Waging Nonviolence

Has the movement to prevent gun violence hit a tipping point?

by Sarah Aziza

Chalk outlines of victims of gun violence, like this one near the Dupont Circle metro stop, were made around Washington, D.C. as part of the Ghost Vote campaign. (States United to Prevent Gun Violence)

On March 15, 2016, chalk outlines of human bodies appeared on sidewalks near Capitol Hill. The silent but striking display represented a “symbolic takeover” of the nation’s capital and the launch of #GhostVote, a grassroots project headed by a coalition of advocates for “common sense gun laws.” The campaign, led by States United to Prevent Gun Violence and the Newtown Action Alliance, aims to elevate the issue of gun violence as a political priority, with an eye toward upcoming elections. The grim “ghost” motif recalls the thousands who lose their lives to gun violence each year, many of whom are commemorated on the Ghost Vote webpage. Participants can dedicate their vote to a specific victim, and are urged to change their profile pictures and share their decision across their social networks.

The Ghost Vote campaign, with its coalition of advocates both old and new, is indicative of a surging national concern over gun violence. While the old “gun control” lobby was historically, egregiously out-funded by pro-gun interest groups like the National Rifle Association, many leaders in what is now being referred to as the gun violence prevention movement say that the nation has reached a tipping point on the issue.

“For every great social movement there is a moment when you look back and say ‘that’s when things really started to change,’” said Dan Gross of the Brady Campaign during his recent TED Talk. “For the movement to end gun violence in America, that moment is now.” His presentation followed on the heels of Obama’s emotionally-charged executive actions for gun reform, and after several mass-shootings reignited the debate over gun access. An estimated 30,000 people are killed each year by gun violence in the United States, where firearms now outnumber people by several million. In addition to leading the world in gun ownership, the United States also ranks third in mass-shootings worldwide.

Ladd Everitt, of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, agrees that support for gun control has reached unprecedented levels. “People are finally demanding a change,” he said, citing multiple new initiatives like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Americans for Responsible Solutions as evidence of this burgeoning engagement. Many of these groups focus on local anti-violence measures — such as the “Groceries Not Guns” campaign calling for a ban on open carry in Kroger supermarkets. “Moms head to the grocery store on a weekly, sometimes daily basis — often with kids in tow,” reads the campaign mission statement. “We don’t expect to face armed strangers when we shop with our families.”

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In addition, organizations that formerly “just paid lip service” are now taking “real” action to support the cause, said Everitt, who praised the Center for American Progress, Organizing for Action and Americans United for Change for showing “real investment.” In Everitt’s estimation, the critical moment came in 2012 when the horrors of the Newtown shooting rocked the American public. “That was the turning point,” he recalled. “After that, we saw many more ordinary people raising their voice on the issue.”

Everitt’s own involvement in the gun violence prevention movement began in 2000, when he participated in the first Million Mom March, an experience he describes as “deeply moving.” He began volunteering with local gun violence prevention advocates, and — after 16 years dedicated to the cause — said he’s feeling more hopeful than ever. “It’s still going to take a lot of time,” he predicted. “We’ll win some and lose some, but for the first time, we’re seeing a critical mass of support around the country.”

Historically, the pro-gun lobby has been more aggressive in their ideological — and financial — commitments to the fight. In the past, pro-gun constituents have been more than twice as likely than pro-reformers to be one-issue voters. The NRA famously spends millions of dollars a year to protect their interests on Capitol Hill, yet Everitt said it is now losing that edge. “I’m not a fan of money in politics, but the fact that [the NRA] has always had funds, and we didn’t — it made our work incredibly difficult.” Now, said Everitt, gun-reform groups are seeing significant financial backing from concerned citizens and the first-ever pro-gun-reform PACs.

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The political zeitgeist has some of the presidential candidates addressing gun control on the campaign trail — Bernie Sanders, under pressure from political opponents and the gun violence prevention lobby, recently reneged his support of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a 2005 bill Everitt described as “the biggest gun industry handout in history.” Despite these nods on the federal level, the Center for American Progress recently noted that state-level reforms may be more effective than trying to push change in Congress right now.

Leah Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, agrees. In her opinion, pushing for federal reform is an “exhausting and frustrating” endeavor. “The NRA still exerts far too much power in D.C.,” she said. “Even after so many shootings, the gun lobby still controls the way politicians vote.” Barrett is instead focusing on her home state of New York, where she says local and state elections offer the best opportunity for tangible change. She also sees a strategic importance in New York: “If really influential, highly-populated states like New York and California set an example, I think it will catch on.”

For Barrett, the struggle against gun violence is personal. Her brother was shot to death in his place of business in early 1997. After the tragedy, Barrett, living in the U.K. at the time, moved back to the United States to devote herself to organizing for gun law reform. As part of this work, Barrett and her colleagues work one-on-one with mayors and community groups to organize around the issue. Barrett says she’s excited about the change she’s seeing on the local level, where her organization and grassroots partners host vigils, film screenings, town halls and organize petitions to address the ways gun violence affects their communities.

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Barrett also believes strongly in the need to widen the discourse beyond mass shootings, pointing out the numerous deaths that are caused not by deranged criminals, but by accidents. “Children die every week simply because they find an unlocked gun and fire on themselves or others,” Barrett said. “It’s unacceptable.” Likewise, the availability of guns is strongly correlated to the number of violent impulses — like suicidal thoughts or sudden rage — that actually end in death. “If there’s a gun around, people are far more likely to follow through and kill,” she explained.

Lately, the NRA — with its slogan “freedom’s safest place” — has riffed off of liberal messaging by playing up the disparity between low- and higher-income victims of violence, warning that the poor have only “their guns and their faith” to defend themselves from violent crime. The rhetoric of self-defense, said Barrett, is one of the NRA’s most powerful tools. “It’s utterly false,” she said. “Guns don’t protect. Guns kill. Plain and simple.” Barrett believes that micro-level reforms — like better gunlocks and more secure triggers — can prevent many needless deaths. This is in addition to the larger-scale policies touted by her group and others, which include a call for universal background checks, better information sharing, and the closing of loopholes afforded to gun shows and online sales.

Most activists agree that there is a long fight ahead. Yet, as Rebecca Leber noted recently in the New Republic, it appears the issue of gun violence has crossed irrevocably into the mainstream. “Gun control has the potential to be the deciding issue of 2016. And it’s Democrats, for a change, who stand to benefit,” she writes.

This month, Barrett is keeping busy, moving from town to town across New York to meet with local legislators, mayors and community leaders to discuss violence prevention and gun law reform. Everitt said he’s on the phone every day with fellow organizers across the country, “both professional and grassroots,” and that the level of cooperation is heartening. “We have to maintain the fight in every arena — the courts, the legislature and the culture,” he said, but admitted that he’s permitting himself to hope. “It won’t happen overnight, but I’m happy to say that I think we’ll see real change in my lifetime. That’s what keeps me going.”

Syrian independent media offers bold challenge to extremism

by Julia Taleb

A protest in Kafranbel on the 5-year anniversary of the uprising against Assad. (Twitter/Raed al-Fares)

On January 10, the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group in Syria, stormed the headquarters of Radio Fresh in Kafranbel and arrested its director Raed al-Fares and journalist Hadi Abdullah. The flag of the Syrian revolution was thrown on the floor and al-Nusra members stepped on it and forced the station’s members to do the same. They destroyed and confiscated equipment and books, burned the flag and — according to Ghalia al-Rahal, director of Mazaia, a women’s center in Kafranbel — shouted, “We do not want any media in Kafranbel.” They closed the station and placed a sign at the main door saying, “Confiscated by Jabhat al-Nusra, do not approach.”

This raid came in response to a post on al-Fares’ Facebook page, in which he said, “If our main concern is what’s between a man’s lips [cigarettes] and women’s legs, and as long as we are herding people to prayers and flooding our schools with Sharia books, we will have a thousand years of death to come in Syria.” Al-Nusra also claimed that songs broadcasted on the station were against the Islamic ruling of Sharia.

Members of the radio station were held inside the office for almost two hours while al-Fares was taken by al-Nusra. After hours of negotiations with al-Nusra’s leaders and Sharia judges, Abdullah provided guarantees that al-Fares would not post messages critical of Sharia on Facebook again, and he was released. Al-Nusra had to also admit that raiding the station was a mistake and promised to return all their equipment.

“As we were waiting for the negotiation, we were organizing for a massive protest that was planned to take off the next morning,” al-Rahal said. “Al-Nusra knew that we would have not kept silent.”

“Confiscated by Jabhat al-Nusra, do not approach,” was spray-painted on the walls of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus in Kafranbel in January 2016. (Twitter/@RamiSafadi93)

Al-Nusra’s attack on the station generated a strong reaction on social media where al-Fares’ story was closely followed and solidarity posts were proliferating on activists’ pages. Kafranbel’s Facebook page, which tracks local demonstrations and news, posted pictures of men and women holding signs that repeated two phrases: “Freedom for Radio Fresh,” and “No Media Oppression.”

Radio Fresh is one of the many activities of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus, or URB, a grassroots organization that tries to empower community members to uphold their rights and freedom in Idlib province. Established in Kafranbel in 2012 by al-Fares and a young activist named Khaled al-Issa, the URB currently has 475 employees with various offices that focus on enhancing education and empowering women and children. They provide training in sewing, hairdressing, nursing, and other skills that enable women to work. Similarly, URB established centers for children where they are encouraged to express themselves through painting and art. “The bureau activities came as a natural result of the needs on the ground,” said al-Rahal, whose center is part of the URB.

This was not the first time al-Nusra has attacked the station. On January 17, 2015, al-Nusra raided a number of URB’s offices, including the headquarters of Radio Fresh and Mazaia. In response to this incident and continuous harassment and interference in civilian affairs, people took to the streets calling for freedom. They forced al-Nusra to keep the station and the women’s center running.

Al-Nusra is emerging as a powerful force to rival the Islamic State in Syria and has seized several strategic towns in Idlib and Hama provinces. Al-Nusra’s goals are to overthrow the current Syrian government and create an Islamic Emirate under Sharia law. Al-Nusra uses Islam and Quranic texts to oppress people and impose strict social values, including limiting women’s movement and dress code.

Hadi Abdullah (left) and Raed al-Fares (right). (Facebook/Kafranbel Syrian Revolution)

Activists, who are also Muslims, have been using Islamic values to push back. The radio station dedicates the first two hours of the day to broadcast Quranic texts, transmits prayers five times a day, and airs four religious programs a day. “While religious extremists call for death and blood, we call for mercy, respect and forgiveness — all core values in Islam,” al-Fares said. “We need to use the same tool and that which is understood by the general public.”

According to al-Fares, the true reason for his latest arrest was a campaign that he launched on the radio to raise awareness of basic human rights and against religious extremists’ practices. Using female voices, nine messages were repeated between programs and songs that challenged not only extremists, but the whole culture. These messages addressed men — telling them to take some responsibility and stop gazing at women — and were a direct response to armed and extremist factions’ strict rules on women’s dress code and education.

In some places, al-Nusra has been busy fighting and has not had the time to interfere in civilians’ affairs. However, this may change once the fighting halts. “It is important that people increase their civil activities now as this would make it harder for al-Nusra to take control in the future,” al-Rahal said. “Al-Nusra’s members respond to people because they know that without people, nothing has value — not arms, Emirs or rulers.”

People who took to the streets in early 2011 against Assad’s oppressive regime have recently been demonstrating against all oppression. “We protest against the regime, extremists, the Russians, NATO and starvation in besieged Madaya,” al-Rahal said. Madaya is one of 19 Syrian towns under siege, where cases of death due to starvation have been reported. While Madaya is besieged by pro-Syrian government forces, other places like Foua and Kefraya are besieged by armed opposition groups. According to U.N. estimates about 500,000 people are currently living under siege.

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There have been protests against al-Nusra’s aggression and strict rules all across Idlib. On January 15, people in Maraat al-Numan in Idlib demonstrated against al-Nusra and called for its departure. “Maraat is free free, al-Nursa is out out,” they chanted. A new wave of protests has coincided with the ceasefire, which went into effect on Feb. 27. On March 14, hundreds took to the streets against al-Nusra’s aggression against civilians and moderate factions. In places like Khan Shaykhoun and Salqueen, people have protested against al-Nusra’s attempt to impose Sharia clothes, or niqab, on women. In other parts of Syria, like Raqqa, where the Islamic State is in full control and brutal against civil organizations, residents are resisting by not swearing allegiance to the group. Those who do not swear allegiance have to pay for social services, which IS provides for free, and additional taxes.

Five years into the revolution, people have deeper knowledge of themselves and the concepts of citizenship, the state and human dignity, al-Fares explained. Now they are demonstrating against any regressive thoughts or oppression. “Al-Nusra and the Islamic State have arrested me and tried to kill me many times,” al-Fares said, “but this is irrelevant because what I have established in the community and with URB’s activities will always live. People believe in our values and cause, and that is why we live.”

What if Americans protested like Icelanders?

by George Lakey

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When the Icelanders heard that their leader socked away money in an off-shore account in the Virgin Islands, 10,000 of them packed the Parliament Square on April 4 in Reykevik to demand his resignation. That’s partly because Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson had been urging his people for years to show their faith in their country by keeping their money at home. The surge into the streets also represented the Icelanders’ view that they need to use nonviolent direct action to maximize their power.

If Americans were to protest in the same proportion as Icelanders have done, we would put 10 million of ourselves on the streets at one time. What might become possible?

A few years ago, I drank coffee on Parliament Square with Hørdur Torfason — the leader of the Icelanders’ uprising of 2008-09 — interviewing him for my forthcoming book, “Viking Economics.” He suggested we meet at his favorite cafe, which faces where the action took place. The nonviolent campaign he led drove out not only the prime minister but the government itself, and put bankers in jail.

Back then the campaign was called “the pots and pans revolution” because people escalated by banging on kitchen utensils so loudly that parliamentarians couldn’t hear each other inside the building. That action was not a one-off protest; it was part of a sustained campaign. Hørdur gave me a blow-by-blow account, which I relay in the book.

The stakes in 2008 were far greater than individual corruption. Iceland’s was the first modern economy in which virtually the entire banking sector went belly up, and making it worse, the currency collapsed. Unemployment and inflation shot up. Many Icelanders, encouraged by the economic bubble presided over by their government and banks, had spent their savings and had nothing to live on. Because the government had lowered taxes, another mistake frequently made by neoliberals, Iceland had no “rainy day fund” for contingencies. Some in the Western mass media described Iceland as a failed state.

In my book, I share Hørder’s exciting narrative of how Icelanders forced out their government and put bankers in jail, but their people power was just as significant in the follow-up negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. Icelanders couldn’t even withdraw their money from the ATMs, much less pay their mortgages. Yes, the tiny country (population 320,000) simply had to get bailed out, but Icelanders’ new government was a coalition of social democrats and green socialists who refused to accept from the IMF the usual neoliberal prescription of austerity.

Negotiations were intense, but because the new coalition was backed by ordinary Icelanders’ intense nonviolent campaign, the government could negotiate with the IMF a deal unheard of anywhere else in the world.

Iceland then implemented a leftist economic strategy and the country made a dramatic recovery. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman contrasted Iceland’s approach with that of the United States, the United Kingdom and most European countries after 2008, writing, “Where everyone else bailed out the bankers and made the public pay the price, Iceland let the banks go bust and actually expanded its social safety net.”

In the current moment we don’t know if Icelanders will deal with their corruption by waging a direct action campaign, or content themselves with a one-off event that ousted the prime minister. I was told by Thorvaldur Gylfason, a leading Icelandic economist, that his country has historically been more plagued by corruption than its squeaky clean Viking cousins.

Already in Iceland’s current crisis, however, we know enough to see the impact of 3 percent of a population willing to create “street heat.” If, in the United States, 10 million people – 3 percent of our population — took similar action, we would see what the kind of “political revolution” Bernie Sanders talks about actually looks like.

Americans are trending toward an understanding of how self-defeating it is to look for justice through the ballot box. If Icelanders had been resting their hopes on “the next election,” they, too, would wait in vain. Their understanding of power is not unusual among the Nordics.

When I research the legacy of Nordic people power I see how wrong we Americans are about the causes of their achievement of shared prosperity and greater equality. Typical guesses are homogeneity, or smallness, or having been historically well-off, of having unusually abundant resources. History shows any number of countries that are small, or homogeneous, or resource-rich, and experience mass poverty, injustice and tyranny.

In fact, only a century ago a majority of Icelanders, Norwegians and Swedes were poor. For decades desperate Norwegians and Swedes were fleeing their countries for the United States and elsewhere for a chance to earn a living. Those who remained at home decided to roll up their sleeves, supplement their inadequate electoral systems with nonviolent campaigns and push the 1 percent out of dominance. At that point they became free to abolish poverty, increase individual freedom and build a prosperous economy for all.

Denmark fights back against neoliberalism

One pay-off for the Danish people of their 1920s legacy of direct action showed up in the 1980s and ’90s. They, like the Brits and Americans of the period, experienced a push-back by a 1 percent that was not amused by the progressive period of the 1960s and ’70s. For one thing, in the ’70s the Danish and American nonviolent anti-nuclear power movements check-mated nuclear power. Clearly it was time in multiple countries to resume what billionaire Warren Buffett called the “class war.”

Inspired by Thatcherism, Danish conservatives tried in the mid-1980s to tighten the screws on the working class, and that’s where direct action came in. Danish leadership, having observed both the American and British labor movements on the defensive in the early 1980s, decided to take the offensive. They organized a large and extended strike in 1986-87 that largely prevented the conservatives from implementing a neoliberal program.

