Waging Nonviolence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    We learned from those who’d gone before us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    When marches matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Working with anger while aiming for strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A leaderful movement

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

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

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

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

    Movements can win even when some campaigns lose

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

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

    What do generals, Gandhi and gays agree on?

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

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

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

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

    How to avert the impending war on Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    This story was first published by Tom Dispatch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What first inspired you to begin doing peace work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    How has the festival grown since then?

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

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

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

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

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

    What about other peace efforts in the city?

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

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

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

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

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

    Noof: Unfortunately, it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Chinese students and workers are uniting again, 30 years after Tiananmen Square crackdown

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    This article was first published by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

    “We will fight together, advance and retreat together,” concluded Qiu Zhanxuan in a video his comrades released on May 4, 2019. Qiu was the former leader of a Marxist student association at the prestigious Peking University. He had prepared the digital testament to be released in case he disappeared.

    Qiu did disappear in late April after he’d dared to call for a united front between students and workers, 30 years after the infamous Tiananmen Square crackdown. He had previously been arrested and then released in December 2018 on his way to a mark Mao Zedong’s 125th birthday.

    This came after students from Peking united with striking workers at the company Jasic Technology, whose attempts to form a union were blocked in July 2018. Students from Peking University, but also Renmin and Tsinghua universities, travelled to the south of China the following month to support the aggrieved workers. They were arrested, some released, and others, such as Qiu, have since disappeared.

    It was students based in Peking who began protesting in April 1989 after the sudden death of Hu Yaobang, the reform-minded former Communist Party of China secretary-general. They called for political reform and democracy, but also for more social freedom and equality. Progressively, workers joined the movement all across China. Initially they weren’t welcomed by the students, who feared their movement would be diluted, but they soon realized that all Chinese citizens were fighting for the same cause: the realization of the socialist ideal in the form of a more democratic and equal society.

    The students’ peaceful hunger strike in Tiananmen Square ended on June 3 and 4 when more than 200,000 troops were sent in to suppress what the communist regime saw as a counter-revolutionary riot. It’s estimated anywhere between hundreds and thousands of protesters were killed.

    Today again, the same issues are at stake, that of equality and justice in a society which hasn’t achieved the socialist dream, but instead become a fierce capitalist market. With economic growth in China stagnating and as President Xi Jingping’s promise of a “China dream” becomes more distant for many of the 300m Chinese workers, student agitation could jeopardise the regime’s stability.

    Fallen proletariat

    Long gone are the days of the “iron rice bowl” – the guarantee of a stable job for life with the assorted social benefits. The Chinese proletariat is no more the elite of communism but the prime victim of Chinese-style capitalism and fierce globalization. Chinese workers are in a worse situation than they were in 1989. They have fewer state protections, and the fate of many depends on their ability to accept and survive the often unregulated working conditions of the private sector.

    As Han Dongfang, executive director of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, or CLB, observed, the situation is much more complex now than it was 30 years ago. The charismatic railway worker was only 26 when, on April 17, 1989, he gave a speech at Tiananmen Square to advocate the right of Chinese workers to freely organize. He helped create the Beijing Worker’s Autonomous Federation, the People’s Republic of China’s first independent trade union. It was dismantled soon after the June 4 crackdown in 1989.

    One of the most wanted Tiananmen protesters, Han turned himself into the police and spent two years in prison. Banned from China, he continues his fight from Hong Kong where he set up CLB in 1994.

    Han Dongfang on a visit to the University of Portsmouth in April 2019.
    Salil Tripathi, Author provided

    There is still a lot to struggle for. There is no right to go on strike and no right to unionize in China today – yet some workers still protest over issues such as unpaid wages, restructuring plans, health and safety or even gender equality. The CLB recorded 1,701 strikes in 2018. Chinese workers are very active despite the risks strikes entail – from being fired, to be being arrested, imprisoned or even disappeared.

    Disenchanted and repressed labor

    Chinese labour law is actually well designed to protect workers, as my research has documented. Chinese-style public-interest litigation as well as forms of collective negotiation – if not yet collective bargaining – have become widespread in China since legal reforms in the 1990s and early 2000s. But these laws only work if they are implemented and adjudicated independently, and the system remains unpredictable.

    The past ten years have also brought massive disenchantment about a Chinese legal system that circumvents the rule of law. Too many murky practices remain commonplace, such as forced labor known as “reform through work” (laogai or laodong gaizao) or “re-education through work” (laojiao or laodong jiaoyang). Such practices are still used by the state and some private companies alike, both on Chinese territory but on flagship foreign investment projects abroad. Reports have detailed Chinese workers dispatched overseas forced to live in inhumane conditions deprived of their passports, going unpaid for months.

    In the past, discontent was centered among construction workers. Many migrated from the countryside to the cities without a clear residence permit, or what’s known as hukou status, making them vulnerable to possible abuses. Now, discontent is spreading.

    One recent movement, called “996” made headlines as Chinese tech employees name and shame their employees about a culture of working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. This has included denunciations by workers of the powerful Alibaba founder Jack Ma who advocates such a punishing working culture. Tech workers have also protested online about long hours via GitHub or in using memes, stickers and T-shirts.

    While a lot has changed in China since 1989, much has remained the same. The state is present at every level of society, which has become extremely unequal. The leadership of the Communist Party of China remains unchallenged politically, and yet a form of civil society coexists with an authoritarian regime that represses individual democratic aspirations. In this context, some students and workers are trying to unite around the same hopes and aspirations as their predecessors in 1989 – for equality and justice.

    Wave of creative protests threaten Kazakhstan’s elite ahead of elections

    In Kazakhstan, where the government aggressively regulates peaceful assembly and punishes those who dare to break its strict rules, there has been a surprising uptick in creative protests in recent months.

    The current wave of actions started in February after five young girls died in a house fire. As a result, dozens of mothers staged rallies across Kazakhstan to draw attention to insufficient welfare provisions for families. Then, in March, small crowds gathered in major cities to protest the government’s sudden move to rename the capital from Astana to Nur-Sultan, in honor of longtime Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Over the past few weeks, a handful of young activists have been detained and fined for displaying banners with political messages.

    Nazarbayev is the only president Kazakhstan has known, taking office in 1990, before the Central Asian country declared independence from the Soviet Union a year later. Kazakhstan’s governing elites have taken it for granted that the population will quietly submit to an illiberal political system in exchange for the trickle-down effects of the country’s exorbitant oil wealth.

    Whereas other Soviet-era holdovers in the region held on to power until they died, Nazarbayev opted to resign on March 19 and manage the power transition from a distance. Presidential elections were called for June 9, leaving little time for a competitive field of candidates to emerge. Even with a handful of politicians announcing their intention to run for president, many are not convinced that the first elections without Nazarbayev on the ticket will be credible. (To be fair, presidential elections in Kazakhstan have always only been for show, as Nazarbayev was reelected in 2015 with a whopping 97.7 percent of the vote.)

    Foreign Policy correspondent Reid Standish sees the president’s resignation as a way for Nazarbayev to avoid growing domestic frustration, but the political transition now underway has signaled cracks in the appearance of stability that Nazarbayev has worked for decades to achieve.

    Asiya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov hung a banner at the Almaty marathon on April 21 that said “You cannot run from the truth,” with two hashtags reading “For Fair Elections” in Kazakh and “I have a choice” in Russian. (Instagram/@tamina_spnv)

    On April 21, while delegates from Nazarbayev’s political party unanimously backed interim president and regime loyalist Kassym-Jomart Tokaev as their candidate, two young activists sat on trial for demanding fair, independent elections. That morning, Asiya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov hung a banner reading “You cannot run from the truth” while participants in the Almaty marathon ran past. The banner included two hashtags reading “For Fair Elections” in Kazakh and “I have a choice” in Russian.

    Building on the momentum following Tulesova and Tolymbekov’s trial, where the audience chanted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as the activists were sentenced to 15 days in jail, artist Roman Zakharov hung a banner over a highway in central Almaty. The banner read “The people shall be the only source of governmental power,” a quote pulled directly from Kazakhstan’s constitution. Police arrested Zakharov and charged him with hooliganism for littering in public.

    In an attempt to test authorities, blogger Aslan Sagutdinov went to the main square in his hometown Uralsk on May 6 carrying only a blank placard. “I’m not taking part in a protest,” 24-year-old Sagutdinov told reporters. “I want to show that they’ll still take me down to the station, even though there’s nothing written on my placard, and I’m not shouting any slogans.” After standing with his blank poster for only a few minutes, a group of police officers approached him and escorted him to the police station. Sagutdinov was released later that day because the police could not decide what to charge him with.

    Blogger Aslan Sagutdinov went to the main square in his hometown Uralsk carrying only a blank placard and was promptly hauled away by police. (Twitter/@jardemalie)

    On May 9, police took activist Zhanbota Alzhanova from her home in Nur-Sultan. Alzhanova thinks the arrest was linked to a photo she posted on Facebook, in which she and a friend parody Sagutdinov’s arrest by pretending to hold up an invisible poster. Officially, Alzhanova was charged with supporting those who had been arrested on May Day protests in several Kazakhstani cities, but the fact that her arrest synced up with the photo did not go unnoticed.

    The creative thread linking these actions is obvious and taps into a long history of art as a channel for protest in Kazakhstan. But another factor has been necessary for these demonstrations to proceed as they have: widespread internet access.

    In 2007, only 4 percent of Kazakhstan’s population was online. There was a sudden spike to 11 percent in 2008, then to 31 percent in 2010, and today more than 70 percent of Kazakhs are connected to the internet. They are active on a range of social media platforms, including Russian services like vKontakte and Odnoklassniki and global giants like Facebook and Instagram. Young people are using social media in the traditional sense — to post selfies and share memes — but also to engage with politics. The hashtags emblazoned on the banner that got Asiya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov arrested collectively have been used on over 8,000 posts on Instagram, for example.

    But how does this internet activity feed into or enable collective action? Mass communications technology decreases the cost of participating in collective action, but digital participation — posts, likes and comments — is not a guarantee of tangible political or social change. This is especially true given the lack of consistent organization among activists, who struggle with state repression — since vocal dissenters have been exiled or arrested — as well as the fracturing of political and social opposition. While artistic actions like flash mobs and banners make for powerful art and are increasingly likely to go viral, the one-off nature of organizing these demonstrations makes it difficult to have a major impact.

    Even so, the iterative progression of nonviolent demonstrations in Kazakhstan in recent weeks demonstrates that the boundary between digital and “real” politics is more fluid than commonly understood. Beyond enabling a creative series of nonviolent actions, social media ties the regime’s hands (and therefore potentially feeds into tangible politics) in three specific ways.

    First, technology fosters links with international actors. By posting photos of violent reactions to nonviolent action, translating court proceedings into English, and criticizing government control over the internet, Kazakhstani activists have been able to get the attention of outsiders. This includes foreign journalists, officials in neighboring countries, the diaspora living in Western countries and representatives of international organizations. Each of these actors can put pressure on Kazakhstan’s government in different ways by citing and engaging with social media discussions of peaceful demonstrations.

    Second, the optics of arresting people who quoted the constitution for littering or simply stood in public with a blank piece of paper look bad for the state. Digital communications technology gives activists the upper hand in defining the narrative to the masses. In this way, the visual and conceptual absurdity of police reactions to peaceful behavior — taking blue balloons away from toddlers suspected of participating in an opposition protest, for example — undermines the government’s authority and presses them to either relax restrictions on expression and public gatherings or to own up to their paranoia.

    The government — which is accustomed to traditional tools of repression — is at once compelled to silence dissent, but simultaneously constrained in how it can respond. Digital repression is not a precise tool, and is therefore a costly choice for the state. This constitutes the third and final way in which communications technology facilitates nonviolent action.

    Digital activism triggers widespread censorship, which can in turn arouse backlash. It is a fair concern that only a narrow segment of the population — urban, well-to-do, Russian-speaking people — is participating in these demonstrations, and so social media buzz does not reflect broader sentiments. But frequent internet blackouts can encourage and give credibility to an otherwise invisible opposition. Those who were not curious about political content or were not using virtual private networks before the regime blocked access to Facebook, Instagram and YouTube multiple times in May, could be motivated to seek out subversive content.

    In the government’s attempt to silence critics, they inspired an iterative progression of creative demonstrations that straddle the digital and tangible spheres. Artists have already started tagging buildings with graffiti, sporting homemade T-shirts and writing songs that draw inspiration from the banners unfurled in Almaty. It appears that Kazakhstan’s ruling elite have started a game of Whack-a-Mole that they can’t win.

    Anti-occupation coalition grows stronger in the face of Israeli military violence

    I watched the Israeli Defense Forces throw several stun grenades — one right after the other — deep into a crowd of my friends earlier this month. I saw people dear to me get choked by soldiers, thrown forcefully onto the ground and dragged away by their limbs. Following this, the army arrested 17 people — including many Jewish activists from around the world, two Palestinian journalists and three Palestinian residents from the area.

    The crime? Presumably, the IDF’s harsh punishment would be because our protest turned violent. However, we were steadfastly nonviolent. We were simply fixing a dirt road that would enable Palestinians in the area to access food, water and basic supplies.

    The IDF’s behavior in this situation is sadly not shocking nor inconceivable, but to see it up close with my own eyes was deeply unsettling and upsetting.

