Waging Nonviolence

Inside the indigenous movement to protect India’s commons

by Pushpa Achanta

Dongria Kondh women (Sadai Huika on the far right) involved in resisting mining in Niyamgiri, Raygada district, in March 2015 (WNV/Pushpa Achanta)

In early October, news emerged that India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change was blocking the implementation of a high-level government panel’s report on tribal rights that recommended the creation of stringent rules to safeguard indigenous people from displacement.

Meanwhile, two state governments have begun implementing a much different set of guidelines — issued in August without any interference — that allow the private sector to manage 40 percent of forests for profit at the expense of indigenous forest dwellers. In addition, another ordinance passed this year will permit private corporations to easily acquire land and forests from indigenous communities and carry out ecologically harmful mining. These legislative and policy decisions are usually made without the knowledge of indigenous communities whose lives, livelihoods and ecosystems will be worsened by these irresponsible actions of the government.

Hence, indigenous communities in Uttar Pradesh, a northern state and Odisha, in the east, are strengthening their organizing to protect their rivers, lands, forests and hills from “development” that would displace thousands of local residents and destroy the environment.

“People from my community and I were beaten, detained or jailed unnecessarily for opposing tree felling in our forests, some years ago,” said Nivada Debi, a feisty 38-year-old woman from the Tharu Adivasi community in Uttar Pradesh. “We visited the police station multiple times for their release. The government did not assist the injured. Despite the police and government indifference, we will fight for our land and environment.”

A mother of four children subsisting on the forests, Debi is active in grassroots resistance that started nearly 20 years ago and has grown into the All India Union of Forest Working People, or AIUFWP. The group is made up of many indigenous people who subsist on forests and are collectively protecting forests from poachers and encroachers.

Nivada Debi at the Lucknow rally against the imprisonment of the opponents of the Kanhar dam in July 2015. (WNV/Pushpa Achanta)

Debi was among hundreds — from the AIUFWP, the allied Save Kanhar Movement and other resistance groups — who traveled to Lucknow in July 2015 for a rally protesting the continued incarceration of their comrades fighting land grabbing in other districts of Uttar Pradesh. Roma Malik, the AIUFWP deputy general secretary, and Sukalo Gond, an Adivasi, which means original inhabitant, were among those arrested on June 30, before they were to address a large public gathering about the illegal land acquisition for the Kanhar dam and the violent repression of its opponents by the state. Another member of AIUFWP, Rajkumari, who prefers to go by her first name, was jailed on April 21, after 39 Adivasis and Dalits, who are considered outside the caste hierarchy, were brutally shot at by the police during a peaceful protest on April 18. The demonstration, which began on April 14 — the birthday of B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution and an icon for many Indians, particularly Dalits — was opposing the construction of a dam across the Kanhar river in the Sonbhadra district of southeastern Uttar Pradesh.

Rajkumari was released toward the end of July while Gond and Malik were freed in September. However, others are still imprisoned on fabricated charges. Courts are delaying hearing their cases or denying them bail.

AIUFWP members, some of whom were previously involved with other local resistance movements, have been actively opposing the construction of the Kanhar dam for years. It would submerge over 10,000 acres of land from more than 110 villages in Uttar Pradesh and the neighboring states of Chattisgarh and Jharkhand, displacing thousands of local people and disrupting their lives and livelihoods. The dam was approved by the Central Water Commission of India in 1976, but was abandoned in 1989 after facing fierce opposition, especially from the local people whose lives and ecosystem would be destroyed by the proposed dam. However, construction resumed in December 2014, violating orders to stop it from the National Green Tribunal — a government body that adjudicates on environmental protection, forest conservation and natural resource disputes. No social impact assessment was done, nor were the necessary environmental or forest clearances — mandated by the Forest Conservation Act — obtained by the state government.

“Since this dam can destroy our survival and also adversely impact the surroundings, we have been opposing its construction and related land acquisition for many years,” said Shobha, a determined 42-year-old Dalit. “On December 23, 2014, the police caned some of our comrades when we were peacefully protesting the revival of building the dam earlier that month. However, the police falsely accused some leaders of our struggle of attacking the sub-divisional magistrate.” Shobha, who also prefers to go only by her first name, is among the vocal leaders of a women’s agricultural laborers union, which has allied with AIUFWP, in the village of Bada.

Shobha (center) with daughter Deepika (left) and associate Rekha (right) before the Lucknow rally against the incarceration of the opponents of the Kanhar dam in July 2015. (WNV/Pushpa Achanta)

Around 400 miles from Sonbhadra, in the Kalahandi and Rayagada districts of southern Odisha, live the Dongria Kondhs, an indigenous community of over 8,000 people. They have been fighting tirelessly to protect their sacred mountain, the nearly 5,000-foot high Niyamgiri, from large private corporations — like Vedanta Limited — that are trying to mine bauxite in the area to produce aluminum. Supporters of the Dongria Kondhs were arrested in Delhi on August 9 outside the Reserve Bank of India, as they peacefully highlighted Vedanta’s illegitimate and harmful mining in the Niyamgiri. Vedanta’s mining would violate the Forest Rights Act, which states that indigenous communities are entitled to remain in the forests — and utilize the produce, land and water in the forests — while conserving and protecting them.

“The Niyamgiri symbolizes a parent to our community,” said Sadai Huika, a steadfast 45-year-old Dongria Kondh woman from Tikoripada village. “While the streams that originate from it help our farming, the plants and grass that grows on it feed our cattle and goats. We cannot exist without it and will safeguard it from anyone trying to harm it.”

Huika and people from hundreds of villages near the Niyamgiri are active members of the Niyamgiri Protection Forum, which originated around 2003 to resist attempts by Vedanta to begin mining where the Kondhs live, with the support of the Odisha state government. At every one of the 12 village council meetings with government officers held in 2013 atop the Niyamgari, community members stated that they would not allow mining nearby.

Kumuti Majhi, an elderly Dongria Kondh man and one of the forum’s leaders, is among the few people who have traveled within and outside Odisha to advocate against mining and garner vital support for their struggle. He has met ministers to explain how significant the Niyamgiri is to his community and their reasons for safeguarding it.

By organizing protests locally and with allies around the world — and meetings with Vedanta’s shareholders and empathetic government officials, who the forum has enlightened about the need to protect the Niyamgiri — the group has stalled the mining.

“We know that extracting bauxite from the Niyamgiri will pollute our environment and also affect all living beings here,” Majhi said. “Hence, we will stop anyone coming to plunder the Niyamgiri, despite police harassment and false charges against us and our families.”

Activists need to realize that most Americans actually agree with them

by George Lakey

View image | gettyimages.com

I admit to following the shenanigans of mainstream politicians, so much so that I sometimes slip into their assumptions even though I know I shouldn’t. One of their more seductive assumptions is that U.S. public attitudes over the years have moved to the right, an assumption I often hear echoed even among concerned people on the left.

As a hobby I’ve been collecting public opinion poll numbers to try to stay centered. My sociological training taught me to be skeptical about opinion polls, but the consistent results of polls are actually better than who wins elections for learning what the public thinks about issues. I abruptly encountered that contrast in the 1980s when the Jobs with Peace Campaign was running referenda asking voters if they would like to have tax money taken out of military spending and devoted instead to education, transportation, housing, health care and the like. The referenda were not binding, but they gave people a voice.

In Pennsylvania, we ran some of those referenda when Ronald Reagan sought re-election as president. Reagan had spent his first term shifting the budget from civilian needs to the military sector. However, in every county where we ran our referendum, our ballot question won overwhelmingly even though Reagan also won.

In exit polls we asked voters how they voted and why. The Reagan voters who voted “Yes” to Jobs with Peace typically responded this way: “Well, President Reagan is a wonderful leader for our country, but even fine leaders need guidance on issues and he does have it wrong on prioritizing the military.”

Because votes on candidates tell us far less about public opinion than polls do, finding out what the pollsters are reporting helps to ground my political analysis.

For example, a large majority of Americans, 68 percent, said in a recent ABC/Washington Post poll that our economic system favors the rich rather than the majority. About half of those who said they were Republicans agreed. Economist Joseph Stiglitz has been following opinion research over time and consistently found that the percentages of those who see too much wealth inequality were high among men and women, Democrats and Republicans, people with lower incomes and even those with higher incomes.

Over a 30-year period the Gallup opinion polls have seen a steady majority responding positively to the question: “Do you think our government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich?” The Pew Research Center found 69 percent agreeing that the federal government should do something, or should do a lot to reduce the income gap.

For the past couple of decades elected officials have been cutting taxes for the wealthy, but a Washington Post poll in 2014 showed a majority of people in favor of tax increases. A Gallup poll showed that even among Republicans, 45 percent believed upper income people paid too little in taxes.

In 2014, national polls revealed that a majority of Americans want to address climate change. A year later, the Senate appointed its leading climate denier to be head of the Senate’s committee on the environment.

For decades the airwaves have been full of anti-government rhetoric insisting only private business can be “job creators.” Then a poll in 2014 found almost half those asked wanted the government to provide a job to any citizen who cannot find work in the private sector.

I could go on and on with poll results like these that place the American majority considerably to the left of the Democratic Party on most issues, although there are exceptions. Bottom line, the evidence shows that the political class is wrong to assert that, as it moves rightward, it is “following the American people.”

Billionaire Warren Buffett revealed as long ago as 2006 who the political class is actually following. He told the New York Times, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

What does this mean for us?

Revising our understanding of how much the majority agrees with us has a couple of obvious implications, and also some not so obvious. Knowing what’s really going on helps us challenge our despair, freeing energy for action. I notice I feel better and walk down the street with the body language of openness when I’ve read yet another poll in the daily paper revealing that many of the people on the sidewalk see the world as I do.

A deeper implication arises at the identity level. This is a personal issue for me, and I don’t think I’m alone. In high school I became a chronic differentiator. I fiercely wanted to be an independent thinker rather than to “follow the crowd,” and so I built my identity partly around my ability to emphasize my uniqueness.

Training for Change facilitators often point out that there are two fundamental motions an individual chooses between in social life: to join or to differentiate. We make those choices moment to moment. Coming out of a movie theater with a friend we might join in raving about the sound track and then disagree about the star’s performance. Most of us easily swing back and forth, joining and differentiating depending on how we see the issue at hand: “Do I want a beer? Not really – I’d rather have tea at the moment.”

Some of us, though, get the choice-making wrapped up in our identity. You might lean strongly toward conformity, “going along to get along,” usually joining even at times when, in your heart of hearts, you might prefer to differentiate.

Or, like me, you might lean strongly toward differentiating and have to think twice to realize it really is OK to join. At my worst, I’ve been a “Yes, but…” person, having to agree with someone’s political point but then quickly finding some way to differentiate, as if reassuring myself that I truly am a unique being.

This fundamental joining/differentiating dynamic of social life can operate when we form our political identity. One way to stabilize a set of political values and convictions is to contrast them with some “other,” which originally might be that annoying uncle or teacher. I was brought up by my blue-collar family to differentiate from the Republicans, and I still enjoy doing that. Then, as a young adult, I grew to see how often the Democrats also supported racial and other injustices. That’s when the obvious “other” to contrast myself with became a vague “mainstream” or “majority.” The socialization of graduate school cemented that, encouraging me to believe I was part of an intellectual elite forever “above” the opinions of those who don’t use big words in conversation.

My political life since then has been one long series of opportunities to eat humble pie. Learning that a far higher percentage of Americans who had not finished high school saw through the Vietnam war than did college graduates — that was a big one. Realizing that professors, with graduate degrees, were usually slower to figure out the justice implications of issues and act on them than were undergrads, who in turn had a lot to learn from the service workers on the university staffs — that was another one.

When I woke up to my chronic disposition to differentiate, I began to pay attention to my internal coach, who often needed to say to me at everyday moments of choice, “George, What’s your problem? Join!” I also began to notice the alternative reality reflected in easily available information. The polls I’ve reported in this column are only a small sample of what’s in the daily newspaper and widely-available magazines. Now, at last, I am allowing myself to enjoy holding some of the same convictions as those of a majority of my nation, and to join them. As a radical, I  know I’m unique and not about to fall into mindless conformity — so I can relax about that. I’m therefore free to enjoy the connection with a multitude of strangers with whom I now know how to join.

Freeing ourselves to build mass movements

Jonathan Matthew Smucker keeps urging us to “go beyond the choir.” Letting go of the link between identity and either differentiating or joining makes that possible. Those of us who are activists don’t even need to fixate on the ways our particular group is different from “that other group.” Activists who are chronic conformers can reach for a new degree of independent thinking within the group that we belong to.

We can enjoy a new freedom to make our choices based on the merits, rather than identity; strategizing can become far more interesting because we’re less worried about “what others will think.” Freedom supports creativity, which in turn supports new ways of relating to the tens of millions of people out there who are being oppressed and have ideas about change that we might happen to agree with.

What is the future of unarmed struggle in Palestine?

by Brian Martin

What can and should be done about the conflict in Israel-Palestine? Watching the news gives a highly distorted view of what is going on — with nearly all attention on violence by one or both sides, as has been the case with the recent wave of stabbings and shootings in the West Bank. For decades the conflict has regularly featured in the news, whereas many others, so-called “stealth conflicts,” are hardly ever mentioned.

Those familiar with nonviolent action know that the struggle against Israeli oppression has involved many unarmed methods. These include the first intifada, a major unarmed uprising from 1987-1993 involving strikes, boycotts and collective organization; regular protests against Israeli expropriations, demolitions and restrictions, in many of which Palestinians are joined by Israelis and international supporters; and the 2010 Freedom Flotilla to Gaza, in which ships bringing humanitarian aid were stormed by Israeli commandoes, generating outrage internationally.

It is probably better to call the first intifada and other such Palestinian struggles unarmed rather than nonviolent. A continual feature of Palestinian resistance has been youths throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. Although stone-throwing is largely symbolic because relatively few Israeli troops are harmed, from the point of view of the Israeli public this makes the Palestinians appear to be using violence against “our” troops. Stone-throwing, from the perspective of nonviolent action, can be counterproductive because it provides justification for much greater Israeli violence. Of course, suicide bombers and rocket attacks are violent and more obviously contrary to the principles of nonviolent struggle.

If you want to learn more about Palestinian unarmed struggle, there is quite a lot of material, including Souad Dajani’s “Eyes Without Country,” Mary King’s “A Quiet Revolution,” Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta’s “Refusing to be Enemies” and Andrew Rigby’s “The First Palestinian Intifada Revisited.”

To these valuable contributions can now be added “Popular Protest in Palestine: The Uncertain Future of Unarmed Resistance” by Marwan Darweish and Andrew Rigby, the focus of attention here. The book provides a highly knowledgeable, well-written and balanced treatment of nonviolent action by and in support of Palestinian aspirations.

Darweish and Rigby carried out over a hundred interviews, most of them with Palestinian activists, asking them about their views on all aspects of the struggle, including methods, leadership, opportunities and challenges. They also interviewed Israeli activists who support the Palestinian struggle. They use this material, including many quotes, to support their overall analysis.

The conflict in Israel-Palestine is treated in the news as a set of isolated events. To better understand present actions, it is important to consider history and circumstances. Darweish and Rigby provide concise and informative coverage of Palestinian resistance to Zionism in the decades prior to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, pointing both to significant periods of protest (especially in the late 1930s) and the significant weaknesses in the resistance due to a lack of national leadership, the timidity of Palestinian elites, and an unrealistic commitment to elite-level negotiation rather than popular mobilization, among other factors. Some of the same shortcomings have persisted in subsequent decades. The authors’ examination of the struggle is a broad, analytic overview rather than a detailed descriptive account: It is especially good in giving insights into strengths and weaknesses of Palestinian resistance.

Then comes the story of resistance after Israel became a state. This includes Palestinians living in Israel, as well as those in the occupied territories. Highlights include the first intifada, the disappointments of the Oslo peace process, the second intifada (involving far more Palestinian violence and far less success in mobilizing Palestinian, Israeli and international support), the building of the separation wall and resistance to it. Darweish and Rigby offer information and insight through accounts of particular struggles (for example, communities directly affected by the wall), listing of active organizations in both Palestine and Israel, assessments of factors hindering the struggle, and quotes from activists they interviewed. All this provides exceptional insight into the struggle. For example, summarizing the situation prior to the upsurge of resistance in the period 2002–13, the authors write, “The second intifada rapidly became militarized, leaving very little space for any large-scale unarmed civil resistance. Indeed, one estimate is that only 5 percent of the Palestinian population in the OPT [occupied Palestinian territories] played any active role in resistance activities during the confrontations of this period. Some people did issue repeated calls for a turn towards civilian-based popular resistance along the lines of the first intifada, but the necessary conditions for this were no longer present.”