Their Norwegian and Swedish cousins could have benefited at that time from the example of Danish feistiness. A ferry-ride away, the 1 percent in Norway and Sweden persuaded governments to deregulate the banks, freeing the bankers to go wild and lead both countries to the economic cliff. Fortunately, the left re-asserted its good sense, seized the leading banks, fired the senior management, prevented the shareholders from getting a krone, and re-organized the financial sector in alignment with social democratic principles. A decade later, when 2008 found financial giants like the United Kingdom and United States tottering in a new banker-led disaster, the Danish, Norwegian and Swedish banks were clean and tidy.

Not a surprise to Dr. King

Martin Luther King Jr. famously told us: “Freedom is not free.” He knew that costly struggle is required to achieve justice, and he would not be surprised by what I discovered in my research about the essential role of direct action in the countries that have achieved the highest degree of justice, equality and individual freedom on the planet.

When the Nordics were poor and oppressed they did have free elections and intact parliamentary institutions – and also rule by the 1 percent. I learned from the famous Princeton study, even before the Citizens United ruling and the current flood of money in politics, that our situation has been similar to that of the Nordics a century ago: democratic pretense and oligarchic reality. Even at times when the Democrats control both houses of Congress and the White House, the oligarchic reality has remained in charge.

The track record of the descendants of the Vikings suggests a way forward. Happily, we can wake up, smell the coffee, and act.

How Bernie Sanders can harness the kind of momentum transforming British politics

by Kate Aronoff

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After his double-digits win in Wisconsin last night, Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaign has a fair amount of momentum behind it. Still, many are asking what comes next, and how to carry the political revolution forward — whether he wins the Democratic nomination or not.

Lessons for Sanders might come from the movement that formed around another white-haired progressive challenger to the political establishment: British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Riding the wave of his country’s emergent social movements, Corbyn’s rise to the top of the party last summer marked a break with Tony Blair’s “New Labour” brand. It also christened a new generation of Labour Party activists, eager not just for a better candidate but a new kind of politics.

Formed just weeks after Corbyn’s election, the grassroots organization Momentum is channeling the energy of Corbyn’s campaign into “a mass movement for real transformative change.” Over a hundred local groups are now running campaigns at the local level and pushing for a more democratic Labour Party, holding a mix of rallies, town hall-style meetings and pop-up political education events.

To learn more about Momentum and what it might mean for the future of the Sanders campaign, I spoke with James Schneider, a national organizer with Momentum and a journalist who’s been involved with the group since its formation.

Where did Momentum come from? Why did it start?

In the simplest form, Momentum is the continuation of the Corbyn campaign. Over the course of three months last summer, the left of the Labour Party went from being tiny and much-maligned to a popular movement. Party membership doubled. It’s nothing in comparison to Sanders’s half-million volunteers, but by the end of the campaign we had 17,000 activists throughout the country. In the United Kingdom that’s massive. It was bigger than the three other campaigns combined, and it had a popular political energy that hadn’t been seen for some time.

Throughout the summer people like [writer and activist] Owen Jones went around the country saying, “These are the seeds of the biggest progressive movement in this country for a generation.” In one very real sense, Momentum was an attempt to give that some sort of organization. There was now a left leadership of a mainstream party of government. But also there were tens of thousands of people throughout the country who wanted to be politically active and do a lot of work. It’s not as if Corbyn turned up and everyone went, “Oh God, I thought everything was fine before.” The overwhelming majority of people know all too well things are screwed up. But now there’s hope. There’s a project for people to engage with. That all built onto something that gets less coverage, which was an attempt for three years to bring the fragmented parts of the Labour Party left together. This effort and the campaign combined into Momentum.

A Momentum rally in Oxford, England in February. (Facebook / Momentum)

Are there things Momentum does that a social movement can’t? How does it work?

It’s a very peculiar organization. It straddles this divide between a more traditional party form and labor and social movements and civil society. None of these are monolithic. But we sit within all four of them and try to bridge divides. There are bits of Momentum that — if you’re used to more traditional movement things — you might find bureaucratic or compromising. But that’s because it is linked to actually existing labor struggles, which necessarily have degrees of political compromise within them. And it is linked to a political party whose organizational form is still very bureaucratic and 20th century in its political technology. We’ve also had 20 years of centralization within the party under New Labour to strengthen its hierarchy.

So there are tensions between those things. But the benefit of having movements that are associated with parties is that movements can directly influence them, not just from pressure from the outside — which has to carry on, and is very important — but also through having this kind of umbilical link. You can make the party more of a movement party.

I imagine people are talking about what happens after Bernie in the same way that we were talking nine months ago, saying, “He might win, he might not win. Regardless, we’ve got to build something with this.” You’ve got the benefit of the Democratic Party being really hollow, but the drawback of it not having any kind of meaning. If he does win, the campaign needs to open up incredibly quickly into being a citizens’ campaign, with citizen assemblies across the country. He’s not going to be able to pursue his agenda from above.

What kind of space did the general election in May open up, when former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband lost to Prime Minister David Cameron?

I don’t think it started with that election. If you think about the time when Ed Miliband was leader (2010-2015), you saw the “There Is No Alternative” line being rigidly enforced through institutional mechanisms around Europe. Some of those were being challenged from within and outside of Parliament as we got into 2015. That’s what helped Corbyn emerge.

What could this and the rest of Momentum’s experience teach Sanders supporters?

If Sanders doesn’t win you’ve got to decide what the Democratic Party is. Do you want to put a lot of effort into remaking the party? Can it be turned out of its corporatist form, and become a new party of the 21st century that is engaged with movements? Will you run an insurgent campaign at all levels to transform that party? Or will Sanders momentum go into something else?

If he doesn’t win the nomination, the strategy needs to be made clear very early on. Elections are easy to run: they’re time limited, so people know that they can give up a lot of time, but know when that will end. There’s a unifying cause, and because it’s time-limited you can suppress disagreements temporarily. Afterward, when you have a series of goals — some of which may compete for time and energy and people — energy can dissipate. It would be important for some legitimate figure to hold it together. It’d probably have to be Bernie Sanders himself. I understand the problematic elements of saying that you need a singular authority figure in order to launch a sustainable democratic movement, but I think that is the case.

If he does win the nomination, the campaign will carry on as an electoral campaign. It needs to become citizen-based, not party-based — and not Sanders partisan, either. You’re going to need citizens councils, public assemblies and other democratic tools to run alongside it. The party exists for purely electoral purposes. This isn’t really about the party. It is about engagement with the state, and particularly the local state. You’ll need to develop a dual power which is about mobilizing people for the provision of services, and taking quite direct political action within communities to take on a semi-state role. That would give a focus for people who want to push forward the political revolution and make it real and permanent. It would maintain popular support, and it carries an implicit critique of the way the state has been set up and organized.

That’s if he becomes the president. He’ll die if he’s on his own in there. You can’t just use the power of the presidency to negotiate with forces that are antithetical to what you want to do.

It’ll also need popular councils to arrive at policies. Bernie’s been fairly light on the specifics of how he’ll govern. He kind of necessarily has to be. It’s difficult to say, “first we’ll be in a joint process of engaging with and changing the system fundamentally, and through that process will emerge the kind of outcomes you want to see.” You also can’t just say we’ll give 5 percent more spending to education, because that’s not a political revolution. It’s good and that should happen, but it’s not a political revolution.

Outside of an election, how can Momentum influence something like, say, the budget?

If you’re out of power within our system you can’t change policy that much directly, although you can indirectly. The budget is a good example of that. The effect of Corbyn on the political discourse in under a year has been dramatic. Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary — the person who spent the last six years orchestrating cuts — said, in resigning last month, that austerity is more of a political than an economic choice, which is completely the Corbyn line. Now, Smith is on the right of the Conservative Party. He’s not had some kind of left conversion. But Corbyn has moved basic political common sense.

This budget has made the austerity agenda seem both straight-up mean and straight-up incompetent. It’s easy to see the impacts of Corbyn’s leadership on that. For months he argued that our priorities should be different on moral grounds. But then the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, laid out Labour’s alternative economic strategy, and has been bit by bit tearing pieces of the Tory’s economic credibility.

Momentum’s role in that is popularizing and spreading those core themes within society. We’ve got a lot of public political and economic education courses that are starting up around the country. There’s a real thirst for people to get alternative political and economic views; not necessarily to agree with them, but to be able to critically engage. There’s a real feeling among people that, “Some of the consensus might be completely right. Maybe we do need austerity, but I don’t trust the people who are saying it anymore because the system that it supports seems corrupt. And it does seem like there are substantial conflicts of interest, so we want to find out things for ourselves.”

What else is Momentum working on now?

We’ve got 130 groups across the country. Depending on where they are they do different things. Generally, they’ll meet once a month in a community center or town hall and discuss what local campaigns they want to do and collectively run them. There’s a huge diversity of things that people are doing across the country. One thing we need to do way more of is to knit those together more, for mutual support between campaigns but also to show the scale of grassroots political activism that is taking place. It falls below the media radar, but — more importantly — it falls below the radar of other people who might be interested in doing this. If you see that they’re trying to close a ward in your hospital and you know about six other campaigns that are trying to stop the same thing, then you’re way more empowered to do something.

On the national level, we started with the voter registration drive because there’s a kind of gerrymandering taking place, knocking over two million people off the electoral register by changing the way voter registration works. Up next are important local and regional elections, and elections in Scotland and Wales. So we’re doing a lot of traditional campaigning to get people out and voting for Labour candidates.

Last week we put out a survey to our supporters asking what their campaign priorities are. We’ll have a new set of national campaigns that will come out after the May elections. We’re now in support, at the national level, of all sorts of currently running campaigns, particularly the junior doctors strike.

How are those campaigns going?

You definitely can’t put this all down to Corbyn, but he has lit something. The junior doctors strike is an industrial action supported by two-thirds of the population. Britain’s steel industry is currently under threat of being completely closed down, and something like 62 percent of people want it to be nationalized. Eighteen percent don’t, and the rest don’t know. Nationalization is the argument being put forward by John McDonnell, and it’s got overwhelming support.

These are arguments that have not been put forward in Britain in a very long time. And now they’re getting an airing. That’s not to say that all we need to do is talk about socialism and then suddenly everyone will like socialism. There are still not the social blocs developed yet in society that are in a position to be able to actively transform it. But these are both big advances in that direction.

Any last words of advice to people who want to see the Sanders campaign’s momentum move forward?

Whatever happens, build on the thing that reduces the structural power gap between you and the real enemy, which isn’t the Clintonite, plutocratic wing of the Democrats. For Sanders, that’s the ability to have half-a-million people who are doing some kind of activism weekly, a highly decentralized ability to raise money, etc. Whether he wins the nomination or not, the campaign needs to clearly articulate the political strategy of this movement. And then, of course, figure out how people in the movement can then engage with the strategy and try to change it.

Another thing is that you’ve got to decide what the relationship is to the Democratic Party, in a variety of ways. If you’ve got half a million people you are the biggest movement of people being active. But how do you engage with all the other movements that are transforming the country? How does the Sanders movement relate to Black Lives Matter? Who does it relate to in the Fight for $15?

Meet the lead organizer behind the upcoming mass sit-ins to get money out of politics

by Simon Davis-Cohen

Democracy Spring marchers on their 10-day trek to Washington, D.C. (Twitter/Every Voice)

On April 2, more than a hundred marchers calling for an end to big money politics set off from Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell toward the nation’s capitol. They will arrive in Washington, D.C. on April 11, where they will launch mass nonviolent sit-ins lasting through April 18. According to 99Rise, the organizers behind the actions, 3,355 people have pledged to risk arrest. The support is the product of years of coalition-building and public outreach, like the open letter signed by Zephyr Teachout, Joan Mandle, Lawrence Lessig and others calling for civil disobedience.

Democracy Spring, as this campaign is being called, has garnered the support of over 100 endorsing organizations and individuals — like the AFL-CIO and Umi Selah, formerly Phillip Agnew, of Dream Defenders — and it’s steering committee includes the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, United States Student Association, Avaaz, Energy Action Coalition, Democracy Matters, and MAYDAY.US. I sat down with 99Rise organizer Kai Newkirk to discuss this month’s actions and what is to come for this powerful new coalition.

Why the actions this April?

Strategically, we feel like we need to confront this crisis of corruption in our democracy in a way that exposes it, focuses media attention on it, moves people to take sides and activates the public. A vast majority of people are what you could call passive supporters — they haven’t been moved to active participation. We want to create a moment of confrontation and crisis that dramatizes the issue and moves people to take a stand, and to feel an emotional allegiance to one side or another. We want to shift the political weather around this subject, and in our view nothing is as effective historically for doing so as mass nonviolent direct action on a significant scale, and in a sustained manor.

Your materials say the action will “demand Congress immediately pass comprehensive legislation to end the era of big-money politics.” What will be your response if Congress does not pass legislation?

Conventional wisdom tells us that with the Republican leadership in Congress, nothing will happen. But we want to challenge that resignation or acceptance that that is something other than scandalous. When a vast majority of Americans, including Republicans, feel that money and wealth are far too powerful in our system and that they don’t have a voice, and when the leaders who are supposed to represent the people aren’t doing anything about it — we feel that’s unacceptable. We want to ask people if they think these people are fit to represent us. We want there to be a political price to pay for anyone who defends the status quo of corruption. We want to force them to defend that status quo out in the light of day, and under a media spotlight.

We feel that we can win regardless of whether they take action or not. Of course it’s a victory if they do act. But we think that even if they don’t act there’s a victory to be won by focusing the attention of the nation on this problem, on the fact that there are solutions, and exposing the resistance of those who refuse to do anything and who in effect defend the corrupt status quo. If they don’t have a solution to offer, are they saying that people do have an equal voice in our democracy?

If we can move people and candidates to take a stand on this issue in the midst of this election season, by mobilizing this historic demonstration of popular will for change, which it will be, then it will send a message that the American people demand change. We believe that we’ll be able to create a political cost of defending the status quo and a political benefit to those who step up and commit to fight for reform. The goal is not to move the public — they’re already on our side — the goal is to change the political weather. That’s a victory we can win regardless of whether Congress takes action. Because even if they do move to pass a reform, the fight won’t be over.

How are you planning on keeping the coalition together, and growing and strengthening it for the long haul?

First of all I think that we have already taken this huge step in building the coalition. There’s a breadth of the movement that’s perhaps unprecedented in recent history. The groups have different levels of comfort surrounding direct action, but we’re working closely together. If you look at the mobilization as a whole, moving so many groups to get on board is huge. We’ve consolidated much of the progressive movement’s organizations. We’re even bringing conservatives in. John Pudner from Take Back Our Republic is going to join the march and is publishing an article in defense of the campaign.

If we’re able to create this moment where the public is captivated by the issue, if we feel that we’ve begun to turn the tide for movement on this issue, then that is going to strengthen and solidify all the relationships that have already been built between the organizations, and make them feel excited about moving forward together.

The principles of unity that we’ve put together for Democracy Spring could be adapted to maintain a broader formation that continues to allow people to collaborate and be in relationship with one another, but we have to see how things go and take it one step at a time. Because had we insisted that there be a longer-term unity as a condition of participating in the campaign then it would have been much harder for people to buy in. So we wanted to get people to buy in and commit to take this big step together, and if that step goes well then we can figure out the rest.

This is an opportunity to test our relationships with people “across the isle” by going into action with each other, even if it’s at a minimal level. Where we say we have these great disagreements but let’s try to work together on this issue, and we can fight the rest out on a fair playing field.

Local and state ballot initiatives to establish public funding for campaigns and to limit campaign donations are popping up across the country. This progressive issue however is not the only one now turning to the ballot initiative to make gains. Increasingly, 15 Now, the anti-fracking movement, those advocating for marijuana legalization and others are also using the initiative process. What do you think about working with these allies to protect and expand the very direct democratic processes these movements increasingly lean on?

I’m sure there is space to organize around that, but whether we would see that as a strategic priority is another question. We’re focusing on shifting the political weather around these issues, because when you do that you supercharge all the local fights. Look at Occupy Wall Street, and what that did for the moral issue of economic inequality. If you look at September 1, 2011 to December 1, 2011, and how the people and media treated the issue of economic inequality, it’s night and day — it’s a completely different world. Everything after that is different. Without that you don’t have the Fight for $15, you don’t have the millionaire’s tax ballot initiative in California, you don’t have the Bernie Sanders campaign and a slew of other things we’ve seen since then.

That’s what we’re trying to do on this issue. And if we do so, then the institutional fights that are happening right now will be dramatically accelerated and empowered, if we’re able to have that kind of success.

A lot has been written about the left’s failure to form powerful interstate coalitions to challenge the likes of the American Legislative Exchange Council. For example, many are hoping the progressive State Innovation Exchange, or SiX, will help to fill this void. How do you think the coalitions you are working to build can fit into this context?

Well, I think it’s a very different animal. We’re trying to bring people together as a vehicle to support campaigns of escalating nonviolent action. It’s about generating momentum. It’s totally complimentary to something like SiX, which is about building a long-term institutional infrastructure that connects resources with legislators, organizations and communities to advance a whole range of policies.

I’m not an expert on these efforts on the left to challenge ALEC at the state level, but I can say that one of our strengths is that we have more of a tradition of nonviolent direct action, civil disobedience and popular movements than the right does. And we need to play to our strengths: pursuing the truth and the moral high ground, mobilizing everyday people, and using our power through escalation and non-cooperation to challenge the status quo with a moral vision. That’s what we’re tapping into with Democracy Spring, because I don’t think progressive change can come in our country without leveraging the resources that we have. The Koch Brothers and Goldman Sachs are never going to have a passionate army of people that are willing to volunteer for them openly. Our movements do.

The momentum of the Bernie Sanders campaign has inspired a multitude of insurgent candidates to run for office across the country. How do you see this momentum as tied to your goals, and how can you work with these candidates?

