Waging Nonviolence

To weaken Trump, target his enablers

by L.A. Kauffman

Protesters called on Sen. Chuck Schumer to oppose Trump’s judicial nominees. (Flickr / cisc1970 )

This article was first published in “Bye-Bye 45: A Guide to Bringing Him Down.” Read more about the action guide here.

Here’s a paradox: The best way to bring down Donald Trump may be to not focus political energy on him.

Imagine the Trump presidency as a temple — say, in the style of the Greek Parthenon, but with the tackiness of Ancient Rome at its most vulgar and corrupt. If you want to bring it down, you don’t go pounding at the roof, just as you don’t hammer on a tabletop to collapse a table. Instead, you weaken or remove the pillars that support it and hold it up.

All governments rely on the consent of the governed. They also rely on a huge array of people and institutions to confer legitimacy upon them and cooperate with them in ways large and small. When the leader or the government is corrupt, unfit or came to power through questionable and undemocratic means, this everyday cooperation takes on the sinister character of collusion.

That is the most striking fact about Trump: From the time he first hit the campaign trail, his rise to power has been possible only because of enablers who treat him as a legitimate public figure or otherwise cooperate with his presidency. Nearly every member of the Republican Party has been complicit in Trump’s reign — but so have a great many Democrats, either tacitly or openly, as when Sen. Chuck Schumer cooperated in fast-tracking Trump’s judicial nominees. Twitter has allowed Trump to continue to use its platform despite repeatedly violating its terms of service; over and over again, major news media have repeated his lies without naming them as such and given outsized airtime to Trump’s every utterance.

Scholars of authoritarianism, like Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of the book “How Democracies Die,” underscore the crucial role of gatekeepers in either advancing or resisting autocratic rulers and rule. But the scholars have little to say about how to respond when gatekeepers abdicate that role, and when the normal checks and balances of our political system no longer function as they should.

That’s of course where grassroots movements and nonviolent civil resistance can come in: We have the potential to be the crucial check on a system that’s dangerously out of balance.

It’s not a bad thing to protest Trump himself — it’s useful to counter his lies and to have high-visibility displays of opposition to his abuses. But if we fail to pull away the sources of his support, we could protest Trump until we’re blue in the face without ever bringing him down.

This strategy entails putting pressure on Democrats as much as — or in some cases more than — Republicans. Democrats are generally more susceptible to progressive pressure than Republicans, because progressives are a part of their voting base. And Democrats have considerably more power to impede Trump’s actions than they’ve been willing to employ. Now that Democrats control the House, they have the power to hold hearings and conduct investigations that shine a spotlight on Trump’s corruption and duplicity. They also can pursue impeachment. While Democrats don’t have a majority in the Senate, they have a variety of means they could use there to slow or thwart Trump’s agenda — they could withdraw cooperation by, say, refusing to show up and thus denying a quorum, by filibustering, or by using other procedural maneuvers to gum up the works.

Targeting Trump’s enablers also means looking outside government to the institutions and entities that are helping Trump stay in power. Twitter, for instance — just imagine how much weaker Trump would be if he were banned from the platform for violating its terms of service, as he’s done many, many times. What about a sustained campaign to make that happen? Twitter has offices in Atlanta, Boston, Boulder, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco and Seattle — all excellent targets for protest and pressure.

Many groups and individuals in the resistance have already been following some version of this strategy, and doing so with persistence and skill. To dream big and push for what we really want  — Trump out of office, and robust progressive alternatives — we’ll need not only to continue this work but to escalate the pressure: creatively, nonviolently and in the words of the direct-action group Rise and Resist, “with all the joy we can muster.”

Unauthorized WaPo offers a fantasy grounded in movement wisdom

by Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

L.A. Kauffman hands out copies of the unauthorized Washington Post outside the White House. (WNV / Sarah Freeman-Woolpert)

On Wednesday morning, as commuters in Washington D.C. made their way to work, the front page of what appeared to be the Washington Post had people stopping in their tracks. The headline read: “UNPRESIDENTED: Trump hastily departs White House, ending crisis.”

Upon closer inspection, a few things about this free “special edition” didn’t seem quite right. For starters, the paper was dated May 1, 2019, and the tagline read “Democracy awakens in action” instead of the Post’s usual “Democracy dies in darkness.” Meanwhile, the paper itself was filled with stories about a tidal wave of creative resistance — led mainly by women — that had ousted Donald Trump from office.

“Can I get some more copies?” asked one man passing by distributors near the White House. “I’m a federal employee, and my colleagues will love this.”

From a colorful quinceañera dress blockade opposing the border wall to parents and young children engaging in “sippy cup sit-ins” at Sen. Chuck Schumer’s office to protests of Twitter forcing the deactivation of Trump’s account, the stories paint a picture of a potential future without Trump — and the strategic, creative ways to make that happen.

The front page of a “special edition” of the Washington Post put out by the Yes Men.

Two of the masterminds behind this creative stunt are none other than the Yes Men, a pair of high-profile pranksters famous for culture-jamming, impersonation and hoaxes. But this time they weren’t alone. Their action grew out of a nine-month-long collaboration with two female authors and activists: L.A. Kauffman and Onnesha Roychoudhuri.

“The Yes Men — now with women!” Roychoudhuri jokes. “It’s one of those funny things — it’s a Yes Men project, and it’s been spearheaded by two women.”

This was not the first time the Yes Men were involved in producing a fake newspaper with positive, hopeful stories, allowing people to imagine the future they want to see. They released a fake New York Times in 2008 and a fake New York Post the following year. But this time, they took things a step further:

An action guide accompanied each copy of the unauthorized Washington Post.

Each of the 25,000 copies distributed in Washington D.C. includes an action guide packed with tools and resources to help make these stories become reality. [Editor’s note: Waging Nonviolence will be publishing stories from the action guide in the coming days.]

“It’s a fantasy of the future we want to create, bundled with the tools to create that future,” said Kauffman, who developed the action guide in tandem with Roychoudhuri.

Drawing from a vast body of academic research and activist manuals — by the likes of political scholar Gene Sharp, Serbian resistance group OTPOR, the “Beautiful Trouble” toolbox and others — the action guide distills organizing knowledge down into clear, easily-digestible takeaways for the general public. The stories inside the newspaper apply these principles in realistic scenarios, showing what it all looks like when put into practice.

One example of this dynamic at work can be seen in the paper’s story of a mounting protest movement that culminates with 11 million Americans in the streets opposing the Trump presidency. This example draws on political scientist Erica Chenoweth’s research, which found that active resistance by only 3.5 percent of the population — 11 million in the case of the United States —  is needed to bring down a dictator.

Similarly, the story about a “bundle” of 64 progressive bills — advancing Medicare for all, student loan forgiveness, voting rights protection and a Green New Deal — embodies an important organizing principle: the importance of having a transformative vision. Longtime organizer, author and Waging Nonviolence columnist George Lakey has written extensively about this principle, and — fittingly — the action guide features an excerpt from his new book “How We Win,” which makes the case for proposing alternatives and building new institutions.

The “bundle” was developed to showcase the broad support many progressive policies have across the political spectrum. After the election, Roychoudhuri explained, she was frustrated by the pervasive narrative that the country was more divided than ever. “If you look at the majority, there’s a lot of agreement there,” she said. “So the divide is actually between the majority and a handful of extremists in power.”

Another key principle detailed in the action guide is the “pillars of support” — the idea that people and institutions are what give any regime its power, and therefore should be the targets of protest. The newspaper showcased this principle in action with a story about protesters deciding to target key Congressional leaders instead of Trump himself. Another article followed up on the “pillars of support” principle in a sillier way — describing acts of everyday resistance that created constant inconveniences for Trump administration officials, from being refused restaurant service to matches on dating apps.

Many of the fictional actions featured in the newspaper resemble real acts of resistance that have taken place against the Trump administration, from queer dance protests to the historic numbers of women who have engaged in protests and resistance since Trump’s inauguration.

“These stories show a reality adjacent to what has been in motion already since Trump took office,” Kauffman said. “[Then we tie these to] what has worked in other contexts, both in the United States and around the world.”

The paper took a conscious approach to centering the crucial, often-overlooked role that women — particularly women of color — have played in shaping the creative, coordinated resistance to the Trump agenda. This can be seen not only in the newspaper articles and action guide themselves, but also in the collaborative process that made it all possible.

“Resistance to Trump has been led and shaped by women, and it’s important to keep naming that, celebrating that and finding the joy and humor in that,” Kauffman said.

Another goal of the project, according to Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men, is to raise the issue of impeachment and dispel the main arguments against it. “There are a couple of things that come up when you talk about Trump’s impeachment or getting rid of him that we wanted to diffuse,” he said. “One is that Pence is worse and the other is that it could lead to civil war, that he’s not going to go quickly.”

Two stories address these points. The one regarding Pence suggests he would have a “clipped duck” presidency due to a Democratic majority in the House, the taint of Trump’s failed legacy behind him and a greatly weakened base of support. The other story — titled “The civil war that never was” — describes the concern after Trump issues a tweet telling his supporters to defend the presidency and “vote with your trigger finger.” But fears are allayed when a massive turnout of creative, peaceful protesters scares off any die-hard followers. Like many of these stories, this one mirrors a real example of how nonviolent protest overshadowed white supremacist rallies in the wake of the 2017 protests in Charlottesville.

It’s this kind of embedded history and knowledge that the team behind the newspaper and action guide want to impart — so that the millions of newly or recently activated people across the country can learn from the collective wisdom of movements that came before them. That’s why more copies of the newspaper will be handed out at various actions in New York City over the coming weekend, like the Non-March for Disabled Women, to share these tools with a new wave of activists mobilizing for progressive change.

“The resistance to Trump is far from the first movement in American history to face tough times and challenging odds,” Kauffman said. “Movements of the past have learned through experience how slow change can be at times, how much persistence is required, and how much tenacity you need in the face of a powerful opponent.” That being said, the Post hoax doesn’t ignore the exceptionalism of the civil resistance that has become so widespread since Trump was elected.

“People don’t feel in their bones how extraordinary the scale of what is happening now,” Kauffman said. “We are more active in numbers than at any point in U.S. history.”

Roychoudhuri refers to the paper’s vision as “reality adjacent” by portraying existing resistance through a fictional, futuristic lens. “[These stories are] rooted in what has been happening on the ground.”

Instead of seeing the Trump administration as an unprecedented, insurmountable threat to democracy, the action guide contextualizes this presidency within a history of dictatorship and authoritarianism, and shows how nonviolent movements have faced and overcome these regimes for generations.

An action like this does not always have clear outcomes or successes, but plants ideas to foster people’s creativity and allow them to imagine the future they want to see.

“The effects of organizing can rarely be seen in the moment,” Kauffman said. “There’s a faith you have to have.”

Bichlbaum also echoed that this action won’t be judged by a tangible outcome, but by the way it inspires people to renew their resolve to shape the headlines of the future.

“We’re saying, ‘Here’s this big, beautiful vision that could actually work,” he said. “It’s not real or fake news. It’s potential news.”

Despite crackdown, teachers in Zimbabwe keep pressure on a regime in transition

by Phil Wilmot

Members of ARTUZ during their 170-mile march to Harare in December. (WNV/Phil Jambaya)

Remember that Monday morning feeling, your lethargic legs dragging you begrudgingly back to the classroom? Jan. 7 was nothing of the kind for about 100 students in Harare, Zimbabwe. Their teachers set up their classrooms in Africa Unity Square. Excitement filled the open air, even as police lurked nearby.

Ultimately, however, school didn’t last long that day. Before lessons even kicked off, the police stormed the public classroom, arresting nine members of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, or ARTUZ, who were offering free open air schooling, despite being in the midst of an indefinite strike.

Fortunately, the teachers were released after just a few hours of detention, and they returned to what they are calling their #SalaryCamp — an occupation outside the office of Finance and Economic Development Minister Mthuli Ncube. Teachers had launched the camp in response to Ncube having revoked salary payments in U.S. dollars — as guaranteed in their contracts — and sliced annual bonuses by nearly a half.

The persistence of the #SalaryCamp, which has escalated into a nationwide multi-industry strike, is currently facing severe repression by Zimbabwe’s government, including extrajudicial killings and internet blackouts. Yet, all this would not be happening if it weren’t for a bold step taken by rural teachers one month and 170 miles ago.

On Dec. 9, ARTUZ members and a few allies set off from Mutare — a rural province hosting the annual ARTUZ conference — on their way to Ncube’s office in Harare. They quickly encountered the expected challenges: foot blisters, inadequate shelter and fatigue. Soon, however, these obstacles were supplemented by arrests, police blockades and one of the marchers going into labor. Their persistence to reach the capital city was nothing short of remarkable.

The ARTUZ struggle for fair wages is reborn

Zimbabwe’s rural teachers didn’t wake up one morning with a whim to march. Their position on low pay and poor working conditions has been long standing. In October 2017, ARTUZ declared rural teachers the most heavily affected public servants by Zimbabwe’s cash crisis — a shortage of U.S. dollars, which had been publicly preferred to the hyperinflated Zimbabwean dollar or the illegitimate bond notes introduced in 2016.

ARTUZ members taking part in the pockets out campaign. (WNV/Phil Jambaya)

To express their lack of basic needs, teachers undertook a “pockets out” campaign in September 2017 to remind the public of their plight. Former Education Minister David Coltart joined the action, as did people of all sectors across Zimbabwe who felt turning their pockets inside-out was a safer way to express their destitution than participating in a heavily-policed protest.

This campaign was insufficient in achieving the demands of the public servants. To make matters worse, in October, Zimbabwe’s government began violating its negotiated agreement with the teachers by refusing to pay them their $100 per month salary in U.S. dollars. The government started paying teachers in bank transfers that reduced actual salaries to about a third. Adding insult to injury, annual bonuses were nearly slashed in half.

In a letter addressed to Minister Ncube on Dec. 4, ARTUZ secretary general Robson Chere announced the march to the capital, promising to “storm Harare” upon their Dec. 19 arrival. A call went out the same day to all ARTUZ members — as well as other teachers organized by the Federation of Zimbabwe Educators’ Union — to join the caravan. A day later, over 500 people had registered for the march. But in a country where public order laws are designed to curtail nonviolent public dissent, it is not uncommon for those numbers to dwindle in the lead-up to any protest.

“To encourage participation among participants who feared the likelihood of repression, we would read stories of nonviolent struggles and discuss them as a group,” Chere said. “This helped us encourage one another.”

Still, as expected, participants began to drop out as the day to start the march drew close. In fact, by the time they began the journey on Dec. 9, only 102 marchers showed up. However, others joined on the way, as the caravan passed through numerous villages. The march was also helped by having leaders from the Citizens’ Manifesto — a national platform working to unite Zimbabweans around a common political vision.

On the third day of the march, morale was high among the teachers and their allies. They even had a sense that nature was on their side, as they watched heavy rains pelt the surrounding areas, but never their route. The state, however, was not on their side. According to an update issued by ARTUZ, police with vicious dogs had already begun trailing the caravan.

The front page of a Zimbabwean state-controlled newspaper last week. (WNV/Phil Jambaya)

By Dec. 12, with the caravan now in Rusape, 59 miles from its origin, the protesters had already met small traders, students, traditional leaders, farmers, members of parliament and academics, as they stopped in more densely populated areas to engage in public dialogue over the transgressions of the Ministry of Finance. As ARTUZ noted in a Dec. 12 update, “This long distance will give [our] employer enough time to find solutions to our pressing challenges and also help build anger amongst us to fight harder if our concerns are not addressed.”

By day six, only about 63 members were in able-bodied condition to carry on with the march, but ARTUZ was not ready to let its power dwindle. So those who could not continue were invited to send personal messages to Ncube’s desk. Others offered food and other basic necessities to those sticking with the march. These were strategic attempts to broaden participation and solidarity beyond the march itself.

Soon after this, the caravan encountered a police blockade. Marchers argued that, like churches and funerals, trade unions are exempted from Zimbabwe’s Public Order and Security Act – a law often employed by the state to curtail public dissent. Allied lawyers under the banner of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, or ZLHR, attended to the matter swiftly on behalf of ARTUZ. Nine members were arrested and charged with criminal nuisance.

Members of ARTUZ after their release from jail on Dec. 19. (WNV/Phil Jambaya)

Although court proceedings led to their release two days later, thanks to ZLHR’s intervention, police continued to follow and harass the caravan. This perpetual stalking of the march resulted in 14 subsequent arrests in Ruwa on Dec. 18, the day before the caravan had planned to shut down Ncube’s office. Those detained at Harare Central Police Station included ARTUZ’s president, vice president, secretary general and other union members.

With the aid of their legal allies, they were eventually released on Dec. 19, but the delay caused by their detainment introduced a new challenge: After all the planning and expenses, they could no longer “storm Harare” on Dec. 19. Instead, they had to deliver the petition a day later than originally intended.

