Waging Nonviolence

A podcast series to help you survive the election

by Kate Werning

With the midterm elections upon us, it’s time again to grapple with the connections between electoral politics, long-term social change and how to stay engaged without letting emergencies dictate our strategy. Through Healing Justice Podcast, I’ve spent the last year exploring movement-building, power, and how we care for ourselves and each other to sustain our work. It’s necessary to apply those learnings to election season, too.

My relationship to elections, probably like most of us, is a fraught one. Believing wholeheartedly in the change Barack Obama promised, 2008 was the first presidential election in which I cast a vote. Under Obama we won DACA and other important advances, but also saw more deportations than ever before in U.S. history. During the 2011 Wisconsin uprising in my home state, our energized mass resistance movement was channeled into a recall election strategy that ultimately squeezed the oxygen out of our momentum and failed.

Momentum, my movement-building community, has taught me to focus on moving public opinion to change the political weather and force politicians’ and candidates’ hands. I really believe that is the path to lasting change. Yet, for the past several months — as I organized on the Cynthia Nixon gubernatorial campaign in New York — I experienced the incredible power of an unapologetically progressive campaign to change the conversation, move decision-makers to the left, usher in down-ballot victories and energize new imagination in the progressive public.

Through a new podcast miniseries called “Surviving Elections,” we’re talking to leaders who are practicing politics from a movement-building orientation and taking action to transform the realities of electoral organizing in the United States. In the first episode, we talk to two organizers from the Sunrise Movement about role elections play in the group’s bigger movement-building strategy, which involves mobilizing youth to demand that candidates refuse all fossil fuel money and impacting elections in four swing states.

“It is more imperative than ever that we stay grounded in reality,” said Sunrise Movement Communications Director Varshini Prakash. “There is a two party system that has immense power in this country, and that makes or breaks people’s lives. If we want any of our visionary, bold, exciting programs or policies to come even close to the finish line, engagement with the political system is absolutely essential for us as organizers and activists.”

Listen to episode 1, “Elections vs Movements,” on RadioPublicApple Podcasts or Spotify

The guests on the episode talk about practicing electoral politics in a way that builds power cycle to cycle. They also offer an international perspective on why it’s so important to fight to protect and expand the democratic space. At the same time, they challenge the climate movement for “leaving so much power on the table” during the 2016 election cycle. Will Lawrence, Sunrise’s Michigan director, talks about the Abdul El-Sayed gubernatorial race in Michigan and how election day can be an ultimate test of our ability to move the public at scale.

I left the conversation thinking about how movement organizers need to understand electoral campaigns as actions in their own right. They have the power to galvanize and train thousands of new leaders, polarize the public, and dramatize champions and opponents for our issues. What if we engaged wholeheartedly and utilized electoral campaigns intentionally as actions that can feed into our longer vision?

In the rest of the series, we’ll talk with campaign managers about cultivating generative campaign culture that leaves strong infrastructure behind after election day. We’ll hear from candidates about their experience running for office — on winning, losing and dropping out — and the thought behind candidate selection at Working Families Party. The Campaign Workers Guild also joins us to talk about the movement they’re building to organize for workers’ rights in politics, and I share about our unionization process on the Cynthia Nixon campaign.

In the final episode — released the day after the election — Justice Democrats’ Alexandra Rojas and lifelong activist Professor Barbara Dudley will help us process the results and understand ourselves in a longer-term movement arc. Together, we can make this a meaningful election cycle and build beyond Nov. 6.

How relatives of Chile’s disappeared are exposing dictatorship-era torturers

by Ramona Wadi

A Comisión Funa protest denouncing Hugo Clavería Leiva and Delia Gajardo Cortés on April 28. (Comisión Funa)

The return of the right wing to power in Chile has come at the expense of those still seeking justice for crimes committed during the 17-year U.S.-backed dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which ended in 1990.

Former President Michelle Bachelet’s failure to close the luxury five-star prison of Punta Peuco that houses ex-torturers and military agents convicted of crimes against humanity has led to repercussions during the first year of Sebastian Pinera’s presidency.

Over the years, the Chilean military has lobbied for “understanding” the context in which torture and disappearances occurred, in order to procure release for convicted agents of the dictatorship. In August, seven were granted conditional release, prompting an outcry among Chileans. Raul Meza, a lawyer who represents torturers imprisoned in Punta Peuco, has stated that he will appeal for the conditional release of a notorious torturer, Miguel Krassnoff Martchenko, who is serving over 500 years for crimes against humanity.

With no support from the government, relatives are running out of time to obtain information about the disappeared. The transition to democracy in Chile has remained tethered to Pinochet’s constitution, which has sparked ongoing protests to preserve social or collective memory.

Since 1999, an organization called Comisión Funa has been committed to seeking justice for those whose human rights were violated during Pinochet’s dictatorship. It has developed a distinct form of protest that directly challenges impunity backed by both the government and the military. Their approach involves exposing dictatorship criminals at their residencies or place of work and incriminating them within Chilean society.

Exposing torturers through collective protest

Exposing and denouncing torturers, however, is not unique to Chile. “H.I.J.O.S. in Argentina also operates on similar dynamics,” said Juan Saravia Jimenez, a member of Comisión Funa. “But in Chile, we operate within a more restricted network. It is only on the day of the protest that the action is communicated. This allows us to encounter the dictatorship’s criminals at their location and hold the protest on the spot.”

Saravia’s parents were communist militants and members of the central committee of the Juventudes Comunistas de Chile, the youth wing of the Communist Party, which was at the forefront of resistance to the Pinochet dictatorship. His father was a political prisoner, tortured to death by the dictatorship when Saravia was nine years old.

Comisión Funa was born in early October 1999, after Pinochet had been arrested in London upon a request from Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon.

The initial activism consisted of members of Comisión Funa approaching citizens in the street with photos of the dictatorship’s victims. “But people quickly started sharing information about where former torturers were living,” Saravia said. “Names and addresses were passed on to the organization. An Argentine comrade told us what they did when they received similar information.”

Comisión Funa’s first protest exposed former torturer Alejandro Forero Alvarez, who is working to this day at a private clinic as a cardiologist. His role as an agent of the dictatorship was to supervise torture sessions to ensure that the tortured political prisoner would not die before divulging information.

Investigating the names passed on to the organization is a long process. “Sometimes it takes months, or even years, to piece together the information that leads to the hiding places of torturers and assassins,” Saravia said. “Our action is peaceful protest, but it is by no means passive. Through our action, the people get to know that their neighbor is a rapist, or a torturer, that their public space is shared by a criminal who, until our discovery, managed to hide his dark past.”

Exposing torturers at their residences or places of employment has served several purposes. “First of all, our protests have ensured that human rights violations are constantly in the news,” Saravia said. “The mobilization generates the necessary social pressure in order to advance the judicial process. We scrutinize the sentences handed to convicted agents for fairness. In the absence of such fairness, Comisión Funa ensures that the perpetrator is sanctioned within his or her immediate society.”

After being exposed, many torturers have been forced to relocate due to the public pressure.

A Comisión Funa protest exposing Marco Treuer Hysen, the police officer who murdered Mapuche teen Alex Lemun, in 2017. (Comisión Funa)

Marco Treuer, the police officer who murdered Mapuche teen Alex Lemun, was another target of activists. “I cannot tell for sure that the case was reopened after our protest, but a few days after our mobilization, the judiciary decided to bring the accused, who is a public employee, to face trial,” Saravia said.

Ruth Loreto Lazo Pastore is a regular participant in Comisión Funa’s protests. Her father, Ofelio de la Cruz Lazo Lazo, was one of the disappeared victims of Operacion Colombo on July 30, 1974.

“We are alerting people, the residents, that there are torturers and assassins living among them, that history is much closer than they think,” she said. “Participants bring others along and encourage them to take up the struggle against impunity and to become part of this memory exercise. We cannot speak of the past as just belonging to the past.”

Failed justice

Comisión Funa’s protests are also an expression of indignation toward Chile’s justice system, which — according to Saravia — has handed out ridiculous and shamefully short sentences to agents convicted of crimes against humanity, not to mention the special luxury jails in which they are imprisoned.

Chile’s judicial system determines the punishment for dictatorship-era crimes, which allows indicted military agents to benefit from a reduction in their sentence for offering to collaborate during court investigations. Its response to crimes against humanity “is totally inconceivable in many countries throughout the world, especially in Europe,” Saravia said.

Fernando Burgos Diaz, a former member of the National Information Center, who participated in the killing of Julio Guerra and the kidnapping of Esther Cabrera Hinojosa, is running a lucrative family business for “esoteric and spiritual therapy.” He only served a sentence of three years and one day for both crimes and is now free.

A protest against Edwin Dimter Bianchi, who was one of the soldiers responsible for killing folk singer Victor Jara, on April 22, 2017. (Comisión Funa)

This is only one of many contradictions that Chileans are living with in the post-dictatorship era. “There are thousands of criminals who live within our communities, close to our families, daughters and sons,” Saravia remarked. “Torturers, murderers and rapists who, today, are part of this sick society, imposed by blood and bullets by the civil-military dictatorship. Subsequent governments have followed the imposed economic model and to this day defend and maintain the 1980 constitution.”

Impunity was consolidated during the transition to democracy. “The human rights violations committed during the dictatorship imposed the cruel, capitalist system that we are living with today,” Saravia said. “Today’s impunity has created new victims — criminalizing social movements in Chile and clamping down on the Mapuche resistance through militarization — to maintain the fascist system implemented by the dictatorship.”

Loreto sees Comisión Funa as taking a stand in direct opposition to this widespread impunity in Chile. “If we are not careful, all the agents who tortured and killed our families will not serve an effective sentence for their crimes,” she said. “They will benefit from humanitarian pardons due to illnesses and old age. If the government is not diligent, then Comisión Funa and all who participate in the protests denouncing these torturers will remain alert. As we always say in our marches, ‘like the Nazis, wherever you hide, we will expose you!’”

With the crisis of Kavanaugh’s confirmation comes opportunity

by George Lakey

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Saturday was a tough day for a group of social justice activists to hold a strategy retreat. Brett Kavanaugh was clearly going to be confirmed to the Supreme Court, and we weren’t in any kind of mood to plan next steps for our campaign.

Fortunately, facilitator Yotam Marom was prepared. He invited everyone to take two sheets of paper and a set of pastel crayons. Each of us was to make two pictures: One would represent what losing our fight might look like, and the other one would represent what winning the fight might look like.

The group came through: The array of images we created and our talking about them permitted and normalized the rage, grief and despair we were experiencing. Because fear is so rooted in individual ego, our sharing about it in the group brought us back to the present moment, able to think again. We ended the day with a plan, and a higher degree of unity than before.

All of us living through America’s crisis time need to remember that our strategizing brain lives within a whole person, holding feelings that can block clarity and creativity. Fortunately, humans have evolved to handle this problem: feel and acknowledge your feelings, and turn to the group for support.

Kavanaugh creates an opportunity

While trust in elected officials has been waning in recent years, the Supreme Court has managed to retain at least some respect as “above the fray.” Even though the court was trending toward the political right, neither political extreme has fully gotten what it wants from the court and most of the citizenry has had some confidence in its steadiness and caution — until now.

The 2016 refusal of the Republicans to fill the empty seat, and now the choice of Brett Kavanaugh, combine to reduce the court’s reputation. This means that the entire federal government’s credibility is in serious decline.

People on the left do not agree on a diagnosis of this legitimacy crisis. Some don’t see its link to the dramatic polarization that has been accelerating in recent decades and that it is structural, related as it is to the widening income gap. They therefore believe there’s a political fix that can restore trust in government, like a third party or limiting campaign contributions or persuading the Democratic Party to defy its Wall Street controllers.

What they don’t see is that the legitimacy crisis is an opportunity. It’s a truism in political science that when regimes lose their legitimacy, major change — even revolution — becomes a possibility. After all, that’s when the Swedish and Norwegian movements made their move, and pushed their economic elites out of dominance.

In the United States, movements aimed for that during the Great Depression, when free market capitalism lost its legitimacy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democrats responded to the nonviolent action of mass movements by changing the role of the state. Unfortunately, the grassroots movements had two competing visions for what they wanted: communism verses democratic socialism. Among other factors at play, the competing visions gave Roosevelt maneuvering room to build the credibility of the state by making reforms — thereby restraining capitalism enough to save it.

Barack Obama and the Rooseveltian moment

2008 was a year when people were staring over a cliff. Even Republicans were ready for “socialism,” as mass media noted. While campaigning, Sen. Obama said the United States should do what the Swedes did when their banks failed them in the early ‘90s: seize them and run them for the public good. He also acknowledged that, if elected, he wouldn’t be able to do that because the United States didn’t have that kind of “political culture.” In other words, unlike the Swedish social movements, we wouldn’t demand it with direct action.

He was right. And even though he kept saying people would need to step up and pressure for change, most liberals sat back and expected him to do the heavy lifting — and then criticized him when he didn’t do it by himself. But Obama did, through many acts of leadership, maintain the legitimacy of the presidency, offsetting his Democratic colleagues in Congress who couldn’t even pass a climate bill despite being in the majority.

The failure of Obama’s supporters to form social movements that would demand the changes he himself wanted and that we all needed, was the key difference from the 1930s. Even the health reform effort was supine and Obama was forced — given the vacuum — to call out Big Pharma and the health insurance companies himself.

On his own, he was powerless to stop the overall Democratic abandonment of the working class, Main Street, family farmers and black people as they lost their homes.

However, people’s heads continued to change during those eight years of Obama, judging from the polls and subsequent events. The elements of a democratic socialist vision emerged, even strongly enough to support a self-proclaimed democratic socialist presidential candidate who came from obscurity in 2015. Pollsters found that a couple years after the Republicans had gathered working class and small business people into the Tea Party, most Tea Party members were still furious with Wall Street.

To oversimplify: In the 1930s, we had plenty of direct action by mass movements, but we also had the downside of two visions for major change competing for majority support. In the late 2000s, we had an emerging vision that was growing, but a paucity of mass movements waging sustained direct action. (Even Occupy failed to morph into multiple campaigns, win available victories and generate an economic justice direct action movement.)

Let’s not miss the boat this time

The easiest thing to predict these days is crisis. The Florida teens showed the grown-ups in the gun control lobby how to use a crisis: mount a direct action campaign that compels (in the case of Florida) a response from politicians. Since we know crises are coming, why not prepare?

As it happens, there’s a way to prepare that builds our skills, supports our mental health and gives us the jump on the historical moments of crisis. It’s called creating direct action campaigns. Choose a demand that is winnable and a target that can yield the demand, gather a group of people eager to win and willing to focus their attention, and begin.

In the Global Nonviolent Action Database, we find successful campaigns both small and large. High school students in Flour Bluff, Texas, won the right to have a gay-straight alliance. Waterfront residents and Green Justice Philly stopped construction of an oil export terminal. Iranians nonviolently brought down the Shah of Iran, even though the dictator was supported by a modern army, torture chambers and the U.S. government.

Those who doubt that direct action campaigns can take on the economic elite of the United States need to take another look at what the civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and ‘60s were up against. Southern black people faced the largest American terrorist organization in history, the Ku Klux Klan. Local law enforcement was on the side of the Klan. State law enforcement was directed by the White Citizens Councils. The federal government declined to enforce its own laws. The FBI actively worked to undermine the freedom movement. Neither national political party wanted to stand up for the rights of black people. Yet, 10 years after the mass phase of the movement began, President Lyndon B. Johnson was forced to intervene, following the Selma direct action campaign in 1965. His fervent hope was that the campaign would disappear.

For a decade that was the lop-sidedness of the U.S. power equation: local terrorism and state repression with a federal government wanting to avoid the whole thing on one side, and the power of nonviolent direct action mobilized through campaigns on the other.

But how is the power best applied?

Even if direct action campaigns can develop the power to function unprotected in Klan country and bring down military dictatorships, how can that power be tapped for this political moment?

This is where the drawings at the beginning of this story come into play. Strategists in each of the earlier-mentioned campaigns were able to think clearly enough to map out campaigns that won. We need to step up and use our strategy heads to do the same — especially since the declining legitimacy of government reveals more and more people who feel their disenfranchisement and are open to alternative ways to stand up for themselves.

