Waging Nonviolence

Meet the Parkland father keeping his son’s message alive through art

Joaquin Oliver loved basketball, the music of Frank Ocean and his family. On February 14, 2018, only a few months before he was supposed to graduate high school, he was shot down with an AR-15 in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre. He was 17 years old.

The massacre became a turning point for the gun control movement, sparking conversations on bump stocks, background checks, and eliminating NRA money from politics. It also ignited nationwide school walkouts and the March for Our Lives, which became the largest youth-led demonstration in U.S. history, drawing nearly 1.2 million people from across the country. 

Before the shooting, Joaquin’s father, Manuel Oliver, was an artist who had immigrated from Venezuela to pursue a safer life for his family. Today, Manuel is dedicated to exposing NRA corruption, empowering young activists and honoring Joaquin, who he says was not only his son but his best friend.

Since Joaquin’s death, Manuel has traveled across America with his organization, Change the Ref, to continue the conversation on gun violence through urban art. The organization, founded by him and his wife Patricia, takes its name from a conversation Manuel had with his son shortly before his death. After a referee made an unfair call during a basketball game, Joaquin told Manuel, who coached his team, that they would not be able to win unless they “changed the ref.” 

To date, Manuel has created 30 murals — what he calls “graphic activism”— in cities devastated by gun violence, from Chicago to El Paso. He’s celebrated what should have been Joaquin’s 18th birthday by leading protesters in singing “Happy Birthday” outside the NRA headquarters. He’s also made headlines for putting a bulletproof vest on Wall Street’s famous “Fearless Girl” statue, and for 3D-printing sculptures of children cowering under desks, hiding from a school shooter. More recently, he’s produced a one-man show about his son’s life, called “Guac: My Son, My Hero.” The show will be debuting at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach on Sept. 20 before going on a national tour

The organization you and your wife started, Change the Ref, is known for using unconventional methods to get your point across. How do you approach spreading your message, and why do you think it’s effective?

I try to do things that haven’t been tried yet. Our methods are nontraditional, because I’ve seen traditional methods failing. We’ve had a blue Senate, we’ve had a blue house in Congress, and we didn’t see those results. Relying on politicians isn’t always the answer. Politicians will always tell you what you want to hear, but not necessarily what they’re going to do.

A 3-D printed statue of Joaquin created to protest 3-D printed guns. (WNV/Change The Ref)

The only thing I know how to do is art, which also happens to be an nontraditional way of hitting this, because I haven’t seen it before. I’ve seen it before from artists, but not from fathers of victims. So we have a way to impact people in a legit way. What we do is often more social than political. I really believe in social movements as a way to change our problem from the roots. 

We did it with the tobacco industry. That, more than a political decision, was a community decision. A civil decision. We found it disgusting, and now you don’t see the tobacco lobby showing their power over politicians. I think that the NRA and the gun lobby are going towards the same destiny that the tobacco industry had. But the only way to do that is with the right message — very disruptive, very nontraditional, and sometimes uncomfortable for some people. 

Because of your murals, there are thousands of people across America who feel like they know Joaquin. Why is it important to portray Joaquin’s personality through your art?

My first role here is to be Joaquin’s dad. This is not about people knowing about me, I don’t give a shit about people knowing me. I try to make sure people know all the elements that made my son such a great person. Joaquin was a natural born activist before the shooting. We had amazing conversations about civil rights and social issues and injustice. He was very concerned about gun violence. Really concerned. The sad part was that he was murdered. He became a target. We cannot have that powerful voice with us anymore, unless we do what we’re doing. I’m here to share his message, in the most rapid way, to everybody. We work together in this, me and Joaquin. This is more his statement than my art. 

By knowing about Joaquin, you will understand that a nice, beautiful person was shot down in the most unfair way that you could ever imagine. Inside his school, walking as a student, making sure that he had a good education, being happy on Valentine’s Day, giving flowers to his girlfriend. He had a coffee that morning with his dad. So I can make sure people know all that.

One of your most powerful murals was painted on the US-Mexico border. What was your experience creating that mural, and why did you decide to make a mural there?

Everyone was talking about building a wall, so we went to Tijuana, Mexico. And we wrote on the border wall, next to Joaquin’s image, “Del otro lado tambien matan a nuestros hijos,” [which means, “On the other side, they also murder our kids.”] 

Manuel Oliver with his mural on the U.S.-Mexico border. (Twitter/Manuel Ayala)

I was trying to put together two things that really affect me. One is gun violence, because I lost my son. And the other one is the way people treat immigrants like me and my son and my wife. Those two things motivated me to do whatever it takes to make a statement. 

I remember the border patrol on the American side wondering what I was doing, because they cannot access the other side. Now, when I go out of the country and then back, they ask me a lot of questions. I had a nice conversation with an immigration officer who said, “You understand that I have to ask you questions, because you were actually painting on a property of the United States government, and this is my job.”

I told him, “Well, you have to understand that this is my job. I’m trying to save your kid. Because it’s too late for me to save my kid.” And that always ends in a handshake, or a “keep on doing what you’re doing.” I really find a lot of support. You’d be surprised where the support is coming from. 

Your latest project is an interactive one-man show called “Guac: My Son, My Hero” that tells the story — equal parts joyful and devastating — of your family and your son’s life. How have you approached theater as a tool to advocate for social justice?

The murals, they involve public speaking. So I understand that you have to have an active presence with communities to let them know what’s going on. It’s a really powerful way of approaching the problem. Theater is just another tool to empower and make the message even more accessible to people. In a way, I’m entertaining people, and I’m fine with that, because while I’m entertaining you, I’m also letting you know what’s going on. 

Manuel Oliver in “Guac: My Son, My Hero.” (WNV/Al Noelle)

Making the show interactive wasn’t a decision, it was something I discovered through doing different events. It is a natural feeling, in all of us, to want to be a part of things. We want to be there in the first row, and we want to hang out with whoever is taking the lead. I love that interaction with people, the mutual feeling of supporting each other. 

I also want people to see that there’s another side in all this, which is way more important than being mad and not being part of the solution — that is remembering how great the victims were, how wonderful their lives were and how much we miss them. Joaquin danced and laughed all day long, and he deserves to be remembered and honored and supported in a happy way. A lot of people will identify with that. A lot of viewers of the play will see themselves. You’ll probably be thinking that it could happen to you at some point, so you better be part of the solution.

Women lead struggle to preserve Indian democracy in face of rising Hindu nationalism

After the Indian government’s decision to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, people across India answered a nationwide call for protests issued by left-wing parties on Aug. 7. Article 370 had provided the state with considerable autonomy and was one of the conditions for its accession to the Indian union in 1947.

Shabnam Hashmi, social activist and co-founder of the non-governmental organization Act Now for Harmony and Democracy, or ANHAD, livestreamed the protests from New Delhi.

She panned her camera to show protesters restricted by barricades at Jantar Mantar, a site where regular protests occur in the capital. “As you can see, the space — which has already been confined so much for protests — even in that area we are not being allowed to enter,” she commented. “This is the state of Indian democracy now.”

Previous Coverage
  • As repression worsens, Kashmiri activists call for international solidarity
  • Hashmi wasn’t being melodramatic by calling the current state of Indian democracy into question. A government-imposed curfew and communications lockdown has been in place in Indian-controlled Kashmir since Aug. 5, politicians have been placed under house arrest, and tens of thousands of soldiers have been deployed as reports of the region turning into an “open-air prison” emerge.

    Hashmi has been a vocal critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party long before he assumed office for the first time in 2014. In 2003, she co-founded ANHAD in the aftermath of the deadly 2002 Gujarat riots that occurred during Modi’s tenure as chief minister. In Kashmir, the organization has worked towards empowering women and youth in remote areas, and has helped over 20,000 women become functionally literate.

    Eradicating fear

    In June, I headed to Delhi’s Nizamuddin neighborhood to meet Hashmi in ANHAD’s basement office. Hashmi has been a social activist and human rights campaigner for nearly 40 years. Her brother, playwright and director Safdar Hashmi, was an ardent critic of the Congress party and was killed in 1989 after he was attacked by Mukesh Sharma — a Congress-backed candidate in the local municipal elections — and his aides while performing a street play titled “Raise Your Voice” in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh.

    Shabnam Hashmi speaking at an event. (WNV/Shabnam Hashmi)

    Since its inception, ANHAD has concentrated on fostering communal harmony and raising awareness on constitutional and human rights issues. Headquartered in Delhi, the organization has been actively involved in Gujarat, Kashmir and other regions of the country, facilitating numerous grassroots-level campaigns, conventions, vocational training programs, reports and meetings.

    In May, ANHAD hosted a “non-political” press conference at New Delhi’s Press Club of India. A crowd of around 150 people — mostly women of all ages, occupations and parts of society — gathered to address the matter of safeguarding their constitutional rights. The reference to it being “non-political” was a dig at Modi’s “non-political interview” with Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar in April, days after the 2019 Indian general elections began. Modi, who is notorious for avoiding press conferences, steered clear of serious topics, speaking instead with Kumar about his love of mangoes and his preferred way of eating them.

    Outside of the Press Club, leaflets hung from the trees containing questions for the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, government, including: Why has the government stopped publishing data on farmer suicides since 2015? Why is the government suppressing official data on unemployment? Why did the BJP introduce electoral bonds which allows for anonymous donations to political parties? Why has there been deafening silence from the government on the rising hate crimes against minorities, especially Muslims?

    A month earlier, on April 4, as part of the Women March for Change campaign, over 30,000 women marched in 20 states across the country to protest government policies and the prevailing atmosphere of hate and violence.

    Hashmi believes that the organization’s greatest impact has been in eradicating fear and informing people of their democratic rights, as well as enabling discourse on essential topics. This was evident at the press conference in May, where a diverse panel of women spoke about difficulties in receiving pensions, lack of access to water, rations and medical treatment, insufficient funds for education, and the curbing of sex workers’ rights, among other concerns.

    “Sex workers don’t own [identifaction] cards — they cannot even enroll their children in schools,” said Kusum, a 41-year-old sex worker who goes only by her first name and is the president of the All India Network of Sex Workers. These cards, known as Aadhaar, enable citizens to open bank accounts and receive subsidies and pensions, among other uses. At the same time, however, they come with myriad problems that have led to the further exclusion of marginalized groups.

    The consolidation of the right

    Following the BJP’s resounding victory in the 2019 general elections, Modi was reelected prime minister in May. A number of factors contributed to Modi’s win, including his party’s hyper-nationalist rhetoric, a calculated exploitation of the Balakot airstrikes for political gain, as well as the lack of an effective counter-narrative by opposition parties. The BJP’s parent organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, employed a door-to-door campaign strategy that focused on the remotest areas of the country in an effort to achieve maximum voter turnout.

    Previous Coverage
  • Activists challenge World Hindu Congress over links to global fascism
  • The Hindutva ideology advocated by the BJP, RSS and the Sangh Parivar — a family of Hindu nationalist organizations — has infiltrated nearly all of the country’s democratic institutions. Reports have emerged of university and school textbooks being rewritten, journalists and activists steadily coming under threat, the Supreme Court reeling under pressure from the government, and a rising acts of cow vigilantism — where violent right-wing Hindu mobs attack minorities under the pretense of protecting cows from slaughter.

    According to one analysis of home ministry data, in the three years after the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance came to power in 2014, communal violence in India increased by 28 percent. A Huffington Post report ranked India fourth in the world in 2015 for the highest social hostilities involving religion, after Syria, Nigeria and Iraq.

    According to IndiaSpend’s Hate Crime Watch tracker, which analyzed 254 incidents of hate crimes that took place between 2009 and 2018, nearly 90 percent occurred after 2014 and a large percentage of the victims were minorities. As recently as June 24, another Muslim man was lynched by a mob in Jharkhand.

    “There is of course a lot of fear. And more and more people are going to become silent,” Hashmi said in June, referring to the milieu in the country.

    Gauhar Raza, Hashmi’s spouse, is a scientist, Urdu poet and documentary filmmaker. “Most of us realized in 2014 that something has cracked, something has changed in India. But we didn’t have an idea about what shape it would take or what would be the extent of it,” he said.

    Referring to this year’s elections, Raza said, “It’s not only the consolidation [of votes] but the kind of confidence that fascist forces have got — it’s huge.”

    Critics view the latest move in Kashmir — perhaps an indicator of this confidence — as a blatant attempt to alter the demographic composition of the Muslim-majority region.

    Grassroots empowerment

    Much of ANHAD’S work has been carried out at the grassroots-level, focusing on mass mobilization campaigns. The organization’s reputation, as well as Hashmi’s work in the social sector, have enabled them to have a certain reach across communities. Issues of communalism, violence against women and minorities, and gender-based discrimination are regularly addressed.

    During the protests in April, women gathered on the streets to demand protection of their constitutional rights, which they believed were endangered under the ruling “anti-women, anti-Dalit, anti-worker” government. In the capital, the crowd marched to Parliament Street, calling for “azadi,” or freedom, and urging citizens — particularly women — to utilize their right to vote in order to counter the current climate of growing intolerance and sectarian politics.

    Previous Coverage
  • Temple controversy sparks quiet revolution by women for religious equality in India
  • The idea for the Women March for Change movement originally stemmed from the women-led Baatein Aman Ki campaign of September-October 2018, where caravans of around a hundred women traveled across the country — starting from Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu — to hold discussions on peace, harmony and the safeguarding of constitutional values in the run-up to the 2019 elections. The women conducted some 500 programs in 200 cities. The need to maintain the focus on women arose from the fact that Indian women are particularly vulnerable in times of conflict; they are conditioned to remain silent and frequently discouraged from participating in political matters.

    The BAK campaign was initiated by Hashmi and a few other prominent female activists and carried forward with the help of local women’s groups and non-governmental organizations in the different states. Hashmi tells me that the response was overwhelming, and that women from across communities — including those who didn’t realize they had a say — came forward to participate. But the organizers had a taxing time leading up to the campaign, scrambling to raise funds before it began.

    Funding challenges

    Non-governmental organizations in India have taken a financial hit ever since the Foreign Contribution and Regulation Act, or FCRA, was amended in 2016, making it harder or altogether impossible for them to acquire foreign funding. The new law targets “organizations of a political nature,” but the definition of this term is vague and may include farmers’ organizations and youth forums and organizations based on caste, language, religion or community.

    Since 2014, around 20,000 non-governmental organizations — many of which are rights-based advocacy groups — have had their FCRA licenses canceled, including Greenpeace India, Citizens for Justice and Peace, and ANHAD.

    Ever since the Home Ministry cut off ANHAD’s foreign funding in December 2016, citing “undesirable activities against public interest,” the organization has been functioning with the help of personal contributions from its members, friends, family and supporters. But resources are slowly drying up, posing a serious challenge to the future of the organization.

    Previous Coverage
  • Modi’s McCarthyist attack on left-leaning intellectuals threatens India’s democracy
  • “Civil society organizations will be crippled, one after the other,” Raza warned. “In my opinion, [the government] can manage media, they can manage institutions, fudge data and run dubious campaigns. But when all is said and done, they will not be able to manage the economic crisis that will hit the country badly in the upcoming years — which means that the peasantry will rise. The working class will organize themselves, they will protest because of economic conditions rather than social engineering.”

    India’s unemployment rate is at a 45-year high, and demonetization and the introduction of an exorbitant Goods and Service Tax has drawn intense criticism. In November, scores of farmers and laborers marched from across the country to New Delhi to demand minimum wage, food security and effective implementation of labor laws.

    Moving forward

    “One of our most important roles has been to provide young minds with the right information so that they’re able to form their own opinion,” said Anil Panikkar, psychologist and one of ANHAD’s core members. “And that is very much required now, more so than at any other time. If they are forced to think, there will be change. We need to work on creating the alternative.”

    ANHAD knows that it is crucial to protect and amplify the voices of minorities, forge alliances with different groups and facilitate conversations between them, highlight regional concerns, and bring environmental issues to the forefront. Their strategy includes political training at the community level — hundreds of training camps have been conducted over the years.

    Caravans of women traveled across India as part of the Baatein Aman Ki campaign of September-October 2018. (WNV/Shabnam Hashmi)

    “Over the last four years, due to paucity of funds, they stopped,” Hashmi said. At an organizational meeting at the ANHAD office in mid-June, plans were drawn up to regroup, raise funds and implement newer, more effective state-specific strategies moving forward.

    Training camps are residential in nature, lasting five to seven days, where in-depth talks are held on the Constitution of India, the legacy of the freedom struggle, the vision of an equal society, as well as discussions on caste, gender, globalization and pluralism. Prevailing myths and prejudices against minorities and other difficult subjects such as the 2002 Gujarat riots, the conflict in Kashmir, fascism and terrorism are also addressed.

    “At the moment, political parties are in a form of slumber — they are stunned,” Raza said. “They are unable to really analyze the situation. And those who have been able to [do so] are unable to suggest corrective measures. Therefore, the duty of civil society organizations is even greater than in 2014.”

    Soon after the election results were announced on May 23, ANHAD called for a public meeting. Most women did not show up because they were simply too disheartened. “Earlier, they had hope. Now they have none,” Hashmi said. Hashmi stresses, however, that it is especially in times like this — when civil liberties are increasingly under threat — that it is crucial that the work goes on and safe spaces remain accessible.

    Five years after Ferguson Uprising, Michael Brown’s death continues to be a catalyst for change

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    This story was first published by YES! Magazine.

    Michael Brown Sr. lies stock-still on his back on the floor of an art studio in St. Louis as an artist layers papier-mache on his arms, chest, and torso.

    Brown Sr. is a stand-in, the model for a life-size replica that St. Louis artist Dail Chambers is creating to represent Michael Brown Jr. — his deceased son.

    In the days and weeks that followed, other artists added their own interpretations to the cast, and community leaders, family, friends, and activists affixed messages of remembrance, of hope, as well as photos and tributes to Brown Jr.

    “Although everybody else has left since your death, we are still here fighting,” one 16-year-old girl wrote.

    The final exhibit, called “As I See You,” will be part of a memorial Aug. 9–11 for Brown Jr., five years after a police officer took the 18-year-old’s life in Ferguson, Missouri.

    The memorial weekend’s events will include a private unveiling of the exhibit for the family members of 25 victims of police killings across the country, and will coincide with the first national reparations convening in Ferguson, beginning Aug. 8.

    Brown Jr. was not the first unarmed black man killed by a white police officer. But his death on Aug. 9, 2014, grabbed the world’s attention, exposing long-festering issues of race and inequality in the United States and bringing new energy to a simmering Movement for Black Lives.

    In death, Brown Jr. became a household name, and the small, mostly black city where he died became the movement’s ground zero. Both will be forever linked to the tragedy and trauma around police shootings and the will of a frustrated people to rise up against injustice.

    For more than four hours, Brown Jr.’s lifeless body lay uncovered on the street where he fell, blood flowing from his head as bystanders watched in horror and outrage. For weeks following the shooting, and months after a St. Louis grand jury failed to indict officer Darren Wilson, protests and demonstrations engulfed the region.

    Images on television and on social media caught the sporadic violent clashes between demonstrators and police, who used tear gas and armored vehicles intended for war zones to try to control the crowds.

    “People, protestors were coming in from all over … coming to ground zero to stand up for what they believed in,” Brown Sr. says. “We are so grateful to them for making this happen, for having the courage to know it was wrong and to stand up for their beliefs. Before Mike, this kind of thing was mostly swept under the rug; now it’s happening almost all the time.”

