Waging Nonviolence

My long-lost conversation with John Lewis on his vision for a culture of nonviolence

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Last summer, after Congressman John Lewis died, I posted a photo on social media of me and John from a memorable afternoon we spent together in his congressional office. It was 26 years ago. We had talked for a while, and then filmed a formal conversation on nonviolence. 

Needless to say, it was one of the greatest days of my exciting life. 

We stayed in touch over the years, and a few years ago, I ran into him in a parking lot in Washington, D.C. “Why don’t you ever come and see me?” he asked. I wanted to respond that he was so famous now, I couldn’t get through his staff. Instead, I promised I would. In fact, I tried hard to get him to join our Campaign Nonviolence grassroots project, and speak at our national conference, but it turned out, by then, he was too sick.

Last summer, I was invited to join the national committee of Selma Jubilee — the annual crossing of the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama — to mark the historic 1965 march led by John Lewis where he and hundreds of others were chased by horses and beaten up. The horrific event led to Martin Luther King’s March to Montgomery and the Voting Rights Act. It is the oldest ongoing civil right march against racism and for justice in the United States.

“If someone had told me when I was marching from Selma to Montgomery that one day I would be in the Congress, I would have said you’re crazy. But you know, it shouldn’t be strange.”

This weekend, March 5-7, marks the 56th anniversary of the Selma march, and the first totally online commemoration. The organizers and I have worked hard since last summer to put together an astonishing three-day online program that will feature over a hundred speakers and participants, including many national leaders (such as Rev. William Barber, Martin Sheen, Rev. Jim Lawson, Kerry Kennedy and Dr. Bernard Lafayette) as well as original foot soldiers from 1965. All of the events are free, but you have to register for it. We expect thousands of people from around the country and world to watch.

Part of the extensive program includes a film series. We were unable to attain the film rights for the recent John Lewis PBS films, so I went looking in my own collection for a copy of the interview I filmed with the great man all those years ago. After having it digitized, I finally watched it for the first time, and the memories immediately flowed back

It was 1995, I was 35-year-old newly ordained priest — fresh out of jail after hammering on a nuclear weapon in a Plowshares disarmament action with Philip Berrigan.  Watching John in the interview, you see him at his best — calm, centered, clear, earnest, kind, gentle and wise, full of the wisdom and peace that comes from a lifetime of redemptive nonviolent suffering love, as King would say. 

Here below, for the first time in print, is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. I offer it in the hope that readers will join the massive online commemoration this weekend to celebrate John’s life and the ongoing movement. We hope to broadcast the video interview sometime during the online events. In the meantime, may it inspire us to keep on marching, organizing and speaking out against systemic racism, permanent warfare, extreme poverty, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction, and to pursue John Lewis’ glorious vision of a new culture of nonviolence. 

A photo from John Dear’s meeting with Rep. John Lewis in 1995. (WNV/John Dear)

Let me start right off and ask you what nonviolence means for you and how you got involved and committed to the life of Christian nonviolence?

I must tell you that I grew up in rural Alabama during the ‘40s and 50s. I grew up in a Christian home where there was a great deal of love. At an early age, I came to appreciate the philosophy and discipline of Christian love. So, I view nonviolence as Christian love in action. It is a part of my faith; it is believing that love is the most powerful force in the universe. And somehow, someway, you have to live it.

Tell me how you got involved in organizing sit-ins against segregation in restaurants and how you formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

I was deeply inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. When I was a young child in Troy, Alabama, about 50 miles south of Montgomery, I would visit Montgomery and I saw signs that said “white men, colored men, white women, colored women, white waiting, colored waiting.” Segregation was the order of the day. And I resented the system of segregation, and I wanted to do something about it. 

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  • The genius of John Lewis’ unyielding nonviolent discipline
  • So as a student in Nashville — where I was attending the American Baptist Theological Seminary and later as a student at Fisk University — I started studying the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence and got involved in a series of what we called sit-ins and I emerged as one of the student leaders. I literally grew up on a lunch counter stool when I was 19 years old in 1959. 

    Later in 1960, we started sitting in on a regular basis, and I got arrested and went to jail. That was a great triumph because jail sort of became a way out. I grew up at a time in the American South when young Blacks were not supposed to come in contact with the law. You were supposed to stay out of jail. It was a bad thing to go to jail. But there was something redemptive about going through this process. I remember being beaten and a lighted cigarette being put out in my hair and thrown off a lunch counter stool before I was arrested, and I had the power because of my belief in Christian love and nonviolence not to strike back.

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    How about the first Freedom Ride? What were you trying to do there? What happened? 

    On the Freedom Ride, we were out to test a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court outlawing segregation in the area of public transportation. So, it was an effort on the part of the 13 of us, seven whites and six Blacks, to ride from Washington, D.C. to Jackson, Mississippi, and on to Louisiana. We were using all of the public facilities, not just the bus, but the waiting rooms, the restrooms and the lunch counters.

    I will never forget the night before we left. We had dinner at a local Chinese restaurant in Washington, D.C. I had never had Chinese food before. We were sitting there eating and someone said, “You should eat well tonight because this may be like the Last Supper.” Little did we know — as we traveled into Virginia through North Carolina into South Carolina, through Georgia into Alabama — one of our buses would be burned and people beaten and later a group of us was beaten by an angry mob at a Greyhound bus station in Montgomery. I was left lying unconscious, bleeding, at a Greyhound bus station in Montgomery in the year 1961. 

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    Perhaps one of the turning points in our country’s history was the famous march from Selma. You were one of the leaders of that on Sunday March 7, 1965, and as you led the march of about 600 people across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, you were met by a whole flank of U.S. police and they beat you severely. Tell me what happened that day and what was the outcome of the Selma march.

    Well, the Selma march was an attempt to dramatize to the nation and to the world that people of color not only in Selma but throughout the state of Alabama and throughout the South — 11 Southern states really from Virginia to Texas in the old Confederacy — that these people wanted to participate in the democratic process, that they wanted to register and to vote. 

    But on that day when 600 of us marched through the streets and came to the apex of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we saw a sea of blue — Alabama state troopers. They told us in so many words that this was an unlawful march, that we should disperse and go back to the church and less than a minute or so, they said “Troopers advance!” They came toward us, beating us with night sticks, bull whips, tramping us with horses and using tear gas. 

    I was at the head of the march, as one of the march leaders, and I was hit in the head with a nightstick, and I had a concussion at the bridge. But that was the turning point because there was a sense of righteous indignation when people saw nonviolent people being beaten. We weren’t armed with guns or sticks. Some of us had knapsacks with an apple, an orange, some books, the Bible. We were bearing witness to something that we thought was right. We all were committed to the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. Most of us had just left church that Sunday afternoon. Because of what happened in Selma that day, the day became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

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    As you know so well, part of the challenge of nonviolence is to respond nonviolently to personal assault, but to keep on insisting on the truth of justice and peace. Jesus epitomized this, and Gandhi taught us this. How did you respond personally to these police who were beating you and all the people who threatened you during those years in the struggle? What was it like for you to deal with this violence nonviolently?

    Well, I believe in the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. I accepted it not simply as a technique or as a tactic, but as a way of life, a way of living. You have to arrive at the point as believers in the Christian faith that in every human being there is a spark of divinity. Every human personality is something sacred, something special. We don’t have a right as another person, or as a nation, to destroy that spark of divinity, that spark of humanity, that is made and created in the image of God. 

    I saw Sheriff Clark in Selma or Bull Connor in Birmingham or George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, as victims of the system. We were not out to destroy these men. We were out to destroy a vicious and evil system. So our attack had to be directed against customs, traditions, unjust laws — but not against these individuals. 

    Unfortunately, most people, most Christians don’t see Jesus as nonviolent, or God as a God of nonviolence and our faith calling us to uphold the sanctity of life through nonviolence. How do you understand Jesus and God in light of nonviolence?

    There’s a verse in the Gospel, I think it’s Matthew 10:34, where Jesus says, “Think not that I have come to bring peace but a sword.” A lot of people like to interpret that to mean a physical sword and try to say that Jesus was making a justification for violence. But I believe he was talking about a spiritual warfare between what is good and what is evil, between what is right and what is wrong, or as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would put, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. 

    I happen to believe that God is love, that love is God. Hate is too much of a burden to bear. If you start hating, in the end, how are you going to decide who you are going to hate today and love tomorrow? When you fail to accept the Christian doctrine of love and nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living, and merely a tactic, it becomes like a faucet that you can turn on and off. Love in action, Christian love, is a better way, a more excellent way, and it’s more redemptive. I don’t know how to explain it, but I somehow came to that point, as I grew in my faith, that this is the way. This is the way out, and the way out is the way in.

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    You had the privilege of working with so many people in the civil rights movement, but especially with Martin Luther King Jr. Can you tell me what you learned personally about nonviolence from him? 

    I learned a great deal from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This man in his own way taught me that love in action is the strongest force, that nothing — nothing — is more powerful than love in action. He taught me to have hope, not to give up, not to give in and not to give out. In the philosophy of nonviolence, in the way of Christian love, you have to have an element of hope, an element of faith. He taught us that. He would say from time to time that if you don’t have hope, you’re already dead, you’re really not here. 

    It’s very much in keeping with our Christian faith that if you really believe in love you have to live it. If you believe in the idea of the Beloved Community, then it’s a community of believers that is in keeping with the divine. If you believe it, you have to live it. When I was working with Dr. King, after a while, I began to believe that maybe, just maybe, we could create the Beloved Community. That’s the other thing: It’s possible to create in this life, in this world, a Beloved Society, a Beloved Community, a Beloved World. 

    King was cut down right in the prime of life. What would you say his greatest legacy, his greatest contribution, is for all of us?

    I think his greatest legacy and contribution is that he taught us how to love, how to live, and really, how to die. You live your life by giving, by serving, by sharing and in the process, you don’t worry. You are consistent, you are true to your faith, to your belief. I often think about Dr. King, that if it hadn’t been for this man, I don’t know where our world would be today. I think he influenced so much in American society and society around the world.

    Could you say a word about how you see nonviolent civil disobedience specifically as a tool in the struggle for social change.

    Nonviolent civil disobedience is a very powerful weapon. It’s probably one of the most powerful weapons that we have in the arsenal of nonviolent action because you’re literally putting your body on the line. You’re saying you’re willing to disobey a custom, a tradition, or what you consider to be an unjust law and you’re willing to pay the price, you’re willing to suffer, you’re willing to go to jail if necessary and serve your time. 

    “For me, nonviolence is one of those immutable principles that you do not deviate from.”

    I think there’s something very redemptive about it. There’s something very cleansing about it, to go through all that. In keeping with the philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience, you come to that point where you have to educate the larger society and you keep trying over and over again, and then some time it’s only a core group that’s prepared to go the distance with that. I think it’s being true to the heart of the faith and philosophy and discipline of nonviolence.

    Could you share what it’s like for you personally having been arrested and jailed and a leader in civil disobedience, to be here now in the House of Representatives, in the U.S. Congress, which many see as the seat of power in our country and in the world? How do you reconcile all that and still be committed to Christian nonviolence?

    Well, if someone had told me when I was sitting in at lunch counters, on the Freedom Ride, marching from Selma to Montgomery, marching on Washington in 1963 with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that one day I would be in the Congress, elected by the good people of Georgia, I would have said you’re crazy, you’re out of your mind, you don’t know what you’re talking about. 

    But you know, it shouldn’t be strange, in a sense, for me. I really believe if you let the Almighty use your life, if you turn your life over to God Almighty and try to be persistent, consistent, to be committed to certain immutable principles, and you dedicate your life to service — I see all this then as an extension of my commitment to the philosophy of love and nonviolence. Even in the Congress, even in committee meetings, I speak of love, I talk of the philosophy of nonviolence. It’s a larger arena and it’s still another form of action. 

    In your opinion how can Christians use nonviolence to help to end war, end poverty, eradicate hunger and abolish nuclear weapons? How can we use nonviolence to attack all these big global issues of injustice?

    There are so many things we can do as Christians. We can lead the way, even as a nation. Those of us who believe in the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, who believe in Christian love, who believe that it’s redemptive and powerful, we can say to the leaders of our own country, that there is a better way. We can take the lead. 

    “I must tell you I have seen a lot of changes in my lifetime. I have witnessed what I like to call ‘a nonviolent revolution’ in our country.”

    I’ve said to the president of the United States, for example, on the whole question of the death penalty, “This is not something that a great nation should be proud of. Putting people to death is barbaric. It represents another period in history. We can do better, we can lead the way.” 

    I’ve said we can lay down the tools of war, and all the tools of violence. War is an obsolete tool of our foreign policy. I think some place along the way, Christians and all religious leaders and people, we have to say that to our elected officials: “Let’s use our resources to end hunger and poverty, to find cures for the diseases that afflict humankind, to improve the standard of living and the quality of life for all people on this little planet.” I think we have to take the lead in saying all that. 

    Can we support the death penalty?

    I say to Christians, “If you really believe in love, and that God is a God of love, and if you really believe that we all are created in God’s image, and if you really believe that in every human being there is a spark of divinity, a spark of the divine that is so sacred, then how can you kill anyone? We may have the legislative or judicial power to do that, but we don’t have the moral authority to do that. That should be left to God Almighty.” 

    We have to say to all Christians that, as believers, we should take the lead and put an end to all violence — the violence that individuals commit against other individuals and the violence that our nation commits against other nations. We should abolish the tools of war and abolish the tools of putting people to death for capital offenses, whether through the gas chamber, injection or electrocution. 

    As you know all too well, racism is alive and well in our country. What would you suggest to Christians, particularly to white Christians in our country, about turning to nonviolence and using nonviolence to fight the sin of racism?

    I think that all of us as Christians must use everything at our disposal to speak out against racism and bigotry. The scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in our society. When we acquiesce, when we’re silent, we’re helping racism to continue to prosper and to grow. 

    We should say as Christians that we’re one family, that we’re sisters and brothers, that we’re one community, that we’re one house.

    I work with the homeless in D.C. and many of us in the churches here are working to help disarm our streets and to stop the killings locally. But then a lot of others are working to end war and nuclear weapons. I’m wondering if you could speak about working on both of these. How can we claim to want to disarm our streets when our government is still committed to such global violence?

    I understand quite well what you mean. The government tends to send the wrong message to our people. We tend to say to them, “Disarm, stop the killing, get rid of your guns,” and yet at the same time, we continue to arm people around the world and we continue to engage in violence and war. How can we preach one thing and practice something else? To say it’s ok for the government to engage in military action abroad, but you must not engage in violence here? 

    In a real sense, I think our foreign policy is a reflection of our domestic policy. That’s why we must say to our nation that we must not continue to use the tools of war and violence in our foreign policy.

    So you would agree with Dr. King and others about the consistency of nonviolence all across the spectrum — no to violence on the streets and the death penalty and war and nuclear weapons and in our foreign policy.

    I do agree with Martin Luther King, Jr. For me, nonviolence is one of those immutable principles that you do not deviate from.

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    What is your hope for future generations given your life in the movement of Christian nonviolence as we head into a new millennium?

    I’m very hopeful, very optimistic, that in the days and years to come, that more and more people not only in America but around the globe will come to accept Christian nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living, that somehow, someway, humankind will evolve to a higher level where people will accept that violence and hate are too great a burden to bear, that more and more people will lay down the burden of hate and violence, and that we will move to a new period in history where we will be quick to negotiate, to discuss, to solve our problems around a table rather than in the streets, by shooting and bombing. 

    You have been in so many aspects and parts of the struggle over the years. I see many people who are despairing, who say, “Well, this is very idealistic and wonderful, but there’s no evidence of any change happening.” What signs of hope have you seen to convince you that there is a lot of hope for the future, that we should carry on the struggle for the Beloved Community?

    I must tell you I have seen a lot of changes in my lifetime. I have witnessed what I like to call “a nonviolent revolution” in our country. The signs that I saw growing up, saying “White” and “Colored,” are gone and they will not return. There was a tremendous amount of fear in the South, especially in the rural South, and that fear is now gone. At one time, hundreds of thousands of people of color could not register and vote, could not participate in the democratic process. But today, they can register, and they are voting. 

    “We should all study and read everything we can about the philosophy of nonviolence, of unearned suffering, the power of love in action.”

    In the South, less than 30 years ago, there were only about 50 Black elected officials. Today [in 1995] there are almost 7,000. We made a lot of progress. We’re not there yet, but I think we’re on our way to the Beloved Community. There are going to be setbacks and disappointments here and there, along the way, but I think that as a nation and as a people, we’re going to move toward the Beloved Community.