We may need to use Yotam’s wisdom at the strategy retreat. First, feel our range of feelings and reach for each other. Then, in community, clear our heads and do the thinking required. You can learn your strategy skills in a campaign where you live. And there’s no need to try to do it alone.

What explains success or failure in the Arab Spring?

by Molly Wallace

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Published in collaboration with the Peace Science Digest, which summarizes and reflects on current academic research in the field of peace and conflict studies.

Seven years after the blossoming of the so-called Arab Spring, the results of numerous civil resistance movements across the Middle East and North Africa region are mixed. Scholars have studied these cases to discern precisely what might explain success in some cases and failure in others. In an articled titled, “How Civil Resistance Succeeds (or Not): MicroDynamics of Unity, Timing, and Escalatory Actions,” published in Peace & Change, Isabel Bramsen contributes to this emerging body of knowledge on civil resistance in the region by comparing the cases of Tunisia and Bahrain. The former stands out as perhaps the lone case of successful and sustainable regime change and the latter as an uprising that was suppressed before it could come to fruition. What accounts for these divergent outcomes — for whether, in the author’s words, “civil resistance is successful or silenced”?

Bramsen starts by examining prevalent explanations for the success or failure of civil resistance, both in the Arab Spring and more generally. She argues that such prominent explanations as the maintenance of nonviolent discipline, previous organizational capacity, and military defections — and civil-military relations more broadly — are insufficient for explaining the divergent outcomes in these particular cases, as well as the variation within each case over time (in other words, why repression may have failed at one point but effectively suppressed a movement at another).

Instead, employing a theoretical framework developed by Randall Collins, Bramsen focuses on the interactive dimensions of the struggle between a civil resistance movement and the regime it opposes to explain why some movements succeed and some fail. Applying this theoretical lens, she conducted interviews in 2015 with a variety of (mostly) activists — prominent and ordinary, rural and urban, female and male, those who threw stones and those who adhered to nonviolent discipline — from Tunisia and Bahrain, while also drawing on reports, news articles, earlier scholarship on these cases, and YouTube videos.

Through her analysis she finds the following: In Tunisia, the violent repression of the uprising in late 2010 and early 2011 only further unified and energized the protest movement across the country, providing it with greater momentum that eventually contributed to a deterioration of regime cohesion; therefore, when the movement escalated with a massive demonstration on a major street outside the Ministry of Interior, it was from a position of strength and momentum for the movement and at a moment of division and uncertainty for the regime, leading to Ben Ali’s departure.

In Bahrain, the initial violent repression of the movement in early 2011 had a similar unifying and energizing effect, with activists of different stripes, as well as Sunnis and Shias, coming together against a common enemy. The regime’s shift in tactics after a few days, however, pulling out of the Pearl Roundabout (the center of protest activity) and generally allowing the demonstrations to proceed, allowed divisions within the movement to emerge, both between revolutionary and reformist contingents and along sectarian lines — despite some concerted effort on the part of the movement to be decidedly non-sectarian.

A few weeks later, when some segments of the movement decided to escalate with a blockade of the financial district, it was from a position of disunity, without widespread Sunni participation and without the participation of the biggest opposition party. The entrance of Saudi forces the next day and the regime’s crackdown against the movement and clearing of the Pearl Roundabout within the next two days had an important psychological effect on the movement in this context, “emotionally dominat[ing] the protesters.”

Bramsen argues more generally, therefore, that the success of a civil resistance movement depends on the movement’s maintenance of “unity and coherence” while “challeng[ing] the cohesion of the opponent” — where these are influenced by the regime’s “repressive strategies” and the timing of the movement’s escalation, namely whether or not it is undertaken while the movement has momentum. Based on these findings, she urges activists to consider the timing of escalatory activities carefully, planning them for moments of “cohesion and momentum.”

Contemporary relevance

This research reminds us that the success of civil resistance movements does not depend on the mere presence or absence of seemingly static factors like organizational capacity or a disgruntled military but rather on the timing of movement and regime actions and the dynamic interaction between them. This reminder is relevant to current movements around the world and should be encouraging insofar as it means that no movement is a lost cause just because it lacks one of the purported factors of success. Instead, what matters is strategy and a certain perceptiveness when it comes to relations and interactions between the movement and its opponents.

The findings here recall those of Robert J. Burrowes in his 1996 book, “The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach,” where he emphasizes the prime importance of a nonviolent movement strengthening its own unity and cohesion and weakening the adversary’s. In effect, this means that what matters are not the “weapons” one has at one’s disposal (whether these are actual or symbolic) but rather the effect these “weapons” have on one’s own and one’s opponents’ will to continue struggling.

In this sense, we can better understand how a regime’s choice to violently repress a civil resistance movement can actually have the opposite effect from that intended, strengthening the ability of the movement to continue resisting by unifying multiple social groups around it and reinforcing their will to resist. At the same time, to the extent that violent repression is used against clearly unarmed activists, this repression can itself weaken the unity of the regime and therefore its will and power to continue opposing the movement; the growing cohesion and unity of the civil resistance movement can also sway members/supporters of the regime to the movement’s side as they become convinced of its viability and promise or even just become swept up in its fervor. In short, current movements can use these findings to recall the fluidity and malleability of seemingly fixed power structures and social groups, and use these to their advantage.

Practical implications

Based on these findings, civil resistance activists should keep the following considerations central to their strategizing. First, activists should choose nonviolent tactics based not only on what will withdraw sources of power from the regime but also on what they think will either best strengthen their own movement’s broad-based cohesion or best weaken the cohesion of the adversary, while noting the general importance of employing a diversity of tactics (of both concentration and dispersion, depending on the level of risk).

Second, as noted by Bramsen, activists should choose the timing of escalations carefully, being mindful of the risk of escalating when they do not enjoy sufficient unity or momentum. On the other hand, a well-timed escalation — when the movement enjoys peak participation numbers and diversity — could prove decisive.

Third, activists should resist the urge to see the opponent as monolithic and rather should try to see and relate with the opponent as a diverse group, many contingents of whom could potentially be peeled away from the opponent core, ultimately depleting it of its power.

To subscribe or download the full special issue on “nonviolent resistance,” which includes additional resources for each article, visit their website.

How repression is fueling Romania’s anti-corruption movement

by Alexandru Predoiu

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It was supposed to be just another day of protest against the corrupt government of Romania’s Social Democrats and the head of the party, Liviu Dragnea. But on Aug. 10, tens of thousands of Romanians who gathered in Bucharest’s Victory Square, were gassed, shot at and severely beaten by the riot police, leaving hundreds of people wounded and thousands more traumatized. The experience shocked an entire country, generating widespread support for the #rezist movement, and fueling activists’ passions and resolve to continue the struggle.

Dragnea is a member of parliament, but also a convicted felon on corruption charges. He came to absolute power through the 2016 parliamentary elections, when the party won a sufficient number of seats to form a stable and powerful majority alongside the Alliance of Liberal Democrats and the Magyar Democratic Union of Romania.

Since the elections, the single and most important ambition of the ruling party has been to wage a direct and merciless war on the Romanian judicial system. It began with an attack on the National Anti-Corruption Directorate, or DNA, an institution that was cutting down prominent members from all political parties, but especially those from the Social Democrats.

To achieve this, Dragnea went through two prime ministers since 2016, Sorin Grindeanu and Mihai Tudose, hoping to find the perfect lackey to run the government on his command. He finally found his puppet in current Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, thus making sure that he had silenced dissent, even critical voices within his own party.

The first spark

Dragnea’s first attempt at “reforming the judicial system” was to change the articles in the penal code related to corruption charges, making them looser and easier to get around. He did this through one of his ministers in the government, Florin Iordache, who wanted to impose the changes through a government ordinance in January 2017.

This was the moment when many decided they could not take it anymore and Corupția Ucide, or Corruption Kills, gained notoriety. They launched several protest calls on Facebook and when tensions peaked, more than 500,000 people flooded Victory Square to show the government that they were not going to support this decision. Protesters did manage to achieve a small victory by forcing the government to back down and not pursue the ordinance.

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Between this mobilization and August 2018 there were many smaller protests, with some protesters staying in the streets for days on end in an effort to keep public attention on the issue. The hashtag #rezist became the symbol of this new civic movement. This was the war cry of all those who opposed the government, Social Democrats and corruption in all its forms.

Civic groups like those involved with Corruption Kills and smaller parties like the Save Romania Union, which has seats in parliament, and others seeking to become parties — like Romania Together, the Romania 100 Platform or Demos — have been mobilizing people around the issue.

The climax

Aug. 10 did not have any symbolic significance. It was chosen more as a tactical move on behalf of the organizers, who were hoping to convince Romanians working abroad to come back to Romania to help fight this ongoing corruption battle. Knowing that the majority of Romanians who work abroad travel home for vacation in the summertime, their call insisted that unity in action will help put more pressure on authorities. #Rezist groups formed in Romanian communities in countries like Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom, and they joined the protest.

On the day of the protest, the situation was already tense, as authorities were showing no signs of backing down in their assault on judicial institutions. Laura Codruța Kovesi, the head of the DNA and a key figure in the fight against corruption, had been forced to resign just a few weeks earlier.

Although there were numerous calls on social media for the protest to maintain nonviolent discipline, small groups of protesters attacked the police with stones and other objects. While these groups were limited in number and insignificant in size compared to the wider protest at Victory Square, they gave police an excuse to disperse the crowd with force. They fired rubber grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas, and detained and beat protesters without assessing if they were violent or not.

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The toll was great and reminded people of the harrowing 2012 anti-austerity reforms protests. Hundreds were injured, and more than 700 filed complaints against the riot police for violent conduct and abuse of power. These complaints are currently being used in an ongoing investigation against the heads of the police and the city’s prefect — the political representative of the government — who are responsible for the way the ground forces intervened during the protest. Prosecutors are still trying to declassify all the orders given on that day, but they have already announced numerous charges and said that the Military Tribunal will bring to justice those who were involved in the events.

It is uncertain how things will end, but with Social Democrats’ approval rating falling by the day, they will be forced to take action and make concessions if they want to perform well in the upcoming elections for the European Parliament in 2019. In the meantime, the civic opposition on the streets is further organizing itself in order to continue its fight against endemic corruption.

Corupția Ucide went from online to offline by opening up an activist hub in Bucharest to help citizens organize future protests. Workshops on civic engagement, nonviolent tactics and legal rights for protesters are being held for those who wish to become more active in the movement. Also the hub is a much needed space for people to get together face-to-face in order to build trust and debate how the #rezist movement should proceed.

The Save Romania Union has been using its seats in parliament to expose the dirty practices the Social Democrats are using to further their illiberal agenda. They have also managed to gather a million signatures — with the help of platforms like Romania Together and Romania 100 Platform — in a campaign called “No convicts in public offices.” Its goal is a referendum to change the constitution to restrict convicted felons from running for public office. Demos, on the other hand, has been gathering its members and sympathizers to become a political party, which they hope will become the left-wing political alternative to the Social Democrats in future elections.

This entire struggle has polarized Romanian society, and the struggle is by no means over. It is unlikely that either side will back down, but Romania’s path toward a real democracy will be forged by the anti-corruption struggles.

Thousands of actions nationwide call for culture of nonviolence

by Rev. John Dear

A Campaign Nonviolence march in Wilmington, Delaware. (Twitter)

In the face of ever-widening fascism and the steady assault on the poor, the planet and the remnants of democracy, I risked arrest as part of a modest, Gandhian campaign at the White House on Sept. 22.

The action was part of Campaign Nonviolence’s national week of action, which registered 2,668 events, marches and actions across the United States, in all 50 states, and 24 other nations. Over the course of a week, tens of thousands of people connected the dots between racism, poverty, greed, war, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction, and called for justice and a new culture of nonviolence.

The centerpiece of the campaign began on the afternoon of Sept. 21, in a church center in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where a nonviolence training session was held, followed by an evening panel discussion on the power and methodology of Gandhian/Kingian nonviolence through grassroots movements.

The following morning, we gathered at 9 a.m. at the foot of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue along the National Mall’s Tidal Basin to hear speakers call for a return to King’s wisdom of nonviolence. The rain had stopped and the water was beautifully calm. A large blue heron kept vigil at one end, and a tall white egret on another. A U.S. military helicopter — as well as a flock of Canadian geese — circled overhead.

Rev. Lennox Yearwood speaks in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. (Pace e Bene)

With Kit Evans Ford and George Martin as emcees, Lisa Sharon Harper of Freedom Road called us to resist the evils of systemic racism and sexism. Shane Claiborne talked about the latest gun violence and wars and why we must end them. Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, urged us to break through our despair, numbness and paralysis, as King did, to protect Mother Earth. Ken Butigan outlined the strength of active organized nonviolence, as demonstrated by King. I said it was time for all of us to rise to the occasion and become mature champions of justice, peace and creation, that it was time for us to strive for the level of creative nonviolence modeled by King.

Then we set off. We lined up two by two, and walked off in silence. At the Lincoln Memorial, we knelt down in silence for a minute, as King did during the Birmingham marches. Thousands of tourists stopped to watch us, confused or curious. Each one of us held a blue sign with a quote by Gandhi or King, and we called out, “Abolish war, poverty, racism, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction! We want a culture of nonviolence!”

On we walked, past the reflecting pool, down the sidewalk along the black stone walls of the Vietnam memorial, past the names of the war dead. A park ranger started yelling at us and taking our peace signs, but one of our peacekeepers calmed her down. Most people seemed to understand and nod their heads in quiet appreciation.

Along Constitutional Avenue and 17th Street, we took another knee, trying to stay centered in our pledge for open, heartfelt nonviolence.

John Dear (right) bearing witness in front of the White House as part of Campaign Nonviolence’s national week of action. (Pace e Bene)

Then we reached Pennsylvania Avenue and walked to Lafayette Park. With a perfect blue sky overhead and a cool breeze blowing, we stood amidst the circus of thousands of tourists, tour groups, mimes, speakers, singers and police. We lined up holding our signs facing the White House and continued our peace vigil.

Ten of us walked up to the White House fence, turned our backs, and held up our signs in front of the passing tourists. We had crossed the line into the no-protest zone. The police eventually approached, cleared an area around us on the sidewalk, and told us we would soon be arrested if we did not disperse. We thanked them and stayed put.

So began our stand off, or our stand for peace. Nearly two hours later, we were still there, and realized that, in fact, the police were not going to arrest us. We ended our witness, gathered in a circle for a closing prayer, and promised one another to keep building up this movement of nonviolent resistance.

Syrians resist extremists and military offensive against Idlib

by Julia Taleb

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After weeks of mass demonstrations that swept opposition-controlled areas in northern Syria — denouncing a foreseeable pro-regime military offensive against Idlib province — Turkey and Russia reached an agreement on Sept. 17.

Averting a potential humanitarian crisis in Idlib, the two countries agreed to establish a nearly 10-mile-wide “demilitarized zone” by Oct. 15 that would separate the opposition from Syrian government-controlled territories. According to the agreement, Turkish forces and Russian military police will patrol the zone, and heavy weapons will be removed by Oct. 10.

“It is still unclear if Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other al-Qaeda groups present within the zone will retreat,” said Sakhr Baath, a Syrian lawyer and researcher on security reform. “While the agreement is a significant step toward ending the conflict, the actual implementation and a complete resolution would take more time.”

For the past five weeks, thousands of people have been demonstrating every Friday in communities across Idlib province, northern Hama and Aleppo provinces. “We will stay in the streets until we bring the revolution back on track — a call for rights and freedom,” said Ahmed, one of the participants in Marat al-Numan demonstrations. He asked to remain anonymous fearing retaliation from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, an armed group formed by the former al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra Front and the most powerful jihadist alliance in Idlib. “We will kick the terrorists out, so the regime cannot use their presence as a pretext for an attack.”

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After pro-government forces took full control of Daraa province in early August, there has been heightened fear of a pro-government offensive against Idlib province and areas of adjacent provinces, the last major rebel-controlled enclave.

HTS has allowed people to rally, thinking that mass demonstrations against a pro-government offensive would protect it, Ahmed said. After the people assembled in huge numbers across the province holding the revolution’s flag, HTS sent its members to infiltrate the demonstrations and raise their Islamic flag. “When we took their flags, they [HTS members] started shooting in the air,” Ahmed recounted. “But people pushed them, took their weapons, and expelled them from the demonstrations.”

