Waging Nonviolence

Activists deliver plan for just transition to EPA offices nationwide

by Kate Aronoff

Activists deliver the Our Power Plan to the EPA’s regional office in San Francisco on January 19. (Facebook/CEJA)

Yesterday, activists at each of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 10 regional offices issued their own corrective on the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. Days before the end of the federal comment period, the Climate Justice Alliance’s Our Power Campaign — comprised of 41 climate and environmental justice organizations — presented its Our Power Plan, which identifies “clear and specific strategies for implementing the Clean Power Plan, or CPP, in a way that will truly benefit our families’ health and our country’s economy.”

Introduced last summer, the CPP looks to bring down power plants’ carbon emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels within 15 years. The plan was made possible by Massachusetts vs. EPA, a 2007 Supreme Court ruling which mandates that the agency regulate greenhouse gases as it has other toxins and pollutants under the Clean Air Act of 1963. Under the CPP, states are each required to draft their own implementation plans by September of this year, or by 2018 if granted an extension. If they fail to do so, state governments will be placed by default into an interstate carbon trading, or “Cap and Trade,” system to bring down emissions.

Michael Leon Guerrero, the Climate Justice Alliance’s interim coordinator, was in Paris for the most recent round of UN climate talks as part of the It Takes Roots Delegation, which brought together over 100 organizers from North American communities on the frontlines of both climate change and fossil fuel extraction. He sees the Our Power Plan as a logical next step for the group coming out of COP21, especially as the onus for implementing and improving the Paris agreement now falls to individual nations.

“Fundamentally,” he said, “we need to transform our economy and rebuild our communities. We can’t address the climate crisis in a cave without addressing issues of equity.”

The Our Power Plan, or OPP, is intended as a blueprint for governments and EPA administrators to address the needs of frontline communities as they draft their state-level plans over the next several months. (People living within three miles of a coal plant have incomes averaging 15 percent lower than average, and are eight percent more likely to be communities of color.) Included in the OPP are calls to bolster what CJA sees as the CPP’s more promising aspects, like renewable energy provisions, while eliminating proposed programs they see as more harmful. The CPP’s carbon trading scheme, CJA argues, allows polluters to buy “permissions to pollute,” or carbon credits, rather than actually stemming emissions.

The OPP further outlines ways that the EPA can ensure a “just transition” away from fossil fuels, encouraging states to invest in job creation, conduct equity analyses and “work with frontlines communities to develop definitions, indicators, and tracking and response systems that really account for impacts like health, energy use, cost of energy, climate vulnerability [and] cumulative risk.”

Lacking support from Congress, the Obama administration has relied on executive action to push through everything from environmental action to comprehensive immigration reform. The Clean Power Plan was central to the package Obama brought to Paris. Also central to COP21 was U.S. negotiators’ insistence on keeping its results non-binding, citing Republican lawmakers’ unwillingness to pass legislation.

Predictably, the CPP has faced legal challenges from the same forces, who decry the president for having overstepped the bounds of his authority. Republican state governments, utility companies, and fossil fuel industry groups have all filed suit against the CPP, with many asking for expedited hearings. Leading up the anti-CPP charge in Congress has been Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has called the plan a “regulatory assault,” pitting fossil fuel industry workers against the EPA. “Here’s what is lost in this administration’s crusade for ideological purity,” he wrote in a November statement, “the livelihoods of our coal miners and their families.”

Organizers of Tuesday’s actions, however, were quick to point out that the Our Power Plan is aimed at strengthening — not defeating — the CPP as it stands. Denise Abdul-Rahman, of NAACP Indiana, helped organize an OPP delivery at the EPA’s Region 5 headquarters in Chicago, bringing out representatives from Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, National People’s Action and National Nurses United.

“We appreciate the integrity of the Clean Power Plan,” she said. “However, we believe it needs to be improved — from eliminating carbon trading to ensuring that there’s equity. We want to improve CPP by adding our voices and our plan, and we encourage the EPA to make it better.” Four of the six states in that region — which includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin — are suing the EPA.

Endorsed by the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, Greenpeace and the Center for Popular Democracy, among other organizations, yesterday’s national day of action on the EPA came as new details emerged in Flint, Michigan’s ongoing water crisis — along with calls for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s resignation and arrest. The EPA has also admitted fault for its slow response to Flint residents’ complaints, writing in a statement this week that “necessary [EPA] actions were not taken as quickly as they should have been.”

Abdul-Rahman connected the water crisis with the need for a justly-implemented CPP. “The Flint government let their community down by not protecting our most precious asset, which is water,” she said. “The same is true of air: we need the highest standard of protecting human beings’ air, water, land.”

How pillows can change the Syrian refugee narrative

by Anthony Grimes

At the heart of nonviolent direct action lies the task of reimagining narratives that enable oppression. If they are not challenged and disrupted, the stories we tell can make space for destructive policies and mores.

In less than five years, Syria’s civil war has caused the death and displacement of millions of people, creating a massive global humanitarian crisis. These displaced human beings, most of whom are Muslim, have quickly come to represent the largest refugee population in the world.

If these individuals manage to finally arrive on our U.S. shores — a formidable challenge, given the fact that Middle Eastern refugees are subject to the “strictest form of screening of any class of traveler to the United States before they are allowed to enter” — they are stigmatized, as “terrorists” by many neighbors. From this language is birthed policy to protect “us” instead of policy that resettles “them.” In fact, this language eliminates the possibility of “us” and “them” ever becoming a united we — human beings searching for freedom.

The predominant narrative of otherness, criminality and terrorism allows state and federal refugee resettlement programs to be drastically underfunded, new political roadblocks to be proposed in Congress and state legislatures, and emboldens presidential candidates like Donald Trump to shamelessly promise banning all Muslim immigrants from the United States. This narrative dehumanizes undocumented Central Americans, reducing them from mother, father, sister, neighbor to simply “law-breaker.”

Anthony Grimes holding a pillowcase that he made for the #GiveRefugeesRest campaign. (FOR)

Changing this bellicose narrative was my motivation in developing the #GiveRefugeesRest campaign, which I initiated as the new director of campaigns and strategy for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, or FOR. Our team started imagining a way to reverse the course of a nation that is increasingly hostile toward Muslim people and the idea developed into using pillows to send a message to our government.

Last week, my teammate Gretchen Honnold and her mother, Martha Ridings, sat at their dining table in their North Carolina home, painting #GiveRefugeesRest on 31 pillowcases. They then inserted the pillowcases with accompanying letters into envelopes, and addressed them to the 31 governors who have sought to ban Syrian refugees from their states.

The letters state that we believe their current stance on Syrian refugees is an “egregious decision that contradicts the best spirit of the United States of America, as well as our various faith traditions. We oppose this decision in the strongest possible terms, on both moral and political grounds.”

As part of a broader campaign launched on January 12, the day the 31 envelopes were charted to land in the governors’ mailboxes, the pillowcases are twofold symbols: they are both a wake-up call for political leaders to remember our common humanity, and a demand to provide for the basic needs of displaced and suffering people.

FOR is mobilizing a national network and calling for people of conscience to join in this campaign. We are inviting everyone to join us by sending a pillowcase to a listed governor, particularly of your own state, with a message of your own, as well as the hashtag #GiveRefugeesRest. We are also encouraging participants to take selfies with your pillowcases to post on social media with the same hashtag. In addition, we will be releasing a series of short video commercials over the next month aimed at changing this narrative.

In just the first days of the campaign, this initiative is already proving to be bigger than any one organization — people around the country have expressed interest in participating; we have been told of high school and college groups that plan to participate, of pillowcase-making house parties, and of people who are planning to personally deliver their pillowcases to their state capitals.

“We’re just glad that people are finally doing something about this,” Iman Jodeh, executive director of Meet the Middle East, said to me as we were filming a commercial.

A couple respondents have expressed skepticism, questioning if the campaign is a gimmick. We contend that historically symbolic acts of protest have proven effective.

#GiveRefugeesRest was inspired by a successful FOR campaign in 1954 in which bags of wheat and rice are reported to have changed the course of history. On November 3, 1954, in the midst of a severe famine on the Chinese mainland and a period of intense U.S.-China political tensions, FOR launched the “Food for China” campaign. Members sent small sacks of grain to President Eisenhower’s administration with the message, “If thine enemy hunger, feed him. Send surplus food to China.”

A small bag of food sent to the White House in 1954 as part of FOR’s Food for China campaign. (Snopes.com)

“We now know that the 45,000 bags that were sent, as well as tens of thousands of letters, were mentioned three times in cabinet meetings,” Rev. Kristin Stoneking, FOR’s executive director, recently explained in a statement on this historic moment. “The third time, this grassroots pressure led Eisenhower to veto a proposal to bomb China.”

On February 4, Rev. Stoneking will seek to hand-deliver a pillowcase and letter to the office of House Speaker Paul Ryan, along with fellow FOR members and partners in Washington D.C. We are asking concerned citizens everywhere to also hand-deliver your pillowcases to your state capital if possible, and to please take photos and share on social media with the hashtag #GiveRefugeesRest so that we can follow your actions.

Last week in his State of the Union address, President Obama lifted up the first three words of the U.S. Constitution — “We the People” — as a central metaphor for how we understand a “more perfect union” based on trust and mutual respect. But he spoke these words against a backdrop of heightened Islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric, with hate crimes against mosques and individuals, as well as broad anti-refugee policy, with nativistic federal legislation accompanied by ICE raids on Central American homes.

In the face of this xenophobic reality, the meaning of #GiveRefugeesRest is to engage a metaphor that allows everyone to express their dreams of a country for, indeed, “all the people” as the president stated. Through symbolism and multimedia, together, we can reimagine a dangerous narrative and prevent the racist policies that too often represent its aftermath.

Why Martin Luther King’s pledge of nonviolence matters today

by Stephanie Van Hook

Bill Hudson’s image of Parker High School student Walter Gadsden being attacked by dogs in Birmingham, Alabama was published in The New York Times on May 4, 1963. (Wikipedia)

Alycee Lane believes that the same spirit that guided Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work can be awakened within us. And it can be found in a pledge. Not just any pledge. It’s a pledge that in the climax of the 1960s African American freedom struggle in Alabama included clear instructions, not just for how to behave in deed alone, but it goes further, asking volunteers to cultivate nonviolence in thought and word, too — in all of one’s relationships, even toward opponents. It’s the Kingian ideal. Author of “Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace,” Lane translates the often overlooked pledge card for a contemporary audience, emphasizing the power of nonviolence as a practice in the spirit of King’s vision. I had the opportunity to ask her some questions for deeper reflection.

Most nonviolence pledges ask us to refrain from violence. What else was included the 1963 Birmingham campaign pledge?

The Birmingham campaign pledge was a commitment card that, according to Martin Luther King, all volunteers were “required” to sign in order to participate in the movement. I came across the pledge in King’s work, “Why We Can’t Wait,” a book in which he talks about the Birmingham campaign. The card consisted of ten commandments, including: “1) meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus. 2) remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation — not victory. 3) walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love. 4) pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free. 5) sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free. 6) observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy. 7) seek to perform regular service for others and for the world. 8) refrain from the violence of fist, tongue or heart. 9) strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health. 10) follow the directions of the movement and of the captain of a demonstration.”

Why is this pledge significant?

The significance of this pledge is that, first of all, it secured volunteers’ promise that they would protest nonviolently. In this way, the pledge helped organizers — the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, or ACMHR — to screen out those unwilling to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience.

But as I argue in my book, the pledge had an even deeper significance. With its emphasis on the importance of taking up a daily practice of (for example) courtesy, love, service, meditation and prayer, the pledge really offered to volunteers an opportunity to embrace nonviolence as a way of life. The commandments in effect constitute a daily practice of nonviolence, and as such, it conveys that nonviolent direct action is not merely or solely public protest and organizing. It is also (and perhaps more importantly) speaking, thinking, acting and engaging the world — even at the most mundane level — from an ethic of nonviolence, so that we actually become nonviolence.

The pledge thus disavows what Leela Fernandes in “Transforming Feminist Practice” calls the public/private split in political activism. It offers a notion of activism that “is not stunted by the illusory distinctions between the means we use and the ends we seek, between the public and the private, the spiritual and the material, the dailiness of our everyday lives and the grander actions that we classify as social activism.” To live nonviolence purposely — to meditate, to seek justice and reconciliation, to walk and talk in the manner of love, to care for our bodies, to practice courtesy — is activism at its best. And it infuses our “grander actions” with tremendous power.

Did the volunteers in King’s day take the pledge to heart? How can you prove that?

Now, I don’t know to what extent (if at all) the Birmingham campaign volunteers took the pledge to heart and practiced nonviolence on a daily basis. Moreover, I suspect that, given the exigencies of the campaign, the idea of nonviolence as a way of life was not one that organizers really drove home. But that’s ultimately of no matter; through the pledge, SCLC and ACMHR opened a door that I think we must walk through given the myriad crises we face today — endless war, domestic and international terrorism, growing economic and social inequality, climate change, factionalism across multiple political and social identities.

What do you hope to achieve by reexamining and reinterpreting the pledge?

Well, first of all, I should say that through my examination of the pledge, I offer what I hope will force us to redefine what we mean by “activist” and to undo the “illusory distinctions” between the public and private that Fernandes talks about. To the degree that activated people reify the public/private split is, I think, the degree to which the pledge is relevant.

Having said that, in “Nonviolence Now!” I examine the original pledge, situate it within the context of the Birmingham campaign, and then offer secular versions as daily practices of nonviolence that we can all take on. For example, I truncate the first commitment from “Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus” to “Meditate daily.” I also offer five new commitments that I think capture the spirit of the campaign and carry us in this 21st century moment: Practice Forgiveness; Extend Compassion, Love, and Kindness to Those Who Express and Act with Ill Will; Reestablish a Connection to Earth; Strive to Be in Good Bodily Health; Cultivate Hope.

Do you see any strategic value in working nonviolence into our daily lives for any contemporary struggles? What does that look like?

Yes. It is strategic, I think, for those who are activated to choose not to emulate the very people whom we hope to disarm, to refuse to exchange tit for tat, to withdraw our cooperation with and complicity in creating our culture of violence. It is strategic to demonstrate by word and deed that there is another way to walk in this world and to engage others. It is strategic, in other words, to disarm ourselves and one another just as surely as it is to disarm the state.

It saddens me when folk who are doing righteous work to confront, say, police brutality or economic inequality or environmental exploitation, express the kind of venom they themselves receive because of the work that they do. It saddens me when I say belittling and dehumanizing things about folks with whom I disagree. In those moments, we become allies in nurturing an atmosphere of conflict, hate and violence. We also reveal the extent to which our emotional and spiritual lives have been colonized.

So to change the tone and to organize, with great intention, from a commitment to living nonviolence is a strategic decision to turn ourselves, our communities, our nation and the world inside-out and to offer something radically different. What might this look like? I don’t know, but what comes to mind is a story Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh tells about Vietnamese refugees who escape danger by boat to safer shores. As the passengers on the boat become afraid and panicked in the face of sickness, the sea’s hazards and other perils, the willingness of one to demonstrate and embody fearlessness, compassion, and quiet strength helped everyone to calm and to have hope. The hazards they faced didn’t disappear, nor did the possibility of violence and death. What left, however, was fear, and in its stead came cooperation, fortitude and a willingness to go on, come what may. Ultimately, they all survived.

