Waging Nonviolence

Now is the time to send unarmed peacekeepers to Gaza and the rest of Palestine

This article Now is the time to send unarmed peacekeepers to Gaza and the rest of Palestine was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

When the U.N. Security Council finally passed a Ceasefire Resolution for Gaza by a vote of 14-0 — with the U.S. abstaining — on March 26, it was clear in its demand for a ceasefire, as well as several other key points, including the unconditional release of all hostages, the proper treatment of detainees in compliance with international law and access to humanitarian and medical aid. However, the UNSC was silent about how these demands might be enforced, thus rendering them more akin to suggestions.

That same day, an advance draft of a U.N. Human Rights Council report offered a glimpse at how such enforcement could actually happen, calling for the deployment of “an international protective presence” to help stem violence against Palestinians in Gaza and the rest of the Occupied Territories. The following day, the report’s author — Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese — expanded on her recommendation at a news conference in Geneva, saying that such an international protective presence should operate like the handful of NGO-affiliated unarmed civilians currently interposing themselves on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. “This is the thing that should be done,” she explained. “Making sure that pending the military withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, there is a shelter between the Palestinians and the armed settlers and army.”

Albanese is correct: Now is the time to recruit, prepare and send large numbers of well-trained unarmed civilian protectors to the Occupied Territories of Palestine to support local civil society, directly protect civilians and bolster those already providing unarmed civilian protection on a small scale. While the U.N. Security and Human Rights Councils have created openings, we cannot wait for them to act. The Security Council could take months — if ever — to make a decision, and even then, it would be prone to send armed peacekeepers. Unarmed civilian protection and accompaniment groups have, for years, been successfully carrying out the activities described by the UNSC and HRC. We must accelerate this people-to-people response.

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As Special Rapporteur Albanese noted, Israeli, Palestinian and international groups have already been providing unarmed civilian protection, or UCP, in other parts of Palestine. Facing intensified harassment and violence from settlers and the Israeli Defense Forces since Oct. 7, groups like Ta’ayush, Looking the Occupation in the Eye, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and Community Peacemaker Teams continue to provide protective presence and support self-protection in the homes of Palestinians and at checkpoints, as well as by accompanying farmers and shepherds. 

Recently, in response to Israeli settlers blocking a Gaza aid convoy arriving from Jordan at the Tarqumiya checkpoint, the Jewish and Palestinian grassroots movement Standing Together mobilized a Humanitarian Guard to accompany trucks carrying aid destined for Gaza. “There is always the risk that something physical might happen, of course, but engaging with the settlers is not our goal,” Rula Daood, the national co-director of Standing Together told Haaretz. “Instead, we not only want to call attention to what is happening at the border crossing, we hope that our presence there will bring accountability to the police and the army.”

On May 19, the Humanitarian Guard was able to block the settlers from the convoy at Tarqumiya checkpoint, with the police arriving promptly to move the settlers back. The group again helped remove settlers when they attacked the trucks at another junction. “Up to now all the food that went out today will get to Gaza safely,” a Standing Together spokesperson reported. They will be going out every day to protect the trucks from settler attacks. 

Humanitarian Guard at Tarqumiya checkpoint after protecting aid trucks from settler attacks on May 20. (Twitter/@omdimbeyachad)

Haaretz recently reported on the stories of six Israeli activists who are trying to protect Palestinians in the West Bank. Hillel Levi Faur is part of a group of about 100 young people called Presence in Hard Times, which places Israelis in homes under threat in the South Hebron Hills. As Levi Faur stressed, “They keep pleading with us to come. There are communities that make you feel bad if you don’t show up for a week or two. They say, ‘We can’t sleep.’ It’s terrible, having those conversations.”

As part of her work for the Center of Jewish Nonviolence, Katie Loncke reported similar examples of deterrence through protective presence during her stay in Masafer Yatta, citing shepherds who were able to extend their grazing areas and a family that was able to return to their home.

The 2016 study “Wielding Nonviolence in the Midst of Violence” found multiple respondents reporting positive impacts of unarmed civilian protection in the Palestinian territories, including enhancing Palestinian leadership and nonviolent resistance, helping people keep land and stay in their communities, decreasing violence toward Palestinian demonstrations, de-escalating violence by Israeli soldiers, decreasing violence by Palestinians, protecting school children and decreasing checkpoint abuse. According to the study’s findings, “Respondents consistently reported that UCP activity has diminished violence from soldiers, settlers and Palestinians.”

The good news is that those already active groups are scaling up their efforts. The Center for Jewish Nonviolence is recruiting individuals to join 10-day Summer Solidarity Shifts to bolster the existing network of solidarity presence. The Italian group Operazione Colomba is continuing to support the nonviolent struggle of the Palestinian communities south of Hebron, and the U.S. group Meta Peace Team is gearing up to send a team. Meanwhile, accompaniers from the World Council of Churches-sponsored Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel are returning to their work in the West Bank.

A group of ecumenical accompaniers accompany children on their way to school in Tuqu, in the West Bank. (World Council of Churches/Albin Hillert) The opportunity

While the existing work is extremely important, it will have to be significantly scaled up in numbers and duration to address the needs of not only the West Bank, but especially Gaza. Fortunately, the human resources exist. Hundreds of veteran unarmed civilian protectors and accompaniers live in at least 35 countries and have worked with one or more of the 60-plus organizations practicing UCP and accompaniment. At least 20 of these organizations have already worked in the Occupied Territories of Palestine.

With sufficient funds (a fraction of the cost of any military intervention), they could be mobilized, provided updated training by Palestinians and deployed quickly. Working closely with local Palestinians and UCP groups on the ground, these veterans could effectively carry out the objectives in the Security Council Ceasefire Resolution and Human Rights Council report, including:

  • protecting efficient provision of humanitarian assistance and medical care,
  • accompanying people under threat,
  • interpositioning between conflicting parties,
  • monitoring ceasefires,
  • monitoring and reporting on compliance with international law, and 
  • providing direct protection to civilians.
Previous Coverage
  • There’s a better way to make communities safer — and it’s taking off around the world
  • Peace Brigades International, for example, has been providing accompaniment to vulnerable people in Colombia among other places since 1994. The organization I helped to found, Nonviolent Peaceforce, has been opening humanitarian access for remote, difficult to reach places in South Sudan since 2011. The Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation is among many UCP groups that — in addition to providing accompaniment and protective presence, as well as supporting communities in self-protection — monitors and reports on international law, for example arbitrary detentions in Mexico

    Nonviolent Peaceforce was also part of the ceasefire process in Mindanao from 2009-2014, having been invited by both the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to be an official part of the International Monitoring Team. Reflecting on her work with my former organization in Mindanao, Ambassador Kristine Leilani R. Salle from the Philippine Mission to the U.N. in Geneva said: “Our experience shows that civilian-led nonviolent approaches can contribute to saving lives and empowering people in communities to build a just and lasting peace for themselves even under the most difficult of circumstances.”

    These veterans of UCP and accompaniment also have experience in applying a variety of other nonviolent methodologies, including de-escalation, early warning/early response and supporting community-based unarmed self-defense. What’s more, they have extensive experience dealing with armed actors — whether they be warring governments or non-state actors like the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines or the FARC in Colombia. Their goal is not to convert anyone — although sometimes that happens — but rather to be able to communicate with one another, lessen tensions, protect civilians and prevent violence. 

    Violence as default

    Despite the success stories cited above, many policy leaders are once again poised to spend billions of dollars for an armed peacekeeping approach in the Occupied Territories. On May 16, the Arab League passed the “Manama Declaration,” calling for U.N. peacekeeping forces to be sent to the occupied Palestinian territories until a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is implemented. This comes at the same time as the U.N. is withdrawing 13,500 peacekeepers from Democratic Republic of the Congo at the demand of the Congolese government, which says the peacekeepers have failed — after 20 years — to protect civilians from armed groups. 

    While armed peacekeepers can often keep other armed groups apart, they are neither trained, equipped nor good at community engagement, which is essential for protecting civilians and building sustainable peace. Military peacekeeping forces are usually drawn from South Asian or African militaries — with their governments being paid for the service. They typically do not speak local languages and are not allowed to live in the community. Therefore, they only have limited interactions with civil society. 

    Working with Nonviolent Peaceforce, I saw U.N. peacekeepers’ lack of on-the-ground engagement in South Sudan. I even unsuccessfully advocated — with the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping — for their armed peacekeepers to protect women from assault by walking with them as they collected firewood in the bush. I was told that it would be too unsafe. This is something our unarmed teams did routinely for four years. 

    Because armed peacekeepers have limited engagement with local civil society which is a fundamental element in protection, the best they can offer is an imposed, temporary, top-down intervention. Rachel Julian of Leeds Beckett University observes in her forthcoming book on UCP, “Transforming Protection,” that such top-down, armed approaches to protection assumes expertise and power are in the hands of a few outsiders, excluding local agency. “This means that what safety means to them, the diverse nature of the threats and the transformational change required are not included. Transformational change requires a change in the power system,” Julian concluded.

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    Donate Now is the time to act

    With the attack on Israeli civilians by Hamas on Oct. 7 or the targeted killing of World Central Kitchen staff by IDF drones on April 1, it is fair to ask why unarmed civilian protectors would be treated any differently. However, it’s the international attention brought on by these very tragedies that may expand the protection internationals can provide. For example, in 1987, American engineer Ben Linder and two other humanitarian workers were killed by the Contras along the northern border of Nicaragua. His death elevated international outrage mobilizing hundreds of internationals to go Nicaragua, which in turn expanded a protective presence in rural areas.

    While it is almost impossible for anyone to get into Gaza at the moment — let alone a large group — pressures are building rapidly with the growing recognition of Palestinian statehood,  the International Criminal Court issuing arrest warrants, the International Court of Justice ordering Israel to abide by the Genocide Convention and ceasefire negotiations still ongoing. At the same time, on the grassroots level, students around the world are pressing for divestment from Israel, the Freedom Flotilla is pushing for entry into Gaza and groups like Jewish Voice for Peace are organizing for a ceasefire and an end to military aid to Israel.

    These diplomatic, legal and grassroots initiatives will intensify and continue to create cracks if not openings. We have to be ready to take advantage of them when they occur. If we wait to prepare until the opportunities are fully formed, militaries will have already been deployed. By demonstrating our readiness, we build the reality and pressure to use UCP.

    Acting as a consortium, UCP groups can bring together a large-scale, experienced, well-trained international force of unarmed civilian protectors who have proven that they can protect civilians, deter violence, accompany hostages, protect the delivery of humanitarian assistance, protect homes, support community self-protection and assist the implementation of ceasefires. They can work closely with local civil society to build lasting peace. To have this resource available now, will only speed up the peace process.

    This article Now is the time to send unarmed peacekeepers to Gaza and the rest of Palestine was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    How a new Supreme Court decision threatens movements in Mississippi

    This article How a new Supreme Court decision threatens movements in Mississippi was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    As local and state governments across the country continue to propose sweeping new policies that criminalize protests, a recent Supreme Court decision in the Deep South has sparked fears that it “effectively eliminated the right to organize a mass protest” in multiple states — setting a dangerous precedent for Southern organizers and activists. 

    Back in 2016, prominent Black Lives Matter organizer DeRay McKesson led a protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where an unidentified protester seriously injured a police officer. The officer sued him, arguing that McKesson displayed negligence as an organizer. What resulted was a years-long back and forth that led to the U.S. Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi. The Fifth Circuit sided with Doe and reaffirmed that ruling last year: According to federal Judge Jennifer Elrod, “it is plausible that McKesson knew or should have known that the police would be forced to respond to the demonstration, that the protest would turn violent and that someone might be injured as a result.”

    The question at the center of McKesson v. Doe can be traced back to 1966, when the NAACP organized a multiyear boycott of white businesses in Claiborne County, Mississippi. Although organizers explicitly framed the boycott as nonviolent, some “acts and threats of violence” drove a group of white businessmen to sue the NAACP for damages three years later. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1982 that the boycott was protected by the First Amendment — and that organizers could not be held liable for illegal activity they did not endorse. 

    As Vox senior correspondent Ian Millhiser recently wrote, the NAACP v. Claiborne decision affirmed that “no one who organizes a mass event attended by thousands of people can possibly control the actions of all those attendees.” But if the McKesson v. Doe decision stands, protest organizers risk becoming financially liable if crimes occur during their protests, which may discourage many people from protesting at all. Throughout the Fifth Circuit’s territory, organizers are wrestling with the implications for protest strategy and tactics. 

    In Mississippi, a state with a long legacy of progressive and radical protest, the McKesson v. Doe decision is only the latest attempt to stifle that energy. Last summer, for example, the Republican supermajority in Mississippi’s legislature passed a law requiring written approval from state police before holding a protest near government buildings in the state’s capital. (A month later, that law was blocked by a federal judge.) 

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    To get a sense of where McKesson v. Doe fits into Mississippi’s political climate, I spoke with community organizer Lea Campbell, who serves as president of the Mississippi Rising Coalition. The same day as our interview, students at Ole Miss joined the nationwide movement for colleges to divest from the war in Gaza. We discussed the current political landscape for protest in Mississippi, the advantages of statewide coalitions and how organizers will account for McKesson v. Doe in future campaigns.

    Tell me about Mississippi Rising and some of your current work.

    We’re a multiracial, intergenerational coalition of Mississippi residents working to advance climate, racial and economic justice.

    We are organizing with folks from across the state to increase awareness and action around what’s going on in Gaza, the colonial apartheid and genocide of Palestinians. We are facilitating an alliance of about 30 grassroots organizations called the Mississippi People’s Movement that works together around shared priorities to advance racial and economic justice. We’re also organizing the Food Freedom Collective to establish a community-led, localized food system that will increase access for food insecure folks in the Hattiesburg area. 

    Where do mass protest and direct action fit into your theory of social change?

    Direct action is definitely a strategy we use in our overall theory of change for resisting current systems and structures that oppress and advocating for new, liberatory systems and structures. Of course, under that bucket of direct action, we often use protest — meaning mass protest (or rallies) and small nonviolent actions. It just depends on our specific goals, who our targets are and where we are in a campaign as to what direct action tactics we use.

    In your experience, what has the climate been like organizing protests in Mississippi during this moment? 

    We’ve been organizing protests since 2016, and we have worked really hard to promote a culture of dissent in Mississippi. There’s a lot of fear and reluctance because of the history of tactics used by the state and by police to repress protests. So we have worked hard to increase comfort levels in speaking out, feeling safe and owning public spaces that are ours. We really saw the progress of that in 2020 during the George Floyd protests: There were some really large protests here that we hadn’t seen probably for decades. That was a huge moment for us. 

    Now in this current climate, we’re seeing a slow progression in the willingness of folks to get out and protest what’s going on in Gaza. We’ve had some protests in Jackson, Hattiesburg and here on the Gulf Coast. And there’s a group called UMiss for Palestine that’s staging the first on-campus protest, making demands for the Ole Miss administration to disclose and divest. So it’s really exciting to see student uprisings here.

    The state legislature has tried to pass a few pieces of legislation restricting protest in the past few legislative sessions. They tried to pass a law making it a felony to block a road or street during a protest and tried to make it a felony to flee law enforcement. I’m sure they’ll continue with these attempts. 

    You talked about how your coalition is intergenerational. Have you been able to draw from the experiences of past generations of organizers in your current work?

    We look back to tactics used by SNCC and Ella Baker [and] tactics used by COFO and others during Freedom Summer here in Mississippi. We always try to ground ourselves in movements that came before us — and try to assess, given the current context of protests, how we need to change tactics. Police are certainly more militarized, they have more sophisticated surveillance technology — so we have to take things like that into account as we organize protests and direct action. But we always honor and ground ourselves in the organizers and actions of the past. 

    When did the McKesson v. Doe decision get on your radar?

    I knew that DeRay Mckession was charged [and] that it had reached the Supreme Court, but I wasn’t aware that the Supreme Court decision was impending. So when I heard that they had declined to reverse the ruling from the Circuit Court, I wasn’t surprised, but I wasn’t expecting it.

    What are the implications of the idea that protest organizers could be held liable for what anyone in the crowd is doing?

    We’re not going to stop protesting and organizing direct action: We’re not going to stop encouraging communities and individuals to exercise our right to assemble and our right to address grievances with our government, period. I want to be very clear about that. 

    What we will have to do is be very intentional about how we organize. We may have to modify the types of actions that we organize. We have to make sure there are trained street medics, protest marshals trained in how to approach and de-escalate with counter-protesters, ACLU-trained legal observers who can monitor the police. Some organizers may choose to organize smaller actions where there’s a little bit greater element of control.

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    But also, we have to be really explicit in all phases of organizing that we’re organizing nonviolent action, that violence in any form by any participant is unacceptable and that’s not the goal of what we’re doing. Police, all the time, provoke responses from protesters through use of physical force and violence — and who’s to say these police aren’t going to go back to a court and lie and say, “It’s the protesters that were violent, we were just trying to keep things under control.” 

    Behind McKesson v. Doe, it feels like there’s this implication that organizers should be able to filter out any bad actors in the middle of a protest. You could start an action with a certain group of people and other people join in as they see it, police show up, maybe different organizations with different leadership.

    We cannot control what every participant in a direct action does. What we can control is how we organize, what we say and how we frame the action, who we recruit to do things — like be the marshals, who’s going to record the protest, who’s going to be the legal observers. We’re just going to have to do the best we can moving forward — that’s all we can do. 

    What can protest movements in other states learn from what’s happening on the ground in Mississippi?

    I think Mississippi can be an example of the power of building cross-race, cross-class, cross-generation, cross-gender movements. We have to do that here — we have no choice. If we’re going to win change, win progress, win liberation in Mississippi, we’ve got to organize together: Black folks, brown folks, white folks, women and femmes, trans people, gay people, straight people, the working class, poor people, old people, young people. It’s not easy, it’s a struggle. But when we do that here, we win.

    We organized from 2015 to 2020 to finally get the Confederate emblem removed from the state flag. We had to build a broad coalition that did not hesitate to protest and get out in the street, to go to the state capitol, go to our city halls, to make demands and then to escalate when those demands weren’t met. And it took five years, but we finally did that. So I think we can be a testament to the reality that organizing is a marathon, not a sprint. If you’re organizing for deep change, you’ve got to get in it for the long haul and you’ve got to be willing to organize with folks that maybe you otherwise wouldn’t. You’ve got to build coalitions.

    This article How a new Supreme Court decision threatens movements in Mississippi was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    Overcoming despair and apathy to win democracy

    This article Overcoming despair and apathy to win democracy was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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    Waging Nonviolence is once again teaming up with Choose Democracy to provide resources on how to stem the rising authoritarian tide. This is the first in a series of interviews with experienced organizers and movement thinkers on ways to defend democracy.

    The Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic had already been in power for a decade, when a small group of university students began organizing what would become a successful nonviolent revolution in 2000. Calling themselves Otpor! (“Resistance!” in English), they began by developing their strategy and agreeing to not only rely on nonviolent tactics but to train others, making that a hallmark of their struggle. 

    Knowing they couldn’t count on fairness from the government-controlled mass media, they focused on widely-felt weaknesses of the regime that could be dramatized by creative tactics and spread by word-of-mouth. They also issued a kind of manifesto — through their trainings — that defined their analysis of the problem, their vision of objectives and their commitment to nonviolent direct action. Because their goal required a mass movement, they networked with organizations less radical than they were. That choice to go beyond “political correctness” to relate to other interest groups paid off by giving them the numbers needed for boycotts, strikes and eventually strategic general strikes.  

    Since Serbia didn’t have its own tradition of mass nonviolent struggle to draw upon, Otpor! accepted training from international experts in nonviolent struggle. After Otpor’s victory, Ivan Marovic — one of the movement’s original leaders — continued strengthening his training skills and began making himself available to pro-democracy groups around the world.  

    Previous Coverage
  • Otpor! leader’s new campaign manual shows strategy is for everyone
  • For the past two decades, Ivan has been designing learning programs on civil resistance and movement-building, while supporting the development of training organizations such as the African Coaching Network. He authored a training guide “The Path of Most Resistance” and is currently the executive director of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

    With the biggest election year in history underway — and threats to democracy facing the United States and many other countries — I decided to ask Ivan about the many practical lessons he learned from Otpor’s success. Here, in Ivan’s own words, is the story of bringing down a dictator. 

    In the United States at present, civil liberties are pretty strongly supported in the courts and society. What was that situation like for you, when you were starting your campaign?

    I was coming of age in a country that was already deteriorating on all levels. There were certain liberties and standards and rights that were being stripped away on a daily basis. So, my feeling growing up was one of deterioration. Milosevic was trying to solidify his power from the very first moment, but especially towards the end. That’s when it became most threatening, and no longer subtle. 

    At the very beginning, the thing that prompted us [to start protesting] were two laws that were passed by the government: one stripped away the autonomy of the university, the other made it impossible for the media to operate. That was the moment where we decided to push back. What we realized later, however, is that we had to go beyond just pushing back and reacting to these things. We needed to start building a positive platform, rather than just pushing against these dictatorial tendencies.

    Was hope a factor for you? Did hope operate as a motivation for some part of your movement?

    When we started, society was largely in a state of despair and apathy. And that is why we decided to use hope as one of our major forms of messaging. People were like, “How can you be hopeful? It looks like things are getting worse by the day.” But we didn’t care how people reacted to the message of hope, or that they reacted with skepticism. What we were focused on was whether people had a need for hope — and they did. They desperately wanted to hope. They were skeptical because they didn’t want to get hurt or disappointed. Cynicism and apathy were at the surface, but below that was actually a common desire to live in a normal country. That’s why one of our slogans was “We want Serbia to be a normal country.” It was silly because just wanting things to be normal was kind of outrageous. But this is why persistence is important. If you give up at the very first moment where you share the message of hope — and people react with skepticism — you actually lose the opportunity to uncover something that is behind that first barrier.

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    How big was your group when you started out? And how long did it take for the group to grow from the point of being small to realizing a mass movement was really possible?

    The group that started this conversation was rather small — the initial number was a dozen people. And then, within weeks, we expanded that conversation towards several dozen, maybe 50 people. Then we tapped into our networks, and we managed to expand within a couple of months to a few hundred. That is where we exhausted our networks, and we realized that we needed to build new connections to bring in people who were not part of our social circles. That transformation — from a group of a few hundred to a group of thousands and thousands, and then tens of thousands — took us a whole year to figure out. We had to flip the way we used actions and tactics to maximize recruitment.

    What do you mean? What did that look like?

    We were spending so much energy just getting people into the street day after day, that we said, “We’re not going to recruit people to do actions, we’re going to do actions to recruit people.” Whether it was a street demonstration, or a picket or a sit-in, the first question we asked ourselves was: “How are we going to do this action so that we bring new people into the movement?” That changed the way we did things. We realized that shouting slogans, heckling politicians and things like that are too much of a hassle without new recruitment. We started doing more activities — actions and tactics that got people interested in joining the movement.

    For example?

    Instead of organizing a protest in the city center, in front of a government building where nobody’s around, we would organize those same protests at the outskirts of the city, in and around green markets or shopping centers. We spoke to people rather than shout at institutions where the doors were shut. The locations where we did street activities changed. Instead of shouting slogans, we would do something more interesting and engaging. This is how we discovered street theater, which helped us bring something interactive to ordinary bystanders. It exposed them to things that spark conversations, and those conversations would result in recruitment. 

    I’ll give you an example: There was a solar eclipse that was happening at the time, and we put a big cardboard telescope in the middle of the street and invited people to observe the eclipse through the telescope. When they looked through the cardboard telescope, which was our own little contraption, they would see Milosevic’s head falling like a shooting star. They would laugh and then other people would want to see, and that would start the conversation. But the thing is, that action wasn’t aimed at the dictator or the members of the regime. It was aimed at the public. 

    We wanted the public to be involved, to be engaged and to have some sort of a cathartic moment where they reflected not just on the problems they’re facing but on their role in perpetuating those problems. Our thing wasn’t: “The regime is bad, we’re good, support the movement.” It wasn’t that simple. Our message was: “How did we, as citizens, contribute to this problem through our action — or inaction, more precisely — and what we can do in the future to change that?” That was our invitation to those same people to join the movement because that was the way out of apathy. The way out of hopelessness is through coming together, working together and building that alternative together as a society, as a people. 

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    Who were your first recruits? 

    First were students, and that was natural because we were students. But then we expanded to people who were in their final year of high school, who were facing bleak prospects, and also young unemployed people, who just finished university and had no future after school. We became a youth movement — not just a student movement. 

    Interestingly, the next group that joined was retired people, because they also felt marginalized. This was very important because retired people have a much better understanding of their own neighborhoods than young people do. They know who’s who and hang out with each other. So we got really good geographic spread when the retired people started joining. People who were in their prime — in their 30s, 40s and 50s — were actually the last join. So the movement was growing on the margins before it finally took over the most important part of the society.