In places like Kafranbel, people were chanting “Idlib Hura Hura, Hay’a Titlaa Bara,” which translates to “Idlib free free, HTS must leave.” On Sept. 22, a day after a major demonstration in Kafranbel, HTS arrested activists Abd al-Hameed Bayoush and Samer al-Saloum and lawyer Yaser al-Saleem. The arrest was due to their participation in the demonstrations and al-Saleem’s Facebook post calling on people from Faoua and Kafriya to return to their homes in Idlib. The two towns in Idlib were besieged by rebel forces and evacuated last July to government-controlled areas.

The mass demonstrations came in response to calls by revolutionary activists, local councils, civil assemblies and committees across the province. HTS also organized its own demonstrations, where people raised al-Qaeda’s flag. This was mostly noticed in HTS-strongholds, such as al-Dana, Salqin, Tilmmins and Harem.

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“They wanted to send the message that they have public support too,” said Amr, a field officer who works for a relief organization in the town of Marat Hurma. He asked that his real name not be used to protect his safety. HTS commanders were warning their members not to interfere in demonstrations. According to Amr, they feared that media would capture scenes of activists clashing with HTS or burning their flag in public.

For the past year, almost all international support to civil activities and programing in Idlib have ceased due to HTS’s strong presence in the province and its control of public services. Donor governments were cautious as they did not want funds to end up in the hand of terrorists. “When the funding stopped, most communities had a strong reason to protest against HTS presence,” Amr said. Most local councils and civil organizations were releasing statements declaring their independence from HTS and the influence of armed factions. “People were able to force HTS to move its headquarters outside of their communities as they did not want to be associated with terrorists,” Amr added.

On Aug. 6, HTS members surrounded the local council in Khan Shaykhun to confiscate its buildings, but people took to the streets rejecting HTS control of the council. HTS members were shooting in the air to disperse the demonstration. “While HTS has some sympathizers, most people are hateful of their armed dominance, injustice and their application of strict Sharia rules,” Amr said.

The security situation in Idlib has been deteriorating since the beginning of the armed conflict in 2012, with the presence of dozens of rival armed factions, including terrorist groups. The National Liberation Front, a merger of armed factions that was finalized in northwest Syria on August 1, has approximately 30,000 armed members in Idlib. With the support of Turkey, the merger was established to counter HTS’s increased aggression and influence in Idlib. According to U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, there are also approximately 10,000 terrorists in the province, including members of HTS and other al-Qaeda affiliated groups.

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The new agreement would spare the 3.5 million people living in Idlib. The province also has approximately 1.5 million internally-displaced people, who refused to reconcile with the Syrian government in their hometowns. They fled to Idlib, which was established as a “de-escalation zone” guaranteed by Turkey, Iran and Russia in May 2017. Some came to Idlib with their arms and declared their determination to fight until the end. “A war in Idlib would be bloody with the presence of hundreds of thousands of fighters and civilians who are ready to die,” said Baath, the Syrian lawyer and researcher.

People continue to demonstrate every Friday fearing that Idlib will be handed over to the Syrian government. Fighters are reluctant to hand over their arms without reassurances from Turkey and the Russia over their future.

Post-agreement efforts should be focused not only on demilitarizing the zone bordering Syrian government-controlled territories, but the whole province. Last month, Turkey listed HTS as a terrorist organization in an effort to pressure it and other radical groups to quit the fight. With its influence over armed factions in northern Syria, Turkey can work on neutralizing and reforming these groups to be part of the future security apparatus in opposition-controlled areas.

While the implementation of the agreement would take time, Turkey and international powers can continue to pressure HTS to dissolve itself and foreign jihadists to leave the country. Meanwhile, people should be given more time to push HTS and other terrorist groups out of their communities. “Many people have been defecting from HTS and foreign fighters have been selling their homes and leaving,” Amr said. “We are fighting for our survival and we will not quit unless we get our freedom.”

Electing Democrats in November without confronting neoliberalism will not be enough

by Eric Stoner

In recent decades, there has been an explosion of social movements and protest around an ever-growing range of issues. To the casual observer, tree-sits by Earth First! activists to protect old-growth forests, courageous farmerworkers organizing to end modern-day slavery in Florida’s tomato fields, and young military veterans reenacting war scenarios in uniform on the streets of New York have little to do with each other.

However, in his new book “The Defiant: Protest Movements in Post-Liberal America,” Dawson Barrett makes a compelling argument that these seemingly disparate movements — for environmental and economic justice, to end U.S. militarism and wars abroad, and even the rise of youth countercultures, like those that birthed punk rock and hip hop — are in fact far more connected than is first apparent. They are all responding to the different manifestations of the neoliberal economic model, which prioritizes corporate profits over people and the environment.

Despite their valiant efforts, Barrett contends that organizers today have yet to secure the “wide-reaching, concrete accomplishments of earlier movements.” In this interview, he expands on why this is the case, what particular campaigns have done to win meaningful victories in recent years, and where he sees glimmers of hope today.

How do you define the post-liberal era, and why do you think social movement victories have been so “rare and dishearteningly limited” in recent decades?

The shift was actually messy and gradual, but I mark the post-liberal era as beginning with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. From roughly the 1930s into the 1970s, mainstream politicians of both parties had more or less accepted liberal economic planks (taxes on the rich and powerful, basic guarantees of workers’ rights, environmental protections, etc.), thus making it the liberal era.

Since Reagan, though, both parties have pursued what is called neoliberalism, a confusing word that basically just means tax cuts for the rich, service cuts for the working and middle classes, de-regulation of industry and public money for corporations through privatization. Some people have suggested more useful terms for neoliberalism, including “casino capitalism” (the house always wins) and “Jurassic Park capitalism” (maybe we get eaten in the end). Those both sound about right to me. Bluntly speaking, neoliberalism funnels trillions of dollars from the public into the pockets of the extremely wealthy — that’s the goal, in fact, and it has worked well.

This shift has also had profound impacts on protest movements. The protest waves of the 1930s and 1960s eras, despite the incredible levels of violence directed at them, forced a long list of major reforms, largely because they were able to exploit the vulnerabilities of the people at the top: rifts within the Democratic Party, the global political context of the Cold War, and the emergence of television, among others.

The people at the top learned their lessons, though, and they have worked smartly since then to eliminate those pressure points. One significant barrier for protest movements is that the establishment wings of both parties agree on so many issues. Both parties take neoliberalism for granted, and that has severely limited what can be done at the ballot box.

Reagan, Bush and Trump have used what you call “saboteur appointments” as an effective tactic to thwart progressive change. In what ways can activists adapt under these difficult circumstances to still push forward their agenda?

It is outrageously undemocratic, but appointing saboteurs (putting major polluters in charge of the EPA, for example) has been very successful. It basically handcuffs the parts of the government that actually help people — and the effect is that it doesn’t matter what laws are passed in these areas, as they won’t be enforced anyway. Stacking the U.S. Supreme Court with a dependable, pro-wealthy majority achieves similar goals.

In response, we have seen decades of heroic civil disobedience campaigns, such as the stands against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. These campaigns may slow down the fossil fuel industry, but at this point, actually defeating the saboteurs would require something much larger. There would have to be a progressive movement that could not only win elections, but win them with a party that is serious about these issues. In the case of, say, climate change, the Democratic Party is not. So we have our work cut out for us on several levels — in the party, at the ballot box and in the streets. And we have to win them all.

What role do you see punk rock, hip hop and graffiti having played in supporting and sustaining social movements from the 1970s onward?

Youth subcultures have often been incubators for rebellion against authority — in this case, you could easily point to anti-Reagan punk songs or rap songs about police brutality. Subcultural politics are not as straightforward as some of the other examples in the book, and they are full of contradictions and missteps. But I try to point to some of the more concrete political action that comes out of the punk movement (and there are many terrific books that do the same for hip-hop).

During a time when the power of organized labor was waning, what was key to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ successful campaign for better pay and working conditions?

One of the key principles of protest politics is that you have to know the right people to pressure, and this can be a much more difficult task than you would guess — particularly as supply chains now span the globe. In the case of the CIW, Florida farmworkers had to figure out who could actually meet their demands for better wages and an end to modern-day slavery in the fields. Because the supply chain is so convoluted, they had to go over the heads of their immediate employers, ultimately focusing on tomato purchasers, such as grocery stores and fast food restaurants. Then, they had to figure out how those companies, which also have incredibly complicated structures, were vulnerable.

In short, they discovered new pressure points in the economic power structure — and then they built a broad coalition to attack those points.

Your book lays out some of the unique challenges that the peace movement faces in the United States, such as the privatization of war and the virtual immunity of military contractors to public pressure. Do you have any advice for organizers on how they might overcome these hurdles?

Peace movements face some unique challenges, but this may not be one of them at this point. In short, military contractors are not vulnerable to public boycotts, and they enjoy almost universal, bipartisan support from those who hand them billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars to wage war.

This privatization model, though, is also now the norm in many other areas, for example the for-profit companies caging people across the country, including the children separated from their families.

To be clear, I’m a historian, not a movement strategist. So I don’t think I am the person to speak to advice for organizers. I do think the recent protests against for-profit prison companies are on the right track — a strategy that recognizes that both ICE facilities and these corporations have to be pressured. Along similar lines, peace movements must find ways to make wars less profitable. Smarter people than me have some good ideas about how.

You argue that movements have been unable to find an effective counter to the dominant neoliberal “free market” ideology. Do you see the growth of the “new economy,” the rising influence of the Democratic Socialists of America and the increasing popularity of socialism — especially among young people — as potentially offering any serious challenge to the status quo?   

Well, I do think there are some interesting threads to watch. Issues like wealth inequality and the dwindling opportunities of the middle and working classes built excitement not just for the Bernie Sanders campaign but also some of the early momentum for Donald Trump — his disingenuous criticism of NAFTA and Wall Street, for example. I don’t really buy that there was a lot of crossover between those two groups of voters, but there may be something there to tap into. Whether Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Julia Salazar, Cynthia Nixon and others can do so is an open question. It’s also a little early to judge the ascendancy of DSA, but there is definitely energy. We’ll see.

Radical inequality is not new to history, and the people at the top are quite good at channeling the desperation and fear that their policies create into things like war and racial resentment. We are at a crossroads, and there are paths that lead to a more just and human world, but also paths that lead to a Mad Max-style hellscape.

Movements have by and large been fighting defensive battles, you contend, which can be necessary. What would a more offensive effort look like, both in terms of its goals and tactics? Are there any particular struggles in recent decades or ones that are unfolding today that you see as pointing the way?

That is the big question, and failing to answer it has not been for lack of trying.

I think we have seen more clearly offensive efforts in the last few years actually. Occupy Wall Street was one promising iteration. People forget, but before it was finally crushed (violently), OWS was enormous: encampments in hundreds of cities, sit-ins in banks, mass marches and labor strikes. And there was even public sympathy for protesters when police brutalized them — that in itself is noteworthy. Efforts to make OWS look stupid and naïve had their intended effect, though, and have shaped at least some of the popular memory of it.

In such a rapid news cycle, I think OWS really hit on the fact that protest actions have to be around-the-clock and indefinite to grab the national imagination. If something that widespread and sustained were to happen today — and incorporated the demands and leadership of, say, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, Sanctuary, the Women’s March, the high school walk-outs, the teacher strikes, the prisoner strikes, etc. — it might very well force major changes. Both political parties are fractured and vulnerable in ways that they weren’t in 2011, and, frankly, protest movements have gotten smarter. We are living in a bleak period of history, but the future isn’t yet written.

With the midterm elections approaching, how do you see the interplay between grassroots organizing and electoral politics?  

Politicians are not an especially brave bunch. They happily go with the wind. Bluntly speaking, movements have to be capable of tipping elections. That is the only thing that will be more appealing than the mountains of cash that the super-rich can provide.

It does not appear that we are there just yet, but there are glimmers of hope. The push-back against anti-public education politicians in Oklahoma is one. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is another. The increased bravery of ambitious, centrist politicians like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris is also a statement. So is the decision by several others to be seen at protests — the Women’s March, the airport occupations and others.

But it will not be enough to be “not Trump.” If Democrats win in the next couple of elections but continue to make the rich richer with neoliberal policies (as Obama did), that will just be another opening for a Trump-type — and with enough tries, they might find a competent one.

Activists challenge World Hindu Congress over links to global fascism

by Skanda Kadirgamar

Six protesters were attacked by conference goers at the World Hindu Congress on Sept. 8. (WNV/Skanda Kadirgamar)

On Sept. 8, a coalition of South Asian organizations mobilized outside and inside the Lombard Westin Hotel, just west of Chicago, to disrupt the the World Hindu Congress, an influential forum that brings together governments, heads of corporations and religious leaders, using religious language to normalize fascism. The Alliance for Justice and Accountability spearheaded this inter-caste and interfaith convergence of activists from groups across the country, including the South Asia Solidarity Initiative and Chicago South Asians for Social Justice.

The World Hindu Congress, or WHC, professes an agenda of religious acceptance and “Hindu unity,” but this rhetoric is a thinly-veiled attempt to normalize the politics of India’s far right within the American mainstream. Dalit, Muslim, Kashmiri and other organizations representing oppressed communities throughout South Asia have long been attuned to the Hindu right’s dog whistles and blatant calls for ethno-religious massacres, in addition to their defense of rigid social hierarchy. As the WHC came together for its second conference, organizers refused to let this agenda go unchallenged.

The protest against the WHC aimed to expose the Hindu right’s strategy in the United States. Early Saturday morning, two trucks bedecked with images denouncing the WHC’s ideological roots in Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, circled the parking lot of the Lombard Westin. This provoked a small outcry from conference goers, one of who approached a parked truck carrying a banner that read “Hindutva Kills” and cursed at the organizers inside, calling them “traitors” who would “kill [their] own people.”

The events on Sept. 8 came to a head during the closing plenary in the Westin’s main ballroom, where around a thousand people had assembled. Demonstrators slipped in with the intention of silencing Mohan Rao Bhagwat, the head of Rashstriya Swayansevak Sangh, or RSS — India’s most powerful Hindu right institution.

The audience had been engrossed in nationalist speeches about a new age in which the “sun would always rise over” India for the better part of an hour. When they heard chants of “RSS, turn around! We don’t want you in our town!” they transformed into a violent mob. Demonstrators said they were kicked and choked. Encircled by angry attendees, two women who were part of the protest had their banner ripped away before they could unfurl it. They were dragged out before being handed over to the police. One of the conference attendees received a battery charge for spitting on them.

According to a statement released by Chicago South Asians for Justice, conference goers called one of these women a “dirty Muslim” and made death threats. The Alliance for Justice and Accountability, or AJA, released footage of the WHC mob online — in addition to a compilation of clips detailing more Hindutva threats and violence.

After that uproar, WHC organizers tightened security and called upon Lombard’s police force to drive protesters away from the hotel. Protests continued regardless of these efforts. Demonstrators from Muslim organizations, Sikhs decrying the Indian government’s atrocities against their community, and Kashmiris demanding an end to India’s occupation of their home joined the demonstrations outside of the Westin, moving in a circuit around the building and parading through Lombard.

Protesters outside the World Hindu Congress. (Twitter/Ashok Swain)

The primary organizer of the WHC was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or VHP. Originating in India, the VHP is an ardent proponent of Hindutva. Hindutvatis are culpable in the massacres of Muslim, Bahujan and Dalit communities. The VHP itself has been connected to armed religious vigilantes. Indeed, the organization’s late president, Ashok Singhal, was notorious for praising the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat. Hailing the riots — which killed more than 2,000 people — as a successful “experiment,” Singhal went on to advocate their replication. The weekend of conference, the WHC renamed the Westin’s main ballroom after Singhal and used the space to hold its largest plenaries.

Activists have struggled to expose this brutality, which has been concealed by the VHP and other supporters of Hindu nationalism efforts to represent themselves as moderate or even progressive voice. Their strategy revolves around juxtaposing fascist positions next to ostensibly progressive ones. The WHC included a panel on how Hindu women might break the glass ceiling, while also accommodating a booth and diorama asserting that Hindu-Muslim dating is part of a “Holocaust of Hindus.”