We can ground ourselves in compassion, care and nonviolence as we organize and try to change the world — and thus signal to others that there is absolutely nothing that can defeat us, come what may — or we can ground ourselves in the chaos, fear, and hate around us — and thus signal that we are already defeated.

What message do you want people to get from your book?

We continue to be faced with the choice of “nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation,” as King observed in his speech on the Vietnam War. We have raised generations in a culture of violence. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, “ours is a war culture, our economy a war economy, and our democracy a war democracy.” But the chickens are coming home to roost, for the violence we commit in the name of our democracy or free markets or American exceptionalism is violence we have turned “into ourselves,” to borrow Allen Aubrey Boesak’s phrasing. We are armed to the teeth and armed against each other. In the process, we have even turned violence itself “into a good cause.”

So, it has become even more urgent for us to choose and to recognize that we have an opportunity to make this nation one that defines strength, power and leadership not in terms of our weapons or the wealth we produce at the expense of the poor, of natural resources, and of other sentient beings, but instead in terms of our willingness to lay down our arms and make nonviolence the foundation of our politics, economy, and social relations. Why not be great because we choose nonviolence?

But to get to that place, we have to practice nonviolence. We can’t do it on the cheap; we can’t think that we can radically change institutions and structures of subordination without changing ourselves as well. We have to be willing to do the labor of practice. And so what I want people to get from my book is that the time to do that labor is now.

What happens to the Bernie Sanders movement if he loses?

by George Lakey

Embed from Getty Images

You may have heard the story of the woman who was walking her dog one night and found a man on his hands and knees, searching the sidewalk under the streetlight. “Can I help you find something?” she asked.

“I dropped my house key over there,” he replied, gesturing behind him, “and I need to find it.”

“But if you dropped it over there, why are you looking here?” she asked.

“The light is much better here,” he answered.

I remember the story when I think about the many Americans who know that huge changes are needed in economic and climate policy, and turn to the electoral arena to find their power. They won’t find their power there because the system is so corrupted, but they nevertheless look for their power “under the streetlight,” where middle school civics textbooks tell them to look.

The corrupted system, however, does not lead me to dismiss Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. He and the many people working with him have already contributed mightily to the task of preparing Americans for a living revolution. How so?

First, he articulates clearly truths about our system that many Americans have figured out, but have wondered — for good reason — if they are alone. In a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, 68 percent agreed that we live in a country whose economic system favors the rich rather than the rest of us. (About half of Republicans thought this, too.) In another poll, 74 percent said they believe that corporations exert too much influence on American politics and life. As early as 2012, a poll found a staggering 75 percent of Republicans agreed there would be less corruption if there were limits on donations to super PACs.

Sanders is giving these views a voice. When Bernie asserts on national television that it is Wall Street that regulates Congress instead of the other way around, he strikes a chord that potentially enables people to resonate together — Republicans and Democrats alike.

Second, Sanders defies the political class by projecting a vision of how our country could move toward justice. U.S. politicians are notoriously vision-averse, except for neo-conservatives and libertarians. (Social justice activists are also remarkably vision-averse, even though the aversion undermines our effectiveness.) By contrast, Sanders repeatedly points to Denmark and other Nordic countries, thereby bringing vision into the conversation. While I have radical Nordic friends, who are critical of their countries’ achievements, in the U.S. context Bernie is performing a remarkable service. He even makes sure to connect the dots by offering a public course on democratic socialism.

Here again, the U.S. public is way ahead of the political class (and even ahead of many social justice activists). For over 30 years Gallup pollsters have found a steady majority who agree that the United States should redistribute the wealth by imposing heavy taxes on the rich. Gallup found in 2014 that even Republicans polled at 45 percent in favor of increasing taxes on the rich. The Pew Research Center found that more Republicans favored increased spending on Medicare, education and infrastructure than favored cutting those programs. The Economist worries that, “Anti-capitalism is once more a force to be reckoned with.” Among Democrats, in October 2015, a YouGov poll found 49 percent of Democrats viewed socialism favorably, while their approval of capitalism had fallen to 37 percent.

So Bernie’s campaign scores high in articulating both analysis and vision. He challenges other activists to stop holding back as we relate to the majority of Americans. Clearly, it is time to be bold and meet people where many of them already are.

A ‘political revolution?’

Sanders’s candidacy is, to be sure, self-limiting. The political revolution he calls for cannot be achieved through the ballot box. Most Americans would agree with me if asked, based on their perception of the corruption of the system. I’d recommend to the remaining true believers in “U.S. democracy” a Princeton study released in 2014.

Two U.S. political scientists conducted a broad empirical study that reveals who actually has the say in public policy. Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern examined the 1,779 specific policy issues that came to a head for national decision over the two decades between 1981 and 2002. Note: that period was before the Supreme Court made the Citizens United decision, before the billions released in the current money rush.

For each issue Gilens and Page determined from opinion polls and other evidence what the majority of the public wanted and what the economic elite wanted. When those two views differed, the scholars wanted to know whose view prevailed. They took into account the fact that ordinary citizens often combine to form mass-based interest groups like the American Association of Retired Persons.

What they found was that, when there was a difference, the economic elite almost always prevailed over the majority. Even the mass-based interest groups had little or no independent influence. In the scholars’ words, “In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.”

Bottom line, there’s no reason to think that the election of Bernie Sanders as president, even with a Congressional majority of Democrats, could possibly deliver the changes we want. Both major parties are clearly owned by the economic elite, and what they want, they get — as long as movements for change stay within the framework of electoral politics.

The good news is that we have the option of moving outside that corrupted framework. What if the Sanders campaigners maintained their commitment to a progressive analysis and vision and simply acknowledged what so many Americans already know: The system is too rigged to be changed from within.

Looking for power where it actually resides

It’s no accident that schools and the mainstream media urge us to look for empowerment in the wrong place: “Over here, under this streetlight!” For the 1 percent the 1960s was a truly dangerous decade. Too many people at that time discovered their power.

Cultural influencers in the mass media and academia therefore minimized and even ignored what people had learned about power through their nonviolent campaigns. The ‘60s were characterized as either a hippy “summer of love,” or a violent time of the Weather Underground and Black Panthers, thereby ignoring the main events that involved the most people and had the largest impact. Martin Luther King Jr. was caricatured as the “Day of Service” guy — even though, as far as I know, he never did a day of service in his life.

Despite this, working class and poor people did wage campaigns in the 1970s and ‘80s through unions and groups like ACORN, with little support across class and color lines. Environmentalists won their largest victory by stopping the spread of nuclear power with nonviolent direct action. Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network kept nonviolent campaigning alive, but failed to get the support they deserved because the electoral streetlight remained so appealing. Under the radar, Movement for a New Society, War Resisters League, and other clusters of trainers and manual-writers helped keep the direct action craft in circulation, laying the groundwork for the Battle of Seattle and the subsequent resurgence of larger-scale nonviolent direct action.

Throughout the period covered by the Princeton study, 1981-2002, and since, many continued to cling to electoral politics despite the onslaught of what billionaire Warren Buffett later acknowledged to be a successful class struggle initiated by his class. Over and over middle-class liberal Democrats legitimated an arena that couldn’t work for them, acting against their own interests as the wealth gap grew. Some are now noticing that looking under the streetlight is the wrong place to find their power.

Plan B: A strategy for those who ‘feel the burn?’

The Sanders campaign is doing fine work in projecting analysis and vision so people can recognize they are not alone, then claim it, and work side by side with those who share it. The question of strategy remains. When the electoral arena reveals itself to be an instrument of the 1 percent, where will the Sanders movement go? Will people accept the lessons of their own experience, integrate the Princeton study into their worldview, and re-form to claim their authentic power: nonviolent direct action?

Veteran campaigner Antje Mattheus suggests that the Sanders movement take a part of the vision that has the most potential and form a nonviolent direct action campaign to fight for it. Why not a national fight for free higher public education, say? Or fight for federally-guaranteed green jobs for all, a goal that would combine economic and racial justice with the climate justice imperative, and would expose the utilities and fossil fuel companies that try to stand in the way? Such a campaign could attract majority U.S. support across class and race lines and support us once again to go on the offensive for change.

When we don’t find our power under the streetlight, we need to shine a light of our own.

Chileans boycott supermarkets to fight corruption

by Monse Sepulveda

A photo of an empty Lider, one of the supermarkets that was boycotted, on January 10. (Twitter/Lucas Palape)

Chile is commonly rated as a country with low levels of corruption for the region. However, a series of cases of corruption that began to come to light in 2008 have shaken the public’s perception of corruption in Chile.

As a response to the latest scandal, on January 10 a boycott against three supermarket companies accused of collusion was called for on social media in Chile. A hashtag on Twitter that mobilized supporters became a national trending topic. Thousands of people joined the campaign and opted instead to shop at their local grocery store.

The first case of collusion dates back to 2008, when three major pharmacies were accused of secretly collaborating to raise the prices of their products. Later in 2011, three of the largest chicken distributors were also accused of collusion. In 2014, a third case, known popularly as “Colusion del Confort,” came to light. In this case, two of the biggest corporations in Chile were accused of raising the prices of products, such as toilet paper and napkins.

In addition to these cases, three more shocking corruption cases are currently under investigation. In the first, one of the largest financial groups in Chile, Grupo Penta, has been accused of bribery, fraud and money laundering to finance the political campaigns of right-wing politicians in the 2013 elections. In the second, the son of Chile’s president, Sebastian Davalos, is accused of influence peddling to obtain a multimillion-dollar loan from a bank and real state that was set to be rezoned as urban. Finally, one of the largest mining companies, SQM, was accused of subsidizing the election campaigns of specific politicians at the expense of the public treasury.

It is no surprise, then, that Chileans responded with calls for a nationwide boycott when early this year another network of collusion was revealed. Three of the largest supermarket chains — Cencosud, SMU and Walmart — were accused by Chile’s Tribunal for the Defense of Free Competition of colluding for over three years to raise the price of chicken and coercing smaller supermarkets to abide by the secret agreement.

There was an immediate response by the public on social media. A campaign emerged that called for a boycott on January 10 against each of the six supermarkets run by the companies involved in the collusion network. Thousands of people shared the call for a boycott with the hashtags #ColusionCiudadana, or #ThePeoplesCollusion, and #SupermercadosVacios, or #EmptySupermarkets, with the latter becoming a national trending topic on Twitter.

Using the hasghtag #SupermercadosVacios to report on the impact of the boycott, hundreds of photographs of empty supermarkets and parking lots were posted on social media. All of the biggest national media covered the campaign, shedding light like never before not only on the ongoing litigations against the companies involved in collusion, but most importantly, on the power of a grassroots campaign to express nationwide indignation and demands for justice.

The boycott has also facilitated a wider regional conversation. The hashtag #SupermercadosVacios began being used by Chileans on January 7, but it was already being used in Venezuela since early 2014. While Chileans were using it to ask people to not go to the large supermarkets, Venezuelans used it to denounce their internal food shortage crisis. Argentines, on the other hand, joined in the conversation on January 10 to support the Chilean campaign as they have gone through years of internal political, financial and social crisis. For an entire weekend, people from three different countries joined in a common conversation. It is through this type of solidarity that a movement can gain strength and affect change.

On Sunday, when I spoke to my family about this campaign many of them expressed frustration. “People still went to the supermarket, I saw them!” my father complained. In fact, many people did shop at supermarkets on Sunday, as reports on Twitter show. However, the success of this movement goes beyond whether people did or did not go to the supermarket, or whether or not the profit margin of the targeted corporations was affected. This campaign’s successes should also be gauged by the extent to which it sparked a national and international conversation about corruption, the strategies of nonviolent action, and the power that individuals have as agents of change.

Definite and effective legal action has already been taken against the companies involved in all corruption and collusion cases. Every company that have been found in recent years to have colluded in raising the prices of their products has either been found guilty — and will each have to pay sums ranging from three to $22.5 million — or is currently under investigation. Sebastian Davalos and his wife — as well as more than a dozen Grupo Penta and SQM executives — are also facing criminal charges.

However, the problem of collusion in Chile will undoubtedly continue. Already the president of the National Corporation of Consumers and Users, Hernan Calderon, has said that there is ample evidence pointing toward further networks of collusion. A report issued by the FNE, the national economic prosecutor, on this last case of collusion already suggests as much, as it outlines that “data shows a degree of [collusion] on other products.”

These cases of corruption have revealed serious gaps in Chile’s mechanisms for the prevention of these types of crimes. So far, the demand for justice and reforms by the public with the #SupermercadosVacios campaign has been mostly organic and organized by individual users, but the movement faces strong opposition by these same networks of corruption. Recently in 2013 the same pharmacies accused of collusion lobbied in Congress to obtain votes against a law that sought to regulate the prices and access to medication, threatening to withdraw their support from politicians or offering others financial support in future political campaigns. Confronted with this, it may take a stronger and more organized movement to achieve the changes necessary within Chile’s legal structures for accountability and transparency.

For now, there are already calls on social media in Chile for a second boycott on January 17. Given the media coverage of the action on January 10, the solidarity of people in other South American countries and the effort of thousands of people through Twitter and Facebook, #SupermercadosVacios has the potential to become an even stronger, more organized national movement.

What happens when soldiers stop believing in war?

by Ellen Barfield

Despite a long history of veterans, soldiers and military families opposing war, the public perception is that those who fight in wars keep believing in them and war-making in general. Nan Levinson helps dispel that false assumption with her sympathetic and perceptive analysis of the formation and first few years of Iraq Veterans Against the War, or IVAW, in “War Is Not A Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built.” A journalist and writing teacher, Levinson got drawn into writing the book slowly, having initially written a newspaper article before the 2003 attack on Iraq about resisters to the Gulf War in 1991, and expecting that the much bigger mobilization and the much murkier Iraq war would surely generate soldier dissent.

“I was … moved that they had found a way to use their frustration, fury and sorrow to try to force change,” she writes in her prologue. “I liked their refusal to be reasonable, to shut up and behave as expected … though the reason in too many cases — that the worst that could happen did — is hard to bear.”

The book begins with IVAW’s formation at the Veterans For Peace, or VFP, yearly convention in Boston in 2004 by young veterans who had only just met all together in a workshop earlier that day. Then it follows the growth of the military arm of the anti-Iraq war movement — including Military Families Speak Out, Gold Star Families for Peace, Cindy Sheehan and Camp Casey, and the Bring Them Home Now project — and winds up with the story of IVAW’s Winter Soldier testimonies at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland in 2008.

Levinson did a skillful job reporting on so many “ethical spectacles,” a term coined by activist and media scholar Stephen Duncombe and used by IVAW member Aaron Hughes to refer to the political actions IVAW and their colleagues used to startle, inform and awaken the public and politicians.

