Waging Nonviolence

Why we need a movement to abolish COVID vaccine patents now

In early May, after facing months of grassroots pressure, the Biden administration announced that it would support waiving intellectual property rights for COVID vaccines. While that decision was celebrated as a significant movement victory, what’s actually needed now is the complete abolition of the intellectual property enforcement mechanisms that have led to the current nightmare scenario, where only wealthy countries have access to life-saving drugs.

The primary obstacle to scaling up production of COVID vaccines worldwide is called the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS. This agreement came into effect under the World Trade Organization in 1995 after heavy lobbying by Pfizer. TRIPS was squarely in the crosshairs of the activists who shut down the WTO in 1999 (that movement inspired the group I co-founded, the Yes Men), but then it faded from view until recently. 

Today, Pfizer and other vaccine companies, protected by TRIPS, have made immense profits from patents; nine new billionaires have been minted from COVID. At the same time, Pfizer and other vaccines are critically scarce in countries that can’t afford them, which has already led to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. 

It’s not the promise of massive profit that fuels great discoveries like the mRNA vaccines: it’s taxpayer funding plus human decency.

To those of us who’ve participated in the anti-WTO and other movements, as well as millions of other Americans, it’s long been obvious that American-style capitalism is an immoral life-and-death matter: some thrive, many die and there’s no “deserving” about it. Food deserts, impoverished public schools, and mass homelessness in the world’s richest nation — not to mention health care that’s decent only for those who pay well for it — are indictments of a system in which large corporations write policy. 

But the vaccine apartheid that’s based on TRIPS is a whole other level of criminal. Hundreds of thousands have already died in poor countries — not indirectly, as with unequal access to food, water, sanitation and housing, but directly, because they don’t have access to life-saving medicines.

I know what it feels like to lose a close family member to preventable COVID. My father, a Holocaust survivor, died Jan. 8 of undiagnosed COVID-19 and pneumonia, after months of governmental ineptitude at keeping the virus in check and preparing hospitals for upcoming surges. The hospital in which he caught the virus had an overwhelming COVID caseload and could not prevent cross-infection; when he returned two weeks later, badly stressed doctors misdiagnosed him. 

Knowing the anguish of one unnecessary bereavement, it’s hard to imagine anyone justifying hundreds of thousands of them in poor countries, all in the name of corporate profits. And yet by standing up for the intellectual property, or IP, rights of big corporations, that’s what big pharma does. “If you don’t protect IP, then essentially there is no incentive for anybody to innovate,” said AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot. 

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This logic — the same used to justify the TRIPS rulings against generic HIV drugs in 1999 — is not only inhuman, it’s fundamentally wrong. It’s not in fact the promise of massive profit that fuels great discoveries like the mRNA vaccines now reining in COVID where they’re available: it’s taxpayer funding plus human decency. Massive profits may be the “incentive” of corporate higher-ups, but it’s not for the scientists and engineers at the core of life-saving efforts — like those at the National Institute of Health, or NIH. 

The NIH has spent over $900 billion on research since the 1930s, and literally every medicine approved by the FDA from 2010-2016 involved taxpayer-funded NIH science. The research that led to the Moderna vaccine was almost entirely funded by the U.S. government too, and no one made billions developing it. But guided by the Reagan-era Bayh-Dole Act, the NIH systematically hands off their discoveries to corporations to “market” — which means charging people an arm and a leg for medicines that they themselves financed. And thanks to TRIPS, those corporations profit globally from these publicly-financed discoveries, at a huge cost to public health everywhere. (Bayh-Dole does provide the government with “march in” rights to suspend patents on government-funded inventions, but the government has never used them.)

The success of movements in forcing medical breakthroughs reminds us that a few thousand motivated activists can oppose big pharma and complicit government agencies.

Many of those who’ve made great life-saving discoveries or inventions have made it clear that far from providing “incentive,” corporate IP rights just get in the way. Jonas Salk deliberately refused to patent the polio vaccine or earn money from it; its dissemination unimpeded by patents, that vaccine virtually eradicated polio within a few years. The flu vaccine, too, has for the past 50 years been produced by scientists collaborating under the World Health Organization, saving countless lives without any intellectual property considerations at all. And Tim Berners-Lee, who on only a modest salary invented the World-Wide Web — a technology essential for containing COVID-19, and one big reason it hasn’t been as deadly as the 1918 Spanish Flu — has since noted that patenting the web would have been a disaster. 

Biden changed his position on the TRIPS waiver only after facing months of protests and a petition to the White House signed by more than two million people. While that marked an important step forward, it is not nearly enough. Last week there was a series of protests across the country at pharmaceutical companies and German consulates — since the European Union, and Germany in particular, is still defending the vaccine patents. 

In addition to calling for a temporary waiver of TRIPS, which is the bare minimum of what’s needed, today’s movements should consider long-term solutions. Since this will not be the last pandemic we face, intellectual property needs to stop being applied to life-saving medicines. Activists should set a high bar by calling for the complete abolition of TRIPS, as well as the rescinding of the Bayh-Dole Act. That would allow the NIH to hold onto patents for medicines it develops with public money. They can then be used for the public good, and any revenues they bring in can be funneled back into critical research.  

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This is not a novel idea. In fact, the very concept of intellectual property has been resisted since it reared its ugly head in the 19th century. And in the 1980s, groups like Health Action International called for eliminating patents for essential medicines, and for scaling up the development of generic alternatives. 

HAI’s efforts helped Bangladesh maintain protections for low-priced essential medicines as well as domestic manufacturing, in the face of huge pressure from drug corporations as well as some governments. And when, in 1997, South Africa faced similar opposition over a law allowing manufacture of generic HIV drugs, social movements in South Africa, the United States, and elsewhere forced governments and eventually big pharma to back down, meaning many thousands could gain access to treatment.

The success of HAI, ACT UP and other movements in forcing policy changes and even medical breakthroughs reminds us that a few thousand motivated activists can oppose big pharma and complicit government agencies. If even a small percentage of those affected by COVID mobilized against TRIPS and Bayh-Dole, we’d end up with a world that’s safer not only for those who can’t afford criminal corporate price tags, but for everyone. After all, the virus, like common decency, knows no borders.

Preserving a people’s history through quilts

More than 600,000 people in the United States have died of coronavirus since the pandemic began, a number that is incomprehensible. Few people understand the magnitude of this loss more than 14-year-old Madeleine Fugate. Since April 2020, the eighth grader from California has spent her weekends constructing the Covid Memorial Quilt, a tribute to the casualties of the virus. 

“It’s important for me to document people who have lost their lives because they were more than just a number,” said Fugate, who began the quilt as a school project. “They need to be remembered as someone who had memories, friends and family — as someone who loved things.” 

Madeleine Fugate holds up a panel of the Covid Memorial Quilt, which will be displayed in museums, hospitals, churches, schools and traveling exhibitions. (WNV/Lisa Smith)

Since the project began, Fugate has received hundreds of quilt squares from people across the country. Each package comes with a letter from someone in mourning describing their loved one: a Polish priest who loved animals and the Phillies. An artist who was always willing to educate people about her wheelchair. An aunt who taught her niece how to wrap tamales. 

Fugate encourages people who can’t sew to send photos, patches, poetry or old T-shirts that remind them of the person they lost. She uses these keepsakes to construct memorial squares herself — often with the help of her mother, Katherine, who she cites as her source of inspiration. 

More than three decades earlier, Katherine was a college student who spent her Friday nights sewing squares for the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the largest piece of community folk art in the world. Like Fugate, she was moved by a desire to honor those who the government considered expendable. “During the AIDS crisis, my friends were dying and the government wasn’t doing anything about it, so the quilt arose from a place of activism and anger,” Katherine said. “We were saying, ‘See us. Recognize us. They’re worthy of a name.’”

Though the AIDS Memorial Quilt is the most famous example, quilts have been utilized as a medium for protest, storytelling and preserving a people’s version of history for centuries. Because fabric strips can be handed off to individuals and assembled later, quiltmaking is a uniquely communal art form. This makes it especially powerful for building collectives and bringing people together.  

“Quilts are a very American thing, and they document history the way that tapestries used to,” Katherine said. “They’re also long lasting, and they can move from place to place. There’s also the beauty of something being made with someone’s own hands — quilts are really an act of true love.”

Stitching ‘a people’s history’

There’s a saying that “history is written by the victors,” but quilts are created by those who are far from centers of power, most often women and people of color. Because of this, they offer a unique forum for pushing back against official narratives and centering struggles for justice and human dignity.

One example dates back to as early as 1893, when the United States sponsored a coup in the Kingdom of Hawaii to further American business interests. After the overthrow, Queen Lili’uokalani, the Kingdom’s rightful monarch, was convicted of treason. She was sentenced to imprisonment in an upstairs bedroom of her palace, where she was confined for nearly eight months. 

Stitched into the center square of the Queen’s Quilt, Lili’uokalani’s wrote the words “Imprisoned at Iolani Palace … We began the quilt here.” (Iolani Palace)

During that time, she created what is now known as the “Queen’s Quilt,” an impassioned political statement documenting the islands’ traditions and culture. Stitched into the first panel of the quilt is a message: “Imprisoned at Iolani Palace … we begin the quilt here.” Throughout the quilt’s patches, Lili’uokalani embedded the story of the imperial coup and land grab she had endured — a particularly poignant act of resistance as the United States government did everything in its power to censor the island’s true history. 

Lili’uokalani is far from the only person to preserve the history of her people through fabric. In 1934, community leader and educator Ruth Clement Bond started a “home beautification project” for Black women in Tennessee. The goal of the project was twofold; it sought to improve the quality of Black women’s lives by teaching self-reliance and craftsmanship, while also celebrating the role of Black people in transforming the South.

At the time, the federal government had just established the Tennessee Valley Authority, a New Deal jobs and development program that harnessed power from America’s rivers to create cheap electric power in the region. At the heart of this electric revolution were Black workers, some of whom had formerly been sharecroppers.

The “Black Power” quilt by Ruth Clement Bond. (Museum of Arts and Design)

While their husbands were at work constructing the Wheeler Dam, the women of the home beautification project constructed a series of quilts, an art form that many of them had been taught by their enslaved ancestors. Though each quilt had its own spiritual and cultural resonance, there is one that stands out: It depicts a Black fist breaking through soil, clutching a red lightning bolt. The design signified the electric power that Black men were providing to one of the most impoverished areas of the rural South — but for many Black laborers in Tennessee, the fist represented something far greater. 

They called it the “Black Power” quilt. Thirty years before the dawn of the Black Power movement, it became an emblem of Black unity and strength — a symbol that liberation was well on its way. “We were pushing through obstacles, through objections,” Clement Bond said. “We were coming up out of the Depression, and we were going to live a better life through our efforts. The opposition wasn’t going to stop us.”

Providing for the community 

Beyond preserving a people’s telling of history, quilts have also served a more practical purpose: raising funds for social movements and mutual aid. In the past, quilts have been auctioned off for every cause from abolition to rebuilding a hospital in Vietnam that had been bombed by the U.S Air Force.

In 1966, a group of rural Black craftswomen established the Freedom Quilting Bee Cooperative, a female-led quilting collective in Rehoboth, Alabama. Because the quilters were active in the civil rights movement, many of them faced eviction, loan foreclosure and jail time. The cooperative quickly became a means of distributing mutual aid and raising money for the movement. 

Through art auctions, commercial partnerships and museum exhibitions, the womens’ quilts were able to reach a national audience, enabling many of them to send their children to universities and install indoor plumbing and electricity in their homes for the first time. Their most popular quilts featured ragged denim jeans that had been worn by family members working in the cotton fields.

Previous Coverage
  • How Chile’s mothers resisted
  • Female-led quilting collectives also became a means of generating income in Chile during the 1970s and 1980s, after the U.S. government instigated a military coup and installed the brutal right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet. During his regime, various Catholic Church groups organized underground quilting workshops for Chilean women, many of whom had been left impoverished by widespread unemployment and the forced disappearances of their husbands and children. 

    Gathering in basements illuminated only by candlelight, women protested Pinochet by stitching arpilleras, quilt squares that openly condemned the many abuses of his regime. The squares documented scenes of bones, body bags and individuals being imprisoned and interrogated by military police. Women also included depictions of their family members who had been kidnapped or murdered.

    The quilt squares were smuggled into and out of jails to express solidarity with dissenters who had been imprisoned. They were also sold outside of Chile, raising international opposition to political repression in Chile and generating critical income for the women who created them. Though most of the women involved in the workshops had not previously been involved in politics, they were radicalized by conversations about the shared experience of losing loved ones to the regime. Many of them began to further educate themselves by attending political lectures, and were later galvanized to lead marches and hunger strikes. 

    Healing

    Because quilt making is a deliberate, creative and collaborative process, the work can be healing, especially for those who are opposing state violence and mourning its victims. 

    Previous Coverage
  • Changing the culture of domestic violence one quilt square at a time
  • Quiltmaking has been used to honor casualties of gun violence and police brutality, as well as to show solidarity to domestic violence and rape survivors. A number of quilting programs have also been started in prisons, giving incarcerated people an opportunity to express themselves and give back to the community. Often, the quilts are donated to hospitals or people experiencing homelessness to continue the cycle of healing. In other programs, incarcerated mothers — many of whom experienced the trauma of giving birth in prison — are taught how to sew blankets for their infants by hand. 

    “It’s a powerful medium, because quilts are seen as very comforting,” Madeleine Fugate said. “It feels like you can just wrap yourself in a quilt and feel safe — so it’s a good thing to use to help people heal.” 

    She and her mother plan on taking submissions for the Covid Memorial Quilt until everyone who was lost from the pandemic is remembered. Since they began working on the quilt, panels have been displayed in an exhibit on public health at the California Science Center. From Aug. 20 to Oct. 16, panels will also be featured in an exhibit called “Trying to Make Sense of It: 9/11, Loss and Memorial Quilts” at the International Quilt Museum in Nebraska.

    “Making quilt squares during the AIDS crisis felt almost magical,” Katherine said. “It was like the Velveteen rabbit — it brought people to life again.”

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    When Fugate first embarked on her project, she consulted activist Cleve Jones, the founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. From him, she learned how to construct panels that would stay intact while they were hung and displayed. 

    Jones also gave her some advice: the panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt were 3 feet by 6 feet, to represent the size of the average grave. To ensure that the Covid Memorial Quilt could be stored with more ease, he recommended that she make the panels smaller this time. Fugate settled on eight by eight  inches, “because when you flip an eight by its side, it becomes the infinity symbol, to show that energy keeps going.”

    Why the Russian Revolution actually owes its success to nonviolent resistance

    Erica Chenoweth’s remarkable recent book, “Civil Resistance,” is another contribution to the growing mountain of evidence for the power of nonviolence. While armed resistance long enjoyed a rarely questioned reputation as the most effective way to defeat oppressive domestic or occupying regimes willing to use force to impose their rule, Chenoweth and others have done much to dispel that myth. They have shown how movements using nonviolent methods — strikes, mass demonstrations and vigils, boycotts, stay-at-homes, slow-downs, nonviolent blockades, parallel government, and other forms of noncooperation and disruption — can not only defeat such regimes, but are actually successful two-to-three times as often as violent ones.  

    Evidence for the greater effectiveness of nonviolent movements comes from studies that gather and sort large numbers of cases into either primarily violent or primarily nonviolent categories, allowing researchers to compare the large gap between success rates and study the factors that explain it. The result has been a wealth of important insights into the nature, potential and challenges of nonviolent resistance campaigns.

    Previous Coverage
  • The Irish Revolution’s overlooked history of nonviolent resistance
  • While identifying cases as either violent or nonviolent is important for comparing the two types of methods, especially in large empirical studies, it also has an important limitation. Some successful movements widely considered violent also feature sustained and widespread nonviolent methods, ones that may actually make the movement’s very success possible. This unaccounted-for-role of nonviolence in such movements makes it likely we are still overestimating the effectiveness of violence and underestimating the effectiveness of nonviolence when we characterize such movements as both violent and successful. Taking a closer look at these types of movements is a helpful corrective. In an earlier article for Waging Nonviolence, I described the indispensable but little-noted role of nonviolent techniques to the success of the otherwise violent Irish Revolution. Here I turn to a more famous and globally significant case: the Russian Revolution.

    The 1917 revolution in Russia is widely considered a classic example of successful violent revolt. When friends and family recently asked what I was working on, and I responded “an article on nonviolence and the Russian Revolution,” most assumed I was joking. And plenty of those who study civil resistance share this view. While some, such as Jonathan Schell and Milan Rai, have focused on its nonviolent dimensions, many do not. Gene Sharp, the path-breaking theorist of nonviolent action, includes Russia’s 1905 rebellion as a case study in his “Waging Nonviolent Struggle,” but not the much larger and more significant 1917 sequel. Chenoweth’s new book, mentioned above, refers to the Russian Revolution as an example of “armed struggle” and codes it as both violent and successful, while Chenoweth’s earlier groundbreaking book with Maria Stephan, “Why Civil Resistance Works,” frequently uses it as an example of “violent insurgencies” that nonetheless succeed.

    This reputation for violence is understandable. Russia did see some political violence in 1917, and the civil war that followed the revolution, starting in 1918, was an intensely violent armed conflict. Furthermore, the revolution’s main players were not pacifists, or even especially committed to tactical nonviolence, while some, such as the Bolsheviks, had an actual ideological preference for violent insurrection. Nevertheless, the revolution itself saw remarkably little bloodshed, and instead ended up relying principally on a sophisticated, diverse and ongoing array of nonviolent civil resistance methods, many spontaneously developed by ordinary Russians.  

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    One of these methods stands out in particular. Just as the Irish Revolution was an early demonstration of parallel government’s powerful potential as a civil resistance technique, Russia’s did the same for security force defection, an especially potent tool if the goal of a movement is to completely overthrow a regime. When political authorities decide to use violence to enforce their rule on populations that no longer recognize their legitimacy, they need people to carry it out — police, army units, militias. But when these very people ignore or refuse orders to use violence, authorities lose their last way of securing cooperation, and their power evaporates. This dynamic would happen many times as the Russian Revolution unfolded.

    The February Revolution

    By early 1917, Russia was ripe for revolution. The tsarist regime of Nicholas II survived 1905’s revolt through a combination of violent repression and political reforms, but deep political discontent remained, and it only intensified during World War I. By February 1917, almost 3 million Russian soldiers had been killed or wounded in the war, with more than 4 million taken prisoner. Officers found it more and more difficult to get exhausted and disillusioned troops to fight. Back home, food shortages, inflation, labor unrest and anger over the war’s deadly toll on families created an increasingly restive population. The situation in Petrograd, the capital and one of Europe’s largest cities, was especially tense.

    A spontaneous walkout by women textile workers protesting bread shortages on February 23, International Women’s Day, spread to other factories around Petrograd until a third of the city’s workers were in the streets by that night. Strikes and street demonstrations only grew over the next few days, drawing in people across social and economic groups demanding an end to the war, the Tsar’s abdication, and fundamental economic and political restructuring. The city ground to a halt, especially once transit workers stopped the trams. Spontaneous grassroots organizations in factories, schools, offices and other settings were critical in coordinating growing pressure on the regime. In the words of historian Rex Wade, this “popular self-assertion became a dominant feature of the entire revolution of 1917,” creating a momentum that even caught most socialist leaders who had long-advocated revolution off guard.

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    Nicholas II responded by ordering a violent crackdown, and on February 25 some local troops did follow his orders and fired on demonstrators, killing several hundred of them. But the people stayed in the streets, many appealing to the soldiers to join them. By the next day, a mutiny that started in the units that had previously fired on civilians spread throughout the Petrograd garrison, soldiers refused orders, officers fled the city, and the Tsar’s authority in Petrograd collapsed.

    While starting in Petrograd, the revolution spread to other cities across Russia, and from there into the towns and countryside. While there were some violent attacks on local tsarist officials and sporadic clashes with troops, it was largely a process of grassroots mass noncooperation — strikes and demonstrations that brought life to a halt, people ignoring the existing authorities, and local garrisons refusing to crack down. When Nicholas ordered combat troops diverted from the front to crush the revolution, his generals saw the writing on the wall and refused. They and political elites from across the spectrum informed the Tsar he had no choice but to abdicate, which he did on March 2. A regime that had held political power for centuries saw it evaporate in a matter of days as masses of Russian people simply stopped obeying it.

    Spring and summer

    Even before Nicholas’s abdication, institutions of parallel government were emerging, and they quickly gained political legitimacy as public loyalty shifted to them. A previously weak legislative body, the Duma, which was part of the 1905 reforms, ignored Nicholas’s order to dissolve and began exercising more substantial governing functions to fill the vacuum left after his fall. At the same time (and on the other side of the same building), delegates elected by workers and soldiers from across the city formed the Petrograd Soviet, or council. In her history of the period, Sheila Fitzpatrick details how “the February Revolution had produced not one but two self-constituted authorities” that would produce a “spontaneous” arrangement of dual power. As neither body wanted complete control, they settled into a power-sharing arrangement and negotiated the formation of a new multi-party-coalition Provisional Government to run the country until a Constituent Assembly — democratically elected from across Russia — could meet to establish a new constitution and permanent government structure.

    This spontaneous creation of new political institutions repeated itself in other cities and regions across Russia with their own local versions of soviet and provisional government power-sharing, and below these governing bodies, in Petrograd and beyond, was a dizzying array of smaller factory and garrison soviets, neighborhood committees, village assemblies and other political bodies. These were also fed by an explosion of civil society activity long stifled by tsarist repression. The country saw a remarkable flourishing of newspapers, conferences, public meetings, political parties, civic groups, professional organizations, theater troupes, athletic clubs, youth leagues and scientific associations.

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    People all across Russia used these new institutions of self-organization and self-government in two important ways. The first was to shape policies adopted by the new political authorities. Sometimes this meant pressuring it to adopt new ones, as when feminist organizations successfully forced the Provisional Government to grant women the right to vote, or when soldiers forced the Petrograd Soviet to adopt “Order No. 1,” which empowered the rank-and-file and removed the cruelest forms of discipline wielded by officers. Other times this meant preventing the government from carrying out its preferred policies by ignoring them, as when peasants refused to turn over requisitioned food, or soldiers sabotaged a planned June offensive against German positions by refusing to fight unless attacked, causing military leaders to inform the Provisional Government that soldiers “no longer listen to the orders.” 

    The second was to effect radical change directly themselves. For instance, workers instituted their long-demanded eight-hour workday unilaterally by simply refusing to work longer, gave themselves the right to more breaks by taking them, and removed abusive managers by ignoring them. Nationalist bodies in regions such as Finland and Ukraine gained independence or regional autonomy by just acting as if they already had it. And, most dramatically, peasants organized at the village level to shift power from large landowners to themselves. They adjusted rents by paying less, adjusted wages by refusing to work unless paid more, redistributed land to themselves by simply occupying and working it, gained access to restricted woodlands by going into them to hunt or cut wood, and took possession of restricted pastures by grazing their livestock on them. When landlords objected, peasants ignored them and local government officials either sided with the peasants or were powerless to intervene.  

    The October Revolution

    Public frustration with the Provisional Government grew over the summer and into the fall, fed by its failure to end the war, surging prices, especially for food, factory closings due to shortages of raw materials and rising crime across the country. This produced a popular political shift further leftward. There were growing calls for an end to the power-sharing arrangement between the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet in favor of the Soviet’s all-socialist coalition running the country alone until the Constituent Assembly met. As the most outspoken critics of the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks were the primary beneficiaries of this shift. They and their allies gained strength as their delegates were elected in greater numbers to governing bodies, including the Petrograd Soviet itself.

    General Lavr Kornilov (left) with Deputy War Minister Boris Savinkov in Moscow in August 1917. (Wikimedia)

    In late August, Gen. Lavr Kornilov, who had been signaling counterrevolutionary military action, moved troops perceived as loyal to him closer to Petrograd. When the Provisional Government responded by relieving him of command, Kornilov ordered his troops to take the city and carry out a military coup. Their advance was slowed, however, when railway workers refused to operate the necessary trains, allowing time for local people to infiltrate the ranks and appeal to soldiers to disobey their orders. This they did, refusing to advance further, and the coup collapsed.

    The coup attempt further radicalized the population, especially in and around Petrograd, drawing more support to the Bolsheviks. By September, they controlled a working majority in the Petrograd Soviet. Lenin, who believed “not a single question pertaining to the class struggle has ever been settled except by violence,” favored an immediate armed uprising to overthrow the Provisional Government and seize power for the party, but other radical leftists, including some Bolsheviks, urged a more cautious approach. The majority of the population still favored a temporary all-socialist coalition replacing the Provisional Government until the democratically-elected, and almost certainly socialist-dominated, Constituent Assembly convened.

    While calling for an uprising to overthrow the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks did not have any detailed plans for one, and when it came in October, it took many by surprise. Furthermore, it was Trotsky’s political maneuvering, not Lenin’s commitment to armed revolt, that made it possible. Trotsky’s idea was to build enough support in the Petrograd Soviet, among the people on the streets of the city, and within the ranks of the Petrograd garrison to use the upcoming All-Russian Congress of Soviets to effectively transfer power away from the Provisional Government.