Political speakers from the U.S. establishment who were invited to speak at the WHC ran the gamut from left to right. Several progressive Democrats who had been invited to attend the conference eventually backed out after being targeted by an AJA letter-writing campaign.

“Do I think all attendees were Hindu Nationalists?” AJA organizer Ashwin Khobragade asked. “No, I think that many of the attendees are looking to use their faith as a platform to give back to their communities.” There were many community service organization that also attended the gathering.

At the same time, those in AJA believe it is imperative to push back against what it identifies as a move to co-opt well-meaning organizations into a fascist agenda. “We wouldn’t want people with social justice values sitting down with people who are like Richard Spencer,” Khobragade explained.

Among the politicians who declined an invitation was Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an icon of Bernie Sanders Democrats, who cited “ethical” concerns with “partisan Indian politicians” on the speakers list. Gabbard has been known to be an admirer of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been accused of being linked to the Gujarat genocide and Hindu nationalism more broadly. She has also come under scrutiny for other relationships with the far right and her support for the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria.

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, another progressive Democrat, also became the focus of AJA’s accountability letters. Unlike Chicago State Senator-elect Ram Villavam and Alderman Ameya Pawar, Krishnamoorthi has not disavowed the WHC. He has continued to insist that the gathering promotes “acceptance,” despite the links to the far right that protesters have elucidated.

Opponents of the Hindu right began organizing their resistance far in advance of the WHC. The AJA extensively researched the conference, its speakers list and its attendees. CEOs, government officials and even the Dalai Lama were among the VIPs. Identifying key attendees was crucial to the aforementioned letter-writing campaign. On Sept. 4, AJA announced that this effort had prompted the withdrawal of delegates from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — the political wing of the RSS.

The goal of AJA’s investigative approach has been to prevent progressives from being co-opted into the vast network of Hindutva organizations that have been working for decades to guarantee the supremacy of dominant-caste (also known as “upper-caste”) Hindus. The RSS, which was founded in 1925, boasts large volunteer and paramilitary sections, and was inspired by the Nazi party and had connections to Mussolini’s fascists. The RSS founded the BJP as its political wing in 1951 and the VHP as a cultural organization in 1964.

The protest outside the Lombard Westin. (Twitter)

In an effort to carefully cultivate a more benign profile, Hinduvatis and their sympathizers have obscured this history. For instance, the American branch of the VHP includes commitments to providing community service and bridging faith communities in its mission statement. Yet this pretense of moderation has helped spread far-right militancy among Hindu American diaspora leadership. Organizers from Chicago South Asians for Social Justice noted that WHC speakers used eugenic language. During the closing plenary, one speaker, framing racial science in religious language, exhorted Hindus to have bigger families due to a supposed decline in Hindu births relative to Muslims.

Historian Maia Ramnath, who is a member of an AJA ally group known as the South Asia Solidarity Initiative, argues that the right-wing militancy that drives these groups originates from a politics of “wounded egos” and “victim consciousness” among members of dominant-caste power structures. The closing plenary speeches overflowed with resentment and were obsessed with a mythic homeland that had been overrun by the British, Islam and Christianity. Ramnath says this forms a distinctive part of their ideology of racial supremacy, which extols caste and religious hierarchies that became more rigid as they adapted to colonial rule by Britain.

“Their logic is that they are supposed to have been supreme,” she said, “but the colonialists denied [them] this rightful supremacy. They will now exercise that supremacy over their so-called inferiors,” such as the Dalits, Adivasis (India’s indigenous people), Muslims and other minority communities.  

Ramnath despairs of a “stubborn myopia” among Western progressives and anti-fascists when it comes to confronting these groups. She argues that today’s anti-fascist movement does not see how Hindutva emerged from the racism of colonialism, which is an observation that has been made since the resistance to fascism in the 1920s and ‘30s.

South Asian diaspora progressives also suffer from blind spots that enable them to decry Donald Trump yet continue to support Narendra Modi. Trump, who has praised fascists, has repeatedly celebrated Modi. Prior to his election in 2016, Trump attended an event billed as a fundraiser for Kashmiri Pandits, a dominant-caste community used as a political football by the Hindu right. Ramnath says this illustrates a problem that coalitions like the one spearheaded by AJA are forced to contend with. The far right is having a much easier time, in her opinion, organizing transnationally than its progressive opponents.

What follows in the wake of the WHC protests remains unclear, especially after the attacks on organizers. What is abundantly apparent, however, is that AJA and its allies helped unveil political affiliations that the VHP would rather remain hidden from American political discourse. Whatever concrete steps AJA take next, they are sure to use that footage against attempts to normalize Hindu fascism in the United States.

How grassroots activists made peace with North Korea possible

by Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

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In April, it was a handshake. On Tuesday, it was a hug — one that might end a 70-year-long war.

The leaders of North and South Korea are meeting in Pyongyang this week to discuss the possibility of a peace treaty to end the decades-long conflict dividing the Korean Peninsula. This marks the third meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in since April, when the leaders famously shook hands across the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, separating the two countries.

After a swell of global optimism at warming relations between Kim and Moon, attention shifted to Donald Trump’s June meeting with Kim in Singapore. Despite the peace community’s hope for increased diplomacy following the summit’s vague yet optimistic outcome, many voices on both sides of the aisle in Congress, as well as within Trump’s own administration, have since disparaged the possibility for peace.

Contrary to the frequent inflammatory rhetoric from leaders in Washington and the media, North Korea has made modest concessions since June, such as the dismantling of certain missile launch sites. In this week’s meeting, Kim has agreed to allow international experts to observe a permanent dismantling of a missile test site and nuclear facility.

Despite these steps toward diplomacy, many government leaders are still demanding the immediate and complete denuclearization of North Korea — and they are doing so without offering any assurance that the United States won’t invade. At the same time, they are also refusing to announce the end of the Korean War, mostly due to fears that it could lead to a withdrawal of the 28,500 American troops stationed on the peninsula — even though Moon has dispelled such concerns.

Amid the clamor and saber-rattling, however, a steady, persistent grassroots peace movement is working hard to counter the negativity. By influencing stakeholders behind the scenes, building new coalitions and reframing the narrative to promote negotiation as a difficult but worthwhile process, this movement has risen above “fire and fury” to chart the way toward lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Building coalitions

Among the most important developments for the peace movement in the last year is the formation of broad coalitions. According to international scholar-activist Simone Chun, 2018 marked “the first time we saw a formidable, sustaining coalition with major American peace activists and the Korean activist communities.”

These coalitions have allowed actors to coordinate strategically in pushing for clear goals, like a formal declaration ending the Korean War and sustained diplomacy on a path to peace. These coalitions have also been key in elevating a range of voices, particularly those of Koreans, women and people of color, who have often been marginalized from the mainstream policy debates in Washington D.C.

Korea Peace Network, or KPN, is one of the key U.S.-based coalitions promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula. Spearheaded by the American Friends Service Committee, Peace Action and Korean-American peace activist Christine Ahn, KPN works to educate and organize Korean peace activists around the country, from birddogging congressional candidates to hosting webinars and strategizing sessions. In June, the network organized an action called KPN Advocacy Days, which saw a group of advocates from KPN visit Capitol Hill to meet with key legislators, like members of the Armed Services Committee, to promote negotiations with North Korea.

Members of Korea Peace Network outside the White House in June. (Facebook/KPN)

“I think it’s important that Koreans decide the fate for the peninsula,” said Korean-American activist Kwan Nam. With only 50 miles separating Seoul from the DMZ, and 25 million people living within 100 miles from the DMZ itself, Kwan described the possibility of war as “devastating for Koreans.”

“We cannot afford any kind of war,” he added. “My aunt lives near the DMZ. My older brother lives in Seoul. So when I see the possibility of war growing, I get really scared.”

Kwan mobilized around 20 Korean organizations throughout the United States into a network called One Korea Now, so that they could better support each other’s efforts to advocate for peace. This mobilization became even more effective once they partnered with larger, more established organizations like Peace Action, which formed during the anti-nuclear movement of the 1950s and has a wider national network of its own.

“It’s important to try to lift up those people who have much more expertise and more at stake for their families [if there were a war on the Korean Peninsula],” said Peace Action president Kevin Martin.

At the same time, however, Kwan has found it uniquely challenging to incorporate some parts of the Korean-American community into this peace work.

“Korean-speaking Korean Americans are somewhat isolated people in the Korean-American community,” he said. “We are working with some of the largest peace organizations in the United States, but a lot of Korean-Americans have never heard the names of these groups. My role is to get the Korean-speaking Korean-Americans more engaged with the general peace movement in the United States, and to think of Korean peace in terms of the global peace movement.”

Women Cross DMZ at the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean Peninsula in May. (Facebook/Women Cross DMZ/Jeehyun Kwon)

Recent organizing for peace on the Korean Peninsula has also underscored the importance of women-led organizations in mobilizing public support for peace.

Women Cross DMZ is one of the leading groups in this movement, along with partners like the women-led activist group Code Pink. Headed by Korean-American peace activist Christine Ahn, Women Cross DMZ launched its efforts in 2015 by leading an international delegation of 30 women in a walk across the DMZ, followed by international peace symposiums in Pyongyang and Seoul. In May 2018, the group sent another women’s delegation to Korea, in partnership with the Nobel Women’s Initiative and Women’s Peace Walk. While there, the organizers convened an all-women’s symposium, met with key stakeholders and called for a peace treaty in an historic crossing of the Reunification Bridge.

Not only have these coalition-building efforts raised attention and public awareness – they’ve also raised much-needed funding. Women Cross DMZ, Nobel Women’s Initiative and PeaceWomen were the recipients of a $2 million grant supporting women-led campaigns pushing for a viable peace process by 2020. Part of this funding will be allocated to a network of South Korean women working for peace, elevating their voices in the ongoing public debate about the Korean peace process.

“In a moment when we all felt stuck, the fact that women’s groups began the process to break through this deadlock really shows the power of what peace movements can do, especially what women’s peace groups can do,” Ahn said. She also emphasized the important role women’s organizations have played in challenging those demanding total and immediate disarmament by stating clearly that there should be as much attention on diplomacy and steps toward signing a formal peace treaty, as there is on denuclearization.

Still, despite the breadth of this coalition-building work, Women Cross DMZ has faced challenges, particularly when it comes to gaining proper attention within the broader peace community, which has focused much of its attention on the Middle East — even after President Barack Obama’s so-called “Asia Pivot.”

“In some ways, I feel the peace movement has really failed to look at the shift in U.S. military war policy,” Ahn explained, pointing to the often overlooked South Korean protests of U.S. military bases. “The Korean peninsula has provided a way to shift our attention, but we’re so far behind where we need to be as a global anti-war and peace movement.”

Peace Action president Kevin Martin echoed this concern, but suggested that the problem is even more widespread. “We’re in denial about the militarism of our society,” he said. “There are conferences bringing together all progressive movements, but they leave out peace.”

Influencing key stakeholders

For 40 years, popular movements have demanded peace, democracy and human rights on the Korean Peninsula, including the 1979 student-worker demonstrations in Pusan, the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, and the campaign for direct presidential elections in 1987.

In many ways, these uprisings culminated in 2016 with the South Korean Candlelight Revolution. This movement, which drew over 16 million people, denounced the corruption of then-President Park Geun-hye and paved the way to elect Moon Jae-in, a president determined to prioritize peace on the Korean Peninsula.

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Moon has made a marked departure from previous South Korean leaders’ provocative rhetoric over North Korea’s nuclear and missile-testing programs, returning to the “Sunshine Policy” of South Korea’s last two progressive presidents. In doing so, he has emphasized economic projects and cultural exchanges between the two countries, like building railways to connect the peninsula, arranging family reunions, and hosting joint sports matches with North and South Koreans. There have been numerous public events promoting reconciliation, like the Pyeongchang Olympic games in February, when both teams marched under a single flag and played a unified women’s hockey team.

Since his election, Moon’s efforts to promote peace with North Korea have extended far beyond the two countries’ bilateral relationship. Trump has asked Moon to serve as “chief negotiator” for the third inter-Korea summit in September. This role is not only a testament to Moon’s diplomatic skills, but highlights the credibility he has built as a key actor in the negotiating process.

As with Moon’s election, the peace movement has an important role to play in influencing key stakeholders within the Korean peace process, including members of Congress.

“North Korea is a long-term marathon issue,” said Charissa Zehr of the Mennonite Central Committee, a Christian organization which advocates for peace and humanitarian relief around the world, including in North Korea. “There was very little we could advocate for within [the Obama administration’s policy of] strategic patience. Now there is more space and more possibility, but it’s still so volatile.”

The involvement of faith-based organizations like the Mennonite Central Committee and the Friends Committee on National Legislation, or FCNL, has been influential in pressuring stakeholders by finding common ground with legislators in Washington. FCNL has mobilized a network of over 1,500 people across the country in grassroots advocacy teams to lobby their congressional representatives. [Full disclosure: The author of this piece works for FCNL’s Advocacy Teams program]. These teams are promoting legislation that would require congressional authorization for any war with North Korea, as opposed to a unilateral decision by the president. According to FCNL North Korea specialist Anthony Wier, a congressional vote for war would make war less likely, as it would be a huge gamble for anyone running for reelection.

Pursuing this goal of grassroots legislative pressure, advocacy teams have incorporated creative tactics, like giving out homemade bubble bath, or “bath bombs,” at their local farmer’s market. An accompanying sign reads “Bath Bombs Not Atomic Bombs,” seeking signatures on a petition for their members of Congress to support the legislation.

Efforts to influence stakeholders in Washington has faced the predictable challenges of political partisanship — the force driving many leaders in the Democratic Party to decry negotiations and the drawdown of U.S. troops in South Korea. Despite misgivings about the Trump administration’s commitment to follow through on peace negotiations, leaders advocating a peace treaty with North Korea say it makes more strategic sense to acknowledge when the administration is ostensibly taking steps in the direction of peace.

“The partisan bitterness, particularly of Democrats who you’d think would support diplomacy, is a real and ongoing challenge,” Martin said. “Save your energy to fight Trump on any other issue. It’s right to be skeptical. The [Singapore] Summit didn’t produce a lot of specifics, but compared to last fall when we were threatening nuclear war, we’re in a much better place.”

Nam echoed these sentiments, adding, “We have to take the peace whenever we can. We always talk about ‘Give peace a chance.’ Now the liberals and progressives, who have been promoting peace for the last 100 years, should give peace a chance — for real this time — even if it comes from Trump.”

Ahn shared the same frustration, recounting how two leading members of Congress — both advocates of “the resistance” — introduced legislation intended to hamper the president’s ability to reduce U.S. troops in South Korea. “How is that resistance, when it just maintains militarization of South Korea and a foreign occupation of another country?”

Comparing the situation to Richard Nixon’s talks with China, Ahn described refusals to engage the Trump administration on matters of peace as “huge” missed opportunities. “He’s wrong on everything else, but this is a sweet spot,” she said. “Give them the credit to do what no other president has done: to hopefully end the Korean War.”

While many dismiss this view as wishful thinking or simply naive, the peace community believes incremental, tangible concessions from North Korea in exchange for economic and diplomatic incentives is a far more realistic pathway to peace than demanding a full dismantling of their nuclear program before they see any benefits.

According to Martin, this is where the voices of Korean-Americans can be quite impactful. “It’s very important for Korean-Americans to say, ‘Hey Dems, we understand that you hate Trump and are opposed to everything [he does], but this is about what Koreans want.’”

Ultimately, Martin’s point underscores the necessity of building a peace movement – and a peace process – that centers Koreans, the most direct stakeholders on this issue.

“I’ve never seen so much unity among Korean-Americans around this peace process,” Chun said. “When I meet young people, I realize this is a very different generation. Their participation is very important, because they’re the ones who will lead the future.”

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The re-centering of Koreans’ role and voices in the peace process could create friction between South Korea and the United States, as exemplified by Moon’s Liberation Day speech. Delivered last month, the speech laid out a plan for greater economic integration between North and South Korea, declaring, “We are the protagonists in Korean Peninsula-related issues.”

Ahn celebrated this statement, saying, “For me, that feels like we are in a moment. This is a process that is moving irrespective of the United States. Now we have to put in the time and the sweat to really make it happen.”

