-academic Walden Bello, who in 2016 ran an unsuccessful independent senate campaign supported by many of the same groups that now make up Laban ng Masa. By running outside the sponsorship of the National Democrats and Akbayan, Bello sought to build a campaign without corporate backing or relying on patronage politics.

Laban ng Masa is the only bloc among the three that is openly positioning itself as a left-wing alternative. In his speech, at its first general assembly, Bello emphasized the movement’s socialist vision of realizing a system of radical democracy and equality — a future beyond capitalism that’s worth fighting for.

There is no doubt that this alliance retains the moral high ground among the three. Yet it lacks the political capital and resources of the left-liberal factions making up Tindig Pilipinas and the mass base of the Movement Against Tyranny, whose backing by the militant left makes it part of the country’s largest organized left-wing coalition. From this position, the National Democrats are confident in their ability to control the narrative. After all, the CPP has been waging an armed struggle against the Philippine state for almost half a century, which makes it Asia’s longest running communist insurgency. Despite their dogmatic ideology stuck in Cold War-era rhetoric, they continue to mobilize mass support thanks to their grassroots fronts and sub-organizations, which refrain from actively promoting the armed struggle and primarily utilize nonviolent tactics.

A tactical alliance between these oppositional blocs would lead to a New Left in the Philippines. Its likelihood and character rests on the choices each force makes in the coming months. Long-term issues that touch on ideological boundaries need to be discussed intensively, especially on the part of the National Democrats. But surely, given their willingness to ally with an authoritarian strongman like Duterte, they should be inclined to show the same favor towards other groups. If they don’t, they will be unable to radically shape a new political order.

The need for a unified project 

The lack of solidarity among left-wing groups has plagued the country for decades. A fresh reformist project must reaffirm the importance of progressive pluralism.

For this project to be successful, the National Democrats need to take ownership for their past transgressions, in particular their continuing refusal to genuinely acknowledge their complicity and insist that their alliance with Duterte was a critical engagement in “principled unity and struggle,” a courtesy that was never extended to any previous president.

Opposition forces must also wrestle with whether to call for Duterte’s ouster. Simply ousting the president will not address the structural problems that led to his rise. Even progressive activists who support ousting him, like Laban ng Masa’s Herbert Docena, recognize that only through a broad and unified mass movement can an actual alternative emerge.

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Plus, considering Duterte’s durable popularity among many Filipinos, particularly from the middle and upper middle classes, such an action would deepen the divide among the populace and pave a fresh path towards another strongman citing the “golden age” of Marcos.

As for Tindig Pilipinas, the group’s social democratic forces have yet to account for its association with the previous government and have so far shown no concrete plan for how to fix the country without going back to the failed elite-dominated democracy that led to Duterte’s surge.

So far, they have also hesitated on calling for the president’s ouster, and instead focused on vague goals like appealing to the government to take a “healing approach” to the drug war, which assumes that the country’s institutions are capable of change without reforming them from the ground up.

Indeed, using the law to resist authoritarian abuse of power is essential, and resisting Duterte’s dictatorial tendencies through the courts is something that needs to be taken advantage of. But the struggle through administrative entities or legal battles can only triumph if they are reinforced by collective action.

And that is more needed than ever, since Duterte is slowly stepping up his game in railroading constitutional bodies as part of his blueprint of reforming the country’s political system.

Struggling against Dutertismo and Marcos’ legacy

After toppling the Marcos dictatorship, Filipinos have witnessed the gradual return of the Marcos family into politics. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s 2010 senate victory was bad enough. Worse still was his near success in capturing the vice presidency in 2016.

Bongbong’s bid for vice president was barely defeated by the liberal frontrunner. Yet he still succeeded in tarnishing the legacy of People Power. Duterte, despite having a different running mate, continuously acted as an apologist and sponsor to the family while on the campaign trail. The support was of course mutual.

As a token of gratitude, in November 2016, Duterte green-lighted a highly controversial hero’s burial for the former tyrant, an issue that has divided the nation since the revolution and a subject that the Marcos dynasty has pushed for since their return to the country.

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By putting the despot on a pedestal, Duterte catalyzed the first major protest wave against his presidency, less than five months after taking office. The anti-Marcos protests gathered various civil society organizations, such as the #BlockMarcos movement, to form an alliance not only against the Marcos burial but also as a stepping stone towards a more organized opposition against the presidency, which culminated last fall.

Now on the defensive, Duterte is trying to revive the strategy that brought him to power: using radical rhetoric to enlist popular support for his authoritarian agenda. In this effort, he has called for the establishment of a “revolutionary” government to “hasten change.”

It’s not the first time that Duterte has tried to launch a kind of “people’s movement” akin to that of the National Democrats. In 2016, his cabinet secretary Jun Evasco, a former member of the CPP, formed but failed to develop the Kilusang Pagbabago, or “Movement for Change,” which aimed to build an insurgent group similar to Marcos’ New Society Movement, a right-wing vehicle for “liberating” the Filipino people that conveniently required the declaration of martial law.

In reality, Duterte’s “revolutionary” program consists of constitutional reform meant to consolidate the administration’s power, restrain key political institutions and legalized intimidation of dissident groups. His call for a federalist system of government has been seen as a mere maneuver to extend his term as president.

This program has not inspired widespread support. When government allies called for mass demonstrations last November, they expected to rival the September protests in size and force. Instead, they flopped, particularly in Manila where they peaked at a few thousand, far below their expectations of a few hundred thousand people. The mobilization showed that the government has failed to develop a critical mass to counter the rising opposition. Duterte has online trolls at his disposal, but not a grassroots movement capable of mobilizing aggressive demonstrations.

Resisting Rodrigo’s “revolution from above”

The spectacle of the failed “Revolutionary Government” rallies proved that Duterte’s appropriation of anti-establishment rhetoric cannot hold up under the reality of his regime. But that didn’t stop him from taking advantage of his allies in the legislature. The Philippine Congress has now taken the lead and decided to form a constituent assembly to reform the constitution.

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Indeed, the current situation poses both opportunities and challenges. The next task for such a united front is to maintain the momentum that arose from the September rallies and the subsequent mass actions. Because if the progressive movement in the Philippines is to have a future, it will depend on its willingness to forge more strategic alliances.

The shift among the traditional militant left, away from Duterte’s government and towards coalition with a broad opposition, may be a step in the right direction. They must begin to recognize the reality of the plurality of the country’s grassroots movements. Ignoring the struggles of those who have staunchly and consistently fought and resisted Duterte’s brutal regime from the start will not help the cause for a better future.

Unless the National Democrats’ sectarian factions acknowledge that there is no future for a doctrinaire left, they will continue to pave their own path towards long-lasting marginalization. They should start realizing the impossibility of winning the armed struggle and that only through a veritable multi-sectoral political struggle can they solidify a true united front towards radical change.

As for the social democratic left, a fundamental step is to essentially distance themselves from the reactionary forces that constitute Tindig Pilipinas and rebuild their party by re-embracing the very principles that accompanied its foundation. Moreover, they must overcome the temptations to reinstate the elite democracy that blossomed following the Marcos era and instead join the broader left in advocating for its radical reform.

Unfortunately for the socialist forces comprising Laban ng Masa, building a huge mass base with their current resources remains an unlikely prospect, unless they lead the call towards building this unified project while sticking to their radical principles. This will not be an easy task, but if these emergent forces truly desire to deepen democracy in the country, they will need to come together and build a more formidable coalition.

Such an undertaking must resist Duterte’s creeping dictatorship, where violence and capital continue to reign supreme, while fighting for true democratic reforms based on social justice and equality. This is the true ongoing struggle of the masses — a struggle for a more genuine progressive alternative that is worth fighting for.

Inside the grassroots plan to get fossil fuel money out of politics

by Will Lawrence

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, candidate for Congress in New York’s 14th district, after signing the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge last year. (Twitter / No Fossil Fuel Money)

If there’s hope for addressing climate change in the wake of Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and ongoing hollowing-out of the EPA, it might be found in a little-noticed vote in Virginia’s House of Delegates last month.

On February 12, the House voted on a provision to limit the powers of utility monopoly Dominion Energy, the largest political donor in the state. To the surprise of all present, Dominion lost the vote by a slim margin. While the ultimate policy ramifications are uncertain — since the bill is still working its way through the legislative process — observers saw it as a sea change.

“I’ve never seen Dominion lobbyists look so sad,” a senior Democratic aide told the Huffington Post. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen Dominion lose on the floor. This is a game changer.”

Dominion’s opponents — including grassroots groups Clean Virginia, Activate Virginia and others — have been building toward this breakthrough for at least a year. Before they could defeat Dominion on the House floor in 2018, they had to first defeat them at the ballot box in 2017. That year, 85 candidates for the House signed Activate Virginia’s pledge to refuse donations from Dominion, and 13 of them ended up winning their races.

Among those 13 delegates were Democratic Socialist Lee Carter, first-ever transgender delegate Danica Roem and recent State of the Union Spanish-language responder Elizabeth Guzman. Each helped lead the charge to oppose Dominion and are continuing their fight as the bill progresses.

Of all progressive issues, climate and energy policy may be the most suited to empty promises from political candidates. Climate-concerned voters have endured decades of disregard from candidates for office. While Republican mockery is bad enough, even more galling is the tendency of Democrats to go completely silent on climate change in high-profile moments like Joe Kennedy’s response to Trump’s State of the Union.

Years of derision and neglect have resulted in a climate activist base that is hungry for political validation, but ill-prepared to distinguish serious allies from frauds. Witness the widespread grassroots support for the “Climate Solutions Caucus,” a bipartisan group in Congress that has offered few solutions and whose GOP members voted for the Arctic-drilling tax bill. While thousands of activists around the country are single-mindedly focused on lobbying representatives to join the caucus, others see it as little more than a PR gambit. RL Miller of the political action committee Climate Hawks Vote told ThinkProgress, “Other than sending out press releases regarding who’s joining, they’re not doing anything.”

In comparison to the seemingly empty gesture of joining the Climate Solutions Caucus, the early results in Virginia suggest that elected officials at all levels of government — unbought by fossil fuel companies — are more likely to take meaningful stands against their climate-destroying, monopolistic agenda. This bodes well for a national coalition of climate organizations that are taking Activate Virginia’s model to states around the country with a No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge. Launched in June 2017, the pledge asks all candidates for office to “not take contributions from the oil, gas and coal industry and instead prioritize the health of our families, climate and democracy over fossil fuel industry profits.”

For a grassroots climate movement that spent the Obama years largely disengaged from the task of winning or influencing elections, the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge reflects a new hunger to directly challenge the power of Big Oil in the electoral arena. Having substantially won the public debate about the threat of climate change, organizers now aim to translate public support for climate action into real political power.

Not a moment too soon

The latest scientific data, as well as the weather outside our windows, reveal a global climate system on life support. Emergency action is needed, soon, and that means we all must demand more from our political leaders.

As one Puerto Rican who suffered through Hurricane Maria recently told the Center for Investigative Reporting, “We didn’t just lose the facilities … We lost our dream. We lost the future of our children. We lost belief in the government, trust in everything … My house was filled with sewage. I slept in a garage. How do I explain that to my daughters?”