Their overall assessment is pessimistic. The Israeli government seems intransigent and the prospects of any progress through the so-called peace process are non-existent. Even more depressing is the state of the Palestinian resistance: for the most part, morale has plummeted and participation in wide-scale actions is limited. As one veteran of the first intifada is quoted in Darweish and Rigby’s book, “There is no unified command, no program, no real coordination between the different political forces … The 1987 intifada was a complete system, which ruled our lives. And the objective of the movement was clear. Today nobody knows what we want.” Most Palestinians focus simply on survival; activism is most developed in areas where the wall or encroachment by Israeli settlements on the West Bank directly impact local Palestinian communities. Part of the problem is dysfunction in the Palestinian leadership. Both the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza are riddled with corruption and are prone to turn on any competitors, including autonomous resistance to Israeli impositions. Palestinians are seriously divided in various ways, partly due to Israeli policies that foster divisions.

There are many non-governmental organizations operating in Palestine, providing welfare and supporting justice campaigns, but sometimes they can be part of the problem. Such a large amount of foreign money flows to these groups that they become cautious, responding to the agendas of their funders, while Palestinians are disempowered. On the other hand, internationals who join direct actions provide hope and inspiration for many Palestinian activists.

Meanwhile, within Israel, there are many solidarity groups, some taking their message to the Israeli public, others joining actions with Palestinians. However, Israeli activists have a difficult time maintaining their initiatives because so few members of the public care. The Israeli mass media seldom report on the injustices affecting Palestinians, and comments suggest that many viewers switch off when they do.

One ray of hope comes from the international solidarity movement, which has grown dramatically with the formation of the boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, movement. BDS campaigners see a parallel with the international campaign that contributed to the end of apartheid in South Africa. Darweish and Rigby see the value of BDS campaigning, but give a whole series of reasons why it will be difficult to repeat the success of the anti-apartheid movement. These include lack of a unified leadership in Palestine (compared to undoubted leadership of the African National Congress in South Africa), the use of suicide bombers and rocket attacks (compared to the restraint by the African National Congress’s armed wing, which avoided attacks that might hurt civilians), and the Israeli economy’s lack of dependence on Palestinian labor (compared to the South African economy’s dependence on black labor). In total, Darweish and Rigby provide 14 comparisons between Palestine/Israel and South Africa, all suggesting that significant progress will not be as easy as in South Africa, where the struggle was long and hard.

Although “Popular Protest in Palestine” gives a pessimistic prognosis for the struggle against injustice, this should be preferred over unanchored optimism. The authors point out that there are other goals than the ending of Israeli oppression: Cultural survival and the persistence of resistance will be achievements in themselves. They cite the rise of a dissident youth voice in Gaza, condemning Hamas, Fatah, Israel and the U.N. alike, as a source of hope. That protests organized by this youth movement were obstructed by Hamas and Fatah shows the depth of the challenge facing the Palestinian people.

Eminent nonviolence scholar Gene Sharp developed a framework for a successful nonviolent struggle built around a series of stages or components: laying the groundwork, a challenge to authorities that triggers a repressive response, maintaining nonviolent discipline in the face of this response, political jiu-jitsu (in which repression backfires on the attackers), success via conversion, accommodation or nonviolent coercion, and the redistribution of power. Opponents of nonviolent campaigners can intervene at any stage to obstruct, divert or repress the challenge. Going by Darweish and Rigby’s account, the Palestinian unarmed popular resistance reached its high point in the first intifada, during which Israeli repression generated much greater support for the Palestinian cause.

Since then, things have gone backwards, and the movement is closer to the initial stage of laying the groundwork, namely building networks, understandings, skills, commitments and capacities to be able to mount an effective challenge. The Palestinian resistance has many committed members taking courageous front-line actions and persistently organizing behind the scenes. Yet, overall there is neither sufficient unity nor commitment to nonviolence to mount a challenge that can make major steps towards success. The Israeli government has developed ways of undermining the crucial preliminary stage that Sharp calls laying the groundwork.

At the end of their book, Darweish and Rigby provide a set of conditions for a “scenario of hope.” These will be difficult to satisfy. The unarmed resistance has proved incapable of generating sufficient leverage among the Israeli public or international leaders to end the occupation, and continuing violence by a few desperate Palestinians only reinforces the stereotype of Palestinians collectively as terrorists rather than victims of oppression. In this bleak time, “Popular Protest in Palestine” is vital reading for anyone who wants to understand possibilities for change and contribute to the scenario of hope.

Book excerpt: How 10 women disarmed a warplane bound for genocide in East Timor

by Andrea Needham

The four members of the Seeds of Hope East Timor Ploughshares action who were arrested celebrate outside the courthouse after their victory. Andrea Needham is on the left. (WNV / Andrea Needham)

In January 1996, I was one of 10 women who carried out a Ploughshares action in England, disarming a Hawk attack aircraft at a British Aerospace factory in Lancashire. The Hawk was about to be delivered to the Indonesian military, for use against civilians in illegally occupied East Timor. The action – the Seeds of Hope East Timor Ploughshares – came after three years of campaigning to stop the sale by other means. Together with thousands of people all over the country, I had written letters, signed petitions, taken part in public meetings, rallies and marches and organized acts of civil disobedience.

Nothing had worked, and the planes were about to be delivered. The only thing left to do was to disarm them ourselves.

After our act of disarmament, we were arrested and charged with criminal damage – at that point put at the equivalent of $3.6 million. We were refused bail and held in prison for six months. In British law, you are allowed to use reasonable force to prevent crime: We argued that we had been using reasonable force to prevent the crime of genocide in East Timor. The jury listened carefully to the evidence about East Timor and how selling Hawks to Indonesia made Britain complicit in the genocide, and acquitted us of all charges.

The acquittal was a landmark in peace movement history: It was the 56th Ploughshares action worldwide, but the first time that anyone had been found not guilty. The jury’s verdict showed that ordinary people, when presented with the facts, can see that extraordinary action is justified when one’s government is engaged in criminal behavior.

To mark the 20th anniversary, I’m writing a book that tells the inside story of the action. Seeds of Hope happened when the Internet was in its infancy, and there’s very little written about it. “The Hammer Blow” — to be published by Peace News Press, which is running a crowdfunding campaign until October 28 — will tell the full story from my point of view, including the year-long preparation, the action itself, the vital role of the support group, the prison time, trial and acquittal.

Although the Seeds of Hope action took place almost two decades ago, it is still relevant today. Britain is the world’s second largest weapons dealer, selling arms to countries embroiled in conflicts and guilty of terrible human rights abuses. As refugees pour out of war zones in the Middle East, Britain’s response is to offer sanctuary to a very few, whilst continuing to see that area of the world as a key market for arms deals.

Campaigners in every area — the arms trade, the environment, human rights — need to be prepared to stand up and hold governments to account. The Seeds of Hope action showed how a small group of committed women did just that. “The Hammer Blow” aims to inspire new generations of activists, and to show that, even when the cards appear stacked against us, we can still win. What follows is an excerpt of the book.

The Hawk after the women disarmed it and hung a banner. (WNV / Andrea Needham)

For several weeks I had been having panic attacks. They would swoop on me out of nowhere; walking down the street, not even thinking about the action, my legs would suddenly turn to jelly, my heart would start pounding and great waves of panic would engulf me. I’d have to sit down and take some deep breaths to calm myself. These episodes made me worried about how I would cope on the night: If I could react like that beforehand, how much worse would it be in the actual event?

But now, to my surprise, I felt very calm and focused. We’d spent nearly a year in planning, and had talked through every last detail of what we were to do, right down to the configuration in which we’d cut the fence and who would wield each tool as we broke into the hangar. I think we all needed reassurance that we could carry off this disarmament, and such detailed planning gave us a sense of security; there were to be, we hoped, no surprises.

We finished the minute’s silence, gave each other a last hug, and headed for the fence. Lotta and I were carrying boltcutters, Jo had the Japanese peace cranes we’d made to tie on the fence as a symbol of our peaceful intentions.

Lotta and I worked on cutting an arch-shaped hole in the fence, whilst Jo tied the peace cranes nearby, her frozen fingers struggling with the string. We were confident the fence wasn’t alarmed: Jo and I had made a small cut in it during one of our night time recces some weeks earlier, before giving it a vigorous shake and scuttling behind a bush to watch for any reaction. Nothing had happened.

After the trial, a British Aerospace worker in a more unguarded moment told us that there was in fact a movement sensor on the site but it was set off so often by rabbits that it was generally ignored. Perhaps that night the security guards had been sitting in their office wondering vaguely about the three extremely large rabbits hopping around.

It seemed to take ages to cut the fence; our hands were cold and we were made clumsy by the urgency of the situation. Finally the last strand gave way. I scrambled through the hole and grabbed the bags which Lotta and Jo passed to me before squeezing through themselves.

From where we had entered, it was only about 50 yards to the nearest entrance, a fire door on the corner of the building. But to reach it we had to walk through chest-high grass, which was dry and frozen, and crunched and snapped as we passed. There was otherwise complete silence apart from the occasional distant engine, and the noise of the grass seemed incredibly loud. But nobody seemed to hear us, and soon we were clambering up the bank onto the road around the hangar.

The fire door was right in front of us. We planned to smash the glass, then reach through and push the exit bar from the inside. Having no idea how strong the glass would be, we’d taken no chances and come equipped (“armed” as the prosecutor would later put it with no sense of irony) with an enormously heavy iron bar, a weight from inside a sash window. It had been ceremoniously presented to us a few weeks earlier by Ricarda and Rowan, support group friends who were replacing their windows. Not wanting it to appear to be an offensive weapon, they had carefully painted “Women disarming for life and justice” on it. It would later be brought out in court as evidence against us, the prosecutor grimacing slightly as he struggled to hold the huge lump of iron whilst reading the words to the jury.

There was a camera over the fire door, and security lights on each corner of the hangar. Standing there in the glare of the lights I felt very exposed and vulnerable. Surely they must have noticed us? What if we were caught now?

We’d talked a great deal about what we could do to make the action a success even if we didn’t manage to disarm the Hawks. To that end, we carried with us personal statements and a video we had made to leave at the site to explain what we had come to do. We even had business cards with our names and “Seeds of Hope East Timor Ploughshares” inscribed on them. Nobody would be left in any doubt as to what our intentions were.

But despite all that, I knew that I’d be desperately disappointed if we failed to hammer on the planes. And more than any personal feelings, the fact was that we were trying to prevent these Hawks from leaving for Indonesia; it was absolutely vital that we were able to carry out the action as planned.

The glass smashed easily, and Lotta put her hand through the window, feeling about for the bar inside. “I can’t find it,” she whispered. “Can you break the other panel?” I smashed the other panel of glass. “I still can’t feel it,” she said, her voice tense. “Let’s try the crowbars!”

In desperation, and expecting a heavy hand on our shoulders at any minute, we set to with the crowbars, but the gap between the two doors was too thin for them. Things weren’t looking good: It would be terrible to be caught now, so near and yet so far from our target.

While Lotta and I wrestled with the door, Jo ran off round the corner to see if we could get in anywhere else. A couple of minutes later she was back. “I’ve found a way in,” she said.

There were small doors set into the big folding metal shutters which opened to let the planes in and out of the hangar, but in our planning we’d dismissed these as being too difficult to crack. However, Jo had almost got one open with her crowbar; a little extra pressure from Lotta and me, and the whole lock popped off. We were in.

Several hours later, we were being interviewed by detectives at Lytham police station. They were very keen to know how we’d got into what they’d obviously been told was a very high security area without being detected. “Come on, just tell us, it won’t do your case any harm,” they coaxed.

I was tempted to tell them how easy it had been, how we’d more or less just walked right in, but I bit my tongue and smiled at them in what I hoped was a suitably enigmatic manner. They thought we’d had inside information or help; how else could three women have got into such a fortress? In fact, all the information we had was publicly available — at least to anyone willing to spend many days and nights sitting in freezing ditches peering through binoculars — and the lack of security was simply luck.

The lights in the hangar were on low, bathing all the planes inside in an eerie green light. We were interested in only one of them: an Indonesian Hawk. By the time of the action, Jo and I were experts on how to identify Hawks. We’d spent hours browsing military aircraft magazines and planespotters’ guides. We knew how to tell a Hawk 60 from a Hawk 100 and a Hawk 100 from a Hawk 200. We knew which serial numbers had been allocated to the Indonesian order of 24 Hawks. British Aerospace were also making the planes for other countries, including Saudi Arabia, and whilst that regime committed plenty of its own human rights’ abuses, we needed to keep the issue very clear, and not hammer on the wrong planes.

But there, standing right in front of us, was the apple green Hawk ground attack plane that Jo and I had seen being taken out of the hangar two days earlier. The lettering on its tail — ZH 955 — told us that it was destined for the Indonesian military, one of the world’s most brutal regimes. This was one of the actual weapons they planned to use to perpetrate murder in East Timor.

I’d expected it to be much bigger. For so long it had loomed large in my imagination, filling my thoughts, screaming into my dreams, overwhelming me with its power and violence. And yet now that we were standing in front of it, the Hawk seemed so small, so vulnerable — so easy to disarm.

By this time we’d been inside the site for about 10 minutes. We’d cut through a fence, smashed two panes of glass, and forced a door, all under the eye of security cameras. Discovery must be imminent: We had to work fast.

The hammer Andrea Needham used to disarm the warplane. (WNV / Andrea Needham)

I had a heavy lump hammer that I’d bought a few months earlier to chip mortar off old bricks when I was rebuilding a wall. I’d decorated it with the words from the biblical book of Isaiah that have inspired so many disarmament actions: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” On the handle I’d painted “Choose life!” a reference to another biblical line, from Deuteronomy: “I put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life.” For me, this action was all about choosing life: Choosing to say yes to a disarmed world and no to weapons of destruction; to say yes to nonviolence and no to violence; to say yes to accountability for our actions and no to the abdication of responsibility shown by British Aerospace and the British government.

Jo had a smaller hammer, which had been a gift from friends, and Lotta had two hammers, which had both been used in previous Ploughshares actions. One of the beautiful things about Ploughshares actions is that anyone can do them. You don’t need to be a technical genius or an engineer; you don’t need to be physically strong; you don’t need any expensive equipment or special skills. All you need is a hammer and a functioning arm. We each had both of those things. We started hammering.

Meet the 1 percenters finding solace in redistribution

by Kate Aronoff

Farhad Ebrahimi at Occupy Boston in 2011. (WNV / Farhad Ebrahimi)

In a political and economic system seemingly tailor-made for the 1 percent, backlash against “wealth therapy” — the trend of moneyed Americans seeking counsel through their Occupy-induced feeling of shame and isolation — is well-placed. While the top 0.1 percent of families in the United States possess as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, money psychologist Jamie Traege-Muney moaned to The Guardian that the movement wrongly “singled out the 1 percent and painted them globally as something negative.”

But a growing cadre of this statistical owning class are now crafting a healthier relationship to the rabble at their doorstep. Responding to Occupy and other movement moments, young people with wealth are organizing the resources of their peers and families to level the playing field — and support one another in the process.

“It’s not that I disagree that having wealth in this society is uncomfortable,” said organizer and donor Farhad Ebrahimi. “But treating it is not about individual therapy or even engaging in philanthropy or charity. It’s about collective action.” As a teenager, Ebrahimi was gifted a pool of wealth from his high-tech entrepreneur father. Growing up Iranian-American during the Iran-Iraq war was part of a “perfect storm” that led him to punk rock and radical politics, though for years Ebrahimi continued to identify more as a musician than an organizer. It was only later that he would conjoin his background with his beliefs.

“I wasn’t even 100 percent sure they were compatible at first,” he explained. “I approached philanthropy pretty agnostically in the beginning.” Shortly after graduating from MIT in 2002, Ebrahimi founded the Chorus Foundation using $25 million of his personal money. Focused on funding projects to address climate change, Chorus is dedicated to “working for a just transition to a regenerative economy in the United States.” And unlike other foundations, Chorus has a built-in expiration date: intending to spend out the entirety of its — and Ebrahimi’s — reserves by 2024. While he expects another gift from his father at some point in the future, he says it will go toward a “Chorus Foundation Round Two” with the same goal.

“I’m trying to put myself out of business,” Ebrahimi said. “And I’m trying to create a world in which someone would not end up in my situation of having been gifted more money than I possibly know what to do with.”

Andrew Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth,” a bible of sorts for modern philanthropists, was penned at the height of the Gilded Age in 1889. Observing the continued accumulation and stratification of wealth that surrounded him, Carnegie declared it “a waste of time to criticize the inevitable,” seeing inequality — not unlike the contemporary economist Thomas Piketty — as a structural outcome of capitalism. He scorned the “socialists or anarchists who seek to overturn present conditions,” arguing that their plight “is to be regarded as attacking the foundation upon which civilization itself rests.” Much like Hillary Clinton did in last week’s Democratic debate, Carnegie argued that the wealthy have to “save capitalism from itself,” ameliorating its worst excesses by choosing to redistribute their own surplus. In doing so, he called on his fellow industrialists to “consider how the foundation, as one of the [capitalist] system’s most prominent offspring, might act most wisely to strengthen and improve its progenitor.”