Reframing the narrative

As evidenced by Moon’s Liberation Day speech, language is helping to shape public opinion in favor of the peace process — with 90 percent of South Koreans supporting dialogue. Leaders of the peace movement are trying to do the same in United States, where a smaller majority — around 70 percent — support talks with North Korea. Such support is hampered by Trump’s low approval ratings and a distrust of Kim Jong Un.

“We need to shift who talks about foreign policy away from a Cold War, white man framework,” Ahn said.

One way of doing this is by giving a human face to the issue. Already, family reunifications and joint North-South soccer matches are taking place on the Korean Peninsula — something most Americans don’t even know about.

“The peace movement should be helping to amplify these messages,” Ahn said.

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Ultimately, according to Chun, it’s about forging a narrative that is less about denuclearization and more about Koreans determining their own path towards peace.

“Everything is centered around whether North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons,” Chun said. “For Koreans, this is about the ability to shape the future of [their] country.”

Many Korean-Americans are seizing the opportunity to make this known, while — at the same time — also providing a model for the rest of America on how to shift the narrative.

“Before the North and South Korean leaders met on April 27, reunification was a taboo issue,” Kwan said. “It took a lot of courage to discuss North and South Korean reunification in the Korean-American community. If you talked about it, you would be labeled a communist and pro-North Korean sympathizer. Now it’s something everybody talks about!”

This widening of citizen engagement and action can only be a good thing for advocates of the peace process. The more people come together in support of peace on the Korean Peninsula, the harder it becomes for world leaders to deny it to them.

Guatemalans protest president’s decision to end a popular anti-corruption body

by Jeff Abbott

Police hold back protesters as a member of the Guatemalan congress leaves the congressional building on Sept. 11. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

Almost three years to the date after the largest protests against the corruption of Otto Pérez Molina’s administration, Guatemala City’s central plaza is once again the site of protests against corruption. Yet these protests have become all the more important as President Jimmy Morales announced on Aug. 31 the end of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, which uncovered the graft in the administration of Pérez Molina in 2015.

Morales made the declaration flanked by Vice President Jafeth Cabrera and Minister of Foreign Relations Sandra Jovel, as well as the ministers of the interior, defense and the secretary of intelligence. Behind them stood nearly 60 officials from the Guatemalan military and national police force.

The president gave the anti-corruption body until September 3, 2019 to close their offices and transfer their investigations. The outcry from Guatemalan citizens was almost immediate.

As Morales finished his declaration, protesters quickly returned to the central plaza to reject the president’s decision. Over a thousand protesters braved heavy rains the day after Morales’ announcement, continuing to express their disdain for the expulsion of CICIG. Some protesters brought with them piñatas bearing the likeness of Morales, which were set on fire in effigy.

Yet this was not the end of Morales’ actions against CICIG.

On Sept. 4, Morales announced that he was banning Velásquez from re-entering the country following his trip to the United States to meet with United Nations representatives who were looking to resolve the crisis. In the letter to the National Institute of Migration, Morales accused Velásquez of intending to destabilize “public order and security.”

Activists have worked to raise their voices against the administration to continue to denounce Morales’ decisions. Activists called for a series of actions and protests across the country.

“We have been working and organizing with other organizations,” said Gabriel Wer, one of the founders of Justicia Ya, which emerged during the protests against Pérez Molina in 2015. “We are trying to carry out some type of action that shows that we are not a few people, and that we are against what is occurring in our country. These actions come as a result of the work being done to organize between different organizations in both rural and urban parts of the country.”

The week of actions began on Sept. 10 when tens of thousands of residents of the department of Sololá blocked the Pan American Highway in several places for nearly eight hours to protest Morales’ decision. Members of the Indigenous Municipality expressed concern that corruption would surge and would further impact their communities.

The following day, on Sept. 11, the indigenous government of Totonicapán mobilized another day of roadblocks along the same highway. As the indigenous communities shut down the road, students from the University of San Carlos joined campesino organizations and other activists outside of Congress to protest a series of proposed reforms that would undo anti-corruption efforts within the government.

“We are here to condemn and reject the nefarious congressional members who look to reform the law of impeachment of officials, and to allow officials to annul the decisions of the Constitutional Court,” said Daniel Pascual, the leader of the United Campesino Committee. “We are uniting with the protests that were held in Sololá and Totonicapán to reject the decision of Jimmy Morales to cut the contract with the CICIG and to ban Ivan Velásquez from the country.”

A small farmer from Sololá holds a sign demanding that President Jimmy Morales resigns and that CICIG commissioner Ivan Velasquez returns. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

The next day, thousands of campesinos associated with the Campesino Development Committee, the Campesino Committee of the Highlands, and the Union of Campesino Organizations of Verapaz, traveled from across the country to the historic center of Guatemala City to join with urban collectives, religious organizations and residents to show their discontent with the decision by Morales to expel the CICIG.

Tensions were high in the city as the organizations demonstrated in front of the National Palace. The situation was worsened by the presence of hundreds of police and military special forces, known as Kaibiles, which stood guard at the gates that they had established as part of a three-block perimeter to keep protesters from reaching Congress.

Undermining the 2019 election and democracy

Morales’ decision to end the CICIG comes at a critical time in Guatemala, as the preparations for the 2019 presidential election have begun. The undermining of CICIG and the anti-corruption efforts are poised to guarantee the continuation of the cooptation of the state by organized crime.

“They are preparing conditions with these reforms for next year,” Pascual said. “They are trying to reform the law over elections so that politicians can change parties during their terms, which the law prohibits. They are also trying to reform the finance laws. They are trying to protect the president and keep the country subjugated.”

Weeks prior to the announcement ending the CICIG, the commissioner and representatives from the Supreme Electoral Council signed an agreement to work together. The signing ceremony was interrupted by far-right activists, which forced the event to end early.

Former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, who gained recognition for her work to root out corruption in the Guatemalan government, is widely considered to be a potential candidate for the presidency for the newly formed, center-right Semilla Party. Yet Aldana’s critics have taken steps to derail her campaign.

On Sept. 7, Felipe Alejos, a far-right member of congress who faces corruption accusations, established a commission to investigate the purchase of a building for the Guatemalan public prosecutor’s office in Zona 5 of Guatemala City while Aldana was heading the office. Previously, Alejos had traveled to the United States to complain of an ideological bias in the investigations of CICIG and the public prosecutor, something echoed by Morales and other members of the far right.

Yet analysts argue that there is no ideological bias involved in CICIG’s investigations.

“This could not be further from the truth,” said Iduvina Hernández, the director of Security in Democracy, a Guatemala City-based human rights organization. “I see this as being proportional because the right has had power and it has governed for centuries. It is their acts of corruption as a result of being in power that are being investigated. It is not because of their ideology.”

A member of the Campesino Development Committee stands in Guatemala City’s central plaza during the protests on Sept. 12. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

The CICIG is widely viewed by the public as a critical organization in the Guatemala government. Polls have regularly found that the CICIG is one of the most trusted institutions in Guatemala.

The anti-corruption body was established in December 2006 following a request from the Guatemalan government to the United Nations in order to combat impunity. Since its establishment, the CICIG has carried out over 80 investigations into corruption, organized crime and assassinations.

CICIG gained international notoriety in 2015 after an investigation into the criminal network known as La Linea, or The Line, led to the resignations of President Otto Pérez Molina, his Vice President Roxana Baldetti, and the majority of the administration. Pérez Molina and Baldetti both are facing prosecution for orchestrating the criminal network that stole millions of dollars.

The 2015 political crisis was marked by some of the largest protests Guatemala has seen in decades. These protests laid the foundations for the current movement against corruption in the country.

Morales has maintained a hostile relationship with the CICIG since taking office in 2016. The president, who had promised voters he was “neither corrupt nor a thief” has faced three investigations into his 2015 campaign for illicit financing.

In August 2017, Morales attempted to expel Velásquez from Guatemala by declaring him a “persona non grata.” Yet this was overturned by the country’s constitutional court.

In June 2018, the CICIG and public prosecutor’s office requested that Morales lose his immunity so that he could face charges for receiving illicit financing. The country’s Supreme Court deferred to Congress to decide the fate of the president’s immunity.

Declaring Morales “non grata”

The outrage over Morales’ decision quickly spread on social media across the country. This has quickly led to spontaneous organizing to declare Jimmy Morales a “persona non grata” across the country.

“In this moment, there is an spontaneous organized reaction emerging in Quetzaltenango,” said Brenda Hernandez, an activist who was among the first to launch the movement against corruption in 2015.

Morales had traveled to Quetzaltenango on Sept. 7 to inaugurate the Independence Day fair, but he was forced to leave following outcry from residents. During the parade, students carried banners rejecting the president and declaring him unwelcome in Quetzaltenango.

The repercussions for the actions by schools and students came swiftly. The departmental director of the Ministry of Education sanctioned the teachers and students, who in turn argued that their right to freedom of speech was violated.

Yet the example was set, and Morales was quickly declared unwelcome in departments and towns across the country. On Sept. 12, Morales and Vice President Cabrera were declared unwelcome at the University of San Carlos, with the portrait of Cabrera being covered by a black plastic bag. The decision at the university came after pressure from the University Student Association, which made the demand to the Superior University Council.

Students from the school of agronomy at the University of San Carlos demonstrate outside the Guatemalan congress on Sept. 11. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

The current protests come after years of organizing by groups like Justicia Ya and the Campesino Development Committee, as well as the Indigenous Ancestral Authorities, which have managed to bring together the rural and urban social movements.

The internet and social media have been important tools for organizers across Guatemala in the movement against Morales and his administration. But the alliances with rural organizations have also played a key part.

“Since 2015 we have been learning to organize ourselves, largely through social media,” Wer said. “But we have also organized with other organizations, such as students, campesinos and other citizens like us. This allows us to have much larger and diverse actions.”

Building alliances with the rural communities is key for the continuation of the movement.

“One of the things we learned is that from the urban centers we will not achieve anything when the country is primarily rural,” Wer explained. “One of the key means to transform the politics and economy of this country is to build alliances with rural communities.”

How Afghanistan’s peace movement is winning hearts and minds

by Roshni Kapur

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In May 2018, a group of seven Afghans in the mostly Taliban controlled province of Helmand set off on a more than 370-mile peace journey to the capital city, Kabul, sparking a nationwide movement.

Residents of Helmand have been paying a high price ever since the province turned into a battleground between Afghan forces and the Taliban. The catalyst for the peace march was a car bomb attack during a wrestling match in March that killed 14 people.

The protesters began with a hunger strike and a sit-in protest in the province’s capital, Lashkar Gah, within 24 hours of the suicide attack to demand an end to the violence. The activists held meetings with both the government and the Taliban, but when no results were produced they decided to walk to Kabul to further advocate for their peace message.

The war-weary Afghans traveled across the country, passing through difficult terrain in the scorching hot sun. The final leg of their march happened during the holy month of Ramadan, which they continued while observing their fast. They were welcomed in the villages which they passed through and were offered food, water and places to rest.

In total, they marched across six provinces, passing by Taliban-controlled areas. In the city of Ghazni, they were even warned by the Taliban not to enter an area because it would be dangerous. “We met Taliban fighters and, after an introduction, they told us we shouldn’t have come here because the area is planted with bombs, and they had planned an attack,” one of the protesters told The Telegraph. “After minutes of discussion with them, they seemed tired of it all, and the war. They directed us back to the safest area.”

Their tenacity and courage attracted around a hundred Afghans from places like Kandahar and Herat to join their peace movement, including women. The female protesters were asked to return home after protesting during the day, due to traditional sensitivities around spending nights on the roads. They reached Kabul when the ceasefire on Eid al-Fitr was just coming to an end in June. The protesters had covered over 370 miles by foot in a span of 40 days. They were given a warm greeting by Kabul residents who offered them food and water as well.

Despite being exhausted, the protesters were ready for their next phase of activism. They met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and gave him a list of demands for sustainable peace. Some of the demands included hosting a place for peace talks, brokering a one-year ceasefire and launching a new mechanism that will look into the interests and needs of all Afghans. The protesters also formed a committee to reach out to the Taliban with a similar set of demands.

The activists then held sit-in protests outside the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan office and sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, urging him to take a proactive approach towards the ongoing conflict in the country.

The group also strategically targeted key stakeholders and institutions, such as the American, British, Russian, Iranian and Pakistani embassies, which are perceived to have an external hand in the war. They held sit-ins for three days outside each of the embassies and plan to launch solidarity demonstrations in their home countries. “By holding our demonstrations, we want to create a relationship between our people and the citizens of those countries,” Bismillah Watandost, one of the protesters, told TOLO News. “And we hope the citizens of the foreign countries ask their governments why Afghans are protesting outside their embassies.”

After Kabul, the Helmand protesters carried on with their mission by walking barefoot another 340 miles to reach Mazar-e-Sharif from Aug. 10 to Sept. 11. Their purpose was to bring their message of peace to residents in northern Afghanistan. They also conducted dialogues with religious leaders, tribal elders and the general public in places where they stopped. The protesters had developed various strategies of persuasion and deterrence tailored to the different institutions they were engaging.

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Their activism was the result of a well-planned strategy to reach out to their fellow citizens from the southern and northern provinces. The movement was led by Iqbal Khaibar, who is a demonstrator from Helmand and was a key member of the Lashkar Gah sit-in. Khaibar said that they were fearful of reprisals along the way, which is why they developed a strategy of establishing support groups that would continue the march if some of the participants were attacked or killed.

Moreover, the peace march emerged at the right time, just when the Afghan government reached out to the Taliban with an unconditional ceasefire offer. The Afghan High Peace Council — a body established by former President Hamid Karzai to negotiate with the Taliban — has also echoed its support for the Helmand peace movement. The council has played a substantial role in the country’s reconciliation and peacebuilding process.

Nationwide protests

The Helmand peace march has set a precedent for other nonviolent protests across the country. In June, Afghan women and girls personally welcomed the Taliban with flowers in Helmand province and urged them to extend the Eid al-Fitr ceasefire. Although the Taliban did not respond to the ceasefire extension request, the protest was bold. Their action would have been unthinkable in recent decades, when there were strict restrictions on women’s freedom of movement. Most Afghan women do not leave their houses to attend protests. By pouring out into the streets for an all-female protest, they displayed their audacity and strength.

The peace movement has been one of the key factors pressuring both the government and the Taliban to reach a peace agreement and end the civil war. The three-day ceasefire during Eid al-Fitr was a product of this nonviolent resistance, which added pressure on the Taliban to accept the offer. Although the Taliban ruled out the government’s offer for another ceasefire during Eid al-Adha, it has not stopped the peace movement’s momentum. More peace marches, protests and acts of civil disobedience are regularly springing up in Afghanistan.

The impetus for the peace movement is the growing insecurity and increase in violence since 2001. Most Afghans are simply frustrated with their living conditions and want the war to end. The Uppsala Conflict Data Program has shown a surge in the number of casualties in recent years. In 2001, there were 5,553 deaths in the country. By 2017, the number soared to 19,694.

A 2017 Asia Foundation survey revealed that as the number of fatalities has increased, so too has the fear for personal safety or insecurity — from 40 percent in 2001 to 71 percent in 2017. The survey also demonstrated that the movement is reflective of public opinion in Afghanistan. It found that over 60 percent of Afghans think that a peace process would usher in long-term stability in the country, and more than half of Afghans think that reconciliation with the Taliban is likely to happen. This growing mandate for a peace process has added weight to the country’s peace movement.

Although the Helmand protesters have not said anything about their next phase of activism, the peace movement has become a nationwide phenomenon. It has won the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans. Moreover, it was also heartening to see the Taliban show compassion to the peace activists. Currently, the Helmand protesters are interacting with residents in the north to gain more support for their movement.

“We [continue to] go to villages and meet the people to support our efforts,” said Mirwais Kanai, one of the organizers. “In the beginning, some people had doubts and were blaming the protesters for being a project of foreigners or the government. That’s why only a small number of protesters marched to Kabul. We have been working on people’s mindsets and now the people have understood that [we] are really working for peace.”