    The Ferguson Uprising raised awareness around the level of racial disparity on issues from policing and mass incarceration to economics — not just in that region, but across the country.

    And in the months and years afterward, protests and demonstrations elsewhere would follow police shootings of other black people whose names many have now come to know: Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Eric Harris, Terence Crutcher, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Antwon Rose, and on.

    David Ragland, cofounder of the Truth Telling Project of Ferguson, which got its start in the early days of the uprising, described the spontaneity of protests that grew out of the shootings as moments that built into movements.

    “Each generation has its own way, and Ferguson questioned the entire American project,” Ragland says. “These were people from marginalized communities demanding human rights, human dignity … They were average people — nurses, postal workers, people who came out because they were tired — saying we are good people, we deserve dignity.”

    Father for son

    For years, Cal Brown thought about how she might honor and keep alive the memory of her stepson, who was a recent high school graduate and had been preparing to begin vocational training classes just two days before he was killed. At the same time, she wanted to acknowledge and give voice to those who saw his death as a catalyst for change.

    As the fifth anniversary neared, she searched for ways to do both.

    “The media had spent so much time dehumanizing Mike, people forgot he was somebody’s brother, somebody’s son, somebody’s cousin,” Brown says. “So many people say, ‘I love Mike Brown; he belongs to me.’ I wanted to take the time and show people why they love this young man.”

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    Collaborating with Elizabeth Vega, a St. Louis “artivist” (artist and activist) who uses art to empower and inspire change, she settled on the idea of using Brown Jr.’s father as the model for a body cast of his son. Chambers, a local artist, would create the cast.

    The new exhibit would also help to counter a controversial one in a Chicago museum in 2015 that graphically depicted Michael Brown Jr.’s death scene. Already, Brown says, other venues across the country have started requesting “As I See You.”

    Brown Sr. recalls his reaction when his wife first suggested the idea of using his body as a model for the cast. “It took me a minute,” he said. “I went outside and smoked a cigarette to get my mind together, get myself together to prepare for it.”

    Not the first or last

    Police have been shooting unarmed people long before cases like Brown Jr.’s called attention to the injustice of it. A Washington Post database has recorded about 1,000 fatal police shootings each year since 2015, when the paper first began tracking them — 4,453 fatal shootings in total. Just under one-quarter of the victims have been black.

    In that time, 58 officers were charged and 13 convicted of murder or manslaughter, says Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University who tracks and studies arrests of police nationwide.

    “Between 900 and 1,000 times each year, on-duty police officers across the U.S. shoot and kill someone,” Stinson says. “And yet, only a few times each year is an officer charged with murder or manslaughter resulting from one of those shootings.”

    Based on his research, Stinson says the number of officers charged since 2005 in any given year has varied from zero to 18; any increase in recent years is not statistically significant. Basically, he says, “it’s business as usual in the police subculture.”

    Just last month, after a five-year civil rights investigation, federal prosecutors announced they would not bring charges against Staten Island police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who applied a department-banned chokehold, killing Eric Garner a month before Brown Jr. was shot in 2014.

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    With a grand jury also declining to bring charges, the most severe punishment Pantaleo faces is termination from his job. He was suspended after an administrative judge recommended he be fired.

    The dying gasps of “I can’t breathe” by the father of six became a rallying cry in nationwide protests.

    Five years later

    In the five years since Garner’s and Brown Jr.’s deaths, heightened activism by the Movement for Black Lives and more extensive national discourse have raised awareness around issues of police accountability and use of force — particularly when it comes to people of color.

    President Barack Obama, who appealed for calm following Brown Jr.’s death and the nonindictment of Wilson, created the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in December 2014. The following spring, it issued a report that called for the removal of policies that reward police for producing more arrests and convictions, and for independent prosecutors to investigate civilian deaths in police custody or in officer-involved shootings.

    In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report on Ferguson, highlighting how disproportionate enforcement by courts and the police, intended to generate city revenue, targeted African Americans. In a city where black people make up two-thirds of the population, the 54-person police force had only four African Americans.

    That report led to a consent decree between the Justice Department and the city requiring body camera use for police officers, use-of-force policies, and a municipal court overhaul.

    The police chief in place during the Uprising and the city manager and municipal judge were all forced out of their jobs. In 2015, residents elected two black city council members, and last year replaced the prosecutor who declined to charge Wilson in Brown Jr.’s death.

    In his place, they elected Wesley Belle, a progressive African American lawyer who understood the system needed to “change from the inside.”

    Last June, the city appointed a black police chief — a police captain from the Atlanta suburb of Forest Park.

    Residents appear to have mixed feelings about how far the city has come in five years.

    Cathy “Mama Cat” Daniels of the activist group Potbangerz, whose organizing around housing and feeding the unhoused began with the Uprising, says she’d hoped the community would be further ahead given “all that we did on the streets and are still fighting for.”

    She feels hopeful, though. “We have a lot of young black folks who went from protest to politics and doing some dope, amazing stuff,” she says. “They are fighting hard, but we need some people power behind them.”

    And while applauding the political progress, Ragland says that real substantial change has yet to be seen. Black people in the region are still more likely to be targeted for enforcement, he says.

    Pointing to the recent decision in the Garner case, Ragland adds: “We now have a federal government that is less willing to hold law enforcement accountable.”

    “I think there’s a deep power imbalance between law enforcement and everyday citizens,” he says. “And I don’t think it’s helpful for a democracy.”

    In Mike Brown’s name

    Brown Sr. is also working to help empower and uplift young people through the Michael Brown Chosen for Change Foundation, which he and his wife, Cal, formed the year after his son’s death.

    It is one of many ways the elder Brown is working to preserve his son’s memory.

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    Through the group Conscious Campus, Ragland and Brown Sr. have been working together to take the story about what happened in Ferguson five years ago to college campuses across the country. The idea is to fill the gaps and correct the misinformation that exists, Brown Sr. says.

    He and Brown Jr.’s mother, Leslie McSpadden, were featured in the 2017 documentary about the shooting, Stranger Fruit. And in 2014, the two traveled to Geneva to testify before the United Nations Committee Against Torture.

    Brown Sr. is hopeful that the sculpture will be a lasting reminder of the promise of youth and the potential for change.

    “Everything is a process,” he says. “Just us making noise and standing together and getting in the right rooms and having these discussions, I can see it moving forward. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

    Opposition to Trump’s migration deal has sparked a growing student occupation in Guatemala

    Late in the afternoon on July 29, students from Guatemala’s only public university, the University of San Carlos, took control of the university’s museum in Guatemala City’s historic center. Their goal was to block the country’s congress from holding sessions there, as the congressional building undergoes remodeling. 

    “The facilities of the university are part of our heritage. Here great thinkers were formed,” said Lenina García, the general secretary of the Association of University Students Oliverio Castañeda de León, or AEU. “It is despicable that the congressional representatives want to meet here when they have supported laws that are regressive. We believe that it isn’t correct, and we do not want to be on their side of history.”

    The occupation was launched in part due to fears that the Guatemalan Congress could hear debates and possibly pass the controversial “safe third country” agreement with the Trump administration, which was signed in the White House by Guatemalan Minister of the Interior Enrique Degenhart on July 26. The agreement will require asylum seekers from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to apply and wait in Guatemala for their cases to be approved in the United States. 

    The signing of the agreement was the last straw in increased tensions at the university. The occupation quickly brought up other frustrations with university Director Murphy Paiz, who took the position in 2018. Students accuse the director of treating the university as his personal plantation.

    “The agreement was the last drop that overfilled the cup,” said Amparo Gómez, the secretary of university affairs for the student association of the School of Political Science. “We have seen that there is not a willingness to address the problems that the country and the university faces.”

    In the hours that followed the occupation, the Guatemalan Congress issued a statement that it would relocate the sessions that were scheduled for Tuesday. Yet, in spite of this announcement, students maintained their occupation, calling on other students to join. 

    Students hang a banner over the University of San Carlos’ museum that reads “I refuse to live in a dictatorship” on July 29. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

    While the occupation was sparked by the proposed congressional session in the university’s museum, it became a catalyst for action by students across the country who are upset about the politics and conditions of the University of San Carlos. The occupations of other universities quickly expanded in the days that followed. By Aug. 3, students had occupied 24 campuses of the university in 19 of Guatemala’s 22 departments, including centers in Guatemala City, Huehuetenango, San Marcos and Quetzaltenango. 

    The AEU and other student organizations have called on other students to join in the protest against the privatization of the country’s only public university. The student groups have built off the occupation of the museum and organized a national movement for access to public higher education. 

    “Our occupation is permanent until they respond to the demands,” García said. “We are calling on other students to join in the defense of higher education.”

    Expanding protests against privatization

    Founded in 1676 during Spanish colonization, the University of San Carlos is a historic institution in Guatemala. Over the centuries access to higher studies was opened to more and more students, and to this day it remains the only public university in the country.

    Upon taking control of the museum, students accused officials of attempting to “privatize the university” through cost increases — which have steadily risen — and transforming the university’s culture by signing agreements that students argue cede more space to private companies. 

    “Since Paiz became director, he has pushed politics of privatization of the services of the university,” Gómez said. She points to the fact that prior to the appointment of Paiz, students paid 350 Quetzales (or about $46) for the Preparatory Academic Program — a nine-month program with physics, language classes, mathematics and chemistry that prepares students for university classes. Following the appointment, Paiz increased costs of the program to 1,000 Quetzales (or roughly $130).

    “These courses are optional, but we consider it to be a right to higher education that they are violating,” Gómez said. “This cost is extremely high. It restricts access to higher education for many students.”

    Nearly 60 percent of Guatemala’s population suffers from poverty, according to 2014 data from the World Bank. This high cost for entry-level courses especially affects students from rural areas and those living in poverty from accessing the university. 

    Students are rejecting other actions of the university director, including the signing of an agreement with the Chamber of Industries of Guatemala, which will require students to do their internships and investigations — known as Ejercicio Profesional Supervisado, or EPS, in Spanish — with private companies. The program was set up in the 1970s and placed students in public institutions and organizations to investigate and respond to problems in forgotten parts of the country. It was meant to be a program that exposed the students to the situations that exist in the country. 

    “The EPS is meant to return something to the people of the country,” said Gabriel Morella, a 27-year-old engineering student from Guatemala City who was part of the occupation of the museum building. “But [the agreement] breaks apart the program.”

    The students entered into a dialogue with Paiz on Aug. 2. The dialogue is being mediated by the country’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Jordan Rodas. Students have maintained that they will continue their occupation until Paiz meets their demands.

    ‘Guatemala is not a safe third country

    While the occupation has brought to light deep frustrations within the national public university, the root cause of the current occupations remains the “safe third country” agreement with the United States. For students, this agreement will only exacerbate the social crisis that exists in Guatemala. 

    Faced with the occupation of the museum in Guatemala City’s historic center, the country’s congress moved sessions to the Westin Camino Real hotel in an affluent part of Guatemala City. The session on July 31 was met by a group of nearly 30 students from the Strike Committee of the School of Agronomy, who were joined by urban collectives and other organizations outside the hotel.

    Students from the School of Agronomy drive a bus to block the road in front of the Camino Real hotel in Guatemala City’s Zona 10 on July 31. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

    The protest was organized due to fears that the country’s congress was to discuss the “safe third country” agreement with the Trump administration. Students chanted “we do not want to be a colony of the United States” as congressional representatives met inside the hotel. 

    The agreement is being met by outrage on social media and in the national media. Many argue that the agreement is illegal due to the fact that the agreement was signed without the country’s congress and violates a court order against the agreement. Furthermore, many point out that Guatemala cannot be a safe country for migrants. 

    “The agreement puts Guatemala in a state of destabilization,” Morella said. “Migrants will come to the country and there will need to be the guarantee for certain rights, including health, work and housing. If Guatemala cannot provide these basic things for its own population, how will it do it for the migrants who arrive?”

    While the congress did not discuss the agreement in the July 31 session due to the fact that they have not officially received the accord, it remains a looming threat in future congressional sessions.

    Guatemala continues to suffer from poverty, lack of access to health care and education, high rates of crime and violence, and corruption. Yet, in spite of this, the Morales administration signed the agreement after Trump threatened to block Guatemalan exports and to enact tariffs on remittances sent to the country by families living in the United States.

    This is especially troubling after the Morales administration evoked sovereignty in their struggle against the U.N. backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, which has investigated and led to the arrests and prosecutions of officials, drug traffickers, and business leaders accused of corruption and illicit activity. 

    In August 2018, Morales announced he was not renewing the commission’s mandate after it opened an investigation into him and his family. The commission is set to end on Sept. 3. Morella and others have accused Morales of selling out the country.  

    “Now where is the sovereignty of the country?” Morella asked.

    Violent repression only weakens Putin, not Russian calls for democracy

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    After police in Moscow brutally cracked down on pro-democracy protests last weekend — arresting more than 1,300 people and possibly poisoning one of its most prominent critics — Simon Tisdall made an insightful argument in The Guardian about its origin and meaning.

    His point was captured best in the headline: “Putin’s treatment of protesters and rivals shows weakness, not strength.” He then proceeds to offer a litany of developments within Russia and recent moves by President Vladimir Putin that reflect his “growing political weakness” and “rising panic” in Moscow.

    Tisdall’s analysis is consistent with a counter-intuitive understanding of the relationship between power and violence that was perhaps best articulated by the German philosopher Hannah Arendt. In her classic study “On Violence,” she dismantles the conventional wisdom that violence and power are one in the same — that the greater the capacity for violence the more power one possesses.

    To the contrary, Arendt boldly argues that power and violence have an inverse relationship. She writes that “it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where one rules absolutely, the other is absent.” Thus, she continues, violence enters the picture only “where power is in jeopardy.”

    It’s often argued that no one anticipated the fall of the Soviet Union, but Arendt may be one of the lone exceptions. As Jonathan Schell explained in “The Unconquerable World,” it was Arendt’s unique insights on violence that allowed her “to perceive that each time the Soviet Union used its tanks to crush a rebellion in Eastern Europe, it was diminishing its power, not increasing it, as most observers thought.”

    This was Arendt’s takeaway when the Soviet Union violently put down the rebellion in Hungary in 1956 and then, 12 years later, sent half a million troops to thwart the Prague Spring — a creative, nonviolent movement to liberalize communism in Czechoslovakia.

    “The head-on clash between Russian tanks and the entirely nonviolent resistance of the Czechoslovak people is a textbook case of a confrontation between violence and power in their pure states,” Arendt argued. And while it ultimately put down the challenge, the show of force revealed “the shrinking power of the Russian government.” It was, in effect, more a show of the loss of its influence and authority.

    There is some evidence that this dynamic was not lost on Soviet leaders, even at the time. János Kádár, who the Soviet Union chose to lead Hungary after the 1956 revolution, cautioned Moscow against a military invasion. “The morale of the communists will be reduced to zero,” he warned, and “the authority of the socialist countries will be eroded.” This prediction proved prescient.

    As Stefan Auer wrote on the 50th anniversary of Hungary’s uprising, the decades that followed “can be seen as being characterized by the ongoing, protracted crisis of legitimacy of the communist rule in central and eastern Europe.” The experiences in Hungary and Czechoslovakia also had a direct bearing on Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to not use the military in an attempt to reassert control when nonviolent movements erupted across Eastern Europe in 1989 — leading in short order to the disintegration of the entire Soviet Union.

    “While the Soviet Union still had the military capacity to prevent these developments from happening,” Auer writes, “its leaders no longer shared the conviction of their predecessors that their power could be maintained by violence.”

    This shift in thinking is clear in a 1988 memo to Gorbachev by Georgy Shakhnazarov, one of his closest aides, which said that “in the future, the prospect of ‘extinguishing’ crisis situations [in Eastern Europe] through military means must be completely ruled out.” In the end, Gorbachev agreed with this assessment, telling a Czech friend, “violence never provides a lasting solution.”

    With the Russian opposition calling for another protest on Aug. 3, Putin would be wise to learn from this history and heed Arendt’s prophetic warning. “To substitute violence for power can bring victory,” she writes, “but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power.”

    Climate activists set sights on ending fossil fuel exports in Pacific Northwest once and for all

    When federal regulators came to Southern Oregon in June for hearings on a massive gas export project, they were greeted by a grassroots resistance movement 15 years in the making. About 800 people attended a series of four hearings put on by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. Those speaking out against the gas project represented rural landowners, local governments, fisheries interests, tribal governments, and climate activist groups.

    “This project has brought people together from across the political spectrum,” said Rogue Climate campaigns director Allie Rosenbluth. “Whether people speak out against the threat of eminent domain or climate change, we all know it isn’t good for our communities. That’s why so many people have been coming out year after year for over a decade to oppose it.”

    Southern Oregon is one of the most important remaining battlegrounds for a movement that has defeated coal, oil and gas terminals up and down the Pacific Northwest Coast. The region is home to the proposed Jordan Cove LNG export terminal (LNG being short for liquefied natural gas) and the Pacific Connector pipeline that would connect to it. Together, they are among the last major Northwest fossil fuel export proposals still moving forward. With permitting processes for these related projects entering a critical phase, the resistance is ramping up for a decisive battle.

    The growing resistance that seeks to prevent the Northwest from becoming a major fossil fuel export zone is known informally as the Thin Green Line.

    The stakes are high both for the climate and locally impacted communities. The 229-mile-long Pacific Connector pipeline would span four counties and cut through hundreds of private landowners’ property, leading many rural residents to join hands with climate activists in fighting it. The pipeline would also cross land owned by the Klamath Tribes, which formally oppose the project because of impacts on the environment and ancient burial grounds. Other tribes whose ancestral territory would be affected — including the Yurok, Karuk, and Tolowa Dee-ni’ nations — have also spoken out.

    In a letter to FERC announcing the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Tribal Council’s opposition, Council chairperson Denise Richards-Padgett highlighted threats to the Rogue River headwaters, writing, “Water is a life source to the Tolowa people and the integrity of any water flowing into the Tribe’s aboriginal lands and territory may not be compromised.”

    The climate implications of liquefied natural gas have been another concern since the beginning. While natural gas is often touted as a lower-carbon alternative to coal, super-cooling and transporting it across the ocean in giant tankers adds significantly to its carbon footprint. A recent report from Oil Change International estimates all emissions associated with Jordan Cove LNG would amount to 15 times the carbon footprint of Oregon’s Boardman Coal Plant, currently the state’s biggest polluter.

    “This terminal and pipeline would create seismic climate justice, economic, ecological, health and safety problems well beyond the four directly impacted counties,” said Bonnie McKinlay, a volunteer with Stop Fracked Gas-PDX — a Portland-based group that organizes in solidarity with frontline communities affected by natural gas projects, including Jordan Cove.

    Previous Coverage
  • Big Coal faces big opposition in Pacific Northwest
  • Due in large part to its climate implications, Jordan Cove LNG has been a focus of climate activists throughout the Northwest since it was proposed 15 years ago. Over that time, the diverse coalition that came together to oppose it expanded and took on other fossil fuel projects, helping lay the foundation for a mass grassroots movement that has turned the entire Pacific Northwest region into a hub of anti-fossil fuel resistance. Yet, even as other fossil fuel export proposals were put forward and defeated, final victory over Jordan Cove has remained elusive. Now, activists hope they finally have an opportunity to end this 15-year fight conclusively.