    The rehabilitation of this road was planned by a broad coalition of groups. Palestinians from the South Hebron Hills assembled a wide array of Palestinian partners. Meanwhile, the anti-occupation collective All That’s Left organized diaspora Jews based in Israel-Palestine, and the Center for Jewish Nonviolence brought 40 North American Jews to the action as part of a nine-day delegation to Israel-Palestine to learn about the occupation.

    I know the sting of xenophobia, anti-Semitism and otherness, so I must work to ensure that no one else ever feels it.

    In my own activist community in Israel-Palestine — which is the collective All That’s Left — we bring Jews together who are unequivocally committed to ending the occupation and building the diaspora angle of resistance. We leverage our position and privilege as diaspora Jews living in Israel-Palestine to bring more people into our cause, take part in educational activities, and engage in nonviolent activism in collaboration with our Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli partners. We grant diaspora Jews accessibility to what’s happening in Israel-Palestine and to other anti-occupation activism, which can be daunting given that neither Arabic, Hebrew, nor cultural competency come naturally.

    We were founded in 2012 in Israel-Palestine by diaspora Jewish activists to create a coalition that includes people with different stances on Zionism and what the solutions to the conflict should be. We are all equal members of a community that seeks to work alongside those fighting the occupation on the ground. We do this work with an intentional effort to minimize hierarchy among ourselves. We also work with and learn from our Palestinian partners, whose leadership in the struggle is essential.

    All That’s Left, delegations from the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, and other groups made up of international activists demonstrate the growing coalition of Jews who originate outside of Israel and are hungry to fight for what they know is right. They come with different knowledge and perspectives, and they want — and need — to connect to each other.

    Like many of my American-Jewish peers, I grew up being told that Israel was a home for me. In my case, it actually became one. The sabbatical year my family spent in Israel was life-defining. I have joyful memories from my childhood of living in Jerusalem every summer, and Israel’s centrality was reinforced over and over again during summer camp and my day school education. These childhood lessons contributed to my decision to move to and live in Jerusalem at this point in my life.

    Similarly, my rearing was heightened with lessons of social justice — of standing up and fighting for what was right and rejecting what was wrong. I knew the sting of xenophobia, anti-Semitism and otherness, and so I must work to ensure that no one else ever feels it.

    But this connection to Israel and my understanding of justice are hard to reconcile. During our action to repair the road on May 3, cognitive dissonance abounded, but I did what I could to remain focused on the plain and present reality of the moment — no matter how disturbing it might be.

    Previous Coverage
  • Coalition paves way for Palestinian homecoming after 20-year displacement
  • Along with our Palestinian partners in the villages of Susiya, Umm Al-Khair, A-Tuwani and elsewhere, we watched in anger as the IDF demolished homes in Area C — a part of the West Bank that’s under Israeli military control — and violently responded to our simple attempts at filling in potholes.

    Nevertheless, we will continue to bear witness to these hateful acts. We will livestream, post pictures, tweet, hashtag and enact every nonviolent action we can think of — however big or small — so that those who can’t be there alongside us can also see the cruelty.

    We refuse to stand idly by as the Palestinians we live alongside face ongoing violence, and we will use our bodies and the privileges they carry to do all we can to defend them. These are the same people who welcome us into their villages and homes. They make us tea, feed us pita and laugh with us while we work with them to rehabilitate their homes.

    When Jews living in the diaspora and those living in Israel come together, we make a formidable force. When groups like All That’s Left, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, and other groups from abroad work in collaboration with each other, both our Judaism and our activism are strengthened. And when we work under the guidance of our Palestinian partners — with whom we have been able to cultivate longstanding relationships — we forge a more powerful and just movement.

    There’s an importance in cultivating relationships with each other. After the army violently evacuated us, we went to a nearby village where our partners live in the South Hebron Hills. Activists from the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and All That’s Left were intermixing, sharing food and stories. People used to this common violence shared their coping tactics and their trauma with newcomers who were processing what had just happened. Though all were upset, shaken and angry, there was genuine camaraderie born from difficulty.

    The army may have tried to halt our work, and our collaboration, but our partnership began long before and will assuredly continue long after.

    Vision is finally on the rise in U.S. politics

    Our country’s political discourse is becoming more interesting. On May 16, Washington governor and presidential candidate Jay Inslee released a progressive $9 trillion-plus “Evergreen Economy” plan.

    By proposing a dramatic response to the climate crisis, Inslee joins a few Democratic presidential candidates already supporting the Green New Deal. Both proposals challenge the Democratic leadership’s rigid adherence to incrementalism and their belief that — no matter how urgent the problem — it’s best to avoid offending the 1 percent with policies that can make a difference.

    We saw that principle operating in 2009 when Democrats controlled both Congress and the White House. Their response to an economy heading for the cliff: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which focused on bailing out Wall Street.

    When President Obama urged a second stimulus that would bail out Main Street in towns across the United States, his party refused. The Democrats thereby laid the groundwork for the Trump victory seven years later.

    Incrementalism also stopped President Obama in relation to climate. The Recovery Act included some small support for renewable energy. President Obama asked then-Sen. John Kerry to put together a major climate bill. (The Democrats at that time had the majority in both houses of Congress.) Kerry tried, but could not get his Senate colleagues on board. The growing climate crisis wasn’t enough to risk their relationship with the economic elite.

    How U.S. activists became so vision-averse

    Historically, radical and progressive social movements that have made the biggest difference did their vision work — going beyond protest to describe the systemic changes that would result in more justice, peace and equality.

    Even though the anti-vision “fearful ‘50s” had a hamstringing effect, the mass movements of the 1960s and ‘70s encouraged some growth of vision. School reformers re-imagined education, environmentalist and feminist writers generated utopias, black activists engaged in neighborhood renewal, community policing and alternative institution building. The vision work was not robust enough to stimulate a movement of movements, but growth did happen.

    The widespread use of nonviolent direct action campaigns in the ‘60s and ‘70s put movements on the offensive and produced major victories. Alarmed, the 1 percent organized a counter-offensive.

    In 1981 President Ronald Reagan fired a shot across the bow of the movements. He broke the air traffic controllers’ union, signaling what billionaire Warren Buffett later described to the New York Times as a “class war” that his class started.

    In response, most progressive movements went on the defensive, trying to hold on to previously-achieved gains. Going on the defensive was a tragic mistake.

    LGBTQ activists took the opposite strategy. ACT-UP led the charge with militant nonviolent campaigns against Big Pharma, hospitals and the federal government. These campaigns were followed by multiple LGBTQ demands including equal marriage, equality in the military and accessible toilets. While there has never been unity among us for a fully liberatory vision, a critical mass of LGBTQ people stayed on the offensive, with allies, for equal rights. We won victory after victory.

    The sad story for most U.S. movements since 1980 has been defeat after defeat, which is to be expected when movements go on the defensive. The work of visioning correspondingly lapsed. Movements focused on protests instead of vision-led direct action campaigns, and popular culture trended toward dystopia.

    The re-birth of visioning

    The blockbuster “Black Panther” film signaled in popular culture a turn-around on vision. Artists created an Afro-centric utopia, and the popular response in 2018 was overwhelming.

    Previous Coverage
  • ‘A Vision for Black Lives’ is a vision for everyone
  • Earlier, in 2016, social activists led the charge when the Movement for Black Lives issued its vision. Dozens of organizations signed on, even though the vision’s breadth and boldness meant that the signers wouldn’t necessarily agree with every sentence.

    Also in 2016 came Solutionary Rail, envisioning a massive, solar-based reinvention of industrial transportation that would put new economic life into a rural America that had concluded, correctly, that the Democrats abandoned them. A year later, in 2017, Popular Resistance convened a gathering that wrote “The People’s Agenda,” which grew out of the work — and organizers involved in — Occupy Washington, D.C.

    Those are just the ones I’m aware of. There may well be other collective vision-writing projects released in the United States that have escaped my attention.  

    Vermont initiates multi-level vision work

    At about the same time, a Middlebury, Vermont “huddle” group concerned with climate was reading Naomi Klein’s book “No Is Not Enough,” which describes a Canadian visionary process known as The Leap Manifesto. The huddle turned to my book, “Viking Economics,” to learn about the role of vision in the Scandinavian social movements that waged successful nonviolent revolutions and are leaders in climate today.

    The Nordics were emboldened by the early Nobel Prize-winning work of economist Gunnar Myrdal, who asserted that classical economics had its priorities all wrong when it came to capital and labor. Myrdal believed an economy should center ordinary people — workers, farmers and small shopkeepers — and use capital as a resource to further their well-being. His model was the opposite of “trickle down.” Take care of the grassroots, using capital for the common good. It’s OK to have a market, but regulate it highly and make sure a large part of the economy is owned by the people.

    That’s the vision that makes the Nordic track record superior to free market capitalism, even in economic metrics: higher worker productivity, more start-ups, more patents, a higher percentage of the people in the labor force, and the virtual elimination of poverty.

    In 2018, the Middlebury huddle group organized a Vision for Vermont Summit, and over a hundred people from all parts of the state gathered for a weekend at Middlebury College to launch a visioning process.

    This May, a year later, I went to Middlebury to join the Vermonters as they reviewed and celebrated their work. We heard from Middlebury professor Jon Isham’s students who interviewed small farmers, racial minorities, migrants and others who can easily be marginalized in the visioning process.

    Their draft vision is broader than the Green New Deal but, in my view, the two are compatible. Middlebury’s Sunrise Movement is proposing to work with the Vision for Vermont group to go to the Vermont legislature with specific proposals related to the Green New Deal.

    The Vermont process generated synergy from an activist/academic collaboration. Community organizer Fran Putnam, along with members of the huddle group, worked closely with faculty and students. The students found that the project built their skills and conceptual grasp, and realized their results have policy implications.

    Activists and academics in other states may want to experiment with the model that seems to be evolving in Vermont. Not only are local thought leaders brought together on a state level to draft a vision, but an extra effort is taken to include marginal grassroots voices, through interviewing. The interviews can lay the foundation for relationship and further movement-building.  

    The state-level vision can be refined with an eye to the visions being developed on a national level, like that of the Movement for Black Lives. One question the drafters can ask is: “Now that we have our principles clear, what are the structures that need to be in place to implement the principles? For example, if we assert that health care is a right for all, what is our preferred structure to get that done?”  

    Some already-developed national visions will help to answer that question.

    Vision work leads to even more practical outcomes when, as in Vermont, advocacy groups begin to generate specific proposals to take to state legislators. Legislative outcomes are often inadequate, the result of “sausage-making.” If, however, the proposals come from a larger, coherent vision grounded at the grassroots, and are backed up by a movement that knows the value of nonviolent direct action, they can accelerate to a living revolution.

    Populist alliances of ‘cowboys and Indians’ are protecting rural lands

    This article was first published by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

    The sea of red on recent election maps make it look like rural areas are uniformly populated by Republicans. And conventional wisdom suggests that those Americans are largely conservative populists who question many government regulations and do not welcome cultural diversity.

    But the growing influence of Native American nations in some rural areas is starting to change that picture. Empowered by their treaty rights, they are beginning to shift the values of their white neighbors toward a populism that cuts across racial and cultural lines to challenge large corporations.

    I’m a geographer who studies the relationships between tribes and rural white farmers, ranchers and fishers. In my book “Unlikely Alliances: Native Nations and White Communities Join to Defend Rural Lands,” I relate what I learned through dozens of interviews with Native Americans and their non-Native allies who described how the tribes are fusing the power of their sovereignty with the populist grievances of the tribes’ historic enemies.

    By teaming up to defend the place they all call home, they are protecting their lands and waters for all.

    (Zoltán Grossman) Unlikely alliances

    Ever since Native Americans began to reassert their treaty rights to harvest fish, water and other natural resources, starting in the 1960s in the Pacific Northwest, a far-right populist backlash from some rural whites has sparked racial conflicts over those resources.

    But starting in the late 1970s, some Native nations across the country joined with their rural white neighbors — including people who had been their adversaries in treaty conflicts — to block threats to rural lands and waters, such as mining, pipeline, dam, nuclear waste and military projects.

    The alliances joined tribes and rural, mostly white, Americans to confront common enemies. They helped whites in these areas learn more about indigenous cultural traditions, legal powers and ecological values. Tribal members also learned that their neighbors valued the local environment, and wanted to protect it from outside corporations.

    In South Dakota and Nebraska, for example, a group called the Cowboy Indian Alliance has, since 2013, brought together Lakota and other tribes with white ranchers and farmers to stop the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The alliance drew from earlier coalitions that stopped uranium and coal projects and a bombing range in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

    Farmers and ranchers in these two deep-red states opposed the use of eminent domain to seize their private property for the pipeline. That land had originally belonged to the tribes.

    As they worked together against the pipeline, the tribes influenced some white neighbors to protect sacred burial sites on their property.

    “We come from two cultures that clashed over land,” Alliance spokeswoman Faith Spotted Eagle observed. “This is a healing for the generations.”

    Fossil fuel and mining projects

    In Washington and Oregon, Native nations are using their treaty rights to stop plans to build coal and oil export terminals. The same largely white fishing groups in that region that used to aggressively protest treaty rights now back the tribes in protecting fisheries from oil and coal shipping, and in restoring fish habitat damaged by development.

    The Lummi Nation, near Bellingham, Washington, led the fight that staved off a coal terminal in a sacred burial ground. The Quinault Nation on the Pacific coast led an alliance that helped kill plans to build oil export infrastructure that would have threatened salmon and shellfish.

    The mostly white working-class residents of former logging towns in the area, who have strongly opposed timber industry regulations, have worked more easily with local tribes than with urban environmental groups to protect their local economy from fossil fuels.