    The day before the congress was to open, the government itself sparked the uprising by closing several Bolshevik newspapers and ordering more troops to guard the Winter Palace. Workers and pro-Soviet troops responded by pouring into the streets and taking up key positions in the city. While there were some clashes and a handful of deaths, what followed was primarily two days of what Wade calls “nonshooting confrontations” that culminated in “a curiously unmilitary faceoff” at the Winter Palace. As troops nominally guarding the Provisional Government turned over their weapons and melted away, its leaders fled the city or were arrested without incident, leaving the Petrograd Soviet and its Bolshevik leaders with effective governing power.

    The Petrograd Soviet in 1917. (Wikimedia)

    While there was heavier fighting in Moscow over the next several days, the Provisional Government’s loss of authority across the country happened quickly and relatively bloodlessly. Due to the loyalty shifts among key populations already in place, one contemporary observer called the October Revolution less an uprising than a mere “changing of the guard.” Trotsky said the Provisional Government had already lost its power before it even knew it was being overthrown.  

    An unappreciated nonviolent revolution   

    The Russian Revolution of 1917 was obviously not completely free of violence. There were sporadic deadly clashes. Armed worker militias did intimidate opponents. Sometimes peasants attacked their landlords or soldiers their officers. What is noteworthy, however, is how infrequent and limited such bloodshed was across such a tumultuous year. The historian Robert Gerwarth notes how “remarkably nonviolent” and “almost peaceful” the revolution was. Lenin was actually disappointed in how little insurrectionary violence occurred given his ideological commitment to it, one reason Bolsheviks later overemphasized its role in the revolution.  

    The methods that drove events in Russia during 1917 were overwhelmingly nonviolent. Masses of ordinary people went on strike, demonstrated in the streets, refused to cooperate with officials, and organized to change economic and social relationships by simply acting as if those changes already existed. Russians created a web of new political institutions and channeled political conflict into them through impassioned speeches, competing motions, credential challenges, walkouts, formal resolutions, and delegate elections; one contemporary referred to the revolution as one seemingly endless political meeting.

    Perhaps most important was security force defection. At key moments when troops were ordered to use violence — by the Tsar in February, by frontline commanders in June, by Gen. Kornilov in August, or by Provisional Government in October — they simply refused, dissolving the power those giving the orders assumed they had. Given this overwhelming preponderance of nonviolent methods, it is clear that the Russian Revolution actually owes its success to nonviolence instead of violence. In spite of its reputation for demonstrating the effectiveness of violent uprisings, the Russian Revolution is actually another, usually overlooked, instance of the power of nonviolent civil resistance.

    A cautionary violent aftermath

    That is the hopeful part. Less so is what came next. Aside from the Bolshevik’s ideological reasons for later overplaying the role of violence, the revolution’s violent reputation owes much to its consolidation and the civil war that quickly followed. Schall writes that “while the Bolsheviks did not use violence to win power, they used it, instantly and lavishly, to keep power.”

    At the end of the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks had significant popular support, especially in key cities, but it did not amount to a majority across the country, especially among the enormous peasant class. Voting for the Constituent Assembly would give the Bolsheviks only 25 percent of the seats, and they were not even the largest party in the body. But they were able to use their temporary control of the government ahead of the Constituent Assembly to end the war through an armistice, further building their support among rank-and-file troops, and to begin arresting rivals and former allies in other political parties with their new secret police force, the Cheka. When the Constituent Assembly finally convened on Jan. 5, 1918, the Bolsheviks ordered their armed “guards” to instead dissolve it, which they did, as well as using force to break up street protests.

    The Bolsheviks and a diverse collection of ideological and regional opponents quickly raised armed militias and mobilized loyal troops, and by the summer of 1918 the country was deep in civil war, one that would eventually kill 3 million people and displace millions more. The war’s spiraling cycle of violence included widespread atrocities — mass rape and executions, anti-Jewish pogroms, burned villages and crop destruction and pervasive torture. The Cheka grew from a small force at the beginning of 1918 to 140,000 members when the war ended in a Bolshevik victory.       

    The country’s rapid descent into an intensely bloody conflict after a largely nonviolent revolution prompts the obvious question: Why was nonviolence so effective in 1917, including sabotaging most attempts by authorities to use violence, while from 1918 onward, nonviolent resistance quickly gave way to multiple parties using widespread and intensely violent methods against each other?

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    The answer may lie in the nature of nonviolent civil resistance itself. When masses of diverse people unite to withdraw power from political authorities by refusing to cooperate with them, there is little such authorities can do, especially if those they rely on to use violence to enforce their will also refuse to cooperate. This is what happened across the revolution’s stages in 1917 and made attempts to use violence so ineffective. It is what propelled the Bolsheviks to power, even as Lenin hoped for a more violent showdown than the Provisional Government was able to provide because it had already lost the popular authority to muster it. But once in power, the Bolsheviks did enjoy significant popular backing, even if not a majority. They did have enough political support that many people were willing to uphold their authority by doing their bidding, including to use violence against opponents when ordered.

    At the same time, the unity that drove revolutionary opposition to Nicholas II in February, or Kornilov in August, or the Provisional Government in October no longer existed. The Bolsheviks faced opposition that was less broad-based, less widespread, and more divided, making civil resistance to their authority much harder to pull off. For opponents who were not especially committed to nonviolent methods as such in the first place, falling back on factional violence to counter that of the Bolsheviks and their rank-and-file supporters seemed the only option.

    The Russian Revolution, then, demonstrates that the very thing that can make nonviolent civil resistance effective enough to overthrow regimes — unified mass noncooperation and disruption — can also be its greatest vulnerability, particularly when political divisions prevent it from coalescing, and the regime has a reliable popular base of followers willing to cooperate in its rule, including by using violence. That should not obscure the too-often overlooked role of nonviolence in the Russian Revolution, but it should be a sobering reminder of the challenges activists working to wield nonviolent civil resistance must overcome.

    As Biden backslides, a bigger, better-organized climate movement prepares to seize this ‘now or never’ moment

    Over 500 activists from the youth-led Sunrise Movement descended on Washington, D.C. last week for one of the largest U.S. climate protests since COVID-related restrictions began easing. The young people rallied in front of the White House on June 28, to hear from a range of speakers, including Reps. Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush, Indigenous pipeline fighters from Anishinaabe land in Minnesota and Sunrise organizers from all corners of the country. All called on President Biden to act swiftly to address the climate crisis.

    “I’m from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a town built around Bethlehem Steel, a job hub that manufactured steel for infrastructure all over the country,” Sunrise activist Mary Collier told the crowd. “But when politicians abandoned my city, all those good-paying jobs vanished.”

    Amid ongoing talks between the White House and Congress over a national infrastructure bill, Sunrise and other climate groups see an opportunity to attack the climate crisis while rebuilding the economies of blue-collar towns like Bethlehem. However, now that a bipartisan infrastructure bill has been released that contains little in the way of support for clean energy, activists are urging the Biden administration to show it truly is committed to climate action. One of Sunrise’s priorities is funding for a Civilian Climate Corps that would employ 1.5 million people in jobs like clean energy construction, sustainable infrastructure and reforestation.

    High-profile protest tactics are allowing climate organizers to set the terms of the conversation on Capitol Hill with an authority they have rarely enjoyed.

    After the recent rally at the White House, Sunrise protesters blockaded all 10 entrances to the building, leading to dozens of arrests. Yet, despite their anger at the president’s recent compromises, the young protesters are not anti-Biden. In fact, many volunteered hundreds of hours last year to ensure his election.

    “Last fall I spent all my time getting Pennsylvanians out to vote,” said Collier, who along with dozens of other youth marched 105 miles from her state’s capital in Harrisburg to the White House. “Even after Biden won, I didn’t stop — I organized Every Vote Counts actions to defend the vote we had got out for him. We elected Biden with the guarantee that he would create good-paying jobs of the kind I dreamed about, but instead I’ve seen him compromising with the GOP and negotiating away Bethlehem’s future.”

    A once in a lifetime opportunity

    The Biden administration earned early praise from climate groups soon after taking office in January. On Inauguration Day, Biden rejected the permit for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and committed the United States to re-joining the Paris accord. Since then, however, the administration has showed signs of wavering in its commitment to climate justice, refusing to revisit permits for the controversial Line 3 and Dakota Access pipelines. Perhaps most consequentially from a long-term climate perspective, the White House has seemed on the verge of bargaining away commitments to clean energy and zero-emission vehicles originally included in its framework for a national infrastructure bill.

    Under pressure from moderate lawmakers like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Biden agreed last month to support bipartisan infrastructure legislation that includes almost no major climate policies. Progressive lawmakers are now pushing Democratic leaders to pass a separate bill through the budget process known as reconciliation, which would include support for clean energy, hundreds of thousands of electric vehicle charging stations and other climate priorities. Whether such a bill will eventually move forward remains to be seen. But meanwhile, the administration and Congress face pressure from another source: a climate movement that is tired of waiting for progress as the world burns.

    Previous Coverage
  • How Generation Z is leading the climate movement
  • “We have what is potentially a once in a lifetime opportunity to take real action for the climate,” said Ivy Jaguzny of Zero Hour, a youth-led climate activist organization founded by high school students. “It’s our job to push Biden every single step of the way, because progress isn’t going to happen on its own. It’s only going to happen if we continue to demand what Biden promised to deliver during his campaign.”

    The climate movement today is far bigger, better-organized and more active than at the beginning of any previous Democratic president’s term. And while COVID largely prevented activists from organizing large in-person protests in the first few months of Biden’s administration, that is changing as virus-related restrictions related to travel and gatherings ease. Now, climate activists are shaping the public narrative in ways they have often struggled to do in the past.

    “Democratic House members joined protesters from the left-leaning Sunrise Movement outside the White House to demand that far-reaching climate policies be added to the [infrastructure] package,” read a recent Washington Post article that included a photo of Sunrise activists marching behind the banner “Biden: No Compromises, No Excuses.” This is as an example of how high-profile protest tactics are allowing climate organizers to set the terms of the conversation on Capitol Hill with an authority they have rarely enjoyed. During former President Obama’s first year in office, for example, progressive activist voices were often drowned out by the more vocal, attention-garnering Tea Party.

    In fact, it was not until a couple of years into Obama’s first term in office that the former president faced large-scale direct action protests focused on climate issues. In contrast, less than six months into Biden’s presidency, the climate movement has not only blockaded the White House, it has taken its demands to key Congressional districts all over the country.

    A growing nationwide movement

    Grassroots activists are shaping how media and political figures talk about climate in ways that would have been hard to imagine even a few years ago.

    “We have walked 266 miles to get here,” said Sunrise activist Ema Govea, standing at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge last month. Govea and roughly 100 other Sunrise members had just marched from Paradise, California — a town demolished by wildfires in 2018 — to San Francisco, where they rallied outside the homes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Diane Feinstein. “This is not the end,” Govea added. “This march will reignite a movement, and this is just the beginning.”

    The march from Paradise to San Francisco was one of three similar treks recently organized by Sunrise in the lead-up to last week’s White House action. In the South, activists marched 400 miles from New Orleans to Houston, where they ended their journey with a sit-in at Sen. Ted Cruz’s home. In Pennsylvania, marchers like Collier walked all the way to the White House itself. The young people involved show how climate groups are using creative tactics and direct action to bring their demands not only to Washington, D.C. but also the home states of key members of Congress.

    As a next step, Sunrise — which is organized into local chapters or “hubs” scattered all over the United States — is calling for a nationwide day of action in support of the Civilian Conservation Corps, to be held on July 15. This strategy of combining large, high-profile protests in the nation’s capital with more distributed actions that pressure individual members of Congress is one Sunrise has used successfully before, including in late 2018 when the organization helped put the idea of a Green New Deal at the center of Congressional Democrats’ agenda. However, Sunrise Movement is only one among many climate groups now organizing for federal action in far-flung parts of the country.

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  • Indigenous-led resistance to Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline threatens Big Oil’s last stand
  • Other than the infrastructure package, probably no climate-related issue has garnered more attention from national groups this year than the Line 3 pipeline, a conduit for tar sands oil from Canada. In early June, thousands of people converged on Minnesota for days of Indigenous-led protests against the pipeline, which culminated in a direct action that temporarily stopped work on a pump station. Hundreds joined a semi-permanent encampment in the pipeline’s path, and the protests show no signs of dying down.

    On June 30, Rising Tide North America held a virtual direct action training to prepare people to join the growing movement against Line 3. An email to supporters said the training would cover “principles of direct action … what to take to an action and how to plan an action,” as well as “what you need to know about coming to support the frontlines” on Anishinaabe land. All this is indicative of a climate movement emerging from the COVID pandemic more coordinated at a national level than perhaps ever before, as well as one that has learned over the past year to use online tools like Zoom to maximum effect.

    Much of this movement’s energy post-COVID has gone into pressuring Congress and the Biden administration to take action, whether by passing a strong infrastructure bill or stopping fossil fuel projects like Line 3. At the same time, other activist groups are pursuing another strategy they have become increasingly adept at: strategically confronting the political and economic power of fossil fuel industries themselves.

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    Shaping the narrative to win

    On June 16, Maine Gov. Janet Mills signed into law a bill making the state the first to adopt legislation requiring its public employee pension funds and state treasury system to divest from fossil fuels. It was a momentous occasion for climate activists fighting to win progress at the state and local levels that could help build momentum for federal action.

    “It’s a good time for the climate movement to have a win, especially one as concrete as this,” said Anna Siegel of Maine Youth for Climate, one of the organizations that pushed for the divestment bill. “These are victories that help move us forward into a world that puts people and planet over the profits of corporations.”

    Previous Coverage
  • How a new generation of climate activists is reviving fossil fuel divestment and gaining victories
  • In fact, 2021 has seen a string of successes for the fossil fuel divestment movement. According to Divest Ed, which works with student activists on college divestment campaigns, at least 10 U.S. higher education institutions have unveiled new divestment commitments so far this year. They include University of Michigan, Princeton, Columbia College and University of Southern California. Each announcement, like the statewide divestment campaign in Maine, targets the fossil fuel industry’s public image and contributes to a larger public narrative against which debates over federal legislative and regulatory action take place.

    There can be no denying climate groups have a long way to go before they can expect to push federal climate legislation over the finish line, if such a victory occurs at all during Biden’s crucial first year in office. The fossil fuel industry also still has plenty of political clout, as evidenced by a recent undercover video recorded by Greenpeace, which shows an Exxon Mobil lobbyist bragging about the company’s efforts to kill climate provisions in the infrastructure package. Even so, grassroots activists are shaping how media and political figures talk about climate in ways that would have been hard to imagine even a few years ago.

    “We’re not just marching in the streets, although we’re doing that,” Zero Hour’s Jaguzny said. “We’re lobbying and advocating for meaningful climate actions on the Hill. We’re trying to keep oil in the ground. We’re trying to build clean energy and public transit for everyone and facilitate a just transition. This is the time for action — it’s now or never.”

    Arrested in rocking chairs, grandparents protest Chase and pressure Biden on climate

    In over six decades of social action I’d never done nonviolent confrontation in a rocking chair. At 83 years old, I like it!

    On Monday, June 28, a dozen of us grandparents rocked while blocking the entrance to a major Chase Bank building in corporation-dominated Wilmington, Delaware, home of President Joe Biden.

    It was the final day of the Grandparents Walk for Our Grandchildren and Mother Earth, which started on June 20 in Scranton, Pennsylvania — Biden’s birthplace. With the help of vans, our 170-mile route took us through roadways, beautiful trails and the sites of crimes against nature. We visited a dangerous waste dump in Scranton, the site of the proposed Adelphia Gateway Pipeline in Bucks County, and the planned liquified natural gas pipeline threatening to cross the Delaware River to Gibbstown, New Jersey, for export to Europe.

    In Philadelphia, we stopped at Independence Hall to declare independence from fossil fuels and, joined by local activists, paraded up the street to protest outside a Chase Bank. Chase Bank is the number one financier of fossil fuels in the United States. According to Rainforest Action Network, Chase has dumped over a quarter trillion dollars into fossil fuels in the last four years alone.

    While in Philly we also visited the site of the first oil refinery in the Unites States, which blew up last year threatening thousands of lives. There we cheered the children in a Black working-class neighborhood camp — organized by Philly Thrive — who put on a sketch depicting a dialogue between them and the fossil fools who’d been warned time and again of the danger.

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  • The sun as the center of a new campaign for economic and racial justice
  • We then joined Earth Quaker Action Team, or EQAT, as it protested at the headquarters of local utility PECO, which prefers to get its electricity from fossil fuels rather than solar and wind. (EQAT’s campaign is called “Power Local Green Jobs.”)

    In Chester, Pennsylvania, we tried out our rocking chairs as we listened to a neighborhood group that’s been campaigning against pollution from the largest U.S. incinerator. Our walk to nearby Marcus Hook, an oil refinery town on the Delaware River, yielded more information and another chance to affirm the efforts of local people for environmental justice.

    We were told repeatedly that it matters to local groups struggling against immense odds to be cheered on by others – this time by grandparents who have themselves been through plenty of struggles.

    Fortunately, throughout our trip, our group included younger people who joined to support the walk, often playing important roles. Conversations between younger and older walkers helped the miles go by, especially on the very hot days. High schoolers joined us in our final Chase Bank action in Wilmington, as well as at our earlier interfaith service hosted by the local Friends Meeting. We were also cheered by news of major walks taken by the Sunrise Movement.

    Happily, the front doors of a large Chase building were in the shade when we got there. After we’d placed our rocking chairs in front of the doors, the dozen of us willing to risk arrest were content to rock, chant and sing, supported by dozens of others including a local pair of drummers.

    Steven Norris and John Irwin hoist a banner in front of a Chase Bank in Wilmington, Delaware on June 28. (2021 Walk for Our Grandchildren/Matthew Pickett)

    On the large patio down the steps from the Chase building’s front doors is a tall pedestal holding the statue of an enormous eagle with wings outstretched. The eagle’s menacing look seemed completely appropriate to the role Chase plays. Steven Norris, 78, and John Irwin, 66, clambered up the pedestal to wrap it in an enormous banner, holding it in place below the eagle to proclaim our message to the large volume of traffic passing by: “Biden: Be bold. STOP Cha$e & All Oil & Ga$ Financing.”

    Because the bank management chose to avoid arrests at its front door, our group eventually took our rockers and banners and moved into the street in front of the bank. There we were arrested — with Padma Dyvine, 71, being the first to climb into the police van. We were held in frigid cells for some hours before release with an expectation that we would be summoned to court at a later date.

    While we haven’t decided whether we’ll be bringing our rocking chairs to the courtroom, we do know one thing: Like every one else in this struggle, we’ll continue to fight for climate justice.

    Amid a deadly crackdown, protesters in Colombia are finding ways to break the stigma surrounding dissent

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    A recent satirical video has been gaining steam among Colombian youth, titled “Todo es Culpa de Petro,” or “Everything is Petro’s fault.” The video highlights the story of a young man who has everything going wrong in his life, from missing class to getting rejected by his crush. The person behind his misfortune is revealed to be none other than leftist politician Gustavo Petro, former M-19 guerilla, senator and presidential candidate. Although the video is meant to be a joke, it does reflect the dominant media narrative — and much of the mainstream political discourse — which blames the protests that have gripped Colombia since April 28 on Petro. This is despite the fact that he has no connections to them, and they have been spontaneously organized. 

    For nearly two months, demonstrators have been taking to the streets to protest the country’s regressive tax reform, its slow COVID relief plan and the inability of the government to provide basic needs to large sectors of the population. Instead of highlighting these very real grievances, much of the media coverage and commentary by politicians in power have blamed the left or outside forces for inciting the protests. 

    For instance, the magazine Semana — Colombia’s equivalent to Time — published a cover with a diabolic Petro covered in flames, implying that he was behind the scenes invoking the protests. As the satirical video shows, this smearing of Petro is really about smearing the protests and stigmatizing the people who take to the streets to practice their legal right to speak out. Sadly, such behavior is part of a long history of targeting social movements — both in Colombia and the region.

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    The “internal enemy”

    Angelica Orjuela is the technical coordinator at Congreso de los Pueblos, or People’s Congress — an umbrella organization for various social movements that have been active in the protests. She says the media have presented the protesters as an “internal enemy” instead of legitimate critics of the government and President Iván Duque’s neoliberal regime. “For them, the enemy is not the ESMAD [riot police], it’s the social movements,” she said. “The enemy isn’t the lack of rights to education or healthcare. It’s not the economic problems. It’s not the people destroying natural resources. Instead, the enemy is the person out protesting.” 

    According to Orjuela, the media does not treat the right-wing counter-protesters in the same way. “You see people who go out with their white shirts and guns to counterprotest,” she explained. “People go out with the intention to cause harm to protesters, but according to the media narrative, they’re not the ones who are putting the country in danger — it’s the protesters who are doing harm to the country.”

    The media aren’t the only ones who are actively promoting this narrative. In a recent interview, Justice Minister Wilson Ruíz said that the national strike was a conspiracy by international criminal groups to destabilize and delegitimize Colombia on a national scale. Stigmatizing the people out in the streets as agents or pawns of these so-called criminal organizations absolves the Colombian state of responsibility when it comes to the death of protesters. The human rights organization Indepaz reports that between April 28 and June 21 there have been 74 deaths related to the national strike protests. 

    The narrative of the internal enemy in Colombia has a long history that dates back to the Cold War. During this era, a military practice known as the National Security Doctrine was used throughout Latin America to purge the nation of “internal enemies” who were viewed as part of a larger communist conspiracy to destabilize the region. This policy led to the establishment of military dictatorships throughout the region and the murder of hundreds of thousands of leftists and activists. 

    In Colombia, it was a big part of the state’s counterinsurgency strategy during the internal war against the various guerrilla groups that started in the 1960s and continues today. It was also a key justification for state repression against legal organizations like the political party Unión Patriotica, which was subject to what many human rights organizations have referred to as a political genocide

    “Initially it’s the image of a communist and then that of a terrorist or bandit. Today it’s that of the vandal,” said activist and lawyer Gloria Silvia, who works with the People’s Law Team. “This stigmatization justifies the annihilation of social leaders through methods like forced disappearances or murder. That’s why we call it a genocidal process — it’s not looking to get rid of an individual, but a whole group that questions the status quo.”

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    Framing social leaders 

    Both Orjuela and Silvia reported that protesters — many of them friends and fellow activists — are being arrested en masse. While most are released without charges being filed, some are being subjected to what they describe as “judicial setups,” a tactic the state has employed against social movements for years. 

    According to Silva the judicial setups are carried out by the police and the attorney general’s special office against organized crime, what used to be the anti-terrorism unit. This office identifies people in leadership positions in social movements and then conducts “investigations” on them. In the process of the investigation they find witnesses who will make declarations against the social leaders for economic and legal benefits and turn them into charges to bring before a judge. 

    “When they make an arrest, they do so in a spectacular way, with tons of police and even sometimes helicopters,” Silva said. “These are usually also massive arrests that include various people. They try to show the media that it’s a deep investigation, with a lot of research, to create a condemnation before they’re even put on trial.”

    These setups use extreme charges like terrorism in an attempt to associate movement leaders with one of Colombia’s armed groups, therefore de-legitimizing them. Because leaders are accused of being part of these groups, they are put in maximum security prisons, where they are subject to paramilitary threats and the psychological trauma that comes with isolation. This stigmatization also means that many judges fear touching their cases out of reprisal from the attorney general’s office. 

    Before Orjuela was the technical coordinator of Congreso de los Pueblos, the position was held by her friend Julian Gil, who was accused of being a member of Colombia’s largest remaining insurgent group and arrested in what Congreso labels a judicial setup. After his arrest, Gil endured 900 days in prison under horrible conditions. He was eventually released last November, after his defense proved that he did not meet with someone the prosecution said he met with, and it became evident they did not have a case.

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    Because the framing and arrest of social leaders is so common, Orjuela believes it is necessary not just to support the cause of social leaders, but to raise awareness around their situation. That’s why Congreso de los Pueblos launched a campaign called Ser Lider Social NO es Delito, or Being a Social Leader is NOT a Crime in 2016. While much of the campaign involves educating people through social media about repression taking place — as well as the important community work that social leaders engage in — the group also goes directly to the prisons where social leaders are being held, stages protests outside the prison and attends trials. 

    “When people are sent to prison they get lost — people forget about them and stop visiting,” Orjuela said. “They are scared to visit them because of the image that prison has, and the perception that if you’re in there, it’s because you’re a criminal.” The campaign seeks to break these stereotypes through various initiatives. When prison visits were off limits due to the pandemic, they developed a class about human rights and criminal law that was broadcast over the radio, to ensure that prisoners would be able to listen to it.

    Although the protests are dying down, the vilification of activists is an issue that will plague Colombian society, with the government and politicians continuing to paint protesters and social leaders as criminals — even in the face of international pressure. According to the human rights organization Temblores, there have been at least 4,285 incidents of violence against protesters since the demonstrations began, but it remains to be seen if the Colombian government will take these violations seriously. 

