Waging Nonviolence

How the ‘fake news’ frenzy threatens the possibility of dissent

by Cristina Orsini

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In 2017, the term “fake news” was used 365 percent more often than in 2016, earning the award for “Word of the Year” by the Collins Dictionary. Yet, fake news remains one of those highly politicized terms that gain popularity in the public discourse, while few agree on what it really means. Indeed, the term is often used to refer to both deliberately fabricated news and inaccurate or incorrect information, going beyond content that can be considered illegal according to the limitations placed upon freedom of expression in human rights law, such as propaganda for war and incitement to hostility and violence. In the public discourse, fake news is often a catch-all term, used to smear opposing points of view: Trump accuses well-established American media such as CNN of fabricating fake news about him, while his opponents blame fake news spread on social media, and possibly pushed by external powers, for his election victory.

They may all be correct to some extent. If we think of fake news as disinformation and misinformation, we could indeed start seeing it everywhere. We find it on social media platforms where sensational fake news is fabricated in order to gain political followers or, simply, to make money (like the Macedonian teenagers who made thousands of dollars by producing fake articles during the U.S. presidential campaign). But it can also be found on reputable traditional media, such as the widespread reports of weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The discussions that saw the recent popularization of the term, however, often focus on how the internet and social media amplify the spreading of misinformation to larger audiences, giving anybody the means to impart information in the public sphere and favoring content that is quick and easy. Worryingly, with the development of new technologies and artificial intelligence, new challenges may lie ahead, such as video and audio manipulation.

Yet, presenting fake news as a new phenomenon is both incorrect and dangerous. It is incorrect because misinformation is nothing new, nor limited to social media. It is dangerous because, on the false premise of a new problem, governments are calling for new solutions to control the spreading of (mis)information and regulate content, proposing fixes that risk shrinking the space to challenge those in power. This is why it is crucial for people around the globe to understand the impact that current narratives on fake news and proposed solutions may have on their potential to be active and free citizens, in order to preserve the possibility of dissent and maintain a pluralistic and informative public sphere.

Content regulation as a mechanism of state control

In the words of Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher on technology and human rights in Iran at the Oxford Internet Institute and at Article 19, “the fake news discourse is … the greatest gift that President Trump has given to governments like the Iranian government … trying to control and manipulate how information flows within a country.” Indeed, cases of governments picking on fake news as the latest excuse to crackdown on dissenting voices are sadly flourishing in all corners of the globe. To mention a few, China has prohibited websites from “quoting from unnamed or fake news sources.” Egypt’s latest anti-terrorism law provides for a minimum fine of $25,000 (enough to shut down any independent media organization) for journalists accused of “false” reporting on terrorism-related issues. In preparation for the 2018 elections, Brazil is considering a bill to criminalize the sharing of false information on social media, and it has established a committee — the Consultative Council on Internet and Elections — to monitor fake news. As security forces are included in the committee, concerns abound from Brazilian activists that “the armed forces [will] monopolize control of the truth.”

But content regulation to fight fake news is concerning activists in what would be considered well-established democracies as well. For example, in June last year the German parliament voted for a bill to fine social media platforms that fail to remove illegal content within 24 hours, which can include hate speech and fake news. This triggered concerns over accidental and privatized censorship due to the short time-frame allowed for analysis of each case. Emmanuel Macron started 2018 by announcing that his government is developing rules to crack down on fake news, including the possibility for judges to block accounts.

Dunja Mijatovic, former OSCE representative on freedom of the media, is worried about these trends. In December, at the annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum, she said, “There are more and more calls by political leaders around the world saying that they will fix fake news, so the society will be protected. Why should I trust any government agency or any search engine or any intermediary to tell me what is right and what is wrong? … I do not want anybody to filter my mind.”

Indeed, top-down approaches to fake news disregard the existence of propaganda and the fact that misinformation can be spread by governments themselves and used to advance their own interests. Letting governments control narratives can result in the homogenization of available information, which would be dangerous for democratic debate, and paradoxical if this was to occur in the name of protecting “truth” itself.

Regulatory efforts proposed by state authorities go hand-in-hand with pressure on platforms to take initiatives to tackle fake news and self-regulate. It was in the run-up to the French election that saw Macron elected, for example, that Google and Facebook teamed up with a variety of news organization to flag content regarded as false or misleading, a feature already introduced in the United States and recently modified to display “related articles” that provide alternative insights into a topic. Similar measures are being discussed in view of upcoming elections in Italy.

However, investing social media platforms, and thus private companies, with the task of managing content can be extremely problematic. Social media platforms have been criticized for their lack of transparency about the mechanisms and algorithms used to prioritize content, often influenced by the power of money and by a business model based on maximizing clicks for advertisement purposes. The arbitrariness of platforms’ decisions may go well beyond content prioritization, as was the case with Twitter’s suspension of the account of an Egyptian human rights activist and journalist, Wael Abbas, without any public explanation.

Another danger is that social media platforms can be co-opted by governments. For example, Facebook has been removing content published by Palestinian activists at the request of the Israeli government. This has created an asymmetrical social media sphere where hate speech and misinformation by some is removed, but not by others.

The ability of platforms to flag “disputed” content (which is different from illegal content that should be removed) may also lead the public to approach online information with a less critical attitude, as if critical thinking is possible to outsource.

It is perhaps critical thinking itself that is most deeply challenged by the fake news frenzy. In the words of Frank La Rue, a human rights lawyer and assistant director-general for communication and information at UNESCO, “fake news is a trap. Why? Because … they are trying to dissuade us from reading the news and thinking.” In other words, fake news narratives risk making citizens increasingly cynical about information in general, which could result in a sort of agnosticism to news and information. This could lead to public disengagement, a condition in which the powerful go unchallenged and collective action for the defense of citizens’ rights becomes harder to achieve.

Human Rights Watch Deputy Executive Director Iain Levine explained how fake news may not only be an excuse for authorities to silence dissent but also to avoid accountability. “Political leaders around the world have begun to use the label ‘fake news’ as a smear on fact-finding by journalists, human rights organizations, perhaps even prosecutors,” he wrote. “In doing so, they seek to break the link between evidence and culpability, making it more difficult to ensure those accountable pay for their misdeeds.”

Preserving the possibility of dissent and accountability

How then, can we resist this shift towards asymmetrical content control in the name of tackling fake news?

It is first of all necessary to recast the terms of the fake news debate. The concern over fake news can be a genuine one. For example, human rights activists in Europe and in the United States may worry about the fabrication of stories that portray migrants and refugees as criminals in order to spread hatred and fear. Yet, it is crucial that the same activists understand that the battle for information is both a battle against misinformation campaigns coming from all sides and one against proposed top-down fixes to the fake news problem, which would result in state control over what is publicly considered true and false.

A step in this direction was taken by more than 30 civil society organizations from across Latin America and the Caribbean who came together to write an open letter precisely critical of the fake news discourse. The letter was read at the closing session of the Internet Governance Forum — which brings together governments, the private sector and civil society to discuss anything related to digital policy. The letter’s aim was to protest the framing of the fake news debate, which they see as “empowering traditional media monopolies” and “opening space for surveillance, content manipulation and censorship” from platforms and governments.

However, it is crucial to bring this criticism out of a specialized context like the Internet Governance Forum and into the public discourse. Digital activists, who are directly engaged with online content policies, should build alliances with activists involved with other issues — as access to information and freedom of expression is at the basis of any type of collective action, both online and offline. It is through these collaborations that the elaboration of valid bottom-up solutions to misinformation can be conceived.

These may include continuing to promote independent fact-checking projects, as well as equipping the public with tools to support them in navigating the web. The Hypothesis Project, for example, uses open-source technology to allow users to annotate online content, so that isolated pieces of information can be linked to others, facilitating collaborative investigations and allowing the internet to be a web of linked information, rather than a trap of filter bubbles.

Platforms should also be held to account, but rather than trusting them with filtering content, it is necessary to demand more transparency on how content is prioritized or removed, so that citizens can become aware of the mechanisms that define which news will reach them. At the same time, censorship and surveillance should be resisted, by continuing the fight for encryption and internet anonymity to protect activists against repressive practices.

It is also vital to continue to challenge (state-sanctioned) narratives with full commitment to evidence-based reporting. According to Robert Trafford, researcher at Forensic Architecture, the current polarization in the public discourse over the veracity of news opens an opportunity to “explain to society as a whole why investigative reporting is valuable and a resource to be cherished.”

Forensic Architecture is an interdisciplinary team of researchers that investigate human rights violations in the context of urban conflict, where narratives can be particularly polarized. “There is this idea of state control of factual output and one of the things that is very powerful about Forensic Architecture’s work is that we are able to conduct counter-forensic work which reverts the gaze of state investigators,” Trafford said.

Forensic Architecture’s researchers do this by mixing innovation and rigorous academic method. They often use the proliferation of online visual materials — such as videos filmed by the communities affected by human rights violations — shared on social media as a valuable source of information. They then use such evidence to support the affected communities, grassroots groups and human rights activists in court trials. But they also work with journalists and create videos and exhibitions to make the stories that they unveil accessible to as wide a public as possible.

While Forensic Architecture’s investigations have faced attempts at obfuscation — and in certain instances have been called fake news — they may be less vulnerable to such discrediting precisely because of their rigorous approach to evidence.

“When I write on behalf of Forensic Architecture, I am able to do so with absolute confidence that the method of evidence creation is an academic one, and thus constantly reviewed with ethics and procedures,” Trafford said. “When we produce a report we give the credentials of everyone who is involved.”

The same kind of methodological transparency should be applied by any organizations involved in the fact checking of news.

Ultimately, the issue of the production, control and consumption of information is an extremely complex one. Thus, ensuring diverse information, as well as freedom of expression, is a task that requires many different approaches. Most activists seem to agree that if an antidote to fake news exists — within a truly democratic society where freedom of expression is respected — it will arrive through education and be based on critical thinking.

“Instead of pouring enormous amount of money into fixing fake news, governments should … give more to support education and the plurality of voices that we need if we want to live in democracy,” Mijatovic said. As governments may remain unlikely to do so spontaneously, it is up to organizers and citizens to make sure that this demand is heard loud and clear.

Anti-fascist organizing explodes on US college campuses

by Shane Burley

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On December 13, six members of the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents shared a statement titled “United Against Hate,” showing their opposition to the current negotiations happening between the university and white nationalist Richard Spencer. After a disastrous appearance at the University of Florida at Gainesville, which saw mass actions by the No Nazis as UF coalition, Spencer had set his sites on the University of Michigan for his so-called “alt-right” recruitment.

Students reacted quickly, organizing walkouts and building occupations at the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and Eastern Michigan University, as well as satellite community colleges. Students 4 Justice, an organization formed in 2016 around ongoing issues of campus racism staged a walkout at the Ann Arbor campus on November 29.

The confederation of organizations took their inspiration from the growth of campus anti-fascist groups that have been taking on the appearance of alt-right figures like Spencer over the last year. Instead of waiting for Spencer’s appearance, students begin organizing once they learn that he is planning on coming to campus. This is the same impulse that has pushed towards the creation of ongoing organizations of students and faculty to deal with the ongoing pressure from alt-right organizations that see campuses as their prime recruiting ground. As 2018 begins, anti-fascist campus groups have exploded, changing the dynamic in universities to confront the kind of violence promised by the alt-right.

The making of a college-based anti-fascist network

Ever since 2015, when the Trump campaign emboldened white nationalist organizations under the alt-right banner, the movement’s figures and followers have targeted college campuses. College students are seen as upwardly mobile and are often from a different demographic background than traditional white nationalists. These organizations have also made targeting “progressive” areas a key part of their strategy, trying to provoke protesters for optics.

“Since a lot of these alt-right leaders are from the middle and upper classes, they relate to intellectual battles over street fights,” said Alexander Reid Ross, author of “Against the Fascist Creep” and researcher of far-right movements. “To turn the university into a site of struggle, they carefully cultivated an aesthetic and attitude that caters to an audience of middle-class students and faculty, who traditional fascist skinheads, Klansmen and Christian Patriot-types find it more difficult to reach.”

With the exception of historically black schools, universities are ideal settings for groups like Identity Europa, Vanguard America and the Traditionalist Workers Party to try and reshape the American consciousness. Since the arrival of alt-right groups, anti-fascist student activists have been turning ad hoc responses into lasting organizations ready for a response.

One of the emerging projects — the nationwide Campus Antifascist Network, or CAN — has expanded to quickly become the largest and most well represented of these groups on college campuses.

CAN was officially launched in August as student, staff and faculty activists began noticing that alt-right organizations were targeting universities amid a growing number of reports of racist harassment and hate violence on campuses. Working in tandem with the manufactured outrage of far-right media outlets like Breitbart, the trolling and harassment of students and faculty created the need for a national network of local chapters.

“It started because we had already been seeing a lot of hate speech on campuses, so we figured we needed some kind of a national group to address what we saw as a rise of this neo-fascism trying to worm itself into universities,” said Adam Miyashiro, a medieval literature professor at Stockton University, who sits on CAN’s steering and academic defense committees.

CAN now has more than a dozen chapters and more than 400 members in the United States. Chapters are popping up in Canada and the United Kingdom as well. With a horizontal structure that avoids hierarchical leadership, the model is intended to provide local chapters the autonomy to organize in their local region to the appearance of organized alt-right groups or threats of racist violence on campus. CAN has garnered the endorsement of a multiracial group of student and faculty groups and individual writers and educators, such as Junot Díaz, Steven Saliata, Farah Jasmine Griffin and Vijay Prashad.

Protesting Milo and ‘The Bell Curve’

At California State University, Fullerton, the October 30 appearance of former Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos pushed that campus’ CAN chapter to have its first organized response — a counter action that brought together a coalition of student and political organizations. The goal was to set a precedent that white nationalist figures like Yiannopoulos would not appear on campus unopposed. CAN built a large coalition of student groups from across the spectrum, such as black and Latinx student unions. While Yiannopoulos spoke to a captive audience of both students and outside community supporters, CAN held activist workshops, set up tables with political literature and created networking opportunities for larger activist coordination.

While there were some physical clashes between Yiannopoulos supporters and counter-protesters, things went relatively smoothly at the CAN-organized event itself.

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“[Yiannopoulos supporters were] picking arguments, disrupting tablings and pretending to be media,” recalled Clayton Plake, a Ph.D. candidate at Claremont Graduate University and a CAN organizer. “We are in the process of developing contacts, both with academic, activist and scholarly organizations that are all about empowering communities to stand up against the far-right threat and the state violence that comes along with it.”

At the University of Michigan, CAN activists took an even more confrontational approach when, on October 11, Charles Murray — author of the controversial book on race and IQ, “The Bell Curve” — began to speak. Critics have labeled Murray’s work as racist pseudo-science that is eugenic in nature. The CAN activists heckled Murray during his speech, and they projected the words “white supremacist” above him.

As the CAN network grows, organizers are also distributing organizing plans to “at-large” members in areas without a chapter so that they can easily respond to the alt-right groups recruiting or harassing students on campus.

“The threat is that they would go uncontested,” said Chris Vial, organizer with the University of Connecticut CAN chapter. “The danger of the alt-right presence or even just some kind of white nationalist group is that they politically organize and mobilize these kind of ‘casual acts of racism.'”

Putting Hatewatch on campus

The Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC, has a multi-decade history of targeting far-right groups through research and reporting, as well as community organizing and lawsuits. It has forced some of the largest white nationalist organizations in the country to close down, including the Aryan Nation, United Klans of America and the skinhead White Aryan Resistance. The group’s work has often been more journalistic and educational for state agencies. But in the last two years, in response to new campus-centered white nationalist associations, SPLC has built college chapters as well.

On October 30, the Columbia University chapter of the SPLC, along with coalition partners, including the Liberation Collective, held a march and rally in response to the appearance of far-right internet celebrity Mike Cernovich. Known for his virulent sexism, “America First” nationalism and conspiracy mongering, Cernovich was brought to Columbia’s Lerner Hall by the College Republicans for a speech.

“We don’t want white supremacy at our school or in the community it exists within. We want this school’s administration to know that [by allowing alt-right speakers] they’re playing games at the expense of black and brown lives and we will not be passive nor silent in this process,” said Jasmeen Nijjar, a social work graduate student and organizer with the SPLC campus chapter and the Liberation Collective.

At Cernovich’s event, anti-fascist activists lined people up to filibuster during the question-and-answer session, had protesters hold up signs during his talk and held an off-campus rally that marched through Harlem onto the campus. “Each action differs as it is based on the response and message we are trying to put out,” Nijjar said.

When Tommy Robinson, co-founder of the anti-immigrant English Defense League, gave a Skype lecture on October 10, members of the campus chapter of the SPLC organized a protest and shouted down his talk, rendering it inaudible. The Columbia administration took a harsh response to this activism, threatening 20 protesters with disciplinary action. Meanwhile, Nijjar and others were banned from Columbia University College Republicans events, though that was lifted after a couple of weeks.

On and off campus

While student and faculty-specific groups have a special stake in confronting white supremacy on campus, the broad-based anti-fascist movement also views the college terrain as uniquely critical. With alt-right groups making campuses their prime target, both to get a hip crowd of educated recruits and to try and reshape the institutions that set the country’s intellectual attitudes, many anti-fascist organizers are working to bring the larger movement back onto the campus as well.