“This delay was a major hindrance to us,” said march participant Nyambara Moreblessing. “But we had already been subjected to a number of other challenges, including sleeping in forests with no shelter while on the caravan. So we overcame it.”

The petition was delivered on Dec. 20 with dwindling numbers, but not necessarily dwindling morale. One of those not present was march participant Rudo Mlangeni. After walking the first day of the caravan while pregnant, she had taken rest and went into labor on the day of the picket.

“Thank God for our new fighter,” she said. “We named him Mkundinashe, meaning conqueror.”

Since there was no climactic victory outside the Ministry of Finance on Dec. 20, ARTUZ issued an ultimatum to the government. The union informed its members that they would give Ncube two weeks to address their grievances. If he failed to respond, they would return to his office on Jan. 7.

Predictably, Ncube kept quiet. ARTUZ has issued an indefinite strike until the grievances are addressed. The #SalaryCamp in Harare is offering additional festivities beyond open air classroom lessons. On Jan. 8, the streets were filled with those playing sports, which attracted the attention of those passing through downtown Harare.

Members of the union are mindful that their cause doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Much as they extended the 2017 pockets out campaign beyond their sector, they have begun canvassing health workers and those of other industries to join in the strike. It comes at a particularly strategic time, when public offices throughout the country are supposed to resume work with a load of matters that have accumulated over the holidays. Zimbabwe’s government is already busy publishing propaganda to undermine the union’s effort to consolidate power beyond its own membership.

“As we await Ncube’s response, we are engaging members of rural districts to join in the strike,” said Macdonald Kondo, a spokesperson for ARTUZ. “Today we start with Mutoko. We will corner Ncube and press the government from all angles until we succeed.”

From political change to political transformation

The story of the ARTUZ march to Harare offers a window into the principle of maintaining pressure after political change to ensure genuine transformation. Dictators around the world are falling, but this doesn’t always bring an end their regimes. Unjust policies, corrupt institutions and regressive governance cultures oftentimes live on.

In the case of Zimbabwe, former dictator Robert Mugabe — who spent over 30 years in power — may have succumbed to the reign of a successor, but such transition shouldn’t be confused with actual transformation. The next days and weeks will determine whether Zimbabweans are well organized enough to wage resistance in the face of brutal crackdowns.

The end of Mugabe’s rule may be have been a milestone, partially achieved through the power of common people, but it certainly isn’t a finish line. Organized labor in Zimbabwe is recognizing this and taking power into its own hands to challenge kleptocracy, police brutality and other state vices that have — over the generations of a single man’s rule — become normalized. Only with this tenacity will Zimbabwe build up functional policies, institutions and governance cultures that run according to the will of its people.

“The major advice I have for the unions in Zimbabwe is that a union has the same rights as a church,” Moreblessing said. “You don’t need to apply for permission to the police to hold a public action. You can simply notify them to protect your gatherings. Even where authorities try to complicate things, we must be bold and push on.”

How the yellow vests are reinventing French politics

by Raphael Mimoun and Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

Yellow vest protesters in Belfort, France in November 2018. (Wikimedia / Thomas Bresson)

Last weekend, 50,000 people flooded the streets of France for the first protest of 2019 organized by the yellow vests, or gilets jaunes. This protest is a continuation of a national movement for economic justice that has shaken the country since November. While mainstream French and international media have largely characterized the yellow vests as violent troublemakers, many people throughout France see the movement as a long-needed popular uprising against a deeply unjust political and economic system.

Videos on social media depict these protesters in a different light: giving hugs and handshakes to police officers on New Year’s Eve, turning demonstrations into parties, and dancing cheek-to-cheek as the police forcibly evict a protest camp. These scenes paint a different picture of the yellow vests as a largely nonviolent grassroots movement.

As with many decentralized and less structured movements, the yellow vest movement has attracted a diverse cross-section of French society, from the far-left to the far-right and from high school students to pensioners. While the movement has unleashed a tidal wave of discontent and anger throughout France, it also has the potential to re-invent French politics as a participatory process, putting ordinary citizens back in control.

Before growing into a wider movement with multiple demands, the yellow vest protests were first sparked into action in November when the government of President Emmanuel Macron announced a tax hike on fuel. Although Macron justified the tax as an environmental necessity, his environmental credentials have long been debunked. Critics were quick to point out that Macron’s move would disproportionately hurt the rural poor, while his other reforms slash taxes for the rich. People in small towns and villages have seen significant curtailing of public transport over the past few decades, and the car has become a central part of life. Coupled with stagnant wages, welfare cuts and higher taxes, a fuel tax increase just felt like one too many burdens to carry.

“The yellow vests are people who are demonstrating for the first time, people who don’t vote anymore,” said Paris-based organizer Tina de Sansonetti. “They struggle, feel excluded both politically and economically, invisible to the governing elite. They fight for equality, social justice and dignity.”

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While the tax increase may have been the trigger, the movement is building on the mobilizations that labor unions and opposition parties have led since the beginning of the Macron presidency in 2017. Many of Macron’s reforms were met with mass protests, alienating large parts of French society that are now either actively joining the movement or supporting from the sidelines.

Pensioners, hit particularly hard by a tax increase in October 2017, are one such group. High-schoolers are another. They fought against an obscure law that may reduce access to public universities. Meanwhile, labor unions have struggled with the privatization of the state-owned rail operator, and large swaths of the workforce have objected to a reform making it easier to hire and fire employees without the increased welfare benefits Macron had previously promised.

To make matters worse, almost all French citizens have been affected by a sweeping tax reform that has much in common with Donald Trump’s tax cut for corporations and the very wealthy. These reforms, when taken alongside Macron’s verbal attacks on the working class, have earned the president — a former investment banker — the nickname of “president of the rich.”

This is why the yellow vest movement cannot be viewed as a spontaneous phenomenon. Instead, it is the result of years of protest, frustration and mobilization. When the first call went out on Facebook to block roads on Nov. 17, it brought out over 280,000 protesters from all walks of life. Over time, these protests have morphed into a genuine movement, while still remaining decentralized — something that’s rather unprecedented for France, where protests and direct actions are almost exclusively led by labor unions and political parties.

“This is what is unique about our movement,” de Sansonetti said. “[We’re seeing] a horizontality we haven’t experienced before in France.”

Yellow vest protester on the Champs Elysees in November 2018. (Flickr / KRIS AUS67)

While many online groups are coordinating local actions — principally on Facebook — no central decision-making structure has emerged, nor are there any formal spokespeople. The movement has rejected any affiliation to political parties or labor unions, and activists react forcefully to any group that tries to speak on their behalf or use the movement for political gains.

This undoubtedly presents challenges. Anyone who is wearing a yellow vest is seen as representing the movement, and their actions — from looting, violence, to sexist or bigoted slogans — can distort the movement’s core message and demands. When such events surface, many activists are quick to condemn them on social media, but this has typically failed to reach the mainstream media and broader public.

Despite these issues, a clear political line has emerged — one with a set of demands primarily focusing on economic justice. This includes establishing a more progressive income tax and making large corporations like Google, Amazon and Carrefour pay their fair share of taxes, while supporting small businesses. But many demands also call for an end to the continuous gutting of public services: ending the closure of bus and train lines, schools, maternity wards, post offices, and re-nationalizing recently privatized public services like gas and electricity.

A yellow vest protester holds a sign that reads: “Ecological and social urgency.” (Wikimedia / Jules Xénard)

Other demands center on wider social issues, like smaller classrooms from pre-K to high school, support for mental healthcare and ecological measures. And while some demands fall on the right side of the political spectrum — such as “immigrants must learn French and French history” and “rejected asylum-seekers must be sent home” — a major survey by Le Monde found that the movement’s demands are generally in line with what the far left proposed during the 2017 presidential elections. It is remarkable, then, that the movement managed to remain so independent from political parties, both in practice and in the public eye.

“I’m in awe of the yellow vests,” said Etienne Lascaux, a movement supporter from Bordeaux who has not joined any actions but agrees with the movement’s demands. “The movement brought together a part of the population that was silent. They are not particularly active citizens, many don’t vote. But they came together at the roundabouts — across religions, across generations — with incredible popular support.” Despite getting stuck at one of the blockaded roundabouts, Lascaux described the outpouring of public support and horn-honking as “like the World Cup.”

At the tactical level, the yellow vests are facing challenges specific to any decentralized movement. Like others before them, the yellow vests have been over-reliant on high-stakes tactics of occupation, road blockades and street demonstrations. These are inherently difficult to sustain — not to mention that they are both time and energy intensive. They also require participants to put their bodies on the line, which — much like the occasional violence — turns away many potential participants.

That being said, the yellow vests are starting to focus more on symbolic targets in line with the movement’s grievances. Whereas before they might have simply disrupted traffic to make their presence known, they are now doing things like occupying highway toll stations to let motorists through without paying. Such an action is a direct hit on the widely-decried privatization of French public infrastructure and highways in particular. In other cases, the yellow vests have blocked access to shops from large chains like Auchan and Carrefour, which have decimated the country’s family-owned businesses. While this type of targeted and symbolic action exposes those corporations’ role in increasing inequality, it often fails to gain national attention and can alienate potential supporters.

In order to sustain pressure on the government and activate its still large numbers of supporters, the yellow vests will have to further diversify their tactics. Low-commitment actions would provide avenues for supporters to get involved in meaningful ways without having to sacrifice much. There are many such options — from boycotts of tax-dodging corporations to the beating pots and pans as a sign of support for the movement. But the best options are typically the result of an intentional search for what will appeal most to the wider public.

The need for more diverse tactics is particularly important given the fact that the movement’s political gains have been fairly minor, although these signal the potential for further victories. On Dec. 4, after just three weeks of protests, the government announced that it would suspend the fuel tax increase. Then, in the face of more public outrage, it cancelled the tax altogether the following day. When the protests continued, Macron announced an increased minimum wage, reduced taxes on pensioners and other measures to support the working class. Many criticized these announcements as disingenuous, claiming that Macron was only trying to appease the movement rather than address the root causes of popular dissatisfaction.

In some ways, these measures backfired, bringing new groups like school teachers into the movement. According to de Sansonetti, “That’s when the movement realized the government wasn’t going to address our core grievances, and that we needed to find ways to engage directly with political institutions.”

This realization led to the emergence of what has since become the single most vocal and consistent demand of the movement: a Citizens’ Initiative Referendum. The RIC, as it is known, is a direct democracy mechanism that would make a referendum mandatory in France if a petition reaches a certain number of signatures. It is seen as a way for average citizens to regain some control over the political process and take back French democracy from a political elite widely seen as corrupt, unresponsive and unaccountable. Citizens would be able to bring forward issues ignored by their representatives and force the parliament to address them, or even require the government to repeal unpopular reforms.

The RIC is more than a simple political demand; it shows the yellow vest movement’s ability to evolve in pragmatic and creative ways. What is perhaps most unique about the French movement is its participatory nature, placing it well in line with the Occupy movement in the United States and the Indignados in Spain. For the yellow vests, each action — whether a street demonstration, road blockade or occupation — becomes an opportunity for citizens to mingle, exchange, discuss ideas and re-imagine the kind of society and politics they wish to create. Actions are planned collaboratively and decisions are made in local assemblies. The yellow vests are not just advocating for direct democracy, they are living it.

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In December, the yellow vests of Commercy, a town of 6,000 people in northeastern France, called on the yellow vests to build local assemblies everywhere and to join forces in a “national union of all local popular committees.” On Sunday, the Toulouse assembly, like others around the country, voted to take part in the national union. The assembly also voted to join a day of action, on Jan. 13, to paralyze the entire French economy by blocking trucks.

Whatever happens on Jan. 13 and in the following weeks, the movement has already had a major impact on French society and politics. Similar to how the Occupy movement triggered a national conversation on inequality and financial excesses in the United States, the French gilets jaunes are forcing the country to reckon with the impact that government austerity has had on the working class. They are forcing France’s political elite to acknowledge huge swaths of the population that they have long ignored. And they are re-imagining what French democracy could look like: more egalitarian and participatory.

As repression worsens, Kashmiri activists call for international solidarity

by Matt Meyer

A protest in Kashmir in 2010. (Flickr/Kashmir Global)

While the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to those who work for an end to the heinous violence of using rape as a weapon of war, those who cry out about the same practices in Kashmir face silencing and repression. Despite the fact that the use of rape has reached epic proportions in the Indian-occupied territory, and that a robust nonviolent movement against the occupation appears to be growing, the international community is largely unaware of these issues. This is due to the success that India has had in portraying itself as the “world’s largest democracy” and the land of Gandhi and nonviolence, while simultaneously preventing foreign journalists from even entering Kashmir and subjecting Kashmiri resisters to prison time or worse.

Hameeda Nayeem, who is chair of the Kashmir Centre for Social and Developmental Studies, is well aware of the process. Her husband Nayeem Ahmad Khan is one of the political prisoners who has been repeatedly jailed since 1984, in part for calling for peaceful strikes and mass mobilizations protesting the heightened militarization and gang-rapes carried out by the Indian armed forces.

“Under India’s Public Safety Act, which has been used time and time again against people who disagree with them, we see the law used as instruments of torture and instruments of repression,” Hameeda Nayeem said.

Throughout Kashmiri society, there is a strong and worrying sense that things are soon likely to get even worse as the right to dissent is being increasingly challenged. “Elections are not the real democracy for us here,” noted human rights defender Khurram Pervez, program coordinator of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, or JKCCS. “Dissent is the real test of democracy for us here. In Kashmir, all of the dissenters have been jailed, killed, persecuted. No dissent has ever been tolerated.”

With foreign journalists no longer allowed into Kashmir and activists from Kashmir barred from getting passports or permission to leave, the fear is that even more intense crackdowns are being planned. JKCCS members, though steadfastly committed to “militant nonviolent resistance,” have not been immune from the violent repression. While monitoring the 2004 elections as part of a JKCCS project, Pervez had his leg blown off in a car explosion near the remote town of Kupwara, alongside his colleague Asiya Jeelani and their driver Ghulam Nabi Shaikh, who were both killed in the blast.

JKCCS President Parvez Imroz, a lawyer who has defended many Kashmiri activists, believes that there is still a window for social change, but that it is steadily shutting. International solidarity, it is felt, is urgently needed if further violence is to be curtailed.

“The role of civil society here is to expose the lies of the government and the atrocities being committed by a government in the name of peace,” Imroz explained. “From 2000 onwards, we have been campaigning against the torture and disappearances, and looking at how we can engage international civil society to help us fight to create a space [for Kashmiri freedom].”

It is a bitter irony that even in progressive and apparently pro-Gandhian sectors of Indian society, information about and support for Kashmir is minimal at best. “We are committed to nonviolence,” Pervez asserted, “and we were very happy when we saw a huge transformation in the Kashmiri struggle: the mainstream expression of Kashmiri society became nonviolent.”

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But peace movement support for an end to Indian colonial control of Kashmir has been muted by the carefully constructed global perception that India is a model democracy based on the pacifist ideals of Gandhi.

The Swaraj Peeth Trust, which is chaired by Rajiv Vora, provides some exception to this “not our problem” policy. They have held dialogues and trainings looking to revive the “peace army” practices first explored by followers of Gandhi in the late 1950s. Focusing on areas facing communal violence, disciplined nonviolent cadre would put their bodies on the line separating groups of armed civilians, or civilians facing off against the military. The most successful forms of these unarmed teams formed “peace brigades” to support communities working for justice in extremely violent contexts.

More recently, but under similar circumstance, Vora helped develop a four-stage method of cultivating and organizing these brigades, including focus on community-based empathy, awareness, training and action. In Kashmir, this methodology was used alongside education campaigns utilizing Gandhi’s 1909 classic “Hind Swaraj,” his primary book on Indian “home rule” as a means of achieving full independence. The peace brigades’ work helped bring together communities within Kashmir, successfully opening conversations in several towns and organizing over a dozen meetings about methods of social change.

But while dialogue on nonviolent strategies and tactics within Kashmiri civil society has been seen by many as a positive development, violence within the occupied territories, initiated and maintained by the Indian military and local police, has only increased. One policeman, requesting anonymity and indicating a desperate desire to leave the force, noted that “every day we are asked to oppress our own people.”

Vora admits that Kashmir is still in great need of some “pure goodwill intervention” from the global community of peacemakers. In fact, no amount of dialogue or even goodwill is going to resolve the situation without full independence and sovereignty for a people who need first to be recognized as the only arbiters of their own destiny. Second, they need complete and uninhibited freedom — in other words, basic human rights — to re-build their own society along whatever lines they choose.

The complexity of the struggle lies in part on the long history of varied take-overs of the land inhabited by Kashmiris. With a Muslim majority in Kashmir, a Hindu occupying army, and the vast majority of the land under Indian control, India is correctly seen as the key culprit. But is not the only force standing in the way of full Kashmiri independence, as both Pakistan and China control parts of Kashmir as well.