This woman, now displaced to New York City, is one of the United States’ first climate migrants. She’s not alone. 2017 may be remembered as the year when climate change showed its face to the American people, and the cruel diversity of ways it can harm became evident. Hurricane Harvey’s winds were comparatively mild next to Maria’s, but the storm practically took up residence in Houston, barely budging for five days as it unloaded more water than any storm in U.S. history. More than four months later, 10,000 families remain in temporary housing, and risk losing even that if FEMA fails to renew its assistance funding. Meanwhile, Hurricane Irma, the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic, avoided the feared direct hit on Miami or Tampa, and ended up as “only” the third-costliest hurricane in American history.

As the winds of change whipped up storm surges in the Southeast, they fanned fires in the West. The Tubbs Fire, which damaged or destroyed more than 5,600 homes and killed 22 in October, was the most destructive of the more than 9,000 wildfires in California in 2017. The biggest one, called the Thomas Fire, encompassed an area larger than the D.C. Beltway. Like others in Puerto Rico, Houston and Florida, fire-weary Californians are questioning if they should rebuild or retreat in the face of what many called the “new normal.”

If only it were actually the new normal. As journalist David Wallace-Wells has noted, “the truth is actually far scarier.” This is our world at roughly 1 degree Celsius of warming, and scientific estimates project that we are headed for at least 3 or 4 degrees total, meaning that the current floods and fires are only a fraction of what is on the way. Even at 2 degrees — the internationally agreed-upon limit, which at this point looks like a best-case scenario — Miami, New Orleans, most of Boston and parts of every other coastal city will be permanently evacuated before rising seas. Meanwhile, the amount of land in the Western United States consumed by wildfires will increase by at least four times over current rates.

As always, when discussing climate change, the impacts will be most pronounced in the Global South. Southern nations’ representatives to the United Nations have repeatedly referred to 2 degrees as a “death sentence.” And it’s not hard to see why: At such a temperature increase, the once-in-a-generation Indian heat wave that killed over 2,500 in 2015 will be an average summer. Fifty million Bangladeshis will have to flee as the rising Ganges River Delta drowns their homeland — a figure that dwarfs the current estimate of three million people displaced in the Syrian refugee crisis.

The cause of all this chaos

Coal, oil and natural gas account for over 80 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why to avoid catastrophe, scientists say we must cut carbon emissions from fossil fuel to zero before 2040.

Fossil fuel corporations — ranging from regional utilities like Dominion to the large international outfits that extract most of the Earth’s fuel — would have us believe they are undergoing a climate-awareness renaissance. Darren Woods, who succeeded Rex Tillerson as the head of ExxonMobil, has said, “I believe, and my company believes, that climate risks warrant action and it’s going to take all of us … to make meaningful progress.” At the same time, a recent Exxon ad depicts a young and energetic cast of characters holding beakers and touting biofuels research. Meanwhile, Shell recently ran a spot highlighting solar energy entrepreneurs in Nigeria, and BP declared that the “human spirit is the most powerful energy of all.”

In truth, Big Oil’s investments in renewable energy are minimal, though if the human spirit were combustible they would surely extract it and sell it back to us at a mark-up. The current blitz is only the latest stage in a decades-long PR campaign, expertly crafted to protect corporate profits in the face of an existential threat to their business model.

Recent reporting has revealed that the world’s largest fossil fuel companies — including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Shell and others — understood the threat of climate change as far back as the 1970s, long before it came to public attention, and chose to bury that information in favor of profit.

By lying to shareholders and the public about an imminent threat to civilization as we know it, a very small group of oil executives committed what the Pulitzer-prize winning InsideClimate News described as “a crime of historic proportions” and got filthy rich in the process — Rex Tillerson took home $300 million during his time at ExxonMobil.

Yet, stifling science was only one plank of their strategy. By the mid-2000s, fossil fuel barons had begun a systematic plan to purchase politicians through the legalized bribery of campaign donations. To this day, the ringleaders in this effort are Charles and David Koch, the brothers whose bedrock business is moving oil and gas through a nationwide network of refineries and pipelines. Their combined net worth of $86 billion puts in perspective the $750 million their network spent on the 2016 election cycle.

By funding attack ads and primary opponents running against Republicans who espoused climate action, the Kochs and allies made climate denial a litmus test for all Republican candidates. Those who wanted to get elected ignominiously reversed their prior positions to become born-again deniers, none more conspicuously than Donald Trump, who as recently as 2009 signed a letter calling for Congress to “reduce the harmful emissions that are putting our planet at risk.”

While Republicans have been the main recipient of Big Oil’s largesse, Democrats have gotten in on the action too. Mother Jones reported that “nearly all” of Hillary Clinton’s lobbyist fundraisers had worked at one time or another for the fossil fuel industry. In the 2016 election cycle, 93 percent of direct fossil fuel contributions in Congressional races went to Republicans — but the 7 percent still totaled nearly $4 million, spread among 146 Democrats.

The coming ‘blue wave’

Directly appealing to Exxon and other fossil fuel companies to change their position is likely a dead end. But we do live in a country where our representatives are sworn to uphold the Constitution and pursue the ideals set out in the Declaration of Independence — the right to life foremost among them. It has never been clearer that collaborating with Big Oil irrevocably compromises this oath.

The record shows an industry that is irreparably rotten at the very top, whose leaders have recklessly endangered billions of lives for the sake of expanding already unfathomable fortunes. These men — and they are, almost exclusively, men — have enough money to support their families for generations, and yet they have systematically threatened the lives of every family on the planet who has less than them.

Based on early polling and special election results, many observers anticipate a “blue wave” of Democratic victories in 2018. This wave offers an opportunity to clean up the oil-soaked corridors of Washington, but only if it doesn’t arrive already covered in oil. Recall, it may be particularly difficult for climate advocates to distinguish friend from pretender, given that the bar has been set so low. We can’t afford to fall head-over-heels for any candidate who admits that climate change is real and gives it some airtime. And, given that the fossil fuel executives are looking at the same poll data as the rest of us, we can expect them to increase donations to Democrats in this wave year.

Considering this challenge, the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge holds appeal as a mechanism for sorting out the candidates who will ultimately fall in line behind the Exxon- and Dominion-funded conventional wisdom, and those who will be outspoken and unbought champions for swift and comprehensive action. Seeing the potential, a coalition of 16 groups has begun collaborating to push the pledge nationwide in 2018. (Full disclosure: I am an active member of Sunrise Movement, one of the involved groups.)

In California, the pledge is well on its way to becoming a fixture in state politics. R.L. Miller of Climate Hawks Vote played a major role by encouraging a bit of showmanship. “I came up with the idea of blowing up the pledge onto a big foam core board, and having candidates sign it in front of cheering activists at the California Democratic Party convention,” Miller said. “It’s become such a signature of the environmental caucus that candidates bring their staffers to livestream them signing it with a flourish.”

Early experiments of this sort in California, Virginia and Massachusetts were essential to lay groundwork for the current coalition. “After these state campaigns started gaining momentum and attention from national campaigns we began comparing notes and coordinating efforts to build a more cohesive national push that would help to scale up the success that we were seeing at the state level,” said Brant Olson, campaign director at ClimateTruth.org.

The national effort has already scored a few high-profile successes, including Paul Ryan challengers Randy Bryce and Cathy Myers. And on January 31, Bernie Sanders committed to the pledge during a live-streamed event in Washington, D.C. The ensuring surge of local and state-level candidates, inspired by Sanders, has pushed the total number of pledge-takers from just under 200 to 233, as of this writing. Activists in the No Fossil Fuel Money coalition hope to surpass 1,000 pledge signers by November 2018.

Perhaps not surprisingly, early experience suggests that outsider candidates are much more likely to swear off fossil fuel cash. When asked how candidates coming through the official Democratic Party recruitment pipeline responded to the pledge, Josh Stanfield of Activate Virginia said, “They never responded to our question. They just ignored it. A couple of them have since accepted contributions from Dominion or its executives.” Meanwhile, candidates outside the pipeline “weren’t aware of the party line requiring deference to Dominion.” These are the candidates who are now leading the resistance to Dominion within the halls of power.

Given this dynamic, activists are planning to pursue a two-front strategy: sign up hundreds of progressive candidates to the pledge with little effort, and pick a few high-profile fights with “establishment” Democrats to challenge the national party on its compromised climate position. Sara Blazevic of Sunrise NYC identified New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo as one such target.

“Cuomo paints himself as a leader on climate change,” she said. “But he’s let the most ambitious climate legislation in the country flounder in the state legislature. New Yorkers deserve better than a politician who takes money from corporations in exchange for corrupt bargains cut with fake Democrats and the party of Trump. He can’t call himself a climate leader while taking money from the oil, coal and gas companies threatening our state.”

The day when government is answerable to the people

By building momentum through local, state and congressional races, advocates say they ultimately hope to lay the groundwork this year for a much higher-profile showdown over fossil fuel money and climate policy in the 2020 presidential primary.

After the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks and Waxman-Markey climate legislation in 2009, the U.S. climate movement spent several years floundering in search of direction and vigor. In the absence of direction from many national organizations, community members on the fencelines and frontlines of fossil fuel infrastructure nurtured a more confrontational approach, which gained strength by openly naming the fossil fuel industry as the enemy. This view found mainstream expression in an 2012 article by Bill McKibben, called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” In calling for mass divestment from fossil fuel stocks, McKibben wrote, “We need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”

Divestment was considered impossible at that time. Many of the necessary financial instruments didn’t exist, oil companies were considered wildly profitable, and institutional resistance was strong. But the moral truth of the argument resonated across the world, and a movement was born. Today, institutions representing $5 trillion worldwide have divested from oil, gas and coal.

To advocates who have been involved with both efforts, the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge represents the extension of divestment’s logic into the political sphere. If fossil fuels are Public Enemy Number One, it is simply immoral to accept their money. And if the pledge catches fire in the same manner as divestment, it’s not unreasonable to imagine January 20, 2021 as the day when Congress and the president are answerable to the people, not the fossil fuel billionaires. Then, and only then, will political action at the scale of the climate crisis begin.

Research for this article was contributed by Aru Shiney-Ajay and Jonathan Guy.

7 resistance-themed board games to strengthen your injustice-fighting skills

by Nadine Bloch

Exhausted personally and politically by the current state of the world? Or just need a distraction — something to lighten up the remaining days of winter? Here’s a recommendation: Play board games! I’m not talking about Risk or Chutes & Ladders — even though they can be fun. I want to make a pitch for exploring the rather broad category of resistance-inspired gaming.

There’s a long and fabulous history of both learning and fun in these games of resistance. Several started as educational tools to teach about political, social or economic realities. Others have been designed to offer practice at taking on and overcoming a problematic system.

Ultimately, these games are a great way to inject some playfulness into a training or bring creativity into your strategic planning. Gameplay can be a low-risk (and less stressful) way to start planning for a new campaign or to exercise your team’s collective muscle without being browbeaten into it.

The following list of resistance games encompass a wide variety of styles — from cooperative to roleplaying to standard around-the-board gameplay. And each one has its own personality. Some will draw out your inner Gandhi, some will let you live your wildest fantasies of insurrection, and some will just make you laugh. So dive in and get your game on!

Rise Up! Game of People & Power

The newest game, clocking in at just over a year old, is the fruit of the TESA games crew, otherwise known as the Toolbox for Education and Social Action. In Rise Up! Game of People & Power, all players are on the same team, running different parts of a movement struggling to beat “The System.” To start, pick an issue or focus story to work on: It could be something realistic like a government anti-corruption campaign, or something imaginary like “justice for baby dragons.” Everyone wins, or loses, together. The game develops tension as “The System” fights back when players draw a System card after each turn — delivering arrests, infighting, infiltration, surveillance and other impediments large and small.