    Just think, during the ‘50s and ‘60s, we were singing the song “We Shall Overcome.” It was a theme song, a song of faith and hope, and that song has now spread around the world. People have been singing it all over the world in many protest movements. 

    So Christian nonviolence did come from Jesus and was spread by Gandhi, but it has been picked up by so many other different peoples and religions around the world. I think it will continue to live as a message. So I’m very hopeful, I’m very optimistic. You have to be hopeful, you have to be optimistic about the future.

    What would be your parting message to Christians, in light of your hope, your life, and your commitment to nonviolence, about how they might begin to practice nonviolence in their own lives and join in creating the Beloved Community?

    I would say that we should all study and read everything we can about the philosophy of nonviolence, of unearned suffering, the power of love in action. You have to believe, and if you believe that God Almighty is involved in the affairs of humankind, then in a real sense we have to be his agents and we have to help God. And the best way to help, and the most Christian way to help, is to use and live the philosophy of love and nonviolence. That is the way forward, and the way out, and the way out will become the way in.

    Could the left withstand a coup attempt if it ever won the presidency?

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    During the fall of 2020, Choose Democracy trained 10,000 people in nonviolent strategies to stop an election-related power grab in the United States. George Lakey served as the lead trainer, and Eileen Flanagan as the trainings coordinator. In the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol Building and the subsequent inauguration of Joe Biden, they began a dialog about risks to our republic going forward and how activists can minimize them. The following is an edited version of their discussion.

    Eileen: One of the major lessons of the Choose Democracy trainings was that the political center plays a crucial role in determining the outcome of coup attempts. Despite Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the 2020 election, the U.S. center ultimately sided with constitutional procedures. Local officials and judges of both parties upheld the election results. Other “pillars of power,” like the military and the business community refused to cooperate with Trump’s scheme. While severely bruised, the system held. Recently I’ve wondered if that would have been the case if Bernie Sanders (my preferred candidate) had won the election. In the face of a right-wing power grab, would the center have ratified a democratic socialist, if that’s what the electorate chose?

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  • I started thinking about this while reading “A Long Petal of the Sea,” Isabelle Allende’s novel set during the Spanish Civil War and the coup in Chile. In both, brutal right-wing governments overthrew progressive governments. It got me thinking about the many places where the left built enough grassroots support to win an election, but not enough to resist a powerful challenge to their rule. In cases like Chile, Iran and the Congo, the United States backed the overthrow of democratically-elected socialists, who were pursuing policies that limited the power of multinational corporations. The long-term violence that followed these coups was staggering. If we hope to run more candidates like Sanders, how can we withstand the possibility of a potential coup if we actually win?

    George: Eileen, you’ve boggled my mind. It’s such a great question — if Bernie had won the nomination and then the general election, would the centrists have defended the Constitution or gone with Trump? And would the U.S. left (with some allies in the center) have known how to nonviolently defend against a coup attempt, given how much confusion there is on the left about the question of maintaining nonviolence, which has been a key to success in countries that have thwarted coup attempts? For one thing, the training dimension would have needed to start much earlier than September and included far larger than 10,000 people. Although actions that pushed for full vote-counting did take place (encouraged by our trainings), we didn’t need to mobilize mass, sustained nonviolent direct action, this time.  
     
    Part of the center did defect from its job of defending the Constitution, however. The refusal of Republican senators to impeach Trump — despite their own bodies being at risk on Jan. 6 — suggests serious disease in our body politic. In many state legislatures, we watched Republicans vote against the integrity of the electoral process that had returned them to office. 

    Although I wanted Bernie to win, your question makes me think that we’re lucky it was Biden. And then the corresponding thought that if Trump runs next time, against a democratic socialist “Democrat” who somehow won the nomination, we might not be ready. This prompted me to imagine a few possible scenarios for the 2024 presidential and congressional election, based on my belief that our country will continue to polarize further, unless economic inequality is addressed. It’s a thought-experiment to explore the lessons for us today.

    1. A right-wing outcome in 2024. During 2021-24 substantial liberal reforms are blocked by the economic elite. Government’s inadequate efforts to address economic insecurity, declining health and living conditions are exacerbated by increasing climate disasters. The resulting decline in legitimacy results in increasing numbers and energy on both right and left wings. The Democrats lose the White House and the Senate.

    2. A liberal outcome in 2024. During 2021-24 substantial liberal reforms are made under the Biden administration and operate as they did during the 1930s under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sufficiently supporting unions to generate working-class political power and giving enough tangible relief to bolster hope. Additionally, measures are taken specifically to increase racial justice. The hope generated enhances the legitimacy of the government and the credibility of the center. Right-wing extremists, although growing in numbers, can’t take power or prevent re-election of Democrats in the 2024 presidential election.

    3. A left-wing outcome in 2024 followed by a right-wing coup attempt. During 2021-24 substantial liberal reforms are blocked by the economic elite. Government fails sufficiently to address economic insecurity, racial injustice, declining health and living conditions, exacerbated by increasing climate disasters. The resulting decline in governmental legitimacy accelerates polarization’s impact, increasing numbers and energy on both right and left wings. Democratic socialists continue to grow within the Democratic Party, and one of their number wins the nomination, and on election day, the presidency. The right wing, this time more ably led, mounts a coup attempt. Most of the economic elite, worried about a socialist administration, backs the coup. The outcome of the ensuing struggle is unclear.

    Previous Coverage
  • 10 things you need to know to stop a coup
  • All three scenarios assume that polarization continues to grow because its major driver is economic inequality, but in the second scenario it does not grow as dramatically as it has in recent years. Instead, the center holds, as it did in the 1930s when a coup against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was discussed among some in the economic elite but no coup attempt was made. In the third scenario, the center does not hold, but instead splits, with some centrist elements supporting the coup and some joining the left for the sake of protecting the Constitution.

    This all might be an argument for leaving national electoral politics in the hands of the liberal centrist Democrats and focus left attention on social movements where we can make gains (and bigger gains in the future) without precipitating a civil war.

    Eileen: It’s terrible that we even have to think like this, but I agree that the threat of violence is very real. In terms of our strategy, I’m all for building social movements where we can make concrete gains, but we can’t cede electoral politics entirely. We saw in this election the importance of progressive movements playing a role in elections, even when it wasn’t their ideal candidate or primary change strategy. It’s clear Biden is taking climate change more seriously because of the work of the Sunrise Movement and many others, even if his plan still isn’t as strong as Bernie’s.

    The other issue that strikes me is that your scenarios focus on the role of political polarization, which I know you’re writing a new book about, but there are other things that influence how elections turn out, like voter access. I’m very concerned about widespread Republican efforts to disenfranchise people, especially people of color. In many states, Republicans have enough power to gerrymander and pass bills designed to suppress turnout. In Georgia, there are a slew of such bills proposed, even one that would make it illegal to hand out water to voters waiting in line — this after they cut polling places, forcing people to wait in line.

    George: I agree. They are putting tremendous energy into voter suppression, and for good reason. If you can keep people from voting, you can win as a minority party. But gerrymandering is an issue that is very much party vs party. It’s not a fight that inspires swing voters and independents. I doubt that voter suppression is an issue that could inspire mobilization by a mass movement. Compare that issue with something tangible like health care; picture the number of people whose lives are immediately affected by the injustice of our market-driven health care system, including the number of people who otherwise lean toward Trumpism.

    I see nonviolent direct action campaigns as a way to both win concrete economic gains — which can peel away support for the right-wing agenda — and at the same time build the skills we would need to resist a coup nonviolently.

    This seems to me the perfect time to wage a mass direct action campaign for Medicare for All, and recruit for it beyond “the usual suspects” in activist circles. Biden is talking about health care reform, but his initiative will be tepid since Democrats are bought by the health care-industrial complex. A direct action campaign on our part would drive a better bargain on the federal level. The Democrats would claim credit for that with the voters, of course, but that’s their job. Our job is to drive change, and the change would reduce the threat to the republic in 2024.

    Eileen: That makes sense to me. Still, I can’t help but remember that many Trump voters rejected the Affordable Care Act, especially when it was called “Obamacare.” Some states even turned away federal money. So, while white working-class Trump voters have real economic concerns, many have bought into scapegoating African Americans and immigrants. On the one hand, I feel that we need to challenge the racism of the right more directly, but at the same time, I know that just calling people racist is unlikely to win them over. Still, in this toxic context, I wonder how we can undermine the violent tendencies on the right if we don’t deal with racism.

    George: We have to acknowledge reality. They can use racism to get people to vote against their own interests. They are very good at doing that, and we don’t have a good method of countering it directly with Trump voters. If someone comes up with a method, I’d love to know it, but I haven’t seen it so far. What we do know from history is that economic interests can counter racism, when we offer real and compelling solutions to economic inequality. A hundred years ago in the South, people were organizing tenant farmers and sharecroppers into inter-racial co-ops, based on material interests.

    Eileen: That’s your point about labor unions in your book “How We Win.”

    George: Exactly! The United Auto Workers built in Michigan a multi-racial union in the 1930s of recently arrived Appalachian whites and southern Blacks. Anyone would say that’s impossible. But they did it in the ‘30s when racism was way more powerful than now. So, I would say that organizing around economic interests is a more effective way of countering racism than talking about racism.

    Eileen: Although the Black Lives Matter Movement has accomplished a real shift — not with the people who stormed the Capitol, but with other whites for whom racism was not a focus before.

    George: I am enormously impressed that small towns in Pennsylvania, Kansas and other states turned out white people to demonstrate for Black Lives Matter last summer. So that happened in response to a nonviolent movement and out of compassion, so I think that’s pretty darn impressive.

    Eileen: I do feel last summer was important. My small predominantly white neighborhood in Philadelphia, which opposed integration in the ‘60s, turned out 400 people for a local Black Lives Matter vigil. That is part of the context as we imagine the future.

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  • Choose Democracy’s whirlwind effort to prevent a coup is a crash course in good organizing
  • Looking ahead, one of my big questions is what will happen with the people who were activated by the outrageousness of Trump. Fear of him staying in power was clearly a big part of what fueled Choose Democracy’s rapid growth and widespread media coverage. I do think many of those folks will remain engaged, but I also think there is real naiveté in our country about how power works. Most Americans don’t know that there was discussion of a coup against FDR among the economic elite, or the history of the U.S. role in coups in Chile, Iran, Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That was the Cold War, but we’re still in a struggle over economic power and the role of capitalism. The climate movement is taking on some of the most powerful corporations in the world. So, I think we need a lot more groundwork to help people to see that it is conceivable that we could have a right-wing coup in this country, led by people better organized and less blustering than Trump.

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    George: It would be chickens coming home to roost if there were to be a coup here, given the bipartisan foreign policy that undermined democracy in so many other countries.

    So, coming back to what can help protect us from this, I do see nonviolent direct action campaigns as a way to both win concrete economic gains — which can peel away support for the right-wing agenda — and at the same time build the skills we would need to resist a coup nonviolently. It will serve two functions.

    Eileen: I agree with that. I also think it’s a time to be learning from people in other countries, who have experienced much more overt political violence than most of us in the United States. Hopefully Trump punctured our sense of American exceptionalism, and the recent threat to our democracy will inspire more nonviolence training and more long-term strategizing.

    How pop culture can help explain the coup in Myanmar

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    As the United States and other Western nations consider sanctioning the leaders of the military coup against Aung San Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy party she leads in Myanmar, it is important for us to understand the underlying causes of the coup and the mechanics of coups themselves. From afar the situation in Myanmar can look complex and potentially even impossible to comprehend, but military coups are age old stories that have been seen, unfortunately, in every corner of the globe.

    Popular culture, like television shows, music and movies can be used to understand what might otherwise seem incomprehensible. Pop culture can also be useful for humans to better process the world around them and assess roles they themselves play within society. For example, people protesting the coup in Myanmar have adopted the three finger salute, a sign of solidarity and resistance borrowed from the protest movement in Thailand but with origins in the young adult fiction book-turned-blockbuster-movie series, “The Hunger Games.”

    Disney’s 1994 animated classic “The Lion King” is beloved by multiple generations of children and adults. And while it is more often understood solely as a play on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” it has a lot to more say about power and how it functions in society. It may also be the best piece of pop culture for understanding how coups work and particularly the causes and mechanisms behind the recent coup in Myanmar. Before we get into that analysis, we need to take a brief detour to better understand how Myanmar got to this point.

    A history of military rule

    The current coup is part of a long history of coups and military rule in Myanmar since its independence from the British Empire in 1948. Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, led the country through years of turmoil and political maneuvering as the colony navigated World War II, switching sides between the Japanese and British whenever convenient. After successfully leading the country to independence, Aung San was murdered by political rivals. Despite this, the nation charted a way towards democracy. The new government struggled to appease the various factions that had put it in place, and was eventually overthrown in 1958 by Gen. Ne Win, an anti-communist who purged many of the leftists he’d worked with during the independence struggle of the 1940s. 

    Previous Coverage
  • 4 potent lessons in creative cultural activism from Myanmar
  • After a brief return to democracy, the government was then overthrown again by Ne Win in 1962, who went on to control Myanmar until the 1988 Uprising — where college students led a movement of monks, doctors, housewives and children to protest the one-party state. Members of the military took advantage of the situation and overthrew Ne Win and established the State Law and Order Restoration Council, later renamed the State Peace and Development Council, a military government. They held elections in 1990, which were won by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party — the National League for Democracy, or NLD — but refused to recognize the results and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest instead. The State Peace and Development Council dissolved itself in 2011 and called for a return to democracy, though its leaders still held the lion’s share of power as high-ranking military officials, through the newly formed Union Solidarity and Development Party, and the country’s new Prime Minister, Thein Sein, a retired general.

    In 2015, the NLD swept the elections and won a supermajority in the legislative branch of the government, leading to the establishment of Aung San Suu Kyi as the first non-military leader of the country in 54 years. Aung San Suu Kyi granted amnesty to student leaders arrested during a previous uprising, re-established relationships on the international level, and was seen as a step forward for the country.

    Despite high hopes from the global community, she did little to stop the brutal genocide of the Rohingya Muslim minority, and engaged in the repression of journalists. International opinion turned on her as she ignored calls to end the genocide and refused to cross the military or acknowledge their actions as a genocide. Her appeasement did very little to protect her, and she was overthrown by the military on Feb. 1 in response to another landslide victory by the NLD.

    The Lion King’ and coups

    “The Lion King” and the history of its setting, Pride Rock, reflects much of the experience of Myanmar, but also the experiences of many people and nations throughout contemporary history, like those who lived through the little-known 1898 white supremacist coup in Wilmington, North Carolina.

    The story follows the Lion King, Mufasa, and his heir Simba, as Simba is prepared to take rulership over the kingdom. Scar, Mufasa’s younger and craftier brother, assassinates Mufasa, and overthrows his regime in an otherwise bloodless coup using an army of hyenas to establish total dominance. Scar’s regime seems to rob the Pride Lands of many of its animals and flora, turning the once lush plains into wasteland. Simba is exiled and returns only in adulthood, after being pushed by his childhood crush Nala — and the ghost of his father — to take his rightful place at the top of the animal kingdom. Simba leads the remaining lions in a violent coup, with apparent support from working-class animals, and overthrows his uncle in a battle. He re-establishes himself as the leader of Pride Rock and cements his claim with a marriage to Nala and the birth of their own child and heir.

    David Lane, a former professor of sociology at the University of Cambridge, provides a useful framework for understanding the coups in Myanmar and “The Lion King.” Lane uses the “elite theory” to explain how coups work in his 2008 research article “The Orange Revolution: ‘People’s Revolution’ or Revolutionary Coup?” Elite theory holds that most countries, both democratic and non-democratic, are controlled by a small minority of wealthy people and blocs of politicians and military leaders who share and contest for power through various mechanisms.

    Every society has three categories of elite: The ruling elite, or those who are currently in the driving seat of government and hold most of the governing authority of the country; the secondary elite — my own term — who hold a lot of political power but aren’t currently in the position of actually leading the government; and the counter elite, i.e. those who may have economic or military power, or political influence, but no actual ability or role in governance.

    The people of Myanmar must be wary of any wing of the government or a new counter-elite seeking to merely replace the military regime at the top of the pyramid of power.

    A coup, according to Lane, is when members of the secondary elite or counter elite, use swift — and often violent action — to seize power and replace the ruling elite with themselves. Aside from elites who have deep ideological convictions, coup plotters usually have no real interest in altering the structure of the country’s political or economic system, but merely want to become the new governing body. Lane also details the concept of revolutionary coups, which involve high audience participation — meaning a mass movement is in the streets seeking change at the same time as the coup plotters are springing into action.