The Virginia-based One People’s Project, founded by Daryle Lamont Jenkins, is one organization that has been campaigning around the public appearances of white nationalists for almost 20 years. The strategy he employs on campuses is two-fold, confronting the events as they happen by organizing counter-protests, and rooting out the figures on campus that are bringing white nationalists to campus.

“You can call out the Ann Coulters and the Milos all you want, but the fact of the matter is you have someone on campus who is giving them a platform,” Jenkins said. “Those people need to be called out effectively so they are not only not able to do that again, but they are going to have a hard way to go once they get out of college because everybody’s going to know what they’re about.”

The cultural shift in the alt-right made many young men who were radicalizing online believe that their participation came with few consequences. As the public revealing of personal information — a tactic known as “doxing” — against white nationalists expanded beyond just the core of anti-fascist organizing, it began hitting alt-right students especially hard. Those joining groups like Identity Europa in their college years are finding — upon graduation — that they limited their job potential, raising the social cost of participation while enrolled.

Some critics have said that doxing of alt-right activists leads to more dedication on their side, limits their “free speech” rights, and is an invasion of privacy. But by confronting those working to draw in new recruits at a vulnerable point in their early professional lives, doxing has proven to be one of the most effective anti-fascist tools for disrupting formal white nationalist organizations and shrinking the sphere of less committed supporters.

The organizers mobilizing against Richard Spencer’s speech at the University of Florida, Gainesville on October 19 — led in part by a coalition called No Nazis at UF — especially relied on the outside community, where many groups had been doing the work of tracking and confronting the far-right in the year since the election.

“The locals of the city were even more concerned because they didn’t want another Charlottesville happening,” pointed out No Nazis at UF organizer Omar Syed Muhammed. Organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Democratic Socialists of America lent support, including planning community events to make signs and showing their disappointment with the university administration’s decision.

Spencer’s attempts to recruit in Michigan sparked a mass student revolt, resulting in building occupations and student walkouts. Students 4 Justice were matched by organizations like Solidarity and Defense, an anti-fascist group that tied together the rise of alt-right groups on campus to the attacks on black churches in the region. As students returned to start their spring semester, the possibility of Spencer’s impending visit will hang heavy and act as inspiration for student groups that are quickly growing in response to his threat.

On January 18, Michigan State University finally gave the go-ahead to Spencer’s appearance despite the back and forth that has transpired for months. Spencer’s attorney, white nationalist activist Kyle Bristow, has promised to continue the lawsuits to force the alt-right’s way into campus venues, but in Michigan, and across the country, the number of anti-fascist campus groups promise to limit the scope that far-right appearances can have.

How Maine climate activists found their power potential by moving past one-off protests

by George Lakey

Rob Levin (back row, far right) and the Portland activists who joined him in circling the courthouse in December.

Rob Levin, a Quaker attorney in Portland, Maine, has been concerned about the growing climate crisis for years. Recently, he came to see that using nonviolent direct action could increase his effectiveness on the issue.

When President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement, an idea emerged among Levin and his fellow Portland Quakers: dramatize how the decision makes the United States a rogue nation. So, in December, they went to the courthouse and walked around it 195 times — once for each nation that agreed to reduce its carbon emissions. They then turned around, held up an American flag, and circled it in the opposite direction.

Levin then put the flag at half-mast and carried it onto the courthouse grounds, expressing his mourning for the U.S. decision. He knew this was breaking the law. He was briefly detained by police, then let go without arrest.

On reflection, Levin and the others realized that — even though the day’s action was highly meaningful to them personally, and the mass media coverage was good — its one-off nature would, in reality, not make a difference to policy.

Levin searched for something more likely to mobilize pressure on a perpetrator of the climate crisis. He discovered that Central Maine Power, or CMP, the largest electrical utility in the state, had for two years in a row lobbied against solar power — despite its public stand for renewables.

Maine Quakers formed a group to, as they put it, “shine the light” on the utility’s hypocritical practice. Thirty went to the Augusta, Maine, headquarters on January 27, despite the likelihood that they would be locked out of the building on a frigid day. In a parking lot just a hundred yards from the building, they met, shared signs and began to sing.

As they walked toward headquarters, they saw that security had set up a barrier in front of the entrance. They asked to speak with a CMP representative. Police issued the order to disperse. Instead, Levin and three others tried to enter and were arrested. The magistrate gave them unusually high bail ($200), set a March 19 court date and barred them from returning to the site. News reports were sympathetic, highlighting the alleged duplicity of Central Maine Power.

Meanwhile, the Maine legislature is considering a bill that would require Maine homeowners with solar panels to install a new meter forcing them to pay a fee for their own solar generation. Michael White, one of those arrested, said, “CMP comes up with these phony arguments saying that poor people are going to be hurt by rich people putting solar on their roof, which is a bunch of nonsense. Solar benefits everybody, and it lowers the rates for everybody.”

CMP has been lobbying for the bill, and a vote is expected within the next two weeks. The Quaker group is considering returning to the CMP headquarters and holding a prayer meeting inside the lobby — a tactic that several other Quaker groups have employed recently. Last March, Seattle Quakers and allied clergy held a prayer meeting inside a Chase Bank to expose its over $300 million in funds to the Bakken pipeline, which is strenuously opposed by the Sioux. Then, on January 30, the Philadelphia utility PECO called the police in response to a prayer circle of Quakers and allies in the Power Local Green Jobs Campaign. The campaign is demanding a massive increase in solar, generated by rooftop solar in high unemployment neighborhoods with a history of racist neglect.

Utilities and banks have been forced to make pro-climate changes by sustained grassroots campaigns. The first step, in each case, has been to do what the wily old strategist Mohandas Gandhi called “experiments with truth.”

Even getting the first step of truth-telling done, however, requires some time. Many institutions doing harm have built up a lot of legitimacy. Utilities are usually there for us when the ice and weather bring down the power lines or when extreme heat brings us close to brown-out, and it’s the larger grid that saves us. Our personal contacts can be with a utility’s helpful service workers.

In Philadelphia, I find that a favorite theater gets grants from a utility and a special ride in the children’s park is kept in shape with the help of grants from another. By associating their name with good causes, the utilities build goodwill; they appear to be good citizens. Like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” we need to pull the curtain back, revealing the part of the show that’s not warm and fuzzy.

The good news is that it’s getting easier. Polls consistently show a large majority of Americans think that the United States is going in the wrong direction, and politicians’ ratings are in the toilet. When Maine activists reveal that Central Maine Power is in bed with the politicians, it does not reflect well on CMP.

Extreme weather is not only reported more frequently — people have their personal stories. The federal government spent $306 billion in responding to the aftermath of natural disasters in 2017. Who will pay for this?

These realities erode the credibility of a utility that is making money, ignoring scientists and acting like there’s no tomorrow. In Philly, we meet people newly learning that a utility gets its monopoly status, and guaranteed profitability, from the public that grants it a license — and the public can take it away!

The news only spreads, however, through repeated sharing: conversations, social media and, yes, a series of dramatic actions from prayer to civil disobedience. As Rob Levin discovered when he reflected on his Paris agreement action at the courthouse, what’s personally gratifying isn’t necessarily effective. What we found at Earth Quaker Action Team was that a campaign — a series of actions, escalated over time — combines both personal expression and the satisfaction of making an impact.

Venezuela’s revolution remains a process

by Matt Meyer

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What is happening in Venezuela today? The start of a new year is always a good time to bring new thinking to seemingly intractable situations, and there are few situations more confusing to the North American progressive community than this basic query about the radical South American state. Is it a revolutionary government worthy of support, facing covert or overt intervention from the CIA and other shadowy parts of the U.S. empire? Or is it a reactionary, oil-dependent country which has lost its way since the early days of President Hugo Chavez, when grassroots people were encouraged and empowered to organize for their self-sufficiency and self-determination? Protests critical of current President Nicolas Maduro, sometimes sizable, seem to indicate the latter.

But the truth is more nuanced than most U.S. analysts, even of the left, can easily comprehend, as I learned during a recent trip to Venezuela. Our failure to understand Venezuela today has everything to do with our inability to properly understand contemporary revolution.

Twists and turns

Hugo Chavez was many things: hero of the Bolivarian revolutionary struggle (which initiated an unsuccessful clandestine armed struggle), former political prisoner and leader of the Fifth Republic Movement (which initiated a successful electoral campaign). He became president of Venezuela in 1998 and, in less than two years, had strengthened ties with socialist colleagues throughout South America and the Caribbean — building strategic alliances with fellow OPEC oil-producing nations and diverting oil profits to popular social programs.

Neither the Clinton nor the Bush administrations accepted the legitimacy of Chavez’s government, despite his landslide victory at the voting polls and his domestic popularity. The question, as usual, was about economics and regional political influence, not at all about democracy. A 2002 military coup against Chavez — successful for barely two days — had all the signs of a U.S. “regime change” operation. Once back in power, Chavez intensified his security as well as his public warnings against the machinations of the government of George W. Bush (who he likened to the devil in a speech to the U.N.).

Things became further complicated when Chavez, at only 58 years old, succumbed to an aggressive cancer in 2013. When the beloved leader died, the already-active right-wing saw an opportunity to ratchet up its destabilization efforts. Protests — sometimes nonviolent, but often not — sprung up against the new president, Nicolas Maduro, who had served as Chavez’s foreign minister and vice president. New laws designed to contain the protests angered many, including some leading anarchists. Tensions grew between the Maduro government and these anti-state activists — centered mainly around the Venezuelan Human Rights Education-Action Program, or PROVEA, and its general coordinator Rafael Uzcategui. The work of PROVEA appeared to some like a full-fledged opposition party, not a critical but progressive social change group.

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Some of the conflict was fueled by genuine differences in revolutionary approach. Even before the death of Chavez, Uzcategui suggested that the Venezuelan experiment had become more “revolution as spectacle” than any kind of actual radical alternative. Like many Latin American populist regimes, he argued, the state-based reforms were more disempowering to people than an autonomous movement would be. Others reviewing the same conditions and governmental responses came to substantially different conclusions. Sociologist Marta Harnecker suggested not only that Chavez’s approach was more realistic, but that it was, in fact, moving (albeit more slowly than some would like) in an empowering direction.

Defining revolution

Today, few of even the most dedicated socialist Chavez-supporters would suggest that the Maduro government is the pinnacle of world revolutionary achievement. In conversations I had throughout several towns and provinces during a recent visit, the following points were repeated again and again: the current government is a coalition, one that contains many elements from both the left and the right. It has within it many who intensely opposed Chavez and want to completely reverse his legacy. There are some who supported and worked with Chavez but are highly critical of Maduro over fiscal, political, personal or tactical differences. Still, others support Maduro in a limited way, because they feel that without doing so they give the imperialists the upper hand. And there are some who genuinely support Maduro in a generally uncritical way.

But for those inside and outside of government most committed to grassroots democracy and some form of economic justice, one thing is clear: the Venezuelan revolution was and is a process. For those committed to the empowerment of women and people of African descent, to building stronger rights and protections for the leadership of Venezuela’s indigenous peoples, and to implementing practical policies of eco-socialist alternatives, the process of change is the revolutionary force.

In our fast-paced society, it is difficult for even the left to understand what this means. For us, revolution is most easily characterized by a date (July 19, May 19, or even July 4); it can be embodied in a man (Mandela, Che, or Ho Chi Minh), rarely by women. Sometimes a single organization can be understood as revolutionary.

In modern-day Venezuela, however, revolution is typically found in small collectives — some with ties to the government, some quite distant from it. The country is filled with whole villages and countless communities, infused with the energy and hope of dialogue, decentralized decision-making and the concrete benefits of working together. This process and the revolutionary movement behind it was in sharp form at the founding of the First Ecosocialist International, held in three small towns in November.

Alternatives at the local level

The gathering was itself a unique, adaptive process. Those who organized the International were committed to bringing together those most affected by the barbarism of modernity, capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy and all oppression. While it did not exclude any non-grassroots peoples, organizing de-emphasized academic and hierarchical ways of solving the problems of oppression, injustice and war. The representatives of Venezuela’s most radical government ministries, for example, were not asked to attend, while members of key regional indigenous nations — even if they were at odds with the government — were invited and strongly encouraged. The convergence was explicitly not held in the capital or any large city, because it is in the smaller towns where the most successful alternatives have been built.

Understanding some of the origins of the conference proves useful in better comprehending the Venezuelan revolutionary process itself. Livio Rangel, for example — a member of the Venezuelan core group responsible for the International — helped to facilitate the Monte Carmelo Declaration upon which much of the organizing process was based. In 2012, Latin American farm-workers from eight countries met with their Venezuelan counterparts and declared themselves “guardians of the seed.” They created a strategic action plan to take on the U.S.-based agrochemical giant Monsanto and won major concessions through highly coordinated but deeply grassroots-based actions. Not only are these efforts notable for their effective, bottom-up approach, they underscore the regional Bolivarian nature and influence of the Venezuelan example.

Though the towns which hosted our time together are “poor” in an industrial sense (and often with limited electricity and no running water), basic grains, vegetables, fruits and meat are available fresh, direct from the source: local farmers who grow enough for themselves, their families and their communities. While the international agribusiness industry may collude with those who would see the Venezuelan experiment fail, the main effect this has had is to make supermarket shelves in the urban centers stark.

More distinct than the lack of food is the lack of actual cash. In Caracas, there are daily lines in front of banks to withdraw spending money — but not lines for bread. The eco-socialist solution to both problems has been the institution of an inter-village system called “trueke” — a bartering and trading market where people share without cash, and make sure that within a given community, everyone’s needs are met. In the towns we visited, food and other basics were plentiful, and money has almost been made obsolete.

On this same local level, we saw little sign of the “civil war” which international headlines scream is imminent. There are, as noted, significant ideological and political differences within the country. Some very real problems — including gun violence and forces in the military and police who repress dissent and use militarism for their own gains — have been reported. But in the rural villages outside of Caracas, we heard nothing of these problems and experienced a strong sense of peace and calm.

Hallmarks of revolution

Venezuela today is most certainly not a utopia, not a worker’s paradise or a pacifist’s dreamland. It is also not a dictatorship, a state in dire crisis on the verge of collapse or a country whose government is at war with its people.

There is a revolutionary process, which few on the outside begin to comprehend. It cannot be found in the federal government, and it is not personified by any individual. It is not held together in one radical ministry or in a geographic region that serves as a liberated zone. The process of social change involves balancing ties to government with grassroots empowerment, upending power dynamics between the urban elite and poor farming villages, and delinking from the global economy while emphasizing everyone’s responsibility to Mother Earth. These are the hallmarks of revolution in Venezuela today. Built on careful study of past mistakes and experiments, new ways of relating are being developed — with a vision of empowerment and political-economic alternatives meant to spread well beyond its borders.

Whether the revolutionary process pervading Venezuela’s grassroots is allowed to survive is certainly still in question. The role of foreigners, however — especially at a time when the United States openly brags about its disruptive tactics, even in light of upcoming, open elections — could not be clearer. Whether one is a supporter of the revolutionary process or is suspicious and critical of the gains of the past decades, we must force our own government to let Venezuela’s experiment not be hindered by callous interventions.

We have what it takes to meet the crisis of our democracy

by Frances Moore Lappé and Adam Eichen

In 1999, Dee Hock, founder of Visa, quipped, “It’s far too late and things are far too bad for pessimism.” But 18 years later, pessimism can feel like the new realism.

After all, just three Americans control more wealth than the bottom half of us. In last year’s election, less than 1 percent of Americans provided most of the $6.4 billion in campaign spending, worsening an imbalance in political influence that’s long been with us. Even in the 1980s and 90s average Americans, according to a data-deep study, exerted “near zero” influence in Washington.

In fending off despair and effectively taking on democracy’s degradation, one insight has helped us a lot: that it’s not the magnitude of a challenge that crushes the human spirit; rather, it’s a sense of futility that does us in. Homo sapiens evolved, after all, as doers and problem solvers.

Yet, to seize a challenge — and certainly one as mammoth as building a strong, inclusive democracy — our species seems to require three ingredients. First, we must believe that meeting the challenge is essential; second, that it’s possible; and third, that there’s a meaningful place for us in the action.

With all three, humans have proven to be unstoppable.

Essential

History shows us that democracy is not simply a “good” thing. It is the only approach to governance that can bring forth the best in us while keeping the worst in check. To make our case, consider three anti-democratic conditions shown time and again to bring out the worst.

One is concentrated power. From Nazi Germany to Stalinist Russia to Mao’s China, “good” people commit unspeakable acts. And concentrated power measured by economic inequality — typically translating into political power — saps the life out of a society. Social epidemiologists in the United Kingdom found that economic inequality strongly correlates with a vast range of social and physical ills, from homicide to mental illness.

Also eliciting the worst in us is secrecy. Before the 2008 financial collapse, bankers were feverishly pushing risky financial “products,” and among their creators a favorite slogan was I.B.G. Y.B.G.: “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.” Its meaning? The traders knew they would be long gone from their posts by the time their schemes went south. When we humans believe no one’s watching, we’re vastly more likely to cheat. And only accountable democracy can ensure transparency.