First, I have to be clear that Democracy Spring is a non-partisan campaign — we’re open to all political parties and candidates. The movement has to be independent, not only from parties but from particular candidates. We’re trying to shift the political playing field on which all candidates are competing. That said, there’s no question that Sanders is speaking powerfully to these issues, and is doing something extraordinary. His campaign is kind of the defiant exception to the entrenched rule of big money-driven politics. I think he’s mobilizing in an incredible way, and many of the participants of our campaign are big Sanders supporters, including myself. But that’s my personal decision. The Democracy Spring campaign is bringing people from all political backgrounds together. From the left and right. And people who are committed to Hillary Clinton — whatever their reasons are, it doesn’t matter; if they’re committed to fighting on this issue, then we’re committed to working together. We want to move all candidates to our side, to endorse the movement.

We’re developing a tool for candidates to endorse the movement, a pledge or a statement, which commits them to supporting reform. We want there to be a standard for candidates to support the movement, so the movement can support them when it comes time for elections. But we’ll have to feel out how that will work as we move forward.

What happens after April?

The most important thing is to participate right now, to help us shift the political weather, help us change the game, because everything else will be easier after that.

We are inspired by the momentum organizing tradition, which is laid out in the book “This Is an Uprising.” We’ll take it one step at a time, and see where we are after the direct action campaign. We will be doing in-depth trainings for people who get inspired by the campaign, so they can lead teams of people that will continue to organize across the country. But we have to see — because it’s a coalition — which organizations want to continue to work together, and how we move forward from here.

But all that’s a moot point if we can’t create a trigger event.

Blessed are the cheesemakers

by Frida Berrigan

I’m not feeling very radical these days. There is not a lot of fighting the power or beating the system or rocking the boat. I am taking care of kids. Right now, that involves a lot of ballet lessons, broccoli summits and fielding questions about superhero characteristics.

“What can Batman do, Mom? Mom!”

“Mooooom? Does he wear leggings, Mom?”

“Does he have a cape?”

“Is there a girl Batman? Mom!”

“Oh yeah, and I am making cheese.”

Blessed are the cheesemakers.

I was reminded of that line from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” last Saturday afternoon, while teaching 20 folks how to make simple cheeses in an Episcopal church hall in New London, Connecticut. Of course, as the rest of the line goes, it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to all manufacturers of dairy products.

I presented cheesemaking as an exercise in self-sufficiency, exploration and embracing mystery. That might strike you as a little too high-minded for the simple act of mixing warm milk and vinegar. But the throng of curious dairy lovers were all on the same page. They were eager to get an introduction to cheesemaking and semi-appreciative of my many curds and whey jokes.

Until relatively recently in human history, making cheese was an intensely local, home or village craft passed down and adapted generation to generation. At its most elemental, cheesemaking is a process of preserving and concentrating a perishable farm product, and there are countless ways to do that. I showed the class how to tackle three — ricotta (milk and vinegar), paneer (milk and citrus) and mozzarella (milk, rennet and citric acid) — in our short time together.

I started making cheese and yogurt at home because our family is on Women, Infants and Children, or WIC — a program that offers nutritional subsidies to families with small children. We have been getting WIC since I was pregnant with Seamus (now nearly 4) and can stay on it until Madeline (who just turned 2) is 5. Every month, we get vouchers for six gallons of milk, and — because the vouchers require you to purchase everything all at once — we often get two or three gallons at a time. That is a lot of milk for our slightly lactose-intolerant family. I grew up on powdered milk (which is so gross) and never had a hankering for a tall glass of milk. Our kids drink it occasionally, and we pour it on our cereal (of course), but we’d never consume six gallons a month. So, I turned to yogurt and then to cheese as a way of getting it into our kids’ bodies.

Every time I make it, I feel the magic. I know it is science — all about fat and sugar molecules (or something) and good bacteria. But there is a “Wow, I can’t believe that worked” moment that puts me in touch with my ancestors 200 years ago, who made cheese in between hauling water, chopping firewood, tending their gardens and staving off disease. They would not be impressed by me, but I am trying.

What’s more, making cheese — even the really simple cheeses — puts me in touch with how strange our relationship to food is in the United States. There are hundreds of cooking shows on TV, thousands of new cookbooks each year (Gwyneth Paltrow has one coming out this month) and — get this — no one cooks any more.

Well, that is not entirely true, but in March, for the first time ever (at least since the Commerce Department started paying attention), people in the United States spent more money in restaurants and bars than at grocery stores. That is sort of staggering, isn’t it? At least for our eating-out-once-a-month (maybe) family.

Are those restaurant denizens the same folks who would drop $30 on the “Skinnytaste Cookbook”? Or buy the “Thug Kitchen Official Cookbook” (whose subtitle is “Eat Like you Give a F*ck,” for a list price of $25.99)? And are they the same people who are always on a diet? Forty-five million Americans are dieting right now, and that is not just eating less and exercising more — it is also spending $33 billion on books, apps, gym memberships, boxed low-calorie meals, special shakes and inspiration (according to the Boston Medical Center estimates). See what I mean about a strange relationship with food and with food-like substances? The average person in this country gets nearly 60 percent of their daily energy intake and about 90 percent of their added sugar from “ultra-processed” foods (even with all that buying cookbooks and going on diets).

I like how making cheese from free milk that the government gives me allows me to circumvent this whole twisted economy of food, convenience and fear of fatness. But then I think about milk — where it comes from, how it gets from a lactating cow to a gallon jug in my shopping cart — and I know I am caught in a whole other twisted food web.

Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University, tried to teach a class on the Farm Bill and realized that it was too dense, too political and too contradictory to add up to sensible food policy. Many aspects of the Farm Bill are in direct conflict with the goals of healthy living, sustainable agriculture or food security. If you tried to eat a plate of the Farm Bill, she writes in In These Times, you’d be scolded by your doctor because “more than three-quarters of your plate would be taken up by a massive corn fritter (80 percent of benefits go to corn, grains and soy oil). You’d have a Dixie cup of milk (dairy gets 3 percent), a hamburger the size of a half dollar (livestock: 2 percent), two peas (fruits and vegetables: 0.45 percent) and an after-dinner cigarette (tobacco: 2 percent). Oh, and a really big linen napkin (cotton: 13 percent) to dab your lips.”

Yuck. No wonder cheese is the most shoplifted item in the world (bet those of you who don’t listen to “Science Friday” on NPR didn’t know that).

I still have a lot to learn about food and food policy, but — in the meantime— this is how you make cheese: Pour milk in heavy bottomed pot, add salt and bring to a boil. Stir in a few tablespoons of vinegar. Let it sit for a minute and then strain through cheesecloth. Half an hour later, you are noshing on delicious ricotta. Now that’s radical.

Who can afford the status quo?

by Kate Aronoff

Embed from Getty Images

In a controversial tweet taken from a speech in Harlem this week, Hillary Clinton argued that “Some folks may have the luxury to hold out for the perfect. But a lot of Americans are hurting right now and they can’t wait for that.” Aside from its troubling implication that society’s worst off are damned to settle on sub-par candidates and policies, Clinton’s statement disregards the history of this country’s most transformative social movements.

The millions left unemployed by the Great Depression were hurting plenty, and they marched 10,000 strong to the capitol before rallying around the country — demanding relief from poverty considered politically impossible. Also hurting were the organizers of the black freedom movement, who — facing state and vigilante violence — made radical dents to Jim Crow, ending legal segregation across the United States.

The real question for 2016 is: Who can afford the status quo? There are small groups of people making out just fine under gaping racial and economic inequality, for whom supporting Clinton and the establishment politics she represents is a relatively safe bet. When it comes to climate change, though, the answer is literally no one.

Leading climate scientists couldn’t be clearer on this. As Justin Gillis reported for the New York Times yesterday, new research published in Nature has found that three-foot sea level rise —once thought to be hundreds or thousands of years off — could happen within decades, eviscerating all coastal cities. Rising tides, Gillis writes, would be “so high it would likely provoke a profound crisis within the lifetimes of children being born today.” New York City’s chances of surviving its next 400 years are “remote,” in line with risks faced by London, Hong Kong, Sydney and elsewhere.

The authors of this study, meanwhile, see a path out of near-certain destruction. Relaying scientists findings, Gillis writes that, “A far more stringent effort to limit emissions of greenhouse gases would stand a fairly good chance of saving West Antarctica from collapse.”

The problem is that the most ambitious international agreement to curb warming — announced at the U.N. climate negotiations in Paris last December — is woefully ill-equipped to deal such a blow to business as usual. In a best case scenario, where every nation signed on to the Paris Agreement fulfills all of its commitments, temperatures will still rise by at least 2.7 degrees Celsius — far more than the threshold we need to undershoot in order to avert global catastrophe.

Meanwhile, the settlement Clinton’s statement suggests is one taking place on the fossil fuel industry’s terms. As Greenpeace has pointed out, her 2016 campaign — via super PACs — has received some $4.5 million from fossil fuel lobbyists and large donors, and hundreds of thousands more from industry executives and their allies. Challenged on that point by a bird dogger this week, Clinton lost her usual campaign cool, berating a young activist to say, “I am so sick of the Sanders campaign lying about me.” The activist, notably, is not formally affiliated with the Sanders’ campaign.

“Luxury,” in the midst of the climate crisis, is survival. Although we all face a certain end from continued emissions, particular swaths of humanity are already particularly screwed. Unsurprisingly, those communities have also been the ones fighting back the strongest against warming and the fossil fuel interests driving it. Representatives from the Global South have consistently been the loudest voices calling for the stringent emissions reductions that science demands, chanting, “1.5 [degrees Celsius cap on warming] to survive” when walking out of the doomed U.N. climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009. In the United States, it was indigenous activists and ranchers who drove the fight against the “carbon bomb” Keystone XL pipeline, even as Clinton continued to push for it from her post in the State Department.

A lot of Americans are hurting right now, and they stand to hurt even more if fossil fuel companies get their way. Fortunately, the climate justice movement isn’t holding out for anyone.

How an underground hip hop artist and his book club threaten Angola’s regime

by Phil Wilmot

Angolan rapper Luaty Beirão, also known as Ikonoklasta. (Facebook / Luaty Beirão)

On Monday, 17 Angolan activists received sentences ranging from two to eight-and-a-half years in jail for participating in a book club that was discussing Gene Sharp’s “From Dictatorship to Democracy.” Far from being just an isolated act of dissent, their book club was actually an escalation of a decade-plus conflict between Africa’s second-longest-serving president Jose Eduardo dos Santos and young Angolans seeking a brighter, more democratic future.

The conflict was sparked on November 26, 2003, when a car washer in the capital city of Luanda was caught singing a politically defiant tune by popular Angolan rapper MCK. Presidential guard soldiers seized the young man, Arsénio Sebastião. Against the cries of onlookers, they tied his arms behind his back and marched him out to the Atlantic Ocean.

While the presidential guard soldiers had intended to cultivate a climate of fear in the Luanda population, they may have done quite the opposite. The drowned Sebastião’s martyrdom continues to fuel the flames of a growing citizens’ movement in his homeland.

DIY hip hop builds a decentralized movement

At the time of Sebastião’s execution, hip hop artist MCK was still a university student. Other rappers like Brigadeiro 10 Pacotes and Dioniso Casimiro would never be featured on Radio Nacional de Angola. They were forced to develop their own methods of distributing their art.

Self-piracy became the popular avenue for the dissemination of conscious rap music, quickly gaining popularity in a nation formerly subjected to guerrilla warfare, the ripple-effects of the communist collapse and Portuguese colonization.

“Guess it’s true what they say: The forbidden fruit is the most desired,” Luaty Beirão, also known by his stage name Ikonoklasta, told Okay Africa in 2012. “Nowadays you have a totally ridiculous phenomenon where underground artists sell more records on release day than pop trashcan artists who get promoted to exhaustion in public and private media ever do.”

Despite the state’s efforts to withdraw sponsorships and subsidies from pro-people hip hop artists, they continue to use the Internet, flash disks, blank CDs, taxi operators and street vendors to distribute their tracks. Spaces such as the “University of Hip Hop” in Luanda’s outskirts and local NGOs like Omunga have been established in recent years to activate the consciousness of youth through Angola’s most defiant genre.

Beirão hadn’t noticed the power of his own art form until he was arrested in March of 2011. A policeman at the station sat down next to him, reciting the lyrics to one of his songs.

Angola 15 perform hunger strike

Beirão continued to tally arrests in the years that followed, including one on June 20, 2015 when he met with a book club that would soon be dubbed the “Angola 15.” Among those present were Domingos da Cruz, author of “Tools to Destroy a Dictator and Avoid a New Dictatorship” and Nito Alves, who had been placed in solitary confinement at age 17 for selling shirts describing dos Santos — valued at more than $20 billion after hoarding Angola’s oil wealth — as a disgusting dictator.

In addition to da Cruz’s own text, the club was discussing Sharp’s “From Dictatorship to Democracy.” Tipped off about the meeting, state agents moved in for the arrests.

On September 15, when the terms of their imprisonment were still unclear, the Angola 15 announced a hunger strike protesting the injustice. The strike would continue for two weeks before most of the members resumed eating. As the most publicly visual member of the team, Beirão continued to the 36th day, a day for every year of dos Santos’ regime.

In October, 20 activists holding a vigil calling for the release of those confined without trial were also arrested. The tie between political consciousness and hip hop strengthened to the extent that the head of Human Rights Foundation Thor Halvorseen wrote to Nicki Minaj, asking her to cancel her Christmas season performance for dos Santos’ family. One part of the letter read, “As a strong-willed independent artist, shouldn’t you be advocating for the release of the imprisoned rapper, rather than entertaining the dictator and his thieving family?”

 Nicki Minaj later posted pictures of her time spent with the elite dos Santos family on social media, praising Isabel dos Santos for being the world’s eighth most wealthy woman.

Book club resumes, activists sentenced for coup plot

The prolonged remand did nothing to crush the spirits of the Angola 15, and indeed their numbers began increasing. The book club convened again this March, resulting in another group arrest. This time, the activists were produced in court on March 28, each suspect receiving a multiple-year sentence.

Beirão received a five-and-a-half year sentence for rebelling against the president, falsified documents and criminal association. Da Cruz received the longest sentence — cited by the court as the group’s “leader” — with eight-and-a-half years for coup-planning.

Civil society organizations have already launched statements of condemnation concerning the arrests. According to Amnesty International director for Southern Africa, Deprose Muchena, “The activists have been wrongly convicted in a deeply politicized trial. They are the victims of a government determined to intimidate anyone who dares to question its repressive policies.”

Luaty Beirão after the hunger strike. (Facebook / Luaty Beirão)

The court ruled that each activist must pay more than $300 in legal fees. That’s in a country where 70 percent of Angolans live on less than $2 per day. Various NGOs have called for the prompt release of the prisoners of conscience.

A new Angola

The oil-powered, blood-diamond-hungry dos Santos regime has no effective means of curtailing the politically-critical sounds of Angola’s hip hop underground. Although Beirão and his alleged co-conspirators are behind bars, his music videos — which include footage from Angola’s civil war and world-renowned acts of civil disobedience like Vietnam’s burning monk and China’s one-man tank blockade — are still circulating freely across YouTube.

At the same time, Beirão’s wife Mónica Almeida has released a video condemning the court’s decisions. Personal safety is no longer much of a consideration for Almeida. “What more do I have to lose?” she asks.

The question is valid for all residents of Angola. After their land and resources were given to Portugal in the 19th century, and then later considered a personal asset of the ruling family, Angolans young and old are wondering whether political change is actually possible. Although dos Santos has pledged to step down in 2018, he has broken similar promises in the past.

Before his trial, Beirão said, “What will happen will be what the president decides … We all know and understand how it works … If [dos Santos] decides so, let’s be found guilty. We are mentally prepared to be found guilty.”

Arrestees Nito Alves and Nuno Dala are physically weak, but their spirits remain strong. Perhaps another hunger strike — or another creative action — will soon follow. In the meantime, the books by Sharp and da Cruz are waiting to be read by a new batch of activists, ready to take up the struggle of leading Angolans to a brighter, more democratic future.

What Trump protesters can learn from the civil rights movement

by George Lakey

Demonstrators at the 1963 March on Washington.

My recent challenging of the strategic effectiveness of protesting Trump events — if the goal is actually to undermine Trump — has brought a storm upon my head. It has also stimulated discussion by many and led me to a greater appreciation of the courage and initiative taken by the protesters.

At the same time, I think we can do better, and welcome the demands I’ve received to suggest alternatives. One of my favorites is to figure out what my opponent wants me to do, and then refuse to do it. A little-known but dramatic example of this tactic comes from Alabama in 1955, where white supremacy was virtually unchallenged until Montgomery black people launched a bus boycott.

The Ku Klux Klan decided to ride through the African American community to scare people into getting back on the buses. The Klan’s threats by mail and phone had been increasing: to burn down 50 homes in a single night, and to hang Martin Luther King Jr. from a tree. The King family house had already been bombed; fortunately no one was hurt.

“Ordinarily,” as King recalled later, “threats of Klan action were a signal to the Negroes to go into their houses, close the doors, pull the shades, or turn off the lights. Fearing death, they played dead. But this time they had prepared a surprise. When the Klan arrived – according to the newspapers ‘about 40 carloads of robed and hooded members’ – porch lights were on and doors open. As the Klan drove by, the Negroes behaved as though they were watching a circus parade. Concealing the effort it cost them, any walked about as usual; some simply watched from their steps; a few waved at the passing cars. After a few blocks, the Klan, nonplused, turned off into a sidestreet and disappeared into the night.”

This is called noncooperation, which some believe is the heart of nonviolent power. It’s consistent with Kate Aronoff’s recent call for us to get creative and put on as good a show as entertainer Trump can produce.

The Klan wanted African Americans to show how scared they were by violent white supremacy, so Montgomery blacks turned the Klan’s threat into a picnic.

In New Zealand a racist right-wing group has been holding an annual march for many years, with a counter-demonstration by the left gaining traction each year. The event is covered by the media. Last year the leftist activists went on strike and refused to show up to do their protest thing. The march turned into a non-event and the media didn’t bother to cover it.