    Still, Orjuela has hope that things can change through organizing, citing the National People’s Assembly, which was held in early June and was a broad, diverse space created to welcome new people into the movement. “Now, we’re organizing a new assembly to keep up that energy,” she explained. “The goal is to get the government to meet some basic human rights requirements so we can dialogue with them.”

    Existing and resisting in the nuclear submarine capital of the world

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    This article was first published by TomDispatch.

    Groton and New London, Connecticut, are home to about 65,000 people, three colleges, the Coast Guard Academy, 15 nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed submarines capable of destroying the world many times over, and General Dynamics’ Electric Boat, a multi-billion-dollar private corporation that offers stock options to its shareholders and mega-salaries to its top executives as it pockets taxpayer dollars and manufactures yet more of those stealthy, potentially world-ending machines. Whew!  That was a long sentence!

    Naval Submarine Base New London stretches along the east side of the Thames River, straddling the towns of Groton and Ledyard. Occupying at least 680 acres, the base has more than 160 major facilities. The 15 subs based there are the largest contingent in the nation. They’re manufactured just down the river at Electric Boat/General Dynamics, which once built the Polaris and Trident nuclear submarines, employs more than 12,000 people in our region, and is planning to hire another 2,400 this year to meet a striking “demand” for the newest version of such subs.

    Some readers might already be asking themselves: Are submarines still a thing? Do we really still put men (and women) far beneath the ocean’s surface in a giant metal tube, ready to launch a nuclear first strike at a moment’s notice? At a time when the greatest threats to human life may be viruses hidden in our own exhales, our infrastructure is crumbling, and so much else is going wrong, are we really spending billions of dollars on submarines?

    Yes!

    Back in 2010, the Department of Defense’s Nuclear Posture Review called for a “recapitalization of the nation’s sea-based deterrent,” as though we hadn’t been spending anything on submarines previously.  To meet that goal, the Obama administration, the Trump administration, and now the Biden administration all agreed that, on a planet already filled with devastating nuclear weapons, the U.S. must begin construction of a new class of 12 Columbia ballistic missile submarines.

    The Navy’s 2021 budget submission estimates that the total procurement cost for that 12-ship class of subs will be $109.8 billion. However, even a number that big might prove nothing but rough back-of-the-napkin figuring. After all, according to the Navy’s 2022 request, the cost estimate for the first submarine of the 12 they plan to build, the lead ship in its new program, had already grown from $14.39 billion to $15.03 billion.  Now, that may not sound like a lot, but string out all those zeros behind it and you’ll realize that the difference is more than $640 million, just a little less than what Baltimore — a city of more than 600,000 people — will get in federal pandemic relief aid.

    Swirling around those submarines are descriptions citing “strategy” and “capability.” But don’t be fooled: they’ll be potential world killers. Each of those 12 new subs will be armed with 16 Trident D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs, which have a range of 4,500 miles and can carry 14 W-76-1 thermonuclear warheads. Each one of those warheads is six times more powerful than the atomic bomb that the U.S. military detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Start multiplying 12 times 16 times 14 times 6 and there isn’t enough world to destroy with math like that. After all, the single Hiroshima bomb, “small” as it was, killed an estimated 140,000 people and turned the city into rubble and ash.

    The best way to understand the Columbia class submarine, then, is as a $100 billion-plus initiative that aims to deliver 16,128 Hiroshimas.

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    Submarine capital of the world

    My family and I live in New London and evidence of the military is everywhere here. There’s a cannon planted amid the roses at the entrance to the motel right off the highway near our house. And another in front of the laundromat. Huge American flags flap at the car dealership that offers special financing to Navy personnel.

    Signs declaring New London/Groton to be the “Submarine Capital of the World” festoon the highways into town. The huge naval submarine base and the General Dynamics/Electric Boat yards dominate the Groton side of the Thames River. There’s a massive garage for half-built submarines, painted a very seventies shade of green, that chews up most of the scenery on the Groton side of the river, alongside cranes and docks and industrial buildings in various hues of grey. It’s dismal. New London’s waterfront homes and private beaches look out on three generations of military-industrial-complex architecture. We wouldn’t want to live in Groton, but at least they feast their eyes on our quaint downtown and the parks that stretch along our side of the river.

    On the New London side, General Dynamics/Electric Boat looks more like a corporate campus than a shipyard. It employs a lot of people, but there are still plenty of New Londoners who work at jobs that have nothing to do with the military or the business of building and designing submarines. Unfortunately, that seems to be changing, because General Dynamics is ramping up its engineering and manufacturing operations in order to build that new fleet of submarines.

    Local developers smell money in the air, which means that our downtown is getting a makeover intended to attract the sort of young professionals who will design and oversee the production of those subs. A new development right near New London’s General Dynamics complex is now renting studio apartments for $1,300 a month, even though ours is the fifth poorest city in Connecticut.

    Side bonus? Killer kitsch

    An uproar of protest over our rampant version of local militarism rose to a sustained din in the 1970s and 1980s but has since dulled to a whisper, despite regular protest vigils and demonstrations carried out by a stalwart handful of people. It’s tough to understand since the danger is still so imminent. After all, the symbolic Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists now stands at 100 seconds to nuclear midnight, as close as it’s ever been in its 70 years of existence. Meanwhile, the United States will once again spend staggering sums on its military in fiscal year 2022.

    The upside? Our local thrift stops are full of the strange kitsch that comes with military occupation. I drink my morning coffee out of a white mug that commemorates Electric Boat’s 1987 Christmas Blood Drive, emblazoned with a red drop of blood, the company’s logo, and the phrase “I give so that others may live.”

    Previous Coverage
  • Nuclear weapons ruined my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way
  • I’m a lifelong pacifist, the child of people who, as protesters, climbed over fences and cut through locks in order to enter U.S. weapons facilities like that naval base at Groton. I spent my childhood at the Pentagon, where, a few times a year, my parents and our friends made elaborate spectacles out of blood and ash and cardboard tombstones, leaving Pentagon workers to walk through the muck and mess, tracking it into the headquarters of the Department of Defense. And yet I’ll confess to you that I do have a genuine weakness for military kitsch.

    My husband is a lifelong pacifist, too. His parents went to malls to hold “Stop War Toys” demonstrations and entered toy stores to put “this glorifies violence” stickers on G.I. Joe and Rambo dolls. He spent his summers outside Electric Boat in Groton. His family and their friends went to the commissionings and christenings of newly built subs, holding protest signs, blocking the entrances, and trying to leaflet the well-dressed guests coming to those strange ceremonies with oddly Christian baptismal overtones to them. And yet (or do I mean, and so?) he loves military kitsch, too. As a result, whenever we go to our local Goodwill, Salvation Army store, or neighborhood yard sales, we invariably keep a lookout for mugs and beer glasses from our corner of the military-industrial complex.

    It’s the ultimate in-joke for us. Such killer kitsch helps us manage our deep discomfort with living in a militarized community.

    One made-in-China coffee mug of relatively recent vintage that we own, for instance, has a picture on one side of a submarine and the phrase “Virginia Class: Confronting the Challenge, Driving Out Cost.” The other reads: “Designed for Affordability: General Dynamics, Electric Boat.”

    That second mug always makes me snicker because the Virginia Class submarines were built by Electric Boat in New London/Groton in collaboration with Newport News Shipbuilding, part of Huntington Ingalls in Virginia.

    Those boats cost a mere $3.45 billion each and that “two-yard strategy” — Connecticut and Virginia — was meant to keep both of those corporate entities from financial disaster. (“Afloat” is the word that comes to mind.) However, it made for an even more expensive product as partially assembled submarines had to be floated laboriously up and down the Eastern seaboard. According to Ronald O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service, “A primary aim of the arrangement was to minimize the cost of building Virginia-class boats at a relatively low annual rate in two shipyards (rather than entirely in a single shipyard) while preserving key submarine-construction skills at both shipyards.” Not likely, as it turned out. Then again, what weapons-building project doesn’t have staggering cost overruns in twenty-first-century America?

    Honestly, can you imagine the federal government contracting with Hershey and Nestle to collaborate on a gigantic new candy bar and then paying extra for it because their workers needed to pass the product back and forth between their factories, hundreds of miles apart? Such thoughts regularly occur to me as I drink my morning coffee out of that hilariously labelled “Designed for Affordability” mug. The anger that follows is like a second jolt of caffeine!

    Happy hour?

    Speaking of rage, we drink our happy-hour beers out of glasses commemorating the USS Pittsburgh, SSN 720. That Los Angeles class submarine was commissioned in 1985 and was one of two that launched Tomahawk Cruise missiles at Iraq during 1991’s Gulf War.

    The beer glasses make me think of the dingy strip of bars right outside the main gate of the Electric Boat shipyard in Groton. They’re all closed now, but in the 1970s heyday of submarine manufacturing, bars like El Bolero (shortened to The Elbow) and Elfie’s served the shipyard workers and submariners alike. The lunch crowd was thick, the bar full of small glasses of beer, and the workers would drop dollar bills in garbage cans as they filed out and back across the street to work. Those bars estimated then that they made more in their daily lunchtime dollar-bill rushes than other local bars and restaurants made in a week.

    At some point, the higher-ups at Electric Boat grew embarrassed by the daily spectacle of drunken workers, beer bottles littering the curbs, regular fender-benders, and the fights that tend to accompany excessive drinking. Their solution? They stopped letting the workers leave for lunch.

    As a younger person, I imagined that daytime drinking served to dull the cognitive dissonance of working people who put food on the table for their children by welding the machines that threatened all children anywhere on this planet. As I grow older, however, I wonder if such daytime drinking wasn’t just fun.

    The small no

    Another way we manage our discomfort with our local version of the military-industrial complex and what it means for this country and this planet is to be a small but visible “No” amid the ubiquity of militarism in this town, amid all those chubby, cute submarines that adorn our public spaces.

    We stand on a bleak street corner near the base for at least an hour once a week to protest the world we find ourselves in. It’s admittedly a small thing, but we do it without fail. Souped-up trucks and fast cars with custom paint jobs rev their engines as they pass, cutting that corner uncomfortably close, while tossing gravel in their wake. The vehicles are mostly driven by clean-cut young men, often in the uniform of the Groton-New London Naval Submarine base. They’re off for an hour of freedom at the newly completed, squeaky-clean Chipotle up the hill or the seedy Mynx Cabaret across the street. If we have staying power, we’ll see the Chipotle crew come tearing back down the hill at the end of that hour.

    On one corner is a grimy little liquor store with a big parking lot, the kind of place that should make you question your drinking habits. (If I don’t have a problem, why am I parked here?) On the second corner is an empty lot with the vestiges of a once-thriving car-repair shop. The third has a truck rental company, the signpost of a transitory community. And sure enough, the license plates on the cars streaming into the base hail from Navy-centered communities like ours around the country.

    Route 12 is a mini-highway where cars regularly hit 70 miles an hour as they roar up the hill. We’re desperately small and slow by comparison. My mother paces the sidewalk, I stand still, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, while our friend Cal Robertson sits. A Vietnam Veteran, he came back from that long-gone war physically unscathed but deeply disturbed by everything he witnessed and experienced.

    Cal holds a sign emblazoned with this question: “What About the Children?” Some cars honk in response.  My guess: not so much in support of his message as in recognition of his regular presence over these long decades. My mother and I are interlopers, occasional sign holders counting down the minutes, but Cal — comfortable in a walker than converts to a chair — could do this all day.

    My mother holds a simple sign that reads “No Nukes.” For the men in trucks headed out to lunch, I painted on mine: “Meatball Subs, not Nuclear Submarines.” It receives an occasional nod or grin. And in the meantime, in our very community, the place where I’m raising my kids, the military-industrial complex continues to invest in and build vessels meant only for the end of the world.

    How Kenyans are resisting one of the largest development projects in East Africa

    Sitting on a 40 acre piece of land, Lamu Old Town is a small island town on Kenya’s coast, with white sandy beaches that are well forested by mangroves. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site established by the Arabs settlers in 1370, who had interacted with Bantu traders in the area to form the Swahili culture. Given its natural beauty and attraction to tourists, the area has seen its fair share of development projects that have disrupted residents’ livelihoods or permanently damaged and destroyed the environment.

    In an effort to quickly industrialize, governments are churning out development projects that leave a trail of environmental and social destruction in their wake — negatively and permanently affecting people’s lives.

    This has been the case in Kenya, as politicians want to live up to the promises they made during election campaigns. Others, however, looking to profit from these projects, have been motivated by selfish personal gain.

    Organizations had formed in the past to oppose these projects and champion environmental rights, but they all fell on deaf ears. That was until projects on a far larger and more destructive scale were proposed, which made them rethink their strategies.

    A view of the seafront at Lamu Old Town on Kenya’s coast. (WNV/Dominic Kirui)

    Today, a consortium of organizations is fighting to save the face of Lamu that is under threat by these development projects. They have come together to do this through creating public awareness and staging demonstrations — both in Lamu and in the capital, Nairobi — as well as even going abroad to talk to financiers of these projects.

    The organizations have also engaged government and other development partners in court petitions, where they have argued their case and proved that the environment in the area is more important. Right now, they are engaged in a battle with one of the biggest projects in East Africa that has come to their doorsteps.  

    In 2009, an organization called the Lamu Environmental Protection and Conservation had embarked on an initiative to unite groups and individuals in a campaign to promote community resource rights that had been triggered by the implementation of the Lamu Port South Sudan, Ethiopia Transport, or LAPSSET, Corridor.

    The LAPSSET Corridor is an ambitious infrastructure project with several components that span three countries. It would involve constructing highways, railroads and oil pipelines connecting Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia, three international airports and resort cities, as well as a dam along the Tana River.

    Out of this initiative, a coalition of community members from over 40 local and national organizations came together under the banner, Save Lamu. Since they had long been ignored when they fought for their rights as individual organizations, they decided to join forces.

    Raya Famau, a Save Lamu board member, has been on the front line protesting against government projects in Lamu. (WNV/Dominic Kirui)

    Raya Famau, a board member at Save Lamu, says that this strategy has borne fruit. Being a large consortium of grassroots organizations, they have drawn from pertinent organizations representing each community group and therefore have a bigger, well-balanced voice when they make demands.

    “We have 12 groups represented in the management with members from women groups, youth groups, farmers, the fisherfolk, and people living with disability, human rights organizations, and many others,” Famau explained. “We did this because we saw that in the past when everyone was working on their own and there was a lack of teamwork, it was easy for the government to ignore us. But when we came together, then the government definitely has to listen.”

    Save Lamu has been at the forefront of lobbying for sustainable development and has worked on several campaigns including, but not limited to, coal, oil and gas, and land rights advocacy, where they have fought for the compensation of farmers whose land has been take for construction. Apart from lawsuits, the coalition has organized forums to try and reason with government leaders and other stakeholders involved in these projects. They have also written petitions and organized and taken part in demonstrations. 

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    The actions against these projects have taken many forms over the years, with the group talking to the community about the importance of the environment, engaging politicians, going to local radio and television stations, doing group and one-on-one advocacy, and protests.

    In 2013, the government put up a spirited fight to construct a 1,050-megawatt coal-fired power plant — to be funded by a Chinese bank and built by local companies — that scientists and environmentalists advised against.

    Save Lamu came out to resist the project in Kwasasi, Lamu County, saying that the plant would lead to too much environmental damage, and they had not been consulted on whether they wanted the plant in their area.

    Apart from seeking an intervention from the court, which they saw as a last resort, the coalition had meetings with the government and stakeholders in the project to argue their case. When they were not listened to, they organized demonstrations both in Lamu and Nairobi, where they have taken to the streets with placards and marched to drive their messages home to the public and authorities.

    In 2018, the group engaged in a major protest in Lamu while opposing the coal plant project and two of their members were arrested, and later released.

    “At one point, we wrote a letter and tried to present it to the Chinese embassy in Nairobi,” Famau said. “They refused, and only took it when we got the media involved and had a demonstration outside it. Also, we traveled all the way to Ivory Coast to present our concerns at the African Development Bank that was to fund the coal plant project. They held the funds after that.”  

    Members of Save Lamu celebrate outside the courtroom at Kenya’s Supreme Court after the judgement ordering a stop to construction of the coal plant in June 2019. (WNV/Dominic Kirui)

    Save Lamu became known for the fierce fight it put up against the Kenyan government’s decision to build the coal plant. In the end, the group went to court and won the case. The Environmental Tribunal issued an order stopping the construction of the coal plant, and directed the government’s National Environmental Management Authority, together with other stakeholders in the project to conduct an environmental impact assessment.

    But even as they fought to stop this, something unprecedented happened. The community wanted to be compensated for the piece of land.

    “There were a lot of conflicts between the organization and the community because the community wanted money from the government, and they knew it was good money because some had five or 10 acres, and each acre went for a little over $15,000,” Famau said.

    Save Lamu stood their ground and told the government that they could compensate the farmers and generate electricity either with the tidal winds, sun, nuclear or wind power, but not with coal.

    In 2018, the organization secured a High Court ruling in their favor, after seeking compensation for the farmers who had been displaced and fisherfolk whose livelihoods had been destroyed by the dredging that is going on at the port construction site. They had been in court for three years when the ruling was made, with the court awarding the fisherfolk of Lamu $16.7 million in compensation.

    At Save Lamu, Famau represents a women’s group called Voice of Women. As she puts it, Lamu is both a religious and cultural town, and as such, it is hard for women to be heard. That informed their decision to form a group of professional women, who were educated and had jobs in different professions, back in 2005.

    They have been able to represent the voice of women in the town by educating them about their rights, informing them on government plans in their area and getting their opinion. They then share their concerns with the government.

    “Right now, we have been able to amplify women’s voices through this consortium and successfully advocated for their rights,” she said. “For example, the government agreed to compensate farmers for land for the LAPSSET project, but it was the men who owned land there. After getting the money, most of them ran away, leaving women stranded and poor.”

    On May 20, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta presided over the opening of the first berth out of the 32 that are under construction at the Lamu Port, which will connect the LAPSSET Corridor to the Indian Ocean port. This move did not sit well with Save Lamu campaigners. They said that the president did not acknowledge that the fisherfolk in Lamu had still not been compensated as the court ordered in 2018.

    The group is now pushing for this compensation, saying that the government has not followed through on the court order. 

    “Already three years have passed since the court awarded us this compensation, which has been owed to us since 2014 when the port project began,” said Somo M. Somo, chairman of the Lamu County Beach Management Unit.

    Over the last three years, Mohamed Athman, the chairman of Save Lamu, says that the Lamu fisherfolk leadership attended stakeholder meetings. “We made concessions to find an agreeable resolution,” he said. “Just two weeks ago, we sat in meetings for a week, while observing Ramadan, to reach an agreed-upon plan, yet they have decided to launch the Lamu Port despite the promise they made last week about the fishermen’s compensation matter.”

    While most of development projects involved in the LAPSSET Corridor could be beneficial, Famau says, they will not allow them to disrupt people’s way of life and destroy the environment. The organization is also engaged in many other environmental protection programs in Lamu, and is now leading a campaign in the seafront beautification program.

    Now, they plant trees at the seafront, clean the beaches and plant kitchen gardens at the hospital. When COVID-19 hit, they started sensitizing people on how to stay safe, gave out masks and sanitizers, and place handwashing kits at strategic positions within the town.

    “We decided to do this because we had long been perceived as anti-everything — anti-coal, anti-LAPSSET and so on,” Famau asserted. “After we won the coal plant case, we decided to re-strategize and do small projects at the community level so that they can see that at least there are some good things that we do.”

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    After the opening of the port, the organization went ahead to write a letter to the Kenya Ports Authority, telling them that the fisherfolk needed full compensation. Also, they staged a demonstration and did a press release about the same. Athman has since received phone calls from government officials and had meetings with the county commissioner who promised that they will be compensated.

    The organization is now waiting for that to be a reality. If that fails and nothing happens within a week, they plan to organize another demonstration to pressure the government to release the compensation to the fisherfolk.

    “But if the government doesn’t want to listen,” Famau warned, “then we will do anything within our power to ensure that our livelihoods and the environment are protected for the sake of our future generations.”

    5 ways to push anti-Semites out of the Palestinian solidarity movement

    As Israel resumes its bombing of Gaza, and settlers attack Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line — the boundary between what is considered Israel proper and occupied Palestine — support for the Palestinian fight for freedom has hit a new level of international consensus. The solidarity work to end Israel’s occupation and militarism have their foundations in a battle against colonialism, imperialism and racist border policies. The movement has an intersectional approach to issues that can be seen at Palestinian demonstrations, as protesters expose how immigration, policing and Palestinian liberation are bound up with one another.

    But a small, disingenuous group of white nationalists have been trying to exploit justifiable anger against Israel to push anti-Semitic narratives, a strategy they have historically used to influence the public with anti-Jewish ideas. While some alt-right figures have made tacit statements in support of Zionism, usually because of its perceived ethno-nationalist characteristics, many are using these recent military actions as a wedge issue to suggest that Jews and Judaism are the motivating problem. While these racist interlopers want to hijack movements for liberation for their own purposes, activists around the world are working to both kick out what is often called entryists — people entering a movement to shift it in a racist direction — and throw up barriers to anti-Semites trying to join or co-opt the movement.

    Why they do this

    White nationalist movements like the alt-right are known for using crossover issues, such as immigration, to push nativist and racist ideas into the mainstream and to pull converts to their cause. They have historically attempted to do this in left-wing political spaces as well. Just as white nationalists and far-right ideologues have tried to influence environmental, feminist, animal rights, labor and other social justice movements, they will attempt to shift the framework of the critique around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict away from issues of Israeli statecraft and into a conspiratorial narrative about “Jewish Power.”

    Previous Coverage
  • Palestine solidarity sweeps the US as Israel continues assault on Gaza
  • “Israel is an obvious target for those who believe in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories,” said Spencer Sunshine, an independent researcher of the far-right. “Nazis since Hitler have supported various Palestinian political factions. U.S. Nazis have expressed support for the Palestinian cause — and more broadly made overtures to Middle Eastern anti-Zionists — since at least the 1950s. In fact, the largest U.S. fascist demonstration before Charlottesville was a 2002 anti-Israel rally by the National Alliance in D.C.”

    Greg Johnson, who runs the largest American white nationalist publisher Counter-Currents, puts the “Jewish Question” at the center of his fascist politics. He is cautioning other white nationalists from showing any sympathy with Israel.

    “I don’t think that shilling for Israel is a polite position, a permissible position, a defensible position within the race conscious white community,” Johnson said in a podcast episode on May 16. “I’m kind of glad this uprising is taking place. Why? Well because the organized Jewish community in Israel and in the diaspora spends a great deal of time and money promoting refugee resettlement, promoting censorship, promoting deplatforming.”

    The strategy that white nationalists use in this case is often referred to as “entryism,” where they will try to find a crack into a social movement, utilizing the existing movement energy and diverting its goals, methods and members. While they often parrot some of the talking points about Palestinian oppression, they do not actually care about the effects of colonialism and are more than happy to celebrate other forms of occupation when done by people they effectively racialize as white.

    Fighting back

    White nationalist entryism into the left is not unique to Palestinian solidarity. It happens regularly across social movements such as organized labor, environmentalism and antiwar projects. That’s why intentional strategies are important for how to address interlopers, to set standards and push them out. Here are five ways to create barriers to anti-Semites from entering the Palestine solidarity movement and to fight back against any attempts at co-optation.

    1. Set standards. There should be clear standards that anti-Semitism is never to be tolerated, and that also means explaining what anti-Semitism is. Many groups are hesitant to use definitions that are bandied about from right-wing pro-Israel groups, such as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, or IHRA, definition that many allege to be unfairly silencing speech critical of Israel. Instead, having a clear standard that conspiratorial language, those who demonize Jews and Judaism, and those who reproduce historic anti-Semitic tropes, such as “blood libel,” are to be banned. (Blood libel was a false claim in Medieval Europe that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood in nefarious rituals, and there are contemporary conspiracy theories that attempt to modernize this claim by suggesting similar actions are being done in relationship to Israel.) Many people are starting to use the Jerusalem Declaration as a model for this rather than the IHRA definition, which hinges on the idea that anti-Semitism is “discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).”

    Activists with Jewish Voices for Peace protest a Senate bill equating legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism in 2016. (Jewish Voices for Peace)

    A number of other progressive Jewish groups have issued “5 Principles for Dismantling Anti-Semitism” as another alternative since even the Jerusalem Declaration centers the definition of anti-Semitism on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Additionally, the Nexus Task Force put together a white paper that tried to address an actionable definition of anti-Semitism that did not rope in criticism of Israel. Many groups have become suspicious of organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, both in terms of their pro-Israel slant and the way they gather statistics on anti-Jewish hate crimes, so it is important to find an alternative for setting standards that do not capitulate on core principles.

    2. Coalition boundaries. Any good social movement has broad coalitions with flexible ideological boundaries. A mass movement requires a flood of people — that’s its power — and any large contingent will have some ideological variance and disagreement. Within that, there still has to be a sense of what type of ideologies and figures are out of bounds. The Palestinian solidarity movement is built on the universal desire for human liberation — not the belief that Jews are a particularly pernicious threat as Jews. With that understanding, white nationalists and anti-Semites should be out of bounds by virtue of failing to meet even the basic ideological foundations that the movement was built on.