    “The Lion King” involves at least two coups. The first is the standard affair. Scar, is a member of the secondary elite — with direct access to governance, but isn’t in the governing seat himself — and decides to recruit the hyenas, a counter-elite military unit, to overthrow Mufasa. Scar becomes the new ruling elite and the hyenas the new secondary elite, with the Lionesses of Pride Rock becoming a counter-elite.

    Simba then joins with the Lionesses and members of the oppressed animal public, like Simba’s friends Timon and Pumbaa, to participate in another coup. It is arguable that the animal masses were engaged in civil disobedience at the same time, causing the desolation of the Pride Lands that is often just blamed solely on Scar’s mismanagement, thus making Simba’s coup a revolutionary coup.

    Understanding Myanmar

    The coup in Myanmar can be understood with similar terms. Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy have long been a domestically and internationally influential counter-elite in Myanmar. Through public pressure and eventual elections, the NLD was swept into the position of a precarious ruling elite, finally having access to real governing power. The military were arguably transformed into both a secondary elite and counter-elite through their political party and their complete autonomy as commanders of the army, navy, air force and police.

    The 2021 election was a step towards the NLD solidifying its position as the new ruling elite and triggered a response from the military, which launched its coup as a means of retaking its old position as the total governing body of Myanmar. It is also, important to note that the current ruling military regime was once a counter-elite that overthrew the ruling elite of Gen. Ne Win in the 1988 coup that stole a revolution and turned it into a revolutionary coup. While the coup leaders insist that this too was a revolutionary coup on behalf of the people, it is clear that the people feel otherwise.

    Protests are raging across the country, with the aim of preventing the military government from functioning. Hundreds of thousands of protesters are marching in the streets and calling for the military regime to step down. Nurses, doctors, teachers, engineers, lawyers and even some police officers have gone on strike, along with factory workers, railway staff and farmers.  

    “The immediate aim is to take away the military’s power by stopping all of its governance mechanisms from working,” said anti-coup activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi in an interview with Al Jazeera, explaining their strategy. “It will disable the military’s ability to rule.”

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    Boycotts against companies owned by the army are growing, and small business owners are destroying products that belong to companies connected to the military’s corporate conglomerate. A walk out of 2,000 miners has forced a military owned copper mine to temporarily cease operations. The people of Myanmar are desolating the military’s Pride Rock and the threat of defections from the military itself threatens to strengthen the raw power of Myanmar’s pro-democracy counter elite, or create an entirely new counter elite to contest with.

    While Aung San Suu Kyi is not the saint that the West has long painted her as, it is clear that some kind of civilian government would be a better alternative to the openly genocidal military government. Based on the arguably revolutionary coup of 1988 that turned a people’s uprising into a military takeover, the people of Myanmar must also be wary of any wing of the government or a new counter-elite seeking to merely replace the military regime at the top of the pyramid of power. While elite-theory is a useful for understanding coups, the power of the public taking matters into their own hands can never be underestimated.

    India’s farmers’ protests are about more than reform — they are resisting the corporate takeover of agriculture

    On Feb. 6, protesters blocked roads at an estimated 10,000 spots across India as part of the ongoing movement against the new farm laws enacted by the national government last year. For over two months, the most populous democracy in the world has witnessed what is being called one of the biggest protests in human history.

    Hundreds of thousands of farmers have been rallying against three new laws that have thrown open the agriculture sector to private players. Protesters feel the legislation will allow a corporate takeover of crop production and trading, which would eventually impact their earnings and land ownership. They are camping on the roads connecting the national capital with major north Indian cities, braving harsh winters and smear campaigns from the mainstream media and ruling party supporters. Over 224 protesters have already lost their lives for various reasons, chief among them camping outdoors in the frigid weather.

    The movement has overcome regional, religious, gender and ideological differences to build pressure. Leftist farm unions, religious organizations and traditional caste-based brotherhoods called khaps, which make pronouncements on social issues, are working in tandem through resolute sit-ins and an aggressive boycott of politicians.

    “We believe the laws have been framed at the direction of the private sector to directly benefit them. So, the protests have to target big businesses along with the government.”

    India’s right-wing government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, pushed the laws through the parliament in September, despite lacking a majority in the upper house and agriculture being in the jurisdiction of state governments. The protest is a response to the lack of respect for parliamentary democracy and federalism, but its main focus is the pervasive corporate influence on governance.

    “We believe the laws have been framed at the direction of the private sector to directly benefit them. So, the protests have to target big businesses along with the government,” said Jagmohan Singh, president of one of the farm unions representing protesting farmers. 

    After limits on corporate contributions were removed and allowed to be made anonymously, $8.2 billion was spent on Indian parliamentary elections in 2019, which exceeded how much was spent on the U.S. election in 2016 by 26 percent. Most of this money came from corporations and the BJP was the primary recipient.

    The political-corporate influence is also jeopardizing media’s independence in the country. India ranks 142nd out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. Mainstream TV news channels often eulogize the government and Hindu right-wing ideology and smear voices of dissent and minorities. Farmers and their supporters have responded by boycotting media outlets, starting their own newsletters and promoting independent journalism. The movement has already received global attention on social media, with climate activist Greta Thunberg and pop star Rihana recently extending support to the protesters.

    Farm crisis is the fuel

    Farmers are a large electoral block in India, with half the population being engaged in agriculture. No political party can afford to offend them publicly even though policy makers have done little to increase farm incomes and address their indebtedness. Around 300,000 farmers died by suicide between 1995 and 2013, mostly due to financial stress. In 2019, another 10,281 farmers took their lives.

    The Modi government came to power in 2014 on the promise of doubling farmer’s income. It claims the new laws will help fulfill that pledge by allowing for the sale of produce and contract farming outside the purview of state governments and remove of cap on stockholding of food items. Farmers, however, are not buying these arguments.

    “The laws are tilted against the farmers and give a free hand to private companies by removing the safeguard of state market committees, which usually intervene in case of disputes with traders,” said Gurtej Singh, a farmer from Punjab. “The committee members are easily accessible even to small farmers, compared to the courts or district officials, which the new laws propose as regulatory authorities.”

    Indian farms are mostly family-owned and land is a source of subsistence for millions. Around 86 percent of farmers, however, till less than five acres while the other 14 percent, mostly upper castes, own over half of the country’s 388 million acres of arable land.

    “The protest is actually a manifestation of anger about the constant decline in farming as a profitable occupation over the last few decades.”

    Farmers in a few north Indian states were able to consolidate their holdings through increased incomes with the introduction of irrigation, modern seeds, fertilizers, machines, market infrastructure and guaranteed price support from the government during the Green Revolution in the 1960s. But rising input costs and climate crisis have adversely impacted the profits there as well. In Punjab, the most agriculturally-developed state, for instance, the input costs of electric motors, labor, fertilizer and fuel rose by 100 to 290 percent from 2000 to 2013, but the support price of wheat and rice rose by only 122 to 137 percent in the same period, according to a government report. Heavy use of chemicals, mono-cropping and farm mechanization have damaged the soil, affecting productivity and forcing farmers into debt.

    Now they fear that the new laws will dismantle the government support system as well and further push them into poverty. “Laws are just the imminent trigger. The protest is actually a manifestation of anger about the constant decline in farming as a profitable occupation over the last few decades,” Singh said. “We have mostly been handed short term relief around election times.”

    The new farm laws were enacted at a time when India had yet to recover from one of the most punitive lockdowns in the world imposed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented large gatherings. However, the government lost the battle of perceptions from the very start. Since farming is the largest avenue of self-employment and subsistence in India, throwing the sector open to private players was bound to kindle fears that owners would lose autonomy over their lands.

    Strength and strategy

    Punjab saw widespread protests as soon as the laws were enacted. Farmers occupied railway tracks and toll plazas on major roads besides corporate-owned thermal plants, gas stations and shopping malls. Scores of subscribers left Jio, the telecom service owned by the top Indian businessman perceived to be close to Prime Minister Modi.

    Farm unions also held regular sit-ins in front of the houses of prominent political leaders forcing an important regional party to leave the national government alliance. Several state leaders of the ruling party resigned from their posts as well. Similar scenes played out in the neighboring state of Haryana, where leaders were publicly shamed and the helicopter of the elected head of the government was prevented from landing for a public meeting after farmers dug up the helipad area.

    In November, thousands of farmers drove their tractor trolleys towards the national capital as they played protest songs by celebrity singers. Stocked with rations, clothing, water and wood for months, they braved tear gas shells and water cannons used by the police along the way. Powerful tractors pushed heavy transport vehicles, concrete slabs and barbed wires that the administration had placed en route out of their way.

    A community kitchen at one of the protest sites. (WNV/Manu Moudgil)

    Stopping at the northern and western borders of New Delhi, the long cavalcades of tractor trolleys turned into encampments, and numerous community kitchens sprang up. Residents of nearby villages and towns chipped in by supplying milk and vegetables, and offering bathrooms in their houses, shops, gas stations and offices for use by protesters.

    Open libraries and medical camps were set up and volunteers offered their skills, ranging from tailoring to tutoring children. Besides speeches by the farm leaders, cultural performances, film screenings and wrestling bouts became a regular feature. More farmers poured in with each passing day. Indians in the diaspora gave donations to farm unions and village councils, which offered money for fuel and other expenses to villagers who could not afford to visit the protest sites on their own. The resistance to the corporatization of agriculture has penetrated deep.

    “These occupations are not just a reaction of wronged citizens who have set out to reform the Indian parliament or assert dissent. Rather, they form an important stage in a still-unfolding narrative of militant anti-capitalist struggle,” wrote Aditya Bahl, a doctoral scholar at the John Hopkins University who is archiving the peasants’ revolts that took place in Punjab in the 1960s and ’70s.

    “Agricultural reforms and free markets have failed to help American farmers who are dying by suicide due to heavy debts … How can the same model work for India?”

    The Indian Supreme Court suspended the implementation of laws and formed a four-member expert committee on Jan. 13 to look into the issue. Farmers have, however, refused to meet the committee members, alleging that many of them have already written or spoken in favor of the laws.

    The protests are not only targeting domestic companies and political figures. Farmers have also burnt effigies of Uncle Sam, the World Trade Organization and IMF, signifying the influence of global trade over domestic agricultural policies. Developed countries have been pressuring India for last three decades to open up its agriculture sector to multinational players by slashing subsidies and reducing public procurement and distribution of food grains to the poor.

    “Agricultural reforms and free markets have failed to help American farmers who are dying by suicide due to heavy debts,” explained food and trade policy expert Devinder Sharma. “Their farm incomes are in the negative, even though they have big landholdings and billions of dollars of income support from the government. How can the same model work for India, especially when it’s not even designed for our domestic conditions?”

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    Protesters are also seeking a legal right to sell their produce at a guaranteed price. The Indian government usually declares a minimum support price on various crops based on costs of their production, but only a fraction of the produce is procured at that rate. In the absence of government procurement facilities in their areas, most farmers have to settle for a lower price offered by private traders. A law would make it mandatory for private players to buy the produce at a declared price.

    “If Indian farmers are able to get the law on guaranteed price passed through their current agitation, they will become a role model for farmers across the world living under heavy debts,” Sharma continued. “India should put its foot down at the WTO and create much-needed disruption in the world food trade policy for the benefit of the global agriculture sector.”

    The movement grows

    The BJP-led national government has faced numerous protests over the last six years of its rule, including by university students, workers and caste and religious minorities. With the help of media and security agencies, however, the government has always been able to frame dissent as being unpatriotic. The country has dropped 26 places in the Democracy Index’s global ranking since 2014 due to “erosion of civil liberties.”

    This is the first time peasants have been galvanized in such large numbers against the government. The government has already held 11 rounds of negotiations with farmers’ representatives and offered to suspend the laws for one and a half years on Jan. 20. But farmers are not budging from their demand of the complete repeal of the laws and legal cover for the selling of their crops at a guaranteed price.

    The movement, initiated by Punjab’s farmers, has taken on a national character. On Jan. 26, which marks India’s Republic Day, 19 out of 28 states witnessed protests against the farm laws.

    In Delhi, however, a plan to organize a farmers’ tractor march parallel to the official Republic Day function, went awry. A group of protesters clashed with police at multiple spots and stormed the iconic Red Fort, a traditional seat of power for the Mughals, where the colonial British and independent India’s prime ministers have also raised their flags.

    While TV anchors and their captive urban audience smirked at visuals of a leader of the farmers’ movement crying as he faced imminent arrest, villages erupted in anger.

    The protesters unfurled banners of the farm unions and Sikhs — one of the minority religious groups and the most prominent face of the protests. Mainstream media and ruling party supporters used the opportunity to blame the movement for desecration and religious terrorism. Security forces charged sleeping farmers with batons at one location, filed cases against movement leaders, allowed opponents to pelt campaigners with stones, arrested journalists and shut down the Internet.

    The rural-urban divide became starker on the night of Jan. 27. While TV anchors and their captive urban audience smirked at visuals of a leader of the farmers’ movement crying as he faced imminent arrest, villages erupted in anger. Temple priests gave calls over public address systems, nightly meetings were arranged and thousands drove hundreds of miles through a foggy winter night to reach the protest site on eastern fringe of national capital New Delhi, compelling the administration to pull the police back and restart the water and power supply to the protest site.

    Farmers moving from Punjab to Delhi in November 2020. (WNV/Manu Moudgil)

    The attacks, therefore, ended up lifting the flagging morale of the farmers and helped the movement gain even more supporters, who shunned the government and media narrative. Massive community gatherings of khaps were organized at multiple places over next few days, extending their support to the protests and issuing a boycott call for the BJP and its political allies.

    Smear campaigns to depict Sikh farmers as terrorists, a reference to an armed movement in the 1980s and ’90s for a separate homeland, found no resonance beyond the right-wing echo chamber. Sikh protesters draw inspiration from the religious tenets of community service, equality and the fight against injustice. Community kitchens run by Sikh organizations have served through many humanitarian crisis, like the ongoing civil war in Syria and movements like Black Lives Matter. Sikhs in India have remained steadfastly egalitarian, ready to support other religious minorities in times of need.

    Mending fault lines

    The movement has also been able to overcome regional and gender divisions, and is trying to address caste divides.

    The states of Haryana and Punjab are often at loggerheads on the issue of sharing of river waters. Haryana was carved out of Punjab on linguistic lines in 1966, but most of the rivers flow through the current Punjab state. Haryana has been seeking a greater amount of water for use by its farmers, while Punjab’s farmers oppose the demand, citing reduced water flow in the rivers over the years. The current protests have united farmers for a common cause, helping them understand each other even though opponents have made attempts revive the water issue.

    Women have also been participating in the protests in large numbers. They are either occupying roads on Delhi’s borders or managing homes and farms in the absence of men, while taking part in protest marches in villages.

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    “Earlier, we were able to rally only 8,000-10,000 women for a protest. Today that number has swelled to 25,000-30,000, as they recognized the threats posed by the new laws to the livelihoods of their families,” said Harinder Bindu, who leads the women’s wing of the largest farm union in Punjab. “For many women this is the first time they are participating in a protest, which is a big change because they were earlier confined to household work. Men are getting used to seeing women participate and recognizing the value they bring to a movement.”

    The union first encouraged the male leaders to include the women in their families with the cause to set an example for other members as well. “This helped inculcate the habit of sharing responsibilities,” Bindu said. “When women members participate in sit-ins, men manage the house. I feel this movement will bring greater focus on women’s issues within the farming community — one of which is the need to support widows of farmers who died by suicide due to financial constraints.”

    In Punjab, less than four percent of private farm land belongs to Dalits, the lowest caste in the traditional social hierarchy of India, even though they constitute 32 percent of the state’s population. They often earn their livelihoods through farm work or daily wage labor. Even though Dalits have a legal right to till village common land, attempts to assert that right often lead to violent clashes with upper caste landlords who want to keep it for themselves.

    “It’s not easy to overcome caste barriers. The acceptance and understanding evident in the leaders of the farmers’ unions is yet to percolate among their cadre.”

    Dalits are waging similar battles across India. Researchers recorded 31 land conflicts involving 92,000 Dalits in 2019. A few of the farmers’ unions have supported and raised funds for Dalit agitations in the past. This has ensured the participation of farm workers in the current movement, but it has largely remained a farmers’ campaign.

    “Dalits do understand that the new laws will impact them. Initially some of the workers did join the protests but they can’t afford to lose daily wages and also lack resources to travel long distance,” said Gurmukh Singh, a social activist working with Dalits to claim their right to cultivate village common land in Punjab. “But it’s not easy to overcome caste barriers. The acceptance and understanding evident in the leaders of the farmers’ unions is yet to percolate among their cadre.”