Modi’s McCarthyist attack on left-leaning intellectuals threatens India’s democracy

by Tekendra Parmar

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In a nationwide operation on Aug. 28 by the government of right-wing Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, security officials raided the homes of eight activists, lawyers and journalists, eventually arresting Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj and Varavara Rao. They were booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, a draconian anti-terrorism law that has been used by the government to curb freedom of expression and association in the name of national security.

They are not terrorists. Neither are Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson or Mahesh Raut, who were arrested in June. They are activists, writers, poets, journalists and lawyers. They are citizens of India who believe in the plurality of our country and fight for its most marginalized. For that, they are being punished by a regime that, since its ascendance, has worked to polarize Indian democracy along fault lines of religion, caste and creed.

The crackdown reinforces what some Indian intellectuals have referred to as a silent “emergency” — alluding to the India of the 1970s, when the authoritarian regime of Indira Gandhi consolidated power to gut all political opposition. She gave Indian security forces undue power against journalists and effectively turned the world’s largest democracy into a police state.

Protests have since sprung up across India to rally for these activists. Last week, nearly a thousand people marched near the country’s parliament, sparking satellite actions across the country and online. The movement is using the hashtag #MeTooUrbanNaxal, which is an allusion to the derogatory phrase used by the government to discredit left-leaning activists and thinkers as members of the Naxalites, a Maoist rebel group that has been at war with the Indian government since the 1960s.

I met some of these activists while reporting for The Nation on the detention of GN Saibaba, a paralyzed Delhi University professor who was sentenced to life in prison in March 2017. Saibaba has been held in solitary confinement at the colonial-era penitentiary Nagpur Central Prison since last year. Like those arrested last week and in June, Saibaba was a vocal activist for India’s indigenous community, whose land has been claimed by dozens of multinational mining corporations. Surendra Gadling was his defense attorney. Arun Ferreira — himself a political dissident, who spent five years in prison — was also working for the professor’s defense.

The latest crackdown resembles the one that led to Saibaba’s arrest. According to news reports, police seized pen drives, laptops and cellphones from the homes of those who were raided. A police spokesperson told local press that “all evidence was scientifically analyzed,” a laughable claim from a regime that has promoted Hindu astrology, attacked the theory of evolution and promoted the use of cow urine as a catch-all cure for disease. Perhaps more tellingly, a government prosecutor told the media, the reason for the arrests were that the accused were part of an “anti-fascist front,” indicative of the drastic shift in India’s idea of tolerated discourse.

Even the letters allegedly seized from the home of activist Rona Wilson in June are reminiscent of Saibaba’s case: Police presented letters from an unidentified “R” to an equally mysterious “Comrade Prakash” proposing to overthrow the Modi regime in a “Rajiv Gandhi-like attack,” referencing the Indian prime minister killed by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber in 1991. In Saibaba’s case, the prosecution made tenuous claims that “Comrade Prakash” was one of Saibaba’s aliases, which is made even less credible by the fact that the electronic evidence collected against Saibaba, who was made to give up his passwords, was mishandled and improperly stored.

Sept. 5 marked the one-year anniversary of the murder of writer Gauri Lankesh, a prominent critic of the prime minister and his Hindu nationalist ideology. Since then the Modi regime has been eliminating dissent with sniper-like efficiency. India ranks 138 out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Ranking — behind war-torn Afghanistan, Duterte’s Philippines and even Myanmar, a quasi-democracy that is accused of genocide by an independent U.N. investigation. This is largely thanks to the murders of atheist bloggers and writers by goons linked to the government’s Hindu nationalist parent organization; it’s also attributable to the influence of Fox-like news on Indian media, where a new crop of nationalist broadcast networks routinely label government critics as desh drohi, or “anti-national,” and to the muzzling of civil society activists and protests at universities.

The Supreme Court has stepped in, first declaring that the dissidents should be kept under house arrest until September 6, before extending their house arrest by another six days. This was not a privilege afforded to those arrested alongside Saibaba, whose health is in peril, and whose case is disappearing into the bureaucratic gridlock of the Indian judiciary.

The Modi regime is honing its aim ahead of the country’s upcoming election, and the human cost is grave. Today I am thinking of advocate Gadling, who welcomed me into his home last winter, feeding me copious amounts of chai and poha as he gushed about the possibility of his pre-teen son pursuing a career in law.

I am thinking of Arun Ferreira, whose last words to me as I left his small Bombay office have stuck with me. I asked him about his five years in prison, about the torture and dehumanization, about not being able to see his infant son for the first few years of his life.

“How did you continue on?” I asked. “We continue on because we have to, because there is nothing else you can do,” he replied. Hours after my meeting with Ferreira, my father passed away. Those words helped me through my grief.

Most of all I am thinking of Professor GN Saibaba, for whom the possibility of dying in prison is even more real, now that his defenders are suffering the same fate.

Camus said it was the job of the thinking man not to be on the side of the executioner. Today, Modi holds the hangman’s rope.

Inmigrantes indocumentados planean un paro estatal para aumentar presión para las licencias de conducir en Nueva Jersey

by Catalina Adorno

Silvia Huerta se dirige a la multitud en una acción en marzo. (Facebook/Cosecha New Jersey)

This article is also available in English.

Después de 15 años de llamar y presionar a legisladores estatales en vano, inmigrantes indocumentados en Nueva Jersey se han unido para lanzar una nueva campaña de licencias de conducir, esta vez con una perspectiva e estrategia única. El 17 de septiembre, cientos de personas participarán en un acto al que llaman “paro estatal”; un día de no-cooperación en el que trabajadores inmigrantes se quedarán en casa, padres no mandarán a sus hijos a la escuela y las tiendas locales cerraran, todo para apoyar la campaña de licencias de conducir.

He estado organizando durante casi dos años con Movimiento Cosecha, un movimiento popular no violento que lucha por la protección permanente, dignidad y respeto para los 11 millones de inmigrantes indocumentados en los Estados Unidos. Cosecha es el grupo principal que usa una estrategia de no-cooperación económica en la lucha para los derechos de inmigrantes. Además de participar en la huelga de un día, miembros de Cosecha marcharán hacia la capital del estado en Trenton cantando “Licencias Si, Promesas No”

La comunidad indocumentada necesita urgentemente las licencias de conducir, cuya falta se siente todos los días mientras conducen al trabajo, dejan a sus hijos en la escuela o hacen mandados simples como conducir al supermercado. Si los inmigrantes indocumentados son detenidos por conducir sin licencia, las consecuencias pueden ser graves, incluyendo la detención indefinida y la deportación. Dichas amenazas solo continuarán a medida que se renuevan y amplían los contratos de Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) por todo el estado.

En el condado de Hudson, que tiene las ciudades inmigrantes más diversas y densamente pobladas del estado, ICE acaba de renovar su contrato por otros 10 años. Contratos como estos le permiten al estado a recibir dinero de ICE para “alojar” inmigrantes. Con el estado beneficiándose de la detención de inmigrantes, es fácil ver por qué otorgar licencias de conducir va en contra de los intereses de los funcionarios del gobierno: más personas con licencias minimizaran las detenciones (al menos por violaciones de tráfico), lo cual significa menos personas detenidas.

Nueva Jersey es un estado con una de las mayores poblaciones de inmigrantes indocumentados, casi medio millón. El estado se inclina hacia el partido Demócrata durante la mayoría de las elecciones presidenciales, pero ha sido gobernado por los dos partidos principales en los últimos años. Durante los últimos ocho años, el gobernador Republicano Chris Christie dirigió el estado hasta que Phil Murphy, un Demócrata, ganó las elecciones del noviembre 2017. El Gobernador Murphy se postuló con una plataforma que incluía la promesa de licencias de conducir para inmigrantes indocumentados en los primeros 100 días de su administración. Ahora, a los siete meses de su gobierno, la comunidad inmigrante todavía no tiene licencias de conducir.

Una marcha dirigida por el círculo de Cosecha en Atlantic City. (Facebook/Cosecha New Jersey)

“Cosecha activó a trabajadores inmigrantes indocumentados en el estado que ya no quieren esperar a los políticos. Sabemos que nadie peleará esta pelea más que nosotros”, dijo Carlos Castañeda, un organizador de Cosecha que está coordinando el plan para el 17 de septiembre.

La campaña de Cosecha para las licencias de conducir está compuesta por tres fases. El objetivo de la primera fase fue organizar a los trabajadores inmigrantes indocumentados en equipos o círculos de Cosecha. Estos equipos se convirtieron en la base fundamental de la campaña. Esta fase incluyó reuniones comunitarias y talleres donde las personas aprendieron sobre dicha campaña, y discutían ideas para crecer el movimiento en sus comunidades locales.

La segunda fase fue activar a todas las personas que habían asistido a las reuniones comunitarias y talleres. Durante esta fase, Cosecha recorrió el estado planificado y participando en marchas y reuniones locales con el propósito de crear conciencia sobre el problema con aquellos que aún no conocían la campaña. Los círculos de todos los estados también participaron en una caminata de 11 días por Nueva Jersey, visitando 25 ciudades y sosteniendo reuniones comunitarias a medida que pasaban por ellas. Esto resultó en la creación de más círculos en ciudades como Passaic, Paterson y Red Bank. Ahora, después de mucha deliberación, estos círculos se están preparando para lanzar la tercera fase el 17 de septiembre: la fase de escalación.

“Desde que llegamos a este país, hemos vivido con miedo a la deportación por el solo hecho de que no tenemos licencias de conducir”, dijo Álvaro Márquez, miembro de uno de los círculos de Cosecha. “Algunas cosas ya no podemos cambiarlas, pero tenemos la oportunidad de luchar por un poco de tranquilidad para nosotros y nuestra familia. Integrándonos a la lucha para obtener licencias de conducir. Cuando la historia cambie, podemos mirar a los ojos de nuestros hijos,  de nuestros padres, y contarles que fuimos parte de este cambio. Uniéndonos, participando podremos lograr cosas que no imaginamos”.

Sin embargo, ninguna campaña está libre de desafíos. Dado que Cosecha está siguiendo una estrategia externa y exponiendo a políticos, están teniendo problemas para obtener información sobre cómo la ley actual de licencias de conducir se está moviendo a través de la legislatura estatal. Un segundo desafío es que otros grupos en el estado promoviendo los derechos de los inmigrantes continúan reciclando las mismas tácticas que se han utilizado en los últimos 15 años, y por lo tanto ven la introducción de nuevas tácticas y estrategias por parte de Cosecha como una amenaza a su trabajo anterior. El obstáculo más grande y prevalente, sin embargo, viene con la organización de la comunidad inmigrante.

“A la comunidad inmigrante se le ha hecho a creer que son dependientes”, dijo Castañeda. “Se les hizo creer que tienen que depender de las organizaciones para luchar por ellos, a que los ciudadanos estadounidenses voten por ellos, o a que los políticos representen realmente sus intereses. Les han hecho creer que como trabajadores no tienen poder”.

Un niño llamado Diego sostiene un letrero en una marcha en Trenton el 21 de abril.(Facebook/Cosecha New Jersey)

El 17 de septiembre será el principio de muchos días en que la comunidad inmigrante ejercerá su poder. La interrupción del estado marcará una nueva etapa en la campaña de licencias de conducir, y esto es solo el comienzo de una lucha más larga por los derechos de los inmigrantes.

Este punto se manifiesta durante las reuniones comunitarias, cuando la comunidad habla sobre el rol de la campaña de licencias de conducir en relación con el movimiento en general. “Cuando hablamos de la campaña, las personas dicen ‘licencias hoy, papeles mañana’ para hablar sobre cómo la lucha va más allá de las licencias”, explicó Dara Márquez, una organizadora de Cosecha basada en New Brunswick. “También estamos claros que la lucha es por la protección permanente, y más importante, por la dignidad y el respeto, porque sabemos que la ciudadanía no resolverá todas las injusticias”.

Ella también cree que el momento es propicio para esta campaña. “Nuestra comunidad está siendo perseguida. ¿Cuál es la alternativa?”, Preguntó ella. “Podemos auto-deportarnos hacia dónde venimos y comenzar de nuevo, o podemos unirnos a nuestras comunidades aquí, donde ahora tenemos raíces y luchar. Ya no tenemos nada que perder”.

Cuando se habla de las muchas huelgas laborales de inmigrantes en California, el líder laboral y activista de derechos civiles César Chávez dijo una vez: “La lucha nunca es sobre uvas o lechuga. Siempre se trata de personas”. En una frase similar, la campaña de licencias no se trata solo de licencias, sino de personas que desarrollan una conciencia política y se dan cuenta de su poder.

Independientemente de su estatus legal, los inmigrantes no tienen que depender de los políticos para salvarlos. Cuando se organizan y actúan, se convierten en agentes de su propio destino y pueden cambiar la historia. Los trabajadores indocumentados continuarán luchando y liderando el movimiento ellos mismos, como dice Castañeda, “sin miedo y con ganas de luchar hasta ganar”.

Undocumented immigrants plan statewide halt to escalate campaign for driver’s licences in New Jersey

by Catalina Adorno

Silvia Huerta addresses the crowd at an action in March. (Facebook/Cosecha New Jersey)

After 15 years of calling and lobbying state legislators to no avail, undocumented immigrants in New Jersey are coming together to launch a new campaign for driver’s licenses — this time with a unique twist. On Sept. 17, hundreds will participate in an act they are calling “paro estatal,” or a statewide-halt — a day of noncooperation in which workers will stay home, parents will keep  their children from going to school, and local shops will stay closed, all in support of the demand for driver’s licenses.

I have been organizing with for almost two years with Movimiento Cosecha — a nonviolent movement fighting for the permanent protection and dignity of all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States — which is the main group pushing this new strategy of economic non-cooperation. In addition to participating in the one day strike, Cosecha will march to the state capital in Trenton chanting “Licensias Si, Promesas No” or “Yes to Licenses, No to Promises.”

The undocumented community is in critical need of driver’s licenses, the lack of which is felt every day as they drive to work, drop off their children at school, or run simple errands like driving to the supermarket. If undocumented immigrants are stopped for driving without a license the consequences can be severe, including detention and deportation. Such threats will only continue as Immigration Customs and Enforcement, or ICE, has its contracts renewed and expanded across the state.

In Hudson County, which has the most diverse and densely-populated immigrant cities in the state, ICE just had its contract renewed for another 10 years. Contracts like these allow the state to receive money from ICE to “house” immigrants. With the state profiting off the detention of immigrants, it is easy to see why granting driver’s licenses goes against the interests of government officials: More people with licenses will minimize arrests (at least for traffic violations), which means fewer people in detention.  

New Jersey is a state with one of the largest undocumented immigrant populations, almost half a million. The state leans Democratic during most presidential elections, but has been governed by both major parties in recent years. For the last eight years, Republican Gov. Chris Christie ran the state until Phil Murphy, a Democrat, won last November’s election. Gov. Murphy ran on a platform that included driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants in the first 100 days of his administration. Now seven months into his governorship, the immigrant community still does not have driver’s licenses.

A march by the Cosecha circle in Atlantic City. (Facebook/Cosecha New Jersey)

“Cosecha activated undocumented immigrant workers in the state who no longer want to wait for politicians. We know that no one else will fight this fight but us,” said Carlos Castaneda, an organizer with Cosecha who is coordinating the plan for Sept. 17.

Cosecha’s campaign for driver’s licenses is composed of three phases. The objective of the first phase was to organize undocumented immigrant workers into teams, or Cosecha circles. These teams became the base that will anchor the campaign. This phase involved holding community meetings and workshops where people would learn and discuss the issue, and brainstorm how to take action in their local communities.

The second phase was to activate all the people who had come to the community meetings and workshops. During this phase, Cosecha circles across the state planned and participated in local marches and rallies with the purpose of raising awareness on the issue with those who still might not know about the campaign. Circles across the states also participated in an 11-day walk across New Jersey, visiting 25 cities and holding community meetings as they passed through them. This resulted in the creation of more circles in towns like Passaic, Paterson and Red Bank. Now, after much deliberation, these circles are gearing up to launch the third phase on Sept. 17: escalation.  

“Since we arrived in this country we have lived in fear of deportation for the mere fact that we don’t have driver’s licenses,” said Alvaro Marquez, a member of one of Cosecha’s circles. “Some things we can not change, but we have the opportunity to fight for a little peace for ourselves and our family by joining the fight to obtain driver’s licenses. Once we change history, we can look into the eyes of our children, our parents, and tell them that we were part of this change. By joining, participating, we can achieve things we cannot even begin to imagine.”