Things are also complicated because, as one journalist told me, the genocidal policies towards Kashmir are cloaked in slow, “gradual annihilation.” The economic, political, cultural, social, land-based, and military take-over of Kashmir will require years of recovery even after an end of occupation. Today, Kashmir Life reports that things are moving in the opposite direction, with human rights abuses approaching the level of overt “war crimes” and that 2018 was the worst year in over a decade as far as loss of life.

According to recent polls, 90 percent of Kashmiris want an immediate end to the occupation. The longing and desire are almost bursting out of everyday conversations. In a shared taxi ride, seemingly unable to contain himself, one Kashmiri who is now living abroad told me, “I love Kashmir! I have everything I could want here: my home, my mother, my family, the means to survive. I have everything here, but freedom.”

Street vending is legal in Los Angeles after a decade of organizing

by Adolf Alzuphar and Ivy Beach

Street food at the South Central Farm in Los Angeles in 2006. (Wikimedia Commons/Jonathan McIntosh)

Street vending was legalized in Los Angeles on Jan. 1, marking an important victory for economic and immigrant justice in the city. This comes after statewide decriminalization through the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, or SB946, signed into law in September 2018 by Gov. Jerry Brown. SB946 limits violations and fines imposed on vendors and is a turning point in the fight to protect many migrant families from Trump-era deportations.

These achievements at the state and local level were won through a hard-fought campaign led by sidewalk vendors — in partnership with Los Angeles Street Vending Coalition, or LASVC, and other allies — that began more than 10 years ago. These victories should be recognized and celebrated, but the work to safeguard street vending in our society is just beginning.

While California has the largest economy in the United States — and the fifth largest in the world — it also has the highest poverty rate of any state. One path out of this poverty, especially for the immigrant community, has been through street vending.

There are over 50,000 street vendors currently operating in Los Angeles alone and these micro-enterprises represent a $504 million industry. Around 75 percent sell clothing, accessories and other merchandise and some 10,000 sell food. The majority of vendors identify as Latinx, 80 percent are women of color and a majority are seniors.

Street vending became prevalent in Los Angeles after the enactment of the United States Refugee Act of 1980. This act granted asylum to hundreds of thousands of Central American refugees, many of whom settled in Los Angeles and became the majority of the city’s street vendors. The act’s passage coincided with a massive loss of manufacturing jobs in Los Angeles, which resulted in a jobs crisis for communities of color, especially migrant families.

As the number of street vendors rose, many storefront owners became hostile and resisted the thousands of vendors in their neighborhoods. These businesses have a history of calling the police, who enforce prohibition on vendors through increased surveillance, fines, arrest and potential jail time. Criminalized by the city, street vendors could be charged with a misdemeanor, punishable with up to six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine, the confiscation/destruction of their property and potential deportation.

For 10 years vendors and community partners have been strategically organizing to create a permit system that protects the rights of local entrepreneurs and legalizes their work. The campaign emphasized forming partnerships between privately-owned brick-and-mortar stores and street vendors operating in the vicinity. Carlos Perez, founder of Un Solo Sol, a community kitchen in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, and a coalition member, powerfully stresses that storefront and street vending are part of the same economic ecosystem.

In 2008, a group of street vendors in Boyle Heights were facing increased harassment by the police, who were issuing tickets, fines and confiscating personal property. This eventually led to the police shutting down their vibrant sidewalk market. In response, the vendors began to organize in partnership with the East L.A. Community Corporation, or ELACC. They began reaching out to community leaders and together initiated popular educational meetings and seminars, galvanizing vendors to organize around the framework that centered the human right to vend in the city.

During monthly organizing committee meetings across the city, women vendors steered the coalition. Together they organized press conferences, protests, art builds and acts of civil disobedience at key marches and rallies in the city, including on May Day and International Women’s Day.

A community forum on the state of street vending was organized that led to the official launch of LASVC, a coalition made of more than 60 community organizations, small business owners, local councils and activists, in 2012. In 2013, councilmembers were moved by the group’s impactful grassroots efforts and introduced a motion to speak about a permitting process.

Over the next few years, the community forum model was expanded and structured around zones representing other parts of Los Angeles with large street vending communities, including Boyle Heights, Highland Park, Pacoima and Leimert Park. Each zone had core leaders that received special training to mobilize their fellow co-workers to join the campaign and participate in organizing monthly meetings and forums. These active vendor leaders became the ultimate drafters of the policy proposed to the city council for legalization.

The focus of these ongoing forums was to uplift the stories and voices of vendors, their families and community members who rely on their services. Traditional and contemporary art were embraced to communicate campaign goals and advance demands. This included screen printing solidarity shirts and aprons saying “Legalize Street Vending” to be worn by sidewalk vendors and supporters across the city. Years of arduous campaign organizing led to a local political victory; in April 2017 city council decriminalized street vending, protecting vendors from some penalties, such as deportation, but not from fines.

Decriminalization of vending at the state level followed in the fall of 2018 with the enactment of SB946. Decriminalization is not legalization, however, and this bill leaves both the specifics of permit and regulatory programs to local jurisdictions. Los Angeles City Council voted to establish a permit program to protect vendors instead of a regulatory process based on rules and bylaws. The permit program taxes vendors, which addresses a concern raised by brick-and-mortar stores that feel burdened by their own taxes, and it also requires food vendors to meet a set of health code standards.

This means additional costs for Los Tamaleros — popular food trucks that make and sell tamales — and other vendors who make food at home. Many will now need new equipped carts and certified storage containers as well as access to licenced commercial kitchens to prepare provisions. A month after City Council voted in support of vendors to establish a permit program, they officially legalized street vending in Los Angeles, which takes effect on Jan. 1.

Over the years participants in the campaign explored how sidewalk vending could be legally integrated into the city’s economy in a just manner that acknowledges merchants as small business owners who generate money and create jobs. The town hall model, with its emphasis on political education and grassroots engagement, led to the vision of a local legalized vending policy. This vision was scaled up to include protections for workers across the state and continues to build the movement towards an inclusive economy grounded in equity and protections for the most disenfranchised in the workforce.

Meetings continue to be organized, as more vendors join in the effort to foster “active streets,” a term used by ELACC Organizing Director Carla De Paz. Active streets are areas with more vendors that have increased foot traffic, lighting and human interaction, which create communities around memories and cultural expression. De Paz also notes how active streets cultivate a sense of collective security that can be recognized as an alternative to policing.

The all important permit program is not completed, and it is up to city council to finalize the written measure. The campaign has emphasized several goals moving forward. They are focused on incentivizing vendors to sell healthy food in neighborhoods without access to fresh fruits and vegetables and developing a stronger non-profit infrastructure to support merchants. This includes creating more community-run licensed kitchens, and partnerships that legitimize vendors within the vast network of farmers markets throughout the city. A “buycott” was launched for the holiday season, encouraging communities to find creative ways to support their neighborhood vendors.

The future is bright for the coalition, and their dynamism has the potential to lead to a national and transnational solidarity movement that could empower vendors globally.

How to take on fascism without getting played

by George Lakey

Anti-fascist graffiti in Athens, Greece. (Wikimedia / Cogiati)

In front of a standing-room-only crowd at the Howard Zinn Book Festival in San Francisco earlier this month, historian Mark Bray and I debated the value of using violence to quell the growth of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Anti-racism trainer Molly McClure was the moderator.

We received a good deal of appreciation for the chance to hear, in the same space, two different perspectives, shared by mutually-respectful activists who were interested in shedding more light than heat.

Dealing with fascists is a very big subject for a short article, so I’ll use the frame that Mark and I used that night, which was to try to avoid global, abstract generalizations in favor of speaking to a few strategy issues that are of pressing concern right now. We mostly used historical examples as resources to help us think about what all of us face in the present. Mark’s views can be found in his 2017 book “Antifa.”

Fascism grows in polarized times

The growth of polarization makes it possible for haters to come out from the margins, form larger groups and make political trouble. Why is polarization increasing now, with the accompanying growth of fascist groups?

A trio of political scientists found that polarization is driven by economic inequality. The inequality is generated by the policies of the economic elite, the 1 percent who dominate our country. The more inequality, the more polarization and — therefore — the more trouble from neo-fascist formations.

Billionaire Warren Buffett let the cat out of the bag when he revealed to The New York Times in 2006 that the 1 percent has been waging, in his words, “class war.” As I see it, that’s been going on at least since the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Some young working-class white men are manipulated by the results of that class war — and our country’s racism — to respond by joining the Ku Klux Klan and other groups.

In other words, the cause of rising fascism is the economic elite and its wish to take more and more of the country’s wealth for itself. Economist Elise Gould tells us that “The gap between those at the top and those at the middle and bottom has continued to increase through much of the 2000s.”

Antifa focuses on fascists as our enemy, but that is mistaking the symptom for the cause. The fascists are mostly people on the margins who have no say about what’s hurting them and mistakenly believe their enemies are immigrants, blacks, liberals and Jews. I believe the real perpetrators are super-rich conservatives, libertarians, and Democrats who agree that neo-liberal economic policies are a good thing and that they can live with the “unfortunate” consequences — which not only hurt the rest of us (including members of the Ku Klux Klan), but also the planet and its ability to sustain us.

To reverse course and put our country on what the civil rights movement called “the Freedom Road,” we need to upset the dominance of the economic elite. That requires building mass movements that learn, as they grow, the necessity of nonviolent revolution. My new book “How We Win” describes how to move more quickly in that direction.

A model for success amidst Nazi threats

The growing economic inequality of the 1920s resulted in increased political polarization in Sweden and Norway — just as it did in the United States during the same decade. The extremes at both left and right grew, including the Nazis.

As with German Nazis and Italian Fascists of the same period, the right-wing extremists of Sweden and Norway wanted to use violence to dominate the politics of their day. It must have tempted the growing left movements of Nordic farmers and workers to preoccupy themselves with the Nazi threat. The Scandinavian left had even more to fear because the Nazi ideology contained an appeal to ancient Scandinavian myths and the “heroic Aryan blood” of the Vikings.

Instead, the Nordic left movements kept their focus on the real perpetrators of inequality and injustice. The left aimed at pushing the economic elite off their pedestals, and they succeeded despite the violence the elite used to protect their privilege. As I’ve described in my 2016 book “Viking Economics,” the Scandinavian left pulled off the closest thing yet to a democratic revolution that changed class power relations and installed an alternative economic model centering the worker instead of capital. And they did it with a brilliant multi-dimensional strategy that featured nonviolent struggle doing the heavy lifting.

In the meantime, the left in Germany and Italy got distracted by the right-wing extremists. Historian Laurie Marhoefer describes the violent leftist response to Nazi provocations in Germany. Battles between left and right inside taverns surged into the streets. The German middle classes became alarmed at the rising amount of violent chaos and went along with their economic elites’ decision to hand state power to Adolf Hitler.

A similar dynamic happened in Italy, where the rising violence between left and right led to the appointment of fascist Benito Mussolini to lead the government. After all, in a period of polarization and insecurity, “we need law and order,” right? Give the state, the elite reasoned, to the party promising law and order — big time!

I sometimes think the smartest thing the Swedish and Norwegian left did was to avoid getting baited by their Nazi antagonists into street-fighting and mounting chaos. Instead, they modeled self-discipline and used the disruptive, nonviolent power of noncooperation to force a power shift. They also projected a vision to show how the new economy would work for the common good, winning in the process more and more allies, including members of the fearful middle classes.

Since the United States faces increasing chaos — guaranteed by random violence and climate disaster, along with polarization — we should hold this successful model in our minds as we figure out what to do.

From reactivity to pro-activity

While touring the country the past couple years, I’ve seen an enormous amount of reactivity among progressives. Many closely follow media that dwell on bad news, trying to respond to a dozen issues at once, competing for political correctness, scattering their energy, and — no surprise — becoming depressed.

That’s the opposite of what works for making progressive change.

Antifa offers one more rationale for reactivity: Doing quick mobilizations against right-wing extremist groups that announce a plan to rally. Not only does that reactivity subtract energy needed to build winning campaigns that build movements, but it can also lead us into traps.

In November, activists in Philadelphia heard through social media that the Proud Boys were coming to hold a rally. About 40 right-wingers showed up and made speeches — a non-event, a failure, in no way worthy of mass media coverage.

However, hundreds of progressives showed up, transforming the non-event into political primetime for the right wing. The Philadelphia Inquirer, normally a daily newspaper reluctant to cover street demonstrations, published an enormous article containing six photographs (two in full color) and over 20 column inches of text. The bonus for the right-wingers was that the conflict did turn physical and at least one of them was hurt, fitting nicely into the playbook on the right that they are “poor victims” of the liberal elite and deserving of sympathy.

In effect, the progressives gave the right-wingers a victory. A newspaper reader could easily conclude that the extremist right must be consequential — otherwise they wouldn’t have received so much attention. And attention only adds more fuel to the fascists’ fire.

Economic polarization enrolls alienated working-class white men to the extremist right, where they are led by bullies who rise to the top of the gang. Even more than most of us, bullies want attention. And fascism, as a political ideology, only affirms that craving.

There is a way, however, to handle bullies, which most of us know: Refuse to give them what they want. What we need, I believe, is a left like that of the Swedes and Norwegians who knew how to refuse what the bullies in their countries wanted.

We can refuse to be baited and manipulated. We can refuse to play their game. After all, we have something better to do: organize campaigns for winnable goals that help build powerful mass movements, so that we can unite those movements behind a positive vision able to push the economic elite aside and open space for a new society.

Many of those attracted to fascist-led formations will see the error of their ways. After all, a nonviolent, democratic society is organized around the common good, satisfying the vast majority.

What about the deeply-convinced haters, unwilling to change? They will scatter to the margins, where they wait with the hope that conditions for their politics will once again become favorable. They serve as a barometer of how things are going, as we’ve seen in Scandinavia recently. Sweden, which has allowed economic inequality to grow more than the other Nordics, is also troubled by more growth in their neo-fascist minority. The Swedish majority is once again challenged, as is that of the United States. Will we confront the real problem of inequality?

My hope for the left, in both countries, is to focus on the fundamental problem, rather than the symptom.

Actions across Latin America target the notorious School of the Americas

by Tom Power

Crosses bearing the names of the 419 community leaders assassinated since January 2016 hang on a bridge near the U.S. embassy in Colombia. (Twitter/Abilio Peña)

On a bridge across from the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, Colombia, a rag-tag coalition of more than 10 religious and secular organizations took nonviolent direct action on Nov. 16, demanding that Colombia stop sending soldiers to receive training from the U.S. military. State agents, including members of the Colombian military, are implicated in the systematic assassinations of rural community leaders throughout Colombia. To highlight U.S. responsibility in the ongoing violence, activists hung crosses bearing the names of the 419 community leaders assassinated since January 2016 with images of Colombian military officers who committed human rights abuses and who were also trained by the United States.

A 2016 peace agreement led to the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a left-wing insurgency that had been fighting the Colombian government since 1954. Hopes were high that the demobilization of the FARC would lead to a “post-conflict” phase in Colombia. Despite the peace agreement, Colombia sent 565 soldiers to the School of the Americas in 2017, according to School of Americas Watch, or SOAW.

Founded in the 1940s, the School of the Americas is an initiative of the U.S. Department of Defense to train Latin American military officers. In 2001 it was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, due to pressure and congressional lobbying by SOAW. Nonetheless, SOAW still demands the institute be closed.

SOA/WHINSEC has become a symbol of U.S. imperialism in Latin America, as many graduates have been implicated in human rights violations and military coups, including the military junta that took power in Argentina in the 1970s and the coup attempt in Venezuela in 2002.

Since 1990, activists led by Rev. Roy Bourgois have been congregating once a year outside the SOA at Ft. Benning in Georgia and engaging in civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action. Their longstanding demand has been an end to U.S. economic, military and political intervention in Latin America and the closure of SOA/WHINSEC. They formed the School of the Americas Watch and are most known for their yearly demonstration in November, which now takes place at the U.S.-Mexico border.

With the move to the border, SOAW’s list of demands has expanded to include the demilitarization of and divestment from borders and an end to the racist systems of oppression that criminalize and kill migrants and refugees. To further bolster their movement, for the first time this year SOAW held parallel events in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Chile.

The School of the Americas Watch in Chile participated in a march on Nov. 18. (Twitter/SOAW)

Other organizations joined SOAW for the parallel event in Colombia. Witness for Peace, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Conscientious Objectors’ Collective Action, International Christian Service of Solidarity in Latin America, or SICSAL, and representatives of churches spent September and October meeting regularly to plan the event. They wrote the names of the victims on the crosses, painted the large banners demanding the state to stop sending soldiers, and created teams for the execution of the event.

“Closing the School of the Americas has been something that we have been supporting for many years,” said Sam Wherry, from Witness for Peace, an organization that focuses on changing U.S. policy in Latin America.