Levinson examines a long list of actions and projects — the Mobile to New Orleans march to protest poor funding for victims of Hurricane Katrina and ongoing huge war spending; the Arlington West temporary graveyard displays of crosses; Bake Sales for Body Armor to send needed equipment and point out that the troops were poorly supplied, the online Appeal for Redress signed by over 2,000 active duty troops, Operation First Casualty street theater patrols in various cities where IVAWs enacted detentions, cuffing, hooding as they had done in Iraq with volunteer civilians from VFP and other groups, the Yellow Rose of Texas Peace Bus tour to military bases, the GI coffee houses Different Drummer and Coffee Strong, the Combat Paper art project making paper out of shredded uniforms, Warrior Writers workshops and playwriting, Operation Recovery to stop traumatized soldiers being sent back to combat, and confrontations at military recruiting offices.

There is a schizophrenic attitude from some non-veteran peace activists, who want veterans to appear at peace events as media bait due to the seeming paradox of former soldiers — who are generally assumed to be pro-war — opposing war, but who also resent the greater credibility that the media and the public afford veteran’s messages. As IVAW grew up after Camp Casey, its members began to demand to be included as leaders in big coalition marches and events, even to be featured at the front. Amadee Braxton, a civilian activist who ran IVAW’s very first office in Philadelphia, quoted IVAW leaders saying, “Why do we keep going and being a part of other people’s stuff? This war’s about us most directly.”

Guilt is a big item in the book and in veterans’ and families’ lives. Survival guilt, perpetrator guilt, and parental and buddy guilt for not protecting a child or friend.

Levinson quotes Kelly Dougherty, IVAW’s first board chair and then executive director when enough money accumulated, saying, troops in Iraq were “occupiers in bullet proof vests.” Dougherty, a Colorado National Guard medic who got assigned to military police duty escorting supply convoys and guarding and eventually burning broken down vehicles, said, “I’m not proud of burning flatbed trucks filled with food while hungry Iraqis looked on. I’m not proud of burning ambulances.”

Cindy Sheehan, expressed her guilt that she didn’t act until her son died, saying “It took Casey’s death to awaken me.” Levinson observes, “Guilt can be confusing and paralyzing, but apparently it can be a great motivator.” At the Winter Soldier hearing, John Turner, after detailing atrocities he took part in, said, “I am no longer the monster I once was. I just want to say that I’m sorry.”

Levinson is refreshingly honest about the successes and failures, the strengths and weaknesses, of the people and organizations in her book. “[T]hey could be disorganized, defensive, insular, self-dramatizing, and impossible to get on the phone, but they were seldom boring,” she admits. “IVAW reinforced the argument that dissent can be as principled as military service. And, not least of all they kept showing up … and demonstrated that they could play other roles than hero or victim.”

Levinson rightly criticizes the short-cutting media which tends to seek “a lone, distraught survivor” instead of reporting on movements. Many journalists refused to recognize the movement Cindy Sheehan was part of and accompanied by when she demanded George Bush tell her what noble cause her son Casey died for. Rather, they “anointed [her] Mother-of-All-Mothers,” just as they called Rosa Parks an old woman with sore feet instead of an experienced civil rights activist. Levinson reports IVAW’s perhaps unfortunate later resistance to putting forward a figurehead or leader after being burned by the Camp Casey experience, where other grieving families and veterans had been slighted.

Unfortunately, Levinson herself fell prey to that journalistic tendency, implying single planners for the Mobile to New Orleans march and for the Winter Soldier hearings. She claims Aaron Hughes alone organized the medal throw back at the NATO summit in Chicago in 2012. As a member of Veterans For Peace and Military Families Speak Out and an organizer with the Bring Them Home Now project I personally know these all were big coalition efforts.

Interestingly, there is another similar book, published on the earlier end of 2014, and with a cover photo of a different angle of the same IVAW action confronting the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008 that “War Is Not A Game” uses on its cover. Dr. Lisa Leitz, a sociology professor and the wife of a naval aviator who was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote “Fighting for Peace: Veterans and Military Families in the Anti-Iraq War Movement.” Leitz is both more academic and more personal in her examination of the anti-Iraq war work of the military community. She powerfully portrays the family of military war resisters helping each other move from emotions of powerlessness to emotions of resistance. The two books make good companions in examining how a movement forms, burgeons and adjusts.

I have always felt so pleased that VFP was able to be a platform for IVAW to launch itself, of course literally in Faneuil Hall in Boston in 2004, but more importantly by offering the philosophical, emotional, and sometimes economic backing they needed from a bunch of older folks who appreciated what they were about much better than most.

ICE-Free NYC protests raids on immigrant families and communities

by Ashoka Jegroo

ICE-Free NYC marches in Manhattan on Friday. (WNV / Ashoka Jegroo)

Eight protesters wearing cement-sleeves were arrested on Friday outside a New York City immigration court for blocking a busy intersection, as part of a protest against recent raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

“In light of the national news that immigrant communities are again being terrorized, with people being woken up in the middle of the night and families being torn apart in states across the country, we felt it was imperative that, here in New York City, we have an action and call attention to this,” said Nastaran Mohit, an organizer with the pro-immigrant rights coalition ICE-Free NYC. “This is a crisis, and it demands action.”

Before the street blockade, which last almost an hour, the protesters held a rally and press conference outside of the Varick Street Immigration Court in Manhattan, where speakers detailed how the U.S. immigration policies, and the ICE raids that enforce them, split up immigrant families and communities.

“It’s not fair that they come to your home, take your family, and leave you as a single-parent,” said Carol McDonald, one of the speakers at the rally. “The children are the ones impacted by the deportation. There are many families who live here, who are now homeless and have to fight for family that can’t come back to the country.”

McDonald, a single mother who attended the rally on her day off, detailed how her 18-year-old daughter hasn’t seen her father in about 10 years. Most of the other speakers were also personally affected by deportations and spoke about its effect on families and children.

“When [Homeland Security secretary] Jeh Johnson and [President Barack] Obama say they’re going to focus on deporting criminals, they’re lying because those at the front of the deportations are women and children,” said a speaker known as Antonio, who is also an immigrant. “Today, it’s our brothers and sisters from Central America. Tomorrow, it can be Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Colombians, or any one of us. The Republicans call us ‘criminals,’ and the Democrats deport us by the millions.”

The protest took place in response to last week’s raids and detention of 121 immigrants, mostly in North Carolina, Georgia and Texas. The raids, most of which targeted Central American immigrants, along with Johnson’s describing them as part of “concerted, nationwide enforcement operations,” sparked fears and rumors of raids in other cities from San Francisco to New York City.

Although most of those arrested last week were Central American women and children, Johnson defended the raids as “consistent with our laws and values” and that the people targeted had “been issued final orders of removal by an immigration court” and had “exhausted appropriate legal remedies.”

“This should come as no surprise,” he said in a statement. “I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed. I know there are many who loudly condemn our enforcement efforts as far too harsh, while there will be others who say these actions don’t go far enough. I also recognize the reality of the pain that deportations do in fact cause. But, we must enforce the law consistent with our priorities.”

(WNV / Ashoka Jegroo)

After ICE-Free NYC’s rally and press conference, the protesters began chanting and marching around the Varick Street Immigration Court building. When they approached the corner of Varick Street and West Houston Street, seven activists attached to each other at the arms with cement-sleeves stepped in front of traffic and blocked the intersection. Other protesters then unfurled banners with anti-deportation messages, including one plainly stating “Fuck ICE.” Dozens of other protesters also helped block traffic while chanting.

“We had several brave members of the ICE-Free NYC coalition, some of whom have sensitive status themselves and wanted to put their bodies on the line, lock themselves together and take the streets, surrounded by hundreds of activists that had their back,” Mohit said. “We thought it was really important to have a direct action component to this because we’re tired of having rallies and press conferences. This is a crisis in our community so we’re going to continue to escalate.”

The New York City Police Department — seemingly caught off-guard — struggled with trying to disperse the protesters and detach the activists from their cement-sleeves. Members of the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group and Emergency Service Unit were then called in, along with a set of power tools and a helicopter flying overhead, in order to arrest and disperse protesters. Traffic at the intersection came a standstill for a little less than an hour, but the police eventually sawed through the cement-sleeves and arrested each of the seven people blocking the street one by one as crowds of protesters and onlookers cheered. One woman was also arrested for using a megaphone without a permit.

While organizers are still waiting for the arrestees to be released, they saw the action as a success and plan to continue fighting to keep immigrants safe from ICE raids.

“We wanted to have this action today to call attention to the terror that immigrant communities have to deal with and to make sure the news goes far and wide across the country that we’re ready to take action here in New York City,” Mohit said. “We’re going to continue to take action, and we’re not going to stop until every immigrant family in this country is safe.”

Did grandmothers kill a government minister, nonviolently?

by Phil Wilmot

Minister of internal affairs, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, at the 2012 African Land Forces Summit. (Flickr / US Army Africa)

In virtually all subjects of study — mathematics, history, science, arts, religion — the African continent takes a back seat in the priorities of academia. Unfortunately, the majority-black nations of Africa have also been sidelined in news and research on nonviolence.

I’m regularly scoping out the social change terrain in hopes of finding something definitive and innovative that the people in my environment are contributing to the global development of nonviolent strategy or the understanding of peace and justice. What I think I’ve found is a new understanding of metaphysics – the understanding of what reality is and how it works.

In April, Uganda witnessed a very successful nonviolent demonstration led by elderly women in Amuru District, who stripped naked in protest of an attempted land grab by the Ministry of Lands and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The ministers of both of these branches of government turned their convoys around upon witnessing this “abomination,” as some residents called it. The military occupation in the area was called off shortly thereafter, and leaders across various sectors convened to discuss how to move forward, with several pro-people resolutions passed. Within a few weeks, similar actions took place in other parts of the country.

Despite the action’s success, something irked me about the land grabbers’ response. Allies of the land grabbers accused the Amuru women of behaving violently rather than settling the dispute through dialogue. (Nevermind the fact that the land grabbers had regularly refused calls to dialogue directly with residents of the community.) Violence? None was apparent to me, certainly not in a physical sense. Maybe they were just sore losers, I thought. Then, something interesting happened.

On September 11, the 56-year-old minister of internal affairs, General Aronda Nyakairima, died mysteriously on a flight from South Korea to Dubai. There were rumors that he — like others who might not have carried out President Museveni’s biddings with complete perfection — was poisoned. (Museveni did himself no favors to delegitimize this notion by behaving dubiously at the funeral.) But that wasn’t the only theory. Another one soon arose and gained significant traction: He had been killed by the Amuru women — fragile old ladies who never laid a finger on him and hadn’t even seen him for half a year.

Keromela Anek was one of the women who stripped naked in protest of the land grab. (WNV / Phil Wilmot)

While I’m certainly someone who believes in psychological power — after all, it must be the reason why placebos sometimes work — the idea of a cultural omen or curse killing someone was hard to conceive. But then, something else happened to further add to this seemingly unbelievable theory: the minister of lands, Daudi Migereko, lost his parliamentary seat in the ruling party primaries.

At the time, I was attending a workshop at a hotel that he owns, and I watched him staring petrified at the evening news leading up to the vote. I also remembered that back when he was confronted with the sight of the naked women, Migereko burst into tears (one anonymous contact from the minis office even informed me that the incident had had a long-term impact on the minister).

After Migereko lost the primary, many voices spoke out to congratulate the Amuru women for their victory in blocking his political advancements with their disrobing.

Still, a primary election loss is nothing compared to death. I couldn’t help but wonder, “Did the women commit violence against General Aronda? Did they actually kill him?”

In November, I was participating in a training of activists in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. One young man was present who had organized these Amuru women and their community on that April day. Our group dialogue deviated from its intended path, and we found ourselves discussing the incident and its alleged relationship to Aronda’s death.

“How many of you believe that Aronda died because he was poisoned by the government?” I asked. A few hands rose.

“How many of you believe that Aronda died because the women of Amuru stripped naked?”

“Phil, we are Africans. Of course we believe that’s why he died,” interjected activist Hamidah Nassimbwa, speaking on behalf of the mostly well-educated group. The majority of the room raised their hands to concur that Aronda’s fatality originated in Amuru in April.

“Actually, it was not the stripping itself that initialized the curse,” said Leonard Okello, a cooperative organizer more conversant with traditional practices in northern Uganda. “It was the deliberate pointing of the women’s breasts at the ministers.”

“Alright,” I said. “Then how many believe the women committed an act of violence?”

All of the hands in the room dropped.

“So, if he died because of the curse,” I asked, “why was the disrobing itself not an act of violence?”

The activists explained exactly what I thought their response would be: Aronda’s death was his own fault because he refused to return to Amuru for the cleansing ceremony that was demanded by Amuru residents upon cursing him. The disrobing merely initialized a curse. It was a poison, yes, but it was delivered alongside a ready antidote contingent upon an admission of wrongdoing by the offender.

According to this belief, if you are able to own up to your mistakes and repent, you deserve to live and be reconciled with the community you have so long oppressed. Realistically speaking, the deal sounds rather forgiving coming from a community that has suffered years of random attacks, arsons, arbitrary arrests, a public execution, killing and theft of livestock, and unremitting intimidation.

I logged the interesting topic away in my memory as a mere intellectual musing, but a month later, I was training another group of mostly poorer, semi-literate male activists, and the concept of metaphysics and the role of the scientifically incomprehensible again resurfaced. The group, consisting largely of workers in the transportation sector, was constructing a strategy to address the dilapidated state of the roads. After determining the objectives of their campaign, they began planning actions that could help them build a critical mass among their sympathizers.

“Let’s find a pothole that has been around for too long,” said one participant. “I’ll stall someone’s car in it to cause some outrage as a traffic jam accumulates.”

Another participant chimed in. “When the car fails to start again, we can deem it a sign from the gods about the evil nature of those who have neglected our roads.”

While the scene they were preparing was more of an act of overly-dramatic invisible theater than anything else, I was still intrigued enough to ask whether they believed enough people would buy into this claim to gain popular support.

“Definitely,” one man said. “People just say they are Christians or Muslims for business purposes. Most people in the capital city still run to their traditional healers whenever they are having marital problems.”

Understandings of metaphysics can run deeper than even the beliefs generated from most violent systems of dogmatic religion, capitalism or colonialism. The metaphysical aspects of our worldviews usually take more than a generation or two to change significantly, even as science rapidly evolves. This is the reason, after all, that physicalism — the notion that reality consists merely in the physical world —  arguably informs the day-to-day practice of western religion more than belief in the transcendent (the basic pillar upon which such religions usually claim to rest).

Perhaps the western understanding of nonviolence, with its strategic tools, planning worksheets and quantitative evaluations does not adequately encompass a worldview conducive to social movements achieving their goals in the global south. (The preference of various African societies for long-term reconciliation and restorative justice would support this assertion, as does the fact that the African words for “peace” tend to be more all-encompassing and nuanced in their native languages.)

It may also be possible that I am overemphasizing the value of metaphysics — whether real or perceived. Perhaps my observations should fall into the already obvious principle in effective nonviolent strategizing known as “understand your cultural assets.” While I don’t want to romanticize the African continent as some enchanted land where the western laws of physics never apply, I think it would be equally inappropriate to disregard the indigenous knowledge of metaphysics — which often explains what modern science cannot — as laughable. This article is much less a hypothesis and much more a call to further study by academics more qualified than me.