    Paving the way for the Thin Green Line

    The origins of Jordan Cove LNG date back to 2004, when the U.S. energy landscape looked dramatically different from today. That year Colorado-based Energy Products Development LLC announced plans to build a liquefied natural gas import terminal on Coos Bay in Southern Oregon. The company submitted a notice of intent to the state, kicking off a permitting process that would drag on for years, as ownership of the project changed hands and its purpose switched from importing to exporting liquefied natural gas.

    Previous Coverage
  • The extraction backlash — how fossil fuel companies are aiding their own demise
  • At that time, the U.S. fracking boom and later dramatic growth of renewables had not yet transformed the economics of energy in this country. The United States was still a net fossil fuel importer, and Jordan Cove LNG was one of three projects proposed in Oregon by different companies to import super-cooled liquid gas from overseas before re-gasifying and sending it through pipelines to major U.S. energy markets — mainly in California.

    Early resistance to liquefied natural gas from the public confronted all three projects: Jordan Cove, Bradwood Landing LNG near Astoria, and Oregon LNG near Warrenton. In 2010, Bradwood became the first project to fold when its corporate backer, NothernStar Natural Gas Company, filed for bankruptcy and liquidated its assets. Bradwood LNG was partly a casualty of the fracking boom — which, by that time, had undermined the rationale for new gas imports. However, other effects of fracking would play out in the Pacific Northwest in ways much more sinister for the climate.

    A combination of low natural gas prices and grassroots opposition to coal led to a shift away from coal combustion and caused U.S. coal producers to eye overseas markets. At the same time, the unexpected glut of gas and oil from fracking put pressure on companies to export those fuels. Over the course of a few years, coal and oil export proposals popped up in port towns up and down the Oregon and Washington coasts. Around the same time, backers of both Oregon LNG and Jordan Cove LNG changed their proposed business models from importing to exporting natural gas.

    In an iconic protest against fossil fuel exports in July 2013, climate groups — including Rising Tide Portland and 350 Portland — dropped a massive banner from a bridge above the Columbia River reading “Coal, Oil, Gas: None Shall Pass.” It was something of a coming out moment for a new type of movement in the Pacific Northwest focused on opposing not just any one type of fossil fuel exports, but all of them.

    That growing resistance — which seeks to prevent the Northwest from becoming a major fossil fuel export zone — came to be known informally as the Thin Green Line. This movement had the benefit of being able to learn from the model for diverse coalition-building and grassroots organizing developed in the already years-old fight against liquefied natural gas.

    Resisting gas exports in the Trump era

    In order to break ground, Jordan Cove LNG — now owned by the Canada-based Pembina Pipeline Corporation — needs a series of permits from the state of Oregon, local governments and FERC. In 2012, when Jordan Cove officially switched to an export project, FERC vacated an earlier permit that hinged on being a gas importer. In 2016, FERC twice denied new applications from Jordan Cove LNG.

    It was almost unheard of for FERC — an agency notorious for rubber-stamping permits — to actually say no to a major fossil fuel project. But this was during the late months of the Obama administration, when high-profile protests against projects like the Dakota Access pipeline seemed to be causing the federal government to re-think its attitude toward new fossil fuel infrastructure. Then Donald Trump became president and everything changed again.

    In February 2017, under the new fossil fuel-friendly administration, FERC allowed a new permit application for Jordan Cove LNG to move forward. This initiated a new phase of permitting at both state and federal levels, as well as a new wave of grassroots resistance that reached a crescendo this summer.

    In January 2019, the Oregon Department of State Lands held public hearings in Southern Oregon and the capital city of Salem on a “remove and fill” permit Jordan Cove needs from the state to move forward. “Over 3,000 people showed up to the hearings,” Rosenbluth said. “Now we’re keeping pressure on Gov. Kate Brown. We believe it’s really critical that a governor who claims to be a climate champion reject projects like Jordan Cove.”

    While Brown has pushed climate bills in the state legislature and issued executive orders meant to curb Oregon’s carbon emissions, her stance on Jordan Cove LNG has been non-committal so far. “We’ve had folks showing up at her speeches, fundraisers and public appearances to confront her on this project,” Rosenbluth added. “We hope Gov. Brown stands with communities in Southern Oregon who’ve been asking her to stop Jordan Cove LNG for as long as she’s been in office.”

    Activists call on Gov. Brown to support clean energy and reject Jordan Cove LNG. (Bonnie McKinlay)

    Climate activists throughout Oregon are also doing their part to pressure the state and Brown, who plays a critical role in decisions about Jordan Cove — both as a member of the State Lands Board and the ultimate overseer of all state agencies. “We carpool to Salem for hearings and rallies at the State Lands Board office and the Capitol building,” McKinlay said. “We bird-dog elected officials with ‘We Want Clean Energy, Not Fracked Gas!’ signs. We collect signatures and comments and host comment-writing workshops.”

    While state permitting decisions move forward, FERC is engaging in a parallel review process — one that includes the June hearings in Southern Oregon.

    More than a dozen major proposed fossil fuel export projects have been abandoned. Almost none of the largest facilities have broken ground.

    Opponents of Northwest fossil fuel exports have had plenty of practice turning out to hearings over the last 15 years. Public hearings on coal, oil and LNG have attracted hundreds or thousands of people, with participation coming to seem like something of a civic duty for climate activists. An almost carnival-like atmosphere prevails at many such hearings where people from across large geographic areas come together for what feels like a celebration of the resistance to fossil fuels. The events often include lively rallies outside the hearing venue, public art installations and packed auditoriums where activists give verbal comments in front of hundreds of people.

    In an apparent effort to avoid such public spectacle, FERC chose a new format for its Jordan Cove hearings. Those who signed up to give comments were called one by one into a “private” hearing room to deliver their testimony to a single court reporter. But that didn’t stop activists from finding other ways to draw attention to their cause.

    “At each hearing, we held block parties outside while FERC took comments,” Rosenbluth said. “There was lots of music and art. Then we held a rally later in the evening so people could come after work. We were determined to make our voices heard.”

    A last stand for Northwest fossil fuel exports?

    More than a dozen major proposed fossil fuel export projects have been abandoned by their corporate backers or rejected by regulators in Oregon and Washington over the last 10 years. Almost none of the largest facilities have broken ground. A handful of projects remain, including a proposed gas-to-methanol plant in Kalama, Washington; an oil-by-rail facility expansion in Portland; a liquefied natural gas project proposed in Tacoma in 2014; and Jordan Cove LNG with its associated Pacific Connector Pipeline. The latter is by far the oldest of these surviving proposals.

    Despite fatigue from a decade-and-a-half-long fight, the big turnout at the recent FERC and Department of State Lands hearings shows that grassroots resistance to fossil fuel exports in the Pacific Northwest is as strong as ever. If and when Jordan Cove is defeated, the moment could be remembered as the point when the Thin Green Line beat back one of the last major attempts by the fossil fuel industry to use the Northwest as an export hub.

    “Right now this is the largest LNG proposal on the West Coast of the United States,” Rosenbluth said. “If we in the Northwest want to stop fossil fuel exports in our communities, this project must be stopped as well. This movement is building and if we continue to come together and find common ground, we can make sure there are no fossil fuel exports on our coast.”

    Leading Puerto Rican activists celebrate governor’s resignation, talk next steps

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    By all accounts, the shutdown of Puerto Rico’s industries, schools, government and business-as-usual on Monday was an unexpected show of popular sentiment against ruling Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. It was a true national strike, spreading from the capital in San Juan to all other major cities like Mayaguez, Ponce and Aguadilla.

    While Rosselló was resistant to the initial calls and protests demanding his immediate resignation last week — following leaks that revealed misogynist and homophobic remarks he had made in private — the embattled leader finally succumbed on Wednesday night, announcing that he would step down next Friday.

    Despite this success for half a million people who made Monday’s national strike possible, longtime Puerto Rican activists have been quick to assert that Rosselló’s resignation — and the fissures revealed by his blunders — will not easily be reconciled by minor reforms or proclamations.

    “In our history, I don’t think there has been a moment like this one,” noted 76-year-old Oscar Lopez Rivera, widely regarded as the elder statesman of the island. “Even before the governor announced his resignation, the fact is that he was not governing Puerto Rico.” 

    Lopez Rivera, who was called the “Mandela of the Americas” throughout Latin America during his more than 35 years behind bars for supporting independence, has been living and working in San Juan since winning clemency in 2017.

    “Many members of Rosselló’s own party, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party were not responding to him,” Lopez Rivera said. “The demands Puerto Ricans are making right now go beyond the call for his resignation: Puerto Ricans want the house of corruption, known as the legislature, to be cleaned out. They want the elimination of the Fiscal Control Board [created by the Obama administration to oversee the island’s economic affairs] and for the odious debt to be audited. Puerto Ricans want all public schools to remain public and those that were closed to be re-opened.”

    Women’s rights organizer Onelia Perez Rivera agreed that Rosselló’s resignation would not stop the momentum behind these struggles, noting “This protest movement isn’t headed by traditional leaders or by conventional left sectors. Young people are here, but also entire families have responded to the call with great creativity!”

    Perez Rivera, a leading force behind the long-standing empowerment association Centro Mujer Barranquitas, said that while she and other well-known progressive voices were consulted — due to their longstanding and respected critiques of the colonial and capitalist system that rules the island — it was the youth who made the protests happen. They were the originators, and their outrage was centered on a clear understanding that the people will not stand for the corruption and indignities of the past.

    “Even though we still may not know how to build the new society we want to freely live in, we are feeling it! And it feels good,” she said.

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    Campaign for Human Rights activist Luis Rosa echoed Perez Rivera’s sentiments, saying, “Rosselló’s resignation must be seen as a victory for the will of the people, a newly found or rediscovered victory of a new generation.”

    The former political prisoner — who was freed in 1999 after a massive international campaign — then offered some perspective: “Those seeking to replace Rosselló will promise a world of change, creating compacts with community base organizations and proposing everything right up to the border of revolutionary change. But the people are clear that the core of what we need are three basic things: decolonization, an end to our colonial status through a constitutional assembly; health care, free for all Puerto Rican citizens; and free public education up through the university level.”

    Rosa is calling for the creation of a far-reaching think tank that could script out a strategy for the work of achieving liberation. “Let us create projects that can take independence out of the realm of the abstract and intangible or unexplainable,” he said. “We are building something we can use to break the fear of change.”

    With a national general strike being arguably the greatest weapon an occupied and oppressed people can use to overthrow repressive regimes, Monday’s dramatic strike was not the only contemporary Puerto Rican demonstration numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Huge mobilizations have also taken place in response to the privatization and selling of Puerto Rico’s nationalized electric industry, U.S. military bombings of neighboring Vieques and the incarceration of Puerto Rican political prisoners.

    While the hyper-colonial nature of Puerto Rico’s specific relationship to the United States may lead the course of “regime change” down a convoluted path, there are few Americans who understand the intricacies of Puerto Rico’s current “free associated state” status. Even most progressive people are barely aware that the U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico began with direct marine intervention in 1898, and that the U.S. military still occupies choice lands throughout the archipelago.

    What’s more, Puerto Ricans have been drafted to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces and sent disproportionately to the front lines of U.S. wars — despite the fact that they cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections, have no representation in Congress, and face harsh and extreme repression when they exercise rights that may contradict the wishes of Washington, D.C. As recently as June 24, the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization noted that “political insubordination” on the part of the colonial United States “impedes Puerto Rico’s ability to tackle its serious economic and social problems.”

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    It is therefore not difficult to sympathize with Oscar Lopez Rivera in his assertion that those who took part in the strike — led in large part by young women — understood that “they were the majority” and that, by shouting for an end to the ways things have been, “they were decolonizing themselves.”

    According to Lopez Rivera, Puerto Ricans are calling for “a total transformation towards a free and independent nation. And what we are witnessing is a movement that can’t be stopped.” Ultimately, he concluded, “Puerto Rico will be the nation it has the potential of becoming.”

    Can a podcast show us how to change our hearts and minds?

    Stephanie Lepp has long been fascinated by the question, “How do we change our hearts and minds?” As an artist, Lepp seeks to inspire transformative self-reflection. Her most recent endeavor is a podcast called “Reckonings,” which challenges the audience to listen to — and develop empathy for — people who have done or participated in terrible things, from sexual abuse to white supremacy.

    In “Reckonings,” Lepp records hour-long stories, told firsthand, of people who have undergone a dramatic transformation of their behavior or beliefs. One episode features a former health insurance executive who left the industry after learning of a young girl who died after being denied life-saving treatment. In another, two people share their experiences with sexual abuse in the Catholic Church: one, a woman abused by a nun when she was a girl; the other, a priest who abused young boys.

    In some cases, these episodes create a space in which a transformative encounter takes place between two people. One of the most powerful stories is told by two people named Anwen and Sameer. Each person shares their perspective on an experience they had together as freshmen in college, when Sameer sexually assaulted Anwen after a party. They talked about going through a restorative justice process together at their university and the profound, transformative process of “reckoning” with each other through this experience.

    In this clip from episode 21, Lepp asks Anwen and Sameer if restorative justice is too lenient.

    In our interview, Lepp offered her reflections on how a process of “reckoning” holds up a mirror, asking listeners to examine their own assumptions about how far they can stretch their empathy. Lepp highlights the wider need as a society to reckon with perpetrators in a way that allows people to grow and change, particularly in the case of public figures who have committed sexual assault.

    What compelled you to start asking this question of “How do we change our hearts and minds?”

    “Reckonings” producer Stephanie Lepp.

    Throughout college and into my early professional life, I was involved in various social issues and social change — and the question always came up for me: Am I changing anyone’s mind? Am I actually influencing anyone? Whether on climate change, mandatory minimum sentencing — whatever I was focusing on at the time. And this begged the question, how do people actually change their hearts and minds?

    That question became a fascination of mine. I started trying to research it, but I didn’t even know what research terms to look up. “World view transformation?” Is that even a thing? Behavioral economics came to mind, but I wasn’t trying to figure out what makes people floss their teeth more often. I want to know what moves people in really fundamental ways.

    So I had been sitting with this question for many years, and I finally realized it could be really powerful to explore this within the context of stories of people who have made these kinds of transformative changes as a podcast. A couple years ago, I launched “Reckonings” to explore this question of how people change and, more specifically, how do people change in ways that connect to broader social or political change?

    Telling stories in this way creates a space for the apology, or the reckoning, to take place. It’s not as compelling if it’s a soundbite or a tweet. Hearing the entire story is what helps answer the most burning question, which is the question of why. Why did you do that? We don’t know why unless we go back and hear where this person came from and what got them there. And audio is a really intimate medium. It just allows you as the listener to connect the story to yourself and reflect on your own life.

    Anwen and Sameer’s story has had this really tangible impact, with some high schools now using that episode to teach young people about sexual assault. What are some of the other ripple effects you have seen from these stories?

    Episodes have a life of their own. I hear from teachers who share the episodes in their classrooms, but of course I also hear from people who have personal relationships with the issue. One person who reached out to me had flirted with white supremacy at a young age and responded to [an episode about a former neo-Nazi] in thinking back to that time. It sounded like he hadn’t fully processed what attracted him to that in the first place, and the episode inspired him to do that further.

    With Anwen and Sameer, a lot of what I wanted to do was put a model out there for other young men. We don’t know what it sounds like, for the most part, for men to take responsibility for sexual abuse of power. Men don’t necessarily know what to say or how to approach something like this. I wanted to put a model out there of Sameer, who does skillfully and graciously take responsibility. I hope that this stands as an example that men can learn from.

    Another clip from episode 21, where Sameer explains his transformation.

    I can also say that part of what I want to do with the show is to inspire reckonings in real time. I want to help create a place where Al Franken and Mark Zuckerberg can go to confront some things in a public way, and where we make room for them to do that; where Joe Biden can clean up his history with Anita Hill, and where we let him learn and grow and change in public.

    That makes “Reckonings” less of a podcast and more of a place in our public sphere where we make room for our public figures to take a look in the mirror and grow from what they see. Imagine what it would have been like if something like that existed when Brett Kavanaugh came along. I see it as a real missed opportunity of leadership. But it’s not just him, it’s also a question of whether there was space in our public sphere for that kind of growth and change in public. Would he have done something differently? Maybe. We should at least make that space so we can make more room for ourselves to grow.

    When you first started this podcast, did you intend for it to be playing into the public conversation in this way, or has it transformed since you stared it?

    It’s definitely evolved since I started it. Initially, it was the fascination with how people change, but it’s not all kinds of change. It’s not just left-to-right or right-to-left, it’s just conscious evolution. And as I understood the kind of change I was interested in, how people learn and grow, I made the connection to what that would mean in our public sphere. Even just the term flip-flopper — we have such a thing about people changing. And yet I hope my representatives continue to change and grow. Certainly there are changes that can be considered flip-flops if you’re just doing it for short-term political gain, but there’s a difference between a flip-flop and evolution. And may we all continue to evolve, including in public.

    But I do think specifically the #MeToo movement has a particular resonance with the public sphere, because it’s a conversation we’re having right now in public. If Anwen and Sameer’s story was what we were hearing on NPR or seeing on CNN — or even on FOX News — I think we would be having a refreshingly different conversation around #MeToo.

    How does the notion of restorative justice explored in “Reckonings” allow us to bring a wider range of people into our movements for social change?

    As an operating philosophy, the goal should be to bring everyone in to be part of the solution and the evolution. I do believe none of us are free until all of us are free, so you have to free us all — including the tyrant. The tyrant does need to be liberated.

    A clip from episode 23, where a woman named Susan explains why she forgave the nun who abused her.

    But restorative justice is not mutually exclusive with traditional criminal justice. People who commit offenses should be served their due consequences. And yet, just because you’re sitting in jail doesn’t mean you can’t work to repair the harm you caused. You can be part of the solution.

    I might not have compassion for what someone did, I might not be able to relate or might recoil at the things people have done, but every time I interview someone, I have been able to relate to or understand or have compassion for why they did it.

    Will the real Gene Sharp please step forward?

    In a recent interview with Jacobin, lawyer and political activist Marcie Smith expands on an essay she wrote earlier this year calling Gene Sharp — the late founder of nonviolent theory — “one of the most important Cold War defense intellectuals the U.S. has produced.” Unfortunately, the interview, much like her essay, miss him by a mile.

    To be fair, I’ll admit that Gene — a mentor and friend from when we were both young adults — was not an easy guy to figure out. Both his role and his project puzzled many. Peace studies academics expected him to join them, but couldn’t understand his obsession with conflict and the fact that he hardly mentioned peace. Pacifists knew he’d been in prison for refusing military conscription, but were puzzled by his reluctance to identify with them. And while he was a trained sociologist who researched social movements, that wasn’t the right niche for him either.

    Previous Coverage
  • Gene Sharp — the lonely scholar who became a nonviolent warrior
  • Nevertheless, Sharp made a global impact on political movements — something Marcie Smith knows and understands. But she didn’t know him personally, and she makes a guess about the role he chose. There’s no suggestion that she interviewed his colleagues, who are easily available — and that got me wondering why Jacobin would turn to her as an authority on him.

    Smith assigns him the role of a public intellectual, then criticizes him for not doing what he “should” have done: jumped into the arena of left politics and acted like a movement thought leader. With a tone of accusation she demands, “What is your affirmative program? What are your ideas about how the economy should be organized and are they historically informed?”

    Was Sharp a ‘Cold War intellectual?’