Do play this if you want to explore the trials and tribulations of organizers and activists working together on a campaign that you create. Coming up with your campaign (or focus story) together is a great entry point for non-organizers or new activists to immediately engage in the play. It is also a key way to address the big challenge of educational games: how to make them actually fun to play, as opposed to just a powerful training tool or exercise.

Rise Up! runs well with five players, or can be played with a minimum of two (but that isn’t as much fun). Set aside an hour to an hour and a half. Young and old can strategize together, pondering whether it’s more important to add members or reach a new constituency, organize on the internet or work with media. Just watch out — you might end up in some real world arguments about the most effective tactical choices. Also, if you end up in jail, or the hospital, the game could end without you getting released. That’s why I’d recommend adding a rule that says winning is not possible unless everyone is home from the clink or the hospital. A big plus, however, is that the set includes two game boards, one for standard play and one that’s more simplified.

Rise Up! gets extra points for its ethical production standards, having been produced almost entirely by worker cooperatives in the United States, with environmentally-friendly materials.

Co-opoly, The Game of Cooperatives

Co-opoly, The Game of Cooperatives, follows in direct lineage from the seminal Monopoly, which was originally called The Landlord’s Game. Designed by Elizabeth Magie in 1902, The Landlord’s Game sought to teach about the dangers of massive accumulation of wealth by a few landowners — and present an alternative that kept the economic value of land and natural resources for the benefit of all. Similarly, Co-opoly turns the unique circumstances of starting and running a cooperative and democratic business into a fun and easy game to play.

In Co-opoly, you win when you have accumulated enough resources to start another co-op. You lose if you can’t pay your bills or continue to run your business. Decisions about pay scales, investments, insurance coverage and price setting are all on the table. These decisions are made by the players together, as everyone is on the same team as part of the same co-op. More challenges are embedded in the game through mini charades, drawing contests and fun bits that bring out a wide spectrum of skills (or lack thereof, somewhat hilariously) in your fellow employees.

Play this game with three to six folks (the more the merrier), and cooperate to build up the co-op’s resources — since everyone wins or loses together. Allow at least an hour and a half to get all the way around the board once, and more if you are set on succeeding in starting a new co-op. Players are given model personas to frame their participation in the tasks and challenges presented, as they travel the path of cooperative business life. If members complete challenges then everyone benefits — a clear way to learn about issues of solidarity and democracy within a cooperative economy.

Co-opoly also gets plenty of points for ethical production, with a majority of components produced by cooperatives and printed on recycled paper.

 

Lotus Dimension

Play Lotus Dimension if you are in dire need of some magical superpowers to fight a rigged game, or need to drop some karmic baggage. In the not-too-distant future of 2088, planet Earth is controlled by faceless mega-corporations that wield artificial intelligence, automation and substances to control a general public living under an “anesthetized consumer haze.” Resistance has been viciously and mostly snuffed out, but rumors abound about the existence of “The Nobles” (the group responsible for the last failed revolt in the 2050s.) As a player, you are on the path to join this motley, eccentric, and super-powered Noble crew on a quest to “awaken the complacent masses and defy the evil forces corrupting both society and spirit.”

Lotus Dimension is a tabletop role-playing game, or RPG, that would be familiar to fans of other RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. All RPGs are built on a foundation of storytelling and quests (problem-solving challenges) governed by elements of chance (often through the use of dice). Unlike the other RPGs, however, Lotus Dimension players must solve conflicts without using violence in order to be successful. It is worth noting, however, that the game acknowledges free will and therefore violent solutions can be chosen, but at a great cost to the players. D & D players have an adage, “If you can’t kill it, get creative.” In Lotus Dimension, you skip the first part and go right to thinking about what other solutions are possible — replacing violence and weaponry with empathy and ingenuity. In order to do well, players need to shift away from a combative mentality to open up alternative winning pathways.

Players choose their own characters, which fall into several “eccentric modern day archetypes”: Artist, Monk, Illusionist, Journalist, Hacker, Mystic, Free-Runner or Shaman. Within the provided template, players build out their backstory, select resistance skills and tools, and identify notable personal traits. A “Guru Guide” creates and describes the world and the flow of the game for the Nobles. Outcomes of dangerous quests are determined by dice rolls and input from the Guru. Together, Nobles use the brainstorming of collaborative tactics — rooted in the principles of nonviolence and the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path — to overcome obstacles, achieve objectives and defeat the “Dark Side.” All this must happen while trying to cause as little harm and suffering as possible.

In short, as the designer Scott Wayne Indiana says, “Lotus Dimension isn’t like many other RPGs. It’s both a throwback to storytelling forms about idealistic righteousness and a postmodern questioning of assumptions about the utility of violence … In this game, as in life, every problem has myriad possible solutions … Using creativity, collaboration, compassion (and maybe a little dash of crazy) will open new paths forward.”

As with most RPGs, allow plenty of time to get into character and develop a comfort level with inventive storytelling in order to get the most out of Lotus Dimension. It is recommended for three to five players, age 12 and older, due to violence in some of the scenarios — though that would not be an issue for many kids today. Of all the games reviewed here, it is the one best suited to become an engrossing hobby for the right players, rather than a one-off evening adventure. Another plus: Lotus Dimension can be purchased online as downloadable PDFs. All you need is an eight-sided die to start playing right away.

Bloc by Bloc: The Insurrection Game  

Where Lotus Dimension actively rewards nonviolent resistance and creative ingenuity, Bloc by Bloc is focused on gamifying “21st century urban insurrection.” Solidly rooted in the rote tactics of occupation, looting, blockading and fighting the police, players are to imagine themselves as part of a “vibrant popular rebellion struggling to liberate a city.” And imagine they must, since there is no discussion of what makes the rebellion either vibrant or popular.

Still, you’ll enjoy this game if you have yearned for a way to explore participating in building blockades, looting stores and fighting back against riot cops after dark without real consequences (other than police counterattacks and repression during the sunrise/daylight portion of the game). That being said, you’ll need to get a handle on the many rules that govern faction movements, occupations and police operations, as the sunset insurrection turns to the sunrise police counterattack phase. (For a game developed to explore insurrections, there sure are a lot of rules!)

In order to win, you must meet the end game conditions — such as establishing a certain number of occupations in the city or defeating the authorities in the Blocs — by the eighth night, or round, of the game. If that doesn’t happen, the military steps in and crushes the remaining insurrection.

Bloc by Bloc has a few creative play elements that expands its shelf life and keeps things interesting. For example, every time you play you create a new and unique game board through a random generation of city bloc layouts. The game can also be run semi-cooperatively or fully cooperatively. Players can also have sectarian or nihilistic secret agendas with asymmetric abilities, thereby enabling them to leave their fellow insurrectionary factions in the dust. The guide contains 10 mini-expansion scenarios that offer variations on existing strategies — with titles like “Routine Traffic Stop,” “Let the Infighting Begin” and “Burn Down the Company Town.” If you are already someone experienced with uprisings, these scenarios could trigger your PTSD!

The game board, cards and tokens are colorfully playful with cheerful graphics, somewhat contrasting with the game play content itself. There are a gazillion pieces of wood and hardboard tokens, along with eight plastic die to manage. All are nice to look at, but challenging to manipulate. Then again, if you are interested in running an occupation, logistics and stuff management is a big part of that.

The fact that this game exists outside of reality — in that there is no having to say sorry for destroying community resources or infrastructure, no one getting wounded or killed, no responsibilities attached to liberating a city bloc — certainly adds to the fun factor of fighting back with impunity.

Even activists who are ardently opposed to property destruction might be able to suspend philosophical principles enough to get something out of playing the game. Likely, the simplistic logistical moves that drive most of the play will only serve to emphasize why strategic thinking adds up to more than simply deciding which barricade to place where or what store to burn down. In other words, Bloc by Bloc would not be your go-to-game to advocate “urban uprisings” as a winning strategy.

Class Struggle  

Class Struggle is a somewhat legendary example of the lineage of illustrious educational games. Being neither big on unique game process nor design, it is a fabulous specimen of how to use the simple rolling of dice to explain complex economic realities. New York University Politics Professor Bertell Ollmann created Class Struggle in 1978 to teach about the reality of capitalism according to Marxist theory. He also credits Magie’s Landlord’s Game with inspiration.  From the game rules: “Class Struggle reflects the real struggle between the classes in our society. The object of the game is to win the revolution, alone or in alliance with other classes. Until then, classes — represented by different players — advance around the board, making and breaking alliances, and picking up strengths and weaknesses that determine the outcome of the elections and general strikes that occur along the way.” The game can be played with two to six players representing the classes (capitalists, workers, students, farmers, professionals, small businessmen). The goal is to accumulate as many assets as possible before the revolution arrives — since whoever has the most assets at that point wins.

The educational part — regarding the inequalities inherent in the capitalist system — start with the preparations for playing the game. Individuals don’t get to choose their class role in the game because, as the instructions note, “In real life, this is usually determined by the kind of family into which one is born.” Therefore, the game instructs players to “throw the genetic (or luck-of-birth) die … to see who plays what class.” This approach also means that the capitalist goes first, sets the direction of gameplay, to their right or left, and decides who should manage “the bank,” giving out assets and taking debits for the duration of the game. And, since the capitalist controls the government, they are the only one who can trigger the nuclear war option. If they do push the button, the game is over, with “no winners or losers in such a war.”

Although the game is firmly rooted in a societal class analysis from the 1970s, the chance cards that players pick up are witty and insightful even today. For example, one of the capitalist cards reads: “All your propaganda says a person is free when the government lets him alone. But almost everything one wants to do or have costs money, so only capitalists are really free. You can use your freedom to move two spaces ahead, after paying the workers two assets.” Meanwhile, a worker card says: “You have just been laid off from work. If you blame yourself, or foreign competition, or the blacks, or Jews, move two spaces back. If you blame the capitalists, move two spaces ahead.”

One serious impediment to playing this game is that it is no longer being produced, though copies are available on eBay or game sites and PDFs of the cards can be found online, along with the game board. Don’t forget to print out the original game box image featuring Karl Marx arm-wrestling Nelson Rockefeller. As noted in this game review, “They’re using their left arms, so of course Marx is winning.”

Suffragetto

More than 100 years ago, Suffragetto was “The very latest craze! An original and interesting game of skill between suffragettes and policemen, for two players.” These two players enact the street battles between the radical suffragettes and police constables in Edwardian London. Recently re-discovered, Suffragetto was originally designed and produced by the Women’s Social and Political Union, or WSPU. The militant WSPU broke off from their more pacifist suffrage sisters who advocated working within the system. WSPU embraced confrontational tactics of street disruption and property destruction due to their frustration at what they considered the slow pace of change. It’s worth noting that outside the purview of this simple boardgame, some social movement scholars have argued that the decision to escalate with more violent tactics actually slowed the WSPU’s path to victory.

In the game, the simple goal of the suffragettes is to break past the police lines and occupy the House of Commons while keeping the police from getting in to Albert Hall and shutting down their meeting. Conversely, the police are trying to break past the suffragette line and occupy the WSPU meeting space, while defending the House of Commons. The first group to get six of its markers into their opponents home base wins. Each side has 21 markers with both leadership and rank and file. Five larger markers represent the “police inspectors” or the suffragette leaders. The play is somewhat similar to a checkers game — with captured or “disabled” policemen sent to the hospital and captured or arrested suffragettes sent to prison (of course).