A third anti-democratic condition bringing out humanity’s worst is a “culture of blame.” When people jump to finger-pointing before exploring shared responsibility, ongoing conflict is certain; and time spent pointing fingers is time lost from actually solving a problem. Humanity’s tendency to prefer those like us and distance ourselves from those perceived as “the other” also brings real harm, including the limiting of others’ democratic rights. Less appreciated is how othering diminishes all of our lives as the gifts of those excluded are denied their full flourishing; whereas diversity, social science confirms, enhances creativity, innovation, and our overall capacity to solve problems.

But humanity doesn’t have to stay locked in this three-pronged trap.

Democracy embodies their opposites. It is the only form of governance enabling us to create and protect the positive conditions shown to elicit the best: the dispersion of power, transparency, and acceptance of mutual accountability — not the blame game. These conditions also make possible meeting human requirements for thriving beyond the physical: our need for connection, meaning, and a sense of agency.

Possible

Once we believe something is essential, we don’t need to know that its realization is certain or even that our odds are great in order to jump into action. We need only believe it’s possible.

To believe that democracy is “possible” we need some level of confidence that humans come equipped for it and that history offers proof of success, however imperfectly, of at least its key elements.

Evidence that we humans come equipped is strong. Democracy requires a deep sensitivity to fairness, along with capacities for empathy and cooperation. Fortunately, a growing body of science shows that all three are human qualities. Research shows that even toddlers rush to help others without prompt or reward; and fMRI scans recording the brain activity of subjects competing and cooperating find that cooperation stimulates our reward-processing center in ways comparable to eating chocolate!

On our innate sense of fairness, even the supposed godfather of greed, Adam Smith, wrote well over two centuries ago that humans feel “in a peculiar manner tied, bound and obliged to the observation of justice.” Even capuchin monkeys demonstrate measurable sensitivity to fairness. In one famous experiment, they rebelled against what they perceived as caretakers’ unfair treatment.

And what about proof that those capacities can generate progress through elected government that’s accountable and inclusive?

From 1933 to 1938, our federal government created fairness rules — including Social Security, the right of workers to organize, and a legal minimum wage, dramatically narrowing the gap between most of us and a tiny minority at the top. Broad-based economic prosperity followed. From 1947 to 1973, median U.S. family income doubled. In striking contrast to recent decades, every economic class gained during this period, with the poorest advancing the most.

Outside the United States, George Lakey in “Viking Economics” notes that some Nordic countries were among Europe’s most unequal a century ago, but citizen “movements . . . challenged a thousand years of poverty and oppression, took the offensive and built democracy.” Today, most Nordic democracies boast voter turnout of 77 percent or more, compared to about 56 percent in the United States. Often Americans dismiss Scandinavia’s social advances because they believe such gains come at the expense of economic dynamism. Yet, in the 2016 Global Innovation Index, Sweden ranked second while the United States ranked fourth. Three Scandinavian countries made the top 10.

While we celebrate evidence of the possibility of democracy answering to citizens, we also stand with our first African American federal appellate judge, William Hastie, who described democracy as “becoming, rather than being. It can easily be lost, but never is fully won. Its essence is eternal struggle.”

A place for us

Finally, to take on a colossal challenge, we humans must see a meaningful place for ourselves in the action — exactly what is increasingly available within an emerging Democracy Movement. It is a grassroots “movement of movements” enabling Americans committed to the broadest array of issues to also work on the root crisis — democracy itself, the mother of all issues. And, in just the past few years, though largely invisible, this movement is succeeding in a range of reforms for inclusion and accountability, from reducing the power of money in politics and automatic voter registration to ensuring fair and representational redistricting.

It is perhaps the first movement of its kind in our nation’s history, and chronicling its rise forms the heart of our new book “Daring Democracy.”

So, in this perilous moment, let us pause to register some good news. The three conditions humans need to accomplish what might seem impossible are met. Democracy is essential. It is possible. And achieving it is a daring and noble calling in which a rising Democracy Movement enables each of us to enlarge our lives with power, meaning, and connection.

In other words, we have what it takes to make history.

Adapted from “Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want” by Frances Moore Lappé and Adam Eichen (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Youth activists and Catholic lay leaders organize for a DRC without Kabila

by Phil Wilmot

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The Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to 80 million people. Its land is so vast that a peat bog the size of England was discovered just four years ago.

Yet, despite geographic distance, road inaccessibility, language diversity and internet blackouts, Congolese activists across the country — with the help of Catholic lay leaders — have coordinated dispersed marches and prayers against dictator Joseph Kabila, who continues to lead the country despite his last term having expired in December 2016.

Since the final days of 2017, Kabila’s security personnel have been filling churches with tear gas and administering bloody crackdowns, resulting in hundreds of cases of politically motivated arrests, torture and assassinations. Following a Mass last Saturday, Rev. Sebastian Yebo was beaten and kidnapped by police.

Amidst this severe repression, organizers are not only relying on their Congolese neighbors who must incur enormous risks simply to attend worship services, but also their international solidarity network.

“The first tactic is to mobilize people to join our struggle even if they are not Congolese,” activist Sylva Mbikayi said. “African brothers and sisters, and those of the rest of the world, can put pressure on the regime, by calling on Kabila to step down.”

Is DRC blessed or cursed?

The DRC should be the world’s wealthiest nation. Its territory is loaded with tantalum, tungsten, tin, oil and gold. It’s the birthplace of your cell phone, laptop and car.

But the Kabila family dynasty continues to rule, concentrating natural resources in its own hands, and in the hands of business partners. Joseph Kabila inherited rule of the DRC from his father, Laurent Kabila, in 2001. Since that time, countless rebel groups — including private and state militaries under the direction of Rwanda and Uganda, with support from the United States — have terrorized the countryside, raping women and pillaging raw materials.

Since around the time of Joseph Kabila’s appointment to power, a group of youth scattered across the nation have been patiently using everyday issues — such as the decrepit condition of roads, water access or the absence of waste management systems in municipalities — to rally against state neglect. Going by the name Lutte Pour Les Changement (which means Struggle for Change), or simply Lucha, this nationwide movement is tapping its decentralized network across DRC to pressure Kabila into stepping down and ushering in a period of democratic transition.

“Our big strategy is nonviolent action — reflection and action,” a representative of Lucha who preferred anonymity explained. “This means sensitization of the masses and peaceful demonstration.”

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Since Kabila’s presidential term expired over a year ago, he has barely appeared before the media. He has also delayed elections, claiming state coffers — in what should be the world’s richest country — lack sufficient funds. This delay tactic has pushed Congolese beyond the edge of tolerance.

The anger of the population is not a new phenomenon. In early 2016, the transportation sector had gone on strike in the capital Kinshasa eight months prior to Kabila’s term ending. Other towns have also since protested his presidency. Although the strike and other forms of resistance resulted in short-term slow-downs of state activities, the momentum wasn’t sustained powerfully enough through 2016 to substantially challenge Kabila. Thanks to Lucha’s decentralized mobilization prowess, however, resistance peaked in 2017 and has escalated through these first weeks of 2018.

Mass education and mass protest

Even a movement as decentralized as Lucha isn’t alone in this struggle. Four activists from Filimbi (Swahili for “whistle”) carried out an anti-Kabila march in Kinshasa on December 30, which resulted in their detention. Meanwhile, a Filimbi member in the eastern town of Kindu was arrested and tortured around the same time.

Another geographically dispersed youth movement utilizing the tactics of grassroots political education and mass marches has branded itself “Quatrieme Voie,” or the “Fourth Way.”

Mbikayi, who is a member of Fourth Way, explained that in matters of making change, people traditionally rely on three things: the government in place, the political opposition, and civil society when all else fails. “But, in DRC, civil society did not fulfill its role of speaking for the interest of the people and consequently youth felt stifled,” he said. “[Fourth Way] has created an autonomous way to be heard. Congolese now get up and speak on behalf of themselves.”

This critique of activists is common across Africa, where foreign donor funding often sets campaign agendas, causing traditional advocacy organizations to follow suit. Activists are thus sometimes co-opted by foundations and organizations that want to take credit for the peoples’ struggles. As a result, youth and female activists are often brought into traditional and ineffective lobbying spaces and tactics, leaving less human resources available for those poorer and more genuine activists committed not to media airtime, but to winning their struggle.

The church has also led calls to action against Kabila’s regime. Congolese Catholics — whose leadership had brokered a deal to allow Kabila to remain in power through 2017 with the understanding that elections would be organized before the year’s end — participated along with a few Protestant counterparts in the December protests, often with clergy marching at the frontlines.

“Fifty percent of Congolese are Catholics,” Mbikayi said. “Lay intellectuals and activists are at the base of these actions. They are similar to the liberation theology adherents in Latin America. The church has filled the void that politicians created by betraying the people for purposes of gaining posts in the government.”

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Catholic worship services endured utter brutality on December 31, 2017. While nearly a dozen people were killed in the streets, soldiers also opened fire on worshipers and filled churches with tear gas. A dozen alter boys and two freelance journalists were arrested at St. Joseph’s parish in Kinshasa, where services were infiltrated by the regime’s security forces. Over 160 churches participated in the call to resistance, despite the colossal risks. The United Nations documented at least 123 arrests nationwide.

“The Catholic church has always been on the side of the population and has taken positions against the dictatorial regime of [former dictator] Mobutu [Sese Seko],” Mbikayi said. “On February 16, 1992, [Catholics] led a march where Christians demanded the reopening of the National Sovereign Conference, which was repressed in bloodshed. It is the same thing that we see repeating today, where two marches in the space of a month have resulted in blood.”

A 2018 without Kabila?

Although an internet blackout coordinated by the Kabila administration made it difficult for the repression to backfire, those who were able to access the internet started a hashtag #2018WithoutKabila. Using this hashtag, citizens reported tanks, gunfire, snipers and presidential guards brutalizing and scaring off those going to worship services. Lucha’s Facebook page is calling upon the over 76,000 people who like their page to help identify the assailants in videos of state brutality that they have posted.

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The push-back of the Congolese people has resulted in Kabila’s administration claiming fresh elections will be held December 23 of this year, but the people have been in this position before. No one trusts such a promise.

“Through political education sessions, we help the people overcome fear of the Kabila regime and mobilize to support the Catholic lay people’s calls to protest,” said Fourth Way spokesperson Elsie Lotendo.

Fourth Way has a system in place to mobilize civil disobedience, provide direct services and develop political awareness. Civil disobedience is carried out to further delegitimize Kabila’s administration. Poor women who are detained are offered pro bono legal aid. Students and orphans are supported financially, giving the movement an opportunity to speak to the public about the state’s neglect of its citizens. According to Mbikayi, “This shows the people the extent to which the government has abdicated its responsibilities and is instead stealing the people’s money. This helps people understand how much power they have in their own hands.”

Most of the activists interviewed use a similar strategy with their movements: grassroots political education combined with mass mobilization days. In a nation of 80 million people and over 200 tribes, a common strategy across movements — inadvertent as it may be — can only help strengthen the resolve to end Kabila’s reign. There’s even a chance, if the various youth-led movements and Catholic lay leadership can coordinate cooperatively, that Kabila might not make it to the postponed election date.

“We already say we do not recognize this regime and plead for a transition without Kabila,” said a Lucha representative who asked to remain anonymous. “We continue to organize actions in this direction and support all those who do the same.”

Australians demand lawmakers #StopAdani from building the country’s largest coal mine

by Brandon Jordan

The #StopAdani movement protested outside Parliament House on Monday. (Facebook/Stop Adani)

Hundreds of Australians gathered outside Parliament House in Canberra on Monday to demand that lawmakers — heading into the first legislative session of 2018 — stop what would be the country’s largest coal mine from being built.

Adani, the Indian-based energy group behind the $12 billion facility, submitted an application to the Queensland government in 2010 to build Carmichael coal mine, but has yet to receive full approval from federal and provincial officials due to environmental and legal concerns from residents. The project has spurred a movement across the country, with a recent poll showing a majority of Australians, or nearly 56 percent, opposing the project.

Maggie McKeown, a community organizer for the Mackay Conservation Group and a speaker at Monday’s demonstration, highlighted the #StopAdani alliance as an example of resistance to the mine. In March 2017, several groups, including McKeown’s, formed the coalition to stop the project.

“In the last 10 months, the #StopAdani alliance has grown from a few groups to hundreds of groups and to thousands and millions of supporters around Australia and the world,” McKeown said.

She described Adani as a company with a questionable environmental record, using its Abbot Point coal port, located a few miles northeast of the proposed facility, as an example. Last April, after a cyclone hit the facility, coal-laden water spilled into the nearby wetlands. And just last week, an investigation discovered that Adani under-reported the damage caused by the spill and tampered with lab results sent to environmental regulators.

“Adani is a company that can’t adhere to the environmental standards put in place by our state government,” McKeown said. “They lie about what they’ve done.”

The fear of an even larger disaster occurring at the proposed Carmichael mine is just one reason many attended Monday’s demonstration.

“Politicians need to be reminded that this movement will continue to grow in size and strength until they take a stand for our future, do what it takes to stop this mine and move Australia beyond the devastating impacts of coal,” #StopAdani organizer Charlie Wood said.

According to an environmental impact statement, the project would require at least 3.17 billion gallons of groundwater per year, which would risk drying out aquifers and other water resources. Local wildlife, agriculture and towns that depend on that water would be greatly affected.

“[In addition,] it would place further stress on our precious and increasingly dying Great Barrier Reef, which supports almost 70,000 jobs,” Wood said. “It would run roughshod over traditional owners’ rights, devastating their cultural heritage.”

The carbon emissions, meanwhile, would be unprecedented in Australia’s history. Carmichael would emit at least 78 million tons of CO2 per year, far more than the cities of Toronto, New York City or Paris — all in the service of producing coal intended largely for export to India.

Needless to say, the country’s commitment to reducing its carbon emissions under the Paris climate accord would be in jeopardy. To ensure that Australia helps reduce global temperatures from rising beyond 2 degrees Celsius, over 90 percent of the country’s coal must stay in the ground.

350.org Pacific campaigner Joseph Zane Sikulu also spoke at Monday’s gathering outside Parliament House, urging lawmakers to reject the project in order to uphold the country’s climate commitments.

“We have the potential to blow out the targets the government agreed to in Paris two years ago,” Sikulu said. “We need to transition away from fossil fuels, and it’s never going to happen if the government pushes mines like this one.”

All this opposition is clearly having an effect, as Adani is losing momentum with the project. The country’s largest four banks refuse to offer loans to the project. Downer, a construction firm that obtained a $2.6 billion contract to build the coal mine, parted ways with Adani after the latter failed to secure a loan from the Queensland provincial government.

Still, as McKeown explained, Adani is not giving up on a $12 billion coal mine. If both provincial and federal officials refuse to publicly condemn the project, the firm is optimistic the project will happen.

With Monday’s demonstration as the official start to further actions and demonstrations this year, activists anticipate even more victories against the company and, perhaps, an end to a near-decade conversation over the facility.

“We built a movement that nags politicians,” McKeown said. “We want politicians to know that we’re not a movement that will go away. We’re a movement that will keep lobbying until its stopped together.”

Remembering Gene Sharp, a pioneer of people power

by The Editors

Gene Sharp at his office in East Boston, where he founded the Albert Einstein Institution. (Ruaridh Arrow)

Gene Sharp, who passed away at the age of 90 on Sunday, was not only a key figure in the development of a whole new field of study devoted to helping people realize their own power, he was a key figure in the lives of so many who found inspiration in his work and took it in new directions. It is no exaggeration to say that Waging Nonviolence would not exist were it not for his pioneering research demonstrating the undeniable power and effectiveness of nonviolent struggle. It is also true that his early encouragement — and desire to publish an original piece with WNV, just two years into its existence — gave us a much needed boost of confidence.

Nearly everyone who has taught, researched, written about or engaged in nonviolent struggle owes some debt Gene Sharp. And since the obituaries don’t have room to share their remembrances and tributes, we have collected some of them here. While the following stories come from only a small sampling of the activists, organizers, scholars and writers whose lives he touched, they give a glimpse of the profound impact that he had on the world.

It’s been a profound privilege of my life to learn from you. The world is a better place because of your path-blazing audacity. Thank you for sharing your genius with the world. Rest in peace, my friend.

– Jamila Raqib is the executive director of Gene Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution and a Director’s Fellow at MIT Media Lab

I can never forget the day I first met Gene Sharp. I was an Army Senior Fellow at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. I saw a notice taped to a window stating there would be a meeting of the Program For Nonviolent Sanctions at 2 p.m. that day. As an Infantry officer with almost 25 years learning the skills of combat and executing those skills with two combat Infantry units, I decided I would drop in just to see what peaceniks and draft dodgers looked like and talked about. Soon, a small man walked to the front of the room and introduced himself. “I am Gene Sharp,” he said. “Strategic nonviolence is about seizing political power or denying it to others.”

After the meeting, I introduced myself to Gene and asked if I could meet with him, since my career was doing what he had talked about — except my career was about waging violence for the same purposes. After a meeting the next day, which lasted three hours, my life was changed regarding those who advocated nonviolent actions, if they knew and followed Gene’s concepts. To be more effective, in my view, Gene Sharp’s approach could be expanded to include strategic and tactical operational planning, propaganda development and distribution and understanding the meaning of Sun Tzu’s “Knowing your enemy and you will know the outcome of a thousand battles.” Gene became my mentor for almost two decades.