    No conspiracy is necessary when discussing Israel. The facts of the matter are enough to build a movement against the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

    More than this, the presence of these groups creates a real and viable danger for not just Jews at these events, but all marginalized communities participating in them. If white nationalists can push a conspiratorial view of Jews and Zionism past the limits of their movement, then they can help to move the broader public on one of their key issues: suspicion of Jews as a people. White nationalists have even threatened pro-Israel events, which provides ammunition to right-wing pro-Israel groups who want to suggest that Palestinian solidarity organizing is inherently anti-Semitic.

    A recent example of this happened in Phoenix, Arizona when white nationalist Tim Gionet, known online as “Baked Alaska,” tried to join a Palestinian solidarity event while livestreaming on Trovo. As people realized who he was, and witnessed loud and offensive behavior from his contingent, they wanted him out. “A crowd started chanting at him and he refuses to leave, so they just crowded around him and kind of kept him and his friends from wandering around anymore,” said an anonymous member of the antifascist group AZ Right Wing Watch, who was documenting Gionet’s livestream.

    3. No conspiracy theories. One of the most vulnerable places on the left for anti-Semitic entryism is through conspiracy theories. Most conspiracy theories we encounter today carry the historical structure of earlier anti-Semitic ones, and that is true even when they do not overtly reference Jews. Everything from “9/11 Truth” to ideas about banking families like the Rothschilds, Soros or Bilderbergs are a structural weakness for social movements that confuse the pathways to power and create an ideological infrastructure where Jews can be slotted in as cabalistic actors.

    No conspiracy is necessary when discussing Israel. The facts of the matter are enough to build a movement against the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. When the Left Forum, one of the largest left-wing conferences in the United States, was set to have some anti-Semitic speakers present conspiracy-laden arguments around Zionism and Holocaust denial, pressure was put on them by antifascists. The forum subsequently removed them, maintaining their commitment to anti-racist politics.

    The conspiracy theory problem is not at all owned by the Palestinian solidarity movement, and in reality that problem is often worse in other social movement spaces. This is one of the weakest areas of radical left-wing politics, and it is the most common way anti-Semitism can creep in. So this is a standard that must be universally maintained.

    4. Remove far-right influences. As the Israeli assault on Gaza commenced and the solidarity movement planned actions around the world, the anti-Semitic slur “Zio” began to be used in earnest on social media. The term was coined by white nationalist David Duke, who often uses a faux concern for Palestinians as a way of railing against “Jewish elites” or a world Zionist conspiracy. His website has become almost solely a vessel for his writing on the conflict, mixing in accusations of ethnic cleansing with deeply transphobic, racist and conspiratorial claims that Zionists are destroying both Palestine and the “West.”

    Even when white nationalists themselves are not present, there are terms, arguments, imagery and ideas that have actually originated on the far-right and then have been laundered into the solidarity movement by less discerning, or outright problematic, participants. Figures like Gilad Atzmon, Israel Shamir, Alison Weir and Ken O’Keefe were pushed out of the Palestinian solidarity movement for their elevation of far-right ideas and relationships even though they did not originate in white nationalist circles.

    For example, while Atzmon had long utilized anti-Semitic arguments about Jewish identity, “chosenness,” and Jewish political power, he was still invited in by many coalitions in and outside of Britain. Once his relationship with figures like Greg Johnson became publicized, organizations who had dealt with him and outlets that had published him severed ties and he is no longer welcome at most mainline Palestinian solidarity events. This helped to create a boundary of its own, whereby Atzmon’s presence signals areas of the movement that are out of the bounds of acceptable criticism.

    The same was true of O’Keefe’s relationship with David Duke, Alison Weir’s mobilization of “blood libel” accusations, and Israel Shamir’s Holocaust denial, conspiracy theories and justification of medieval anti-Semitism. Once it was clear that they were making the same arguments that far-right anti-Semites typically make, it no longer mattered that they had not originated from within fascist politics.

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    Many organizations have followed this model of public disassociation. In 2015, the anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace issued a letter formally severing their relationship with Alison Weir over anti-Semitic statements and relationships “because our central tenet is opposition to racism in all its forms, and you have chosen repeatedly to associate yourself with people who advocate for racism.” Multiple organizations and individuals came together to sign and share a denunciation of Atzmon, explaining what he has said and done and making him unwelcome in most left spaces. If these sort of public statements and standards continue, it can create an effective barrier between what is considered acceptable criticism of Israeli policy and those who have turned to anti-Semitic canards or are fueled by anti-Jewish animus.

    5. Take claims of anti-Semitism seriously. Because right-wing groups have often used disingenuous claims of anti-Semitism to slander Palestinian activists, particularly in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, or BDS, movement, it is not uncommon to have claims of anti-Semitism disregarded. This creates a vacuum of accountability and robs movements of strategies necessary to actually address the problem when it rears its head. Movements should take these sorts of issues seriously when claims are made. If standards are set and there is a clear understanding of what is and is not anti-Semitism, such measures should allow movements to address any oppressive behavior in their midst while not capitulating on their movement’s principles.

    At the same time, it should not be derailed by pro-Israel movements who use criticism of Israel and Zionism as the marker for what is and is not anti-Semitism. Many organizations on the left have had a good track record recently of working to confront anti-Semitism while also supporting progressive political solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ending the occupation. Jews for Economic and Racial Justice, Jewdas, IfNotNow, and Bend the Arc are all Jewish-led organizations that have shown a strong shared commitment to Palestinian liberation and to ending anti-Semitism.

    Right now, we are seeing a sea change in the international struggle for freedom in Palestine. Israel’s 50-year occupation is starting to be seen in full view by the world community, which means that the movement on the ground has a real shot at changing the underlying conditions that Palestinians are living under. By bridging the struggle for Palestine with a strong anti-oppression, intersectional framework, it only makes the project stronger — allowing the fight against colonialism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism to be part of a shared mission for liberation.

    50 years ago, the Pentagon Papers’ success hinged on a personal conversion to nonviolence

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    Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers 50 years ago this week represents one of the most dramatic — if not the mostdramatic — nonviolent actions of the movement that helped end the Vietnam war. It was also one of the most impactful as it precipitated events that led to the downfall of Richard Nixon. Less known is how the success of this action hinged on Ellsberg’s personal conversion to nonviolence.

    The media had a field day with the Pentagon Papers story. No wonder. It captured front-page headlines and network news for weeks: top secret documents revealed decades of governmental duplicity; a whistleblower eluded a massive FBI manhunt; the New York Times defied the president and published the papers; major newspapers joined in the defiance; a landmark Supreme Court decision vindicated the media; the whistleblower avoided a 100-plus year prison term because of governmental misconduct. 

    If the anti-Vietnam War movement has produced any celebrity, surely it’s Daniel Ellsberg. Two major filmmakers have put the story onto the big screen — the Oscar-nominated 2009 documentary “The Most Dangerous Man in America and the 2017 Hollywood feature “The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. 

    Last month, the University of Massachusetts Amherst sponsored a major conference about the Pentagon Papers’ legacy with Ellsberg himself, fellow whistleblower Edward Snowden, Nixon aide John Dean, and about two dozen journalists, activists and historians. (If you missed the conference, you can still check out the recording.)

    Rather than bask in his fame, Ellsberg has used it relentlessly to bolster progressive causes on platforms big and small — or joined civil disobedience actions all over the country. (I was arrested with him four years ago at a nuclear weapons site when he was 86 years old. While in custody, he remarked that he had been busted about the same number of times as his age.)

    Not only had Ellsberg become convinced intellectually that he had to do something against the war, he allied himself with the antiwar movement.

    The personal story behind the release of the Pentagon Papers is nearly as dramatic as the public one. A former Marine, Ellsberg was a gung-ho anti-communist who spent several years in Vietnam working for the government and then for a defense contractor. He became disillusioned with the American conduct of the war and the lies that perpetuated it. But he had only minimal knowledge of the antiwar movement or nonviolence until he met several activists at a conference at Princeton in 1968, including an Indian woman named Janaki, who introduced him to the philosophy of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. He was blown away. In his memoir “Secrets,” Ellsberg said that it was a “genuinely new way” of thinking. “It seemed as though it might even offer… a chance of bringing about real change away from violence and revenge.”

    Anyone who has spent time around Ellsberg is impressed with his intensity and thoroughness. So, it is not surprising that he spent much of the next year reading everything he could about nonviolence — King, Gandhi, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Joan Bondurant, Barbara Deming, among others. Though still working for a defense contractor, he attended another conference, this one sponsored by War Resisters International. There he met several draft resisters, one of whom — a Quaker named Bob Eaton — was sentenced to three years in prison for draft resistance in the middle of the conference. Another — Randy Kehler, a War Resisters League staffer — gave a speech that changed Ellsberg’s life. Randy asserted that he was looking “forward to jail, without remorse or fear, because I know that everyone here and lots of people around the world like you will carry on.”  

    Randy’s words hit Ellsberg “as though an ax had split my head, and my heart broke open.” He left the hall and went to the men’s room where he sobbed uncontrollably for about an hour. “What I had just heard from Randy had put the question in my mind, ‘What could I do, what should I be doing, to help end the war now that I was ready to go to prison for it?’” Before long he knew his answer: Disclose top secret documents in his office that would become known as the Pentagon Papers. The cold warrior had been transformed into an anti-warrior.

    Ellsberg’s account of his conversion reveals two important factors that contributed to the effectiveness of his action. First, not only had Ellsberg become convinced intellectually that he had to do something against the war, he allied himself with the antiwar movement. This was no small matter. To his associates in the government and his defense contractor employer, he had gone over to the enemy. 

    Previous Coverage
  • How 1971’s Mayday actions rattled Nixon and helped keep Vietnam from becoming a forever war
  • During the War Resisters International conference, he befriended several activists and even joined a demonstration outside the courthouse where Bob Eaton was sentenced. Over the next year and half, Ellsberg discretely contacted other anti-warriors while he was copying and preparing the documents. And, just a month before the documents were released, Ellsberg took part in Mayday, the massive civil disobedience action where antiwar protesters attempted to block the streets of Washington, D.C, to keep government employees from reaching their offices. Police used tear gas to disperse Ellsberg’s affinity group, which included professors Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Marilyn Young.

    Once the New York Times published the first installment of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg’s network of antiwar activists helped facilitate his remaining underground for two weeks while he sent sets of documents to other newspapers — a crucial reason why, despite its best efforts, the government was unable to stop the presses. 

    In this regard, Ellsberg contrasts with most other recent whistleblowers who essentially acted as lone wolves. Certainly, their courageous disclosures have been greeted approvingly by segments of the media and in progressive circles. But Ellsberg’s many allies within the antiwar movement greatly amplified the visibility and impact of his action. He spoke to large crowds of supporters in the months before his trial. And the trial itself became a cause célèbre and a highly publicized antiwar forum.

    Ellsberg’s personal fearlessness was the second factor that contributed to the success of his action. As with the story of his decision to act, Ellsberg was deeply influenced by Gandhi, who wrote: “[Nonviolent] resistance cannot proceed a step without fearlessness. Those alone can follow the path of [nonviolent] resistance who are free from fear, whether as to their possessions, false honor, their relatives, the government, bodily injuries, or death.”

    Ellsberg internalized this principle when he surfaced after two weeks of evading the massive FBI manhunt. As he approached the Boston courthouse surrounded by the media and dozens of activists, a reporter asked him, “How do you feel about going to prison?” Ellsberg replied simply, “Wouldn’t you go to jail to end the war?”

    In effect, Ellsberg was showing that he did not fear for the consequences of his action. Indeed, he was openly defying the authorities — in the same tradition as the Vietnam-era draft resisters, the civil rights marchers in Birmingham and Selma, and the participants in Gandhi’s Salt March. 

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    Such open defiance forces the opponent’s hand. If they don’t act, they lose face, and the nonviolent resisters win. So, almost always, those in power crack down by intimidation, arrests, or physical violence.

    The authorities’ reaction sets in motion a dynamic that nonviolent theorist Gene Sharp called “political jiujitsu.” If they react too strongly, they may find that their repression backfires, especially if the resisters remain nonviolent and provide a dramatic contrast with state violence. (The Alabama state troopers’ beating of the marchers on the Selma bridge is a good example. Their behavior shocked the nation and resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act.)

    In the case of the Pentagon Papers, Nixon became so enraged at Ellsberg’s blatant violation of the law that he did not content himself with merely letting the whistleblower be prosecuted. Nixon created a secret unit called the Plumbers that illegally raided Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office and organized an attempt to physically assault Ellsberg at a rally. Nixon even tried to bribe the trial judge by offering him the plum job as head of the FBI. 

    Nixon’s repression backfired big time. Ellsberg’s case was dropped, and the illegal activities of the Plumbers unit created to stop Ellsberg led to Watergate and Nixon’s resignation in disgrace.

    Previous Coverage
  • A nuclear war planner’s guide to resisting the bomb
  • For his part, Ellsberg’s courage has not diminished even at age 90. Last month he released a cache of dozens of pages of a top-secret study that revealed that the U.S. military seriously considered first-use nuclear strikes against China over a 1958 dispute over Taiwan. Ellsberg made these documents public now because he believes the same threat exists today amidst the bellicose talk between the United States and China while both countries continue stockpiling nuclear arms. 

    By releasing the documents, Ellsberg is daring the government to prosecute him under the Espionage Act, the same law under which recent whistleblowers have been charged. He thinks the law is unconstitutional because of its chilling effect on the right of the public to know what its government is up to. As a disciple of nonviolence, Ellsberg is willing to risk spending the rest of his life in prison for the sake of future whistleblowers.

    Unable to claim title to homes they paid to own, Salvadorans unite to fight developers for land rights

    Heidi Zelaya is determined to see her grandmother’s legacy of property ownership realized. 

    But along with more than 350,000 families across El Salvador, she is living in legal limbo, unable to claim title to property that her family paid to own. 

    Zelaya is a community leader with Communities of Faith Organizing in Action, or COFOA, a faith-based grassroots organization that has mounted a struggle for land rights, representing hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised Salvadorans who bought land lots from developers but have not been awarded legal ownership, sometimes decades after paying the balance due. 

    “Our vision is to create citizen power capable of advocating for national public policy that alleviates the tensions that exist because of inequality and poverty, and that improve health services, education, housing, security and employment,” explained COFOA Executive Director Alberto Velázquez.

    They call their campaign “RENACER,” a Spanish acronym meaning “National Network in Action with Hope and Resistance.” It also means “rebirth” in Spanish, and the initiative has rallied more than 3,000 community leaders across the country representing 7,500 of the affected families in seven states (referred to as “departments” in El Salvador). Their goal is to push land developers to hand over titles long owed to lot owners and to pressure the government to enact reform that would hold private developers accountable. 

    A bill proposed for a vote by Minister of Housing Michele Sol is now headed out of committee to the full legislative assembly. It would not resolve Zelaya’s situation, according to organizers.  

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    Decades ago, Zelaya’s grandmother was one of many in the El Socorro housing development who paid cash for her small slice of land. Informally, she was given the developers’ word that once half the properties sold, the title to her land would be transferred and registered to her name. 

    “That was in 1991,” Zelaya said. “This is 2021.”

    Her family still doesn’t hold the title to the land and she says the developers, now living in Miami, don’t have much incentive to resolve the 30-year-old situation. Many others are in the same boat as Zelaya. 

    She is among the leaders who helped organize 600 demonstrators who showed up in front of the assembly on June 1 to appeal to President Nayib Bukele as he arrived for his second annual address. Weeks earlier, they arrived en masse at the Presidential House to deliver a letter requesting a meeting to present their case. 

    “We’re not against you, President Bukele. We just want to touch your heart,” read a sign held by a demonstrator on June 1. The president has not responded to requests from COFOA-RENACER, who say face-to-face meetings with government officials are a cornerstone of the COFOA organizing methodology.

    Velázquez says people who buy lots in housing developments, often paying the balance over a number of years, are easily left landless. He claims real estate developers who accept lot payments and make promises to transfer titles have for decades evaded or simply defied a national system of property registry — known as the National Center of Registry — which is responsible for assigning those rights . 

    After more than a year of organizing, demonstrations and in person appeals to confront private development companies, the National Center of Registry and other government agencies, leaders have begun the next phase of their campaign as legislators consider the bill they’re being asked to vote on. 

    Oligarchs continue to hold the majority of land, still benefiting from historic privilege and government structures that favor the elite.

    Organizers are meeting across the country throughout the month of June with legislative deputies, asking them to insist on a just law that protects the rights of citizens who purchase lots and are routinely denied title. They say the law must require developers to abide by reasonable timelines for submitting title transfers to the National Center of Registry, and they are demanding sanctions against private companies when they fail to comply.  

    COFOA says that commitment on the part of the legislature to pass a “Lots and Parcels for Habitational Use” law could mean greater security for families like Zelaya’s. But in its current form, a vote is premature because it fails to protect all lot purchasers. According to organizers, amendments COFOA proposed in January to the Public Works, Transportation and Housing Commission would correct the deficiency.

    “The proposed law the commission approved for a full assembly vote would only protect future lot buyers, not the people who have already made purchases,” Velázquez said. “[The bill] doesn’t permit any government agencies to hold developers accountable or protect the public when their rights have been violated … It doesn’t obligate developers to legalize their lots but rather invites them to, if they’d like to.” 

    Though some government officials have voiced support for citizen efforts to stake their long-awaited claims, the amendments COFOA offered to specifically protect citizens were ignored. 

    “Today we began the work to break with the mafia of developers that have kept lot inhabitants in legal limbo,” Deputy Saúl Mancía of the president’s Nuevas Ideas party wrote in May when the committee voted to approve moving the bill out of committee. Nuevas Ideas controls the newly seated legislature, the presidency and — after a controversial move last month by the party that replaced all five of the justices of the highest national court — the judicial branch.  

    Mancía’s statement indicated the legislature will provide legal tools to the Ministry of Housing to ensure those who purchase lots are granted title. Legal title is necessary in order to access credit or even put a water or electric bill in one’s name. 

    “Having legal certainty, it will be much easier to access basic services and credit,” he said.  

    The ball is now in the full legislature’s court, but COFOA leaders say their current efforts fall short. 

    As it stands, developers who don’t transfer title when they’ve been paid for the property continue to be the legal owners, maintaining their wealth and their rights to the land. This leaves lot dwellers vulnerable to exploitation and land grabbing. Velázquez says developers take advantage by becoming lenders to people who purchase from them, since they are unable to access credit through traditional lenders, multiplying their earning potential on the land. He says there are also cases in which the developers re-sell land to other buyers when a lot dweller misses payments or falls behind, sometimes keeping years of equity and “refinancing” so that purchasers have to start over from zero.  

    Hundreds of Salvadorans have marched on private real estate developers, government agencies, the legislature and the president, demanding land rights reform in recent weeks. (Facebook/COFOA)

    The concept of buying land outright or paying off a lease or contract for deed, in most contexts, is cause for celebration, relief and a growing sense of financial, social and legal security — but for many Salvadoreans, it can be a struggle to get there. 

    This is not a new plight. Calls for land reform in the 1980s accompanied El Salvador’s plunge into a 12-year civil war and many advocates ended up dead at the hands of death squads propped up by the United States. Oligarchs then and now continue to hold the majority of land, still benefiting from historic privilege and government structures that favor the elite. 

    For the thousands of people who paid off the debt on the lots where their homes now sit — some of them 15, 20, or, as in the Zelaya family’s case, as many as 30 years ago — it has been a never-ending wait to legally own land they paid for. 

    As Mancía noted and organizers confirm, the result is not simply that owners don’t have legal claim to their property. It also means that they often can’t access basic services like water and electricity because access is granted to owners. Because the government is not legally bound to extend services like public water to privately owned land, this is both a money and face-saver for them and wealthy landowners. 

    Omar Serrano is vice rector for social projection at the University of Central America, which has been a hub for Jesuit intellectuals and human rights organizers since the Salvadoran civil war of the 1980s, when many of its scholars were murdered for their opposition to the right-wing Salvadoran government. According to Serrano, the land rights issue is an old problem that grew out of shared negligence on the part of the developers who don’t appropriately facilitate the transfer of title upon sale. He also holds the National Center of Registry responsible for ignoring the problem for more than 30 years. 

    Serrano believes that COFOA’s community organizing strategy has been effective. “The value added by COFOA is its closeness with the people,” Serrano said, dubbing himself an outside observer. “The people take ownership of their cause, their problem … and they feel that they’re defending something that is their own.” 

    “Where there is unity, there is strength. There’s a feeling of power. We’re no longer three or four members of a local council, but a total of 39 communities working together.”

    Organizers with COFOA view the land rights battle and the struggle for access to clean, affordable water as intrinsically connected. For decades, the rich have continued to accumulate wealth as water flows freely from their publicly-funded taps, and activists have voiced concerns about privatization of public resources and skyrocketing costs that have ensured access is secure only for the elite. COFOA has been at the forefront of this fight. 

    Though there is widespread public consensus surrounding water rights, the movement has made few material gains. Serrano says this is because party politics determines what issues count, referring to the legislature’s recent vote against a public water rights law. He finds COFOA’s practice to confront officials at the local level promising, but with the political distribution of power even at the local level dominated by Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party, he believes they’ll have to be strategic.

    “The human right to water has been the issue with the greatest consensus in our country … It can be the most noble cause, but unless it comes from the party in power, it won’t advance … I think [COFOA] should be conscious of this,” he said of the land rights reform efforts. 

    A testament to the intimately tied issues, many lot dwellers who’ve been denied their titles are forced to walk long distances several times a day to fill receptacles to meet their families’ daily needs or pay black market prices to purchase water from those who do have access

    Their ability to access credit is also derailed by the lack of legal collateral to secure even a small loan. 

    “I operate as a street vendor and financial institutions won’t give me credit,” said Marcos Álvarez, whose family is among the disenfranchised lot dwellers who often can’t make even small purchases for his business. “This hurts me a lot because it’s my raw material.”

    He says that as a community leader, the methods he’s learned through COFOA are working. 

    “Before, I would have never agreed to participate in a protest,” Álvarez said. But the nonviolent pressure and transparent, peaceful and orderly methods organizers have been trained to use with businesses and government institutions support his principles and “they’re effective and efficient.”

    Over the years, individuals and small groups of organizers from different communities have approached the developers and local and national government agencies responsible for assigning land rights. Zelaya and Álvarez agreed that the appeal had never been unified. Lacking the benefit of connecting the dots from municipality to municipality and in departments across the country, community leaders connected through COFOA have recognized a need to band together and organize.  

    “Where there is unity, there is strength. There’s a feeling of power,” Álvarez said. “We’re no longer three or four members of a local council, but a total of 39 communities working together.”  

    COFOA was established in El Salvador as a locally-owned branch of Faith in Action International, a U.S.-based Catholic organization that began its work there in 2008. The non-governmental organization equips and trains local leaders to build effective nonviolent campaigns to effect change through a methodology of community-led relationship building, research, dialogue to identify and prioritize issues they want addressed, and demonstration of their people power, demanding accountability and action from public officials. 

    On the heels of the first year of the land rights campaign, 80 families in the first community to organize were awarded their titles, exceeding a collective value of $1 million.

    Velázquez says COFOA has helped communities access millions of dollars in municipal and state funding and reforms over more than a decade. Their efforts, grounded in church-based organizing across the country, have helped communities gain greater access to water and healthcare, build bridges necessary to facilitate economic and social mobility, and ultimately strike at the heart of unjust and negligent government systems through direct action.

    “Our strategy is built on relationships and empowering regular people to meet directly with officials en masse to raise their concerns and make demands,” Velázquez said. When this method alone doesn’t get results, they stage nonviolent, organized marches, making public appeals that pressure officials by demonstrating the risk of losing at the ballot box. 

    Following Bukele’s annual address repeatedly attacking the oligarchy and asserting his unflinching allegiance to “the people,” more than 1,000 leaders are leaving letters addressed to him at the Presidential House this week. The individually written letters ask him to meet with RENACER leaders in person and to support reform and protect “the people” by holding the multi-million dollar real estate development companies accountable.  

    “We teach people that public officials are their employees and their salaries are paid with the people’s tax dollars,” said Velázquez. “COFOA isn’t a welfare organization … What we do is empower regular people through a methodology of leadership formation so that they can exercise their power as citizens, in an active, participatory democracy, and from a place of faith.” 

    Velázquez claims COFOA’s success over the past 13 years includes community campaigns that have netted more than $18 million dollars in public infrastructure projects that improve the lives of ordinary citizens. 

    One community led a two-year campaign to get the Ministry of Public Works to construct a needed bridge that had been an unfulfilled promise for 20 years. They garnered more than $500,000 in government investment in 2018 after increasing pressure on officials through direct negotiation and public demonstrations.

    On the heels of the first year of the land rights campaign that became RENACER in 2020, 80 families in the first community to organize were awarded their titles, exceeding a collective value of $1 million. RENACER aims to keep growing until everyone who is owed gets the title to their land.  