In some ways, Suffragetto can be seen as a physical manifestation of the bigger crisis in British society around the role of women. The campaign to secure the vote opened up a conversation about women’s relationship to power and their use of public venues to exercise their rights. More militant leaders of the time openly embraced an ideology based on claiming equal civil and human rights for women and emphasized the importance of preparing oneself physically for this work — quite a bold stance at the time. When the WSPU’s escalated tactics were met with increased police repression and brutality, the WSPU responded by creating a 30-woman bodyguard corps for protection called the “Amazons.” Supporting athleticism and self-defense training for women as essential feminine knowledge was a radical move — and likely so was the production of a game that offered a way for women to practice and think strategically about activist conflict.

Since the game is way out of print (there is only one known copy of the game in a museum in the United Kingdom) you can either download and print your own game or access the newly developed online version. Play this game if you want a historical taste of early suffrage struggles challenging gender norms through the flexing of feminist game-playing muscles!

Freedom: The Underground Railroad

This is an intense historical game, set in the pivotal time of the Underground Railroad in the United States from the early 1800s to the Civil War. Produced by Academy Games, which is known for its attention to detail and high production value, Freedom is a beautifully presented collection of tokens, maps, historical cards and more.

The game takes on the heavy subject of slavery by engaging players as abolitionists who work together supporting the Underground Railroad against the institution of slavery. It has both easier and more difficult versions, both of which require the collaboration of the players to develop strategy and win, moving slaves to freedom.

Play this game ready to tackle difficult content and make hard decisions. Losing slaves to the slave trade can be rough, but moving slaves to freedom can be incredibly uplifting and rewarding. Play this game also to remind yourself that slavery was once an institution that seemed intractable, but was ultimately defeated through the sincere and intense engagement of many people over time.

In the game, players work to raise funds for the Underground Railroad and other abolitionist work, as well as to change the minds of Americans on the issue overall. It is recommended for one to four players, with about 90 minutes of playtime for ages 13 and above. It offers some of the best edu-tainment found in current games, balancing the historical facts and figures with intense action flow. Players need to figure out how to balance their work of moving slaves to freedom with raising the funds needed to keep the work going — all the while, slave catchers roam the board threatening to capture runaways and return them to plantations. With good focus and cooperative play, players could end slavery during their session. And that success is inspirational.

Western Sahara calls for independence in historic symbolic referendum

by Matt Meyer

Sahawari women call for independence at protest on Feb. 26. (WNV/Matt Meyer)

Early mornings in the desert are usually dry, dusty and warm — in the summer, sometimes excruciatingly hot. There was a bit of a wind on the morning of Feb. 26, one that carried a certain sense of foreboding: a nasty sirocco, or sandstorm, was apparently on its way. Still, there was also an anxious anticipation, as an historic resistance action was about to take place.

On the eve of the 42nd declaration of a still-unrecognized Sahwari Arab Democratic Republic, and after 136 years of Spanish colonialism and Moroccan occupation, people from all walks and areas of Western Saharan life were about to assert themselves as a united people by voting in a symbolic but highly representative referendum for full independence as a nation. The people of Western Sahara were not waiting for colonialists, neo-colonists, or an unresponsive global community to grant them what they are in the business of building for themselves.

One shouldn’t have to be a human rights expert, a lawyer specializing in international border policy, or a modern-day Pan-Africanist to know that colonialism has long been declared a crime against humanity. The connections between land, freedom, sovereignty and self determination have been established as universally significant to the life of a people. Since the founding of the United Nations after the Second World War, when questions of extermination and genocide were undoubtedly prescient, subjugated people — imprisoned by external powers and occupying military forces — were given new hope. More than 70 years later, however, only a small handful of concerned people outside of the Sahara region of Northwest Africa seem to care or even know about the plight of the colonized Sahrawi nation.

The dramatic nonviolent action and an accompanying conference at the end of February might begin to change all that.

The hundreds who gathered were a tiny cross-section from dozens of affiliated Sahwari organizations, communities and geographic areas. Groups of women adorned in traditional dress sang, shouted and waved the national flag, with the word “Liberty” written across it in Arabic and Catalan. Lines of people from near and far signed in, were handed a voting card, and cast their ballot for a free, independent and united Western Sahara. The action was symbolic and simple, but deeply emotional for all those involved. The referendum results were clear, the international legal and humanitarian consensus is evident. There is just a lack of consciousness outside of the region about these people and their struggle.

In the middle of the desert west of Algeria, in the middle of what many would call nowhere at all (and literally off the map of even progressive cartographers), lies three interrelated yet distinct territories. Western Sahara itself, recognized by the United Nations since 1963 as a non-self-governing territory, is split in two. The majority of it is occupied by Morocco, which has taken total control of its land and natural resources. “The rich Sahawari phosphate reserves were essentially stolen by the Moroccans,” noted legal scholar Magdalene Moonsamy, a former member of South Africa’s Parliament, who also reported that their High Court ruled on February 23 that the valuable minerals now mined by international corporations “have never belonged to Morocco, and are owned by the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.” Morocco’s exploitation of Western Sahara represents one of the last — and geographically the largest — direct examples of colonialism left in the world.

The second geographic area which is part of Sahwari territory is a liberated zone, governed by the Sahawari liberation movement known as the Polisario Front. Polisario has controlled this rural region since 1975 when Morocco gained military control over all but this section of the Sahawari national land. The liberated zone is largely inhabited by traditionally nomadic people, who join with Polisario combat units to protect the small communities that have developed close to the waterways, which serve as an almost oasis in the desert.

Finally, outside of Western Saharan territory on western tip of the Algerian border, which disputedly belongs to Morocco, is a series of six huge refugee villages, potentially housing more than 100,000 Sahawari people who have been forced off their land. In a stable and supportive relationship between Polisario and Algeria, these lands are run by a Sahawari government structure in exile, the perfect place to hold a large coming together of those living under the occupation, those spread out in the diaspora, those living in the camps themselves, plus a few international solidarity workers. Perhaps the most historic aspect of the resistance referendum was the coming together of all of these groups in a united, national display.

NOVA, a youth movement committed to nonviolence made up of Sahawari activists across these borders, has emerged as a major force of change throughout the region. “Our strategy is to continue the peaceful struggle which began at the very beginning of colonialism and continues right up to today,” stated Maglaha Hamma, president of NOVA, at the opening session of the Sahara Rise conference, which took place in the refugee village of Smara from February 25-27.

The conference included Polisario leadership and a broad cross-section of Sahawari civil society, and focused on building coordination of a global work plan of civil resistance. Brahim Dahane, a former political prisoner still living in and representing Sahwaris under occupation, asserted that “one of the greatest victories of peaceful resistance has been our ability to speak as one people, empowered to build bridges” across borders.

Mohamed Elouali Akeik, the Polisario Minister for the Occupied Territories and the Diaspora, echoed that perspective, emphasizing that the essential goal of the resistance is to “regain the rights of all of our identity as a people.” Noting that resistance was growing significantly every day, Elouali Akeik said that “we are all prisoners so long as there are any prisoners,” and added that all those concerned with human rights must “oppose the legitimacy of Morocco’s occupation by all peaceful means.”

It is noteworthy that all sectors of Western Sahara society make little distinction between the significance of the armed actions of the past and the embracing of radical nonviolence today. There are no significant divisions between peoples and groups based on these different approaches and ideological strains. As one local Smara activist put it, “we started with armed resistance and have now come to peaceful resistance. We have a huge heritage of resistance.”

That resistance will surely continue to take many forms, and has already included numerous acts of creative civil disobedience. Elder organizer Deida Uld El Yazid, known as the Sheikh of the Intifada for his participation in countless sit-ins, protests and meetings, was one of the first to pull together the 30,000-person Gdeim Izik encampment of 2010, taking back a small part of the land that had long been Sahwari. A new generation, dynamically committed to building across Pan-Arab and Pan-African lines, had already taken the lead by the time of El Yazid’s death in January 2018.

Abdeslam Omar Lahsen, the coordinator of the Sahara Rise action and conference coordinator is one such leader. He was also a co-founder of the Pan-African Nonviolence and Peacebuilding Network in 2014, which shares best practices and support to its affiliates in 35 countries from every region of the continent. At Sahara Rise, the spirit of solidarity with the ideals of peaceful change and Sahwari independence was evident, especially from neighboring Tunisia, which was represented in part by the recent Nobel Peace laureate organizations whose fundamental principles include dialogue and coalition-building. Tunisian organizer Inis Tlili, who works with NOVACT, the International Institute for Nonviolent Action, put it this way: “One of the main advantages of nonviolent resistance is that it opens the door for the participation of everyone!”

Well into the night, with fears of a worse storm in the days to come, the Sahwari activists discussed strategies and tactics. These included potential plans for a major boycott and divestment effort spotlighting the Moroccan occupation; for human rights campaigns focused on the repression and political imprisonment faced by many of their human rights defenders; and for increased work around the protection of natural resources. Through it all, the sentiments expressed by National Union of Sahwari Women leader Fatma Mehdi summed up the mood and understanding: “Organization is a crucial factor in resistance!”

Why the gun lobby is terrified of the youth-led #NeverAgain movement

by Dawson Barrett

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This spring marks 19 years since the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. American adults could have – and should have – addressed this problem then, before the 14 students who were recently murdered at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were even born. Where adults have failed repeatedly, and many have simply given up, the youth are now leading the charge.

On March 14, high school students all over the United States will walk out of class to mark the one month anniversary of the shootings at Stoneman Douglas. Additional days of protest are planned for March 24 and April 20 — the latter being the anniversary of the shootings at Columbine.

Following the righteous fury of Stoneman Douglas survivors Emma González, David Hogg, Jaclyn Corwin, Cameron Kasky and others (and building on the networks and expertise of existing organizations such as Everytown for Gun Safety), a nationwide, youth-led movement for gun reform is emerging under the social media hashtag “Never Again.”

There have already been walkouts and other protests at high schools and middle schools in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and elsewhere. The movement is growing.

Whether these protests will lead to real change is not yet clear. Young people have very little formal political power. They do not have the money to rival big donors, and they are a terribly ineffective voting bloc. Many cannot vote, and those who can do not do so in large numbers.

However, teenagers have other strengths, the greatest of which may be a blatant disrespect for the status quo. In this case, they have refused to accept the prevailing wisdom that the National Rifle Association is an invincible bedrock of American political life. They have rejected as foolish older generations’ assurances that there is nothing that can be done to reduce gun violence in this country.

Judging by the reactions of Gateway Pundit, Fox News, and the NRA leadership, the gun lobby is terrified of #NeverAgain, and it should be.

Teenagers have been on the front lines of every major U.S. social movement in the last century. Through protest, high school students have succeeded in changing dress codes, desegregating schools and businesses, ending bans on dancing, and forcing the firing (or re-hiring) of teachers, coaches and principals. They have won multiple U.S. Supreme Court cases. They have even toppled governments.

In 1936, students in Alameda, California walked out of class to demand the re-instatement of their recently fired superintendent, William Paden. The city’s mayor, after initially threatening to declare martial law, caved and brought Paden back. The teens won, and their victory inspired other high schoolers, setting off a minor high school strike wave across the country. The mayor’s administration, meanwhile, collapsed amid a series of scandals.

In 1950, the mayor of New York City was so frightened by a citywide high school student strike that he ordered City Hall to be defended by more than a hundred police officers (25 of them on horseback), as well as FBI agents. The students’ demand was a raise for their teachers, and they eventually won it.