    Smith calls Sharp a Cold Warrior, lining him up with Harvard’s Thomas Schelling, who consulted with the Department of Defense. Her evidence is that nonviolent struggle was used to hasten the unraveling of the Soviet empire. While that is true, nonviolent struggle has also been used to overthrow regimes that were part of the U.S. empire — most notably the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. Additionally, Sharp’s advances in nonviolent theory have been used by Palestinians in their revolt against the occupation of U.S. ally Israel.

    Because Smith doesn’t understand the role Sharp actually played, she gets confused about the nature of his project, which was to amplify the power of nonviolent struggle for whoever chooses to try it instead of using violence. Some groups did choose civil resistance instead of armed struggle to elude the grasp of Russia. Others chose it to abolish apartheid in U.S.-allied South Africa. It is available for all.

    Believing it is actually leaders of movements who need to devise a specific strategy, Sharp tried to be helpful by explaining how the technique of nonviolent struggle works, when it does.

    As someone who detested violence, Sharp believed that political actors should know about an alternative way to fight their battles that didn’t bring the terrible suffering of war.

    A real Cold Warrior would give his weaponry to one side and deny it to the other. He would keep it secret and, in that way, make it all the more powerful. Sharp, of course, prodigiously published his work, translated it into many languages and media, and encouraged everyone else to do the same.

    My own fight with Sharp over the question of strategy

    Referring to Sharp’s conceptualization of nonviolent struggle, Smith demands, “Has this strategy been developed with any awareness of the reality of class struggle?”

    For one thing, Sharp did not offer a “strategy.” Believing it is actually leaders of movements who need to devise a specific strategy, he tried to be helpful by explaining how the technique of nonviolent struggle works, when it does. It was on the leaders to create strategy for their people and circumstance.

    If Smith actually understood his role she would see why Sharp didn’t write about the topic of class struggle even though he researched labor and peasant struggles relentlessly and his three-volume masterwork is chock full of them. His purpose was simply other than Smith’s — he wanted to learn about working people’s choice to differ sometimes from the conventional wisdom that to become powerful it is necessary to be violent. Those working people who chose nonviolent struggle were (and are) innovators, something that was of abiding interest to Sharp.

    Previous Coverage
  • How ‘Strategy for a Living Revolution’ came to life
  • In the early ‘70s, we had quite a passionate argument when I published a book with the title “Strategy for a Living Revolution.” [Now available under the title “Toward a Living Revolution.”] It was sponsored by an academic think tank and introduced important new concepts like “the dilemma action.” It was also full of evidence-based knowledge that supported a revolution in our country.

    Because Sharp had mentored me for so long, I was upset that he wasn’t pleased. Finally, though, he got through to me a subtle but important distinction that had to do with my being known in academia as a nonviolent researcher. He worried that the then-fledgling field of nonviolent theory wouldn’t get the space it needed to develop if it got distracted by books that wrapped nonviolent studies into the author’s radical politics.

    Sharp deliberately chose not to become a political leader. It makes no sense to criticize his not acting like one.

    Sharp wanted to develop theory focused on a technique of struggle, free of my book’s questions of “Which side are you on?” If he could prevent his theoretical work from getting “captured” by any one political stance, he reasoned, theory would develop more fully and become more useful to diverse movements with a variety of goals.

    While I doubted that my book was dangerous in that way — since it wasn’t polemical, and I believed our new field was not that fragile — I came to understand Sharp a little better. He saw himself as a scientist building theory that would lend itself to applications that others could figure out how to use in their contexts. He wanted me to continue theory-building with him.

    Of course Sharp had opinions of his own regarding political issues. Some of these showed up in his writing. For starters, he loved democracy, self-determination and power from below — so he judged negatively the Soviet model and its variations, along with the variety of imperialisms. Nevertheless, Sharp deliberately chose not to become a political leader. It makes no sense to criticize his not acting like one.

    Who, then, was he?

    The best metaphor I can think of is to imagine a botanist who, as a young man, discovers that the jungles of the world are a fantastic resource for human health and survival. Even though jungles may be out of sight and out of mind for city-dwellers, he becomes fascinated with how much he’s finding that was previously not known.

    Almost none of his peer botanists “get it” — they are busy with research in known varieties of plants and possibilities of hybrids. But our lonely botanist plugs away, exploring distant jungles and making finds that dramatically extend what has been known. He sees he needs to make a taxonomy of his own, then finds it steadily growing.

    Sharp gave himself the (probably hopeless) task of asking people to identify conflict behaviors like botanists identify plants, asking about their characteristics and function rather than their worthiness.

    Bit by bit his published work gets known and medicines are made from the “new” plants. Major money gets made, but he doesn’t see it, busy exploring a yet more distant part of the jungle. He is learning about jungle ecology and daring to guess its larger contribution.

    Finally, our botanist’s lifetime achievement coincides with a new urban consciousness of need. The planet is about to choke itself to death from carbon overload. The botanist celebrates the awakening realization even in the cities that jungles are the lungs of the world.

    Civilization will never look at jungles the same way again. The botanist’s hunch has led to a paradigm change.

    Is ‘nonviolent’ Sharp’s god-term?

    In casting Sharp as a political thought leader, Smith makes a common error: imagining him offering us moral guidance, as political leaders do, defining “nonviolent action” as an ethical term rather than simply behavioral.

    Sharp gave himself the (probably hopeless) task of asking people to identify conflict behaviors like botanists identify plants, asking about their characteristics and function rather than their worthiness. His taxonomy invites us to put aside our rush to moral judgment for a moment in order to agree that when we see a group of people moving back and forth repeatedly in front of a store, we’re seeing “picketing” and that it’s a method of “nonviolent action.”

    White people have picketed to support racial segregation; in our field we still call their method “nonviolent action,” even though morally deplorable. Making definitions that make such observations possible is what sociologists do.

    It is possible to make such observations with reasonable accuracy — something we found at Swarthmore College, where Sharp’s taxonomy is used for the Global Nonviolent Action Database. Because of the database’s operational need for a description, we used a variation of Sharp’s definition of “violence,” again emphasizing observable phenomena.

    While knowing there are linguistic difficulties lingering under the surface, we found it easy to get agreement on observations among student researchers, and since definition is about communication, agreement among observers is the bottom line.

    For Marcie Smith, on the other hand, definitions based on observable behaviors is not the bottom line — morally-based political judgments are. (She projects Sharp, after all, as a political leader.) The taxonomy is not a useful sociological device for her. Instead, she sees it as a dramatic reveal of just how subtly Sharp plays his role as a neoliberal Cold Warrior.

    In just a few words, what can I say? For many of us leftist anti-imperialist revolutionaries, Sharp’s taxonomy works just fine, and we understand it is there for good reasons of scholarship.

    Is Sharp’s theory anti-state?

    “In Sharp’s schema, the state is not something to contest for, the state is not something to try to take over. It is something to dissolve and destroy.” This assertion of Smith’s actually contradicts her view of Sharp as Cold Warrior — since Cold Warriors very much wanted to support the security of their state.

    That being said, I happen to agree with Smith’s concern about overthrowing dictatorships with no preparation for the aftermath. In fact, that concern was a major motivation for my 1973 book on revolution. In those pages, I pointed out that precise deficiency, citing some of the spontaneous nonviolent insurrections that had occurred years earlier. I also offered a model of stages through which a grassroots revolutionary movement could prepare, so it could enter the power vacuum it generated already having a new political and economic order “good to go.”

    Smith’s “anti-state” assertion actually flies in the face of a significant part of Sharp’s work. At Sharp’s invitation I participated in the 1964 Civilian Defense International Study Conference at Oxford University. I was surrounded by people on very friendly terms with their national governments, including the famous Captain B.H. Liddell-Hart, who made his living consulting with ministries of defense.

    Yes, Sharp influenced politics in the world. We cannot rightly evaluate him, though, until we understand him, his choice of role and his life project.

    There were also activist-academics like me present. What drew us together was the idea of applying nonviolent struggle to the problem of national defense. We commonly assumed that, in case of an aggression by another nation, it would be the state that led the people in a nonviolent defense, as had happened after World War I when French and Belgian troops invaded Germany and the German state led the nonviolent resistance.

    Sharp continued to develop civilian-based defense, or CBD, for years — even consulting with Baltic and other governments that were investigating that policy for their own defense. Neutral Sweden and Austria did incorporate some elements of CBD into their planning. Later in his career he published a book called “The Anti-Coup,” which was meant to help states use nonviolent means to defend themselves. All of this contradicts Smith’s assertion that Sharp was keen to undermine all state authority.

    Where does her charge come from? A close reading suggests a fear that people power might prevail over the military power of a state she supports. If governments she supports do get overthrown nonviolently, she’s clearly ready to lay that at Sharp’s door, even though people have been nonviolently resisting governments long before anyone ever heard of him.

    It’s certainly her privilege to have opinions about, say, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, Venezuela’s Maduro and others who over the years are subjects of debate among us on the left. Some, for example, may deplore much about a government and still consider it the lesser-of-two-evils, the greater evil being domination by an imperialist power.

    Marcie Smith wants to force Sharp to weigh in on such questions, teasing out inferences from his writings, but he was interested in quite a different question: “If the people decide to overthrow their government, would you want them to consider using nonviolent direct action to do it?” Sharp said two things about that question for as long as I knew him: While it wasn’t his job to tell people whether they should change their government, it was his job to develop a sound theory — so that they could create a nonviolent strategy, if that was their desire.

    Yes, Sharp influenced politics in the world. We cannot rightly evaluate him, though, until we understand him, his choice of role and his life project.

    His choices were both modest and bold. He was modest about telling people what to do — that’s why Smith’s picture of him is so off the mark. His boldness was in daring to find and assemble nonviolent tools that empowered others, whatever their decision, to act.

    Professors and students unite to oppose cuts to Lebanon’s only public university

    Over the last month and a half, a strike by faculty and student-led sit-ins and demonstrations against austerity measures effectively shut down Lebanese University, Lebanon’s only public university. 

    Regular protests — drawing hundreds of students, faculty members and organizations from different schools, cities and political affiliations — took place in downtown Beirut. 

    On June 18, students, joined by supporters from independent clubs, demonstrated in front of the Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Learning, marching from there to the headquarters of the League of Lebanese University Full Time Professors, a state-led organization in a neighborhood south of Beirut.

    The demonstrations stood in support for the professors’ right to strike. Teachers and supporting students held banners with slogans such as “We oppose paying the price of Lebanese University’s corruption.”

    Not backing down

    A statement issued by Lebanese University president Fouad Ayoub on June 19 warned professors against continuing their strike. In addition, the statement limited professors’ travel during the school year, telling them that they need “special permission” to travel and that it will be approved only in “special cases.”

    The statement said all deans and managers should “take all academic measures to facilitate the resumption of instruction” and requested that the names of professors who decide to continue protesting be recorded. 

    This prompted another round of student-faculty demonstrations over the course of the week in front of the university’s central administration building. 

    Classes resumed June 20 following a decision to end the strike — something numerous leaders from the government and university administration had been demanding — at a meeting of the League of Lebanese University Full-Time Professors.

    However, two days later, professors in Lebanese University’s general assembly council voted overwhelmingly to continue their six-week strike. They were joined by scores of student supporters, cheering the results of the vote.

    One professor, Bassel Saleh, who is an activist and advocate for teachers’ rights, recognized the importance of the vote in building power among staff. “We must strengthen our victories by building an independent free trade union movement within the Lebanese University,” he said. 

    After the mounting pressure — from the more than six-week strike, coupled with the success of the teachers’ vote to continue the strike — the Education Minister Akram Cheyhab promised to address the teachers’ demands on June 28. University administrators are currently scrambling to make concessions, however, it is still uncertain whether their demands will be met. 

    Tired of austerity

    Professors went on strike on May 6 in opposition to the Lebanese government’s 2019 draft budget, which proposed major wage cuts to those working in the public sector. Submitted to Prime Minister Saad Hariri in April, it was finalized by the Lebanese cabinet in late May. It was an effort by the government to follow through on promises to the international community, which agreed to loan Lebanon $11 billion last year if it could fix its growing deficit and pass a budget.

    However, there is widespread concern that the measures in the budget target public sector employment and services. They would threaten professor’s wages, raise the minimum years of public sector service needed for retirement from 20 to 25, impose a tax on pensions, and lower the number of full-time hires. Lebanon’s political establishment is widely regarded as highly corrupt, with public money and loan dollars systematically ending up in the pockets of the establishment.

    Professors are accustomed to being among the hardest-hit victims of austerity measures. Lebanon’s public education sector is already dangerously underfunded, only receiving around two percent of GDP. The annual budget of the university, which has an estimated 80,000 students, is just $250 million. 

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    Opposition to the draft budget’s austerity measures spans sectors, with public-sector employees all across Lebanon also striking against austerity and the threats the budget poses to their wages and benefits. 

    Despite the education minister’s promises, members of parliament have held off on making an agreement to exempt teachers from the requirement to serve 25 years to retire in the draft budget, and cancelling the teacher exemption on income taxes on pensions.

    Student-faculty solidarity

    The strikes have impacted students, who have had to indefinitely put their studies on hold. Nevertheless, many students have stood in support of their teachers, recognizing their shared struggle.

    “People in charge want to put the professors against the students to make it look like the students are their last concern,” said Zeinab, a student at Lebanese University who has participated in the demonstrations and chose to not disclose her last name. “It’s not right. When [the administration] wanted to raise the tuition the professors refused [the proposal] because students would not be able to pay the amount.”

    Ultimately, students, who are affected by missed travel plans, cancelled summer opportunities and strenuous summer make-up semesters, also demanded the resumption of classes. Yet, they insist this must not come at the expense of professors.

    “Every time there is a strike, of course, as students we demand that the university opens up and resumes sessions,” Zeinab said. “We do demonstrations, we set up camp in front of the university and sleep there. But of course, we and the [professors] are on the same page. They should have their rights.”

    Pushing forward

    Despite voting to continue the strike, teachers have put a pause on their action, pressured by the negative effects they have on students. Lessons will continue into the summer to make up for missed coursework. As the teachers protests have scaled down, student voices remain persistent.

    The Lebanese University Student Union, an independent student group formed early on in the teacher strikes, plans to continue mobilizing, by demonstrating in front of the Education Ministry and regularly posting updates on the status of the university. 

    A June 29 post by the student union called for protests every Monday, yet few have decided to heed this week’s call for massive demonstrations. However, student activists are continuing to push for solutions and decent conditions for students and faculty. 

    The group plans to join with students and faculty in negotiations over what the “post-strike phase” of their struggle will look like. While their demands have yet to be met, the strikes did demonstrate the success public sector professors have had in breaking away from sectarian party politics. 

    While their demands have yet to be met, their struggle is not lost. The striking professors have decisively broken away from sectarian party politics — and students and public sector workers are expected to continue confronting the effects of austerity on their professions.

    How movements can use drama to seize the public imagination

    Drama is useful in getting attention for our issues. The Sunrise Movement is only one of the recent movements that grew by seizing the public imagination through drama. How do activists come up with direct action tactics that reach, in author Jonathan Smucker’s useful phrase, “beyond the choir”?

    Here we’re entering the realm of creativity. Television shows relying on drama create writers’ rooms where a group of creative people swap ideas and generate options. Activists who expect wonderful ideas to emerge during a large meeting in a dreary church basement after a long workday may not be setting themselves up for success. Kibitzing with creative friends in a bar after the meeting might work better.

    Creativity can also be an individual thing. A great idea may come in the shower, while walking along the river, in a worshipping community, while staring out of the window after reading about other actions. One friend of mine likes to scan in a relaxed way Gene Sharp’s list of almost two hundred nonviolent methods.

    Drama feeds on uncertain outcomes

    While it’s true that a clash with others, including authorities, is an invitation to drama, a conflict can easily be a dud through repetition. Consider the period after the Battle of Seattle in 1999, when a mass of global justice advocates brought the meeting of the World Trade Organization to a premature close. The word went out: Gather at a spot where powerholders meet, generate chaos and get publicity for your cause. The clashes happened at political conventions and elsewhere. While they were exciting for many participants and sometimes got local coverage, the outcomes often turned out to be predictable. The result: little attention for the issue.

    Previous Coverage
  • 3 ways Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats are changing what is winnable
  • When the Sunrise Movement’s young people occupied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in November no one could know what would happen, Sunrise spokesperson Stephen O’Hanlon told me. Sunrise demanded she support the Green New Deal. The big question, however, was: Would she meet that demand, or at least support the formation of a select committee? (Ultimately, she did allow a select committee on the climate crisis.)

    Other questions emerged: Would she have them arrested? (In the end, she did not.) Would the Green New Deal attract an enormous buzz? (When all was said and done, it received such enormous mainstream media attention that early opinion polls showed majority grassroots support from Republicans as well as Democrats.)

    What worked was the suspense built into the action.

    Stakes can be life or death

    Even a small group can sometimes use this dynamic on a large scale. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson, the “peace candidate” in the 1964 election, escalated the Vietnam war. At that time the wider public had only a dim awareness of where Vietnam was and how that small country might be suffering. In fact, the Vietnamese experienced a bombing campaign that was more massive than that unleashed on all of Europe by the allies during World War II.

    In 1966 Ohio Quaker Horace Champney had an idea for an action, just when the new organization A Quaker Action Group, or AQAG, was looking for one. Horace proposed to put the federal government in a dilemma by trying to take medical supplies to North Vietnamese civilians suffering under the bombing.

    Americans support disaster relief, but didn’t realize that in Vietnam our taxes were paying for the disaster instead of the relief. Creating drama by attempting to bring relief might shift public opinion. True, the government did justify the bombing by painting North Vietnam as the enemy, but Quakers were widely seen as “good guys,” maybe naïve yet sometimes on the right side of history.

    AQAG — of which I was a member — decided that a sailing ship physically attempting to bring medical supplies might show the war in a new light, opening new doors to the growing peace movement. That would be our strategic objective.

    AQAG co-chair George Willoughby knew that a sailing ship “takes the time it takes” to get somewhere, producing a continual drumroll and building suspense. In 1958, he’d sailed on the Golden Rule toward the Pacific’s nuclear testing zone for the Committee for Nonviolent Action. The voyage reaped wide attention, helping build the successful campaign against nuclear testing in the atmosphere.

    In 1966, almost 10 years after George’s voyage, Earle Reynolds offered his ketch-rigged sailing ship Phoenix for AQAG’s project. What would make this voyage dramatic was that no one could predict what would happen. U.S. destroyers and aircraft carriers occupied the South China Sea, blockading North Vietnam.

    Could the Phoenix sail through the U.S. Seventh Fleet? Would the United States stop the ship and crew in Hiroshima or Hong Kong, our departure points? Would it seize the Phoenix on the high seas? Would it stage an “accident” such that the Phoenix was mysteriously lost?

    We needed a crew whose members realized they might not return. Crew member Betty Boardman recounts in her book “The Phoenix Trip” the moment when a U.S. jet did in fact dive at them, pulling out of its dive only a short distance from the main mast.

    The crew of the first Phoenix voyage to North Vietnam to deliver medical supplies. Left to right: Phil Drath, Betty Boardman, Earle Reynolds, Akie Reynolds, Bob Eaton, Horace Champney, Ivan Massar. (Swarthmore College)

    I’ll never forget our meeting in Washington with officials from the Departments of State, Treasury and Defense. We knew we were already surveilled and the feds knew what we were planning, but we liked the assertiveness of our seeking a meeting — the better to tell them to their faces.