I know Gene enjoyed introducing me to his friends and colleagues as “Colonel” Bob Helvey. He showed me a viable alternative to war in pursuing security and other national interests. A society can no longer defend itself against a wannabe tyrant using violence against the modern state. Just maintaining our second amendment rights will not deter an oppressor. Nonviolent struggle is a force more powerful. We traveled together in many countries. The peacenik and the warrior worked well together!

Robert Helvey is a retired U.S. Army Colonel and the author of “On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About the Fundamentals”

All of those in the peace movement, whether they have been imprisoned on charges of civil disobedience or have taken to the peace studies classrooms, owe a large debt to Gene Sharp. Through his many books on nonviolence written over the decades, he has consistently been the idea man that kept us grounded. In the 35 years of my classroom toil, not a semester has passed without reading one or more of Gene Sharp’s essays.

I had a long conversation with Gene Sharp in 2011 when he came to Washington, D.C. to receive the El-Hibri Peace Education Prize. Gene, self-effacing and gracious, was characteristically modest about his long record to champion alternatives to violence.

Colman McCarthy directs the Center For Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C., and is a columnist with the National Catholic Reporter

Although I wasn’t even introduced to Gene Sharp’s work until 2005, I can say without a doubt that he has fundamentally shaped both my professional and personal outlook more than almost any other single person. I find that my own life has been enriched by the way in which I now understand power, and I have been able to pay this forward to thousands of students over the years. It is impossible to imagine that the study of civil resistance and nonviolent strategy would be anywhere near as evolved as it is today without the contributions of Gene Sharp. His work very likely has contributed to the liberation of countless people over the years, and will probably do so into perpetuity. That is quite the gift to humanity.

– Cynthia Boaz is an associate professor in the department of political science at Sonoma State University

I got to interview Gene Sharp when I was at the New Yorker, and his books were hugely useful to me when I was trying to figure out ways to escalate the Keystone pipeline campaign. But my favorite memory of him is from a meeting in an upstairs office in Central Square Cambridge some winter evening in the late 1970s. The Clamshell Alliance was planning for an attempt to take over the Seabrook nuclear power station, and I was a journalist covering the scene. Some of the more zealous activists were worried that the police would spy on them from helicopters so they were planning to use weather balloons to stretch steel cables so the choppers would be afraid to fly nearby. Gene had come by to consult, and I remember him listening to this, and then simply saying: “How is that different from telling them you have an anti-aircraft gun and you’ll shoot them down?” No one had a good answer, and the Seabrook occupation remained steadfastly nonviolent.

– Bill McKibben is an author, educator, environmentalist and founder of 350.org

It took a Hindu by the name of Mohandas Gandhi to grasp the power of Thoreau’s Christian-based civil disobedience. And similarly it took a (at the time) young academic by the name of Gene Sharp to unlock the strategic power of nonviolence from India’s most well known activist. Gene was bold enough to run against the prevailing winds. He was detailed enough to back it up. And he was insistent in his revolutionary argument that it is not might — but people’s tacit or explicit agreement with the powers-that-be — that keeps those powers in place. His lessons will echo long beyond his name. And we thank him for it.

Daniel Hunter is a trainer and organizer at Training for Change

It took a little time to convince Gene that doing a documentary was a good idea, but eventually I received an email from him where he said he understood the power of film to convey his message long after he was gone. That became my mission — his work was always going to live on in his books in every corner of the world, but I wanted to create a film where the viewer would feel like Gene was talking directly to them. Shortly afterwards he phoned me up and said, “Honestly, how much have you read!?” I was bit stumped by this question because I’d only completed “From Dictatorship to Democracy” at that point and dipped into the case studies in “The Politics of Nonviolent Action.” I fudged the question and thought I’d gotten away with it, but a week later an enormous box of books arrived at my flat in London with almost everything he’d written in it. He sent a note which read, “I like a well-informed interviewer!” Later I saw that was typical of Gene — he was quite capable of gently upbraiding any potential upstart who didn’t think they needed to study his material in depth. He’d say, “If you want to remove a dictatorship, you can read 900 pages. If you can’t even read 900 pages then you’re not serious!”

I was really privileged to go touring the film around Europe with him. I think we all understood that it would probably be his last foreign trip, and he enjoyed it enormously. He was treated like a rock star wherever we went — huge cinemas full of sometimes 700 people gave him emotional standing ovations. I remember looking out from the stage on one occasion to see the official photographer at the event had to stop taking photos to wipe tears out of her eyes. He was kind to everyone who wanted to meet him, caring and generous with his time, but there was an obvious steely and dogmatic core of his personality which kept him going through his toughest moments. His story of dogged determination to improve the world despite operating against incredible odds inspired so many people, but he was relentlessly modest about his contribution. Had it not been for the dictators who denounced him, I would never have known his name.

Ruaridh Arrow is the director of the documentary “How to Start a Revolution” and the author of a forthcoming biography of Gene Sharp

Gene and I were in Moscow at the invitation of the Living Ring after the August attempted coup d’etat against Gorbachev in 1991. Boris Yeltsin and the others opposing the coup were hiding out in the parliament building, while 10,000 people (the Living Ring) surrounded it for three days and nights, nonviolently facing the tanks and soldiers who had order to attack. The Living Ring wanted training in how to nonviolently defeat future attempted coups against the government. Gene gave talks and we led workshops on nonviolent means to defeat further coup d’etats. It was a real privilege to work with Gene who selflessly shared the power of nonviolent struggle with people, groups and movements who wanted to use peaceful methods to challenge oppression and injustice.

David Hartsough is the author of “Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist” and the director of Peaceworkers

I first met Gene 18 years ago while a graduate student at the Fletcher School. The simple but revolutionary concept that Gene described so clearly, that power is ultimately grounded in the consent and cooperation of ordinary people, was exciting for someone like myself studying internal wars and violent conflict. It didn’t take long before I had an appointment with Gene at the Albert Einstein Institution.

What struck me most in meeting Gene was the absolute seriousness with which he undertook his research and writing. Documenting the strategies and tactics of nonviolent struggle was not a theoretical exercise for Gene. He knew it had profound, real-life implications for those living under the boot of repression around the world. His interactions with activists from Burma, Palestine, Serbia and beyond demonstrably grounded his work.

The impact of Gene’s work on those on the front lines is most impressive. I’ve met many activists over the years, from Ukraine to Egypt to Zimbabwe, who’ve told me how Gene’s works, which have been translated into dozens of languages, have guided their freedom struggles. While working at ICNC and later in the U.S. State Department, I’d regularly send activists, civic leaders, and policymakers Gene’s writings, including those famous 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action. His From Dictatorship to Democracy is, for activists, a tool of liberation.

I am grateful to Gene for his groundbreaking and meticulous research, for laying the intellectual foundation for the field, and for providing peoples around world with effective tools to challenge injustices and build more inclusive, just, and peaceful societies. Rest in peace and power, Gene.

– Maria J. Stephan directs the Program on Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute of Peace and is the co-author of “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.”

Gene Sharp was a pioneer. He was our pioneer, who courageously put nonviolence on the map of a violent world, making possible the work that we do. His groundbreaking book, “Making Europe Unconquerable,” and his many writings on nonviolent tactics have been widely translated and widely read. It’s impossible to estimate how many people in our world today live in political freedom because of what Gene Sharp thought and did. How fitting that he passed on almost to the day that his great mentor, Mahatma Gandhi, fell to an assassin’s bullet.

Michael Nagler is the founder and president of The Metta Center for Nonviolence, as well as the author of “The Search for a Nonviolent Future”

My personal encounters with Gene were phone calls or drop in visits over the the years, during which he would always stop what he was doing to say hello, share his latest work, and answer my questions on the topic of the day. After the Arab Spring, I asked him why he thought Libya would choose civil war to overthrow their dictator, when Tunisia and Egypt had just demonstrated a less painful alternative. He explained how defecting military factions with lots of weapons at their disposal and support from NATO quickly rushed in to do the job.

What Gene gave us was a realistic way out of our insane belief that we must kill people to create a safe world. For me he created a bridge between the Sermon on the Mount and realpolitik. What a thrill it is now to see so many scholars and activists making that bridge wide and welcoming.

John Reuwer is adjunct professor of conflict resolution at Saint Michaels College, Vermont

I was first introduced to Gene Sharp’s writings as a left-wing student activist in the 1970s. Though I shared with my leftist comrades their strident opposition to U.S. imperialism and the importance of what was then called Third World solidarity, I was uncomfortable with their romanticization of armed revolution. These largely white middle-class college students would never know the horrors of counter-insurgency warfare inflicted against populations who resisted their oppression through armed struggle.

Their response was that, given how structural violence (deaths from malnutrition, preventable diseases, etc.) was responsible for ten times the deaths of behavioral violence, supporting an armed revolution that would end the structural violence was actually was thereby morally defensible. Even putting aside the propensity for successful armed revolutions to turn into autocratic governments that also fail to successfully address structural violence, I was not convinced that it was an either/or situation. There had to other ways than armed revolution to topple autocracies. Through his study of centuries of nonviolent struggle, Gene made a convincing case on utilitarian grounds that nonviolent struggle was a better means of resistance.

Most of my fellow student radicals remained unconvinced, in large part because there were few concrete examples at that time of largely nonviolent movements bringing down authoritarian regimes. In the 40 years since, however, over 50 autocratic governments have been toppled through unarmed civil resistance movements, many of which were influenced by Sharp’s writings.

Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco

Gene Sharp — the lonely scholar who became a nonviolent warrior

by George Lakey

(Twitter / @GeneSharpAEI)

Once again I rang the bell at the brick row house in East Boston where Gene Sharp lived. When he opened the door I said proudly, “Today I drove here instead of taking the T.”

“You drove?” he said in mock horror. “Man, are you trying to get yourself killed? Haven’t you heard about Boston drivers? They show no mercy, especially toward Philadelphians!”

That was the Gene Sharp I knew, always loving to find a joke in the moment. So, I was sad to hear the news that he passed away on Sunday at the age of 90.

When I had him speak at Swarthmore College he put on his distinguished scholar persona, adding the English accent he’d learned while studying at Oxford. When one of my students asked a particularly penetrating question, Gene, at the time associated with Harvard, peered over his glasses and said, “Hmm, it appears to be true: Swarthmore students really are brighter than Harvard students.”

Even though he charmed my students, he also relished the role of contrarian. Not easy, if your life mission is to bring into the mainstream an area of study previously on the intellectual margin.

I was 21 years old when I met him. I was studying sociology at the University of Oslo. One of my teachers there who knew of my interest in the peace movement said that I might like to meet someone at the university who was researching Norwegian nonviolent resistance to the German Nazi occupation in World War II.

I dropped by his office and found a 30-year-old in jeans and sneakers with a quick smile. We both welcomed the chance to speak English, although his Norwegian was much better than mine. My eyes widened when he told me he was not only digging into stories of Norwegian resistance, but was going to conferences where he interviewed Africans in anti-colonial struggles who told him of nonviolent tactics being used there, sometimes alongside armed struggle.

At first I couldn’t make sense of it. Gene had been to prison as a conscientious objector and then became secretary to A.J. Muste, who Time magazine called “America’s number one pacifist.” I’d become a pacifist only recently after a fierce internal struggle, given my family’s pro-military beliefs. To me, the choice between violence and nonviolence was a choice of moral conviction. What happens to moral choice when we research violent and nonviolent methods as if they are alternative means to an end?

In dialogue with Gene over time I realized he was not closing the door on ethics. Instead, he saw much more promise through opening the door of practical advantages of nonviolent struggle. He and I wanted the same thing: maximum attraction to nonviolent struggle to win justice.

Gene also told me stories of his own disappointment, when pacifist intellectuals he knew who could have developed pragmatic strategies for nonviolent struggle chose not to, falling back on their ethical choice as their default. As an eager-beaver student, already set on getting a master’s in sociology, I sympathized with Gene’s eagerness to take on the tough questions on their own terms rather than rely on a default answer. From there, it wasn’t hard for Gene to convince me that I should write my own thesis on nonviolent struggle.

We stayed in touch after I returned to the United States, and — with his encouragement — I persuaded the University of Pennsylvania’s sociology department to allow me to write that thesis. In it, I proposed that there is not just one way that nonviolent campaigners win, when they do, but instead there are three different mechanisms through which success can come. Gene then adopted the mechanisms for his own work.

The lonely researcher

It’s difficult to understand in 2018 — when so many people around the world are researching and writing with sophistication about nonviolent struggle — how lonely Gene’s path was in the early years. When I met him in 1959, Gene was the only person in the world doing full-time research in nonviolent struggle.

True, peace and conflict research was happening at the same time, with a scholarly journal around Kenneth and Elise Boulding, based at the University of Michigan. In Oslo, I helped Johan Galtung on his first peace research project. The emerging field’s focus was on conflict resolution. Gene’s, however, was on conflict-waging.

I saw this emphasis coming from Gene’s being a warrior. His passion was to map a territory where fighters could take on their biggest opponents and win, nonviolently. Winning that way, he believed, could make a big difference. Whatever the win/win conflict resolution people might offer, Gene believed there are some struggles where the result needs to be a loss for one side: slaveholders needed to lose their slaves; fascists needed to lose their secret police.

His disposition to be a nonviolent warrior at a time when so many non-warriors were looking for conflict resolution, and warriors looking for a way to apply violence, made him a lonely scholar. To my eyes his perseverance made him a hero.

A technology with multiple applications

Thanks to Gene, we can think of nonviolent action as a social invention that has multiple applications. Nonviolent change, from neighborhood to international levels, is probably best known. Most people also understand Nonviolent defense struggles, which includes defending the environment, indigenous rights and other human rights. Less well known is defense of communities against occupation and annexation. Then there are the applications still needing further development, such as defending against terrorist threat — something we made some progress on at Swarthmore. Finally, there are the applications waiting to be developed. Gene told me he wished people would tackle the research needed to begin to erect nonviolent defense against genocide.

One application that Gene spent years tackling proved to be particularly controversial. In 1964, Gene invited me to present a paper at the first international conference on civilian-based defense, or CBD, at Oxford University. The fear of nuclear war had triggered a growth of disarmament movements in multiple countries, but they had the all-too-familiar problem: no real alternative to military defense.

If you’re looking to defend your people from attack and occupation by a hostile power, consider the advantages of building a nonviolent defense system, Gene suggested. We learned at the conference from one of the foremost military strategists of the day, Sir B. H. Liddell Hart, that he had already advised exactly that to the Danish government shortly after World War II.

In Europe, seeing the idea of CBD taken seriously alarmed a number of radicals. Anarchists were joined by others who had a dim view of governmental behavior and couldn’t imagine how there could be liberating outcomes for nonviolence once the state got hold of it.

While I joined the anarchists in being wary of the state, Gene won me over with a set of arguments including his analysis of the dynamic impact of the means of conflict that we use. Choosing military defense, he said, has a centralizing impact and heightens authoritarian relations. Nonviolent defense is the opposite. The work so far done on CBD points to the most promising nonviolent defense strategies having a decentralizing impact, empowering the grassroots of society.

If he’s right, then it makes sense for decentralists to support further development of CBD for countries — like the Nordic ones — that might consider trans-arming, the term we invented to get around the non-starter of disarmament. In my view, for countries like the United States, where the 1 percent rule and have a vested interest in opposing trans-armament, CBD might usefully be considered for inclusion in our vision — to be implemented when we push the 1 percent aside and make the major changes needed for a living revolution.

Seeing events with new eyes

Some years ago, high schoolers in Philadelphia banded together to form a city-wide schools reform movement, the Philadelphia Student Union. To inaugurate training they invited me in to lead workshops. One day I handed out newspapers I’d collected from the previous three weeks and asked them to look through them to find out what kinds of nonviolent action they found being used. I first asked them what they considered “nonviolent action” to be, weaving parts together into what amounted to Gene Sharp’s classical definition.

They dove into the newspapers and amazed themselves with the large number of tactics they found reported on at the local, national and international levels.

A Swarthmore College international student came into the nonviolent research seminar I was leading and told me she wanted to research cases but was regretful that her own country had no nonviolent experience of its own. I smiled and said, “We’ll see.” In a matter of weeks she was bringing cases to the seminar from her own country. By giving her new eyes to see with, Gene had given her back her own country’s history.

To me this is Gene’s most important single contribution. He defined nonviolent struggle in behavioral terms, so clearly that people are empowered. They can see what’s happening now and recover their legacy as well.

Gene’s own eyes sparkled with pleasure a few years back when my student Max Rennebohm and I showed him the Global Nonviolent Action Database, which, at the time, comprised over 500 cases compiled by Swarthmore students. Now there are over 1,100 cases, spanning nearly every country — including the doubting international student’s home country — giving inspiration and strategic hints to all who access it. The database, based on Gene’s conception of the field, is one of his living memorials. But I’ll miss him all the same.

Alternative State of the Union events promise resistance

by Rhys Baker

Members of CASA and NAKASEC march with a coffin to represent people who have died in ICE custody or as they attempted to immigrate to the United States. (Facebook/CASA)

Podiums were filled across Washington, D.C. on Jan. 30 to give Americans alternative viewing options during the Trump’s first State of the Union address. The events utilized the hashtags #TuneOutTrump and #SOTUWalkOut.