“The United States has a clear responsibility in the crimes of ‘false positives’ and in the assassination of social leaders here in Colombia,” said Abilio Peña, the secretary and member of the governing board of SICSAL, an international ecumenical Christian network dedicated to support impoverished communities in Latin America. They also work in Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Cuba, and Nicaragua and have a presence in some European countries.

The term “false positives” refers to marginalized youth who were kidnapped, murdered and dressed up as enemy soldiers killed in combat by the Colombian armed forces. Government policy during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe, from 2002-2010, prioritized body counts, so military officers who killed more people could expect praise or extra vacation days. Over 10,000 young men are thought to have been murdered during those years.

Various military officers trained at the School of the Americas later commanded brigades or battalions accused of carrying out false positives. One of the most high profile cases is General Mario Montoya, who was commander of the armed forces from 2006-2008 and is accused of presiding over 2,000 “false positives.” As a captain in 1983, he was a student at School of the Americas, and as a Lieutenant Coronel, was an instructor from 1993-1994.

Montoya has been charged in the Special Jurisdiction of Peace, or JEP, Colombia’s transitional justice system, not only of “false positives,” but also of forced disappearance and torture for an operation in Medellín in 2002 while commander of the 4th brigade. The JEP was created as part of the 2016 peace agreement, which was meant to bring the internal armed conflict to a close.

However, violence continues. As of May 2018, 61 percent of the agreement had been implemented, yet other leftist guerrillas, as well as right-wing paramilitaries, are moving into territory left by the FARC. Social leaders are being systemically assassinated, with the number of killings increasing significantly since the agreement was signed.

The election of President Ivan Duque this year also raises questions about the full implementation of the peace deal. He is a member of the right-wing Democratic Center party, which led the campaign against in the agreement in 2016. While he has said he will implement the peace deal, critics remain skeptical. Some believe he will “slow-walk to death” the agreement by underfunding the agrarian reform or crop substitution programs included in the deal.

The SOAW and the other organizations insist the United States shares responsibility for the ongoing violence. The Colombian military sends soldiers to be trained at the SOA while allegations of collusion between the Colombian military and paramilitary successor groups remain. Even Colombia’s chief inspector general has said, “state agents have been coopted by illegal criminal groups who are eliminating community leaders.”

On the bridge in Bogotá, people recited the names of the victims and said “present,” a ritual from the SOAW protests in front of Ft. Benning.

“We can’t build peace over the lives of the best men and women of our country,” Peña said into the microphone between names of the dead. “Christmas is coming. What’s going to happen with the families of the 419 assassinated leaders? What kind of Christmas are they going to have?”

The one thing the diverse group of organizations involved in the action has in common is their dedication to nonviolence. “We don’t think there is another way,” Peña said. “But it has to be convincing. It has to be in the streets. It has to be intelligent. We might even have to risk our own lives, but not the lives of other people.”

Mass nationwide protests bring Togo to the brink of ending 50 years of dictatorship

by Regina Asinde

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Hundreds of thousands took to the streets of cities across the West African country of Togo on Dec. 8, as part of a recently revived wave of nationwide protests demanding political reforms. At the center of their demands is the reinstatement of the 1992 constitution, which included a two-term limit on the presidency before being stripped away by former president Eyadéma Gnassingbé, father of current president Faure Gnassingbé.

Mass protests first erupted in August 2017, forcing the government into internationally-moderated negotiations, which — in an attempt to resolve the decades-long political crisis — led to the reinstatement of the two-term limit. However, outrage was soon reignited when it was discovered that past presidential terms would not apply, thereby allowing Faure Gnassingbé — already in his third term — to run for president in 2020 as if it were his first time. Negotiations broke down soon after that, leading to the revival of protests last month.

“Nobody is willing to take that in Togo,” said Togolese Civil League executive director Farida Nabourema. “After 51 years of the Gnassingbé, asking us to give them an additional 10 years, starting 2020, is basically asking us to commit suicide. It’s something we cannot let happen, and it’s the reason we are back on the streets.”

After first allowing protests in pre-approved zones, the government outright banned large demonstrations before the Dec. 8 mobilization. When upwards of 500,000 people turned out in Lomé, the capital city, the regime deployed heavy military force, wounding dozens of civilians and killing at least three — including an 11-year-old boy.

A coalition of 14 opposition parties, known as C14, have been one of the major forces driving the protests and what’s known as the Faure Must Go movement. Since negotiations with the government ended last month, they have called for the cancellation of the legislative elections on Dec. 20 and urged their members not to participate. According to movement leaders, the government has been engaging in voter fraud — by enrolling minors, as well as disenfranchising eligible voters through coercive tactics — in preparation for Faure Gnassingbé’s 2020 presidential bid.

While the government’s ban on protest remains intact, the C14 have stated that they will defy this measure and continue to organize demonstrations across the country, culminating in an active boycott on election day, unless their demands are met.

Dictators seize power

The military regime of Eyadéma Gnassingbé seized power through a military coup in April 1967, less than a decade after Togo gained its independence from France. Eyadéma then ruled the country for 37 years, exposing the Togolese to a host of human rights atrocities, including the unlawful detention, torture and killing of political dissidents and opposition supporters.

After a decade of “emergency rule” following Eyadéma’s military coup, Togo began its transition toward becoming a republic. Seeing an opportunity to break free from its tyrant and move toward a multi-party democracy, the Togolese people overwhelmingly voted in favor of adopting the 1992 constitution, which included a set of rules to limit presidential power with term limits and fair electoral rules.

Unfortunately, their hope wasn’t realized. During a period of intense crackdown in 2002, Eyadéma weakened the opposition and modified the constitution to allow himself a new term. Along with several other regressive provisions, he also reduced the election to a single round. For a country with over 100 political parties, each presenting its own candidate, a single-round election without primaries was a hugely anti-democratic move — making it possible for a candidate to win the presidency with only a fraction of the popular vote.

Eyadéma died in February 2005, offering a glint of hope to the pro-democracy movement. But, again, hope was only short lived. Eyadéma’s son, Faure Gnassingbé, took over the presidency with the help of the army. Local and international pressure temporarily intervened, forcing Faure to resign and run in a proper election. He subsequently used the support of the army and a rigged electoral system to declare victory and return to the presidency. According to the coalition of opposition parties, at least 500 people died in post-election violence perpetrated by the state.

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To resolve the tensions created by these fraudulent elections, Faure engaged in talks with the opposition. In 2007, the two sides entered into an agreement with a set of promises to reform the political system and prevent electoral violence. Some of the provisions of the agreement included a return to the two-round ballot system and the reintroduction of term limits.

“Since 2007, Faure has yet to deliver the promised reforms,” said Wolali Koffi Ahlijah, a member of the Faure Must Go movement.

All attempts to implement the agreement have stalled, and the country of about eight million people still wallows in a cauldron of nepotism, corruption, media and internet censorship, arbitrary arrests and the killing of activists and citizens considered dissidents. In some cases, children were caught in the crossfire. Perhaps not surprisingly, the World Happiness Report has listed Togo as the country with the most unhappy people four times in six years.

The rise of the Faure Must Go movement

The first major step toward the formation of a nonviolent resistance movement in Togo was the creation of the Panafrican National Party in 2015. Led by Tikpi Atchadam, it is comprised of members of the Tem ethnic group, a dominant group in the central and northern part of the country — the same region as the Gnassingbé family. Atchadam soon had them join 13 of the other leading opposition parties to form the C14, the Gnassingbé government’s most powerful political adversary.

Momentum continued to grow as civil society groups began to get involved — including Togo Rise Up! Citizens’ Front, which is comprised of unaffiliated political parties, associations and trade unions; the Nubueke movement, which consists of groups whose leaders are mostly in jail or exile; the Coditogo, a group of diaspora organizations; and the Togolese Civil League, the leading civil society group both on the ground and abroad.

Together, with the C14, these groups began mobilizing hundreds of thousands of ordinary Togolese to join weekly street protests in September 2017, leading to the birth of the Faure Must Go movement. Their main tools were social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, as well as blogs and WhatsApp, forcing the government to continually cut off internet service within the country. As a result, organizers turned to more traditional means of communication, like print media, word of mouth and press conferences.

After 10 months of unprecedented numbers marching in the streets of Togo and other cities around the world in weekly protests, Faure Gnassingbé refused to budge. In April 2018, he orchestrated massive and violent repression, including the lockdown of the northern part of the country, the activation of militia cells, the jailing of civil society leaders and many youths, and the restriction of public events.

Instead of asserting the legitimacy of the protests and their demands for democratic reforms, the international and regional communities took a soft approach. They sought a negotiated solution with the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, at the helm. While the majority of the movement’s leaders were against it, they agreed to stop the street protests and allowed the C14 to serve as their representatives.

Following a conference in Lomé in July 2018, a communiqué, dubbed the ECOWAS roadmap, was drawn up. It made a number of recommendations, including a two-term limit to the presidency, a two-round ballot in presidential elections, the revamping of the Constitutional Court and the adoption of all these reforms through parliament. The ECOWAS roadmap also urged the government to revise the voters’ registry before the parliamentary elections on Dec. 20. ECOWAS then held follow-up dialogue sessions on the roadmap in August and September. This dialogue was supposed to result in the return of the 1992 constitution, which would prevent Faure Gnassingbé from running in the 2020 presidential election. Street protests were, again, reluctantly put on hold.

“Halting the protest has had no impact on the demands of the people,” Ahlijah explained at the time. “However, it has projected the impression that the issue is resolved, even though the crisis is still real.”

To movement leaders, the dialogue seemed flawed from the start. For one thing, Faure Gnassingbé was the chairman of ECOWAS. How could they expect him to sanction his own transfer of power? That is why it was no surprise when the government and C14 failed to reach a consensus agreement on the implementation of the constitutional reforms.

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“These fantasies of the ECOWAS experts are only the instructions of Faure Gnassingbé,” Farida Nabourema said. “We have been saying for months that this dialogue will not bear fruit, but [regime partisans] have defended the false dialogue that was only intended to weaken the opposition. We cannot let [ECOWAS] trample on the aspirations of the Togolese people, who have been too patient with this regime.”

Despite refraining from street protests, the Faure Must Go movement remained active by keeping the pressure on the political parties to stay the course with their demands.

“We were frustrated that the opposition parties called for the halt of the protests during the dialogue,” Nabourema said. “But experience taught us to continue mobilizing because we expected these dialogues to fail, and they did. So for us, mobilization continued.”

There has not been much downtime for the Faure Must Go movement. Throughout the past few months, it has organized to keep pressure on the political parties to stay on course with the main demands, namely the resignation of Faure Gnassingbé.

According to Ahlijah, it helped that movement leaders — from the beginning — talked openly about the danger of pausing demonstrations. “By voicing these concerns during public forums and on the media, it created the impression that the unity of the opposition depended on the ability of the politicians to remain responsive to the people.”

The movement positioned itself as a watchdog of the politicians during the dialogue, with an overhanging threat to disassociate from the C14 if the politicians gave in to the electoral process organized by the government. This proved to be a strong threat because — according to movement leaders — the opposition parties initially shied away from insisting that Faure resign immediately, instead focusing on negotiating electoral reforms that would lead to parliamentary elections.

Heeding a call to action from the C14 after the stalemate of the talks, street protests resumed on Nov. 17. Mobilizing people proved to be a relatively easy task, as the population remained angry about its demands still not being met.

Next steps for the Faure Must Go movement

There has always been an unspoken hope that the international and regional communities could be pressured into helping the movement achieve its goal. This is why most of the leaders of the movement have gone out of their way to mobilize international support through conferences, seminars, media and any available platform. Speaking at the Oslo Freedom Forum, Nabourema categorically criticized the French government for supporting the atrocious Faure Gnassingbé regime.

Unfortunately, it seems this strategy will not yield much and the general impression is that international and regional bodies and countries won’t contribute anything substantial to the struggle. As Ahlijah noted, movement leaders have come to see the regional institutions as duplicitous and “doing everything to protect Faure Gnassingbé.”

Another crucial lesson for the movement is the importance of continuing to hold political parties accountable. Without its active oversight, the political parties who have varying interests could easily put aside the interests of the people to seek their own demands. By appointing itself the watchdog of the political parties, the movement has allowed the core issue of Faure’s departure to stay front and center in the dialogue between the opposition and government.

Ultimately, however, the movement realizes its best leverage against the dictatorship remains its ability to mount mass protest, which is why it has resumed street protests in Togo and in the diaspora.

“We hope to encourage more peaceful public protests and civic disobedience and be able to maintain the pressure until the regime falls,” Nabourema said.

But the immediate goal is to get ECOWAS to revise the roadmap and pressure the government into accepting the reforms before the parliamentary elections on Dec. 20. The movement is working hard to train more people in civil resistance and has planned more than two protests every week — both in the country and abroad — between now and the election. Should the government proceed without accepting the reforms, the movement is willing to keep the protests going indefinitely until their goal is achieved.

“For now it will be more and more protests,” Ahlijah said. “Protests have been very effective in pushing the government in the past.”

Meet the activist who brought the Monopoly Man meme to life

by Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

Monopoly Man lurking just above the shoulder of Google CEO Sundar Pichai at Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing. (Twitter / Ian Madrigal)

On Tuesday morning, when Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee about his company’s data collection practices, there was a familiar mustachioed face in the crowd. To most people, this person — also wearing a monocle and toting a bag of cash — is none other than the famous board game character most commonly known as Monopoly Man. But behind the fake mustache and provocative message about capitalist greed is a dedicated activist for economic justice.

Ian Madrigal, who uses they/them pronouns, gained internet fame when they first dressed up as Monopoly Man during an October 2017 Senate Banking Committee hearing with the CEO of credit reporting agency Equifax, following its massive data breach. Their creative stunts — which have taken on powerful figures from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — are effective, in part, because they understand how to strategically draw the worlds of politics, art and activism together. With a background in music and improv — plus a law degree from UCLA — Madrigal’s Monopoly Man has inspired activists around the country, as well as people on both sides of the aisle.

Why was the hearing with Google’s CEO an important place for Monopoly Man to make an appearance?

My appearance as Monopoly Man aims to highlight the need for regulation and antitrust action to rein in Google’s monopoly in many areas of tech. I’m also hoping to call attention to the controversy raging over Google’s development of Project Dragonfly, a censored search engine that would endanger dissidents and human rights defenders in China, as well as internal battles over sexual harassment, racial discrimination and pay inequity. All of these various controversies show that Google and other tech giants cannot be allowed to self-regulate. We need comprehensive legislation and agency oversight that we have in many areas of business outside of tech.

You have done a number of creative stunts during Congressional hearings, from playing the audio of children crying in detention centers to dressing up as a Russian troll. How do you prepare for these actions and what makes them so successful?

I usually just come up with a random idea and bounce ideas off of friends to get their reactions. I order something to use as a costume on Amazon Prime, which I think of as using one billionaire to fight other billionaires. And when I go to the hearings, I have to ask a friend to hold a spot in line for me because waiting there in a costume for five hours would give them way too much lead time to figure out what to do with me.

For me, one of the singular successes of the first Monopoly Man action was not just the attention it got, but the fact that every single article — from the Washington Post to the most clickbaitey news site — talked about the reason I was there, which was to oppose Equifax’s use of forced arbitration and specifically to oppose a bill that was pending in the Senate. Everyone who was writing and tweeting about it mentioned the bill. So you have to be really conscious when you’re using these antics. You don’t just want to be funny — you want to make your message clear.

You have been doing creative activism for a long time. How did you first get started?

I’ve basically been raising hell since I was a child. I’ve naturally been a troublemaker challenging authority. When I first got active in politics, one of the first things I learned about was corporations and sweatshops and slave labor happening abroad. When I was 14, I went to the Disney Store at the mall and printed little slips of paper that said, “This clothing item was made in a sweatshop.” I slipped it into the pockets of the clothes and staged a protest outside. Within about five minutes I got kicked out of the mall. So those were my roots.

Ian Madrigal outside the White House during the Brett Kavanaugh protests in September. (Twitter / Ian Madrigal)

How did your family and community react to your activism early on?

Honestly, I don’t even think anyone knew about it. I did a lot of things at that age without my parents knowing. My parents are actually Republicans. So they would not have been particularly supportive of that. They’re where a lot of my insight comes from. There are a lot of hand-wringing articles about how progressives don’t understand Trump voters and I’m like, “No, I grew up with them. I know them very well.”

I grew up in a very odd place in southern California between Los Angeles County and Orange County. Our town slogan is: “Towns change, values don’t.” But the weird contradiction is that this buttoned-up suburb is next to one of most diverse places in the country. There were no [openly gay] kids at my school of 3,000 people — even though we were close to Long Beach, which is a hub of the gay community. So I had no idea how I fit in.