    “The relationships we have with our neighbors arose out of a relationship of much division, strife, and conflict,” Quinault President Fawn Sharp told me. Through that, she added, “they’ve come to know who we are.”

    Leaders of Washington tribes and fishing groups speak at Shared Waters, Shared Values Rally against Grays Harbor oil terminals in 2016. (Zoltán Grossman/CC BY-SA)

    In Wisconsin and Michigan, Ojibwe and Menominee tribes are fighting to prevent new mining projects, joined by their rural white neighbors, because those projects threaten fishing streams, wild rice beds and burial sites.

    As recently as the early 1990s, many white anglers in northern Wisconsin were violently protesting Ojibwe treaty rights to spear fish, harassing and physically attacking Native Americans after anti-treaty groups led to them to believe that tribal fishing threatened the local tourism economy.

    But the tribes presented their treaties as a legal obstacle to the mines that both groups viewed as a threat to the fishery.

    The Midwest Treaty Network convinced many anglers to cooperate with tribes and environmental groups to join in the effort to stymie plans to build a copper and zinc mine near Crandon, Wisconsin. They won a protracted fight in 2003. The anglers had realized that if they kept arguing with the tribes over fishing rights, there might not be any fish left.

    More recently, the Bad River Tribe on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Superior led an alliance that stopped the Penokees iron mine in 2015, upstream from wild rice beds culturally valuable to the tribe.

    And the Menominee Nation and its allies are trying to block the Back Forty zinc and gold mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

    A 2014 protest against the Penokees mine near the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation in northern Wisconsin. (Flickr/Joe Brusky) Unity through diversity

    One advantage that sovereign tribal nations have in these battles is that they can draw federal agencies and courts into the fray in a way that local and state governments cannot.

    Tribes are in the fight for the long haul, because the survival of their cultures is at stake. They can’t simply move away from environmental hazards, because they have harvesting rights only within their treaty territory, and their identities and cultures are rooted in a particular place.

    Some areas of the most intense treaty conflicts, where the tribes most strongly asserted their rights, developed the earliest and most successful tribal alliances with white farmers, ranchers and fishers.

    In these areas, rural populists have begun to see the tribes as more effective guardians of their local economies from large corporations than their state, local or federal governments. Wisconsin fishing guide Wally Cooper had spoken at rallies against Ojibwe treaty rights. He told me he changed his mind “because Native Americans can stop” the Crandon mine that threatened the rivers that he loved.

    The success of these unlikely alliances challenges political stereotypes. Some progressives tend to dismiss rural whites as recalcitrant and unwilling to treat people who are different as equals.

    Many conservatives – along with some liberals – presume that highlighting cultural differences through identity politics gets in the way of unifying people who otherwise share economic or environmental goals.

    But celebrating differences and unity can be compatible. Native sovereignty can protect land and water for all rural people, and help build an anti-corporate movement that crosses cultural lines. If even cowboys and Indians can find common ground, maybe there is hope for what I call cross-cultural populism.

    #FreeBlackMamas bails black mothers from jail for Mother’s Day

    In 1870, abolitionist Julia Ward Howe issued her Mother’s Day proclamation: a call for mothers across the United States to end war.
    It was five years since the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment, which banned chattel slavery with one notable exception: involuntary servitude is allowed as punishment for a crime.

    Nearly 150 years later, Howe’s dream of ending war has yet to become a reality. And the 13th Amendment has become more significant as, over the past 40 years, the number of people being sent to prison has skyrocketed. But accompanying these soaring numbers have been calls for abolition of another kind — to abolish prisons. It’s a call that’s been gaining traction and popularity over the past decade.

    Among the numerous tactics taken by abolitionists is one focusing specifically on mothers, particularly mothers of color, who have been hard hit by both poverty and tough-on-crime policies. It also challenges the country’s bail system, in which people who cannot afford to pay bail must stay in jail for months — and sometimes years — as their cases slowly wind their way through the court system.

    Even a few days in jail can result in losing one’s job, housing and even custody of one’s children.

    When a person appears in court after being arrested, the judge has the option to release them, jail them until trial or set bail, which is a monetary amount that they or their family will have to pay. The reasoning behind bail is not that the person is deemed a risk to themselves or their communities. Instead, it’s based on the logic that, by paying a certain amount, the person is more likely to return for subsequent court dates. If they fail to appear, they forfeit that money. But in reality, bail serves as a two-tiered system in which people with money are allowed to prepare for their court date at home, while those without money must languish in jail.

    On any given day, 462,000 people (of all genders and races) are held in jail pretrial, meaning that they are currently awaiting their day in court. The majority are jailed simply because they cannot afford to post bail — or a money amount assigned by the judge ostensibly to ensure that a person returns to court.

    Being jailed can mean the difference between an acquittal or a conviction. Being in jail prevents a person from meeting with their attorney, showing up to court in their own clothes, or gathering evidence or witnesses that could bolster their defense. People in jail are more likely to plead guilty; 94 percent of state convictions (and 97 percent of federal convictions) are because of plea bargains.

    But even a few days in jail can result in losing one’s job, housing and even custody of one’s children.

    An action for #FreeBlackMamas in Nashville. (Twitter/SONG)

    In the United States, #FreeBlackMamas is entering its third year. The idea started with Mary Hooks, the executive director of Southerners for New Ground, or SONG, an LGBTQ organization. Hooks proposed a mass bailout of black mothers in time to spend Mother’s Day with their families instead of languishing in jail cells. The call spread across the country and over a dozen organizations — from reproductive justice groups to organizations focused on mass incarceration and criminalization — took up the call. They raised awareness about bail, as well as funds needed to pay it. Then they sat in courtrooms, clerks’ offices and jail waiting rooms — sometimes for hours on end — in order to post the bail that would allow mothers to be home with their families in time for Mother’s Day.

    Why black mothers?

    The number of women in jails across the United States has increased 14 times between 1970 and 2014. Of those women, 44 percent are black (though black women make up only 8 percent of the country’s population). Eighty percent of women (of all races) are also mothers.

    In 2017, #FreeBlackMamas organizers raised over $1 million in two months, enough to post bail for 106 mothers nationwide. Not only did they bail these mothers out of jail, but they also connected them with support services — such as housing and counseling — while also providing transportation to their follow-up court dates. Their efforts sparked other bailouts, including a Father’s Day bailout and a Black August bailout, which freed 71 other people. In October 2018, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights launched a two-week bailout of women and minors held pretrial on Rikers Island. They spent over $1.2 million posting bail for 105 people, ages 16 to 62 with bails that ranged from $750 to $100,000.

    Previous Coverage
  • How organizers raised over $233,000 in one day to bail hundreds out of jail
  • This year, groups and organizers in 17 different states — including New York, Georgia, California, Mississippi, Colorado and Texas — have committed to bailing out black mothers before Sunday. Each group has its own fundraiser and many have already raised tens of thousands of dollars. So far, 70 mothers have been freed in 22 cities.

    In New York City, VOCAL-NY — a grassroots organizing group of people affected by HIV, the drug war and mass incarceration — has already posted bail for three women. The group noted that one mother was five months pregnant and might have faced the possibility of giving birth behind bars. Another had a $2,500 bail set for shoplifting. The third had a bail that took 24 hours to process. In Philadelphia, organizers have bailed out seven black mothers.

    Bailouts aren’t limited to Mother’s Day or holidays. In some states, organizations have arisen to bail people out all year round. The Massachusetts Bail Fund has been posting bail for the past six years. In April alone, they paid nearly $48,000 to bail 100 people out of jail. Their efforts have also brought the need to eliminate cash bail into conversations about criminal justice, including in Boston’s recent prosecutorial race. The winner, Rachel Rollins, signed onto a letter calling for the end of cash bail. She also promised that her office would decline to prosecute 15 low-level crimes, though organizers say she has yet to keep that promise.

    In the neighboring Berkshire County, prosecutor Andrea Harrington has said that she would stop requesting bail for minor offenses. In Middlesex County, Marian Ryan, who has been the county prosecutor since 2014, issued a public memo stating that she would stop holding people for misdemeanors.

    “We’ve changed the conversation in Massachusetts, period,” said Bail Fund organizer Mallory Hanora. In other words, the collective and sustained effort of groups such as the Bail Fund and Families for Justice as Healing — an organization of formerly incarcerated women in the Boston area — has made cash bail impossible to ignore in criminal justice conversations.

    At the same time, organizers’ efforts have brought more people into conversations about bail. They’re teaming up with Wee the People, an anti-oppression education program for children, for this year’s Black Mamas’ Bailout. The collaboration isn’t just fundraising and posting bail. It’s also discussing with the program’s youth about the incarceration of mothers and grandmothers, as well as the federal Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, drafted with input from formerly incarcerated women and aimed at improving conditions in women’s jails and prisons.  

    SONG leaders chained themselves to the Durham County Jail in North Carolina on May 9. (Twitter/@bear_peretz)

    Across the globe, in Western Australia, formerly incarcerated women and prison abolitionists have been challenging another way in which people, particularly Aboriginal women, are jailed for lack of money. In Western Australia, people are jailed for unpaid fines. These fines can be for actions as insignificant as not registering a pet dog or getting on public transportation without a ticket. But then there are additional fees and costs added to the original fine, which can bring it from the low hundreds to the low thousands of dollars. No payment plan is allowed — the debt must be paid in full. If a person does not — or cannot — pay, the fine becomes a warrant. Every $250 owed becomes a day spent in jail. Western Australia is the only state that jails people for unpaid fines, and the majority of people jailed are Aboriginal women.

    In 2014, the practice briefly made headlines when Ms. Dhu, a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman, died while jailed for $3,362 in unpaid fines. She would have had to spend 14.5 days in jail, but she died two days after her arrest.

    In January 2019, Sisters Inside, an organization that works with women in Australian prisons, began their #FreeThePeople campaign. Organizers identify women who are either currently jailed or at risk of being jailed for unpaid fines. Then, they pay those fines.

    How do they find these women? First, they put word about the campaign to Aboriginal elders, Aboriginal organizations and non-governmental organizations, asking them to help identify women with unpaid fines. Sometimes the groups will give them names — other times, the women will contact them directly. Once they have their names, they begin the process of paying the fines so that arrests don’t happen or the women can go free. (Unlike the U.S. bail system, payment for these warrants can be done over the phone or online.)

    As of mid-March, 10 weeks after beginning the campaign, Sisters Inside had already paid the fines for over 100 women. Some of these fines aren’t cheap: “It’s worked out to an average of $3,300 [to] $3,500 per woman,” said Deb Kilroy, the director of Sisters Inside and founder of the #FreeThePeople campaign. But some are much more. Kilroy recounted the story of one woman, a 23-year-old fleeing domestic violence with three children under the age of six, who had more than 10 fines adding up to $8,100. But with $9,500 in additional fees and costs, she was looking at paying $17,500 or spending 70 days in jail. Neither was an option she could afford.

    “I’ve spoken to Aboriginal mothers who’ve had their fines paid in full,” Kilroy tweeted. “I told them they can’t be arrested. They cheered, screamed & cried. They’re overwhelmed at donors’ generosity. One even asked, ‘What’s the catch?’ To which I said ‘No catch you’re free.’”

    #FreethePeople has raised over $391,000 over the past four months. But here’s the catch: In the United States, bail fund organizers can expect most, if not all, of the money posted for bail to be returned once the person completes their court case. (In some places, a non-refundable administrative fee is taken out of the bail amount.) In Western Australia, however, the court-imposed fines, fees and costs are non-refundable, meaning that Sisters Inside must constantly be raising money to keep women out of jail.

    That could be a Sisyphean task if not for the second prong of the #FreeThePeople campaign — advocating to abolish the practice, something that other Australian states have already done. People who donated to #FreeThePeople are encouraged to email the state’s attorney general, John Quigley, to repeal this law. Nearly every one of the 8,000 people who donated during the first two months did so. In response to the flood of emails and the media attention raised by the campaign, Quigley’s office has said that a set of reforms to the law will be introduced in July 2019. Meanwhile, Sisters Inside continues to raise funds and reach out to Aboriginal organizations to pay for women’s freedom.

    In the United States, black mothers who had been freed through #FreeBlackMamas in previous years traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in September to participate in a convening of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. They gathered on stage for the Sunday morning plenary to talk about the importance of being bailed out of jail, of being able to fight the charges against them from the outside, and of not being torn away from their children and loved ones. One mother talked about finding a year-old flier about the Mamas Day Bailout. She called her mother and asked her to call the number listed. The following week, she was bailed out and came home one day before her son was murdered. If not for the bailout, she would not even have had that last day with him.

    Some had never been involved in political advocacy before being bailed out. Now, every one of the women on the stage was deeply involved in anti-prison work, including participating in and organizing this year’s bailouts.

    Drivers strike ahead of Uber’s public offering today

    On May 8, Uber, Lyft and other ride-hail drivers in New York City went offline during morning rush hour, joining over two dozen cities around the world that went on strike ahead of Uber’s initial public offering today. Drivers are demanding higher wages and better working conditions, which they say have deteriorated over the past few years. In New York City, the strike was aimed at pressuring the City Council to pass new legislation on regulating the ride-hailing industry amid Uber and Lyft’s efforts to push for further deregulation and corporate-friendly policies.

    Drivers rallied in front of Uber and Lyft’s Long Island City headquarters in the afternoon and chanted “We want cap now” and “Driver power, union power.” Then, New York Taxi Workers Alliance executive director Bhairavi Desai addressed the crowd.