    In that meeting they threatened us with multiple consequences, such as seizing our bank account, fining us and arresting the crew. As it turned out, however, the three federal departments couldn’t themselves agree on what to do with the Phoenix.

    Instead, they kicked the decision upstairs to the White House. There it was decided to allow the Phoenix to get to Haiphong harbor in North Vietnam, and National Security Advisor Walt Rostow was assigned the task of making sure that the Phoenix remained safe.

    I learned more about that decision later. While making a cross-country speaking tour I was confronted by an angry Navy pilot. The buzz-cut, heavily muscled young man stopped me before I could enter the Midwest campus chapel where I was to speak.

    “I was a pilot on the aircraft carrier near you guys on the Phoenix,” he said, mistaking me for a crew member for that voyage. (I was actually on a later crew, for the voyage to South Vietnam with aid for the anti-war Buddhists.)

    The upset young man continued by saying, “We were scheduled to fly that day for a training exercise. We were laying bets with each other about which one of us would sink your boat. Then, just when we were getting ready to take off, there was a command on the loud speaker cancelling the exercise. They said the command came directly from the White House.”

    This man was still angry at having missed his chance, and saw me as one of the betrayers of his country. I invited him into the chapel to join the meeting, telling him I’d give him a chance to say his piece. Surprised, he hesitated, then abruptly turned and left.

    The Phoenix voyage to North Vietnam was widely reported on nightly TV news, newspapers and magazines. On return to the United States, crew members were in demand as doors swung open in religious institutions and civic groups. Middle America was waking up to what was going on.

    Today’s campaigns for the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and other bold proposals will increase their chances by organizing more nonviolent direct actions to grow their movements. Such campaigns need tactics that break through in the media, clear messages delivered by disruptive actions that build suspense — endings not easily predicted.

    Slowing down to build greater suspense

    As the ‘60s wore on, liberals who supported the empire began to describe the Vietnam war as a “tragic mistake,” implying that mass destruction in Vietnam was unique. Larry Scott, AQAG’s lead organizer, suggested we counter these opinion leaders by exposing the U.S. investment in biological warfare, grisly weapons intended for mass destruction.

    Almost no one knew, for example, that the Edgewood Arsenal in Northern Maryland was actually stockpiling anthrax.

    In 1970, AQAG launched a walk from the Capitol steps in Washington, D.C. to Edgewood, about 60 miles. The walkers carried seedlings and young pine trees, symbols of the U.S. colonial struggle, as well as life and ecological sanity.

    To increase uncertainty, they said they would try to plant the trees on the grounds of the Arsenal in order to confront death with life and expose the hidden reality.

    The drumroll started at the steps of the Capitol, then increased each day as the walkers stopped at multiple points and explained what they were doing and why.

    The media asked the commander of the Arsenal: would the Arsenal allow the pine trees to be planted there? It was a classic dilemma action, because the commander was damned if he allowed the plantings, and damned if he didn’t. (Side note: I invented the concept “dilemma demonstration” for my book “Toward a Living Revolution.” Many writers have since picked up the concept.)

    The numbers in the walk grew along with the publicity. The walkers were in no hurry. Discussion grew in the media: What is actually going on at Edgewood?

    Finally, the walkers arrived with the commander refusing permission to plant the trees on Arsenal grounds. The walkers proceeded to try to plant the trees, and arrests were made one day after another. By the end of a week, 29 campaigners and even several pine trees were arrested.

    Finally, unable to tolerate the growing heat, the commander told the media, “We’ll accept the tree as a tree.”

    That’s when the Baltimore Evening Sun editorialized, “The wonder is that it took Edgewood a week of confrontations with peace marchers, 29 arrests, endless humiliating pictures of husky [military police] glaring at the offensive seedlings to get the point. The point is that, if rival symbols were to be juggled, the tree had them licked before they started. In symbol language, when the tree said life, all Edgewood could say back was death, no matter how daintily it picked its phrases.”

    Many activists now understand that clear messaging and unusual and colorful actions are a plus when growing a campaign. A third element adds still more to an action’s power: the uncertainty of outcome. If we simply rush into the streets in a traffic blockade, everyone knows what’s going to happen and media coverage focuses on how disruptive we can be instead of our message. With creativity, we may design actions that build drama through presenting a dilemma to the target and over time maintain suspense about the outcome.

    America is as hard to find as ever

    America is easy to find at 35,000 feet, folded into a window seat on a six hour flight across the country. Our vast and conflicted country is all spread out below in neat crosshatches of green and brown, broken up by puffy cloud formations and snowy mountain peaks. Beside me, was an eight-year old and his mother who screen-burned their way through the flight. Missing it all, they embodied the kind of America that makes my head hurt.

    I picked up Kathleen Alcott’s new novel “America Was Hard to Find” after putting down The New York Times. I had stared at the cover photograph of little Valeria and her father Oscar drowned and face down in the Rio Grande River, until my eyes and heart were weary from crying. I looked as long as I could, another facet of America’s hard face, so easy to find. Valeria and Oscar’s arduous, brave journey from their home in El Salvador was cut short by the unpredictable waters and our hateful national politics.

    Even before I opened it, I took issue with Alcott’s imposition of the past tense on Dan Berrigan’s persistent present-ness. I’m glad that didn’t stop me completely, because Alcott tells a very American story about the passivity of the wealthy and the frantic search for the self, for meaning — any meaning. She demonstrates how few real answers emerge from our messy, secular, individualistic culture; America is so hard to find.

    The central relationship in the novel is between a woman named Fay Fern and her son, Wright. Fleeing a privileged upbringing, Fay and her sister Charlie strike out for the desert to run a bar for the flyboys at a Nevada air base. Erudite and impetuous, Fay falls for an older man, a taciturn pilot named Vincent Kahn. He is married. Their relationship is short, intense and ends when he leaves Nevada to train to be an astronaut. He leaves Fay pregnant. She bears a son and her sister names him Wright. Kahn later becomes the first man to land on the moon.

    A single mother supported by her wealthy but isolated parents, Fay is attracted to social movements. She moves with her son to Ecuador, to work among the poor. She meets Randy, a Vietnam veteran so sickened by his experiences of war that he shoots off his finger to get discharged. He then commits himself to ending the war.

    Did you know that Ralph Abernathy protested the Apollo 11 launch as a criminal waste of resources?

    After the successful moon landing, the astronauts head off on an international goodwill tour. Fay, Randy and their friends protest the Quito parade with signs like “We Will Not Be Distracted By Your Spectacle” and throw dead fish and rotten tomatoes at the astronauts in their convertible. Wright, hoping they were in Quito for a birthday party, notices how clean and precise the astronauts are, “a paean to a kind of manhood he knew nothing about.” The boy, eight or so years old, wanted to “climb into their laps.”

    Randy comes to the fevered conclusion that they are not doing enough, “no more protests, not more slogans on paper. If our government continues to destroy, then we must destroy the government.” Fay, Randy and Wright return to the United States, two of them intent on doing just that, one too young to make any other choice.

    Alcott tells of the Vietnam War, the gaping economic disparities, and the rigid racial barriers of 1950s and 1960s American life with vivid energy. The closed society of the nuclear community in the desert, the politics of the race to the moon, the scientific accomplishment’s agitprop momentum are all here too, with unfamiliar and exciting details.

    The moon landing is rendered a test of wills between two of the astronauts. Nixon’s anodyne message of internationalism falls flat in the ears of Vincent Kahn, the first man to step on the moon. He puts a baby sock, bought before his wife’s miscarriage, and other totems beneath a rock at the edge of a moon crater and observes that “The flag, when they unfurled it, seemed foriegn to him, sad and irrelevant in the way of outdated technology. The pole they meant to plant wouldn’t, the surface being too fine and shallow, the surface obdurate and he held up the Stars and Stripes while Rusty made insistent, varied jabs. That it finally caught at all was vaguely disappointing, a concession to them he wasn’t sure they deserved.”

    Did you know that Ralph Abernathy protested the Apollo 11 launch as a criminal waste of resources? I didn’t. Alcott evokes the real life tension between the race to the moon and the quest for racial justice and civil rights in her novel and it led me to the July 15, 1969 exchange between Southern Christian Leadership Council president Ralph Abernathy and NASA director Tom Paine. Abernathy tells Paine, “We may go on from this day to Mars and to Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond but as long as racism, poverty and hunger and war prevail on the Earth we as a civilized nation have failed.” America is hard to find, even when you can see it from space.

    Fay, Randy and Wright join Shelter, a Weathermen-like group of violent provocateurs. Their involvement in bank bombings, robberies and other acts of violence mean constant motion and no schooling for young Wright. Fay becomes a leader, her upper-class poise a chameleon quality that gets her where others of the unkempt, ill-fed Shelter denizens cannot go. Their actions destroy property but not lives. They debate and rage and swap sexual partners, while 11 or 12-year-old Wright reads books, tries to feed himself and avoid the more damaged members of Shelter. But then they cross that line too, planning to plant a bomb at a ball for military officers returning from Vietnam and their wives.

    In the midst of this, a version of Dan Berrigan enters, unnamed but described as “a priest imprisoned for burning draft cards, a man with a face so long and noble that his pacifist message seemed painted on it.” This man writes to the group, worried that they “had become what they wanted to eradicate.” He asks, “Shouldn’t a revolution differ vastly, in action and feeling, from the forces it hopes to dismantle.” They meet this genuine query, this invitation to dialogue, with derision. And then they died. The bomb they were building for the ball blew up in their safehouse instead and three people died. This happens in the novel and in real life. On March 6, 1970, on 11th Street in Manhattan, the Weathermen’s nail bomb exploded prematurely, killing three and inflicting serious injury on two more people.

    Fay is on the run again, wanted by every authority and cut off from all surviving Shelter members. She drags Wright with her in a desperate cross-country journey. He is old enough to rebel, to resist, to hate her at times. As she plans one last action, she explains to Wright in a breathy, speechey way that he has long recognized as obdurate and inarguable: “America has to see what it has done to its future.” He responds: “who are you talking to? Who do you think is recording this right now? … We are two people in a very bad hotel room in Georgia and I’m not its future. I’m just your son and that I’d gladly give up.”

    As I look for an America, worthy of all those starry, soaring songs, Langston Hughes’ rejoinder, “America was never America to me” keeps coming back to me.

    And he does. He has to. Because Fay’s next action changes everything. Wright then lives out the rest of his fractured childhood in the care of his grandparents — strange, shamed people in their own unmappable, unfindable America.

    Thankfully, Alcott’s story does not end there and there are new chapters to Wright’s life as a young adult in San Francisco, free and independent. He waits tables, makes friends, builds a found family and discovers himself as a gay man. His terrible past is uncomfortably buried, but he is finally not alone in that. The mothers and fathers of all his friends and lovers are similarly loved and hated and pined for from afar.

    They watch TV and Wright observes, “there was no one like them in the commercials for small cellophane candies, antidotes to migraines, juice so fresh it jumped from the glass and clothing so clean it shined. There was pride in this, that their lives were unmappable, irreducible, existing under the known American fabric. But also fear, like some nightmare in which the mirrors when you pass by them are empty.”

    But this is the 1980s and as he writes long, late night drunken letters to the famous, hermitted Vincent Kahn, his unknown father who he uncannily resembles, his friends and lovers start dying and his roommate gets political. And the boy who watched his mother turn to flame and then ash in a political statement cannot march and chant. Wright thinks there is not “enough of him that he could add his voice to an angry cause and not give himself over to it, now become that sound.” His fear of loosening his conscience and losing himself is so massive that it breaks his relationship with his best friend. It is repaired. America is still lost, but some wholeness is found.

    But back to the long-faced priest for a minute, because Dan Berrigan’s real letter to the real Weathermen is collected in the real book that he authored “America is Hard to Find.” And as I look for an America, the America, worthy of all those starry, soaring songs, Langston Hughes’ rejoinder, “America was never America to me” keeps coming back to me.

    In “Letter to the Weathermen,” Dan calls out their whiteness and privilege, their choice of violence and contrasts it to how the Black Panthers and the Puerto Ricans and the Vietnamese are rejecting of victimhood and adopting a posture of self defense. He offers his brothers and sisters in the Weather Underground a simple rule of thumb, “the revolution will be no better and no more truthful and not more populist and no more attractive than those who brought it into being. Which is to say, we are not killers … we are something different. We are teachers of the people who have come on a new vision of things. We struggle to embody that vision — day after day, to make it a reality among those we live with so that people are literally disarmed by knowing us.” He sent this just a few days before he was apprehended on Block Island and arrested, ending his own time underground.

    In a beautiful, poignant remembrance shortly after his death in May 2016, Weather Underground leader Bernardine Dohrn recalls this moment and writes that her group “responded with a much less eloquent ‘communiqué’ to ‘Brother Dan,’ just after he was arrested in 1970. ‘We watched you, Dan, on TV when they took you to jail, smiling and with hands raised, handcuffed, giving the sign of peace. You have refused the corruption of your generation.’” That might not be eloquent, but it is the truth for sure; America was not hard to find for Dan Berrigan.

    And it’s not for Alcott either, who finds America. She puts it under a microscope and pulls us close to see all its refracted contradictions — the staggering beauty and the rapacious violence. Her characters, her Americas, are all lost and damaged and so alive you can hear them breath and seethe between her pages. So, we end where Alcott began, with a slightly fuller evocation of “America is Hard to Find.” As Dan wrote (and it is best read aloud):

    “Dear friends, I choose to be a jail bird (one species is flourishing) in the kingdom of fowlers
    Like strawberries
    Like good bread
    Swans herons great lakes
    I shall shortly be hard to find
    An exotic uneasy inmate of the nationally endowed inescapable zoo
    Remember me I am
    Free at large untameable
    Not really
    As hard to find as America.”

    The problem with saying movements must be ‘totally nonviolent’ to succeed

    It can be hard to criticize a movement elder who has been a friend and mentor to you, whether you do it in private or in public. Yet, I need to make a public criticism of the late nonviolent organizer and strategist Bill Moyer. His classic 2001 book “Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements” continues to reach new audiences — thanks, in part, to an educational initiative by my organization, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

    Over the past six months, we have translated Bill’s book into seven different languages — including Arabic and Brazilian Portuguese, which are now available as free downloads. Nevertheless, while working on this initiative, I worried about releasing them without going public with my longstanding disagreement with Bill over the way he framed the issue of nonviolent discipline. Despite his well-meaning attempt at discouraging movement violence, I believe his approach is not only inaccurate, but also disempowering and defeatist.

    Given the increase of civil resistance movements around the world — such as the ongoing struggle in Sudan — and the fact that international activists frequently have to make tough strategic decisions about nonviolent discipline and violent flanks, I think it is time to end my silence.

    What’s good about Moyer’s MAP

    As a member of the U.S. nonviolent revolutionary activist network Movement for a New Society in the 1970s, I was among the first people to benefit from Bill’s workshops, where his Movement Action Plan, or MAP, first came into being. It continued to evolve over the years, through Bill’s further study and reflection, his experience offering training workshops to over 25,000 people around the world and the various printed versions of his strategic framework for organizing effective social movements. When I founded Antioch University New England’s activist-training program in 2001, I assigned Bill’s “Doing Democracy” every year in my class on “Organizing Social Movements and Campaigns.”

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  • What role were you born to play in social change?
  • This book provided my students with more “aha” moments per page than any other I assigned. In it, Bill shares his most important strategic lessons learned in over 40 years of nonviolent movement-building experience with Martin Luther King and others. They include his thinking on helpful and unhelpful theories of power, the four roles of effective activism, the eight stages of successful social movements and developing a realistic view of movement impact unclouded by a socially-indoctrinated sense of powerlessness.

    One of Moyer’s insights that my students found particularly valuable was his warning to avoid becoming what he called a “negative rebel.” Such rebels are activists who are often fired up and well-meaning, but also unstrategic or immature. While social movements often need rebellious direct action campaigns to win, their success can also be compromised by negative rebels riddled with such personal limitations as despair, powerlessness, vanguardism, disdain for ordinary people, extreme radicalism, and quickness to denounce others based on ideology — or an unwillingness to cooperate well with others who may disagree with them. Some negative rebels also focus on individual/small sect expressions of violent protest rather than on an effective approach to building multicultural, multi-class majority support for meaningful reforms and victories.

    As noted by Moyer, these ineffective rebels too often “alienate not only the people who aren’t involved in a social movement, but most movement activists as well — even though they need both groups to achieve their stated goals.” Indeed, he points out that negative rebels “can be so damaging that power holders even hire infiltrators to play the negative rebel in an effort to subvert movements.” While noting negative rebels may be sincere in their hopes for social change, he argues, “These disruptive, angry, radical activists who vehemently and militantly call for revolutionary change through any means necessary — disruption of meetings, property damage, battle with police, or [attempts at] the violent overthrow of authorities and the establishment — perform the same function as agents provocateurs.”

    This is an important insight. Today, the best available evidence strongly suggests that civil resistance movements with a high degree of popular participation and nonviolent discipline will have significantly higher success rates than movements either focused on armed struggle, or mixed campaigns with spotty nonviolent discipline and/or organized violent flanks. This suggests that whatever we can do to help our movements maintain courageous nonviolent persistence, as well as increase recruitment and outreach, is an important part of success.

    What Moyer gets wrong

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  • ‘Violent flank effects’ and the strategic naiveté of Antifa
  • My objection is that Moyer does not always frame this insight in the most helpful way. Every 20 pages or so, Bill adds a comment like, “Social movements need to be totally nonviolent to be successful.” The inexperienced activists in my organizing classes sometimes took this as gospel, but it is just not true. While there are still some gray areas, significant data points to the conclusion that nonviolent discipline significantly increases a movement’s chances of increasing mass participation, limiting repression, attaining victory, and consolidating democratic gains. Yet, some movements still succeed in spite of some violence.

    The successful ANC-led struggle against apartheid in South Africa is a good example. At its most effective, this movement included a primary reliance on popular unarmed civil resistance, both domestically and internationally. At the same time, it included a small and disciplined armed military force that harassed South African troops occasionally, but mostly engaged in industrial sabotage. Today, some ANC organizers admit that the violent component of their movement did not make a meaningful contribution to its success and was at times even counter-productive. This was still not enough of a problem to keep the anti-apartheid movement from succeeding.

    More importantly, though, Bill’s claim can be disempowering to any inexperienced activists who believe him. If you think a movement can only be successful if it is “totally nonviolent,” you are likely to give up whenever there is a riot, or angry protesters engage in street fights with police, or a small sector of the movement organizes an ongoing violent flank. Any movement violence ends any chance of success, right? Therefore, if you can’t control every single person in a movement, success is hopeless. You might as well give up. This unrealistic attitude is very likely to reduce a movement’s success!

    To be as effective as we can be, we need to stay in the game even when we face power-holder repression or when people sympathetic to our movement, or agents provocateurs, engage in political violence. I think Gene Sharp deals with this challenge better than Moyer in his book “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” where he argues that limited violence within in a movement should not be reason to abandon nonviolent political defiance. Instead, it is “necessary to separate the violent action as far as possible from the nonviolent action. This should be done in terms of geography, population groups, timing and issues. Otherwise, the violence could have a disastrous effect on the potentially much more powerful and successful use of political defiance.”

    Respectfully challenging elders and mentors is worth it

    About six weeks before Moyer died of cancer in 2002, he and I were sitting together on a park bench having one of our many great political discussions. That afternoon, I worked up my courage and made my case to Bill that he was being misleading and disempowering when he said that movements need to be “totally nonviolent” to succeed.