    All this is happening in the context of a dictatorship — so there were bound to be people who were worried about the risk of joining the movement. How did you handle that problem?

    This was happening not just in a dictatorship, but in a dictatorship that was solidifying every day. It was getting worse and worse, and it wasn’t just any dictatorship — it was using nationalism as its main ideology. This is why Serbia, in the 90s, was involved in four wars — first with Slovenia, then with Croatia, then with Bosnia and then finally with Kosovo. Nationalism was the selling point among the regime supporters. So our movement was seen not just as a nuisance or a gadfly, but as an enemy within. 

    Fortunately for us, they underestimated us as young people. They actually didn’t believe that somebody in their early 20s was a real threat. So when we were starting — in that first phase before we became strong enough — the regime was focused on more mainstream dissidents and opponents. For instance, the president before Milosevic got assassinated. Then the leader of the biggest opposition party survived two assassination attempts and was hiding in another country. Then the editor of the biggest opposition newspaper at the time was assassinated on Easter Sunday on his doorstep. People were being arrested and some were disappeared or killed. But those were people who were already identified as a potential enemy problem. 

    We — as young student organizers — were flying under the radar. They didn’t see us coming, and we were lucky that they didn’t because in those first days, weeks or months, we still didn’t understand how to protect ourselves. Later, we learned and were able to respond and create a backfire to that repression.

    What did that look like?

    During our second year, it wasn’t a few hundred people anymore. It was thousands, tens of thousands — and [that’s when the regime] realized we were a threat. So one day, they organized this hasty press conference and declared Otpor!, our movement, a terrorist organization modeled after the Red Brigades, even though we never used violence. We were strictly nonviolent. We were never associated with any violent incident. But they needed the pretext to launch a crackdown, which came as a huge wave of arrests — hundreds and hundreds of our activists overnight. 

    The problem for the regime was that the local police were doing the arresting. It’s not some special unit. If you have to do a sweep and arrest everybody around the country, you have to rely on the local police. And so the local police are arresting people who — when they get arrested — don’t fight back. This is something we practiced as a response. [We had our people say] “We respect what you’re doing. We’re not going to fight back. We understand that it’s not your choice to arrest us. You were forced by the regime, and you would rather go after criminals, not after students. We understand and we don’t hold a grudge.” 

    That little sentence that was shared with the police officer during an arrest had a devastating effect on them. Their morale was in shatters. They didn’t know what was going on because they never encountered this before. [They were used to arresting people who] would fight back. So all of a sudden the police officers started calling in sick. They didn’t want to come to work. The regime freaked out, but we we didn’t know that at the time. We’d just been declared a terrorist organization. We thought “We’re done. It’s over for us.” 

    When did you first become aware that the regime’s repression was empowering the movement? 

    A year later, after Milosevic fell, we actually got access to the internal communication and learned that things were falling apart. People didn’t want to participate in [the repression]. But they weren’t [openly] refusing. They weren’t saying “no.” They were just calling in sick, and the regime realized that they had a crisis of legitimacy among their ranks, the repression was backfiring. 

    Milosevic was much smarter in the early stages of his rule because he was relying on apathy and despair, not fear. When he started using crackdowns and repression, he shifted from spreading apathy towards spreading fear. But fear is not a very good ally for a dictator because if the repression backfires, then poof, fear disappears. All of a sudden you have a brave population that is fighting back. This is what we got towards the end. 

    As the repression backfired, people became more courageous, because they realized, “Oh, my God, that gun that was pointed at me, was empty.” And then they all came out. But, again, I have to give this caveat: The only reason why this worked was because there was no crackdown in the first phase of our struggle. If they identified the threat earlier, and rounded us up when we were still a few dozen people, it would have been much easier for them.

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    Did you have any ways as organizers that you intentionally tried to increase morale and encourage them to see through the government’s response — so that they understood they would get through this?

    Even beyond the repression, we thought of a movement as a place where people can find themselves — and find themselves within a community. You join the movement because of the goal the movement is fighting for, but you stay in the movement because of other people. So when it comes to repression, we really wanted the movement to be there for people — whether for an arrest or intimidation, whatever pressures people were feeling. 

    For instance, we had a protocol for arrests, which we called Plan B. We would initiate it as soon as we heard somebody was arrested. It was a buddy system, where everybody had a buddy to check in on them regularly. If you failed to reach your buddy that meant something happened — maybe that person was arrested and there were witnesses who saw it. Plan B was aimed at generating support for people who were arrested as soon as possible.

    How did Plan B work in practice? 

    Plan B said that as soon as you hear somebody’s arrested, you find out what police station they are in, and you start calling that police station right away. So everybody’s calling just to let those guys know that we know they are holding the arrested person. The second thing is to immediately call the lawyers and send them directly to the police station to demand to see the arrested person. Create that first line of pressure, and then immediately organize a secondary protest in front of the police station, involving community members that are well known. In smaller towns, you would go for local doctors, lawyers, people who are well known in that community — and try to get them in front of the police station. 

    One time when I was arrested, they put me in solitary confinement for a couple of hours. Then, when they took me out to be questioned, I heard people outside the closed window. I knew that these were my people and that actually helped. If you’ve been arrested and you know that other parts of the movement are supporting you, that gives you such a boost of confidence and ability to cope with the crisis. 

    We also would have a regular training, similar to what Rev. James Lawson was doing to prepare people for lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. This was so they could see what they would encounter when attacked. We had people who had already been arrested — who knew what the police did — and had them play the role of the police. They would round up new recruits and actually take them through the whole process of what happens when you get arrested. That way, when they did get arrested, they already knew what was going to happen. That kind of preparation, together with the support I described, created a situation where people were much more capable of dealing with the dangers of arrest.

    As you know, in our country, there’s a cultural expectation that people will use violence when they’re threatened. So were you also training people to remain nonviolent, despite the fact that they might be provoked?

    We’re from the Balkans, so of course violence is a default reaction. This was [particularly the case] during the war in the Balkans. There were a lot of younger men — especially [within the] police and military — who had direct experience from the war. So using violence could really put you in a dangerous situation because there were people who participated in ethnic cleansing in the police force or paramilitary groups. We wanted to explain to our people that, “This is no joke. It’s the population that’s going to save us, so we have to make sure the population is on our side.” That meant we had to remain nonviolent. That was a discussion we had with people joining the movement on the very first day.

    As we were building the movement, in those early stages, when we were only a few dozen people, we went and talked to our professors who all participated in the 1968 protests. We wanted to learn how to organize because they had the know-how, and we got really good insight from them. But we actually realized that we should talk to the generation before them — the generation that was organizing during the Second World War against the German occupiers. These were people who were painting stuff on the wall, like “Germans go home,” “Down with the Nazi Party.” For that, they would be severely punished, sent to concentration camps, some of them shot. 

    Those people would tell us, “When we organized our underground cells and somebody said they wanted to join us, we would tell them, ‘You see that police station over there? Go and write an antifascist slogan on it.’ Ninety percent of them would turn around and never come back.” Then we asked, “Why did you do that? You just ruined the chance of recruiting more people? You could have been much bigger.” And they told us, “The worst thing that can happen to you is growing too quickly with people who are not ready.” That’s when we realized we had to put the filter at the very beginning. We don’t want to be dealing with elements in the movement that are going in a different direction. That’s why, when we recruited people, the very first conversation was: “Do you accept nonviolent civil resistance as a method of political struggle? Because if you don’t, there are plenty of opportunities for you elsewhere. But in this movement, this is how we do it.” 

    By putting that up front, we actually created the filter that enabled us later on to maintain nonviolent discipline. People who joined the movement understood why the nonviolent method was the winning method, [and that couldn’t have happened without putting] that conversation at the very beginning. We learned that from our grandparents. They weren’t using nonviolence — because their struggle was different — but they were using a filter at the very beginning to make sure that only the best, most committed and ready joined the struggle.

    What size would you say the movement was at its largest as a percent of your population?

    The population of Serbia at the time was around 6.5 million people. We were growing steadily, and when we got to 20,000 members the thing started accelerating. Over the next couple months we grew from 20,000 to 80,000. But it was never centralized. People were joining the movement in their local chapters in the last couple of months, and we never had a full count of who was there. So 80,000 is an estimate. The last real count was 20,000. 

    Previous Coverage
  • Trapped inside the military the day Milosevic fell
  • As I mentioned, in the beginning, it was usually young people. Then we started getting people who were professionals, people who had either small shops or were taxi drivers, or were self-employed in one way or another. It felt safer for them to join. Then the next group were people who were working in large publicly-owned or run institutions, like teachers and medical workers. Then, finally, in the last couple of weeks, we got the workers, especially in large companies and entities like mines and electrical production — people who were actually running the industries. When they decided to join the strike that was already taking place, that was when we realized the game was over. The regime had no option but to step down, and they stepped down without a single shot fired, which people at the time said would never happen.

    As you know, it’s common in social movements, as anywhere else, for there to be competition for leadership within a movement. Did such competition show up in your movement? And if so, how did you handle that?

    We were really cautious about leadership questions when we were building the movement. From our previous experiences, we knew that when you would organize a protest, a leader would oftentimes emerge. That person might be elected by the people who were protesting — because he looked cool — or the media would show up, and they would elect the leader for you. Then that leader would have ambition, which would be more important than the protests or the other people. Then everybody gets disappointed because this guy is now suddenly pursuing a political career. That leader would feed on the energy of the collective and benefit from that, and people would be rightfully pissed. It’s like “Am I just a springboard for somebody to launch their political career?” Or those same leaders, because they are more visible, would be blackmailed, intimidated, arrested or killed. So it was also dangerous to be a leader.

    When we were building a movement, we didn’t want to have leaders, but we knew we couldn’t say there aren’t leaders because, remember, the media will pick them if you don’t. You have to be really intentional about it, and that means collective leadership, federated leadership — or leadership on every level, so that there is leadership emerging on the regional and local levels. There are many leaders happening, there is a rotation, and that rotation is encouraged by the movement, so that no single person emerges as the sole leader over a long period of time. This was one of the things we promoted from the very beginning by saying, “We need collective leadership, because this is what happened in the past and we want to avoid that.”

    So you baked that approach to leadership into the nature of the movement that you built. It was part of the culture of the movement, and as you recruited people, you were teaching them.

    Exactly. Part of the movement’s DNA was: What does it mean to be leaderless? That doesn’t mean we don’t have leadership, that means we just don’t have individual leaders. But we do have leadership and this is how it works, this is how you become part of that leadership, and this is how you stop being part of that leadership, but then reappear again. 

    One of the important things underlying this was a conversation — within the movement, especially among the original leadership who launched it — about motivation. What is the motivation for people to join the movement? Are you in this for money? If you’re in this for money, the problem with money is that, the more I get, the less you will get. If you’re in this for celebrity status, there is only a limited number of minutes in prime time, and the more minutes in primetime I get, the less you will get. If you’re in it for power, the more power you get, the less power somebody else is going to get. So they’re all zero sum games. But there is one thing we can all share and that’s glory — that’s participating in something bigger than us individually. If we build something big, everybody who participates in the building of that something will share the glory of the success. After that, you can go back and pursue your personal ambition. 

    This was the understanding we had at the very beginning, when we were building the movement. In that original cohort, we needed to have that understanding amongst ourselves because then we could trust each other that — a few months in — nobody would be saying “Okay, I’m going to pursue a political career.” It’s not that people didn’t do that. We still had people who would fall off to pursue a political career, but because of that understanding, it didn’t hurt us. We were able to say “Okay, too bad, you could have participated in a glorious effort, but you decided to sacrifice it for a petty political career.” 

    I remember, towards the end, I had a feeling that the movement was running itself. There was no need for me to do anything because the movement was now bigger than any of us individually. That was the moment where, I was like, “Wow, that’s a glorious thing we were talking about. Now, it’s finally happening.”

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    Tell me if I’m correct: You and the others in the leadership group that launched this movement spent a lot of time designing the culture of the movement in such a way that it would keep repeating. So, you didn’t need to be coming up with major cultural innovations a year or two down the road, because you’d already thought of so many parts of the design.

    Exactly. This is what we call frontloading. You cannot have a meaningful discussion in a movement of tens of thousands of people. On top of that, there’s the problem of repression and surveillance. You have to be decentralized. So how do you achieve that democracy? The way we solved that problem was by having all those discussions and decisions at the beginning, when people are first joining the movement. They have to say “Yes, I agree with the fact that we are using a nonviolent method” and “We don’t have leaders” and “This is how we approach the problem of leadership and culture.” Another thing was, “We’re not going to pursue a political career.” These are all the things that we designed. So when people joined the movement, they had to accept those principles — and when they accepted those principles, they kind of voted for them by joining. 

    Beyond those principles, there’s local autonomy. So we’re not going to tell you how best to run the movement in your own town. You know that best. As long as you stick to the principles that you accepted when you joined, you’re free to do whatever you feel is best. There weren’t people individually saying, “Okay, I think this is better,” and then doing something completely crazy, because they would work as a collective. They would keep each other accountable or in check. It is actually peer pressure, but peer pressure from their equals, from people in their own community.

    Looking back, are there any mistakes you made that you would like to warn us about?

    The biggest mistake we made was that we didn’t prepare for the transition. We didn’t prepare for demobilization. Part of that is natural — people just had enough of such an intense personal involvement in politics. They wanted to take some time off. But the remnants of the regime were licking their wounds and re-strategizing. They actually started fighting back because, when you have those regressive forces, they never disappear. They would sow the seeds of doubt and discord. They would undermine the enthusiasm of the people and promote apathy. It didn’t kick in right away. It took years for it to build up, and people would be like, “Oh, you know, was it all worthless? Look at all these things that went wrong and look at these things we could have done better.” But without a mechanism to address that, the only thing that came out of that questioning was disappointment and apathy. 

    We should have been thinking about how to use the positive energy that came with removing a dictatorial regime towards building new institutions and creating new political platforms that could unleash enthusiasm and participation in a meaningful way. We could have created a better movement for that period of time. We didn’t do that. So what happened was the movement demobilized. The institutions that were taken over by the new political elites tried to do the transition through the institutional framework, but with little or not enough public participation. 

    The problem with democracy is that it has to have a population that is mobilized and participating. If you leave it to the institutions, you get declining participation, which is what we had over the years. We had 70-80 percent voter turnout when we brought down the regime. It slid to less than 50 percent voter turnout. People stopped voting. They stopped participating in so many different ways. In the same way we prepared for the stage of the dictatorship, we should have prepared for this second stage.

    As we prepare for the 2024 elections in the U.S., what do you think is going to hold activists back? What could be a problem for us?

    It’s not specific to the U.S. but there is a sense that “It can’t happen here” or “What we have is already compromised, it’s not good enough. Or all politicians are the same.” This is how you get apathy and cynicism. 

    Remember four years ago, whatever the Trump administration was doing, whether it was the Muslim ban or when they botched COVID and talked about injecting bleach while people were dying in droves or spraying tear gas on protesters in Lafayette Park so that Trump could hold the Bible upside down in front of the church? Those things really irritated people and motivated people. Part of the mobilization of 2020 was done by Trump. He partially mobilized the people who were fighting against him through his actions. I don’t know if that is the case now. So understanding that part of the strength of the pro-democracy movement wasn’t actually a result of the movement’s actions — but actually a result of the actions of the opponent — would be a really good starting point. 

    How do we engage with people to bring them in so that it’s a relatively clear proposition to people that they need to participate in the election? How do we create mobilizations so that we don’t have to rely on a mobilization created by the other side? That’s something I’m thinking about lately.

    This article Overcoming despair and apathy to win democracy was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    Inside the student movement that forced Ireland’s Trinity College to divest from Israel

    This article Inside the student movement that forced Ireland’s Trinity College to divest from Israel was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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    Right after Dublin native Ben turned 16, he spent his summer vacations working at event companies that organized concerts and comedy shows. Little did he know that three years later, that experience would help him organize — with nearly a hundred of his peers — a major protest of Trinity College Dublin’s ties with Israel.

    After five nights in tents on the grassy patch in front of the highly-visited Book of Kells Museum, Trinity acceded to the protesters’ demands and went down in history as one of the first universities to agree to divest from Israeli companies. “I always wanted to partake in effecting change, and this was an opportunity,” the philosophy and politics student said five days after the encampment ended. 

    Trinity’s divestment announcement stated that business ties with Israeli companies would not be renewed, with the final contract expiring in March 2025. The fact that it is a total — albeit phased — divestment, speaks to the protest strategy plotted out by students. 

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  • Columbia students are sick at heart — just as we were in ‘68
  • Since Israel’s assault on Gaza began in October, Trinity’s boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or BDS, started organizing weekly protest marches with the students union, which was also in the midst of protesting a fee hike for masters programs. When news of the encampments at New York’s Columbia University spread to Dublin, Trinity’s students were ready to do something similar. 

    “Information obtained through a Freedom of Information request revealed Trinity’s ties to companies in Israel,” 23-year-old student union president László Molnárfi said during an online gathering to celebrate the divestment victory on May 9. “We held several meetings to discuss this; we created a document on rules of encampment based on the guidelines that had been laid out by the Columbia students. We also drafted a document of our demands for divestment.” 

    Molnárfi noted that even though direct action seemed daunting at first, it was something the university couldn’t ignore. “It changes how the university interacts with the students, because it impacts their reputation and finances — and that is what institutions really care about. Trinity’s decision to divest will also impact the Irish government. There are moments in history when what seems small actually has a large impact historically, and this is one of those moments.” 

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    A strategic blockade and encampment

    The financial impact Molnárfi and other students knew the university couldn’t ignore was the loss of tourist dollars. So, on April 30, they blockaded the entrance to the Book of Kells Museum, which houses a 1,200-year-old Celtic Gospel book and a library built in the 1700s. The students union was swiftly hit with a $232,585 fine for the loss of tourist revenue, with Trinity’s provost — according to Molnárfi — telling them the university lost over $10,000 every hour the museum was blockaded.

    Despite the harsh penalty — and the fact that it was exams week — Trinity students continued their protest, fueled on by the news trickling in from universities in the United States. Political Science student Elisa Zito, who was among the organizers of the direct action, said that a series of meetings from April 29 onwards garnered enough traction to proceed with an encampment. The date was decided for the morning of Saturday, May 4. 

    Benches placed in front of the Book of Kells Museum entrance. (X/László Molnárfi)

    “We sent out a document to nearly 500 members, and because it is tough to control such a large crowd, news about the impending camp reached the university’s security. This is why we decided to instead camp from Friday evening, for fear of preventive retribution,” Zito said, adding that it was a tradeoff between getting as many people to camp and controlling the news spread. A well-coordinated infrastructure team secured tents for all. Meanwhile, benches bearing the names of Trinity’s historic alumni were placed as a barricade outside the museum.

    The next morning, the university doors were shut. An announcement stated that they would reopen to the public on Monday. Students began expecting an eviction, or worse: that the Gardaí (Ireland’s police) would be called in to arrest them. A security team working in three shifts, each composed of three students, was tasked with making rounds of the campus, keeping their ears and eyes open to any threatening information. 

    Donations for food and other supplies began to pour in on Saturday and, by Sunday, a functioning system was established. Morning meetings at the camp were for logistics, and Ben would get busy compiling a list of needed food or hygiene items, which was shared in a group and on their Instagram page. Students or staff would bring those items to the gate, and Ben would go to collect them. Meals were cooked in the postgraduate student housing.

    During the meetings prior to the encampment, students underwent drills, in the event of arrests. According to Ben, they created a three-tier risk assessment: Those identifying as “green” would risk arrest, “yellow” was for those ready to form human barricades and “red” meant not wanting to risk arrest whatsoever. These were not strict markers, as a student could switch their code anytime based on their comfort level. The students were also advised to wear face masks to protect their identity, and to protect themselves from any punishment from the university. There were rules of no photography without consent and no posting photos on social media if anyone was visible. As a result, most students wore a surgical face mask, or a keffiyeh. Ben wore a bandana, and is still not going by his real name. “I need to stay anonymous because there is a real threat from far-right groups. I am not scared per se, but I am simply being cautious,” he said, adding that while his family were supportive of the cause, they had reservations of such direct action.

    The students also had the support of the staff. According to Assistant Professor of Clinical Speech and Language Studies Caroline Jagoe, the Trinity chapter of Academia for Palestine, or AfP, was involved in several activities aimed at addressing the university’s silence on Gaza. “We wrote letters, met with the provost, conducted teach-ins and held events,” she said. “Some of us were involved in parallel initiatives; in my case, with Irish Healthcare Workers for Palestine. We saw our role as supporting the students in their direct action: offering material support, teach-ins as requested and within a schedule designed by the student organizers, and general solidarity through a presence at the encampment as much as possible, by bringing in items that were needed, and working from one of the picnic tables in the encampment area.”

    Evening meetings at the camp were democratic spaces for discussions, where the terms of negotiations with the university would be discussed and voted on. Ben said there was an air of uncertainty. “Will we be evicted? Will we be arrested? Will they negotiate and agree to our terms? It was only after the first meeting with the university management on Monday that we felt a sense of relief, when they said that this would be treated as an internal matter and the Gardaí would not be called in. While we were glad that Trinity recognized ICJ’s ruling on the genocide of Palestinians, we were not too happy with the wording of the divestment statement from the university. We wanted to ensure that it was not just an empty document of words.” 

    Political Science Lecturer Eman Abboud — a Palestinian herself — felt it was important that staff be present during the encampment to oversee the safety of students. “It was overwhelming how many of our colleagues from across Ireland were also reaching out. We provided a Palestinian dinner night and a pizza night too, to keep the morale high among the students,” she said, adding that there were nearly 30 staff members in and out during the five days, including non-teaching staff. 

    By Wednesday, the divestment agreement had been finalized and the students ended the encampment that evening. “It was an out-of-body experience, with elation. It is a great victory, but it is only the first step towards putting the wheels in motion for similar changes in different universities across Ireland,” Ben explained while in the midst of running between various charities to donate the surplus food and hygiene items. 

    While the divestment agreement made clear that business ties with Israeli companies would not be renewed, the terms to end academic ties with Israeli educational institutions remains tricky. The mutually agreed upon decision has been to create a taskforce that includes two students from Trinity BDS, two students from the student union and one academic from AfP.

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    A new model for how universities should engage with students

    The quick success of the students’ direct action was unexpected in light of the forceful retaliation seen at universities in the U.S. So what made this encampment — and Trinity’s decision to divest — so different?

    “The students were not starting out from ground zero. They displayed good leadership, and know-how to be disruptive, with blocking access to the Book of Kells, which impacts the revenue of the university,” said Assistant Professor of Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation Brendan Ciaran Browne, author of “Transitional (in)Justice and Enforcing The Peace on Palestine.” Browne also said that the university management must be commended for engaging sensibly with the students: “The demands were attainable in line with BDS. Given the violence meted out towards students in universities in the U.S. and in some parts of the EU, the result at Trinity has been a good example. The university was level-headed and careful; they knew that quashing the students’ movement and encampment wouldn’t go down well with the Irish population.”

    With her expertise in non-conflict responses to ethnic grievances and ethnopolitical exclusions, Abboud saw that this collective action had all that is necessary to be successful: “It was targeted, it was strategic, and it brought the college community together. When you are armed with knowledge and want to be on the right side of history, then the battle is easy. The remainder is about getting the administration on your side.”

    Jagoe echoed a similar sentiment, noting that “When business as usual was disrupted by radical action, the university made a choice to engage constructively and not aggressively.” A native of South Africa, Jagoe knows about radical action all too well: She was nine-years-old when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. “As a child, I was aware that South Africa was under sanctions. I was aware that the apartheid government was doing despicable things and that the world disapproved. But I was also a white South African child, sheltered and privileged. At the age of 15, my English teacher took us to listen to a couple of days of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, which were taking place in the town hall near our school. This was when I began to be changed by what I heard of the human and community impact of apartheid and systematic human rights violations.”

    Jagoe often wondered if she would have been brave enough to march against apartheid if she had been alive in 1976. “My involvement in protests about Gaza requires very little bravery. But this time I have a voice to join in the solidarity movement and stand with Palestinian people, and with my healthcare colleagues in Gaza. Nelson Mandela reminded us that our own freedom is always bound up with that of others, and he spoke specifically of Palestinian liberation.” 

    In the 16 years that she has been living in Ireland, Jagoe has noticed some caution around supporting Palestine, for fear of impact on career progression, or job security if on precarious contracts. Some of her colleagues have been supportive in a quieter manner. When asked about the mood within his department since October 2023 and with the encampment by the students, Browne joked: “I plead the Fifth.” 