    Previous Coverage
  • Inside the indigenous movement to protect India’s commons
  • The movement is gradually encompassing other rural issues beyond the farm laws. In the state of Maharashtra, for instance, thousands of tribal people traveled to the capital Mumbai on Jan. 23 to extend support to the farmers. They also asserted their own long pending demand for land titles under the Forest Rights Act, which recognizes traditional rights of scheduled tribes and other forest dwellers on the use of land and other forest resources.

    Starting from Punjab, the epicenter of protests has now extended to Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state of India, and leaders are planning to muster more support from central India.

    The persistent protests also forced the government to hold an extensive debate on the issue in the parliament at the beginning of February, even though it did not lead to any resolution. The UK parliament may also consider debating the farmers’ protests and press freedom in India after an online petition on its website gathered the required number of signatures. Farmers’ leaders, meanwhile, have reaffirmed their stand to stay put on the roads for the long haul and have now decided to block railway tracks across the country for four hours on Feb. 18.

    It’s a myth that presidents welcome movement pressure — and Biden is no different

    In early 2009, as Barack Obama prepared to move into the White House, a particular historical anecdote rapidly gained in popularity, repeated in dozens of talks and articles as a parable for how supporters should respond to the new president taking office. The story related a New Deal-era encounter between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a group of activists, usually said to have been led by A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. In the meeting, the advocates laid out a vision of bold action for change that the president could advance with his bully pulpit and his executive power. FDR listened to their position and considered the demands they presented. Then he replied, “You’ve convinced me. I agree with what you’ve said. Now go out and make me do it.” 

    In recent years, this tale has often been used to encourage social movements to maintain pressure on elected officials, even sympathetic ones, once these politicians assume power. There’s only one problem: The story isn’t true. Upon examination it has all the markings of an apocryphal legend, and it is highly unlikely that the meeting in question ever took place. Yet because the parable raises one of the most crucial issues of our current political moment — how those who voted against Trump should interact with the new administration — it is valuable to consider what the story gets right about the relationship between movements and presidents, and what it gets wrong. 

    The long experience of organizers shows that politicians, as a rule, do not like being pressured by movements they cannot control and often lash out.

    As Joe Biden begins his first term in the White House, the stakes of this discussion are considerable. Far from welcoming outsider pressure, politicians committed to insider dealmaking have a long track record of dismissing and disparaging critics who push them to do better — and they have often preferred to demobilize the supporters who got them elected rather than face heat from potentially unruly movements. Organizers committed to stopping such demobilization must accept that it will likely earn them the ire of the White House.

    In other words, social movements can play a critical role under the new administration. But Biden isn’t going to like it.

    The makings of a myth

    In terms of provenance, the FDR legend rests on shaky ground. Those who cite the story invariably do so anecdotally, and historical documentation of the incident is suspiciously sparse. Journalist Martin Berg scoured several different biographies of A. Philip Randolph but could find no mention of the supposed encounter. As Berg explains: “Now, I’m from Detroit and Randolph was part of the civil rights story I grew up on, and I never heard that story until the 2008 election.” Peter Dreier, Professor of Politics at Occidental College, related the anecdote in print several times in the Obama era, but in some tellings he did so with the caveat that it “has never been documented.” Activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte stated in an interview that he heard the story from Eleanor Roosevelt herself, and this might be as close to a verification as anything on record. But even his was a second-hand retelling, vague on details, passed on many decades after the fact.

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    As the tale has been repeated, the setting and the characters sometimes shift. FDR is often said to have been talking with Randolph, but other versions place figures such as the labor unionist John L. Lewis in the room instead. Still others turn the story into 1960s parable, with Lyndon Baines Johnson as the president doing the talking and Martin Luther King, Jr. the listening. Saul Alinsky biographer Nicholas von Hoffman has written that the famed community organizer was fond of using the same story, but in Alinsky’s account the politician who tells constituents to “make [him] do it” was former New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr.

    There are important things that the “make me do it” narrative gets right. It tells us that politicians can only be counted on to push forward controversial steps toward progress when they are forced to do so. As writer Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the moral of the story, “[P]oliticians respond to only one thing — power. This is not the flaw of democracy, it’s the entire point. It’s the job of activists to generate, and apply, enough pressure on the system to affect change.” Or as movement strategist Jonathan Matthew Smucker puts it, “We don’t persuade them morally. We persuade them with power.” The story is an injunction to keep the pressure on: It emphasizes that insistent demands from the outside continue to be essential, even when voters put the “right” people in office. For this reason, the anecdote reliably resurfaces among progressives in times when Democrats take power after periods when they have been in the opposition. 

    What the story gets wrong, however, may be just as important as the valid lesson that its tellers intend to impart. The tale suggests that elected officials are apt to agree with social movements — that they respect and sympathize with those who pressure them, and that they might secretly welcome the nudge to do better. In fact, the long experience of organizers shows that politicians, as a rule, do not like being pressured by movements they cannot control and often lash out at those who demand that they take more principled or politically risky stands. The anecdote leaves out the indignation and contempt that inside-game players feel when their deal-making expertise and political hesitancy are called into question.

    Rather than directing constituents to take to the streets, it is far more common for elected officials to fear the disruptive possibilities of a mobilized base.

    In August 2010, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs went on a well-publicized rant against progressive critics of the Obama administration, deriding them as members of the “professional left” who would never be satisfied with any legislative compromise. Political scientist Larry Berman noted at the time that the administration preferred its voters to be far more deferential: “From Gibbs’s perspective, and the White House perspective,” Berman explained, “they ought to be able to catch a break from people who, in their view, should be grateful and appreciative.” Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who later became mayor of Chicago, used more pointed language against those who sought to make the president and other members of his party pursue bolder policy positions. He condemned those who attacked conservative Democrats for failing to support a public option for health care reform as being “fucking retarded” (a comment for which he was later compelled to apologize to the head of the Special Olympics).  

    A similar contempt for organizers who dared challenge the expertise of veteran lawmakers was on display in the Bay Area office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein in February 2019. There, the senator rebuffed a group of school-age advocates from the Sunrise Movement who prodded her to support Green New Deal legislation. In the viral video of the incident, Feinstein chided the young activists, saying “You know what’s interesting about this group: I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I know what I’m doing.” Subsequently responding to a 16-year-old, Feinstein snapped, “You didn’t vote for me” and then proceeded to dismiss the group by saying, “Well, you know better than I do. So I think one day you should run for the Senate and then you do it your way.” 

    A history of contention

    A look at past presidents shows that irked and dismissive attitudes are hardly atypical. LBJ’s relationship with the civil rights movement was more often characterized by conflict than cooperation. For his part, FDR was often enraged at unions who tried to force his hand in demanding stronger action on behalf of striking workers. This tension surfaced in his interactions with John L. Lewis — the president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, and a character in some versions of the “make me do it” legend. Years before their public break during FDR’s 1940 reelection campaign, the relationship between Roosevelt and Lewis was already characterized, in the words of one biographer, by “resentment for each other approaching hatred,” which generated “ever increasing hostilities.” 

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    During some of the most famous labor conflicts of the New Deal era, when the president would have preferred to avoid taking a stand, Lewis issued statements suggesting that the unions had the White House’s backing. This put FDR in the awkward position of having either to publicly disavow support for struggling workers or to remain silent and give credibility to Lewis’s position. Such maneuvers “repeatedly incensed the president.” In early 1937, FDR likewise grew irate when Lewis refused to accept a compromise he was brokering with General Motors executives to end the sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan. Lewis held out for a better deal, and the union ultimately won one — but only after Roosevelt blasted Lewis for his arrogance and short-sightedness. In other words, on the occasions when organized workers effectively “made him do it,” FDR was rarely pleased. Rather than colluding with movements, the president repeatedly sought to dissuade them, calm their disruptive actions and bargain them down from their demands. 

    The same pattern held when it came to civil rights. A transcript survives from an actual White House meeting between FDR and A. Phillip Randolph on June 18, 1941. Randolph and other civil rights leaders were planning a March on Washington to demand that the government require defense contractors to hire Black workers. As journalist and author Warren Sloat explains, the rapid expansion of war production was priming the economy, and “factories and business offices were hiring millions of workers. White workers, that is. The vast majority of Afro-Americans remained marooned in permanent unemployment. They were barred from defense plants and federal employment rolls. Labor unions banned Black people from membership.”

    Instead of seeking to make unions or other social movement groups partners in governing, they look to them as just another constituency to be appeased.

    Randolph’s planned march would decry this injustice, much to the dismay of the president. Roosevelt was concerned that, as biographer Jean Edward Smith writes, “A Black march in segregated Washington could easily provoke violence and at the very least would antagonize the southern leadership of his preparedness coalition.” FDR enlisted his wife Eleanor and New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to talk the activists out of their plan. When that failed, he summoned Black leaders to the White House to speak with them himself.

    Having won recognition of the country’s first African-American union and having once been called “the most dangerous man in America” by President Woodrow Wilson for encouraging Blacks not to fight in World War I, Randolph possessed an imposing organizing résumé. He and other leaders believed they could mobilize 10,000 people for their march, but in their meeting with FDR they were willing to bluff by projecting more. 

    “Mr. President,” Randolph said as the discussion reached its climax, “our people are being turned away at factory gates because they are colored. They can’t live with this thing. Now, what are you going to do about it?”

    FDR offered to call and talk with heads of defense plants, but the civil rights leaders wanted something stronger than informal persuasion:

    Philip Randolph: We want you to do more than that. We want something concrete, something tangible, definite, positive and affirmative.

    Franklin D. Roosevelt: What do you mean?

    Randolph: Mr. President, we want you to issue an executive order making it mandatory that Negroes be permitted to work in these plants.

    FDR: Well, Phil, you know I can’t do that. If I issue an executive order for you, then there’ll be no end to other groups coming in here and asking me to issue executive orders for them, too. In any event, I couldn’t do anything unless you called off this march of yours. Questions like this can’t be settled with a sledge hammer….

    Randolph: I’m sorry, Mr. President, the march cannot be called off.

    FDR: How many people do you plan to bring?

    Randolph: One hundred thousand, Mr. President.

    FDR: Walter, how many people will really march?

    [NAACP President] Walter White: One hundred thousand, Mr. President.

    A week later, FDR signed Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in hiring in the defense industry and creating a Fair Employment Practices Committee for enforcement. Randolph agreed to call off the march.

    From movement to movie

    Rather than directing constituents to take to the streets, it is far more common for elected officials to fear the disruptive possibilities of a mobilized base. To some extent, national politicians recognize the utility of social movements during elections, as they seek to galvanize their core supporters and reach out to new voters. Certainly, most Democrats — Biden included — have relied on the muscle of grassroots groups, most notably those of organized labor, to propel their field campaigns.

    As former Obama advisor and CNN personality Van Jones described the demobilization after the 2008 election, “We went from having a movement to a movie.”

    But once in office, they cease to see their fortunes as being connected to these movements. With their focus on maintaining power, they often view concessions to their grassroots base as threatening to their wider coalition, particularly the business interests that support them. Instead of seeking to make unions or other social movement groups partners in governing, they look to them as just another constituency to be appeased. They do not understand their ability to operate as insiders as tied to movements that shape public opinion and set the parameters for what are considered acceptable and desirable stances by elected leaders. 

    Even when the policies these leaders promote are relatively good ones, the insider “I’ll take it from here” attitude promotes a dangerous demobilization. It reinforces the popularly accepted view of power that sees authority as resting solely in the hands of presidents, senators and CEOs. This sets up the perpetual return of a self-defeating cycle in which, between elections, activated constituencies are encouraged to become mere spectators in the political process. As former Obama advisor and CNN personality Van Jones described the demobilization after the 2008 election, “We went from having a movement to a movie.”

    As it turns out, President Obama himself had an important role in spreading the “make me do it” story — possibly a tale he picked up in his days as an Alinskyite organizer. He recounted the anecdote on the campaign trail in 2008 and later deployed it as a response to LGBT rights organizers pushing him for executive action. But even as he ostensibly invited outside pressure, he was frustrated when he actually encountered it. Harry Belafonte, having previously shared the “make me do it” legend, testified to the disjuncture between myth and actual practice: In 2011, he recounted that he had been invited to White House events on a number of occasions in Obama’s first years in office, but never was able to interact with the president for long enough to engage in any genuine discussion. At one event, Obama approached him and Cornel West and asked when they would “cut me some slack.”

    “What makes you think we haven’t?” Belafonte responded, ending the brief interaction. 

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    Much more significant than his off-handed comments to veteran activists is how Obama managed the once-mighty electoral movement that propelled him to the presidency. Obama’s 2008 drive had defied the rules of typically top-down presidential campaigns, empowering a vast range of grassroots activity by supporters. By deploying both ground-breaking social networking technology and mass trainings in community organizing, the campaign allowed hundreds of thousands of local boosters to take independent initiative to rally neighbors, plan their own campaign events and energize small donors. By the time Obama was elected, the campaign had amassed some critical assets: a battle-hardened core of volunteers and an email list of 13 million supporters, 4 million of whom had donated money and 2.5 million of whom had registered on the campaign’s online organizing platform. Rolling Stone reporter Tim Dickinson quoted longtime Republican strategist Ed Rollins — Ronald Reagan’s national campaign director in 1984 — who marveled at the possibilities: “This would be the greatest political organization ever put together, if it works,” he said. “No one’s ever had these kinds of resources.” 

    Early on, Obama promised that the energy of the campaign would continue and the infrastructure it built would undergird a new grassroots organization; progressive planners within the campaign had envisioned it as an independent-minded operation that could hold up transformative legislation and pressure politicians to enact it. This, however, was not to be. In a February 2017 New Republic article entitled “Inside the Fall of Obama’s Grassroots Army,” journalist Micah Sifry, using previously unreported insider memos and e-mails (including documents from advisor John Podesta that were released by Wikileaks), documented that, even before Obama was elected, party insiders managed to squelch the idea of an autonomous organization. 

    In the wake of the election, advisors convinced Obama to hand over the entire grassroots apparatus to the Democratic National Committee, or DNC. “The move meant that the machinery of an insurgent candidate, one who had vowed to upend the Washington establishment, would now become part of that establishment, subject to the entrenched, partisan interests of the Democratic Party,” Dickinson would write. “It made about as much sense as moving Greenpeace into the headquarters of ExxonMobil.”

    In the crucial months immediately after the 2008 election, the “movement moment” rapidly dissipated as supporters were left without direction about how their energies would be institutionalized. When it did launch, Organizing for America, or OFA, as the DNC-managed group became known, was a shadow of what its original advocates had imagined. With a stated goal to “mobilize supporters in favor of Obama’s legislative priorities,” it did not aim to influence the president’s agenda or “make him” take on positions more resolute than he might have otherwise preferred. To the contrary, it was designed to be a safely on-message cheering section.

    “[T]he organization was mainly known for asking people to donate online and to make phone calls to Congress people,” Van Jones would later remark. “It was confined by the insider strategy, which the DNC and the White House pursued. Rather than mobilizing the people and then cutting a deal with opponents from a position of strength, the White House tended to seek a deal first and then use OFA to mobilize people to fight for the pre-compromised position. This approach may have made sense inside the halls of power, but it left many grassroots supporters cold.”

    Crucially, as an arm of the DNC, the group would not challenge Democratic officials themselves, even conservative members of the party who refused to back ideas such as a “public option” for healthcare reform (which itself was a compromise position that fell far short of comprehensive “Medicare for All” proposals). Given that the Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate through Obama’s first year — and therefore had a once-in-a-generation chance to pass major legislation without Republican obstruction — this was a fatal shortcoming. 

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    Marshall Ganz, a former United Farm Workers organizer who helped engineer the campaign’s community organizing trainings, mournfully noted that Obama’s White House seemed to be “afraid of people getting out of control,” and that the president’s inner circle had been quick to neuter the campaign’s grassroots base. His feelings were echoed by others who had worked on the campaign but grew disillusioned by seeing establishment advisors with little interest in outside organizing take over. “They don’t give a crap about this e-mail list and don’t think it’s a very useful thing,” one former campaign staffer told the website TechPresident. “They want to do stuff the delicate way — the horse-trading, backroom talks, one-to-one lobbying.” 