The speakers at the events — named the State of Our Union, the Real State of Our Union, the State of the Resistance, and the Community’s State of the Union — expressed the perspectives that Trumpism thrives on insulting and devaluing. Women, the LGBTQ community, people of color, those living with disabilities, and immigrants were represented at several venues. An extra dash of rebellion came from people who risked harsh cold to show their protest signs to the presidential motorcade.

Only the Community’s State of the Union watched the president’s speech. The group met at a Lutheran Church near the Capitol Building in the late afternoon. Their event was organized by two immigrants rights groups, CASA Maryland and NAKASEC, which focuses on Latino immigration and Korean immigrant rights.

They marched in a mock-funeral procession that passed the Capitol Complex in the early evening. The coffin they carried memorialized people who have died trying to come to the United States or in the custody of ICE.

The State of Our Union was held at the National Press Club office. Mónica Ramírez, the president of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas and the deputy director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, explained the purpose behind the event.

“I was invited to attend the State of the Union address, as were my sisters Tarana Burke and Ai-jen Poo. I respectfully declined the invitation. While I was grateful to have been invited, I decided that I could attend this event while my community is under attack by the Trump administration,” she said. “Alicia Garza of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Black Lives Matter Global Network had the beautiful vision of an event that would bring us together and celebrate our power. We loved this idea. So, we joined our sisters to organize a celebration of women, our power and our shared commitment to making our country better for all people in our nation, not just some.”

When Ramírez spoke she thanked everyone involved in organizing the event and set an aggressive tone, declaring “Women’s rights have been under attack and we’re here to say, ‘No more!’” She celebrated the solidarity and resilience in the room.

Supporting groups included Not Without Black Women, Color of Change, MomsRising, and Multicultural Efforts to End Sexual Assault. Congresswomen Pramila Jayapal and Barbara Lee boycotted the official State of the Union to speak at the feminist alternative. Throughout the night the speakers touched on themes of sexual assault, the gender-pay gap, the protection of women’s health and hope for the future of organizing around feminist issues.

At the Real State of Our Union journalist Roland Martin hosted black intellectuals, organizers and politicians at the Shiloh Baptist Church. The address opened with an organ-accompanied hymn. A panel on economic issues looked at the state of black America. Then there was a presentation on a voter engagement app and a panel discussing mobilizing the youth vote.

Rev. William J. Barber held the stage during the president’s address. He quoted scriptures that compared politicians to wolves, covered the history of black Americans being betrayed and used by the powerful in America and plugged the Poor People’s Campaign and the 40-day season of direct action they will unleash this summer.

By the end of the speech his voice was raised to a furious tone. “Too many tears have been cried, too much blood has been shed, and there’s an army rising … and this army will be able to break every chain,” he said. “The last thing they should’ve called us was shithole, because we know how to take that stuff, make fertilizer and build a new movement.”

Why the time-honored White House protest needs defending

by Frida Berrigan

Frida Berrigan, age 10, protesting in front of the White House next to Ched Myers and her father Phil Berrigan (right). (WNV/Berrigan family)

I was first arrested at the White House when I was 10 years old. My hair was pulled off my face by a blue bandana. I drew a penguin on my sign and wrote: “Reagan: Give Kids A Chance to Live.” My brother, a year younger, was arrested too, along with the activist and pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock. The arrest was a novel experience — the police officers were courtly. Jerry and I kept a quiet eye out for the elderly doctor’s pointy ears. It wasn’t until days later that we realized we hadn’t been arrested with Mr. Spock, Captain Kirk’s half Vulcan science officer.

Over the years, I’ve been arrested in front of the White House many times. As an adult, I’ve always felt a mixture of tension, excitement and righteousness — which is followed by brief terror, before being swept away amid the cheers and solidarity of supporters. Then the emotions switch to a compound of boredom and community-building in the holding areas or cells, as we wait for processing and release.

The beginning of that arrest process over these many years has always been the same: to stand still with a sign along the central stretch of the White House’s south sidewalk known as the “picture postcard zone.”

Not anymore. The picture postcard zone is now inaccessible. There is a permanent cordon that shortens the depth of the sidewalk by half. The White House fence is now protected by another fence and guarded by an armed officer behind an improvised bulletproof barrier. Pennsylvania Avenue, long a car-free promenade, is now often shut down and inaccessible to even the most appealing tourists.

This reordering of public space was announced by the Secret Service last April in response to a series of fence jumpings and security breaches that occurred during the final months of the Obama administration and the early days of Trump’s residency. A Secret Service plan for a nearly 12-foot fence surrounding the White House with “pencil point anti-climb fixtures” was approved and work will begin on this project sometime this year. In the meantime, it looks like the sidewalk is a no-go zone.

Five Witness Against Torture members were arrested on January 11 while attempting to take their message to the White House. (Flickr/Justin Norman)

I took in all these changes from beneath a black hood on January 11. I was at the end of a single-file line of 40 or so friends dressed in orange jumpsuits. We were at the White House to mark the 16th year of Guantanamo’s existence as a prison and torture chamber for Muslim and Arab men deemed to be terrorists and held since the beginning of the War on Terror. Now there are just 41 men being held, but under President Trump, even those cleared for release have almost no hope of ever being free.

Through the rally and interfaith prayer service, we maintained a specter-like stillness and silence, representing men like Sharqawi Al Hajj, a Yemeni who is the same age as me and has been held at Guantanamo for 14 years. He has never been charged with a crime. He was subjected to sustained interrogation and torture, undertook protracted hunger strikes to protest his detention and is now weakened and ill.

Our plan after the rally was to process across Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House sidewalk with our Shut Down Guantanamo banners and signs. But, met with cordons and barriers, we set up along the Lafayette Park curb to begin our ceremony of transformation.

As each Guantanamo name was read, the people dressed in orange were handed a cup bearing that name. I took the cup, pulled off my hood, drank the sweet tea and then set the cup down in front of our banner “Land of Liberty: 41 in Guantanamo, 2.3 million in U.S. prisons, 44,000 in immigration detention.” One after another we did this until all 41 lives, stories and humanities were represented. And then five of our group ducked under the police tape and tried to take our message across the street in front of the White House. They didn’t get 20 steps before they were intercepted and placed under arrest.

Brian Terrell, an activist with Voices for Creative Nonviolence, has been arrested in front of the White House countless times since the Carter administration and was arrested again on January 11. In a recent Common Dreams article describing his arrest, he noted that the sidewalk is cut in half. “This public forum,” he bemoaned, “a place of protest and advocacy for more than a century, the place where the vote for women and benefits for veterans were won, has been strangled to the point where no dissent is tolerated there.”

A War Resisters League protest on the White House lawn in September 1978.

There is a great picture of Grace Paley, Ralph DiGia and other members of the War Resisters League holding a banner on the White House lawn emblazoned with “No Nuclear Weapons! No Nuclear Power! USA or USSR.” It was 1978 and while their message needs little updating, their simple action would be essentially impossible these 40 years later. In the name of security, space for unfurling banners, holding signs and hearing speakers is too constricting. And it is not just in Washington, D.C.

A Special Rapporteur for the United Nations on freedom of assembly toured the United States during the summer of 2016 and concluded that “people have good reason to be angry and frustrated at the moment … and it is at times like these when robust promotion of assembly and association rights are needed most. These rights give people a peaceful avenue to speak out, engage in dialogue with their fellow citizens and authorities, air their grievances and hopefully settle them.” In most places it is not an overt curtailment of free speech but an effort to control, corral, extract permits and fees, the compounding of regulations and ordinances, that all results in more private space and less public space.

However, not all cities are going this route. Perhaps unsurprisingly, San Francisco is redesigning one of its central squares as place to gather, rally, organize and strike out from. Harvey Milk Plaza, named for the civil rights activist who became the first openly gay elected official in the United States, sits right on top of public transportation. The new design for the plaza — approved and slated to be built by 2020 — is an elevated, universally-accessible amphitheater and plaza that architects hope will support “a wide spectrum and scale of activity. An afternoon picnic with a friend or a small activist’s meetup on a Saturday or even a starting point for thousands of people to march down Market Street; the plaza welcomes everyone.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? Did I mention the design includes thousands of LED lights? Sounds like we need it yesterday.

There is a lot for us to do in this Trumpian time. Against the backdrop of his administration’s sweeping and systemic affront to us all, the narrowing of public, physical, political space might not seem like a big deal. But it is. I have my own attachment to the White House as the site of my first arrest, but it is more than that. Tyrants take away space.

I have always thought of that strip of sidewalk in front of the White House as “America’s front porch.” In one hour, you can talk to a world of tourists, see a world of issues expressed on banners of varying sophistication and art, and hear a cacophony of voices calling out for justice. Do a quick Google search of demonstrations at the White House to get a sense of the span of political issues and voices and faces that converge on that small bit of our shared topography to draw attention to their causes: Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline, No Deportation of Immigrants, Stop the Wars — alongside groups taking aim at everything from circumcision to the cruelty of circuses.

There is a lot for us to do, and unless we have public space — unless we push back against all the ways that politicians at all levels try to privatize, monetize or securitize space — we can’t do the work of building a different kind of society and a different kind of world.

Dutch fight to shut down EU’s largest gas field after earthquake

by Bryan Miranda

Protesters carried torches during a march against gas drilling in the Netherlands on Jan. 19. (WNV/Johann van der Geest)

A march against Shell and Exxon’s gas drilling drew thousands in the northern Dutch city of Groningen on Jan. 19, after a heavy earthquake rocked the region earlier this month.

Ten thousand people — a record number for Groningen — marched through the city with torches and chanted slogans scolding the government, as well as its partners Shell and Exxon, for the gas operations they say are responsible for the 3.4 magnitude earthquake felt throughout the province on Jan. 8.

Seismic activity has been recurrent in Groningen since the late 1980s in what scientific experts and numerous reports have long confirmed to be a direct repercussion of drilling in Europe’s largest gas field. But not since a heavy quake in 2012 — after which the Dutch government was forced to halve its gas production — has the magnitude been this intense. Up to 3,000 people reported cases of damage as a result of the earthquake this month.

“No one saw this coming. We thought they [Shell and Exxon] had this under control, that they were extracting in such a way to produce less quakes,” said Jelle van der Knoop, the co-founder and chairperson of the Groninger Bodem Beweging, the leading organization resisting gas production in the province. “But then this quake came and reminded people this is not the case; it can get worse. Everyone is really fed up with it now. We are pissed off and ready for action.”

With public opinion and mainstream media swaying in favor of the plight of Groningers, the pressure has mounted on the liberal conservative government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte to take tough measures regarding its gas production.

After a long controversial delay, the Minister of Economy and Climate Eric Wiebes finally released a public letter on Jan. 23 stating that gas production in Groningen must come to a halt by 2022. “For me, the starting point here is that this phasing out is inescapable,” Wiebes wrote, “but the way in which this can best be worked out can vary per company.”

This sounds like political spin to many anti-extractivism activists, who are demanding concrete plans — including compensation for economic and emotional damages due to seismic activity — and an immediate closure of the gas tap.

The sense of collective anger emanating from the northern Netherlands is steeped in a longer conflict-ridden relationship with the Dutch government, which has earned a reputation among the local population for prioritizing gas money over their safety.

Since natural gas extraction began in the 1960s, the state’s income has become hugely dependent on gas revenues. In partnership with Shell and Exxon — which are in charge of the gas production via a company called Nederlandse Aardgas Maatschappij, or NAM — 90 percent of the revenues have been flowing to the Dutch state in the form of taxes, royalties and dividends.

This has allowed the Netherlands to build a relatively lavish welfare apparatus for itself, as well as a powerful geopolitical position in the European Union as one of its main gas suppliers.

But this has come at the expense of local communities. There have been over a thousand recorded earthquakes since the 1990s. While the causal link between gas drilling and earthquakes was obvious to local residents and scientific experts early on, this was steadfastly denied by both the government and NAM. An investigative report from the Dutch Safety Board incriminated both parties for outright ignoring the safety of citizens in their decision-making and planning between 1959 and 2003.

“You can extract gas all you want, but everything has its price, and this is in large part paid by Groningen. That whole province is shattered,” said Jorien de Lege, campaign leader at Milieu Defensie, which co-organized Friday’s march and has been a frontline defender in the Groningen anti-gas struggle. “A lot of money has been made from it, but no one thought about investing it into dismantling the system so that people in Groningen can live safely and we can transition to clean energy.”

It wasn’t until 2015 that Shell and Exxon publicly admitted fault for the damages caused by earthquakes after a Dutch court ruled in favor of 900 homeowners who filed a lawsuit to compensate for the drop in value of their real estate.

Meanwhile, compensation for specific damage has been dealt with on a case-to-case basis with NAM. In 2016, the company received 75,000 damage complaints and spent over $1 billion in compensation. This process, however, has proved to be a slow and arduous struggle. According to a report in the Guardian, NAM often denies the cause of damage, and puts the onus of proof on the plaintiff. It then negotiates the price down as much as possible in a strategic move to tire people out.

A new protocol that specifies when people are eligible for indemnities has been suspended since March, after local groups protested the questionable involvement of NAM in deciding when there is cause for compensation. In response, organized Groningen residents have drafted their own protocol, but the government has so far ignored it, leaving people unable to repair their own homes.

“Gas extraction clearly has its risk,” Van der Knoop said. “But apparently the only ones that can do something about it are the people, because the government is earning money by sacrificing its own people, as is Shell and Exxon, so it’s going to have to be the people themselves who will have to stop this.”

American Museum of Natural History targeted for relationship with right-wing climate denier

by Skanda Kadirgamar

The Revolting Lesbians protest Rebekah Mercer outside of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on Jan. 21. (WNV/Skanda Kadirgamar)

A new activist group launched its first direct action on Sunday, targeting climate change denier Rebekah Mercer and the American Museum of Natural History for retaining the New York City heiress as a trustee. The organizers say that Mercer’s presence is not only in conflict with an institution’s mission, but also represents an opportunistic ploy to legitimize fake science for which she should step down.

The protest was organized by a group called Revolting Lesbians, which showed up in front of the museum with costumes and props to depict Mercer’s nefarious influence on scientific discourse. Mercer’s $2.9 million in contributions to the museum are a pittance when compared to the amount she’s doled out to organizations like the Heartland Institute, which has claimed that “rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels … will continue to help plants thrive,” and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “should be disbanded as a threat to mankind.”

While Mercer plays no direct role in museum curation or curriculum, the action drove home the point that her presence on the board is nonetheless impactful when it comes to the wider environmental discourse. Among the signs the organizers brought to the action were several emblazoned with Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson’s observation that “When you have people who don’t know much about science standing in denial of it and rising to power, that is a recipe for the complete dismantling of our informed democracy.”

In a manner reminiscent of the Lesbian Avengers in the 1990s, Revolting Lesbians formed in late 2017 in opposition to the aggressive right-wing political turn in the country. They aim to challenge manifestations of this agenda on a local level. The group is interested in taking on voter suppression as an issue and plans to confront the organizations that have supported such initiatives, like the American Legislative Exchange Council. Mercer draws their ire in particular, however, not only for her climate denial but because her family bankrolled the Trump campaign.

Mercer and her family are nothing if not active and dedicated partisans of the far right. Her father, billionaire Robert Mercer, provides the funding for the Mercer Family Foundation, which she helms. The foundation coordinates with a network of think tanks and philanthropic organizations that work to demolish economic regulation and refute the scientific consensus on climate change.

Members of Revolting Lesbians have carefully parsed through the foundation’s tax forms and determined the total amount of money, $42.6 million, that has been directed into right-wing, anti-environmentalist organizations, like the Reason Foundation, which promotes fracking. Moreover, they discovered that Mercer sits on the boards of several of these organizations.

Mercer’s role on the far right extends beyond pushing fake science. As a Breitbart stakeholder, Mercer has also been involved with efforts to undermine municipal government. When she was on speaking terms with former White House aide Steve Bannon, the two collaborated and founded an organization named Reclaim New York, which claims to promote transparency and fight corruption at a grassroots level.

What Reclaim New York actually does is send right-wing activists to smaller cities and towns to hold community meetings, at which they encourage residents to zero in on school boards and municipal organizations with paranoid accounts of corruption. They encourage and train attendees to cripple these organizations with volleys of Freedom of Information Law requests and threats of litigation from Reclaim itself. This ultimately hampers the functioning of local government and has resonance with Bannon’s desire for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

Another beneficiary of Mercer family largesse is the Center for Defense of Free Enterprise, an arm of the Wise Use Movement. Both of these formations, which receive money from large energy interests and the gun lobby, have declared war on environmentalists and environmentalism in the name of the “right to own property and use natural resources.”

Mercer’s connection to the Wise Use movement reveals a dimension of her political activism that is fundamentally racist. With broad appeal among white nationalists, Wise Use is the fulcrum around which militia groups that have taken up arms against federal land management orbit. Scholars Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz and Alexander Reid Ross have documented the movement’s supremacist roots, including its promotion of a network of anti-immigration and “population control groups.” Given that the vast majority of people victimized by super storms, accelerated desertification, and other environmental transformations are black and brown people — mainly, though not exclusively, in the Global South — denying climate change has incredibly racist implications.