Yet, no campaign is free of challenges. Since Cosecha is pursuing an outside strategy and calling out politicians, they are having trouble getting information about how the current driver’s license bill is moving through the state’s legislature. A second challenge is that other immigrant rights groups continue to recycle the same actions that have been used over the last 15 years, seeing Cosecha’s introduction of new tactics and strategy as a threat to their past work. The largest and most prevalent hurdle, however, comes with organizing the immigrant community.

“The immigrant community has been led to believe they are dependent,” Castaneda said. “They were made to believe that they have to rely on organizations to fight for them, for U.S. citizens to vote for them or for politicians to truly represent their interests. They’ve been led to believe that as workers they have no power.”  

A child named Diego holds a sign at a march in Trenton on April 21. (Facebook/Cosecha New Jersey)

Sept. 17 will be the one of the many days to come when the immigrant community will exercise its power. The state-wide halt will mark a new phase in the driver’s license campaign, which is just the beginning of a longer fight for immigrant rights.

This point is made clear during organizing meetings, when the community talks about the role of the driver’s license campaign in relation to the wider movement. “When we discuss the campaign, people use the slogan ‘licenses today, papers tomorrow’ to talk about how the fight goes beyond the licenses,” explained Dara Marquez, a Cosecha organizer from New Brunswick. “We also ground ourselves in the fight for permanent protection — and more importantly in dignity and respect — because we know that citizenship will not solve all the injustices.”

She also believes the time is ripe for this campaign. “Our community is getting persecuted. What’s the alternative?” she asked. “We can self-deport to where we came from and start all over again, or we can join our communities here, where we now have roots, and fight. We have nothing left to lose.”

When talking about the many strikes by immigrant workers in California, the labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez once said, “The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.” In a similar vein, the campaign for licenses is not just about licenses, but about people developing a political consciousness and realizing their power.

Regardless of their legal status, immigrants don’t have to depend on politicians to save them. When they organize and take action they become agents of their own destiny and can change history. Undocumented workers will continue to fight, leading the movement themselves, as Castaneda said, “without fear and until they win.”

David McReynolds modeled a life of building peace and living without apology

by Frida Berrigan

David McReynolds getting arrested outside the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in 2015. (WNV / Felton Davis)

I met David McReynolds when I was still a searching young adult, unsure of how to square my radical upbringing and inherited principles with being a grown up who had bills to pay and stars to catch in New York City. I started coming to War Resisters League meetings and listening as decades-old debates raged between socialists and anarchists, strategic and moral pacifists, young and old radicals, and those who believed in confronting war with a pointed, learned essay and those who believed it required a mass mobilization or a general strike.

David — who passed away last month at the age of 88 — was already an elder within the organization when I joined nearly 20 years ago. He wasn’t always on one side or the other, but he was always trying to impart hard-won wisdom from a life of pacifist strategizing, struggling and experimentation.

By now, David’s accomplishments and contributions have been enumerated and lauded in countless publications from the New York Times to Tikkun, so I won’t reprise them all here. If you didn’t know David, the best way to understand who he was and what his life meant to so many is to listen to Democracy Now’s extended interview with his friend and colleague Ed Hedemann and Jeremy Scahill, activist and journalist. I have found myself hungry for his voice in the weeks since his death. Luckily, YouTube has loads of interviews with David, including a whip-sharp appearance on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher in August 2000, where he held his own — refusing to be caricatured as a political quack. Invited to sit alongside Shari Belafonte and two other actors, David stayed focused on the issues, got in his talking points and is not cowed by celebrity. He won the crowd’s respect and affection.

David was self-critical. He called himself a peace movement bureaucrat and would honor the courage of others, like his friend Carmen Trotta, who participated in the Kings Bay Trident Plowshares in April. Yet, as I reflect on his life, all I see is courage. He came out as gay when that identity was a jail sentence, a tightly shut closet and a career killer even within progressive circles. He came out as a pacifist when that identity was mocked as naive, bourgeois and traitorous. He came out as a socialist when that identity was misunderstood, feared and hated. David was out; he learned to live without apology, without shame, without caveat.

And while he bemoaned that he wasn’t going to jail all the time for his beliefs, he took a bust more than most and was consistent over more than half a century in his opposition to war and militarism. As his friend and longtime colleague Ed Hedemann told me, “I believe one of his first arrests (if not the first) was April 17, 1959, in City Hall Park for refusing to take shelter during the annual nuclear war air raid drill; and his last arrest — 56 years later — on April 28, 2015, was in front of the U.S. Mission, demanding the elimination of all nuclear weapons.” Ed wrote back a few hours later to revise the record, “Actually, his first arrest appears to be in 1954 when he refused induction.” That is 61 years of pacifist, creative, brave witness.

I watched and listened and learned. The work of building peace with justice is a lifelong undertaking. It can’t all happen today. How do you sustain a sense of urgency without going crazy? How do you care for yourself and care for the world? How do you — as his friend and mentor A.J. Muste posited — remain steadfast in your principles, remain unchanged in a changing world?

Here are some lessons I am trying to learn from David McReynolds:

You need beauty

David loved scents. He had hundreds of vials of perfume and essential oils and always smelled good. He took and shared beautiful photographs. He learned about E.E. Cummings and William Carlos Williams from the great dancer Alvin Ailey when they were both young, and Ailey imparted a lifelong love of poetry to David. He was a member of the New York Bromeliad Society and traveled all over to continue to learn about these incredible plants. I had to look up what that meant (it’s a plant that thrives without soil). He paused over and appreciated beauty.

You need friends

David mailed birthday cards to his friends. Mostly up-close photos of flowers with a penned or typed line of appreciation. He cultivated friendship and maintained them even amid bitter political and philosophical disagreements. He had an open door policy at his tiny and incredibly cluttered apartment, which served as a late night salon for a wide circle of of friends. Every year, he called together his community to “the Night of the Candles.” In the dark, he and his friends named and remembered those who had died in the past year, lighting candles and speaking their names. It is a tradition he kept for many years. In addition to his many human friends, David also cared for and loved cat companions. David was a good friend.

You need to eat

My husband, Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer, knew David through the War Resisters League as a kid. The two of them would sneak out for forbidden hamburgers at McDonald’s, eschewing the veggie movement fare. David made a hummus redolent with garlic. It was almost more garlic than beans. His recipe, captured for a War Resisters League desk calendar, calls for a healthy dose of MSG. He brought it to every gathering. And now we will too, in celebration of his distinct palate.

You need to believe

David was an atheist. He did not subscribe to any religion. But he carried a deep respect for many and was curious about faith traditions. He believed in ritual and created meaning, making gatherings like his Night of Candles. He believed in socialism, saying he didn’t just want to be anti-imperialist or anti-racist, but pro-solution. He believed in people, in beauty, in tomorrow.

David McReynolds hosting one of his Night of the Candles events. (WNV / Matthew Daloisio)

In his last Night of Candles invitation, in 2017, David wrote: “I am very aware that at 88 I am pushing the odds of whether I will be here next year. The event is meant to pay homage to our personal pasts, to the people (or cats, dogs, birds) that, for good or bad, shaped us. We rush to the future, but the past is still alive in us.”

This year, there will be a new candle flickering in the darkness. David McReynolds, thank you for all you are teaching me.

#MeToo campaign for Sudanese teen highlights the need to end Western saviorism

by Erin Mazursky

Noura Hussein (Amnesty International)

On June 27, Sudanese activists and the global human rights community declared victory when a 19-year old Sudanese woman, Noura Hussein, was spared the death penalty. She was instead sentenced to a five-year prison sentence for murdering her husband in self-defense, as he tried to rape her when she was 16 years old.

After news of the court’s initial decision for the death penalty broke in early May, Sudanese activists quickly took to Twitter and Facebook with the hashtags #SaveNoura and #JusticeforNoura. Within a week, the story caught the attention of major international organizations like UN Women, Amnesty International and the European Union, who all issued statements against the ruling. A Sudanese diaspora blogger inspired a Change.org petition that received close to 1.7 million signatures worldwide. Celebrities like Rose McGowan, Emma Watson, Naomi Campbell and former Australian Prime Minister Julia Guillard also used their platforms to speak out.

Within a few weeks, a higher Sudanese court repealed the death sentence to a still-shocking five-year prison sentence. Sudan’s prisons are known for their brutality and instances of unbridled torture.

The subsequent headlines from international media outlets described the win as a triumph of the international human rights community and the #MeToo movement over a waning Sudanese regime that has repressed its people for almost 30 years, eager to appease Western governments. Assuming the case was closed, international attention turned to other horrors.

Unfortunately, the case isn’t closed. It reemerged last week — registering only a blip on the international radar — when a government prosecutor filed an appeal to have Noura’s death penalty sentence reinstated. What’s more, Noura isn’t an isolated case. Wini Omer, a high profile women’s rights activist in Sudan who campaigned on behalf of Noura, was jailed for over a week around the time of Noura’s sentencing. A police officer arrested her because he simply “didn’t like the way she walked,” which led to charges of prostitution and crimes against the state. She now potentially faces capital punishment.

While the attention #MeToo brought to Noura’s case led to a positive outcome, the notion of “saving a life” without giving light to the structural causes that enabled her oppression in the first place must be called into question. “All of the assumptions [of Westerners] about women in the East and Africa accidentally played a positive role in Noura’s case,” said Amgad Fareid Eltayeb, an activist with Sudan Change Now, the group that raised the profile of the initial sentencing. “Noura had a genuine cause, and the campaign had a victory. But what the campaign achieved is a small thing in the scales of [the abuses] that are actually happening,” he continued.

The Western human rights legal approach generally takes the horrors and injustices of the Nouras of the world case by case, with some harmful assumptions that create an “us” and “them” dynamic. Yet, there is far more interplay and collusion between Western governments and oppressive regimes like the Sudanese government than face value might suggest. For example, the European Union has funneled millions of dollars into Sudan for “border security” in order to stop the flow of African migrants into Europe. These funds have gone directly to the Rapid Support Forces, formerly known as the Janjaweed, which are the same militias that carried out ethnic cleansing campaigns in Darfur (in western Sudan) and who systematically use rape as a weapon of war.

The flash-in-the-pan activism of Noura’s case also begs some questions around the #MeToo movement’s ability to support long-term change and to truly challenge entrenched systems of racism, colonialism and patriarchy, especially when it comes to women in the Global South. While activism has become increasingly in vogue in the West, there is a danger that this mode of change simply replicates the same white (or Western) savior complex as the charity-driven humanitarianism that preceded it.

Western countries have flourished because of the violence and destruction they carried out to build their societies, and they continue to be complicit by failing to take responsibility for this past. “The white man’s burden should not be the motivation to act,” Eltayeb said. “It should be the culpability of 400 years of colonization that stopped the progress of the civilizations in the Global South that led to the situation in our countries now.” Action driven by guilt can be fleeting, but action driven by a sense of conviction and obligation can put societies on much more equal footing.

“Sudanese activists, themselves raising the profile of this case, is what [got the attention of] international circles … Without them, Noura would not be here today,” Eltayeb continued. “Public opinion has begun to shift and recognize that, at least for cases like Noura, it was a clear act of self-defense. This creates openings for more debate, but no laws or policies changed as a result of Noura’s case.”

Noura’s victory indicates that Sudanese activists are having some success changing the understanding of women’s rights domestically in a way that could enable more systemic change to take hold. The fact that Noura’s story spread so quickly on social and independent media outlets in Sudan is a testament to the effective, decentralized organizing of Sudanese activists, especially women.

Noura’s case became known because an audacious female journalist, Tahani Abbas, quietly followed her legal proceedings from the onset through the death penalty sentencing — interviewing her, visiting her in prison and risking her own safety to do so. The “No Oppression for Women” movement in Sudan stood ready to push out news of Noura’s case once the court made its ruling. The day of her death penalty sentencing, this women’s group also staged a sit-in in front of the court.

Other activist groups like Sudan Change Now helped amplify and spread the #SaveNoura and #JusticeforNoura messages. Opinion editorials, media articles and petitions followed, ultimately reaching an international audience. This in turn helped expose new strategic openings for the domestic movement. “One of the lessons learned from this campaign is the regime’s growing concern of their image in the West. We can use this leverage in the future,” explained Fatima, who was active in Noura’s campaign (and whose name has been changed for security).

But rather than coincidentally playing off each other, Sudanese and outside activists alike could coordinate more intentionally in the future. One place to start is recognizing that it is not simply an act of good will but an obligation to support and work in partnership with Noura, Tahani, Wini, Fatima and the other Sudanese women on the frontlines. Their names should be known outside of Sudan so they can continue to be uplifted and recognized as heroes in the global #MeToo movement. They continue to risk their lives far after international attention deflects to other atrocities.

At the same time, Westerners are responsible for holding their governments accountable for perpetuating a system that allows these atrocities to happen. Otherwise, there will continue to be more Nouras of the world than social media can work to “save.” This will enable us to root our work, connect our struggles and pave a path towards more authentic solidarity.

Ugandan farmers emerge victorious after monthlong occupation of UN office

by Phil Wilmot

After 37 days of occupying a United Nations office in Gulu, Uganda, 234 farmers, youth, mothers with young babies and elderly men packed their gear into trucks and returned to their homes in Apaa — an area of rich farmland and forest in the north of the country. Far from being a quiet and somber event, their departure was marked by an explosion of song and ululation. It was part collective exhale — following a month of cramped conditions, an overflowing pit latrine and daily hostilities from their reluctant “hosts” — and part cry of triumph and hope.

The occupiers from Apaa had uprooted themselves and thrust their community upon the only global stage accessible to them. They strategically chose the only office in the entire country that could be occupied without immediate forceful eviction. By the sustained, pure inconvenience of their presence, they forced the United Nations and other actors to address their struggle for land and security in a country that has inflicted great violence on them.

The long struggle for land and rights in Apaa

The occupiers began their trek from Apaa to Gulu on July 10, a journey that took over 20 hours on foot and by truck, due to bad roads and mechanical breakdowns. They arrived, silently, at 7 a.m. outside the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, with a petition on behalf of over 26,000 Apaa residents. The petition requested that the high commissioner in Geneva call on Uganda’s government to halt the arsons, killings, arrests and other abuses perpetrated against their community.

Such violence has been inflicted on the people of Apaa for almost a decade, as political elites have used state armed forces to attempt to drive residents from their land and clear the way for foreign investment. While one plan — to develop the area into a high-end trophy hunting park — was abandoned in 2015, locals believe that elites continue to pursue other deals.

The decision to occupy the OHCHR was not made lightly. It came after residents in Apaa tried many other methods to protect their homes. Following a new wave of attacks in March, they lobbied their representatives to raise the issue in parliament, guided researchers from local human rights groups to meticulously document recent abuses, requested meetings with foreign embassies, attended court hearings, and intercepted soldiers who perpetrated attacks with an envoy of local religious and political leaders.

Despite momentary victories, none of these efforts yielded long lasting results. Foreign embassies expressed sympathy, but didn’t respond to requests to meet. In a June parliament session, the deputy speaker called for an immediate halt on eviction operations. But attacks resumed just 15 days later. That’s when a core group of local leaders from affected areas decided on a new strategy: occupy the U.N. OHCHR, a body mandated to “promote and protect human rights for all,” as well as “speak out objectively in the face of human rights violations worldwide.”

According to a community leader of women in Apaa, who asked not to be named for security reasons, “We decided to occupy the United Nations to ensure that our struggle in Apaa would come to light, and become known internationally.”

The petition they drafted called on High Commissioner Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein to demand that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni put an immediate halt to all attacks on homes and people in Apaa. In the event that the government failed to engage with these requests, the petitioners asked that the high commissioner call on foreign embassies to withhold funding to state security forces and the Ugandan Wildlife Authority. Making it clear that they wouldn’t leave without results, the petitioners emphasized, “We will seek refuge and assistance here till our pleas are met.”