    As it turned out, over the course of the administration’s first year, career insiders such as Rahm Emanuel would find themselves out-organized by right-wingers who channeled discontent into Tea Party groups that were unafraid to deploy disruptive protest and to target even Republican leaders they found insufficiently responsive. As Sifry concludes, “Instead of mobilizing his unprecedented grassroots machine to pressure obstructionist lawmakers, support state and local candidates who shared his vision, and counter the Tea Party, Obama mothballed his campaign operation, bottling it up inside the Democratic National Committee. It was the seminal mistake of his presidency — one that set the tone for the next eight years of dashed hopes, and helped pave the way for Donald Trump to harness the pent-up demand for change Obama had unleashed.”

    Biden’s relationship with social movements could be significant in determining how long his mandate endures, whether he will pursue more far-reaching reforms, and if a midterm reversal should be regarded as an inevitability.

    Christopher Edley Jr., a policy adviser to the Obama campaign who had pushed for a robust and independent organization argued that the Washington, D.C.-minded political hands closest to the president adhered to a theory of change focused on insider deal-making. Therefore, they did not see how cultivating a base of outsider energy could be critical in reshaping the landscape in which elected officials operated and thereby make more substantive change possible. At the same time, they were fearful that a mobilized base could turn on powerful Democrats, or even the president himself. “If you’re not really that committed, as a matter of principle, to a bottom-up theory of change, then you will find it nonsensical to cede some control in order to gain more power,” Edley concluded. “To me, real movement building had to be about defining and advancing progressivism, not a communication strategy from the West Wing basement costumed as faux movement. The kind of movement we wanted would have helped Obama a great deal, without making it all about him.”

    In a December 2010 op-ed for the Washington Post, Sam Graham-Felsen, who had been Obama’s chief blogger during the campaign, argued that the president’s supporters “were inspired by Obama’s promise to upend Washington by governing from the bottom up. ‘The change we need doesn’t come from Washington,’ Obama told them. ‘It comes to Washington.’ Yet at seemingly every turn, Obama has chosen to play an inside game. Instead of actively engaging supporters in major legislative battles, Obama has told them to sit tight as he makes compromises behind closed doors.”

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    The price of demobilization

    There is a price to the demobilization engendered by this approach to governing. It is taken as conventional wisdom that the majority party will lose seats in midterm elections, and this was certainly the case in 2010. After Obama’s first two years in office, Republicans energized by the Tea Party gained 63 seats in the House of Representatives, and Democrats at the state level faced the most sweeping loss of power since the Eisenhower era

    Elected officials see themselves as indispensable servants of the public good. They want their constituents to be appreciative, and they are rankled at encountering people who are not.

    Unlike Obama, Joe Biden did not present himself in his election campaign as the head of a transformational movement that would unsettle Washington norms, and so he has taken office with considerably different expectations. In recent weeks, Biden’s determination to “go big” in pursuing economic stimulus, along with his success in taking swift action to reverse some of the most repellent abuses of the Trump administration, have amounted to a substantive early agenda. Nevertheless, his relationship with social movements could be significant in determining how long his mandate endures, whether he will pursue more far-reaching reforms, and if a midterm reversal should be regarded as an inevitability.

    On this front, there are ample warning signs. The Trump years saw the emergence of some of the largest mass mobilizations in American history. Yet Biden has not sought to identify himself with these grassroots energies. Instead, he has defined his style as one of “insider competence” and masterful deal-making. In the words of the Los Angeles Times, he “put his ability to forge compromises at the center of his quest for the White House.” Should social movements reject seeing politics as a movie and seek to pressure the administration as well as its Republican rivals, they can expect that Biden will bristle, just as he did when confronted by progressives on the campaign trail.

    Even when the active engagement of their base in ongoing political advocacy enhances their ability to succeed, it is foolhardy to believe that politicians secretly welcome pressure or that they will pay tribute to those who, on select occasions, are able to force their hands. Having invested their faith in their talent for insider maneuvering, these elected officials see themselves as indispensable servants of the public good. They want their constituents to be appreciative, and they are rankled at encountering people who are not. “Cut me some slack,” is how Obama put it. “Give me a break, man,” Biden has already exclaimed. These are just other ways of saying, “Don’t make me do it.”

    Those pushing for transformative changes to our society should expect to hear nothing different. And the ultimate success of the current administration may rely on them not listening.

    Research assistance for this article provided by Akin Olla.

    Meet the trailblazing nuns who took on the patriarchy of the church in the 1960s

    Big white signs with the phrase “I Like God” flapped on a spring afternoon. Other people carried “God Likes Me” signs. There were guitars, flowers, bare feet and a general vibe of hippie love, but also lots of nuns and political statements.

    “What does Mary — patient, Virgin Mary — have to do with revolution? Only everything,” declared Sister Helen Kelley, president of Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles.

    It was Mary Day, 1964, and despite the festive but reverent atmosphere, Cardinal James McIntyre was furious.

    Rebel Hearts,” the documentary that tells the story of these nuns who stood up to the patriarchy and rigidity of the pre-Vatican II Church premiered at virtual Sundance last month and is now taking a turn on the festival circuit. It’s the story of religious women who stood up for the people and the faith they served, and who paid a very high price for their spirit and courage.

    ‘Wake up and be open to your responsibility’

    2021 is the perfect time for “Rebel Hearts” to burst on the scene. As director Pedro Kos and producer Shawnee Isaac-Smith note, the film took 20 years to complete. They could not have predicted that it would be released on the heels of a brutal and uncertain national election or in the midst of a global pandemic — let alone at a time when public space feels dangerous and contested, with white supremacist mobs marauding, rioting and killing. Such chaos may seem a far cry from the religious upheaval of Vatican II — and surely the stakes today seem higher — but the questions for anyone living through a time of radical change remain the same: Will the change be lasting? Will we change too?

    The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary immersed themselves in the movements for change in the world.

    The great juxtaposition in the film is images of nuns marching in the streets against the Vietnam War and for civil rights while the jewel encrusted Cardinal processes like a pasha for a procession through the ornate cathedral. The “nuns took the vow of poverty and we kept it,” a priest with a gleaming watch quipped to the filmmakers.

    Cardinal James McIntyre, an old-school authoritarian from New York, is sent to Los Angeles to oversee the church. He had a background in finance from his days on Wall Street before becoming a priest. He oversaw a Catholic building boom in Los Angeles of churches and parochial schools. The women watched this boom and thought “Who is going to teach in all these schools?”

    The Cardinal viewed nuns as nothing more than “coolie labor for his schools.” The nuns were sent to work in the schools with no training, no resources and no wages. They had 80 children in a class. One nun had 83 sixth and seventh graders in her class. “I didn’t have the skills to manage that many youngsters, much less teach them anything.”

    The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary were immersing themselves in the movements for change in the world. They were educators and artists, scientists and musicians, administrators and activists. They were bringing the Gospel out of the schools, convents and church naves and integrating it into all their interactions.

    One thread running through “Rebel Hearts” is the social activism and radicalism of the nuns, exemplified in the film by Sister Patrice Underwood who traveled from Southern California to answer the call from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to participate in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery for civil rights. She would later share her experiences of marching behind Martin Luther King, having a quiet lunch with Coretta Scott King and being targeted for extra verbal abuse because of her iconic habit. “Wake up and be open to your responsibility to reach out to those suffering racial prejudice and injustice,” she would tell people. The Cardinal asked “Who gave her permission [to go to Selma]?”

    The male power structure of the church was threatened by their assertions and tried to shut them down, but the sisters knew their hearts, their power and their worth.

    It was Sister Mary Humiliata — Anita Caspary — the Mother General of the Immaculate Heart Sisters who gave Sister Patrice permission, and she suffered the consequences. In “Rebel Hearts,” Sister Anita stands out again and again for her compassionate leadership, principled diplomacy and capacious resolve in the face of the Church’s intransigent patriarchy. She studied English and received a doctorate from Stanford and eventually came to lead the college and then the order.

    Sister Corita Kent, the exuberant pop artist whose colorful prints invited and challenged, was another member of the community. It was her clear vision and deft hand that organized the new Mary Day in 1964, attracting many new people. The Cardinal hated her artwork, was threatened by her popularity and sought to have the scope of her vision blinkered.

    Dispensing with the habit and the patriarchy

    With the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII sought to “throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary could feel the fresh air thousands of miles away. Vatican II gave a framework to the openings and connections that the sisters were already pursuing with such vitality. It was a period of profound discovery. The Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters had 540 members and began to enact the Vatican II ethos within the community. Everything was up for reexamination and revision — from the way they prayed and how often, to how they dressed and who they looked to for guidance. They circulated questionnaires, they experimented, they held frequent meetings.

    More than 300 of the 400 sisters renounced their vows to form a new non-canonical community.

    And then, by their 1967 general assembly, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart had their answers and began to enact the changes they wanted to see. They addressed the labor issues that brought the nuns so much pain and exhaustion. They insisted that it would be inhuman — and unfair to both teachers and students — for any sister to teach more than 40 or so students at a time. They demanded sisters should have training and education of their own before they started teaching. Regarding the habit, the sisters’ experiments had proved they could dress modestly and modernly and be nuns without the traditional garb. They dispensed with the habit. They declared that sisters did not need priests to tell them when and how to pray. Finally, after much discernment and prayer, they concluded that they did not need permission to be involved in social and political causes, to march, to organize, to follow their conscience.

    The male power structure of the church was threatened by these assertions and tried to shut them down, but the sisters knew their hearts, their power and their worth. In one day, 200 nuns left their positions at Catholic schools. The church responded by closing the poorer schools and trying to blame it on the nuns.

    Finally, a delegation was sent from Rome to tell the sisters they must comply. But in the meeting, the priests asserted if the rules are too much, the sisters should just accommodate and pretend to do what they are told. It is a stunning moment in the film and a shameful rupture for the faithful. The lie, the silence: It infects the whole Church — from silence and accommodation in the face of sexual abuse and predation to the silence and accommodation toward militarism.

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    A new community takes shape

    The sisters rejected silence, accommodation and secrecy. They rejected the male hierarchy. Corita asked, “What would Jesus say?” The sisters respond by beginning again with enthusiasm, reasserting themselves as a “community of hope in an unending search for personhood.” And to do that they had to leave formal religious life. More than 300 of the 400 sisters renounced their vows to form a new non-canonical community.

    This was a difficult process. In the film one sister imagines it is what divorcing people feel like. But, according to Anita Caspary, this change “gave us the freedom to be self-determining and to make moral choices on the basis of conscience, without leaning on the authority of others.” It is “the same struggle for feminist values that continues for women in all walks of life today, especially for women in the church.”

    “Rebel Hearts” is such a current story and not just because we have the second Catholic president now. These sisters stepped out into the world, and found that the world would welcome them, that it needed their gifts, their love, their intelligence. The Immaculate Heart Community now welcomes men, lay people, families. The community provides a firm foundation for women priests, for church renewal, for radical action, for community. They continue, in a different form than they expected, but they carry on.

    In the end, it seems the institutional church suffered more than the sisters, as it continues to decline in relevance, even as the charisma of vital, fervent love and creativity embodied by the sisters flourishes. As Sister Corita noted in one of her art works at the time, “Let the sun shine in.”

    50 years ago, Winter Soldier exposed the Vietnam War as one long war crime

    Fifty years ago this week, John Kerry and Jane Fonda were both in Detroit, for the groundbreaking Winter Soldier Investigation. Nowadays both are making headlines with actions on the climate crisis, but in February 1971, they were organizing with equal passion against a war. It should be seen as one of the proudest moments of their lives.

    Neither were the stars of Winter Soldier: that honor goes to the more than 300 veterans who had crowded into the Howard Johnson hotel to bear witness to the fact that the Vietnam War was one long war crime.

    With the upcoming trial of Lt. William Calley, who had ordered the killing of hundreds of civilians at “Pinkville” in My Lai province, the new but growing Vietnam Veterans Against the War, or VVAW, had collected dozens of testimonies — evidence that My Lai was anything but uncommon.

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  • How anti-Vietnam War protests thwarted Nixon’s plans and saved lives
  • In February 1971, a decorated battalion commander in Vietnam had just filed charges that some troops in his brigade had engaged in “transmission of electrical shock by means of a field telephone [and used on a Vietnamese girl] a water rag treatment which impaired breathing, hitting with sticks and boards, and beating of detainees with fists.”

    A few months earlier, some VVAW members had participated in a Washington, D.C. event they called a Citizens Commission of Inquiry. They described atrocities, which attorney Tod Ensign linked to specific military policies: “search and destroy,” “free-fire zones,” “take no prisoners.” These policies created an overall dark strategy, in which “search and destroy” missions were conducted without taking Vietcong prisoners, “disposing” of the enemy in other ways, and establishing “free-fire zones” such as “Pinkville.”

    The depositions outlined the results of these three core policies. Soldiers described “search and destroy” missions with no internal prisoner-of-war facilities. This led to commanders simply killing captives, rather than making them prisoners with rights under the Geneva Conventions. “These were the policies dreamt up at Harvard and converted into military strategies in Washington,” added Ensign, who would go on to represent many dissident military personnel and founded CitizenSoldier.org. “When the vets heard Westmoreland say that My Lai was just a couple of bad apples, they couldn’t believe it.”

    Organizers agreed that it was time for a bigger event, to ensure that Congress and the media received this information. Jane Fonda had been supporting GI activists for years and was working with Hollywood peers on a traveling show called “F.T.A.,” a set of black-comedy skits starring Donald Sutherland and Holly Near — with whom she’d tour U.S. military bases around the world — that used some of those testimonies. She insisted that rather than New York or Washington, their national media event should be held in Detroit, the heart of working-class America.

    The Detroit event, held from Jan. 31 to Feb. 2, 1971, felt needed after the New Year, as the military commenced Operation Dewey Canyon, an incursion into Laos and Cambodia. As the Nixon administration battled press inquiries about the incursion and the in-progress Calley trial, VVAW dialed up the pressure with a full-page ad in the February 1971 issue of Playboy, picturing a coffin draped in an American flag. The text accompanying it read, “In the last 10 years, over 335,000 of our buddies have been killed or wounded in Vietnam. And more are being killed and wounded every day. We don’t think it’s worth it.”

    Day after day, these very young men told horror stories of what had become normal in Vietnam.

    In February, nearly 1,000 people crowded into rooms at a Howard Johnson, 300 or so giving testimony over the event’s three days. Acting as older statesmen of sorts were Lt. John Kerry and World War II bombardier Howard Zinn, each taking notes with a lawyer’s intensity.

    Kerry had been active in VVAW for months and had come to the attention of the FBI at a September VVAW event at Valley Forge. At that event, the young veteran the FBI called “John Carry” gave a speech that prefigured the testimony he would eventually give to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “We are here to say that it is not patriotism to ask Americans to die for a mistake and that it is not patriotic to allow a president to talk about not being the first president to lose a war and using us as pawns in that game.” Kerry has long downplayed his role in VVAW, which has been used by his political enemies to somehow paint him as unpatriotic. But what he and Fonda were doing that week was the most American thing they could do — nurturing free speech and dissent.

    You can now watch footage from that week in Detroit on YouTube: The footage shows a characteristic mix of youth, openness, high spirits and that intense quiet that comes from having seen the indescribable. Day after day, these very young men told horror stories of what had become normal in Vietnam.

    It’s more important than ever to remember and acknowledge the veterans who peacefully organized to tell truths only they knew.

    That week, soldiers become veteran-activists. To counter the idea that they were lying, soldiers showed slides and lifted their discharge papers to cameras. Scott Camil, whose cherubic face seemed embraced by his short beard, spoke softly as he described abuse of Vietnamese civilians. Bill Perry urged the room to explore “what causes people to act this way, and what we can do to combat [that].” The testimony horrified even some of the event’s organizers. “[Hearing such horrors described] was jarring,” John Kerry told the New York Times 35 years later. “We’d all heard the stories — just scuttlebutt. But not first-hand.” To these veterans, giving testimony before the media was the only way to alert the American public that the whole war was an atrocity.

    Unfortunately, Winter Soldier was a bust. The Detroit papers ran features every day, which were carefully copied and filed by the FBI. But CBS News refused to use the hours of film they had shot, and the “newspapers of record” (the New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune) ran scant items compared to their ample My Lai coverage. If My Lai had once thrown the moon landing off some newspaper front pages, NASA struck back during Winter Soldier: The news cycle featured Apollo 14’s Alan Shepherd playing golf on the moon. It would take decades before information about these atrocities was declassified and became the landmark book by Nick Turse, “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.”

    With another group of activist veterans now in the headlines — those involved in the racist Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6 — it’s more important than ever to remember and acknowledge the veterans who peacefully organized to tell truths only they knew.