Organizer Abe Lateiner — who describes his giving as “spiritual and empowering work” — has a gospel that is noticeably distinct from Carnegie’s. Confronting the idea that society’s most well-off should pick which causes deserve funds, Lateiner warns that “Writing checks by yourself on New Year’s Eve is not liberating if you’re doing what you think is best — which is exactly what got us here.”

“The isolation thing is very real,” Lateiner said of his affluent bretheren seeking wealth therapy. “There are very specific, non-material, damaging things that come with privilege.” Excess resources, he explained, “are wonderful for our material well-being, but destroy the spirit [and] our ability to connect socially.”

Having grown up in a “solidly Democratic” household, Lateiner’s family never discussed money around the dinner table, and he struggled to explain his circumstances even to close friends. “My inability to talk about money or class on a personal level has definitely ruined relationships and cut off opportunities for relationships,” Lateiner said. “I mean that as friendships and romantic relationships and everything in between.” Having taught for six years — something he described as “the best way, within my liberal framework, I could think of to give back” — Lateiner came across an article in the New York Times in 2012 about young, socially conscious heirs, including Naomi Sobel and Resource Generation executive director Jessie Spector.

“The ground started to shift under my feet,” Lateiner remembered. Not only were Sobel and Spector speaking openly about their wealth and about giving it away; they were happy about it. He looked Resource Generation up online and quickly became involved. This collective version of wealth therapy emerged from “being able to be with people who understand [the problems of having wealth] and can honor them to get past the guilt.” A national, chapter-based organization, Resource Generation serves as a space for both support and political education among young people with wealth. More recently, it has also become a platform for them to leverage resources toward “an equitable redistribution of land, wealth and power.” An initiative launched last year called “It Starts Today” collaborated with racial justice groups around the country to raise $1.4 million for the movement for black lives and other black-led organizing.

While Ebrahimi has worked with Resource Generation, he’s also been involved with the upstart funders’ network Solidaire, which looks to combine Resource Generation’s political analysis and support structures with a commitment to moving sizable resources toward burgeoning movements. Founded in the wake of Occupy in 2012, Solidaire’s grants have backed everything from the People’s Climate March to on-the-ground mobilizations in Ferguson, Missouri to work against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Three classes of grants support movements at different stages in their development, be it in “movement moments” like Darren Wilson’s non-indictment, or building out long-term infrastructure for when reporters stop calling.

Apart from Solidaire, Ebrahimi also noted that Occupy marked a kind of sea change among more mainstream funders’ circles, who are now more open than ever to cross-issue conversations centered on justice. Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, for instance, was invited to speak at the Environmental Grantmakers’ Association’s annual conference this year — a small step, but something Ebrahimi said would have been virtually unheard of just a few years ago.

Both Ebrahimi and Lateiner emphasized the importance of honesty when approaching movements as people with wealth. While he was involved in Occupy Boston, Ebrahimi walked around the Dewey Square encampment with a shirt bearing the words “I am the 1%… I stand with the 99%.”

“There was a time when I was scared that anybody with good politics would be inherently wary of somebody sitting on a pile of gifted money,” he recalled. But being clear about his background from the outset was met with more excitement than derision. Instead of worrying about being judged by his fellow occupiers, Ebrahimi “could focus on trying to support a political moment that I thought was important, making a bunch of new friends and having all sorts of crazy adventures. It really never had to be an elephant in the room that I was a rich kid with a foundation.”

Meanwhile, Lateiner has started dressing up rather than down in movement spaces, where being open about his wealth has enabled him to build trust with working class organizers. “I have to be careful about the way I choose to speak and behave in those spaces,” he said. “But I’m not going to deny who I am.”

While acknowledging the trials of extreme wealth, Lateiner, Ebrahimi and other forward-thinking heirs are turning to one another for support, not so-called money psychologists. They take solace, too, in putting their personal resources to work. “Under a scarcity mentality, we’re taught to see giving as losing something, rather than seeing it as getting to be part of justice,” Lateiner said. And for the wealthy, he added, being a part of justice means not getting to define it. “I think the best work happens when people who are funding it get the hell out of the way.”

For solutions, they turn to movements. As opposed to Carnegie, this new breed of philanthropists reject their so-called “obligations” to capitalism, and are eager to help build a fundamentally different economy. “When we respond to the crisis of income inequality, we’re really responding to the crisis of consolidated wealth,” Ebrahimi explained. “What that says to me is that we’re trying to create a world in which there is no radically consolidated wealth. Without that, you don’t have any foundations” — or, at least, any wealth therapists.

In Tripoli, young Lebanese defy city’s violent reputation

by Christine Petré

Street art by Hayat Chaaban covers a wall in one of Tripoli’s more troubled areas. (WNV/Christine Petré)

A black-and-white mural with the text “Salam,” peace in Arabic, with a hand wrapped in barbed wire making the peace sign, covers a wall in one of Tripoli’s more troubled areas. Its artist, Hayat Chaaban, who has lived in Lebanon’s second largest city her whole life wants to put art to the battered facades of Tripoli and defy the violence. By doing so she is not only challenging the city’s rough reputation, but also the perception that graffiti is a male-oriented activity.

In response to the “you stink” protests, Chaaban made this image of a garbage bag in the shape of Lebanon. (Hayat Chaaban)

Despite the risks, she isn’t afraid. Dressed in a hoodie and baggy jeans, she is one of the few female graffiti artists in Tripoli and most likely in all of Lebanon. The 19-year-old artist was also involved in the recent demonstrations against the government’s garbage management. In one of her pieces, she portrayed a garbage bag in the shape of Lebanon and underneath it she wrote “Enough!” The photo quickly became well-known and used by those in the movement. But her focus is Arabic calligraphy with social messages. “I don’t pick any side,” explained the street artist, “whether it be about politics or religion.” Chaaban’s work is instead about critical thinking and co-existence. But in a city like Tripoli, that is not always easy.

Tripoli has increasingly become known as a conflict-ridden place. Foreigners are advised against visiting and many Lebanese have never stepped foot in the northern coastal city. The reason behind the city’s violent reputation is closely related to a sectarian conflict between two neighborhoods, the Sunni quarter of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite area Jabel Mohsen. The old schism between the areas has intensified as a result of the continuing war in neighboring Syria. Most people in Bab al-Tabbaneh praise the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, while the majority of the residents in Jabel Mohsen support the Syrian president. The city is also known as “Tripoli of Syria” due to its connection to the country’s war-torn neighbor. What happens in Syria is believed to have a direct effect on the Lebanese city. “It could even be argued that Tripoli has become an integral part of the Syrian conflict,” argued researcher and author Raphael Lefèvre in a recent report for the Carnegie Middle East Center.

In the area where Chaaban lives, Abu Samra, situated on a hilltop overlooking the city, hang posters of young men who died while fighting in Syria. Many are portrayed as martyrs for the Islamic State, which has a number of supporters in Tripoli. Several Islamic State affiliates have been arrested in the city. “They exist,” admitted Chaaban, “but it’s a very small group.” Yet, these individuals have contributed to Tripoli’s bad reputation.

Hayat Chaaban stands next to one of her murals in Tripoli. (WNV/Christine Petré)

Strolling through downtown Tripoli, Chaaban shows her murals across the city center. The young artist points out that the city’s reputation is not representative of the city at large. It’s mostly isolated to certain areas and perpetuated by a small group of people. Chaaban hopes that her art will not only reinforce the city’s beauty, but also that its citizens will reflect on the murals’ social messages.

Nevertheless, a number of events have continued to taint the city’s reputation. In 2013, two mosques were targeted in an attack, which killed 47 people — making it the deadliest since the country’s 15-year-long civil war in the 1980s. Human Rights Watch called on the Lebanese authorities to protect Tripoli’s 500,000 inhabitants by confiscating weapons and arresting gunmen. “The Lebanese government can’t afford to sit on its hands,” stated the watchdog.

During one of the peaks of fighting in 2012 another of the city’s young women found her escape not in calligraphy, but in music. While the fighting escalated on a spring morning in May on the other side of the city, a piano tune would make peace advocate Heba Rachrach known. As she sat at home, the then-21-year-old started recording her song before she was disrupted by an explosion. But instead of stopping, Rachrach decided to stay resilient and continued to play, drowning out the noise with the sound of the piano. At the end of the day, she uploaded the clip “Stop the violence in Tripoli” on YouTube and it quickly went viral. “The bombings fulfilled people’s stereotypes about Tripoli because the city has a reputation of being unsafe,” explained Rachrach, “and home to terrorists and extremists.” Despite being safer than before, she argues, it is difficult for the city to break free from the negative connotations many have of it.

Heba Rachrach (WNV/Christine Petré)

But youth initiatives across the city are trying to change the city’s reputation. Rachrach is involved in perhaps the most well-known initiative, We Love Tripoli, which is trying to change not only people’s perception of the city, but also give voice to the youth through cultural and social activism by arranging events where they can come together and discuss their social grievances. Nobody is doing this type of work here, explained Rachrach. Perhaps that is why it has been so successful. Created in 2007 as a youth-led online community on Facebook, We Love Tripoli has almost 60,000 likes today.

“They do lots of social activities to make Tripoli a better place,” explained one of its supporters, 25-year-old Bassem Alameddine, who has been involved for two years. He was introduced to the initiative through a friend when he realized that many of his acquaintances were already involved. “I hope we can deliver a message to outsiders that the city is not as dangerous as they think,” he said. The city’s youth are keen to do social work to improve Tripoli, he explained.

We Love Tripoli helps young people to appreciate their city and thereby protect and care for it. The organization’s frequent activities include photography excursions, called “Shoot as you walk,” which aims to photograph new sides of the city and document its hidden beauty. This is Alameddine’s favorite activity, discovering his city’s gems. There are also regular movie screenings and workshops on topics such as recycling. The aim is to bring the youth together and promote a volunteer spirit to, for example, strengthen young people’s connection to their city and protect its cultural heritage. Many of the city’s young are keen to establish an alternative narrative to the mainstream about Tripoli. According to Rachrach the media is playing an essential role in presenting the city as conflict-ridden. However, there is more to Tripoli than the mainstream media headlines and its residents’ are working hard to prove it to the outside world.

NYC activists ticket Park Slope residents to show how cops treat communities of color

by Ashoka Jegroo

A PROP member issues a summons to a Brooklyn family. (WNV / Ashoka Jegroo)

Anti-police brutality activists in New York City took a trip to a gentrified neighborhood on October 18 to catch white people freely committing the type of crimes that get black and brown people regularly harassed by cops.

The group that organized the action, the Police Reform Organizing Project, or PROP, took to the streets of Park Slope, Brooklyn Sunday afternoon and handed out fake summonses to white people committing small quality-of-life crimes.

“We’re out today just giving mock summonses to people in Park Slope,” said Josmar Trujillo, a member of the Coalition to End Broken Windows, one of the groups that joined the action in Park Slope. “White people are not used to getting any kind of police enforcement around low-level offenses.”

The action was intended to highlight the racial disparities in the New York Police Department’s practice of Commissioner Bill Bratton’s signature “broken windows” policy. According to the policy’s reasoning, small, quality-of-life offenses need to be strictly enforced by police lest any apparent tolerance for these small crimes lead to criminals confidently committing much more serious crimes. In practice though, this approach to crime has mostly resulted in police routinely harassing and brutalizing people in communities of color, often as a method of clearing up a neighborhood for future gentrification.

“Blocking the sidewalk, jaywalking — those are the two main activities where we found white people were violating some aspect of the municipal code,” Robert Gangi, founder of PROP, said on the day’s action. “The point of [the action] is to put into sharp relief how starkly discriminatory police practices are. White people in Park Slope virtually never get ticketed for these kind of activities whereas African-American and Latino people in different neighborhoods in this city will get sanctioned — ticketed and sometimes arrested — for these kind of activities on a regular basis.”

Robert Gangi, left, talks to other PROP members about to hand out summonses. (WNV / Ashoka Jegroo)

Judging from the responses the activists received throughout the day, it was clear that many white Park Slope residents experience very little routine harassment from the police in their gentrified neighborhood.

“The worst response — which to me is the best because it highlights the truth of how people are really entitled and privileged out here in Park Slope — was from a woman who was just incredulous about being stopped,” Trujillo said. “She was like ‘This is Park Slope!’ and she just kind of made it a point to say that in this neighborhood, this doesn’t happen.”

Other Park Slope residents who were stopped also responded with incredulity and sometimes outright anger. One woman who was riding her bike on the sidewalk was stopped by Gangi, and after he explained that people of color in other parts of town get regularly ticketed for that offense, she responded, “I know that, but you’re not a cop. Get out of my way!”

Many residents responded positively as well, though, even signing PROP’s petition to end NYPD quotas and broken windows policing.

Besides this anecdotal evidence, the numbers are also on PROP’s side of the debate. Earlier this year, PROP released a report titled “That’s How They Get You.” It documented 117 stories of people — most of them people-of-color — being ticketed or arrested for small quality-of-life crimes like putting their feet on a subway seat and riding a bike on the sidewalk.

“Part of what’s so deeply offensive about broken windows policing is that it’s a form of bullying,” Gangi said. “It is basically targeting and harassing people who have limited resources, both politically and financially, to fight back.”

An analysis by the New York Daily News also found large racial disparities in enforcement of small offenses. According to the Daily News, the number of summonses given out has “soared” since Broken Windows policing began in the early 1990s. According the New York Civil Liberties Union, 81 percent of the people hit with violations between 2002 and 2013 were black or Latino. Even New York City’s most infamous recent case of police brutality, last year’s murder of Eric Garner by cops in Staten Island, was a textbook case of broken windows policing, with Garner originally being stopped for allegedly selling loose cigarettes.

(WNV / Ashoka Jegroo)

In all, the activists, divided into three groups at locations throughout Park Slope, stopped around 50 to 60 people within the span of two Sunday afternoon hours. They hope that these interactions influence those who were actually stopped, as well as serve as political theater to raise the consciousness of onlookers. PROP will soon be releasing a new report on the racist history of the NYPD, and they have even tentatively planned to hit the streets once again to hand out mock summonses. Ultimately, they seek to not only run Bratton out of New York City and end broken windows, but also to help strip the NYPD of much of its resources and empower communities-of-color.

“We’re going to try to make sure Broken Windows is one of those things that people clearly understand is part of white supremacy,” Trujillo said. “It’s no longer just about small policy reforms, it’s about unearthing and dismantling those policies and saying no to a different, softer version of it. But it’s up to the communities of color. They’re the ones who are going to have to dismantle it.”

Thousands reject the extractivist logic at the World Bank-IMF meeting in Peru

by Michael S. Wilson

An estimated 5,000 people marched towards the World Bank and IMF conference, including members of dozens of labor, feminist, indigenous, environmental, youth and agriculturalist organizations. (WNV/Michael Wilson)

The annual governors’ meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank opened on October 5 in Peru’s capital city. In the meeting, an estimated 800 representatives from 188 countries were negotiating the shape of the world’s soon-to-be renovated finance infrastructure.

While the international media focused on the official meetings, no news outlets outside of Latin America have mentioned the Plataforma Alternativa conference — a parallel three-day meeting organized under the theme “Belying the ‘Peruvian Miracle.’”

More than 1,200 people attended Plataforma Alternativa’s conference. Dozens of young volunteers zoomed through the marbled hallways of Lima’s Hotel Bolívar, which hosted the conference. Participants represented dozens of organizations and countries as diverse as the Netherlands, China, the United States, Belgium, Zimbabwe, Colombia, Indonesia, Spain, Mexico, the Philippines, Germany, Palestine and Argentina.

On Friday, an estimated 5,000 people marched across 70 blocks in Lima, from Plaza San Martín to the first of three police perimeters around the official conference. Groups at the protest included indigenous feminist organizations, the Lima-based Comando Feminista, Bloque Hip Hop, worker unions, the Peruvian Campesino Confederation, and dozens of others.

Peru reportedly mobilized 20,000 police for this event, many of whom were safeguarding key areas around the city for the 12,000 visitors: from the airport to hotel areas.

The counter-conference was free, open to the public, and streamed online. It featured U.S. economist Joseph Stiglitz, a former World Bank chief economist and an outspoken critic of its policies, as its keynote speaker.

“Inequality is a choice — not the result of inevitable economic laws,” Stiglitz said in his speech after reminding the audience that Latin America has the highest rate of wealth disparity among world regions. At the end of September, Oxfam — one of several organizations in charge of the conference — released a report indicating that, at the current pace, one percent of Latin Americans would be wealthier than the remaining 99 percent by 2022.