You eventually ended up going to law school. How has that fit in your work as an activist?

I always worked for some kind of cause. As I was organizing with people, anytime we would achieve a victory it would be overturned in the court system or there would be a law passed that undid it. So it became clearer to me that if I wanted to make long-lasting change, I needed to understand how these systems work and be able to infiltrate them to some extent. So I actually went to law school with the intention of just suing all these corporations. I thought if part of the problem is people trying to sue them and just running out of money, I could avoid that problem by becoming the lawyer. Now I see that was a very naïve way of thinking about litigation. I just wanted to be a pain in the ass for corporate America for the rest of my life. It turns out I took a slightly different tack. Instead of suing them, I’m just harassing them in Congress.

But my legal training has been really helpful. It’s good to understand how laws actually work once you pass them, but I think what people in the Washington, D.C. policy realm are missing is the artistic and cultural push of knowing how those ideas resonate with people. You have to know your audience, and the audience is the American people who are very removed from life here in D.C. I’m a musician and I’ve also worked in film, so I have those different perspectives I can fuse together for theatrics and art and creativity. It’s always been my natural approach to be a jack of all trades.

What role has social media played in shaping your activism and amplifying the message of your actions?

Using Twitter allows me to not only go viral, but to also control the narrative when it does go viral. The toughest thing about viral internet culture is that it’s hard to control how people will interpret what you do. You can use these tools to help interpret it. When the cameras are on me during a hearing, I’m hamming it up. But when they aren’t, I am on Twitter frantically tweeting at anyone about the bill I am opposing, so that every single person gets my message.

The whole Monopoly Man concept essentially brings a meme to life. There is a novelty in this type of humor that has evolved within internet culture in the last decade or so, and this approach takes it into the real world. Monopoly Man is over-the-top internet culture — it’s cartoonish, it’s baseline humor everyone can get that draws on imagery people can relate to from a lot of different perspectives.

What role does your specific brand of creative activism play in engaging people at this political moment when people feel so much rage at the Trump administration, but also somewhat powerless to do anything about it?

The Trump presidency has really been an important moment for creative and innovative action, specifically those targeted to get media attention. Obviously, one of the central challenges of the Trump era is that he’s always sucking up all the air time, so even if you do something huge at a policy level or organizing level it gets ignored. The actions I have seen become so successful are the ones where people get in front of cameras and make themselves impossible to ignore. The reason Monopoly Man worked was because I was in every single photo. They couldn’t talk about the hearing without talking about who the person was twirling their mustache in the back. It’s important to be entertaining, which is something progressives have shied away from in an effort to seem serious, angry, dignified — you name it. If you add something inspiring, instead of this nihilistic approach, you can actually use that to advance your goals.

Even though we’re in a really divisive time right now, there is a pretty large set of issues that I think Americans agree on. We have these large issues of white supremacy and patriarchy to battle, but at the end of the day there is also a central struggle between the rich and powerful, and everyone else. Monopoly Man was successful because it cut across the aisle in many ways. I even got an interview request from Fox News. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at the time, or if they were going to try to trap me. I had just come out publicly as trans a couple of days before, so I was wondering if they were going to ridicule me. But, surprisingly, they didn’t go on the attack. The host asked me a couple of leading questions to make me say something silly, but I stuck to my talking points. The interview actually went really well and reached a really wide audience.

Ian Madrigal as Monopoly Man at Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing. (Twitter / Ian Madrigal)

Are there times you have found humor to not be the right approach?

I’ve been trying to tailor my creative protest to the moment. One of my more recent protests that went pretty viral was of Kirstjen Nielsen. It was the week after the child separation policy was announced and two days after audio of the child crying in the detention center had been released. I got a text from a friend who saw her eating at a Mexican restaurant, and they said I should get folks down there. So I put out the call on Twitter and Facebook and texted all my friends. We got a group from the Metro DC Democratic Socialist Alliance — we had about 15 people there protesting her. And with that action, it wasn’t the right moment to use humor. That would have hurt a lot of folks at such a vulnerable time. When you’re talking about children being imprisoned, anger is the right approach and sadness is the right approach. A lot of things this administration does are ripe for satire and mockery, but you have to read the room and make sure you’re hitting the right chord.

Shaming and ridicule can also alienate people from supporting your cause. How have you struck a balance in your work with calling people out and calling them in?

For me, it’s been very important to use ridicule against people who have a lot of power, whether that’s elected officials or the extremely wealthy who hold a lot of power in society. I do think there’s a difference in making fun of people in power and making fun of everyday people. You can punch up or punch down, and I only advocate punching up. A lot of oppression that exists in our society is born out of the shame oppressors impose, so I don’t want to increase that. But it’s different to ridicule ideas. When you give hatred a platform, you legitimize it. You never want to delegitimize people themselves, but if you delegitimize their leaders and the ideas that cause suffering in the world, I think people move away from those leaders and ideas.

What will creative activism look like in a post-Trump era?

I’m inspired by how people have dug in and started organizing together since Trump was elected, but I’m nervous that it could disappear. In American culture, especially white American culture, we have a tendency to ignore issues if we ourselves are comfortable, and to engage with oppression only when it’s in front of our faces. The moment it isn’t right there, we stop thinking about it. I’m very aware that the moment Trump is gone, folks on the left could become complacent again. I do have hope that it won’t happen because we’ve seen that organizing really works. There have been a lot of victories in the past couple of years. If we have stopped as much of it as we have with zero institutional power, imagine what we could do when we have power. I just hope we’ll see it as a moment to build stronger institutions instead of going back to the ones we had before.

#MeToo movement honored at Disobedience Award celebrating the power of women

by Barbara Peterson

Awardees at the 2018 MIT Media Lab Disobedience Award on Nov. 30. (Twitter/Katie Endicott)

On Nov. 30, the MIT Media Lab hosted its second annual Disobedience Award presentation. It was a celebration of individuals who defied the law in conscientious efforts to promote justice in the areas of gender equity, immigration rights, economic fairness and environmental well-being. There were three winners, five finalists and two honorable mentions — every one of them was a woman.

Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT Center for Civic Media, opened the presentation by highlighting the importance of civil disobedience: When we dare to follow our conscience and face our opponent, we make our humanity known. “It’s harder to look someone in the eye and deny their humanity,” he claimed. “One voice helps others speak out.” Zuckerman painted civil disobedience as honorable, moral and necessary.

Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy took the stage and immediately ramped up the energy. “Fuck the patriarchy,” she said, not as an accusation, but as a call to action. She spoke about “Feminism in 3D: disobedience, defiance and disruption.” Without letting the patriarchy know we are willing to take risks, she stated, the establishment won’t take us seriously. Eltahawy has a long history of defying and disrupting patriarchal, racist structures.

While covering the protests in Tahrir Square, she was arrested and treated brutally by law enforcement, who broke both her arms and sexually assaulted her. Only a year later, she was arrested for tagging an Islamophobic New York City subway ad. Eltahawy stirred the audience by telling stories of several courageous women who risked jail, torture, and their lives to fight for freedom and human rights. One story was about the Argentine women of the “Not One More” movement who stated: “We will not be burnt this time because the fire is ours.” This powerful protest inspired the beautiful piece of art presented to the winners: a glass globe housing a smoke-like flame.

Entrepreneur and event sponsor Reid Hoffman and MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito introduced the three winners, who shared the $250,000 cash prize. First to speak was Tarana Burke, original founder of the Me Too movement. Humble and down to earth, Burke thanked everyone who helped make the movement strong, including those who found the courage to tell their Me Too stories. While the media may portray the movement as a comment on gender or race, she said that “bottom line, it’s about helping survivors of sexual assault and harassment get the resources they need.” If we want to promote Me Too, Burke suggests, we should speak to that truth.

Burke’s work highlights the role that intersectionality plays in civil disobedience. “It’s not lost on me that I’m the only woman of color being awarded today,” she said matter-of-factly, with no trace of anger or malice. Although she founded the movement in 2006, it wasn’t until a white woman told her story about the sexual predation of Harvey Weinstein that Me Too went viral. The fact that Burke worked for over 10 years in relative anonymity reminds us that feminism receives media attention only when white women speak out against injustices done against them.

Winner BethAnn McLaughlin is the leader of what has come to be known as the MeTooSTEM movement. She put her career and her funding at risk by calling on such organizations as the National Academy of Sciences, or NAS — which funds her research — to hold sexual predators accountable. As one of the few women in STEM on college campuses, McLaughlin’s droll tone and delivery on stage showed how she puts “mansplaining” and misogyny deftly in its place: “If I had half the confidence of a mediocre white man,” she quipped. Refusing to be silenced or ignored, she exposes sexual predators on social media via online petitions and Twitter posts to put pressure on the NAS and other institutions to expel all individuals found guilty of sexual misconduct. Although her work has earned her harsh criticism and threats from her colleagues, she persists.

As a doctoral student at Duke University, the third winner, Sherry Marts, risked her academic career by calling out her harasser on campus. Her recounting of how young women are too often treated by prestigious professors was chilling. It felt as if she was giving a step-by-step narrative of my own experiences. To paraphrase: “First the professor compliments you on your work, tells you he’d like to hear more about it, then says he may have an opening in his lab. He then gets you to move to a more isolated spot where it’s quieter. Then he leads you to a place in the corner where he puts his hand on your shoulder, your thigh or wherever.”

Although Marts finished her degree and earned her doctorate, she was not welcomed in academia after calling out her harasser. She left to become a consultant, helping organizations develop policies and practices that incorporate genuine inclusion. Her experience as a student not only resonated with many women in the audience, it was highlighted by the three women at the event who were given honorable mention: those who spoke out against recent sexual harassment at Dartmouth.

Finalist Katie Endicott helped lead the West Virginia teachers’ strike. She shared the stage with other finalists, Tara Parish and Deborah Swackhamer. Endicott energized the room with articulate passion about the necessity for movements to be organized, networked and unified, a lesson today’s resistance could benefit from greatly. Parish, who pioneered new, innovative legislation in Massachusetts on immigrant rights, showed calm strength and resolve as she spoke about opposing the Springfield mayor by ensuring the safety of refugees seeking sanctuary at the Springfield South Congregational Church. Swackhamer is the former head of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors. She refused to succumb to the EPA’s pressure to change her testimony before Congress by downplaying the Trump administration’s failure to reappoint the majority of the board’s executive committee. “Scientists need to stop hiding behind their papers,” she said. They need to take a stand because the government is politicizing climate change.

Sarah Mardini addressed the audience via a recorded video message. She and her sister Yusra, the fourth and fifth finalists, helped refugees get safely from their boats onto the shores of Greece, an act which landed Yusra in prison on charges of criminal enterprise and espionage. Sasra and Yusra, a member of the first-ever refugee Olympic swim team, thought of nothing but saving the lives of people who may otherwise have drowned.

Last up were climate activists Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston, who are known as “valve turners” for an action in which they temporarily shut down two oil pipelines in Minnesota in 2016. They were joined by their attorney, Kelsey Skaggs. “We don’t have time for the long game,” Klapstein stated. “If you look like me — white, older, middle-classed — then get out there and start taking risks.” Klapstein and Johnston recognized their privilege as white women in how they were treated by law enforcement and by the fact that they were acquitted. Those who enjoy some level of privilege, they urged, need to be on the front lines of the environmental movement, a position that more marginalized people cannot take without putting their safety and lives into jeopardy.

This year’s Disobedience Award presentation not only celebrated the power and courage of women, it also recognized the responsibility of those who enjoy some degree of intersectional privilege to step up and be willing to take risks. More specifically, as Jamila Raqib from the Albert Einstein Institution noted, the event honors those who unselfishly and bravely highlight the essential role that civil disobedience plays. Simply put, civil disobedience can leverage sufficient power to disrupt harmful and oppressive structures and create space for positive, systemic change.

Why Gandhi’s ideas continue to thrive, even in the post-truth era

by Tom Shillam

Gandhi spinning in the 1920s. (Wikimedia)

This article was first published by The Conversation.

Seventy years after Gandhi’s assassination on the streets of New Delhi, Ramachandra Guha’s new book, “Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-48,” reopens a familiar debate around his legacy. What was Gandhi’s message? What were his politics? What can we learn from him today? And is he still relevant?

Guha, presenting the second half of a biography that began with his 2013 book, Gandhi Before India, offers a straightforward but detailed narrative in which “the Mahatma” negotiates a principled path between the warring political trends of the age. Historian of empire, Bernard Porter, welcomed Guha’s work and its subtle defence of a “gentler, more tolerant and consensual forms of politics” that is now, in the age of Donald Trump, Brexit and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, on the decline in the West and elsewhere.

Others are more biting. Fellow Gandhi scholar Faisal Devji charges Guha with neutralizing the Mahatma’s radicalism. Meanwhile, author Pankaj Mishra, reexamining Gandhi’s writings in a “post-truth age” of “furious revisionism,” uncovers a “relentlessly counter-intuitive thought” left untapped by Guha’s tales of a “bland do-gooder.”


All these accounts, however, seek to resurrect Gandhi as a political mentor for today. Modern politics – and its new formula of Twitter hashtags, populist sloganeering and strongman dictators – may seem an unlikely place for the teachings of Gandhi to offer fresh inspiration. But just such a thing also happened during the Cold War, when politics faced some very similar problems.

Gandhi is sometimes imagined sitting beside a spinning wheel pouring scorn on science and modernity. Indeed, when asked by a reporter what he thought of “Western civilisation”, he famously replied: “I think it would be a good idea.”

But his politics were more complex than this. Gandhi read the works of Western political thinkers including John Ruskin and Leo Tolstoy. India was being sucked into a global economy based on the exploitation and automation of labour. Industrial capitalism – and its partner, imperialism – only cemented uneven power relations and alienated one Indian from the next. He believed what was needed, instead, was a social and economic life based around local production for local needs, something that would also foster greater cultural enjoyment.

But is the current post-truth age still able to make use of this simple, authentic message?

A look into early 1950s Indian history provides some clues. When India achieved independence in August 1947 – with Jawaharlal Nehru as its first prime minister – Gandhi, it is supposed, remained as a spiritual and moral, rather than political, guide. His vision of a “village India” died in 1948 with his assassin Nathuram Godse’s bullet. And as Cold War ideological competition ramped up between communism and capitalism, rapid and centralized economic growth seemed inevitable.

Some intellectuals, however, returned to the Mahatma’s ideas in this new and hostile climate. In 1950, the CIA covertly funded the formation of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), an organization which brought together liberal and leftist intellectuals from around the world to discuss the threat posed by Soviet collectivism to free cultural expression.

In sponsoring conferences and magazines in which these intellectuals could articulate their views, the CIA hoped it could channel their anti-authoritarianism to a useful Cold War end. But this did not work out. CCF branches often acted as repositories for radical aspirations which could find no other home.

The Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom (ICCF), formed in 1951, was a striking example. Freedom First, its maiden publication, eschewed cultural criticism for discussions of domestic politics. The CCF’s push for the formation of a new journal, Quest, which reversed this was in vain, with one writer taking the opportunity to rail against a Westernized Indian “ruling class” whose interest in state-led development was bound to create “a situation reminiscent of the looking-glass world” – in other words, to impose Western ideologies onto India.

A stateless society

These writers – often former freedom fighters who had gone to prison for their travails – wanted a new egalitarian politics they sometimes termed “direct democracy.” Views on how this should be approached varied, and as the decade wore on, some took to advocating for a pro-capitalist, if also welfare state-friendly, program.

Others, though, found in Gandhi a source of optimism. In 1951, Vinoba Bhave and other social reformers committed to Gandhi’s “sarvodaya” – progress of all – concept, founded the “Bhoodan Movement.” This was aimed at encouraging landowners to redistribute land without violence and rapidly reduce inequality in agrarian India.

This fascinated the ICCF. Marathi trade unionist and columnist, Prabhakar Padhye, named Bhoodan one of several reform movements capable of constituting “a new social force in the life of the country.” The ICCF’s annual conference welcomed the movement, with speakers calling for a “Gandhian” politics which made “cooperation, rather than competition, the rule of life.”

Soon, key ICCF writer, Minoo Masani, reported on a tour undertaken around the Indian state of Bihar with fellow member Jayaprakash Narayan. Speaking with crowds of peasants and rural poor, Narayan bracketed together totalitarianism and the welfare state as inherently coercive. What the pair supported was “Gandhism” – or a more spontaneous and participatory politics which “like anarchism or communism, visualizes ultimately a stateless society”.

The point is that these intellectuals were drawing on Gandhi in defiance of an oppressive global political climate and its relentless classification of different ideas and visions as good or bad, communist or anti-communist, modernist or traditional.

In its vacuous rhetoric and sleazy sloganeering, the early Cold War era was like today. And then, as now, Gandhi’s ideas were of renewed interest. As we now face a global dearth of alternative political ideas, perhaps it’s no wonder we are turning again to the Mahatma for inspiration.