    Acknowledging her privilege of being a permanent employee, Jagoe felt it was her responsibility to speak up against injustices. “I have always been proud to work at Trinity. But if our investments allow for one chain in a fence designed to prevent free movement, one slab in a wall of the blockade of Gaza, then that is one chain or one slab too many. If our investments enable one more child to be killed, one more person to be injured, one more healthcare worker to be tortured or killed, how can we go on to teach about rights, equality or protection of healthcare services? It is too easy to see investments or purchases from suppliers as abstract, but there is a reality on the ground for every euro we spend or invest, and for every engagement that legitimizes a regime intent on undermining the rights and dignities of other human beings.”

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    Abboud — who has family and property in Palestine — has found solace in being part of the AfP. As a Palestinian living in Ireland for the past eight years, she was disappointed with her employer stating that it would stay neutral during a genocide against her own people. “It meant that I could be put in a situation where I would have to justify the humanity of Palestinians. I felt ashamed to be working there. It didn’t sit right with me, and that’s what motivated me into action: I would be speaking up and supporting their right to exist if it was any other country.” 

    Being inspired by the students and colleagues across Ireland who are part of AfP, Abboud felt there was a unified motivation to make Trinity a better place, and hold it accountable to the standard it set for itself. “We kept drawing upon the mission statement and goals of the university, because the mission of the college is aligned with BDS — it’s what they rightfully did to Russia. While I might not agree with how Trinity handled it at every step of the way, I am now proud of the fact that Trinity is presenting a new model for how universities should engage with students: by allowing them to have their right to collective action. When a movement is this big it’s certainly worth listening to.”

    Ireland’s solidarity with Palestine is not new: Browne said that it was the first country in the EU to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization when it was established in 1964. “The solidarity has largely been through grassroots activists, stemming from our own colonial past and violence. However, we cannot just see it as a post-colonial response, because Ireland is still very divided. Ireland’s peace process is lauded internationally, but it is not seen in the context of everyday realities.”

    Boycott as a concept and a tool of direct action also has its roots in colonized Ireland, when an English land agent named Charles Cunningham Boycott — working on behalf of a landowner in County Mayo in northwest Ireland — extorted massive rents from tenants, those unable to pay were met with violence. A movement began in 1880 whereby Boycott’s employees stopped working and began to isolate him, resulting in a powerful political concept that we now understand as boycott. Exactly a century later, in 1984, 21-year-old cashier Mary Manning refused to handle a South African grapefruit at the Dunnes Store in Dublin — not far from Trinity — leading the path for Irish anti-apartheid activism. 

    The Irish government has announced that it will recognize the State of Palestine on May 21. While Abboud feels this move is too little too late, Browne is more cynical: “The Irish government is good with words but quite slow in providing tangible solidarity and support. The current Taoiseach Simon Harris said he is “repulsed” by the actions of the Israeli government, but his government is not closely looking at its trade arrangement with Israel.”

    Nevertheless, the actions of the students of Trinity have caused ripples across academia on the Atlantic island, as a few other universities have since set up encampments on their campuses. Meanwhile, the students union at Trinity is still battling the $232,585 fine imposed on them, having so far refused to pay it or engage in negotiations. According to Molnárfi, “We should not be afraid to use our power as students. The Freedom of Information requests showed that the university was neutral on the genocide. We shared that information and were able to mobilize the obvious anger, and used it as an opportunity to organize direct action.” 

    Ben, meanwhile, walks through the university campus differently now: “There is a shift in the way I view our campus. It is no longer just a university and a monolith, but it is an active space where we affected change and made history.”

    This article Inside the student movement that forced Ireland’s Trinity College to divest from Israel was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    Palestinian lawyers are working harder than ever to support political prisoners

    This article Palestinian lawyers are working harder than ever to support political prisoners was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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    On May 11, CNN obtained footage of what appears to be Palestinian prisoners detained in Israel’s Sde Teiman military base in horrifying conditions, depicting prisoners being “warehoused” in an overcrowded camp and forced to sit blindfolded and handcuffed. While these revelations — which came from three Israeli whistleblowers — are causing an uproar worldwide on social media and prompting “concern” from the U.S. government, the mistreatment of Palestinian detainees held in Israeli-run facilities is hardly anything new. 

    According to the Palestinian prisoner support and human rights association Addameer, there are 9,500 Palestinian political prisoners currently being held in detention — a quickly rising number since the events of Oct. 7. Meanwhile, the activists and advocates defending the rights of Palestinian prisoners are forced to work under extreme constraints, as they face intimidation campaigns and other oppressive hardships. 

    Tala Nasir, a Palestinian human rights lawyer, has worked with Addameer for the past six years. In this interview, she discusses the increasingly dire situation for political prisoners since Oct. 7 and the immense challenges Addameer lawyers face.

    Tell me about Addameer and the work you do.

    Addameer was created in 1991 to provide Palestinian political prisoners with free legal aid in the form of advice and representation. Within our different units, our teams focus on monitoring and documenting violations and human rights abuses. We conduct visits to prisoners where they are detained, and we collect testimonies to advocate for Palestinian prisoners on the local and international level — including within U.N. mechanisms. 

    We also aim to raise awareness and ensure there are trained lawyers ready to assist detainees — so that prisoners are aware of their rights. We also facilitate an active network of grassroots and community activists [to build further support]. 

    What is the current situation of Palestinian detainees?

    The situation has gotten worse since Oct. 7, with increasing restrictions against lawyers. Occupation authorities in the West Bank have conducted massive arrests of Palestinian activists. Out of 7,000 arrests, 240 were women and 500 were children. Journalists and aid workers were also among those arrested. 

    In Gaza, we don’t have accurate information and statistics. However, we know that an alarming number of people have been forcibly disappeared and put in the two main military camps set up for this purpose: Sde Teiman and Anatot. Advocates are banned from visiting detainees, and the Red Cross hasn’t gained access to them either. 

    In the West Bank, all lawyers have been allowed to conduct visits again, but with many restrictions and long delays on visit permits. So we aim to continue supporting our individual prisoners while continuing to document what is happening.

    Thanks to first-hand accounts of prisoners who were released [in Gaza], we know that detainees are put in isolation, prevented from going out for more than a few minutes, denied medical aid, given inedible food, have reduced access to clean water and can only take a shower every three to four days at a maximum of 15 mins. There are frequent beatings, reports of torture, threats of any kind and aggressive treatment by guards, such as interrogations conducted with police dogs. 

    We also know by official sources that more than 12 prisoners have been killed and — according to autopsies conducted by Israeli authorities — five were the result of torture. This number is only what has been officially announced. There are possibly more who suffered this fate, especially those interned in Gaza, as the IDF is not disclosing anything about their situation. Some people have been released and have given accounts of being handcuffed and blindfolded all the time, made to sleep in squalid conditions on the floor and kept awake most of the time without any access to lawyers. 

    Have the exchange deals — which saw political prisoners get released — helped the situation at all? 

    Exchange deals are political and we only know about them when they are announced on the news. They take place within the military court system and our role there is minimal — that’s why people are held for an ever increasing number of years. We have cases of people being detained for 40 years and we are still unable to release them. That’s why we have launched a campaign against military courts and life sentences, hoping that those detained can be released in any way possible. 

    What do you think is the logic of the authorities behind these mass arrests that occurred both in the West Bank and Gaza?

    In every instance of an uprising in the occupied territories, the IDF will make mass arrests to silence Palestinians raising awareness. With the genocide in Gaza, there have been more than 5,300 detainees held — which is an unprecedented number. People have been indefinitely detained without charges and without ever being presented in front of a court. Charges can be sparked by very simple things such as “incitement” on social media. The rationale behind these campaigns is simply to silence and repress. 

    Also, new legislation has been passed regarding “unlawful combat,” which means detainees in Gaza can be held indefinitely without charges, and lawyers can be barred for at least six months before being allowed to conduct a visit. Those released from Gaza were never taken to court, so we never got an answer about the rationale behind their release or why they were arrested in the first place.

    What are the main barriers to your work right now?

    Two years ago Addameer was pronounced a terrorist organization by Israeli authorities. On that basis, they can arrest any of us at any given moment. They raided our offices and placed all alleged evidence into a secret file that was never presented to us. Never did they explain how they could link us to any terrorist organizations.

    Israeli organizations have put pressure on our foreign funders to cut their funding, but none of them took the designation as real because no evidence was presented. We are well aware of why we were designated [as a terrorist organization]. It’s because of our work with the international courts.

    We’ve been disappointed and disheartened that none of our work over the past 30 years was able to stop what is happening now. We are nevertheless continuing to document everything because we hope that one day we will be able to hold Israel accountable in the courts. 

    This article Palestinian lawyers are working harder than ever to support political prisoners was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    Carrying on Kent State’s legacy of antiwar organizing, students press for divestment

    This article Carrying on Kent State’s legacy of antiwar organizing, students press for divestment was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    If you grew up in Ohio, one of the first things that comes to mind when you hear “Kent State” is the saying “Kent Read, Kent Write, Kent State.” If you grew up outside of Ohio, the first thing you think of when hearing “Kent State” is the shootings on May 4, 1970. And if you were present for the protest on May 4, 2024, you heard, “Kent Read, Kent Write, Kent stop funding genocide.”

    As graduate students (one local, the other out of state), we grew up with different perceptions of Kent State. What united us is the decision to pursue our graduate studies at Kent State due to its long history of activism and the School of Peace and Conflict Studies — founded as a “living memorial” to the students who died on May 4, 1970.

    On that terrifying day, four Kent State students — Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer — were killed by the National Guard on our campus during a protest against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Members of the National Guard fired 67 shots at students, lasting 13 seconds, killing four and wounding nine.

    While those horrific seconds are what Kent State is best known for, we know that this university was a site of incredible organizing for peace and justice both before and after May 4. During the civil rights movement, a group of students worked on Mississippi Freedom Summer, others organized against racist housing discrimination in Kent. In the late ‘60s, students started a campaign to stop allowing the Oakland Police department to recruit on campus, occupying a building in order to have their voices heard. Following this occupation, Black United Students organized a campus-wide walkout to protest their organization being barred from campus.

    In addition to the Black United Students, the Students for a Democratic Society made a list of four demands to the university in response to the Vietnam War: abolish the ROTC program, end the Project Themis Liquid Crystal Program (that created technology used by the U.S. military to locate and target people in heavily forested areas), end the Kent State law enforcement school and dismantle the Northeast Ohio Crime lab. Following the lack of response by the administration and the shootings of May 4, students fought for memorialization, including building and maintaining a tent city for two months in an attempt to prevent the university from building a gym on the site of the shooting.

    It is on these memorial grounds that Concerned Students for a Better Future, which we co-founded, gathered to carry on the legacy of our activist predecessors on the 54th anniversary of the historical shootings.

    At the annual May 4 commemoration, several speakers from the university, including the university president, gave speeches about the importance of remembering the past. In his speech this year, President Todd Diacon discussed the value of dialogue across differences, something that the university has been focusing on for the past several months.

    Despite this, Diacon had not yet agreed to meet with us to discuss our demands to divest from weapons manufacturers and military contractors and to revise the university’s investment ethics statement. While we recognize that he is not the decision maker on financial matters — that responsibility belongs to the board — we had hoped someone committed to having difficult conversations would meet with us to simply hear student concerns about how university money is being invested.

    Over 350 protesters gathered to protest the Kent State’s investments in weapons manufacturing, and to show solidarity with Palestine and student protesters across the country. (WNV/Eman Abu-Khaled)

    During the commemoration, over 350 protesters formed a horseshoe surrounding the stage, while standing in silent solidarity to commemorate the lives lost — those at Kent on May 4, those in the Vietnam War and those in the U.S.-supported assault on Gaza today. Immediately after the proceedings were over, we all joined next to the stage at the famous Victory Bell that is rung every year during the commemoration. Students, faculty, alumni (including May 4 survivors), and community members gathered to listen to the speakers and join in chants. 

    To end the rally, former SDS leader and May 4 survivor Ken Hammond rang the Victory Bell after reading a letter he and 30 other May 4 survivors wrote supporting both our right to protest and the antiwar ideas of our action. A former activist who was a witness on May 4 pulled us aside and said, “Thank you for bringing the politics back to May 4.”

    Winning disclosure

    We recognize the limited space in which a public university can act related to war and genocide. Universities do not craft foreign policy, do not have input on the federal budget, and cannot stop military deployments or military aid. What they can control are their own investment portfolios.

    However, in Ohio, we have restrictive laws preventing public entities from contracting with companies that boycott the state of Israel or Israeli companies (Ohio State Code § 9.76). This proves a large roadblock when trying to implement aspects of the Boycott, Divest, Sanction Movement, or BDS, at public universities in Ohio. In response to current university-based divestment campaigns, Ohio Sen. Jerry Cirino has stated that it is against state law for a university to divest from Israel.

    That is why our demands are focused strictly on weapons manufacturers. The fact that our university’s investment portfolio even contains weapons has come as a shock to much of the campus community. Why is our educational institution profiting off war, genocide and human suffering?

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    Our efforts towards divestment began in early December 2023, when we submitted an application to speak before our Board of Trustees at their final meeting of the fall semester. While we had missed the deadline to be put on the agenda, the administration offered us a meeting with Dr. Mark Polatajko, the university’s senior vice president of finance and administration.

    In this first meeting, he provided us with the current investment portfolio and pointed us to the board’s “ethics statement,” which vaguely outlines the efforts taken to ensure ethical investments. After stating that the primary objective is to earn “sustainable investment returns,” the statement says that “the university shall make reasonable efforts to invest in ethical and socially responsible companies.”

    This revealed the first of many future hurdles. Depending on who you ask, “reasonable,” “ethical” and “socially responsible” can have drastically different meanings. For the board, these obviously include weapons, weapons manufacturers and military contractors. For Concerned Students for a Better Future, it does not.

    Underlying our discussions was the elephant in the room, Ohio Senate Bill 83, championed by Sen. Cirino. We learned that if S.B. 83 — a piece of higher education legislation that has been working its way through the Ohio Statehouse — passed in its current iteration, public universities would no longer be allowed to engage in any boycotts, disinvestments or sanctions — nor would they be allowerd to
    “endorse, oppose, comment or take action, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day.”

    The fear of S.B. 83 had permeated all areas of higher education in Ohio, and the university was already seemingly caving to pressure from a proposed policy that had not (and still has not) passed. Getting the university to consider ethics in investing — when they were busy responding to a threat that had not yet materialized — appeared to be a longshot.

    While the time did not seem ripe, we continued to research the university’s portfolio, discuss the campaign with scholars in the field of disarmament and talk to other students about our progress and goals. We learned from researching the university’s investment portfolio that Kent State University — through its investment firm SEI — is profiting off of stocks in military contractor companies, cluster munitions and nuclear weapons, among other forms of weapons that are used not only against the people of Gaza, but people worldwide. Currently, the university invests 1.6 percent of its portfolio in funds that include the aforementioned weapons, totaling $6 million — a pretty easy fix if you ask Concerned Students for a Better Future.

    It wasn’t until April 2024, as other universities escalated their campaigns for divestment, that a window opened. As the pressure grew, and encampments began popping up throughout the country, we knew the time had come to officially launch our campaign. Concerned Students for a Better Future was formed as a student-led coalition focused on weapons divestment.

    On April 26, on behalf of Concerned Students for a Better Future, we sent our demands for divestment to President Diacon. At the same time, we sent out a petition asking current students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members to show their support for divestment, and also stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine at the annual May 4 commemoration the following weekend. We encouraged attendants to wear their keffiyehs, bring signs, flags or anything that shows visible solidarity. Beyond that, no other details were provided to non-organizers.

    With the calls by elected officials for the presence of the National Guard in places like Columbia circling the internet, Kent State’s violent legacy was reemerging. It was with this in mind that we also sent out a press release.

    In the span of just one week’s time, we were able to connect with student organizations, students, community members, alumni, faculty and staff to coordinate what would later be referred to by a May 4 survivor as “the real commemoration.”

    Unlike other university presidents, Diacon is known for his approachability and presence all over campus. Every day he eats lunch in one of the dining halls on campus, drives around in his golf cart waving to students, or can be seen smiling as he walks to a meeting in one of his signature bow ties. What this meant was that running into Diacon was inevitable.

    On May 1, we happened to see Diacon in the May 4 Visitors Center and Museum and asked if he had received our emails. He said he did, and while we are just one voice of many, he ensured us that he believes we have the right to have our voices heard.

    In an email from the board’s vice president, Dr. Char Reed, she reaffirmed that Diacon, “wants you to know that he heard you and he appreciates your arguments and your passion regarding this issue. He also informed me of your request which I will share with the board chair.”

    The request referred to here was that he inform the board of his support for our cause, and allow us a slot on the agenda for the upcoming two meetings. The board chair, Shawn Riley, did eventually respond to our request. On May 13, he wrote that as the university’s fiduciaries, the board is required to make decisions “with the university’s financial health and sustainability as our top priority. Our investment decisions cannot be based upon factors such as political considerations… Consistent with our fiduciary responsibilities, the Board of Trustees will not consider the divestment of university investments you have requested.”

    If the university is wishing to operate purely out of financial interest, then divestment still is within their fiduciary responsibility. In our multiple attempts to contact the board, we provided them with two alternative funds run by SEI that have a comparable or higher rate of return than their current investments, which have no ties to weapons. We know that they have been made aware of these alternative funds since it was the final pages in an informational packet we sent to every board member — which they confirmed having received in their letter.

    Yet, despite outright denying our requests for divestment, the board chair (Shawn Riley), the chair of the Investment Committee (Donald Mason) and President Diacon invited us to meet with them to discuss our concerns two days before the general board meeting, which we were not permitted to speak at.

    On the same day, at a faculty senate meeting Diacon addressed the calls for divestment. According to a member of the faculty senate, he stated that he is opposed to our divestment request, but that the board will make their own decision. Claiming this is a political issue, he likened our request to hypothetical requests to divest from media companies or companies that support abortion. Two faculty senators pushed back, saying this issue was not simply political: weapons are an environmental issue and a health issue — facts supported by scientific research, including studies completed by Kent State students. Yet, Diacon continued to assert that he feels this decision is purely political.

    Fighting for Kent State

    We hoped that when our coalition arrived at the commemoration with several hundred people carrying signs and Palestinian flags, drawing parallels between weapons divestment today (and its connection to the genocide in Gaza) with the demands of the 1970s (and their connection to U.S. war and imperialism in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), that he would be open to hearing our concerns. 

    Yet, the only demonstrators the president engaged with that day were the handful of pro-Israel counter-demonstrators.

    The board has an obligation not only to the financial health of the institution, but to its students. Yet, they cloister themselves from the student body, often not announcing the locations and times of their meetings until a few days before. They waited 13 days, until the semester is over, to respond to multiple direct correspondences.

    We, too, believe in the power of talking across differences, as it is a way to deliberate and come to mutually beneficial agreements. Weapons divestment should be an area where we can find agreement. First, making money off weapons investments is discordant with Kent State’s history of state violence and ongoing commitment to promote peaceful change. Second, the investments themselves are not uniquely lucrative. As the board is aware, the funds they continue to invest in are not the best performing funds managed by SEI.

    We are not fighting against Kent State. We are fighting for Kent State. Our institution has the opportunity to align its investments with its history and values, without compromising fiduciary responsibility. By doing so, it would become a national leader in divestment. Simply by disclosing the investment portfolio, Kent State has shown itself to be a leader. Students across the country are fighting for disclosure and divestment. We have disclosure. We have researched alternatives. All the board needs to do is listen.

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    If they do, this administration and board can establish themselves as a model and further differentiate itself as a school committed to peace. We want to take our university at its word that it cares about peace and believes things can be solved through dialogue and deliberation. But so far, the board is failing in that regard.

    Students of the past similarly were ignored, until they took nonviolent actions so disruptive that they forced the university to the negotiating table.

    We are the legacy of student activists at Kent State throughout generations. We are asking: Is our board willing to respect its history and work with students to truly honor the legacy of May 4 by breaking financial ties with the war industry? As of today, the answer is no.

    You’ve disclosed, now divest, because as the chant goes: We will not stop, we will not rest.

    This article Carrying on Kent State’s legacy of antiwar organizing, students press for divestment was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    Student encampments have the power to change minds — if they control the narrative

    This article Student encampments have the power to change minds — if they control the narrative
 was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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    Gaza solidarity protests on college campuses have gripped the U.S., particularly as encampments are being violently shut down by police with the approval of university administrators. At a time when opinion about Israel’s actions in Gaza is split, these protests have a tremendous opportunity to move the needle by forcing Americans to engage with student critiques of Israel. The students’ reasonable demands and peaceful demonstrations — when put in contrast with violent police repression — have the potential to engender massive empathy for the pro-Palestine cause.

    Yet, as this whirlwind moment is sweeping the nation, media and universities are delegitimizing the protests, threatening their ability to resonate with larger audiences. They are weaving a narrative that the students are violent, hateful, intransigent and a danger to campus life. If these narratives become the dominant story for Americans, student protests may lose their chance to create greater understanding of Israel’s crimes and U.S. institutional complicity in them.

    To avoid this potential outcome, student encampments and pro-Palestine organizations should be making concerted efforts to amplify the utter reasonableness and peaceful nature of their protests. Many student journalists and campus organizations have been doing such work already, but their efforts need bolstering. The more empathy grows for the students, the more likely Americans at large will be swayed by arguments pointing out Israel’s heinous crimes and U.S. support of them. Moving more focus to protesters — while retaining messaging about the genocide itself — could bring about a wave of support that finally leads to tangible action by political actors and institutions.

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    Over the past eight months, several major media outlets and political figures have painted pro-Palestine protesters as uninformed, hateful and swayed by propaganda. Starting in November 2023, major media have been dismissing pro-Palestine student protesters as manipulated by propaganda on social media. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Rep. Jared Moskowitz claimed that Americans, particularly young people, “are being manipulated by psy-ops by China and Russia…” Sens. Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley, along with Nikki Haley, were also making a media tour at the time condemning TikTok specifically for “distort[ing] the world picture that America’s young people encounter.” Even the New York Times ran a story warning of Hamas’ “broad, sophisticated media strategy,” citing a report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and an Israeli social media intelligence company named Cyabra.

    Now, in light of escalated student protest at their encampment sites, dismissal continues. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared student encampments to pro-Nazi student groups of the 1930s and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called them “hate-filled, antisemitic protests.” Right-wing media has followed suit, as Sean Hannity reported the protests featuring “signs praising Hamas, praising terrorism,” and Laura Ingraham called protesters “vicious antisemites” and a “pro-Hamas movement … moving faster than STDs.” In the same segment, Ingraham also characterized student protesters as “entitled kids, poorly raised, who live in a natural state of entitlement and sloth.” Even supposedly liberal MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, in a segment on Columbia protests on April 30, called protesters, “white, woke, elitist, pampered … children from wealthy families … [who] go out and start shouting at Jews.”

    Previous Coverage
  • Columbia students are sick at heart — just as we were in ‘68
  • While not all responses are so blatantly hostile to the students, many still leverage the same critiques in a more measured tone. CNN recently reported a line from the NYPD claiming that “outside agitators” were attempting to make Columbia’s protests into “something far more sinister,” and quoted New York City Mayor Eric Adams saying that police entered Columbia’s campus to remove them.

    But the “outside agitator” narrative is not as it seems, as PolitiFact notes, because these  “outsiders” are largely peaceful community members hoping to support the protest — and the agitator narrative has been used historically to dismiss legitimate protest. In the case of Northeastern University, whose administration broke up their student encampment by claiming it was “infiltrated by professional organizers” and that there was “use of virulent antisemitic slurs,” the claims have been debunked by eyewitness footage and testimony.

    In total, the narrative being spread about campus protesters is — in the mildest form — that they have moved from being peaceful to a mixed group of dangerous students and outsiders. The most derogatory depict them as entitled, hateful antisemites supporting terrorism. If these narratives become the dominant interpretation of the protests for most Americans, students will lose this opportunity to change public opinion and help force an end to the violence in Gaza.

    History eventually sides with groups that are viewed empathetically

    During historical protests in the United States, moments of harsh repression of protesters have become linked with changes in opinion that moved the country towards justice. For example, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shooting during anti-Vietnam student protests in 2020, NBC published an article citing a Nixon-commissioned report on campus unrest that said “A nation driven to use weapons of war upon its youth is a nation on the edge of chaos.” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, also reflecting on the anniversary, described the shooting as “shocking, unbelievable that college students protesting on campus were gunned down.”

    Notably, the same NBC clip from “Morning Joe” recounts initial government responses to the protests and shooting. It quotes former Vice President Spiro Agnew calling protesters “overprivileged, underdisciplined, irresponsible children of the well-to-do blasé permissivists.” It also quotes Nixon as having been recorded off-camera calling student protesters “bums.” Yet in the aftermath of the shooting — and outrage that followed — the administration was forced to change its tune.