Stoneman Douglas student Emma González has publicly referenced the young people of Des Moines, Iowa, who — by protesting the Vietnam War — established student free speech rights with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines decision. A walkout by high school students was integral to an even more famous U.S. Supreme Court case as well — Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

But protest alone did not create these victories. Protests only work when they apply pressure on the powerful.

For youth movements, success has generally hinged on young people’s abilities to split the adult coalitions aligned against them. They have had to isolate their opponents by attracting adult allies to their cause: parents against the principal, principals and teachers against the schoolboard, parents and lawyers against legislatures, etc.

In Alameda, the students won in large part because they made common cause with adults who were already angry with Mayor Hans Roebke for their own reasons. This alliance brought positive newspaper coverage for their strike, additional pressure on city hall from recall petitions, and a fundraising dance — for strike supplies — hosted by a local hotel.

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escort the Little Rock Nine students into the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (Wikimedia/US Army)

More famously, in 1957, nine black high school students desegregated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas by repeatedly putting their own lives in danger, creating a public relations nightmare that prompted President Dwight Eisenhower (and the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army) to intervene on their behalf against the state’s segregationist governor, Orval Faubus.

Just as those students undercut the authority of Gov. Faubus and of Mayor Roebke, #NeverAgain is trying to isolate the NRA. For example they are using the heightened platform of the moment to pressure companies that either have traditionally offered perks to NRA members (such as Delta Airlines, Hertz and Avis), or that must balance the financial benefits of unrestricted gun sales against the possibility of boycotts of their other products (such as Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Fred Meyer and L.L. Bean).

If these efforts continue, they could undermine one of the NRA’s major public strategies — using mainstream associations to legitimize its fringe positions and normalize its dangerous agenda.

#NeverAgain youth activists have also tried to pressure politicians directly, including the Florida legislature, President Donald Trump, and Sen. Marco Rubio, whose obvious national ambitions may make him especially vulnerable. Thus far, they have had little success. This may have to be a task for adults, who can provide the money and votes that youth cannot. Companies such as Walmart willingly implementing some of the most popular reforms, such as age restrictions and bans on specific weapons, could make legislation more palatable, though they could just as likely end up strengthening the argument that regulation is not necessary.

To win, #NeverAgain will have to continue to ramp up pressure on the NRA and its backers, and gain allies among responsible and knowledgeable gun owners. The movement will have to create division between Republican voters and NRA-backed candidates and, as importantly, between the NRA and other major conservative donors. Activists will ultimately have to force a political realignment that convinces the Democratic Party to take a meaningful stand on the issue.

There is a real danger, however, that the NRA will be able to capture the narrative and capitalize on this crisis, furthering its goal of arming everyone, without restriction — beginning with school teachers.

For now, #NeverAgain is gaining momentum and attracting both support and ire from the nation’s adults. School administrators in Waukesha, Wisconsin; Somerset County, Maine; and Needville, Texas, for example, have issued stern warnings against student protests. On the other side, dozens of U.S. colleges and universities have offered statements of support, promising that punishment for protesting would not negatively impact students’ chances for admission.

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The upcoming student days of action, paired with other issues impacting public education, should force the issue into the spotlight even further — compelling Americans of all ages and political stripes to choose a side.

The youth leading this nationwide charge follow in the footsteps of more than a century of teenage rebels, from the Uprising of the 20,000 that challenged sweatshop working conditions in 1909, to the Chicano Blow-Outs of 1968, to the Gay-Straight Alliances of the last few decades.

#NeverAgain activists are also beneficiaries of a protest culture that has been hard-fought and sustained more recently by the Sanctuary/DACA movement, #MeToo and the Women’s March, Standing Rock, the Movement for Black Lives, and K-12 teachers’ strikes in West Virginia and elsewhere. All of these, as it happens, have included the participation of high school students.

How these many movements together make common cause — and identify shared structural and individual opponents — will be of the utmost importance if this is to become an effective mass movement.

That question will depend not just on what the youth do in the next few months, but also on how responsible adults react — on whether they decide to leave the sidelines.

Game on.

Refusing to freeze, NYC public housing residents demand bold action from mayor

by Skanda Kadirgamar

Protesters outside King’s Theater during Bill de Blasio’s 2018 State of the City address on Feb. 13. (Community Voices Heard)

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2018 State of the City address, held on Feb. 13 at Brooklyn’s renowned King’s Theater, was premised on a particularly bold claim. The words “Mayor Bill de Blasio Making New York America’s Fairest Big City” were emblazoned on the marquee so that attendees, passersby and the scores of protesters who had been forced to the other side of Flatbush Avenue couldn’t miss them.

Yet, de Blasio has advocated for the privatization of public housing and has the support of major real estate interests. It’s no surprise then that his “tale of two cities” rhetoric leaves public housing tenants cold, in some sense literally. This winter, more than 320,000 New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, residents lost either their heat or hot water, exemplifying decades of neglect. In response, some are rallying with the grassroots organization Community Voices Heard, or CVH. They are pushing a platform that demands the mayor make good on his progressive rhetoric and take bold measures to abolish their hazardous living conditions.

Protesters from CVH began assembling in front of the theater at around 5 p.m. to demand that the mayor fully fund repairs in public housing. Within minutes of their arrival, police ordered the demonstrators — who came from a number of other groups, including Equality for Flatbush, the Street Vendor Project and Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence — to the opposite side of the street, where they were blocked from view by NYPD vans. But the group remained steadfast due to the high stakes of their campaign.

Aside from having to deal with failing boilers, which are at least 50 years old, residents are also fed up with lingering toxic mold and lead paint. According one lawyer in a class action suit that resulted in a $57 million settlement from the NYCHA, the problems with lead paint have been acknowledged since the 1960s. Lapses like these are the product of decades of privatization and the whittling away at funding for public housing.

In February 2017, CVH responded to this human catastrophe with a rally on the steps of City Hall that was dubbed “NYCHA’s Making Me Sick.” However, their demands — calling for the city budget to be used to address public health and housing crises affecting low-income black and brown communities — went unheard. Towards the end of last year, New York City officials began calling for the resignation of NYCHA Chief Executive Shola Olatoye for incorrectly stating that the housing authority had been properly conducting lead paint inspections.

Drawing on momentum provided by its member-leaders — NYCHA residents who are now trained organizers — Community Voices Heard has been pushing a model for public housing based on local finance and community control. This year, they want the mayor’s office to commit $2 billion of the city’s nearly $89 billion budget to overhaul infrastructure. Last year, CVH prevailed upon the mayor to allocate $1 billion annually to repairs and improving conditions. Since de Blasio did not make that commitment, they’ve raised this year’s request accordingly.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is typically the mainstay of financial support for public housing. With the Trump budget threatening to take $466 million away from NYCHA, however, local funding has become even more crucial. For CVH lead organizer Gabriel Strachota, doing something unprecedented — like directing substantial amounts of city money to public housing — would demonstrate that de Blasio is ready to “put his money where his mouth is when it comes to being a Progressive Democrat.” Strachota argues that while de Blasio was not the first mayor to support a privatization agenda in New York, he has contributed to growing the various crises in NYCHA by endorsing the idea that there is no alternative to public-private partnerships.

Beyond providing the necessary funding, CVH also wants the city to be truly accountable to residents. This means recognizing and elevating their power as stakeholders in their own homes. Thus, CVH has proposed the formation of a resident-led oversight board meant to combat negligence and cover-ups on the part of NYCHA. Comprised of the heads of tenants associations from NYCHA buildings throughout the city, this body would certify whether repairs are completed or not and would have access to the agency’s internal documents upon request.

A vehicle advertising the demands of Community Voices Heard for the mayor outside of his speech. (WNV/Skanda Kadirgamar)

This two-pronged attack on the city’s inaction — demanding local funding and giving residents their own watchdog group — is representative of CVH’s strategic model, which they call “power analysis.” As Strachota explains, their understanding of power is drawn from a definition Martin Luther King Jr. provided, when he said “power is the ability to achieve purpose.”

This approach revolves around the political clout that residents can generate themselves. Strachota said that both the growth and integrity of CVH’s campaigning relies upon the relationships between NYCHA residents. As he further explained, “one key source of power is through organized people, through the assemblage of relationships.” In the wake of the “bomb cyclone” in January, there are signs that their efforts may be having an impact, as members of City Council are beginning to call upon the mayor to increase funding for the NYCHA.

Building the power of tenants entails helping them organize in networks that can take collective action. There are many examples of this from the weeks leading up to the State of the City protest. On January 18, residents from each of the five boroughs met at CUNY’s Murphy Institute to discuss tactics for pressuring the administration that ranged from gathering petitions to organizing marches to filing class action suits. On February 2, CVH helped further escalate pressure by coordinating a mass call-in to de Blasio’s office. Over 800 people flooded the mayor’s phone that day.

To ensure that collective action continues, CVH trains its members to organize their communities. This involves CVH members recruiting leaders in their buildings, workplaces, schools and families who are influential enough to consistently bring people into the organizing process, which include attending actions and meetings. Cultivating that organic leadership prevents campaign work from turning into a series of one-off actions that allow political energy and focus to dissipate in their aftermath.

CVH develops its relationships with these organic leaders and aims to further develop their effectiveness as organizers by using a method that was central to the work of Fred Ross, Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta. “The first thing we do is that we build a relationship with them,” Strachota said. “We sit down with them and have a one-to-one meeting, but we’re not talking about policy. We’re talking about who a person is and what’s happened to them to make them that way.”

Talking to these prospective organizers about the struggles they face is crucial to their understanding of the roles they play in the campaign. That self reflection is also key to their understanding of power. Afterwards, these individuals often are asked to hold a house meeting, to gather people they know and try to solicit active support for the campaign from them. According to Strachota, meetings like these were the foundation of both the United Farm Workers and the Community Service Organization, which for decades has been emphasizing to unions the strategic importance of building collective power through face-to-face gatherings.

Rose Fernandes and her son Giancarlo are among the residents who have joined the struggle and have been animated by the force of this organizing process. Rose, having faced too many winters without water or heat, was slow to join initially. The weathering effect of neglect and isolation were the source of her reticence. “At one point, I had kind of been in this sleep state,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do, who to talk to. I didn’t think anybody would listen.” After organizing for about a year and seeing more people push back against the city and NYCHA management, she said she was thrilled and that CVH helped her find her voice.

“One of the things that’s hardest to organize against is the sense of hopelessness and suspicion that exists among residents,” said Giancarlo, who was responsible for bringing his mother into the organizing process. “My mom thought it was a cult or someone trying to get money out of us.” Sentiment like this is reinforced by predatory behavior and retaliation from the people who run the housing authority. At one point, a NYCHA manager refused to perform needed maintenance in their apartment in an attempt to extort money. According to Giancarlo, hostility like this, in addition to the threat of eviction, is the norm in public housing and makes residents fearful of taking action.

Having the opportunity to push back against such oppression is what motivates him as an organizer. That, in turn, has reframed how he views the building he calls home, as well as the power dynamics that shape it. “Most of the time what I had heard about living in NYCHA was ‘keep your head down, get a good job and leave,’” Giancarlo explained. “But the truth is that it’s very difficult because as your salary increases so does your rent.” Ensuring that residents have power in public housing is now a goal for him. “CVH offered me a path that was not any of the dominant narrative storylines I was being fed about trying to get out. I could organize and be a part of the change I wanted to see in NYCHA.”