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    Their example inspired post 9/11 veterans to hold a four-day event in Silver Spring, Maryland in 2008 called Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan. That event included “Rules of Engagement” panels about civilians in the crossfire and separate panels on sexism, racism and post-traumatic stress disorder. Nonetheless, like the 1971 Detroit event for which it was named, Winter Soldier was mostly ignored by both the mainstream media and the government — as was the smaller “Winter Soldier on the Hill,” when veterans testified before Congress six weeks later.

    Still, such gatherings empowered vets to take future actions. And Veterans For Peace is planning to hold “Winter Soldier 2021” in March, featuring vets from both of the prior events and a final panel of both current servicemembers and law-enforcement officers now trying to reimagine what public safety means.

    Envision or perish — why we must start imagining the world we want to live in


    “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” These words from the Old Testament Book of Proverbs are uncanny in their present-day relevance. As we are reeling from a pandemic, with the raw wounds of racism uncovered, an unraveling economy and unprecedented threats to our democratic system, imagining the world we want to live in may seem like a luxury. But in reality, there may be no task more important for our time.

    For months and years, it seems that we have been locked into reactivity. We are worn down by the compulsion to respond to each new terrible thing, ready to expire from outrage fatigue.

    Nobody should have been surprised at what unfolded at the Capitol on Jan. 6. It had been building for months, and the dynamic is well-known. Ours is not the first country to be pushed by a far-right nationalist populist movement fueled by white supremacy, racism and economic inequality toward neo-fascism. Fortunately, the center held this time.

    While there may be better governance and incremental gains under centrist Democratic leadership, the most intractable underlying dynamics will go largely unaddressed. With our economic and financial systems hard-wired to reward those at the top at the expense of everybody else, it will take more than good will and tinkering to wrest control of the country from the top 1 percent and redirect it toward meeting common needs.

    Yet the darkest days can offer unexpected opportunities — if we are willing to move beyond the realm of reactivity, fear and damage control, and start having compelling conversations about the world we want.

    When Congress reconvened to continue the vote after the attack on the Capitol, Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, focused his remarks not on the events in the Capitol building, but on neighborhoods across the country. He spoke of our desire to be good neighbors to each other, saying, “The center of America is not Washington, D.C. The center of America is the neighborhoods where 330 million Americans are raising their kids and trying to put food on the table and trying to love their neighbor. That’s the center of America.”

    What if we raised up the stories of our neighborhoods — what makes them whole and what allows them to thrive?

    Building prosperous local economies

    One community group in a mixed neighborhood in Philadelphia offers a remarkable example of what is possible when a group of people envision the community they want, and work together to make that dream a reality. Germantown Residents for Economic Alternatives Together, or GREAT, has captured the imagination and commitment of a growing group of neighbors.

    In reality, the economic interests of small town and rural white folks are closely aligned with those of urban and poor minorities.

    Together they have created opportunities for neighbors to get to know each other, taken the time to hone a stunning set of core values, set up a mutual aid fund to help meet COVID-related needs, and developed projects to share time, talents and needed items. GREAT has also taken on the challenge of gentrification and predatory home-buying — steadily building up a core of connected and engaged community leaders who are ready to take on ever larger challenges.

    “I belong to a couple of other organizations with structures and titles, and GREAT is like a breath of fresh air,” said Dionne Chambers, a long-time Germantown resident, who has become deeply involved with GREAT over the last several years. “It’s so organic. It’s about good people getting together and making sure that everybody participates and everybody’s vision is part of the mission. As we start a new project on wellness, we’re asking what wellness looks like and means to the community. We make sure everybody’s voice is heard, so there’s a place for them, and a way to put their passion into action.”

    While GREAT has a clear vision of the power of good neighbors, activist and author Judy Wicks has long had a vision of the power of good business. Starting in 1983 with a little Philadelphia restaurant, the White Dog Café, she began to see the potential of sourcing locally, and building up a network of mutually supportive farmers and food businesses. She went on to found Fair Food Philly, then the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, followed by the nationwide Business Alliance for Local Living Economies.

    In a new project, All Together Now Pennsylvania, Wicks is working to knit together what appear to be intractably divided rural and urban communities across the state. Moving beyond local food systems, her vision includes increased local self-reliance in fiber, energy and building materials as well. She sees this as a way to build prosperous regional economics that serve everyone, while helping prepare communities to withstand climate change.

    Her goal is not to search for common political ground, but to build on a shared need for livelihood and food, as well as the potential of mutually beneficial economic relationships. The growth of profit-maximizing multinational corporations that have hollowed out rural economies and depressed wages everywhere — along with the divisions that have been whipped up between working people — are benefiting nobody but the owning elite. In reality, the economic interests of small town and rural white folks are closely aligned with those of urban and poor minorities.

    “I believe that the meeting place of the political right and left is community self-reliance,” Wicks said. “Local economies can merge the right’s emphasis on individual self-reliance with the left’s focus on collective endeavors.”

    Reimaging Appalachia

    Not far away, in a region of the country whose wealth has been extracted for more than 200 years for the benefit of others, a group of citizens have gathered to form ReImagine Appalachia. They are working to envision a new economy that is centered on creating local wealth — as well as one that is good for current workers, communities, the environment and everyone in the next generation. Consisting of over a hundred groups in western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, southern Ohio and Kentucky, they are developing a plan to direct public investment toward good jobs that prioritize coal workers, build career ladders and expand opportunity — not to mention a sustainable economy.

    “We actually need coal workers to help us build the 21st century that we want to live in,” said Amanda Woodrum of Ohio Public Policy. “That means work laying rail, for instance, or building out electric vehicle infrastructure for a more sustainable transportation system. That means work modernizing the electric grid.”

    The political advances made by Medicare for All and the Green New Deal show that our country is opening again to vision, if we become bold enough to reach out to those who don’t already agree.

    Coal-fired power plants, with all their infrastructure, could be repurposed into eco-industrial parks that share energy — including renewables — and other resources. Meanwhile, a civilian conservation corps could put people to work repairing the damage from a century of extraction, restoring forests and wetlands, promoting local farmers and soil health. This would all contribute toward reducing the region’s carbon footprint, and help win over folks who traded in their Bernie signs for Trump ones.

    “What the people of Appalachia respond to is sort of a willingness to change and blow up the existing political system,” Woodrum said. “I think the idea of the New Deal that works for us does that.”

    On a national level, we have seen how the emphasis on a Green New Deal can bring climate, justice and labor issues together, as well as groups working on those issues. For example, the youth climate group, Sunrise Movement, spent years honing their vision before it was catapulted onto the scene in the halls of Congress in 2018. Since then, they have been cultivating that vision among youth across the country, then doing the hard work — first with Sanders and then the Biden campaign — that has played such a significant role in President Biden’s climate plan.

    The Nordic example

    As we think about moving forward as a nation, perhaps we can also learn from the example of Norway and Sweden in the 1920s. Poverty was widespread at the time and political polarization was growing, with Nazis at one end and revolutionary communists at the other. The democratic socialists believed they would swing a critical mass to their side by offering a vision of what Sweden and Norway would look like if there were major change. Good health care could be taken out of the market system and made available to all; slums could be replaced by decent housing and everyone could continue with schooling as far as they wished to go. The government could adopt full employment with generous pensions.

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  • US opinion is shifting in favor of the Nordic model — can activists keep up?
  • Affordable childcare could be provided, enabling parents to enter the workforce. Welfare for the poor could be replaced by the right to a decent livelihood for all who could work. Taxation and other means could re-configure the income pyramid from high inequality to relative equality. The result of all these changes would be more individual freedom for everyone, and more democratic decision-making, too.

    Not surprisingly, a majority of working and middle-class people in both countries were attracted to those visions, and the lure of the Nazis and radical communists steadily weakened. Many upper middle-class people took a wait-and-see attitude, thinking the scheme of the democratic socialists sounded impractical, but they were outnumbered. Once the new systems were up and running (first in Sweden, then in Norway), many of the holdouts came to see the wisdom of the vision. By the 1950s, the severity of political polarization had dropped hugely. Although the economic elites still wanted more profits and the workers wanted more say, there was general agreement about the direction in which they were headed. 

    Of course, progressives and the left in Sweden and Norway had an advantage over the United States in making such a big change because they were starting from a place of ethnic homogeneity. On the other hand, when the Scandinavians were advancing their vision, skeptics could claim that no country had ever had such a just and democratic system! They also had fewer resources and a smaller internal market than the United States. What they did then is what we could do now: make the most of what we have instead of letting the economic elite name the game.

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    Now all we need to do in the United States is to adapt “best practices” to our own situation — which is a much lighter lift. The political advances made by Medicare for All and the Green New Deal show that our country is opening again to vision, if we become bold enough to reach out to those who don’t already agree and put vision in common-sense terms. The many Trump voters who have relatives facing medical challenges now and poverty in old age are eager for down-to-earth, practical plans that neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to offer.

    What if we could offer a compelling vision of how our economy can be organized, not for the benefit of the bottom line of transnational corporations, but to actually meet the real needs of real people, in small towns and big cities across the country? There is nothing wrong with putting strategic thought into how to confront wrong-headed policies, delegitimize racist behaviors or win incremental gains. But without a bold vision that’s inclusive and down-to-earth enough to make intuitive sense to the great majority of Americans, not even the best of strategies will be enough to carry the day.

    Overwhelming odds, unexpected alliances and tough losses — how defeating Keystone XL built a bolder, savvier climate movement

    When President Biden rescinded a crucial permit for the Keystone XL pipeline last week, it marked the culmination of one of the longest, highest-profile campaigns in the North American climate movement. The opposition to Keystone XL included large environmental organizations, grassroots climate activist networks, Nebraska farmers, Texas landowners, Indigenous rights groups and tribal governments. Few environmental campaigns have touched so many people over such large swaths of the continent.

    The Keystone XL resistance was part of the ongoing opposition to the Canadian tar sands, one of the most carbon-intensive industrial projects on the planet. Yet, it came to symbolize something even bigger. Many activists saw stopping Keystone XL as a measure of success for the climate movement itself.

    “Keystone XL isn’t just any project,” said longtime activist Matt Leonard, who coordinated several major protests against the pipeline. “Its defeat is a testament to what movement building and direct action can accomplish.”

    A stroke of President Biden’s pen finally killed Keystone XL. But paving the way for this victory were countless battles at the grassroots level, where activists tested new tactics and organizing strategies that built a bolder, savvier climate movement. Some of the groups involved took radically different approaches to politics, leading to unexpected alliances and occasional bitter feuds. And there were losses — other major oil pipelines, including the southern leg of Keystone XL itself, were completed even as the fight over the more famous northern half dragged on.

    Yet, resistance to the Keystone XL’s northern leg succeeded against overwhelming odds. While there is always a possibility it could be resurrected someday, chances of that happening anytime soon seem slim. Understanding how this victory happened — and what it means for the climate movement — requires examining how 10-plus years of tar sands resistance played out in far-flung parts of North America.

    The frontlines of tar sands extraction

    If the international movement against the tar sands has a birthplace, it is probably Minnesota — specifically, at the 2006 Protecting Mother Earth Summit, which was organized by the Indigenous Environmental Network, or IEN. There, three women from the Deranger clan of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Alberta approached IEN staff with a story about something horrific happening in their community.

    “They told us about a project so large, so devastating that you had to see it to believe it,” IEN organizer Clayton Thomas-Muller wrote in a reflection. “They spoke of a wild west of sorts, one of the last bastions of Earth where big oil was ramping up.”

    Over the next few years, dozens of groups on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border joined the fight that began with Indigenous organizers in Alberta

    Fort Chipewyan’s mostly Indigenous population had watched in dismay as oil companies began mining a low-quality form of petroleum known as bitumen from the Athabasca tar sands deposit in their backyard. The operation required razing old-growth forest to reach the clay and sand underneath, then using toxic chemicals to separate the petroleum. Tar sands extraction consumes 3-4 barrels of water to produce a barrel of crude with a carbon footprint 15 percent higher than conventional oil. Lakes of leftover toxic mine tailings were leaking into local water supplies, causing cancer clusters in downstream villages.

    The industry’s base of operations was to the south, in Fort McMurray, a town of 35,000 whose population more than doubled as workers streamed in to take advantage of temporary jobs. Oil field “man camps” became hotbeds for human sex trafficking, especially of Indigenous women. The situation was already dire when the Deranger women came to IEN seeking help.

    IEN had a long history opposing extractive industries on Indigenous lands, and worked with Fort Chipewyan locals to develop a campaign against the tar sands centered around pressuring governments and financial institutions. Meanwhile, U.S. and Canadian environmental groups were waking up to what was happening. The tar sands made a mockery of Canada’s climate goals while threatening to flood the United States with exceptionally dirty oil sent through a network of new pipelines.

    Over the next few years, dozens of groups on both sides of the border joined the fight that began with Indigenous organizers in Alberta. Along the way, the campaign to stop the tar sands helped reinvigorate a climate movement that had accepted defeat for too long.

    Tar Sands Action

    The tar sands industry’s expansion plans hinged on building a series of major pipelines to reach U.S. consumers. One, the Keystone pipeline, not to be confused with Keystone XL, won approval from the George W. Bush administration in 2008. Activists had little chance of stopping that project under an oil-friendly president but they hoped things would change when Barack Obama took office the following year.

    What else could they do to make the protests go away, the Obama administration wanted to know? Nothing, the activists responded. They wanted Keystone XL stopped.

    The tar sands presented Obama with one of his first major climate tests — and the administration failed. Pipelines that cross the U.S.-Canadian border require a special permit issued by the State Department and approval by the president. In 2009, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton granted the permit for Enbridge’s Clipper tar sands pipeline, despite lobbying from environmental groups. The next major tar sands conduit was up for approval in 2011. Proposed by TransCanada (now TC Energy) to complement its older Keystone pipeline, Keystone XL would carry up to 800,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. Absent some dramatic new force in politics, Keystone XL would almost certainly be built.

    The environmental movement had walked away from such daunting conflicts before. But climate groups had been looking for an opportunity to push Obama for bolder action. In June 2011, prominent voices including 350.org’s Bill McKibben, author Naomi Klein and Tom Goldtooth of IEN published an open invitation to a multiday protest intended to change the dynamics of the Keystone XL fight. Every day for two weeks, a few dozen to a couple hundred people would sit in front of the White House until they were arrested. Each day, a new group would be led away by police. The protest was calculated to make Obama finally act decisively on climate change by withholding Keystone XL’s permit — something he could do without help from Congress.

    “You don’t often find perfect fights like that,” said Jamie Henn of 350.org, the group who spearheaded the Tar Sands Action. “Hitting on that specific ask of Obama, to show climate leadership by rejecting a pipeline he had full authority over, was a breakthrough for us.”

    People began signing up online. On the first day of the Tar Sands Action, 70 protesters including McKibben marched to the White House and sat around a banner reading, “Climate Change is Not in Our National Interest: Stop the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline.”

    The group anticipated they would be arrested, then brought to the police station and allowed to post bail. Instead, they were taken to jail and kept for two nights. “People protest at the White House all the time,” said Leonard, whom 350.org recruited to be the lead organizer for the Tar Sands Action. “But dozens of new people getting arrested every day — the police weren’t used to that. So they tried to deter us.”

    Leonard and other organizers wondered what came next. Could the action continue, or would future waves of protesters be dissuaded? “The only thing we need is more company,” McKibben assured them when they placed a call to the jail. The protest went on.

    Over the next couple days, the police gave up their strategy of intimidation as new waves of protesters arrived. “They released everyone after realizing we were going to flood their jails,” Leonard said. Soon, organizers were getting calls from the White House asking them to stop.

    At a face-to-face meeting with McKibben, Henn, and other activists, Obama’s team explained it was politically impractical to deny a major pipeline permit. What else could they do to make the protests go away, they wanted to know? Nothing, the activists responded. They wanted Keystone XL stopped.

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  • Entirely surrounded: Protesters encircle White House, close in on tar sands industry
  • “The Tar Sands Action was just 50 or so people getting arrested at the White House each day,” Henn said. “This wasn’t the revolution. Yet we made Obama feel really pressured. We realized we needed to do this sort of thing more often.” By the end of the two weeks, 1,252 people had been arrested in what was then the U.S. climate movement’s largest act of civil disobedience. Obama pushed back the decision on Keystone XL’s cross-border permit to an indefinite future date. Perhaps the administration hoped protests would fade with time.

    Meanwhile, Obama made one of his famous compromises: While continuing to review the section of Keystone XL that crossed into Canada, he would fast-track the southern leg between Cushing, Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast. Construction on this section began the following year.