“The neoliberal economic model minimizes states and makes them mere functions of economic power,” said Mirtha Vásquez, a lawyer who works with the rural development organization Grufides. Her conference panel also featured Máxima Acuña, an agriculturalist from the Peruvian Andes who has become famous worldwide for standing up to the world’s largest gold company, Yanacocha.

“The company has tried to force me out of my land through violence and delinquency,” said Acuña, her voice quivering as she detailed how police and company employees attempt to intimidate her. “I live with this daily. Everyday I am crushed by them.”

The new documentary film “Hija de la Laguna,” which features Acuña, was screened after the panel. It was the first time Acuña had seen it.

Activist and writer Hugo Blanco walks alongside Máxima Acuña at the march. (WNV/Michael Wilson)

As we walked during Friday’s march, Acuña told me about how the company continues to operate despite a government freeze on its activities. I asked her why, unlike her neighbors, she has refused to sell her land and chosen to become an obstacle — and a target — for the company. “Many people think only about money, but I am attached to my land,” she said. “I would rather die. Because I didn’t sell the rights to my land, I live threatened everyday by the police, who survey my house from their new post overlooking my house.”

Given Peru’s recent experiences with deadly conflicts surrounding mining projects like Tía María, Las Bambas, and La Oroya, it is perhaps understandable that many of the panels focused on conflicts related to extractive industries. For two decades, the Peruvian state has adopted natural resource extraction as the leading engine for its economic growth — under the guidance and financing of the World Bank and IMF.

A study presented at the conference by the Peruvian investigative organization Convoca found that between 1994 and this year, almost 30 percent of all financing from the World Bank Groups’ International Finance Corporation, or IFC, had gone to extractive projects. The IFC has a five percent stake in the mining project that will require Acuña’s displacement.

As the global price of mineral commodities boomed up to its peak in 2013, Peru’s government promptly expanded the scope of extractive activities in its territory. At the same time, however, the number and intensity of social conflicts over these projects also escalated. The ombudsperson’s office documented 223 active socio-environmental conflicts in mid-2013. The same report noted that 196 people were killed and 2,369 were injured in conflicts over natural resources between 2006 and 2011. Most of these tragedies surrounded mining projects.

“There are visible tensions between companies and communities,” Convoca panelist Gabriela Flores told me. “The state allows this to go by without intervening, until everything erupts, and we see deaths, injuries. By the time it has to intervene, it is too late.”

The frequency of conflicts surrounding such projects has also been bad for business. Today, industry advocate and economist Hernando de Soto estimates that protests currently paralyze $70 billion dollars of mining investment in Peru.

A few months ago, IMF President Christine Lagarde argued that Peru’s natural resources would ensure it would develop to levels reaching Canada and Australia within only a few years. Earlier this month, however, the IMF released a report suggesting that Latin America was headed towards the first recession since the end of the global financial crisis, owing to the global economy and reduced demand for raw commodities.

“When countries extract natural resources, they become poorer. They had resources, and now they don’t,” Stiglitz said in his talk. “Unless you reinvest the benefits from below the ground above the ground, you will be poorer, and vulnerable to external shocks, like now.” However, according to Stiglitz, the IMF enacts “tariff structures that make it very difficult for developing countries to diversify their economies.”

Attention at the conference has centered on the recent signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a 12-country trade agreement that includes Peru, Japan, Mexico, the United States, Australia and Canada.

The TPP includes some labor and environment protection measures lauded by U.S. President Barack Obama as new and “absent in previous agreements.” However, according to José de Echave, a former Vice-Minister of Environment in Peru, the 2007 free trade agreement between the United States and Peru already included these standards, and in fact served as a template for their wording in the TPP.

De Echave notes that rules within the 2007 trade pact prohibited the rollback of environmental and worker protections. However, in the last two years alone, President Ollanta Humala’s government has approved a series of five reform packages meant to “encourage investment” by altering approval processes and the power of the state’s environmental oversight organization. That the Obama administration has failed to enforce rules set by that earlier agreement is a sobering check on the U.S. president’s optimism about the TPP.

Members of the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle, or AIDESEP, expressed their dismay at the softening of environmental and social standards for extractive industries. “We didn’t use to see economic booms or busts. We are neither rich nor poor — we are self-sustaining,” said Wilmer Sánchez of AIDESEP. “The introduction of these international cycles has been bad for us, and bad for the Amazon.”

Only six years ago, the international political economy made its presence felt in Peru, when it underscored an escalating set of tensions that culminated in the Bagua massacre. Near that Amazonian city, national police were ordered to open fire on indigenous protestors — including members of AIDESEP — who were blocking a highway to demand that the state repeal concessions over their territory granted to logging, oil, and other extractive industries. Some of the protesters retaliated and wounded several police. Leaked cables from the U.S. ambassador warn the Peruvian government that, were it to “give in to the pressure, there would be implications” for the treaty.

The violent confrontation in a remote part of the country crystalized the uneasy meanings of “development” according to the Peruvian state and its international financial supervisors.

“The Trans-Pacific Partnership is almost certainly a bad deal for Peru,” Stiglitz said. “It is a strategy for non-development.”

As in the other signatory countries, the TPP will require approval from Peru’s legislature. This, coupled with the leverage social movements wield as Peru heads into general elections, opens a great opportunity to pressure the government and would-be presidents to reject it.

Turks turn against Erdogan in the wake of Ankara bombings

by Arzu Geybullayeva

View image | gettyimages.com

The “Labor, Peace and Democracy” rally organized in Turkey’s capital Ankara on October 10 was calling to end the violent conflict between Turkish security forces and the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the PKK.

People came from all over Turkey to simply march for peace, to call for democracy and stability in a country that once stood united. Among the protesters were university students, families, friends, representatives of various unions and nongovernmental organizations. Turks of all ages gathered in Ankara’s most popular square where political rallies are often held. Footage, which circulated on the news from just minutes before the two deadly blasts, showed people performing traditional dances, holding flags and ready to start the march that was scheduled to take place at 10 a.m.

But at 10:04 life stopped at Sihhiye Square. The first explosion happened, and then seconds later another one. Body parts scattered across the square, pools of blood, people screaming and running around. As one of the local reporters recalled the scene later, it was hard not to step on human body parts as people crossed the square shocked from the explosion.

On October 10, Turkey saw its deadliest terrorist attack. Some people described the explosion, as Turkey’s own 9/11. According to the Turkish Medical Association, they have been able to identify 105 people killed so far. Thirty remain in critical condition of the 440 people rushed to the hospitals the day of the explosion.

This was the third explosion this year. The first explosion took the lives of four at a support rally for the People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, a largely Kurdish bloc, in the city of Diyarbakir in the run up to June 7 parliamentary elections. The second bomb went off in July in the majority Kurdish town of Suruc, killing 33. And now, the Ankara bombing has taken the lives of many more.

Blaming the government

As thousands of people attended funerals across Turkey in the aftermath of the bombings, many mourners vented their anger at the government.

“The ministry of interior should have assessed that the risks were greater than those associated with a normal political rally,” İhsan Bal, a renowned terrorism expert and the vice president of the International Strategic Research Organization, said in an interview with the Journal of Turkish Weekly. “Their security assessment was faulty.”

Eyewitnesses from the square reported that there were no security checks and only three police cars were parked at the roundabout across from the city’s main train station, where people were gathering before the march.

Similarly, Lutfu Turkkan, a right-wing lawmaker in Turkish parliament, tweeted that the Ankara attack “was either a failure by the intelligence service, or it was done by the intelligence service.”

The Minister of Interior Selami Altinok thought otherwise. In a press conference hours after the attack, he said, “all security measures were taken” and that he had no intentions of resigning. Sitting next to Altinok, the minister of justice smiled when a journalist asked whether any of the ministers were intending to resign over this tragedy.

This only created more anger. A journalist who went to a rally organized by the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, at the same location just two weeks ago said that there were at least 15 security checks.

Civil society takes action

The media blackout only added to the general frustration. Hours after the attack, Turkish authorities issued an order telling news outlets to remove images showing the moment of the blasts and gruesome pictures from the scene. The news organizations were warned of a total media blackout if they did not comply.

Users of online platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, reported difficulty accessing these networks and Turks were yet again forced to turn to virtual private networks. And while there was no official announcement by the state that it was responsible for blocking social media, previous experience suggested this was indeed part of a government media blackout.

In the meantime, civil society organizations and thousands of activists across Turkey came together and stood united to mourn the dead. #Yastayiz (we are mourning), #HayatiDurduruyoz (We are stopping life), #Boykottayiz (We are boycotting) were popular hashtags calling for unity. While the state declared three days of national mourning, thousands gathered in main squares in towns across Turkey calling on the government to find the perpetrators immediately and end the divide within Turkish society. In some rallies, people were reportedly chanting “Murderer Erdogan.” Many Turkish citizens fear the attack was aimed at sowing seeds of fear before the upcoming elections.

Students at many of Turkey’s main universities and schools went on strike and held commemoration ceremonies on their campuses. Trade unions, which were key organizers of the Ankara peace march — such as the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions, Confederation of Public Employees, Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects and the Turkish Medical Association — announced strikes for October 12 and 13 and organized marches across the country. Similarly, Turkey’s Bar Association went on strike and all hearings were postponed.

The government response

Turkish citizens were not the only ones pointing fingers. Shortly after the explosion the ruling party and the HDP traded barbs. The co-leader of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, accused the government of being directly responsible in the explosion. “We have lost almost 150 of our people before and after the elections [referring to previous explosions in Suruc and Diyarbakir],” he said. “There was no effective investigation into previous explosions. There will be none regarding today’s attack either. This is not an attack against the unity of our state and nation. This is an attack by our state against our people.”

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu fired back, saying Demirtas had no right to accuse the state and the ruling party. The prime minister went as far as to question the involvement of Demirtas and the HDP in the bombing and also accuse the party of using the attacks to gain votes in the upcoming elections.

Such open accusations against the Kurdish party became common after June’s elections, which the AKP lost because the HDP managed to win 13 percent — passing the 10 percent threshold and gaining seats in Turkish parliament for the first time in Turkey’s history.

“Yes, elections are over, the people have decided. They chose chaos,” Burhan Kuzu, a professor known for aligning with the AKP, said the day after the elections. “To leave this country to the opposition means only taking the country to the abyss.”

A month later Ankara dismantled the brief two-year ceasefire with the PKK fighters by launching air strikes against their bases in retaliation for the explosions in Suruc and Diyarbakir.

This made it clear to many that Erdogan was not capable of resolving the country’s tensions — between the secular and religious, rich and poor, Kurds and Turks.

Ahmet Hakan, the prominent Turkish journalist who was recently beaten in front of his house by men later identified as AKP members, wrote that the government turned the country into a place where people hate each other.

A brief history of the conflict

The PKK fought for a separate state — called Kurdistan — in Turkey for years, starting in the 1980s. Ankara suppressed hopes for any such state and went to war with the PKK, which had led to the loss of some 40,000 lives. In the 1990s, the PKK softened its rhetoric, calling for autonomy rather than an independent state and the recognition of the cultural rights of Turkey’s estimated 1.5 million Kurds. For Turkey, the PKK was a terrorist organization and the party’s political branch was labeled as part of the terrorist network as well. Turkey only had good relations with Iraqi Kurds and with the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey pumps 120,000 barrels of oil a day from Kirkuk to its port in Ceyhan.

The arrest and jailing of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader, in 1999 killed any hopes for further normalization. It was only Ocalan’s call for a ceasefire in 2013 that brought Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the negotiation table.

But the brief truce ended abruptly when Ankara launched airstrikes against the PKK camps in northern Iraq in July 2015. In response, the PKK declared that these attacks against Islamic State positions in Syria and Kurds in Iraq spelled the end of peace process.

What is next for Turkey?

With elections looming in just a little over three weeks, Ankara is facing a lot of criticism from the public and opposition parties. People’s trust in the government is severely undermined and Erdogan has done very little to create unity among Turks.

The dismantling of the peace process with the Kurds — and the loss of more than 200 lives over the past three months — only adds to Erdogan’s declining popularity at home.

Most importantly, secular Turks see the restarting of conflict with the PKK as an attempt by Erdogan to gain votes, and the war with the Islamic State as a show of strength. People realize they are being played and that the average citizen is losing in this struggle over political power in Turkey.

Mohawks stand up against Montreal’s plan to dump sewage in St. Lawrence River

by Ashoka Jegroo

The Mohawk warrior flag. (Red Power Media)

A group of Mohawks lit a bonfire next to a busy train line early on October 15 in opposition to the city of Montreal’s plan to dump billions of liters of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River.

“On October 7, the women sent a notice of objection to the city of Montreal. We have not received a response,” the group said in a statement read during the action. “This notice is our warning to the city of Montreal to stop dumping waste that is toxic to our lands, life and waterways. The temporary obstruction on Thursday, October 15 is to emphasize our objection to this environmentally destructive action.”

At around 9 a.m. on Thursday morning, the group of Mohawks from the Kahnawake reserve, including members of the Mohawk Warrior Society, gathered near Adirondack Junction and put together a bonfire a few feet away from the train tracks. They held indigenous flags as the flames engulfed two large logs they placed on top of the fire and then read their statement.

“The release of the equivalent of 2,600 Olympic-sized swimming pools will result in unknown contamination and multi-generational devastation of the entire ecosystem,” the group’s statement read. “We come to you with the gentleness of a feather which we hope will be accepted. Should you not respond reasonably, you leave us no alternative but to take necessary action to convince you. There has been no commitment to not dump. We would like the mayor to take responsibility to preserve our waterways.”

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, with the approval of Quebec’s environmental department, has been pushing to dump eight billion liters of untreated sewage into the St. Lawrence River between October 18 and October 25. Coderre insists that, in order to make necessary repairs and move a large snow collector pipe located underneath the Bonaventure Expressway, a nearby sewage treatment facility needs to be temporarily shut down. Therefore, according to the mayor, they have no choice but to throw all this sewage into the river since there is nowhere else to put it. Some Canadian wastewater treatment experts also agree with the mayor’s decision. The mayor had hoped that the infrastructural repairs would be finished by November 15 before any major snowfalls.

With the federal election only days away, Coderre, a liberal, has received pushback from environmentalists as well as his political opponents over the planned dumping. An online petition opposing the plan titled “The St. Lawrence Is Not A Garbage Can” has collected over 90,000 signatures. Conservatives in the federal government, like Minister of Infrastructure Denis Lebel and Minister of the Environment Leona Aglukkaq, expressed their opposition to the mayor’s plan and call on him to suspend it.

Earlier this month, Aglukkaq claimed that she had only recently found out about the planned dumping and that the plan needed further consideration.

“Last week my office learned of Montreal’s plan to dump billions of litres of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence,” she tweeted on October 7. “This plan is concerning and we have done the responsible thing by exploring options to prevent it while we get more information.”

However, an investigation by the Canadian Press showed that she had, in fact, known about the plan since late 2014.

Coderre accused conservative politicians of “playing politics to score cheap political points” and referred to previous occasions when sewage was dumped into the river with little political pushback.

“In 2003, we did the same. In 2007, we did the same, and Environment Canada said yes to that,” Coderre told the Montreal Gazette. “What’s going on? It’s [the] exact same thing.”

Nonetheless, on October 14, just days before it was scheduled to begin, the Canadian federal government ordered a halt to Montreal’s planned dumping. Aglukkaq released a statement and Lebel made the announcement that the dumping would be put on hold pending further scientific analysis.

“Based on limited data, Environment Canada cannot conclude whether or not the untreated wastewater to be released will be acutely toxic,” Lebel told the Canadian Press.

Though the federal government put a temporary halt to the plan, the Mohawk group stated the the protest actions would go on regardless.

“In our law, we’re supposed to protect the Earth, and we’re carrying out our responsibilities,” Akohserake Deer, a spokesperson for the group, told the Montreal Gazette. “Whether the project is on or off doesn’t matter, it’s just another stalling tactic by the [federal] government.”

The group had also originally announced that they would blockade a busy train line but didn’t specify when they would do so. When asked about possible future actions, the group’s spokespeople preferred not to say, only stating that they would take action to protect their lands and resources if the planned dumping gets put back into motion.

“We’re informing Mayor Coderre that this is unacceptable,” a spokeswoman for the Mohawk group said during the bonfire demo. “We want him to take an alternative route to the dumping. They can do it. They have the funds to do it. The problem is money. And to us, we’re protecting our river and money is not our concern. Our future generations are our concern. Our life is on that river.”