The bottom line is: Find out what the opponent wants you to do and refuse to do it. If your opponent wants you to come to work, strike. If the banker wants to do business quietly and efficiently, fill the bank lobby with Quakers praying and singing. If the homophobes count on LGBTQ people to stay in the closet, come out. If middle-class professionals want you to stay in your working-class closet — a pressure I experienced in an Ivy League grad school — come out as working class. The power is in the noncooperation.

Noncooperation tactics are only powerful when you know what your opponent wants or needs from you. That’s when your refusal to cooperate pressures them to change. As far as we know historically, the working class has used this strategy the most, through boycotts and strikes. In fact, the earliest known nonviolent campaign in history was Egyptian workers refusing to continue to build the Pharoah’s tomb until they got a living wage.

In the Trump campaign, who is our opponent?

I was moved by the Waging Nonviolence interview with Ben Laughlin, a working-class white organizer who was protesting Trump’s event in Arizona. Laughlin’s father, like my brother, finds in Trump a rebel voice for his own anger against the major parties’ participation in the running down of his country and people like him. I believe that millions of Trump supporters are like them and are willing to tolerate Trump’s offenses against their personal standards because he voices their central concern so emphatically. Are Trump’s supporters the opponent of the protesters? I hope not, since I agree that they deserve a voice (I value democracy), and I agree with much of their grievance.

Perhaps, then, opponents are the ambition of Trump himself. He has different interests from most of his supporters. He also has an agenda that gives our protests a prominent place. He wants drama, which is enhanced by our protests and his threats. He also wants to appear to be defending himself against forces that want to throttle his voice, because that defense rallies his supporters all the more. Kate Aronoff cited a Monmouth University poll of Florida Republicans that found only 11 percent were less likely to back Trump after hearing about what happened in Chicago, and double that number were more likely to support him.

Trump’s third goal is to brand us as the enemy in the eyes of his supporters. He’s looking ahead. If he’s elected, he’ll make deals with the 1 percent and his party chiefs in order to govern, no problem. He’ll want to use us as scapegoats along with others he’s named. It’s useful if his supporters believe that elite leftists are entranced by political correctness and eager to look down on ordinary people, his base. That’s why he accused Sanders of fomenting the Chicago rally’s cancellation. That’s why he wants us to protest.

Arizona trans organizer Laughlin wants to reach out to his people — white working-class people — who support Trump. For him, protesting Trump events has that meaning. He also says it’s a chance to “take a stand against racism.” Significantly, when interviewer Caitlin Breedlove asks him about the impact of the protests, he says “boldness” matters, and adds that “It’s on us to put the time and energy into engaging white working-class folks in all sorts of ways and really getting to the heart of what’s drawing them to Trump.”

The good news is that there is a far more effective way to be bold, and it’s a method that invites us to put in the time and energy to relate to working-class people: Organize nonviolent direct campaigns for racial and economic justice.

Beyond rhetoric and reactivity

Montgomery’s black community knew when it was smart not to cooperate with the KKK game plan. They also wanted much more than to reduce the polluted atmosphere of racist rhetoric and threat. They wanted racial justice, a different matter. They made an analysis of who could yield to their pro-active demand, and found a strategy for sustaining the pressure to win.

In short, they waged a campaign with a clear, achievable goal for institutional change. Many campaigns followed, and spurred a broader movement that went well beyond who can occupy which seats in buses and lunch counters. The movement raised fundamental questions about U.S. society, while fighting to make a difference for people’s life chances. The historic 1963 March on Washington, which included a remarkable number of white working-class people, was for “jobs and freedom.” As long as that basic strategy held, the country changed despite the increased level of Ku Klux Klan and state terrorist activity.

The freedom movement’s targeted campaigns scared the 1 percent who saw that campaigns do raise more radical questions than their specific goals. That worry among our rulers was confirmed in the 1970s when the victorious campaign-based movement against nuclear power awakened questions about basic capitalist assumptions. The frightened 1 percent then launched the Reagan Revolution, and the progressives (except for the LGBT movement) mistakenly went on the defensive.

Our U.S. historic experience, in short, is that the most effective way to fight white supremacy (which of course is intertwined with capitalism and imperialism) is to ground the struggle in concrete, nonviolent direct action campaigns. If Southern black people had focused their attention on the ugly bigotry they heard every day, they would still be riding the back of the bus. Real justice was more important to most of them than an atmosphere superficially cleansed of racist rhetoric. It still is.

The strategic means for undermining Trump is to erode his base by creating campaigns that fight for the positives that most of his base wants and deserves: a just society for all.

Campaigning in a more hopeful context

Most nonviolent direct action campaigns start locally and extend as participants grow in skills and courage and others see successes. Going national is sometimes smart, and in the case of Bernie Sanders — with his own white working-class supporters and the use of the word “revolution” — contributes to accelerating change.

As students learned in the movements for South African divestment and boycotting sweatshop-made clothes, and the Dreamers and the Coalition for the Immokalee Workers demonstrate, campaigns ground participants, help them become practical and learn to strategize.

Our campaigns will face opposition and sometimes that will come with violent threat. That’s a good time to study the civil rights movement, which faced something far worse than we’re likely to: the most deeply-rooted and widespread terrorist organization in U.S. history. I realize that white people can be resistant to learning from black experience, but in this case the stakes are very high. We whites need to do whatever it takes to get humble and learn from what worked for the nonviolent freedom movement.

Faced with a foe far worse than Donald Trump, civil rights workers in the Deep South “kept their eye on the prize” — making concrete gains for justice. They did not spend their time protesting the Klan’s Grand Wizard. They pro-actively built power behind their own demands, and fought nonviolently for their own goals. As long as they continued that path, they forced large shifts, although King’s leading strategist Bayard Rustin kept warning: If you don’t tackle the economy head-on, we’ll still have terrible racism in 50 years. (Obviously, he was right.)

Insofar as we learn from their example we will find, as the anti-nukers of the 1970s discovered, that fundamental questions about the construction of our society do emerge in a compelling and grounded way. Our advantage is that their work and that of successor movements enable us to start from a higher place. We can take into account the successes and mistakes of our comrades, and this time move the struggle much farther.

When working-class white people close the road to Trump

by Caitlin Breedlove

Ben Laughlin, an organizer with Puente Arizona, at the March 19 protest blocking the road to Trump’s rally. (WNV / Caitlin Breedlove)

When Republican frontrunner Donald Trump announced he would be holding a campaign rally with Arizona’s notorious anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoenix earlier this month, migrant justice organizers with Puente Arizona, Mijente and Not One More Deportation decided something needed to be done. So, on March 19, they organized a peaceful blockade of the two main highways leading to the park where Trump’s rally was to be held. On one highway — with many people headed to the rally — dozens of protesters (myself included) blocked several lanes of traffic. Three people were arrested after chaining themselves to cars. This was all part of an action we affectionately called “Closing the road to Trump.”

The civil disobedience took place in Fountain Hills, Arizona, an enclave of wealthy, white conservatives. As protesters — particularly a mix of working-class and poor people of color, LGBTQ people and people of faith — we were scared to take this action, but felt that nonviolent civil disobedience was needed to oppose Trump and inspire others to act.

Among the three arrestees was Ben Laughlin — a young working-class trans man. He lives in Phoenix, works at a local restaurant, and volunteers his time organizing with Puente Arizona. In a recent conversation with Ben about our experience protesting Trump, he discussed the need to recognize Trump as a symptom of much larger issues at play, the importance of white people taking responsibility and getting involved in the struggle, and the idea that none of this work can be done by any one group or leader.

Why did you think it was so important for you to confront Trump in this moment as a working-class white trans person?

I grew up in rural Iowa, and almost all of my family still lives there. In July, I had a conversation with my dad, asking him who he was leaning towards in the presidential campaign. I knew the answer before I even asked, but I wanted to hear why. “Trump,” he said. “Because I’m so sick of the status quo. He seems like he could actually get something done.” And I understood. I understood the frustration and anger that come from busting your ass everyday, and things still suck.

People in power in the United States have been scapegoating poor people and people of color from the moment Europeans set foot on this land. For me, it is really important that I am trying to meet my people where they’re at and have real conversations about that frustration and anger. We have to dig into the misplaced hate and misguided, destructive solutions Trump is putting forward together. Trump speaks in a way that resonates with us, but you can best believe that when push comes to shove he doesn’t care about white working-class people at all. I want to validate my family’s real anger, while also exposing the scapegoating, misplaced hate and fear mongering. If we recognize Trump as a symptom of much larger issues at play, then we have the opportunity to not only organize against him coming into presidential power, but to also organize towards the world we want. Nothing would make my heart happier than seeing working-class white people on the right side of history in this moment.

Many people say our blockade (and acts like it) just harden white working-class people behind Trump and feed into his power. Why do you disagree? What logic are you working from?

I think escalation like this can be really powerful for folks who are on the fence or just beginning to lean in. For me, it’s always powerful to see a person like me doing bold things; it always brings me a little deeper into the movement and expands what I think is possible, for myself and for the world. When I recognize some part of myself in someone else, I’m more likely to pay attention. If people read me or know me as a white working-class person, I think there’s an opportunity to push the conversation a little further, to dig in a little deeper.

It may be true to a certain degree of white working-class people who are already staunch Trump supporters. I think blockades and the like are just one necessary tactic of many. It’s on us to put the time and energy into engaging white working-class folks in all sorts of ways and really getting to the heart of what’s drawing them to Trump, what they think they are going to get from him, and what they aren’t getting now that they need.

What led to your decision to put yourself on the line in this action?

A lot of things led to that moment. We knew that we were putting ourselves into a dangerous and potentially violent situation. The reality was that angry white people were going be less likely to harm and harass white people locked down to cars than if brown people had been locked down. It was a situation and an opportunity where it made sense for white people to visibly and physically take a stand against racism and confront and refute the fear-mongering put forward by the right.

For me, it was also about my family, my home and the long history of white people choosing to align ourselves with whiteness to gain power. I wholeheartedly believe working-class and poor white people have a real stake in dismantling white supremacy and racial capitalism. The allure of aligning with whiteness is powerful; as working-class white people we need to expose this force for the deadly lie that it is and be organizing our people against it with everything we have.

White activists are often excellent at cutting each other down. When we need to be precise, we are instead exacting. When we need to be nuanced, we are instead the political purity police. How do you think we can do a better job building relationships between white people in the work for social change?

The white folks who brought me into the movement in a real way listened to me spout a whole lot of crap and pushed back sometimes gently, sometimes bluntly, but they always listened and never shamed. They validated my experiences as a working-class white person in a sea of upper-class people while teaching me about the Black Panther Party. They housed me when I didn’t have a house. They talked me through the terribly dark places that came with being trans and working class, and celebrated queerness with me when I thought it was a death sentence. I guess what I’m saying is I think we have to put time in with each other. It’s going to be slow. It’s got to be. It’s so urgent: People are dying unnecessarily every day, but in the resistance and fighting and dismantling, we are building new ways of caring for each other.

No one organization can do it all, or be the big tent. No one leader can do it. What do you find most challenging about the white-on-white progressive organizing happening now?

There are many shared experiences and privileges across whiteness, but when it comes to white-on-white organizing, we can’t just lump ourselves together solely by the bands of whiteness and expect it to hold.

Erasing class from the conversation is a grave mistake. When we limit our stake in this work to being just about “love and humanity” we are actually taking what makes our work live and breathe out of the picture. I think we have to dig deeper.

There are real things poor and working-class white people need. We can be brought together around that stuff. Our stake in this work looks different than that of middle- and upper-class white people. We need access to healthcare, safe and stable housing, work that isn’t destroying our bodies. Like here in Phoenix, the Phoenix Police Department — one of the most murderous in the country — without a doubt disproportionately kills black and brown people. But just counting the number of folks killed, there are by far more poor white men, usually homeless and in a mental health crisis, murdered than anybody else.

I want us to be more honest about what it will take to really build with poor white people. Saying it is happening does not make it so. It will take time and energy. Upper- and middle-class white people sort of have a spiritual death grip on how this “white on white” organizing work is framed: They have so much invested, often, in being “good white people.” This is going to take more than that. White poor and working-class people have a much better sense about what can move “people like us” than white middle- and upper-class people do.

As someone whose family is white and now also middle class, I watch how “trying to help” often means trying to control people, agendas and things. We could do so much better if we had real genuine cross-class work. What are we forgetting in this moment that we need to remember?

We need to get real about the fact that we didn’t make this “movement of white people for anti-racism” happen. It was the organizing of Black Lives Matter, the #Not1More campaign and other critical work. We have an opportunity to build out this work, but it’s coming off the shoulders and backs of black and brown people. So our work is to flank, resource, and support that work’s leadership and develop white leftist organizers through doing so.

Ecuador’s social movements push back against Correa’s neoliberalism

by Bryan Miranda

Workers march to put pressure on Correa’s government to ensure labor rights are protected in the face of neoliberal austerity measures. (WNV/Elizabeth Farinango)

“Out Correa, out!” was the resounding chant of indignation that flared up the streets across Ecuador on March 17 to demand an end to what many have come to see as a deceptive authoritarian government personified by President Rafael Correa.

The protest, called for by the Workers Unitary Front and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or CONAIE, united feminists, students, workers, environmentalists and indigenous groups in the first nationwide coordinated demonstration against Correa since last summer.

But unlike last year, the crowds were smaller and the protest short and peaceful. It had failed to capture the kind of momentum from last June when the upper echelons of Ecuadorian society galvanized the streets to protest against a tax inheritance law that threatened to redistribute their wealth. The reform was a strategic opportunity for the wealthy to tap into the pent up anger and frustration of the people at large, who have been hit hardest by Ecuador’s current economic crisis.

Following a summer of protest, the tax reform was halted and Correa was forced to announce he wouldn’t run in the 2017 general election, one of the main demands from the coalition formed between the business class, workers and indigenous groups.

A much more tame protest last week was proof Ecuador’s rich and powerful had no interest in showing up for the popular classes when it’s not to their benefit.

After all, labor unions and indigenous groups coordinated the national march to push back against a set of neoliberal reforms that in fact benefit the country’s elites.

One major reform at the heart of protest is flexibility of labor, a newly passed law set to empower employers to tailor contracts according to their needs, including reducing and increasing working hours and pay as they see fit.

Marching through Quito’s colonial city center with a cohort of his union that energized the crowds with age-old chants like “Hasta la victoria siempre,” Luis Mera, a union worker, said that the new labor reforms will embolden businesses to do as they please and make it harder for workers like himself, who are paid minimum wage, to subsist.

“We cannot deny that there have been improvements under the government, but now it’s abusing power,” Mera said. “This [economic crisis] is not affecting the upper classes but the lower ones; those who are paying for all this are us, the workers. What we want to tell [the government] here is that those that should pay for the crisis are the multinationals, those with better positions [in society].”

For the union worker, the marches and protests are an important way to put pressure on the government to listen to the people and defend their hard-earned rights, but not necessarily to get rid of President Correa himself.

Divisions over Correa’s ouster shouldn’t be too surprising since the president largely earned his political popularity, which stands at 58 percent according to the latest opinion polls, through expansive social programs. Since Correa took power in 2007, he raised the minimum wage from $170 to $240 a month, created cash bonus transfers for those living in extreme poverty, and opened up subsidies for electricity, gasoline and natural gas. Thanks in large part to these social benefits and the oil boom, the poverty rate in the country dropped from 38 percent in 2006 to 25 percent in 2014.

These are major accomplishments for the country’s social movements who put the left-wing academic-turned-politician in power. But according to critics these economic gains were strictly dependent on the country’s oil boom and forced people to trade off their civil and political freedoms.

Correa’s lavish social expenditure, which increased to 9.4 percent of GDP in 2014 from 5.3 percent in 2006, was directly fueled by pumping oil and extracting minerals from one of the world’s most bio-diverse regions and selling them on the global market to the highest bidder.

A broad coalition marched against President Rafael Correa in Quito’s colonial city center on March 17. (WNV/Elizabeth Farinango)

With the huge drop in oil prices since late 2014, which accounts for 53 percent of the country’s exports, Ecuador has now entered into an economic crisis that threatens these very social programs. The political turmoil and the protests on the streets then are only the beginning of boiling discontent among the people.

Labor reforms, the Ecuador-EU free trade agreement, and the recently passed Water and Land Law — which indigenous groups say denies access to communal water and violates the rights of small farmers to the benefit of agribusiness — are some of the ways Correa is embracing neoliberalism to handle the crisis.

Social movements — including indigenous, environmental, workers, student and feminist groups — have been taking to the streets to push back against this neoliberal tide, but their power has been severely curtailed under Correa.

In the name of “development” and nation-state building, differences across race, ethnicity and gender were erased and, as such, the spheres of political influence and autonomy that feminists, indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorians had won over the years before Correa were eradicated.

The National Council of Women, the Development Council of Nations and Peoples of Ecuador and the Council for Afro-Ecuadorian Development — considered major gains for social movements at the time — were all abolished under Correa to allegedly promote national interests, rather than those of specific groups.

This makes Rafael Correa distinct from his fellow Bolivarian leaders Evo Morales in Bolivia and the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, according to Ecuadorian academic and critic Carlos de la Torre.

“Unlike the Morales government that is based on a network of social organizations,” de la Torre writes, “the Correa regime has followed the pattern of populist mobilization from a position of power and has sought to co-opt and deradicalize social movements.” And unlike Venezuela, which “has experimented with a number of institutions of participatory democracy,” the Correa government has not created a single space for direct democracy, he added.

It’s through this logic of state expansion, mass control and the erasure of difference that one can understand the systemic assault taking place, most harshly, on indigenous communities and their lands.