    A large amount of media studies and psychological research shows that individuals are very unlikely to change their mind about issues when counternarratives are presented by groups they view unfavorably. Building empathy for a dissenting group can actually make their messages more likely to sway those who believe the dominant narrative. Unfortunately, as in the case of Kent State, repression of a group can also build further empathy and shock people out of their beliefs, but only if the repressed group is viewed as worthy of that empathy.

    Media campaigns can build support for protestors by telling the truth

    There is a similar opportunity for student protesters and their allies to clearly depict the truth about the encampments. A great deal of that has already been done by student newspapers, supportive professors or the campus organizations themselves. Notably, campus organizations have posted scores of first-hand footage of police crackdowns on the encampments, including capturing brutal arrests of faculty and students, as well as police using pepper spray and rubber bullets.

    Social media has played such an important role in how the narrative has been shaped that — in a May 3 keynote at the McCain Institute — Sen. Mitt Romney and Secretary of State Antony Blinken both pointed to difficulties controlling the narrative about Gaza given the new media ecosystem.

    These uses of media to amplify the truth about encampments can be expanded in key ways to foster even greater empathy with the protesters. For starters, certain widely resonant aspects of the protests should be continuously uplifted to form a strong social framing: focusing on the peaceful and constructive nature of the encampments, the diverse and multi-faith composition of the groups, and of the brutality of the police crackdowns in contrast. Then, student groups and supportive organizations should continue to spread these messages using media methods they have control over, like social media and op-eds.

    In contrast to Scarborough’s claims that protesters are white children of elites, I have seen nothing but groups that are truly diverse — with many leaders being Palestinian, Arab, South Asian, Black or otherwise non-white — when visiting encampments and protests around Boston area universities (including Tufts, Northeastern, MIT and Harvard).

    A student encampment celebrating Passover Seder. (Twitter/Fadi Quran)

    My local encampment at Tufts, which has since disbanded, was also impressively multi-faith, with large groups of both Muslim and Jewish organizers getting along amicably. The encampment even held Seders for Jewish students and protesters wanting to celebrate Passover. At other times, their activities included an array of teach-ins about diverse topics, collectively formed libraries, multi-faith worship, traditional dancing, group meals and a deep sense of cooperation. Other campuses have noted the same.

    In the minds of many Americans, peace, diversity and inclusivity are values that mark what it means to be a great society. There is a reason that major media has painted the protesters as all white, elite and hateful: They know their audiences’ values and want to make every effort to depict protesters as being against our highest ideals.

    But in truth, the encampments are beautiful examples of some of our greatest social ideals at work. Foregrounding these aspects of the protests could sway many minds across the U.S., pushing them to empathize with students and associate with their group — a key aspect of media psychology that opens audiences up to student messaging and inoculates them against further demonization of the movement.

    Some student protesters have understandably exercised tight control of their media relations, noting that large journalism outlets often interview students only to misrepresent them later. Social media and op-eds are, again, one way around that problem — since they allow information to be broadcast with minimal filtering. Students aren’t the only ones who can do this. Supportive organizations can also use their platforms to truthfully depict students and the beautiful nature of their protest.   

    From working with student organizers across campuses, I’ve observed a frustration and worry that the media coverage of their protests is taking away from coverage of actual issues in Gaza. But it’s not a zero-sum game. By focusing on the protests and their repression and building empathy with wider audiences, student activists are creating an opportunity for messages about Israeli and U.S. crimes to resonate and actually shift opinion. If students can gain the support of the nation, they will obtain a rare power to break through the usual media landscape. What’s more, if they can gain greater trust than major media and widely broadcast their rationale for protest, other powerful political actors will have no choice but to follow along or risk becoming ostracized.

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    Donate Forming the wave that turns the tide of opinion

    There are moments in U.S. history where protest and repression can rapidly change the national mood, making a previously unpopular cause into a worthy one — and affect tremendous material change. These moments seem to hinge on the protesters being seen as relatable, and undeserving of repression and violence. In the Kent State case, empathy had to be built with students in order for the harsh National Guard violence to be perceived as utterly unjust, and the wars in Southeast Asia as equally unjust. A similar case holds here, but major media and university relations are pushing to delegitimize protesters and withdraw empathy for them, threatening the ability of Palestine solidarity encampments to widely resonate and open more eyes to the ongoing genocide.

    One of the major levers that normal people have in the U.S. political system is to sway opinion about institutions and politicians, threatening their support and livelihoods. Every lever must be used and considered to achieve real change that could end the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Students and their supporters have an incredible opportunity to do so in this moment, and history could look back at this as an inflection point that finally stopped the madness.

    This article Student encampments have the power to change minds — if they control the narrative
 was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    NYC’s Riders Alliance has a vision for a better, safer subway with less policing

    This article NYC’s Riders Alliance has a vision for a better, safer subway with less policing was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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    For years, New York City’s famous subway system has been caught in the crosshairs of a contentious public debate over crime — but in recent months it has entered a new frontier. In March, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul deployed 750 National Guard members to conduct random bag searches at Metropolitan Transit Authority, or MTA, stations. Later that month, the NYPD announced a surge of 800 additional officers to crack down on fare evasion.

    These surges follow broader increases in policing on public transit in New York City over the past decade, which accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed to hire 500 more officers on MTA’s payroll, even as the city’s outgoing police chief argued that serious subway crimes had gone down. In 2022, Gov. Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced a massive surge in subway patrols that led to “a $151 million increase in NYPD overtime pay, a negligible decrease in crime and a vast increase in fare evasion tickets and arrests of people of color.” 

    A string of highly-publicized crimes on the subways has also created political pressure to increase police presence there — especially when passengers have taken matters into their own hands. In May 2023, for example, an ex-Marine fatally strangled an unhoused Black man named Jordan Neely who was experiencing a mental health crisis in their shared subway car. This past March, a subway passenger carrying a gun was disarmed during a dispute and critically wounded with his own weapon.

    While state and local politicians have often committed to policing as the solution for transit crime, many grassroots organizations have critiqued these policy choices. Community organizations engaged in police reform, anti-poverty work and transit advocacy have offered a different understanding of how and why crimes occur on the subways they use every day. A key challenger in the current public safety debate is New York City’s Riders Alliance, a grassroots group made up of MTA passengers and community organizers pushing a rider-driven vision for transit funding and service.

    In 2023, the alliance released a “Riders Plan for Public Safety,” which contained a number of policy recommendations for safer subways — like decreasing wait times, reducing riders’ contact with police officers and investing in affordable housing. As police investments continue to grow, alliance members have consistently argued that holistic community investments can reduce the burden on police officers who are unequipped to deal with riders’ most pressing issues. According to policy and communications Director Danny Pearlstein, “New Yorkers know deploying troops to subway entrances is a scare tactic that does nothing to keep millions of us safe underground.”

    I recently spoke with Pearlstein to learn more about transit riders’ role in this debate. We discussed the recent history of New York City transit policing, how the alliance is organizing riders for new community investments, and how they’re pushing back against regressive narratives about public safety in the city and state.

    Give me some background on the Riders Alliance and how you started working on community safety.

    We’ve been around about a dozen years, and we were founded to organize riders to hold elected officials accountable for better public transit — not just for its own sake, but for a more just and equitable city. There had been significant cuts to public transit in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and there was no organized base of riders to stop it. We were organized gradually with neighborhood-based campaigns and then citywide campaigns. In 2019, we were part of a broad and deep coalition that passed congestion pricing in the state legislature to fund a plan to fix the subway. (It has not happened yet, but we anticipate it later this year.) Throughout this, really starting in earnest before the pandemic, we’ve engaged in a discussion over transit safety. 

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    In 2019, there was a spate of misdemeanor assaults on transit workers — and sporadic, but also more serious assaults on bus drivers. As a result, there was a huge successful push to spend a lot more money out of the transit budget on police before the pandemic. We thought that was terrible public policy. The conversation should not be, “Is the subway safe?” Because that leads to [the] use of subway riders and transit workers to score political points — that’s deeply irresponsible. Instead, the conversation should be about, “How do we make the subway safer? How do we prevent violence on the subway?” 

    We don’t think the transit budget should be spent on policing, but we recognize that there are tens of thousands of police officers in New York City and thousands of them are deployed to the subway. The subway is a core public space, so it’s not surprising that it’s policed. But there’s a lot of big questions about how it’s policed and whether that’s working out — and also, if the subway is less safe than other public spaces. Why is the subway different? Could it be that the subway has been singled out as an unsafe space by politicians and tabloids and the TV news for ulterior motives besides subway safety?

    There’s 4 million riders on the subway every day, tens of thousands of transit workers showing up to work, and there are a small but disturbing number of safety problems in the subway, including shootings. There have been more murders in the subway since the pandemic than for a long time before it, and that is totally unacceptable. Everyone should be safe, welcome and included in the subway — and there’s a very broad and deeply divisive public debate about how we get where we should be and why we’re where we are.

    In the past couple years, there’s been a highly publicized increase in funding for subway patrols. More recently, you’ve had the introduction of the National Guard doing bag checks. Why are these particular changes happening right now? 

    There’s a couple different ways of getting at that. If the concern is about the safety of riders and workers on the platforms and trains, it’s particularly poor style and substance to deploy troops to the turnstiles or to militarize station entrances. 

    A Riders Alliance action. (Twitter/Riders Alliance)

    There occasionally are people stopped at the turnstiles who have a gun on them. But that’s a tiny portion of people being stopped at the turnstile, so it’s “needle in a haystack” policing. It also buys into this logic that you can catch criminals who will otherwise commit violence by stopping them from bringing weapons into the system, when very few people carry bags into the system to commit crime. Even with 800 additional officers, the system has thousands of entrances and the officers work in groups and in shifts — so you can’t actually control most of the entrances with a dramatic expansion of policing. 

    If you look at the policy advocates who are very focused on fare enforcement, it’s consistent with their policy agenda of having a much larger police force and also having much harsher laws. It’s hard not to ask the question, “What do they expect to happen?” If these people get their way and there is no more bail for lots of people, maybe they’ll be spending some time on Rikers Island, which is a miserable and chaotic place. But Rikers Island can be a death sentence. So are people implying that some people should die awaiting trial over $2.90, in New York City, in 2024? Is that what anyone wants — the immense cost in human life and government resources that would involve? That just seems like a terrible idea.

    How did the Riders Alliance develop your organizational vision for safe public transit?

    The first things we started to hear about safety back in 2019 were, “Oh, the system is rife with fare evasion and homelessness.” Obviously policing isn’t the answer to homelessness — homes are. And with fare evasion, it’s extreme depending on how it’s prosecuted — it could lead to people being removed from the country over the nonpayment of $2.90. So is that the path that we wanna go down when our fare evasion rates are similar to everywhere else? We know that collecting fares costs money, and collecting every last fare costs the most money. You could end up spending a ton of money on fare enforcement and you could ruin people’s lives over a tiny amount of money.

    So the core of our transit plan was fixing the problems of transit affordability with expanding the fair fares program, and improving the quality of public transit with more frequent service — to bring more people into the system and more eyes on the system. And we accomplished that. We now have more frequent service on the subway than we had before the pandemic — that’s because of our successful campaign last year. 

    But beyond that, we have to have a conversation about what the police are doing in the subway. We work closely with civil rights groups and police reform groups to figure that out, because no one thinks the police are going to leave the subway, and that’s not really what people are asking for. But I think they’re asking them not to be revenue officers, and not to be looking at their phones. If, as the mayor says, the police are gonna be omnipresent, then they need to be walking around and looking to stop violence on the platforms and trains — that’s what riders seem to be asking for, that’s certainly what transit workers are asking for. 

    What are some reliable strategies that the alliance has used for riders to intervene in public safety debates?

    For a long time, we would get calls from local press about this crime or that crime — and for a long time, we would ignore all of them. We started to answer more of them and engage more in the debates. I think that helped get the fair fares program and the frequency of subway service expanded. I think the next frontier is thinking more about, “How are the root causes addressed on the state level with housing and healthcare?” and “How does the MTA itself engage a little bit more?”

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    I think there’s the sense that maybe there’s something the MTA could do to draw people in. There has to be some new model for figuring out how to do that that involves peer support, that is not threatening like an interaction with police can be (and certainly the National Guard). There’s a discussion around the idea of a municipal Department of Care that could help people who are otherwise falling through the cracks. It requires additional investment — and that shouldn’t come out of other transit services. But if the MTA is the platform, literally and figuratively, on which these problems are happening, then the MTA needs to be equipped to address them. 

    Have you been able to engage with other community organizations in New York during your current campaigns?

    We’ve had an opportunity to work with a lot of progressive organizations in the city, [and] we’ve worked pretty effectively with them. The people at Communities United for Police Reform, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Coalition for the Homeless are the big partners we’ve had. We were part of a letter with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund [in March]. And the Community Service Society is our lead partner on the campaign to win and then to expand fair fares — that’s an anti-poverty organization that’s been around since the 19th century. They work across a very wide variety of spaces. We zero in on what’s going on with transit.

    When policy choices and funding choices have been heavily skewed toward policing, who’s best positioned to shift them?

    It’s the governor, without a doubt. She’s been really strong on public transit: She has steadfastly stood by transit funding, which has been great — and I think she sees that correctly as a way to improve her credibility in downstate New York, where the majority of the population is. 

    I think, though, that she’s bought into a lot of the conventional notions around policing and safety and that’s how we ended up with the National Guard — even though most people think that’s a bad idea. I think it was well-intentioned on her part, but I think it was in some ways tone-deaf. She’s tried to cover various bases and say, “It’s not just cops, it’s also care.” I think we really need to see the care. The cops are visible. We need the care to be front and center, and we’re not there yet.

    This article NYC’s Riders Alliance has a vision for a better, safer subway with less policing was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    Columbia students are sick at heart — just as we were in ‘68

    This article Columbia students are sick at heart — just as we were in ‘68 was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    What is the ethical response to witnessing a great moral crime? Turn away and allow oneself to be distracted? Pretend it doesn’t exist? Or acknowledge the crime for what it is, and take some sort of action to try to stop it?

    Students at Columbia in 1968 understood that our own government — with the complicity of our university — had invaded Vietnam in order to wage a war of occupation against a civilian population, committing mass murder with tactics like carpet bombing of whole provinces, spraying chemical poisons on rice fields and forcing entire rural populations into concentration camps. What’s more, we knew that the mostly white university, against community opposition, was expanding into one of the few parks in neighboring Harlem. Black Columbia students in particular — having grown up during the postwar civil rights era — felt the imperative to act. 

    As the head of the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, I helped organize campus-wide protests that spring, during which hundreds of students occupied five buildings — a traditional nonviolent tactic. The occupation was followed by a mass strike that closed Columbia for more than a month.  

    Now, over half a century later, Columbia students are once again engaging in consciously nonviolent tactics to protest the university’s complicity in a war — this time Israel’s invasion of Gaza, which has caused the deaths of more than 34,000 human beings, mostly women and children, and displaced 2.3 million. 

    After setting up tents on a patch of lawn and facing severe scrutiny in the media as well as arrests and suspensions, another group began occupying one of the same halls we occupied in 1968. Just as we were, the students are sick at heart and feel compelled to stop a moral obscenity. 

    All the rest is commentary.

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    Then and now

    What the protesters are telling the country, then and now, is that it’s not morally acceptable for a university to conduct secret research in support of the war against Vietnam or to invest in Israeli military industries. Defending the status quo, the leadership of the institution and their funders naturally try to shut the students up. 

    Back in 1968, Columbia’s administration called on New York City cops to empty the buildings, badly beating and arresting almost 700 students. Fifty-six years to the day later, the NYPD were again called in to break up a student occupation, arresting around a hundred students as they cleared the occupied hall and encampment last night. It was the second time in the last month — since her trip to Washington, D.C., where she pledged loyalty and obeisance to far-right politicians in a bid to save her job — that Columbia’s president brought police on campus to make arrests. 

    Despite the similarities between then and now, there are differences.

    Most of the leadership of the Columbia strike in 1968 was young men like myself. That no longer appears to be the case — either at Columbia or the other university protests around the country. 

    In 1968 we made the mistake of answering the police violence with anger, fighting them and calling them pigs. We blurred the line between nonviolence (the occupation of buildings) and violence (our slogans and rhetoric), thereby undercutting our moral position.

    The students protesting the slaughter in Gaza, with their diverse leadership are making no such mistakes. They are thoroughly nonviolent. There may be individuals or provocateurs who defy the strategy, but at least the protesters are trying to make their intention clear. In a little-reported Instagram post last week entitled “Columbia’s Gaza Student Protest Community Values,” they wrote “At universities across the nation our movement is united in valuing every human life” and “We firmly reject any form of hate or bigotry.” Setting up tents and praying for the souls of the dead, all the dead, is not violence.

    The charge of antisemitism

    Having myself been raised, like most American Jews, to believe that my Jewish identity is entwined with Israel, I understand why criticism of Israel feels threatening. Generational trauma is bred into us. 

    Yet, having moved to an anti-Zionist position because of Israel’s brutality and racism toward the Palestinian people, I have been labeled a “self-hating Jew,” a “traitor” and worse. Now a new epithet has appeared, the “unJew.” 

    No matter: Those of us who reject hatred, violence and denial of human and civil rights — and view that as intrinsic to Jewish identity — still remain Jews. Concerned for the well-being and future of the seven million Jews living in Israel, we advocate for (as do many nonviolent Palestinians) a future democratic Israel/Palestine, where all citizens are equal, close to the ideal of a truly democratic United States so many of us are struggling for. The longer this war continues, the further off this solution or any other becomes — and the more dangerous the situation gets for Jews in Israel. Is this war against Gaza good for the Jews? 

    Pretending to defend Jews who feel threatened by criticism of Israel, the far right (which harbors true anti-semites in their ranks) — Nazis, Proud Boys and even a deranged person who murdered 11 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — have been quick on the attack. Speaker of the House and MAGA acolyte Mike Johnson last week shed crocodile tears at Columbia, working himself up about the supposed antisemitism on campus. 

    If he were serious about suppressing such hatred, he would disavow and suppress the lie at the heart of both his white Christian nationalist movement and the anti-immigration movement: that “the Jews” are conspiring to create the flood of non-white immigration in order to “replace” white people. 

    The fascist media, of course, have jumped to attack the protesters. The liberal media, always worried about the rise of antisemitism, follows.

    It’s very hard to find reports anywhere of the constant attacks at Columbia on Muslim students, including one by IDF veterans who used chemical eye spray, sending victims to the hospital with severe injuries. It is also rare to see media that highlight the many Jewish supporters of the Gaza protest.

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    Courage and clarity 

    Buried in this blizzard of accusations is the protesters’ original point, that mass slaughter is happening right now in Gaza. 

    Despite threats of violence, expulsion, arrest, doxxing and being barred from future employment by the antisemitic label, the Gaza protesters aren’t backing down. Their ranks are increasing, with more than 40 campuses across the country holding protests, and more than 1,100 students arrested. Let’s hope that this incipient movement grows to stop American support for the war against Gaza — and to eventually rectify one-sided American policy toward Israel.

    No matter how hard we Americans are fed the lie that war is peace, many young people can see through it. They should be cherished and respected for their moral clarity and courage. 

    This article Columbia students are sick at heart — just as we were in ‘68 was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    How bail funds are fighting new legal attacks on solidarity

    This article How bail funds are fighting new legal attacks on solidarity was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    As local and state governments across the country wrestle with cash bail as a tool for combating violent crime and suppressing protests, bail regulations have become a focal point in the struggle between pro-police advocates and grassroots movements to transform the criminal-legal system. Since February, community organizers and nonprofits across the country are decrying a new Georgia bill that heavily restricts so-called “charitable bail funds.” 

    Senate Bill 63 was sent to Gov. Brian Kemp in early April after passing in the state legislature. The bill mandates that no individual or organization in Georgia can post more than three cash bonds per year — effectively criminalizing community bail funds — while increasing the number of criminal offenses that require cash bail.  It also requires that churches and nonprofits that post bail be regulated like bail bond companies: “passing background checks, paying fees, holding a business license, securing the approval of the local sheriff and establishing a cash escrow account or other form of collateral.”

    Three organizers with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund were named in last year’s RICO indictment against the Stop Cop City movement, which alleges the fund committed money laundering and charities fraud. In a statement released on social media, the fund argued that this indictment was meant “to shut down the social movement currently taking place in Atlanta, and to send a message that anyone advocating for social change could be a target.” But Georgia’s recent bill is also part of a broad wave of reactionary attacks on bail funds that’s been escalating over the past 15 years.

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    Since 2021, a number of states have proposed similar restrictions, including Idaho, Virginia and Washington, sometimes tucked within larger crime bills. Other states have focused on making bail regulations more punitive in as many cases as possible. In Tennessee, for example — where Republicans have repeatedly claimed that progressive bail reform enables violent crime — a newly-passed bill prohibits judges from considering a defendant’s ability to pay when determining bail amounts, while a proposed constitutional amendment would let judges deny bail for a wider range of criminal offenses.

    These ongoing policy struggles have become a key issue for the National Bail Fund Network, or NBFN, an information sharing and fundraising hub that includes more than 90 community bail funds across the country. I recently spoke to NBFN Director Pilar Weiss, an experienced organizer who worked in labor, electoral and abolitionist spheres before founding the network in 2016. We talked about the past attacks on community bail funds that informed Georgia’s new bill, how bail funds fit within abolitionist struggle nationwide and how organizers are responding to the “criminalization of solidarity.”

    What are some historical trends that can help folks understand Georgia’s attack on bail funds?

    I think one of them is that there’s always been criminalization of mutual aid and solidarity and community care: It’s targeted the Black liberation movement, civil rights movement, American Indian movement and Chicano movement. That’s really important for all of us to keep in mind. There have been bail funds as long as people have been incarcerated — and at different points, there were attacks. The current intensification of the attack really started in 2012 in New York.

    Starting in 2007, one of the public defender offices started a bail fund called the Bronx Freedom Fund — and they were posting bail for their clients. It elicited a bunch of backlash from judges who really didn’t like that open solidarity. Because of that backlash, New York passed a law regulating bail funds in 2012. That law has all the seeds for what is now being used in Georgia and many other states.

    It created a term called a “charitable bail organization” — people didn’t call themselves [that], but New York created a definition so they could regulate and restrict what people could do. They said, if you are going to be a charitable bail organization, you can only pay for misdemeanors up to $2,000. People still collectivized paying money for people with felony charges at higher amounts, but if you were going to be a nonprofit organization that paid bail, you had to take on that definition and be regulated by the state.

    Most people who run bail funds actually come at it from a “solidarity, not charity” model. They might be a 501(c)3 for tax purposes, but the roots of community bail funds are incredibly radical. By creating a new regulatory entity, by limiting the kind of charges that they can pay, by limiting the amounts, by creating barriers to who’s allowed to be in the definition, you can criminalize people for not following the regulation.

    How did you get interested in bail funds as a tactic, and what was the impetus for starting the NBFN?

    There was a wave of bail funds being a tactic that people were coming back to or coming to fresh around 2014-2015. I think part of it was Kalief Browder’s suicide, exposure of the tragedy of why he had been incarcerated and in solitary for so long. Bail was [a] lever people were thinking about a lot: like, if we bail out a lot of people, reject the state’s attempt to hold people on monetary ransom, connect people and lift up their stories, that’s gonna be a powerful organizational tool toward decreasing detention. All of a sudden, there were a dozen or so bail funds across the country — and so a number of us were thinking, now that there’s a renewed interest, what if we had a network so we could start to learn from each other?

    How did the strategic use of bail funds evolve as abolitionist demands became more mainstream?

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  • Making our demands both practical and visionary
  • There were some theories in that [2014-2015] phase where people were like, if we get out a lot of people, that’s gonna shock the system. By 2019, a lot of bail funds were like, “that theory of change did not work out.” You could bail out a lot of people and the system would incarcerate some more. They [were] really grappling with “reformist reforms,” and how the demand is to end pretrial detention, not to just end bail — and what does that mean for bail funds? They’re still gonna show up for their community [and] free people, but how is that part of a movement to end mass incarceration and abolish prisons?

    During the first wave of COVID, when one of the most deadly places was being incarcerated, people were trying to get all kinds of compassionate release. In a lot of places, the only way to get people out was to bail them out. Some bail funds that were about to go dormant were like, “Oh no, we actually have to continue to exist because we’re the lifeline here.” Then the uprising happened in the summer. All of a sudden, people were watching people getting beaten up and arrested in Minneapolis after they had watched the murder of George Floyd. There was a huge surge in the amount of money that bail funds received in donations, which meant that they could bail out more people. 

    Kamala Harris [was] tweeting about giving money to bail funds, you had celebrities donating to bail funds — we had 3.5 million people donating to bail funds in one week at one point on a fundraiser we were doing. But it also increased their visibility and it became a right-wing attack trope. Then I think it becomes a repeat of the attacks that have always been on solidarity and community care: that really freaks out the right wing, who want to incarcerate and remove people.