Debunking Russia’s fake popular struggle in Ukraine

by Anastasia Vladimirova

A pro-Russian demonstrator replaces the Ukrainian flag with a Russian flag atop the Kharkiv city council building. (Instagram / Vonoru)

A large animated crowd of pro-Russian demonstrators gathered outside the Kharkiv city council building in eastern Ukraine, watching and cheering as a young man in his mid-20’s, wearing a green military-style jacket, took down the Ukrainian flag at the top of the building and replaced it with a Russian flag. The startling action took place on March 1, 2014, just months after massive protests against President Victor Yanukovych’s decision to abandon an agreement on closer ties with the European Union — in favor of greater cooperation with Russia — had filled Independence Square in Kiev.

Yet, when news about the citizen of Kharkiv raising the Russian flag over the city council building appeared on the Internet later that day, ordinary Ukrainians had many reasons to doubt the demonstration was real. After all, the Kremlin had been waging a hybrid war against Ukraine to discredit the wave of pro-Europe protests, known as Euromaidan, since they began in November 2013.

A week later, StopFake.org, a website run by Ukrainian journalists aiming to refute distorted information about the events in Ukraine, discovered that Kharkiv’s pro-Russian demonstration was likely staged. The Ukrainian activist holding the Russian flag on top of the city council building turned out to be a young Russian man from Saint Petersburg named Michael Ronkainen. StopFake reported that the Russian activist outed himself in a picture he posted to his Vkontakte page (a Russian analogue of Facebook).

According to Tetiana Matychak, the editor-in-chief of StopFake, it was readers who brought the story to the journalists’ attention — specifically those from Eastern Ukraine, who were aware of Russia’s efforts at deception. “We were surprised, but we checked the information very carefully and concluded that our readers were right,” Matychak said.

After the “Kharkiv activist” was exposed, more readers began sending tips to StopFake, including one about a Russian flag being raised in Donetsk at a pro-Russian rally, where participants seized the regional council building. StopFake, with help from its readers, soon discovered that the activist holding the flag, Rostislav Zhuravlev, came from the Russian city of Ekaterinburg and was a friend of the self-proclaimed governor of the Donetsk region.

Zhuravlev’s social media was also filled with anti-Ukrainian propaganda, with many of his posts calling on readers to liberate Novorossiya, the Eastern Ukraine region that fell into the hands of pro-Russian rebels and separatists shortly after the Euromaidan protests. These rebels seek to recruit young men to voluntarily join the fight in Eastern Ukraine. Ronkainen, for instance, posted a photo on Instagram with a police officer he met at Los Angeles International Airport, accompanied by the comment: “I met a cool guy [named] John. After his shift is over, John promised to go to Donetsk to fight for Novorossiya.”

The stories of these two Russian activists are just a few of the fakes among a broader range of false information and propaganda about the situation in Ukraine produced mostly by the Russian mainstream media. For more than a year now, journalists and activists from StopFake have tried to debunk distorted information and identify made-up reports and commentary through careful verification and fact checking.

“If we find 100 percent proof that the news is a fake, we write an article about it,” Matychak explained. “We discuss all the topics together, but I make the final decision if this news is worth debunking or not, and if the story is worth being published.”

When Matychak and her colleagues started StopFake, they only intended to run the website for two or three months, but the propaganda quickly increased and spread out of control, such that they could not let it go unanswered.

“We see the statistics,” she said. “A lot of fakes come from Russian media seeking to create propaganda about the enemies of the Russian Federation – Ukraine, Georgia, NATO, the United States. These countries and organizations are not the real enemies of Russia, but the Kremlin propaganda calls them ‘enemies’ in order to persuade the Russian people. I can say for sure that Ukraine was not going to attack Russia and Ukraine only fights back now.”

Matychak is convinced that the Kremlin-sponsored propaganda inspires pro-Russian activists to take part in staged protests pretending to be Ukrainian citizens. “Many people who came from Russia, came to Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk,” Matychak said. “That is the difference between Kiev protests and Eastern Ukraine protests. In Eastern Ukraine there were a lot of Russian protesters. Those people watched Russian TV channels and heard stories about Ukrainians and Junta.”

The ‘mirror image’ of Maidan

According to Nataliya Gumenyuk, a Ukrainian journalist and co-founder of online news station Hromadske TV, pro-Russian activists have used a number of nonviolent tactics, including occupations and barricades, to create the perception that they are engaged in popular struggle similar to that of the protesters in Maidan, the central square in Kiev. Even though pro-Russian activists were occasionally able to make their protests appear peaceful and resemble the nonviolent atmosphere of Maidan, some of the most important aspects of nonviolent struggle were missing — namely spontaneity and authenticity, as Gumenyuk explained.

View image | gettyimages.com

In a 2014 webinar about the Maidan Revolution produced by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Gumenyuk elaborated on several other ways pro-Russian activists have mirrored the actions of their Maidan counterparts. “There have been reports of protesters who came from the villages and stayed in the tent city in Luhansk — for publicity purposes — only to return home in the evening after the cameras were gone,” she said. Meanwhile, the barricades in Donetsk are “poorly constructed and serve no practical purpose, especially considering they are guarded by armed men.” This is in contrast to the ones at Maidan, which were created to stop the crackdown on protesters by police.

In one particularly ridiculous incident, according to Gumenyuk, some people in Donetsk donated warm winter clothes to the so-called protesters — just as Maidan supporters had done for people protesting in Kiev during the winter months. The difference, however, was that the pro-Russian donations “took place in April, when the weather was much warmer and winter clothes were not needed.”

Such actions led to the creation of what Gumenyuk referred to as  “the ‘mirror image’ of Maidan, an attempt to give legitimacy to the pro-Russian resistance movement. Unlike the staged protests in Eastern Ukraine, however, Maidan was an authentic grassroots movement. According to Gumenyuk, people followed the genuine spirit of the protest present at Maidan, which the staged pro-Russian protests always lacked.

Nevertheless, the Russian propaganda machine is learning lessons from its public outing. “After publishing those and other stories,” Matychak explained, “Russian activists in Ukraine became more careful and wise. Many of them stopped publishing selfies in social networks, for example.”

Misappropriation of nonviolent tactics

According to Jamila Raqib, executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution, a Boston-based non-profit devoted to advancing the study of nonviolent action, “Governments and others have, historically, tried to undermine nonviolent movements by accusing them of being created and funded by foreign governments.” Kremlin-sponsored media outlets, in particular, have played a leading role in such efforts, routinely crediting Western powers with the string of popular uprisings that took place in the early 2000s in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine. Some outlets have focused on Albert Einstein Institution founder Gene Sharp, often considered the leading theorist on nonviolent conflict.

In a 2012 segment on the Kremlin-sponsored cable news network Russia Today, Polish political activist Mateusz Piskorski called Sharp “an ideologue,” and “the man who invented the whole technology of the contemporary color revolutions,” adding, “Of course, the United States is the leading power when it comes to these technologies.”

In another 2012 interview, this time with Sharp himself, the Russian tabloid newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, asked the 87-year-old Nobel Peace Price nominee to discuss how his work was “used to disintegrate the Soviet Union.” Sharp responded by saying, “If the problem of the Soviet society was that an old man could suppress it, then it means this society had very big problems.”

In a report published earlier this year, civil resistance scholar Maciej Bartkowki explained that the Kremlin’s preoccupation with the color revolutions stems from its fear of “a similar outburst of popular discontent in Russia.” Yet, despite its efforts to delegitimize nonviolent struggle, the Kremlin recognized, as Bartkowski noted in paper published earlier this year, that “a resemblance of popular grassroots support will be important for the ultimate success of the subversive operations that Russia planned in Ukraine.”

As a result, the Kremlin has relied on the political mobilization of a loyal and vocal minority in the targeted territories of Eastern Ukraine, including Donetsk and Luhansk. Bartkowski’s analysis suggests that such actions “provided an effective nonviolent cover for rebels and Russian special forces, bestowing on them and their actions a façade of grassroots legitimacy.”

Keeping the Russian population in the dark

During the recent conflict in Ukraine, Putin relied heavily on the information warfare conducted in social and mainstream media. According to Barkowski, his objective was to “deceive adversaries, blur the line between reality and fantasy, drive a wedge between Western allies, and keep the Russian population itself in the dark.” To that end, Putin’s strategy has been extremely effective. Russia’s information warfare has deceived large audiences. At the beginning of last fall, Putin’s approval rating was at 88 percent. Thereafter, the financial crisis notwithstanding, 70 percent of the Russian citizens expressed support for Putin’s policies in Ukraine.

In April 2014, David M. Herzenhorn, a Moscow based New York Times correspondent, described the Kremlin’s information warfare as “an extraordinary propaganda campaign that political analysts say reflects a new brazenness on the part of Russian officials. And in recent days, it has largely succeeded — at least for Russia’s domestic audience — in painting a picture of chaos and danger in Eastern Ukraine, although it was pro-Russian forces themselves who created it by seizing public buildings and setting up roadblocks.”

Raqib also thinks the protests organized by pro-Russian activists in Eastern Ukraine were effective and — perhaps more alarmingly — can be seen as part of a larger global trend. “Governments are studying this,” she explained. “They recognize that they need to use some elements of nonviolent struggle against nonviolent movements.” This is something Raqib feels the nonviolence community needs to better understand, if it’s going to find effective ways of counteracting a growing trend toward hybrid warfare.

While scholars and journalists like Gumenyuk and Bartkowski are making strides in that area, crowd-sourced media watchdog groups like StopFake are creating a noticeable impact on the frontline of the struggle. “We are fighting propaganda no matter where it comes from,” Matychak said. “Our main hope is to attract the attention of foreign media organizations and encourage them to not only verify all the information no matter the source, but to also learn from our experience and protect their countries from any sort of propaganda.”

Matychak believes that victory will come for the nonviolent movement in Ukraine because truth is on its side. “Ukrainians don’t attack. They only defend themselves, and they try to do it using truth because liars only win in the short-term. People who use truth always win in the long-term.”

Thousands of drug war prisoners are going home early thanks to years of organizing

by Victoria Law

View image | gettyimages.com

On October 6, the Justice Department announced that nearly 6,000 people in federal prisons will be going home early. The move, U.S. officials told the Washington Post, is an effort to both reduce overcrowding and to provide relief to people who received harsh drug war sentences over the past three decades.

In 2014, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an agency that sets sentencing policies for federal crimes, held two public hearings about drug sentencing. At these hearings, commission members heard testimony from then-Attorney General Eric Holder, federal judges, federal public defenders, law enforcement and sentencing advocates. The commission also received more than 80,000 public comment letters, most of which supported the change. As a result, the commission voted unanimously to reduce the potential punishment for drug offenses. It also made that change retroactive, meaning that 46,000 people who were sentenced during the zealous years of the drug war are eligible to apply for reduced sentencing and early release. The 6,000 people who will soon be rejoining their families are the first wave of early releases; the commission estimated that another 8,550 people would be eligible for release before November 1, 2016.

While the majority of those 80,000 letters supported a change in sentencing, the shift in public opinion happened after years of organizing against the racist war on drugs and its destruction of low-income communities of color. Remember, when Reagan began expanding the war on drugs in the early 1980s, the majority of the American public did not view drugs as a particularly heinous problem. But, three years later, a government-sanctioned media campaign publicized the emergence of crack cocaine with fears of “crack whores,” “crack dealers,” and “crack babies,” combining people’s racist fears about inner-city black people with scary images of drug addiction. According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, the media, hungry for salacious stories to replace the grisly images of the Vietnam War, fueled these fears — between October 1988 and October 1989. For example, the Washington Post, alone, ran 1,565 stories about the “drug scourge.” Other media, not to be outdone (or outsold) also jumped on the drug hysteria bandwagon.

“The media helped usher us all into prison,” reflected Amy Povah, the founder of Clemency for All Nonviolent Drug Offenders, or CAN-DO, and a former drug war prisoner. “They made it easy to fast-track legislation and for politicians to create false narratives to get elected.” People became afraid. More money was poured into drug enforcement. Harsher laws were proposed and passed. More people were sentenced to longer times in prison.

But against this well-funded machine, people have been speaking out and organizing to oppose this racist war on drugs. Organizations have emerged or taken the issue on. Individuals, including those who have been imprisoned or had their families destroyed by drug policies, have been speaking out and organizing. Slowly, their voices have helped turn the tide of public opinion so that, when the Sentencing Commission held its hearings last year, the majority of those 80,000 letters favored reform.

Amy Povah, whose story I recently described in an article for Truthout, is one of those voices. She is also one of the many people who had her life destroyed by the drug war. When Povah’s then-husband Charles “Sandy” Pofahl, a major ecstasy dealer, was arrested in Germany, he fingered her as part of a plea bargain with U.S. and German authorities. In 1989, Povah came home to the couple’s home in West Hollywood, California, to find federal authorities waiting for her. She was questioned and arrested. She refused to accept a plea bargain, which would require wearing a wire and implicating others, and went to trial. She lost and was sentenced to 24 years and four months in prison. Her husband, on the other hand, was sentenced to six years in a German prison; he served four years and three months.

Ten years later, in 1999, Glamour profiled Povah. The publicity became a cornerstone in her fight for presidential clemency. People from her Arkansas hometown, along with two state senators, took up her cause. “I wouldn’t have gotten that kind of support if it weren’t for the Glamour article,” she later reflected. Still, she spent another year in prison hoping for executive clemency.

When she received clemency, she was beyond excited. But, at the same time, she remembered the moment being bittersweet, knowing that she was leaving behind many women with similar stories who hadn’t gotten lucky. As she waited to be released, she remembered that women walked up to the window in the room where she waited to say good-bye. “They were out of bounds,” she recounted, explaining that, in prison, people are only allowed to be in certain areas; being out of those areas is a violation of prison rules. But the women took the risk to say good-bye and express their joy. “They were all shouting and excited for me,” Povah recalled, “but at the same time, they’re all wondering, ‘Why you? Why not me? Did you do something that we should do?'”

Although she was eager to walk out of the prison and leave the nightmare behind her, Povah wanted her friends to come with her. “I made them a promise and told them, ‘I’m not going to forget you guys.'” And she didn’t. When she arrived at her parents’ house in Arkansas, she helped women with their paperwork, a continuation of what she’d been doing inside the prison. She also began compiling lists of names to send to President Clinton. “I felt like since I understood the process, I could repeat it and help these women,” she recalled. When Gore lost the election, Povah recalled feeling emotionally bankrupt. “I thought I had the recipe for getting people out of prison,” she said, a recipe that would be much less effective with Bush as president.

Nevertheless, she persevered, filing for non-profit status for CAN-DO in 2004. Since then, she’s advocated for clemency for women (and several men) serving lengthy to life sentences for federal drug charges. Now, with the latest sentencing change, popularly known as “Drugs Minus Two” (or, in prison, simply a “Minus Two”), at least three of those women — Therese Crepeau, Beth Cronan and Deniese Watts — have gone home. Irma Alred, sentenced to 30 years for conspiracy to distribute marijuana, will soon be rejoining her family after spending 21 years behind bars. Dana Bowerman had been addicted to methamphetamine when she was arrested as part of a drug ring in 2001. Her drug dealer testified against her in exchange for a reduced sentence. Bowerman could have testified against her father, but she refused and was initially sentenced to 19 years and seven months. But under Minus Two, her sentence has been reduced and she will be walking out the prison doors on November 2.

“I have been waiting 14 years and eight months to go home,” she wrote from the federal prison camp in Texas. “I have nothing to show for 45 years of life and am looking forward to starting my life over. The drug laws and sentencing in this country are outrageous. I do not believe I needed almost 15 years in prison to pay my debt to society. I believe the money spent on incarceration could be used in drug rehab and education.”

Povah, CAN-DO, other formerly incarcerated women, family members and advocates are part of a chorus of voices magnifying that refrain and advocating for an end to the drug war and its devastation of lives, families and communities. That chorus, which now includes certain segments of law enforcement and political hopefuls, has been growing louder and louder, pushing those in power for change. When Povah first walked out of prison, those voices were much fewer — and virtually none focused on women. Now, however, those few voices have grown into a movement.

But, Povah states, much more needs to be done. “A two point reduction is really a small band-aid on a massive wound,” she said, pointing out that many are not eligible and that resentencing still relies on a judge’s decision. “Instead of cheering, we have to fight for everything. We need more and we need better. We have tormented people in prison long enough and we need to say, ‘We’re not going to back off until we have meaningful change.”

Why the TPP should shake up environmentalism’s big tent

by Kate Aronoff

View image | gettyimages.com

Suppose for a moment that the Trans-Pacific Partnership — “NAFTA on steroids” — would not spell colossal disaster for the environment. Pretend that it wouldn’t empower unelected corporate tribunals to gut basic regulations in the name of “investors’ rights,” open the floodgates to near-unlimited fossil fuel export and extraction or, very likely, block subsidies for renewable energy development. Imagine that it even offered a few benefits for the environment — crumbs, sure, but crumbs in an otherwise crumb-less world, policy-wise. Those benefits could be a couple thousand acres of wildlife protection, an expansion on safeguards for endangered species or maybe even a guarantee not to drill on public lands. In terms of the trees, air, water and wildlife, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP — in this aggressively fictional scenario — is a win for the planet.