    “In 2015, when the City Council backed down from capping the number of for-hire vehicles temporarily — straight out of that victory for Uber and Lyft — Wall Street overloaded them with money, which they used to saturate the streets with cars,” Desai said. “By the end of the year in 2015, the streets were flooded. By January 2016, Uber and Lyft started to cut the fares and that was the beginning of the race to the bottom.”

    A few men behind her held signs with the names of six professional drivers that have committed suicide since that time. Through years of organizing, the Taxi Workers Alliance has been able to push New York to regulate the industry more than many other cities around the country. Still, Desai said, drivers face foreclosures, bankruptcy and eviction.

    Since 2010, when Uber first came to New York, the city has become the largest market for the ride-hailing app in the country. Desai pointed out that of the 130,000 for-hire vehicles in the city, around 80,000 are app-based cars, primarily those of Uber and Lyft, which remain empty 42 percent of the time. “There is absolutely no reason beyond corporate greed for why there would be no cap on the number of vehicles,” Desai said.

    She explained that Uber and Lyft have created a “false narrative” around a supply problem, noting that a quarter of all Uber drivers leave the company within a year. Her solution: Treat the workers better. “Regulation is the only thing that will bring stability back to this industry and keep a workforce of 100,000 people from going deeper into poverty.”

    Following a study that found 85 percent of drivers made less than minimum wage, the City Council passed legislation for a minimum of $17.22 per hour before taxes — a victory drivers saw at the end of last year. The City Council also passed legislation to temporarily stop issuing for-hire vehicle licenses for 12 months and is scheduled to hold another vote on a vehicle cap on Aug. 8.

    Previous Coverage
  • New NYC regulations on Uber and Lyft a victory for union organizing
  • Inder Parmar, who’s been driving for Uber for six years says he relies on support from his children, who are now out of college. “Uber used to pay us $2.60 a mile in 2013. Today they pay us $1.25 a mile.” Had his children still been in college,” he told the crowd, “I would most probably have had to sell my house for their college fees.”

    Passing comprehensive legislation at the federal level will prove even more difficult and those organizing for higher pay and increased job security face an uphill battle. A study by the National Employment Law Project notes that companies like Uber and Lyft have followed an aggressive strategy of state interference similar to those pursued by the NRA and tobacco industry.

    The study’s authors wrote that in 2016 “Uber and Lyft lobbyists outnumbered Amazon, Microsoft and Walmart combined.” Many of these efforts were focused on the state and local level. Forty-one states, the study found, have either “overrule[d] or preempt[ed] local regulations” on app-based vehicles and, in two states, “Uber wrote or co-wrote the original drafts of legislation.”

    If it weren’t for the fact that drivers are classified as independent contractors — exempting them from traditional full-time employee benefits like workers compensation, healthcare and the ability to form a union — Uber, with its fleet of three million drivers, would be the world’s largest employer. To put this in perspective, Uber is larger than the United States Department of Defense (2.87 million), the People’s Liberation Army of China (2.5 million), and Walmart (2.2 million).

    With a driver base that large, a coordinated strike is nearly impossible, but the strike was still large enough to generate headlines across the media spectrum — while also raising concerns about the future of the company, as it enters the stock market. Estimates put the IPO at over $80 billion, making it one of the largest in U.S. history. Many within the company are expected to make millions overnight, adding to the $143 million in total compensation that Uber’s top five executives saw last year alone.

    The strike also garnered support from some politicians in Congress who are in more of a position to reign in an industry that sees no limits to its potential growth. Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren were just some of the strike’s supporters in Washington. Last year, Sanders introduced legislation to the Senate revising how the National Labor Relations Act defines “employee” to extend traditional employment rights — like forming a union — to gig economy workers.

    Under the Trump administration, however, the Department of Labor, in a recent statement, reaffirmed the classification of gig economy workers as independent contractors, a move that further empowers tech companies at the expense of drivers across the country.

    “They are making clear that while technology can often be an instrument of progress and efficiency, we cannot allow it to be another corporate weapon against workers,” Sanders wrote in an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle.

    If Uber’s IPO goes anything like Lyft’s — which went public in late March and has since seen its shares plummet — the company’s prospects don’t look good. Worse still is what a flop IPO would mean for workers, who could face more “deactivations,” as they say in Silicon Valley. At this point, the only recourse that drivers have is to keep organizing for a greater share of the company’s revenue through increased regulation, such as the minimum wage passed in New York City.

    Others have proposed more drastic measures. In The Nation, Mike Konczal calls for socializing the company entirely. Uber’s executives contribute very little, he writes, while “workers labor individually, doing the same tasks, so there’s no need for a management class to control their daily operations.” Costs such as insurance, licensing fees and vehicles are already paid for by drivers. The only thing executives really provide is a software platform in the form of a phone app, a negligible cost when considering the approximately 15 million trips drivers complete each day.

    Taking the company from the New York Stock Exchange to being worker-controlled isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, but it would give a whole new meaning to the term sharing economy.

    How LGBTQ people are resisting Bolsonaro’s Brazil through art

    This article was first published by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

    Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil in October 2018 and took office in January 2019. Since then, the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights has chosen to remove the legal protection status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer people. Some politicians are now pushing for a ban on talking about gender diversity and sexual orientation in schools.

    Bathroom laws pertaining to which toilet facilities trans people are allowed to use and bills defining what constitutes a family, same sex marriage and laws enabling trans people to change their legal name are also seen to be under threat.

    Brazil has a reputation as one of the most violent countries in the world and is known as the LGBT “murder capital” – 167 trans people were reported murdered between October 1, 2017 and September 30, 2018 alone. In the lead up to and since Bolsonaro’s election, LGBT hate crime has increased.

    No wonder that many Brazilian LGBTQ people are worried that they are becoming isolated from the rest of the world. Marielle Franco – a young politician who took a strong stance against police violence – was murdered in Rio de Janeiro in March 2018.

    She was a bisexual black woman who grew up in the Maré favela and pushed for social justice for marginalized people in the city. She was reportedly targeted by professional killers.

    In Brazil, military police patrol the streets and are independent from the municipal police who carry out investigations. In March 2019, a year after her murder, it was reported that two ex-military police had been arrested for the killing.

    Theusa Passareli – a 21-year-old art student who identified as genderqueer or non-binary – was murdered in April 2018, killed on their way home from a party.

    Their work was incomplete in Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janiero’s design studio when I visited in November 2018 and will stay to commemorate their memory, as the university and the trans community mourn the murder of another young person.

    Resin on glass by Theusa Passareli.
    Catherine McNamara, Author provided

    A safe place to protest

    I was in Rio for a short residency with the TransArte festival – a three day art show that explores gender identity and sexuality. The festival brings together trans people and allies to exchange ideas, make and share work, and celebrate the strengths of the LGBT community in Brazil within a place of safety.

    It’s not easy to protest when faced with violence, nor is it easy to enjoy culture – particularly for people living in poverty where basic needs are difficult to meet. Trans artists have said that being trans is a barrier to participating in the arts, but “safe spaces” such as the TransArte festival allow protest art to flourish and create opportunities for LGBTQ people to express themselves.

    Trans and LGB artists, activists and educators from Rio de Janeiro and London.
    TransArte Festival Team, Author provided

    A theater company led by trans people created Come As You Are – a series of autobiographical stories with physical theater and improvisation. The stories were about family – supportive and loving family as a source of strength, and familial rejection as a result of being trans.

    They explored life as trans men and women in a culture of toxic masculinity, normativity and police brutality. A photography exhibition of several artists included Bernardo de Castro Gomes, whose work also explored his identity as a black trans man facing intimidation, harassment and violence.

    Queer drag artists such as Le Circo de la Drag spoke about their political performance – using their bodies to resist toxic masculinity and defy the threats of violence they often receive.

    Le Circo de la drag pay tribute to Marielle Franco and Theusa Passareli.
    Marianna Cartaxo, Author provided

    The show Monster, Whore, Bitch – Waldirene’s Dreams, directed by Dandara Vital, compiled the everyday experiences of Brazilian trans people interwoven with a re-telling of the story of Waldirene – the first trans woman to undergo gender reassignment surgery in Brazil in December 1971, at the height of the military dictatorship.

    Resistance is clearly flourishing in Brazil against the odds and not only within festivals like TransArte. A Portuguese translation of Jo Clifford’s play The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven was due to open in Londrina, a city in southern Brazil, but the venue cancelled at the very last moment.

    The lead, a trans woman called Renata Carvalho, received death threats. The company moved to a semi-derelict space where they performed by torchlight instead, despite injunctions from both Pentecostal and Catholic groups to stop the production.

    My own experiences working with the TransArte festival team in Rio have shown me the value of safe places free from judgement and hostility. The people we worked with told us that being there in solidarity with the trans communities of Rio felt like a powerful action in itself, resisting the culture of violence that thrives in Bolsonaro’s Brazil.

    What if most people love violence?

    For decades, I’ve investigated and promoted nonviolent action as a means to help create a better world. Although there are signs of hope, the obstacles remain enormous. For example, military systems seem as powerful as ever, and nationalism is not fading away. The capacity of humans to harm each other and the environment is frightening. Just think of child soldiers, torture and climate change.

    Because the problems seem so huge, I’ve long been on the lookout for insights about what activists are up against, including deeply rooted driving forces. Recently, I made contact with Steven James Bartlett, a philosopher and psychologist who has spent his career investigating dysfunctional features of the thought and behavior of “normal” humans. One of his books, “The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil,” offers startling assessments that I think are relevant to nonviolence.

    “The Pathology of Man,” which came out in 2005, is the result of a decade’s immersion in writings and research related to human evil. To be clear, the word “man” in the title refers to the human species, not just males, and — in addressing evil — Bartlett develops a scientific rather than a religious definition. For him, evil refers to the human capacity to harm and destroy other humans, as well as other species and the environment, which supports all life.

    “The Pathology of Man” is a mammoth work, addressing a wide range of writings and evidence relating to human psychology and behavior. Bartlett examines the ideas of psychiatrists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, the work of mathematician and peace researcher Lewis Fry Richardson, the observations of ethologist Konrad Lorenz, and many others who are less well known today. He examines evidence from genocide (especially the Holocaust), war, terrorism and ecological destruction.

    Bartlett’s conclusion is stark and disturbing. He says humans are pathogenic, namely destructively harmful, towards themselves as well as the environment. The pathological features of human behavior and thinking enable violence, cruelty and ecological destruction.

    Reading through the extensive evidence and careful arguments in “The Pathology of Man,” I decided Bartlett’s ideas deserve greater attention. The book did not have a big impact when it was published over a decade ago, in part because its message is so disturbing. Yet, to be more effective in bringing about positive change, it is valuable to understand the dark side of the human species. Inspired by Bartlett’s study of evil, I offer here some insights relevant to nonviolent campaigners.

    Lessons from the Holocaust

    The Holocaust was not the deadliest or the quickest genocide, but it is the best documented. It is useful to remember that Germany in the 1930s and 1940s was one of the most “civilized” cultures in the world, with advanced technologies and leading artists and intellectuals.

    It seems that, in Nazi Germany, to actively resist evil was to be different from the norm.

    Bartlett examines evidence about the psychology of people in Germany during the genocide, looking at five groups: leaders, doctors, bystanders, refusers and resisters. Nazi leaders engineered the Holocaust, yet despite overseeing horrific deeds, most of them were psychologically normal. Likewise, most of the doctors involved in the genocide were psychologically normal — in fact, many were model citizens in their home life. Bystanders were those Germans who knew about the killings but did nothing. They constituted the majority of the population, with the same psychological diversity.

    Then there were refusers. When men were called up to join killing squads, they could decline to participate, and there were few penalties for opting out. Yet most of these raw recruits decided to remain, seemingly preferring conformity in killing over nonconformity in refusing. Finally, there were resisters — those who actively opposed the genocide. They were a small minority.

    Bartlett’s conclusion from this, and much other evidence, is that most of those who participate in or tolerate evil are psychologically normal. It seems that, in Nazi Germany, to actively resist evil was to be different from the norm.

    Hannah Arendt, in writing about Nazi Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann, famously introduced the concept of the banality of evil. Bartlett says the problem is broader than this, and has referred to “the evil of banality.”

    Mass murder, according to Bartlett, draws on the satisfaction humans derive from killing others. This is connected to the psychological process of projection, in which negative aspects of one’s own psyche are denied and instead attributed to others, who then may be attacked. In collective violence, projection is allied to the human urge to conform to the in-group. The out-group, or the enemy, becomes the embodiment of evil and is seen as deserving extreme adverse treatment, while the in-group is seen as innocent, and being part of it is satisfying.

    Lt. Col. Dave Grossman raises a noteworthy counter-argument in his 1995 book “On Killing.” He points to a military study that found most U.S. soldiers on the front lines during World War II did not fire their rifles at the enemy, even when their lives were in danger. Grossman found evidence from many earlier wars of the same reluctance to kill, concluding that there is “within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man.” This applies especially in front-line combat — killing at a distance, for example by using artillery or aerial bombing, generates far less revulsion.

    Furthermore, as Bartlett notes, Grossman reported that the U.S. Army developed new training techniques using operant conditioning that ensure that nearly all soldiers kill, leading to a dramatic increase in the rate of PTSD among veterans. Many of these methods — such as playing violent video games that associate killing with pleasure — are widely used throughout U.S. society, influencing children and adults.