    What’s different or novel about this current phase of attacks on bail funds?

    After the uprising in 2020, the escalation of attacks on bail funds and solidarity has been really fast. In 2021, there were six states that took parts of that New York charitable bail act and used it — a modification passed in Texas. Then in 2022 and 2023, there was another wave, where four states introduced laws to attack bail funds. In that little window, Indiana passed it. The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, was involved too: there was a template bill that was essentially a copycat of the New York bill that was being circulated. 

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  • #FreeBlackMamas bails black mothers from jail for Mother’s Day
  • So in 2024, four states have introduced bills to go after bail funds — but they’ve been way harsher than the 2021 attacks. In Kentucky, there’s this really large “anti-crime” bill called HB5 that was vetoed by the governor, but the veto was overridden by the very conservative legislature. It increases all kinds of criminal charges — particularly for people who are houseless — and it also regulates bail funds and restricts what they can do. A bill that’s been introduced in Tennessee says that nobody can pay bail for a person unless they’re related to that person through blood, marriage or adoption. (It’s still pending.)

    Of course, the Georgia bill has gotten momentum because of Cop City and the state’s continued attempts to crack down on any dissent around that — and the deep organizing and solidarity that multiple movements are showing to each other in Georgia. That part is exceptional. But it’s a longer arc.

    Bail funds often serve two distinct functions: supporting protests and paying everyday bail bonds. Do you see a distinction between attacks driven by targeting protest movements versus everyday crime?

    It’s a complicated question. I think the state (in a general sense) likes to divide people up — like, “We’re gonna just criminalize protesting on bridges because we think that’s ‘bad’; this isn’t about you people who are doing this other solidarity work.” That’s the attempt by the state to “other” people and create “the good movement” and “the bad movement.” So our approach has been to not take that bait. The power of the state to make people zero in on just this person’s fight, or just that group — and not connect the dots — is a universal challenge.

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    If a state passes a law and says, “we’re fine with bail funds, but we’re not fine with people who protest this [other] way,” that’s eventually gonna get used against everybody. We see this over and over again: A ton of people have written about this with gang databases and RICO charges. There’s been attacks on protesters in the environmental movement, with states passing laws about protecting “critical infrastructure” to go after pipeline protesters — but that then gets used against everybody. Or what’s happened post-Dobbs: The criminalization of reproductive choice and accessing abortion services can get used against people in all kinds of ways. Even in bluer states, if they’re falling into rhetoric around crime and changing laws about sentencing and charging and criminalizing people, that’s going to affect people across this movement.

    How are local bail funds trying to intervene in these challenges when they show up?

    Building local coalitions. Kentucky’s a wonderful example, because there was this really deep coalition that fought to get the governor to veto. It was this coalition of radical abolitionist groups and bail funds, pretty mainstream moderate groups and even some conservative groups — and the unifier was: “We don’t think we should be increasing incarceration and criminalization.” 

    People are very much talking with each other about how not to exceptionalize the moment. I think increasingly people are finding that it’s not about bail funds: It’s about the state wanting to criminalize community care, to remove any avenues towards freedom. There are attacks on abortion funds, attacks on Food Not Bombs; there’s many forms of solidarity that are being attacked. Sure, there’s gonna be unique things about bail, but the lesson is people situating and fighting back against the attacks on solidarity — and really naming that.

    This article How bail funds are fighting new legal attacks on solidarity was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    What’s next for the struggle to stop the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline

    This article What’s next for the struggle to stop the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    In 2006, oil speculators finally stumbled upon a long-sought reserve under Lake Albert in midwestern Uganda. President Yoweri Museveni, who had already been in power for 20 years, eagerly declared that production would commence in 2009. He argued that oil drilling would spare Ugandans from biting poverty — despite the government projecting zero revenue from the project for decades to come.

    Still clinging to his despotic throne today, Museveni and his bankrollers and business partners — namely TOTAL, China National Offshore Oil Corporation and the neoliberal regimes of Uganda and Tanzania — have been unable to commence production. The proposed East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline, or EACOP, would be 900 miles long and cut through Uganda and Tanzania, including lands inhabited by pastoralists and waters used by local fisherfolk. 

    These communities, stretching between Lake Albert and the small Indian Ocean port city of Tanga, have long histories of rich ecological understanding capable of helping us survive the troubling climate catastrophes ahead. A heated crude oil pipeline capable of discharging upwards of 200,000 barrels per day is perhaps the most crassly violent project that could erode this knowledge and leadership.

    The stagnation of the construction of EACOP can be partially attributed to internal discord and malfeasance between its stakeholders. But a few climate justice outfits have also poked thorns into the side of the EACOP overlords.

    An activist with Students Against EACOP Uganda being arrested during a peaceful protest. (Twitter/StopEACOP/Bruce N)

    One such group is Rise Up Movement, a collective of young African climate activists articulating the doom such a pipeline poses to Africans and the world. With allies from 350.org and other major climate campaigning organizations, young climate activists under the banner of #StopEACOP have been able to secure pledges from major banks and insurers across the world not to finance the pipeline. The latest target is Standard Bank, whose headquarters has already been disrupted by Extinction Rebellion organizers. These pushes for divestment have slowed EACOP’s production timeline. 

    “We must continue on and remain committed,” said Evelyn Acham, one of the first Rise Up members brutally arrested in Kampala for protesting climate abuse three years ago. She courageously did so while interning with the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, notorious for mass land grabs on behalf of foreign investors and multinational corporations. 

    Acham’s invitation to persevere is far from naive; it comes just a few years after a major victory by small town working-class organizations and climate activists in neighboring Kenya, who forced the financing withdrawal of the world’s biggest bank from a massive coal project.

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    However, a global development project undertaken by transnational corporations requires more than local activism; it demands resistance on the many fronts the project permeates. That’s why it’s important that EACOP has garnered lots of attention in the ever-expanding planet-wide climate justice movement.

    Resistance on TOTAL’s home turf in France has been particularly creative. Climate activists laid down sticky tape to draw lines through French communities to outline a fictitious pipeline and incite public outrage around the finance sector’s lack of adherence to voluntary standards for managing social and environmental impact known as the Equator Principles. They also bird-dogged President Emmanuel Macron, who shifted blame to the private sector despite having been one of the most vocal global political leaders endorsing the project. This is a sign that among world leaders, affiliation with EACOP is increasingly understood as shameful.

    However, these piecemeal actions and campaigns have not been enough to stop the project, as EACOP stakeholders are determined to see it to completion. Without fierce resistance on the ground to make the pipeline too expensive and unviable, over 100,000 East Africans will suffer displacement. And this dirty infrastructural project will have many other grave economic and ecological consequences.

    Direct action collective Solidarity Uganda, where I am an active member, has been training and organizing communities for nonviolent resistance in midwestern Uganda since 2019. These efforts focus largely on land and resource sovereignty, especially targeting the state and private sector actors behind EACOP. 

    Hundreds of activists occupied offices across London’s financial district to demand insurance companies stop enabling climate disasters like EACOP in October 2023. (LinkedIn/StopEACOP)

    In preparation for the pipeline, there have already been forced evictions “in Bukinda, Katikara, Kizirafumbi, Kijayo and Kapapi, with empty promises of totally insufficient compensation,” said Solidarity Uganda community organizer Bruce Mugisha. “A lot more courage from communities around the Albertine drilling area will be needed to stop the impending doom of EACOP.”

    Mugisha has been advising the organizers of a 21-month, 2,000-person occupation of the Kikuube Resident District Commissioner’s office in relation to a community land dispute along Lake Albert. Communities had been displaced without due process by the Office of the Prime Minister to make way for a refugee camp (one of the Museveni government’s key fundraising strategies). After members of parliament failed to rectify the issue, the occupiers dismantled their encampment and have swarmed the homes of these elected leaders for the past four months.

    It’s hard to imagine that with drilling and pipeline construction commencing, those who have put up such a steadfast fight against displacement won’t continue to rebel. A reawakening in the Bunyoro region — famed for the Kabalega’s resistance to colonial rule — could be just around the corner.

    Veteran anti-pipeline activists know that it’s much better to get ahead of development projects than to cry foul after the fact. However, militaristic fearmongering by host states and developmentalism propaganda has led to a lack of disruptive action by East African communities and climate activists in the areas most affected by EACOP. The #StopEACOP campaign will require a dose of courageous direct action to stop or slow the project.

    The Niger Delta — where TOTAL and other mainstream oil and gas giants have pillaged communities for generations — is a testament to this unfortunate reality.

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    “For decades, the Niger Delta women who have suffered the worst burdens of our fossil fuel crises have led the struggle against the corporates,” said Niger Delta climate activist Magdalene Idiang. “For nearly 70 years, their resistance put an end to land grabbing, secured the repossession of some lands, changed the government, and reinstated peace in a very militarized region.”

    These transformations didn’t arrive through polite appeals to fossil fuel executives or political leaders. Ogoni women had to occupy oil terminals, which inspired the subsequent occupation of six Shell flow stations by youth in western Niger Delta. Nonviolent actions were militant and confrontational. They included work stoppages by the transport, oil and public sectors, monkeywrenching, a two-week seizure of four deep sea platforms by oil workers, an eight-day general strike against fuel hikes and the blowing up of physical infrastructure.

    None of these actions can take place without deep understanding of the inherent tragedy of a pipeline, and a wealth of solidarity across the intersections of society. With East Africa fragmented by colonial borders, organizers will have to focus on building trust and cooperation within communities most directly affected by EACOP. Members of communities ravaged by pipelines have a duty to people living along the EACOP corridor. They will need to articulate the short-term costs of resisting a pipeline, namely the inevitable repression they will face. But they also must speak to the long-term costs of not resisting, including widespread devastation of local health, economy and ecology, as well as irreversible global climate harm.

    An Extinction Rebellion protest against EACOP in front of Standard Bank. (Twitter/Extinction Rebellion Cape Town)

    In the meantime, the campaign cannot relent on the financing front. By 2019, fossil fuels ranked last among all industries for major investments in the U.S. Given the increasingly high-risk nature of the industry, this is a sign that the Extinction Rebellion-style shutdowns of banks considering investing in EACOP will only help. More can also be done to target specific executives at these banks and find climate justice allies who work at the investment companies considering EACOP.

    “The COVID-19 pandemic exposed all of the industry’s frailties,” said oil policy analyst Antonia Juhasz in an interview with Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua for their recent book “Not Too Late.” “When Russia went to war against Ukraine, the global community’s response demanding an end to fossil fuels was unlike any I’d ever seen.” In 2024, climate warriors everywhere have a timely opportunity to pull on-the-fence investors over to their side.

    If constructed, EACOP will be the longest heated crude oil pipeline on the planet — an atrocious blight on this decisive decade for climate change and the planet’s future. The next phase of #StopEACOP will demand even greater courage and risk among comrades and the most directly impacted communities in East Africa. It will also require deeper commitment and solidarity from beyond the region to target TOTAL, China National Offshore Oil Corporation and all of their potential insurers and financiers.

    This article What’s next for the struggle to stop the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    Why India’s farmers are targeting Modi in the elections

    This article Why India’s farmers are targeting Modi in the elections was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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    As the world’s largest democracy began the first of its seven-phase general elections last week, India’s farmers were back on the streets protesting the government’s U-turn on earlier promises. It has not been long since the farmers grabbed the world’s attention by camping at the borders of the national capital in Delhi for a year, forcing Narendra Modi’s government to meet their demands.

    Ever since, agriculture has remained a contentious issue with farmers around the globe, with protests against government policies, pricing of produce, and delayed compensation taking place in more than 65 countries. In India, there have been protests in at least nine states and union territories since 2023.

    In the latest flair up, starting on Feb. 13, some 20,000 farmers began marching towards Delhi demanding legal guaranteed prices for all crops, loan waivers, pensions and the doubling of farmers’ incomes. They also want compensation for the kin of farmers who died during the 2020-2021 protest, which were spearheaded by an umbrella body of unions called the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, or SKM.

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    The grievances of the farmers’ unions do not stop there. They oppose the government’s economic and social policies more broadly, explained Darshan Pal, a farmer leader with SKM. Other issues of concern include unemployment, lack of access to healthcare, the privatization of the public sector and threats to India’s democratic norms.

    While the government was nervous and forced to repeal the contentious farm laws during the last round of protests, this time the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, remains unruffled. So far, the meetings between the farmers’ unions and the government have ended in deadlocks.

    But the campaign, which is entering a more disruptive phase, is far from over.

    A safety net for farmers

    The protests are primarily focusing on the legal guarantee of minimum support price, or MSP, which would set a floor for the price of 23 commodities. If market prices fall below that floor, the government would buy the produce from farmers at the agreed rate.

    “When the previous protests concluded, there were certain things that were agreed upon between the farmers and the government,” said Nachiket Udupa, who works with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan — a rights-based organization that struggles for the rights of peasants and laborers. “One was to set up a committee to look into MSP, and that the committee would have a certain number of representatives from the SKM. Subsequently, the government did not do anything for months.”

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    When the government did set up the committee, he explained, it “moved away from the original terms that were agreed upon. The SKM boycotted the committee and there has been no concrete action on the issue of MSP since the previous protests.”

    According to Indian politician and political analyst Yogendra Yadav, the topic is now “firmly back” on the national agenda. The current demand comes from a consensus of unions of farmers cutting across different ideologies and geographical regions.   

    The context of climate change is also critical to the farmers’ protests. According to the World Bank, more than 80 percent of people live in districts that are seriously affected by climate change. Rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and declining groundwater level have had a direct impact on livelihood and food security.

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    “The MSP demand is related to climate change. While water levels are going down in Punjab, farmers are still cultivating paddy because they get MSP for it,” Udupa said. “The demand is for MSP of all crops, which means farmers would diversify to less water-intensive crops. The present policy is [hindering] farmers from becoming more climate resilient.” 

    There is an ideological resistance to change from the government, since it believes in the free market ideology. “The status quo works well for people in power,” he said. “The idea that MSP hampers the market and will cause economic catastrophe is completely unfounded.”

    Protest 2.0

    Since the last round of protests, there has been a change in leadership at the unions. After they won the repeal of the farm laws, the unions fractured over whether they should engage in electoral politics. 

    Despite the change in leadership and tactics, the core demands remain the same across the factions, said Vikas Rawal from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he specializes in development and agricultural economics.

    This year, different factions of the unions organized two major protests. One was a gathering of more than 50,000 farmers in the heart of Delhi’s protest site Ramlila Maidan. The other is the ongoing “Delhi Chalo” movement, which began on Feb. 13, when an estimated 20,000 farmers primarily from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh started marching towards the capital.

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    As farmers approached Delhi’s borders, some 50,000 police were deployed and the internet was cut off. The Haryana Police installed large barricades, concrete blocks and sharp nails in the roads to stop farmers from entering the national capital. At the barricades, drones dropped tear gas on the farmers, who said rubber bullets were also fired at them. Clashes ensued between farmers and police. One farmer was killed in the violence, despite police claiming they used minimum force.

    In a statement in February, Human Rights Watch said that the Indian government was using threats and excessive force to stop farmers from holding peaceful protests.

    A petition was filed in India’s Supreme Court alleging that the state used aggressive and violent measures against farmers who were peacefully protesting, preventing them from exercising their democratic rights.

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    The farmers have learned to be resilient in the face of the state violence that they have already witnessed, said journalist and political scientist Vasundhara Sirnate. In response to the police repression, farmers flew kites to distract drones, wore swimming goggles to protect themselves from tear gas and used tractors to pull down barricades. 

    Despite facing severe oppression, farmers remain united in protesting against the government. “We will expose, protest and punish the ruling regime who has not only ignored but used repressive measures against protesting farmers,” said Pal, the farmer leader with SKM.

    According to Tejveer Singh, a spokesperson for one of the farmer unions, around 10,000 farmers are still sitting at the Shambhu and Khanauri borders in the state of Punjab. Given the lack of progress towards an agreement with the government, the farmers recognize the need to intensify their campaign.

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    On April 17, they blocked railway tracks near Shambhu border, demanding the release of farmers who have been arrested. The action led to train cancellations and diversions. Farmers have said they will block additional railway tracks in the coming days if their leaders are not freed.

    Farmers are also organizing smaller protests at the state-level with other workers’ organizations to keep up the momentum. Going forward, the their unions will run campaigns across villages where they will ask tough questions of party leaders from across the political spectrum. There will be public meetings and marches in the states of Punjab and Haryana, according to the SKM. They have also been bringing attention to other issues like the electoral bond scam, rural agrarian distress and the privatization of the public sector.

    With the country’s elections now underway, the BJP — according to Yadav — may be compelled to act.

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    The Indian National Congress, which is currently the opposition party, “has already responded to the ongoing protests by promising to include the national guarantee for minimum support price if voted to power,” he explained. “There is now pressure on the BJP to respond to the demands in their election manifesto. This shows that the struggle is moving forward.” But he also described the struggle for MSP as a “prolonged battle” that will not be won overnight.

    “We will continue to protest till after elections — till our voices are heard,” Singh said.

    This article Why India’s farmers are targeting Modi in the elections was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    Climate activists in New England can finally celebrate ‘the end of coal’

    This article Climate activists in New England can finally celebrate ‘the end of coal’ was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    On March 27, Granite Shore Power, or GSP, announced that it will “voluntarily” stop burning coal at its Merrimack and Schiller Stations in New Hampshire by 2028. Major news outlets have been hailing the news as the “end of coal in New England” and casting GSP as a leader in the transition to clean, renewable energy.

    Insofar as media have acknowledged the role of outside pressure on GSP at all, they have mainly cited a lawsuit by the Sierra Club and Conservation Law Foundation for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act. But activists know better: Nonviolent direct action gets the goods.

    Those of us who have participated in the No Coal No Gas campaign, or NCNG, have been anticipating Merrimack Station’s closure for some time. (Schiller Station has not run since May 2020.) In fact, in June 2023, we threw a festive retirement party outside Merrimack Station’s gates, complete with cake and surveillance by the New Hampshire Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Then, just three weeks before GSP’s own press release, we held a weekend retreat to reflect on everything our campaign has accomplished, plan for the future and strategize when, how and whether to declare victory.

    It had become obvious to us that victory was imminent, if not a fait accompli. In partnership with the Sierra Club and 350NH, we have been monitoring the plant’s failed attempts to complete federally-mandated stack tests to measure its pollution emissions. At the same time, from conversations with local IBEW workers, we also know that employment at the plant has all but dried up, as union workers only come in to do repairs. What’s more, by monitoring our regional grid operator’s annual “forward capacity payments” — which are effectively taxpayer subsidies for coal — we know that funding for Merrimack Station is slated to end in 2026.

    Previous Coverage
  • Blocking trains and removing coal, climate activists fight to close one of New England’s largest power plants
  • However, the most striking bit of evidence pointing to the plant’s demise is the fact that we have not seen any new coal deliveries in well over a year. We believe this is largely due to the campaign’s rather spectacular and widely reported coal train blockades. From December 2019 to December 2022, we stopped multiple trains in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. We stopped a single train no less than three times on its route, and we stopped another for hours by erecting scaffolding on the tracks. This strategy pushed rail carrier CSX, in one case, to split a very long coal train into segments in an unsuccessful and expensive attempt to “hide” from activists. 

    Halting resupply, even temporarily, is one tactic to convince corporate oligarchs that coal is a bad investment. Another approach, used by NCNG’s corporate research group, was to directly target Merrimack Station’s two private equity owners, Castleton Commodities and Atlas Holdings. We delivered coal to their corporate offices and even to the homes of CEOs, holding rallies and dropping banners. In 2021, Castleton decided to divest from the partnership.

    Beyond pressuring for divestment, though, these tactics strive to show what’s possible. In this vein, we’ve also pursued civil disobedience at Merrimack Station itself. In 2019, 69 people in Tyvek suits were arrested as they carried buckets onto the property, vowing to carry the coal out bucket by bucket. In 2021, 18 of us began renovating the facility’s driveway, digging up asphalt and planting food for people and flowers for soil remediation. Like so much nonviolent direct action, these were not only attempts to interfere with business as usual; they were acts of collective imagination.

    On the streets, in the courts, in our writing, art and advocacy, activists seek to expose, critique and upend systems of power. Like anyone who practices civil disobedience, we’re often told that there are “more appropriate” ways to enact change. But as one of our members, Nastasia Lawton-Sticklor, puts it, “disobedience. . .[is] an uncompromising vision of radical, as in from the roots, change.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that we see ourselves as some kind of extreme flank, “throwing ourselves into wild escalation to make lawsuits and the legislation seem inherently reasonable.” Rather, Lawton-Sticklor says, “I see this as an invitation to continue peeling back the layers of systemic power, to make visible the inherent compulsion for self-preservation that grounds systemic concession, and to keep going.”

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    How does a climate campaign “keep going”? How do we sustain such pressure and diversity of tactics over a period of years? It actually has a lot do with NCNG being a campaign, as opposed to a more formal nonprofit organization.

    While we certainly benefit from — and could not continue without — support from the Climate Disobedience Center and 350NH, NCNG is not embedded in or beholden to the nonprofit industrial complex like many other organizations are. As a result, our strategic decision-making is not driven by fundraising concerns or donor preferences. Rather, the campaign draws on capillaries of power running through multiple, shifting affinity groups and mutually beneficial relationships with other established groups and campaigns.

    Since its inception in 2019, NCNG has had three precisely articulated goals: 1. Build unity and community; 2. Show what is possible; and 3. Shut down the Merrimack Generating Station. It’s worth noting that shutting down Merrimack Station was only ever our third — and arguably the least important — goal. We know, after all, that this coal plant is only one contributor to climate catastrophe and that our own actions are only one tiny part of a much larger, multi-pronged climate justice movement.

    “Building community” does not simply mean that campaign participants become their own kind of cohesive in-group, although that has sometimes happened. Rather, the campaign seeks to establish and nurture relations among existing and yet-to-be communities.

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  • Campaign to shut down New England’s last coal plant is doing ‘what must be done’ for the planet
  • We are college professors, ministers, farmers, artists, scientists, lawyers, students, parents, grandparents and shift workers. We bring connections to schools, churches, radical collectives and political formations. We help stitch together relations among existing nonprofits like 350.org and fellow campaigns like Fix the Grid; we encourage new affinity groups and support longstanding ones; and we have made our presence known to our regional grid operator ISO-New England. Sometimes we have done so in playful ways — for example, by delivering a wheelbarrow of coal to their security gate during a blizzard on Super Bowl Sunday.

    Moreover, we have intently studied their arcane operations and then elected members to their Consumer Liaison Group in what became known locally as the “ballroom coup.” In this capacity, we have pressured ISO-New England to stop giving ratepayer money to legacy fossil fuel plants. We have enlisted hundreds of friends and supporters in writing public comments urging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reject these forward capacity payments.

    In turn, we show up for others’ struggles. Perhaps because we did so much intensive organizing during the height of COVID — when so much work and sociality had to move online — we have been able to draw in like-minded activists from around New England and beyond, and to connect with other activist efforts.

    NCNG participants routinely show up for each other’s actions on, for instance, LGBTQ+ rights or the Free Palestine movement. We sometimes even put the campaign on pause to lend support to major actions, as we did during 2021, when many of us traveled to Minnesota in the fight against Line 3, incurring arrest and continuing to provide remote legal support to fellow co-defendants. Showing up for other groups’ struggles is critical, not only because our issues are all so intertwined, but also because in doing so, we learn. We share our skills and develop new ones. We engage in the critical, sustaining activity of thinking together.

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    Donate New England after coal

    On April 4 we held a mass call on Zoom to celebrate Merrimack Station’s closure announcement, and to sketch out our next phase. Continuing to show what is possible, we are looking to shut down all of New England’s so-called fossil fuel peaker plants — those facilities that, like Merrimack Station, run only during times of peak electricity demand, generally during periods of extreme cold or heat. As the Christian Science Monitor reported, Merrimack Station ran for only about 500 hours last year.

    Peaker plants are expensive and dirty, and arguably unnecessary. In many places they are being replaced with battery storage. They could also be eliminated, we believe, with better demand response, which means encouraging consumers to shift their electricity use to times when demand on the grid is lower. We feel that leadership from our utilities and grid operator has been lacking in this regard, so we are doing what they won’t: building a ratepayer collective that will practice demand response on the New England grid ourselves.

    As our demand response cohort puts it, this means “We will stay grounded in community and mutuality because we are more than individual ‘consumers.’ We have the power to choose to work collaboratively to shift our relationship to energy use, to become more intentional. And this means that together we have the power to transform how the energy markets in our region work.” In short, by building an alliance of ratepayers “ready to support each other in the face of snowballing economic, environmental, health and social crises,” we will be laying the foundation “for joyful, community-centered conservation demand response and a just transition.”