Protecting the United Nations instead of human rights

In the first hours after the occupiers entered the U.N. gates, U.N. office assistants hovered anxiously on their phones, consulting their superiors in the capital Kampala. Security personnel stood rigid and agitated. The 234 occupiers from Apaa sat silently on the grass, heads bowed in prayer, waiting to see if police would be summoned to forcibly evict them. The word finally came from Kampala: They would not be expelled. The fact of the occupation was reluctantly accepted. The occupiers then began erecting tarpaulins to establish the camp and set up an outdoor kitchen with huge cooking pots propped up on rocks. The surprised U.N. staff rushed back to Gulu from meetings in the capital to the unprecedented scene awaiting them in their usually sleepy office.

Occupiers placed photos of 844 homes burned by government soldiers in the middle of the U.N. compound, as evidence of the abuses perpetrated against them. (WNV)

It quickly became clear to the occupiers why the OHCHR refused to engage with their petition, or to publicly condemn attacks in Apaa. Operating on a “terminal mandate” from the Ugandan government that is due to expire in early January, the OHCHR feared it could be forced to leave the country if it caused too much agitation. In endless meetings, the United Nations tried in vain to explain to community leaders, local members of parliament and local human rights organizations that making public statements about abuses in Apaa could comprise its very existence in the country. Unsurprisingly, the occupiers saw this as weak, self-interested logic. Numerous local civil society groups began to question the very purpose and validity of the OHCHR’s work in Uganda.

According to several occupiers, the OHCHR then began to make life difficult for them in the compound. Free press and freedom of expression were suppressed. All media were blocked from entering the compound to speak with the occupiers, and when they organized their own press conference outside the U.N. walls, they were not permitted to leave to attend it. A member of the occupation who took photos with his cell phone reported that he was threatened with arrest if he continued to “leak” photos to media outside the U.N. walls. His phone was confiscated until he agreed not to take photos. Occupiers explained that meetings within the camp were monitored, and movements in and out of the compound were heavily restricted.

According to another Apaa community leader, who also asked not to be named, “the United Nations tried to block us from talking to the media because they were so concerned with their own image. They also wanted to keep their relationship with the government comfortable.”

Apaa community members gathered with signs that were later confiscated. (WNV)

To make matters worse, when the U.N. compound’s single pit latrine became full, staff refused to let concerned local NGOs have it drained. For four days, Apaa residents squatted over a pit close to over-flowing, swarming with maggots. It eventually took the intervention of a member of parliament to convince the OHCHR to allow a sanitation truck to enter and empty the contents of the latrine.

Almost every day, the OHCHR staff in Gulu, Kampala and, eventually, even Geneva were forced into a dilemma: Without the option of neutrality, would they stand with and support those suffering human rights abuses on their doorstep, or would they act to protect their comfortable jobs?

Local solidarity boosts occupiers’ morale

Some of the most beautiful moments of the occupation were displays of solidarity from surprising and far-flung locations. Since the United Nations wouldn’t provide any practical support for the occupiers, they had to turn to others for help when their supplies began to run low. In the first week, hundreds of local market vendors arrived in a giant truck, packed with huge sacks of cassava, millet flour, beans, huge cans of cooking oil, sacks of clothes and blankets, and pots and basins. While a range of local groups in Gulu contributed practical support to the occupation, community and activist groups in other parts of Uganda delivered bags of peanuts, chickens, firewood, soap and food staples. Members of parliament organized for trucks to deliver water when the national water supply dried up, and local NGOs were at the ready to top off food supplies.

Local NGOs and market vendors delivered relief items to the occupiers after their initial supply ran low. (WNV)

Beyond practical support, many groups spoke out, tipping the balance of public opinion in favor of the occupiers and their brave action to defend their community’s rights. The National Land Defense League held a press conference in Kampala in solidarity, giving the prime spot to representatives from Apaa. An alliance of prominent human rights groups and activists in Gulu came out in support of the occupation, pledging to help them for “as long as they decided to stay” and to escort them home when they decided to leave.

Traditional advocacy gains new power

Doors that had previously been closed to the community, when they were out of sight in Apaa, suddenly opened after the occupiers seized center stage in Gulu. In the fourth week of the occupation, four community representatives and a baby sneaked out of the U.N. compound and took a bus to Kampala to attend a series of meetings. After presenting their testimonies to the deputy speaker of parliament, along with eight Acholi district chairmen, the group opened a case in the Ugandan Land Inquiry Commission. They met with the U.S. ambassador, the E.U. ambassador, representatives from the embassies of Norway and Denmark, and — finally — Nicole Bjerler, the head of the OHCHR Uganda office, who was accompanied by Alan Sibenaler, the acting head of all U.N. programs in Uganda.

With the leverage generated by the occupation, the Apaa community’s traditional advocacy meetings gained real power. The occupation forced embassies to grasp human rights abuses in Apaa as concrete and urgent, rather than remote and abstract. Both the U.S. ambassador and the E.U. ambassador engaged deeply in the details of the Apaa case, saying they would discuss Apaa in their upcoming meetings with President Museveni. Meanwhile, the deputy speaker had already met with the president and reported back to the district chairpersons that he had issued a directive against eviction operations in Apaa.

Despite constant pressure from U.N. staff to pack up and leave, the occupiers had — by this point — sustained their presence for almost a month. In a three-hour, translated meeting in Kampala, Bjerler emphasized that their diplomacy efforts had yielded fruit: the Ugandan Army assured them they would follow the directive against evictions in Apaa.

Meanwhile, Sibenaler offered a more unexpected, startling concession, that even surprised other U.N. staff: health and education programs in Apaa. When the Apaa representatives reported back to their community waiting in Gulu, this news was met with triumph. In the words of one Apaa community leader, “If they are serious about education support, they will build a school, as ours have been burned down. And building a school would show the world they are defending Apaa as our land, not a game reserve. Animals don’t need schools.”

The decision to pack up and return home

After their envoy returned from Kampala, community leaders of the occupation held a strategy meeting in their camp. While the team decided that the assurances they received were strong enough to end their protest, the occupiers are far from naïve about their decision to return home. As one of the occupiers reflected, “Our fight is not complete. But we have achieved a lot, and we now have powerful allies. We hope our struggle will give others across Uganda the courage to organize for their rights.”

By surprising the United Nations, the Ugandan government and even their own local politicians, the community of Apaa has shown the world they are not passive victims, but powerful agents of change. Ground has been won, and power has been built. The ongoing struggle of the Apaa community and their right to live in peace on their own land is not over, but it will never be the same again.

How Mister Rogers modeled Gandhi’s vision in the age of mass media

by Stephanie Van Hook

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This article was first published by Yes! Magazine.

Kids have it really hard right now. Many adults have forgotten that a world where children are safe and cared for with dignity is not a utopian vision, but a necessity.

Take Ben, for example, who happened to be sitting in my office recently. I told him about a paid internship opportunity for high school youth at a local nonviolence organization, wondering if he would be interested in pursuing it. But he liked violence, he asserted, with a certain confidence, a wry smile on his face and a mesh of hair falling across his serious brown eyes.

“I’m not very peaceful.”

“That could make you the ideal candidate,” I replied. “You might actually have the courage it takes to practice nonviolence.”

Ben is 17 and had been expelled from school a few days before because he’d threatened, not for the first time, to fight another student. “Just go,” responded the school administrator. It was the end of the school year and they were kicking him out for the rest of the year. That evening the other kid sent him threats on Snapchat, ready to pick up the fight now that they were off campus.

“But I swallowed my pride and talked him out of it. I told him I didn’t want to fight him,” said Ben. He went back to his school administrators to tell them that he and the other guy were “cool now” and there wouldn’t be any more trouble, but to no avail. They wouldn’t revoke the expulsion. He was not worth their while—he was not worthwhile. “I have one friend who really understands this, too,” he told me quietly later in our conversation. “Nothing matters. Life really doesn’t matter.”

Something in what he’d said caught my attention. And it wasn’t his violence.

“Wait, you mean, you figured out how to reconcile with this other kid even though a few hours before the two of you were ready to take each other on? You sound like someone who’s done this before.”

And sure enough, he told me about another time when he’d not only broken up a fight between two friends, but helped them forgive each other and even reconcile.

“Ben, I’m gonna make a wild guess that you might have a real gift for peacemaking.” He became attentive now: Maybe no one had ever seen him in this light — or said so. He’d been typed as a “bad” kid, aggressive, violent; he picks a fight and is punished, but he reconciles a conflict and no one cares.

Ben was not failing school, or society. They — or rather, we — were failing him. One administrator actually told him, “You’re going to end up dead or in prison.”

“It makes me want to prove him right,” Ben said, almost imploringly.

His story made me wonder: What are we telling ourselves, and our children, about what it means to be a human being? Are we problems or are we problem-solvers? It depends on what qualities we are trained to look for.

The day before my conversation with Ben, I saw the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” Morgan Neville’s appropriately complex exploration of the unconventional children’s television pioneer Fred McFeely Rogers. The messages we send to the very young were of primary concern to Rogers, who chose a career in television — in the early days of the medium — expressly to care for children. As the originator and host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Rogers celebrated dignity and kindness in a slow-paced, low-budget children’s show that was a beloved cultural institution for just over three decades.

Giving his full attention to everyone and everything that came into his neighborhood, especially the challenges, Mister Rogers took up serious conversations normally censored from children, going right to the heart of the toughest problems the world faces: war, racism, assassination, even terrorism. He reminded us of our responsibility to look at how to understand and repair these conflicts, because  —and this is the important part — all of us have the capacity to do that work.

In an interview included in the film, Rogers says that in times of “scary news,” of tragedy and disaster, his mother taught him not to focus just on destruction or violence, but to “look for the helpers,” who are everywhere. Rogers often said that he admired Mahatma Gandhi, another unassuming person with an extraordinary capacity for separating negative behaviors from the fundamental dignity of the person doing them, and then using that relationship as a basis for constructive action. Gandhi coined a special term for nonviolence that takes it out of the conceptual realm of passivity, satyagraha. Satya means what is good, what is real, what is true, and agraha means to grasp, to hold tightly.

With his inner strength hidden behind his homemade sweaters and signature blue tennis shoes, Mister Rogers modeled satyagraha in the age of mass media. Look at his boldness, how he taught children to resist mindless indignity: giving lessons on how to turn off a television set — his very own medium — when what is shown is degrading.

Giving back agency to the dehumanized mass viewer? That’s subversive. Firmly taking his industry colleagues to task for producing media that was harmful to the development of children? Courage with a capital C.

Rogers’ influence was such that he was often invited to give commencement speeches to college graduates who grew up with his show. “As human beings,” he exhorted in one of these, “our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has — or ever will have — something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.” This is not an easy task when we’re exposed to anywhere between 500 and 10,000 brand messages a day telling us the exact opposite.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” offers a scene from the television show: The year is 1969. Officer Clemmons and Mister Rogers sit next to a wading pool, dipping their feet together for a friendly respite from the day’s heat. Officer Clemmons is Black and Mister Rogers is White. The film now flashes to news footage of a White man pouring chemicals into a swimming pool where Black and White youth are swimming as an act of nonviolent civil disobedience to segregation and the violent “Whites Only” sign on the wall. Cut back to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” where Rogers takes a towel and carefully dries Officer Clemmons’ feet. What do we see? Two people, profoundly caring about each other, as well as the other people in their neighborhood and world around them. “Pay attention to our message,” they quietly urge through their actions.

In early childhood education, as in nonviolence for that matter, there are two key principles: to dignify the child/person and model the behavior you want others to emulate. Like a master teacher, Rogers invites us into this struggle with him, imperfect as we may be now. “It’s You I Like” is the famous song he would sing to children (though we know that some grown-ups were listening, too). If we don’t love people the way they are, he would say, they can never grow. And if we don’t turn off and resist the degrading images of ourselves from commercial media, how can we love? How can we grow?

This is timeless wisdom that Rogers lived, and the challenge of a lifetime: to refuse the degradation that turns us into consumers, offer people dignity even while resisting their behavior, and, above all, love them as they are right now.

‘The price on everything is love’ — How a Detroit community overcomes a lack of city services

by Kevon Paynter

Jessica Ramirez in front of the storefront that houses Detroiters Helping Each Other. (Yes! Magazine/Kevon Paynter)

This article was first published by Yes! Magazine.

A multitude of voicemails and text messages from desperate neighbors flooded Jessica Ramirez’s cell phone on a brisk morning in October 2013. Winter was coming.

Using social media to reach potential donors as well as those seeking help, Ramirez created a makeshift donation center on the sidewalk outside her Southwest Detroit home. There, the community organizer and her neighbors handed out warm clothing to children and recycled beds, dressers and microwaves to new mothers who needed furniture.

When school began the next year, she was at it again, donating reams of school supplies she had collected from businesses and individuals. “Everything was being done out of my home when I started,” Ramirez says.

Recognizing her efforts, the property manager of an abandoned local storefront gave her use of the facility. That’s when her charitable acts became a community shop — Detroiters Helping Each Other, or DHEO — where kindness and generosity, not money, is the currency of exchange. Their motto: Teamwork makes the dream work.

“I would love to see us not need this anymore,” she says.

“In the meantime it’s showing people the community still cares.”

Decades of economic and population decline, a depleted tax base, and critically underfunded city services have forced Southwest Detroiters to self-organize, establishing a local network of goods and services to fill in for missing city services. The result is a range of neighbor-to-neighbor efforts, like DHEO, that seek to address broader needs that are going unmet by local government agencies.

The Congress of Communities, for example, is a charitable programming organization that, among other things, offers anti-domestic violence trainings to Southwest Detroit residents in 2010. The trainings aimed to improve public safety at a time when it took police nearly an hour to arrive at a crime scene.

A coordinated effort called Detroit Mowers Gang organized volunteers with gloves and protective eye gear to mow overgrown grass in the city’s abandoned lots and public playgrounds. The so-called weed vigilantes get together every other Wednesday to do what the city doesn’t, calling itself a “crafty crew” that refuses to let budgets and bureaucracy stand in the way of unruly grass on a playground getting cut.

And the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, organized educational programs for youth and adults, and operated a food co-op to ensure Detroiters had access to affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate food. Its ongoing work includes a food council that promotes a sustainable food system and advocates for food justice and food sovereignty in the city.

“The price on everything is love, man,” said Rico Razo, a native Southwest Detroiter and a former mayor-appointed district manager tasked with ensuring city services respond to residents’ needs.

“It’s spreading love through giving with the hopes that the people they’re helping out — if they catch someone else who’s on hard times — that they pay it forward. That’s the model that [DHEO] rolls with. I think it’s been successful.”

Three years ago, the city of Detroit named DHEO “Organization of the Year” for its role helping families recover from a fire that burned seven homes to the ground, just blocks from Ramirez’s home. Her generosity has extended beyond helping people in need. She collected a U-Haul truck of dog food to feed 369 of her neighbors’ dogs and donated straw to keep their kennels warm during Detroit’s cold months.

She shares stories about DHEO’s work on social media, so that donors can see who they’re helping.

She vets people who say they are in need to make sure no one is taking undue advantage of the community’s generosity. “We do our homework,” she says.

She has asked for a police report in the case of a family replacing items they say were taken in a home burglary or documentation when a family asked for a donated bed to keep their children out of Child Protective Services.

But Ramirez says a family’s inability to produce any of those things won’t be a hindrance to receiving help. And ultimately, the organization relies on trust between neighbors in the community and the social networks that underlie it.

“Yeah, they get stuff for free,” Ramirez says. “But we can call recipients up and say ‘come volunteer.’ If they’re able-bodied, we tell them ‘hey go cut the elderlies’ grass’ or ‘show up to a community feeding event.’ And they show up,” she says.

Razo said that for the longest time when the city cut back on services, including trash pickup, streetlights, and lawn maintenance, he saw self-organized community initiatives and nonprofits offer food and healthcare to people in need. After-school programs and summer jobs for high school students emerged as well as job training and job readiness efforts.

City and state government services are rebounding but the hope is they won’t threaten what neighbors have already built to save their communities.

Rather, Razo said he believes the city should look to them and partner with them to remove some of the burden and empower them to continue. He’s said he running for state representative to the Michigan Legislature on a platform that seeks to bolster Detroit’s community-based sharing economies, especially by integrating them into city services.

“They don’t do it for us,” Ramirez says of business and city government. “The community takes care of itself without the suit and ties.”

This article was funded in part by a grant from the Surdna Foundation. 

 

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