    War as a ‘functional pathology’

    Bartlett cites ample evidence that most of those who participate in and support war are normal. His observations highlight features of human emotions and social systems that may be familiar to peace activists but are revealing when placed in the context of a study of evil.

    War is like a disease that most people don’t want to cure because it provides great psychological satisfactions.

    As well as examining the psychological factors that enable war, Bartlett also looks at the factors that restrain people from resisting war. His conclusion is that wars, and war-making, continue because most people choose not to do anything differently. For example, consider the wars in Afghanistan over several decades, at least since the Soviet invasion in 1979. Since then, most people in the countries involved — including Pakistan, the Soviet Union, the United States, the United Kingdom and many others — have not made special efforts to stop the war-making. Most continue in their usual roles: only a few engage in agitation against the war.

    Bartlett observes that “If men and women were desirous of peace, they would invest significant resources to further the causes of peace, but hardly a country in the world reserves a significant part of its national budget to study ways to foster peace.” To this might be added that budgets for the military are enormous, while there is only minuscule funding for nonviolent action. Few people pay much attention to military budgets or spend time exploring nonviolent alternatives. It is this very complacency that enables the evil of war systems to continue.

    Bartlett’s conclusion is that war is a “functional pathology.” In other words, it is like a disease that most people don’t want to cure because, when it flares up, it provides great psychological satisfactions. For soldiers, there is an intense experience of bonding, so strong that many remember combat as the most meaningful part of their lives. For those on the home front, war can provide meaning too. Being part of the cause puts humdrum daily life into the shadows, replacing it with something more dramatic and urgent.

    Peace activists have long had to deal with the power of patriotism. It is a psychological force seemingly immune to rational argument, and the label “unpatriotic” is the ultimate insult. Patriotism provides a way of merging with the whole, of relinquishing one’s own responsibility and putting one’s trust in a greater power. The attachment of patriotism to organized violence is one of the major psychological obstacles to ending war.

    For most people, vicarious experiences of violence provide satisfaction, including violent video games, war movies, violent sporting events and even the daily news. Most people are willing to watch lethal violence, finding it thrilling or satisfying, especially when the baddies are the ones being hurt. Few are so repelled that they have to look away. Fictional portrayals of violence, from cartoons to murder mysteries, are seen as exciting and enticing, not repulsive.

    What is it about humans that enables the rise and perpetuation of institutions that harness and amplify some of the worst sides of human behavior and thinking?

    War provides an escape from everyday morality. Religious leaders preach about the sanctity of life, but few do much to resist the war system, revealing how moral principles can be compromised to enable preparation for mass violence. Bartlett concludes that war “is one of the most evident expressions of human evil” because it causes enormous harm, provides justification for killing without penalty, suspends compassion, fosters hatred and cruelty, and is a source of meaning and gratification.

    It has been argued that — especially prior to the development of agriculture and industry — many human societies have shown the capacity for living in harmony with each other and the environment. So is human destructiveness primarily a result of current social institutions, including states, militaries and massive corporations?

    Bartlett recognizes that there are numerous examples showing that humans have the capacity to do good. His argument is that there is also a widespread capacity for evil. Some social institutions, such as the military, seem designed to harness and facilitate that capacity. So it might be asked, what is it about humans that enables the rise and perpetuation of institutions that harness and amplify some of the worst sides of human behavior and thinking?

    No ready alternative or simple fix?

    Bartlett does not propose any solutions to the problem of human evil, in part because he does not want to provide false hope. Indeed, provocatively, he argues that hope is part of the problem because it causes people to avoid acknowledging the immensity of the challenge.

    The central lesson from Bartlett’s study is that the capacity for cruelty and violence is deeply rooted in human thinking and feeling. War and violence provide many deep satisfactions to people who are psychologically normal, and there is no ready alternative. No simple fix, not even the promotion of nonviolent action, is likely to be effective in the short run.

    In the early 1980s, when I first became involved in a group advocating nonviolent alternatives to the military, I imagined that significant progress was possible, even recognizing that social institutions are highly entrenched. Today, despite the efforts of many dedicated campaigners, the military seems just as widely accepted and alternatives just as far away.

    To a large extent, acceptance of systems based on violence is widespread due to indoctrination, including thinking of the world as necessarily divided into countries, each with a central government that uses force to maintain power. The indoctrination includes acceptance, and often passion, for overcoming those designated as enemies. Also important is the constant attention to violence in news and entertainment.

    Those who make efforts against systems of evil may need to be psychologically different from the norm by being morally intelligent.

    To foster development of different attitudes and values, there are several possibilities. One is interventions to create a different media environment, one that counters nationalism, domination over nature, enemy-creation and violence as the solution. There have been many worthwhile initiatives, but the challenge of creating full-scale alternatives — from child rearing to rituals honoring contributions to society — is immense.

    One lesson from history is that persuading people that war and violence are bad is inadequate. Knowledge and logic are not enough. If they were, the horrors of war, and the devastation of a future nuclear war, would be more than adequate to impel masses of people to join peace movements. Warning people that nuclear war could annihilate much of the world’s population should be all it takes. However, despite warnings since the early 1980s that nuclear war could trigger a globally devastating “nuclear winter,” most people take no special action against nuclear arsenals.

    Awareness of the damaging effects of violence is not enough to turn more than a few people towards a rejection of violence. The implication, following Bartlett’s analysis, is that those who make efforts against systems of evil may need to be different from the norm via greater moral intelligence. Beyond distinguishing right from wrong, this means having the capacity to link reason and emotion to enable doing good. Morally intelligent people need to be able to act against oppressive authorities rather than going along with the crowd. They need to be willing to stand up to persecution.

    Rather than just telling people about nonviolence, it may be more effective to show them through actions. Activists have long known that participation in social action is a powerful way to forge commitment. Social movement scholars have shown that more people join action groups by being invited along by a current member than by moral outrage. Essentially, this is to rely on the common human urge to join with others. This is fine, but insufficient, because systems based on violence, such as the military, use the same techniques and have far more resources to deploy them.

    Schools promote intellectual development, but there is no institution systematically helping people to achieve the most advanced forms of moral development — ones that involve seeing beyond self-interest, attachments to organizations and countries and our species. The challenge for nonviolence supporters is to help develop forms of learning through practice that foster moral development. For example, it would be useful to study whether extensive training and practice in nonviolent action causes participants, in other circumstances, to become more compassionate to humans and nature.

    What can be done to counter the satisfactions many humans gain from participating directly or vicariously in violence, and the willingness of most humans to tolerate the existence of social and technological systems designed to cause death and destruction? Almost certainly, nonviolence is part of the answer. Participating in nonviolent actions can provide powerful psychological satisfactions and may be an alternative to the appeal of violence. However, despite the dedication and sacrifice by millions of people over the years, there has not yet been a mass shift in commitments to reject violent systems in favor of nonviolent action.

    Nonviolent strategists emphasize the importance of innovation, of testing out new methods of struggle. To this should be added a wider search for innovative methods of broadening participation in challenges to human evil and the systems built on it.

    Why now is the time to connect the pipeline fights

    A remarkable chance exists right now to accelerate the climate justice movement. President Trump is moving to speed up pipeline construction just as the public is waking up to the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. This is exactly the moment to move pipeline fights to a new level, by meeting the need for networking.

    One of the authors of this article, George Lakey, encountered this need while touring the country for his new book “How We Win.” He found people active in their local fight to stop an oil or gas pipeline and asked how they connect with other campaigns. He also asked how they learn about what works and how their local campaign links to the national situation. He heard the same answer over and over: They found it difficult to connect widely or get a big picture.

    This means local organizers are likely doing things that have previously failed when tried by other pipeline campaigns. It also means they may be inventing effective new methods that others have no way to hear about.

    Locals told George that the few websites reporting on campaigns do it selectively, more with an eye toward fundraising than to what is useful for local organizers. What’s more, they aren’t finding a wide and comprehensive view of how the many pipeline campaigns are doing.

    In short, local campaigners can’t find out what works and what doesn’t, and aren’t gaining a larger sense of the collective effort of struggles like their own.

    Some sharing does happen

    Some people bring lessons from one campaign to another, as bees bring pollen to plants. One such person is Rose Tompkins, a Sioux activist who got involved with the Standing Rock campaign in 2016 — then brought the knowledge she gained from that experience to local pipeline struggles in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In one place she worked with white people to re-frame their inclination toward using specifically Christian terms, urging them to broaden their movement to include spiritual people. That way, people like her, who associate Christianity with colonization, would feel more welcome. In another situation, she was able to support indigenous tribal leaders whose leadership was disrespected by some white people.

    Judy Wicks, the other author of this article, also used her experience at Standing Rock to help pollinate subsequent campaigns. After finding inspiration in the thousand-year-old Lakota prophecy of a Black Snake that comes out of the ground to lay waste to the land, she came home to Philadelphia and saw her state in a new light — namely, as the center of fracking and pipeline construction. She also found that others in her community were stimulated by the drama in North Dakota. So she engaged in civil disobedience and got arrested with Lancaster Against Pipelines — a campaign organized by local people who’d been to Standing Rock. Since then, pipeline struggles have played a key role in Pennsylvania politics. In fact, eight new officials were elected to the state legislature in 2018 after refusing to accept fossil fuel money.

    One of the things Judy brought with her to Pennsylvania was the Standing Rock practice of connecting disruptive actions with the spirit of love. While in North Dakota, she witnessed — after a spurt of police violence — indigenous campaigners parading by the sheriff’s office in “forgiveness marches.” Judy also met indigenous youths who’d learned that police were short on supplies. Because campaign supporters at that time had sent an abundance of supplies, the youths shared sodas and hand-warmers with the police.

    She learned that a very long pipeline under construction, like the Keystone XL, may have local campaigns along the route that need more support from outside their area. This prompted her to begin fundraising for the New Orleans struggle led by indigenous Creoles and others called the L’eau Est La Vie campaign, which was protesting the Bayou Bridge Pipeline.

    Effective movements put resources into learning from what works and what doesn’t.

    Spontaneous travelers like Rose Tompkins and Judy help the networking process, but their assistance is random. The larger movement, serious about winning, makes a system intervention, ensuring that everyone is learning as rapidly as possible. This requires the resources of a national green organization.

    Learning is natural but intentionality adds power

    When leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott were chosen in 1955, they telephoned Louisiana to quiz the organizers of a bus boycott in Baton Rouge two years prior. The student sit-in movement of 1960-61 was so successful partly because students from many campuses were in touch with each other.

    George remembers a 1999 phone call from a student friend inviting him to a dorm to observe a campus steering committee’s strategizing. Students were campaigning to stop the University of Pennsylvania from buying paraphernalia made by sweatshops in the Global South.

    George noticed throughout the evening students coming in with “the latest” from other campuses who were waging similar campaigns. He watched others’ experiences enrich Penn students’ strategizing. The campaigns were being networked by the United Students Against Sweatshops, or USAS.

    At the same time, USAS encouraged each campus to try its own experiments and report the results. When Penn students found it difficult to stir the massive student body, they increased the drama of their campaign by disrobing. They gained more attention.

    Movements arise from multiple campaigns on a similar issue: civil rights (the bus boycotts and sit-ins), economic justice (shutting down sweatshops), climate justice (stopping pipelines). Effective movements put resources into learning from what works and what doesn’t. They value innovation at the campaign level and enliven horizontal communication.

    The pipeline movement could go to a new level if a national organization became intentional, supporting connection and learning.

    Effective movements discard tactics that are of little or no value, like most one-off demonstrations and tired rallies. They move away from street blockades that irritate people who need to join us. Movements learn that their most creative campaigns juice the movement, attract new allies and enable them to win.

    Effective movements support their campaigns to debrief their actions, organize trainings, hold strategy retreats, set clear goals, assess results and learn rapidly from each other. They are especially attractive to young people whose orientation is to skill-development and effectiveness, and therefore grow leadership for the larger struggles to come. They are more likely to have inter-generational participation, which in turn sustains them through down-times and helps them grow.

    The pipeline movement could go to a new level if a national organization became intentional, supporting connection and learning.

    The green movement has done it before

    Synergy is a name for what happens when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. An example is the struggle against nuclear power in the 1960s and ‘70s. The movement consisted of many local direct action campaigns that had educated the public to the existence of safer and lower-cost alternatives. When Three-Mile Island started to melt down in 1979, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back: The pro-nuclear establishment was beaten. The goal of the U.S. economic elite was 1,000 nuclear power plants. Of that number, 253 were ordered and of those, about half were cancelled.

    Previous Coverage
  • 4 lessons for climate organizers from the anti-nuclear movement
  • As organizer Will Lawrence has pointed out, some of the local anti-nuke campaigns were successful before the meltdown, and some were not, but the broader movement succeeded. In this way nonviolent campaigns are like military battles: Some can lose while others win, and the overall result can be victory.

    That’s synergy.

    The local campaigns in the anti-nukes movement were connected to each other. Leaders in the Keystone Alliance, a Pennsylvania-based campaign, knew the odds were against stopping their local plant. They also knew that their fight was important because they had a big picture.

    As a result, they campaigned hard and were able to block one of the two reactors that was planned. They sustained years of effort because, in addition to the big picture, a web of communication kept them close to campaigners in other places.

    This historic moment makes connectivity crucial

    Today’s mass media situation leaves journalists less able to help us than before. They occasionally share the drama of a Standing Rock, but even then can’t publish most of what an organizer wants to know.