    This, maybe, is what “victory” in the climate fight really means: that we are learning what we can achieve together, with or without the necessary actions that our governments, economic leaders and regulators seem categorically or politically unwilling to take. Something that has always stuck out to me is a series of questions I’ve heard posed by Marla Marcum, one of the founders of the Climate Disobedience Center (and our campaign). Many times, after a nonviolent direct action, we will be debriefing, and Marla will ask, “Regardless of whether this particular action succeeds in shutting down this particular coal plant, what has it done for us? What have we learned? How have we grown stronger? What does this growth make possible?”

    When we fight, we really do win. And what we win is the ultimate bulwark against climate grief and despair. We find each other.

    This article Climate activists in New England can finally celebrate ‘the end of coal’ was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    Smuggled protest videos offer a rare glimpse at resistance in occupied Tibet

    This article Smuggled protest videos offer a rare glimpse at resistance in occupied Tibet was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    Under the cover of darkness, the monks were evicted. Amid the freezing temperatures of late February, they knelt, prostrated and wept before a group of Chinese police officers, their sacred red robes ablaze against the black state uniforms. 

    In videos captured and sent out of eastern occupied Tibet — an act that in and of itself can warrant jail time — monks and citizens pleaded to protect a life-sustaining river, to preserve their ancient monasteries and to save the tight-knit communities of Derge, in the mountainous Kham region. But by day, and by night, outside of the monasteries and inside the town centers, monks, nuns and residents were arrested one by one. In the following weeks, the list of alleged crimes would run long, but on Feb. 23 more than a thousand Tibetans were arrested for protesting. 

    Drimey, a Tibetan in exile who has asked to be identified by his first name only, watched these videos in horror.  Monks are highly respected in Tibet, but what he saw — desperate people begging on their knees — was saddening, almost denigrating, to someone from a highly reverent culture. Hailing from the town of Wongpo Tok (one of the sites of the arrests), Drimey crossed the Himalayas on foot in 1999 to pursue Tibetan and religious studies not accessible in his home under occupation. Now, he is watching from afar as his community is criminalized, his town is submerged and his religion is desecrated.   

    “I have known those mountains and those roads,” he said through a translator. “I have known everything.”

    About a week before the arrests in early February, just across the mountain from Wongpo Tok, some 300 people gathered outside the Derge County Seat — home to the Chinese Communist Party’s provincial office — to protest the construction of the Kamtok Hydropower project. Slated to straddle the banks of the Drichu River, the headwaters of Asia’s 3,915-mile Yangtze River, the hydropower dam will not only strangle the river’s winding route but forcibly displace thousands of Tibetans. According to a 2019 report from the International Campaign for Tibet, the hydropower project is one of 25 dams set to carve through the Tibetan plateau and generate “clean” electricity. 

    A parallel situation is also unfolding in Amdo county where the Chinese government recently announced plans to relocate the historic Atsok Monastery and surrounding communities to make way for another large-scale hydropower project. Tibetans told Radio Free Asia that in the wake of this news, residents gathered at the monastery to pray while monk leaders were told to accept the relocation plan and promise not to protest.

    “These huge dams are not for Tibetans,” said Dr. Lobsang Yangtso, the programme and environment coordinator at International Tibet Network, a global coalition of Tibet-centered organizations based in Berkeley, California. “It’s a colonial mentality where these resources are to be consumed by mainland China.”

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    Tibet has a long history of nonviolent resistance dating back to 1959, around 10 years after China’s occupation. Under extreme repression, the country’s monasteries have become a driving force behind nonviolent actions including peaceful demonstrations and poster campaigns that, in recent years, have become less frequent given the grave consequences.

    While it’s largely unknown how the February protests were organized, videos sent out of the country have offered a rare glimpse into nonviolent resistance in occupied Tibet in 2024. In video clips, Tibetans can be seen peacefully gathering, chanting and, in some instances, holding up two thumbs — a gesture that expresses an appeal for pity. In others, Tibetans are shown waving the Chinese national flag. According to Tenzin Norgay, a research analyst at International Campaign for Tibet, this was an attempt to show that they are not separatists, as they are likely to be labeled, but simply expressing their concerns and desire to be heard.

    That desire for discussion is internationally known as free, prior and informed consent, or FPIC — a right enshrined in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and applicable to Tibetans. While this is an imperfect process in much of the world, China has among the highest levels of development-related displacement despite resettlement being labeled as 100 percent voluntary. In the same way that protest is silenced and information restricted under Chinese occupation, “consent” is usually achieved without consultation and through coercion. True FPIC is an “absolute luxury,” said Norgay, and there are few mechanisms through which Tibetans can voice their concern or opposition to state projects and policies. 

    Globally, hydropower projects from Honduras to the Philippines have been a violent frontline for environmental defenders. According to a 2019 study drawing data from the Global Environmental Justice Atlas, resistance to hydropower projects is met with a similar pattern of violence as other extractive industries, including oil and mining. In 2009, six women in Tibet were shot during demonstrations against a hydropower project according to the Tibetan government in exile, now based in Dharamshala, India. In Derge, more recently, some of the charges enumerated by the Chinese government in the wake of these recent demonstrations include fines and imprisonment for protesting against government initiatives, distributing pamphlets and shouting slogans. 

    “When we think of environmental defenders, there is no more visceral scene than hundreds of Tibetans begging on their hands and knees to protect their environment knowing full well that they’re risking arrest and imprisonment,” said Topjor Tsultrim, the communications coordinator at Students for a Free Tibet, an organization that works in solidarity with the Tibetan struggle. “It’s the same issue and the same mindset as defenders in the Amazon coming up against the impossibly large forces of government or corporations.”

    In Derge, as internet access became even more restricted and cell phones were confiscated, arrested Tibetans — including those who had simply enquired about their loved ones — were told to bring their own bedding and tsampa (a barley flour staple). The sheer number of arrests in a single day meant detainees could not be imprisoned in local jails but were sent across occupied Tibet and into China’s Sichuan province. Jail conditions are poor with overcrowded cells, scarce food and, in the winter, a cold that can strike to the bone. In these conditions, one-on-one interrogations are constant and  physical violence — such as  beatings, thrashings and, in extreme cases, torture — is used as a tactic to elicit information.

    According to reports out of Tibet, several detainees were beaten so badly they required hospitalization. The goal of these interrogations is to single out the alleged organizers, Norgay said, and it’s likely officials already have. While there are no specific figures, most detainees are believed to have been released in late March, except for a village official and the administrator of the Wonto monastery.  

    “The Chinese authorities don’t like organizers so I’m expecting they will get around 10 years in prison, maybe even more,” he said. “They are thought of as the ringleaders who are basically revolting against the state.”

    Wonto Monastery in Dege with the Drichu River in the background. (sourced by Students for a Free Tibet)

    Despite the repression that followed these protests, Tibetans — both in the occupied country and in exile — know what is at risk should the hydropower project continue. The Wongpo Tok of Drimey’s memory is one of summertime wildflowers, free-flowing rivers and peaks that stretch towards the sky. It is a place where the farmers cultivate their crops twice a year, where the nomads herd their cattle across the grasslands and where every family has more than a hundred yak and geese. Monasteries are centers of language, culture, religion and education. Lamas are venerated, mountains revered. The Drichu River is a source of life. For Drimey, the community of Wongpo Tok is pleasant, prosperous and alive. But relocation, Drimey said, will destroy the community, as well as knowledge of the land, mountains and waters passed down from one generation to the next. 

    “People have a strong attachment to the land,” Drimey said. “If it goes underwater, they will lose everything forever.” 

    For many communities across Tibet, everything has already been lost. In recent years, Chinese policies operating under the guise of “poverty alleviation” or “ecological restoration” have been leveraged to displace thousands of Tibetans from their ancestral homelands. Two years ago, more than 17,000 people were resettled nearly 250 miles from their community as part of the state’s “very high-altitude ecological relocation plan.” The policy, introduced in 2018, stipulates that by 2025, 130,000 Tibetans will have been relocated. Bused en-masse to government-constructed housing akin to “boxes,” according to Norgay, forced resettlement means the loss of traditional farming knowledge, the erasure of nomadic ways of life and the unmooring of a strongly Buddhist people from the center of their faith.  

    “Tibetan towns are built around monasteries,” Tsultrim said. “They are the heartbeats of the community.”

    While the Wonto Monastery was damaged during China’s Cultural Revolution, locals preserved the ancient murals, some of which date back to the 13th century. (Sourced by Students for a Free Tibet)

    According to reports, the Kamtok Hydropower project is expected to submerge six monasteries, including Wonto, the scene of some of the arrests. These monasteries, long protected and preserved by monks and lamas, are not only the spiritual center of a community but also home to Tibetan Buddhist murals dating back to the 13th century. After China fully occupied Tibet in 1959 and throughout China’s Cultural Revolution, more than 97 percent of monasteries and nunneries were destroyed, according to the 10th Panchen Lama, writing in 1962. The destruction of these ancient monasteries is more than a cultural and religious loss — it’s another means of dismantling what it is to be Tibetan.  

    “For the state, a dam is an important symbol of modernity,” Norgay said. “But for local Tibetans, these cultural artifacts — monasteries and murals — signify their identity.”

    At the heart of that identity is a way of life that for centuries has preserved the delicate balance of the Tibetan plateau and what is often known as the “Third Pole.” Glaciers in Tibet act as a water storage tower for Asia, holding the third-largest store of water ice in the world. This glacial melt then feeds some of south and southeast Asia’s largest rivers, including the Ganges and the Mekong, which around 1.5 billion people rely upon.

    Large-scale dams across Tibet, including the potential Kamtok, also drain the Tibetan plateau to generate electricity. But Tibet is a country on the frontlines of climate change, perhaps more so than any other, as temperatures are rising two to four times higher than the global average. Because of that, glaciers are melting rapidly, threatening the future water supply while below-average rainfall has already impacted China’s current hydropower generation despite the constant construction of more dams.  

    This investment in hydropower, as well as solar and wind, is part of China’s plan to transform itself from the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses to a leader in climate change action. By 2030, the Chinese government plans to peak carbon emissions and become carbon neutral by 2060. Alongside clean energy investments, the government has been quietly mining the plateau for minerals such as gold, copper and lithium, which are essential to the green transition. These extractive processes — protected by checkpoints, prohibited for Tibetans and often undertaken at night — can pollute the soil, air and water, said Yangtso from the International Tibet Network. 

    Given that Tibet largely exists in a media blackout and the consequences of sending even a photo out of the region are dire, it’s difficult to monitor the environmental impacts of these projects. But the plundering of resources — from water to lithium — also raises the question: Is climate change mitigation under occupation simply a greenwashing of human rights abuses?

    “There’s no value of the Tibetan people and no respect for traditional knowledge or the ecosystem,” Yangtso said. “The Chinese government just wants to exploit the natural resources as much as possible. They see Tibet as a solution for their global climate goals.”

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    At an international level, the recent protests and human rights abuses have not gone unnoticed. Tibetans in exile, from northern India to London, protested in solidarity with those arrested. Thousands more across Europe and the U.S. joined for Tibetan Uprising Day, which commemorates the lives lost during the 1959 protests against China’s occupation. Thanks to the efforts of organizers, a new bipartisan House resolution recently recognized the 65th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising Day and condemned the human rights violations in Derge.  

    While there is some uncertainty as to whether the Kamtok Hydropower Project will be constructed, organizations have continued their advocacy work through petition writing and lobbying Western governments to pressure China. Meanwhile, the videos captured in Tibet, which people knowingly risked personal safety to send outside of the country, have circulated on social media and in international news. It is this assertion of autonomy under occupation that has not only revealed the cost of protest under repression but served as a reminder that — despite the consequences — there remains power in dissent. 

    “This dam may be built, they may get arrested, but one thing within their control is to get this news out into the world,” Tsultrim said. “To show people that this is the reality of what’s going on inside China’s occupied Tibet, this is the reality for Tibetans.”

    This article Smuggled protest videos offer a rare glimpse at resistance in occupied Tibet was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    Climate movement elders revive monkey wrench tactics to save an old forest

    This article Climate movement elders revive monkey wrench tactics to save an old forest was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    Earlier this year, seven activists entered the site of a proposed timber sale in Washington State, intent on halting — or at least delaying — the destruction of trees with immense carbon storage potential. Over the course of several hours, they hiked off-trail through the dense understory, removing signs and flagging tape marking the boundaries of the controversial Carrot timber sale.

    The creative nonviolent direct action seemed to pay off, as a couple days later Washington’s Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, announced it was cancelling the Carrot sale for the time being. The timing seems striking, even though the announcement did not acknowledge the protest. Now, the nonviolent saboteurs hope their actions have bought enough precious time to permanently protect the area.

    “It’s been satisfying,” said retired physician and University of Washington faculty member Bill Daniell, who participated in the disruption. “It’s not often you get to see direct action have such an immediate impact.”

    The action against the Carrot sale — located in Washington’s Capitol State Forest — represents an escalation in the growing movement to protect older forests that are beginning to display old-growth characteristics. Some Carrot sale trees are over 110 years old — not quite old-growth, which is defined in Washington as forest containing 160-year-old trees, but advanced enough to play a valuable role storing carbon. Often referred to as “legacy forests,” these types of ecosystems are also important strongholds of biodiversity. Protecting them has become an increasingly prominent focus for the climate movement in the Northwest — thanks to new scientific findings, and because climate activists have been able to take on new targets as other successful campaigns wind down.

    “The science of forest ecology has progressed a lot in last 20 years,” said Emily Johnston, another participant in the Carrot sale action. “We now understand trees need to reach about 20 before they start storing up carbon in a big way. Their true carbon storage potential doesn’t really take off until they’re about 60 or 80. This means we’ve been cutting trees on private and public lands precisely when they can be of most benefit to the climate.”

    Johnston, Daniell and other activists who disrupted the Carrot sale belong to a new Seattle-based group called Troublemakers, which strives to use direct action to push regional climate campaigns forward. The Carrot sale was their first target — and the individuals who participated were all older activists who collectively have decades of experience in direct action movements.

    “As our group came together, it started looking like we’d be an older crew,” Johnston said. “So, we decided to embrace that, and I sought out a few more of my friends who are older activists. I was the youngest person by 14 years, and I’m 57. Most folks were in their 70s or 80s.”

    On Feb. 20, the day after they sabotaged the Carrot sale, the Troublemakers visited the DNR office in Olympia to deliver the signs and flagging tape along with a letter taking responsibility for the action. All seven activists were prepared to face legal charges after publicly owning their involvement, but so far none have been filed.

    DNR cancelled the sale the following day. In the struggle to protect carbon-dense forests, this victory stands out as an example of the important role direct action can play. It also shows how activists are successfully navigating a complex legacy of forest defense in the Northwest.

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    In the 1980s, future Troublemaker Patrick Mazza lived in Portland, Oregon, in a house that served as an informal headquarters for direct action movements in the area. Among the many activists who spent time there was Earth First! cofounder Mike Roselle.

    “We gave Mike a place to crash while he helped with a lot of the yeoman’s work of organizing protests against logging,” Mazza said. “This was when there were first starting to be widespread objections to destroying old-growth. One day, Mike walks in and says we’re going to try something new: using mountain climbing equipment to put people up in trees.”

    Not long after that, Mazza was present at one of the first tree-sits, a nonviolent protest tactic that spread throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The direct action movement that took shape in Oregon and Washington over the course of the next decade helped spur national environmental groups to make protecting ancient forests a priority — and by the late ‘90s, most remaining old-growth in the region’s National Forests was protected under the Northwest Forest Plan. Yet, while the forest defense movement of that era achieved stunning victories, there were some unintended consequences.

    “The timber wars of the 1980s and ‘90s accomplished really important things,” Johnston said. “But they also inflamed divisions in rural communities where some people see environmental groups as outsiders. When I started getting involved in forest issues more recently, I talked to rural organizers who feared direct action would worsen wounds they were trying to heal.”

    Based on this feedback, Johnston and others decided against organizing widespread direct action to interfere with logging of legacy forests. The Carrot sale, however, was an exception.

    “This particular sale, and a few others like it, were different because of the degree of local opposition,” Johnston said. Commissioners of Thurston County, where the Capitol Forest is located, unanimously opposed the Carrot sale. “There’s been public outcry against it at DNR meetings,” Johnston said. “People don’t want this legacy forest cut down, and when we talked with local organizers there was general agreement that direct action in this case would face a lot less backlash. We were thrilled to be able to help.”

    The direct action planned by the group of elders was an innovation for the modern movement to protect legacy forests. However, by using direct action to stop or delay logging, they were following in the footsteps of other campaigns.

    “I haven’t heard about anyone doing this tactic of removing flagging tape around here for a while,” Mazza said. “But it’s a traditional forest defense technique to go in and monkey wrench a timber sale by removing the boundary markers. It’s by no means an original idea, but it’s effective.”

    The Capitol State Forest in Washington. (Washington State Wiki/AJM) Buying time

    “I have a deep affection for forests, so when given the opportunity to join this action I naturally said yes,” said Bobby Righi, another Troublemaker. “I didn’t fully realize how hard it would be. We had to hike off trail through a landscape of sword ferns concealing fallen logs and tunnels dug by small animals. Then there were patches of devil’s club bushes, each 7-10 feet tall and covered in thorns. It was slow moving — but fun.”

    Despite the challenging terrain, the group succeeded in removing flagging tape and signage across the area marked for the Carrot sale. This made it practically impossible for it to move forward in the short term, as the area would have to be resurveyed. Although the trees could be put up for sale later, the Troublemakers hope their actions secure enough time for legal maneuvers to prevent this.

    The movement to protect legacy forests on state lands has stopped other sales in court — but sometimes victory has come too late. Last year, a case against the About Time timber sale in Grays Harbor County was declared moot when the land was logged before its fate could be decided in court.

    Climate groups hoped to win an injunction against the Carrot sale that would save this forest from a similar outcome. However, given the stakes, direct action seemed like the only way to guarantee extra time for the sale to be stopped in the courts.

    The Troublemakers who disrupted the sale knew firsthand about the importance of direct action from their experience in other movements. Righi protested the Vietnam War, later joining the fight to cancel developing countries’ debt. Daniell was part of the antiwar and anti-nuclear movements. After being involved in early forest defense work, Mazza shifted focus to climate activism in recent decades, participating in the blockade of an oil train in Everett, Washington in 2014.

    “As an old tree hugger, I couldn’t resist getting involved when I heard about the Carrot sale action,” Mazza said. “So, I joined the others bushwhacking through heavy underbrush, finding signs and pulling them out. I’m 71, and I can’t say it was easy. But I survived the day and it was worth it.”

    A movement for forests and climate Previous Coverage
  • Climate activists set sights on ending fossil fuel exports in Pacific Northwest once and for all
  • The Pacific Northwest has long been a hub for environmental direct action — not just during forest defense campaigns of the 1980s and ‘90s, but more recently as part of the climate movement. In the 2010s, a series of coal, oil and gas export projects drew massive public opposition that included nonviolent direct action protests. Those efforts were startlingly effective.

    Today, almost every fossil fuel export proposal in Oregon or Washington has been defeated. Meanwhile, Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant shut down in 2020, while Washington’s coal plant will finish coming offline next year. Both states have also passed some of the country’s strongest clean energy laws.

    The fight against fossil fuels in the Northwest is certainly not over, but these victories have created space for the region’s climate movement to focus on new targets. This has happened just as the role of older forests — including those not yet ancient enough to qualify as old-growth — in regulating the world’s climate is becoming better understood.

    “There are a lot of connections being made between the forest and climate movements,” Mazza said. “People are realizing it’s really one issue, as something like 20 percent of CO2 emissions come from deforestation.”

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    Today’s legacy forest defense movement utilizes a variety of tactics, including lawsuits, rallies and organizing around public comment periods. The Carrot sale disruption shows direct action, when used strategically and with sensitivity to political context, also has an important role. And to some activists, it makes sense for older individuals to be at the forefront.

    “The risks from taking direct action for older folks just tend to be much lower,” Johnston said. “The chances of an older person being roughed up by cops are smaller, as police look much more like bullies when being careless with folks perceived to be fragile. Then there’s the question of time and money, which young people are less likely to have.”

    Over a month out, the Carrot sale Troublemakers have faced no criminal charges, but civil penalties remain a possibility. For example, if the Carrot block is put up for sale again, the group could be ordered to pay the costs of re-surveying.

    As for the old trees that prompted the seven activists to risk repercussions, they appear to be safe for now.

    “I don’t know if we can get the DNR to stop all sales of legacy forests on state lands to the timber industry,” Johnston said. “But maybe we can at least stop them where they know there will be protests — so in communities that say no, don’t cut these trees, they may actually start listening.”

    This article Climate movement elders revive monkey wrench tactics to save an old forest was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    There’s a better way to make communities safer — and it’s taking off around the world

    This article There’s a better way to make communities safer — and it’s taking off around the world was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    The wars in Ukraine and Palestine continue to escalate as the U.S. bolsters them with billions more in weapons, feeding the insatiable military industries all in the name of security and stability. Yet, at the same time, a rapidly swelling undercurrent of sustainable and affordable nonviolent methods to protect civilians and prevent violence is accelerating throughout the world.

    Although largely unreported, a growing number of creative and courageous people are building community safety from the ground up without introducing more violence. And a complementary infrastructure of research, training and communication is emerging to support their work.

    Over the past 25 years, as co-creator of Nonviolent Peaceforce, I have seen unarmed civilian protection (also known as UCP or UCP/A to include the methodology of accompaniment) evolve to the point where our teams have worked alongside local communities using evidenced-based, civilian-led approaches to prevent violence and protect civilians in 15 countries. In helping to foster a community of practice, I have witnessed dozens of small and large organizations using active nonviolent methods to create community safety. Here are three examples I find to be particularly inspiring.

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    Almost a decade ago, Burundi teetered on the brink of mass atrocities. Large-scale protests and a failed coup attempt followed President Pierre Nkurunzizia’s announcement that he would run for a highly questionable third term in 2015. Government repression intensified with death threats, arbitrary arrests and disappearances becoming commonplace. Opposition and civil society leaders were killed. Thousands fled the country.

    Over the next couple years, dire reports flowed from the country. Amnesty International observed that “security forces have been torturing suspected Nkurunziza opponents.” Adama Dieng, Special Adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, warned that Burundi “appears on the verge of a descent into violence that could escalate into atrocity crimes.” He also noted that the language being used was “very similar to [that] used before and during the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda.”

    Major NGOs urged a “coordinated global response” and the African Union voted to deploy armed peacekeepers. President Nkurunzizia responded by saying he would treat them as an invading force. After dithering for months, the U.N. Security Council voted to send a couple hundred police, but they never ended up going.

    No one seemed to know what to do except Parfaite Ntahuba, an Evangelical Quaker minister who headed up the Quaker Peace Network in Burundi, or QPN. She got ideas from online and face-to-face trainings in unarmed civilian protection that she received from Selkirk College in Canada. She next led a delegation of Burundian civil society leaders to observe Nonviolent Peaceforce’s work in South Sudan. After the group received additional training in South Sudan, she and her colleagues developed a violence prevention and civilian protection project for the 2020 presidential election. 

    Reasoning that the 2020 presidential election would be the next flash point, QPN targeted the five areas of the country that had endured the most violence during the 2015 election cycle. They recruited five leaders from each area — drawing from both major parties and ethnic groups — and provided them with a trauma healing workshop followed by a UCP/A training of trainers. These five leaders then recruited 20 people in their respective locations, who also received trauma healing and UCP/A training focusing on early warning/early response. 

    A trauma healing workshop in Burundi. (Nonviolent Peaceforce)

    The five groups worked throughout the election season. For example, when members of the minority party felt threatened in one area, members of the UCP team — which included members of both parties — provided them with accompaniment. When the polls closed at another site, a crowd approached claiming the election was stolen. The police tried unsuccessfully to disperse them, but the local UCP team managed to calm everyone down and get them to return home — thanks to one of its members, who had observed the vote counting inside the polling station and testified that the election was not stolen.

    While the 2020 election period was still marred by the arrest of opposition leaders, a lack of international observers and some killings according to Human Rights Watch, the work of the QPN teams played an important role in improving the situation. The teams reflected that their most important lessons about community safety included building relationships in advance, through ongoing daily contact with the many stakeholders in the community. They also highlighted the importance of intervening in small conflicts and how that stopped the conflicts from spreading into larger scale violence.

    Last spring, when I asked one of the teams why people in the community paid attention to them, a Tutsi and a Hutu man stood up, locked arms and said, “Because we went in like this.” I then asked how they got to the point of being able to work together. “We first had to cry together,” one man responded, emphasizing the need to go through trauma healing together before starting on the UCP training.