#BlackFridays walkouts turn rage into action and community

by Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

Organizer Angela Peoples promoting #BlackFridays on October 19. (Twitter / @MsPeoples)

As people around the country prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, and the manic day of discount shopping that follows, one network of activists has already been celebrating a different kind of Black Friday for the past two months. This initiative, connected by the Twitter hashtag #BlackFridays, has resulted in a number of symbolic walkouts across the country led by a network of women of color.

Spurred into action by the Kavanaugh hearings, #BlackFridays began when a group of “womxn” – acknowledging the historic exclusion of gender expressions – signed a public letter urging people to wear black and disrupt “business as usual.” Their aim was to express rage and resistance against the “places that gave us the Kavanaughs, the Trumps and the CEOs who harm us.”

In practice, this meant groups across the country took weekly actions each Friday, starting on October 5, in which they would “walk out” in a variety of ways. Whether walking out of school or work, or walking out to the polls to vote, these actions were tied together by a weekly theme across the country.

On November 2, people “walked out” to a woman-owned local business. In the week before the election, people “walked out” to prepare for Election Day by voting early, making a video to share on social networks, and bringing information to other community members to make sure they were prepared to vote.

The last week of #BlackFridays actions are geared toward supporting the #WeKeepUsSafe campaign with Million Hoodies for Justice. All of these actions have emphasized the importance of listening to impacted communities, people of color and local organizers — not only to raise the visibility of certain issues, but to create connection and community between the people taking part in the actions.

Long-term organizer and author L.A. Kauffman, a signatory to the #BlackFridays launch letter, described these actions as a “hybrid” between a strike and a more traditional get-out-the-vote effort. This has led to a unique emphasis on both noncompliance with existing systems of oppression and electoral mobilization geared toward changing the system from within.

According to organizer Angela Peoples, the concept for #BlackFridays emerged from the collective trauma and rage many women of color felt as the Kavanaugh confirmation process unfolded.

“For many of us, Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony felt like a trip down memory lane,” said Peoples, who helped establish the group No Justice, No Pride and is involved in efforts to decriminalize sex work in Washington, D.C. “For women of color, this violence has been systematic against our communities and our bodies since this country’s inception.”

Rather than sit with their collective rage, Peoples and other activists in her network decided to let it “grow into whatever is needed by survivors.”

This emphasizes perhaps the most important aspect of the #BlackFridays actions: They have helped a vast network of women — particularly women of color, trans women and immigrants who have experienced state-sanctioned violence — forge stronger bonds and connections.

“We had folks from all cross-sections of our community and our country taking action, walking out of their jobs and homes, and walking into connection with each other,” Peoples said.

After the #BlackFridays actions end this week, organizers will be encouraging people to connect with local movements in their communities, lift up local activists and take direction from people of color leading those initiatives.

What’s more, Peoples hopes the #BlackFridays walkouts send a broader message to those who identify as being part of “the resistance.” It is important, she said, for people with privilege to increase the sacrifices they are willing to make. “If your actions feel comfortable, you’re not doing it right.”

How the migrant caravan sparked a movement

by Jeff Abbott

Thousands set out by foot from Esquipulas, Guatemala on Oct. 21. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

After a long, grueling journey, the first groups of Honduran migrants and asylum seekers began arriving in Tijuana on Nov. 14 in hopes of finding asylum and opportunity in the United States. Thousands more follow closely behind.

Having left San Pedro Sula on Oct. 13, the thousands of men, women and children from Honduras braved the elements for over a month to reach the United States in hope of escaping violence, poverty and state repression.

The first caravan sparked a movement. Small groups of migrants formed across Honduras and El Salvador in the weeks following the first caravan. Now at least four caravans are in route towards the United States in hope of finding new opportunities in the north.

The second caravan grew to nearly 1,500 migrants and refugees by the time it reached the Guatemala town of Esquipulas on Oct. 21. Cesar Isaguirre, a single father who is originally from Choluteca, Honduras, walked in front of the second caravan. Isaguirre sang “JOH Es Pa’ Fuera Que Vas” — which translates to “Juan Orlando Hernández you are going out” — a popular song written by Honduran singer Macario Mejia that gained popularity in the lead up to the illegal re-election of the Honduran president in 2017, with others echoing the lyrics.

“The situation is critical in our country,” Isaguirre explained, while walking down the highway on his way out of Esquipulas. “There was no money to help us when our village flooded, but there was money to repress the people that are trying to go to the United States in search of a better life.”

The choice for Isaguirre was not easy. “It is a very difficult decision to make,” he said. “You have to leave your family, your children without knowing what will happen in route to the United States.”

As the second caravan reached the Mexican border, two more caravans of Salvadorans quickly set out from El Salvador in the hopes of reaching the United States. These caravans grew as they crossed Guatemala and Mexico, reaching nearly 2,000 people in each caravan, according to La Jornada.

The caravan of migrants has become a new phenomenon in the mass migration of people from the region. The large groups provide a means of security for the people as they seek to reach the United States.

The caravans largely formed via social media, namely Facebook and WhatsApp. Members coordinated ahead to determine the date for leaving via these platforms. Other groups are still organizing future caravans from the region, including another from El Salvador, which is set to leave on Nov. 17.

Crisis in Central America

Hondurans have faced a situation that has grown increasingly dangerous since the U.S.-backed coup d’état against President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. A far-right wing government assumed power following the coup and quickly began to set in motion polices that favored investment by transnational companies over social programs.

Hondurans have seen the costs of common goods and services steadily rise as a result of the privatization. Basic services — such as energy, health care and education — have become nearly unobtainable for many.

“The government is only dedicated to stealing from the people,” said Nube Reyes, who decided to migrate with her husband and young daughter from Tegucigalpa, Honduras just three days before the caravan arrived at the Guatemalan border. “The cost of electricity, water and food keeps going up. We decided to immigrate in order to find a better life.”

A migrant peers through the fence at Guatemalan riot police on the border between Guatemala and Mexico on Oct. 28. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

Communities have faced increased violence from gangs and from the state as the right-wing Partido Nacional concentrated power. By 2012, Honduras was widely seen as one of the most dangerous countries in the world. This violence especially affected the youth. As the situation deteriorated, the number of Hondurans seeking to migrate began to go up.

In 2015, the United States and the governments of Central America proposed the Alliance for Prosperity as a means to resolve the migration of people from across the region. The plan focused heavily on promoting investment and militarization and, according to analysts, did little to address the causes of migration from the region. For many on the caravan, the financial aid sent to the region has done little to benefit their lives.

“They are obliging us to go,” Isaguirre said. “The aid that they send never makes it to the people in need.”

The situation grew even worse following the re-election of Juan Orlando Hernández in November 2017. The election was widely seen as fraudulent, and Hondurans mobilized to protest the theft of the presidency from opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla.

Among the key frustrations driving so many to leave the region is the crisis in quality employment. For those lucky enough to find work, they face poor conditions and poor pay. Little opportunity exists for those over 35 years old.

Many Guatemalans joined the caravans as they passed through the country. They are seeking the same opportunities that have motivated many Hondurans.

“There is no employment in our country,” said 42-year-old Alexander Paz from Guatemala City, who joined the caravan after learning about it on social media. “I am not seeking to stay in any other country. My destination is the United States.”

Other Guatemalans who joined the second caravan echoed Paz.

“I need work,” said Salvador Hernández, a 64-year-old from San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala. He joined the caravan after learning about it on the news, with hopes of finding work to help support his 14 children. “I owe money, and there is no work in my town. I came here to find the means to struggle for my children. If I find work en route [to the United States] I will stay [in Mexico].”

Facing the 21st century border

The Trump administration has viewed the caravans as a threat to national security and ordered the deployment of thousands of troops to the U.S. border with Mexico. Yet this is not the only obstacle the caravans have had to overcome as they progress through Guatemala and Mexico.

The caravans of Central Americans have faced an intensification of border security, with police and military being deployed to the border between Guatemala and Honduras, as well as to the Mexican border to stop the groups from leaving. Following the first caravan, Donald Trump ordered the governments of Central America to do everything they could to stop the caravan from advancing.

Police and immigration check points dotted the highways to discourage the migrants from taking buses. Some small groups successfully reached the Guatemalan border town of Tecun Uman by bus.

Mexican marines patrolled the river and a Mexican federal police helicopter periodically circled overhead. Their presence, along with that of Guatemalan police and military, only added to tensions between the migrants and officials.

The militarization of the borders is part of what has been called the 21st century border, which was developed as the 2008 Merida Initiative. The plan escalated the war on organized crime in Mexico and led to greater control of the southern border by the government.

In 2014, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the formation of the Southern Border Program, which further intensified border security in southern Mexico. These measure led to the rapid increase in the detention of migrants seeking to reach the United States.

The caravans of migrants and asylum seekers have faced this intensified border as they attempt to reach the United States.

On Oct. 28, these tensions erupted when migrants broke down the gate blocking the entrance into Mexico. Guatemalan police responded with tear gas, but the caravan pushed through the police line.

Hours later, another clash with Mexican federal police began when the second caravan of Hondurans attempted to pass the gate blocking their way into Mexico. A small group of young Hondurans threw rocks at police, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Immigration officials had promised to open the way for asylum seekers, but repeatedly failed to provide the means.

During the clash, Henry Diaz, a 26-year-old migrant from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, was killed when a rubber bullet struck him in the head. Mexican federal officials stated that the police had no weapons, but journalists and migrants at the scene contested this. The following day the caravan was forced to cross the Suchiate River.

Migrants cross the Suchiate River on Oct. 29. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

“We made the decision to cross the river because they would not let us pass on the bridge,” said Gerson Romero, a young Honduran migrant. “It was a difficult journey for many of us, especially the women with children. But thank God we all made it.”

They continued their progress through Mexico towards the United States. “We are not afraid of what lay in front of us,” Romero explained. “We ask God to guide our path forward.”

The mass exodus of people from Central America has brought the crisis in the region to the forefront of the conversation in the United States. The thousands of people fleeing the region are a testament to the impacts of the U.S. foreign policy in the region.

“I’m not afraid of the people, but I’m afraid of the repression of Donald Trump,” Isaguirre said. “I’m worried he will repress us like the government of our country. We are going to find a better life.”

Lessons on building democracy after nonviolent revolutions

by Jonathan Pinckney

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In 2011, Egypt began a political transition following a nonviolent revolution. There was tremendous optimism both from within the country and abroad that the transition was likely to lead to a democratic outcome. In 2014, Burkina Faso also began a political transition after a nonviolent revolution overthrew longtime authoritarian President Blaise Compaoré. While many admired the revolution, its unfavorable conditions — low levels of economic development and a region that was less conducive to democracy — made the prospects for democratic advancement less optimistic. Yet, today, Egypt is once again under autocratic rule, following a 2013 coup by General Abdel-Fatah al-Sissi. Popular mobilization defeated a similar coup in Burkina Faso in 2015, and the country has now had democratic elections, putting it on the road to a long-term sustainable democracy.

What explains these differences? Why do some nonviolent revolutions end in democracy while others do not? And is nonviolent resistance really that much of a factor in promoting democracy in the first place? These are the questions that I examine in a new monograph from ICNC press: When Civil Resistance Succeeds: Building Democracy after Nonviolent Uprisings. The monograph builds on statistical research into 78 political transitions initiated by nonviolent resistance from 1945 to 2011, as well as interviews and in-depth examination of three particular transitions: Brazil’s transition away from military rule in the 1980s, Zambia’s transition away from single party rule in the 1990s, and Nepal’s transition away from monarchy in the 2000s. It focuses first on building our understanding of these questions using the best tools of social science research, and second on generating practical lessons that activists, political leaders and external actors interested in helping promote democracy after nonviolent revolutions can apply to their own situations.

The first major takeaway from the research is that nonviolent resistance does encourage democratic progress, even in very unfavorable circumstances. Out of the 78 political transitions initiated by nonviolent resistance, 60 ended with at least a minimal level of democracy. This is a much higher proportion than political transitions initiated through any other means. This strengthens the findings of earlier research that found that nonviolent resistance led to more democracy than violent resistance.

The second major takeaway is that when nonviolent revolutions fail to lead to democracy, this typically happens because of two specific challenges, which I refer to as the challenges of transitional mobilization and street radicalism. If these challenges are successfully resolved, then democratic outcomes are much more likely. If they are not successfully resolved, then countries tend to revert to non-democratic regimes, or end up with a hybrid regime mixing some elements of democracy and autocracy.

The first challenge is transitional mobilization. Nonviolent revolutions typically involve very high levels of social mobilization, with huge numbers of people from all walks of life pushing for positive change. Yet often after an initial democratic breakthrough this mobilization significantly declines. This is a problem because establishing democracy involves much more than simply removing a dictator. There are many more milestones on the road to democracy, and if popular pressure isn’t there for each one of them, then transitions can easily become derailed.

I highlight three lessons for maintaining mobilization during transitions after nonviolent revolutions. The first is to foster independent sources of civic pressure. It is difficult during a political transition to keep independent civil society groups vibrant and pushing for the needs of ordinary people. Often groups that were independent from the state enter politics en masse during the transition, undermining their independent voice and becoming too focused on gaining power. Or they become too professionalized, often because of connection to international donors, losing their “movement” character and connection to ordinary people. Neither entering politics nor professionalization are inherently bad things, and often both can be very useful. But it is crucial to maintain some independent voices that can sustain or escalate pressure for the sake of democratic change.

The second lesson for maintaining mobilization is to not put too much faith in your leaders. There is a strong tendency in many movements to personalize one’s opponents as wholly evil and one’s own leaders as wholly good. This tendency can lead to a belief that if your leaders could only be in positions of power then democratic progress would naturally follow. But the sad truth is that even good people who have gone through great sacrifices as part of a movement can also be corrupted by power. So, during political transitions, when movement leaders may be entering positions of political power for the first time, it is critical that they are judged based on their actions not on their history.

The third lesson is to build and maintain a positive vision of the future. Pro-democracy movements often focus on negative goals to mobilize people against dictators. It can be easier to unite a diverse coalition around getting rid of a particularly hated leader, rather than having hard conversations about what the future will look like once the leader is gone. But having those hard conversations is crucial because, once the hated leader or regime is gone, people need a reason to continue to engage in activism.

The second challenge is preventing what I call street radicalism. This challenge is in some ways the mirror image of the challenge of transitional mobilization. Nonviolent revolutions can provide strong signals that the tools of nonviolent political action can be wielded powerfully to achieve particular political goals. In the uncertainty of a political transition, this often means that there is a breakdown in building new regular avenues of politics and a common return to the streets. New institutions are delegitimized, and factions focus on using the most extreme tactics of nonviolent (and sometimes violent) resistance to gain short-term power advantages.

Street radicalism during transitions can prevent new institutions from forming, disrupt the creation of normal politics, and often lead to an authoritarian resurgence as ordinary people get fed up with the disruptions and uncertainty of politics. For example, in 2006 a primarily nonviolent resistance movement ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In the following years, back and forth campaigns by Shinawatra’s “Red Shirt” supporters and their “Yellow Shirt” opponents severely undermined Thailand’s economic and political stability, leading to a 2014 military coup that ended the country’s democracy and has led to a dictatorship ruled over by former General Prayut Chanocha.

The first lesson on preventing street radicalism is to be careful when using highly disruptive protest tactics. Nonviolent resistance has many important “weapons” in its arsenal that can be very effective in disrupting social, economic and political life. This is what makes it a potent way of fighting injustice and oppression. But when these tools are deployed for selfish ends, or called upon too readily when new political institutions are still weak, they can backfire. Short-term gains achieved through disruption often rebound against the activists gaining them as ordinary people’s lives are destabilized.

The second lesson is to focus mobilization on new institutional channels. Political regimes, to be stable over the long-term, need to develop regular norms of interaction and participation. Movements can help to direct these norms in a democratic direction by focusing activism on institutional channels. For instance, one major feature of most political transitions is the writing of a new constitution. Activism can focus on directing the rules of that constitution towards expanding freedoms and human rights protections, setting up an institutional environment that can protect democracy for a long time to come.

The third lesson is to not shut out everyone from the old regime. Accountability for past crimes, particularly grievous human rights abuses, is central to any meaningful democratic tradition. But often the focus in political transitions moves beyond accountability to punishment and vindictiveness towards all those associated with the old regime. This creates a whole class of political players who have political skills but now no way of exercising them, and no reason to buy into the new democratic politics. They can thus often turn into a potent force seeking to undermine new democratic politics and preventing the creation of new institutions.

Maintaining mobilization and preventing street radicalism certainly aren’t the only challenges that political transitions after nonviolent revolutions face. Specific countries have their own unique challenges related to any number of different aspects of democratic progress. I focus on these challenges for two reasons. First, we see their dynamics across many different kinds of contexts. Second, they are characteristics of political transitions that are most open to change by those interested in promoting democracy.