    Previous Coverage
  • ‘Doing Democracy’ follow-up puts the emphasis on finding common ground
  • We went back and forth in an animated conversation. After a while, he paused, and then he agreed with me. He explained that he had exaggerated in his book because it is so important for a movement not to become captured by the “negative rebels” in its midst.

    We ended our conversation by agreeing that the closer our civil resistance movements can get to the ideal of 100 percent nonviolent discipline, the greater the probability of success. Yet, we also agreed that exaggerating this important strategic goal by claiming that a movement must be “totally nonviolent” in order to succeed is just not a helpful way to get there.

    LGBTQ movement trailblazers honored at Stonewall Inn

    Fifty years ago, on a street emptying onto New York’s busy 7th Avenue, the harassed and fed-up patrons of a popular bar called the Stonewall Inn spilled out onto the street, giving birth to the modern LGBTQ liberation and human rights movement. Not unlike similar movements, the spark which ignited that set off the rioting, direct action, and ultimately annual celebratory parades was police brutality.

    NYPD harassment of gay bars and hang out spots was nothing new, but something shifted that night as angry patrons began to evade or escape from police custody and fight back. Maybe it was the influence of the increasingly militant black freedom struggle and emerging feminist movement. Some suggest the inspiration grew out of grief around the drug overdose death of Judy Garland several days before. But maybe the mobilizations, now referred to as the “Stonewall Riots,” took place because many in the crowd felt that there was nothing left to lose.

    Police force people back outside the Stonewall Inn as tensions escalate the morning of June 28, 1969. (Wikipedia)

    As Stonewall veteran “instigator,” Andy Warhol model and beloved drag queen Marsha P. Thompson, in a phrase today being used as headline to the Brooklyn Museum’s official Stonewall 50th special exhibition, commented: “Nobody promised you tomorrow.” People were going to have to take history into their own hands.

    Fifty years later, many activists complain that the commemorations and Gay Pride parades that have become features in every major city throughout the world have become too corporate, commercialized and institutionalized. Perhaps the perfect symbol of official acceptance is the space just outside the still-operating Stonewall Inn, now a monument maintained by the National Park Service.

    On the eve of the 50th anniversary, however, the scene inside the bar was as political as ever. The National LGBTQ Task Force partnered with one of the oldest, most respected and largest LGBTQ organizations — the International Imperial Court — to host the official dedication and unveiling ceremony of the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor, a permanent tribute to pioneers and trailblazers of the movement.

    Keirra Johnson, center, with Mandy Carter (right), and Toni Atkins (left), California State Senate President pro tem. (WNV/Matt Meyer)

    Task Force deputy executive director Kierra Johnson passionately noted the need to keep the focus on campaigns and action, linking with environmental, women’s rights and other movements. “Stonewall was not just the birth of the LGBTQ movement,” Johnson asserted. “It was a re-birth of the feminist movement. It was a rebirth of the civil rights movement.”

    The Wall, spotlighting 50 inspiring LGBTQ figures, includes well-known writers and poets such as James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, June Jordan and Adrienne Rich. Artist Keith Haring and organizer Bayard Rustin are also featured alongside less recognizable bridge-builders.

    Stuart Milk (center), president of the Harvey Milk Foundation, with president of the Imperial Court of New York Coco LaChine (left) and Toni Atkins (left). (Twitter/Sen. Toni Atkins)

    All 50 individuals are now deceased, but many were represented at the dedication by family members and close colleagues. Assassinated politician Harvey Milk was spoken for by his nephew Stuart Milk, president of the Harvey Milk Foundation and himself an outspoken global leader for LGBTQ rights.

    Matthew Shepard’s parents outside the Stonewall Inn. (Twitter/Matthew Shepard Foundation)

    The parents of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old college student from Wyoming who was beaten to death in 1998, were present for the ceremony and extremely well-received. “Straight and gay are boring,” proclaimed father Dennis Shepard. “We are all just humans … you just dress better than we do!” Shepard noted, to the mostly LBGTQ audience.

    WRL activist Mandy Carter with International Imperial Court System Chair Queen Mother Empress Nicole Murray-Ramirez, and San Diego’s human rights commissioner. (WNV/Matt Meyer)

    The final presenter at the dedication, described as “an icon of the struggle” by International Imperial Court System Queen Mother Empress Nicole Murray-Ramirez, was nonviolent activist and War Resisters League leader Mandy Carter of Durham, North Carolina. Also celebrating the 50th anniversary of when she first became a paid organizer for the West Coast office of the WRL, Carter reminded the gathering of the two necessary qualities for a life of working for justice and peace: “resistance and resilience.” Carter is now embarking on a year-long, North Carolina-wide voter registration initiative with Southerners on New Ground, which she helped form 27 years ago.

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    The roots of a movement based on resistance and mass organizing could be felt throughout the Wall dedication, by the speeches, the spirit, but also by the bar’s own history. A “Raided Premises” posting from the 1969 NYPD is prominently displayed on a wall to remind folks of how far we’ve come. It was therefore more than fitting that Mandy Carter closed the Stonewall Inn dedication with a chant popularized by the New Poor People’s Campaign and Moral Mondays Movement: “Forward together, not one step back!”

    ‘Red State Revolt’ offers an inside look at the recent wave of teacher strikes

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    West Virginia teachers, who stunned the nation with their historic 2018 strike, staged a two-day walkout in February and are continuing to battle their Republican-dominated state government this summer. While the immediate issues this time are legislators’ attempts to introduce charter schools and impose stiffer penalties on strikers, the need for greater public funding of education remains the core of the struggle.

    In the new book “Red State Revolt,” author Eric Blanc describes the origins of this strike and the wave of subsequent strikes it ignited across the country by giving a play-by-play account of the action — offering lessons that apply to future strikes, as well as other kinds of nonviolent action.  

    Blanc was well placed to observe the strikes. Sent to cover them by Jacobin magazine, his approach could be described as a participant observer — in that he not only wrote about the strikes, but also helped organize national solidarity actions. As a former high school teacher himself, he became a trusted confidant, interviewing service personnel, students, union staffers, and various officials to get their take.

    Despite admitting to an “unabashedly partisan account,” Blanc insists that he “tried to remain scrupulously committed to the facts” and expects that no one will fully agree with his conclusions. Overall, it is clear from his approach that Blanc is more interested in showing the effectiveness of certain strategies and tactics — as well as explaining the relevance of the strikes to broader political issues — than in promoting the account of any individual or group.

    The backdrop

    West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona were unlikely candidates for state-wide strikes in 2018. All three are so-called right-to-work states, meaning that non-union workers do not pay fees to unions for representing them in collective bargaining. What’s more, all three states are dominated by conservative Republican legislators and governors, which support laws that make it illegal — as it is in most states — for teachers to go on strike. Given this environment, teachers’ unions have long been cautious, when it comes to bargaining for pay, benefits and improved working conditions.

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  • Labor organizer Jane McAlevey on why strikes are the only way out of our current crisis
  • This non-militant, “service” model of unions emerged as a result of deindustrialization, the immensely damaging outcome of the air traffic controllers strike of the early 1980s, and the closer association of unions with reformist advocacy groups, as well as the centrist Democratic party.

    Nationwide, long-term declines in education budgets have also led to lower teacher salaries — relative to the cost of living — plus increased class sizes, outdated textbooks and an overall greater difficulty in delivering the quality education they seek for their students. For example, one in five teachers has a second job and many are forced to purchase instructional materials for their classrooms.

    Enter the militant minority

    After years of relative passivity and accumulating grievances, it took a militant group of teachers in West Virginia with a “class struggle orientation” to organize their colleagues and prepare to strike. These teachers traced their activism back to the Bernie Sanders primary campaign of 2016, which spurred the founding of several Democratic Socialists of America chapters. Teachers from some of these chapters started to think seriously about taking collective action after forming a study group during the summer of 2017 to teach themselves about labor activism.

    When the new school year started, these teachers were ready to organize their colleagues around the state. Helping matters along was the state’s announcement that dues would be increased for the public employees’ health insurance plan and that teachers would be required to wear invasive body monitoring devices. The militants created a Facebook page to widen discussions among teachers and other public sector workers. From there, momentum built steadily, as the teachers organized and engaged in actions of increasing size and risk in order to build greater support. When the time for the strike came, 80 percent of the state’s teachers voted to walk out.

    The pivotal moment in the West Virginia strike occurred about halfway through the nine-day labor stoppage, when the official teachers’ unions announced an agreement with the state legislature and governor. In short, because it had failed to solve the health insurance funding issue and they were not asked to vote on it, the teachers decided to publicly oppose the agreement and continue the strike. Gathering at the capitol in Charlestown, they chanted “Fix it now,” “Back to the table” and “We are the union bosses,” asserting their voice over that of the three established unions.

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  • How free lunch and daycare are bolstering the Oklahoma teachers’ walkout
  • Spurred by the success in West Virginia, militant teachers in Oklahoma and Arizona were able to spark major actions in a matter of weeks. In Oklahoma, there was huge energy, with massive strikes taking place at the state capitol for days on end. However, there was relatively little teacher-to-teacher organizing within the schools. Instead, self-appointed leaders managing a teachers’ Facebook page were at the center of much of the communication, and there was little democratic decision-making.

    In the end, despite winning average pay increases of $6,000 per teacher and modest new funding for education, the Oklahoma teachers strike dissolved after the union called on teachers to go back to work. The problem, according to Blanc, was that Oklahoma’s teachers were “insufficiently organized to overcome the hesitancy of their union leaders” in contrast to West Virginia, where the teachers went “wildcat,” taking it upon themselves to continue the strike without the union’s blessing.

    The Arizona case was similar to that of West Virginia. A militant group of teachers understood the importance of face-to-face organizing and had liaisons in nearly every school. For Blanc, one of the most impressive aspects of the Arizona strike was that it occurred in the most difficult environment: a very conservative, anti-union state with a government beholden to the Charles Koch Institute and American Legislative Exchange Council.

    As in the other two states, Arizona militants set up a Facebook page that quickly became very popular. But, in contrast to Oklahoma, key organizers in Arizona recognized that it was critical to build from the base and made sure they had enough organizational strength to call for a strike. They also established a consultative process that encouraged input from below in decision making through what was called a “site liaison network.”

    What the strikes won

    In all three states, teachers won significant pay increases — some immediate, others to kick in later. They also won increased funding for schools and students, although those increases were small compared to the budget cuts of the past decade. A big issue in all states, still largely unresolved, is how to pay for the increased education funding.

    Beyond the specific gains by teachers and schools, however, the strikes established a foundation for further union building. Blanc quotes teachers who talked about how their participation in the intense struggle gave them a new sense of personal efficacy and collective power. As one Arizona teacher noted, “Rallying at the capitol was one of the few moments in my lifetime where I felt I stood exactly where one ought to — it was unequivocally purposeful, courageous and joyful.”

    Blanc’s overall assessment of the strikes is multi-layered. Although the immediate gains for teachers, other public sector workers, and people living in those three states were meaningful, they were by no means transformative because they did not disrupt overall power relations. While further struggles are needed to defend and entrench their gains, he argues the teachers’ movements — on a broader level — amounted to a “frontal challenge to austerity and neoliberalism.” Blanc thinks they also appear to clearly portend “a dramatic increase in working-class consciousness and organization, setting the stage for the conquest of further victories in the months and years ahead.”

    Lessons learned

    The red state revolts took place in settings different from standard labor action, where workers join unions and then engage in struggle through those unions. In the 2018 cases, unions were constrained because they could not legally call for strikes. In addition — like many unions these days — they were focused on member services, rather than fights with the bosses. That meant it was largely up to the teachers to do the hard work of organizing their colleagues and preparing for strikes. The unions did provide important logistical and financial support, which teachers recognized as crucial to their ultimate success. But the strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, were ultimately led by the teachers themselves. Teachers in other states — including Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia — also took it upon themselves to mount one-day walkouts.

    Not being able to organize within a formal union structure was a definite challenge, seen most clearly in Oklahoma, where the lack of grassroots organizing amounted to a significant weakness that ultimately led to the strike’s collapse. In contrast, in the 2012 Chicago strike and the Los Angeles strike of early 2019, all organizing was done within the union framework and benefited from union largesse, as well as an experienced, militant leadership. These more typical cases took years to develop, whereas the red state revolts built within a matter of weeks.

    Another notable difference between these two types of teacher strikes, was the role of social media in the red state revolts. Despite his initial skepticism about Facebook, Blanc ultimately concluded that without it the teachers would not have been able to organize so quickly. That being said, Facebook organizing was something of a shortcut, particularly in Oklahoma, where teachers saw what happened in West Virginia and believed that they could do the same thing using Facebook and word of mouth.

    In the end, they did indeed prove that advanced communications tools, along with very strong grievances, were enough to pull off a massive strike that actually sustained itself for several days. But that structure was built on a weak foundation that ultimately led to dissolution. The general lesson for organizers should be that social media provides excellent tools for dialogue and communications, but cannot replace the hard organizing work and democratic decision-making infrastructure necessary for a lasting social movement.  

    It is also significant that teachers are particularly well-placed to engage in strikes. Although they cannot disrupt the economy directly the way industrial workers can, they are still able to upend daily life. Students need to go to school, where low-income kids are fed one or two meals a day, and parents need to go to their full-time jobs. To use the leverage of disruption effectively, teachers have realized that they must stay on the side of their students and their communities.

    Everywhere teachers strike, they clearly articulate the objective of helping students achieve their educational goals. They also work assiduously to deliver food to students and organize temporary daycare centers in order to minimize the disruption to low-income families. In all three states, there was overwhelming support from the community, which understood all too well the deteriorating state of their schools and implicitly trusted the teachers from day one.

    This support insulated the teachers from government repression. Although state officials threatened teachers before the strikes, there was little they could do when such overwhelming numbers walked out. Blanc quotes various officials saying they knew that if they were to arrest teachers or coerce them with threats of fines, they would face a huge backlash that would only strengthen the teachers’ political standing and resolve. For their part, the teachers understood early on that if they walked out in large numbers, there was nothing the authorities could do.

    The strikes can also be seen as confirming key elements of nonviolent direct action. Teachers in West Virginia and Arizona carefully studied their strengths and weaknesses relative to their opponents in the state governments. That understanding was used to build their movements deliberately, ensuring accountability and important aspects of democratic decision making. The teachers recognized and empowered their allies — their kids and their kids’ families — and were adept at communicating their goals to society in general.

    Finally, the teachers realized the importance of building solid structures from the ground up. Yet, events moved so quickly that there were limits to how far those communications channels and self-help networks could be institutionalized.

    While “Red State Revolt” was about the teacher strikes of 2018, it tells the story of what, in essence, were progressive social movements resisting the politics of austerity imposed by hard-line conservative forces. For activists seeking to build progressive power, whether through labor activism or by organizing racial and economic justice coalitions, “Red State Revolt” is full of helpful practical and theoretical insights.

    The antiwar movement no one can see

    This story was first published by Tom Dispatch.

    When Donald Trump entered the Oval Office in January 2017, Americans took to the streets all across the country to protest their instantly endangered rights. Conspicuously absent from the newfound civic engagement, despite more than a decade and a half of this country’s fruitless, destructive wars across the Greater Middle East and northern Africa, was antiwar sentiment, much less an actual movement.

    Those like me working against America’s seemingly endless wars wondered why the subject merited so little discussion, attention, or protest. Was it because the still-spreading war on terror remained shrouded in government secrecy? Was the lack of media coverage about what America was doing overseas to blame? Or was it simply that most Americans didn’t care about what was happening past the water’s edge? If you had asked me two years ago, I would have chosen “all of the above.” Now, I’m not so sure.

    After the enormous demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the antiwar movement disappeared almost as suddenly as it began, with some even openly declaring it dead. Critics noted the long-term absence of significant protests against those wars, a lack of political will in Congress to deal with them, and ultimately, apathy on matters of war and peace when compared to issues like health care, gun control, or recently even climate change.

    The pessimists have been right to point out that none of the plethora of marches on Washington since Donald Trump was elected have had even a secondary focus on America’s fruitless wars. They’re certainly right to question why Congress, with the constitutional duty to declare war, has until recently allowed both presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump to wage war as they wished without even consulting them. They’re right to feel nervous when a national poll shows that more Americans think we’re fighting a war in Iran (we’re not) than a war in Somalia (we are).

    But here’s what I’ve been wondering recently: What if there’s an antiwar movement growing right under our noses and we just haven’t noticed? What if we don’t see it, in part, because it doesn’t look like any antiwar movement we’ve even imagined?

    If a movement is only a movement when people fill the streets, then maybe the critics are right. It might also be fair to say, however, that protest marches do not always a movement make. Movements are defined by their ability to challenge the status quo and, right now, that’s what might be beginning to happen when it comes to America’s wars.

    What if it’s Parkland students condemning American imperialism or groups fighting the Muslim Ban that are also fighting the war on terror? It’s veterans not only trying to take on the wars they fought in, but putting themselves on the front lines of the gun controlclimate change, and police brutality debates. It’s Congress passing the first War Powers Resolution in almost 50 years. It’s Democratic presidential candidates signing a pledge to end America’s endless wars.

    For the last decade and a half, Americans — and their elected representatives — looked at our endless wars and essentially shrugged. In 2019, however, an antiwar movement seems to be brewing. It just doesn’t look like the ones that some remember from the Vietnam era and others from the pre-invasion-of-Iraq moment. Instead, it’s a movement that’s being woven into just about every other issue that Americans are fighting for right now — which is exactly why it might actually work.

    A Veteran’s Antiwar Movement in the Making?

    During the Vietnam War of the 1960s and early 1970s, protests began with religious groups and peace organizations morally opposed to war. As that conflict intensified, however, students began to join the movement, then civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. got involved, then war veterans who had witnessed the horror firsthand stepped in — until, with a seemingly constant storm of protest in the streets, Washington eventually withdrew from Indochina.

    You might look at the lack of public outrage now, or perhaps the exhaustion of having been outraged and nothing changing, and think an antiwar movement doesn’t exist. Certainly, there’s nothing like the active one that fought against America’s involvement in Vietnam for so long and so persistently. Yet it’s important to notice that, among some of the very same groups (like veterans, students, and even politicians) that fought against that war, a healthy skepticism about America’s 21st-century wars, the Pentagon, the military industrial complex, and even the very idea of American exceptionalism is finally on the rise — or so the polls tell us.

    Right after the midterms last year, an organization named Foundation for Liberty and American Greatness reported mournfully that younger Americans were “turning on the country and forgetting its ideals,” with nearly half believing that this country isn’t “great” and many eyeing the U.S. flag as “a sign of intolerance and hatred.” With millennials and Generation Z rapidly becoming the largest voting bloc in America for the next 20 years, their priorities are taking center stage. When it comes to foreign policy and war, as it happens, they’re quite different from the generations that preceded them. According to the Chicago Council of Global Affairs,

    “Each successor generation is less likely than the previous to prioritize maintaining superior military power worldwide as a goal of U.S. foreign policy, to see U.S. military superiority as a very effective way of achieving U.S. foreign policy goals, and to support expanding defense spending. At the same time, support for international cooperation and free trade remains high across the generations. In fact, younger Americans are more inclined to support cooperative approaches to U.S. foreign policy and more likely to feel favorably towards trade and globalization.”