    Nevertheless, their work is not done. Human rights defenders and a journalist remain in jail. The U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi has expressed concern about the “shrinking civic space and a growing pressure on political parties, civil society organizations and the media” ahead of the 2025 election.

    The theater group Arlequín y Los Juglares supporting protesters in Medellín in 2021. (Raul Soto) The power of art in Medellin

    A creative example of unarmed civilian protection is found in Medellin, Colombia, where the effective protective role of community-engaged artists is well documented. Since the 1980s Medellin has seen a sharp increase in violence. Civilians were caught in the crossfire between the Colombian armed forces, paramilitary groups and drug gangs. They were also constantly trying to hold together their communities and create safer spaces.

    Despite the 2016 peace treaty between the Colombian government and the largest guerrilla group, Medellin is still profoundly scarred by the physical, emotional and cultural toll of the decades-long conflict. The city currently has the second highest rate of victims of armed violence in the country. Yet, in the 2023 journal article, “Art that Protects,” researchers describe how art has enabled community activists to rebuild community connections and engage with armed actors, which is essential for protection. Their work has built trust because the armed actors “recognize the value of artistic practices for their relatives and neighbors.”

    One artist reported, “With our body dressed up we have been a shield to protect the community … The neighborhood thugs came and told us ‘Welcome, don’t give money to anyone, we don’t ask artists for money here, because we respect artists.’” The community art — whether it be parades, theater, singing or clowning — dissolves boundaries, does not compete with masculine narratives of violence and allows people to reclaim safe spaces.

    The authors found that the value of community art strengthened social ties, “enabling the community to be an active agent in social transformation, which in turn is a central element for recognizing its self-protective role.”

    The Brothers with Will Wallace, Nonviolent Peaceforce’s Director of Community Peace Building (second from the left). (Nonviolent Peaceforce) De-escalation in Minneapolis

    There are a growing number of examples in the U.S. where UCP/A is sorely needed. After the murder of George Floyd, Nonviolent Peaceforce started working with EMERGE, a North Minneapolis program for former gang members and those at risk of joining gangs. After some challenging conversations about nonviolence being a practice that white people urged Black people to do when they had no intention of doing it themselves, a group of young men who call themselves “The Brothers” decided to try some role play scenarios of UCP using real life examples from the North Side. That led to some serious applied UCP training.

    By the time the 2020 presidential election came around, The Brothers provided poll protection in their neighborhoods. This was the very same area where then-President Trump was calling upon the Minneapolis Police Union, which was supporting George Floyd’s murderer, Derrick Chauvin, to provide a presence at the polling places. There were no major incidents.

    The Brothers also provided unarmed protection at several demonstrations during Chauvin’s trial and at potentially volatile community events. Several were hired by a local Catholic school to provide unarmed security as well. Nonviolent Peaceforce also trained the school specialists who had been hired by the Minneapolis Public Schools to replace the Minneapolis Police officers stationed in them.

    As one Brother put it, “How many people do y’all know get rewards for not being violent. We know how to de-escalate a situation.”

    Scaling out UCP/A

    These are but three examples of the importance of UCP/A, which continues to grow rapidly around the world. According to a database kept by Selkirk College, there are currently 61 civil society organizations providing nonviolent protection and accompaniment in 30 areas of the world. And that’s just the groups that they know about. Many more groups are doing this work in communities, neighborhoods, barangays and barrios around the globe.

    Huibert Oldenhuis, Nonviolent Peaceforce’s global head of programming, has observed that the growth is more of a scaling out than scaling up. “By scaling out autonomous initiatives that are locally driven but globally connected, we preserve the adaptive power and nimbleness of UCP/A and facilitate locally driven responses.”

    These groups are now forming a UCP/A Community of Practice, which met for the first time in Geneva last October. They are sharing training and lessons learned, as well as common struggles like decolonizing their work, ecological violence and the spreading of rumors and hate speech on social media.

    The United Nations has started to recognize that peacekeeping can be done without guns. In 2015, an independent panel on peace operations convened by the U.N. made the groundbreaking recommendation that “unarmed strategies must be at the forefront of U.N. efforts to protect civilians.” Since then, more than two dozen U.N. policies, recommendations and resolutions have recognized unarmed approaches for the protection of civilians. Ten U.N. agencies have also since funded UCP/A projects.

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    Increasingly, independent qualitative and quantitative evaluations affirm the effectiveness of UCP/A and the positive impact it has on the protection of civilians. This research has demonstrated that UCP/A saves lives, creates safer spaces and reduces levels of violence. It has also shown that it changes the behavior of armed actors. They have found that the use of nonviolence — not just being unarmed — creates a set of proactive strategies. 

    The global violence interruption group Cure Violence has had quantitative data collected on them for many years. That independently-funded and collected evidence has shown an 18-94 percent reduction in shootings and killings, plus a host of other positive impacts in the areas where they work in the U.S. and Latin America.

    Meanwhile, the international research network Creating Safer Space — which supports local projects from Myanmar to Colombia — has also created a database to collect UCP/A research. Here one can find a library of evaluations of various projects, a literature overview and, most importantly, a place to post new research as it becomes available.

    Despite the mainstream media’s efforts to feed the flow of violence, there is a rapidly swelling, undercurrent that is surfacing throughout the world — exposing a vast reservoir of courageous and creative people using proven and effective methods far superior to any smart or dumb weapons for transforming violent conflict. It is only a matter of time, courage, faith and hard work until this undercurrent becomes mainstream. Let us hope and work like hell so it is sooner rather than later.

    This article There’s a better way to make communities safer — and it’s taking off around the world was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    45 years after Three Mile Island, we need a ‘No Nukes’ comeback

    This article 45 years after Three Mile Island, we need a ‘No Nukes’ comeback was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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    When a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania went from a technological miracle to a pile of radioactive rubble in a matter of moments in 1979, the Portsmouth, New Hampshire office of the Clamshell Alliance became a hive of activity. I was working there at the time, fielding calls from activists and journalists from around the world. Everyone wanted our opinion since — over the previous few years — our nonviolent demonstrations to prevent the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power plant put us at the forefront of a growing social movement.

    From the arrests of 18 New Hampshire residents in our first act of civil disobedience in 1976 to more than 1,400 arrests the following spring to a permitted rally that drew some 18,000 protesters in 1978, the Clamshell Alliance touched off a grassroots anti-nuclear rebellion that brought the “No Nukes” message to communities across the country and into the popular culture.

    With that groundwork in place, Three Mile Island took our message to the next level. The idea that “nuclear power is a bad way to generate electricity” soon became accepted knowledge across the United States. Everyone from Wall Street tycoons to congressional staffers to ordinary voters now understood that the nuclear industry’s promise of safe, clean and affordable power was a fraud.

    Unfortunately, in recent years this understanding has slowly eroded, as the industry has worked to tout its product as the answer to climate catastrophe. With the Biden administration now sinking billions into nuclear energy — and Congress on the verge of passing legislation to ease regulatory precautions on new reactors — the nuclear fraudsters are aiming for a comeback.

    Previous Coverage
  • Ukrainians took to the streets to avert a nuclear disaster. Will Americans do the same?
  • “Whether they call it a ‘nuclear renaissance’ or a ‘nuclear enlightenment,’ nukes aren’t the answer to the climate crisis,” said Paul Gunter, who was one of the first 18 Clamshell members arrested at Seabrook in 1976.

    Now the co-director of Beyond Nuclear, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Takoma Park, Maryland, Gunter says “Nukes are just too expensive, take too long to build and feature too many pathways to catastrophic accidents.” What’s more, as he maintains, their continued use — along with building costly new reactors — make climate change worse and the world less safe.

    With this in mind, “seasoned Clams,” as we jokingly call ourselves, have been holding regular meetings over Zoom — and occasionally in person — to strategize on how to bring our anti-nuclear message to younger generations, as well as fellow boomers, for whom Three Mile Island has become a faded memory. We ultimately want to refute the nuclear industry’s claims that it has solved the problems posed by the old reactors.

    In a statement on our new website, we assert: “A tsunami of nuclear power propaganda is sweeping the globe.” According to Gunter, this propaganda is backed by a multi-billion-dollar nuclear promotion campaign funded by taxpayers via the Biden administration’s Department of Energy. “They even have a plan to convert coal-fired power plants to nuclear generation,” he said.

    Billions of dollars in nuclear subsidies were loaded into Biden’s infrastructure bill, with billions more in the Inflation Reduction Act. Meanwhile, the Atomic Energy Advancement Act — which sailed through the U.S. House 365-36 last month — extends nuclear subsidies further by continuing the $16.6 billion cap on liability from nuclear accidents for the next 40 years.

    Paul Gunter briefs Clamshell members on nuclear issues. (WNV/Arnie Alpert)

    “The still unrealized total damage costs of a severe nuclear accident, as evidenced by ongoing nuclear catastrophes at Fukushima (13 year ago) and Chernobyl (38 years ago), are already running into the hundreds of billions of dollars,” Gunter said, adding that Congress didn’t even hold a public hearing on the liability cap extension.

    As the new Clamshell website maintains, new nukes are not needed to avert a climate crisis. “Far better options are being built much faster than nuclear power plants, at a fraction of the cost and without the grave hazards. They include solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, efficiency and conservation.”

    The idea for this statement came from Anna Gyorgy, author of the influential 1979 book “No Nukes: Everyone’s Guide to Nuclear Power.” And true to the Clams’ old principles, the statement was drafted by two writers after consultation with a larger group, reviewed by a committee and ultimately approved by consensus. We have also stuck to our belief that nonviolence is the best method for social movements to disrupt unjust systems and promote alternatives.

    “Nonviolence, in the tradition of King and Gandhi, is an effective way to challenge institutional injustice,” said Gyorgy, who serves as communications coordinator for the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice in Western Massachusetts. “Nonviolence is also the best way to build the communities we need to get through crises caused by violence, racism, predatory capitalism and climate disruption.” Nuclear power and its evil twin, nuclear weapons, have no role in the future Gyorgy has been trying to build for decades.

    “Nukes just cannot compete with zero fuel cost solar and wind, and that means the era of base load plants running on fossil and nuclear fuel is ending,” said Roy Morrison, a former Clamshell staff member who has worked for years as a commercial solar energy developer. “Solar arrays combined with energy storage from home rooftops already are acting as virtual power plants to meet utility demands for peak power.”

    According to Morrison, new battery technology and plunging prices for solar will displace fuels that produce carbon dioxide. “The future for our economy and our planet lies with renewables, not nukes, oil, gas or coal,” he said.

    Morrison and I first met in 1977, when were among hundreds jailed in a National Guard armory following the mass arrests at Seabrook. In 1979, when Three Mile Island melted down, we were working together in Clamshell’s scruffy second-floor suite in downtown Portsmouth. With little money and a mimeograph machine — the most advanced technology in our possession — we did battle with a complex of utility companies, banks, engineering firms and government agencies that were doing their best to foist nukes on the American public.

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    When a reporter from a national news agency called for our comment on the unfolding accident in Pennsylvania, I was the one who happened to pick up the phone. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember that, at roughly the same time, Dresser Industries — the company responsible for the valve that malfunctioned at Three Mile Island — was buying pro-nuke display ads featuring Edward Teller, the physicist known as “the father of the H-bomb” and a dedicated advocate for all things nuclear.

    When the news story came out, it went something like, “Physicist Edward Teller says nukes are safe, but Arnie Alpert from the Clamshell Alliance says they aren’t.” It’s a good memory, but more than that, it’s a reminder that grassroots movements engaging in what John Lewis called “good trouble” can shake up power structures and bring about change.

    In the current moment, when renewable alternatives to fossil and fissile energy are urgently needed, the Clams are trying to figure out how to make it happen again.

    This article 45 years after Three Mile Island, we need a ‘No Nukes’ comeback was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    Student-led climate action is flourishing in DeSantis’s Florida

    This article Student-led climate action is flourishing in DeSantis’s Florida was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    The University of Florida made history last month when its student senate became the first at a public university to pass a climate resolution in support of Green New Deal policies. The “Green New Deal for UF” is a statement of support for bold, progressive climate action put forward by students at a time when the far-right holds a near monopoly on power in the state.

    “This is big news for the climate movement at universities — not just in Florida, but everywhere,” said Cameron Driggers, a UF freshman. “It’s a first of its kind resolution that pushes back against the narrative that some states are lost causes for climate action.”

    Driggers is part of a new generation of young Florida activists resisting the extreme policies of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida state legislature, where Republicans hold a supermajority. From defunding diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs in higher education to discouraging institutions from divesting from fossil fuels, numerous DeSantis policies have targeted universities and put students at the center of Florida’s culture wars. Yet, even in the face of such obstacles, student activists are making forward progress.

    A broad alliance of student groups, organizing as the Green New Deal for UF Coalition, rallied in favor of the recent resolution. This widespread showing of support was crucial at a school where student government politics — like Florida politics generally — is often deeply divisive.

    “The Green New Deal resolution passed by unanimous consent, despite the fact that there are two major parties on campus, and the ostensibly more progressive one is the minority,” Driggers said. Key supporters included Sunrise Movement Gainesville, Climate Action Gator, Planned Parenthood Generation Action at UF, Young Democratic Socialists of America and the Pride Student Union.

    “Our student government is one of the most powerful in the country,” Driggers explained. “It controls an annual budget of over $20 million, and the student body president has voting power on the school’s Board of Trustees. This gives students a lot of discretion to implement climate solutions on our own and to push for change not just from outside the administration, but from within.”

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    Driggers got his start as an activist in high school, organizing against the state’s infamous HB 1557, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill signed into law by DeSantis in 2022. Driggers worked to help organize class walkouts, protests at local school board meetings and a successful campaign to vote out a school board member opposed to giving students access to LGBTQ-friendly books. These experiences helped impress on him how student organizing can have an impact — but also how the traditional nonprofit organizing model in Florida can fail to effectively harness young people’s power.

    “I’ve talked to many student activists who feel their efforts have been coopted or even exploited by big nonprofit organizations that try to tell us what to do,” Driggers said. In response, he and other leading Gen Z activists in the state founded Youth Action Fund — a new, youth-led nonprofit that supports student activism in Florida. The organization, which launched last fall, provides stipends of up to $1,000 for student organizers as well as advice and mentorship.

    “Our goal is to center distributed organizing and put power in the hands of young people themselves,” Driggers said. “Instead of building a campaign and begging students to join, we turn that model on its head. Students come to us and tell us what they want to make happen. By helping people organize around issues they’re passionate about, we’ve been able to grow much quicker than other organizations.”

    In January, Youth Action Fund helped coordinate a statewide lobby day called Reclaim Florida’s Future, which brought over 200 youth to the state capital to urge their representatives to support climate-friendly policies. While many legislators weren’t as receptive as students hoped, the experience was instructive.

    “Our members got to see just how challenging Florida politics can be, and what kinds of people are in charge of the state,” said Melanie Schepmans of Sunrise Gainesville, which was also involved. “It helped them understand how bad the situation is and how widespread climate change denial is in state government.”

    Like Driggers, Schepmans got her start as an activist in high school before coming to the University of Florida. Now she, Driggers and a broad coalition of other activists and campus groups are pushing for the school to act on climate amid state-level gridlock — partly through the Green New Deal resolution. Although not itself binding, supporters see the five-part resolution as a step toward far-reaching change. It calls on the university to adopt a revised climate action plan, guarantee transparency regarding the school’s current investments and carbon emissions, divest from fossil fuels, ban money from fossil fuel companies for research, and support a just and clean energy transition.

    “As a major public university, UF plays an important role in Florida state politics,” Schepmans said. “And with that leadership comes responsibility. We should set a good example for how universities in Florida and beyond can address the climate crisis.”

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  • Divest, decarbonize and disassociate — inside the bold new push to get fossil fuels off campus
  • Students at UF have taken inspiration from recent climate wins at higher education institutions elsewhere in the United States — such as New York University, which committed to divest from fossil fuels last fall. However, UF presents a very different organizing environment from many of these schools.

    “I noticed a pattern of climate action moving forward at more affluent, elite institutions,” Driggers said. “This can make it seem like it’s only possible to win at rich schools. We wanted to break that mold and show change can happen at a public university in Florida.”

    UF’s powerful student government can take some steps to implement goals of the resolution on its own. For example, it can fund electrification and decarbonization of certain campus buildings over which students have direct jurisdiction. However, other actions require authorization from the university administration or Board of Trustees. This puts the Green New Deal resolution at the center of student efforts to push back against the DeSantis administration’s extreme agenda.

    The DeSantis effect

    Life at the University of Florida is very different now from 15-20 years ago, when the school was on the cutting edge of efforts to combat the climate crisis.

    “We’re the only one of the country’s top 10 public research universities not to have an updated climate action plan,” Driggers said. That’s a stark turnaround from 2006, when then-UF President Bernie Machen was one of the first signatories to the President’s Climate Commitment, an action that paved the way for release of the first UF Climate Action Plan in 2009. In 2021, the Office of Sustainability led the effort to develop an updated plan. However, adoption of what’s now known as the Climate Action Plan 2.0 stalled after current UF President Ben Sasse — formerly a Republican U.S. Senator from Nebraska — took the helm at the school last year.

    Despite his prior lack of experience running a large university, Sasse’s appointment was par for the course in a state where powerful figures aligned with DeSantis are regularly elevated to influential roles in the public university system. In addition to blocking climate action, Sasse eliminated 13 full-time DEI positions earlier this year. That move was a response to a 2023 edict from the Florida Board of Governors prohibiting the use of state or federal funds for DEI programs. (Most members of the Board of Governors for the state university system are appointed by the Florida governor’s office).

    “Between climate action getting blocked and DEI programs being gutted, we’re facing a real ‘students versus administration’ dynamic,” Driggers said. “At other universities, students can take for granted that decision makers believe climate change is happening, even if they aren’t doing what’s necessary to address it. But here, some administrators think the problem’s a communist hoax.”

    Such a stance is out of step with public opinion in Florida. According to a poll released last October by Florida Atlantic University, 90 percent of Floridians believe climate change is occurring, while 69 percent support state-level climate action. Meanwhile, a vibrant climate and environmental movement in the state belies Florida’s recent reputation as a hotbed of anti-progressive politics.

    “I was born in Florida, but moved away at a young age,” said Campbell Al-Khafaji, president of the UF student group Climate Action Gator. “I gained a lot of preconceived ideas about the state while I was away — from its people and government to the natural environment. But there are so many groups doing work on conservation and climate action here. Now, as a student at UF, I’ve fallen in love with Florida.”

    The DeSantis administration’s attempt to turn climate action into a type of bogeyman seems to have little to do with public opinion, and is more related to the fact that in modern Republican Party politics, blocking the clean energy transition has been wrapped up with a host of other conservative priorities.

    “We have to be very intentional about framing and messaging around climate,” Schepmans said. “Florida framing means relating our causes to things the people in charge care about, which might mean finding compromises that are a step in the right direction.”

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    At UF, the fight for climate action is far from over, but student climate activists are eager to build on the work they’ve done so far. Copies of the Green New Deal resolution will be delivered to President Sasse, the Chair of the Board of Trustees, DeSantis and other university and state decision makers.

    “A good first step for our school would be to adopt the Climate Action Plan 2.0, which was developed with expert input and is tailored specifically for UF’s needs,” Al-Khafaji said. “From there, we can work toward goals that will take more time, like fossil fuel divestment and transparency.”

    How the UF administration will respond to the most unified call for sweeping climate action students have put forward remains to be seen. With Sasse at the helm, getting the university to take bold action will be an uphill climb, but students are already plotting their next steps.

    “We just got back from spring break after winning with the resolution, and we’re jumping right into planning,” Al-Khafaji said.

    What is certain is that a campus-based climate movement is thriving in Florida, even as the state’s leaders attempt to prop up the fossil fuel industry.

    “In Florida, we’re fighters,” Schepmans said. “And this Green New Deal campaign has taught us we can persevere and actually win. I want students across the country to know that regardless of your administration or what state you live in, students can get things done for the climate.”

    This article Student-led climate action is flourishing in DeSantis’s Florida was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    Aaron Bushnell opposed ‘all state-sanctioned violence’ — not just the war in Gaza

    This article Aaron Bushnell opposed ‘all state-sanctioned violence’ — not just the war in Gaza was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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    Levi Pierpont’s voice was steady, the day I called him to ask about his friend Aaron Bushnell. “He was the sweetest guy you’d ever meet.”

    The 23-year-old Air Force veteran was talking about one of his military peers — whose name was suddenly everywhere. Four days earlier, on Feb. 25, Bushnell had set himself on fire in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., to protest U.S. support of Israel’s war on Gaza.

    I’d reached out to Pierpont because he’d left the military last year as a conscientious objector, long before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that burst the blister of Israel’s long siege. As someone who has spent much of the last 20 years writing about such servicemembers, I wanted to know more about Pierpont’s journey, and his response to his friend’s far more visible and permanent act of conscience.

    In the three weeks since that day, Bushnell’s name has been spoken often at the near-daily Gaza protests across the country — especially those organized by veterans of the U.S. military. Last week, artist-activists got his words on the New York City subway, replacing ads with his final statement on social media: “Many of us like to ask ourselves, ‘What would I do if I was alive during slavery? Or the Jim Crow South? Or apartheid? What would I do if my country was committing genocide?’ The answer is, you’re doing it. Right now.”

    Pierpont talked to me shortly before The Guardian published his op-ed: “Aaron Bushnell was my friend. May he never be forgotten.” When I talked to him it was still very fresh; his voice trembled a little as he described his journey, one he wishes Bushnell had shared more fully.

    They met in May 2020 at Goodfellow Air Force Base, at the beginning of basic military training. Bushnell arrived almost too late to start training; Pierpont said he “stood up for me” when Pierpont felt harassed. Bushnell’s bonhomie was a salve, Pierpont told me, amid basic training’s stereotypically loud atmosphere. Both were moving beyond their restrictive Christian families — Pierpont’s in evangelical Michigan, Bushnell the secretive Community of Jesus in Orleans, Massachusetts. And both were going on to work with intelligence with high-level security clearances.

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    “[W]henever people in basic training would talk about me or would talk about him, we would stick up for each other. And he always stuck up for me,” Pierpont told “Democracy Now!” on Feb. 28. They spoke and texted often, even after basic training ended and they pursued different divisions of Air Force Tech School, Bushnell for cybersecurity and Pierpont for Operations Intelligence. Pierpont later started to ask the questions that would ultimately lead him to seek discharge as a conscientious objector, just as Bushnell was exulting on social media, “Man, the Air Force does some cool-ass shit.”

    Still, Bushnell’s own doubts about the institution would grow after he was a firm member of the 571st Cyber Division, with access to real-time intel about what the Air Force was up to. The two of them didn’t talk much at Tech School, but did once they were at their respective bases, Pierpont at Minot AFB in North Dakota and Bushnell staying in Texas at Lackland AFB.

    By then, Pierpont had left Operations Intelligence behind. At Tech School, learning to develop “intelligence products” assembled with Microsoft PowerPoint, he was bemused by its focus on Russia and training products he called “Secret YouTube and secret Wikipedia.” Less amusing was a video in which his whole class watched the death of an enemy combatant. Pierpont found himself feeling bad for the guy’s family, even if he was one of the terrorists they were being trained to hate. When “a bunch of my classmates laughed at that video,” Pierpont realized he wasn’t one of them. He asked to change classifications, so he wouldn’t be so directly involved in violent “operations.”

    At Minot, Pierpont was 2ROX1, a Maintenance Management Analyst — in charge of generating and monitoring data on the maintenance of Air Force planes and equipment. It wasn’t a stress-free gig, though; all that data was in service of weapons of war, like Minot’s 488,000-pound B-52 bombers. “It was very traumatic for me to think about those aircraft,” Pierpont told me. After nearly a year, he contacted the Center for Conscience and War, and began working on his application for conscientious objection, or CO. He told his friend Aaron about it all “and he was really supportive,” he said.

    In June 2023, Bushnell said on Reddit that he agreed with Pierpont, noting that “Apparently it’s very doable to become a ‘conscientious objector’ on religious grounds even after voluntarily enlisting. It’s a bit of a process and it takes about a year, but there are organizations to help guide you through it and the success rate is very high.”

    But in his case, Bushnell said, “I’m sticking it out to the end of my contract, as I didn’t realize what a huge mistake it was until I was more than halfway through, and I only have a year left at this point. However it is a regret I will carry the rest of my life.”

    Pierpont, who now identifies as more of a Buddhist than a Christian, said he had told Bushnell that CO wasn’t only for religious resisters, but respected his commitment not to break his contract. Still, Bushnell told Pierpont that he “wanted to take a stand against all state-sanctioned violence.”