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    Organizers plan to hold the pressure firm on deputies throughout the month of June, bringing together community leaders to demonstrate the power of their vote at meetings scheduled with legislators in their home districts. They’re arguing for the inclusion of COFOA amendments presented in January that have been left out of the bill slated for a vote.    

    “Getting the law passed is critical for advancing the cause of people who need their titles registered and for advancing the processes necessary for developers to finally transfer the titles,” Velázquez said. He and community leaders agree that if the law passes, with or without the amendments, the work is far from over. He says they will keep pushing to ensure people get their titles and training and growing the ranks of the movement to turn up the heat across the country all the way to the ballot box. He says if necessary, they’re prepared to seek international support.

    “They say they’re there for the people, they work for the people,” said community leader Alicia Merino, repeating the refrain of Bukele and his Nuevas Ideas party. “And as the people, we’re going to pressure them until they approve a fair law that, as one current legislator put it, ‘has claws, nails and teeth’ … to benefit the people who are affected and not just the developers.”

    Nursing home workers win historic agreement for higher wages and safer jobs

    Walking into the King-Davis union building in Hartford, Connecticut, the first thing you see is a very large photo of Martin Luther King Jr. standing behind a podium with “1199” on front. The spirit of King — and founding union president Leon Davis — played a major role in the most recent union victory for thousands of Connecticut health care workers from District 1199NE of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU.

    Built into the union’s latest contract campaign are King’s principles. “The purpose of the direct action,” he wrote, “is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

    District 1199 began negotiating with the owners of 44 nursing homes earlier this year for new collective bargaining agreements, since their previous ones expired March 15. With no resolution in sight, the workers voted to strike if a deal could not be reached within two months.

    As a result of escalating pressure on the owners, 5,000 nursing home workers finally reached an historic agreement just one day before their May 14 strike deadline. They won a $20 per hour minimum wage ($30 for licensed practical nurses). The current national average is $13.61. Additional funds were set aside for new safety-related practices at the homes.

    A double dose of pain

    Nursing home workers have received a double dose of distress during the COVID-19 pandemic. While caring for the elderly and most vulnerable, they have been working in poorly protected facilities, and they have brought the disease home with them.

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    Francene Bailey is one of Connecticut’s wounded warriors. At the nursing home where she works, 40 patients have died from COVID-related causes. At the start of the lockdown in 2020 Francene herself contracted the virus. Her mother died from COVID one month later. In Connecticut, half of the total 7,800 pandemic deaths have been nursing home residents.

    In order to protect their families, Francene and her co-workers tried to negotiate for months with their for-profit agencies (heavily funded by the state through Medicaid) to secure the protections and income needed to survive. In July 2020, the union drafted a “long-term care workers bill of rights.” This proclamation communicated to employers and the public the urgency of nursing home workers’ demands for safety and a living wage. The union successfully used it as the template for contract improvements.

    A long history together

    King often called 1199 “my favorite union.” Poverty-wage health workers who first organized in New York were just as much an inspiration to King as he was — and still is — to them. After his death, Coretta Scott King served as chair of the 1199 union’s national organizing campaign. She was soon on the streets of Charleston, South Carolina in 1969 with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, aiding an 1199 organizing drive at two local hospitals.

    Martin Luther King Jr. addresses New York City hospital workers on March 10, 1968. (District 1199/SEIU)

    Today, at the center of the struggle are certified nursing assistants, primarily women of color, many of them immigrants from Jamaica and Haiti. They find that going on strike is a momentous decision. It means exchanging a paycheck for picket line pay, which is a fraction of their wages. There are other hardships as well: employers are not required to contribute to workers’ health and welfare benefits when workers walk out.

    “No one listens until we threaten to strike”

    For the workers, the most painful aspect of a strike is the well-being of the patients they leave behind. “No one listens to us unless we threaten to strike,” Bailey explained. “We give loving care, but we get no love back from the boss. Really, our patients and their families are our biggest supporters. They know how hard we work and how much we care. Often we are the only outside faces they see.”

    The union workers count on the fact that every time District 1199 sends a required strike notice, the Connecticut Department of Public Health orders the nursing homes to submit a comprehensive plan for patient care, including the hiring of temporary replacements.

    Long-term care workers block the entrance to Allied Community Resources, Enfield, on Feb. 14. (District 1199/SEIU)

    Connecticut nursing home workers are no strangers to strikes, which they have utilized since 1969 to win raises, education and training programs, and a pension fund. Withholding one’s labor and refusing to cooperate with authorities has become an essential element of their organizing strategy. In one way or another, District 1199 members have lived this practice, with walk-ins on the boss, informational picket lines and other organized tactics inside the nursing homes.

    From February to May, the union turned up the pressure as the strike deadline approached. They blocked roads, sat down at intersections and occupied state office buildings in cities across the state, resulting in scores of arrests.

    Before they engaged in their civil disobedience campaign, the nursing home workers participated in nonviolence workshops, which was not easy to do while maintaining social distance. The training emphasized personal responses to violence, self care and the legal process.

    The participants also discussed the historic role direct action has played in the abolition, suffrage, labor, civil rights and peace movements. “We realized we aren’t alone, we are part of a long tradition,” said one participant.

    With the nursing home victory secured, District 1199 will now focus on achieving new contracts for other members, including residential care workers for the developmentally disabled, and state employees who specialize in a wide range of public health services. By applying the lessons they’ve learned from previous campaigns, organizers believe they can gain similar advances for all essential workers.

    Like Biden’s bold moves on government spending? Thank social movements.

    If you have been surprised by President Joe Biden’s ambitious proposals for government spending, you’re not alone. “I’ll be frank, I think a lot of us expected a lot more conservative administration,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in late April. Pramila Jayapal, Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has been similarly startled. When she heard Biden say in a televised speech, “The biggest risk is not going too big … It’s if we go too small,” she yelled out to her husband, “That’s our line! He used our line!” For their part, Republicans have accused the president of “false advertising” for promising moderation on the campaign trail and then delivering something far bolder. 

    As a landmark opening move, the administration secured a $1.9 trillion economic rescue package in March. Biden’s rival in the primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders, dubbed it “the single most significant piece of legislation for working-class people that has been passed since the 1960s.” Since then, the president has proposed some $4 trillion more in federal spending to create jobs, improve infrastructure, bolster care work and combat climate change — measures to be funded in large part by increases in corporate taxes

    Such turns, from a politician previously known for caution and bipartisanship, have led many political commentators to wonder: Who deserves credit for Biden’s newfound progressivism?

    Previous Coverage
  • It’s a myth that presidents welcome movement pressure — and Biden is no different
  • The answer to this question has been hotly debated, particularly with regard to the role of social movements. When Biden signed his initial relief bill in March, Thea Riofrancos, a professor of political science at Providence College, tweeted, “You won’t find this in the mainstream media coverage, but it’s literally impossible to imagine [this package] without the past year of organizing by Black Lives Matter, tenant orgs, DSA, Sunrise; essential workers going on strike; and the Bernie campaign.” Others, however, have doubted this proposition, arguing that Biden’s win in 2020 over more progressive candidates showed the impotence of movements and contending that the left should “dispense with the comforting illusion of having much sway.”

    So how much credit do social movements actually deserve for Biden’s victories? The answer to this question is critical because it shapes the way in which we understand how change happens — and it determines whom we might look to as the potential drivers of even greater transformations in the future.

    A shifting terrain

    Biden’s leftward lurch — at least on selected issues — is reflective of wider changes in American politics. As Patrick Murray, the director of polling at Monmouth University, remarked in the New York Times in April, “The Democratic Party has shifted itself. It has become more progressive, and you even have centrists who are on board with a few things that they wouldn’t have been happy with a few years ago.” 

    This trend had become evident well before Biden took office. Indeed, even with Donald Trump still in the White House, signs had emerged that the political climate had changed, and not just among Democrats. Bitter enemies of the party’s left, such as Rahm Emanuel — former mayor of Chicago and influential advisor to the two Democratic presidents that preceded Biden — acknowledged as much. “Admittedly, today’s landscape is much friendlier for progressive ideas than it was when either Mr. Clinton or Mr. Obama was running for office,” Emanuel wrote in the Wall Street Journal in early 2020, even as he continued encouraging candidates to tack to the center. Likewise, in an October 2020 article entitled “How Democrats Won the War of Ideas,” written before Biden had even won, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks argued, “The era of big government is here.” 

    “It’s not that everybody has become a Democrat,” Brooks contended, “but even many Republicans are now embracing basic Democratic assumptions.” He went on to cite the work of Charles Blahous and Robert Graboyes of the Mercatus Center, a pro-business think tank: “To show how the whole frame of debate has shifted, Blahous and Graboyes list the policies that are commonly discussed among Democrats now but that would have been too far left to get a hearing at the Democratic National Convention of 1996,” the columnist explained. “They’ve come up with many examples, including canceling college debt, more than doubling the minimum wage, shutting down coal-fired plants and guaranteeing every American a job.” Sizable portions of the Democratic delegations in both the House and Senate have signed on as co-sponsors to the Medicare for All Act. And on criminal justice issues, significant blocs of the party have embraced policies to reverse mass incarceration, with voters in several major cities electing district attorneys who directly rebuked a previous “law and order” orthodoxy. As Sanders remarked, “We have come a very, very long way in the American people now demanding legislation and concepts that just a few years ago were thought to be very radical.”

    How, then, do we account for this shifting terrain?

    The monolithic inclination to grant politicians credit as sole actors does not provide a very satisfying explanation for why national politics have changed.

    Perhaps the most common view of how change happens assigns agency to a small number of people at the top. We are constantly schooled in a vision of history that sees presidents, generals, senators and CEOs making consequential decisions that shape the fate of the nation. The tradition of civil resistance describes this as a “monolithic” view of power. The monolithic perspective, ubiquitous in the mainstream media, holds that if the political landscape has been altered, it is mostly because individual leaders have changed their minds. As a result of private conversions and public epiphanies, figures like Biden consult their moral compasses and decide to chart a new course. Public affairs, in turn, are reordered by their convictions.

    Skepticism of this take is warranted. Of course, politicians do change their minds. But ample evidence suggests that they are more often followers than leaders — that their views typically “evolve” only after a preponderance of public opinion has already indicated that a change of heart would be conducive to their political survival. This is particularly true of Joe Biden.

    As a senator, Biden was long considered a centrist Democrat who boasted of his close relationships to those as far to the right as segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond. When it was fashionable for Democrats to show they were “tough” on criminals, Biden stepped forward to champion the 1994 Crime Bill. Later he voted for the Iraq War when a wave of post-9/11 nationalism seemed to endorse the vengeance of foreign invasion, then was compelled to acknowledge this as a “mistake” once the war grew deeply unpopular. Similarly, Biden voted for the Bill Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, considered widely popular at the time. And while he upstaged Obama by doubling back on his position first, he only came out in favor of same-sex marriage after that administration had already moved to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court.

    In a recent article for The Atlantic, writer Anand Giridharadas interviewed Jeff Connaughton, a one-time aide in Biden’s senate office who ultimately grew disillusioned with Washington politics. “You could say he doesn’t have core beliefs, that he shapes himself to the political moment,” Connaughton stated of his former boss. “He often describes himself as a ‘fingertip politician,’ that he can find the political pulse, and that pulse right now is in an exceedingly different place than it was 30 years ago.” 

    The charitable way to characterize such a malleable disposition, Connaughton noted, would be to say that it “shows [Biden] has the capacity for change and growth.” A less kind assessment might peg him as a rank opportunist, craven even relative to the low standard set by other career politicians. Either way, the monolithic inclination to grant politicians credit as sole actors does not provide a very satisfying explanation for why national politics have changed.

    Crisis and opportunity

    A second leading method of reckoning with a changing political landscape looks to historical conditions for explanations. Here, observers are likely to highlight the importance of sudden ruptures in the status quo (wars, financial crises, natural disasters), as well as more gradual economic, sociological and demographic developments. These conditions, they argue, are decisive in altering the behavior of political leaders.

    In the current context, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the most obvious catalyst. “The pandemic has fundamentally changed a lot about the country,” White House advisor Mike Donilon told The Atlantic. “I don’t think you can go through an experience where 500,000-plus people lose their lives and everybody has their life turned upside-down and you reach unemployment levels approaching Depression-era levels and come out of that the same.” In this account, Biden sensed a national hunger for large-scale, transformative projects as a way of coming back from the malaise of lockdown and social distancing, and he responded with ambitious government action. Others have contended that disillusionment with Trumpian extremism created a window of opportunity for Biden to act, “particularly if he delivered tangible government benefits like stimulus checks and vaccines,” as the New York Times put it after the president’s first 100 days in office.

    Still others have pointed to longer-term trends. Eric Levitz in New York magazine cited the idea that “America’s inequality problem became too conspicuous for even conservative-minded economists to ignore.” And elsewhere, in a two-part series in the Washington Post in late 2019, University of California-San Diego sociologist Lane Kenworthy offered a series of structural arguments to explain why the Democrats have turned more progressive since 2012. He wrote, “On cultural issues and government social programs, the United States as a whole has been moving left for decades,” for a variety of reasons: More affluent societies tend to become more tolerant and less parochial; nations generally offer more generous public benefits as their economies grow; and after popular social programs are implemented, it is hard to eliminate them. 

    Of course, the trends Kenworthy identifies hardly stopped Ronald Reagan from launching a far-reaching assault on the social safety net, nor did they dissuade “Third Way” Democrats like Bill Clinton from extending Reagan’s legacy and declaring “the era of big government is over.” Other structural explanations run into similar problems. There is no doubt that historical conditions play an important role in shaping political life. But whether a given event or trend will result in progress or retrenchment is rarely as clear in advance as commentators will declare in hindsight. 

    When a crisis hits and politicians must formulate a response, they rarely turn to ideas that are altogether novel. Rather, they draw from policies and demands that have already been put on the table.

    Naomi Klein’s influential 2007 volume, “The Shock Doctrine,” made the case that, for the previous 50 years or more, the right had successfully used moments of crisis to push forward a reactionary, pro-corporate agenda. During the Great Recession that followed the financial collapse of 2008, Barack Obama bailed out Wall Street but declined to nationalize banks, impose real accountability on financiers, or provide serious aid to homeowners facing foreclosure. In spite of then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s recognition that “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” many have argued that the administration did just that. While Obama enacted a substantial stimulus package, the size and scope of the government’s response was constrained by neoliberal economic advisors such as Larry Summers — a figure whose stances promoting “balanced budgets, free trade and financial deregulation” were long regarded with great reverence in the Democratic Party. Just a few years after the 2008 crisis, the Tea Party was setting the tone in Washington, and Obama (with substantial help from then-Vice President Biden) was pursuing a “grand bargain” with Republicans to reduce the debt and scale back long-term spending on Medicare and Social Security. 

    Far from foretelling a transformational presidency, much conventional wisdom when Biden took his oath of office held that historical circumstances would not allow for bold action: entrenched polarization, a divided public and precarious margins in Congress would limit the administration to action that was modest at best. The fact that Biden’s moves to the contrary have been received with such surprise says much about how prevailing conditions were typically read very differently just a few months ago.

    Decades after the fact, historians can always seek to identify the major structural conditions that undergirded any major social transformation. But those trying to predict in advance how historical forces will play out have been prone to blunders. It is useful to remember that shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, many experts believed that geopolitics promised a period of extended continuity, with one distinguished Foreign Affairs analyst writing in 1987 that “there is no prospect of fundamental change in relations between [Warsaw Pact] countries and the USSR.” 

    Surely, organizers cannot afford to neglect careful examination of the social and economic factors that structure political activity. But rather than fatalistically seeing conditions as determinative, they do better to study them both for potential pitfalls and for new opportunities to advance a program of change. When a crisis hits and politicians must formulate a response, they rarely turn to ideas that are altogether novel. Rather, they draw from policies and demands that have already been put on the table. Therefore, it is important to consider how the demands get there to begin with, and to ask who sets the table.

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    Overton and his window

    One framework that seeks to describe how political stances once considered unacceptably fringe can drift into the mainstream is called the “Overton Window.” Originally proposed in the mid-1990s by liberatarian Joseph Overton, a staffer at a Michigan think tank called the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the idea rapidly gained currency in the Obama era (even inspiring conservative political commentator-turned-novelist Glenn Beck to invoke it in the title of his 2010 paranoid thriller). The concept came into more mainstream usage in the run-up to the 2016 elections, when the presence of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders left commentators scrambling to explain why previously enshrined political norms were being wantonly defiled. By 2018, the popularity of the “Overton Window” prompted Politico to publish an article discussing “How an Obscure Conservative Theory Became the Trump Era’s Go-to Nerd Phrase.”

    The basic notion is straightforward: On any given issue, political proposals can be arranged on a spectrum, with the most mainstream located toward the center and more extreme ones placed on either end. When choosing policies to support on that topic, elected officials will not look at the whole spectrum and then freely select the stances that most closely match their inner convictions. Instead, they will select from a more limited set of positions — ones considered reasonably safe and “sensible.” The Overton Window describes the range of positions considered “acceptable” to politicians who want to win reelection. As the Mackinac Center explains, risk-averse lawmakers “generally only pursue policies that are widely accepted throughout society as legitimate policy options. These policies lie inside the Overton Window.” Ideas that fall outside the window are typically ignored, passed over as “radical” or “unthinkable,” even if they might have merit in addressing social problems. 

    While the window shows what is considered politically possible at any given time, the view it offers is not entirely fixed. On an issue-by-issue basis, the position of the window can be moved. If popular opinion changes, the window’s center may shift in either direction, redefining what passes as “mainstream” on the topic in question. And this presents an opportunity: While insider politicians and lobbyists will focus their energies on haggling over policy options within the window of “sensible” reform, outside advocates need not limit themselves to championing the most immediately pragmatic proposals. Instead, by holding up more substantive and visionary demands, they can win more in the long run by pushing the Overton Window in a direction more favorable to their politics. 

    Part of the framework’s appeal is that much of what it proposes makes intuitive sense. Laura Marsh, writing in the New Republic, argued that “Overton did little more than repackage the basic negotiating principle that if you ask for a lot, you will likely get more than if you ask for a little.” For their part, social movement theorists have long discussed the benefits and potential pitfalls of “radical flanks” — the argument for the upside being that the presence of militant voices for change can increase the willingness of opponents to work with more moderate reformers, who seem sensible in comparison. 

    When it comes to using the Overton Window as a strategy, some have interpreted the concept to suggest that it encourages groups to stake out deliberately fringe positions — going so far as to promote demands more radical than what they actually want — on the grounds that such exaggerated extremism will make the policies these groups’ actually desire appear more reasonable. Rachel Maddow, for one, explained the theory in these terms in an MSNBC segment. Following on this interpretation, commentators have then either endorsed such calculated extremism or, alternately, condemned it as a bad strategy.

    It is the movement of public opinion, and how this change is embedded in such pillars of society over time, that leads politicians to evolve in their thinking.

    This interpretation misses the mark. Or, at least, this is clearly not the reading supported by Overton — who died in a plane crash in 2003 — or his Mackinac Center colleagues. Their strategic intent was to argue that it is worth promoting the policies that you really want, even if these are outside of what is currently acceptable in the mainstream political debate. Although your position may have little chance of being enacted in the short term, you can have an important impact: You both move the discussion toward your desired end goal and lend immediate legitimacy to more moderate versions of your demand that might currently be on the table. As an example, if leftists promote socialized medicine, they may not win it right away, but they increase the likelihood that a “public option” for health insurance might be passed as a compromise and, over time, they also pave the way toward Medicare for All.

    This is one valuable aspect of the Overton Window for outsider activists: It suggests a course of action beyond “direct policy advocacy” for compromise positions that fall short of your ultimate goals. Rather, as one Mackinac document explains, advocates “should focus on educating lawmakers and the public in an attempt to change the political climate,” making longer-range ambitions more attainable. “Move the window of what is politically possible and those policies previously [considered] impractical can become the next great popular and legislative rage.”

    Another strength of Overton’s analysis is its accurate view of politicians as, by and large, Machiavellian operators. Given the prevalent bias toward a monolithic view of power, it is not unusual to see pundits crediting elected officials themselves with shifting the Overton Window by staking out bold positions. However, this is a misreading of the original theory, which saw elected officials responding to changes in the electorate that were not of their own making. As Mackinac President Joseph Lehman writes, “Many believe that politicians move the window, but that’s actually rare. In our understanding, politicians typically don’t determine what is politically acceptable; more often they react to it and validate it. Generally speaking, policy change follows political change, which itself follows social change. The most durable policy changes are those that are undergirded by strong social movements.” 

    Trump, in particular, was commonly said to have “smashed” the window open, and Sanders has also been mentioned frequently as an Overton Window-breaker. To be fair, such insurgent candidates are far more likely to move the window themselves than are more mainstream politicians. But such renegade candidates, many of whom are connected to social movements, are exceptions to the rule. When politicians do push outside accepted boundaries, they usually pay a price for it. Those trying to build lasting careers and gain standing within the establishment are generally unwilling to take such risks.

    Being center-right libertarians, the Overton Window’s originators took their view of politicians as being self-interested and pliable from the field of public choice economics. But it hardly takes any theory at all to detect careerism and other unflattering motives at work in the behavior of officials who enter the proverbial “swamp” of mainstream politics. Rather than politicians setting the course for social change, the Mackinac Center argues, “it’s the rest of us who ultimately determine the types of policies they’ll get behind … [O]ur social institutions — families, workplaces, friends, media, churches, voluntary associations, think tanks, schools, charities, and many other phenomena that establish and reinforce societal norms — are more important to shaping our politics than we typically credit them for.” In other words, it is the movement of public opinion, and how this change is embedded in such pillars of society over time, that leads politicians to evolve in their thinking.

    Movements’ power to move policy

    Using this framework as a guide, one can find solid rationale for believing that social movements had a significant role in pushing the spectrum of policy on key issues. In doing so, they both contributed to the leftward migration of the Democratic Party and set the stage for Biden’s bold proposals for government spending. 

    Previous Coverage
  • Can social movements realign America’s political parties to win big change?
  • As one example, by putting the Green New Deal on the map, groups like the Sunrise movement have fundamentally reoriented the policy conversation around climate change and created a new standard by which Democratic candidates have been judged in the past two years. An analysis by the progressive think tank Data for Progress determined in late 2019 that Biden’s climate plan was more comprehensive than Bernie Sanders’s had been in 2016 — reflecting a sea change in the debate that happened well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Nevertheless, early in the primaries, environmentalists slammed Biden’s plan as far inferior to those that his competitors had embraced. This ultimately compelled Biden to make more far-reaching commitments, which have now been at least partially incorporated into his infrastructure plan. 

    Famed linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky told The Atlantic that the revised climate proposal was “far better than anything that preceded it. Not because Biden had a personal conversion or the DNC had some great insight, but because they’re being hammered on by activists.” This assessment of Biden’s motives was shared by the Trump campaign, which dubbed the former vice president a “puppet” of left-wing extremists. Although Chomsky quipped that Biden’s final plan was “largely written by the Sunrise Movement,” the group exercised influence much less through direct input offered in venues such as the Climate Engagement Advisory Council than through moving the goalposts in the public debate.

    As another example, in the Obama years it took the Occupy movement to shift the focus away from austerity and a Tea-Party inspired “grand bargain,” and to instead rally public sentiment in favor of measures to combat inequality, tax the wealthy and fund social programs. This message was then greatly amplified by the insurgent political campaign of Sanders in 2016, and later by Ocasio-Cortez and other members of “the Squad.” 

    More than most politicians, Sanders was able to reposition the window of possibility due to the nature of his campaign — which sought to eschew big-money donors and other conventional sources of legitimacy and instead forge new electoral coalitions. In the case of the 2016 presidential cycle, his unexpectedly strong showing led Hillary Clinton to adopt flattering forms of imitation, taking notable progessive turns on issues ranging from health care to trade to college tuition. Suggesting that Sanders might lose the primary but win the war, Bob Cesca wrote in Salon that “the best indicator of [the Overton Window’s] leftward voyage has been Hillary Clinton’s cleverly perceptive adaptation of Bernie’s positions” — a trend later parodied in a Saturday Night Live sketch that showed Clinton desperately trying to look cool to millennials by not only borrowing Bernie’s policy proposals, but also stealing his Brooklyn accent and rumpled wardrobe.

    Drives by Sanders and members of the Squad have gone far in legitimizing once-taboo positions. But they have perhaps been equally effective in demonstrating that many ideas previously considered politically out of bounds were actually widely popular. As the New York Times reported in early 2019, “Polls show that some support crosses the partisan divide. Forty-five percent of Republicans in one poll supported Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion to tax income over $10 million at 70 percent; among all American adults, 59 percent supported that.” This can be seen as an example of non-electoral organizing and movement-identified campaigns creating a mutually reinforcing cycle with the power to alter the political climate.

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    The Overton Window is helpful in explaining such trends. Yet the problem with the framework is that it fails to reckon with power. There are many political ideas that enjoy widespread public support but have nevertheless perennially failed to become law. The policies that are actually enacted are overwhelming ones backed by power. This — in the words of a classic Alinskyite maxim — takes the form of either organized money or organized people. 