“These guys with a political agenda, they are not thinking about development or about fighting against poverty,” Ecuador’s secretary of hydrocarbons, Andrés Donoso Fabara, told the Guardian in 2013, when indigenous leaders protested the government’s decision to sell one-third of the Amazon rainforest to Chinese oil and mining companies. “We are entitled by law, if we wanted, to go in by force and do some activities even if they are against them. But that’s not our policy.”

Donoso’s words reveal much about the disregard and utter contempt Correa’s “citizen revolution” has for those who do not kneel down to its state capitalist model, which is increasingly stripping people of their autonomy in the name of development and national unity.

In 2014, José Isidro Tendetza Antún, a leader of the Shuar people in the Amazon province of Zamora Chinchipe, became one of the numerous activists that have been either forcibly disappeared or outright assassinated for standing up against the Correista logic of “fighting poverty.” Tendetza was a prominent activist against the Mirador mine, an opencast pit for gold and copper operated by Chinese firms that would destroy 450,000 acres of forest.

“We now have over 700 people that are being politically persecuted, prosecuted, incarcerated, beaten — including mothers and children,” CONAIE’s president Jorge Herrera said. “This is a repressive, prepotent government with whom it has been impossible to reach consensus. This is a serious problem, not only for the indigenous people.”

In response to the intense criminalization of dissent, in which Correa uses the law as a weapon of war, CONAIE recently initiated an online campaign called #ResistirEsMiDerecho, or “to resist is my right.”

The campaign sheds light on the ongoing state repression against people for protesting or resisting the government, which led to well over a 100 people being incarcerated during last summer’s demonstrations alone.

While the power that social movements once had before Correa might have indeed diminished, and state repression is on the rise, community leaders and social activists appear confident that they can reclaim their power.

“Unlike other Latin American countries, social movements in Ecuador have always been calling and organizing for change,” said Carlos, a protester on March 17. “It’s not the right as you see in other Latin American countries, it’s organized social movements that generate mobilization. This is why it will be very hard for the right to take advantage of this situation. We know why we are fighting, where we are going, and we have no electoral expectations. This is a social, popular struggle for a change in the system.”

How Montanans stopped the largest new coal mine in North America

by Nick Engelfried

Protesters block a coal train from entering downtown Missoula in 2015. (Blue Skies Campaign)

Montana communities won a victory against one of the world’s biggest coal companies earlier this month, when Arch Coal abandoned the Otter Creek mine – the largest proposed new coal strip mine in North America. The story of how the project imploded is one of people power triumphing over a company once thought to be nearly invincible.

To many observers, the Otter Creek project once seemed unstoppable. It certainly appeared that way in 2011, the year I moved to Missoula, Montana for graduate school. Then-Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer enthusiastically supported the mine, and coal more generally. Forrest Mars, Jr., the billionaire heir to the Mars candy fortune, had just joined Arch and BNSF Railways in backing a proposed railroad spur meant to service Otter Creek. Arch and politicians like Schweitzer predicted a boom in coal demand from economies in Asia.

But what they weren’t counting on was a vocal and active region-wide opposition. The coming together of ordinary people — first in southeast Montana, then an ever-growing number of communities throughout the Northwest —to oppose the Otter Creek mine says much about how land defenders and climate activists are learning to fight back against the planet’s biggest energy companies. The roots of this recent victory go back more than 30 years.

Origins of the Otter Creek mine

Eastern Montana is known for its arid climate, but the Tongue River Valley just north of the Wyoming border supports a lush landscape of willows, pines, sagebrush and grassy pastures. The river and underground aquifers make the valley ideal for agriculture. On the east side of the river, where the Otter Creek tracts are located, a mix of state and private land supports farms and cattle ranches. To the west is the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

Decades before Arch proposed the Otter Creek mine, Southeast Montana was already ground zero in a fight over the nation’s energy future. In 1971, as the United States looked for alternatives to foreign oil, the Bureau of Land Management published a study calling for massively increased coal production in northern Plains states. It proposed building 21 new coal-fired power plants in Montana and opening vast new mines to feed them. Implicit was the assumption that energy developers would run into little resistance in the sparsely populated Plains.

Corporate representatives tried to persuade ranching families to sell their land for mines, then threatened them with eminent domain. However, many landowners didn’t back down. “I told that son-of-a-bitch with a briefcase that I knew he represented one of the biggest coal companies and he was backed by one of the richest industries in the world, but no matter how much money they came up with, they would always be $4.60 short of the price of my ranch,” said landowner Boyd Charter, according to Northern Plains Resource Council, an organization that formed in 1972 to oppose the mining. By the end of the decade only one major new coal plant had broken ground in Montana, and plans to turn the state into a large-scale coal sacrifice zone were in tatters.

Then, in the 1980s, the coal industry proposed a new Tongue River Railroad to link northern Wyoming coal fields to existing Montana rail lines. The plan floundered for decades amid local opposition, but in 2011 the Tongue River Company was bought up by Arch Coal, BNSF Railways and Forrest Mars, Jr. Mars, who owns a private ranch in area, formerly opposed the railroad but apparently bought in with the understanding that the preferred route would be shortened to not cross his property. Instead of hauling Wyoming coal, this new version of the Tongue River Railroad would service Arch’s Otter Creek mine. The coal industry would try again to turn Montana into a coal extraction colony.

Their plan was helped along the previous year, in March 2010, when the Montana State Land Board, chaired by Gov. Schweitzer, voted on whether to lease state lands at Otter Creek to Arch. Ranchers concerned about damage to aquifers, high school students worried about climate change and other concerned citizens at the meeting urged the board to vote no. Just before the vote, activists from Northern Rockies Rising Tide disrupted proceedings by chaining themselves to Land Board members’ desks. The protest drew attention to what was at stake. But Land Board members reconvened and voted 3-2 in favor of the lease.

Now all Arch needed to break ground was a mining permit from the state, and a permit to build the Tongue River Railroad from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board. The battle lines were drawn.

From Tongue River to the coast

What happened at Otter Creek would affect communities throughout the Pacific Northwest. Coal train traffic through the area was already up, hauling coal from existing Wyoming and Montana mines to British Columbia ports. If Otter Creek and a series of proposed new coal export terminals in the United States were built, the number of these trains would skyrocket.

“I noticed more and more coal trains rumbling past my home,” said Lowell Chandler, who was a senior at the University of Montana and lived next to the railroad in Missoula when I met him in 2011. “They were polluting my air with toxic diesel emissions and coal dust. Then I found out about the massive coal export proposals in my state and the Northwest region.”

In places like Missoula, disproportionately lower-income neighborhoods are directly across the street from the railroad. An industrial yard used to refuel trains and connect and reconnect train cars is a major source of pollution. Residents told of sounds like bombs going off in the middle of the night as rail cars were joined together, of coal dust on their windowsills, and of choking on diesel fumes from idling locomotives.

I joined Chandler and other UM students in starting a group called Blue Skies Campaign in 2011, to work in coordination with rail line neighborhood residents and push back against the coal trains. Blue Skies’ first action was a protest outside a Wells Fargo, at the time a major coal industry funder. Later we partnered with Northern Plains Resource Council and other groups on a coal trains forum that drew over 200 people. We organized to attend city council meetings, coordinated rallies, and held street theater and protests. But we knew we had to do more.

In August 2012, Blue Skies coordinated the largest energy-related nonviolent civil disobedience in Montana up to that time. The Coal Export Action, a five-day sit-in at the State Capitol, was a protest against leasing of state lands to coal companies. Twenty-three people were arrested and hundreds more attended to show support. “Before putting my body on the line during a sit-in, I had never participated in nonviolent civil disobedience,” said Corey Bressler, a UM student arrested on the second day. “This swelling of people sent a powerful message to decision makers that Montanans and Americans want to shift away from fossil fuels toward a greener future.”

Activists protesting on the train tracks in April 2014. (Blue Skies Campaign)

The next few years saw rail line communities turn to direct action repeatedly. Protests on the railroad tracks delayed coal trains, with a 2015 blockade preventing a train from entering downtown Missoula for almost an hour. In April 2014, 1,500 Montanans in more than a dozen communities rallied in a day of actions for clean energy. Other rallies and smaller protests occurred with increasing regularity. “There is personal power in a collaborative response to a shared threat,” said Cate Campbell, a retired railroad brakeman from Frenchtown, Montana who was arrested multiple times. “In taking direct action I found an inner feeling of purpose and commitment.”

Meanwhile, Montana had just experienced some of its worst-ever droughts and fire seasons, moving climate change to the forefront of the coal debate. In 2013 a new group, 350-Missoula (a grassroots affiliate of the climate group 350.org) made stopping the Otter Creek mine its priority.

350-Missoula – a group of retirees, teachers, nurses, educators and others – worked with Blue Skies to organize rallies and civil disobedience. They also pushed elected officials to take a side in the Otter Creek fight. In 2014, Missoula’s City Council formally asked that environmental reviews for Otter Creek and the Tongue River Railroad include public hearings in Missoula. Local state legislators supported this request. In Whitefish (along Montana’s northern rail line) groups like Glacier Climate Action persuaded their city council to take similar action.

In the summer of 2015, the Surface Transportation Board opened a public comment period on the Tongue River Railroad. Activists in Missoula tabled at public events and street corners, gathering more than 4,000 written comments. Groups throughout the Northwest sent alerts to their members. Legislators and local governments, including the city of Missoula and Missoula County, submitted concerns about coal trains.

Communities closest to the mine site mobilized. Public hearings in Ashland and Lame Deer, on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, were attended by 100 and 300 people respectively (the total populations of Lame Deer and Ashland are about 1,000 and 800). Most attendees were Northern Cheyenne members opposed to the railroad. The coal industry had tried to win over residents with promises of jobs, but these efforts seemed to have failed miserably. Toward the end of the comment period, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing the Tongue River Railroad.

More than 100,000 comments were submitted by groups opposed to the railroad before the comment period ended. That fall, over a hundred people representing most of Montana’s major towns gathered at the State Capitol for a “Keep It In The Ground” climate rally. Meanwhile, regional and global pressures on Arch Coal compounded local opposition to the mine, changing the equation in an approval process that had once seemed inevitable.

The decline of King Coal

In 2010, Arch Coal competitor Peabody announced “coal’s best days are ahead.” However, it was clear even then that a combination of grassroots organizing, new regulations for polluting power plants, and falling prices for cleaner energy was causing U.S. coal use to drop. What came as a surprise was that coal consumption in Asia, especially China, failed to make up for declining U.S. demand.

Some racism was implied in the coal industry’s assumption that residents of China and India would willingly tolerate pollution levels unacceptable to North Americans. In fact, public concern about pollution created a crisis for the Chinese government. Last April, 10,000 people in China’s Guangdong Province turned out to protest a recently-built coal plant. The government has begun closing mines, reducing coal imports and ramping up renewables. China’s coal consumption declined 3 percent in 2014, and 4 percent in 2015. India’s coal use is still growing, but new power plants have run into such fierce opposition that many will likely never be built.

It turned out U.S. coal companies couldn’t even maintain export levels from a couple years ago. In 2015, Cloud Peak Energy announced it would stop exporting coal through British Columbia. In this environment, a series of announcements beginning late last year showed cracks forming in Arch’s Otter Creek plans.

Protesters march in Helena in September 2013. (Blue Skies Campaign)

In November, Arch announced it was asking the Surface Transportation Board to put the Tongue River Railroad permit review on hold. Companies rarely make requests like this when they are confident a review will go well for them. Statements from Arch claimed Otter Creek would still move forward, but an updated mining application Arch intended to file with the state in December never materialized. In January, Arch filed for bankruptcy.

Arch was just the latest (and biggest) U.S. coal company to go bankrupt in the last few years. The move was long anticipated, but now Montanans waited in suspense. Would this be the final blow to the Otter Creek mine, or would Arch find a way to salvage the project and turn the company’s troubles around?

On March 10, Arch announced it was suspending attempts to extract coal at Otter Creek. A statement released by Northern Plains Resource Council, from Otter Creek rancher Dawson Dunning, summed up the feelings of many locals: “Ranchers and irrigators in southeast Montana can sleep well knowing their water will be protected.”

A turning point?

“How many times have I read about projects that would increase carbon emissions, and felt helpless to stop them?” said Marta Meengs, a nurse who helped start 350-Missoula. “Otter Creek was different. People’s civil disobedience, tabling for public comments, and conversations with legislators actually showed results and helped stop what would have been one of the largest coal mines in North America.”

The defeat of the Otter Creek mine is one example of a larger, encouraging trend. Climate activists and land defenders are learning to take on the world’s biggest energy companies, fight huge fossil fuel projects, and win. Every industry loss strengthens the position of activists going into the next round, just as declining coal consumption in China contributed to the Otter Creek victory. And the fossil fuel industry is losing more and more often, from Shell and Arctic oil to TransCanada and the Keystone XL Pipeline to Arch Coal and Otter Creek.

The worldwide climate movement is driving down global carbon emissions in concrete, measurable ways. It’s a grassroots movement where people lead and government officials follow (when they show up at all). There’s still a long way to go before all remaining fossil fuels are left in the ground. But progress is undeniable, and we can expect more wins as the movement grows.

In the words of Lee Metzgar, a retired biologist and member of 350-Missoula who participated in the Otter Creek protests, “Our political system has demonstrated its inability to find adequate solutions to the climate crisis. It is time for everyone who wants to leave future generations a livable world to be in the streets.”

NYC groups remember Alex Nieto on the anniversary of his killing by police

by Ashoka Jegroo

Protesters march for Alex Nieto from the Bronx to Harlem on March 21. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

Dozens of protesters marched through the Bronx and Harlem on March 21 to commemorate the life of Alex Nieto, two years from the day he was killed by San Francisco police.

“He was killed in San Francisco for eating a burrito in a park basically,” said Kim Ortiz, one of the organizers. “So today we highlighted that case, we spoke his name, we uplifted his name, and we made sure that everyone around knew who Alex Nieto was and what happened to him.”

Nieto was 29 years old when he was gunned down in 2014. He was eating a burrito in Bernal Hill park before police arrived in order to respond to calls they received about a Latino man with a gun. Nieto, who worked as a security guard at a local nightclub, was dressed in a red San Francisco 49ers jacket and had a taser he had been issued for his job in a holster under his coat. Although Nieto was a San Francisco native, the white men who called the cops on him were newcomers to the gentrifying neighborhood and described Nieto as a “probably foreign” man with a handgun. Shortly after arriving on the scene, police shot 59 bullets at Nieto, hitting him at least 14 times. The cops claim that Nieto had pointed his taser at them. Earlier this month, on March 10, a federal jury sided with the cops involved in Nieto’s death and ruled that they did not use excessive force.

Nieto’s death soon sparked protests as well as debates about gentrification and its connection to how the police treat people of color in gentrifying neighborhoods.

In order to pay tribute to Nieto, New York City activist group NYC Shut It Down decided to dedicate one of their weekly #PeoplesMonday protests against police brutality to Nieto. They were joined by another group, ICE Free NYC, who helped organize the action, which focused on a theme of black and brown unity.

“Today was a great show of black and brown solidarity. Black Lives Matter is not just about black victims that have been killed by police brutality,” said Ortiz, who is a member of NYC Shut It Down. “Unfortunately, the numbers are disproportionate, so we highlight those cases. But we also recognize that Native lives are under attack. People of color, in general, are under attack, and oppressed people are under attack. So we have to make sure that we connect these struggles because without the connected struggles, we’ll never win.”

Protesters gathered at Brook Park in the Bronx at around 6 p.m. and enjoyed songs and poetry about Nieto, a bilingual Know Your Rights training, and a ceremonial performance by Cetiliztli Nauhcampa. Burritos were also served in remembrance of Nieto’s last meal.

“ICE Free NYC and NYC Shut It Down came together again to, first and foremost, do solidarity work,” said Adriana Escandon of ICE Free NYC. “We incorporated a Know Your Rights workshop so that the community from the Bronx would be able to come and really get some practical information that they can use with the police brutality they face everyday, and also with the ICE raids that have increased this year.”

After the rally in Brook Park, protesters began marching and quickly took the streets of the Bronx led by a banner that read “Black & Brown Power.” The marchers soon shut down traffic on the Willis Avenue Bridge, which connects the Bronx and Harlem, as a number of motorists honked their car horns in support.

“We started in the South Bronx in a Latino neighborhood, and we marched to Harlem, the black Mecca of the United States and New York City,” said Mike Bento of NYC Shut It Down. “So we were not only bridging and bringing together black and brown people to build unity, solidarity and resistance in our messaging, but doing so physically as well.”

The marchers then made their way to 125th Street in Harlem, shutting down traffic as they marched down the street. Multiple police vehicles showed up and began trailing the marchers. Police ordered them to disperse and get off the street, but those orders went unheeded. The protesters made it all the way to 116th Street without any arrests and ended the march.

Ultimately, the protesters said they hope to make Nieto a symbol of the oppression faced by black and brown people in this country and to use this tragedy to connect movements on both sides of the United States in the struggle to end this oppression.

“Ideally, he would still be alive today,” Bento said. “However, justice for Alex Nieto would be the end of white supremacy, the end of this racist system. And that’s what we’re going to keep building and organizing our communities for.”

We need both compassion and confrontation to defeat Trump

by Andrew Willis Garcés

Members of Puente Arizona pray together as they put their bodies on the line to block access to a Trump rally. (Twitter / Puente Arizona)

George Lakey’s recent article rejecting the usefulness of protests at Donald Trump rallies begins with a reference to the sci-fi novel “Ender’s Game.” In the book, children are recruited to learn skills for outwitting an opponent, and are invited to play complex video games in which they command galactic armies against an alien force threatening their planet. Of the trainees, one boy, Ender, proves himself especially adept at defeating the aliens using his particular gift of empathy to intuit how the alien opponents perceive outside attacks, by understanding their worldview. Lakey uses this literary reference to help argue his point that Trump protests are self-defeating, because they lack empathy.