The work of organizers like Rose and Giancarlo Fernandes will become even more crucial now that the Trump budget has been passed, which comes with a rent hike to as much as 35 percent of NYCHA residents’ gross income. The coming years will be rough. However, tenants are discovering their agency and many are considering responding to Trump’s onslaught and de Blasio’s intransigence with a rent strike. The question remains, however, whether the networks they’ve built have generated the power they need to pull off such an ambitious action in this particular moment.

Caribbean island seeks freedom after Dutch ‘colonial coup’

by Bryan Miranda

A march against direct Dutch rule on the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius on Feb. 7. (WNV/Esther Henry)

An emergency move from the Dutch government on Feb. 6 to dissolve the local authority of its Caribbean island, St. Eustatius, is bringing new urgency to the Statian struggle for decolonization.

The power shuffle comes after a damning report from the national State Secretary accusing the administration of the island — which has special Dutch municipal status — of lawlessness, financial mismanagement, discrimination and intimidation. With parliamentary backing but no prior consultation with the local population, a government commission was deployed to replace the island’s council and college board.

“They don’t abide by Dutch laws, and as a result they fall outside Dutch law and order. No government can accept that,” Jan Fransen, one of the report’s authors, told Dutch public broadcaster NPO2. “They want to apply their own laws because they believe they have the right to govern the island themselves.”

The move was met with a silent protest march on the island, also known as Statia, over what activists see as a colonial power grab that undermines their sovereignty.

“The takeover wasn’t really a surprise,” said Glenn Schmidt, co-founder of the activist group Pro Statia which advocates for autonomy of the island. “The possibility of Dutch intervention in Statia was hanging over our heads for some time now because of the disturbed relationship between our local government and The Hague. But what was shocking is the extent of it — that they put the entire democratically-elected government aside.”

Tensions between the central government and Statian authority had been running high since last September when the military was restoring order on Dutch Caribbean islands wrecked by Hurricane Irma. Clyde van Putten, head of the Progressive Labor Party and coalition leader of the local council, had reportedly threatened then Dutch Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk, saying “If you bring the military with you, then we will kill them and we will burn them on the streets of Statia.”

But more than just a provocateur, Van Putten has also been a long-time vocal opponent of the island’s special municipal status, which it got in 2010 with the dissolution of the Dutch Antilles. Curacao and St. Martin joined Aruba as autonomous lands under the Dutch Kingdom while smaller islands Saba, Bonaire and St. Eustatius became special municipalities.

“The people of Statia never opted for this status,” said Xiomara Balentina, co-founder and leader of the Brighter Path Foundation, an activist group pushing for a popular referendum. “We have no direct representation in the Dutch Parliament, and get fewer social benefits. There is no equality, political or economic.”

Pro-Statia and Brighter Path Foundation are the two grassroots organizations that since 2012 have become a political force in the fight for Statia’s autonomy. Through town hall meetings, seminars and rallies they have been educating and mobilizing the island of 3,400 inhabitants to “bring awareness to our people about our constitutional status and to encourage conversations about the type of constitutional relationship they envision for the future,” Balentina said.

In 2014 their organizing work succeeded in pressuring the local government to hold a popular referendum on the island’s constitutional status. Although 65 percent backed becoming autonomous within the kingdom, the total voter turnout was well below the threshold to be considered binding.

Autonomy within the Dutch Kingdom would mean Statians can take government and legislation into their own hands even as the Netherlands maintains financial oversight as well as control over the military and foreign affairs.

“We believe us Statians can and must grow to handle most of our own internal affairs,” Schmidt explained. “The attitude of the Dutch government seems to be more in the direction of we must sit quiet while they ‘do it for us.’ We reject this idea. We want to be rulers on our island and develop a community for our Caribbean people, not for Statia to become a European outpost for Europeans.”

The Statian struggle for autonomy continues a longer historic trail of denied democracy and freedom from Dutch rulers. A colonial possession that switched hands between Dutch and British empires since 1636, Statia was a central port in the transatlantic slave and arms trade. It was also known as the “golden rock” for its sugarcane and tobacco plantations, which were exploited with slave labor.

Slavery was officially abolished in 1863, but it wasn’t until 1948 — with the end of World War II and Indonesian independence — that men on the island could vote. Women couldn’t vote until 1963, more than 20 years after Dutch women in the mainland. The Dutch Colonial Council justified withholding democracy from their colonies by saying its people weren’t sufficiently “ripe” or “properly developed,” and so required “pure colonial governance.”

This colonial logic seems to persist today as Statians seek to achieve greater freedom. When Van Putten formally petitioned for autonomy with the central government in January last year, Prime Minister Rutte never responded.

Van Putten’s move to seek dialogue with the Dutch government had come directly from a strategic plan laid out by a constitutional committee that representatives from Pro Statia and the Brighter Path Foundation joined after 2014. The activists also released a white paper to present their case for autonomy, drafted a constitution for popular consultation, and lobbied with the U.N. for the island’s reenlistment as non self-governing territory.

But for Francio Guadeloupe, a social anthropology professor at Amsterdam University and former president of the University of St. Martin, these are political tactics that seem to evade the more pressing issue of economic inequality gripping the island.

“These islands and the people living there did not choose to become Dutch, they are part of a tragedy called imperialism,” Guadeloupe explained. “We can all say this is wrong. But to reduce the situation to a political struggle between two administrations is forgetting the people feeling the brunt, working for, or below minimum wage. A referendum won’t immediately solve their concerns.”

St. Eustatius, like its neighboring Caribbean islands with special municipal status, face higher poverty rates than those on the Dutch mainland, despite being part of the same kingdom. Since the dissolution of the Antilles, the costs of living have risen dramatically while wages and welfare have stayed the same. When it comes to the rights of Dutch people in the Caribbean, the Netherlands applies a double standard, a 2016 report from the Dutch College of Human Rights concluded.

“Let’s start with that — solving their concerns — then we can think about creating a structure that is more equal,” Guadeloupe added. “If people live a decent life they are better able to choose what political administration they want, what political leaders they want to support. Asking them to do so when they can hardly survive is disingenuous.”

For activists on the ground, however, they say their priority is now set on continuing to protest Dutch interventionism and making sure their elections in 2019 go ahead as scheduled.

“People have an intrinsic need to be free. All people, at some point in their lives, want to govern themselves,” Balentina said. “The Netherlands at one point in its history was dominated by Spain, the Dutch fought for its independence. So why can’t we?”

Amid opioid epidemic, ‘recovery activists’ shape a powerful grassroots movement

by Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

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Almost a decade after beginning his recovery from heroin addiction, Brett Bramble is undertaking a new challenge. Accompanied by his dog Domino and a small group of fellow activists, Bramble set off on foot in mid-January on a six-month-long, 2,400-mile journey from Florida to Maine. His walk seeks to raise visibility, foster conversations and find solutions to the skyrocketing rates of opioid addiction and overdose that have become a nationwide public health emergency in recent years, killing over 140 Americans a day.

“For me, it all started when my sister died from a heroin overdose [nearly four years ago],” Bramble said. “She only started using in the last three months of her life. That’s all it took.”

Bramble’s walk is one piece within a broader “recovery activist” movement that has been gaining momentum around the nation over the past decade. Led by people living in recovery or still facing addiction — along with family members whose loved ones died from overdose — the movement is becoming increasingly organized by targeting a variety of actors, drawing in key stakeholders and incorporating a range of tactics to pressure for change. Activists are becoming more strategic in their actions — staging rallies and die-ins across the country, drafting petitions and launching lawsuits.

One such activist is Nan Goldin, a 64-year-old photographer in recovery from addiction to OxyContin. In January, Goldin and her group, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or PAIN, launched a petition targeting Purdue Pharma and its owners, the multi-billion dollar Sackler family. With nearly 25,000 signatures gathered so far, they are demanding that Purdue fund recovery services, opioid addiction education and public dispensers of Narcan, the emergency medicine dispensed to counter a drug overdose.

Goldin’s petition and Bramble’s walk are evidence that the recovery movement is shifting from raising awareness of addiction to pressuring for immediate, tangible action that saves lives. According to Dean LeMire, a New Hampshire-based activist in recovery, “The movement exists in waves.” The first wave involves standing up, identifying oneself as someone living in recovery, and thereby showing people that recovery is possible. The second wave, he explained, is telling elected officials: “We need dollars for this stuff.” That means educating the general public about recovery services and building the political will to allocate adequate funding to prevention and recovery.

This “second wave” shift is creating an increasingly mobilized, politically-active base of recovery advocates and activists. Their work has included educating and registering voters — particularly people who are facing addiction or are in recovery — as well as pressuring for legislative change, funding for recovery services and corporate accountability. While such efforts have led to the creation of initiatives like the 2016 Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA — which funds prevention, treatment and recovery initiatives nationally — much more is needed to address the scale of the growing epidemic.

At the same time, the movement’s so-called “first wave” efforts — reducing prejudice and increasing awareness of addiction — is far from complete. Ryan Hampton, a prominent voice in the recovery movement, compared the stigma surrounding addiction to the social ostracism people faced during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Much like back then, “the shame keeps people silent,” he explained. “People are dying now from overdose because they’re mortified to come out and identify as a drug user.”

Hampton said his life changed when he watched the 2013 film “The Anonymous People,” a documentary featuring the stories of people living in long-term recovery from drugs and alcohol. Having confronted his own addiction to heroin, Hampton started the Voices Project in 2017, which encourages people to “come out” and share their recovery stories, using social media as a platform for people to connect with and support one another.

Despite steps towards destigmatizing addiction, the movement faces a somber uphill battle, as its leading participants must also deal with the ongoing challenges of long-term recovery. “For everybody who is in recovery, it is a daily fight to [survive],” Hampton said. Still, in many ways, that struggle is aided by channeling grief into action. That’s one reason Hampton was able to register 100 new “recovery voters” in just three weeks time by simply saying: “Are you sick of your friends dying? Well here’s something you can do.”

Tactics and visibility

So far, some of the movement’s major actions have promoted visibility and solidarity among people in recovery, often through coalitions with other campaigns. Since 2014, Families of Addicts has brought together thousands of people for the annual “Rally 4 Recovery” in Dayton, Ohio, which includes a 5k run, a raffle and a balloon launch, as well as resource tables for people facing addiction.

On the national level, activists came together in October 2015 with a coalition of over 450 organizations from around the country for the UNITE to Face Addiction rally and concert on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The rally was hosted by Facing Addiction, a national organization that advocates for the over 85 million Americans affected by addiction around the country.

Some of these actions, which aim to destigmatize addiction, have taken place on social media, where Hampton plays a central role in mobilizing numbers to respond quickly when a situation arises. For example, when Arizona House Majority Leader Kelly Townsend posted offensive comments about drug users on Facebook in 2016, Hampton quickly shared her contact information on his page, which had around 40,000 followers at the time. According to Hampton, she was flooded with 1,500 phone calls in just three hours. But rather than shame her or call her names, Hampton recalled people saying things like, “‘Hey, I just want you to know I’m in recovery, here’s who I am today.’ Or, ‘My kid died of an overdose. He was a good kid. Let me tell you about him.’”

These actions played an important role in humanizing the issue and gaining a spotlight to tell the personal stories behind recovery and addiction. “We saw that storytelling — kicking down those closet doors — could have a massive impact,” Hampton said.

“Ryan Hampton (left) has been a vocal advocate in the recovery movement, mobilizing actions on social media and starting the Voices Project to bring together people facing addiction. (Ryan Hampton)

Meanwhile, other actions have fallen more squarely under the “second wave” category of mobilizing political pressure. In 2015, activists with the Weed for Warriors project dumped pill bottles and syringes in front of the White House lawn to drawn attention to the overprescription of opioid drugs to wounded veterans. Then, last May, protesters held a “die-in” at the New Hampshire State House when U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price visited the capitol.