    Although marches are the most public way to protest, another striking but understated way is simply not to engage with the systems one doesn’t agree with. For instance, the vast majority of today’s teenagers aren’t at all interested in joining the all-volunteer military. Last year, for the first time since the height of the Iraq war 13 years ago, the Army fell thousands of troops short of its recruiting goals. That trend was emphasized in a 2017 Department of Defense poll that found only 14 percent of respondents ages 16 to 24 said it was likely they’d serve in the military in the coming years. This has the Army so worried that it has been refocusing its recruitment efforts on creating an entirely new strategy aimed specifically at Generation Z.

    In addition, we’re finally seeing what happens when soldiers from America’s post-9/11 wars come home infused with a sense of hopelessness in relation to those conflicts. These days, significant numbers of young veterans have been returning disillusioned and ready to lobby Congress against wars they once, however unknowingly, bought into. Look no farther than a new left-right alliance between two influential veterans groups, VoteVets and Concerned Veterans for America, to stop those forever wars. Their campaign, aimed specifically at getting Congress to weigh in on issues of war and peace, is emblematic of what may be a diverse potential movement coming together to oppose America’s conflicts. Another veterans group, Common Defense, is similarly asking politicians to sign a pledge to end those wars. In just a couple of months, they’ve gotten on board 10 congressional sponsors, including freshmen heavyweights in the House of Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.

    Members of Common Defense with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Twitter/Common Defense)

    And this may just be the tip of a growing antiwar iceberg. A misconception about movement-building is that everyone is there for the same reason, however broadly defined. That’s often not the case and sometimes it’s possible that you’re in a movement and don’t even know it. If, for instance, I asked a room full of climate change activists whether they also considered themselves part of an antiwar movement, I can imagine the denials I’d get. And yet, whether they know it or not, sooner or later fighting climate change will mean taking on the Pentagon’s global footprint, too.

    Think about it: not only is the U.S. military the world’s largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels but, according to a new report from Brown University’s Costs of War Project, between 2001 and 2017, it released more than 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (400 million of which were related to the war on terror). That’s equivalent to the emissions of 257 million passenger cars, more than double the number currently on the road in the United States.

    A Growing Antiwar Movement in Congress

    One way to sense the growth of antiwar sentiment in this country is to look not at the empty streets or even at veterans organizations or recruitment polls, but at Congress. After all, one indicator of a successful movement, however incipient, is its power to influence and change those making the decisions in Washington. Since Donald Trump was elected, the most visible evidence of growing antiwar sentiment is the way America’s congressional policymakers have increasingly become engaged with issues of war and peace. Politicians, after all, tend to follow the voters and, right now, growing numbers of them seem to be following rising antiwar sentiment back home into an expanding set of debates about war and peace in the age of Trump.

    In campaign season 2016, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, political scientist Elizabeth Saunders wondered whether foreign policy would play a significant role in the presidential election. “Not likely,” she concluded. “Voters do not pay much attention to foreign policy.” And at the time, she was on to something. For instance, Senator Bernie Sanders, then competing for the Democratic presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton, didn’t even prepare stock answers to basic national security questions, choosing instead, if asked at all, to quickly pivot back to more familiar topics. In a debate with Clinton, for instance, he was asked whether he would keep troops in Afghanistan to deal with the growing success of the Taliban. In his answer, he skipped Afghanistan entirely, while warning only vaguely against a “quagmire” in Iraq and Syria.

    Heading for 2020, Sanders is once again competing for the nomination, but instead of shying away from foreign policy, starting in 2017, he became the face of what could be a new American way of thinking when it comes to how we see our role in the world.

    In February 2018, Sanders also became the first senator to risk introducing a war powers resolution to end American support for the brutal Saudi-led war in Yemen. In April 2019, with the sponsorship of other senators added to his, the bill ultimately passed the House and the Senate in an extremely rare showing of bipartisanship, only to be vetoed by President Trump. That such a bill might pass the House, no less a still-Republican Senate, even if not by a veto-proof majority, would have been unthinkable in 2016. So much has changed since the last election that support for the Yemen resolution has now become what Tara Golshan at Vox termed “a litmus test of the Democratic Party’s progressive shift on foreign policy.”

    Nor, strikingly enough, is Sanders the only Democratic presidential candidate now running on what is essentially an antiwar platform. One of the main aspects of Elizabeth Warren’s foreign policy plan, for instance, is to “seriously review the country’s military commitments overseas, and that includes bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq.” Entrepreneur Andrew Yang and former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel have joined Sanders and Warren in signing a pledge to end America’s forever wars if elected. Beto O’Rourke has called for the repeal of Congress’s 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force that presidents have cited ever since whenever they’ve sent American forces into battle. Marianne Williamson, one of the many (unlikely) Democratic candidates seeking the nomination, has even proposed a plan to transform America’s “wartime economy into a peace-time economy, repurposing the tremendous talents and infrastructure of [America’s] military industrial complex … to the work of promoting life instead of death.”

    And for the first time ever, three veterans of America’s post-9/11 wars — Seth Moulton and Tulsi Gabbard of the House of Representatives, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg — are running for president, bringing their skepticism about American interventionism with them. The very inclusion of such viewpoints in the presidential race is bound to change the conversation, putting a spotlight on America’s wars in the months to come.

    Get on Board or Get Out of the Way

    When trying to create a movement, there are three likely outcomes: you will be accepted by the establishment, or rejected for your efforts, or the establishment will be replaced, in part or in whole, by those who agree with you. That last point is exactly what we’ve been seeing, at least among Democrats, in the Trump years. While 2020 Democratic candidates for president, some of whom have been in the political arena for decades, are gradually hopping on the end-the-endless-wars bandwagon, the real antiwar momentum in Washington has begun to come from new members of Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar who are unwilling to accept business as usual when it comes to either the Pentagon or the country’s forever wars. In doing so, moreover, they are responding to what their constituents actually want.

    As far back as 2014, when a University of Texas-Austin Energy Poll asked people where the U.S. government should spend their tax dollars, only 7 percent of respondents under 35 said it should go toward military and defense spending. Instead, in a “pretty significant political shift” at the time, they overwhelmingly opted for their tax dollars to go toward job creation and education. Such a trend has only become more apparent as those calling for free public college, Medicare-for-all, or a Green New Deal have come to realize that they could pay for such ideas if America would stop pouring trillions of dollars into wars that never should have been launched.

    The new members of the House of Representatives, in particular, part of the youngest, most diverse crew to date, have begun to replace the old guard and are increasingly signalling their readiness to throw out policies that don’t work for the American people, especially those reinforcing the American war machine. They understand that by ending the wars and beginning to scale back the military-industrial complex, this country could once again have the resources it needs to fix so many other problems.

    In May, for instance, Omar tweeted, “We have to recognize that foreign policy IS domestic policy. We can’t invest in health care, climate resilience, or education if we continue to spend more than half of discretionary spending on endless wars and Pentagon contracts. When I say we need something equivalent to the Green New Deal for foreign policy, it’s this.”

    A few days before that, at a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing, Ocasio-Cortez confronted executives from military contractor TransDigm about the way they were price-gouging the American taxpayer by selling a $32 “non-vehicular clutch disc” to the Department of Defense for $1,443 per disc. “A pair of jeans can cost $32; imagine paying over $1,000 for that,” she said. “Are you aware of how many doses of insulin we could get for that margin? I could’ve gotten over 1,500 people insulin for the cost of the margin of your price gouging for these vehicular discs alone.”

    And while such ridiculous waste isn’t news to those of us who follow Pentagon spending closely, this was undoubtedly something many of her millions of supporters hadn’t thought about before. After the hearing, Teen Vogue created a list of the “5 most ridiculous things the United States military has spent money on,” comedian Sarah Silverman tweeted out the Ocasio-Cortez hearing clip to her 12.6 million followers, Will and Grace actress Debra Messing publicly expressed her gratitude to Ocasio-Cortez, and according to Crowdtangle, a social media analytics tool, the NowThis clip of her in that congressional hearing garnered more than 20 million impressions.

    Not only are members of Congress beginning to call attention to such undercovered issues, but perhaps they’re even starting to accomplish something. Just two weeks after that contentious hearing, TransDigm agreed to return $16.1 million in excess profits to the Department of Defense. “We saved more money today for the American people than our committee’s entire budget for the year,” said House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings.

    Of course, antiwar demonstrators have yet to pour into the streets, even though the wars we’re already involved in continue to drag on and a possible new one with Iran looms on the horizon. Still, there seems to be a notable trend in antiwar opinion and activism. Somewhere just under the surface of American life lurks a genuine, diverse antiwar movement that appears to be coalescing around a common goal: getting Washington politicians to believe that antiwar policies are supportable, even potentially popular. Call me an eternal optimist, but someday I can imagine such a movement helping end those disastrous wars.

    What we can learn from the LGBTQ movement’s 50 years of achievement

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    Now that the LGBTQ movement in the United States has reached the half-century mark, what can activists learn from its story of struggle? Since polarization continues to deepen, this might be a good time to learn from a movement whose enemies once felt so panicked that some suggested gays be put in concentration camps to protect society from AIDS.

    As a young man living in Philadelphia in the late ‘60s, cautiously coming out to friends, I was aware of demonstrations for gay rights at Independence Hall led by Barbara Gittings and others. I was too scared to join them. By then I’d already risked in the civil rights and peace movements, even in a war zone in Vietnam, but publicly coming out as gay seemed even scarier than getting seriously injured.

    Previous Coverage
  • What white allies can learn from allies in the gay rights struggle
  • Once publicly known as gay, I’d face the unknown: living a drastically changed life. I was right. In the early ‘70s, when I did come out via a speech to a thousand people at a national Quaker conference, my life was forever altered. Doors closed. My marriage, family and role as an activist were impacted on every level.

    Support also appeared, even from unexpected places. I found ways to be of use, and even to flourish, despite it all.

    I also learned that coming out would be a powerful nonviolent tactic to add to the methods of noncooperation in Gene Sharp’s classic taxonomy. It turns out that gay oppression, to remain stable, needs us to remain invisible.

    It was around this time when a high school student named Steve Chase invited me to speak on peace in his school assembly in Illinois. I did so, and came out in the context of the speech. I later learned about the ruckus I’d caused, or rather, the ruckus Steve had caused. Called to the principal’s office to explain himself, he admitted he expected me to come out, even though he didn’t ask me to. He wanted it to stir school-wide discussion, which it did. As Steve pointed out to the principal, it might have saved the life of a gay classmate who was pondering suicide.

    Nevertheless, there were times I overlooked the strategic power of coming out. One such instance was when I disparaged some leading gay organizations’ choice to focus on equal marriage and equality in the military. I was for liberation and questioned both traditional marriage and the military. What I missed was that the fight for equality in those institutions would spur many additional people to come out. The tactic would itself support their own liberation and add power to the overall movement.

    For me, coming out meant stepping into a new place of freedom. As feminists were teaching us at the time, “the personal is political; the political, personal.” I hit the streets, recruited in bars for boycotts, got arrested and supported organizers. I learned more about love and solidarity. I also saw some tactics and strategies that today’s movements can use right now.

    We learned from those who’d gone before us

    In the decades before 1969, when drag queens in New York City led the Stonewall rebellion, civil rights had been “the mother of all movements” in the United States. Like African Americans, LGBTQ people were a minority whose oppression was enforced by rejection, job and housing discrimination, bullying, church burnings, police brutality, corruption and killings.

    Partly because of the civil rights struggle, a spirit of defiance was spreading among LGBTQ people. In 1959 LGBTQ people confronted police officers at Cooper’s Donuts in Los Angeles, and in 1966 drag queens rose up in Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco. These outbursts revealed readiness to risk. In the rhetoric of the day, “We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired!”

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  • Get real about privilege — become an ally
  • Spontaneous outbursts, however, aren’t likely to gain change. Intention increases the chance of winning. In 1965, Philly’s chapter of the Janus Society led a gay sit-in at a Dewey’s restaurant, prompting an end to the restaurant’s discrimination practice. That was followed by nonviolent defiance orchestrated by New York’s Mattachine Society in Julius’ Bar, resulting in the dropping of a discriminatory regulation.

    The results were consistent with the civil rights movement’s experience, whose greatest successes came from direct action campaigning. That movement confronted even the Ku Klux Klan and won victory after victory in the Deep South.

    We could see that drama can ignite “movement moments,” as when in Greensboro the four black students on Feb. 1, 1960 sat in and began a wave of nonviolent direct action campaigns across the South.

    The June 28, 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Inn also sparked a movement moment. The action, reportedly a mix of violence and nonviolence, certainly was dramatic. Unlike Greensboro, Stonewall didn’t model for us what should be done next. How to make use of the energy that was unleashed? The Gay Liberation Front, however, made use of the energy that was unleashed, putting together a coalition to create the first pride march, the Christopher Street Parade.

    In both Greensboro and New York, the combination of drama and organization got the movement moving.

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    When marches matter

    My friends know me to be very skeptical about the strategic value of marches. Considering the energy that goes into a major march, and knowing the much greater power of direct action campaigns, I’m known to ask for the compelling strategic reasons for each march I hear about.

    However, I started this article the day after I donned the bright purple shirt my grand-daughter Raquel gave me and, yet again, joined a pride parade. I see four strategic reasons that justify a pride march, even 50 years after Stonewall.

    LGBTQ oppression has an unusual feature: It tries to make sexual and non-binary gender difference invisible. To spotlight our tactic of direct noncooperation, the parade makes us out, loud and in numbers.

    Proudly calling public attention to the part of us that has been despised also inspires others who are still cooperating with the oppression. Many of us know people who first were onlookers before taking the risk to join the march itself.

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    The march provides a visible on-ramp for mainstream community leaders and office-holders, non-gay family members, and even the usual enforcers — like police, who join the march in uniform — to declare “which side they’re on.”

    Along with growth in numbers over time I noted differences in who was there. Now there are more people of color, more young people (even teenagers holding hands), more inter-racial couples. The growth in the marches is important in two ways. For us as a minority with some internal tensions around our differences, growth signals solidarity. Growth also reveals to the power-holders our force as an interest group.

    During the parade, I found myself frequently smiling and crying, sometimes simultaneously. I kept remembering my best friend Gary, one of the early casualties of AIDS.

    My strong feelings reminded me again of the model of the civil rights movement, where displays of emotion were frequent. Both movements have provided strong containers for feelings: anger, grief, self-affirmation, despair, fear, sense of agency, shame, joy, acceptance.

    Working with anger while aiming for strategy

    Participants in ACT-UP were famous for expression of anger about the criminal neglect of AIDS from government, Big Pharma and hospitals. Their campaigns forced a sea change in research, policy and practice and saved countless lives. I recommend for all groups the film “How to Survive a Plague” to stimulate discussion about strategy and tactics.

    In 1991, Philadelphia police rioted on unarmed, whistle-blowing demonstrators outside a hotel where President George H.W. Bush was speaking. Eventually the police ended up admitting they’d broken the law and settled with ACT-UP for $61,500.

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    ACT-UP leaders called me after the beatings and said their members needed more nonviolence training before their next encounter with the police. When I got there, the church basement was packed with angry ACT-UP members who, despite my invitation from their leaders, were in no way interested in nonviolence.

    I facilitated a go-round in which each person said one word describing how they felt. The atmosphere was hot. I then acknowledged that nonviolent direct action, like anything, has its upsides and downsides. At the top of the flipchart, I placed the signs for plus and minus, then asked for their responses.

    They nearly filled the chart with minuses before someone ventured a plus. More minuses were shouted, then a plus, and another and another, then back to minuses.

    When the crowd ran out of suggestions, the newsprint was lop-sided on the negative side but a fair number of pluses were up there.

    I asked in a neutral tone of voice: “Shall we do a nonviolence workshop tonight?”

    A tall man in the back said, “I see the group is ready for the workshop, so I just want to say I can’t picture myself doing nonviolence. But I won’t stand in the way. I’ll show up for the next action but stand across the street so you’ll know I’m there even though I just can’t go with this nonviolence shit.”

    A couple of others made similar statements while noting that the group seemed to want the workshop. I waited a beat, then I heard others: “Come on, George, let’s do it!”

    It was one of the most electric workshops in my life.

    I went to ACT-UP’s next action: civil disobedience, with a very large police presence. The bold, yet unprovocative, behavior of ACT-UP members would have made Gandhi proud. On the sidelines I saw earnest conversation between an ACT-UP leader and the police commander. I got close enough to hear the commander say, “I’m old and near retirement, and I’m just trying to get through this alive.”

    The ACT-UP leader looked at him squarely. “Well then now you know how we feel.” He paused. “We want to get out of this alive.” I watched them, in silence, have a moment.

    A leaderful movement

    Because of the prominence in U.S. history of Martin Luther King Jr., it’s common for people to imagine that a social movement “needs its Dr. King” to achieve a string of victories. The LGBTQ movement never had a uniting, charismatic figure. Its unity, such as it was, sprang from broad agreement on the goal of equality and a diversity of approaches including nonviolent direct action.

    People continue to argue about the movement’s vision, including “civil rights” vs. “liberation.” The pride parades themselves include a stunning variety of styles and views, revealing a diversity that marches in the same direction. The parade also includes a welter of hiking, music and other recreational groups that help tie together a network.

    Supporting a leaderful movement is the abundance of targets for change. Discrimination in jobs, housing, retail and education operates on many levels: small and large towns, cities, states and the nation. Transgender activists, for example, targeted the mass transit system, successfully campaigning to end gender markers on commuter passes.

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  • 4 lessons for climate organizers from the anti-nuclear movement
  • Like the climate crisis, gender and sexual oppression invites multiple campaigns and therefore widespread leadership development. As with the successful grassroots movement that prevented the economic elite from achieving its goal of a thousand nuclear power plants, the LGBT movement does fine without a Dr. King.

    Movements can win even when some campaigns lose

    LGBTQ activists, in common with both the civil rights and anti-nuclear power movements, have had a dynamic relationship between campaigns and the success of the movement as a whole. In all three movements, members organized a variety of targeted campaigns — local, regional and national.

    Individual campaigns built organizing skills, courage, and taught each other what works and doesn’t. Even though some of the campaigns didn’t win their immediate goal, all three movements won major gains. National and international movements can win through their aggregate growth and cumulative impact. Like other campaign-focused movements, LGBTQ activists experienced defeats along the way and nevertheless changed this country decisively.

    What do generals, Gandhi and gays agree on?

    In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan presided over the economic elite’s counter-offensive, designed to roll back progress made by activists in the 1960s and ‘70s. Most liberals and progressives went on the defense, trying to hang onto previously-achieved gains. As billionaire Warren Buffett has observed, the rich have been winning the class war. Most of the movements are today still defending and still losing ground, now with a touch of romance by calling it “the resistance.”

    The LGBTQ movement, despite the pain, loss of many talented leaders, disruption, and grave threats caused by AIDS, refused to go on the defense when Reagan moved into the White House. Instead, the movement went on the offense, decade after decade — launching new campaigns for more advanced goals, including rights for trans people.

    Bigots who publicly aired their fears of “the homosexual agenda” have been right to be scared. Our agenda is equality, and that means creating more advanced goals with new campaigns to achieve them.

    Other movements are starting to re-evaluate their strategy. More American workers were involved in major strikes in 2018 than in any year since 1986. The Sunrise Movement and other climate justice activists are pushing the Green New Deal. They are using the strategic principle that unites gays, Gandhi and military generals: the only way to win is to take the offense.