His perspective is important, but incomplete. As it happens, there is another take on “Ender’s Game” — it’s a parallel novel by the same author, Orson Scott Card, called “Ender’s Shadow.” It takes place at the same time as the original book and depicts some of the same events from the point of view of a supporting character named Bean.

One of the significant differences between the two characters is that Ender isn’t aware he is actually leading a human army to victory against their alien opponents; he thinks he’s just playing a computer game. But in “Ender’s Shadow,” Bean — also a commander in the galactic army — figures it out, and proceeds with the attack anyway. We learn that Bean is similarly empathic, but comes to a different conclusion than Ender, who is wracked with grief upon learning of his participation in the attack. Bean empathizes with the Formic alien army, and still feels that they must be vanquished. Sound strategy, he reasons, sometimes means recognizing the importance of confronting your opponent head-on, despite the mixed feelings that might generate.

My point is not that Trump opponents should mercilessly attack Trump supporters, a la “Ender’s Shadow.” But having empathy doesn’t mean backing away from confrontation. It’s possible to extend love and compassion for our opponents while throwing ourselves in the gears of hate. And the empowerment and skill we gain in those confrontational moments often sets us up for more powerful victories down the road.

Trump’s WWE circus

Lakey is right that many of our disruptions have emboldened Trump and his most ardent supporters. His rallies often take on the tone of a WWE wrestling match, and he is most effective as both ringleader and unlikely underdog — constantly harassed by those unreasonable, know-it-all protesters; a clear giveaway that many or most of us are middle class. He almost certainly wouldn’t have his current level of support without being shunned by so many mainstream institutions, or drawing so much fire from the left. And many of our disruptions are noteworthy for their apparent ineffectiveness. Some rallies have featured more than 35 disruptions in less than an hour, with the interrupters hurried out of the venue and Trump free to continue agitating: “See? They don’t want you to hear the truth.” We absolutely need more approaches to demonstrating opposition to Trump that speak to working-class white people, and don’t play to his strengths.

Lakey correctly points out that we have more tools in our toolbox than one-off disruption. Few groups, for instance, have tried using humor and ridicule to polarize the choice between Trump and acting against hatred, to say nothing of powerful symbolic protests demonstrating our resolve. Imagine a few dozen activists, zip-tied together inside of the venue with a banner that says “White People: When Are We Going to Speak Up?” and mouths covered in tape reading “White Silence.” If such a protest could evoke the silence that led to the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II or the rise of fascist dictatorships in the years prior that would be powerful.

While none of the protests thus far have been quite so creative, they have still managed to embolden thousands of people — just by giving them the opportunity to show up publicly against hate.

Using Trump to unleash courage

Saturday’s blockade of a Trump rally in Phoenix by Puente Arizona, a grassroots migrant justice organization based in Phoenix, offers a clear example. Immigrant communities in Arizona are currently under severe threat from legislative proposals that would further criminalize undocumented people and their families. When Trump announced he would hold a rally in the very backyard of the most notorious anti-immigrant in the country, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, many expected immigrant organizers to steer clear. Instead, they used the opportunity to channel anger against both politicians and demonstrate courage and tactical discipline to a national audience, blockading the road leading to the rally by disabling multiple vehicles, with several people locking themselves to the cars in the road while dozens of Puente members cheered them on. The blockade received national TV and print coverage. Given the recent history of immigrant-led civil disobedience, this action will most likely further embolden other immigrant communities to rise against Trump’s racism.

I have a particular window seat on this political moment, being in touch with dozens of white people organizing with Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ, who are using Trump rallies as recruitment and skill-building opportunities. SURJ chapters have been involved in Trump disruptions in more than 15 cities, including Chicago, St. Louis, Tucson and Fayetteville, North Carolina. In cities like St. Louis, white organizers identified dozens of new recruits for their ongoing racial justice work; in almost every city, SURJ chapters reported building many new connections with organizers of color.

For some of our members, these actions were their first experiences openly confronting racism, or the first actions in which they put themselves physically at risk. After somewhat anxiously attending a Trump rally in Fayetteville, Desaray Smith, a SURJ member from Asheville, North Carolina said the protest helped her come to grips with uncertainty, practice improvisation and flexibility in tough moments, and feel more resilient and mentally “tough” than she expected. Overall, the experience showed her that “the right people arrive at the right time” and “do the right things together.” This kind of transformational work — moving beyond fear, and towards a greater connection to collective power — is needed in movements today, let alone in stopping Trump.

Working-class and raised-poor white organizers in North Carolina, among others, have also been using Trump rallies to “call-in” their neighbors. One group of SURJ leaders — accompanied by members of Southerners on New Ground, a Southern regional queer liberation organization — showed up in Fayetteville with a banner reading “Poor Whites: Our Mamas Taught Us Better.” Lakey’s point that we need to infuse our anti-Trump efforts with approaches that reach working-class people is well taken: While SURJ, for one, has significant working-class leadership, middle-class white organizers like me have more work to do to support their leadership in our organizations. We have a lot to learn in this moment about how to accurately express empathy toward white people who are angry, how to listen deeply to people in our communities for whom Trump’s message resonates, and how to articulate a compelling message to rival his hate-and-blame narrative. That’s why it’s even more important for us to invest in listening skills and slow base-building learning from the experiments of working-class white organizers in our networks who are having success building with the communities Trump most wants to recruit.

The gathering storm of white supremacy

Our empathy for white working-class people who are taken with Trump shouldn’t keep us from intervening in the gathering storm of white supremacy that his rise represents. If for no other reason than because we know the number of people who are repulsed and angry about what he represents — but have remained inactive — is far greater than the total filling the seats of his hate-filled celebrations of patriarchal masculinity. However imperfect our protests have been — and they should incorporate more dramatic and bold experiments along the lines of the Phoenix blockade — they are offering an alternative to the story of white silence, and are galvanizing many to act.

Let’s not forget, in the event Trump should win the nomination and become president, we’ll almost certainly need to respond with massive noncompliance to prevent his hateful policies from being implemented. And if he doesn’t, there remains the critical importance of white people experimenting with higher-risk action as we defend our mutual self-interest in showing up for the movement for black lives — experiments that can happen as we show up in bolder ways against Trump.

By emphasizing the need to experiment with higher-risk action, I’m not advocating we throw strategy out the window, as Lakey implies at the end of his article, or to discard compassion. We need more of both, and it is totally within our capability to put in motion a confrontational approach to shutting down Trump and an outreach strategy that centers deep listening across class. By doing so, we might find — like Bean in “Ender’s Shadow” — that confrontation and compassion can go hand in hand.

Immigrant workers in NYC unmask a new movement

by Arianna Schindle and Basma Eid

Delfino Leadership Institute participants gather for a final “unity is power” chant to welcome in new worker-leaders on March 12. (Facebook/New York Worker Center Federation)

Omar Trinidad, pulls off a mask, as he speaks to a room of restaurant, retail, day labor, street vendor and domestic workers from across New York City. “Being a day-laborer does not make me invisible, it makes me indispensable. Being a street vendor does not make anyone less worthy, it makes us unstoppable. To build a movement, let’s take off the mask of fear! Basta ya.”

For Trinidad, a member-leader at New Immigrant Community Empowerment, or NICE, ending exploitation of day laborers is not enough. He understands that a movement requires the power of all the immigrant workers who have built, and continue to build this city — which is why for the last 12 months Trinidad has joined over 30 workers from across the city to take part in the New York Worker Center Federation’s Delfino Leadership Institute.

The institute is the nation’s first independent worker center leadership program led by and for immigrant workers, named in honor of Delfino Velasquez, a day laborer and member of the federation who was killed in a work-related accident on Staten Island in 2014.

March 12 saw the culmination of Trinidad’s experience with the Delfino Leadership Institute as he took on the role of the trainer, addressing a group of over 50 workers during the Delfino Teach-back. After spending the year learning and growing as a movement builder, it was now Trinidad’s turn to share and transfer his power with the hopes of inspiring the next cohort of leaders.

Education is power

While leadership development programs are not new, Delfino uses a model of coeducation to build a united front of new leaders across sectors, cultures, communities, languages, nationalities and organizations. As workers come together they not only develop skills and strategies, but are actively building a new workers movement.

“We, the workers and organizers, modeled this program after similar activist training programs in nonviolent movements around the world,” explained Daniel Carrillo, director of Enlace. “The communities in Burma or the Zapatistas know that powerful movements can only come from unified strategy, when local leaders from across different spaces build together.” The institute recognizes the isolation which often prevents immigrant workers from collectively organizing limits the strategy they can take to the streets. “We’ve seen how groups like the Food Chain Workers Alliance connect processors and pickers to build a more sustainable food system,” Carrillo said, “so we recognize that the entire sector of immigrant workers in New York connecting their issues and strategies will generate a stronger movement for alternative worker power.”

The Delfino Leadership Institute unites workers through bi-monthly trainings on movement building, organizing and base building, campaign strategizing, facilitation, and political education. Building on workers center’s strong global focus and ethnic and racial identifications, worker leaders in the institute are taking age-old strategies of nonviolent resistance and remaking them with their own cultural symbols, languages and industry-related contexts.

Between workshops, participants’ consciousness and skills are put to work leading their own committees, fighting challenging boss campaigns, and developing synergistic strategies. Following a training on anti-blackness within the workers justice movements, Delfino participants organized a joint action on the Night Out for Safety and Liberation, to demonstrate to the police that there could not be a safe night with immigrants and communities of color facing continued harassment.

The liberatory education pedagogy built off the Southern Freedom Schools and the Latin American social movements seeks to transform workers from the inside out with the aim of generating new analysis and tactics of how immigrant workers play a role in broader struggles for justice. With each session, workers are able to make connections and build genuine grassroots solidarity and at the final session, the graduating workers take the reins and become the trainers to a new cohort of workers. They continue to serve on the steering committee, mentoring new workers and building connections across spaces.

A federation

The Delfino Leadership Institute was born out of the New York Worker Center Federation, which formed in October 2014 when workers in a training voted to create a space where they could continue to build and organize together. Organizations included: NICE, the Laundry Workers Center, Desis Rising Up and Moving, El Centro del Inmigrante, Cidadao Global, the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, and Enlace. The federation is actively expanding and this year will move to accept additional worker centers at member organization.

Delfino Leadership Institute participants work on an exercise together on March 12. (Facebook/New York Worker Center Federation)

“In order for workers centers to be truly transformative,” said Jorge Torres, organizer of El Centro del Inmigrante, “there is a need to come together in federations and training programs, like labor unions have done for decades, to share knowledge and resources, support one another’s campaigns, build a united movement of the workers we organize, and increase the visibility of the approaches to economic and social justice work.”

In the face of ongoing attacks on labor, the federation aims to reclaim the power old-labor once held, but in a new way. “We can even inspire and reinvigorate the mainstream labor movement, which has been struggling to retain its power and relevance as the economy and workforce changes around it,” Torres added.

The possibility for workers centers to redefine the labor movement has long been documented by Janet Fine and other key researchers, but could be witnessed clearly in an exercise on March 12. “The unique aspect of the workers center movement,” said Christina Fox, the worker center coordinator at NICE, “is that we’re creating alternatives while we are dismantling structures of power. It’s the rehearsal for the revolution and the battle itself.”

To illustrate, workers were instructed to design their ideal work places and begin to imagine the conditions and methods of production, inspired by the factory takeovers by workers in Argentina. Then, facilitators, acting like bosses, came around and tried to sabotage and undermine their visions by trying to create tensions among workers, deny rights, or even destroy the ideal workplaces. The room erupted into a full blown strike, as groups who had already had their workplaces taken, locked arms with those who they could save, “strike, strike, huelga, huelga,” the crowd roared.

“These dynamics play out in real life,” said Fox, as the activity began. “We’re literally developing a democratic workplace where all workers know their rights, and some of us develop cooperatives, while we’re also fighting the bosses on the streets.”

Story of a movement

According to Elise Goldin an organizer at the Street Vendor Project, the New York Worker Center Federation draws parallels from movements like Black Lives Matter, which works against the mythology of the dispensability of black lives. “At the corner of this work has to lie the principle that immigrant workers are not dispensable, she explained. “In order to organize together, we need to tell a new story together.”

Heleadora Vivar, a 72-year-old street vendor and leadership board member at the Street Vendor Project, has spent more than 15 years battling against worker injustice.

While the exploitation street vendors endure may take a different shape from that felt by restaurant workers, Vivar, a mother of seven, recognizes that it is all part of the same oppressive system. “I know that we all suffer the same pains as street vendors and as cab drivers, but we must be able to share these, to connect these struggles.” she said. “We will not let the next generation suffer as we have.”

Like Black Lives Matter, the movement also seeks to center healing justice, to create spaces where the experiences of exploitation are deeply felt, connected and released. The federation believes this is the heart of transformative leadership and sustainable movements.

“In Delfino, participants love, support, affirm and hold each other accountable,” said Rosanna Rodriguez, co-director of the Laundry Workers Center. “They set their own leadership goals and process their own traumatic experiences, because that will truly build the kind of leaders our movements needs.”

Trump protesters can put on as good a show as Trump himself

by Kate Aronoff

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This election is breaking almost every rule political scientists have written about how the American electorate should function. But if there’s one thing we can understand about Trump’s rise, it’s that he’s immune to scandal. From shrugging off his retweet of a Mussolini quote to opining about Megyn Kelly’s orifices to paying legal fees for his fan that sucker punched a black protester, no act of malice has slowed him down. On the contrary, Trump’s seeming indiscretions only make him stronger. No hot take (this one included) will offer a silver bullet to stopping Trump. Neither, however, will shouting him down for the bigot he is on the floor of a crowded auditorium.

That protesters managed to cancel Trump’s rally in Chicago earlier this month shows that the disruptors are making Trump nervous, and are getting bigger, better organized, and more able to shut events down entirely — as evidenced by protesters in Arizona this weekend, who blocked roads leading to an event. It shows a chink in Trump’s leathery bronze armor, and makes it clear that his hate speech isn’t welcome. But as important as physically stopping his rallies — in the short term — is creating something else that’s just as much a spectacle as the campaign stops themselves.

A Monmouth University poll of Florida Republicans last week found that just 11 percent were less likely to back Trump after hearing about what happened in Chicago. Double that number were more likely to support him, and 66 percent said their opinions hadn’t changed.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that seeing protesters disrupting Trump rallies is a bit like watching the string quartet on the deck of a sinking Titanic. By now, Trump and his supporters have a script for dealing with protesters: acknowledge, ridicule, maybe rough up and move on, more energized than before. “Are Trump rallies the most fun?” he asked the crowd at a recent rally. “We’re having a good time!” And they were.

If politics has ever been about being right, then they certainly aren’t in 2016. Trump may be a revolting xenophobe, but he’s their revolting xenophobe, and a damn good entertainer. To counter him, protesters can put on just as good a show.

Take an example from the United Kingdom. The British group Liberate Tate, who have just won a six-year campaign to end the museum’s sponsorship from oil company BP. Their inaugural performance — just months after BP had unleashed 4.2 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico — was outside a Tate-sponsored summer party for London’s 1 percent. Rather than infiltrating the party, rebuking the fact that the party was happening and its shady funding ties, they splashed molasses — meant to resemble oil — on its front steps, topping off the mess with feathers and sparking chaos inside and out before running off. Since, Liberate Tate has set up pop-up tattoo parlors, staged mass exorcisms and more, with most shows happening inside the museum itself. You can see their full retrospective now at the Guardian.

Admittedly, this is not a perfect metaphor. Stopping the closest thing the United States has known to its own Mussolini is a different task than getting fossil fuels out of the arts, and we don’t have six years. What’s key, though, is that Liberate Tate never gave the museum the upper hand. Performances have been on their terms, and — more often than not — made Tate’s top brass look helpless to stop them, partly because they weren’t sure what all was happening. There are no protocols for scraping a live, oil covered figure in the fetal position off a gallery floor.

Trump’s persona is as the consummate winner, professional bully and master of deals. Protesters, he says, are “sad.” And, in some cases, he’s not wrong — at least when all it takes to foil a disruption are a few well-placed security guards. Getting to Trump and his supporters, then, isn’t about making him look evil, but silly, confused, and vulnerable.

How empathy, not protest, can defeat Trump and right-wing extremism

by George Lakey

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In Orson Scott Card’s great 1985 strategy novel “Ender’s Game,” a boy named Ender enters a training school where students learn skills for outwitting an opponent. They play computer games that become ever more challenging. The stakes in the training are high because their world is threatened by an alien force, and the aliens are winning. Among the trainees young Ender stands out, so his computer is patched into the actual global security system in real time to lead the defense. Spoiler alert: Ender’s world defeats the would-be conquerer.

Why Ender? Some other youngsters are as able as he to choose brilliant tactics and to see vulnerabilities in the aliens’ attack. Ender’s advantage is that he uses his empathy to intuit how the opponent perceives the unfolding struggle in light of its own worldview.

When considering how to undermine Donald Trump and militia groups, we need to use Ender’s advantage. It is not sufficient to be the legendary hammer that, wherever it looks, sees only nails. “Protest” is not the only tool we have. If we take a minute to understand what’s actually going on in the heads of our opponents, and how they understand the unfolding of America’s polarization, we may be glad that we have more options.

Donald Trump’s March 13 rally in Boca Raton, Florida, was revealing. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank left the press corps and inserted himself into the core of the giant crowd. In that rally protesters had been screened out. Trump brought forth his usual inflammatory rhetoric, saying he might pay the legal fees of someone who sucker-punched a protester. Milbank reports, however, that the rally remained fairly tame. When Trump eventually asked, “Do we have a protester anywhere?” no one responded. Where was the drama?

Milbank noted, “Trump and his advisers seem to delight in the confrontations, which fuel the crowd’s energy.”