Whatever the true reality and nature of curses, omens, metaphysics and nonviolence may be, I wonder to what extent we activists should consider it violent to bait opponents into becoming agents of their own demise. I have sympathy for Aronda inasmuch as he was a human being — and on top of that, one who sometimes made the right decisions for the common good. In the instance of grabbing land on behalf of his superiors (especially in a country where attempted land grabs are not really prosecuted), I have trouble feeling bad for him if he did indeed succumb to the weight of refusing a cleansing ceremony — something he had the complete capacity to control.

As practitioners of celebrated organizer Saul Alinsky’s principles can attest, “the threat of the thing is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” Everyone I consulted who believes in the power of the Amuru women’s omen said it was the women who dug Aronda’s grave, but Aronda – through his deliberate inaction – who put himself in it.

Church of demolished Palestinian village gets Israeli electricity for Christmas

by Melanie Nakashian

Amir Toume speaking to a tourist group visiting Iqrit on January 2. (Facebook / Iqrit)

On December 22, the only building still standing in the Palestinian Christian village of Iqrit was connected to the Israeli electricity grid. This unprecedented move is part of the Iqritis’ larger struggle for their right to return and it carries implications far beyond the electricity itself.

Iqrit is located in the Galilee, in northern Israel proper, just south of the Lebanese border. It was evacuated 67 years ago during the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, also known as Israel’s War of Independence, which made way for the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel.

What makes Iqrit stand out from the hundreds of Palestinian villages that suffered a similar fate, however, is its unique legal advantage — a 1951 Israeli Supreme Court ruling and 1995 ministerial committee recommendation that reinforced their right to return — combined with the fact that their land has not been physically covered by any Jewish Israeli development.

Sixty-four years ago, on Christmas Eve 1951, the entire village — except for its St. Mary’s Church and its cemetery — was bombed by the newly-established Israel Defense Forces, despite the aforementioned Supreme Court ruling from July of that same year. But this past Christmas, Iqritis were able to celebrate an entirely different kind of gift that other displaced Palestinians can only dream about.

This year’s Christmas mass at Iqrit was celebrating more than just Christmas. (Facebook / Iqrit)

While incessantly struggling over decades for their right to return, as I reported for Waging Nonviolence in August, Iqrit’s internally displaced families have periodically returned to host holiday services, cultural events, tourist group visits and an annual educational summer camp for the youngest generation of descendants. Last August marked three years since a group of Iqriti youth, mostly comprised of working students, decided to permanently return with a 24/7 presence in their church. They and the larger Iqriti community have managed to function with solar panels and a generator, thriving in spite of heavy restrictions on their lifestyle and frequent disruptions from the Israel Land Administration, or ILA, which claims ownership of the land.

After three years of legal maneuvering and 11 years since their original request for connectivity, the Israeli Supreme Court decided in April 2015 that Iqrit’s church could join the national Israeli electricity grid. Many were rightfully skeptical that this would be realized, but after going through the necessary bureaucratic moves over the past months, installation began on December 16 and was completed on December 22 — just in time to illuminate their Christmas tree for their annual mass, which has also served to commemorate Iqrit’s Christmas Eve destruction.

According to Amir Toume, a 21-year-old student who plays an active role in the on-the-ground group, this recent connection to the electrical grid not only facilitates their ability to function normally and organize more efficiently, but also marks their “first and most important win against the ILA,” indicating that the State of Israel has informally recognized their right to live and pray on their land. Nemi Ashkar, head of the Iqrit Community Association, or ICA, also said the Supreme Court ruling was confirmation that they are indeed the legal owners of the land in a way that has never before been seen in any displaced Palestinian village.

ICA member Shadia Sbait said it felt strange to see construction taking place where they have become accustomed to seeing destruction. She also noted the spiritual feeling that presided over their usual Christmas mass. This time, their service took place “without the noise of the generator outside and with the knowledge that [they] won.”

Israeli-powered light at St. Mary’s on December 22, the first night of connectivity. (Facebook / Iqrit)

Although just one step in their struggle, it is indeed a significant landmark that Ashkar feels brings hope that the return to Iqrit is within reach. It also gives them courage to continue following the legal track, of which the next step will be to regain ownership of their cemetery. Of course, they will continue to pursue all other methods, including their on-the-ground organizing and international advocacy. Toume feels that receiving electricity has already changed life at Iqrit in a way that will continue to empower them to use more creative methods in their struggle.

As for the solar panels that have now been rendered unnecessary, Sbait said, “they will be an important part of the Iqrit museum after we achieve the return.”

Do ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ weaken us?

by George Lakey

Embed from Getty Images

First, let’s agree that safety is a human need. Studies find that children who grow up amidst threats, violence and insecurity are less likely to thrive as grown-ups. The defensiveness induced by trauma gets in the way of creativity and the learning curve needed for achievement.

The anti-oppression movement long ago began to create safe spaces. As a gay man, I remember the first time I saw on the door of a campus office a triangle, signifying that this would be a safe place for me. Surrounded by rampant homophobia, I relaxed as I turned the doorknob.

I also took the sign on the door to be a sign of sensitivity; here might be a heterosexual ally who has empathy for my frequent encounters with prejudice, even the mild expressions that could remind me of scary or hurtful incidents. That sequence – mild expression jumping to vividly remembered hurtful incidents – later became the basis for some teachers offering to give “trigger warnings” before wading into sensitive information.

Safety is a human need, like eating. Our need to eat, however, doesn’t mean we need to eat all the time. Any human need exists in balance with other needs, one of which is a sense of agency. By agency I mean knowing our power, our ability to operate in a variety of circumstances, our acceptance of the responsibility to determine the course of our own lives.

“Don’t help me,” my six-year-old granddaughter sometimes says, as she wrestles with a challenging task and sees me preparing to intervene. Ella knows the delicious satisfaction of her own agency and is impatient with the well-meaning, but clumsy “helping” some grown-ups are prone to. She is on her way to being a high-achieving powerhouse, like Wonder Woman, her favorite character. I’ve learned in the swimming pool that the scariness of water generates fears Ella wants to handle; it would be no favor to protect her. I stay nearby while she takes the risks that support her power and growing self-confidence.

For this reason, I want to raise the question of whether the current preoccupation with safety and protection has gone too far.

Acknowledging the middle-class cultural theme of protection

In the early days of gay and women’s liberation and the black freedom movement, we were highly critical of mainstream culture. We knew that mainstream culture was dead wrong in enforcing white supremacy, say, or misogyny, so why should we assume it was right about anything else? We gave ourselves permission to question everything.

As liberation movements grow they come under enormous pressure to accept middle-class mainstream assumptions. Their cultural critique weakens and dubious assumptions creep in unnoticed. For the anti-oppression movement, I believe that one of those assumptions is the middle-class value of over-protection. “Really good parents” in the mainstream don’t allow their children to go outside unsupervised because parents show how good they are by how much they protect children from something that might happen. “Really good homemakers” use germ-killers at every opportunity because parents show how good they are by how much they protect children from something that might sicken them.

Fortunately, push-back is happening on both those fronts — first from parents who remember happy hours of childhood freedom, and second from medical people who wonder if the growth of allergies is related to the weakened immune systems of children who don’t have enough germs in their lives. On both fronts, the result is over-protection that weakens children and reduces their agency. Note the subtle dynamic of class here. Protection as obligation is especially strong in the middle class, and is generalized therefore into a hierarchy: higher-status people (who of course know better) expect themselves to ensure the safety of lower-status people.

What is now called the anti-oppression movement began with a liberatory critique but now seems to have absorbed the mainstream narrative that protection is what makes higher status people “good allies.” One way this plays out in workshops is that the facilitator is expected to use ground rules, their own authority, and other methods to protect and keep “safe” everyone in the group who might otherwise experience offensive behavior.

As I watch this long-term trend I wonder what’s happening to the agency of oppressed people subjected to this mainstream assumption. Are marginalized individuals in a group excused from standing up for themselves and fighting out differences with other group members that might arise? Are higher-status people coming to believe that oppressed people are by definition weak or even fragile? It wouldn’t be the first time that the attitudes of do-gooders diminished others, participating in the disempowerment of those they intended to help.

Many of us have lived the pro-liberation version of movements, as we came to terms with an oppressed identity or in our role as allies or both. In the 1970s, I — an “out” gay white man — taught in an Ivy League university. In my course I found more African American students showing up each semester, seeking refuge from their wider experience of dominant white norms. In the course’s three-hour experiential classes and weekend retreat, minority students renewed their determination to maintain their integrity.

We had no ground rules because I had no interest in creating a germ-free environment. Oppressive behaviors including racism showed up and useful conflicts erupted; students’ power — their immune systems — grew. The course became popular because I supported black students to tackle for themselves the white-dominated world, maintaining their critical stance. They, and other marginalized students, empowered themselves. One result was a degree of community that was unheard of in a course in a huge university.

The trigger warning — a second look

Liberation/empowerment trainer Daniel Hunter pointed out to me that the demand for “safe space” easily loses track of real life. Individuals seeking safety in a classroom may imagine that a racist statement or behavior is the same as actual harm or danger. They confuse subjective feeling and objective reality. The confusion is compounded when others buy in, believing that strong feelings should rule. In the name of sensitivity, a group culture can join the historical narrative that turns oppressed people into poor victims.

The group’s (or teacher’s) confusion here assumes that upset feelings overrule a person’s innate ability to think and act well under stress. We can test this belief. If subjective feelings control us, then surely the objective experience of harm and danger prevents us from thinking and acting smartly, right?

If we believed that, we would have to re-write history. Black Lives Matters in Minneapolis would not have come back to the police precinct house in November after the white supremacists attacked them because — since they’d been shot at — it wasn’t safe. The entire civil rights movement would never have happened, nor the workers movement, nor the women’s or LGBT or disability rights movement. None of these waited for safety to strategize smartly and act effectively.

People can of course be brilliant while scared or hurt — unless they believe otherwise. The quickest scan of successful social movement history shows not only what a lie the belief is, but also how delighted the 1 percent must be to watch anti-oppression extremists undermine every movement within reach.

Doesn’t the trigger warning expectation invite lower expectations of ourselves and others? When the technique is institutionalized, it suggests that oppressed people are too fragile to handle symbolic representations of oppression, much less able to handle oppression in real life. In my experience, the truth is otherwise: It is usually people with privilege who are fragile and can’t deal with what oppressed people often handle well. (I’m talking about class again. Sorry about that, but we do pay a price for letting the anti-oppression forces avoid interrogating their class.)

The dearth of vision in demands for ‘safe space’ and ‘trigger warnings’

I admit I’m an elder with high expectations. I expect movements that make many demands to have a vision of what it is they seek. If the goal is to produce hot-house plants that cannot survive without the protection of others (higher-status others, of course), admit it.

My vision is of humans working to realize their full potential, supported by their cultures to act powerfully in the world to transform institutions. Folk wisdom offers a motto to guide us as we work: “Smooth seas train poor sailors.” I hope for comments from readers about how we can support everyone’s power to act for liberation.

The climate movement is stuck in ‘Groundhog Day,’ here’s how it can break free

by Cam Fenton

Bill Murray runs through the snow in a scene from the film ‘Groundhog Day’, 1993. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)

Throughout 2015, I had a hard time explaining my feeling about the Paris climate talks. Friends and allies would excitedly ask me if I was going and I’d force a smile and explain that no, I had been to enough United Nations climate meetings. The truth was that after more than five years of attending and watching U.N. climate talks, the whole thing had started to feel like the climate movement had gotten itself stuck in a time-warp and we were living the same two weeks over and over again every year.

As I watched the Paris talks unfold, the whole thing started to feel like the movie “Groundhog Day.” If you haven’t seen it or don’t remember, the basic premise is that Bill Murray plays a weatherman who gets caught in a time loop, reliving the same day in rural Pennsylvania over and over. Just looking at the major actions, each one seemed to be a repeat of something from the past. Red lines in Doha and red lines in Paris. Sit-ins and walk-outs year after year from Copenhagen to Durban to Rio to Warsaw. I was reminded of something a friend told me about the Doha talks — the outcome was so predictable that he wrote press releases months in advance and the only change he had to make to the one about the final reaction was the date.

Nevertheless, there is good news. About halfway through “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray realizes that his only way out of the time warp is to become a better person. In Paris, it feels like the climate movement — the collective Bill Murray in this analogy — have reached a similar point. On the one hand, it’s great news because coming out of Paris it feels like we’ve crested a hill. On the other hand, it’s awful because from the top of this hill, we can now see the mountain peak we have to ascend. In “Groundhog Day” terms, it’s great because we know how to get out, but since time isn’t standing still, we can’t afford to keep repeating history over and over. So, with that in mind, here are three suggestions for ways the climate movement can break free.

1. We need to redefine what climate leadership means

For years, the climate movement has viewed it’s principle opponents as people and institutions who deny the existence of climate change. In this context, a culture of desperation was born in much of the climate movement, where the need to win something, anything, on climate became so strong that we clamored to amplify and validate almost any politician willing to even admit the reality of climate change. Modest steps and half measures were answered with so much applause from much of the climate movement that even the most valid criticisms and questions were drowned out. The simple fact was that a lot of us felt like we desperately needed something to applaud.

Now the needle has moved on climate change, and while we can debate the merits of the Paris climate agreement, one thing that we can’t ignore is that these talks marked the end of the politics of outright climate denial. This year saw a U.S. president reject the Keystone XL pipeline on climate grounds, as well as over $3 trillion divested from fossil fuels. It also had tar sands company CEOs touting their “climate leadership.” Clearly, things are changing for the better.

Going into 2016, politicians and CEOs want the title of “climate leader,” and right now they’re getting it without really having to work for it. Whether it’s Jerry Brown in California allowing fracking across the state or Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledging to support a 1.5 degree Celsius ceiling on temperature rise while allowing tar sands pipelines to be approved without climate considerations, climate leadership has become such a hollow measure that you can be a climate hero one day and an oil baron the next.

That’s why this movement needs to redefine what climate leadership is by raising the bar for what we, as a movement, will applaud. Governments and politicians are not fragile children in need of constant reassurance from the climate movement. They are decision makers who by and large are not moving fast enough to do what it takes to leave fossil fuels in the ground and facilitate a justice-based transition to 100 percent clean energy. It’s 2016, politicians don’t need the climate movement to apologize for them not doing enough, they need us to organize to force them to do more.

2. We need to get real about climate justice

The outcomes of climate talks can often be seen as a kind of “movement barometer” measuring the amount of pressure that the climate movement is putting on politicians around the globe. Looking at the outcome of the Paris talks through this lens is useful because it helps us recognize that a commitment to a 1.5 degree climate target was only achieved because of the growing power of the global climate movement — and that’s something to celebrate.

By the same measure, though, we need to accept that in the Paris outcome indigenous rights, human rights and women’s rights have all been moved to sections of the text where they aren’t legally protected. On top of this, support for the most vulnerable people in the Paris outcome isn’t anywhere near what a just and fair deal would look like. If we are going to celebrate a 1.5 degree target as a victory for this movement, we also have to acknowledge where we fell short. Coming out of Paris, the biggest losses landed on the laps of the most vulnerable people, communities and nations, and in my eyes that means we still have a long way to go to get real about the justice part of climate justice.