Like I said, pretend.

Now, keep everything else about today’s situation the same. Having been agreed to in Atlanta on Monday by the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations, the TPP has drawn the ire of just about every major labor union in the country. United Steelworkers’ President Leo Gerard has predicted the pact could deal a “final blow to manufacturing in America.” His counterpart at the Communications Workers of America, Chris Shelton, has called it “a bad deal for working families and communities … a corporate dream but a nightmare for those of us on Main Street.” Leading legal experts and economist Joseph Stigltiz express their “grave concern” about its penchant for extra-legal judicial channels, while Paul Krugman (a “lukewarm opponent”) pragmatically explains that “the big beneficiaries” of the TPP “are likely to be pharma companies and firms that want to sue governments.” Given all this — as someone who cares deeply about the environment — would you support it?

Wooed by an even more watered down version of this fantasy, the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund did just that. As the New York Times dutifully reported earlier this week, they “praised” the deal for supposedly limiting wildlife trafficking and illegal fishing, rendering animals just about one of the only things protected under the agreement aside from corporate profits — and even that’s debatable. The Obama administration has been eager to use the support of these environmental groups as a tool to bolster public opinion for the TPP, writing in a White House blog post that it represented “a once-in-a-generation chance to protect our oceans, wildlife and the environment.” Similar tactics were used to pass NAFTA in the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton “greened” the trade agreement to eek through a deal with Canada, Mexico and his more skeptical colleagues in the United States.

Thankfully, these Big Greens are in the minority when it comes to the TPP. The majority of environmental organizations — the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, 350.org — have come out against the deal, citing that it would “[hand] even more power to Big Oil, letting massive corporations throw tantrum lawsuits at governments that dare to scale back emissions.” The interests of workers and environmentalists here are indubitably aligned, along with those of Internet freedom activists and myriad other grassroots outfits that have fought the TPP these last few years.

Despite this week’s news, the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is still far from a done deal. Its full text won’t be publicly available for another month. From there, it will take Congress at least three to four months to introduce legislation that would implement it. In driving forward the next phase of resisting the TPP, the Fight for the Future has assembled over 100 groups, ranging from Code Pink to the ACLU to Food & Water Watch, to oppose the deal as it moves through the House and Senate.

In its sheer awfulness, the TPP has created an alliance powerful enough to force Hillary Clinton into backing down from her support of the deal, which CNN counts she went to bat for some 45 times as secretary of state. Importantly, this fight has also alienated Big Greens from the rest of the movement, helping further define the boundaries of environmentalism’s mythical big tent.

An environmentalism that stands behind the TPP is no environmentalism at all. And it certainly isn’t helping build the broad-based movement needed to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and carve out some chance at averting the kind of catastrophic warming climate scientist Kevin Anderson calls “incompatible with an organized global community.” Horrible as it is, the TPP offers a sickly elegant argument for why green groups can’t work in a vacuum. The same deals that strangle democracy also give corporations near-unlimited access to countries’ fossil fuels, which, of course, can’t be profitably extracted without workers “free” to slog through long hours at poverty wages. While hardly in its strongest or most progressive phase, this past week has proven that labor can be a better friend to climate activists than corporate Big Greens.

In 2015, it’s not necessarily groundbreaking to say the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund aren’t society’s best hope for climate justice. In the next several years, however, the fault lines are likely to become less clear than they are with the TPP. In the case of proposals for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, for instance, or tax subsidies for non-unionized solar companies, the calculation moving forward for environmentalists needs to be less about the strictly transactional benefits of a given policy (e.g. how much carbon it will keep in the ground) and more about its movement-building benefits. As the People’s Climate March announced just over a year ago, “To change everything, we need everyone.”

An overlooked source of hope, in book form

by George Lakey

A woman reads “A Guide to Civil Resistance” during a protest against the Thai coup in June 2014. (Zuma Press)

I first encountered Gene Sharp when he was a young man in jeans and sneakers, working in a research institute affiliated with the University of Oslo. Not guessing that he would become a mentor of mine, I met him because one of my Norwegian professors sent me to him. Gene had already served time in U.S. federal prison for draft resistance and then joined the Peace News staff to report on activism in the United Kingdom. Now he was in a small cubicle with a typewriter, analyzing the Norwegian resistance to Nazi German occupation during World War II.

A half century later, in 2011, Foreign Policy would list Gene among the 100 most influential thinkers in the world.

Gene told me that even in his young adult years with the radical A.J. Muste in New York and then working with Peace News in London, he’d heard amazing stories about people’s nonviolent resistance to oppression. The stories fed his intense curiosity: How can people coerce an opponent nonviolently, when we all know that “only violence can be powerful.” Happily, Gene then studied political science at Oxford University and there he nailed part of the answer to his question, arguably the hardest part. His answer included channeling Machiavelli, and he’s been quoting Machiavelli ever since.

In the meantime, April Carter was getting herself arrested in the direct action wing of Britain’s 1950s Ban the Bomb movement. Michael Randle was helping that movement go to a mass level by organizing the influential Easter Aldermaston marches. They were curious about impact, so along with the thrill of participating in their country’s primary social movement, they were asking themselves the question asked by all real craftspeople: How does this thing work and how can it work better?

When April and Michael connected with Gene Sharp they recognized common ground: There’s nothing so practical as a good theory.

Guatemala’s history illustrates this old maxim. In 1944 university students initiated a national nonviolent uprising against Jorge Ubico, “the Iron Dictator of the Caribbean.” They were playing catch-up with the Salvadorean students next door, who earlier nonviolently overthrew their own dictator after others, using armed struggle, had failed. The Guatemalans succeeded in sending Ubico packing, and ushered in a new era of democracy. What they did not do was to “make theory” out of their experience and that of their Salvadorean comrades; they didn’t make new generalizations about what we now can call “a force more powerful.”

The Guatemalans were therefore unable to prepare a nonviolent defense against threats to their new democracy. The United Fruit Corporation, a U.S. corporation with extensive operations in Guatemala, became unhappy with the government’s decision to force the company to sell its unused plantation lands to the government, at the tax-assessed value of the land. The government’s plan was to distribute the land to hungry farmers.

CIA director Allen Dulles, with the support of his brother who headed the U.S. State Department and had a financial interest in United Fruit, organized a military coup to overthrow the democratic government of Guatemala. Facing no organized nonviolent resistance, in 1954 the coup succeeded and led to decades of terrible suffering for the people.

I caught up with the nonviolent story of the Guatemalan students in the late 1960s, the period when young Howard Clark was starting his own activism in Britain. Over time, Howard gravitated toward activist journalism, as well as edgy nonviolent projects. Howard found that he, too, wanted to hurry up the research that would help all activists to become more effective. I knew Howard and Michael Randle mostly through our work with War Resisters International.

In 2006, Howard and Michael teamed up with April Carter to produce what they (and Gene Sharp and I) all wished we’d had as young activists — a book called “People Power and Protest Since 1945: A Bibliography of Nonviolent Action.” At last there were, in one place, leads to literature that can help everyone make maximum sense out of their experience. The book invites the learning curve of our dreams, an overlooked source of hope.

Carter, Clark and Randle’s book came just in time to support a new generation of activists and scholars who were wondering why the global economic justice movement unveiled in the 1999 Battle of Seattle didn’t reveal more of a learning curve. The sources their book points to also help us understand the complex “color revolutions” of the early 2000s and the mass struggles in the Global South.

When I first met Gene Sharp he was the only person in the world full-time researching nonviolent action. Since then a host of scholars and writers have covered struggles from environmental to human rights to economic justice to the Arab Awakening. The usefulness of the new literature moved April, Howard, and Michael to enlist help and publish a new edition of their 2006 book, this time called “A Guide to Civil Resistance: A Bibliography of People Power and Nonviolent Protest.” It took two volumes to take account of the accelerating use of nonviolent action all over the world, so they released the first volume in 2013 and the second in 2015. Because the guide’s primary interest is in movements rather than specific campaigns, it includes literature sometimes left out by the campaign-specific Global Nonviolent Action Database.

The compilers give a huge boost to the readers by annotating all of the books and articles. The reader wanting to know more about opposition to the Palestinian occupation within Israel, for example, or Africans’ resistance to authoritarian governments, can choose where to plunge in without wandering in the weeds of the Internet with its frequent appearance of unreliable or just plain wrong accounts. The first volume of the guide has been made available for free online.

The compilers also give helpful background paragraphs before each national struggle and even before particular movements like the Spanish and Greek Indignados, the anti-corruption campaigns in India, and the LGBT movement in the West.

If you wish to catch up with an overview of nonviolent struggle on multiple continents, you can skip over the sources in the book and get an amazing big picture by reading the contextualizing paragraphs that begin each section. No one ever again has to imagine that nonviolent action is simply “about Gandhi and King.”

Thanks to Howard Clark, who unexpectedly died in 2013, and April Carter and Michael Randle, it has never been so easy for us to think globally, while acting locally.

Immigrants fight back with flowers

by Ashoka Jegroo

Bouquets of flowers sent to the Department of Homeland Security as part of #FlowerCampaign. (Immigration Voice)

After reversing course on a decision to let thousands of visa-holding immigrant workers apply for a green card earlier than usual, the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, is now being bombarded with flower deliveries courtesy of the affected immigrants.

The immigrants aren’t sending the flowers as a “Thank You” to the department though. Using the #FlowerCampaign hashtag, thousands of flowers have been sent to DHS with notes attached asking Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, to not punish immigrants for the mistakes of his department.

On September 9, the State Department released its monthly “Visa Bulletin.” In that bulletin, the State Department informed certain work visa holders that they would be allowed to file a formal application for a green card, the last step in the process, earlier than usual. The announcement mostly affected immigrants with H-1B visas, the most common visa for “high-skilled” foreign workers. Most of these immigrants are employed, middle-class professionals from India, many of whom began to prepare accordingly for the last step.

“We have been here years, we have kids here, we bought houses,” Vikram Desai, an electrical engineer from India who has worked on temporary visas for 13 years, told the New York Times. “We consider ourselves future Americans, not temporary workers.”

Thousands of immigrants spent large sums of money on getting their paperwork ready, postponed trips and job changes, and made other accommodations in order to take advantage of this opportunity. Families spent up to $7,000 each to prepare their paperwork, and an estimated $100 million has been spent in total by all the affected immigrants.

Then on September 25, the State Department issued a revised “Visa Bulletin” which announced that thousands of the immigrants who thought they could apply for green card were now ineligible.

“We started making plans,” Sridhar Katta, a mechanical engineer who lives in Seattle with his wife and 16-year-old twin sons, told CNNMoney. “All our hopes were dashed within a matter of days.”

The department didn’t immediately give a reason for this change, but Obama administration officials later told the New York Times that, after issuing the original bulletin, immigration officials realized that they simply didn’t have enough green cards to give out. The number of eligible immigrants under the September 9 bulletin exceeded the yearly quota for green cards and as many as 50,000 applications were now no longer eligible under the new bulletin.

“Further analysis of a recently published Visa Bulletin, intended to improve the issuance of green cards, showed that some of the new filing dates in that bulletin did not accurately reflect visa availability,” a DHS spokeswoman told CNNMoney.

Immigration Voice, an immigrants rights organization, then issued a statement criticizing the decision.

“We estimate that 8 out of 10 eligible tax paying law abiding skilled immigrants (and their families) with approved immigration petition eligible under September 9, 2015 Visa Bulletin, will now be unable to file for Adjustment of Status,” Aman Kapoor, the co-founder of Immigration Voice, said in a statement. “As a side-effect, this also delays everyone else in the queue. We need to come together as a community and fight this injustice.”

The group then launched a new Flower Campaign, a repeat of their successful July 2007 Flower Campaign, in order to “create awareness for the injustice of October Visa Bulletin reversal and to express our best wishes to DHS Secretary, Jeh Johnson even in the face of not treating us fairly.” The mostly-Indian, affected immigrants were asked to send bouquets of flowers, with a minimum of a dozen roses, to Johnson “in the spirit of Gandhian principle and in light of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday on October 2.” Attached to the flowers, many included a note saying: “Dear Honorable Jeh Johnson, DHS Visa Bulletin reversal has caused irreparable harm to our families. We ask you to not inflict injustice on us (legal immigrants) for no fault of ours. Please fix October Visa Bulletin. We wish you the very best.”

So far, more than 3,000 bouquets have been sent to the DHS, and Immigration Voice is hoping that, like its past Flower Campaign, these acts of kindness will persuade immigration officials to, in turn, treat these immigrant families with the same kindness.

“It’s no wonder people have so little faith in the government,” Gregory Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told the New York Times. “[T]hey can’t even count their visas.”

Remembering Grace Lee Boggs and her role in the black freedom struggle

by Kate Aronoff

Grace Lee Boggs at her home in Detroit in February 2012. (Wikimedia / Kyle McDonald)

President Obama joined many this week in commemorating the life of Grace Lee Boggs, the organizer, philosopher and long-time Detroit resident who passed away yesterday at age 100. “As the child of Chinese immigrants and as a woman, Grace learned early on that the world needed changing, and she overcame barriers to do just that,” Obama eulogized. “Grace’s passion for helping others, and her work to rejuvenate communities that had fallen on hard times spanned her remarkable 100 years of life, and will continue to inspire generations to come.”

Such kind words from the Oval Office might have surprised a younger Boggs, who spent years writing — like most socialists of her day — under a pseudonym designed to protect against the virulent red-baiting that loomed over the post-war American left.

Today, Boggs is perhaps most popularly remembered for her work later in life, building up community institutions throughout Detroit: the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, the Detroit Summer program, a number of cooperative businesses and community gardens, even a charter school named in her honor. Less memorialized are Boggs and her late husband James’ deep involvement in the development of their city’s black freedom movement, and foundational role in articulating a new brand of class politics rooted in the experience of black workers.

During World War II, African Americans in the South migrated north to Detroit’s “Arsenal of Democracy,” where defense contracts offered steady, lucrative employment seemingly outside the grasp of Jim Crow. In all, 1.5 million African Americans left the South between 1940 and 1950, a time period during which Detroit’s black population more than doubled. Northern whites — eager to maintain racially homogenous neighborhoods and workforces — fought new arrivals, organizing bands of vigilantes to terrorize new black Detroiters. Tensions culminated in the city’s brutal riot of 1943, where 25 of the 34 people killed were African American, along with 75 percent of the 700 injured. As the war economy slowed, workers of color were relegated not only to divested areas of the city, but some of the most dangerous, poorly-paid work the Motor City had to offer.

In the 1970 documentary “Finally Got the News,” one worker recalled the treatment of a colleague who “lost his finger at the second knuckle.” After receiving $3,000, his supervisors “wanted him to come back to work two days later … producing with the bandages and all that.” Such violence and flagrant discrimination in jobs and housing catalyzed a vibrant culture of organizing in black Detroit — much of it, early on, stemming from churches and radical congregations, like that of the legendary preacher Albert Cleague.

Boggs followed an entirely different path to Detroit. While she boasted a PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr, the academic job market for young Chinese-American women in the 1940s was none too kind. Unable to find work as a professor, Grace Lee — not yet Boggs — took a job in a University of Chicago library, and quickly started organizing tenants to take on the city’s slumlords. Getting increasingly involved in Chicago’s socialist party politics, Lee followed theorist and “Black Jacobins” author C.L.R. James to New York, where she, James and Raya Dunayevskaya coalesced around a shared distrust for Soviet-style “state capitalism” and a commitment to the centrality of black workers’ struggle. She met James “Jimmy” Boggs in 1952 through working on the group’s left paper, Correspondence. He was an autoworker who’d moved from Alabama to Detroit to work in the factories and, as Grace Lee Boggs recalled of her husband in her 1998 autobiography, he “was a prototype of the kind of individual for whom the newsletter was being created.” Less than a year after their first encounter at a Correspondance-run school for rank-and-file workers in 1952, Boggs and Lee married and moved to Detroit.

Together, the Boggses and their intellectual collaborators within the Johnson-Forrest Tendency pioneered what they called the “proletarianization of philosophy,” an effort to make the high-theory innards of Marxist thought accessible to workers on the frontlines of Fordism’s lost promise. While they would split from James in the early 1960s, the couple continued to nurture the political development of some of the black freedom movement’s most influential leaders, including Revolutionary Action Movement founder Max Stanford, leaders in the lesser-known League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and even — to a lesser extent — native Michigander Malcolm X. They were part of a group of intellectuals who ran discussion groups for autoworkers on Marx’s Capital and other texts, and frequently opened their homes to young organizers eager to work through questions of power and strategy until the hours of the morning. “More often than not,” historian Peniel Joseph wrote, “the discussions turned into seminars in which the veteran activists demanded sharp analysis and concrete facts. Jimmy would ask questions that were difficult to answer: If the revolution was to succeed, how would the new society look? What would black people’s place in it be, and what kinds of jobs, government and society would exist?”