The American Museum of Natural History has been a home for settler colonialism, eugenics and other racist projects. Revolting Lesbians has revealed that Rebekah Mercer’s presence as a trustee is yet another objectionable tether that museum has failed to cut. That attachment is not going unchallenged, however, as they intend to launch a multipronged campaign “until Mercer is off the board.” This will entail holding public information sessions and conducting even more direct actions. Mercer may well be in for a rocky 2018 at the museum, as the Revolting Lesbians aim to also recruit scientists and other activists in their push for her ouster.

Worker cooperatives offer real alternatives to Trump’s retrograde economic vision

by Sarah Aziza

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Announcing his presidency in 2016, Donald Trump promised the nation that he’d become “the greatest job president God ever created.” His plan to accomplish this rested on a retrograde economic vision that would “make America great again,” by restoring waning coal and manufacturing jobs, as well as putting an end to the alleged assault on American work by foreign immigrants and global competition.

A year later, his attempts to realize this vision have largely consisted of backwards motion. In October, he rolled back the Clean Power Plan, arguing that carbon emissions regulations, rather than the widespread shift away from fossil fuels, were responsible for the decline of U.S. coal. While the striking of these environmental protections leaves the door open for corporations to exacerbate climate change, it has done little to uplift the so-called “Rust Belt,” where he garnered so much support. Meanwhile, at the Indiana Carrier plant — where Trump made a dramatic showing of his “deal” to keep manufacturing jobs from moving to Mexico — hundreds of workers have been laid off, including over 200 just last week.

While the struggle for living wages and steady work is a real concern for millions of Americans, these high-profile gestures are emblematic of a persistent, fallacious narrative. It is one that touts an era of bygone American prosperity, which Trump, and those like him, promise can be restored through top-down, reactionary policies. Not only does this telling obscure or scapegoat communities of color — which are often disproportionately affected by the loss of manufacturing work and the suppression of wages — it also erases the agency of the American worker, who is left at the mercy of politicians and corporate executives.

Yet across the country, many of the nation’s most disenfranchised are writing a different story. In dozens of cities, worker-owner cooperatives are establishing new enterprises based on joint decision-making, dignified work conditions and fair pay. Utilizing their existing skills and harnessing new ones, these groups are leveraging their labor on their own terms, with a vision to change their industries and the economic landscape. And in this rising movement, people of color, immigrants and women are leading the way.

There are many reasons why cooperatives are well-suited to these demographics, says Esteban Kelly, executive director of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, or USFWC, a nationwide coalition representing over 160 co-ops. “Cooperatives are very appealing for people who have been locked out of the traditional job market, or who tend to get locked in to jobs which have low wages and poor working conditions,” he said. “We are seeing a lot of momentum in the service sectors, like child care and elderly care, early education, hospice, and other labor-intensive, low-wage jobs — and these tend to be comprised of many people of color, indigenous people, immigrants and women.”

Worker-owners of Maharlika Cleaning Cooperative, which provides high quality, eco-friendly office cleaning services. (Maharlika)

Maru Bautista, director of cooperative development at the Center for Family Life in Brooklyn, New York, says she’s seen cooperatives bring a path out of poverty and exploitation for many in her community. “In our community, there are lots of people who couldn’t find work the traditional way — due to lack of formal education, a mismatch of skills or a language barrier.”

The worker-owner model, by contrast, allows these individuals to leverage their strengths and draw on their community. “For some of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever had a chance to have agency in their work, their schedules, their pay,” explained Bautista. The center began incubating cooperatives in 2006, offering training, counsel and small grants. Since then, the center has fostered 18 co-ops throughout New York City in services like home cleaning, pet care, and repair-work.

According to USFWC data, the average hourly wage in a worker co-op is $16.54, with an average of 31 hours per week. And while competing in the mainstream economy means these companies aren’t able to raise wages significantly above the market rate, Kelly says the cooperative model offers many other benefits to members. Joint decision-making lends more dignity to the workplace, “and many cooperatives have better benefits or offer more in the way of training and career development.”

For Bautista, every step of cooperative-building offers a chance for political training, too. “Everything we do is rooted in social justice,” she explained. “We not only teach workers how to plan and execute a business, but we also teach them about the ways capitalist systems are at work out there, so they don’t replicate the same oppression. We ask them, what kind of world do you want to see? And then we help them build that.”

These things take time, Bautista admits. “If someone needs to get food on the table tomorrow, starting a co-op may not be the answer. But when people are able to commit, many of them find it to be very rewarding.”

These “humane, creative” work environments, Kelly says, lead to a very high retention rate in many co-ops, and a 2015 study found that worker co-ops often provide full-time work in industries characterized by part-time employment.

ATX Coop Taxi driver Ebrahim Elhadidi standing in front of his car in Austin, Texas. (WNV/Dave Passmore)

On the demand side, the co-op movement dovetails well with emerging trends, including the “gig” economy and efforts by many communities to buy local. Conscious consumers often gravitate towards businesses that are owned and operated by their neighbors, and doing so has tangible benefits for the community. By circulating revenue back into their local community, Kelly says that co-ops are a great way to “anchor” wealth in local economies. Cooperatives often encourage a more “humane” buying experience, Kelly adds, as they tend to be smaller in size — the median number is nine members per co-op.

Cooperatives can support and also protect vulnerable communities at risk of being displaced by the forces of gentrification. In Florida, for example, immigrant business owners are using the cooperative model to solidify enterprises in their communities by selling their companies to their employees. This disperses the responsibility as well as the profits for the business, granting stable work to a greater number of members and reducing the risk that the business will close if the original owner must relocate.

The worker-owner movement is still relatively small — estimates range between 200 and 300 such cooperatives operate nationwide — but a growing number of cities, counties and states are beginning to look at cooperatives more seriously. Some have taken active steps to support worker-owners through funding and legislation, as in New York City, which has spent $8 million on worker-owned enterprises in the last five years. In 2016, the city instituted the worker-owner leadership council NOW NYC. The city of Philadelphia added worker cooperatives as a line item on their 2018 budget, while cities as diverse as Madison, Cleveland, Oakland and Jackson have all passed progressive policies to support co-ops.

Kelly credits these heartening trends in large part to the years of hard work put in by co-op advocates who have lobbied their case to local and national legislators. Yet the cause is much more than a “special interest” debate, say many advocates — there is a viable case to be made for the economic power of worker-ownership. According to a 2015 study, cooperatives produced roughly $395 million a year, and that number is almost certainly higher now.

Worker-owners at Mandela Food Co-op in Oakland, California. (USFWC)

“The field of worker co-op development is just beginning to create the infrastructure and knowledge base needed to increase its scale and impact,” wrote Hilary Abell in “Worker Cooperatives: Pathways to Scale,” an extensive report for the Democracy Collaborative, a research and advocacy institute dedicated to progressive economics.

A primary barrier to this expansion, Abell writes, is difficulty in accessing capital. Many mainstream banks are wary of lending to cooperatives, she says, and co-op members often lack the capital to finance themselves. However, there are alternatives to traditional banks, including Community Development Financial Institutions, such as the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund, which focus on supporting cooperatives. In fact, some of these creditors report being underutilized, indicating a disconnect between the needs and know-how of cooperatives. “Small co-ops that need outside funding may be able to find it if they have sound business plans,” Abell concluded.

Such sound business planning may not come naturally to all would-be worker-owners. “Not surprisingly, many of the people who are forming co-ops don’t have a background in business and finance — and in the case of communities of color, women, indigenous peoples, immigrants, et cetera, there are a lot of systemic reasons for this,” Kelly said. “So we work really hard to offer training in these things, including webinars, seminars, informational packets, and even some direct hand-holding to help them get on their feet.”

Many other co-ops are taking advantage of technical training offered by USFWC and other organizations to plug their businesses into the online market, says Ana Martina, who serves as membership director of USFWC and supervises much of the organization’s technical programming. “It’s really important to give co-ops the tools to market themselves online,” she said. “This allows them to compete and connects them with clients beyond their own social circles.” In developing their online presence, many are turning to worker-owned and open-source platforms. “Tech is definitely a fast-growing aspect of the co-op movement,” Martina added.

In New York, the Center for Family Life has used online platforms to boost local home-cleaning cooperatives through Up & Go, a cooperative web-based application that connects worker-owners to clients. “Getting our workers plugged in to tech is so crucial, as people are changing the way they find services,” Bautista said. “A lot of our co-ops don’t have a lot of capital for marketing, so we created this open platform where anyone who becomes a member can use this site to promote their business. This has built community among individual co-ops, and it makes co-ops a stronger competitor in the mainstream market.”

Looking ahead, advocates like Kelly hope the recent trend of steady growth continues. He points to other economies where co-ops play an influential role — in Argentina, there are over 6,000 co-ops, while the number in Spain and Italy exceeds 18,000 and 25,000, respectively. Yet the United States presents a unique set of challenges, perhaps most notably the wide disparities in regulations between various state and local governments. Coop advocates are also watching to see what effects the new tax bill may have. “We often find ourselves in a weird place, caught between tax laws that affect individuals — our worker-owners — and tax laws applying to corporations. We have to be vigilant,” Kelly said.

There is, however, a growing body of research on how to move the U.S. co-op economy towards scale, and with the growing support of state and local governments, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful. Researchers at the Democracy at Work Institute, or DWI, also tout the opportunity for cooperatives to “influence the larger economy,” arguing that they could “change the debate by changing the conditions of work itself and how we distribute the fruits of our labor.”

In addition to starting new co-ops, many advocates point to “conversions” as an even quicker path to expanding the movement: DWI estimates roughly seven million businesses owned by baby boomers will be sold in the next several years, with a projected $10 trillion changing hands by 2025. These already-established businesses offer a fast-track to worker-coops; they can be purchased and “flipped” to a cooperative model, saving the time, effort and capital needed to incubate a business from scratch.

For Bautista, the cooperative movement is only just beginning to reveal its potential. After nearly a decade of building locally owned-and-operated collaboratives, she says the accumulation of skills, awareness and technical know-how among her clients is paying off. “We are constantly looking for new ways to empower workers, and they are finding lots of inspiration from each other,” she said. “It’s exciting to watch. And we’re hopeful this will just get bigger and bigger.”

Why the Resistance can’t win without vision

by George Lakey

Protest signs at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. last year. (Wikimedia / Mark Dixon)

We’ve had our first year of tweets and leaks from the White House, complete with reactions and outrage in the United States and abroad. The tsunami of words and feelings about Trump has dominated the media and is likely to continue. The question is: Will reactivity to Trump continue among activists, or are we ready to channel our passion into more focused movement-building for change?

Not long ago organizers and activists were telling each other that “another world is possible.” It still is. Based on history, however, that other world can’t be reached through protesting what we don’t like. I can’t think of any countries that transformed simply because movements reacted against injustice.

Movements are successful when they fight for something. Like athletes who improve when they visualize a higher jump or more graceful dive, movements also improve their game by imagining a better world, one with alternatives to the current systems of injustice.

In 2015, 60 Canadian indigenous, labor, environmentalist and social justice leaders came to this realization. They spent two days outlining the major features of an alternative Canada that would put justice first. After a period of additional clarification, a subgroup jelled the agreements into “The Leap Manifesto.”

They called it a “leap” because Canadian political discourse had fallen into the death of creativity known as “next steps,” an incrementalism that rules the Democratic Party in the United States. The Canadian leaders knew that only an evolutionary leap would enable their country to face its gathering crisis and turn it into an opportunity for justice and environmental sanity.

By acknowledging the rightward drift of Canadian political parties and choosing to create an independent platform, the Leap Manifesto injected new energy and possibility into Canadian political life. The New Democratic Party, or NDP, a disappointment to Canadian progressives in recent years, was itself inspired to reconsider its retreat from its legacy.

Why the Resistance doesn’t have a winning strategy

Polls show majorities opposed to much of the agenda of Trump and the right; the tax bill is one recent example. Many liberals and progressives have gone on the defensive, trying to hold on to previously-achieved gains.

In the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan and the right wing attacked gains for justice, liberals and progressives also went on the defensive. All the major movements – labor, women, school reform, seniors, civil rights, environmentalists – lost ground. They tried to hang on to women’s reproductive rights, for example, and the civil rights movement tried to retain integrated schools and voting rights, and slid backwards. Labor, environmentalists and the other movements lost ground.

These days, despite majority support for liberal and progressive policies, the defense by movements is at best a holding action. As in the period after Reagan assumed office, losses are accumulating.

This is odd. It’s appealingly romantic to describe oneself as part of “the resistance.” Resistance is a political identity that seeks to unleash passion, hard work and boldness, and it often does. Nevertheless, going on the defense increases the chance of losing! To understand why, we need to turn to the world of strategic thinking. Gandhi is one of many successful strategists who said that in order to win it’s necessary to take the offensive and stay there. If you trust military generals more than Gandhi, you’ll hear the same thing: No one ever won a war by being on the defensive.

Even folk wisdom agrees: “The best defense is an offense.”

The only major U.S. movement that has won major gains since 1980 did so by refusing to go on the defensive. Instead of trying to hold on to previous wins, the visionary LGBTQ movement went on the offensive. Despite a backdrop of thousands of years of oppression, the movement continually set new goals. In its most critical period, the AIDS crisis, ACT-UP and others stepped up their level of nonviolent confrontation. When I first came out as a gay man in the early 1970s, I could never have imagined the change that has been catalyzed by our campaigns.

What a vision can offer

A well-crafted vision offers a connection point for unity, an attractive means of outreach, and a source of positive energy in a degraded political environment. Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign was attractive partly because many people who were previously in a silo, in this or that campaign, co-op, campus or community group, experienced the fact that “We are many!” Unity releases energy, contradicts despair and invites boldness.

The advantage of a widely-shared vision over a candidate is a vision’s staying power and explicit linking of multiple dimensions to each other. The Leap Manifesto shows how the interests of rural indigenous people, urban workers and students intersect in the vision of an alternative Canada. As any one of various movements makes a gain, it advances the struggles of others as well because visionaries take the time to show how the new model we are fighting for is synergistic, greater than the sum of its parts.

Instead of long, involved analyses on intersectionality, a well-crafted vision cuts to the chase and offers a positive means of outreach. A vision supports us to “see ourselves in each other.” It can be written in common sense terms, touching base with positive American values.

Because a vision shows what we want, rather than railing against what we don’t want, it attracts people to us and our positivity. America’s polarizing trend includes ugly and violent fallout. The right kind of vision is a magnet for people who see the need for action but are repelled by extremist and violent rhetoric.

Putting together a vision paid off for polarizing Sweden and Norway, both of which experienced rising Nazi movements in the 1920s and ‘30s. The democratic socialists found people flocking to them because they raised a vision for an alternative social and economic order with justice, shared abundance, individual freedom and real democracy. The once-small movement became a mass struggle, using nonviolent direct action to force the 1 percent out of dominance and implement what economists call “the Nordic model.”

How hard will it be to agree to a widely-shared vision?

As Naomi Klein points out in her book, “No Is Not Enough,” when times get tough, creative people often offer utopias and support dialogue about visionary alternatives. We saw that in the United States during the 1930s, when vision helped the New Deal make strides forward. In recent decades, however, we’ve seen our political class, including the Democrats, work hard to lower the aspirations of people who don’t happen to be rich. Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of Bernie Sanders’ reference to Denmark’s equality is typical. All the more remarkable that the Movement for Black Lives broke ranks in 2016 and offered their vision of an economy that would give the United States a chance to reject the inequality that locks in racism.

At the moment, popular culture prefers dystopia to visions of liberation, but my just-completed coast-to-coast book tour suggests a way forward in what may still be a vision-averse culture. I found standing-room-only bookstore crowds inspired by the sheer practicality and good sense of the Nordic model. There is an old theme in U.S. culture of reverence for pragmatism. When people hear about the pragmatic nature of how the Nordic model works, they get excited.

A Google search establishes the modern Vikings’ place at the top of the international charts for equality, economic well-being, justice and individual freedom. Their innovativeness is so well supported that Norway has more start-ups per capita than the United States.

Those countries were in bad shape a century ago. Their cultural homogeneity did not produce progressive economies. They had high rates of inequality, massive poverty and a pretend democracy. A century ago the diverse United States was way ahead of them in technology, progressive cultural liveliness and innovative education.

Once they made their power shift and ditched the 1 percent as their countries’ leadership, the Nordics were free to implement a vision based on non-capitalist assumptions. One principle was that of Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal: An economy should focus on the well-being of the worker instead of on the profits of the owner. Scandinavians then surged ahead of the United States and remain so — while, in the meantime, becoming far more diverse. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Norwegians have a higher percentage of foreign-born citizens than the United States.

The U.S. movements’ vision needs to be broader than our version of the Nordic model, but using their proven track record is one way to start. Going beyond Bernie Sanders’ laundry list of policy items to an actual model grounds us and adds credibility to our vision for practical Americans. It then gives us a chance to build a massive movement of movements as U.S. political legitimacy continues to decline.

If historical lessons add up to anything, an appealing vision of some kind is a must-have to transform the United States.

Why reconciliation and redemption are central to countering white supremacy

by Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

Life After Hate Executive Director Sammy Rangel at a TEDx conference in 2015. (Youtube/TEDx Talks)

It’s been a roller coaster year for Sammy Rangel, the executive director of Life After Hate — a non-profit organization that encourages people to leave violent extremist groups by offering them support and a community of other “formers.” From losing its government funding when the Trump administration took office to experiencing a surge in media attention after Charlottesville, Rangel’s organization has become a go-to source for its unique perspective on the motivations compelling people to join extremist groups — and how to get them out.