    Pipeline campaigns are often attacked as NIMBY, or “Not in my back yard,” sowing seeds of hesitation on the part of local activists who do see some truth to the charge. Even though they know some local campaigners for whom it is only a backyard issue, they will re-double their efforts by knowing they are part of a larger climate justice struggle.

    Sharp strategy comes from a bigger map of power. Knowing which banks are financing which pipelines, which prominent office-holders and other figures are corrupted, which companies are already in trouble in other states, opens the door to new potential allies and tactics.

    A big picture helps funders who give strategically. Perhaps pipeline fights are more successful in one region than another. If that’s the case, some funders might step up their support where it’s more needed. After a campaign wins a victory, the big picture can attract the local funders of that campaign to turn to bolstering other campaigns still in the midst of struggle. As the saying goes, “Nothing succeeds like success!”

    Moving to a network of local campaigns makes it possible to have a greater influence on national climate policy.

    This sense of solidarity isn’t available only on a funding level: Organizers of a winning campaign might be more available to travel to other campaigns to join strategy discussions and share their experience.

    Supporting the national movement to regain the offensive

    Acting defensively is disastrous strategically. Nevertheless it is hard for environmentalists, as well as many other progressive organizations, to shake a habit of going on the defense which began in the Ronald Reagan days of the 1980s.

    Going on the offensive now could include, for example, demanding a reconstructed Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. The fossil fuel industry uses FERC as its tool, and we need to take it from them. That’s the kind of demand no local campaign could win, but a multi-year national-level campaign would have a chance.

    Previous Coverage
  • Defend yourself — go on the offensive!
  • When we dare to consider going on the offensive we can remember the civil rights movement at its height: lively local campaigns nationally connected, giving the national organization opportunity to weave together a shared narrative. It’s that shared narrative that could, in the green context, support both the Green New Deal and keeping the carbon in the ground.

    Our proposal to connect the campaigns aligns with our understanding of how ecology works: moving to a new level of organizational complexity makes it possible to occupy a wider ecological niche. That is what we propose here: moving to a network of local campaigns makes it possible to have a greater influence on national climate policy.

    What’s not to like?

    How creative protests to improve everyday life in Zimbabwe circumvent repression

    On the outskirts of town a young man uses a shovel to scoop up a clod of tall grass from the side of the highway. Hastily, he dumps it into one of the huge potholes that dot the road. Glancing around warily, he jumps back in his vehicle and takes off.

    This scene was recently repeated several times across Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. Part of a project to draw attention to the dangerous condition of local streets, the tactic was instigated by a loose confederation of citizens called the Better Bulawayo Initiative.

    Formed in November 2018, the group of 200-300 citizens is using creative, low-risk protest measures to agitate for better city services. Their goal is to address the kinds of simple but important issues that affect the lives of residents every day, like access to clean water, better sanitation services, regular garbage collection and safer roads.

    While traditional public protests may be considered too dangerous, using unconventional, low-risk methods is more appealing.

    The modest nature of Better Bulawayo’s objectives is understandable considering the potentially threatening conditions under which it operates. Matabeleland, the region of western Zimbabwe where Bulawayo is located, has been a center of opposition since the country’s independence, and as a result has seen a history of violent repression perpetrated by former President Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party.

    After independence in 1980, the main obstacle to Mugabe’s ambitions of a one-party state was the ZAPU party, which enjoyed broad support from the Ndebele people in Matabeleland. To eliminate the threat, the government initiated a terror campaign in 1983 that resulted in the murder of over 20,000 Ndebele.

    “Then, in 1999, when [the opposition party] Movement for Democratic Change was formed, its support base was in Matabeleland,” explained Khumbulani Maphosa, team leader of the Better Bulawayo Initiative. “Most people were arrested, most were beaten, many were killed. For that reason, most people from here don’t want to be seen actively participating in politics.”

    But people are more willing to advocate for local social issues, which they don’t perceive as political. And while they may consider traditional public protests too dangerous, using unconventional, low-risk methods that don’t directly confront the authorities is more appealing. Planting tufts of grass in potholes and quickly escaping before the police arrive is an example of a tactic that — while it may embarrass city officials — can be carried out with little fear of retaliation.

    Better Bulawayo has also employed a perfectly legal technique they call “flooding.” To protest a large expenditure of scarce city funds to host some South African dignitaries, citizens used WhatsApp to deluge their city council members with photos showing how the money could be better spent. For example, they have sent pictures of a traffic light that isn’t working, a school house that needs a new roof, and broken windows in an abandoned government building.

    In contrast to marches or other “top-down” organized protests, these creative nonviolent tactics have the potential to harness the imaginations and dynamism of more people in the community as they take ownership and become co-creators of their actions.

    Successfully contesting seemingly minor quality of life issues can help reshape the expectations of the citizenry.

    “We believe these are strategic actions … that build community confidence and involve different people,” said Matabeleland Institute for Human Rights general secretary Benedict Sibasa. “They build the capacity of communities to be creative and use community energy.”

    Motivating people, however, is a huge challenge, especially in a country where democratic institutions are weak. Politicians who don’t think they should be answerable to their constituents are a major problem. “In Zimbabwe, the culture of accountability is not there,” Maphosa said. “Our leaders are not used to being held accountable by their citizens. And the citizens are afraid to hold their leaders to account.”

    Zenzele Ndebele, director of the Centre for Innovation and Technology in Bulawayo, agrees, but thinks successfully contesting seemingly minor quality of life issues can help reshape the expectations of the citizenry. “Governance starts at the local level,” he said. “If you can hold your city councilors to account … then that means the leaders you send to the national level, or to the parliament, will be leaders who are accountable.”

    Maphosa hopes that working on the local level to develop the confidence and skills to demand accountability is an idea that will eventually impact national politics in Zimbabwe. But for now the group is focusing on extending its reach within Bulawayo. So far, they have trained organizers in eight of the city’s 29 wards, with more in the works.

    Although the nascent organization continues to grow, organizers have learned that simply reacting to the City Council’s policies tends to kill their momentum. To counter that problem, they are holding strategy meetings at the end of April to choose three key issues they can proactively address. Campaign issues under consideration include keeping medical clinics open 24/7 and reinstating children’s public play centers throughout the city.

    The willingness of citizens to take advantage of the small space of freedom available to them is a positive sign for the future of civil society in Zimbabwe. Already the success of Better Bulawayo has caught the attention of nearby cities that want to start similar organizations.

    “Together these movements one day maybe will demand a better Zimbabwe, but we need to start in our localities,” Maphosa said. “In my culture there is a proverb which says, loosely translated, that you should chew what is enough for you to swallow. So that’s the strategy that we are using currently — to say let’s chew what is enough for us to swallow, and then we will be swallowing as we go.”

    The Little Big Union joins the growing movement to transform fast food

    On a sunny Saturday morning, a crowd was starting to overwhelm the popular Couch St. Park in a high-rent Northwest Portland neighborhood, coalescing around a series of makeshift tables filled with union signs and shirts. With no public announcement, and no previous public campaign branding, the workers at the popular Portland burger chain Little Big Burgers had managed to draw a large crowd of supporters on March 16 for what was going to be the first labor action of their unionization campaign. The workers were not alone. They were also joined by a large contingent of Burgerville Workers Union workers who had blazed the trail that the Little Big Union was about to join them on.

    “The purpose of today’s action is to announce the union and to state that we’re here and that we are going to be fighting to make sure our basic labor rights are met,” said Gerry West, a Little Big Union worker for the last year. “We’re presenting a letter to our bosses asking to them to recognize the union and to go into negotiations with us, and we hope they do so.”

    After a series of speeches from Little Big Union workers and local labor organizations like the Portland Jobs With Justice, the workers led a march through the streets to the popular Little Big Burger location on NW 23rd Avenue. The crowd surrounded the location, chanting and arranging a moving picket line, while management decided to close their door rather than address the contingent of workers.

    The workers at Little Big Burger, and the larger campaign of the Portland IWW — a radical labor union known for its direct action approach — to organize fast food, did not happen in a vacuum.

    Fighting for ourselves

    The “Fight for $15” campaign — started by workers at McDonald’s and Wendy’s, with the support of the Service Employees International Union — has sparked a near revolution in the fast food industry over the last seven years. Low-wage, high-turnover jobs like fast food have been a difficult proposition for labor unions since building up organizing committees at restaurants is difficult, they require significant resources and have corporate owners that are intent on crushing unionization attempts. The Fight for $15 rested on a mass organizing campaign that relied on public action and support, often through visible actions and public relations. Over time, the fight shifted to being a successful minimum wage battle across the country, and their efforts to unionize have largely been absent.

    The IWW instead uses a different model: workers organizing each other, shop to shop, rather than relying on large institutional resources and budgets. What Burgerville workers did with the IWW was take their time, build up strong bonds with workers, win victories and develop community support. Now Burgerville has just won its fourth National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, election — meaning four shops are bargaining their first contract together — and they are helping Little Big Burger workers step up and go public as well.

    Little big problems

    While Little Big Burger has portrayed itself as a local Portland favorite, it was sold off by founder Micah Camden in 2017 to the North Carolina-based company Chanticleer Holdings. It has now grown rapidly in Texas, Washington and North Carolina, giving the potential of mass unionization more significance since it could affect a nationwide chain.

    After the sale of the company, workers say they began seeing some of the same issues that many low-wage service workers do: bad wages, absent benefits, difficult scheduling and unsafe working conditions.

    “Management allows equipment to break and doesn’t replace it,” West said. “They promise people hours that they can’t provide and then cut them constantly to make labor costs as low as possible. They are basically creating an atmosphere that encourages atomization and division.”

    The organizing drive was focused on tangible issues that workers were facing day to day.

    The wages are so low that employees are rarely making enough to rent an apartment in Portland’s increasingly volatile rental market. Right now workers are paid minimum wage, $11.25 per hour, plus tips. West reported that he makes about $1,300 a month at his position. The average rent for a two bedroom apartment in Portland is currently $1,640.

    “[I am living] far below the poverty line, but they sell this as a job that we should be bending over backwards to keep,” West said.

    Workers report chronic understaffing, particularly during the lunch and dinner periods when they are slammed by a loyal customer base. Workers also allege that sick time, which employers must provide in Oregon, is a mirage since they are required to find someone to cover their shift if they need the time off to recover. If they cannot find someone they are required to come in or face discipline, which is problematic given how communicable illness can be spread through food preparation

    The staff began meeting in 2018 to discuss the issues they were facing and what they could do about it. The organizing drive was not focused solely on campaigning for official union recognition, but instead they have worked on tangible issues that workers were facing day to day.

    “[We were] getting our schedules only two days, sometimes one day, before we work,” said Cameron Crowell, who has been working at Little Big Burger for about two years. “A group of workers started talking about how we could change that. So we wrote a letter and everyone in my store signed the letter. We showed our manager, asking them to give us schedules a week in advance, and that really kicked things off for us.”

    Management conceded the scheduling demand, allowing workers to have their schedules two weeks in advance. Union members have organized confrontations with managers at four Little Big Burger restaurants asking them to respect workers, and even won no slip mats for their worksite.

    “Speaking with coworkers about how we can better fulfill our lives together has been really a life-changing thing for me,” Crowell said.

    Fast food solidarity

    The Burgerville Workers Union changed the playing field for directly democratic labor unions in Portland, and across the country, when they went public in April 2016. Their campaign used “solidarity union” tactics of organizing workers before going for standard union legal mechanisms like NLRB recognition. Over two years they arranged public “marches on the boss” to deliver worker demands, pickets, strikes, and finally a Burgerville boycott, all of which culminated in five Burgerville locations going union in individual NLRB elections.


    The Portland Industrial Workers of the World is at the center of the fast-food organizing explosion in Oregon. (WNV/Shane Burley)

    Their strategy, of building bonds between workers and with the community — all of which require time and passion more than money — proved to be a winning one. After they proved unionizing these fast food locations was possible, even though large labor unions had been unable to see it through, it served as an inspiration to the workers of Little Big Burger. The experience that the Burgerville Workers Union had in doing this kind of organizing, particularly since it was a very similar workplace, allowed for workers to share training and skills in a way that prepared them to launch a public campaign even more efficiently.

    “We actually have gleaned a lot of advice from the Burgerville workers, and they consider our campaign an extension of their campaign,” said Isabel Crosby, a supporter of the Little Big Union who organizes on their Solidarity Committee.

    Little Big Burger presents challenges that Burgerville did not, especially given that they are now owned by a large conglomerate that is not based in the region. “We don’t expect them to be as nice as Burgerville because they don’t have this nice local reputation to uphold,” Crosby said.

    The union marches on

    The union has asked Chanticleer Holdings to “voluntarily recognize” the union, but the company declined to do so, and said in a statement that they wanted a “fair, secret ballot election.” This means that workers will have to file for a union election with the NLRB or continue with shop-floor organizing without the benefit of recognition and a collective bargaining agreement.

    Workers have now issued a series of public demands of Little Big Burger, including a $5 per hour raise, paid time off, benefits, safe workplace conditions, holiday pay, transparency around hiring and firing, and for Little Big Burger to become a “sanctuary workplace” that refuses to work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

    Right now workers at the NW 23rd Avenue location say they have an overwhelming majority of workers in support of the union, and they are organizing at five other locations that may go public in the near future. Shortly after the public action announcing the formation of the Little Big Union, workers allege that management removed union posters from the break room. Management later said this was because of their “no solicitation” policy and insisted that they were not anti-union, though decisions like this could be cited as grounds for Unfair Labor Practice complaints.