It is important to emphasize as well that these lessons are meant to inform, rather than to limit, the choices that activists and politicians make during political transitions. There is no simple recipe for creating democracy after a nonviolent revolution, and the ways that these challenges, general as they are, will develop in particular countries will vary widely.

Nor does the successful resolution of these challenges necessarily guarantee that one’s country will remain a robust democracy indefinitely into the future. For instance, while Brazil’s transition in the 1980s was a good example of both high mobilization and low street radicalism, recent years have brought significant challenges to that country’s democracy, captured most recently by the election to the presidency of far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro. However, getting a country through the uncertainty of a political transition through high mobilization and low street radicalism tends to put countries on a stronger path towards a freer and more democratic future.

Making meaning of the elections and navigating what comes next

by Kate Werning

Alexandra Rojas celebrates with her campaign team on the night of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory. (WNV/Corey Abraham Torpie)

We have officially made it beyond 2018 midterm election day in the United States — well, mostly. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is in a critical fight to challenge voter suppression in Georgia, a recount looks likely in Florida and other races remain too close to call. As we stay engaged to make sure all the votes are counted, we also begin to shift toward reflection, recalibration and recommitment.

What have you felt in your body this week? I’ve been anxious, energetic and scrambling to do all the things I could to make a progressive impact this election, overriding the exhaustion. Last month, I shared the perspective of organizers with the Sunrise Movement on electoral versus movement strategy, who argued that we shouldn’t lean on elections as the solution for the change we need. However, they said we have a responsibility to reduce harm with our votes — especially in the wake of escalating white nationalism — which has felt heavy and urgent.

For my recently released Healing Justice podcast episode (which you can listen to in full on RadioPublic, Apple Podcasts or Spotify), I spoke with friends I deeply admire — including Maurice Mitchell, Barbara Dudley and Alexandra Rojas — to help digest what happened this election and navigate what comes next.

Mitchell is the national director of the Working Families Party and a leader in the Black Lives Matter Global Network. Dudley has over 50 years of activism experience, working with the National Lawyers Guild, Greenpeace and the AFL-CIO. She also co-founded the Working Families Party. And Rojas is the executive director of Justice Democrats and a Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign alum, who helped recruit Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run for office.

With the world drowning in spin and hot-takes, we came together to hold a different kind of vulnerable, real-talk space to process our wins and losses and work to understand what comes next for our movements.

What was important about this election cycle?

Alexandra Rojas: The biggest victory of the night belongs to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pulled off one of the greatest upsets in modern American history. We proved that America can still be a country where a working-class woman of color can defeat a 10-term Wall Street-backed incumbent.

We have a Congress that is majority men, majority millionaires, and doesn’t reflect the diversity of America. But we made great strides on that this week. The only way that we gain power in the halls of Congress is by continuing to run. Getting new people involved, and putting new working-class leaders in people’s faces will make this the new norm.

Barbara Dudley: After a lifetime of disdaining electoral politics, I realized that my generation of left activists had abandoned the arena to the right wing, which had taken full advantage. So it’s been time to jump in. If one election cycle can create an economic crisis, the next can turn it around.

Is this political moment as unique and devastating as it feels? How do we place ourselves in a longer understanding of history?

Barbara Dudley: I was born right after World War II in early 1946. I am one of the first of the Baby Boomers. My freshman year in college was the year that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

I don’t necessarily think this political cycle is that unique. Donald Trump, yes, is a unique character. But the sort of political trajectory that we’re on was fairly predictable. For myself, I trace it back to the economic changes that the Reagan administration, the Democratic Leadership Council, and the Clinton administration brought about. The underlying set of neoliberal economics of the trade deals made it pretty inevitable that we were going to end up in this completely economically unequal place.

I think that led to the kinds of splits that we see now, the kind of anger and rebellion. The fact that that you’re seeing exactly the same dynamics in Europe should be a clue to us that this is not unique — that there’s something going on in the global economy and the global environment.

Maurice Mitchell: The Trump movement represents a white nationalist, populist politic. It seeks to win elections and drive its very radical agenda by dividing us — across gender lines, across race, across cultural lines. They use our country’s history, and the racism that’s deeply embedded in our DNA, divisions, and fears in order to advance a corporate agenda.

Multiracial populism — the movement we’re building — is the opposite of that. Our differences cause curiosities, where we seek to understand one another. We recognize that as working-class people, despite real differences, there are so many things that connect us — there are so many good reasons for us to be in solidarity. In fact, the only way that we could overcome our challenges is through solidarity.

What would you say to people who are feeling discouraged and exhausted this week?

Alexandra Rojas: I may be only 23 years old, but I know what it was like growing up during the recession. I know what it’s like to see my parents struggle. I understand the threat of climate change, and I think we only have so much time to make some really drastic changes. We have to believe in more candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — because there is simply no time left to wait for our leadership to get it.

Maurice Mitchell: It’s okay to feel disappointed, and sad, and anxious. But, you have to allow yourself to feel those things and then let them pass. We must understand that when it comes to deep despair and cynicism — those are projects of the right. It’s our job as organizers to frame our movement in broad enough terms that our people don’t get immobilized by momentary losses. It is our political duty to challenge cynicism and despair.

So where do we focus next?

Alexandra Rojas: In this time after the election, I’m going to be allowing myself to shut my phone off, only look a little bit at the news, and take some days to just breathe. I’m also gathering soon with 20 of my friends from the Bernie campaign in Arizona. It is so important that we take time to reflect — rest is not enough. I’ve been journaling and will be reflecting a lot as we figure out our next moves.

Barbara Dudley: We have to engage people year round… not just during the election cycle.

There is an incredible opportunity right now. There’s going to be a transition. It could move toward fascism, but it also could go toward a new global justice movement and a new economy in the United States. Don’t just go protest, don’t just know what you’re against — but also work hard to know what you are for. You turn defeat into victory by deciding what has to change, and then being methodical about it.

Thank you to Jillian White, Waleed Shahid, Maurice Mitchell, Barbara Dudley, Parke Ballantine, and Alexandra Rojas for your input and contributions to this article.

The midterms show the way to victory is through vision, not reactivity

by George Lakey

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The midterm election brings activists both good news and bad news, but one thing is certain: Reactivity lost.

Overall, it was a national referendum on Donald Trump, as he hoped it would be because he wants to be the center of everyone’s attention. Focusing on the terribleness of Trump did not win the day. Nationally, the Democrats’ gains were not impressive, either by the historic standards of off-year elections or by the standard of the amount of chaos and mayhem generated by someone so obviously ill-fitted to be president.

Toward the end of the campaign, even the national Democratic Party leadership began to “get it” and focused more on health care and infrastructure. They noticed, for example, that 29-year-old democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset an entrenched incumbent in New York’s primary by emphasizing Medicare for All. Gretchen Whitmer was winning her governor bid in Michigan with her slogan “fix the damn roads.”

But it’s not just the Democrats who mostly were reactive, focusing on threat rather than offering a positive program that people really want. Many of us activists have been doing the same, framing the admittedly scary realities like climate change and violence against minorities as threats to be resisted rather than problems that we have solutions for.

Our choices matter

I didn’t realize how important our decisions on a grassroots level are until I got the chance some years back to run an electoral campaign myself. After building muscle through a city-wide organizing effort, we convinced the Philadelphia City Council to place a referendum question on the ballot: Should federal money be shifted from military spending to schools, health care, infrastructure, housing? That was in the early 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan was busy looting programs for human needs in order to fund missiles and bombs.

We asked Paul Tully, an electoral campaign professional who had directed campaigns for the Kennedys and other national politicians, to help us design our referendum campaign. He started our strategy retreat with a surprise.

“Even though my work is with big league politicians,” he said, “I want to acknowledge that you are the ones that shape my work. You identify the issues that people care about. People in my field track the work you do, and then choose what issues our candidates should run on.”

Our campaign won a 76 percent “yes” vote to transfer money out of the military into “jobs with peace” — in the midst of the Cold War, with a president that was using his pulpit to scare people with the specter of the evil Soviets about to crush us. We carried every ward; field organizer John Goldberg even advocated for our issue at an American Legion hall in a reactionary neighborhood.

This story is just a local snapshot of the national grassroots phenomenon that led Ronald Reagan — when he ran for re-election in 1984 — to run, and win, as a “peace” candidate. His change was cynical, but then that’s not new in electoral politics.

In this election, gun control was an issue seen in many congressional and governors’ races as referenda. The good news is that they often won.

Tully’s point is valid: Activists’ choices can influence institutional, larger-scale choices. If we’re reactive, pushing the fear button and emphasizing threat, we play into the hands of our fear-loving opponents.

We’ve been dishing out a lot of fear these last two years and, overall, the election shows that Donald Trump is better at that game than we are. He has the “bully pulpit” and lacks any integrity to restrain himself. We’re not going to win in the reactive fear contest.

And, in our heart of hearts, do we really want to go there?

Young adults left their bubble for the midterms

People around the country report a growing trend among activists on anti-oppression purity, on protection and safe spaces, on judging people based on whether they have adopted the latest identity lingo. I understand that some people hope that this is the path to liberation, even though what I observe is more emphasis on control of self and others rather than the experience of freedom.

The good news of this election is that so many millennials went outside their safe havens to engage in human-to-human interaction with the “other,” or “those who don’t necessarily already agree with me about everything.” The November 12 issue of The Nation includes the story of young organizers coming to a rural county in Pennsylvania to join local folks in organizing the new grassroots movement Lancaster Stands Up.

This strikes me as a win/win: empowerment for the activists by getting them outside their comfort zones and developing communication skills, resulting in actual growth of the movement.

There’s also inspiration to be found in the victories of the first female Muslims in the U.S. House of Representatives, including the first Somali. Meanwhile, New Mexico and Kansas sent the first indigenous congresswomen to the House. (Think for a moment about the reputation of those states among bi-coastal liberals!) They are models of minority women so empowered that they chose to work in two very unsafe spaces: an electoral campaign and Congress. They have no doubt experienced countless micro-aggressions and, based on results so far, they can handle the challenge.

The majority is on our side

This election provides more evidence that a majority of the U.S. population supports positions that progressives advocate.

The Senate misrepresents the sentiment of the nation by giving the same number of senators to, say, Wyoming (population 580,000) and California (40 million). If one person had one vote, the Senate vote results this year would be far different. This is one reason why federal government dynamics rarely represent what’s really happening on the ground. The House is a bit more representative, but widespread gerrymandering of House districts also mess with our conclusions.

In recent years, voter suppression has been a big initiative encouraged by the economic elite, directed toward those who are prone to take progressive stands. The example of Georgia gives us another reason why voting doesn’t reflect the actual balance of political opinion in the country.

Even more people would support us if we activists organized more direct action campaigns led with vision. The very process of envisioning calls us to a bigger picture than we might otherwise have.

In Iowa, I was confronted at the conclusion of a bookstore event that mentioned the fact that I live in Philadelphia. A woman thanked me with tears in her eyes, saying, “East Coast authors never come here to Iowa. We’re fly-over country.”

That could so easily have been me, I thought.

One vision for dissolving regional tensions is being forwarded by Solutionary Rail, which seeks to re-vitalize train transportation across the northern United States. By building solar-powered electrified passenger and freight traffic, small towns would see revival and the climate would get a boost. This is what “inclusivity” needs to be about: mounting campaigns that invite those whose rural hospitals are shutting down and whose Main Streets are full of vacant stores.

Instead of sneering or reducing them to identity stereotypes, we could try understanding why those folks are voting Republican, and then offer positive alternatives that include them.

This election also shows the wellspring of support for gun control. According to an NBC News exit poll, most voters said they supported stricter gun laws. A number of local gun control measures were passed.

The vision of improved Medicare for All has huge inclusive possibilities. Most of Trump’s support has come from middle- and upper-class people, but I’m struck by how many working-class Trump supporters have health issues in their families. Those are often issues that were not resolved by the Affordable Care Act but would be improved by Medicare for All.

As I see it, this election gives health activists a shove. The next two years offer a remarkable opportunity for the single payer movement to shift into direct action campaign mode and create a cross-class movement that includes Trump supporters.

Taking care of each other

The election reflects not only the drastic polarization in the United States, but also does nothing to close the gap. The polarization is linked to economic inequality, which will continue to grow in the coming years. That means more ugliness and more violence.

In order to stay strong and use the opportunities for change that open up along with polarization, we need culture workers like MaMuse who give us healing energy that bonds us. On election night, Earth Quaker Action Team, or EQAT, had twice the expected number in its general meeting and opened with the song by MaMuse, “We Shall Be Known.” The song concludes with this promise: “In this Great Turning, we shall learn to lead with love!”

How the Bersih movement is laying the foundation for a new Malaysia

by Hema Preya Selvanathan

A protester holds the Malaysian flag with the word “sold” written on it during the Bersih 5 protests on November 18, 2016. (Bersih 2.0/Lim Yeok Quan)

The fifth and last round of mass street demonstrations in Malaysia organized by the Bersih movement took place almost two years ago. Bersih, meaning “clean” in Malay, is a movement demanding clean and fair elections. During the Bersih 5 demonstrations, thousands of Malaysians from different backgrounds came together under the slogan “Satukan tenaga Malaysia baru,” or “Stand united for new Malaysia,” to demand electoral reform. This rallying cry for change was in some ways answered during the recent historic elections held on May 9, and the movement continues to reshape Malaysian politics today.

For the first time since the founding of the country, the longtime governing coalition, the Barisan National, or National Front, lost to the opposition coalition, the Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope. The win was particularly surprising given the many malpractices that was put in place to favor the National Front, such as gerrymandering, vote-buying and manipulation of the electoral roll. Malaysia continues to rank near the bottom internationally on perceptions of electoral integrity according to the Electoral Integrity Project, which monitors electoral conduct worldwide.

In spite of the corruption that marred the elections, the win for the Alliance of Hope marked a momentous shift in the political landscape of Malaysia towards democratic principles. With a voter turnout of 83 percent, Malaysians peacefully overthrew a corrupt regime in favor of a new governing party that promised change. While the outcome of the elections may not be surprising — given the role of Bersih — years of mobilization have paved the way for the many democratic changes taking place today.

The role of Bersih in fostering solidarity

The Bersih movement was formed over a decade ago in response to pervasive political corruption. While the movement first emerged among civil society leaders, members of various non-governmental organizations and opposition political parties, it has grown to become a non-partisan people’s movement championing social change. In 2010, the movement — led by a broad coalition of non-governmental organizations — was revamped as the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, but it is more commonly known as BERSIH 2.0.

BERSIH 2.0 is currently endorsed by over 92 non-governmental organizations, serving a range of causes from human rights to press freedom to youth empowerment to progressive religious values. BERSIH 2.0 has a steering committee that carries out its day-to-day tasks and organizes various efforts, such as voter registration drives, social media campaigns, election observation, legal action, lobbying and street demonstrations.

Protesters gather in front of the iconic Petronas skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the tallest twin towers in the world. (Bersih 2.0/Lim Yeok Quan)

The Bersih movement has provided a platform for multiple groups to come together for a common cause, including those from different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. As a multicultural country, race-based politics have long been divisive. Malaysia is currently home to over 30 million people, including Malays and indigenous groups (62 percent), Chinese (21 percent), Indians (6 percent) and others (11 percent). After the country’s independence from British colonial rule in 1957, most Chinese and Indian immigrants were naturalized as citizens. However, it was written into the federal constitution that Malays and other indigenous groups would retain a special political status within the country as bumiputeras, or “sons of the soil.” Thus, the multicultural solidarity observed on the streets during all five Bersih protests is in sharp contrast to the racial division that often influences the country’s political landscape.

Mobilizations leading up to the elections

The days leading up to the elections saw grassroots mobilization by many Malaysian citizens to uphold their constitutional right to vote. From the outset, the elections were tainted with undemocratic practices that discouraged voter turnout. The elections were called within a very short time frame, with a campaign period of only 11 days. Many also criticized the decision to hold polling day during the work week. These practices made it particularly difficult for citizens who lived out-of-state or overseas to make it back to their constituencies in time to vote.

To support others who needed to travel back to their hometown in time for polling day, Malaysians created various grassroots efforts online. Crowd-funding initiatives raised money to offer free bus rides and help subsidize flight tickets. Twitter hashtags, including #CarpoolGE14, were used to help people carpool with others who were driving in the same direction. Web platforms such as UndiRabu.com (Wednesday’s vote) and PulangMengundi.com (Return to Vote) systematically coordinated the distribution of public donations to citizens who lacked the financial resources to travel.

For Malaysians living abroad who could not return to their constituency to vote, the other option was to use a postal ballot. However, many were disenfranchised because they had received their postal ballots late from the Electoral Commission, which made it impossible to mail back their vote in time to be counted. Using a Facebook group called “GE14: Postal Voters Discussion,” a group of Malaysians took it upon themselves to coordinate and send home their votes with the help of volunteers who were flying back to Malaysia for polling day.