As former members of extremist groups themselves, Rangel and his colleagues at Life After Hate bring an insider’s understanding to their work. They know why people embrace hate and understand the pain and vulnerability fueling their violence. As a child, Rangel was abused, raped and tortured by family members. He ran away from home at age 11, and began using hard drugs and having sex, leading to more traumatic experiences when his young girlfriend gave birth to a stillborn baby. Rangel’s sense of fear and abandonment turned to anger, leading him to join the Maniac Latin Disciples gang and spend years engaged in violent crime and cycling through prison.

Over time, Rangel’s life slowly began to change for the better. After undergoing drug abuse rehabilitation, he started doing community outreach to reduce violence, earned a master’s degree in social work, and began training law enforcement agencies on reducing violent extremism. When I spoke to Rangel, he discussed his belief in peoples’ potential to change — even those engaged in violent extremism. He challenged the way such people are condemned and dehumanized by the very people who claim to stand against hate. For Rangel, nonviolence requires the recognition of each person’s humanity, and countering violent extremism must begin with trying to understand what leads a person into a life of hate in the first place.

A recent New York Times story profiling a neo-Nazi sympathizer in Ohio sparked a heated debate about the line between giving extremists a platform to spread their beliefs and trying to understand them as people. Could you tell me how you see that distinction in your own work?

For us, it’s not a fine line. We’re not conceding anything, nor are we relinquishing anything in our position. We just know how to develop a dialogue with the person who needs the help. One of the things we have to be mindful of is whether we are adopting the same narrative about the people we say we are protesting against. If I were to look in the mirror, do I look and sound fundamentally like the person I’m challenging, in how much I hate and condemn that person and want to cause harm to that person? That’s what the other side is trying to do. They think, “That person is so different from me that I could never relate to them.” But whether you dehumanize someone because of their race or ideology, it’s still the same process. It leads to the same thing: violence and extremism. You can be against a behavior and still see value in a person.

The New York Times article minimized and glamorized. It went too far in how it depicted this person. But underneath the story is the truth: This person eats and sleeps like everybody else does. He has feelings and relationships. We’re not dealing with Nazis, we’re dealing with people who embrace the propaganda of white supremacists and the alt-right. They’re still a person, not an animal, not a sub-human. We’re dealing with people, and there’s nothing wrong with keeping that in the forefront of your mind.

How do you think we can try to understand where someone’s coming from without condoning their beliefs and ultimately resembling the same dehumanizing narrative we’re trying to oppose?

Both sides have two things in common: They have grievances, and they want to be validated. They like to talk and be heard and feel they are important. By saying “We understand,” [some left-wing groups] think we’re conceding our position. We haven’t. What we’re saying is: “I see how you got to that point in your life. I can see your process and start to dismantle that process through a lens of understanding, which is only focused through compassion and empathy. I see the suffering. I don’t agree with how you’re managing your suffering, but I see it.”

Is a white supremacist wrong when he says the middle class is shrinking? No, but where it gets radical is who they blame and how they carry that out. They blame the government and then take it out on minorities. They should take it out on the government, but not with bombs and tiki torches. What’s amazing is that when you listen, they actually calm down and listen in return.

What sorts of things can people do to build better understanding with members of extremist groups, particularly those of us coming from left-leaning activist circles and who aren’t in a position to reach out from personal experience?

We see a lot of counter-protests, and while protests serve a purpose, they shouldn’t be equated with the idea of dialogue. You’re not going to a protest to listen to anyone — you’re preaching to the choir. In many ways a silent protest would be more powerful in my mind, because we’re there to hold our position and show the nation that this won’t go unnoticed — not to challenge their ideology. We’re not trying to win anything, but we are trying to maintain and restore balance.

A lot of left-wing groups have been celebrating the “punch a Nazi” meme since the violence at Charlottesville. What are some ways groups can oppose ideology that’s not going to alienate people even further and lead to more violence?

We don’t need to oppose ideology. It’s not the ideology itself [that’s the problem], it’s the radicalization and ultimately the extremism. It’s not unconstitutional or illegal to be a radical in your thinking. [It only becomes those things] when you take those thoughts and act out on them violently. What we want to be promoting or ensuring is a place where people can have their differences of views without feeling that they can impose those on other people. You can only oppose a person’s ideology when you have mutual respect in the relationship, and that mutual respect normally comes when you are willing to listen. Listening is often mistaken for conceding something, but it’s not conceding.

The second thing a person can do is to get behind organizations that are doing a good job on this. We’ve raised $700,000 this year, but we’ll run through that in a couple of years doing the work we’re doing — it’s not sustainable. We need people to get behind it. Other people have been innovative in helping to raise funds [by donating to groups like ours when white supremacists come to their town]. These [white supremacists] know every minute they’re out there, they’re funding programs like ours. They hate that shit. There are innovative ways to do this — it’s not difficult. We have to spend more time learning from others about what’s working in the nonviolence world.

We also need to let people know that nonviolent doesn’t mean non-dangerous. It’s one of the most dangerous paths that a person can walk. It’s actually probably more dangerous [than using violence] because we’re walking into dangerous situations where people are willing to be violent, and we’re putting our lives on the line to hold a position as it relates to humanity. If you’re going to represent your humanity and your values, you can’t do it by diminishing someone else’s — that’s not how that works.

How might future white supremacist rallies be countered without leading to the kind of violence we saw in Charlottesville?

We’ve talked about the value of holding a protest, but not holding it where these guys show up. Let them talk to themselves while we hold our rally over here at another place. What if no one was there to pay attention? For their movement, any press is good press. We’re lending our light to their light, and that’s not what we intend to do. I’m not saying we shouldn’t protest at the same time, I just don’t think we need to engage with them directly. I think that’s counter-productive on every level. What you’re trying to do is to intimidate them, but you’re actually going to embolden them.

In an interview with [former Life After Hate co-founder] Christian Picciolini, he said it’s identity, community and purpose that drives radicalism — not ideology. What are some of the ways that we, as a society, can work on addressing the underlying issues of identity, community and purpose, in order to create more space for people who feel rejected or are looking for validation?

Let me ask you this: If we’re protesting the way we protest, where is the safe place for someone who is second-guessing their membership? What are we doing in our community to create a space for those people? Right now, Life After Hate is the only place to go, which is a shame because we can’t be everywhere all the time. But if the community took that stance, they might actually win some of those people right there on the spot, who say, “You know what, I want more of what you have.” When they look out their window beyond their group, they see a raging, angry crowd with nowhere to exit.

As for identity, when we won’t allow them to have a voice or a grievance, we also rob them of their identity. What’s more, we don’t let them change their identity. Once a Nazi, always a Nazi [is so often the mentality], which is why people shame, isolate, fire and remove them from their homes. We’re not even allowing them to try and create a new identity. [Nor are we allowing them to find new purpose.] What purpose can they serve in this community when all their opportunities are being squandered because of who they used to be?

This movement has forgotten that there are things like reconciliation and redemption. I think we’re so violent because we’ve lost faith in our own ability to be effective in this fight. If you’re skilled at what you do, you don’t burn out like this. You don’t become violent and adversarial. You only do this shit when you get so frustrated that you abandon ship, you abandon your own moral high ground. We have to do better at being strong in our position without having to condemn people. Do not concede, but do not condemn. You can do that without sympathizing with anybody who is willing to act out on hate.

How to get new activists to stay engaged for the long haul


by Eileen Flanagan

Earth Quaker Action Team members embracing at the end of the 100-mile Walk for Green Jobs and Justice in May 2017. (EQAT / Kaytee Ray-Riek)

After a year of working with people newly mobilized by the 2016 election, one organizing lesson feels particularly clear: People need to feel part of a community that is making change in order to stay engaged for the long haul. This realization may not be surprising, but it has practical implications for organizations and movements that want to grow — especially when outrage at the Trump presidency is still high, but the initial wave of protest has subsided.

The heightened need for community became immediately clear after Trump’s election. To help focus the many people desperate to do something useful, I decided to offer a month-long course through the online platform Zoom. Independent of any organization, and not knowing who would show up, I posted the idea on Facebook and soon had 180 people in the first round. I offered some basic social change theory, inspiring stories from the past, and a chance for participants to discuss their own concerns through the magic of Zoom’s small group function.

The first participants expressed huge relief at being part of a group, particularly one that included like-minded people from every region of the United States. Several asked how to find a group in their own area, and — in hindsight — I should have given more attention to this issue, which I had assumed would be easy to solve with a Google search. For many, it wasn’t that easy. After teaching six online courses (the next one on How to Build a Nonviolent Direct Action Campaign starts January 15) I’m convinced that finding a group where they felt both included and effective has been a key difference between the students who have engaged in meaningful, ongoing activist work and those who haven’t.

I might have predicted this from my own experience. For many years, especially when my children were young, I attended the occasional anti-war protest. Most often, I felt invisible at a gathering where no one bothered to say hello to me — let alone request my contact information, even when the gathering was small. Showing up once and never hearing from the group again, I also felt ineffective, with no sense that my sporadic actions were part of a larger movement. Eventually, I stopped showing up altogether, focusing on individual actions like taking short showers and composting my banana peels to combat climate change, which also left me feeling isolated and discouraged.

A turning point for me came in 2011 when I stumbled into Earth Quaker Action Team, or EQAT (pronounced “equate”), where I was warmly greeted and given a task within a few weeks of my first meeting. In its early years, EQAT didn’t always capture email addresses and phone numbers at our nonviolent direct actions, but eventually we learned to assign friendly greeters to rove the crowd with a sign-in clipboard. At our monthly meeting, we have participatory activities that invite newcomers to engage. We also have a snack table and a break during the two-hour meeting, simple ways to foster community.

Deeply engaging new recruits takes more effort, but it’s key to building people power. For example, last May, EQAT organized a 100-mile walk to pressure PECO, Pennsylvania’s largest utility, into making a major shift to solar and to do it in a way that creates jobs in low-income communities. Walking through Philadelphia and its suburbs, speaking at church halls and community centers along the way, we met many new people. Calling them all afterwards, inviting them to a training or some other next step, was a tremendous amount of work, but it helped us develop new leaders in the suburban counties. On December 7, we held a “Big Change for Solar Jobs” action at four PECO locations, featuring giant penny props representing the big change we need and people depositing a penny on their PECO bill to send a message that “small change is not enough.” While the optics and messaging were fun, the most energizing part of the day was the fact that much of the organizing had been done by people who had never led an action before. These new leaders reached out to their own networks, resulting in well-attended suburban actions and increased pressure on PECO.

Deeply engaging newcomers also gives organizers a chance to counter the despair and disempowerment that easily surface when people don’t see immediate results, especially in this political climate. More than in any previous year, I have heard newcomers ask, “What will this action accomplish?” It’s a great question. My answer is “Nothing. This action by itself will accomplish nothing. But during our successful campaign to get PNC out of financing mountaintop removal coal mining, we held 125 actions, and 125 actions was enough to win against a $4 billion-a-year bank.” Then I explain how the current action is one of many and that their arrival is a sign that we are growing and building the pressure on PECO through our geographic expansion, the same strategy that won against PNC.

Of course, this type of answer only works if you actually have a long-term strategy. In the wake of the election, thousands of local groups formed that gave people needed emotional support and focus in the early months of the Trump administration, but the level of strategic thinking in these groups varied widely. In my home state of Pennsylvania, a popular response to every Trump action was to call Sen. Pat Toomey in protest, despite the fact that the intransigent conservative had just been re-elected and was not particularly vulnerable to voter pressure. It didn’t take long for frequent phone-callers to start to feel discouraged. As time goes on, it will be increasingly difficult for local groups to keep people involved if they don’t see evidence that their actions are making a difference, or at least hear a compelling explanation for why staying the course will ultimately succeed.

In EQAT’s campaign against PNC, we did have a compelling explanation, but it was a strong sense of community and commitment to building our own skills that held the group together for a five-year campaign during which there were few outward signs that we were impacting our target. What signs there were, we celebrated — such as when PNC started locking us out of their bank lobbies, a move that could have disheartened us if we hadn’t framed it as a sign that we were getting to them. Activist communities today have to look for and celebrate such small victories. That doesn’t mean sugarcoating the political realities — just honoring the very human needs for hope and encouragement. Without them, people will stop showing up — just as I, and thousands of others, stopped showing up to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of my former students have already stopped showing up, but many have found fulfilling ways to stay active in their communities. Still, others are ready to move beyond simply calling their elected officials and are actively looking for the next group to join. For those of us who are looking to bring these folks in to our organizations, recognizing that they are looking for effectiveness as well as community can help us engage with them more successfully. Feeling that their involvement can in fact make a difference — with others and over time — is key to keeping them from sinking back into isolation and discouragement.

And it doesn’t hurt to serve snacks.

How organizers raised over $233,000 in one day to bail hundreds out of jail

by Victoria Law

Meme created for #FreeThePeopleDay on New Year’s Eve. (Twitter/@projectnia)

The premise of Mariame Kaba’s idea, which she tweeted on New Year’s Eve with the hashtag #FreeThePeople, was simple — donate the price of one drink to a local bail fund, organizations that raise money and post bail for people who would otherwise languish in jail until their day in court.

Organizers took up the call to #FreethePeople. Chicago organizer Kelly Hayes reached out to others to create memes to circulate and keep momentum going. She and Kaba also compiled fact sheets about cash bail and its consequences. “We wanted to use this as an opportunity for education, not just to raise money,” Kaba explained.

Their efforts took off and, in one day, raised over $233,000 for at least 14 local bail funds across the country. Hundreds of people participated, tweeting and retweeting the calls, creating graphics for the event or tweeting the amount they donated as a way to encourage others to do the same. Some used the hashtag to educate about how cash bail works — and its devastating consequences. Those thousands of dollars are now enabling them to post bail for hundreds of people.

In courtrooms nationwide, when a person first appears in court after arrest, the judge has the option of releasing them, jailing them until trial or setting bail. The reasoning behind bail is not because the person is deemed a risk to themselves or their communities. Instead, the reasoning is based on money — by paying a certain amount, that person is more likely to return for subsequent court dates. If they fail to show up, they forfeit that money.

In practice, however, bail sets up a two-tiered system for the 12 million people arrested each year: those who can afford to pay bail can go home to await their day in court. Those who cannot — approximately 450,000 people on any given day — stay behind bars, making up two-thirds of the jail population.

In Massachusetts, for example, between 77 and 88 percent of women remained in jails (and in the state prison’s overcrowded Awaiting Trial Unit) because they and their families could not afford to post bail amounts of $2,000 or less. In New York City, approximately 85 percent of people held at Rikers Island, the island-jail complex notorious for its culture of violence, are still awaiting their day in court.

The consequences of not being able to afford bail extend beyond days lost. Though technically innocent until proven guilty, while waiting in jail, people often lose their jobs, homes, access to social services and child custody. Moreover, those languishing behind bars are more likely to plead guilty as a way to escape the often-hellish conditions of local jails. People who refuse to plead guilty can spend years in jail and suffer tremendous violence during that time.

Just look at Kalief Browder, the teenager who refused to plead guilty to stealing a backpack and spent three years at Rikers Island, where he was assaulted by both staff and other teens. After three years, the prosecutor finally dropped the charges, but the violence and trauma he suffered at Rikers continued to haunt him. Two years later, he committed suicide. Kalief’s story is only unusual in that it’s well-known; countless others remain in similarly hellish conditions.

The inequalities inherent in bail — and its role in enabling mass incarceration — have gained critical attention in recent years. In various cities, organizers have created bail funds, which are revolving funds that post bail for those who cannot otherwise afford freedom. Once that person’s case is completed, the courts return the money (minus any fees) and bail fund organizers use it to buy someone else’s freedom.

#FreethePeople was the latest in several mass fundraisers around bail in 2017. In the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day, organizers launched Mamas’ Bailout Day, raising over $1 million to post bail for at least 106 black mothers in time for the holiday. Their efforts weren’t limited to people who were biological mothers, but extended to people who were embraced as mother figures by people in their communities. They also connected people to support services and resources to ensure that they can take care of themselves and their families. For Father’s Day, Gay Pride, Juneteenth and Black August, another 82 people were bailed out.

In December, the Massachusetts Bail Fund and Black Lives Matter Cambridge launched a holiday bailout. Each week, organizers sat in courtrooms or visited local jails to identify and post bail amounts of less than $500 for people who would otherwise remain in jail. That month, they bailed out 78 people in the Boston area alone.

But buying freedom for 78 people isn’t cheap. Atara Rich-Shea of the Massachusetts Bail Fund noted that, altogether, those bails cost $41,591 and credits a grant from National Bailout, a coalition of organizations, for allowing them to post bail for 24 more people than they would have been able to otherwise. In Massachusetts, each bail is accompanied by a $40 fee, which is not refunded.

Among them was a pregnant woman held in the state prison’s Awaiting Trial Unit. The organizer who posted her bail recounted that, before the two parted ways, the woman told her “how scared she was for her and her baby’s safety. And also how impossible it is to get proper sleep on a prison bed. She was so relieved to be out.”