    How to avert the impending war on Iran

    Since coming to power, the Trump administration has had Iran in its crosshairs. The United States unilaterally pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal last year and reimposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran. With the other signatories doing little to cushion the blow, Iran now says it will breach part of the agreement. In all likelihood, this is exactly how hawks — like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton — hoped Iran would respond to U.S. provocations.

    Ann Wright is intimately aware of how politicians use fear and distort reality to drum up support for war and its devastating consequences. She spent her career in the U.S. Army — rising to the rank of colonel — and served as a diplomat in the State Department, before resigning in opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since then, she has been a courageous and steady voice at the forefront of the antiwar movement. With what seems like super-human endurance, she is constantly on the move — participating in countless actions for peace and traveling to countries at the receiving end of U.S. bombs.

    I first had the good fortune to spend time with Ann on a trip to Afghanistan almost 10 years ago. Earlier this year, we traveled to Iran on a delegation organized by Code Pink, which has been organizing regular protests to challenge those ratcheting up tensions. With calls for war growing louder by the day, I spoke with Ann to see how she is reading the administration’s current machinations and what those inside and outside the system can do to avert another catastrophic war in the Middle East.

    The invasion of Iraq was a critical turning point in your life. Can you explain why you resigned and the parallels you see between that moment and what is happening today?

    The drive to war in Iran is so reminiscent of what was going on in 2002 with the war on Iraq. We’re still facing pretty much the same conditions. My letter of resignation was based on the Iraq war, but it also contained a couple of other things that are still very important. I was opposed to the Patriot Act and all the sweeping curtailments of civil liberties and privacy. And now, 16 years later, you look at what we face, and it’s much worse. Palestinian rights was another issue I put in my letter of resignation. And now you look at this plan that Jared Kushner has cooked up — it essentially gives everything to Israel and leaves the Palestinians in an even worse predicament.

    And then there’s other aspects of my letter of resignation, like the issue of North Korea, where there has been some movement from the Trump administration. Even though we’re in another period of minor hostility, he at least has met with Kim Jong-un twice. I don’t think it’s lost. So the conditions under which I resigned in 2003 are very much the same as they are now in 2019.

    At least the media is being a little better now about challenging some of the things the Trump administration is saying about Iran. They are trying to force the government to provide details about why Iran is this increased threat to U.S. national security, and they’re not getting much information back. So that is a little different from when the media in general just took what the Bush administration was saying at face value on weapons of mass destruction. That’s a little hopeful.

    With the threats and talk of repositioning troops — along with the claims that Iran is responsible for attacks in the region — are we seeing the manufacturing of a conflict like we have so many times before?

    The U.S. is doing everything it can to precipitate a conflict — to poke and provoke the Iranians to do something that the United States can have a military response to. When you look at what the Iranians are capable of doing in response, the Department of Defense is probably the greatest voice in the U.S. government against any sort of military action against Iran. They know full well that the Iranians have the capability of destroying, very quickly, a hell of a lot of U.S. military property and personnel.

    You could do a limited air strike before the Iranians start blasting our planes out of the sky, but there’s no way in the world the United States could ever put troops in Iran. The U.S. military knows that the Iranian military will eat our lunch.

    So you think those in the government — particularly the military and State Department — can play, or maybe already are playing, an important role in averting a new war with Iran?

    In a subtle way, they are putting the brakes on a lot of things that come out of the White House. I can imagine that they are slow rolling thousands of initiatives that Bolton and his gang of warmongers are putting forward. The military can move very quickly if it wants to politically. But it also can slow down the political desires of politicians too.

    The commander of that aircraft carrier said that we are not going through the Strait of Hormuz because we know that could lead to provocative actions. That’s a pretty clear statement, at least from the operational side of the Department of Defense, that they don’t want to get involved in this.

    Do you have any advice for ways that ordinary people can encourage those inside the system to take a stand?

    Just the tried and true stuff. I don’t have any magic bullet so to speak. Write letters to the editor explaining why you think the Trump policies are wrong and encourage people in the military to hold strong against these things that they know are dangerous to U.S. national security. Write letters to your Congress people. If there’s enough volume into the congressional offices, it will make a difference. We get feedback from offices all the time, saying, finally, there was enough citizen action that we’ve signed on as co-sponsors to whatever resolution it is. And sometimes you see Congress people changing their public stances in their speeches.

    Without citizen activism, constituent activism, they’re not pushed to do anything. So that’s really important. And hitting the streets, having signs out on street corners, and hosting conferences or seminars to educate our community. And if the Trump administration moves in a very fast manner on any of this, we have to prepare to call for a quick mobilization with as many people out on the streets as we possibly can.

    There were massive protests before the invasion of Iraq, but the Bush administration was not deterred. What have we learned from that experience, and how can we build a more impactful antiwar movement this time around?

    We can elect politicians who are not warmongers. That’s number one. As long as we continue to elect these jerks that love war, we’re in big trouble. We’ve got to start holding these people accountable. The fact that the Obama administration would not hold any of the Bush administration people accountable shows the power of the politicians. It’s just like in other countries, where dictators are overthrown, but other dictators take them in and give them a life of luxury. That’s really the system we have in the United States, where all the presidents take care of each other.

    The elites pardon each other and the citizenry go to jail. Reality Winner, who disclosed one classified document about Russians interfering with the elections, has been in jail for over two years now and has three more to go. It doesn’t give one a great feeling that everything will come out okay.

    So how do you keep going, despite the bleak circumstances we face?

    It’s important to look back through history. I’m reading a new book that Michael Smith wrote called “Lawyers for the Left.” It goes into the lives of probably 30 different lawyers from the 1950s onwards, who have been challenging the system on behalf of citizens. And it gives us the courage to keep going. We’re just part of a long, long struggle. I don’t know that we will ever win, but at least we will go down fighting for social justice and protection of rights for as many people as we possibly can.

    We just have to keep giving people hope, not stay at home and watch the stupid TV. But to get up, do some stuff and be with like-minded people. If you leave them in their homes, everybody just gets dejected and immobilized. That’s why I think having weekly, or at least twice a month, events talking about social issues is really important. It’s important for organizations to step up to the plate now and help people understand that they do have a role. How effective we will be, who knows? But we know how effective it is if we don’t do anything.

    You have traveled a lot to places that are targeted by our government militarily or economically. Why do you think it’s important for peace activists to make such trips?

    Our government, no matter who’s in charge, Republicans and Democrats, they all lie to us. So it’s important that we go to the places where they don’t want us to go — to see with our own eyes what’s happening and talk to people in these countries.

    What risks does this kind of travel involve, and how do you prepare for it?

    Many of these are dangerous places in their own ways. When social issues flare up you might just be out on the streets at the wrong time or, as a former government worker, you might be accused of being a spy for the United States – even though I resigned in opposition to government policies. So that’s something that I always keep in mind.

    One of the ways that I try to protect myself is to do a lot of writing and speaking, so that governments can see what my positions are — and that there’s a history of my protesting U.S. government actions — long before I go to these places. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve been given visas to Iran twice.

    Ann Wright speaks with a group of young Iranian women in Isfahan in March 2019. (Code Pink)

    With a couple months of hindsight on the trip we took together to Iran, what are your key takeaways from the meetings we had with officials and ordinary people?

    From having spoken to several government officials, the history of what the United States has done to Iran is important, and a lot of Americans just don’t know about it. So we come back to write about it and reference the very educated, professional people we met and what their comments are about U.S.-Iranian relations.

    And on the civilian side, ordinary Iranians told us about the effects of U.S. sanctions over decades, and the difficult situation that Iranian-Americans have in getting to Iran. And very few Iranians are now able to come to the U.S., including those who have family members here. It may backfire in Trump’s face because many of the Iranians that live here don’t support the revolution, but they support their own family members. Let’s hope that Trump’s policies will produce the votes that will get his sorry ass out of there.

    We obviously want to avoid war but there are serious problems with the Iranian government. If we want to encourage a homegrown, grassroots pro-democracy movement inside the country, what can we do?

    I think the best that we can do to create space for resolution of all of these issues is to speak out against sanctions and to get the United States to stop its pronouncements of regime change and military options. The feedback you get from Iranians is that the sanctions have made life much more difficult, and that they’re not willing to stand up.

    But we aren’t willing to stand up against the Trump administration — to go out there and block roads and have thousands of people thrown in jail, and get beaten up by the cops. So why in the hell should we expect that of folks who know that they are going to get killed if they do that? We are very concerned about what goes on in their country, but we ought to be damned concerned about what’s going on in our own and work to stop it.

    Iraqis prepare a Carnival for Peace as US plans for more war

    This story was first published by Tom Dispatch.

    There’s a dark joke going around Baghdad these days. Noof Assi, a 30-year-old Iraqi peace activist and humanitarian worker, told it to me by phone. Our conversation takes place in late May just after the Trump administration has announced that it would add 1,500 additional U.S. troops to its Middle Eastern garrisons.

    “Iran wants to fight to get the United States and Saudi Arabia out of Iraq,” she began. “And the United States wants to fight to get Iran out of Iraq.” She paused dramatically. “So how about all of us Iraqis just leave Iraq so they can fight here on their own?”

    Assi is among a generation of young Iraqis who lived most of their lives first under the U.S. occupation of their country and then through the disastrous violence it unleashed, including the rise of ISIS, and who are now warily eying Washington’s saber-rattling towards Tehran. They couldn’t be more aware that, should a conflict erupt, Iraqis will almost certainly find themselves once again caught in the devastating middle of it.

    In February, President Trump sparked ire by claiming that the United States would maintain its military presence — 5,200 troops — and the al-Asad airbase in Iraq in order to “watch Iran.” In May, the State Department then suddenly ordered all non-emergency government employees to leave Iraq, citing vague intelligence about threats of “Iranian activity.” (This so-called intelligence was promptly contradicted by the British deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS who claimed that “there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.”) A few days later, a rocket landed harmlessly in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses the U.S. embassy. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi then announced that he would send delegations to Washington and Tehran to try to “halt tensions,” while thousands of ordinary Iraqis rallied in Baghdad to protest against the possibility of their country once again getting dragged into a conflict.

    Much of American media coverage of rising U.S.-Iranian tensions in these weeks, rife with “intel” leaked by unnamed Trump administration officials, bears a striking resemblance to the lead-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. As a recent Al Jazeera piece — headlined “Is the US media beating the drums of war on Iran?” — put it bluntly: “In 2003, it was Iraq. In 2019, it’s Iran.”

    Unfortunately, in the intervening 16 years, American coverage of Iraq hasn’t improved much. Certainly, the Iraqis themselves are largely missing in action. When, for example, does the American public hear about how female students in Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, heavily bombed and taken back from ISIS in 2017, have organized to restock the shelves of the once-famed library at the University of Mosul, which ISIS militants set aflame during their occupation of the city; or how booksellers and publishers are reviving Baghdad’s world-renowned book market on Mutanabbi Street, destroyed by a devastating car bomb in 2007; or how, each September, tens of thousands of young people now gather across Iraq to celebrate Peace Day — a carnival that started eight years ago in Baghdad as the brainchild of Noof Assi and her colleague, Zain Mohammed, a 31-year-old peace activist who is also the owner of a restaurant and performance space?

    In other words, rarely is the U.S. public allowed glimpses of Iraq that make war there seem less inevitable.

    Assi and Mohammed are well accustomed not only to such skewed representation of their country in our country, but to the fact that Iraqis like them are missing in action in American consciousness. They remain amazed, in fact, that Americans could have caused such destruction and pain in a country they continue to know so little about.

    “Years ago, I went to the United States on an exchange program and I discovered people didn’t know anything about us. Someone asked me if I used a camel for transportation,” Assi told me. “So I returned to Iraq and I thought: Damn it! We have to tell the world about us.”

    In late May, I spoke with Assi and Mohammed separately by telephone in English about the rising threat of another U.S. war in the Middle East and their collective two decades of peace work aimed at undoing the violence wrought by the last two U.S. wars in their country. Below, I’ve edited and melded the interviews of these two friends so that Americans can hear a couple of voices from Iraq, telling the story of their lives and their commitment to peace in the years after the invasion of their country in 2003.

    What first inspired you to begin doing peace work?

    Zain Mohammed: At the end of 2006, on December 6, al-Qaeda-[in-Iraq, the precursor to ISIS] executed my dad. We are a small family: me and my mom and two sisters. My opportunities were limited to two options. I was 19 years old. I had just finished high school. So the decision was: I had to emigrate or I had to become part of the system of militias and take revenge. That was the lifestyle in Baghdad at that time. We emigrated to Damascus [Syria]. Then suddenly, after about six months, when our paperwork was nearly ready for us to emigrate to Canada, I told my mom, “I want to go back to Baghdad. I don’t want to run away.”

    I went back to Baghdad at the end of 2007. There was a big car bombing in Karrada, the part of the city where I used to live. My friends and I decided to do something to tell our friends that we have to work together to promote peace. So, on September 21, on International Peace Day, we held a small event in the same place as the explosion. In 2009, I received a scholarship to the American University in Sulaymaniyah for a workshop about peace and we watched a movie about Peace Day. At the end of the movie, there were flashes of many scenes from around the world and, for just one second, there was our event in Karrada. This movie was amazing for me. It was a message. I went back to Baghdad and I spoke to one of my friends whose father had been killed. I told him it’s systematic: If he’s Shiite, he’ll be recruited by a Shiite militia for revenge; if he’s Sunni, he’ll be recruited by a Sunni militia or al-Qaeda for revenge. I told him: we have to create a third option. By a third option, I meant any option except fighting or emigrating.

    I spoke to Noof, and she said: “We have to collect youth and organize a meeting.”

    “But what’s the point?” I asked her. All we had was this idea of a third option. She said: “We have to collect youth and have a meeting to decide what to do.”

    Noof Assi: When Baghdad was first built, it was called the City of Peace. When we first started talking to people, everyone laughed at us. A City of Peace celebration in Baghdad? It’ll never happen, they said. At that time, there were no events, nothing happened in the public parks.

    Zain: Everyone said: you’re crazy, we’re still in a war…

    Noof: We didn’t have any funding, so we decided to light candles, stand in the street and tell people that Baghdad is called the City of Peace. But then we grew into a group of around 50 people, so we created a small festival. We had zero budget. We were stealing stationery from our office and using the printer there.

    Then we thought: Okay, we made a point, but I don’t think people will want to continue. But the youth came back to us and said, “We enjoyed it. Let’s do it again.”

    How has the festival grown since then?

    Noof: The first year, around 500 people came and most of them were our families or relatives. Now, 20,000 people attend the festival. But our idea isn’t only about the festival, it’s about the world that we create through the festival. We literally do everything from scratch. Even the decorations: there is a team that makes the decorations by hand.

    Zain: In 2014, we felt the first results when ISIS and this shit happened again, but this time, at the societal level, lots of groups were starting to work together, collecting money and clothes for internally displaced people. Everyone was working together. It felt like a light.

    Noof: Now, the festival happens in Basra, Samawah, Diwaniyah and Baghdad. And we’re hoping to expand to Najaf and Sulaymaniyah. Over the last two years, we’ve been working to create the first youth hub in Baghdad, the IQ Peace Center, which is home to different clubs: a jazz club, a chess club, a pets club, a writing club. We had a women-and-girls club to discuss their issues within the city.

    Zain: We had a lot of financial challenges because we were a youth movement. We weren’t a registered NGO [non-governmental organization] and we didn’t want to work like a regular NGO.

    Iraqi children at the 2018 Baghdad City of Peace Carnival. (Facebook / Baghdad City of Peace Carnival)

    What about other peace efforts in the city?

    Noof: In the past few years, we’ve started seeing a lot of different movements around Baghdad. After many years of seeing only armed actors, wars and soldiers, young people wanted to build another picture of the city. So, now, we have lots of movements around education, health, entertainment, sports, marathons, book clubs. There’s a movement called “I’m Iraqi, I Can Read.” It’s the biggest festival for books. Exchanging or taking books is free for everyone and they bring in authors and writers to sign the books.

    This isn’t exactly the image that I suspect many Americans have in mind when they think about Baghdad.

    Noof: One day, Zain and I were bored in the office, so we started Googling different images. We said, “Let’s Google Iraq.” And it was all photos of the war. We Googled Baghdad: Same thing. Then we googled something — it’s famous around the world — the Lion of Babylon [an ancient statue], and what we found was a picture of a Russian tank that Iraq developed during Saddam [Hussein]’s regime that they named Babylon’s Lion.

    I’m an Iraqi and I’m a Mesopotamian with that long history. We’ve grown up living in a city that’s old and where every place, every street you pass, has a history to it, but the international media doesn’t talk about what’s happening on those streets. They focus on what the politicians are saying and leave out the rest. They don’t show the real image of the country.

    I want to ask you about the rising tensions between the United States and Iran, and how people in Iraq are responding. I know you have your own internal problems, so whatever Trump tweets on a given day might not be the biggest news for you…

    Noof: Unfortunately, it is.

    Especially since 2003, Iraqis have not been ones controlling our country. Even the government now, we don’t want it, but no one has ever asked us. We’re still paying with our blood while — I was reading an article about this a few months ago — Paul Bremer is now teaching skiing and living his simple life after ruining our country. [In 2003, the Bush administration appointed Bremer head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran occupied Iraq after the U.S. invasion and was responsible for the disastrous decision to disband Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s army.]

    What do you think about the news that the U.S. is planning to deploy 1,500 more troops to the Middle East?

    Zain: If they end up coming to Iraq, where we have a lot of pro-Iranian militias, I’m afraid there could be a collision. I don’t want a collision. In a war between the United States and Iran, maybe some soldiers will be killed, but a lot of Iraqi civilians will be, too, directly and indirectly. Honestly, everything that has happened since 2003 is strange to me. Why did the United States invade Iraq? And then they said they wanted to leave and now they want to come back? I can’t understand what the United States is doing.

    Noof: Trump is a businessman, so he cares about money and how he’s going to spend it. He’s not going to do something unless he’s sure that he’s going to get something in return.

    That reminds me of the way Trump used the rising tensions in the region in order to bypass Congress and push through an $8 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

    Noof: Exactly. I mean, he was asking Iraq to pay the United States back for the costs of the U.S. military occupation in Iraq! Can you imagine? So that’s how he thinks.

    Amid these rising tensions, what’s your message to the Trump administration — and to the American public?

    Zain: For the U.S. government, I’d say that, in every war, even if you win, you lose something: money, people, civilians, stories… We have to see the other side of war. And I’m sure we can do what we want without war. For the U.S. public: I think my message is to push against war, even against economic war.

    Noof: For the U.S. government I would tell them: please mind your own business. Leave the rest of the world alone. For the American people I would tell them: I’m sorry, I know how you’re feeling being in a country run by Trump. I was living under Saddam’s regime. I still remember. I have a colleague, she’s American, and the day Trump won the elections she came into the office crying. And a Syrian and I were in the office with her and we told her: “We’ve been there before. You will survive.”

    On September 21, Noof Assi, Zain Mohammed and thousands of other young Iraqis will crowd a park along the Tigris River to celebrate the eighth annual Baghdad City of Peace Carnival. In the United States, meanwhile, we will almost certainly still be living under the Trump administration’s nearly daily threats of war (if not war itself) with Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and god knows where else. A recent Reuters/Ipsos public opinion poll shows that Americans increasingly see another war in the Middle East as inevitable, with more than half of those polled saying it is “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that their country would go to war with Iran “within the next few years.” But as Noof and Zain know full well, it’s always possible to find another option…

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