    Shortly after this happened the Little Big Union put out a public statement saying they are “disappointed that the corporate executives of Chanticleer Holdings and Little Big Burger regional managers have chosen to ignore our basic request to not disparage their workers or engage in union busting.” Little Big Burger relented on their policy, but workers report that a manager said “unions cost too much.”

    Previous Coverage
  • Burgerville workers aim to take Fight for $15 to next level
  • This behavior from Little Big Burger came shortly after Burgerville posted anti-union flyers on public boards at their restaurants in what workers allege is an attempt to dissuade further restaurants from voting in the Burgerville Workers Union.

    If the Burgerville Workers Union campaign is any indication, the Little Big Union will need to build steam over the next several months. This could mean eventually filing for an NLRB election, or it could simply be building numbers and power in their shops to continue to pressure management and the parent company for reforms.

    The strategy, as Burgerville has shown, is successful when the workers’ needs and workplace connections drive the campaign. As the Little Big Union continues to grow it will likely continue to focus on the personal bonds that are necessary when doing this long-game kind of democratic unionism. This is the model that the IWW was founded on and why it seems to be growing in conditions that have been so tough for labor in the past.

    “To see the IWW come back in force and tackle this problem of organizing workplaces that have not been able to be organized before, which was always the IWW’s strong suit, is incredible,” said West.

    How Sudan’s protesters upped the ante and forced al-Bashir from power

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    This article was first published by The Conversation.

    Following months of protests, and a prolonged sit-in outside the military headquarters in Khartoum, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was placed under house arrest on April 11 as the country’s military prepared for a transitional government.

    Many have described the Sudanese uprising as a “bread protest” against a rise in inflation. In fact the Sudanese people took to the streets for much more than a struggling economy, or the price of bread. They have been calling for freedom, peace, justice and the downfall of the regime.

    And they have finally won.

    The generation leading the uprising was born and raised during al-Bashir’s 30-year rule. The protesters are mostly young professionals who have been directly affected by the regime’s Islamisation and Arabisation policies.

    These policies have been particularly harsh against women’s freedoms and rights, which explains why young Sudanese women are at the heart of the uprising. The policies have also resulted in multiple years of conflict and insecurity in Darfur, South Kordofan, and the Blue Nile.

    Sudan’s governing system has already deteriorated because of years of state autocracy, nepotism, corruption and violent conflict.

    Al-Bashir’s removal may bring down the state if a strong successor isn’t positioned to replace him. But in my view, given how Sudan has historically been run, the democratic preferences of many young protesters is unlikely to come to fruition. Their expectations for a functioning democracy, with free and fair elections, and constitutional freedoms will not be met unless the next leader of Sudan is a reformist.

    Al-Bashir’s first responses

    The regime responded to the protests in three ways.

    First, al-Bashir tried to quickly reconsolidate his power by proposing constitutional changes that would have allowed him to stand for reelection in 2020. That was quickly taken off the table.

    He then declared a year-long nationwide state of emergency. The emergency state prohibited “unauthorized” gatherings and movements. Violence followed as the state deployed heavy-handed tactics to break up the protests.

    Al-Bashir also dissolved federal and state governments, replacing almost all of Sudan’s 18 state governors with army officers. And he ordered parliament to delay deliberations over proposed constitutional amendments that would allow him to run for an extra-constitutional term in next year’s elections.

    When the protests didn’t subside he called for broad-based dialogue.

    In a bid to stay in power, al-Bashir also reached out to those who had backed him financially on previous occasions. These included the Persian Gulf states as well as Egypt and Russia. However, these allies have done little more than offer him vague statements of support.

    He also began to lose the support of Western backers. Once warm to al-Bashir, they recently began to issue stern reprimands.

    The protests

    By the time al-Bashir stepped down protests had taken hold in more than 35 cities across the country. People took to the streets in more and more places following the first demonstration in the northern Nile-side town of Atbara.

    The current uprising was triggered by a government decision to lift subsidies on essential commodities and to drastically increase bread prices. In a matter of weeks, the protest in Atbara would reach the capital Khartoum 349 kilometers away.

    As protests erupted across the country agents of the powerful National Intelligence and Security Service and riot police began to crack down on demonstrators. Throughout, however, the army refrained from intervening. Rumors began to surface that al-Bashir was ready to hand over power to the armed force. But this was swiftly rejected by the Minister of Information and government spokesman of the government, Hassan Ismail.

    In the final days before al-Bashir stepped down thousands of demonstrators reached the ministry compound in Khartoum. This also houses al-Bashir’s residence, the secret service headquarters and the defense ministry.

    Protesters then upped the stakes by trying to gain support from the army. What began to emerge was that senior officers were possibly weakening, or that they were hoping to use the protests to pressure factions within the ruling elite.

    Protesters used a number of tactics to keep the momentum going. These included using social media such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. All evolved during the uprising despite the government’s attempts to block the user, and Virtual Private Networks were used to access the women’s only Facebook group called “Minbar Chat”.

    Videos recorded by the protesters became important in documenting the crimes perpetrated by the security forces during the peaceful protests. They also became the main means of informing the Sudanese people and the international community about the brutality of al-Bashir’s regime.

    Now that al-Bashir has resigned he will probably be required to leave the country by agreeing to safe passage to a friendly state, possibly somewhere like Egypt, or Qatar. The only way he can remain in Sudan is if he had prior agreement with the military to ensure his safety. It’s possible that the new generals he appointed after the declaration of a state of emergency might side with him.

    Their support could have been one of the reasons why he felt that he could step down. Looking ahead, with or without Bashir, there’s also a possibility that the protests could continue if the people of Sudan feel that the swamp has not been drained of all the regime’s oppressive leaders.

    Progressive coalition boycotts ‘woke-washing’ of San Francisco event space

    When Emanuel “Manny” Yekutiel opened his events space and wine bar in San Francisco last December, he didn’t expect his self-named business, Manny’s, to become an example of how not to launch a successful startup in Silicon Valley.

    Located on the ground-floor of a low-income housing complex, on one of the busiest intersections in San Francisco’s Mission District, the website of Manny’s explains its reason for existing: to be a place that serves tapas with a side “of learning, of conversation, of organizing and of social change.”

    However, activists with roots in the neighborhood — who have protested outside Manny’s every Wednesday night since it opened its doors — believe its mission is just a way of dressing up the ugly truth around the politics of the place. In their eyes, it’s a business that further gentrifies a neighborhood where evictions and homelessness are increasing, with an owner who supports Zionism — the nationalist movement in Israel that props up the occupation of Palestine in Israel.

    In the progressive Bay Area, activists have a term for the feel-good, liberal marketing behind Manny’s: “woke-washing,” which they define as an attempt to paint a liberal face on a business that supports right-wing political views.

    Previous Coverage
  • Exposing Israel’s ‘pinkwashing’
  • Woke-washing is in the same vein as greenwashing and pinkwashing, two other varieties of public relations campaigns that whitewash dark realities about the businesses they promote. (Greenwashing uses eco-friendly marketing to achieve this, while pinkwashing uses an LGBT-friendly appearance.)

    Jemma lives several blocks away from Manny’s in San Francisco’s Mission District — a neighborhood often dubbed “ground zero” by the mainstream media, when it talks about the issue of housing inequality. She requested her last name not be used because she works for the government, which is continuously threatening free speech — and specifically targeting those who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, movement against Israel. Jemma says the portraits of black people displayed prominently on the walls of Manny’s are an attempt to make the place seem “woke,” but it’s just a facade. “It’s the equivalent of liberal blackface,” she said. The gentrification leads to increased police violence in a once majority-Latinx neighborhood.

    Jemma is a regular organizer with queer direct action groups concerned with the ousting of black and low-income people from the Bay Area, such as the Lucy Parsons Project and Gay Shame. She says that at its base, the boycott of Manny’s appeals to a basic human desire: No one wants to feel like they’re being taken advantage of.

    Confronting woke-washing also presents an opportunity for truly progressive organizations that sometimes silo themselves into narrower issues to organize together. The diverse list of groups that have joined the boycott includes Mothers on the March, which gathers at San Francisco police and sheriffs’ headquarters to express outrage, mourn, and bring attention to local youths killed by law enforcement officers; the Palestine liberation-focused Palestinian Youth Movement; Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism; the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network; the Latinx-led Black and Brown Social Club and the Brown Berets; and the Oakland chapter of the anti-prison industrial complex group Critical Resistance, whose co-founder Angela Davis was recently in the news for having a civil rights honor rescinded due to her anti-Zionist activism. (It was soon re-awarded.)

    All of these groups agree on the importance of intersectionality in movements: Oppression is oppression, no matter where it happens in the world. The boycott has so far led several speakers to cancel planned events at Manny’s, including labor organizer Ai-jen Poo of the Domestic Workers Alliance and the hip hop and politics radio show host Davey D.

    Why focus on Manny’s? To locals on the left, the venue’s “social justice”-messaging represents an insidious form of “faux-gressivism” that skirts, and sometimes makes worse, current political flashpoints. Gentrification, for starters, intensifies homelessness and police killings. And the extraordinary ties between the United States and Israel form a messy knot, involving billions in military aid each year, and American police traveling to Israel for training.

    A January job posting on Craigslist described Yekutiel’s belief “in investing in our people and our culture.” After a social media call-out by Gay Shame, the job’s terms — specifically, a minimum-wage salary with fewer hours than would legally compel the company to offer health insurancewere deleted. A low-income housing nonprofit is the landlord of Manny’s, which offered Yekutiel below-market rate rent because of the wine bar’s supposed social justice mission.

    At the same time, many of Manny’s speakers don’t particularly bring to mind social justice — such as tech billionaire and influencer Sam Altman — whose defense of sexists and hypocrisy around free speech have helped to cement Silicon Valley’s toxic culture —  or a staffer from the Burning Man arts festival, which can cost $1,000-$5,000 to attend. This has led many activists to believe that the community has less to gain from hearing these speakers than the speakers have to benefit from an association with a progressive-seeming event venue like Manny’s.

    “It’s basically a place for techies to feel good about themselves while black and brown people are dying in the streets,” Jemma said.

    Cecilia Chung, a policy director for the Transgender Law Center, who sits on Manny’s nonprofit-style advisory board, said, “I think everyone is entitled to their own opinion.” Later, after crossing the picket line to speak at an event about the LGBT movement, Chung didn’t waver, saying, “What makes San Francisco beautiful is all the different points of view.”

    Activists also point out how Yekutiel previously worked in public relations for the tech industry-funded charity FWD.us, which became infamous in left circles for funding advertisements with a right-wing — anti-immigrant and pro-oil — agenda. Before that, he worked as a fellow sponsored by the Israel lobby firm A Wider Bridge, a pinkwashing group whose right-wing funding was recently laid out in a February 2019 report by independent scholar Stephanie Skora, with support from the National Lawyers’ Guild, the Chicago chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace and the Canada-based Independent Jewish Voices.

    Yekutiel has not helped his cause by gaslighting activists and silencing people who have been hit the hardest by problems like unaffordable housing. In an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle, he dubbed activists like Jemma “the alt-left,” effectively equating nonviolent protesters with the white supremacist clashes that have literally killed anti-racist activists.

    Teacher Margot Goldstein and lawyer Rachel Lederman have spent several decades in the Mission. In a published response to Yekutiel’s op-ed, they described the extent of Yekutiel’s Zionist, anti-Arab racism. In particular, they rejected Yekutiel’s description of Israel as “a feisty liberal democracy in a despotic neighborhood; the ecological rescue of a once barren land.”

    “The boycott of Manny’s is supported by the Mission [District]’s social justice community,” Goldstein and Lederman wrote in the Chronicle, “because both gentrification and Zionism require and result in the forced displacement of long-standing communities from their homes for the sake of profit and indigenous peoples from their land for the sake of power.”

    As the protests approach month five, there is a widening coalition — including labor activists, students and hunger strikers who protested killer cops outside the police station a block from Manny’s — that believes a combination of leadership from people who are directly affected, persistent direct action and more BDS-inspired guest cancellations can beat the false liberal marketing of woke-washing.

    The world’s happiest people already have a Green New Deal, and they love it

    According to the latest report from the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the Nordics are once again in the top tier of the World’s Happiest People. This year’s report, which came out March 20, pulled together the scores from the last three years to build a composite score, revealing that the four happiest countries from 2016-2018 are Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland, with Sweden coming in seventh.

    The researchers combine a number of indicators to define “happiness.” One especially interesting for Americans is “freedom to make life choices,” since we like to think of ourselves as leaders in liberty. The index, however, places the United States at 62 (narrowly ahead of the United Kingdom), while the Nordics remain in the top 10 countries in freedom.

    Other research methodologies line up with these findings on freedom. In 2018, Freedom House rated countries by degree of political freedom. Norway, Sweden and Finland tied for first, while the United Kingdom was 27th and the United States came in at 58 and dropping.

    Our relative lack of freedom makes getting a Green New Deal for the United States look like a hard slog, but we may get some clues from others — including from the time when they were less than free.

    Do the Nordics have a ‘green new deal’?

    The two main goals of the Green New Deal are to address climate change and economic inequality. Why combine the two? After all, there are some Democratic Party leaders and even some environmentalists who prefer to split those goals.

    I found one connection in Denmark’s recent history. When the left coalition of labor and other egalitarian parties is in power Denmark surges ahead in addressing climate change. When the centrist coalition is in power, Denmark’s commitment to climate slows down. That’s because the Danish centrists, like the Democratic Party in the United States, include the 1 percent who find it against their financial interests to reduce carbon emissions. Canada provides another example: centrist Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks a good game about climate but reportedly committed over $7 billion in federal funds to purchase the failing Kinder-Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline.