In “Faith in the City,” a history of 20th century black organizing in Detroit, Angela Dillard wrote that, “If cross-generational influence was indeed key to the development of political radicalism in 1960s Detroit, Grace Lee and James Boggs personified that influence.” Boggs was so deeply enmeshed in Detroit’s black organizing scene, in fact, that the FBI once mistakenly referred to her as “Afro-Chinese.” Through the end of her life, Boggs provided a rare model of an “engaged intellectual,” never losing sight of the relationship between the movements that surrounded her, the conditions they emerged from and the theoretical rigor that could drive them forward. What’s more, the writing that emerged from this ecology is an almost eerie preview of debates that would captivate progressives for the next half-century: the role of race, democracy and solidarity within industrial unionism, and how emergent movements for black liberation map onto fights for justice in the workplace.

Referencing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech, Boggs wrote in 1942 that “Thirteen million Negroes in America have never known three of the ‘Four Freedoms’ which America is supposedly spreading to the rest of the world.” She called the freedom from want “a mockery … when their wages are the lowest and their rents and food prices the highest.” Commenting on an early (and ultimately successful) planned march on Washington to eliminate segregation in arms manufacturing, Boggs argued fervently against any approach that would focus singly on either race or class: “Whether the [March on Washington] movement proves transitory or develops into a broad and relatively permanent movement for Negro democratic and economic rights will depend upon whether it will develop a leadership which seeks its main support in the organized labor movement and whether the Negro masses in the labor movement are ready to enter into and actively support this general movement for Negro rights as a supplement to their economic and class activities within the unions themselves.”

As she aged, Boggs’s “dialectical humanism,” which had always placed a strong emphasis on the value of personal transformation, drifted further away from traditional class politics and toward a focus on the moral and cultural dimensions of social change work. As she told Bill Moyers in 2007, “We have not emphasized sufficiently the cultural revolution that we have to make among ourselves in order to force the government to do differently.” Nevertheless, she died — by all accounts — surrounded by a community she worked for over six decades to build. Her theoretical contributions and movement-building work continue to find voice in some of today’s most influential uprisings.

As Barbara Ransby recently argued in Dissent, a close attention to economic inequality lies at the heart of today’s movement for black life: “In speech after speech, the leading voices of this movement have insisted that if we liberate the black poor, or if the black poor liberate themselves, we will uplift everybody else who’s been kept down.” Ransby noted that some of the most visible leaders in the movement for black lives have spent years honing their skills and analysis in organized labor. “The larger left has to support, recognize and embrace Black Lives Matter, not as secondary, but as central and potentially catalytic for a broad and far-reaching transformative agenda.” Like Boggs, Ransby makes clear that there’s no contradiction in building movements for racial and economic justice: the two, in many ways, are already one in the same.

Lakota women and ranchers lead charge to break silence against uranium mine

by Suree Towfighnia

Thousands of active uranium wells at the Crow Butte Resources mine in Crawford, Nebraska. (WNV / Rosy Torres)

With a population of around 1,000 people, the rural town of Crawford, Nebraska was an unlikely setting for a federal hearing, but it became the site of one in late August thanks to the dogged determination of a group of Lakota and environmental activists, as well as geologists, hydrologists and lawyers — all of whom have been fighting the permit renewal of a uranium mine located in town.

The region is ripe with stories from the brutal Indian wars, when Lakota and neighboring tribes fought over western expansion. Today, this intersection of frontier America and Native resistance is a battleground in the war between environmental advocates and energy corporations, only this time allies from all sides are joining forces in the effort to protect their water.

The Crow Butte Resources, or CBR, uranium mine is comprised of thousands of wells at the base of Crow Butte, a sacred site located within Lakota treaty territories. For the past couple decades CBR has mined uranium using the in situ leach process, which injects water under high pressure into aquifers, extracts uranium ore, and then processes it into yellow cake. Each year 700,000 pounds of uranium is produced here and shipped to Canada, where it is sold on the open market. CBR has applied for a permit renewal and expansions to three neighboring sites.

Cindy Meyers, a rancher and resident of central Nebraska, drove four hours to attend evidentiary hearings regarding the renewal of the mine’s permit. It’s not unusual for Meyers to travel with her own water, which she gets directly from a well on her land that’s tapped into the Ogallala aquifer — considered the largest, underground freshwater source in the world, covering eight states from South Dakota to Texas. CBR uses Ogallala water to mine the uranium. “I keep bottles of the aquifer water in a cooler in my car,” Meyers said. “This is what water is supposed to taste like. We call it sweet water.” She notes the absence of a chemical taste often found in other drinking water. Cindy shares a large jar with her ally Debra White Plume. The two women met during their work to stop the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011. Both women share an understanding that once water is contaminated it can’t be restored and a belief that pure water is worth protecting at all costs.

Debra White Plume (second from right) stands with the Sisterhood to Protect Sacred Water, lawyers and other supporters fighting to shut down Crow Butte Mine. (WNV / Rosy Torres)

Debra White Plume is a Lakota grandmother who was raised on the treaty territories of the Pine Ridge Reservation located across the border in South Dakota. She shares the Lakota worldview that water is sacred. About 10 years ago, White Plume began to notice a rise in illnesses and premature deaths among her neighbors. She heard about wells testing high for radiation, arsenic and lead. This information concerned White Plume, who lives on hundreds of acres of family land and relies on her wells for drinking water. She is an experienced researcher and organizer from decades spent protecting the nearby Black Hills, sacred sites and preserving the Lakota way of life. During her research, through ceremonies, and prayer, she connected local contamination to the Crow Butte uranium mine located just outside reservation lands.

Early in 2008, White Plume was one of 11 individuals and organizations, including the Oglala Sioux Tribe, who filed to prevent the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, from issuing a permit renewal to Crow Butte Resources. It’s been a long, slow process of submitting documents, waiting on environmental impact studies and other delays. The hearing was the final step needed for the Atomic Licensing Board — which rules over the NRC — to make its determination on the permit. Under scrutiny were nine contentions raised by the Consolidated Interveners, as the plaintiffs are called. The contentions included the lack of scientific evidence used in the permit application, the contamination of rivers and aquifers, connections between the mine and the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, insufficient cultural surveys and consultation with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the use of outdated and cherry-picked science, and insufficient groundwater restoration plans.

Seven years after filing the injunction, White Plume sat in the Crawford Community Center, waiting her turn to be sworn in as an expert witness. She stood with her right hand clasped around the jar of water Meyers had given her just a few minutes earlier. “Could you set your water down for a second, so you can raise your right hand?” Judge Gibson asked. “I am raising my right hand,” White Plume responded, continuing to hold the water. The judge proceeded to swear in White Plume, who gave her “oath to the truth” on water.

Grouped together among the rows of empty seats were about a dozen CBR employees, handfuls of Lakota from the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, a few elders from Crawford, and women from the Sisterhood to Protect Sacred Water — a local group concerned about long-term environmental, health and family issues resulting from the mine.

Local resident Nancy Kile was born and raised in Crawford and now lives 20 minutes east of town. “In 1991 and 1992, when CBR approached the town, we were still grieving the flood of our river and a big fire that damaged the area,” she recalled. “A person died in that flood. It was a big deal for our community.” Nancy believes the company preyed on the townspeople’s grief and made a lot of false promises.

Older women were eager to share that they have been fighting CBR since their arrival in the town. “They promised us good and fair leases, that they would only stay 20 years and that they would leave the water and land exactly as it was when they arrived,” recalled one grandmother who was urged by her family not to give her name. “They are trying to renew their permit and expand to three more sites. So, we know they lied to us.”

Colleen Brennan and Nancy Kile of the Sisterhood to Protect Sacred Water rally outside the Nuclear Regulatory Hearings in Crawford. (WNV / Rosy Torres)

A few months ago, Kile and her sister Colleen Brennan grew tired of the lies they heard around town and founded the Sisterhood to Protect Sacred Water in order to give women a voice in the uranium debate. The two sisters noticed how men and youth talked about money and tax benefits when they discussed the uranium mill; and older women discussed health and human welfare, questioning high rates of cancer and premature deaths. The Sisterhood was inspired by the success of others, including White Plume and the Clean Water Alliance, who are fighting off efforts by Powertech/Azarga to open a uranium mine near the Black Hills. The Sisterhood spent the summer organizing the community, hosting screenings and educational events where people could safely share mine facts and concerns. They raised money to purchase “Protect Sacred Water, No Uranium Mining” yard signs and placed them around town. “We had some workers intimidate our allies, who put signs in their yard right in town. They immediately started calling and threatening their jobs, their persons,” Kile said.

She lamented the lack of turnout by the local community at the hearings. “You would think it would be packed, but people are isolated in this community around the uranium milling,” she said. “It’s like a culture of silence. People are scared. They are worried about being shunned by families. They’re worried about their jobs.” Many in Crawford are self-employed and spoke off the record of CBR employees visiting their businesses to give reminders of their patronage and that it would be best to avoid the hearing. Others mentioned being told that Indians were coming to town to cause problems or incite violence.

White Plume sympathized with the fear of Crawford residents. “The uranium corporation has been here long enough to embed itself in the community as an economic support, while holding people in economic bondage in terms of choosing between a job and fresh, uncontaminated water,” she said. Nevertheless, White Plume, who has worked for the last decade to educate her family and community about the dangers of uranium mining, sees the issue as cut and dry. “You’re either for it or against it.” White Plume notes there are other ways to get energy — wind, solar and industrial hemp — but there is no way to filter radiation in water.

Kile likened the situation to what she’s experienced in her life working with domestic violence survivors, saying, “No one wants to know. Denial is so deep. And then people are ashamed because there are experts here who know what’s going on.”

The late summer heat and a faulty air conditioner made the community center stuffy. Nevertheless, the three Atomic License Board judges spent careful time unraveling CBR’s permit application, often expressing concern over the lack of tribal consultation, faulty cultural site surveys, use of outdated science (some geological models were from 1937), or tornado calculations from 100 miles away.

Tom Ballanco, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, explained that the NRC’s role is to protect the public’s safety and security when it comes to handling this dangerous and toxic material. “The NRC is tasked with monitoring and minimizing any risks associated with uranium and having such a dire responsibility, we feel like they need to pay more attention than we’ve seen in the past,” he said. Ballanco went on to note that “in a somewhat controversial move” the NRC staff has already issued the license in advance of the ruling.

Debra White Plume (with Lakota cultural experts) prepares to testify at the Nuclear Regulatory Commissions’ hearings. (WNV / Rosy Torres)

White Plume felt the hearing was thorough, saying, “I didn’t expect the Atomic Licensing Board to go to the levels they did. I’m really pleased with how they peeled away the layers of the onion as to the NRC involvement with Cameco Corporation [the parent company to Crow Butte Resources]. To me it appeared as an alliance and collaboration, versus the NRC being a public protector of health and water in the United States.”

White Plume is optimistic that the townspeople will learn of the dangers of the uranium mine, its impact on their water and the future of their town. “I have a lot of hope that they lose fear, take courage and develop the sense that they are obligated to question authority,” she said. “In this town that means [questioning] Cameco and the NRC.”

The Atomic License Board judges will host a conference call in mid-October to answer remaining questions. Although the NRC gave preliminary permit approval to CBR, the judges have the final ruling, which is expected to be granted in early spring.

Kile believes people will become more involved with the Sisterhood once they are educated. She will share information with those who missed the hearing. Kile said their work will take place at old-fashioned kitchen tables, and involved listening to stories, reading handouts, and watching video recorded at the hearing. She recognized that trust is necessary to empower the town to stand up to the mine. “Our town has been silenced,” she said. “Silence is violence in this community. That’s what it feels like to me. It feels like they are raping my homeland.”

Kile was emotional as she shared her hope for the community, which is to see it “grow and show up for each other.” Ultimately, she wants people to feel safe and come out. If that happens, she explained, “We will continue to grow resistance and shut that thing down.”

Montreal’s Francophone teachers strike against austerity

by Ashoka Jegroo

The banner at front of the teachers march in Montreal on September 30 read “The government is abandoning public schools.” (Twitter/Hélène Bauer)

Thousands of Francophone teachers, along with students, parents, and other supporters, flooded Montreal’s streets for a one-day strike on September 30. The strike is the first of six planned by the Federation Autonome de l’Enseignement, or FAE, a coalition of eight of Quebec’s French-speaking teachers unions, as part of their negotiations with the provincial government over proposed cuts to education.

“We are taking the streets today to tell the population and the parents that we are with them, and that their schools, teachers and their students, deserve more,” Nathalie Morel, vice president of the FAE, told CTV Montreal. “We deserve better.”

Sylvain Mallette, head of the FAE, first announced the strike on September 8, and on Wednesday, around 34,000 French-language teachers walked off the job and marched on the streets of Montreal. The FAE usually gives seven business days notice before it strikes, but Mallette said they wanted to give parents enough time to make alternate plans for their kids. More than 270,000 students across Quebec were also given the day off by the strike.

The Quebec provincial government has been engaged in a series of collective negotiations with public sector employees. Teachers are one group of workers who have been renegotiating their contracts with the government and have been working without a contract since April.

In March, the government announced that it would be increasing its education budget by only 0.2 percent, which actually amounts to a decrease once inflation is taken into account. The government has proposed increasing class sizes for older elementary and high school students and increasing the work week for teachers from 32 to 35 hours without any immediate increase in pay. When it comes to teachers’ salaries, the government wants to freeze wages until 2016 and then increase teachers’ pay by 1 percent each year for three years after that. The teachers, on the other hand, want a 13.5 percent raise over the next three years.

“In the last few years, public schools have been hurt by budget restraints and cuts,” Mallette told CBC News back when the strike was announced. “We’re at more than $1 billion in budget restraints and we’re asking teachers to do more with less.”

The government has also proposed cutting pension plans, cutting funds for programs for special-needs children, getting rid of 800 resource teacher and special education teacher jobs, and no longer taking into account whether a child has a learning disability when calculating class sizes.

“We are seeing cuts in remedial teachers and special education teachers who work with students who need help or those with behavioral problems,” Chantal Gagnon, a primary school teacher, told the Montreal Gazette. “They want to integrate the kids in the classroom but they are not giving us the support.”

Education Minister Francois Blais has denied that the government wants to increase teachers’ workloads or cut special education programs and insists that “it isn’t possible to ask taxpayers to pay” for a 13.5 percent wage increase for teachers.

The strike began a little before noon with protesters rallying at Square Victoria. At around 12:30 p.m., after a few speeches, protesters began to march starting from Boulevard Robert-Bourassa and Avenue Viger O. At the head of the march was a black banner reading “The government is abandoning public schools.” Music blasted at the front of the march as protesters shut down downtown Montreal and disrupted traffic. The protesters eventually made their way to Square Dorchester where they rallied and ended with a few more speeches. After a few hours, the thousands of marchers finally made their way to end without any arrests being made.

English-speaking teachers in Quebec have also vowed to go on strike this fall. On September 24, Anglophone teachers unions voted to hold six strike days sometime after the federal elections on October 19.

“We’re probably looking at October 26 to October 28 at the earliest,” John Donnelly, president of the Pearson Teachers Union, told CBC News.

Meanwhile, the FAE has announced that its next strike day will be between October 14 and October 30. The teachers, along with students and parents, can only hope that these strike days helps out with the negotiations, which are set to continue on October 1.

“I wanted to send a message that enough is enough,” Jean-Philippe Lajeunesse, a parent who took his two daughters to the march, told the Montreal Gazette. “They want teachers to do more with less. We have to make a choice as a society, do we want austerity and a balanced budget or do we want good public education?”

Australian medics refuse to be silenced over refugee abuse at detention centers

by Brian Martin

(Facebook / Doctors Against the Border Force Act)

Earlier this year, the Australian parliament passed a law concerning workers at the detention centers. It is now a criminal offense for them to reveal to outsiders what is happening to asylum seekers, with a potential penalty of job loss and two years in prison.

Why is the government so afraid of workers speaking out? And why, in particular, is the treatment of refugees such a sensitive topic?

The detention story

Australia has no land borders with any other country, so asylum seekers outside the humanitarian quota can only arrive by air or sea. Although relatively few undertake the perilous sea voyage, successive governments have raised the alarm about asylum seekers arriving by boat, while maintaining a massive planned immigration program.

In the early 1990s, the government set up detention facilities for asylum seekers, and for years 90 percent of them were eventually officially classified as refugees. In following years, refugee policies became ever more draconian. These policies have been supported by both major political parties, seemingly trying to outbid each other in being tough on those who are most vulnerable.