    The issue of gun control provides a textbook case in point. Consistent majorities of the American public have expressed support for stricter gun laws, with reformers promoting exceedingly moderate “common-sense” measures, such as assault weapon bans and expanded background checks. And yet these advocates have made scant progress at the federal level in recent decades. The reason is that their opponents are able both to rally a passionate base of active supporters and draw from a heavy war chest of resources in defense of the pro-gun cause. Except during rare periods of anti-gun mobilization, such as in the wake of the Parkland shooting, support for reform has been broad but inadequately deep. As a result, gun-control advocates have been limited to modest changes, and only at the state and local levels.

    Those who originated the Overton Window saw their role as supplying lawmakers with policy ideas and doing some amount of public education. However, from their think-tank offices, they could not conceive of any actual organizing program. They took inspiration from market-fundamentalist guru Milton Friedman, who wrote: “That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” While such a mission is not entirely unfounded, it shows little awareness of what social movements do. By moving the spectrum of support, they not only turn people undecided about an issue into latent allies, but they radicalize and activate people who were already sympathizers, turning previously passive backers into dedicated adherents. When these energized supporters invest their time, passion and resources in the fight, they generate power.

    In a highly polarized political context, the window of political possibility has not moved so much as it has expanded. Diametrically opposed policies are being placed on the table at the same time. “Instead of a consensus edging one way or another, we have a choice between two poles,” argues Laura Marsh. Here, social movements are likely even more important than the Overton framework would suggest, for a simple reason: They are at the heart of efforts to create bases of people actively committed to strengthening the correct pole and persuading others to join them. 

    Ultimately, the exact combination of factors that moved Biden to action cannot be known, and it is not necessary to deny that personal convictions and historical conditions have played a role in Washington’s shifts. But the factor that likely has the most significant impact is also the one that is the most neglected in media, denied by insider operatives, and misunderstood by the public. “[Y]ou can’t look at Biden or Obama without looking into the moment in which they are living,” Sanders argued in a recent interview. Ironically, as a candidate who has done the most to shift the Overton Window himself, Bernie is one of the politicians who has worked hardest to dispel the myth of monolithic power. “[I]n the last number of years” he argues, “political consciousness in this country has changed,” something he attributes to the progressive movement’s elevation of social and economic issues. 

    Biden, in the words of one New York Times headline, was “No One’s Idea of a Historic Figure.” Rather, he was known for reading the political signs of the times. His bold push into progressive policymaking on government spending has required him to step away from his preferences for bipartisanship and to break with a track record of moderation. Some may conclude that his personal convictions or the unique moment created by the pandemic alone were sufficient to prod him down this path. Those who wish to see the president stay on this course have good reason to believe otherwise, and to organize accordingly.

    Research assistance for this article provided by Akin Olla.

    Palestine solidarity sweeps the US as Israel continues assault on Gaza

    Hundreds gathered in Terry Schrunk Plaza in downtown Portland, Oregon with signs denouncing the violence that is now crushing the Gaza Strip’s over two million residents. At this storytelling rally, Palestinians — who are so often rendered invisible in discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — spoke about their experiences of displacement. These centered on talking about how the forced expulsion of Palestinian Arabs in 1948 (known as the Nakba, or “disaster” in Arabic) affected them and their families.

    “While the Nakba is popularized as a singular event, the Nakba is ongoing,” said Ramzy Farouki, an organizer with the Center for the Study and Preservation of Palestine in Portland, who convened the event on what is called Nakba Day. “The Nakba occurs every time there is a displacement — every time there’s a forced court ordered eviction, every time there is a mass siege on Gaza, or any sort of violence in the West Bank or anywhere in occupied Palestine.” 

    The Portland rally was one of hundreds crossing the globe as people respond to the escalating violence in Israel and over the border into the Gaza Strip. Far-right settlers have been pushing Palestinian residents out of the East Jerusalem neighborhood Sheik Jarrah in an effort to make the area Jewish only. These increased tensions and protests escalated as Ramadan came to an end, with Israel blocking access to the Al Aqsa mosque and attacking Palestian protesters. 

    After Hamas fired rockets, Israel began its most aggressive bombing campaign since 2014. Hundreds of Palestians, including children, have been killed as the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, targeted residential areas. As tensions escalated, far-right Jewish mobs have been attacking Palestinians with street violence, which many people allege has been aided by Israeli police. As of Wednesday, the Gaza health ministry says that 224 people have been killed in Israeli air strikes, including 64 children, while an additional 1,620 have been injured. There have also been 20 killed in clashes with Israeli forces in the West Bank. Israel, for its part, has seen 10 casualties.

    Activists say that the asymmetry in the capacity for violence is allowing Israel to use unparalleled lethal force against Palestine, something that is both disproportionate to anything Hamas has done and further exacerbates the military occupation that has lasted more than 50 years. With outrage mounting, Palestinians are being joined by international solidarity activists who are using their unique American position to push back on Israel’s conduct.

    Because so many Palestinian solidarity organizations have been on the ground, building up relationships and campaigns for many years, they were able to respond quickly as the IDF escalated violence. Cities around the United States joined others from around the world in marches, rallies and speak-outs to raise the voices of Palestinians.

    Over 10,000 people rallied and marched with the Chicago Coalition for Justice In Palestine on May 12. (Twitter/US Palestinian Community Network)

    In Chicago, the local chapter of American Muslims for Palestine, or AMP, worked with six other organizations in the Coalition for Justice in Palestine to put on a series of actions directly after the bombing started. This included a rally and march on May 16 that brought out thousands in an effort to communicate what is happening in the region. 

    “It was primarily to raise awareness about what’s happening to pressure our elected officials to act and to speak out and to basically educate the general public,” said Deanna Othman, a board member of AMP Chicago. “[An] important component is contacting their elected officials, putting pressure on American government to understand that we’re fed up with funding this occupation and that we’re not going to accept this.”

    AMP Missouri in St. Louis also took the lead in organizing these actions. They held a May 18 rally at City Hall to call on politicians — who bank their reputation on progressive policy claims — to live up to their promise and speak out on Palestine. 

    “The goal was to raise awareness as the media has been censoring us both online and from local media outlets, but also to put pressure on the general public to speak out,” said Neveen Ayesh of AMP Missouri, who works primarily on government relations with the group. “We fund the atrocities occurring in occupied Palestine, as the United States sends the state of Israel an unconditional $3.8 billion a year.” 

    Both were clear that the primary way people can actively support Palestinians right now — both as IDF military actions and the occupation continue — is to support the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, or BDS, on Israel. This involves boycotting products from Israel, particularly in the settlements; calling on organizations, such as universities, to divest investment funds from Israel; and pressuring governments to level sanctions on Israel for human rights abuses.

    IfNotNow activists joined the Arab Resource and Organizing Center in San Francisco for a Nakba Day demonstration on May 15. (Twitter/IfNotNow)

    “We look at it as a nonviolent and peaceful method of resisting … pressuring Israel through our dollars [and] tax dollars to stop the human rights abuses and atrocities,” Ayesh explained. “We’re calling on them to stop harassing and arresting [Palestians], and murdering and massacring them. BDS is the only solution at this point. Palestinians don’t have a military, we don’t have an army and air force. Our options are limited …This is not something that just happened two weeks ago. This apartheid, this genocide, this atrocity has been occurring since 1948.”

    Campus organizations like the nationwide Students for Justice in Palestine network, or SJP, have taken action at colleges and surrounding communities, bridging the world of student activism with the larger Palestinian solidarity movement. 

    “I think through raising enough awareness globally, especially through social media, we can apply pressure on Israeli forces to back down,” said Sofia Sinnokrot, an organizer with SJP at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which held rally in solidarity with the residents of Sheik Jarrah and those affected by the bombing. “This type of mass pressure and continual boycotting of Israeli products and institutions will definitely be an aid to the Palestinians in our fight for liberation. I highly encourage people in the U.S. to get involved with their university’s SJP or to join a local organization in their city that is dedicated to fighting for the Palestinian cause.” 

    SJP is calling for BDS resolutions both at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where they were successful in passing one, as well as colleges around the country a strategy that seeks to end academic and financial relationships between American colleges and Israel. Divestment resolutions have been passed at dozens of universities, including Fresno State University, Swarthmore College and Occidental College.

    While marches are escalating, activists talked about how to influence decision makers to allow for a ceasefire, which would mean the United States stepping back from interfering with the U.N. Security Council’s attempts at halting the violence. Putting pressure on politicians with demonstrations, call-in campaigns, and boycotting political participation in community events all create points of leverage. If the United States, Israel’s prime ally and military funder, can be pressured to start pulling back on unilateral support, this could weaken Israel’s ability to take autonomous action against Gaza and, potentially, halt or reverse settlements.

    IfNowNow called on Nadler to sign HR 2590, to restrict military funding to Israel at a protest in New York City on May 12. (Twitter/Gili Getz)

    Most immediately, there are calls to push legislators to support the Palestine Children and Families Act (HR 2590), which was introduced by Rep. Betty McCollum to end aid to Israel that could be used to expand annexation or home demolitions in Palestine.

    “Showing up in the streets is super important,” said Morriah Kaplan, a spokesperson with the Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow. “It demonstrates that there is mass resistance to the bombings in Gaza, and to the other practices of the Israeli government, such as home demolitions, violent forced expulsions, the various ways [the Israeli] government works to strip Palestinians of their land and their rights and their livelihoods.” (IfNotNow does not have a formal position on BDS). 

    Since Jewish safety is often invoked when defending Israel’s military action, IfNotNow says that many Jews want to send the message that they “don’t think Jewish safety is contingent on Palestinian suffering.” IfNotNow is looking to put long-term pressure on progressive legislators to speak out in support of the Palestinian communities they say are under threat and not provide aid with a “no strings attached” mentality.

    While these actions are happening, pressure is amassing inside of Palestine, with a recent general strike leveling $40 million in economic damages as one of the largest labor action in the region’s history showed the ability of Palestinian workers to fight back.

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    In Portland, Palestinian residents told story after story of the generational trauma that has come from the ongoing displacement, and what it would mean to have a stable Palestine without the threat of military or settler violence.

    “We have to recognize that the Israeli occupation is illegal … there are human rights violations that occur. And, usually, when things like that occur, there are sanctions, there are repercussions,” said Farouki, noting that this is an ongoing struggle to create accountability for Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupation. “As an international community, we have to do everything that we can do from the outside of Palestine. We have to take the lead to isolate the occupation government and make them pay for the crimes that they do via boycotting, sanctions and forcing local and larger governments to divest from companies that are engaging in the occupation.”

    With a potential ceasefire still unclear and death tolls growing, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the occupied territories is continuing to weigh on the consciousness of the world. In the United States, organizations will continue to follow Palestine’s lead in building a movement for a more just solution to the crisis. That is requiring a mass movement of people pushing the United States to rethink its relationship with Israel and to shift the balance of power from uniform support for Israel to uniform recognition of human rights.

    How Chileans went from jumping subway turnstiles to rewriting the Constitution

    Mass protests that began in 2019 in Chile — and have deep roots in the country’s militant history of resistance to neoliberalism — are about to bring about a new constitution. This is an attempt to correct the constitution imposed under military dictatorship in 1980 (with the guidance of Milton Friedman and the so-called Chicago Boys). 

    The 1980 constitution ensures market rights over human rights. On May 15-16, Chileans will elect representatives for a new constitutional convention to rewrite this document. Voters will choose 155 drafters of this new constitution, which Chileans can then approve or reject in an “exit referendum” in 2022. The representatives will include 50 percent women, as well as 17 Indigenous representatives.

    When the government attempted to raise the price of mass transit in 2019, the country erupted in anger.  It was one more pressure on a poor and working class that had already been crushed by stagnating wages and rising prices, as well as decades of repression. Soon, the nation was on fire, with millions in the street directly confronting police and burning down symbols of the dictatorship. Despite facing brutal force from the military, the movement refused to go away — in fact, it grew.

    In 2020, I spoke to organizers and activists who have been in the streets and behind the scenes. While most of them are seeking deeper systemic change than the constitutional convention will likely bring, they spoke of hope and energy that they received from being part of this historic moment.

    Beyond taking to the streets and pressuring the conservative government to accede to these demands, they have built alternatives, like neighborhood assemblies, feminist spaces and organizing collectives.

    This video features excerpts from interviews with Laura Manzi and Barbara Berríos, of the Brigada Laura Rodig, Coordinadora Feminista 8 March, a feminist art and propaganda group — named for a radical Chilean artist of the mid-20th century — that intervenes in public space through direct action. It also features Rodrigo Faúndez — a board member of the Movement in Defense of Water, Land and the Environment — and Israel Acevedo H, part of the Neighborhood Assembly of Santa Julia and the organization Solidarity FCL.

    There is no doubt that the pandemic interrupted the momentum of this movement, forcing people indoors and allowing the police to take over the public squares that had become sites of mass resistance. While they generally support the constitutional convention, some organizers fear that this process will further drain energy from the street and into efforts to reform a broken system. Now, with a general strike in Colombia, there is even more hope for a pan-Latin American movement.

    Either way, the May vote marks the beginning of a new phase of struggle and an opportunity to undo another piece of the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship. And the movement is not done. “The people really don’t believe anything from the politicians,” says Barbara Berríos. “They believe in what they’re building.”

    This reporting would not have been possible without the journalists Bree Brusk and Roberto Manríquez, who provided background and introductions. Additional thank you to Karina Stenquist for translations, Caleta Adams for additional filming, and Kerrie Lynn, Kirby, and T. Duncan for feedback.

    What the overlooked history of post-1960s organizing can teach activists today

    Birthed largely out of necessity and shared rage, 2020 was a landmark year in the explosion of bottom-up organizing. While the pandemic only highlighted widening disparities in health care and economic insecurity, the murder of George Floyd by police struck a chord with movements confronting the white supremacist undercurrent of American law enforcement. Mutual aid organizations, tenant unions, mass street protests, occupations and strikes all became daily occurrences — part of an escalation of visible struggle that started with Occupy Wall Street and has moved forward through the years. 

    When we are in periods of highly-charged organizing, we often lose the lessons of the past. This is why Emily Hobson and Dan Berger, both historians of activism, started working on a collection of primary documents from social movements during the right’s ascension after the “long ‘60s.” 

    Remaking Radicalism” collects hundreds of pieces of writing from one of the most underrepresented periods of left-wing organizing. The depths it probes are profound: speeches from rallies, clippings from movement newspapers, pamphlets that were handed out on the street, and dozens of organizations and social movements from ACT UP to the Clamshell Alliance to the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee. What it offers is a picture of movements both in crisis and managing to persevere, which can teach lessons about how to approach movement building in our present chaotic time.

    With that in mind, I interviewed Emily Hobson and Dan Berger about their book, the lasting impacts of some of the social movements it features and the lessons we can learn from them today.

    What was the idea behind “Remaking Radicalism,” and how did you approach putting it together?

    Hobson: Ten years ago I initially approached Dan with the idea, which came from the fact that I wanted this kind of resource when teaching. I had the sense that it could be useful for ongoing organizing, but also the recent past was very distant to my students, and this period was not represented in the more easily accessible narratives about social movements. Similar anthologies ended with the 1970s and were conceived of as anthologies of the “long ‘60s.” 

    Berger: There were a few things already published about the time period, but in general, there was this lacuna — not only in the scholarship, but even in talking to students or to our generation of activists — about what happened between the ‘60s and whenever they got active. Some people were lucky enough to be mentored and come up in a way that connects those dots. But for a lot of people, whatever struggle got them politicized, whatever they are doing now, is reinventing things. I was excited about this project because it seemed like a way to really connect the generations and sort of fill in a lot of the silences that exist because we don’t have a strong inter-generational connection left.

    Immediately, we decided we didn’t want to do a linear chronology. It’s like recurring themes that come up, whether it’s about tactics or strategy or even about political ideology. So we wanted to be able to frame a kind of evolving left and series of conversations, and we are approaching the time period thematically rather than chronologically. 

    There’s a sense of disagreement in the volume. Some of the people in the book would be opposed to each other’s politics. Some people might even be shocked to see certain ideas included in left spaces. How did you make some of these selections?

    Berger: This is where the framework of “usable past” really guided us. We were really motivated by organizing documents that were written in a way that would be conversant with the present — that still spoke to the present, even if the campaign or organization were long defunct. But the particular issues and strategies highlighted are still very much alive. So we looked for documents that highlighted the innovation or ingenuity from the time period, but still resonated with our present.

    What are some of the factors that are unique about this period and separated it from earlier and later history?

    Berger: There are several things that overshadow the period. The U.S. war in Vietnam and 9/11 bookend the period. Then we have the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. So within that sort of reshuffling of the world system, you have a lot of social movements responding to historical weaknesses in the left. Intersectionality is one attempt, or breakthrough, at that. I would see that as fitting within a larger series of attempts by social movements to figure out a way to fight for change in the context that is heavily out-maneuvered by the right. 

    We can look back at things like the civil rights movement as successful, and we encounter them only retrospectively when we think they succeed. And we all know that that’s not the way to think about movements. That’s why we need to take the coup attempt that happened on Jan. 6 so seriously, because the right often wins a lot even if they don’t win the whole pie [such as overthrowing the government]. In this time period we were trying to think about how people are continuing to struggle and what they’re learning and figuring out and experimenting with in the process of that struggle, even if they’re not winning the whole pie. 

    There were a lot of world historic challenges and national political and economic shifts that presented different challenges in this time period. I think this has led many people to consider that period as primarily about the right’s ascension, or for the left it’s just a period of falling apart or eating itself. But we knew that this was not the case, and we still have an obligation to learn from the movements even when they aren’t winning. Those are moments of realignment, of reinterpretation, of expansion, of intellectual and strategic experience that sets the terrain for the next period of struggle.

    The book discusses the rise of the New Right in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and how movements responded. And now we have just experienced our own kind of rise of the right with Trumpism, national populism and white nationalism. What kind of innovations or lessons from that period can we apply to this current rise of the right?

    Berger: The urgency with which Black radicals were calling out incarceration — the conversation that became mass incarceration — was deeply connected with the role that the Klan and Nazis were playing within law enforcement. One thing being explored in this time period is the severity of state violence and how that is a project of, or aligned with, far-right movements that want repressive aspects of the state, even if some of them go to war with that same state.

    Hobson: Another place that I see innovations across the book is the kind of repeated engagement with questions of new necessary forms of coalition, and also critiques of unwanted bedfellows. In the first section of the book, “Bodies and Lives,” there is a section on fighting the right that includes critiques around the “sex wars” and a piece from the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force. This is a kind of critique of the ways that laws against pornography brought feminists into bed with the Christian right.

    But even more dramatically to me, and sort of a productive innovation, is the effort to build power through unexpected kinds of coalitions. That’s the work I get excited by, and it pushes back on the easy narrative that you can write the history of “X” movement and it will always be easily distinguishable from all the others, as opposed to actually having to respond to the right and the state and to economic and environmental circumstances. I also love the ways that you see a lot of critiques of unwanted bedfellows from inside communities of color, particularly the Asian American documents pushing back on anti-affirmative action and “colorblind” politics.

    We saw a sort of “putting down of arms” on the left over the course of the book’s time period, but are we experiencing a type of re-armament?

    Hobson: I would say to a degree yes, but I think it goes along with a broader shift from this era to our own, which is the decline of vanguardism and the massive growth of anarchist politics. Across the period of the book you see the decline of armed activity tracks with the decline of vanguardism. In the last 10 years, maybe longer, I don’t see the increased investment in armed activity being expressed in a vanguardist way, but in a decentralized and mutual aid, type of way.

    Berger: [It’s] a sort of defensive posture — a Black Panther-style display of weaponry more than their usage. I think the kind of street fights we have had all summer, particularly in Portland but other places as well, happens in Europe and Latin America all the time. There is more of a history of street-fighting politics rather than gun politics around the world. However, instead of a street brawl it is an armed street brawl because we are in the United States, which I think is a terrifying prospect.

    Hobson: It’s less acts of sabotage against the state or corporate targets and more about defense against heavily armed white nationalist militias. [This] in part comes out of the clinging to the Second Amendment as a left tool, which has the danger of alignment with the state’s definition of violence. 

    How do you think people captured identity as a point of struggle and why did that happen in this period?

    Berger: The book starts in 1973 and at that point you have almost two solid decades of not only Black radical organizing, but just Black civic organizing, where there is a profound sense of identity. It’s not narrow, but expansive and holistic. And out of that comes a variety of other moments that similarly tried to project identity outward as a way of organizing an expansive political vision. The Puerto Rican independence movement is increasingly important by 1973. Chicano and Latinx organizing, and Indigenous organizing, and so on. The nature of inequality in the United States is already organized through identity — so it is not surprising that resistance would be politicized in the language of identity. Part of the significance of starting with the Combahee River Collective statement about intersectionality was the way that identity is explicitly linked to a socialist politics, which a number of pieces outline.

    There are also other kinds of identity that are an entree to political orientation, like Joel Olson’s “Why the Masses Ain’t Asses,” which is from the punk scene. We often think of it as a subculture rather than identity, but it is still an identity-based orientation to politics. There are lots of debates in the period about the role of subculture, who’s being organized and in what way. 

    What are the key disagreements in the book, and what are the bigger disagreements of the period?

    Berger: I think the debates in the book are largely around strategy and tactics and the role of certain types of confrontation — certainly around violence, but also there’s a lot of debate around how much the left should appeal to the state versus fight the state. How much should you fight to get control or appeal for some kind of reform versus trying to eliminate the state. And there are debates around whether to engage in electoral politics, such as the debate from the Center for Third World Organizing. 

    Hobson: I think there are also some debates in the book around the question of what is the scope, extent and nature of state violence. How is environmental degradation a form of state violence or state-sanctioned violence, for example? Or how is the threat of nuclear war — interwoven with actual “hot” war or prisons — a form of state violence?

    Berger: I think the debate is not only about whether the left should engage in violence and what that means, but what kind of nonviolence do we mean. We had a strong emphasis on groups or documents that reflect a pursuit of radical or revolutionary transformation. That debate on the left is usually presented as violence or nonviolence, but in fact a more generative debate is about the divide between revolution and reform. So we have a number of documents from pacifists that are about revolutionary transformation, and are really clear about it being more of a strategic choice than a moral one. But many people in these groups were conversant with groups that had a different take on this and were still able to be in coalition with them. I think there are a number of people on the “diversity of tactics” left today that would benefit from that emphasis — the dynamic being a question of revolution versus reform, rather than violence versus nonviolence.

    How do you hope social movements will use this book?

    Berger: One thing is being able to recognize all of the issues and documents in the book as part of a shared movement and left. There has been a lot of commentary on Medicare for All and the leading edge of demands in the progressive left are all very national, and stop at the U.S. border. One thing I hope the book can do is be a reminder that issues of colonialism and imperialism and Indigenous sovereignty are and should be a part of what the left is about. And the conversations in the books have corollaries and successors in movements today. They are part of making the left and fashioning radicalism today.

    Hobson: I hope that people and organizations can look to the book and find multiple forerunners that they may not have known about before and can trace back their own influences. I hope it can help people think about building inter-generational movements and organizations in new ways.  I hope it not just reminds people of the centrality of anti-imperialism and decolonization and Indigenous politics, but also points towards some ways to resuscitate the internationalist left that has been lost in the post-2008 era.

    Berger: Some of our framing is older than we might realize. One thing I learned in doing the book is that prisoners in North Carolina in 1974 used the phrase “prison industrial complex.” So I hope the book can be a source of inspiration for people so they can draw on the deeper past for all the issues we are fighting for today. And that it can be an affirmation of a kind of need for experimentation, or at least the need for solidarity. We can’t be in every single movement or campaign, but we can expand our coalition and our sense of who and what we are in solidarity with.

    Yemeni people are being starved — so this Detroit organizer went on hunger strike in solidarity

    During the early days of the war, when Iman Saleh called her family in Yemen, they would lie to reassure her they were safe. “They would always say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s happening far from us,’” Saleh said. “It felt like I was becoming a burden to them, because now they were trying to make me feel better, on top of trying to survive.”

    Now, when Saleh calls her family in Yemen, she simply asks how their day is going. For the past six years, the 26-year-old organizer from Detroit has struggled with survivor’s guilt, watching her homeland ravaged by a war between the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition and the Houthi rebels. As a founding member of the Detroit-based Yemeni Liberation Movement, Saleh works to educate and mobilize the Yemeni diaspora for an end to the war.

    Since its start in 2015, the Yemen war has become what UNICEF declared “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” resulting in the deaths of more than 230,000 people. Roughly 80 percent of the population is in dire need of humanitarian aid. Children have accounted for a quarter of the casualties over the last three years — and as Yemen heads towards the most devastating famine in modern history, over 400,000 Yemeni children are projected to die this year alone in the absence of urgent intervention.

    The United States has played a pivotal role in this man-made humanitarian crisis, providing the Saudi-led coalition with billions of dollars worth of weapons, training and military support they would be unable to get elsewhere. The United States has also been complicit in war crimes committed by its allies, including brutal air campaigns against civilians and critical infrastructure, as well as the use of starvation as a war tactic.