    The Nordics have for half a century been in the top tier of nations for equality because they adopted a radically different economic model — one that puts the workers, farmers and professionals first, using capital as a tool to advance the common good. To ensure this, Norwegians have majority public ownership of most corporations and the public completely owns Norway’s largest bank. As I describe in my book “Viking Economics,” the Nordics have used heavily-regulated markets for some purposes, and they gave up completely on markets for other sectors.

    Poverty was widespread in the Nordic countries a century ago, so the Nordics designed poverty out of their systems. And even though they were small nations living in what was for them a globalized world, they empowered themselves to protect against cycles of boom-and-bust.

    While Iceland flirted with neoliberalism in the early part of this century — resulting in an economic collapse in 2008 — they came to their senses, defying the International Monetary Fund and returning to their people-first leftist model. As a result, they recovered from their Depression more quickly than the capital-first centrist United States did from its less-severe 2008 recession.

    Using a Green New Deal for abundance

    The Nordic model pays off for equality, but how about the other focus of the Green New Deal: meeting the challenge of climate change? U.S. critics of the Green New Deal try to scare us with the prospect of scarcity.

    That’s an old game. The Danish economic elite did the same when it promoted nuclear power in the 1980s. However, after the people’s movement mounted a nonviolent direct action campaign, the government turned to wind for electricity. It began licensing decentralized coops for local energy, while also investing in massive wind farms in coastal waters. As a result, Denmark became a world leader in renewable energy technology, and its economy grew.

    While Finland and Denmark are both aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050, Sweden has its sights set on 2045 and Iceland is saying 2040. Each of them had major poverty a century ago but today enjoy shared prosperity with free higher education and universal healthcare.

    Norway is a special case among the Nordics because it’s the only one that has significant oil and gas. A growing minority wants to stop extracting entirely, but a majority is not yet convinced. In the meantime, Norway takes other steps: charging drivers around $7 per gallon for gas, leading the world in electric cars and bicycle highways per capita, and spending over $3 billion so far to combat deforestation in the Amazon. The country is moving up the ranks of Yale’s Environmental Performance Index, now placing 11th. To make up for its continuing oil extraction, parliament plans to use offsets to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.

    All the Nordics have found that their focus on climate coinciding with growth in the common good. Consistent with the American advocates of the Green New Deal, the Nordics’ investment in people’s health and well-being, jobs and education, yield benefits in abundance and innovation.

    Nordics don’t waste money on crime-fighting because they reject poverty and mass incarceration. Sweden welcomed more immigrants fleeing the Middle East during the Syrian exodus than any other European nation, per capita, and recently adopted Norwegian best practices for integrating the refugees. One in five Swedes and Norwegians is foreign-born. While Nordics will tell you that they are far from utopia, they learn from each other while continuing to invest in social justice.

    How they made space for their version of the Green New Deal

    Grassroots movements forced a power shift. In each case the people created a multi-dimensional strategy for empowering themselves. They educated each other so they could see through the pretense of democracy that protected 1 percent-rule, building prefigurative institutions like co-ops that taught individualists the value of collective effort.

    The movement involved intellectuals so they could together design a vision of the kind of economy they wanted, enabling them to also attract people who had doubts and hesitations. In this way they avoided the trap of becoming protesters who simply react against injustice. They put forward a program, and their positivity won increasing numbers of allies.

    Once disunited, they built unity across the urban/rural divide and other lines that divided them. Having watched the civil war in Russia that accompanied the Bolshevik revolution, they trained themselves to use nonviolent struggle, employing the technology of campaigns. Small farmers took over landed estates in Denmark. When the Swedish state called out the troops to protect the 1 percent by shooting unarmed demonstrators, the people responded nationally with a general strike that forced out the old regime.

    Is Scandinavian success relevant to us?

    Although Americans generated mass movements in the same time period as the Nordics, Americans faced greater challenges, including our inheritance of racism. That’s one reason why, in the 1920s and ‘30s, we couldn’t keep pace with our sister movements abroad — although this fact doesn’t diminish the brilliance of their own strategic breakthroughs.

    Circumstances change. Americans now have some advantages the Nordics didn’t have a century ago. One of our advantages now is that the U.S. civil rights movement learned many lessons about what works in tough situations — much tougher than we face now. These lessons are easily available to us, even in movie formats.

    Another advantage we have now is in economic lessons we can adapt from other countries. No country prior to Denmark and Sweden had invented and practiced “the Nordic model” — who knew ahead of time that it would even work? We now have the easier task of adapting the model to our circumstances.

    Thoughtful people around the world look for “best practices” to improve outcomes in their work. People in other countries have adapted innovations first tried in the United States, and we have already adopted from other countries’ practices, including Social Security and Medicare.

    What strikes me about the “happiest peoples” is their understanding that analysis of what’s wrong cannot create what’s right. Analysis is only the first step: Just as important are vision and strategy. The ingredients of their winning strategy are not strange to Americans: education and culture work; leadership development; a platform or vision; coops and other structures that align with the vision; community organizing for growth and unity; nonviolent direct action campaigning to force the issue; building to scale in a movement of movements; and keeping our eyes on the prize. The art is putting the ingredients together in this political moment.

    The opportunity for us is to work together toward this end.

    Labor organizer Jane McAlevey on why strikes are the only way out of our current crisis

    Over the past year, a wave of teacher strikes — from Los Angeles to West Virginia — have won major victories for public education, including salary increases and smaller class sizes. Inspired in part by the Chicago teachers strike in 2012, they drew on years of grassroots organizing and strategic planning to build stronger unions and establish clear demands to address the major problems affecting the public education sector today.

    According to longtime environmental and labor organizer Jane McAlevey, this recent wave of teacher strikes is also the perfect example of how change happens. It begins by developing a deep understanding of power, which then evolves into building small campaigns within a larger struggle to achieve measurable goals — all the while engaging in deep listening across differences, instead of self-selecting into single-minded silos.

    Previous Coverage
  • Meet Jane McAlevey, labor’s hell-raiser
  • Throughout her prolific writing — including two books, “Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell)” and “No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Guilded Age” — McAlevey lays out the foundations for what she calls a “credible plan to win.” A vital part of that, she argues, is understanding the mechanics and strategic steps of winning a campaign — something that is best achieved through the training and mentoring of emerging organizers and activists.

    After her own period of learning — while being a student activist and living with farm workers in Nicaragua during the Sandanista revolution — McAlevey has dedicated her adult life to building grassroots power for progressive change. And right now, she says that mass strikes are the key to winning progressive victories in the Trump era. Ultimately, as she explained to me in the following conversation, labor strikes carry invaluable lessons for fighting — and winning — strategic grassroots campaigns.

    What does this wave of teacher strikes tell us about effective organizing practices, and what are some of the wider implications of mass strikes at this political moment?

    Author and organizer Jane McAlevey. (Wikiemedia/Alice Attie)

    There’s an important lesson to be learned in realizing that strikes do not just happen because people get pissed off. [In Los Angeles,] they had four years of really serious work leading up to the strike in January, with deadlines and backwards planning attached to it. There were eight serious structure tests conducted leading up to that strike — that’s what good planning and analysis looks like.

    A crucial element in their understanding of power was knowing that they could not win that strike without the community on their side. They held huge meetings that were open to parents and students, not just teachers, to set the contract demands. Understanding that we can’t win traditional labor fights anymore without bringing the whole community with us is crucial.

    Ultimately, I don’t think there’s any way out of the crisis we’re in in this country right now unless we start having more strikes.

    So, I love the teacher strikes, because they are just putting it all out there. The Los Angeles teachers said, “That’s it. Every teacher is going to quit, or we’re going to have a life and death fight for whether education matters for democracy.” So, 34,000 teachers just led a fight that educated 30 million people in greater Los Angeles about what happens when you de-fund education, close down schools and begin to destroy democracy. It was a monumental master class in how to run a good strike, and it mattered for 600,000 kids in public school who will have a much better education because of the drastic drop in students per classroom that they won.

    That’s part of why it’s such an exciting time. The teachers that have been out on strike are literally putting front and center the very question of “Can you have a functioning democracy if there’s no educational system?” And I think the answer is no.

    How does the labor movement intersect with other progressive organizing taking place in the Trump era?

    Ultimately, I don’t think there’s any way out of the crisis we’re in in this country right now unless we start having more strikes. I think Trump’s election clarified for a lot of people that we were in a do-or-die moment in this country. But, if you are involved in public schools in any way, you felt like Trump got elected somewhere around the year 2000, in terms of how severe the defunding of public education had become.

    The origins of the strike explosion we’re seeing in the education sector right now really started in 2012 in Chicago, which was ground zero for the undoing of the U.S. public education system. Teachers went from having 20 students in their classroom to having 40, and [the Chicago teachers’ strike] basically created a roadmap for what’s happening now in a more visible way.

    Previous Coverage
  • Organizing as whole people
  • People need to stand up and start supporting workers in struggle, especially progressives. There was one case in which a group of electric workers in Boston were locked out for a year. This was right after the Women’s March and all this upsurge of progressive energy, and there are a thousand workers locked out of their jobs in Boston because the boss wanted to break the union. People should have been up in arms surrounding them. But the workers were from the same union that was supporting pipeline construction — so no one in the progressive movement could relate to these workers who were doing something progressives thought was bad. But blaming workers for wanting a good job is a big mistake.

    You have written about the many risks workers undertake when they get involved in mass strikes. As an organizer, how do you get workers to participate in such a high-risk tactic, especially when people feel discouraged or cynical about the potential for change?

    We as organizers have to raise people’s expectations that they can actually win, and that starts by making them believe that what is happening around them is not acceptable. What defines real organizing is that we start by helping people come to see that there are solutions for the problems in their lives, and that if they participate it’s going to actually matter.

    Unions put us into conversations with people who most of the progressive movement isn’t talking to, which is the problem.

    When I go to work with workers in a campaign where they’ve never had a union, people start off saying, “We’ve tried everything for 20 years and nothing’s going to change.” So we start by describing a credible plan to win, because that’s what matters to people. Show people that if they come to this meeting and get others to come with you, their participation is [directly] contributing to [hitting the] percentage of workers we need to win. That’s going to change their perspective on what it means to stay home.

    Part of what we do wrong in this country is that progressive forces slip into the same tactics as the right wing, which is the use of fear. We have to create a sense of urgency without using fear because fear is fundamentally demobilizing. Climate change is a terrific example of this. If you say, “Come to this meeting or the planet will blow up,” that’s not helping people understand how we’ll defeat fossil fuel players in today’s economy. There has to be something specific and local so that they can see and feel their participation is connected to a larger fight.

    You have said that union campaigns involve a “cross-section” of America, in terms of the political opinions people hold in any workplace. How does this influence your approach as an organizer?

    One reason I love union work is that I’m forced to deal with Trump voters every day. Unions put us into conversations with people who most of the progressive movement isn’t talking to, which is the problem. My starting point in the workplace campaign are Democrats, Republicans and a bunch of people who — like most everyone else — are independent or entirely checked out and not voting at all. The only thing that unites them is that they come to work, they have a boss, they haven’t had a raise in six years and their health care plan just got a lot more expensive — so they’re totally pissed off.

    Young people play a really important role in the movement, which is to be uncompromising.

    But the vast majority of people in this country who sit down face to face to have a conversation actually agree on the basic things, like whether rich people and corporations should pay higher taxes. Everyone in this country can tell you a story about someone they know dying or getting seriously ill because of a lack of health care. If we focus on finding issues that matter to all of us, that’s the thing that can change elections. But not talking to people is not an option.

    The younger generation is taking a strong lead in emerging movements, from the recent climate strikes to last year’s March for Our Lives against gun violence. How does the core role of young people factor into strategic organizing?

    Young people play a really important role in the movement, which is to be uncompromising. Compromises will need to be made, but the role of youth is to say, “There is no compromise,” and to hold the moral compass about what’s wrong and what’s at stake. Young people getting active is unbelievably important, and the way a lot of young people start engaging is by speaking truth to power. But it’s not enough.

    For that reason, I always encourage young people to get involved in campaigns with a win-or-lose outcome. You can spend your whole life organizing rallies and protests, but that won’t ever really allow you to measure your effectiveness in real terms. That’s why I think unions are so unbelievably important — it’s a nonstop series of deadlines. Every contract has an expiration date. The clock is ticking. These constant deadlines allow us to be self-reflective in asking, “Is what we’re doing effective?” We know the answer because we’re either winning or losing.

    What I hope for the new generation is that they can more quickly focus on central questions of power. I want young people to wake up in the morning and think, “What is my theory of power on whatever issue I care about? How can I break it into a series of campaigns that will test if what we’re doing is working or not working?”

    The sooner we learn the right lessons about power and strategy, the more effective we can be our whole lives. Young people need to latch onto the right mentors and dig into them and learn as much as they can. There’s a certain amount we do just to feel strong. I go to marches to be reminded that there’s a bunch of people who agree with me. I don’t ever go to a march thinking I’m changing anything.

    It’s not that we shouldn’t do all the things that make us feel good. But I always understood that marches and civil disobedience were ultimately small tactics in a much more sophisticated strategy based on a serious analysis of how we are going to build the power we need to win. So we need to know the difference between “feel good” actions and work that is effective. That’s what I want for the next generation to learn. And do it fast! No pressure.

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