The effects of long-term detention are horrific: After months or years in isolated camps in unhealthy conditions — with uncertain futures, limited opportunities for self-development and incidents of sexual abuse — many detainees suffer physical and mental problems. Traumatized in their home countries, they are additionally traumatized by their life in the camps. Children — some of them born in the camps — are especially badly affected.

Harsh, punitive treatment of asylum seekers is a scandal. Australian politicians cultivate a fear of “boat people” for electoral purposes. Each major party has tried to outflank its opponent by being tough in the hope of causing splits in the other party, a process called “wedging.” However, the government, whichever party is in power, also needs to reduce public outrage from its policies.

Outrage management

When governments break the law, harm people or do something else that might generate concern, they typically use several methods to reduce public outrage. One common method is cover-up: If people don’t know about an abuse, they won’t be worried. Most detention centers were set up in remote parts of Australia. In recent years, they have been set up outside the Australian mainland, in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Most journalists are prevented from gaining access to the camps.

Another key method to reduce outrage is devaluation of asylum seekers. They have been persistently called “illegals,” even though seeking asylum is legal, and “queue jumpers,” even though there is no formal queue for refugees. Some politicians suggest, without any evidence, that asylum seekers might be terrorists, though actually most are fleeing wars and terrorism.

The government provides numerous rationalizations for its policy. “Stopping the boats” has been reinterpreted as a matter of national security, to be handled by the Australian Navy, rather than a humanitarian issue. The government has undertaken legal manipulations that are ingenious in getting around refugee commitments. For example, in 2013 parliament excised the Australian mainland from “Australia” for the purposes of the refugee convention, so that arriving at Darwin or Sydney by boat does not count as arriving in Australia and thus triggering treaty commitments. It is now impossible for asylum seekers arriving by boat to be permanently resettled in Australia.

Then there is intimidation, a technique used for several purposes. The idea of detention and, in some cases, indefinite imprisonment in harsh conditions is to send a message to potential asylum seekers not to come to Australia. Intimidation is also applied to those seeking to expose the government’s actions. This brings us to the 2015 Border Force Act, criminalizing the reporting of conditions in camps.

The perils of speaking out

The Border Force Act shows the synergy of the techniques of intimidation and cover-up. By threatening criminal sanctions, the act seeks to hide what is happening in the camps from the general public. The sanctions apparently apply to teachers, healthcare workers, humanitarian volunteers and perhaps even guards.

Another law passed this year requires that telecommunications and Internet service providers retain metadata on electronic communications for two years. This act, supposedly introduced to enable detection of criminals and terrorists, will almost certainly be used for surveillance of whistleblowers.

A worker at a detention facility is thus in a precarious position. The telephone numbers and email addresses of anyone contacted might be traced and used to identify a leak. Criminal penalties loom large. In essence, the Australian government has created a system for monitoring and penalizing dissent characteristic of a repressive regime.

Resistance

For decades, Australian refugee supporters have opposed the political panic about asylum seekers arriving by boat and have made persistent efforts to advocate on behalf of refugees and provide support for them. Some Australians have made regular visits to detention centers, providing personal support to individuals. Whistleblowers have exposed conditions in the camps and journalists have written powerful stories. Lawyers, many of them pro bono, have supported asylum seekers through the maze of regulations that serve to delay and block official approval of permanent settlement in Australia. Campaigners have written innumerable letters, held meetings, organized rallies and used other forms of protest. Asylum seekers themselves, in the camps, have protested in various ways, including by the drastic step of sewing their lips together to symbolize how their voices are muzzled.

When refugees are released into the community, many Australian communities have accepted them wholeheartedly, helping them with learning English, learning to drive and getting jobs. The generosity of the Australian people provides a stark contrast with the hard-hearted policies implemented by successive Australian governments. Most politicians seem to believe there are more votes in appearing tough than in being compassionate or in respecting the spirit of treaty obligations.

The Border Force Act is the latest installment in the government’s attempts to shut down exposure of the consequences of its policies. But it may be a step too far.

Most of the workers at detention centers, for example cooks and cleaners, do not have any special obligation to report problems. When they leak information about the adverse effects of detention, they are acting on the basis of their general humanity. However, the parliament, in passing the Border Force Act, included teachers and health professionals who feel a professional duty to report on conditions affecting their students and patients.

Health professionals have been expressing their opposition to the act. The Royal Australasian College of Physicians has called for mandatory detention to be stopped. Groups of health professionals, outraged by the act, have taken various initiatives, including organizing petitions and rallies. A few have spoken out about camp conditions, challenging the law. There are plans to develop a statement challenging the law, as a form of civil disobedience.

In practice, it is very unlikely that a doctor would be sentenced to prison for reporting on the health of asylum seekers: This would generate too much adverse publicity. Even so, the threat of criminal penalties for doing what many professionals would believe is in the best interests of their patients is a powerful stimulus to express opposition.

Government apologists have long dismissed refugee advocates as “bleeding hearts” whose concerns should not dictate policy. Doctors and other health professionals are not so easy to dismiss. The Border Force Act has actually weakened the government’s position in two important ways: It has turned refugee policy into a free speech issue, and it has mobilized sections of the powerful medical profession to oppose the government’s policy more strongly. This case shows the value to a social justice campaign of drawing in a wide variety of groups.

The fact that the government is taking extreme measures to hide the way asylum seekers are treated in detention centers is a good indication that it is afraid of public scrutiny. Making injustice visible is a powerful technique. The Border Force Act is not the end of the story, but rather the beginning of a new stage in the struggle.

Inside the Dream Defenders’ social media blackout

by Kate Aronoff

Last week, the Florida-based Dream Defenders announced a six week “social media sabbatical” from their personal and organizational Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, promising to digitally resurface in November “with a fresh voice; one that emanates from the grassroots and is a complement to movement work, not just characters.”

Founded in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, the Dream Defenders’ first major action was a three-day, 40-mile march from Daytona to Sanford, where they held a sit-in at the town’s police headquarters to demand the long-awaited arrest of Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. The group soared into the national spotlight just over a year later, staging a 31-day occupation of the Florida statehouse following Zimmerman’s acquittal by a grand jury. Having been organizing on the ground in Florida ever since, the Dream Defenders have emerged in the last year as a leading voice in the movement for black lives, boasting iconic branding, nearly 53,000 Twitter followers and a steady stream of interview requests from national media outlets. Explaining the blackout on their site, they wrote: “Our culture rewards folks for RTs and posting the same information, articles and snarky comments. Our profiles get more attention for talking about tragedies than they do for highlighting the work that our membership is doing day in and day out.”

To learn more, I sat down via Google Hangout with Elijah Armstrong and Rachel Gilmer. Armstrong, Dream Defenders’ Central Florida representative and a member of the group’s advisory board, grew up in Bartow, Florida. He has organized with Dream Defenders since its inception, working on campaigns against the school-to-prison pipeline and private prisons. Gilmer joined the Dream Defenders this July as chief of strategy. A long-time community organizer, she has worked extensively on issues of equity and racial justice both in her home state of Oregon and in New York City, where she previously served as associate director of the African American Policy Forum.

What has the relationship been like so far between Dream Defenderson-the-ground organizing and its social media presence?

Elijah: Everything from the ground has influenced our social media work. After the Capitol takeover, our social media really boomed. Out of nowhere, we had a lot of followers. That was a real undertaking. Folks came out saying we were a new voice. It was weird to go to different spaces, and the first thing people would mention would be our social media presence. After a while, it seems like social media can overshadow the work that’s being done on the ground because it’s not uplifted in the same light or held in the same regard. The on-the-ground work is the most important work we do, and we got caught up a little bit in social media. For the most part, though, I think we’ve done a good job of connecting the work that we do on social media to our base, and we make sure that it’s staying in line with that.

Rachel: As a young organizer seeing the Dream Defenders take over the Capitol was deeply inspiring and in many ways, changed my life. It was reinvigorating to see other young people out there who believe in the same things I do, who weren’t interested in accepting the status quo, who were fighting in new ways and who were building real power. It’s been a real experience coming down here and working for the Dream Defenders because most of my understanding of who they were was shaped by social media. It’s been really amazing to see on-the-ground work, which — to some extent — can be expressed over social media, but only to some extent. Sometimes we have this idea in our head that we are our social media, but it is in no way a substitute for really knowing someone, and really experiencing something.

Why a blackout?

Elijah: Right now we’re at a crucial point in our movement. A lot of folks have been using social media in a very negative manner within the movement, to make personal attacks and critiques. The way social media is going, I think that the big media is doing a good job of controlling our narrative, and we aren’t really controlling it — whether they’re taking sound bites from us, or just misrepresenting us or misquoting us. With different folks beefing on social media, it’s gotten to a point where the platform isn’t being used in the most positive light, like for political education or as a way to bond and work. It’s just being used as a way to say “You don’t do this” or “You don’t do that” or “I’ve done this” and “I’ve done that.” All these arguments that you see on social media … people have each other’s numbers, and won’t even pick up the phone to call or even text. Whole conversations will play out on social media in 140 characters, so there’s no way that you’re going to actually have a real conversation. It just further disconnects us. It’s almost become a circus, in a way, that’s really being run by big media. I think this is, first, a time to really shift people’s focus away from big media, and two, to regroup the work that we’re doing on the ground to make sure that we aren’t getting caught up in that nonsense of the back-and-forth. We really just want to take the time to continue to build with our base.

Rachel: I totally agree. Personally, I don’t have a big social media following and, to be honest, it’s not really my thing. But ever since the movement really erupted, I have started to, subconsciously, equate my worth as an organizer with my presence online. Because of this, I’ve devalued myself and told myself I’m unimportant because I don’t have a strong social media presence. I’ve actually thought of my own community organizing as less important because I don’t know how to package it and present it online. It feels like lesser work. When you look at all these lists that are generated, like “The Top 10 Youth Organizers” from our generation, they’re largely people with a strong social media presence. And that’s not to say that that’s not important, or that I don’t value that type of work. But it seems that work has been uplifted over other types of organizing. And then I have to question why I even care about those top 10 lists in the first place. Social media has completely skewed my perspective of what’s important — both fueling and draining my ego, making me feel like the center of the universe and making me feel like an absolute nobody at the same time. It’s a really sick and viscous cycle.

Not only does social media cause trauma in this way, but it can also be an incredibly damaging way to receive information. If you look at the Sandra Bland case, for instance, all the details of her death came out one little piece of information at a time. It would flood your feed for a day, and then the next piece of the story would come out and it would flood your feed for a day. I think digesting information in this way is a form of psychological warfare: It’s traumatizing and re-traumatizing and re-traumatizing. I don’t think that people actually realize how much damage this is doing to us psychologically, especially to our young people who don’t necessarily have the tools to understand why people like them are being killed with impunity by the police.

I think being off social media is an opportunity for us to really understand how social media is impacting us, how it’s being used to manipulate us by our oppressor and how we can be intentional in understanding its limitations and what the opportunities are.

Lastly, to Elijah’s point, I think social media has created this illusion of deep relationships within the movement. You can say, “Hey fam!” on Twitter, acting like we all know each other really well. That’s not to say that we haven’t built real relationships on social media, but I also think that all the fighting that happens over social media is indicative of the fact that people really don’t know each other. Social media provides the illusion of deep relationships. So long as people don’t really know each other, the work is never going to go that far. This is doing the work of COINTELPRO in the sense that you see people calling each other out online, and you see all these rifts being created. Social media is doing that to us. Stepping back from all that is really important right now. We’re in a really critical time where all of this could actually kill the movement.

What are your plans for base-building, and the deep relationship-building work you hope to feed by stepping back from social media?

Elijah: Right now, we’re going through a process of revamping who we are, what we do and how we do it — to really get more in touch with our base because we are a membership-based organization, and membership should lead from the bottom-up, not the top-down. It’s really just about trying to rebuild and deepen relationships with our members. We’ve been doing work in these communities for a long time and we know some of the needs, but we don’t know all of them. We want to make sure that we’re adequately representing the folks that we work with. We are a part of these communities, not just random folks coming in to say that we live there. We breathe in these communities, so this work affects us as well.

As someone who’s been off social media for the last couple of days, I’ve actually had to try to remember my friends’ birthdays because that’s what Facebook does. I’ve texted and called more of my friends instead of talking to them via Facebook. It feels like I’m in 2004 again, where there’s no Myspace, and that’s cool. It’s really been helpful to me, in the sense of relationships and just with my productivity. It’s so routine to constantly check your social media. I didn’t realize how much I was depending on it. It’s only been a couple days and it’s been weird, but really liberating and awesome. It’s funny: The more connected you are on social media, the less connected it feels like you are offline. Right now, we’re just focused on being offline. I think we’re so used to being online that we’re not used to thinking about what it’s like to be fully offline and fully engaged with folks, not having anything standing in the way of that.

Rachel: A couple studies came out last year on how Facebook can literally mess with your emotions by changing what comes on your feed. It’s scary to think about the impact that could have on a movement, not only in terms of your emotional health but also in terms of strategy and how that could manipulate your understanding of issues. Social media is so much about spectacle. As a movement, we’ve been really caught up in it. We’ve done a lot of amazing tactical work.

We’ve shut stuff down, and it’s changed the world. But one of the things that we’re thinking about is how we can move beyond tactical level organizing that forces us to react to what’s been given to us, and instead, be visionary and build a strategy for how we build power and the world we want to see in the long run.

We’re preparing to launch a new initiative, called the Free Campaign, where we’re having all of our [chapters] go door-to-door and do street canvassing to talk to folks about what freedom means, and to really build relationships with the community around the basic concept of what it would look like to be free. They’re also doing intensive research projects to gain a deeper understanding of the local political and community landscape, and the history of revolutionary organizations and movements around the world and how we can embody this as the Dream Defenders. All of this will help us build a vision for Florida and a strategy for building power here, with the hopes that it will have a reverberating effect across the country.

What would an ideal, mutually reinforcing relationship between social media and on-the-ground organizing look like?

Elijah: Social media sees organizing on a very surface level, which is also, I think, a part of social media wanting you to see it on a very surface level. It helps being able to share movies and stories and actions. But that’s only a window; it’s not the whole house. I think we’ve got to be more realistic about that. Social media is not the end all be all, but it definitely does help. Like Rachel said, folks seeing us take over the Capitol was something that inspired them to continue to do more work. But social media also makes you think that if you’re not there where the social media is then you’re not doing the same amount of work. That is a huge fatal flaw. Rachel shouldn’t have seen what we did out there in Florida and wanted to come join us, which — don’t get me wrong — is cool. But she should have been more inspired to continue to do the work where she was. Last summer, everybody shouldn’t have rushed to Ferguson when Mike Brown died. There were organizers already there on the ground. Social media is the thing that showed people “doing the work” in Ferguson, but really they were just doing interviews and talking about the trauma that the police were causing. They don’t ever show the stuff that you need. A prime example is #BlackLivesMatter. Social media only takes soundbites; social media doesn’t cover your strategy meetings. It doesn’t cover all the different work that goes into the whole totality that is organizing. As organizers, we have to be mindful of that and constantly try to let folks know that they’re only seeing 10 percent of the iceberg, if that.

Rachel: The next month and a half for us organizationally and as individuals, is an opportunity to come back in November with an intentional strategy for how we will use social media: recognizing what it is, recognizing what it isn’t, and understanding how it can amplify, but not substitute the on-the-ground organizing being led by our members. It’s a time to process. When you’re on social media, your’e submersed in thousands of other people’s lives, thoughts and perspectives. What does that do for your own thinking, and your own ability to process, assesses what you believe in, and strategize for yourself and your people? Given the way that social media uplifts this idea of celebrity activism, I think it’s really important for us to step back and understand the way that it has manipulated people’s understanding of who the Dream Defenders are. How do we, organizationally, navigate this structure, understanding both its strengths for building connections and its limitations in order to really change the course for our people?

What do you think about the long-term role of social media in movement organizing?

Elijah: I’ve been thinking a lot about this song by Gil Scott Heron, “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” In other words, television is an institution used to support the powers that be, so you’re not going to get the revolution through that medium. Now I see people saying the revolution won’t be televised, but it’ll be digitalized. I don’t know if that’s true. There’s a potential that it could be, but the way we’re doing it now I don’t think we’re going to get there. With the Internet being so big, if we were able to craft it and control our own narrative then maybe we could, using our own platforms. But relying on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, to me, is no different than relying on CNN, MSNBC and FOX to tell our story. Having more direct contact with these platforms doesn’t mean we have more control.

Rachel: I’d agree with everything Elijah said. I think the Internet might also be creating a sense of rugged individualism. How is it that I can Google something and Elijah can Google something and we can both get totally different results? The fact that Google can control the way information goes out creates deep discrepancies in our understanding of the way the world works. I think there’s an illusion that we control our social media because we are choosing what we put out into the world. But we must understand the way this is being manipulated so that the oppressor can’t continue to control the narrative.

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