    Over the course of the war, Yemenis have endured the COVID-19 pandemic, a cholera epidemic, natural disasters, mass displacement and violent air raids. They’ve also been subject to a crippling air, land and sea blockade — and since December 2020, the Saudi coalition has prevented fuel from entering the country, preventing food and necessities from reaching people who desperately need them. 

    Earlier this year, President Biden vowed to end all U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen. Although antiwar advocates and members of Congress have called for clarification on what that would look like, they have yet to receive an answer.

    When we say hunger strikes are nonviolent, it’s like — “nonviolent to who, exactly?” Because I felt extreme violence while I was striking, and I wasn’t even being forced into this.

    “We were just feeling hopeless, seeing our families suffer and seeing the country of Yemen suffer,” Saleh said. “We wanted to do something that was not only radical, but in solidarity with the people of Yemen.”

    On March 29, Saleh and her 23-year-old sister, Muna, embarked on a hunger strike in Washington D.C. For over three weeks, the sisters survived on a diet of only water and Pedialyte. Their primary demand was for the United States to end all support for the Saudi blockade. 

    Throughout the strike’s 24-day span, Saleh documented the physical and mental toll of hunger on the movement’s social media pages. The group also hosted rallies in front of the White House and a vigil in memory of those who have lost their lives to the blockade, catching the attention of Congresswomen Cori Bush, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

    I spoke with Saleh last month about the blockade, going on hunger strike and her vision for building international solidarity.

    Hunger striker Iman Saleh gives a statement with Rep. Ilhan Omar during a press conference at the BLM Plaza in Washington, D.C. on April 9, 2021. (Yemeni Liberation Movement/Laura Albast)

    How has the blockade affected everyday life for citizens of Yemen?

    At the beginning of the year, the Saudi coalition decided to impose a fuel blockade on Yemen. I like to call this a kind of humanitarian war crimes gymnastics. Basically, they can say, “Oh, we’re not blocking food and medicine from coming into Yemen, we’re blocking fuel.” But you can’t transport any food or other necessities throughout Yemen if you don’t have fuel — so what we’re seeing is a huge increase in starving children coming into hospitals for critical care. A lot of these hospitals can’t operate because there’s no fuel for their generators. People can’t power their homes, and there’s no way to get food around. It’s a really cruel environment people are suffering from. We always say that the people of Yemen aren’t starving, they’re being starved.

    You and your sister were on hunger strike in D.C. to end the blockade for more than three weeks. What kept you going?

    Besides the people of Yemen, it’s the experience itself. Experiencing starvation is a violation of the body. Even though I did this by choice, I felt so extremely violated, because I imagine myself being forced into this. Being forced to starve. There’s so many factors that people don’t think of when they think of famine, but I’ve been able to talk to the world about it, and I’ve been able to show what people are going through at the hands of the United States.

    When we think of starvation, we think of the body, but it’s really more than that. For children going through malnutrition, there are permanent effects on the body during their development. They can suffer from mental health problems for the long-term. There’s also chronic malnutrition. Even if they are able to somehow get better, going through starvation puts them at higher risk of experiencing critical malnutrition again.

    For adults to watch their families go through this and to feel no hope, like no future is ahead of you — that’s a huge toll on your body. And then there’s the physical aspect of it: There’s the memory loss, the brain fog, feeling more tired, feeling your body getting weaker. You just sort of feel like you’re waiting to die. So I’ve been able to talk about this with people and to bring awareness.

    Sisters Iman Saleh (right) and Muna Saleh (left) pray for the lives lost in Yemen due to the blockade in front of the White House in Washington, DC on April 13, 2021. The sisters began their hunger strike on March 29. (Yemeni Liberation Movement/Laura Albast)

    Is there anything else that people misunderstand about hunger strikes?

    Hunger strikes are supposed to be this nonviolent form of protest. I’ve been telling everybody that it’s actually the opposite. When we say hunger strikes are nonviolent, it’s like — “nonviolent to who, exactly?” Because I felt extreme violence while I was striking, and I wasn’t even being forced into this. So I can’t imagine an entire nation of millions of people being forced into this. I don’t care what Gandhi said; this is extremely violent. I wish it didn’t have to come to this, where you use your body as a last resort. 

    While in D.C., the Yemeni Liberation Movement hosted a vigil to honor those who have lost their lives in Yemen due to the blockade. What was that experience like?

    The vigil was a really powerful moment. We had well over 50 people in attendance, including Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush, who came to pay their respects and speak in solidarity. We try to always make sure that when we talk about the people in Yemen, our voices are just the extension of theirs. We don’t want to only talk about the impact of the war and make people’s lives political. We want to humanize our people, and to not allow the desensitization of their suffering. About a week and a half into the hunger strike, I found out that my great uncle in Yemen died from COVID-19, due to the blockade, so it’s been really difficult.

    The truth is that the United States is playing a huge role in this genocide, but what does it mean for the people in Yemen who are living under this genocide? Their lives are more than just destruction and death. These people have children. These people have families. These people have lives. They had jobs. They were like us — just living day to day, and trying to survive.

    For many people in the United States, Yemen seems very distant. What do you wish people knew about your homeland?

    Yemen is not just a very beautiful country geographically, we’re also a very strong people. We have so much culture and history. Since the war, the Saudi coalition has bombed around 80 UNESCO World Heritage sites — these are thousands and thousands of years old, these mud brick homes in Yemen. Actually, Sanaa, one of the oldest cities in the world, is in Yemen. 

    In the past, we’ve organized against the Ottomans and kicked them out. We’ve also fought against British colonizers who’ve been in Yemen for over 160 years and pushed them out, using guerilla tactics. Our people are mountain people. You can’t really occupy them, and it’s hard to go to war with them. Saudi Arabia and the United States are both big countries that have all the money in the world to spend and enough time on their hands to do it — and yet they still can’t destroy the people’s will. They’re doing their absolute best, but I would still call them unsuccessful in doing that. 

    We have this proverb in Yemen — the translation is basically, “No one in Yemen goes hungry.” That’s really a testament to how hospitable and how united our communities are with each other. We keep our culture and our people very close to us. 

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    After 24 days, you and your sister ended your hunger strike. What has that transition been like?

    It’s Ramadan right now, so we’re still fasting. We’re just kind of taking it day by day. We’re under medical supervision, so we have to eat very slowly and eat small portions, and build it from there. 

    My sister and I made the decision together, along with the rest of the Yemeni Liberation Movement and the Palestianian Youth Movement, who we’ve been collaborating with. I didn’t really want to end it, because of our long-term goal — but also, that goal requires a lot of work, and it requires us to be in our best health. It’s kind of bittersweet, because I’ve been eating, but at the same time, we know that the work is not done.

    Even before the hunger strike, the Yemeni Liberation Movement was collaborating with groups like the Palestinian Youth Movement, Anakbayan (a grassroots organization of Filipino youth) and Detroit Will Breathe, which fights against police brutality. As an organizer, what have you learned from building these bridges?

    When we talk about international solidarity and how that operates in organizing spaces, it’s really important that it’s not just talk or photo-ops. It has to be about actually doing the work and building trust within our communities. We won’t really achieve liberation until we can all see our liberation within another community. Let’s take Yemen, for example: When we work towards Black liberation, that also means Yemen’s liberation, because when you weaken the system of imperialism and colonialism, you essentially weaken that everywhere. 

    Throughout history, international solidarity has been a huge part of Black liberation. We’ve seen that in the way the Black Panthers had chapters in Algeria, when the Algerians were fighting against French colonialism. The only way that we can achieve liberation back home — as well as in the states — is if we all come together and recognize that though our struggles may look a little different, they ultimately come from the same oppressor. We’re stronger together.

    How 1971’s Mayday actions rattled Nixon and helped keep Vietnam from becoming a forever war

    During one remarkable two week period — from April 19 to May 5, 1971 — more than a half-million citizens descended on the nation’s capital for the largest anti-Vietnam War rally, staging sit-ins that clogged entrances to several government agencies, camping out in a park where they put on a rock concert, and blocking streets and bridges that nearly shut down the city.

    Hundreds of war veterans joined the fray, lobbied Congress, engaged in civil disobedience at the Supreme Court and the Pentagon, performed mock guerrilla theater attacks on unsuspecting citizens on the city’s streets, and threw their war medals onto the Capitol steps.

    The government intensified the chaos on the streets by flying in troops from the 82 Airborne Division, landing helicopters on the National Mall in an echo of military tactics then in use in Vietnam. Police ordered the streets cleared by rounding up some 13,000 protesters and innocent pedestrians alike with many housed in a football stadium — the biggest mass arrest in American history.

    President Richard Nixon would later recall this period as one of “turmoil bordering on insurrection.” Larry Roberts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, characterizes the scene as “Nixon’s Insurrection City” in “Mayday 1971,” his new, definitive book about what the anti-Vietnam War movement called its Spring Offensive of 1971.

    If you’ve never heard about these events, you’re not alone. Most folks under 60 know little or nothing about the Vietnam antiwar movement. And those of us who were alive then can be forgiven if we don’t recall much about what happened, as we’ve had few reminders in the form of books, movies or documentaries.

    Still, it’s worth looking back at these events for several reasons. First, the size and variety of the actions has few parallels in the history of social protest movements in American history. Second, the organizers pulled off each of the major actions successfully and nonviolently. Especially noteworthy is the case of Mayday — the effort to disrupt the city’s traffic. And third, there’s good evidence that the Spring Offensive of 1971 did, in fact, achieve its primary overall objective of helping to end the Vietnam War.

    To appreciate the size and variety of the Spring Offensive, here is a quick outline of the major actions:

    • Operation Dewey Canyon III, April 19-23. Some 1,500 members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War descended on the capital for a week of powerful protests culminating when hundreds of vets hurled their combat medals onto the capitol steps.
    • March on Washington, April 24. More than 500,000 participated making it the largest march in the nation’s capital until the Women’s March in 2017. A simultaneous march and rally in San Francisco drew more than 200,000 protesters.
    • People’s Lobby, April 26-30. Daily civil disobedience actions when nearly 1,000 people were arrested for obstructing entrances of Selective Service, Internal Revenue Service, Health, Education, and Welfare, and the Department of Justice.
    • Rock concert and encampment, May 1-2. Some 50,000 attended a rock concert featuring the Beach Boys in the protesters’ encampment in West Potomac Park. The D.C. police closed down the encampment early on Sunday morning to discourage participation in the next day’s actions.
    • Mayday actions, May 3-5. Organized by a group that called itself “Mayday” to refer to their series of actions in early May, an estimated 25,000 activists attempted to block the streets to keep government employees from reaching their offices. Under orders from the Nixon administration, police cleared the streets rounding up of more than 7,000 protesters and innocent pedestrians alike — the biggest mass arrest in American history. Civil disobedience actions the following two days at the Department of Justice and on the steps of the Capital brought the total arrests to over 13,000 for the week.
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  • Vietnam veterans descended on the Capitol 50 years ago this week — not to impede democracy but to practice it
  • Rarely, if ever, has any social protest movement unleashed such a full menu of actions with so many people in such a short period of time. Just doing any one of them would have required all the resources of most causes.

    Equally noteworthy, a different group or coalition had primary responsibility for each action, yet they all participated in what amounted to a coordinated assault against those responsible for continuing the war. Leaders of these groups frequently engaged in bitter arguments over politics and strategy. I was sometimes involved in these discussions since I was a coordinator of the People’s Lobby actions. Despite our differences, we all worked out of the same building at 1029 Vermont Avenue NW — on different floors, but we shared the same elevators. We also shared the same goal of wanting the United States to get out of Vietnam yesterday.

    The fact that each of the groups was operating autonomously may help explain the tactical success of all the major actions. But there were other factors as well. The massive April 24 rally was the fifth national rally to draw more than 100,000 participants since 1967. By 1971, we knew how to put on a big rally. Many of those responsible for the myriad logistical details had done the same jobs before, and there were no organized groups encouraging violent street confrontations as in 1969 during the massive Mobilization march in Washington. That made the job of marshalling the huge crowd much easier.

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  • Why ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ deserves praise – from an antiwar organizer who was there
  • Mayday’s organizers faced by far the most difficult task of pulling off their action. From its inception the previous fall, the Mayday team planned an explicitly nonviolent action. They did not equivocate on this point nor tolerate violent rhetoric against the police, as happened in 1968 at the Democratic Convention in Chicago.

    Mayday’s audacious slogan — “If the government doesn’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government” — appealed to many antiwarriors who felt that participating in a rally was not enough. Another attraction was the novel technique of mobile tactics, where folks would try to obstruct traffic in one location and move to another before the police could make arrests. According to L.A. Kauffman’s 2017 book “Direct Action,” Chicago 7 defendant and Mayday leader Rennie Davis got the idea for mobile tactics from an unsuccessful attempt by the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, to paralyze traffic at the opening of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. (Rennie passed away in February at the age of 80.)

    Civil disobedience at Independence Avenue SW near the Washington Monument blocks the street. (Flickr/Washington Area Spark)

    Mayday pioneered another method that’s since been used by hundreds, if not thousands, of progressive organizations: affinity groups. Rather than relying on a centralized leadership structure to direct the action, Mayday organizers told would-be participants to organize themselves into affinity groups of a half-dozen to a dozen individuals. Each group was to blockade a specific target in the city.

    In retrospect, the Mayday organizers’ plan sounds like a prescription for chaos with lots of opportunities for government provocateurs to incite the kind of violence Nixon sorely desired. How did they hope to maintain nonviolent discipline with a decentralized structure with participants coming from all over the country?

    Mayday organizers had two solutions: a written manual and intensive nonviolent training. Jerry Coffin, a Quaker and staffer for the War Resisters League, took primary responsibility for producing the 24-page “Mayday Tactical Manual.” Written in a breezy, down-to-earth style, it provides all the practical details for the action, including maps and photos of the 21 target sites in D.C. They didn’t hide their plans from authorities any more than did Gandhi on his famous Salt March in 1930 or Martin Luther King in the Birmingham Campaign of 1963.

    More important, the manual explains the political and tactical rationales: “The aim of the Mayday actions is to raise the social cost of the war to a level unacceptable to America’s rulers. To do this we seek to create the specter of social chaos while maintaining the support, or at least toleration, of the broad masses of American people.”

    Mayday organizers distributed the manual widely. At the same time, nonviolent trainers held sessions mostly on college campuses where most of the recruits were. And they conducted nonviolent training continuously at the encampment in West Potomac Park.

    By April 1971, nonviolent training had become a regular part of movement actions, and there were training centers in Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, New York and several other cities — often associated with Quaker organizations like the American Friends Service Committee. (I had been part of a group in Philadelphia.) This core of trainers used techniques like role-playing that could trace its roots back to Rev. Jim Lawson’s workshops in Nashville in the early 1960s. Lawson, in turn, had been deeply influenced by Gandhi. At any rate, many of the trainers had worked other big national demonstrations, such as the big Mobilization march in D.C. when some 5,000 marshals went through training sessions that lasted from one to two hours. (This network has grown dramatically over the years, largely through the work of George Lakey and others to the point that last year in the run-up to the election a group like Choose Democracy did virtual training sessions for up to 10,000 to prepare for a possible coup attempt.)

    Another factor was the crucial role played by the People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice, or PCPJ, a large coalition of religious, labor, pacifist, women’s organizations and local peace groups. Some background: After the major national demonstrations in 1969 and 1970, the Mobilization coalition split in two over both political and tactical differences. Both agreed to cosponsor the April 24 rally, but only PCPJ endorsed nonviolent civil disobedience.

    Because of concerns about possible violence during the Mayday demonstrations, several pacifist leaders within PCPJ came up with the idea of bridging the time between the April 24 rally and the Mayday actions with a series of civil disobedience sit-ins at different government agencies. That would serve two functions: 1. Set a nonviolent tone for the Mayday actions and 2. Provide a cadre of activists who had already participated in a nonviolent civil disobedience action. PCPJ endorsed this proposal and added another component: lobbying Congress on the People’s Peace Treaty — a serious proposal for ending the war that had been negotiated several months earlier between major Vietnamese and American student groups.

    A demonstrator holds a copy of the People’s Peace Treaty on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during Mayday protests May 5, 1971. (Flickr/Washington Area Spark)

    To boost participation in the People’s Lobby, PCPJ encouraged its affiliates to stay in Washington after the April 24 rally. Markley Morris, a Quaker artist who had served time in prison for draft resistance, produced a poster saying “Come to Stay: Nonviolent Actions for Peace & Justice.” It shows several dozen images of sitting Gandhis.

    All these efforts paid off. According to Roberts’s book, “despite thousands of frustrated radicals running through the streets, there had been few casualties. There was scattered property damage … The small number of injuries came almost exclusively at the hands of aggressive riot cops wildly swinging their sticks. The pledge of nonviolence … had been kept.”

    Mayday’s action on May 3 achieved its main goal of creating the “specter of social chaos.” It did disrupt the usual business of the government, as federal employees were inconvenienced during the morning rush hour, forcing Nixon to helicopter troops onto the Mall and sweep thousands of protesters off the streets, herding them into a football stadium.

    Marines from the 82nd Airborne land on the grounds of the Washington Monument to reinforce police May 3, 1971. (Flickr/Washington Area Spark)

    Newspaper editorials mostly condemned the Mayday action. A Washington Post columnist, who had generally been sympathetic with the movement, wrote a scathing condemnation of Mayday, describing how she had to retrieve trashcans that protesters had taken from her elegant house in Georgetown to use as blockades.

    Her column reflects the obvious peril of blocking traffic — it can piss off innocent bystanders. Social protest movements do upset the status quo. That’s the point. But it’s important to focus the disruption at the right targets. Nonviolent discipline can keep things from getting out of hand.

    However, it’s easy to see how outside observers may not have been impressed with Mayday’s nonviolence. More than 25,000 people engaged in disruptive activities, and there were hundreds of confrontations with police and motorists — more than enough possibilities for unruly scenes that are always the fodder for the mainstream media. If you want to get a feel for how the D.C. police viewed the Spring Offensive/Mayday, you can check out a 28-minute video they produced for other police departments. (I was surprised to see myself at 9:46 in the lower right corner with a handlebar mustache just before being arrested at the FBI entrance to the Justice Department. I’m sure others will spot themselves, too.)

    Protesters demanding the release of political prisoners sit-in on 10th Street NW at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. May 4, 1971. (Flickr/Washington Area Spark)

    Even if we assume that many, if not most, Americans disapproved of our actions, I’ve seen no reason to believe that Mayday or any of the other components of the Spring Offensive resulted in more Americans becoming more pro-war than before. The antiwar movement had already helped move public opinion over the previous seven years through our marches, rallies, teach-ins, sit-ins, and draft and GI resistance. At the time of the protests, polls showed that 73 percent of the public favored an immediate end to the war, and an astonishing 58 percent believed the war was “morally wrong.” The Spring Offensive aimed to pressure the man in the Oval Office.

    There is considerable evidence that the Spring Offensive had a big impact on Nixon. From transcripts of then-secret White House tape recordings, Roberts discloses Nixon’s private thoughts about us: “little bastards,” “animals,” “bums,” “crummy-looking people, the lowest of the low.” For Nixon it was war. He was obsessed with our protests. He received hourly reports on our actions and made all the major, and many of the minor, decisions about how to handle the demonstrations.

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    Not only did we rattle the president at the time, Roberts quotes Henry Kissinger as referring to the spring of 1971 as awakening “that uneasily dormant beast of public protest — our nightmare, our challenge and, in a weird way, our spur.” According to Roberts, “The protests certainly contributed to the decision made that season by Kissinger and Nixon to soften” their negotiating position in the peace talks with the Vietnamese in Paris.

    Roberts was wrong, however, to write that “The Spring Offensive turned out to be the last hurrah of the American antiwar movement.” It was the last big national action, but the movement continued the fight on many other fronts. The next month, for example, Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers. (Ellsberg participated in Mayday in an affinity group with Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. The group was gassed but not arrested when they attempted to block a street in Georgetown. A photo of the group is in Roberts’s book.) Nixon’s overreaction to Ellsberg led to Watergate and hampered his ability to continue the war. The following year antiwarriors engaged in numerous acts of nonviolent civil disobedience including many blockades as well as a major lobbying campaign led by Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden that successfully pushed Congressional resolutions that cut off funding for the war.

    Though mostly overlooked today, the Spring Offensive of 1971 played a crucial role in making sure that Vietnam did not become a forever war, as has been the case with U.S. wars since 9/11. Our challenge now — even as President Joe Biden pledges to withdraw troops from Afghanistan this year — is to figure out more creative ways to continue the nonviolent struggle against the American war machine. History shows it won’t stop on its own accord.

    Daniel Berrigan and his fearless nonviolence, at 100

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    “One is called to live nonviolently,” Daniel Berrigan once wrote, “even if the change one works for seems impossible. It may or may not be possible to turn the United States around through nonviolent revolution. But one thing favors such an attempt: the total inability of violence to change anything for the better.”  

    In some ways, that statement sums up the life and teachings of the legendary priest, author, poet and activist Daniel Berrigan, my friend and teacher who would turn 100 on May 9. The only way to survive in the world of violence, indeed, to live and thrive and even make a difference, he insisted, was through the daily life of creative nonviolence. 

    Dan was famous for his way with words. He put an original twist on everything, making any statement for justice and disarmament more mysterious, poetic and challenging, even mystical. 

    Twenty years ago, when I was going through his archives at Cornell for my collection, “Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings, I discovered his unpublished notes for a talk he gave on nonviolence, probably in 1964 or 1965. He spoke of “the nonviolent mystique,” which he said was more important than “the nonviolent tactic,” and went on to speak about “the nonviolent mystique in action.” Such puzzling expressions still have the power to take us deeper into self-understanding, and the contemplative depths of movement-building. 

    “Nonviolence sees itself at its best, as indivisible, and at its least, as potentially universal, that is, as a way of life that is simply human,” he said. “So you always note among responsible people both a profound spiritual root and a profound political responsibility.” 

    Here was his point: the nonviolent person was “a person of history and a person within history, the person who believes that history has a future, the one who within normal times can save normal times from their idolatries — neglect of the poor, growing bourgeois selfishness, weapons of war and the other realities around us. So the nonviolent person is a person there. Period. In normal times, in crucial times.” 

    That, to me, as his friend, editor, fellow priest, and now literary executor, sums up the extraordinary, prophetic life of Daniel Berrigan: He was a person of nonviolence within the history of violence, who through mystique and action helped transform the times and even history toward nonviolence. I don’t know what greater compliment can be paid of anyone. 

    To mark Dan’s 100th birthday, I’m offering a three hour Zoom session via the Beatitudes Center on May 8, at 2 p.m. EST. There will be a break in the middle to reflect on his life, his witness and his writings, along with brief responses by Bill Wylie-Kellermann, author of the new collection of essays on Dan, “Celebrant’s Flame.” My hope is that as we remember our teacher, we will dig deeper into our own nonviolence, take on the long haul view of history, and do our best to transform the times through our own nonviolent mystique and action for justice, disarmament and creation. 

    He changed my life, but unbeknownst to the world, he probably changed millions, if not billions of other lives, with this influential stand for peace. As one of God’s great recent prophets, I invite us to pause and turn to his writings and example as a way to go forward in these strange, difficult times. His wisdom and insights offer new courage, strength and fearlessness we didn’t know we had.

    Dan possessed an astonishing once-in-a-millennia charismatic, steadfast, faithful, take-it-or leave nonviolence. He taught me from the day I met him till the day he died, on April 30, 2016, just before his 95th birthday — and he’s still teaching me.  

    I first met Dan soon after entering the Jesuits in the early 1980s, at the Kirkridge retreat center in Pennsylvania. We stayed up late that first night talking. I remember asking him how in the world I could ever work for peace.  

    “What are you afraid of?” he asked me. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t live in fear. Live in faith and hope and peace.” I was shocked. No one ever said such things to me. I decided then and there to give it a try. Later, I realized: We all need a teacher who tells us not to be afraid.

    Previous Coverage
  • What the obituaries missed about my uncle, Dan Berrigan
  • Right from the start, I saw his fearlessness. To me, he was Gandhi. He was a tower of faith, so it felt like I was sitting with St. Peter or St. Paul. In fact, I had never meet anyone before who exhibited such faith. I’m not sure if I’ve ever met anyone like that since. Dan believed in God and Jesus, but as the instrument of God’s daring, universal nonviolence love,  he acted like he believed — paying the price, dearly. He let the chips fall where they may, as he used to tell me. But no matter. He kept going, right until his last breath, trusting in the God of peace, cursing the false gods of war and violence, adhering to the nonviolent Jesus and doing what he could to spread the revolution of Gospel nonviolence.

    The next morning, Dan stood in front of a little podium before our small group of retreatants and started to talk about Jesus, using the letter to the Ephesians as his text. He said:  

    The world is a kingdom of death, and into this world walks the great Yes of God, the Christ, bringing trouble and all sorts of dislocations, unmaskings, law-breakings and truth-telling. The disarmed God and the disarming of God in Christ is the great scandal of history. We are not yet a disarmed church because we are not yet worshippers of a disarmed God. God comes to us disarmed in Christ … Christ does the wrong things, in the wrong places, at the wrong time, to the wrong people. Today, we are asked to live out the drama of the disarmed Christ in a world armed to the teeth. To confess Jesus these days is to work for disarmament, justice and peace.