Since Copenhagen, a lot of the climate movement has shifted it’s language in support of frontline communities and a justice-based and systemic approach to climate change. It’s the sort of shift that made something like the People’s Climate March possible. But, by the same token, it’s telling that if you line up reaction statements to the outcome of Paris, the most impacted peoples were more critical of the deal than mainstream organizations, which were far more celebratory.

There, of course, is no easy solution to this challenge, but it starts with recognizing that climate justice needs to be more than a buzzword. This is going to mean some serious soul searching for the climate movement in 2016, and spending more time listening to, digesting and doing the work to deepen our commitment to acting on, not just speaking to, justice.

3. The climate movement needs to move beyond the environmental movement

One of the worst things that ever happened to climate change was the moment it became viewed as an environmental problem. It narrowed the focus of one of the broadest, farthest-reaching social justice issues of our time and placed the responsibility for tackling it in the hands of a movement that frankly, isn’t up to the task alone.

In 2016, we need to leave environmentalism behind and begin to experiment with what a real climate movement can be, because honestly, it might be the only chance we actually have to turn #KeepItInTheGround from a hashtag into a strategy.

The modern environmental movement, for the most part, has very “elite” strategies. Organizing, mass mobilization and direct action have primarily been seen as tools to facilitate lobbying and negotiation strategies, which for a movement bred from a conservation ethic has meant getting to the table with corporations and government in order to achieve a compromise. This strategy has been successful at winning a lot of crucial environmental victories, but it’s also come at the cost of building a genuine movement, and it won’t be enough if we’re going to get serious about meeting the climate challenge.

One major challenge is that the environmental movement is made up mostly of big organizations. It’s like an ecosystem where every organism is an apex predator. They can exist with one another, but quickly devour smaller organisms and groups, and while that may mean the ecosystem can exist, it’s far from healthy and certainly not diverse. For the climate movement to be successful, we need a movement ecosystem that’s as dynamic and full as the rainforest. We need to make room, and a big part of that is going to mean rethinking our strategies and campaigns.

One of the biggest problems with approaching climate change the way the environmental movement has approached other issues is that there is no negotiating with physics. If we acknowledge that the vast majority of fossil fuels need to be left in the ground for a safe climate, then we can’t compromise with an industry that’s business model is built on extracting and burning as much as it can. It’s not even that we don’t want to, it’s that science says we can’t.

This means that the goal of getting to the table with politicians and industry doesn’t make sense, because we’re never going to be at that table in good faith, and neither is the industry. We also need to acknowledge and remember that when it comes to climate change, the table has been rotted to the core from over three decades of fossil fuel interests polluting our politics. With this in mind, the goal may need to shift from organizing to the table to organizing the table to the people, where we can balance the scales of fossil fuel interests with genuine, mass people power.

Building the kind of movement with the power to make this happen is going to require a lot of people that have helped to make this movement what it is to play outside our comfort zones in 2016, myself included. It’s also going to mean taking the time to learn from other movements. Whether that’s the fierce and undeniably courageous work of Black Lives Matter organizers, the rooted justice-based solutions work of the Our Power campaign or the protean, viral nature of movements like Occupy, we need these lessons to update our strategies. The climate movement also needs to spend more time learning the history of movements for civil rights to stopping nuclear proliferation.

If we approach learning from these movements not just as harvesting their best ideas, but building relationships, this could also be our best means to find the “fault lines” of our movements. Through this we can get beyond the politics of token solidarity and dig deep to build the kind of transformative power that a climate movement really demands.

As was the case for Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” the only way to break free from the time loop was to learn from his mistakes and refuse to repeat them. Whether it’s the United Nations climate talks, election cycles or meetings upon meetings, a lot of this movement feels like a time warp, and the true test isn’t whether or not we get everything right, but if we learn, evolve and innovate to take on new challenges.

Why was a climate activist persecuted, but the Bundy militia shown patience?

by Curtis Morrison

Tim DeChristopher speaking at the 2011 Power Shift, shortly before being sentenced to two years in prison. (Flickr / Linh Do)

When activist Tim DeChristopher sabotaged a December 2008 Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, oil and gas auction by bidding on thousands of acres of land he had no intention of paying for, he was sentenced to two years in federal prison, a three-year probation and a $10,000 fine. Since Saturday, an armed militia has occupied BLM facilities on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, and the BLM’s reaction, so far, has been comparatively subdued.

On Sunday, DeChristopher weighed in on Twitter suggesting the Oregon uprising is a result of the federal government’s capitulation two years ago, when Cliven Bundy threatened to go to war with the government in order to continue using public lands for cattle grazing. “The Bundy Klan pointed loaded weapons at government officials … and faced no consequences,” DeChristpher said. Today, Bundy’s sons are leading participants in the militia’s occupation.

As depicted in the documentary “Bidder 70,” the BLM didn’t “play along” once it was obvious DeChristopher’s paddle was buying up every parcel offered at the oil and gas auction. The auction was stopped and federal agents swiftly took DeChristopher into custody, and he was charged with two felonies three days later. In Oregon, the federal government has closed the Malheur Refuge, effectively providing the militia privacy, on federal public land. Now, in Oregon, unlike in DeChristopher’s auction, the BLM is not intervening to stop a protest, but merely monitoring the situation.

While both conflicts revolve around the BLM’s handling of federal land, DeChristopher’s intentions were quite distinct from the militias. In the last days of the Bush administration, the BLM had quietly attempted to privatize 22,500 acres of federal land, through a discrete auction held the Friday before Christmas. Much of that federal land surrounded Utah’s Arches National Park. DeChristopher showed up at that auction, took a paddle, and pretty much thwarted that scheme. A judge would later rule the auction was illegal, and some of the parcels that DeChristopher “won” would remain federal land. DeChristopher’s intention was to preserve federal public property for public use.

The militia’s intention seems less about preserving federal property for public use, and more about preserving it for the private use of ranchers, or the militia group itself. In fact, the militia appears to be seizing the Malheur Refuge and its buildings and facilities. The Bundys told the Oregonian, “We’re planning on staying here for years, absolutely.”

The militia’s occupation followed a Saturday protest of a federal judge’s sentencing of Dwight Hammond and his son Steven Hammond, ranchers convicted three years ago of arson for fires lit in 2001 and 2006. The Hammonds claim they lit the fires to protect their property from wildfires and invasive plant species, but the BLM argued that the Hammonds were destroying evidence of poaching. Although both arsons occurred years before DeChristopher’s auction incident, the father has served only three months in prison, and the son has served only one year. DeChristopher served 21 months.

DeChristopher was armed with a paddle, a weapon of principle. The militia that has seized the Malheur Refuge is armed with pistols and long rifles — weapons of war.

Some are debating why the media isn’t labeling the militia members as terrorists. That criticism is rooted in a collective gut feeling among progressives that hypocrisy is at play, and it certainly is. However, the government’s reaction also shows how much more dangerous it views creative nonviolent direct action.

While some may want to see the government storm the refuge, and solve its hypocrisy problem, there’s another takeaway. In the future, the federal government should exercise as much patience, if not more, with protesters armed with paddles as it exercises with armed militias seizing federal property for their private use.

The problem with calling the Bundy militia terrorists

by Kate Aronoff

Embed from Getty Images

A group of roughly 30 militiamen in rural eastern Oregon occupied a vacant Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, visitor center on Saturday at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. While initial reports suggested there were as many 150 armed militia members inside the government building, more recent estimates place that figure somewhere between 20 and 30. Leading up efforts are two sons of famed anti-government rancher Cliven Bundy.

A group that included militia members had gathered in nearby Burns, Oregon on Sunday afternoon to protest the sentencing of Dwight Hammond and his son Steve Hammond for arson on BLM property. As Rolling Stone explained, the pair are expected to report on Monday for their five-year sentence, which protesters and militia members argue represents a form of government “tyranny.” Notably, a lawyer for the family has said they reject the militia’s support.

Randy Bundy told a reporter with The Oregonian that the militia was ready to “kill and be killed,” and prepared to remain inside of BLM premises indefinitely. Ammon Bundy, Randy’s brother, stated that the group, “Would not rule out violence if law enforcement tries to remove them.”

The occupiers have invited “patriots” from around the country to join them — guns and all — and hope the visitor center will serve as a base of militia operations for years to come. “We’re planning on staying here for years, absolutely,” one Bundy brother said in a video released yesterday. “This is not a decision we’ve made at the last minute.”

A local paper, the Willamette Week, reported that militia members have been trickling into the region for weeks. Among them was 32-year-old John Ritzheimer, who bid farewell to his family in a Youtube video before joining the Malheur occupation, citing that he wants to “die a free man.”

Ritzheimer, a former Marine, has made headlines before. This fall, he planned armed protests against New York mosques, and has issued a series of violent statements and threats against Muslims, President Obama and members of the federal government. In a video from November, he declared, “Fuck you Muslims. We’re gonna stop at virtually every mosque along the way, flip them off and tell them to get the fuck out,” proceeding to cock his handgun on camera.

Land resource management has been a key issue for conservative ranchers since Cliven Bundy’s stand-off with federal forces in the spring of 2014, when he threatened to go to war with the government so that he could continue to graze his cattle on government land in Nevada. While most of today’s GOP presidential candidates supported Cliven Bundy’s efforts, they have been mum so far on this weekend’s events. Donald Trump has said of Bundy that, “I like his spirit, his spunk,” and Bundy himself is a Trump supporter. Given the similarity between their actions, one might suspect that the Bundy apples don’t fall far from the tree. At an armed demonstration outside of a Phoenix mosque in October, Ritzheimer said, “Let Donald Trump build something beautiful.”

Noting the mainstream press coverage of the occupation, progressives have pointed out the fact that neither authorities nor the media have described the occupation as an act of terrorism. The National Guard and federal authorities have been conspicuously absent, in stark contrast to the largely nonviolent uprisings against systemic racism in Baltimore and Ferguson. Like “thug” or “illegal immigrant,” though, terrorist is an ugly word that — at least since 9/11 — comes as a package deal with racist overtones. Each term is also connected to a well-funded, well-armed program of state violence that criminalizes communities of color. In light of all this, should the goal of progressives be to create a more inclusive definition of terrorism?

Of course, it doesn’t take much creative imagination to predict what the authorities’ response would have been had the occupiers been anything other than white — not to mention the words that would be used to describe those efforts. Still, whether the Oregon occupiers are actually terrorists is beside the point — mostly because there is no objective definition of terrorism. It might best be defined as any form of organized violence considered illegitimate in the eyes of the state, the media and the public. (States, it’s worth noting, are defined in many policy circles and academic disciplines by their monopoly on the legitimate use of force.)

The Black Panther Party and American Indian Movement, or AIM, each planned and executed armed occupations of federal property in the California State Capitol in Sacramento and Alcatraz Prison, respectively. Both were targeted aggressively by federal authorities. Neither, however, was primarily a militia. And while members of AIM and the Panthers expressed a range of opinions on the use of guns and nonviolence more generally, the majority of their work was dedicated to building a movement for the liberation of oppressed people. However, due to contemporary press coverage and some shoddily written history, many Americans’ enduring memory of both groups are those that involve guns — which is undoubtedly a consequence of taking up armed resistance against the government.

Although the Bundys, Ritzheimer and company might well see their white, middle-class brethren as an oppressed group, their claims are rooted in the same nostalgic nationalism that defines Trump’s call to “Make America great again.” Troublingly, Trump’s campaign has served as a meeting and mobilizing point for all stripes of right-wing extremists, Minutemen and ordinary (white) Americans lacking alternative narratives to understand their worsening economic circumstances. Forces that in years past could be written off as fringe elements (think Branch Davidians or abortion clinic bombers) can now find voice in an increasingly mainstream political movement. Trump supporters have already assaulted a Latino man in Boston and beaten up a Black Lives Matter protester. His policy proposals include banning Muslim immigration, and rounding up and deporting all of this country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants and their U.S. born, citizen children. Both state and vigilante violence lurk at the heart of Trump’s appeal among his supporters. If the Bundys’ militia haven’t been welcomed with open arms yet, they might well become Trump’s next cause célèbre.

Regardless of how the situation in Oregon is resolved, Trump’s campaign is continuing to rise, and enjoys hearty support among militiamen throughout the country. The Bundys’ actions should be understood not only as part of a long history of right-wing violence, but of a political project that’s actively vying for state power — and stands a real chance of winning the reins to a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. If the goal of any egalitarian movement is to bring about a more deeply peaceful world, it’ll be up to movements to define a greater, nonviolent America and the path to it.

The 2015 Creative Activist Awards

by Nadine Bloch

It’s that time of year to embrace highlights and bury the out-of-date. As activists, this can be a critical time to evaluate our strategies and alight on alternate paths if needed.

Earlier this month, in Paris, activists with the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination and others launched the Climate Games to counterbalance the U.N. climate talks — yet another international convention full of hot air on an ever more scorched earth. Climate Game Awards were used as a tool to inspire strategic action and encourage community building. So, in appreciation for activists who have gone beyond the ordinary, mobilized magnificent resources, turned commonplace objects into magic wielding wands, or fabricated harbingers of even more technologically advanced and nuanced stunts, I bring you the 2015 Creative Activist Awards.

Let these awards inspire new creative heights for actions within your strategic activist plans. So, without further ado, here are the winners.

The Illuminating Award

This one goes to two groups, one in Russia and one in Spain. In the former, handicap citizens with the organization Dislife, installed holograms of a disabled person in a wheelchair that would flash on when a non-handicap labeled car would try to park in their spot. This was done using a fine mist for the projection and a security camera that would verify (or not) the presence of a handicap sticker on the vehicle. “Don’t pretend I don’t exist” says the holographic wheelchair activist in a bit of misty brilliance.

In Spain, when the Spanish Parliament outlawed protests, No Somos Delito, or NSD, created the world’s first holographic protest march. “The law is surreal — so surreal that it drove us to do something equally surreal, “ said Carlos Escaño of NSD. “It’s about art, about going to a place beyond discourse. It’s about touching emotion.” Beyond that, though, it is about defying citizen security laws in a way that both protects civil society and fights the surreal with surreal.

Embed from Getty Images

New Heights Award

We have entered the A.D.(After Drone) age of tagging and graffiti. A well-known graffiti artist and vandal used a six-story-tall fashion spread in New York City as a first canvas for his newly engineered graffiti spray paint drone. While not quite in the pretty category yet, the potential is huge. We eagerly await Graffiti Drone 2.0.

Murals as Metaphor Award

(Galería de la Raza)

Maricon Collective painted a classic and gorgeous mural featuring gay, lesbian and transgender latin@s on Galería de la Raza’s wall in San Francisco, only to have it vandalized several times. The mural has been repaired at least three times. The gallery has committed to restoring it as many times as it takes because they feel that no one should be marginalized or erased from their history.