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    The last time they saw one another was in January 2024 in Toledo, Ohio, after Bushnell moved to Akron for SkillBridge (a transition program for members about to separate). They talked about Pierpont’s CO discharge, which had been approved in July 2023; they did not talk about what happened two months later, the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. “We never talked about Gaza” he said. Pierpont felt it was due to his own “centrist” position on the conflict, since Bushnell was on Reddit describing Israel as a “settler-colonialist apartheid state.” Back then, said Pierpont, “the Gaza war felt complex to me … but that was before 30,000 were dead.” And in the meantime, Bushnell was learning more about what he considered U.S. complicity in those deaths.

    Afghanistan veteran Jeremy Lyle Rubin, pointed out in The Nation that “The U.S. Air Force has played a significant part in the killing spree in Gaza, assisting with intelligence and targeting.” He added that the U.S. is contributing to “what the political scientist Robert Pape has called ‘one of the most intense civilian punishment campaigns in history, [now sitting] comfortably in the top quartile of the most devastating bombing campaigns ever.’”

    Given Pierpont’s Buddhism, I asked him if he knew about the high-profile Buddhist CO, Aidan Delgado. He had not; neither did he know about Norman Morrison, who set himself on fire nearly 60 years ago, to protest the U.S. war against Vietnam.

    I don’t mention Morrison in my book “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” a history that focuses on dissenting military personnel like Pierpont and Bushnell, drawn on those I spoke to daily in the 1990s as a staffer with the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. Many of the latter were like Pierpont, describing how military service had triggered a moral crisis that made it impossible to stay in the military.

    The book does describe the all-hands movement against the Vietnam War, which included many Quakers like Morrison, whose fiery death, on Nov. 2, 1965, came as the U.S. war against Vietnam was metastasizing. At his Baltimore Quaker meeting, Morrison and his wife Anne watched, worried and prayed as more than 100,000 servicemembers were shipped to Vietnam and TV screens showed the massive bombing of North Vietnam by American fighter planes.

    Morrison’s revelation of “what I must do” was triggered, his wife wrote, by an account in Paris-Match of the incineration of families in the village of Can Tho. “I have seen the bodies of women and children blown to bits,” a French priest told the author, Yves Larteguy. “I have seen all my villages razed. By God, it’s not possible!” Morrison circled that sentence in the clipping of the article he mailed to Anne from the Pentagon, just before he poured kerosene on himself and lit the match in full view of then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Though it still took 10 years for that war to end, Morrison’s act helped catalyze the sustained anti-war movement that shaped how it ended.

    As Colonel Ann Wright points out, the death of Morrison and others “mobilized the anti-war community,” with years of weekly vigils at the U.S. Capitol that ultimately persuaded members of Congress to stand up against the war, the first of whom was Rep. George Brown. “After the Quakers were arrested and jailed for reading the names of the war dead, Brown would continue to read the names, enjoying congressional immunity from arrest.”

    Perhaps hoping to build similar momentum to end the war in Gaza, Veterans for Peace and About Face — the antimilitarist group formerly known as Iraq Veterans Against the War — swung into action after Bushnell’s death. They expressed regret that he never connected with either organization. In Portland, some About Face members burned their uniforms, and the group has seen a surge of new members since those protests.

    In addition to these actions, a separate “autonomous network of active duty service members across nearly all U.S. Armed Forces branches have released an open letter condemning Israel’s genocide in Gaza,” journalist Talia Jane tweeted on March 4.

    Activists have still had complex responses to Bushnell’s “extreme act of protest,” wondering whether self-immolation damages the movements they’d hoped to propel — in addition to the damage to their families. Anne Morrison writes that she and her three children suppressed their pain and rage for years. Advocates for servicemembers and veterans raised the alarm that valorizing Bushnell’s death would do nothing to abate the already-high suicide rates in both populations.

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    Nonetheless, Bushnell’s name has been invoked frequently by the “Vote Uncommitted” movement, an electoral pressure campaign that made a noticeable impact on the primaries in Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Georgia and Washington State.

    Many of the vigils broadcast Bushnell’s last words, livestreamed on Twitch before he lit the match: “I am an active duty member of the United States Air Force. And I will no longer be complicit to genocide. I am about to engage in an extreme act of protest. But compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers — it’s not extreme at all. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal.” Those words have been ubiquitous on the internet ever since.

    So has the voice of Levi Pierpont, who is now volunteering for volunteering with the Center on Conscience and War and active with the divestment coalition at Michigan State University. “I want people to remember that his death is not in vain, that he died to spotlight this message,” he said in his interview with “Democracy Now!,” which has played at numerous vigils. “I don’t want anybody else to die this way. If he had asked me about this, I would have begged him not to.” But after seeing the way the media responded to Bushnell’s immolation, he added, “it’s hard not to feel like he was right, that this was exactly what was necessary to get people’s attention about the genocide that’s happening in Palestine. And so, I just — I want people to remember his message.”

    This article Aaron Bushnell opposed ‘all state-sanctioned violence’ — not just the war in Gaza was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

    How Vote Uncommitted is fast becoming the most powerful force for a ceasefire

    This article How Vote Uncommitted is fast becoming the most powerful force for a ceasefire was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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    As we pass 150 days of Israel’s war on Gaza, with more than 30,500 Palestinians massacred, the call for a permanent ceasefire and an end to U.S. security assistance to Israel has never been stronger. Nowhere has this public demand been better demonstrated than in the recent Michigan presidential primary. 

    In late January, about three and a half weeks out from the election, a group of multiracial and multifaith organizers came together to form Listen to Michigan and launch the Vote Uncommitted campaign. Through phone banking and media outreach — and with the support of Michigan’s Arab and Muslim American communities — the campaign reached out to registered Democrats and asked them to vote “uncommitted” rather than support President Biden’s reelection. While the campaign was not an endorsement of Donald Trump, it was an opportunity for Democratic voters to express their disappointment with recent policies and send a message about their demand for a permanent ceasefire and an end to the military aid fueling genocide in Gaza.  

    On Feb. 27, the message was sent: More than 100,000 people who voted in the primary — roughly 13 percent of Michigan Democrats — cast their ballots as “uncommitted.” In Dearborn and Hamtramck, predominantly Arab American communities, the uncommitted vote received more than 50 percent support, beating out Biden. For comparison, Hamtramck voted for Biden by a 5-to-1 margin just four years ago. Then, yesterday, a week after the Michigan primary, as Minnesota took to the polls on Super Tuesday, a similar campaign was organized resulting in an even larger win with 18.9 percent of registered Democrat voters casting their ballots as “uncommitted.” 

    In light of these recent victories — and ahead of Wisconsin’s Democratic primary in April — I spoke with Shabd Singh and Seth Woody, Listen to Michigan’s distributed organizing director and field director, respectively. Both are seasoned organizers, having been involved with the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign, the Sunrise Movement and the training institute Momentum. We discussed the campaign’s rapid growth in a short amount of time, the Biden administration’s already shifting rhetoric on ceasefire and the power of grassroots electoral organizing.

    How did Listen to Michigan and the Vote Uncommitted campaign get started?

    Woody: The thing about organizing circles is everybody’s always trying to keep a finger on the pulse and [look for] the opportunities. So I think there was some organic energy in Michigan thinking about uncommitted. There had been folks connected to the Obama campaign in ‘08 that were sort of like, “Hey, this has happened before.” There was also this ceasefire write-in campaign in New Hampshire, and Shabd was part of the team that got some initial data that was very encouraging. Even though that project didn’t really get to scale, the calls that were made were really exciting. 

    Singh: Waleed Shahid [of Justice Democrats] put a random ask out in this group chat that we’re part of saying, “Hey, these folks in New Hampshire are trying to phone bank in support of this write in ceasefire. Can anybody help?” I was already running If Not Now‘s phone banking program as a volunteer, so I just jumped in and helped them make a few thousand calls. It was a much smaller, very last minute, kind of campaign in New Hampshire, but it really did give us those first calls. And the data that came out of it was definitely an important piece of helping us feel like we could do something in Michigan. 

    What did the data from New Hampshire show?

    Singh: Well over 50 percent of the Democrats that we spoke to were ready to write in ceasefire in protest. And 80 percent, maybe 70-80 percent were pro-ceasefire. Not all of them were ready to write in ceasefire, but they were very upset and motivated by this issue. So it just showed us that there was really wide disappointment and energy to mobilize against the war, against the genocide. 

    From the phone banking in New Hampshire and your previous experience, were there any lessons that you brought to the Vote Uncommitted campaign in Michigan?

    Singh: The data that came out of New Hampshire was a live test of what happens if you call and have conversations with several hundred democratic voters about this issue. So that was a huge learning indication. But as far as organizing tactics, it was very much just like: Get people together on a web-based forum. Get them phone banking. We specifically use Scale to Win, which I think is the easiest to use dialer system. We were able to get online very quickly and the Working Families Party got us onto their dialer. I think maybe the learning that came out of that was that it’s really helpful to have entities that can quickly deploy voter outreach tools like this in our ecosystem on the left. The fact that they were able to come in and provide that for a couple of days helped me understand that  — if you have a volunteer base — there are these entities in place, or you can build them pretty quickly and stand up these voter outreach tools very quickly, if need be. That’s probably the main learning I would take away from New Hampshire. 

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    How did you go about fostering those same organizational relationships in Michigan?

    Singh: In Michigan, thankfully, we had an organization called Arab Americans for Progress and they housed the dialer for us, which allowed us to make these calls. They were the initial entity that carried our budget and was able to pay for the service. So, it was a similar situation, but we had to bring them as they didn’t have existing infrastructure. They gave us the legal entity and housing and bank account where we could put our budget to actually get it off the ground. I’d say it’s a direct learning from New Hampshire, but this isn’t the first time it’s ever been done either. 

    Woody: Shabd comes out of the Bernie campaign, and I was part of the team that ran field for Sunrise in 2019 and 2020. We knew how to quickly stand up an infrastructure that could scale rapidly. This is coming out of my experience in the Momentum community, where we’ve been training movement organizers on how to build campaigns that can quickly absorb that kind of grassroots energy, scale it up and then leverage that into big public demands moving on an issue. With that experience of Shabd with If Not Now and me with Sunrise, we were able to come in as national support and quickly build infrastructure for the grassroots operation in Michigan. There was national attention coming in on the campaign, and we were going to catch the wind — and if we caught enough wind, we could really build a scaled operation really fast, and that’s what happened. So we went from like 15 If Not Now volunteers running our first phone bank shop two and a half weeks out from election day to — on our peak day — making 96,000 calls with over 100 volunteers calling. By the end, during [get out the vote] weekend, our daily average was 60,000 plus. So that’s just an incredible growth arc. 

    Part of that came from knowing what we were doing, but another significant part was a result of the conditions on the ground being just perfect for us to run this experiment. I would say for organizers out there who want to learn some lessons from this experience, it’s like there was strong, preexisting grassroots infrastructure that was highly mobilized by Oct. 7 — super dense organizing networks in the community — and no good strategy or tactic available to properly leverage or harness that mobilization. So we had that. We also had enough local political talent, both on the campaign and surrounding the campaign, who could understand how we could leverage this energy appropriately and use it in the press and have a national game. And then we also had experienced distributed organizers who are familiar with how to build a rapid infrastructure. All of those things came together really well. 

    Part of what happened is that the team that formed had enough shared understanding of those conditions to be able to say: “This is worth doing. We can give our time, energy and capacity to this immediately, and it’s going to be worth it.” Initially, we were discussing how to talk about our goal internally and externally. We settled on this 10,000 vote differential [or the difference in raw vote total between first and second place] because it represented a very meaningful number in terms of the national story about Michigan and it being a swing state. Our field team goals internally were that we thought we could hit that 10,000 number just on our own operation, if we get to scale. We could privately guarantee talking to 10,000 voters who say yes to uncommitted. Our final numbers were something in the nature of 6,500 individual commitments. But with vote tripling, we felt like we had smashed that 10,000 number internally. I think there’s also a lesson here of trusting our intuition about the potential that was on the ground and maximizing it. 

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    What other organizing was happening at the same time as phone banking?

    Singh: We had a really small core team and a lot of highly motivated volunteers who were doing things. Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA, when they got involved, started putting on door-to-door canvases and made a lot of contacts. There was also a lot of relational organizing. We had an organizer, Dima Alhesan, who was our relational lead, and they put together multiple web-based trainings to get people from around Michigan onto relational organizing apps to build out their networks of people. They also did things in the Dearborn community like printing out flyers and canvassing people on Friday evening prayers at the mosque. But I think what we tried to impress upon folks was that flyering at the mosque is great and relational organizing is awesome — but as far as that big, big push to get the word out as wide as possible, we felt like we really needed to lean into the distributed voter outreach. That was really key. If people weren’t out canvassing, we were like, please be on the phones. We even tried in-person phone banks, and we canceled them because people kept on chit chatting too much and not making calls. Obviously, there’s wonderful things that can come together that don’t involve making calls, but we wanted to maximize that. So we actually pivoted back to doing only virtual phone banks, even in the community. And our numbers were helped by that. We also did texting and stuff like that as well. 

    Woody: On the texting front, one thing that we kind of went back and forth on in the beginning — just in terms of figuring out how to do infrastructure — was that both of us were familiar with building distributed infrastructure with Slack. That’s just kind of the normal go-to. And we knew pretty much immediately that that was not going to work. Most of that was because the Arab American and Muslim community, in general, is just on WhatsApp. Basically all immigrant communities in the United States are on WhatsApp. So we just built a WhatsApp infrastructure. 

    That feels like a critical lesson for distributed organizers: Do not waste your time building an independent communication infrastructure when the communities you’re working with are clearly on one platform. WhatsApp has its limitations, but we have almost 1,000 volunteers still active on WhatsApp threads right now who are just churning calls into other states. A really key lesson for us was to stick to WhatsApp. We were able to do a lot of vote tripling and relational organizing via WhatsApp because people could drop digital flyers into their WhatsApp groups. We were on calls with people, aunties and uncles, who have 30 WhatsApp chats with all their family members, which would be 50-60 people, and they would just drop flyers and drop asks. We had precincts in Hamtramck and Dearborn that went 92 percent uncommitted. I think a lot of that had to do with some serious WhatsApp activity.  

    How were you able to scale the campaign and the number of volunteers involved in such a short amount of time?

    Singh: Anecdotally, it felt like a lot of people were coming because they felt like it was a concrete action they could take in support of a ceasefire and one that was in a forum that the political system might actually pay attention to. There was also a very intelligent media strategy from the beginning here, too. There’s no competition happening in Michigan. There’s no competitive primary. Reporters are covering the presidential election, but there’s not really a competition to cover. So it’s not very interesting. Part of the thinking behind the campaign was using a vacuum in media coverage and filling that with the work that we were doing. So that helped things catch on really fast. 

    Then there was the really motivated direct, grassroots, word-of-mouth recruitment through WhatsApp. Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now and DSA all became national endorsers, which got their networks aware, but everybody has kind of maintained their own various infrastructures. We’ve had this floating, distributed infrastructure that these other organizations can glom onto or tap into, which was cool because they didn’t each need to stand up their own programs. We held that down, and then they would send people.  

    Woody: To break that down a little further, there were like three phases to the growth and our orientation to it. Phase one was to immediately mobilize national movement organization infrastructure. So, If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace are highly mobilized bases. They had both already been on phone making programs for more local campaigns, like ceasefire resolutions, where they were calling into their city councilors or state representatives. We quickly were able to plug them into distributed calls going into Michigan. 

    Phase two was getting enough grassroots energy from the campaign and getting a lot of local media hits. We had some really inspiring local electeds — like Mayor Hammoud [of Dearborn] — who were starting to generate that. 

    For phases three and four, we got the local DSA chapters behind the initiative. They petitioned the national to get behind it and we got national endorsement from DSA. They started hosting their own phone banks, driving volunteers to us. Other national movement organizations were in a similar moment. They read the weather a little bit and could tell something was happening. By that point, we had enough national volunteers coming in that we could really generate more grassroots activity. We had enough density of callers that we were generating volunteers from the phone banks into more phone banks from Michigan. And at that point, we were able to build up a really solid on-the-ground operation for the last week. 

    Since the Michigan ballots have been counted, how do you think it went in terms of both results and organizing successes? 

    Woody: It went very well. 

    Singh: Surreal. 

    Woody: So something that’s just incredible about the campaign that we ran is that we were generating almost a majority [42 percent] of our yeses from people that absolutely would not have turned out for this primary and who were not going to vote. I think that that is such an important takeaway because we’re getting all this bullshit from mainstream Democrats about how we’re demobilizing the base and how we’re setting up the candidate who’s going to come out in November to not be able to win Michigan. We can very credibly say the opposite is true. We are the only voter mobilization campaign in the primary. Biden is not mobilizing the base. We are mobilizing the base and the coalition that’s going to be required to win in November. We’re going to see that on Tuesday, too. I’m very confident about what’s going to happen. 

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    Singh: The point that Seth made about 40 percent of people coming from the non-voting and unlikely voting category — it said a lot to me. There’s a lot of orthodoxies and assumed or received wisdom about how you’re supposed to do political organizing, and that’s good to learn and it’s good to take on. But it’s not law. For example, on the Bernie campaign, people would have gone crazy if I’d have suggested going to WhatsApp organizing instead of Slack because you can’t thread responses and you can’t do x, y and z. But thank God, we weren’t thinking that way because it wouldn’t have worked. I think there’s a lot to learn here that we’re still only able to scratch the surface of. 

    Woody: Just to give credit, Eden Zimak was our data director. Eden is from Detroit and has worked in electoral data in the past and made some crucial decisions about including non-voters. Something that’s beautiful about a campaign that’s this short is that you just have to trust everybody as much as possible. I think that can get you in trouble when you don’t have a coherent strategy or a very unified movement demand. Part of the conditions that we were really benefiting from is that an end to military aid for Israel and a permanent ceasefire were universal as the movement’s demands. We didn’t have to really grapple with an internal battle about where do we go. 

    We also benefited from the crystal clear logic of the tactic that we were deploying. I’ve never experienced how easy it was on this campaign to talk to the most auntie-auntie or uncle-uncle you could ever imagine in Dearborn, Michigan, who has never interacted with or volunteered for a political campaign. When we told them what we were doing, they were like, “Yes, I want that. Thank you for giving me the option. I’m ready to register to vote. I’m ready to volunteer.”

    We were talking about this on a call yesterday that in my lifetime I have not participated in or felt such a clear pathway to a lever of power around American foreign policy and wars abroad. I remember going out in the streets for the Iraq war when I was a kiddo and from then on, I’ve participated in lots of mass protest movements, which is often the best and only avenue to express our discontent with foreign policy. But this campaign — and what we’ve tapped here with Uncommitted — is like the most powerful collective lever that I’ve ever felt available for people who believe in peace to stop a genocide. 

    I think what we did in Michigan already [shows] there’s no pathway to a victory in November if they don’t change their policy. And what we’re going to be able to do in Wisconsin in a few weeks is even more of that. There is no road if you cannot win both of these swing states. We can demonstrate that we have literally hundreds of thousands of voters mobilized to participate in an uncompetitive primary. You can bet your ass you’re not going to be able to get those votes without a change on Gaza. That is incredible from a lever of power that we can collectively express around foreign policy, which is often the movement’s most abysmal pathway.

    Have you heard from the Biden administration?

    Singh: There was a meeting very early on in February where the Biden admin sent people into Michigan and some of our folks like our spokesperson Abbas Alawieh and Layla Elabed, I think, met with them. They were basically just coming and trying to appease and say, “Oh, there hasn’t been enough empathy shown to Palestinians” and all that kind of stuff. The response from Abbas was to personally ask Samantha Power and all of these people face-to-face if they had personally advised the president to halt sending arms and to call for a ceasefire. 

    Woody: I mean, they straight up did not acknowledge us on the primary day, which we thought was pretty funny. There has been no contact with our campaign. 

    Kamala Harris recently called for a temporary ceasefire in Selma, Alabama. Is this a victory for Listen to Michigan?

    Woody: I think it’s important for movement organizers to claim victory when it’s visible. I think on that level we are able — and we put this out publicly — that our efforts are resulting in this change in the words. We’re very crystal clear that it is not our demand. We’re able to say to everyone, “Look, they are moving. Let’s keep fighting.” To us, it’s just a way of saying let’s keep going because they’re obviously scared. But certainly, it’s a victory. 

    We went from a situation in which we have millions of people mobilized in the streets every weekend for months around the world with no movement [from the White House] whatsoever to — less than a week after our primary — Kamala Harris speaking to pissed off Black voters in Selma and pretending like they’ve put a ceasefire option on the table. We’re not confused by the way that they’ve framed it as “Hamas is to blame if the ceasefire doesn’t go through,” because that’s incredibly hypocritical given that we are still sending weapons. What kind of ceasefire is enabled by you sending bombs? I mean, preposterous, but a victory nonetheless. 

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    What comes next?

    Woody: We’re moving into this phase where the infrastructure that came out of Michigan will act as hopefully a floating distributed infrastructure that can go in and help states in a strategic way. Unfortunately, we don’t have the resources and the volunteer capacity to help every single uncommitted state. But in a strategic way, we’re going to basically keep this dialer and infrastructure running so that we can help stand up a national voter outreach program in states where we think it makes the most sense. 

    Singh: If you go on our socials right now, you’ll see there’s been a lot of grassroots energy, and we put out a grassroots guide that has laid out all the states that have options and the ways people can participate. Our perspective is: How can we most responsibly direct this energy towards the next most strategic lever available to the movement? And that is a combination of factors. It’s like swing states that matter to the election in November, places where there’s high densities of grassroots networks and of course, ultimately places where there’s an option on the ballot to vote uncommitted. Part of what we understand our role to be in this movement ecology, is absorbing a lot of that national energy and helping direct it towards the right place to do the maximum punch electorally. 

    Woody: For some folks who are maybe a little bit hesitant to participate in uncommitted, it’s because they’re not super turned on by the idea of playing with the delegate system and riding the primary wave. I understand the feeling there and the revulsion toward this system that forces us to play a game while people are being massacred. Unfortunately, it’s also the reality that we live in. We’re just basically trying to maximize the amount of attention and pressure that we can mobilize by using this delegate system. 

    So we’re saying if you have an uncommitted or uninstructed in your state, please get on board. And if you’re not in one of those states, we’re saying please plug into our national outreach infrastructure. Ultimately, for the folks who have more of a ceasefire write in, protest vote attitude — no disrespect, but also the door is open. We need your calling support. We need your volunteer support. And we’re on the same team. We have the same goal of ceasefire and justice and peace in the region for all people. We just think that this is a more effective and more attention grabbing strategy. Certainly, we want to keep all aspects of this movement. We don’t want to alienate anybody. We want everybody to be walking together and fighting this fight together. 

    Do you have any advice for other organizers working at the nexus of mass movement politics and electoral politics?

    Previous Coverage
  • Should we disrupt the Democratic Party or try to take it over?
  • Woody: I think the experiment we ran in Michigan is incredibly important to learn from as a development that’s been bubbling in the left for the past five or six years. And it’s not unique, but there’s a trend of how do we thread the needle between mass movement popular demands and narrow electoral participation. I want to stand this campaign up as a really good example of how you can do that effectively, how you can thread the needle, how we talked about what we were doing, how people felt about what we were doing. 

    I want to encourage movement organizers to keep being creative at the intersections of national movement politics and electoral politics. I think there are more opportunities available to us at that intersection than we take advantage of — and some of it is about a skill gap, some of it is just a relational gap. One thing that was really powerful about this campaign is that we bridged a lot of typical organizing culture and lineage divides quickly. I just want to slightly tip my hat to Momentum as a place where a lot of people are thinking about that and experimenting on that level. 

    Singh: Grassroots direct action does not have to be at odds with electoral organizing. I think that there’s a way here. These very powerful and clear demands that we’re organizing around can harness mass movement energy. Instead of cutting a tactic out of our playbook because we don’t like the system that it involves us in (which, I freaking get having worked in and around the mainstream electoral and nonprofit world), we need to understand that interacting with elections is how people understand politics in this country. It’s a powerful way to mobilize people, as we’ve just shown, that doesn’t necessarily have to compromise on the values that we’re fighting for. 

    Like Seth said, let’s keep experimenting. Let’s keep being creative and flexible here, because the people that we’re up against are not ideologically rigid. They’ll do whatever it takes. They’ll take whatever position or whatever tact in messaging to break up our coalitions, to halt our momentum. We need to be open minded. And we shouldn’t be cutting out entire aspects of our potential toolkit for ideological purity reasons. I think you can maintain your values while engaging in this real world. I’m from the Sikh religion and we have this philosophy or this image of the lotus flower. It floats on top of ponds that can be muddy and mucky, but it has tools to keep itself clean. I think that we need to maintain our own integrity and our own community and our own organizing amongst each other, and engage in this messed up political world to be able to actually make headway.

    This article How Vote Uncommitted is fast becoming the most powerful force for a ceasefire was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.