As with the reaction to Townsend’s insensitive remarks, many of these direct actions occur through mobilization over social media. When one woman shopping at the cosmetic store Sephora discovered a line of makeup products called “Druggie,” she posted about it on social media, creating an instant internet sensation. The incident quickly went viral, and activists again flooded the company with phone calls and social media posts condemning the product line. Sephora eventually discontinued the product, and — according to Hampton — he and other organizers within the movement were contacted by a public relations firm asking them to “please call off the dogs.”

While these incidents make headlines and gain public attention, much of the movement-building work is comparatively slow and incremental, enacted more at the local and state levels. This includes seeking government support and funding for harm reduction strategies, including the formation of recovery community organizations, or RCOs, which are nonprofit organizations that plan recovery advocacy efforts, as well as community education and outreach. Activists are also pushing for syringe exchange programs, increased health care access for drug users, and safe injection sites like the ones San Francisco plans to open in July — the first in the nation.

Much of this may not look like activism, LeMire acknowledged — at least not in the sense of crowds swarming in the streets, chanting and demanding change from the government. “This is all slow-cooker stuff,” he said. “But none of [these] formal supports were around three years ago, so I know we’re headed in the right direction.”

Mobilizing a wide spectrum of allies

A significant advantage to the recovery activist movement is the sheer number of people it stands to reach. One in three people in America are directly affected by addiction, either through personal experience as a user or through a close friend or family member. The movement therefore holds immense potential to mobilize a wide range of stakeholders, a base of supporters, which — unlike many current movements — spans both sides of the political divide. According to a Pew exit poll conducted after the 2016 election, both Republicans and Democrats consider addiction to be a “very big problem.”

“I’ve met parents who were enthusiastic Trump supporters because they had been fed the message of building the wall and keeping the drugs from Mexico,” Hampton said, adding that he would then tell parents to think about how a “repeal and replace” of health care legislation would affect their son or daughter. “It’s like a lightbulb goes off in their heads, and they don’t want to see another four years of Donald Trump.”

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President Trump has repeatedly declared the opioid epidemic a major problem, but does not allocate funding for it to be systematically addressed. In October 2017, the Trump administration declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, but did not request emergency funding from Congress and did not declare a national state of emergency, which would have allowed states to use the federal Disaster Relief Fund to address the crisis.

Recovery activists described how the escalating crisis of addiction and overdose — as well as the government’s inaction to address it — is increasing the movement’s sense of urgency to take more extreme measures. People have long sought to earn a seat at the table with important decision makers, both Hampton and LeMire explained, but now they may be compelled to take more direct or confrontational measures.

“We’re just getting a pat on the head,” Hampton said. “It’s an affirmative action play that policymakers need to have that seat for us, but don’t actually have to listen to us. We’re sick of that. We don’t need a seat at that table if that’s how we’re going to be treated. People are building their own tables, and that’s more powerful.”

LeMire echoed Hampton’s sentiments, saying, “We finally got a seat at the table, but this president is hostile to any social or mental health services. People are trying to give him more chances, thinking that maybe he will listen. But now we are seeing activists starting to understand that we need to just totally refuse this administration. We need to take to the streets.”

The shift towards direct action is a challenging one to make for a community so frequently criminalized. People have identified as “advocates” in recent years and sought to make change through official channels, but many are skeptical of making the shift towards more confrontational “activist” tactics. Hampton said that when he started using the word “activist,” people groaned and asked him, “Are we there yet?” He told them, “I don’t think we have a choice.”

“For so long we have been trying to ingratiate ourselves to a society that distrusted us, to decision makers who distrusted us,” LeMire said, adding that people have long been trying to counter the perception that they might “steal your wallet.” But now, he reflected, “We have to break away from this.”

While the stigma against people facing addiction serves as a major challenge to the development of an activist movement, one important set of allies is trying to change that: parents who have lost their children to overdose. The testimonies of these parents appeals to public sympathy and outrage, making the movement more relatable to the average person and increasing public pressure for political change.

“Most of the [parents of loss] that I’ve met have dedicated their lives to ending overdoses,” Hampton said. “They’ve made treatment more accessible, taken on Big Pharma and taken on big policy leaders on Capitol Hill.”

These parents and family members are playing a vital and visible role in the movement, countering some of the negative associations that can be tied to recovery activism with the power of their personal stories, which help to humanize the abstract, demonized image of an addict.

A generational shift

Another major challenge the movement faces exists within the divided approaches to recovery. Hampton described this as both a generational and cultural change within the recovery community, from abstinence-only programs to those focused on “harm reduction.”

“In my personal experience, some of the hardest challengers of the movement have been from within the recovery community itself, mostly the 12-step group,” Hampton said. While these programs have helped a lot of people on their journey to recovery, including Hampton, they represent a different approach to overcoming addiction that is shifting with the new wave of activism and advocacy today.

Brett Bramble on his six-month-long, 2,400-mile journey from Florida to Maine. (WNV / Brett Bramble)

Twelve-step programs promote full abstinence from drug use, and often highlight the role of religion and the importance of anonymity. The emerging recovery movement, on the other hand, encourages people to “come out” and share their recovery stories. It promotes an approach to recovery that seeks to “meet people where they’re at,” LeMire said, “which may well be face-down in a public restroom or hotel.”

This new approach advocates syringe exchange and other services that allow people to continue using drugs, but in a safer, more controlled environment. According to LeMire, this creates a rift between the two approaches because both look at each other and think, “You’re killing people.”

Meanwhile, their concern is real because people are dying. Movement organizers are highly vulnerable themselves to overdose. Numerous advocates and activists have already died, and many other potential supporters are incarcerated or living on the margins of society. “In the past 19 months I’ve had 13 friends die,” Hampton said in December. “It’s not a question of when it’s gonna happen anymore, it’s a question of who.”

Two months later, Hampton had lost four more friends.

Challenging the movement as a ‘sea of white’

An important consideration for the movement to achieve long-term, systemic change is its ability to be representative of all people facing addiction. This means, according to activists at the forefront, that the movement must also recognize its own implicit biases, particularly the predominance of white, middle- and upper-class people it engages.

Although the movement is gaining ground today for criticizing the pharmaceutical industry and government policies around addiction, the criminalization of drug users began long before Nixon’s “War on Drugs,” with the persecution of black and Latino communities, and the targeting of jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday by Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, who headed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930-1962. This history is one reason why LeMire is pushing the current recovery movement to recognize and incorporate the dangers faced specifically by communities of color.

“The rallies and protests — they’re a sea of white,” LeMire said. “[People of color] are almost totally missing from the movement, but they have the most to lose.” This shapes one of the movement’s ongoing challenges, addressing the addiction crisis while elevating the voices of marginalized communities.

This poses a conundrum to the movement’s current successes, and requires the white, educated people within the movement to question the reasons many people have been sympathetic to their stories. LeMire, who once served as the face of an awareness campaign for Narcan, the emergency medication used to reverse an opioid overdose, said it was telling that they chose someone like him — “a white, bespectacled college grad.”

“Minority communities,” he explained, “have historically been disproportionately mistreated — not just untreated, but mistreated — as a result of the drug policies that created this situation.” A greater understanding of the way race and privilege have affected the criminalization of drug use and the services available to drug users could lead to what LeMire called the movement’s “third wave.”

If the second wave of the movement establishes more understanding, compassion and education surrounding recovery, it will only be accomplished, according to LeMire, “by addressing deep-rooted injustices,” particularly those that have been brought to the forefront under the Trump administration. Addressing the historical factors underlying the oppression of people with addiction, he concluded, “will mean passing the megaphone to those who have not yet had it.”

For some, the recovery activist movement aims to help people “find ways to not die today,” as LeMire put it. Yet, on a broader, systemic level, the recovery activist movement holds the potential to activate a massive, invigorated voter base on both sides of the political divide. It gives voice to those who feel powerless or unheard, and shapes the movement as one in which the fight against addiction and injustice will be led by those who have experienced it firsthand.

Why training women in nonviolent resistance is critical to movement success

by Marie Berry and Erica Chenoweth

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In the year since Trump’s inauguration, we have seen an outpouring of popular mobilization in resistance to his administration’s policies. Crowd estimates suggest that 5.2-9 million people took to the streets in the United States to protest Trump’s policies or points of view over the past year. Many more have mobilized worldwide in reaction to the rise of right-wing populist movements across the globe, using people power to contest entrenched authority and confront oppressive regimes and systems.

Women have been at the forefront of these efforts. The 2017 Women’s March on Washington — whose Sister Marches spanned all 50 states and dozens of other countries — was likely the biggest single-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history. The momentum continued in 2018, with between 1,856,683 and 2,637,214 people marching in Women’s Marches this year. And women continue to be at the helm of movements like Black Lives Matter, the struggle for immigrant rights and the Fight for $15. Around the world, they have played vital roles in demanding reproductive justice in Poland, protesting repressive religious laws in Iran and asserting their right to political representation in Kenya.

While these outpourings of popular protest often look spontaneous, behind the scenes are an ever-evolving series of trainings, funding decisions and tactical innovations, often led by full-time organizers and activists. Successful campaigns of nonviolent resistance do not materialize over night, nor do they remain reactionary or improvisational. Instead, a tremendous amount of work goes on to ensure that such movements coalesce, maintain nonviolent discipline under repressive conditions and develop real staying power. Bringing millions of people to the streets is not an easy task, but maintaining momentum is even more difficult. It requires resources, organization, training, and time and space to build consensus around planning for the future.

At the same time as this dramatic rise in the use of nonviolent civil resistance around the world, dozens of organizations have developed to spread knowledge about the theory and practice of nonviolent action. Selina Gallo-Cruz points out the emergence of dozens of nonviolent conflict-oriented international non-governmental organizations over the past several decades, and the ways in which they may have helped diffuse knowledge and capacity about effective strategies for civil resistance. These include the late Gene Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Momentum, Rhize, the James Lawson Institute, Training for Change, and various other organizations.

In recognition of the unique challenges and opportunities women-identified activists face in training for and leading movements for social change, along with research that suggests that the inclusion of women in nonviolent movements is critical for building more peaceful societies, we launched the Inclusive Global Leadership Initiative Summer Institute to elevate and amplify the work that women activists are doing to catalyze social change. The inaugural IGLI Institute, in 2017, reaffirmed progressive understandings of the importance of explicitly engaging in gender-specific training, since women do — and must continue to — play essential roles in building and sustaining movements.

Women activists are often able to exploit gender roles within their societies to find ways to resist that are potent and disruptive without exposing themselves to the highest levels of risk. For instance, an IGLI participant from Uganda noted how she had utilized her pregnancy to distract security forces during a highly contentious protest in the national legislature. Traditional gender expectations of how pregnant women should behave provided her some cover to engage in contentious political action that would have likely gotten her arrested in another context. She emphasized women’s unique commitment to working as a group, emphasizing that for women, it is “ours not mine.” This was not a commitment to selflessness; rather, she emphasized that it is an assumption of risk — women commit to putting their bodies on the line to protect other women.

Another participant, from Madagascar, described how women used their unique virtues of “persistence and commitment” to stand outside the president’s house for 500 straight Thursdays to demand change. Their small act — which initially started with three people — eventually grew to include thousands.

In Ireland, another participant explained how women from the African diaspora were at the frontlines of campaigns to stop the deportations of non-Irish citizens, using their status as mothers and primary caregivers to lend credence to their demands.