We activists might want to ask, “If Trump wants us to provide drama, why would we want to play his game?”

Fear could be making us reflexive here. It helps to remember that Trump has been winning about 40 percent of the voters in the Republican primaries, and Republicans are about 20 percent of the American electorate. That amounts to Trump gaining the vote of about 8 percent of the entire primary electorate. It’s a bit early to panic.

How we can unwittingly empower our opponents

A couple of weeks ago I joined a group of mostly white people concerned for racial justice that gathered because a reportedly militia-affiliated group was demonstrating at the Federal Building in Philadelphia. The demonstration supported Ammon Bundy’s January armed occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon and called attention to the killing of one of the group members by federal officials.

Before I joined the progressive group as it gathered around the corner from the Federal Building, I checked out the group we aimed to confront. I found about a dozen people carrying signs, clustering and chatting together, offering handouts to the few pedestrians who passed them. They were from out of town, and looked disoriented and very low-energy.

I rejoined my group and grabbed a sign as we went around the corner to face our opponents from across the street. As we marched toward our spot the other side straightened up, forming a line holding their signs so the passing drivers could actually see them. Their leader with a bullhorn began to speak. It began to look like a real demonstration.

A delegation from our side went across the street to dialogue. Then a few people not of our group came along our sidewalk, one carrying a bullhorn, and began to hurl accusations and insults at the group across the street. I saw body language on the other side go into heightened alert; people placed their feet farther apart and glared. Another set of activists came to our spot and then advanced across the street, blocking traffic in the lane closest to the opposing sidewalk while shouting at the demonstrators, who shouted back with spirit. Police stepped closer to remind all that they were being watched.

I imagined the out-of-town demonstrators’ reports at the dinner table and the bar when they got back home: “Well not much happened at first, but then the crazy political correctness people came and it got really interesting. We really showed them we’re not going to put up with the tyranny of the federal government.”

I joined our side in giving the militia-defenders a gift that day, supporting their empowerment in standing up for their cause.

Of course I believe in the value of polarization in the living revolution — as prescribed by Alice Paul, Gandhi and King — and described by Mark and Paul Engler’s “This is an Uprising.” But there seems to be an art to polarization: We surely don’t want to spend our time empowering our opponents by giving them energy they need to build their movements. Artful polarization uses tactics that reduce the power of the opponent, undermining their commitment and reducing support from their allies. It also brings more light to the situation, as well as the inevitable heat.

Empathy as a national deficit

As Ender discovered, a resource for practicing the art of polarization is empathy, but where is that honored in our culture? When our nation’s leadership asks why terrorism continues to grow despite massive firepower, it rarely tries to get inside the worldviews of either leaders or recruits of terrorist groups. Institutionalized racism, classism and other oppressions flourish with the scarcity of empathy. To my regret I didn’t ask, back in the 1960s, “Where does the violence of the members of the Ku Klux Klan come from?” I would have felt I was somehow letting down my cause if I turned to my empathy. That’s a pity, because I might have discovered how much the experience of capitalism was (and still is) a driver of the Klan.

For decades America’s white working class has been sliding downhill, accelerated by the Great Recession — schools failing, jobs departing, houses foreclosing, insecurity growing. There are even formerly middle-class people now identifying as working class. These increasingly marginalized people have for years felt themselves to be voiceless on the national political stage. Donald Trump offers a voice. When interviewed, his supporters forgive his contradictions because he speaks so loudly and vividly, outside the restrained stylistic norms of the elite.

“The protesters,” I can hear Trump’s supporters thinking to themselves, “want to silence our voice.”

Then the Trump campaign arranges a rally in a spot in Chicago likely to provoke more protesters. The rally is duly cancelled. I can hear the Trump supporters growling: “The protesters are succeeding in silencing our voice!”

Do we want to be seen as trying to silence someone perceived as an advocate by some of the more oppressed people in our country?

Violent escalation

In a culture tilted toward violence, scary scenarios are easy to imagine. Trump has found that his provocations succeed in manipulating leftists into protesting at his events. He has prepped many of his fans by talking violence, enacting bullying tactics and threatening to escalate by sending his people to disrupt Sanders rallies. One scenario is that his own supporters will, in groups or freelance, attack the demonstrations mounted by “elite leftists.”

Just as polarization can be either artful or destructive, escalatory tactics can be thoughtful or mindless. Alice Paul, King and others escalated thoughtfully. Californians watched middle-class environmentalists do the mindless version of escalation at the Children’s Pool beach in San Diego in the decade after 2005. Judging from the recent story on “This American Life,” environmentalists stepped up their angry and aggressive moves against the public when they faced resistance to their demand to reserve the beach for the harbor seals.  Both sides went well beyond their better judgment.

Trump has already accused Sanders of directing protesters to disrupt his rallies, seeking to brand the left as the enemy. If anti-Trump protesters choose not to weigh the consequences, they will continue to protest — swallowing his bait — and we’re likely to see escalation at Trump rallies.

Such escalation has at least two consequences: It confirms the perception of the left as the enemy of beleaguered working-class people, whose voice “protesters are trying to silence.” It also invites escalation of the policing power of the state. Police violence has drawn criticism lately, but police will gain in legitimacy when the vast majority approves of police intervention to control the escalating tactics on both sides.

Trump has already threatened “riots” if the Republican establishment manages to avoid nominating him at the Cleveland convention. Where do his working-class supporters go if they find that the electoral arena did not work for them and believe that elitist leftists scorn them? The militias await.

The good news is that nonviolent struggle offers an abundant toolbox plus the invitation to creative thinking. Activists do not need to imitate the hammer that can see only nails. Protest is a tactic. This is a time for strategy.

How will the Fight for $15 reckon with harmful proposals from an unlikely ally?

by Max Zahn

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Among the many progressive movements to gain attention in recent years, the Fight for $15 is among the few that can say it’s winning.

An organizing drive that began with fast food workers and spread across low-wage sectors, the movement has helped achieve minimum wage hikes in places as disparate as Los Angeles, Chicago and Arkansas. Yet its most significant victory came last fall, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo initiated a wage board investigation that raised the base pay for all of the state’s fast food workers to $15 an hour. Taking his support one giant step further, Gov. Cuomo has vowed to push through an April budget measure that would make New York the first state to pass a $15 per hour minimum wage for all of its workers.

But the measure, which may include significant cuts to public higher education, poses a dilemma for the Fight for $15 coalition.

By embracing Cuomo, the movement risks strengthening the staying power of a governor who has shown, time and again, his willingness to hurt the working people of New York as much as help them. On the other hand, victory — that ostensible goal of any and all political movements — is in sight. Thus the Fight for $15’s relationship with Cuomo exemplifies the choice between purity and pragmatism that faces any movement on the brink of legislative success. What happens in this case will set a crucial precedent for progressive movements across the country as they seek to etch their platforms into law.

Strange bedfellows form an alliance on a $15 minimum wage

The national campaign for a $15 minimum wage — then known as Fast Food Forward — began on November 29, 2012, when hundreds of fast food workers in New York City went on strike. The movement, funded principally by the behemoth Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, grabbed headlines with its redeployment of an age-old labor tactic, albeit as a single-day effort intended primarily to build public support. “Going on strike was transgressive,” said Michael Kink, executive director of Strong for All, a statewide economic justice coalition that has supported the movement since its inception. On the ambitious demand for a $15 minimum wage, Kink added: “It was about asking for what we needed, not what we thought we could get.”

Leading grassroots community organizations in New York City, like Make the Road New York, or MRNY, and New York Communities for Change, or NYCC, were involved from the beginning as well. “Most of our members are not fast food workers,” explained Meg Fosque, a lead organizer with MRNY. “But we saw it as an important solidarity fight that would set a precedent for low-wage workers across the board.” For Fosque and her organization, the issue touched not only on economic justice, but racial justice.  “Who is impacted the most by the minimum wage?” she asked. “Blacks and Latinos.” By her estimation, nearly half work jobs that pay less than $15 per hour.

The single-day strikes continued every few months over the ensuing years, spreading from New York to over 200 cities in the United States and around the world. “Strike after strike built up the image in the public’s mind that low-wage workers were trying to get out of poverty,” recalled Kink. Buoyed by a diverse coalition of unions and community groups, the campaign quickly became the country’s most high-profile labor campaign in decades.

Meanwhile, New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, drew ire from the state’s left wing for his support of conservative measures like a 2014 tax cut that slashed New York’s estate and corporate tax rates. Liberal derision of the governor culminated later that year, in September, when Cuomo faced a surprisingly difficult primary challenge from an unknown Fordham Law School professor named Zephyr Teachout, who he would ultimately beat. The following winter, both New York’s assembly speaker, Democrat Sheldon Silver, and its former Senate majority leader, Republican Dean Skelos, were indicted on corruption charges. While never indicted himself, Cuomo saw his approval rating plummet to the lowest levels of his tenure on account of a growing perception that Albany was rotten to its core.

Needing to reconnect with his party’s liberal base and resuscitate his popularity, Cuomo found an ideal partner in the widely celebrated Fight for $15 campaign. In May 2015, he invoked a rarely used wage board authority allowing him to unilaterally investigate and raise the compensation for an entire sector of the economy. The following September, Cuomo ratified the wage board’s decision to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all fast food workers in the state. The biggest surprise was yet to come, however, when Cuomo announced his support of a $15 minimum wage for all workers in New York.

If Cuomo’s sudden change of heart sounds too good to be true, it might be. Cuomo has threatened to include some poisonous measures, most notably a cut to New York City’s public university system, in the same budget bill that would include the minimum wage hike. The Fight for $15 movement, and its broader coalition, have a choice: Stand by Cuomo and swallow the cuts or fight back and risk upsetting a key ally.

Give with one hand and cut with another

In late February, Gov. Cuomo led a five-stop bus tour across the state during which he advocated for the minimum wage hike and paid family leave. Traveling alongside Cuomo were influential labor leaders like George Gresham, president of the SEIU health care workers local 1199, and Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO, among others. They uniformly gushed about Cuomo’s commitment to low-income, working New Yorkers. “I tell my members I can’t think of anything more important to your lives than to know that the chief executive is willing to stand up and say you have the right to have dignity with your work,” Gresham said in regards to Cuomo at an event in Syracuse. The tour amounted to a very public and unequivocal bolstering of Cuomo’s economic justice credentials from New York’s most powerful unions.

Before stumping on behalf of the “dignity” and “worth” of working people, however, Cuomo betrayed that very constituency with the announcement of a proposed cut to state subsidies for the public university system in New York City, or CUNY, by 30 percent or approximately $485 million by 2018. CUNY comprises 24 campuses and offers an affordable education to 269,000 students, making it the largest urban university system in the United States. Moreover, 75 percent of its students are people of color, and 38 percent of its students are immigrants. CUNY officials have said the cuts would force them to close three schools and raise tuition in order to close the budget gap.

“It’s cynical for the governor to give with one hand and cut with another,” said Penny Lewis, a professor at the Murphy Institute of Worker Education and Labor Studies, a CUNY college. “He’s eroding the lives of New Yorkers in the process of helping them.” Lewis is also a member of the city college system’s faculty union, PSC-CUNY, which has been stuck in stalled contract negotiations with Cuomo for the last six years. Asked if the affection from much of New York’s labor left has given Gov. Cuomo cover to take regressive actions like the proposed CUNY cuts, Lewis responded in the affirmative. “His more progressive measures are taking up the media sphere, and earning him credit with a national audience,” she said. “It makes it harder for us to get our issues across.”

One cruel irony of the dueling minimum wage and CUNY measures is that, if they both go into effect, the low-wage employees who answer the phones and clean the hallways at CUNY schools will be the only workers in New York excluded from the pay increase. In order to fix the loophole, Gov. Cuomo must fund the CUNY system at a level that can pay CUNY workers, members of local union DC37, a living wage. He has shown no sign of doing so. Multiple DC37 members spoke harshly of Cuomo for this reason. Asked about the apparent contradiction between Cuomo’s willingness to raise the minimum wage and his refusal to fund payment for the workers of DC37, Eric Miles, a custodial assistant at Queens College, said he thinks “it’s crap that Cuomo is supporting $15 for others and not for us.”

Meanwhile, in other cases, the workers who will benefit from the minimum wage hike are the very same students who will have to pay it back in added tuition. Alexandra Gutierrez, a third-year student at John Jay College, is a low-wage worker organizing with the Fight for $15, who makes $7.25 an hour plus tips at a restaurant in New York City. “If the minimum wage were raised to $15 an hour, I could work less hours and focus on school,” she explained to the audience at a rally in defense of CUNY last week. “But it doesn’t make sense if wages go up and tuition goes up. We have to raise the minimum wage but we also need to lower tuition.”

Gutierrez was one of 30 workers with the Fight for $15 to attend the pro-CUNY rally. But not a single representative from the state’s largest unions, including SEIU locals 1199 and 32BJ and the AFL-CIO, participated in the event. A person close to PSC-CUNY expressed frustration about the unions “that matter in the minimum wage movement,” which “have already been in Cuomo’s camp” for a while. For her part, PSC-CUNY president Barbara Bowen appears unconcerned about the labor coalition backing her teachers and the CUNY system more generally. “We’ve had a long list of unions here in support,” she said. “Nurses, auto workers, teamsters and others.” Yet one has to wonder whether Cuomo would’ve proposed these cuts had a stronger labor coalition backed the teachers and students at CUNY all along.

The other pillars of the Fight for $15 movement, the grassroots community groups, have taken an ambivalent posture toward the governor. “It’s rare to find an elected official who’s 100 percent behind your platform,” Fosque said. “We’ve disagreed with the governor on issues in the past, and we haven’t stopped speaking out on the issues that we disagree with him about.” The Working Families Party, an influential left third party in the state, has fought in support of both the Fight for $15 and CUNY. One of the party’s New York State co-chairs, Karen Scharff, said the Working Families Party wants “a budget that prioritizes raising the minimum wage, paid family leave and CUNY.”

Seemingly stuck between supporting Gov. Cuomo’s contradictory proposals and criticizing them, these organizations dismiss the notion that it’s an all-or-nothing choice. They argue that the most appropriate, nuanced approach to Cuomo involves highlighting both where they agree and disagree with the governor. To their credit, MRNY, NYCC and the Working Families Party are all part of the CUNY Rising coalition formed to defend the city college system. They have backed up their condemnatory words on the issue with actions. New York’s largest unions, on the other hand, have offered neither adversarial words nor deeds.

The closest the unions have gotten to such remarks has come from their workers. Take Patricia O’Hara, a homecare professional with SEIU1199 set to get a $5 raise from the wage hike, who currently works seven days a week due to the low pay. She expressed excitement about the raise but concern about the CUNY cuts. “I hope college students do not have to pay more,” she said. “When I went to college I had to get a student loan and it’s not easy to pay that back. I hope Cuomo does not do that.”

There’s “a big conflict [in the proposals] on both ends,” said Jermiel Michael, a security guard at the New York Public Library and member of SEIU 32BJ making $11.50 per hour. “I would not want the college to be affected. Hopefully we get everything we want. But that might not happen.”

These critical comments of Cuomo stand in stark contrast to the silence from the workers’ union leadership.

With great success comes great responsibility

The rise of a visible, insurgent American left is indisputable — so much so that its mere mention risks cliche. From Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to the Bernie Sanders campaign, progressive movements are leveraging mass mobilization — online and on the streets — into hard political power. Or so the narrative goes. Yet Sen. Sanders faces a likely insurmountable delegate deficit, while progressive legislative victories have come sparingly, if at all.

This is not meant to denigrate such movements, which have won important discursive battles reintroducing wealth inequality and structural racism into the national lexicon. But democratic dysfunction that weds unequal power to unjust laws has proven as conducive to galvanizing critique as it is immune to meaningful reform. Until the feedback loop between public will and policy outcome gets closed, the system will continue to respond fitfully to those who cry foul, especially when they lack strong institutional or monetary support. As such, tangible political wins have largely eluded the left’s most popular movements.

The Fight for $15 is one of the few exceptions.

At the same time, however, the ingredients that make the movement uniquely successful also make it vulnerable to the quid pro quo power politics played by Gov. Cuomo. While Fight for $15 coalition partners, like community groups, have helped vault the movement to its current heights, it ultimately still depends on the funding and outreach provided by SEIU. Oddly enough, SEIU has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, despite her supporting only a $12 minimum wage. Many say the Clinton endorsement is merely a bet on the horse in the race most likely to win. Perhaps by refusing to directly criticize Gov. Cuomo about the CUNY cuts, the Fight for $15’s union backers are simply repeating that endorsement strategy all over again.

But PSC-CUNY, DC37, and other members of CUNY Rising are doing everything they can to prove SEIU’s calculation wrong. Later this month, they plan to hold a civil disobedience action involving hundreds of arrests, which they hope will garner enough attention to shame Cuomo into retreat. Meanwhile, SEIU and its union allies have no intention of changing course. If anything, they’ve doubled down. Asked if his union would give future backing to Senate Republicans who support the minimum wage hike, SEIU1199 president George Gresham left the door open, responding: “We have no permanent friends or enemies — we have permanent interests.”

The Fight for $15’s narrow notion of those interests has upset some and gratified others. But don’t expect it change. The campaign has been winning, after all.

Can the Fort Dix 5 channel the power of the Camden 28?

by Frida Berrigan and Chris Knestrick

Witness Against Torture protesting outside the Camden courthouse in January. (Flickr / Justin Norman)

It was freezing cold outside — so cold that you wanted to wrap the stiff banner material around your hands for a little warmth. We — members of Witness Against Torture — were standing outside a Camden, New Jersey courthouse in early January to support the Duka brothers, three Albanian-American men who are now serving life sentences after being found guilty of conspiracy to commit terrorism and other charges in December 2008. Our banners said, “Innocent until proven Muslim” and “Islamophobia convicted the Duka brothers — Free them now.” Many believe the men are categorically innocent, and — on that cold day in January — they were finally getting a chance to present a motion for a retrial based on incompetent representation. Family and friends of the brothers crowded the courtroom, craning to glimpse their loved ones.