In Connecticut, organizers with the Connecticut Bail Fund and the Immigrant Bail Fund also held a holiday bailout, freeing 29 people from local adult jails, youth detention and immigration detention. The amounts that they posted varied wildly. Co-founder Brett Davidson recalled posting a $50 bail for a man who did not have phone numbers of friends or family who could post his bond; the fund also posted $5,000 for a woman arrested for sex work. Connecticut does not charge a fee for posting bail, so all of the money is eventually returned to each bail fund.

#FreethePeople raised $26,060 for the Massachusetts Bail Fund. Combined with a matching grant for funds raised in the last two weeks of December, the Bail Fund now has $59,060, an amount that will allow them to free at least 100 people. #FreethePeople raised $2,127 for the Connecticut Bail Fund and another $4,312 for the Immigrant Bail Fund. Davidson noted that the latter funds went towards a $10,000 immigration bond in early January.

Bail fund organizers are not only working to free people from jail, but also fighting to end cash bail altogether. In some places, they are beginning to see results. Organizers with the Chicago Community Bond Fund, of which Kaba is an advisory member, have pushed for court interventions and worked with legislators on bills to change bail laws. In July 2017, in response to a lawsuit, a judge issued General Order 18.A, a rule requiring that all bails in Chicago’s Cook County must be affordable. The order applies only to bails set after that decision and organizers have noted that not all judges have been adhering to the new rule. Nonetheless, the Cook County Jail has had 1,500 fewer prisoners since the ruling took effect in September.

In Connecticut, grassroots organizing has been slower. Davidson notes efforts among policy makers to replace cash bail with risk assessment, which replaces one flawed system with another. Many of the people bailed out of local jails are housing unstable or homeless, thus making them more vulnerable to police contact.

“For us, it’s a challenge to even start the conversation about abolition and the cash bail system because most of the people we’re bonding out, it’s not a familiar concept,” he said. “We’re trying to create a conversation less about replacing the bail system with risk assessment and more about pretrial decarceration. That’s a longer process, to have those conversations and do the necessary organizing in the community.”

“People are organizing and not just giving their money in a charity way that actually reinforces the current system,” Kaba reflected. “It’s not just the actual bailing out, but the bailing out is super-important because, as we know, the cascading effects on people’s lives cannot be underestimated or minimized.”

Washington activists launch ‘Climate Countdown’ to push lawmakers for urgent action

by Brandon Jordan

Climate Countdown activists rallied outside the Washington state capitol building in Olympia on Monday. (Twitter / 350 Seattle)

As Washington state senators prepared for the first legislative session of 2018 at the capitol building in Olympia yesterday, their traditional welcome ceremony was disrupted by at least a hundred activists from across the state, who had made their way into the balconies. From there, to the dismay of their elected officials, they delivered a loud message for all in attendance: “We have a climate crisis. You need to act now!”

The demonstration was part of an effort organizers are calling Climate Countdown, a campaign pressuring Democrats to pass and implement legislation that reduces carbon emissions. With a Democratic majority in both legislative chambers, organizers from a handful of organizations, from local 350.org chapters to indigenous groups, believe this is the perfect — and perhaps the only — opportunity to act.

Since 2013, passing any form of climate-related legislation in Washington was difficult at best. Republicans held a majority in the state Senate and used this advantage to block proposals, such as a cap-and-trade system, from Democrats. Gov. Jay Inslee, considered the “greenest governor in America” by the League of Conservation Voters, often felt frustrated by Republican opposition to his climate plans.

Yet, on Nov. 8, Democrats succeeded in regaining control of the state Senate with a slim 49-48 majority. Alec Connon, an activist with 350 Seattle, said this victory led to activists discussing a potential plan to ensure lawmakers took responsibility without using Republicans as an excuse.

“It’s about time that the rhetoric we’ve seen from climate leaders in Washington state [translate into] actual meaningful policy,” Connon said.

As part of the campaign, residents are putting forward two demands to lawmakers. First, they want officials to follow a climate test, which are guidelines that determine a project’s approval if it harms the climate. This would reject all fossil fuel proposals.

Second, activists want lawmakers to pass a bill that ensures the state switches to 100 percent renewable energy by 2028. All sectors under the government’s jurisdiction would move toward using alternative fuels.

The window to do this is short, as Washington lawmakers will only meet for 60 days this session. As 350 Seattle communications coordinator Emily Johnston explained, every minute is precious. She referred to scientists who warned world leaders last June that we have only three years to reduce greenhouse gases to a point where the Paris climate agreement target of 1.5 degrees Celsius is still attainable.

“We know what happens beyond that,” she said. “[Climate] acceleration and the disasters we are starting to see become unstoppable.”

Johnston referred the federal government’s refusal to deal with climate change as a major reason for not only Washington, but also other states to focus on the environment.

“If the entire West Coast were to develop laws that were very aggressive on climate then that would have a [massive] impact because the economies of Washington and California are huge,” she said.

Connon used Montgomery County, the largest county in Maryland, as an example of what Washington state could do. Last month, officials there passed a resolution declaring a “climate emergency” and aimed to reduce the county’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2027, and ultimately 100 percent eight years after that.

“The example set by Montgomery County is a commendable example and one we hope Washington state will follow,” Connon said.

Washington does have commitments by law to reduce its greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020. But Olympic Climate Action member Melanie Greer said Washington will fail to meet that deadline barring a significant policy change.

“I want to see real legislation that matches what scientists say has to be done, as well as demonstrable action — so that the state moves in the right direction,” Greer said.

After the activists in the balconies finished their chant, they were ordered to leave by security guards. Having made their voices heard, they are now planning the next steps of the campaign to ensure officials make climate action a top priority this legislative session.

“The clock is ticking,” Connon said. “We, as a society and as a whole, have to respond to the climate crisis.”

A renewed Poor People’s Campaign revives King’s dream of challenging class divide

by Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

Rev. William J. Barber speaks to the crowd gathered at Pullen Baptist Memorial Church in Raleigh, North Carolina on New Years Eve. (WNV/David Freeman)

The air in Raleigh, North Carolina was bitterly cold on New Years Eve, but the chill did not stop hundreds of people from gathering for a mass community meeting at the Pullen Baptist Memorial Church. Inside, the band was warming up on stage and friends called out greetings to each other as they went into the main hall.

A group of Raging Grannies filled a pew at the front, wearing floppy hats adorned with activist badges. Locals from North Carolina greeted activists who had traveled from around the country to attend. Some of them had recently been arrested together for protesting the tax bill on Capitol Hill.

As speakers began addressing the audience, people in the crowd linked arms and audience members flocked on stage to sing “We Shall Overcome” and chant “Forward together! Not one step back!” Together, the crowd assembled in Pullen rang in 2018 with a commitment for the coming year: to lead a nationwide campaign to save the “heart and soul” of American democracy.

Officially titled “The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival,” the campaign’s objective is to train a massive network of grassroots activists to spark a multi-fronted movement challenging four systemic “evils” in American society: poverty, racism, ecological devastation and the war economy.

One of the key faces of the campaign, former North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William J. Barber, delivered a fiery speech to those gathered in the church on New Years Eve. His voice boomed through the congregation, calling on everyone to “speak truth to power and love to hate in the name of God and all that is holy.”

“What we face is not new,” Barber then told the cheering crowd. “But when you get scared, remember the folks in power are scared too. They’re having nightmares!”

Barber read biblical passages in which the marginalized citizenry — the so-called “stones the builder rejected” — rise up together to face the “wolves” — or politicians — to save their society. In doing so, he added, sometimes they even “save some of the wolves.”

A towering, imposing figure, Barber has been described by activist and professor Cornel West as a modern-day Martin Luther King, Jr. It is easy to draw the parallel, as the Poor People’s Campaign itself is named after an initiative King announced months before his assassination. The campaign is considered an unfinished part of his legacy — a movement seeking to unify people across racial lines around the shared poverty and structural inequalities they experience.

Demonstrators participating in the Poor People’s March at Lafayette Park and on Connecticut Avenue, Washington, D.C. (Wikipedia/Warren K. Leffler)

The formal launch of the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign was held exactly 50 years after King announced the campaign in 1967 and is gearing up to be the largest nonviolent mobilization in the United States this year. Building on years of organizing within the state of North Carolina, leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign will spend the next five months training, educating and mobilizing communities around the country. Then, on Mother’s Day, the campaign will begin 40 days of widespread civil disobedience, nonviolent direct action and voter education.

The movement aims to draw in labor unions, farm workers, civil rights groups and marginalized communities from around the country, focusing each week on a specific issue of injustice. Each week will include specific policy demands and voter education programs at the state and federal levels, as well as training in nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience. By organizing through local and state chapters, the campaign will maintain a relatively decentralized structure guided by a set of core principles and targets.

Reviving King’s dream of challenging class divide

One of the major strengths of the Poor People’s Campaign is its potential to appeal to Americans across party lines. It aims to unite the grievances of the marginalized white working class with marginalized communities of immigrants and people of color throughout the country. Barber says this division has kept poor whites and people of color from coming together in common cause for generations. Organizers of the campaign promote a narrative that reaches out to rural or working-class whites — a discourse often employed by politicians on the right, while also emphasizing opposition to sexism, homophobia and racism that are more traditionally territory of the left.

North Carolina activist Tony Quartararo explained his support for the movement in terms of its unifying potential, saying, “[Trump] used xenophobia to play poor whites off against poor black and brown and Muslim people. That’s what the 1 percent has always done, played the 99 percent off against each other and allowed themselves to stay in power.”

Quartararo and his wife Elena Ceberio said they are willing to be involved in supporting the campaign in any way, and have both already been arrested for civil disobedience actions with Barber and others. They say they prefer to stay “in the background” and out of the spotlight, and they enthusiastically promote the movement within their social circle. This year, for example, the couple’s Christmas card featured a photograph of themselves with their son, all clad in black Poor People’s Campaign T-shirts, with a message asking their friends to lend their support. King’s dream was “to bring everybody together,” Quartararo said, and he hopes to draw in people from all walks of life to participate.

References to King are frequent among national and state-level campaign leaders, and much of the movement’s popular legitimacy draws on this connection. The original Poor People’s Campaign, spearheaded by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, sought to bring together people living in poverty across the country in a new March on Washington. The march was intended to pressure Congress and the Johnson administration to pass comprehensive anti-poverty legislation, as well as demand jobs, healthcare and affordable housing. Unlike previous campaigns to fight for the civil rights and voting rights of African Americans, the Poor People’s Campaign addressed issues affecting poor people of all races.

In April 1968, just weeks before the march was scheduled to take place, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Rev. Ralph Abernathy was put in charge of organizing the march in his place, along with a group of other civil rights leaders, such as Rev. Jesse Jackson. The march began on Mother’s Day, May 12, 1968, when Coretta Scott King began a two-week-long protest demanding an Economic Bill of Rights. Five thousand protesters descended on the National Mall during the campaign’s first week and built a protest camp called “Resurrection City.” But the encampment was plagued by ceaseless rain, and its inhabitants were ultimately expelled in the middle of the night on June 20. As a result, the campaign has since been considered an unrealized part of King’s dream.

Today, the Poor People’s Campaign aims not only to revive this decades-old dream, but also to reenergize many of the activists who were engaged in the anti-war and civil rights movements in the 1960s and ‘70s. David Freeman, who dropped out of high school to join the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, has played an active role in other Barber-led campaigns. “I know of no organization, past or present, which engenders the same passion and commitment over as broad a coalition as [the Poor People’s Campaign],” Freeman said.

Fran Schindler (right) with fellow Ranging Granny Ruth Zalph. (WNV/David Freeman)

The campaign also represents a second chance for those who played a less active role in social justice struggles of that era. At 78 years old, Fran Schindler laments “missing her chance” to participate in the social movements of the 1960s, having spent those years raising small children. But after attending the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., she felt the time had come to take a stand. “It was an awakening, if you want to call it that,” Schindler said. “It wasn’t my time to do it back then, when I wanted to be doing it so much and felt I was being left out. But now’s my time.”

Having had a double mastectomy, Schindler has gone to protests with slogans like “This is what a preexisting condition looks like” painted across her chest. After the inauguration, she said she was grateful to find a way to “let it out” by “going topless and screaming” at the top of her lungs. “I’ve got some feminist stuff in me,” she laughed. “Just because a woman’s got no breasts does not mean she is any less of a woman.”

Roots in North Carolina’s progressive resistance

Supporters like Schindler, Quartararo and Ceberio learned about the Poor People’s Campaign through a series of actions in North Carolina targeting reforms on the state level, which had been organized by Barber and other progressive groups around the state. After the Republicans won a majority in North Carolina’s state legislature in 2010 and the governorship in 2012, Barber launched the Moral Mondays movement in April 2013. He led protests bearing “moral witness” to the state legislature’s far-right agenda, which included attacks on health care, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and voting rights throughout the state.

The movement gained momentum when 17 people were arrested at the first Moral Monday demonstration in the summer of 2013. Within months, there had been over a thousand arrests, sparking more actions throughout North Carolina. These included the “Tuesdays with Tillis” demonstrations outside Sen. Thom Tillis’ office in Raleigh and the “Air Horn Orchestra” demonstrations every Wednesday outside Gov. Pat McCrory’s mansion, protesting issues like gerrymandering and environmental degradation.

Rev. Barber at a health care protest outside Congress in August. (WNV/David Freeman)

Barber became a leading figure of progressive resistance in the North Carolina NAACP, the organization’s second largest state chapter, while serving as its president for 11 years. Barber stepped down in May 2017 to join Presbyterian Rev. Liz Theoharis in co-chairing the Poor People’s Campaign. Theoharis runs the New York-based Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice and is the founder of the Poverty Initiative. Although Theoharis often speaks at mass meetings and Poor People’s Campaign events, she is less visible in the public spotlight than Barber, who was more involved in state-level organizing in the years leading up to the campaign launch.

Barber is also known for his role as head of the non-profit organization Repairers of the Breach and for leading the “Forward Together” movement, which began organizing the annual Moral March to the Raleigh statehouse every February, also known as the Historic Thousands on Jones Street, or HKonJ. The march is put on by the HKonJ People’s Assembly Coalition, a group comprised of over 125 North Carolina NAACP branches, youth councils and college chapters, as well as representatives from over 200 other social justice organizations. The march has produced some of the largest civil rights gatherings in the South since Selma and Birmingham, and will take place again this February.

A fusion of movements

One of the campaign’s strengths, aside from a strong foundation in grassroots organizing, is its aim to draw together many smaller organizations and campaigns into what Barber calls a “fusion of movements.” Back in 2014, in the early planning stages of the campaign, over a hundred leaders from more than 40 organizations began holding strategic dialogues to plan the Poor People’s Campaign, and it has been seen as broadly encompassing many other movements ever since.

The campaign has so far succeeded in drawing in many smaller groups, like the Pennsylvania-based March on Harrisburg. Community organizer and march leader Kyle Moore was inspired to join the coordinating committee for the Pennsylvania state chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign after he was arrested with Barber in July. Moore was a key organizer of the March on Harrisburg, a group that held a 105-mile march from Philadelphia to the Pennsylvania state legislature in Harrisburg in May 2017. The same group was also arrested in November, when they dressed up as the “Where’s Waldo” character to make the point that it is easier to find Waldo than elected officials. They were also drawing attention to issues of gerrymandering, voter suppression and political corruption at the state level.

Members of the Pennsylvania-based March on Harrisburg dressed as “Where’s Waldo.” (WNV/Sean Kitchen)

“What we did with the March on Harrisburg is very similar to what the Poor People’s Campaign is doing,” Moore said. “If you don’t have voting rights, you’re going to have people in office voting for things that a majority of people don’t support.”

The Pennsylvania Coordinating Committee will be organizing state-wide “barnstorming” efforts with the Pennsylvania chapter from January until March, hosting trainings in Unitarian Universalist churches on citizen lobbying and civil disobedience. Moore, who is also a trained civil rights historian, said he became passionate about the campaign after watching Barber speak to thousands of people at a church in New York City. “He’s so much like Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Moore said. “My feet started dancing a little bit. The way he talks is like a rhythm, it’s like a prophet. You’re willing to follow him down any road that could restore democracy in this country.”

While the campaign is garnering substantial enthusiasm in local and state chapters, as well as painting a compelling narrative of unity among marginalized and disenfranchised groups in America, many hurdles remain. Organizers will be pressed to forge a movement among diverse interest groups, develop a clear strategy with attainable goals, and maintain the enthusiasm of early supporters while also drawing in new participants. What’s more, they face the same problem as the original Poor People’s Campaign: having a single charismatic leader as the face of the movement. If such figures become unable to lead, as we have seen, the campaign can lose momentum and direction.

Nevertheless, the Poor People’s Campaign has already laid the groundwork for major mobilizations in 2018, drawing in numerous stakeholders and whipping up a frenzy of enthusiasm from supporters across the country. “Yes, we need to keep checking ourselves critically, to improve outreach to youth,” Freeman said. “But all progressive organizations are struggling with these issues. The Poor People’s Campaign is the most hopeful, most powerful coalition we have going. Nothing compares to it in breadth.”

For now, Barber’s leadership remains a strong asset for inspiring dedicated participants and drawing the campaign into the national spotlight. As Schindler boldly declared, “I am definitely throwing what’s left of me in with his mission. Wherever he goes, I will follow him.”

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