    In the woods of North Texas

    One warm October day in 2012, Texan Maggie Gorry sat atop a 40-foot pole in the path of tractors clearing a path for Keystone XL. Other activists watched from platforms in nearby trees. The pipeline had encountered a human roadblock. It all started when a group of University of North Texas friends returned from the Tar Sands Action and began talking with local landowner David Daniel.

    Daniel was one of many farmers and landowners along Keystone XL’s route whose land was to be condemned through eminent domain for the pipeline. He served as an official spokesperson for the Tar Sands Action. But when Obama allowed the southern leg of Keystone XL to go ahead, most large climate groups turned to the more winnable fight against the northern half. To some Texas activists, it felt like betrayal.

    “Keystone XL was one project that ran all the way to the Gulf Coast,” said Cindy Spoon, a UNT student arrested on the second day of the Tar Sands Action. “But that became inconvenient for national groups and they stopped talking about it that way.”

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  • Don’t mess with Texas’ Tar Sands Blockade
  • Daniel had vowed to build a treehouse in the pipeline’s path, if necessary, to block construction on his land. Spoon and other UNT students offered to help. They drove out to Daniel’s property on weekends to build wooden platforms. Slowly, the idea of involving large numbers of people in a sustained protest called the Tar Sands Blockade took shape.

    The “treehouse” expanded to multiple connected platforms high above the ground. “It was more like a tree village,” Spoon said. When TC Energy’s bulldozers arrived in September 2012, a group of activists ascended into the canopy. Protesters were prepared to block tree-felling equipment with their bodies, sometimes at great personal risk.

    On one occasion, pipeline workers cut multiple trees attached to ropes supporting a structure on Daniel’s property where four activists sat high off the ground. In another incident, captured on video, an earthmover ripped a large tree from the earth as activist J.G. Genson approached to force it to stop working. Footage showed the operator repeatedly swing the tree toward and away from Genson, who sat down to show he didn’t intend to move. “It felt like he was aiming a loaded gun at me and would pull the trigger any second,” Genson said. He had to leap to safety when the machine dropped the trunk dangerously near him.

    After more than a week, TC Energy made the legally dubious move of bringing its equipment outside the designated construction right-of-way to skirt around the tree village. Gorry’s vigil on the pole, which blockaders erected by night in the bulldozers’ new path, was part of a last-ditch effort to delay the company as long as possible.

    Gorry stayed on the pole a full 48 hours. After she finally came down, protesters continued harrying TC Energy on its advance toward the coast, slowing but not ultimately stopping construction. Still, their efforts weren’t futile.

    With all its internal disagreements and conflicts over very real systemic issues, the Keystone XL campaign helped energize a wider movement to stop pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure.

    “We had four goals for the blockade,” Spoon said. They were: stop the pipeline, elevate the plight of landowners like Daniel, push the climate movement to embrace more escalated direct action, and legitimize resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure in Texas. They accomplished all but the first.

    The Tar Sands Blockade was an early experiment with sustained direct action of a kind that later became common in the climate movement. Over the next few years, even larger acts of mass resistance to pipelines exploded across the continent. At the forefront were Indigenous people who had led the opposition to tar sands since the beginning.

    Building Indigenous resistance

    When Joye Braun heard about plans to build the original Keystone pipeline near her tribe’s ancestral homeland, she immediately saw it as a threat to her people.

    Braun, who is Cheyenne River Sioux and grew up on the tribe’s South Dakota reservation, was dismayed when the Bush administration approved Keystone. She was living in Washington State at the time, but in 2010 moved back to the Cheyenne River Reservation where she joined the fight against the next piece of TC Energy’s pipeline network. An early version of the route for Keystone XL would have cut through the reservation, but TC altered its plans in the face of tribal opposition. More than once, tribal police escorted company vehicles off the reservation to enforce a policy barring it from their land.

    “Once they realized we were serious about exercising our sovereignty, they rerouted to just south of our border,” Braun said. Keystone XL’s new path crossed the Cheyenne River less than half a mile outside the reservation — still close enough to threaten the tribe’s water supply in the event of an oil spill. Opposition remained fierce.

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  • Indigenous resistance grows strong in Keystone XL battle
  • Braun volunteered with Owe Aku International Justice Project, an organization founded by Lakota activist Debra White Plume that defends Indigenous sovereignty and was instrumental in the Keystone XL fight. In 2013-2014, Owe Aku organized a series of nonviolent direct action trainings along the Keystone XL route, in anticipation of construction on the northern leg. The events included skills workshops, traditional teachings, and spiritual preparation for the fight ahead. “It was exhausting but uplifting,” Braun said. “We were coming together and finding our voice.”

    White Plume was experienced with direct action, having joined the 1973 American Indian Movement occupation of Wounded Knee. She, Braun and other leaders knew their work was dangerous. For some Indigenous training participants, the idea of engaging in forceful protest took some getting used to. “We had been conditioned for so long not to do that sort of thing because it would draw attention to us,” Braun said. “We’d had to avoid conflict to survive as a people. But sometimes those tactics are necessary.” She watched as tribal elders prepared to thrust themselves into the spotlight protesting the pipeline. “It was both scary and liberating.”

    The immediate threat from Keystone XL receded when, after years of indecision, Obama finally rejected the northern leg in November 2015. Never before had a U.S. president stopped a major piece of oil infrastructure due to climate concerns. However, Braun and others were soon taking direct action to stop a different project: the Dakota Access pipeline.

    The proposed route for Dakota Access skirted the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which shares a border with the Cheyenne River Reservation to the south. Although not primarily a tar sands pipeline, Dakota Access connected to another center of fossil fuel expansion: North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields. It cut under the Missouri River, jeopardizing Standing Rock’s water supply.

    “We got a call from Standing Rock asking for help,” Braun said. “I reached out to our Cheyenne River youth who’d been training for Keystone XL, and asked if they were ready to fight another pipeline? They said yes.”

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  • How #NoDAPL united a movement for indigenous rights
  • Braun was among the first to arrive at Standing Rock in April 2016, as locals prepared to set up encampments in the pipeline’s path. Over the next few months, thousands of Indigenous people and non-Indigenous supporters from around the continent converged there for the largest protest of its kind in modern U.S. history. Police used chemical weapons, water cannons and attack dogs on protesters; Braun sustained permanent lung damage she attributes to the chemicals. However, the encampments also proved amazingly successful. In December 2016, the outgoing Obama administration reversed an Army Corps of Engineers permit for Dakota Access, stopping construction.

    The victory was short-lived, as one of the new Trump administration’s first acts was to re-approve Dakota Access and invite TC Energy to re-submit its Keystone XL application. But Standing Rock showed how years of preparation to resist Keystone XL had galvanized a larger wave of opposition to oil. “Keystone XL taught us a lot about how to build alliances and fight pipelines,” Braun said. “We could use all that for other fights.”

    A mass movement

    In February 2013, an estimated 50,000 people converged on the National Mall for the Forward on Climate rally, one of the largest demonstrations against Keystone XL. In 2017, Nebraska ranchers installed solar panels in the pipeline’s path. There were protests and acts of civil disobedience against Keystone XL from coast to coast. Such a huge effort required a diverse coalition of activist groups, but relationships between them weren’t always without tension. “We definitely argued,” Braun said. “There were lots of tears. For example, we faced a lot of white privilege and racism dealing with our non-Native peers.”

    Then there was the battle for the narrative around the pipeline’s southern leg. “The big NGOs portray the Keystone XL campaign as a complete victory won in D.C.,” Cindy Spoon said. “Their priorities were having big rallies and marches there, where grassroots people don’t have a lot of power, instead of having those same things along the pipeline route in Oklahoma or Texas.”

    Yet, with all its internal disagreements and conflicts over very real systemic issues, the Keystone XL campaign helped energize a wider movement to stop pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure — from coal mines in Montana to fracking projects in New England. For organizers of some of the most iconic tar sands protests, this was a goal from the start. “Our hope was the Tar Sands Action would inspire people, capture their imaginations, and they’d take that inspiration back to climate fights in their communities,” Matt Leonard said.

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  • Indigenous-led resistance to Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline threatens Big Oil’s last stand
  • Most significant of all was the Indigenous movement that united around Keystone XL and achieved its most visible expression at the Standing Rock encampments. From the Texas Trans-Pecos pipeline to the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana to the Line 3 tar sands pipeline in Minnesota, oil projects all over the U.S. faced Indigenous-led direct action campaigns in the years after Standing Rock.

    All the while, climate activists and Indigenous groups kept one eye on Keystone XL. A May 2020 court ruling blocked TC Energy from building parts of the pipeline across streams. Even so, the company began work on other sections last year, when COVID-19 made large protests difficult to plan.

    Groups like the Indigenous youth-led Cheyenne River Grassroots Collective sprang into action, despite challenges posed by the virus. On Nov. 21, Jasilyn Charger of the Cheyenne River Sioux was arrested after locking herself to a pump station along the pipeline route. It was a harbinger of the larger scale direct action to come if construction began in earnest. Organizations like 350.org stood by, ready to assist if and when Indigenous leaders put out the call for a Standing Rock-style mobilization.

    Things never got to that point, though. On day one of his administration, President Biden rescinded Keystone XL’s permit, halting all work on the project.

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    Moving forward

    The fight against Keystone XL may be over for now, but for the movement that came together to stop it the work of pressuring the Biden administration has just begun. “We can’t back off,” Leonard said. “Biden is certainly not Trump, but he’s no climate justice champion. It’s going to take real grassroots pressure to move him on other issues.”

    Besides stopping Keystone XL, Biden’s early climate actions include freezing new fossil fuel leases on public lands and restarting pollution regulations. But he has not overturned permits for other major pipelines, despite having options to do so. On Tuesday, a circuit court upheld a decision voiding the Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of Dakota Access. Biden could require that the pipeline shut down while the Corps writes a new environmental impact statement. He could also revoke the permit for Line 3, now under construction. “To be the climate president he claims to be, Biden needs to stop these pipelines as well,” Braun said.

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  • How Generation Z is leading the climate movement
  • Climate activists lost no time mobilizing in the administration’s early days. “We want to create a political atmosphere that says climate change is happening and we need to act,” said Shiva Rajbhandari of Extinction Rebellion Youth Boise, which organized an Inauguration Day banner drop at Idaho’s State Capitol. The following day, the youth-led Sunrise Movement held similar actions all over the country. “Biden and other Democrats could not have won without the huge block of Gen Z voters who care about climate,” Rajbhandari said. “Now we’re holding these politicians accountable.”

    Also important is making sure Keystone XL never resurfaces. “I call it the zombie pipeline,” Braun said. “I believe this is the nail in the coffin, but we have to be vigilant. A future president could bring Keystone XL back unless we stop it permanently through legislation or the courts.” Groups like Indigenous Environmental Network are pursuing this long-term objective.

    From organizing in communities on the frontlines of extraction to large national mobilizations to sustained direct action in places like Texas and the Cheyenne River Reservation, opposition to Keystone XL tested strategies climate groups will likely need in many other campaigns to come. The election of Joe Biden has opened the door to new opportunities — but it doesn’t mean activists can rest.

    “I think Biden rightly realizes the climate movement has become a powerful force in politics,” Leonard said. “Keystone XL’s defeat is one of the most visible symbols of that. Now we need to push forward with more fights like it.”

    The beginning of the end for nuclear weapons

    Today is the day the United Nation’s Treaty on Nuclear Weapons goes into effect. It’s the long planned but seemingly impossible day millions — if not billions — of people have waited for since Hiroshima Day, August 6, 1945.

    Today, the U.N. treaty declares that the manufacture, possession, use or threat to use nuclear weapons is illegal under international law, 75 years after their development and first use. Actions, events, vigils and celebrations will be held around the nation and the globe to mark this historic moment.

    Even though I’ve spent most of my life working for the abolition of nuclear weapons, I never thought I’d live to see this day. The most striking test of faith came in none other than Oslo, Norway, where my friend, actor Martin Sheen, and I were invited to be the keynote speakers at the launch of something called “The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons,” or ICAN, which went on to the win the Nobel Peace Prize.

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  • Unlike the pandemic, nuclear war can be stopped before it begins
  • I have been arrested dozens of times for nonviolent civil disobedience actions against nuclear weapons, including at the White House, the Pentagon, several Trident submarine bases, the SAC command base near Omaha, Nebraska, the Nevada Test Site and Livermore Labs. Since 2003, I have led the annual Hiroshima Day peace vigil outside the national nuclear weapons labs in Los Alamos, New Mexico. I had been planning with friends a major anti-nuclear vigil, rally and conference near Los Alamos, New Mexico to mark the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima, but instead, we held a powerful virtual online conference seen by thousands that featured Dr. Ira Helfand, co-founder of the Nobel Prize-winning Physicians for Social Responsibility and one of the leaders of ICAN.

    On Dec. 7, 1993, with Philip Berrigan and two friends, I walked on to the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, right through the middle of national war games, up to one of the nuclear-capable F15 fighter bombers and hammered on it, to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that some day people would “beat swords into plowshares and study war no more.” For that act, I faced 20 years in prison, was convicted on several felony counts, spent nine months in a tiny cell, several years under house arrest and continued to be heavily monitored by the government. My friends, Dan and Phil Berrigan, who launched the Plowshares movement dreamed of this day. Other friends sit in prisons across the nation today for their recent actions.

    But this was something else. This was a first for me. We had been brought to Oslo by the Norwegian government. We stood before some 900 people that Saturday night, March 1, 2013, at the civic forum, which preceded the global gathering of representatives from over 132 nations. (Of course, the United States refused to attend.) The formal meeting would start Monday morning. As far as we could tell, there had never been such a conference before in history.

    Martin began his talk by thanking ICAN for their work to build a global abolition movement, and encouraged everyone to keep at it. He read aloud their general call for nuclear-armed states to completely eliminate nuclear weapons — and a treaty banning any state from developing them.   

    Martin Sheen and John Dear at the launch of ICAN in 2013. (WNV/John Dear)

    For the next 48 hours we spoke non-stop, in workshops, to the press, to small groups and large groups. We were given a private tour of the Nobel Peace Prize museum, attended a reception with the Norwegian Parliament and met many members and politicians whom we urged to carry on their initiative for the abolition of nuclear weapons, including Norway’s foreign minister, the Vice President of Parliament, and the Mayor of Oslo.

    It was there at that reception that we met Dr. Ira Helfand, who told us that — for the first time in four decades — he felt hopeful about nuclear disarmament. There has never been such an important gathering in history, he said with a smile.

    At one point during the ICAN conference, a teenage student asked to speak privately with me. He confided that he was one of the survivors of the massacre a year and a half before, when an insane shooter killed 78 children during their summer camp on an island in a large lake not far from Oslo. My new friend told me how he dodged the bullets and swam far out into the lake and barely survived. He wanted to talk with me about nonviolence and forgiveness. I encouraged him on his journey of healing toward a deeper peace, but was profoundly moved by his connection between the summer camp massacre and the global massacre that can be unleashed through nuclear weapons. He saw now what most people refuse to see. And he was determined to do his part to prevent a global massacre of children.

    All of these experiences were so touching and inspiring, but there was something even more powerful afoot. From the moment we landed in Oslo, as we met various dignitaries and longtime anti-nuclear leaders from around the globe, we heard the same statement over and over again: We are going to abolish nuclear weapons.

    After a while, Martin and I looked at one another and thought to ourselves: something’s not right with these people. Sure, we do what we can, of course, but we’re not going to live to see the abolition of nuclear weapons. Our new friends were drinking the Kool-Aid. 

    But we didn’t know who we were dealing with, nor did we yet understand the faith and hope that undergirds lasting global change movements. These were the same people who organized the global campaign to outlaw landmines in 1997. These were the same people who organized the global campaign to ban cluster bombs in 2008. Now, they were telling us calmly, they were setting their sights on nuclear weapons. They intended to use the same tried and true strategy to slowly plot their end. This was going to work. No doubt about it.

    All we have to do is get 50 nations to sign a U.N. treaty banning nuclear weapons, they said; then we can slowly chip away at every other nation in the world, until all that are left of the nine nuclear weapons nations who will eventually be shamed into dismantling their weapons and signing the United Nations’ Treaty. It was a no-brainer.

    “Well, good luck with that,” we said.

    And here we are. Today, the treaty goes into effect. Today is the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.

    For my friends and me, this is a day we never quite believed we would see. 

    Nuclear weapons have totally failed us. They bankrupt us, economically and spiritually.

    “Right now, the treaty does not legally apply to the United States,” said Ken Mayers of Veterans for Peace New Mexico, “because we have not signed or ratified it. But that does not mean we will not be feeling the moral force of the treaty. All nuclear weapons, including the thousands in the U.S. stockpile, have been declared unlawful by the international community.” 