As the judge in the Duka brothers case considers the motion and prepares to deliver a ruling later this week, there’s another trial from Camden’s past that may offer a small ray of hope. More than 40 years ago, in the spring of 1973 — in the same courthouse (in the same court room even) — 28 women and men stood trial. They were the Camden 28, anti-Vietnam War activists and draft board raiders who were caught red-handed by the FBI because their group was infiltrated (and led) by an informant and agent provocateur on the FBI payroll. The group was eventually found not-guilty, and that verdict speaks to the power of solidarity, the importance of a culture of resistance, and how some people’s willingness to take a stand even in the face of withering hate, vicious scapegoating and terrible consequences has a real impact.

Can the Duka brothers draw on the power of the Camden 28’s witness? Can they be hopeful this week?

The Fort Dix Five

May 8, 2007 was the day that forever changed the Duka family. It was the day Dritan, Eljvir and Shain Duka were arrested by federal agents and became known as three of the Fort Dix Five. Over a year later — on December 22, 2008 — they were convicted of conspiracy charges in a case that has become one of the most well known post-9/11 “spoiled” terrorist plots. New Jersey governor and two-time presidential hopeful Chris Christie — then an up-and-coming U.S. attorney — built his career on it.

Yet, the whole plan was conceived and planned by two FBI paid informants and preemptively prosecuted by the legal system. Ultimately, these three Muslim men from a working-class family in Cherry Hill, New Jersey became victims of the post-9/11 counterterrorism frenzy that engulfed the United States.

It all started on a family vacation to the Poconos Mountains in Pennsylvania. While enjoying the variety of outdoor activities offered by this popular tourist destination, the Duka brothers — along with their friend Mohamad Shnewer, who was also prosecuted as a member of the Fort Dix Five — videotaped their activities to share with friends and family. Afterwards, they took the footage to a local Circuit City to make into DVDs. A Circuit City employee watched a section of the footage documenting their time at the shooting range and became concerned over the use of the words “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” a common saying in Muslim communities. However, reacting to the post-9/11 media-induced Islamophobia, the employee decided to turn the video over to the police, who contacted the FBI, which then opened an investigation.

While all the activities shown in the video — shooting rifles at the range, riding horses, openly expressing one’s faith in God — are legal, it was still enough, in the post-9/11 era, for the FBI to target them through a newly adopted strategy of preemptive prosecution. This strategy seeks to target and prosecute individuals or organizations whose beliefs, ideology or religious affiliations raise security concerns for the government. It also allows the FBI to place agent provocateurs into groups with the goal of convincing its members to commit a crime. The fact that the Dukas were Muslim and had guns was therefore all the FBI needed to move forward with its plan.

In a recent investigative feature published by The Intercept, journalists Murtaza Hussain and Razan Ghalayini discuss in detail the FBI’s efforts to entrap the Dukas, which took over a year and involved two paid informants. The first was Mahmoud Omar, an Egyptian immigrant, who the the FBI directed to befriend Shnewer, the young, impressionable friend of the Duka brothers.

After a while of talking mostly about politics and religion, the two — at the instigation of Omar — began discussing the possibility of attacking Fort Dix. The FBI recorded these conversations, one of which has Omar questioning Shnewer about other people participating. He specifically asked if the Duka brothers would be interested in such a plan. Shnewer responded by saying, “When I tell you I have people, that means I have people.” Through the course of the investigation, Omar was relentless about wanting to involve the Duka brothers, asking Shnewer almost 200 times whether they would take part in the attack. However, through it all, there was never a recorded conversation with any of the brothers and no clear link could be made that they were even aware of the Fort Dix plot.

The FBI knew that there needed to be another participant in the plot for a conspiracy to take place. Legally, an individual cannot enter into a conspiracy with only a government informant. This was one of the reasons for Omar’s unrelenting pressure to involve the Dukas. However, when unable to do so, Omar decided to approach Serdar Tatar, a friend of the young men who delivered pizzas to Fort Dix and had a map of the base, as well as a working knowledge of the area from being there so often for his job. Omar knew this and approached Tatar, explaining his plan and asking for the map.

After the conversation, Tatar contacted a police officer, who he knew, and told him about the conversation, saying it was a national security issue. The police officer contacted the FBI, but Tatar never heard from them. Omar kept bugging Tatar for the map, who then finally gave in. When the FBI approached Tatar, they interrogated him. Out of fear, Tatar denied giving him the map, which would ultimately lead to his participation in the crime. Interestingly enough, Tatar recorded all his conversations with Omar, but the FBI never wanted them — throwing all kinds of doubts on the legitimacy of the conspiracy.

After months of frustration over the failed attempts to entrap the Duka brothers in a plan to attack Fort Dix, the FBI decided to introduce a second informant specifically to target the brothers. Offered $1,500 a week and a ticket out of deportation proceedings, Besnik Bakalli agreed to work his way into the group. Through his boisterous personality, he would try to get the Duka brothers on tape speaking about jihad and attacking the United States. The Dukas never took the bait.

Although they loved going to the shooting range in the Poconos, the Dukas didn’t own any guns. Omar deceived the brothers into buying some. Dritan told Omar that he was interested in only the semi-automatic weapons because they are legal. When the time came to make the purchase, the FBI provided automatic weapons, which are illegal. The FBI raided the apartment, threw Dritan and Shain to the ground and arrested them. Eljvir was arrested later that day — after returning from a trip to get ice cream with his wife and Dritan’s children — as were Shnewer and Tatar. It was at that point they became known as the Fort Dix Five.

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The trial lasted more than six months. Through preemptive prosecution and specifically manufactured evidence by the FBI, all five of the young men were found guilty of conspiracy to kill military personnel and felony weapon charges. They received life sentences and were remanded to different high security prisons around the country.

However, many are now questioning the Duka brothers’ knowledge and participation in a terrorist plot. In the over 300 hours of surveillance tapes, there is no conversation with them talking about an attack. Throughout the proceedings, two of the main participants both claimed that the Duka brothers knew nothing of a plot to attack Fort Dix. Mahmoud Omar, the FBI informant, publicly testified in court that the Dukas didn’t know. Later on, in 2009, Shnewer reminded the judge in a handwritten note that the brothers were clueless of such a plot.

The Duka brothers are hoping for a new trial. All the evidence points to the need for a fresh consideration of these facts outside of the hothouse of hate and fear and Islamaphobia.

The Camden 28

The anti-Vietnam War group’s aim was to destroy draft files — the paper records that were used to compel young men into the military and the war in Indochina. They prepared a statement that read, in part: We “are trying with our lives to say ‘no’ to the madness we see perpetrated by our government in the name of the American people — the madness of our Vietnam policy, of the arms race, of our neglected cities and inhuman prisons.” After months of planning, scoping and practicing, they crept into the empty Camden Federal Building on August 22, 1971 and began pulling files out of drawers. They were just getting started when FBI agents rushed into the room and shouted “Freeze,” but already the floor was covered in ripped files and they had filled 12 bags with paper.

Roughed up and hand-cuffed, rousted from various look-out points around the building, the men and women eventually found themselves in basement holding cells. “How did they know?” they asked one another and eventually noticed that one of their group members was missing. There had been an agent provocateur in their midst.

His name was Robert Hardy, and he had — in many ways — made the action happen. He taught the group how to scale ladders, cut glass, open window locks though the cut squares of glass. He scouted the site from the inside and shared critical intel. He provided ladders, glass cutters, gloves, crow bars, groceries and two-way radios. Hardy was friendly with some of the organizers, but when they approached him, he went to the FBI who jumped on the chance to infiltrate the group.

The Bureau desperately wanted this action. They suspected that the main organizers were also responsible for an audacious and embarrassing raid on an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania that March, which exposed to the nation countless FBI dirty tricks and covert operations against peace and civil rights organizations. After an exhaustive search, they had not captured the perpetrators (and never did, as Betty Medsger explained so compellingly in her book “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI”). The FBI’s new strategy was to flush out the masterminds of the Media break-in by facilitating the Camden 28 break-in, catching them in the act, threatening them with decades in prison and then getting the activists to tell who was responsible for Media.

It didn’t work. The informant switched sides when the FBI broke its promise to protect his friends. Hardy examined his conscience and didn’t like what he saw. His son had died soon after the action, and his friends from the Camden 28 had stood with him and his family in their grief, even though he had betrayed them. Hardy agreed to testify for the defense instead of the prosecution and was damning in his explanation of how much of the action rested on his (and the FBI’s shoulders).

Facing decades in prison for a crime they hadn’t totally committed — but wanted to — the defendants added a radical offense to their defense. They asked the jury to refuse to convict them — via jury nullification — because they engaged in civil disobedience to protect life and resist the Vietnam War. Historian Howard Zinn educated the jury about the Vietnam War and the American history of civil disobedience. As lawyer David Kairys said in his closing, the defendants broke the law because “they saw a conflict between law and morality, between law and life. They made the same choices we would want German people to make when Jews were being killed, the same choices we would want Americans to make when black people were in slavery.”

Four days later, the jury delivered “not guilty” verdicts for all the defendants and the courtroom erupted into a tearful rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

1973 versus 2008

The cases of the Camden 28 and the Fort Dix Five have their similarities. They share a courtroom and a central role for FBI informants and agent provocateurs (and of those instigators later trying to roll back the damage they helped wrought), along with the threat of long sentences. Furthermore, both cases were used as political opportunities for those in power — Chris Christie’s rise to governor and a two-time presidential hopeful, as well as J. Edgar Hoover’s personal quest to find those responsible for the politically embarrassing Media break-in.

However, perhaps by looking at the differences in the two cases, more insight can be gained. Particularly, in the political utility of fear. The Camden 28 activists spoke of trying to peel off layers of fear in order to be free to act on behalf of the greater good. That was hard work, but they had a lot of support from a community — and even a culture of resistance that was building at the time. They were people of privilege — educated, white, from middle-class backgrounds (even though many had “dropped out” of mainstream society in order to dedicate themselves to the antiwar effort). The FBI and the prosecution tried hard to foment fear of radical activists in the lead-up to the trial, but they were so discredited and the defendants were so disarming that it really didn’t work.

Four decades later, the Duka brothers found themselves up against not only the full power of the U.S. criminal justice system, but a culture of fermented fear and fabricated Islamophobia. They were alone. Unlike the Camden 28, there was no activist or religious community to support them. No prominent professors testified on their behalf. No political lawyers gave it their all to defend them from both the charges and the reflexive fear. There was no opportunity for a clever strategy around the jury because the Fort Dix Five jury was anonymous and under armed guard — a signal to the men and women doing their civic duty that they were not peers with the men under indictment. The United States was at war, U.S. torture chambers and black sites were opened around the world. The prison at Guantanamo Bay was at full capacity. In the United States, Muslim bodies wore the word terrorism. Unfortunately, in this climate of fear, the Duka brothers didn’t stand a chance. Fear found them guilty of a crime that they never heard of and that never happened.

Since September 11, 2001, Muslim and Arab communities in the United States have been continuously and aggressively infiltrated by intelligence agencies. According to The Intercept, “In the 1970s, when the Senate was investigating the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO domestic counterintelligence operations, the agency employed around 1,500 confidential informants. Today, that number has ballooned to 15,000 confidential informants.”

The FBI and other entities have adopted a policy of investigating people and communities instead of crimes and wrongdoings. They have threatened, insinuated and profiled. They have double- and triple-crossed, they have sowed fear throughout those communities, and sought to make “middle America” instinctively afraid of Muslim and Arab people. And a few times a year, the newspapers are emblazoned with headlines about a big case where a “terror plot” is “broken” just in time, and “masterminds” are subjected to public excoriation, and shuttled off to prison for decades. A few people raise questions, look deeper, but the public need for scapegoats is met and everyone moves on — except for the “masterminds” and their families, who are left, broken, alone and imprisoned.

Thankfully, there are groups like National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, No Separate Justice and Witness Against Torture, who are working hard to make sure that the Duka brothers, and others preemptively prosecuted are not forgotten, not scapegoated, and receive real justice. We hope that this hard work will pay off in the case of the Duka brothers and another generation will have a chance to fill the Camden courtroom with the tearful, heartfelt verses of “Amazing Grace.”

How learning from the Trump phenomenon can make movements great again

by George Lakey

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Since it’s difficult for some of us to tear our attention away from the Donald Trump drama, we might as well learn what we can from it. I’m finding useful information in it for advancing the living revolution in the United States.

I’ll start with my brother Bob, a white working-class retiree in rural Pennsylvania. He finds only two of the presidential candidates appealing: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. In this view he has a lot of company, judging from journalistic reports from Iowa and elsewhere.

“Each of them,” Bob explains, “is independent of their parties. The Republican leaders don’t control Trump and the Democratic leaders don’t control Sanders. That’s good, because both parties got us into this mess, and there’s no reason to think they will get us out of it. The only president who can act for ordinary Americans would be one who has his own mandate instead of doing what the party leadership says.”

For people like my brother who believe that U.S. politics needs a big shake-up, the recent attacks on Trump by Mitt Romney and John McCain strengthen their belief in Trump’s independence from an oppressive and insecurity-making status quo.

I don’t know anyone on the left who would disagree with Bob about the major parties. Those who remember the Bill Clinton presidential era remember the success the Clintons had in reducing the influence on policy of the working class and pushing the Democratic Party to the right, in tandem with a Republican Party that was itself moving to the right.

Judging from polls, we Americans are not as a people moving rightward; in fact, in some ways we have been moving leftward. One result of these opposing trends has been the decline in legitimacy of the political class itself. Even the parties’ chief influencers took a hit: A 2015 Gallup poll on Americans’ confidence in U.S. institutions put “big business” second to last — above only Congress.

Major party membership followed these trends. Both parties have lost members. More people registered “independent” even though that meant in many states they couldn’t vote in primaries. Even more striking are the increasing numbers who vote with their feet by not bothering to go to the polls on general election day.

Their logic is strong. For 30 years Gallup pollsters have found a steady majority of Americans saying that the government should redistribute wealth by imposing heavy taxes on the rich. Why should that majority — after decades of suffering the decline of jobs, schools, infrastructure and pensions while the rich pay lowered taxes — expect the major parties to reverse course?

Bottom line: It’s too superficial just to shake our heads in embarrassment about the latest Trump one-liner and moan about the “craziness” of American politics. When we look beneath the surface, we see my brother and millions of other people making sane and accurate judgments about a U.S. political system stacked against them.

What’s with the working class?

The mass media sometimes voice a familiar trope among middle-class progressives: “Why do working-class people vote against their own interests?” Sadly, the question itself betrays class bias: In reality, middle-class people vote against their own interests on a regular basis. The educational demographic that was first to see through the scam of the Vietnam war was the group that did not complete high school. This is not unusual. The AFL-CIO was issuing national protests against the Iraq war and the United States’ continued military intervention in Afghanistan, while mass middle-class associations were quiet or still clinging to the empire.

Even as I write this our public schools are bleeding, our tax money subsidizes fossil fuels, we’re falling farther behind on infrastructure, and college debt grows. The politicians who decided the policies that created these results were supported by a majority of the middle class. Why do most middle-class people routinely vote against their own interests?

The misperception about class is understandable. The professionals I know with this bias live in a middle-class bubble, don’t know progressive working-class people or many middle-class conservatives, and imagine the progressives they know represent their whole class.

The good news in the “shake-up” that my brother yearns for would be the opportunity for professionals to break out of their bubbles and find the experience of solidarity.

Putting the fear of Trump in perspective

A year ago my mixed-class and race neighborhood lost its fight to save a neighborhood school from closing. My great grandson was affected. We family members gathered last month in a church basement for a reunion. With food and chatter we remembered the old school and affirmed our youngsters who are adjusting to new schools.

While talking with another grandpa, I brought up the presidential race. “I’m not afraid of Trump,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“He can say whatever craziness he wants to now while he’s running. If he gets into office, he won’t be allowed to do the extreme things. The people who have been in charge all along will still be in charge.”

The grandpa helped me get the point of Trump’s avoidance of policy commitments. In his own campaign book “Crippled America,” Trump explains why he dodges specifics: “…there are a lot of different voices — and interests — that have to be considered when working toward solutions.” He intentionally leaves himself a lot of wiggle room. Making deals is what he does best.

If I were still teaching, I’d want my students to experience our neighborhood school reunion and the working-class black grandpa’s system analysis. With Donald Trump the United States is not considering a headlong fall into dictatorship. The oligarchy is firmly in place, and it’s not going anywhere. The Donald will deal. It’s not that our country is safe from the threat of dictatorship down the road, but for now, we can see who’s in charge. The school grandpa’s perspective grounds us as we consider our own next steps.

What to do with institutional blockage

Over a thousand cases in the Global Nonviolent Action Database show a natural path taken historically when institutional paths to positive change, like elections, are blocked. When people accept that reality, they often apply people power to deal with those who are blocking them. Often, they win, even against actual dictatorships.

I explained in a recent column on the movement supporting Bernie Sanders that there are significant numbers of young adults and working-class people who can find each other as the hegemony of the major parties breaks down. The time is coming in the United States to create a broad movement outside the electoral system, one that channels righteous anger into a positive vision using effective nonviolent direct action.

Already a growing number of people are building toward that day by gaining skills and concrete victories through targeted direct action campaigns. Campaigns, after all, birthed the insurgent labor movement in the 1930s, the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and the LGBTQ movement after that.

Sporadic protest can’t do the job, and little is accomplished in one-off protests at city halls and party conventions. The targeted, goal-achieving direct action campaign — an art form in itself — can be organized nationally, and it can be tried at home. I don’t know of a better way to get practical, accelerate our learning curve, and build the sustainable, powerful movements we need.