These remarkable grassroots actions were acts of resistance by ordinary Malaysians against a tyrannical and repressive regime that tried to tip the elections in its favor. While these actions were not explicitly led by Bersih itself, they did carry the spirit and mission of Bersih: empowering people to vote and participate in the political process. These efforts helped ensure that the voice of Malaysians was heard loud and clear through the ballot. Finally, at almost 5 a.m. on the day after polling, the results of the elections were officially announced: the Alliance of Hope had won 113 out of 222 seats in parliament, securing a simple majority.

Changes under the new government

Since the elections, vast changes have occurred within the government. Notably, the Alliance of Hope government has re-opened investigations into a multi-million dollar scandal involving high-profile politicians, including the former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansor. Their houses have been raided and their possessions, which were allegedly purchased with fraudulent funds, have been confiscated. Both have been charged in court for corruption. Demanding the resignation of Najib was one of the key demands of Bersih over the last few years when it became clear that he was embroiled in corruption.

Protesters march the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia carrying caricatures of politicians and public figures embroiled in multi-million dollar scandals. (Bersih 2.0/Lim Yeok Quan)

Another key change was the release of Anwar Ibrahim from prison. A leader of the Reformasi (or Reforms) movement against the National Front back in 1998, Anwar was subsequently sacked from his position as deputy prime minister by then Prime Minister Mahathir Muhamad. Anwar was jailed for sodomy twice — once from 1998-2004 and again in 2015. His arrests have been heavily criticized for being politically motivated and a violation of human rights. In a surprising turn of events, for the recent elections, an unlikely alliance between Mahathir and Anwar was formed with a common goal of defeating Najib and his regime. Mahathir ran as the chairperson of the Alliance of Hope, and Anwar was the de-facto leader while still in prison. Since the elections, Mahathir has returned to serve as the prime minister once more, and Anwar has now re-entered politics by winning a seat in parliament.

Politicians and public service officers who have either failed to counter corruption or have actively participated in it are gradually being replaced under the new Alliance of Hope government. For instance, a new chairperson of the Election Commission and a new attorney general have been appointed. Bersih has supported and backed both of these appointments and continues to push for new faces within the government that have a track record of championing democratic principles.

In the hopes of strengthening the democratic processes within the country, the new government has also created an Institutional Reform Committee comprised of prominent legal advisors. In the past, BERSIH 2.0 made multiple attempts to communicate with the government, but to no avail. Now, Bersih is playing a key role in instituting reforms within the government. BERSIH 2.0 has submitted an electoral reform action plan that lays out concrete steps for revamping the electoral and parliamentary institutions.

There have also been many changes within the Bersih movement. The former chairperson of BERSIH 2.0, Maria Chin Abdullah, resigned to run in the general elections and now serves as a member of parliament. The deputy chairperson, Shahrul Aman Mohd Saari, who then took over as the acting chairperson, has just announced his resignation from BERSIH 2.0 to serve as a press secretary to the minister of education. Last week, BERSIH 2.0 elected a new chairperson and steering committee that will lead the movement through 2020.

A new Malaysia

It may appear that the political landscape of Malaysia changed overnight following the election outcome on May 9. However, the groundwork was being laid for years. Since 2007, the Bersih movement has not only mobilized people into the streets, it has also educated the public about mass corruption, increased awareness of democratic principles, encouraged voters to exercise their rights and trained ordinary citizens to become diligent election observers.

In a nationally representative survey carried out by the Merdeka Center, an opinion research firm in Malaysia, 1,160 registered voters in Malaysia reported their attitudes toward the new Alliance of Hope government in its first 100 days in power. The survey found that 82 percent were satisfied with the election outcome, and 72 percent were satisfied with efforts to reform government institutions. Satisfaction with the Alliance of Hope government was found even among people who did not vote for the new governing coalition. It seems that the election outcome may have legitimized the Alliance of Hope’s fight for reforms, including measures to counter corruption.

While there are many factors that played a role in the ongoing creation of a new Malaysia, the role of Bersih is unmistakable. And the movement’s work is not done. The new government must also be held accountable. Bersih continues to speak out against electoral malpractices by the government, including those documented during the recent by-elections.

To ensure democratic processes are upheld, the role of a social movement like Bersih that monitors electoral practices cannot be understated. After all, it was the electoral process that ultimately led to the creation of a new government. This is why there will continue to be a place for Bersih. As the political climate continues to change, the role and involvement of Bersih will change with it.

Collaboration, not fighting, is what the rural West is really about

by Steven C. Beda

A sign in Harney County, Oregon, where the heavily-armed militia The Three Percenters has a sizable presence. (Flickr / Ken Lund)

This article was first published by The Conversation.

Dick Jenkins is a fourth-generation rancher living in Oregon’s most remote county. I wanted to know why he continues living in a rural community, even though life elsewhere might be easier.

“Taking care of [the land] is worth more than all the money in the world,” he told me. “Taking care of the animals, taking care of the environment, it all goes together and we’re very proud of it.”

While Dick’s answer was more evocative than I could’ve hoped for, I can’t say I was surprised by it.

I’m a historian who studies the rural Northwest, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking with loggers, miners, fisherman and ranchers like Dick.

Each one of them, in their own way, articulates a similar sentiment: Whatever hardships contemporary rural life may pose – and there are many – it’s their love of the land and desire to protect it that keeps them put.

This is not a description of rural life you typically hear.

Many stories about rural America, particularly during election cycles like we’re in now, portray rural communities as political monoliths made up of nothing more than angry ranchers frustrated with the Bureau of Land Management, what’s commonly called “the BLM.” Or you see camouflage-clad militia members hoping to overthrow the government.

These people do exist in rural communities. The Three Percenters, a heavily-armed militia whose members advocate the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, has a sizable presence in Harney County, the same county Dick lives in.

And the sheriff of Grant County, just to the north, is a self-described “constitutional sheriff” who believes his power supersedes the federal government’s.

But for every AR-15 wielding militia member or rancher angrily shaking his fist at the BLM, there’s likely a dozen like Dick who want to find peaceful ways to protect their interests and the environment.

Rebellion vs. collaboration

The tone in recent news coverage of rural issues was largely set in the late 1970s, when ranchers started protesting new BLM limits on grazing in what became known as the “Sagebrush Rebellion.” These protests were sometimes dramatic, like when ranchers bulldozed road barriers that had been erected to limit access to wilderness areas.

While the origins of many present-day rural extremist movements can be traced back to frustrations with BLM policy in the 1970s, the Sagebrush Rebellion spawned another less talked-about movement: collaborative land management.

Many people recognized that fighting over wilderness, grazing rights, timber harvests and endangered species protections was getting them nowhere.

So in the 1990s, rural workers sat down with environmentalists, government agents and tribal representatives, and together they worked out agreements that would protect the land, preserve tribal resource rights and allow for continued grazing, mining and logging.

Rarely were these conversations easy.

One early collaborative effort, Northern California’s Quincy Library Group, was so named because members met in a setting that would force them to keep their voices – and tempers – in check.

But these difficult conversations bore results.

To name just two examples, ranchers and environmentalists in Idaho have collectively used conservation funds to preserve agriculture and critical habitat along the Snake River. And in Dick Jenkins’ Harney County, ranchers, BLM agents, environmentalists and members of the Burns Paiute Tribe work together through the High Desert Partnership to collectively manage the land.

As several scholars have documented, these collaborative partnerships are a source of local pride in many rural communities.

Competing images

So if many rural people are proud of their ability to collaborate, why are we seeing more anger and more high-profile protests directed at environmentalists and the federal government throughout the rural West, what some have called a “second Sagebrush Rebellion”?

The answer is that in recent years it’s mostly been newcomers or outsiders who’ve attempted to mobilize imagined rural anger in order to advance their own narrow political goals.

This was certainly the case during the highly publicized takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 2016.

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Led by a group calling itself the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, the occupiers argued that the Constitution did not give the federal government the right to own land. They hoped to turn BLM land over to local control and turn Harney County into the first “Constitutional county.”

Of the roughly dozen occupiers who said they were fighting for the rights of Oregon ranchers, only one, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, was actually a rancher – from Arizona. The group’s leader, Ammon Bundy, is the son of an infamous Nevada rancher, but he worked as a car fleet manager prior to leading the standoff. And only one, Walter “Butch” Eaton, was from Oregon, and he stayed with the occupiers for just a half hour before deciding to walk home.

Their ‘own voice’

These outsiders have been challenged by people in rural communities.

At least in Oregon, the Rural Organizing Project has been at the forefront of efforts to help rural communities fight outside extremist groups.

Founded in the early 1990s to help people in rural communities organize against local anti-gay ordinances, the project has since grown into a network of rural activists who, according to the group’s website, “facilitate local organizing, communication and political analysis.”

When the paramilitary group the Oath Keepers occupied the Sugar Pine Mine in Oregon’s Josephine County in April 2015, project activists and local community members quickly mobilized to communicate to both politicians and the media that the militia members did not have the support of the community.

According to a statement released by the coalition, the Oath Keepers were “individuals from outside our community” there to “advance their own agenda.”

Over 50 Grant County residents showed up with signs to protest a meeting in January 2016 that was called by militia groups intending to set up a shadow county government. (Facebook / Rural Organizing Project)

A year later, during the Malheur occupation, the project organized a day of action, coordinating rallies, meetings and press conferences in rural communities across Oregon to again clearly communicate to the media and decision-makers that a handful of armed protesters did not speak for most rural people.

A billboard that Harney County residents put up during the 2016 occupation speaks volumes about the way many rural people feel about these outsiders. It read: “We Are HARNEY COUNTY. We Have OUR OWN VOICE.”

A less divisive future

To be perfectly clear, many ranchers, loggers and miners have problems with federal bureaucracies and environmental organizations.

Underfunded and overburdened by arcane rules, the BLM has a massive backlog of grazing permit applications. Federal timber sales are routinely tied up in litigation.

Many rural people are likewise troubled by the federal government’s waning investment in rural economies and rapidly declining funding for rural education and social services.

The journalists who report on the radical fringes of rural America are doing important work. Their stories shine light on dangerous political trends that, if allowed to grow in the shadows, might become something even more dangerous than they already are.

But ranchers like Dick Jenkins, groups like the Rural Organizing Project and other rural people committed to collaboration need to have their stories heard, too.

Paying as much attention to them as so-called Sagebrush Rebels just might show that while there are indeed many problems in rural America, most rural people are committed to bringing about a more amicable future.

It’s time to go on the offensive against racism

by George Lakey

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When I read this in the morning paper, my heart stopped: Just 40 minutes away from me, the white mother of black children in New Jersey was repeatedly harassed via Facebook by a stranger, who told her that her children should be hung.

Kentucky police arrested the young white man on Oct. 18, as he was backing out of his driveway with weapons, 200 rounds of ammunition and plans for shooting up a nearby school. The authorities thanked the mom — Koeberle Bull of Lumberton, New Jersey — for alerting them.

I’m the white grandfather of a family of mostly black children. Someone armed and active is so offended by a mixed-race family that he wants to kill children like mine. Supported by my white daughter Ingrid, I allowed the terror to move through me while I raged and cried.

After a while, when the intensity of my feelings lessened, Ingrid asked, “Isn’t it time to go on the offensive against racism?”

I needed to access positive energy. While I was still identifying with the New Jersey mom and immersed in the feelings of fear, the ideas running through my head were all about defense.

That’s the intention of terror, after all, whether it’s expressed in packages of bombs sent to prominent people or conducting a massacre in a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh. I was gripped by my human programming: When under attack, defend!

George Lakey with his great-grandson Yasin at Occupy Philadelphia in 2011. (WNV / George Lakey)

When I released enough fear to be able to think again, I could hear Ingrid’s question and access my strategy brain. Strategy urges the opposite of fear’s reactivity. Mohandas K. Gandhi, observing Indians reacting against the British Empire, urged his people to go on the offensive. Military generals agree with Gandhi: Wars can’t be won by staying on the defense.

For its part, folk wisdom couldn’t be clearer: “The best defense is a good offense.”

Despite this, many Americans at this moment — perhaps especially activists — are locked into reactivity and defense. I see the resulting frustration when I observe activists attacking each other. Going on the offense has different outcomes: It builds healthier movement cultures and shifts our focus to winning over allies in an expanding struggle.

What an offensive against racism looks like

I often heard Bayard Rustin, a senior strategist for Martin Luther King Jr., say at the height of the civil rights movement, “We’ve got to change our economic system or in 50 years we’ll still have ugly racism!”

He’s backed up by a trio of political scientists who recently studied polarization in the United States. They found that polarization was directly linked to economic inequality. In other words, the economic elite that makes the basic decisions in the United States has, since the Reagan revolution, dramatically increased inequality and therefore accelerated polarization.

But what does polarization have to do with the violent expression of racism?

Even though racism is an integral part of American culture, how strongly it is felt and expressed varies on a spectrum, from subtle stereotyping and microaggressions on one end to the would-be Kentucky shooter on the other. That means there is always some racial hatred around; we need to just face that. What usually keeps people from violently acting out their hatred is the social context.

Polarization releases people to act out their hatred. In the 1920s economic inequality deepened, polarization grew, and the Ku Klux Klan was everywhere. It’s not only racism that’s released by polarization. As society heats up movements on the left grow, too. That’s why we saw powerful movements for progressive change in the 1930s, even while the American Nazis were busy recruiting.

The biggest mistake 1930s activists could have made was going on the defensive because, as it turns out, it was exactly the time to go on the offensive. Thankfully, that’s what they did. The result was the biggest decade of gains for American progress in the first half of the 20th century. Historic breakthroughs on racial integration of industrial unions were made in that very period.

In the 1960s, bombings of Mississippi black churches became epidemic, along with killings of black people and their white allies — even in broad daylight. Nonviolent civil rights leaders understood this dynamic. King and his comrades were clear that the remedy is to take the offensive, and the movement won gains that, at the time, appeared to be impossible. The economic emphasis of Rustin and A. Philip Randolph also gained support. The 1963 March on Washington — dreaded by President John F. Kennedy and most Democratic Party leaders — significantly named itself the March for Jobs and Freedom, attracting significant trade union support.

King modeled for all of us what offensive strategizing looks like, as illustrated in the outstanding film Selma. He felt his feelings about the latest outrage, but instead of letting his feelings control his behavior he channeled the energy into action aimed at changing institutions. The more that vicious attacks targeted him and his people, the more clearly he saw that injustice is reinforced by the economic structure. Increasingly he linked racism and poverty to capitalism.

As the current political turbulence swirls around us, the need grows for models of grounded campaigns that take the offensive and make the racial and economic connections. One example is the Power Local Green Jobs campaign in North Philadelphia, which incorporates a strong racial and economic justice dimension.

Most activists can find ways to connect the dots even if their primary issue is gun control, sexism, incarceration, rights for trans people, peace or raising the minimum wage. Progress on many issues is opposed by the economic elite, whether acting through Donald Trump or Congress or state governments. The only way to break this opposition is to push the economic elite out of its position of dominance, so we can make the required changes toward equality (both economic and racial) and enjoy the social peace that results.

Three steps help put us back on the offensive

The good news is that activists, by taking three strategic steps, can dramatically increase our power and effectiveness. The steps are not rocket science — in fact, they are perceived by people outside the activist bubble as common sense steps to take.

1. Shift away from reactive, one-off demonstrations. Protests can be emotionally satisfying, but they rarely produce change. Again, the black-led civil rights movement showed its strategic brilliance by focusing on campaigns rather than episodic protests. A campaign has a specific demand for change, a target (the deciders who can yield to the demand) and an escalating series of actions that build the campaign. Campaigning doesn’t guarantee winning, but it increases the chance of success from near-zero using one-off demonstrations to a chance that’s better than even.

2. Link the network of campaigns on an issue into a movement. That movement can result in the movement winning in the big picture, even if some specific campaigns within the movement don’t win. The military analogy is that generals don’t expect to win every battle, but if they retain the initiative they do expect to win the war.

Linking campaigns into a movement also promotes the learning curve of the campaigners, by comparing themselves to each other. They learn how to figure out the opponent’s vulnerabilities and how to sustain themselves over time.

3. Create a vision of what justice looks like. While the Occupy movement changed the conversation, it was held back partly by its lack of a concrete vision of what should replace the unjust status quo. Fortunately, the Movement for Black Lives issued a vision draft in 2016 that has gathered endorsements by many national and grassroots groups.

The hope for a movement of movements that can amass enough power to push the 1 percent out of dominance lies, I believe, in taking at least these steps. A series of nonviolent direct action campaigns that stay on the offensive can build vision-led movements that — finding themselves facing the same opponent — create a coalition and win.

That is the shift that can make possible, at long last, a decisive win against racism.