Beyond additional skills and networks for mobilization, a powerful outcome of this women-only nonviolent resistance training space was the generation of solidarity among participants. This solidarity — built and sustained among activists from 15 countries so far — has paid off in concrete ways since the 2017 institute ended. First, some of the participants have experimented with organizing joint actions that have involved a new transnational dimension, as well as sharing their ongoing lessons learned with one another. Second, the participants have been able to show up in support for one another’s ongoing efforts in other ways — through encouragement, moral support, signal boosting, and, in at least one case, assistance in obtaining release from detention.

There is much to be gained through initiatives where women can convene to share knowledge, train, plan and develop solidarity networks for the struggles ahead. Creating women-led spaces that are informed by research helps build feminist momentum around the most pressing issues of our times. Click here to nominate a woman activist for the 2018 IGLI Summer Institute.

Our current political moment is profoundly troubling. Yet there are frequent signs of hope as people rally to resist racist and xenophobic rhetoric and counter restrictions on human rights. Grassroots, strategically nonviolent and inclusive people-power movements are necessary to counter these worrying trends. Devoting attention, time and resources to convene and train the leaders of these movements is a powerful way to intentionally invest in a more peaceful, equitable and progressive future.

A nuclear war planner’s guide to resisting the bomb

by Robert Levering

As someone who grew up during the coldest years of the Cold War, I have always been aware that we are living on borrowed time. During the 1950s, nuclear bomb tests were broadcast live on TV. And I recall being traumatized by the 1959 film, “On the Beach,” which depicts the dystopian aftermath of nuclear war.

But the school air raid drills represented the most common reminders of the nuclear specter. When the siren sounded, we were expected to march out of our classrooms into the hallway, then kneel and put our heads against the lockers for a few minutes before the siren signaled that we could return to class. Supposedly this was to protect us from being incinerated during a nuclear attack. I realized this was a ridiculous exercise. Along with a few friends, I engaged in my first political act by refusing to participate in a drill early in my senior year. You can imagine that this did not sit well with the school administration. The principal gave us a stern lecture and threatened to punish us severely if we did so again. It was also my first lesson in the power of nonviolence: My high school conducted no more air raid drills that year.

At the time, Daniel Ellsberg was working as a consultant to the Pentagon on nuclear strategy. He says little about that work in “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers,” which is among the most inspiring books I’ve ever read about civil disobedience. So, I was anxious to get my hands on his latest book, “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear Planner,” to read what he has to say about nuclear war.

But I had some even more personal reasons for wanting to read Dan’s book. Last August, I was arrested with him and several dozen others at Lawrence Livermore Labs in California, where scientists create new devices to blow up the world. Our demonstration commemorated the 72nd anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Coincidentally, my grandson Rocky Barnes-Levering Ly was being born at the very time as we were being carted off to jail.

After reading Dan’s book, I knew that I had to give it to Rocky. Hopefully, no country will unleash its nuclear arsenal before he is able to read the book. That’s not a given, particularly considering the current nuclear bomb-waving threats emanating from Washington and Pyongyang. Trump threatened his counterpart in North Korea with “fire and fury the world has never seen before” the same week Rocky was born.

Assuming we escape a nuclear nightmare for the next two decades, Dan’s book can help Rocky comprehend the precariousness of our lives in the nuclear age. As a one-time insider and long-time student of nuclear strategy, Dan provides both a helpful overview coupled with lots of historical details.

I want Rocky to read “The Doomsday Machine” for yet another reason. I want him to develop an appreciation for why his grandfather has felt it necessary to commit civil disobedience several dozen times over the past half-century. Because I’m in my mid-seventies, I’m acutely aware that I may never be able to explain to Rocky why I tried to block the entrance to a government building the day he was born. Dan’s book does more than impart historical information and a critique of the entire nuclear madness. “The Doomsday Machine” offers a full-throated call for ordinary citizens to act to avert the catastrophe.

I wrote the following letter to Rocky that I inserted in the book along with a newspaper clipping of the civil disobedience action. After reading Dan’s book, Rocky may even find ways of joining the anti-nuclear movement himself.

Dear Rocky,

I’m giving you this book in the hopes that you will read it when you are a teenager. In the meantime, I hope that your father and mother — and all their friends — will read it now. The book tells a scary story. It talks about things that most of us would rather not think about.

But I think you’ll find the book inspiring. It’s written by a brave man — someone I hope you will consider as a model for your own life.

Like many truly brave people, Daniel Ellsberg does not consider himself one. In fact, throughout the book, he tells of many terrible things he did and many mistakes he made while working for the government. It takes courage to admit your errors and even more to try to correct them. He wrote this book in part to make amends for his misdeeds.

Dan was a teenager when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. He was horrified by the accounts of how tens of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians were incinerated in a matter of minutes and thousands more died in the weeks, months and years that followed.

He thought that he could help prevent atomic bombs from being exploded again. So he got a job from the late 1950s to early 1960s working as a high-level consultant to the Pentagon helping to develop our nation’s nuclear strategy.

This was the height of what was known as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia), which had a communist system of government. Dan considered himself a fervent “cold warrior,” someone who believed strongly that it was his duty as an American to engage in the fight against communism. He had earlier joined the Marines because of his strong beliefs.

At the time, both the United States and the Soviets had thousands of nuclear weapons, even though each side only needed approximately 50 to 100 nuclear bombs to annihilate all the cities, towns and people in the other country. Yet both built more and more bombs and missiles as rapidly as they could. Both countries were prepared to launch their weapons on a moment’s notice, and each side had what is called a “doomsday machine” that would automatically respond by unleashing their own nuclear arsenal.

While Dan was working for the government, American and Soviet scientists had figured out how to make bombs that were a thousand times more destructive than those that had obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Called thermonuclear bombs, one of these weapons could destroy everything within a 50-mile radius of the initial blast. That is, wipe out even the largest cities on earth.

With hundreds, let alone thousands of these nuclear explosions, the ensuing firestorms would pour millions of tons of smoke and soot into the stratosphere blanketing the earth, blocking most sunlight and lowering temperatures for at least a decade. This “nuclear winter” would eliminate all harvests, starving to death virtually every human being and animal that relies on vegetation to live.

I know it sounds crazy that anyone would help develop such weapons. It was — and is — insane. But Dan and everyone he worked with sincerely believed that having the ability to blow up the world made us safe. Hopefully things have changed by the time you read this. This idea, called nuclear deterrence, is still in effect today. It took years, however, for Dan to fully understand the madness of it all.

You may find Dan’s description of how he became disillusioned the best part of the book. I thought I knew a lot about our nuclear strategy, but many of Dan’s revelations were news to me — and I would suspect to virtually everyone else who reads the book.

Dan shatters the impression that only the president can launch nuclear missiles and bombs. Most people still believe this to be true. This idea has been reinforced over the years by the image of a “nuclear football” — a briefcase with the codes needed to start the war, carried by a military aide who accompanies the president wherever he goes.

But Dan discovered that the nuclear football is more public relations than reality. While Dan was working on nuclear strategy for the Pentagon, he went to a movie theater with a colleague to watch a newly released film called “Dr. Strangelove,” which was very popular at the time. It is a satirical black comedy subtitled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” In the film, a deranged U.S. Air Force general orders a first strike attack on the Soviet Union while the president and his advisors try desperately, and unsuccessfully, to stop a B-52 bomber from delivering its payload, triggering Soviet retaliation and a nuclear holocaust.

As he left the theater, Dan and his colleague agreed that the film was not fanciful but “essentially a documentary.” The film’s director had correctly guessed what Dan had learned from interviewing people within the military and top brass at the Pentagon: local commanders could launch nuclear weapons on their own, and there was no way of recalling them.

Dan didn’t just work on the theoretical planning and development of the nuclear strategy. He was at the Pentagon during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and he tells the dramatic, inside story of what happened. I was in college then and was terrified — as was virtually everyone alive at the time. For two weeks, we all went to bed not sure whether we would be cremated in our sleep. When the crisis was over, we thought that rational minds had prevailed, that the leaders on both sides had averted the catastrophe.

Dan tells a very different tale. He found out that President Kennedy and his advisors were willing to risk nuclear suicide because of their concern for the next election. They feared that their political opponents would paint them as weak. Even worse, Dan learned that two days after the world believed the crisis was over, the U.S. navy almost provoked a Soviet submarine into firing a nuclear torpedo. Only a last-minute decision by the sub’s captain averted a nuclear holocaust.

How did we get to the point where nations are prepared to use weapons that can literally destroy all life on the planet? Dan’s willingness to confront the most difficult moral questions about nuclear war makes his book compelling reading.

To answer that question, Dan recounts the dismal history of how nations came to regard cities as legitimate military targets. It started with the use of airplanes during World War I. By the end of World War II, slaughtering innocent civilians had become normalized. Atomic weapons only made the killing process more efficient. As Air Force General Curtis LeMay put it, “we scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo … than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.” The moral distinction between killing combatants and noncombatants that had existed for millennia had been swept away.

I particularly want you to read the last part of the book because Dan believes it’s not too late for humanity to get out of the precarious predicament it has created for itself. He has a plan for change.

First, he hopes that this book will educate people about the problem. It’s only when people know the truth that they have any hope of changing the world.

Second, he calls on people within the government who have relevant information to become whistleblowers. That is, if government employees possess data on current estimates about potential casualties from nuclear war, they should share that information with the public.

Dan himself was a whistleblower during the Vietnam War. In 1971 he gave newspapers top secret documents called the Pentagon Papers that showed that the government had lied to the American public about the war. He risked spending the rest of his life in prison for his actions, but he did so anyway.

Fortunately, Dan did not have to go to jail because of the prosecution’s egregious conduct during the trial. Dan’s actions led to the downfall of one of the worst presidents in our history, Richard Nixon. Dan became a famous person for this action. Recently a major Hollywood studio produced a film called “The Post” that tells about Dan’s bravery in releasing the Pentagon Papers.

Finally, Dan hopes that informed citizens will create a movement that will force the government to change its nuclear policy. This, too, may involve some risks.

If you look inside the book, you will see a newspaper clipping that shows that Dan practices what he preaches. In the foreground of the accompanying photo, you’ll see Dan lying on the ground. Behind him you can see me (with a big hat) and your grandmother Carolyn. We are trying to dramatize what happened to the victims of the Nagasaki bombing. We’re blocking an entrance to the Lawrence Livermore Lab, where the government conducts research to develop new nuclear bombs. A few minutes after the picture was taken, the police ordered us to leave the area or be arrested. We refused to move. So about three dozen of us were arrested, handcuffed and driven to a holding area where we were photographed and fingerprinted before being released.

Just before the demonstration started that morning, your father sent me a text message from the hospital saying that your mother had just gone into labor with you. While we were in the paddy wagon being taken to jail, I told Dan and the others that Rocky, my first grandchild was about to be born. Everyone was, of course, delighted. We all believed that what we were doing was the least we could do to make it possible for you and others of your generation to live long and productive lives without the ominous specter of nuclear war that we have been living with.

You are entering a dangerous world. Hopefully you will be able to look back and see that Dan’s book helped put humanity on the right path. It’s not going to be easy. If you look at the last page, you’ll see that Dan quotes another man whom I hope will be inspirational in your life, Martin Luther King Jr.

“If we do not act,” Kind said, “we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight … Let us now begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful struggle for a new world.”

With love,
Grandpa Robert

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