Crowdfunding a New World Award

Fed up with the dithering of our politicians while regular citizens suffered without recompense, Thom Feeny, a London shoe shop worker, calculated that a 3 euro donation from every European was all it would take to solve the Greek debt crisis and get folks back on their feet. With this back-of-the-envelope calculation, he launched an IndieGoGo “Greek Bailout Fund” Campaign to do just that. Although it did not reach its 1.6 billion euro target, it did mobilize more than 100,000 ordinary people from 182 countries to pledge 2 million euros — an impressive and heartwarming people-to-people response.

They’re All Quacks Award

(Instagram / Ananymous)

In an old school Anonymous move, they declared a National Trolling Day of anti-ISIS memes and propaganda, and swapped rubber ducks in for jihadists across the Internet. Kill them with humor, it has been said.

No Pussy Footing Around Award

(Twitter / Jeroen Flamman)

In Belgium, following the November 13 Paris attacks, the hashtag #BrusselsLockdown was overwhelmed with cat pictures when the police requested silence about its anti-terrorist operations. Apparently, locals took the reference to heart as the security level was raised to four, or “quatre” in French. For those in the know, “quatre” is pronounced “cat.”

Raise the Bar, Lower the Flag Award

You have to do some things yourself if you want them done in a timely fashion. While the politicians pontificated, Bree Newsome took her place in the annals of nonviolent direct action and lowered the Confederate Flag in front of the South Carolina Statehouse. As the United States continued to reel from the terrorist shootings just 10 days earlier in Charleston, Bree’s action became a beacon for fighting racism and white supremacy across the nation.

Naked Truth Award

The National Day of Action for Black Women and Girls was amplified by topless women protesters blocking traffic in San Francisco. In the tradition of their African grandmothers, the women used this tactic to boldly declare “our bodies are not for your consumption” as they stood up to white supremacy and patriarchy.

Who’s the Biggest Dick? Award

Students at the University of Texas fought back against the Campus Open Carry Gun Law by strapping on dildos! #CocksNotGlocks organizer Jessica Jin noted that although dildos are illegal to openly carry on campus, they are “just about as effective as [guns in] protecting us from sociopathic shooters, but much safer for recreational play.”

Hot Shit Award

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As in many parts of the world, South Africa was rocked this year by student protests. Calling out the fallacy of post-apartheid opportunity and continued inequality, student Chumani Maxwele dumped a bucket of shit on the head of a bronze statue of 19th Century British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes on the University of Cape Town campus. Not just any shit, but poo collected in a bucket from a local township without running water, a physical embodiment of the student’s issues. As such, this is known locally as the “poo protest.”

Unsuitable for Children Award

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Dystopic “bemusement” Theme Park anyone? We’d expect nothing less from Banksy and 58 other artists. Amid a decomposing castle, crashed police van and overturned Cinderella’s chariot, Dismaland delivered despair, gloom, politics and controversy on the site of an old factory in an English seaside town last summer. In one particularly disturbing installation, there was even the opportunity to drive miniature boats overflowing with miniature refugees across a dirty pool.

Good Walls Make Good Neighbors Award

Times are hard in many places. In Iran, “Walls of Kindness” have spontaneously popped up in several cities, featuring decorations with clothes, shoes and coats for the needy next to the words. “If you don’t need it, leave it. If you need it, take it.” Refrigerators where food can be left for the homeless have also been sighted, as part of another community response initiative called “Payan-e Kartonkhabi,” or “ending homelessness.”

Climate activists can learn a lot from Black Lives Matter

by Kate Aronoff

(Twitter / Eli Gerzon)

Yesterday afternoon, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty told a cramped room of reporters that no officers would be tried for the killing of Tamir Rice. The announcement came just over a year after the 12-year-old was gunned down by police for waving around a toy rifle in a Cleveland park. Within two seconds of arriving at the scene, officer Timothy Loehmann had fired two very real bullets at Rice — including the one that killed him.

Calling Rice’s death a “perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunications by all involved that day,” McGinty spent several minutes laying out the ways in which the child should have known better than to play in a park while being black. It was “indisputable,” he said, “that Tamir was drawing a gun from his waist.” McGinty added that the boy’s “size made him look much older” and that he “had been warned that his pellet gun might get him into trouble that day.”

Before the press conference was over, Twitter had issued its own verdict. One of the most popular (and representative) came from “Selma” filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who posted a photo of Tamir smiling in a restaurant with a one-word caption: “Innocent.”

As the movement for black lives has pointed out over the last year, the fact that police can kill a 12-year-old boy without impunity is grounds for moral outrage and disobedience. Organizers are already channeling that outrage into protests in Ohio, New York and elsewhere. The non-indictments of the officers that killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner drove thousands into the streets last year. The rallying cry Black Lives Matter was birthed in similar environs two years prior, when George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder after shooting Trayvon Martin dead on a sleepy Sanford, Florida street. Continued police shootings around the country have prompted further escalation, with protesters moving to shut down business as usual in shopping malls, airports and highways from coast to coast, most recently in a series of actions known as BlackXMas.

These efforts have catapulted a conversation about police brutality and systemic racism into the mainstream. Sixty percent of Americans — compared with just 43 percent the year before — now believe that black Americans’ fight for equal rights isn’t over. The movement has also racked up a string of legal and political victories, including California Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to ban the use of grand juries in cases of excessive police force.

Central to the movement’s success has been its ability to outline the appropriate public response to killings and non-indictments. On top is a call for empathy, with the families of victims and the countless others who have experienced similar losses.

Alongside it is a sense of justified anger. Nearing 2016, law enforcement’s ability to kill unarmed children and walk free isn’t shocking. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote of Rice’s case last year, “Convicting an officer of murder effectively requires an act of telepathy.” The anger that the movement for black lives has articulated, then, is not for specific incidents or errant prosecutors; it’s for a system that was designed to fail large chunks of the people living in it. Events like Monday’s non-indictment are reminders to keep fighting.

Samaira Rice, Tamir’s mother, said as much in her statement on the grand jury’s decision: “I don’t want my child to have died for nothing and I refuse to let his legacy or his name be ignored. We will continue to fight for justice for him, and for all the families who must live with the pain that we live with.”

The facts of her son’s case were all part of the discussion Monday — no less so than among legal analysts — but they served mostly to bolster the movement’s larger narrative that “the whole damn system is guilty as hell,” and shutting down business as usual is the only way to change it.

Of the many lessons the climate movement can draw from the one for black lives, this might be the most valuable. Building on a scaffolding erected by Al Gore and his ilk, mainstream climate activists have for years billed their battle as one for the truth, believing that if they tell the truth, the people (and the politicians) will follow. But faced with disappointments like the Paris Agreement, more environmentalists are coming to realize what many organizers in the movement for black lives already knew: that changing anything means building a big, brash movement. And doing that means talking about people, not statistics.

To be fair, climate denial is a colossal problem. There are still plenty of truths to be told. The GOP’s party line is to disagree with 97 percent of scientists, and its 2016 hopefuls range from quiet skeptics to dues-paying members of the Flat Earth Society. A year-long investigation by Inside Climate News revealed that ExxonMobil funded cutting-edge research into climate change starting in the 1970s, only to spend millions covering up its findings over the next 40 years. Republican obstinacy provided an easy excuse for U.S. negotiators to excise the Paris Agreement’s few binding sections, on the grounds that any agreement that had to pass through a GOP-controlled Congress would be dead on arrival at American shores.

Only sheer stupidity, the argument goes, could obscure the links between devastating floods in the United Kingdom, a nearly 70 degree Christmas in New York and the impotence of the climate deal reached in Paris a few weeks back. “If only they knew better,” goes the thinking of mainstream climate activists.

Content explaining how stupid Republicans are on climate is its own renewable resource — just look at the climate change tab of any major progressive news outlet. A cottage industry has cropped up to generate rapid-fire fact-checks on Republican presidential debates and just about anything Donald Trump says.

But what good does caring about the truth really do? Trump’s resilience against reality is a case in point. As journalist Paul Waldman recently explained, “Not only does [Trump] refuse to be held to any standard of truth, he refuses to act ashamed when he gets caught in a lie, or even grant that he might have been mistaken. And his supporters go right along — if Donald says it, it’s true, and no bunch of media jerks are going to tell them otherwise.” For Trump supporters, facts are irrelevant. The same might well be said of many Americans — not because they’re ill-informed, but because stories do more work than a slideshow ever can. And most people generally don’t like being called stupid. Trump and the climate deniers are telling one story, and the media jerks another. Movements have to up-end them both.

As the movement for black lives already understands, dismantling racism is not about proving racists wrong. Climate change will not be solved by convincing climate deniers of their own idiocy. Each are about power and affecting near-tectonic shifts in national values and priorities: Whose lives matter? Who controls our future? What does security mean amidst rising tides, and who deserves it?

The point here is not to draw a hokey analytic comparison between the movement for black lives and the one against climate change. For one, the links between climate and racial justice aren’t abstract. Reducing that relationship to “links” at all belies how deeply interwoven the two really are. It was Cleveland’s polluted Cuyahoga River, after all, which sparked national outrage when it caught fire one June morning in 1969 — a scandal that led to both the Clean Water Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Additionally, some of this country’s longest-running fights against pollution and extractive industry have taken root in the communities of color that are first to feel their worst impacts. It’s no secret, either, that the nations currently feeling the blunt force of climate change tend to be poorer and browner than the ones that contributed most to it.

These connections aren’t just facts. They’re lived reality. Necessarily, the movement for black lives has always been a struggle for life and death. The climate fight — for many — is no different. As protesters respond to yesterday’s grand jury decision, environmentalists should be taking notes and joining in.

The 60s can’t save us, nor can ‘The Man in the High Castle’

by Max Zahn

A screen shot from “The Man in the High Castle.” (Amazon)

When ashes fall from the sky in the first episode of “The Man in the High Castle,” a new television series from Amazon, the viewer can’t help but mistake them for snowflakes. They flutter to the ground beside a windy stretch of road in America’s Midwestern plains, gradually amassing into a white fog, just as a winter storm might.

Ashes, snowflakes. The resemblance is uncanny — the connotations, of course, wildly disparate. The mistake is unavoidable as the audience struggles to make sense of this work of alternative history, equal parts ambition and cheap thrill, based on the novel of the same name by Phillip K. Dick set two decades after Japan and Germany have defeated the United States in World War II, the latter nation becoming a fascist vassal split between the victors. Baseball, billboards, and burgers remain, yet so too, it seems at first, do safe assumptions about snowflakes. If it quacks like America and walks like America, is it still America? “The most chilling thing about the series,” writes Todd VanDer Werff of Vox, “isn’t how different [America] is, but how similar.”

What’s most haunting about the resemblance is how the characters themselves are seduced by it, grasping ever less tightly to the America they once knew — or, in the case of the younger characters, never knew. For them, it doesn’t matter whether the fog comprises ashes or snowflakes; the point is that it’s obscuring their view. The audience has the luxury of comparing the America on screen to the one off it. In the characters’ case, preserving the distinction is a feat of memory; a delicate balance between the resistance born of nostalgia and the tacit acceptance that comes from stringing days together, building a new life.

“The Man in the High Castle” is, therefore, a show about remembering. For the most part, the older characters, many of whom fought in the war 20 years prior, simply choose not to. They must reconcile themselves to their reality, no matter how abhorrent. But the young characters, like Joe Blake, a 20-something Nazi secret agent, and his soon-to-be love interest, Juliana Crane, a member of a small but committed resistance movement, are driven by curiosity about the country that America once was. They’re nostalgic for a time they never knew, and they lack the shame in having lost it.

The show goes out of its way to establish this stark generational divide, so much so that, for those on the left, the dynamic feels reminiscent of the contemporary relationship between the 1960s generation — many of whom fought valiantly against but, ultimately, capitulated to neoliberalism — and millennial activists who look back nostalgically on that post-WWII era of high union density and low wealth inequality. Like Juliana and Joe, young activists today — myself among them — cannot viscerally feel the absence of that imagined past. Their nostalgia is purely intellectual, even if it must willfully ignore the comparatively worse social conditions for women and people of color. Many activists nevertheless derive hope from their knowledge of a time that better aligns with their desired role of government. Hence all of the mythology on the American left around that Edenic phenomenon called the 60s. The yearning, at bottom, comes from disappointment with the status quo.

As those ashes start to fall, we find ourselves riding along with Joe on an assignment driving a truck cross-country. After suffering a flat tire, Joe asks a middle-aged, avuncular highway patrol officer for assistance. Joe points to a tattoo on the officer’s arm, depicting a flower overlaid by a dagger. “A soldier so fierce he’d kill a rose,” the officer explains. “That was you?” Joe asks. “Oh, a long time ago,” the officer responds. “We lost the war, didn’t we? Now I can’t even remember what we were fighting for.”

Neither can Joe, of course. He was a baby during the war. Having grown up as a member of the Nazi youth and having joined the SS after a brief stint working in a factory, he’s never even left New York. His father, he tells the officer, fought in the war as well. Joe, like the viewer, cannot recognize the ashes. “What is that?” he wonders aloud. “Oh, it’s the hospital,” the officer nonchalantly replies. “Tuesdays they burn cripples, the terminally ill … those [who] drag on the state.” Nary a shudder accompanies the statement — things are the way they are.

“You have a safe trip, son,” the officer says. “Make your old man proud now.” Honoring the older generation, at least for the officer, means acclimating as best you can. It is akin to the stereotypical sell-out ex-hippie wishing a young activist luck on a corporate job interview.

Earlier in the episode, while posing as a prospective member of the resistance in order to infiltrate it, Joe must convince its elder leader that he isn’t a spy. “I want my country back,” he says. “You never had it,” the resistance leader retorts. “You were still sucking your thumb when [the Germans] dropped the [atom] bomb” that won the war. Joe responds: “My father told me what it was like … He said every man was free … I don’t have any buddies who died in the war. I don’t know what freedom is … I’m here because I want to do the right thing.” Though the hollow words of an infiltrator, Joe’s lofty declarations mirror the rallying cry of a young resistance member, Randall, a few episodes later, who says, “Evil triumphs only when good men do nothing.”

Their nostalgia lacks the specificity to be visceral; it’s abstract, saccharine. They miss sights they’ve never seen, freedoms they’ve never enjoyed. That yearning leads the young revolutionaries toward conspicuously high-minded rhetoric and an ineffective course of action. The viewer learns about the resistance’s activities through Juliana Crane, whose younger sister Trudy, unbeknownst to Juliana, has been a member of the resistance for some time. In the first episode, Trudy turns over a subversive and illicit film to Juliana, asking that she make sure it get delivered to a member of the resistance’s East Coast affiliate. Moments later, Trudy is caught and killed by the state’s secret police. Juliana inherits the task. The delivery of these films, it soon becomes clear, is the nationwide resistance’s primary objective. It’s hard to fathom, though, how the spreading of the films could plausibly spur an insurrection strong enough to overcome the German and Japanese military regimes. Writing in Verge, Adi Robertson aptly points out how the members of the resistance “spend so much time and money acquiring films that they start feeling like bootleg video distributors who moonlight as dissidents.”

The films, carefully doctored to mimic newsreels, depict World War II as if the United States had in fact won. They therefore supply the detailed vision of a pre-fascist America that the show’s young generation never had and that the older one has forgotten. Using the films as its primary means to spark dissent, the show’s resistance movement recapitulates the tactic most commonly associated with America’s hippie generation: experimental art intended to raise public consciousness. Intoxicated by how good it feels to “see” a better alternative, the show’s activists think the mere spreading of that revelation is all that’s required of them.