    I was astonished then, and I’m still astonished. I know these quotes by heart because I still have the notes I took that morning long ago. Dan told me that following Jesus meant working publicly for peace and justice. If you are not working for peace and justice, you are not following Jesus. It doesn’t matter how pious you are, how connected you are to a religious institution. Discipleship to the nonviolent Jesus in a culture of permanent war and violence requires radical, active, creative, public nonviolence. 

    — 

    Daniel Berrigan was born on May 9, 1921 the fifth of six boys. He grew up in Syracuse, entered the Jesuits in 1939, was ordained a priest in 1952 and published his first book of poetry, “Time Without Number,” in 1957, which won the Lamont Poetry Award. Dan quickly became well known as a poet, and published a book a year from then on — some 50 books of poetry, essays, theology studies, journals, plays and scripture studies. At Dan’s 85th birthday party, Kurt Vonnegut said to us, “For me, Daniel Berrigan is Jesus as a poet.” 

    By the mid-1960s, with his brother Phil, Dan became a leading voice against the war in Vietnam. On October 22, 1967, there was a massive mobilization on the Pentagon. Dan took a busload of Cornell students to the protest and suddenly they all marched forward to face arrest — so he joined them. He was the first priest in U.S. history arrested in the cause of justice and peace, and with that, believe it or not, opened up a new tradition in the Catholic Church that continues to this day.

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    In February 1968, he traveled to North Vietnam with Howard Zinn. While there, the United States bombed Hanoi. They hid out in a shelter for a full week as U.S. bombs fell above him. He got the point. He was ready to up the ante.

    On May 17, 1968, a month after the killing of Martin Luther King Jr., Dan and Phil and seven others entered a draft board house in Catonsville, Maryland, took some 300 draft files out to the parking lot and, in front of the press, poured homemade napalm on the draft records and burned them. He then distributed one of the greatest statements in resistance literature: “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, for the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.”

    Previous Coverage
  • How the Catonsville Nine survived on film
  • Their action attracted massive press coverage around the country, even the world, and eventually led to over 300 similar demonstrations that systematically ended the draft and hastened the end of the war. You will not read this anywhere, nor will you hear about this on Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the Vietnam War. There is no mention of the Berrigans, though I tried my best to reach out to the prestigious filmmaker. 

    The draft board raids were the key. In the days before computers, when type-written records were it, the destruction of paper records throughout the Northeast meant that thousands of young men could not be drafted to kill for the United States! The days of the Vietnam War were numbered. 

    Dan and his friends were, of course, found guilty. He spent the summer of 1969 writing his popular play, “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” but the war only worsened. So instead of reporting to prison, in April 1970, he went “underground.” For months, Dan traveled around, speaking to the media, appearing on the national news, writing major articles against the war, and infuriating FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his henchmen. 

    Previous Coverage
  • When Father Daniel Berrigan went underground in ‘The Holy Outlaw’
  • In the summer of 1970, he appeared one Sunday morning in a Philadelphia church to give the sermon. “We have chosen to be powerless criminals in a time of criminal power,” he told the congregation. That August, he was arrested on Block Island, Rhode Island, and sent to Danbury prison. His health and spirit deteriorated over the next two years in Danbury prison, until one day, while having a dental exam, he had a massive allergic reaction to the novocaine and nearly died. He was released shortly thereafter by the authorities for fear that he might die in prison. 

    Dan became one of the most well-known priests in the world, if not its most well-known, the world’s first radical priest since Edmund Campion was hunted down by the British royalty. He consistently called the Church to abolish the just war theory and return to the nonviolence of Jesus. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine, interviewed by none other than Dick Cavett, and referred to in songs by Paul McCartney (“Too Many People”) and Paul Simon (“Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”). Given the church scandals of today, it’s hard to imagine his radical derring-do.

    While underground, for example, Dan wrote an open letter in the Village Voice to the Weathermen, inviting them to reconsider their violence and use the tactic of nonviolence in their resistance to the war.

    “The death of a single human being is too heavy a price to pay for the vindication of any principle, however sacred,” he wrote.

    That, I submit, is his most important teaching and worthy of reflection for the rest of history.

    In other words, he said, there is no cause however noble for which we will ever again support the taking of a single human life. We do not kill people. We do not support killing. We do not kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong. We work to stop the killing. And so, we will not join the U.S. military, we will not send our kids into the military, we will urge young people to quit the military, and we will resist the military and its wars for the rest of our lives. The future is a world without war, a new culture of justice and nonviolence that we can barely imagine, but is within our grasp if we dare work for it.

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    One of the most amazing aspects about Dan and Phil Berrigan was that they kept at it. The press grew bored, the crowds stopped showing up, their book sales dwindled, the movement died, the world worsened — and they kept at it. That is one of their greatest legacies.  

    On September 9, 1980, Dan, Phil and six friends, walked in to the General Electric headquarters in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania and hammered on unarmed nuclear weapon nosecones. The Plowshares Eight were arrested, convicted and faced up to 10 years in prison. Theirs was the first of some 100 “Plowshares actions” — including the one I did with Phil in North Carolina in 1993, for which I faced 20 years in prison. Here’s what Dan said during his famous 1981 trial:

    The only message I have to the world is: We are not allowed to kill innocent people. We are not allowed to be complicit in murder. We are not allowed to be silent while preparations for mass murder proceed in our name, with our money, secretly … It’s terrible for me to live in a time where I have nothing to say to human beings except, “Stop killing.” There are other beautiful things that I would love to be saying to people. There are other projects I could be very helpful at. And I can’t do them. I cannot. Because everything is endangered. Everything is up for grabs. Ours is a kind of primitive situation, even though we would call ourselves sophisticated. Our plight is very primitive from a Christian point of view. We are back where we started. Thou shalt not kill; we are not allowed to kill. Everything today comes down to that — everything.

    Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Dan spoke each week around the country. He continued to publish a steady stream of poetry, essays, journals and then, a long series on the Hebrew prophets. He served as a hospital chaplain in a New York hospital for the poor, and then at St. Vincent’s Hospital, ministering to AIDS patients. In 1984, he traveled to El Salvador and Nicaragua, and later published his journal from the experience, “Steadfastness of the Saints.” In 1985, he traveled to South America where he helped out in the acclaimed movie “The Mission.”  

    During those years, Dan formed and participated in a little Manhattan peace group, which he named “Kairos.” There we met with friends every other Tuesday night for 30 years — one of the greatest experiences of my life. Every few months, we planned nonviolent actions and got arrested against some injustice, usually at the military recruiting station in Times Square or the Riverside Research nuclear weapons laboratory (until they closed it!) or the U.S.S. Intrepid War Museum on the Hudson River. Along the way, Dan was supported by actor Martin Sheen and former U.S. Attorney Gen. Ramsey Clark, who passed away earlier this month.

    Dan Berrigan at his 80th birthday in 2001. (WNV/John Dear)

    By the mid-2000s, Dan was frail and tired. He was never sick; literally, he never suffered any major disease, never had cancer, never had surgery. In fact, he never took a pill! But he began to spend long hours every afternoon in bed. By 2010, he was actively declining. We moved him to the Jesuit infirmary in the Bronx, where I visited him every three months over the next few years until his death.

    What people do not know is that he was resented, if not actively, hated by other Jesuits since the 1960s. No Jesuit should become that famous, no matter what, so he was despised by many. I remember that during practically every visit to the Jesuit infirmary during those years, most of the other Jesuits would avoid him so as not to have to speak with him — all because of his public stand for peace. Some would not get in the elevator with him. His friends and relatives, on the other hand, surrounded him with love, and he knew it. And so, he felt loved till the day he died.

    I spent a thousand evenings with Dan over the decades, and he would always stop the meal or the visit or the trip, and insist that his guests go around and share about their lives, their struggles, their hopes and their dreams. Every occasion in his presence turned into a life-changing, spiritual experience. In that sense, he really was a Christ-figure. He was concerned about our lives and what we were doing with the precious gift of life, especially faced with this all-consuming culture of death. “What are we doing with our lives? What does it mean to be a human being? Can we become people of nonviolence?” These were questions I heard Daniel Berrigan ask repeatedly. 

    You can find clues in his writings, like the following excerpted poems “Jubilee!” “The Trouble with Our State” and “Your Second Sight.”

    A fairly modest urging— 
    Don’t kill, whatever pretext 
    Leave the world unbefouled. 
    Don’t hoard. 
    Stand somewhere. 

    The trouble with our state 
    was not civil disobedience 
    which in any case was hesitant and rare… 
    — our trouble 
    the trouble with our state 
    with our state of soul 
    our state of siege — 
    was 
    civil 
    obedience 

    Walking by the sea 
    I put on like glasses 
    on a squinting short-sighted soul 
    your second sight 
    and I see washed ashore 
    the last hour of the world 
    the murdered clock of Hiroshima 

    In his 1970 book “No Bars to Manhood,” Dan wrote:

    We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price. And because we want the peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, is total — but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial. There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war, at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.

    Dan taught us to let go of results and to work for justice, disarmament and peace as an ordinary part of our day-to-day lives, whether or not it would make a difference. Do the good because it’s good, he said. Speak the truth because it’s true. Work for peace and justice because that’s what the God of peace and justice wants. Do what we can, and leave the outcome in God’s hands. From now on, nonviolence and nonviolent resistance are our ordinary day-to-day life. Just trust that it will one day bear good fruit.

    When I went to him for advice as a 22-year-old novice, he said: “All you have to do is close your eyes to the culture and open them to your friends.” When my friend Ken Butigan sought him out for advice, Dan said, find a good group of friends that you can pray with and march with, and everything will work out.

    “One is called to live nonviolently,” he wrote, “even if the change one works for seems impossible. It may or may not be possible to turn the United States around through nonviolent revolution. But one thing favors such an attempt: the total inability of violence to change anything for the better.” 

    “Some people argue that equanimity achieved through inner spiritual work is a necessary condition for sustaining one’s ethical and political commitments,” he once said in an interview. “But to the prophets of the Bible, this would have been an absolutely foreign language and a foreign view of the human. The notion that one has to achieve peace of mind before stretching out one’s hand to one’s neighbor is a distortion of our human experience, and ultimately a dodge of our responsibility. Life is a rollercoaster and one had better buckle one’s belt and take the trip. This focus on equanimity is actually a narrow-minded, selfish approach to reality dressed up within the language of spirituality.” This again is quintessential Berrigan. 

    “I know that the prophetic vision is not popular today in some spiritual circles,” he continued. “But our task is not to be popular or to be seen as having an impact, but to speak the deepest truths that we know. We need to live our lives in accord with the deepest truths we know, even if doing so does not produce immediate results in the world.”  

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    “If you are going to spend your life resisting death,” he told me when I was 22, “you better learn how to live life to the full.” He both resisted death and lived life to the full more than anyone I have ever known. He walked every day, enjoyed healthy food and a drink or two every evening, and loved friends and laughter and nature and poetry and books and people. At the end of our regular daily community evening mass, before drinks and dinner, he offered the (hilarious) ritual announcement: “We’ve been good long enough.” 

    Dan lived as if the resurrection of the nonviolent, revolutionary, executed Jesus was true, that the worst had already happened, that the outcome was indeed in better hands than ours, and that despite the evidence, there is reason for hope. All we have to do is go forward and enact that hope in organized grassroots movements of disarmament, justice and peace. 

    “Jesus didn’t have a mean bone in his body,” he said to me and a friend once, when we were having a mass and a picnic in Central Park. It was Easter Sunday and I was commenting that I was appalled that Jesus even came back, and that he remained so nonviolent and loving after all he been through, including his arrest and execution. His response remains with me to this day. Dan taught that the resurrection of Jesus meant we were called to carry on his campaign of nonviolence, and live out the “slight edge of life over death.”

    This was the breakthrough of Daniel Berrigan in modern Christian history. Here’s a favorite passage he wrote in an obscure publication long ago, which I hold as one of his greatest teachings: 

    Once there was a dead man, a criminal, a subject of capital punishment. And lo! He refused to stay dead. He stood up. As the authorities shortly came to sense, this was an earthquake in nature; in the nature of law and order, in the nature of death, the nature of war. For in the nature of things, as defined by the nation state (a great one for deciding what the nature of things is) — dead men stay dead. The word from Big Brother, the word that gives him clout, inspires fear, is — a criminal, once disposed of, stays disposed!

    Not at all. Along come these crazies shouting in public, “Our man’s not dead, He’s risen!” Now I submit you can’t have such a word going around, and still run the state properly. The first nonviolent revolution was, of course, the Resurrection. The event had to include death as its first act. And the command to Peter, “Put up your sword.” So that it might be clear, once and for all, that Christians suffer death rather than inflict it.

    “All worldly systems and arrangements are simply by-passed by the Resurrection,” Dan said on another occasion. “If death has no hold over people, in the sense that they’ve exorcised their fear of death — then what’s left worth fearing, or worth hoping, from any worldly structure? They deserve, one and all, the feisty appellation conferred on them by Dorothy Day, ‘The filthy rotten system.’ I take it she was referring to their main function, multiplying the metaphors and means of death. The end of such a world, as she realized, was not only near. The end has occurred.”

    Dan Berrigan at his cottage on Block Island in the early 2000s. (WNV/John Dear)

    Dan walked and talked and practiced resurrection. Dan referred to all his peace work as living in the resurrection. That’s why I define resurrection as having nothing to do with death, having not a trace of violence in you. Resurrection means total nonviolence. Dan knew our survival was already guaranteed, so he said, we need not be afraid, or violent or discouraged. We are heading toward resurrection! Here, in my opinion, is his greatest teaching: 

    Since 1980 and all the Plowshares actions, some of us continue to labor to break the demonic clutch on our souls, of the ethic of Mars, of wars and rumor of wars, inevitable wars, just wars, necessary wars, victorious wars, and say our no in acts of hope. For us, all these repeated arrests, the interminable jailings, the life of our small communities, the discipline of nonviolence, these have embodied an ethic of resurrection. Simply put, we long to taste that event, its thunders and quakes, its great Yes. We want to test the resurrection in our bones. To see if we might live in hope, instead of the thicket of cultural despair, nuclear despair, a world of perpetual war. We want to taste the resurrection. May I say we have not been disappointed.

    That’s the gauntlet that Dan threw down before us — to taste the resurrection, to pursue the heights and depths and length and breadth of creative nonviolence.  

    Despite the insanity of the world and the times, we have been given a beautiful example in his nonviolent life, and so we have no excuse but to rise to the occasion and carry on. Like Dan, we too can stand up and say no to racism, war, greed, poverty, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction. We too can base our lives on loving kindness, building community, practicing nonviolence, speaking out publicly, advocating for a new culture of peace, and spreading the vision of a new nonviolent world far and wide. This is the mission, whether or not we make a difference, and like Dan, we can go forward, knowing that we, too, will not be disappointed. 

    Thank you, Daniel Berrigan, and happy birthday!

    The PR industry aims to demobilize environmental movements — here’s what organizers can do about it

    As communities around the country prepare for annual clean-ups and tree-plantings in celebration of a now 51-year old Earth Day, industries, too, are lining up to pledge their commitment to “go green.” But the savvy, often subtle deception of these market strategies to promote companies as engaging in environmentally-friendly practices that, in reality, continue to harm the environment has advocates urging the government to strengthen legal sanctions against “greenwashing” — a practice corporations use to strategically misrepresent their environmental practices.   

    One need not travel too far for the greenwashing experience. For me, in my home city of Worcester, Massachusetts, it’s present on the garbage and recycling trucks that drive down every street in town. Displaying images of pristine public parks and waterways, they seek to communicate the message that placing your trash on the curb somehow translates into beautiful ponds with ducks swimming in them surrounded by lush green spaces. The company’s logo tells you that their trash collection services “Give Resources New Life.” While this sort of branding is accepted as essential to doing business — the better the public feels about a company, the more likely they are to patronize it — public relations poses distinct threats to environmental movements.

    In this case, uplifting words and images serve to mask the complexities of the political economy of waste and recycling and the pernicious realities of what happens to our waste and recycling when it’s driven away from the curb. Much of my city’s trash goes to a nearby incinerator that the EPA has rated as one of the nation’s biggest emitters of two disease-causing pollutants, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, an environmental justice problem activists have been taking on around the country. What doesn’t go to the incinerator heads to landfills as far away as Virginia or Ohio, adding more to already climbing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the outsourcing of waste to someone else’s backyard. Meanwhile, proposed changes to our recycling system have only increased the outrage, sparking a policy-change dispute among citizens, politicians and a PR-savvy industry. 

    Garbage and recycling trucks in Concord, Massachusetts featuring green imagery. (Patch/Concord General Services)

    A battle over local recycling

    Two years ago, as part of its proposed “Clean City Program,” the city announced its intention to move all recycling from reusable bins to single-use plastic bags, arguing that this would reduce windborne litter. Such a change would not only worsen the problem of recycling goods contamination by food waste but increase our reliance on the fossil fuels used to produce plastic bags and add 135 tons of plastic to the waste stream each year. What’s more, it wouldn’t address the main source of loose street trash: the everyday litter of throwaway food containers and plastic bags, likely to increase as the city opens a new stadium and shopping district.

    When a group of citizens mobilized to oppose this proposal — urging the city to keep reusable recycling bins and implement more effective waste-reduction strategies, such as a ban on throwaway containers — they discovered that the old chief of the Department of Public Works was now representing the company that wanted to sell the city a newly designed “bag-ripping” machine. He had convinced the city manager that the new system would lower recycling costs. 

    The objective of public relations is to maintain client allegiance through the presentation of compelling narratives, even if those narratives are misleading or untrue.

    Following public response that showed the data analysis on bag-based recycling systems was funded by the industry making the bags — and that malfunctioning machines in other cities had added to labor time and costs — the bag-selling company hired a PR representative to meet with the environmental organizers. In this meeting, they explained that their single-use bags could be produced using carbon-capture technology, even claiming that more carbon would enter the atmosphere were it not for their bags, so environmentalists should support the new system. The activists were unimpressed, cognizant of the dubious claims on which this “technological fix” proposal is based

    In response to the public’s concerns, Worcester has delayed implementing the bag-based system for the time being. This fight, however, illustrates some of the PR industry’s many techniques for undercutting activism.

    Public relations and its use against the environmental movement  

    The creation of the public relations industry is widely attributed to Edward Bernays, whose classic 1928 text, “Propaganda,” outlined his philosophy of collective psychological manipulation for political and other purposes. He soon applied this approach to advertising, and his slogans and imagery helped drive skyrocketing sales of everything from cigarettes to disposable cups. Eventually, an entire marketing industry would follow suit, working for pharmaceutical companies, the military, and every other sector of society.

    The effects have not been benign. Public relations, to be clear, isn’t about truth-telling. It is not based on objective scientific research, hypothesis testing and application — nor is it intended to support equitable relationships between an organization and its supporting public. The objective of public relations is to maintain client allegiance through the presentation of compelling narratives, even if those narratives are misleading or untrue. The field has long been used to oppose activist movements, and insights from sociology can help us understand how.

    Climate activists should also think several steps ahead and devise strategies for dealing with — and publicly exposing — their targets’ PR maneuvers.

    Social movements develop what social scientists call “collective action frames,” or strategic ways of packaging their message to more easily identify the root and causes of social problems, as well as to promote critical solutions. In response, the actors that are targeted by activists  — including policymakers, corporations, and other organizations such as industry groups — develop publicly marketable “counterframing” arguments. These may involve direct disagreement and the presentation of evidence to disprove opponents’ accusations, but oftentimes do not. With the help of PR consultants, targeted actors may instead coopt the movements’ demands, apparently conceding the rightness of these claims and working to incorporate them into a redefinition of who they are and what they do. It is important for organizers to note that this is not a full cooptation of activist goals and initiatives. Cooptation can have a positive outcome, if it means movement causes truly get taken up by powerful agents. However, this blurring of the lines of contention can also allow an organization to espouse movement values while avoiding making real changes that run counter to its own interests. This goes deeper than “rebranding,” which can be done simply to update a company’s image or expand its market base and may involve merely changing a logo. Counterframing is explicitly intended to demobilize protest. In extreme cases, as I have described in my research, it can entail complete institutional reinvention.

    Meanwhile, “greenwashing,” a term coined in the 1980s, aims to divert attention away from the deleterious effects of a company’s businesses, slow the momentum of social movements and secure long-term consumer commitments. My city’s waste disposal trucks’ advertising, the plastic bag manufacturer’s corporate-sponsored research and the bag vendor’s PR rep’s argumentative counterframing are all examples. And activists sometimes unwittingly contribute to this process when their targets invite them to engage in a dialogue that elicits a heartfelt articulation of their grievances — an opportunity for the PR experts to learn exactly what sentiments and claims would most sway the public on the issue. 

    Public relations experts also help targeted companies devise ersatz alliances, a strategy dubbed “astroturfing,” alluding to a knock-off version of grassroots organizing. Witness, for example, the “Women for Natural Gas” group, populated by reportedly fake women. PR experts guide the cultivation of political ties with real, often less powerful groups, as seen in natural gas companies’ investment in lobbying with labor to oppose policies aimed at transitioning away from fossil fuels. And they help to root targeted actors more deeply into the communities affected by their activities. Formosa Plastics, known for its devastating pollution of waterways and air in communities of color in the United States, has made token donations to local environmental civic groups and funded academic positions at local universities. 

    Adjacent to the field of PR, lobbying has its own set of powerful strategies. Shortly after Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent veto of an ambitious climate bill, researchers at Brown University released a report illuminating how, despite overwhelming testimony in legislative committees in favor of climate action, industry coalitions have succeeded in steering energy policy. 

    PR efforts to take command of the discourse around environmental issues — particularly climate change — are relentless. What then is a social movement to do?

    Sunrise Worcester at its No More Empty Promises Climate Rally in March. (Twitter/Sunrise Worcester)

    Countering deceptive PR

    More and more, movements are aware of these public relations approaches and are challenging them. Watchdog organizations like Global Witness have been exceptionally astute in fact-checking government and industry claims, countering falsehoods with concrete data, and calling on leaders to follow through on their commitments. In Worcester, Sunrise Movement conducted a thorough review of the city’s recently unveiled “Green Plan,” revealing serious omissions and troubling contradictions between what the plan represents and what it fails to promise to deliver.  

    There are several important considerations organizers can take to head off PR moves before they derail movement momentum. 

    1. Strategize in advance of public relations approaches and actively plan for them. There is extraordinary archived footage of civil rights activists training ahead for the violence they might face during sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. Climate activists should also think several steps ahead and devise strategies for dealing with — and publicly exposing — their targets’ PR maneuvers. 

    2. Be more discriminating in identifying which politicians, leaders, and allies are sincerely concerned about climate change and which are not. Here, again, Sunrise Movement has demonstrated skillful strategic forethought in Massachusetts, claiming a significant victory for the climate movement in the recent Senate race between longtime movement supporter Ed Markey and his Democratic Senate primary rival Joseph Kennedy III. 

    Different strategies tap into different mechanisms for change — therefore, activists should weigh carefully whether the goal should be to convert targets, persuade them (that concession is in their best interests) or ultimately coerce them. While there are many examples of the transformative power of change-of-heart dialogues inspiring empathic thinking and action toward more egalitarian and reciprocal relationships, these kinds of efforts will fall short with politicians and industry leaders committed only to environmental discourse. Some corporate executives are even arguing that a voluntary approach will ultimately fail.  

    3. Make action-oriented demands that go beyond opposing dangerous policies and practices and instead propose clear policy changes, articulated in detail. Opposition may garner widespread agreement on what is wrong, but proposals with clear asks will be more PR-resistant. What’s more, leaving articulation and implementation up to leaders who lack climate knowledge and practical experience can make their “green plans” less effective and more vulnerable to manipulation

    Meanwhile, denouncements only go so far. On the one hand, efforts to expose the natural gas industry’s leading role in climate change have sparked divestment at every level, the most recent example being the federal End Polluter Welfare Act of 2021. On the other hand, denouncements — particularly those aimed at local legislation — are not as effective as developing new policies that specify electrification, bans on new fossil-fuel hookups or the implementation of retrofits to transition off of existing fossil-fuel sources. Enacting policies for reducing energy usage overall is also necessary, especially as energy experts provide sobering assessments of the limits of alternative energy given our current usage, as well as the harmful effects of “green” technology.

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    Even as the climate crisis escalates, many of the offending industries continue to pour funds into efforts that stave off the rapid changes necessary to avert crises. For some activists, it may feel paradoxical when attacks on their movement come packaged in the form of strategic agreement. But all evidence in the social scientific study of environmental politics shows us that greenwashing is now among the most common weapons in the quest for environmental impunity, at least in places where activists hold enough power to avoid the direct repression frontline and indigenous resisters often face

    With this realization at hand, it is vital that organizers continue to develop forms of resistance that take the duplicity of the public relations enterprise into account. This is necessary in order to have honest public conversations about the dire ecological problems we face, as well as to construct — and achieve the implementation of — policies that are truly effective in addressing them.  

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