“The Man in the High Castle” thus reimagines the rock n’ roll revolution, but shifts the experimental art from an audio to a visual medium, one better fit for the widely accessible YouTube-dominated media landscape of today than the expensive film reel technologies of the 1960s. You have to wonder, even if the films prove as potent as the resistance hopes, whether the movies can possibly be distributed en masse at a time when most people simply didn’t own the hardware necessary to watch them at home.

But the show’s depiction of the resistance reflects an even deeper fallacy. The successes and failures of the 1960s didn’t spring from (predominantly white) kids listening to the Grateful Dead or taking LSD. That’s just the popular narrative too-often told. As the truer story goes, the years of organizing on the part of both the civil rights and antiwar movements — coupled with increasingly receptive media coverage — built power that couldn’t be ignored, at least until the right prevailed and Reaganism began in earnest. So “The Man in the High Castle” ends up looking like a strange projection of Americans’ most terrifying fears of Nazi control combined with our most glamorous understandings of 60s insurrection. Alternative history, after all, is in the eye of the rememberer. Putting the moral clarity of 1940s anti-fascism together with the romantic protests of the 1960s seems like an ex-hippie’s yearning for a more straightforward political landscape and a set of youngsters more willing to inhale the accepted wisdom of a bygone era.

The show’s prescription doesn’t match the present-day disease — or even its symptoms. On the other hand, Dick’s novel, which was released in 1963, spoke directly to its historical moment, chronicling the influence not of a mysterious underground film but of a work of popular fiction called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which depicts the U.S. winning World War II as a result of Italy’s betraying the Axis powers and a joint British-Russian military force conquering Berlin. As quasi-revolutionary music topped the charts, Dick exposed how popular art’s potential to spark massive policy change depends on the public institutions built to enact its demands. In the case of his hypothetical Nazi state, prospects were bleak.

Now those same songs sell Hummers and iPhones. The revelatory individualism harnessed by the left in the 1960s has been co-opted by consumer culture’s celebration of selfhood and a government made ever more vulnerable to corporate influence. If any lesson can be gleaned from this show, it’s that a resistance, quite literally, needs a clear vision. But instead of looking forward for this better alternative, the show’s characters look back. What they see, again quite literally, is a projection — and one of their deepest yearnings. Similarly, today’s young activists don’t miss the 60s; they daily mourn the 2015 they don’t have.

With Trump bringing fascism, or at least its facsimile, into the national conversation with plans for a Muslim registry, a border wall and mass deportation, the gauntlet has been thrown. The left cannot respond by projecting its bygone heyday onto an unwieldy present. Instead of the individually-experienced revelation inspired by the films distributed by the show’s resistance movement or the hallucinogens handed out by 60s dissidents, the left could use a clearer collective idea of the world it wants. And we can no longer find it by looking back.

These days there’s no shortage of far-right blathering to make lefties feel superior or CNN documentaries on the 60s to make them feel nostalgic. But moral high ground and indulgent memories do not make a social movement. In fact, if neoliberalism’s rightward shift continues, then the left’s wistful desire for a return to moral clarity could take the form of an all-too-real rolling back of even its most basic victories. Circumstances probably won’t get as bad as those depicted in this show, but with Trump’s meteoric rise, suddenly anything seems possible. Since intergenerational strife pervades “The Man in the High Castle,” it’s fitting that the response the show inspires is perhaps the most tired yet prescient advice of all: Be careful what you wish for.

Which war did the Republican candidates serve in? Reflections on the GOP debate from an Iraq vet

by Ramon Mejia

Embed from Getty Images

As a U.S. Marine veteran who was deployed to Iraq in 2003, I can’t even begin to describe the disgust I felt while watching the GOP debate on Tuesday night. Presidential candidate after presidential candidate attempted to one-up each other by highlighting how tough they would be as future commanders in chief. Each solution they presented demonstrated what little regard they had for the loss of life, and how quick they would be to resort to acts most often referred to as war crimes.

The debate reached its height of callousness when Ben Carson, once a pediatric neurosurgeon of some repute, was asked if he was “OK with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilians.” He responded with “You got it.” The irony of a person who formerly devoted his career to saving children’s lives and is now so willing to commit to actions that would result in the deaths of thousands of children in order to showcase his mettle is hard to ignore.

Let me make something clear: no one on that stage has experienced war. None of those candidates have to relive the memories and traumas of participating in war. And not one shares the intimate loss and grief endured by the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians and service members. And yet, carpet bombing, targeting of civilians, opposing democratic movements, and murdering families as retaliation were all openly suggested as potential strategies in the never-ending wars that began with the Bush administration and have continued throughout Obama’s presidency.

Serving in the invasion and occupation of Iraq has made me question the motivations of any elected leader that casually mentions war as a quick and easy option. My time in Iraq was anything but easy. During the dozens of resupply missions my unit was tasked with, we were exposed to the devastation that the invasion had left inside of Iraq. Trucks, cars, tanks, countless buildings scarred with battle damage.

On each successive resupply run, we watched as the faces of children on the side of the roads changed from open and curious to eventually withdrawn and fearful. I saw children that were so happy and so filled with life, and we were the ones taking that away from them. You won’t hear this from any of the candidates promoting more war. You won’t hear about the impact war has had on the people actually living in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan.

It is also telling what else was not discussed during the debate. While the candidates all seemed perfectly willing to sacrifice yet another generation to pointless wars all in a shameless attempt to increase their place in the polls, they failed to mention the cost of such belligerence. The term “PTSD” wasn’t uttered once during the debate, nor was “Traumatic Brain Injury,” or “Suicide.” The word veteran? Mentioned only once. The reality is that the impact of the war stays with me, and with countless veterans who are returning home traumatized, with as many as 22 veterans a day resorting to suicide as a solution.

Watching the GOP debate on Tuesday gave me an opportunity to reflect on what I took part in and the journey I’ve traveled to come to a place of dedicating my life to make things right. I wish our country would learn some of the lessons that I did instead of perpetuating the same mistakes repeatedly. The sideshow that many of us watched on Tuesday night was only the most recent egregious example of how irresponsible the national dialogue around our foreign policy has become. We, as people responsible for electing the next commander in chief, need to take a good hard look at who we are bringing into office because, let’s be honest: this isn’t a problem confined to only the Republican Party. This is a bipartisan failure. We need to ask ourselves if the candidate that we choose to elect is going to offer us more of the same or break us out  of this deadly cycle.

Australia’s powerful web of grassroots climate resistance

by Nicola Paris

Viv Malo, a Gooniyandi woman from First Nations Liberation, speaks at the Flood the System action in Melbourne earlier this month. (Flickr / Direct Action Melbourne)

I’ve long been fascinated by spider webs, and their potential for movement metaphor. One thread can seem so flimsy and insignificant, but bound together, and woven with care, it can create structures capable of holding immense weight. We might not all be linked directly, but through different strands and nodes we are all inevitably connected — and vibrations from one small piece can be felt across the web.

Also, you can punch a big bloody hole through it, and it can still survive.

The web of resistance that Direct Action Melbourne wove with our Flood the System action earlier this month was better than I imagined, as glorious chaos and decentralized organizing allowed it to become a vision that everyone owned.

I had an idea for an action. To find multiple sites in the city, where we could “connect the dots” and weave a web — both as a visual metaphor and as a literal blockade — to show the connections between climate change, capitalism and our finance sector. We also wanted to highlight the human rights injustices that play out on those most vulnerable: First Nations peoples and refugees from fossil-fueled wars.

Of course, this was easier said than done. We had to find two suitable locations with a public road between in order to create both a strong narrative to link the ideas together, as well as a physical blockade. With a network that had less than a year’s worth of experience working together, as well as many first-time activists, it was a huge leap of faith to publicly announce an open civil disobedience action with the attendant police attention that it would draw. But that’s exactly what we did.

Determination, sleepless nights and a handful of grassroots activists created a beautiful event that blocked the wealthy, corporate end of town, as well as a major city street, for four hours. We also blocked the entrances of a major Australian bank, Westpac, and BHP Billiton, the company responsible for the destruction of aboriginal homelands for uranium and coal — not to mention the worst mining disaster in recent history.

Multiple affinity groups of trusted allies worked to shut down and secure the location, so that we could then open the space for the broader movement to join us. As huge amounts of police followed the hundreds of people from Federation Square, the excitement was palpable. Our web came to life — ribbons, rope and bunting criss-crossed the road, and physically connected the sites of BHP and Westpac, where teams locked onto the doors.

It was joyous and fun, and it interrupted business as usual on affluent Collins Street. For nearly four hours, we did indeed flood the system.

Like many climate activists across Australia, we were excited to see the beautiful resources and graphic narrative of Flood the System, created by Rising Tide North America and its vision for “movement momentum.” However, with the much shorter lead time and lack of resources, it meant some of the community organizing and aspirations for more diverse movement building went unrealized in our less resourced areas.

In contrast, with significantly longer lead time, and likely hundreds of thousands of dollars of resources behind it — not to mention paid NGO staff, flyers and posters, and huge sound systems — the Peoples Climate Marches across Australia on the last weekend of November were huge, particularly in Melbourne. The movement building and coalition work was done better than ever before, but it was characterized by a complete lack of political demands or clear next steps, as well as fraught politics with First Nations people.

It was only in the week prior to the march that the well-resourced campaigners considered the question, “Where to next?” They had worked on organizing the march for months, and the idea of having people walk around the city block, but had nothing else planned for them to do beyond that.

In comparison, our budget was $500 — all for some padlocks and chain, paints and banner material, as well as second-hand sheets and yarn that were ripped up to make our web. Of course, there was also the hard unpaid work of a handful of grassroots volunteers. Our message was both complex, in terms of climate justice, but also simple. We made it clear that we had already written letters, signed petitions, lobbied and marched. So, it was time to intervene and get in the way of business as usual, where our government and corporations fail to act.

The web of our resistance, “connecting the dots” at the corporate end of town, between BHP Billiton and Westpac Bank (Flickr / Direct Action Melbourne)

This powerful and diverse action demonstrated again that the real groundswell in the Australian climate movement is happening at the grassroots. A huge campaign to save a forest and small community from a massive coal mine expansion project at Maules Creek in New South Wales has seen over 350 arrests in the last two years.

Infrastructure provided by one of the larger NGOs ensured that the camp, hosted at a friendly local farm, had a kitchen capable of mass catering, toilets and an overall level of comfort that allowed diverse participation — from religious groups to choirs to bird watchers. Doctors, lawyers, scientists, farmers and local conservative voters participated in civil disobedience for the first time in their lives. Despite sustained action over years, however, it wasn’t enough to stop the mine from being built.

Nevertheless, the resistance came with a huge cost to the company involved, and has started to re-shape the perception of coal extraction in Australia — a country whose wealth has been built on the back of resource extraction, as well as colonization and the displacement of First Nations people. The social license for coal is being eroded, slowly but surely, despite former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s ludicrous assertions that “coal is good for humanity.”

The mining lobby has come out on the attack, flailing like a wounded animal, with misfiring PR campaigns that have landed to broad ridicule across social media. The brilliant coalition building work of Lock the Gate — a grassroots movement of farmers, traditional custodians and environmentalists organizing against unconventional gas — as well as my work with CounterAct, training activists for nonviolent direct action and associated campaigning skills, has come under attack by the mining industry and a parliamentary inquiry. It can surely be considered a huge indicator of our impact as a tiny grassroots group.

The Maules Creek #LeardBlockade campaign planted the next seeds of a movement that is sprouting and connecting people who felt the power of those mass actions and seemingly unlimited creativity of the smaller-themed lock-ons and tree-sits. From medics against coal to Batman taking to a tripod, or to a coal loader these creative acts of resistance are weaving our web stronger and broader than ever before.

Those connections and deepened relationships were evident at a powerful climate action at Federal Parliament in early December. Despite international critiques of its approach, 350.org’s work in Australia has been largely well received. Its rapid building of skill sets and staff have enabled it to jump from the perceived rhetoric of its “Summer Heat” direct actions in early 2014 to the extraordinary Pacific Warriors climate flotilla and solidarity actions with grassroots groups late last year. 350 followed that up with its behind the scenes support for the massive “People’s Parliament,” an action that saw 300 community members from around the country converge in Canberra during the first week of COP21 to send a strong signal to government — that where they refuse to lead, the people will step up.

The chants of “people before polluters” filled the grand foyer of Parliament and we heard from people across the frontlines of climate change: fiery Aunty Mabel, a traditional custodian from Bailai country; Zane, one of the Pacific Island Warriors; those challenging massive coal mining projects, such as the Rio Tinto Warkworth mine expansion; and people impacted by the Hazelwood mine fire.

This growing diversity was also reflected in our Flood the System event in Melbourne. We had unionists, fiery anarchists, grandparents and young students — all taking action for the first time — along with refugee rights advocates and First Nations activists from Seed and the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance.

With Australia being one of the world’s biggest carbon emitters per capita and having an embarrassingly isolated government — including a brand new prime minister who, despite the rhetoric and sheen, has conceded nothing to the environment movement — and a relatively conservative NGO sector still playing in-the-tent politics with business and government, it falls to those at the grassroots to push for the ambitious and bold response needed.

As the Paris agreement landed to near universal acclaim across the mainstream environmental movement — with groups like the Australian Conservation Foundation calling the #D12 protests a celebration — the grassroots has a responsibility to call it what it is: something that was better than many expected, but absolutely not good enough. Naïve optimism is not going to cut it, nor will it show respect to Pacific Islanders’ call to save their homelands. As for the people on the streets in Paris, they need to be seen for what they were: many thousands drawing a red line, sending a strong signal that although this agreement might not have any teeth, it is time that we bare ours — not just in anger, but with defiant joy.

Neil Morris, Yorta Yorta man, with the First Nations banners (Flickr / Direct Action Melbourne)

After training people across the country in recent years, I am increasingly certain that the climate justice movement in this country — and perhaps in other wealthy nations — is not providing the pathways that concerned community members are ready to take. In times of crisis, the only reasonable response is to intervene, and it’s time for civil society in Australia and elsewhere to build the pathways needed to allow people to step into powerful nonviolent direct action.

For us, in Melbourne and across the country, we saw an important next step as hundreds took action in the city for the first time and brought coal ports to a standstill along the east coast. We will now build on that momentum and join the international climate justice community in looking toward disrupting more infrastructure projects in 2016. Here in Australia, we hope to keep the Galilee coal reserves in the ground, and keep further unconventional gas at bay.

In order to do so, we must continue to weave our web, drawing stories, culture, leadership and inspiration from our First Nations peoples, as well as those on the frontlines of climate change. We must amplify their voices and become a richer movement in the process — weaving a web of resistance that connects us, despite our differences and what the flailing, dying fossil fuel industry and government throws at us.

How advocates for Syrian refugees are weathering the storm

by Sarah Aziza

Hamid Imam, a Syrian activist based in New Jersey, leads a crowd of supporters in pro-refugee chants in Union Square on September 12. (WNV/Sarah Aziza)

Syrians in the United States may be safe from falling bombs, but they are never free of the shadow cast by the still-raging war. Sarab al-Jijakli is one of many Syrians in America who have sought activism as an antidote to the frustration and grief of watching their nation torn apart by fighting. But, as al-Jijakli says, this can often feel like an exercise in futility.

“There’s a chant on the Syrian streets now — that we have no one to rely on but God,” said al-Jijakli with a mirthless chuckle. “It’s really starting to feel true.” His comment came in late November 2015, and reflected a deep weariness wrought after years of struggling for the Syrian cause.

Al-Jijakli, founder of the National Alliance for Syria, has devoted himself to promoting a vision of a free and democratic Syrian state. Most of his experience as an activist has been defined by a maddening indifference from the American public. “It was very difficult to engage people on this issue,” he recalled. “People have become desensitized to violence in the Middle East, or they say it’s too complicated for them to understand. It was very discouraging. No one wanted to listen or to talk about the Syrian cause.”

That all began to change in the summer of 2015.

Signs of hope

I first met Sarab al-Jijakli on a cloudy morning on September 18, 2015, in Manhattan’s bustling Union Square. Despite sprinkling rain, al-Jijakli’s spirits were high as he ambled through the crowd of 200 activists and onlookers gathered in the plaza. Al-Jijakli conferred with fellow organizers and passed out signs emblazoned with antiwar slogans and “Welcome Refugee” messaging. At noon, al-Jijakli mounted the plaza steps to lead the first major pro-Syrian refugee rally in New York City.

Turning to me a few minutes before his opening speech, al-Jijakli’s earnest eyes showed a long-absent glimmer of optimism. “People are starting to care about the Syrian plight,” he told me. At the time, he was right — American public opinion in September 2015 showed unprecedented support for resettling Syrian refugees in the United States.

This trend, while heartening, represented a belated reaction to a tragic reality. Throughout the summer of 2015, as images of overcrowded lifeboats, squalid squatters camps, and the unforgettable photograph of young Alan al-Kurdi’s limp body penetrated Western media, Americans felt a sudden concern for the years-old conflict. Looking to European nations like Germany and Sweden as examples, Americans began to call on their own government to take a more proactive approach to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

Many of those gathered in Union Square that morning were newcomers to political activism and to the cause of the Syrian refugees. Al-Jijakli opened the rally by rattling off a few of the grisly facts: Since 2011, a quarter-million Syrians had died, 7 million were internally displaced, and 4 million refugees had been driven out of the country. Despite the magnitude of the crisis, al-Jijakli reminded the crowd that the United States had so far accepted fewer than 2,000 refugees for resettlement. The crowd booed at this disheartening statistic, with chants of “Let them in!” swelling from their throats.

Another dedicated Syrian activist, Hamid Imam, took the stage next, launching into a passionate call for an end to the “proxy war” in Syria and a toppling of the Assad regime. Young and fiery, Imam is tormented by the memory of his hometown, Raqqa, which is now an ISIS stronghold wasted by months of fighting. That morning, his voice rang with urgency.

“Our people have suffered every kind of violence — bombs, bullets, beheadings.” Imam paced around the platform in tight circles, his thick arms waving up and down as his upper body rocked in rhythm with his words. “What more does the world need to see before they put a stop to this?” Imam ended his speech with a return to al-Jijakli’s call for more refugees to be resettled in the United States.

Later, on October 12, al-Jijakli stood before a packed meeting hall at the Islamic Center of NYU, where over a hundred community members from the tri-state area had gathered to strategize about the next steps in pro-refugee advocacy. Alongside al-Jijakli were representatives from the International Rescue Commission and Islamic Relief, as well as Linda Sarsour, a prominent activist and founder of the Arab American Association of New York.

For the next hour and a half, these experts weighed in on “what to expect, and how to help” in light of President Obama’s recent promise to resettle 10,000 refugees in the 2016 fiscal year. During the Q&A, audience members leaned forward with arms raised, vying for the chance to ask a question or offer spare bedrooms to shelter new arrivals. Al-Jijakli was heartened by the enthusiasm, but reminded the audience, “they’re not here yet — so far, all we have is a political promise.”

As he closed the meeting, however, al-Jijakli allowed himself a moment of optimism. “For the first time, we’re able to be proactive,” he said. “People are finally seeing us as humans, not just a security threat.” After four tumultuous years of organizing around the Syrian cause, al-Jijakli confessed that this was the most hope he’d felt in a long time. Unsure how long the popular support would last, he stressed the need to “act as quickly as we can, while this goodwill lasts.”

Calm before the storm

Barely a month later, the world watched in horror as Paris was plunged into bloody chaos. As the horrific events unfolded, al-Jijakli steeled himself for possible fallout against his community. “I was thinking what every Muslim was thinking: Please, God, don’t let the attackers be Muslim.” When a Syrian passport surfaced at one crime scene and the so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for the carnage, al-Jijakli’s grief was compounded with the dread of impending backlash.

Within hours, al-Jijakli would begin to see months’ of advocacy work undone, as anti-Arab sentiment surged across the country. Politicians, formerly vocal supporters of the proposed refugee resettlement, now competed in denouncing the plan with increasingly vitriolic rhetoric. Within days of the attacks, 31 state governors announced their plans to refuse Syrian refugees, reneging on earlier promises and denouncing these asylum seekers as a collective security threat.

“I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the citizens of Alabama in harm’s way. We refuse Syrian refugees,” tweeted Alabama Gov. Bentley. House Speaker Paul Ryan urged Congress to pass a bill barring both Syrian and Iraqi refugees, arguing, “This is urgent. We cannot and should not wait to act, not when our national security is at stake.” When activists, and Obama himself, pointed out that refugees receive more intensive screening than any other demographic entering the United States, it did little to stem the anti-Syrian hysteria.

In the days following the attacks, al-Jijakli’s voice was heavy with resignation. “We’re back to where we started — or worse,” he confessed to me. “Everywhere the doors are slamming in our faces again.” Al-Jijakli had no immediate strategy, but said simply, “First, we have to weather this storm.”

In the weeks following the Paris attacks, it appeared the storm was growing darker. When it was revealed that the couple responsible for the subsequent San Bernardino attacks had ties to ISIS, Islamophobic and anti-Arab rhetoric mounted across the country. The hysteria came to a head on Dec. 6, when presidential candidate Donald Trump made a public call for a nationwide ban on Muslims entering the country. Meanwhile, reports of attacks on Muslims across the United States continued to rise.

Imam has weathered many storms in the course of his activism, but said the intensity of the backlash following Paris and San Bernardino was the worse he’d known. For a moment, Imam was tempted to despair. Exasperated by the escalating harassment he faced as an Arab Muslim in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, Imam began questioning whether he would continue advocating for refugee resettlement at all. “We care about our people’s physical safety, but we also care about their dignity,” Imam said, whose family in Syria is still trying desperately to escape. “I don’t want to bring victims here only to have them humiliated.”

Hosam (last name withheld), a survivor and newly-arrived refugee from the Syrian city of Homs, addresses the crowd at a rally at Columbus Circle on Dec. 10. (WNV/Sarah Aziza)

Lighting the fire again

It was not long, however, before Imam and al-Jijakli redoubled their efforts, joining forces with Linda Sarsour and a wide coalition of activist groups in the tri-state area to organize another rally — this one in front of Donald Trump’s own property in Midtown Manhattan.

On Dec. 10, over 700 individuals representing over 50 organizations gathered in Columbus Circle, just off of Trump’s looming high-rise properties, and for an hour and half filled the air with their adamant voices. With supporters ranging from leather-clad CUNY students to Spanish-speaking Brooklynites to Asian-American organizers from the Bronx, the rally was bigger and broader than the Union Square gathering — and angrier, too.

“War is terrorism. Refugees are the victims” read one sign, hoisted by a trim, white woman in a wool coat. “Refugees welcome — Trump, not so much” read the poster of a curly-haired man in a skullcap, standing beside a group of antiwar organizers waving “Hands off Syria” signage. Others raised boards emblazoned with Spanish and Arabic messages of solidarity. In the center of the plaza, speakers clambered atop a granite monument to project their voices above the crowd.

“We stand in solidarity with refugees and in protest of the racist rhetoric that is taking over the media,” Akua Gy, a representative from the Black Lives Matter movement, called out. “I can’t help but see the connections between the campaign against Arabs and Muslims with the war on black people here in this country.” The crowd roared in agreement. Naomi Dann of Jewish Voice For Peace, a key organizer of the event, connected the event to her faith. “The Jewish tradition teaches us to welcome our neighbors and to learn from our own experiences of oppression.”

At the back of the crowd stood Manal Abdelaziz, a demure, Damascus-born mother of three. Speaking in Arabic, she said that while she occasionally faces hostility in the United States, she’s grateful for the opportunity it offers her family. “Really, I’m here [at the rally] to show my support for the people back in Syria.” Abdelaziz said she prays daily for her family, still in harm’s way in Damascus.

Al-Jijakli agreed that he was most haunted by the knowledge that people in Syria continued to perish. “This is just one chapter of a long struggle,” he explained. “Eventually this anti-refugee, Islamophobic hysteria will pass, but we’ll still be fighting for freedom in Syria, and an end to acceptable bigotry in America.”

Imam took the stage as one of the last speakers, and it was clear he’d regained his fighting spirit. His powerful voice, edged with pain, bellowed across the evening air. “We are here to show the world: This is the face of a Syrian refugee.” The crowd erupted into applause, then chanted: “Say it loud! Say it clear! Refugees are welcome here!”

Later, dismounting the stage as the crowd dispersed, Imam made the rounds among fellow organizers, shaking hands and urging his fellow Syrians to “hold on to hope.” The victory, said Imam, will come through sheer resilience. “In Syria, there are cities that have been completely leveled by bombs. You know what the people are doing? They are surviving, and fighting, beneath the rubble,” he said. “How can you beat people like that?”

Why I went to Guantánamo, again

by Frida Berrigan

Frida Berrigan in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Flickr / Justin Norman)

I have the world’s worst hair cut. It is uneven, hacked and does nothing to flatter my features. For the first few days after I cut it, my hair was also super dirty, sticking straight up with a Pomade of bug spray, sunscreen and Cuban dirt.

While so many in the United States were being driven to distraction by the biggest deals of a lifetime on Black Friday, I was in Cuba, taking a pair of scissors to my head as I looked down a mountainside at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay. I could see the base, which straddles the sparkling bay, cutting the Cuban people off from rich fishing waters and full access to their land. A representative of the Cuban government told us that the Department of Guantánamo lags behind the rest of the nation in economic development because they have expected an invasion to come from the base since 1903, when the United States seized the land. “Why invest in an area that is just going to be destroyed by bombs?” she asked.

Standing at this spot, I could see the sacred — mountains, valleys, rainbows, water, skies that almost sing with gorgeousness — and the profane — occupation, militarization, torture, abuse, indefinite detention. I was there with 13 other friends from Witness Against Torture. We were spending our Thanksgiving week far from our families, camping out at the Mirador overlooking the U.S. Naval Base. We were being hosted by the staff of La Gobernadora restaurant and lounge. From the look out, we could see the U.S. base that has occupied more than 100 square kilometers of Cuban land for over a century and imprisons 107 men in torturous conditions.

We camped. We prayed. We worked to transform a random international tourist spot — not to mention local make out spot, where the night staff drink rum from the bottle and blast reggaeton music toda la noche — into a place to honor. We wanted to connect and extend ourselves towards the men our nation has demonized and forgotten — hoping our songs, chants and prayers were carried by the wind, refracted by the sun, swept along by the rain, and carried along by every bird that flew overhead.

After a while, though, I needed to do just a little more than fasting and camping. I needed just a little more suffering. I was here — close this exact spot — 10 years ago, when Witness Against Torture was born. That time, in December 2005, 25 of us walked about 100 kilometers from Santiago de Cuba to the Cuban military checkpoint that guards the entrance to a Cuban military territory that surrounds the U.S. naval base. We fasted then as well, camping out at the Cuban checkpoint and calling U.S. SOUTHCOM to request entry onto the base. That time, we hoped that the United States would press charges against us for traveling to Cuba, giving us an opportunity to put the Bush administration’s torture program on trial. They declined.

What drew me back to Guantánamo? What propelled me away from my husband and three small children during Thanksgiving week? I returned 10 years after our original mission because so much has changed for me — I am now a wife and a mother — and so little has changed about the criminal injustice of indefinite detention, abuse and torture.

Relations between the United States and Cuba have changed. Travel restrictions have loosened. Embassies have opened in both countries. We are not breaking any laws by being here, but we are doing something no one has done before, and the Cuban people were with us. They are sick of being occupied, sick of being exploited, sick of Guantánamo being synonymous with torture the world over, when it should bring up visions of gorgeous beaches, fat healthy fish and rigorous mountain climbing.

That’s why I needed a little more than fasting and camping. That’s why I needed a little more suffering. And that’s why I opted to give myself the world’s worst haircut. As I sawed and hacked off hanks of hair, I recalled all the names we had read earlier in the day. The names and stories of 107 men still held at Guantánamo, many in solitary confinement, many on hunger strike, many still subjected to forced feeding.

Mohammed Ahmad Said al Edah is a 52- or 53-year-old citizen of Yemen. As of November 16, 2015, he has been held at Guantánamo for 13 years and 10 months. As of January 2010, the Guantánamo Review Task Force had recommended him for transfer to Yemen provided that certain security conditions were met.

Abd al Malik Abd al Wahab is a 35- or 36-year-old citizen of Yemen. As of January 2010, the Guantánamo Review Task Force had recommended him for continued detention. A parole-like Periodic Review Board later recommended him for transfer. As of Nov. 16, 2015, he has been held at Guantánamo for 13 years, 10 months.

I wanted to get back to my kids, my husband and my domestic routine. I yearned to wash dishes (and my hair) and read books. But I didn’t want to forget what we were able to do on that mountaintop. I didn’t want to forget what people of good will are able to accomplish. We established an outpost of prayer and intention, and showed the world that people from the United States still care about what happens here.

I wanted to leave Cuba with more than a sunburn, a stomach ache and pile of really beautiful, moving photographs of our work here. I wanted to leave Cuba changed and doubly committed to changing the life circumstances of the men who are stuck in the worst form of hell — life in limbo. We are living in an age of borderless war, pervasive terror and prevailing fear. We can trace many of the origins of this to 2001, the launch of the U.S. war on the people of Afghanistan and the delivery of a planeful of Arab and Muslim men into U.S. custody on Cuban soil in 2002. Guantánamo — the wholesale shackling, torturing and confining of men without charge or evidence — was the beginning of a new and grim chapter in our nation’s history.

I keep thinking about what my children and grandchildren will ask me about this time when they are older. I want to be able to tell them that I stood on the side of the outsider, that I was not afraid, that I kept the flame of peace afire and held onto my humanity by never losing sight of anyone else’s humanity. That’s why I embarked on this journey, to be able to look my children in their big beautiful eyes and say, “I tried. I am trying.” But, the first thing they said when they saw me was, in fact, “Hi Ma, what happened to your hair?”

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