    Mayers and others will keep vigil today near the labs in Los Alamos, New Mexico, calling for an end to weapons development. Similar vigils will be held across the United States today with banners hung outside nuclear weapons production sites declaring “Nuclear Weapons Are Illegal!”

    “The treaty is a turning point,” said Joni Arends, of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety. “On the one hand, it is the end of a long process to outlaw nuclear weapons. On the other hand, it is just the beginning of a new movement to confront nuclear weapons states and demand they lift the dark shadow of nuclear annihilation that has loomed over the world for the last 75 years.” 

    “The U.S. was among the last major countries to abolish slavery but did so in the end,” said Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “To modify Dr. King’s famous quote: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards [the] justice’ of abolishing nuclear weapons. This ban treaty is the beginning of that end and should be celebrated as such.” 

    Every time we have journeyed up to Los Alamos over the years, we offered the same, simple message: Nuclear weapons have totally failed us. They don’t make us safer; they can’t protest us; they don’t provide jobs; they don’t make us more secure; they’re sinful, immoral and inhuman. They bankrupt us, economically and spiritually.

    According to the Doomsday Clock, we are in greater danger now than ever. A limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan is very possible; an all-out nuclear war would end life as we know it. If we spent billions instead on teaching and building nonviolent civilian-based defense systems and nonviolent conflict resolution programs around the world, to be orchestrated by the United Nations, we could make war itself obsolete.

    The work of ICAN and the United Nations to get 50 nations to outlaw nuclear weapons and build a process toward their elimination is one of the most exciting, hopeful — if widely ignored — movements in the world today.

    Just before Christmas, Dr. Helfand called me. He continues to work morning to night in a Massachusetts clinic treating COVID patients, but he wanted to talk about the treaty. “How can we push Americans to demand that the United States sign the treaty and dismantle our arsenal,” he asked me? “How can we mobilize the movement to make President Biden and the U.S. Congress do the right thing?”

    That’s the question. We talked about various efforts we could make, and agreed to do what we could. “The responsibility lies with us,” he said. “We were the first to use nuclear weapons; we must be the ones to end them once and for all.”

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    A few days later, he sent me an email with the gist of our message. In addition to climate change, the nearly 14,000 nuclear weapons in the world pose an existential threat to humanity. The threat of nuclear war has never been greater, with tensions rising between the United States, Russia and China. Even a limited nuclear war could kill hundreds of millions, and bring about a global famine that would put billions of people at risk. A larger war could kill the vast majority of humanity. 

    “This is not the future that must be,” Dr. Helfand wrote me. “Nuclear weapons are not a force of nature. They are little machines that we have built with our own hands, and we know how to take them apart. Nations around the world have come together in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It is time for us to move back from the brink and eliminate nuclear weapons before they eliminate us.”

    And so, the day has come when that long dreamed of future has become a real possibility. Our task is to make the possible probable, and then actual. Time to get back to work. We need to call President Biden and Congress, write letters to the editor, mobilize the movement, tell the nation: Let’s abolish nuclear weapons now, once and forever, and use the billions of dollars we spend on these weapons to vaccinate everyone, rebuild our nation, protect the environment, abolish war and poverty, and welcome a new culture of peace and nonviolence. 

    As I learned in Oslo, anything is possible if you believe.

    Martin Luther King’s vision of a interconnected world is more relevant than ever

    We are facing converging global crises — a horrific pandemic, worsening economic inequality both in the United States and globally, climate change and the continuing scourge of systemic racism around the world. What would Martin Luther King Jr. think or advise if he were alive today? What might he say in these days after the Capitol Building was attacked by a primarily white mob that was seeking to usurp the results of a free and fair election and implement an America First agenda through violent force?

    To get to these answers, we need to consider one of King’s most important and overlooked pieces of writing, The World House, a chapter in the last book he wrote, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” This chapter was taken largely from the acceptance speech he gave when he received his Nobel Peace Prize. It is one that he pored over for more than a month, as he prepared to use his platform on a global stage to make a call for a radical new world.

    The metaphor of the “World House” came to King when he read a newspaper article about a famous novelist who had died. “Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: ‘A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together,'” King wrote. “This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together — Black and white, easterner and westerner, gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu — a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”

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  • Why we need to move closer to King’s understanding of nonviolence
  • King’s writing came with a promise: we could be on the edge of an important philosophical and systemic breakthrough, where the understanding and solidarity of a more connected world leads us to build systems that more effectively satisfy the full human needs of all. It also came with a warning though. If we do not dismantle white supremacy and systemic racism, if we continue to invest in the military at far greater rates than we invest in the poor and other vulnerable people, if we fail to take seriously the wealth gap at home and between the richest nations and our neighbors we will, like so many before us, descend into the “junk heaps” of history, not from external threats but from our own “internal decay.”

    Sadly, much of that decay has only worsened in the United States and the response to it requires the continued growth of disciplined nonviolent social movements that continue to push for change without falling into the America First trap. This required in King’s eyes a major shift in our worldview. One of the greatest shortcomings of modernity he saw was the tragic delusion that we are more separate than we are. King believed that a sense of radical interconnectivity must be a cornerstone of movement analysis and social justice. What are the barriers to this sense of solidarity? In the World House he focuses on racism, greed and systematic economic exploitation, as well as nationalism and militaristic ambition, as major forces that continue to push us apart and toward the brink of annihilation.

    COVID-19 is a dramatic and painful reminder of how things work when they go awry in the World House. In the World House what affects one can affect all indirectly eventually, but not all people are impacted equally. Under one roof, in the World House, if someone is sick, then you may catch it. If someone is poor, they can be hidden away, banished into the basement with little light or access to that which helps sustain life, but they are still there. In the World House today, the disenfranchised increasingly are aware of what the master bedroom looks like, that those with privilege sit at the dinner table and enjoy the finest food while they are left with so little. Our housemates, “essential workers” as they are called currently, grow the food, serve the coffee and tend to the sick, often with far too little financial support.

    When King said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere it was not a moralistic platitude encouraging us to be nice to each other.

    There is an unavoidable resentment that comes with that but also a tremendous loss well before any pitchforks are raised or mops set on fire or protests planned. The creativity, the dignity, the safety that comes from sharing a home in a way that allows for us to be fully human together is not possible in this setting. Our relationships in this state of inequality are twisted, stunted, as the privileged in the World House look to barricade themselves and are protected and shielded from many of life’s hardships. This creates a false sense of separation and security, and it reinforces a false superiority.

    In this way, America has a long history of social distancing. We have in our society been social distancing from the beginning. When European colonists killed Indigenous people and forced them onto reservations, the government made genocide followed by social distancing (the reservation) an official policy. When white people violently forced Black people into bondage for 400 years this ensured distancing. We cannot remain intimately connected while denying people basic freedoms and enforcing that exploitation through physical, sexual, psychological and spiritual violence.

    Today we are at a distance when the gap between the poor and rich increases so dramatically that 90 percent of the wealth is in the hands of 1 percent of the population, when a Black mother has to worry about the fact that, during childbirth, she is five times more likely to die or lose her child than a white mother. We are creating social distance and reinforcing it when we accept schools that are more racially segregated today than when King died.

    King was calling for an end to the pain of this kind of social distancing long before COVID-19 shined a light on the destructive impacts of this separation. He offered three main areas to work on.

    First, we must work all over the world with “unshakable determination to wipe out the last vestiges of racism.” We have seen this work return to the forefront of global struggles for justice again with the Movement for Black Lives. There has been a global outpouring of support and love for this movement, with people from Palestine to South Korea stepping up to show support. Equally inspiring, Black people around the world have led their own movements in their countries challenging systemic racism.

    Second, there needs to be what King called a “global war on poverty” that invests heavily in the education and health of people living in poverty. We need to make sure that people receive a living wage and that the excesses of the richest are curbed so resources can be more equitably distributed. Importantly, he called for large sustained government initiatives like the New Deal and an updated Marshall Plan to build or rebuild the infrastructure in communities impacted by poverty and systemic racism. This could be done from Baltimore and rural West Virginia to Mogadishu — and here too we have seen global movements demanding more equitable distribution of resources and opportunity.

    While many are rightly calling for healing, I think King would remind us that healing is forged in the fire of struggling together for justice.

    Finally, when King said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere — or that we are tied together in a single garment of destiny — it was not a moralistic platitude encouraging us to be nice to each other. This was a statement about the fundamental nature of our world and what it will take to survive and thrive together.

    “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” King said. He saw a society that too easily justified the murder of people halfway around the world, not just in his time but for generations. The use of the U.S. military abroad was, to him, part of a legacy of European colonialism that was deeply rooted in racism and white supremacy, with the primary goals not to promote democracy but domination and economic exploitation.

    This analysis led to a scathing critique of the Vietnam War, which was even criticized by many of his allies at the time. “Whether we realize it or not our participation in the war in Vietnam is an ominous expression of our lack of sympathy for the oppressed, our paranoid anti-communism, our failure to feel the ache and anguish of the have-nots,” he said. “It reveals our willingness to continue participating in neo-colonialist adventures.”

    King knew that a history of racial and economic exploitation and violence influenced the everyday lives of Black people, having stood side by side with Black veterans as police and white hoodlums attacked them and other Black activists across the country. Reminding people of the brutal poverty of America’s ghettos, King on other occasions described these connections as “a system of internal colonialism not unlike the exploitation of the Congo by Belgium.” War, then, was just the spectacular projection of that violence to people abroad — and as we see with the militarization of police today, that violence inevitably returns home.

    King’s recognition of profound interconnectivity demanded that human security be grounded in the quality of our relationships, the systems we have in place to support people when things get hard, and by creating international frameworks to guarantee equity and human dignity over profit.

    We are as deeply polarized as we have ever been in the United States. The Trump presidency was the antithesis of King’s vision, as it sought to build power by stoking white racial anxiety and rage — as well as fear about economic inequality — by pitting people against each other. While many are rightly calling for healing, I think King would remind us that healing is forged in the fire of struggling together for justice. In other words, this can only occur when we engage in truth-telling about these underlying conditions and push for bold systemic changes.

    Fortunately, radical interconnectivity also implies new possibilities for movements in terms of building power from the ground up globally — and for pushing for national and international policies that impact systemic change. We still have barely scratched the surface of that power and what is possible when people organize to fight together around the world. While there have been global economic boycotts and strikes for climate action and racial justice, COVID-19 showed us how profound the economic impact of a global shutdown can be even if sustained for just a few short weeks.

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    The outpouring for Black Lives Matter is extraordinary, but that broad base will need to continue to expand, if we are to make the bold changes that King called for over 50 years ago, and are still desperately needed today.

    What does this kind of work — to advance systemic rather than piecemeal change — look like in practice? In part, it entails finding and supporting those activists who are already building bridges in their work. We can see the power of this kind of cross-pollination in the rich history of Black women organizers, from Harriet Tubman to Ella Baker. It also exists with contemporary activists and peacebuilders such as the Black Lives Matter activists in Ferguson, Missouri, who connected with and formed alliances with other activists around the world, including Palestinians.

    In King’s time, this bringing together of the racial justice movement with the antiwar and postcolonial movements — and broad calls for redistribution and workers’ rights — was shaking the foundations of U.S. society when he was assassinated. It is that solidarity that the World House demands of us today. Black Lives Matter and many other visionary social movements are already moving the world in that direction — and this is just the beginning.

    Trump still has access to the launch codes — we need to abolish nuclear weapons once and for all

    In the midst of the feverish determination to remove Donald Trump from office in the waning days of his presidency, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has found herself contemplating the unthinkable — and wondering how to prevent it.

    As she explained in a letter to her Democratic colleagues in the House, “This morning, I spoke to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike. The situation of this unhinged president could not be more dangerous, and we must do everything that we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country and our democracy.”

    This is no academic rumination. President Trump, with his authority collapsing around him, could take catastrophic action to assert his overweening power, including using nuclear weapons.

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  • Unlike the pandemic, nuclear war can be stopped before it begins
  • After all, nothing prevented him from instigating a first-strike on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by using what amounted to well-understood “launch codes.” Trump prodded and fired up thousands of insurrectionists that morning when he said, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” He then said “You will never take back our country with weakness,” and “We got to get rid of the weak congresspeople, the ones that aren’t any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world.” Is there anything to prevent him from initiating an infinitely more destructive first-strike on a host of nations that have been in his administration’s cross-hairs for four years?

    Pelosi, of course, knows that ultimately there is no true firewall preventing such a disaster. Under current law, U.S. presidents can launch a nuclear weapon all by themselves — no questions asked, no checks and balances.

    During the 2016 presidential election, the Brookings Institution published an article mulling specifically on a Trump presidency with such almighty power. “Can we really trust the future of the human race to the continued steady decision-making of single individuals who have the power to kill tens or hundreds of millions, based on a single unchallenged edict?” Michael O’Hanlon wrote. “The Donald Trump candidacy helps illustrate the problem. Even if his rhetoric is mostly harmless bombast, we cannot be so sure. Nor can we know how a future president might behave if he or she becomes mentally ill while president.”

    These 2016 musings are now starkly upon us in real-time, a fact that has ratcheted up Pelosi’s determination to sideline Trump by either the 25th Amendment or outright impeachment and conviction, even with less than a week left.

    Taking these steps is likely also prompted by recollections of Trump’s harrowing brinkmanship with North Korea in 2017 — when Trump declared that the United States was “locked and loaded” and prepared to unleash “fire and fury” — but, perhaps even more, by the dangerous memory of the last time America faced an unsound president in his final days: Richard Nixon.

    Kissinger told his aides “If the president had his way, there would be a nuclear war each week!”

    It is widely reported that Nixon was increasingly paranoid and heavily self-medicated with alcohol as the Watergate drama moved into its end game. After Nixon resigned from the presidency, stories surfaced of senior officials who had taken steps as the end game unfolded to prevent a drunk commander-in-chief from dialing up a nuclear catastrophe.

    “Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger reportedly ordered certain presidential orders — especially those related to nuclear arms — to be cleared by himself personally or National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger,” reported Time.

    Their fear was well-founded. During a meeting with members of Congress, Nixon once reportedly said, “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.” Sen. Alan Cranston then phoned Schlesinger, warning about “the need for keeping a berserk president from plunging us into a holocaust.”

    In his book “The Arrogance of Power,” Anthony Summers also reported on this dangerous moment in our history, quoting Kissinger as telling aides “If the president had his way, there would be a nuclear war each week!” According to Summers, this may not have been an idle jest. “The CIA’s top Vietnam specialist, George Carver, reportedly said that in 1969, when the North Koreans shot down a U.S. spy plane, ‘Nixon became incensed and ordered a tactical nuclear strike … The Joint Chiefs were alerted and asked to recommend targets, but Kissinger got on the phone to them. They agreed not to do anything until Nixon sobered up in the morning.’”

    More broadly, Nixon held to the Madman Theory, a conviction that Russia and China would make geo-political concessions if they thought the U.S. president was insane enough to do anything, including starting a nuclear war. The most disturbing example of this regarded the U.S. war in Vietnam. When he ran for president in 1968, Nixon campaigned on the idea that he had a “secret plan” to end the war. This plan amounted essentially to using the threat of nuclear weapons against North Vietnam.

    Historian and journalist Garrett M. Graff has recounted the intricate details of how the Nixon administration signaled how it was preparing to wreak nuclear destruction on the North. It gave its adversary a deadline of Nov. 1, 1969. For the first time in almost two years, on Oct. 26 bombers armed with nuclear weapons were launched and ordered to orbit over Alaska.

    “For three days, nuclear-armed B-52s tested the Soviet defenses, dancing around the edges of the country with their deadly arsenals in a display more provocative than perhaps any since the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Graff writes. After meeting with Nixon, Russian Ambassador Anatoly warned in a telegram to Moscow that “The vehemence of his remarks testified to his growing emotionalism and lack of balance.”

    “And then the whole thing stopped — as seemingly abruptly as it had started,” Graff writes. “The B-52s landed, the alerts ended, peacetime resumed without warning.”

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  • How anti-Vietnam War protests thwarted Nixon’s plans and saved lives
  • What Graff does not report is why this threat was lifted. As anti-Vietnam War organizer and author Robert Levering has noted, Nixon’s Nov. 1 ultimatum fell between two major antiwar demonstrations. “When Nixon learned from CIA infiltrators that the Moratorium was ‘shaping up to be the most widely-supported public action in American history,’ he saw trouble ahead,” Levering explained. “As Nixon later wrote, he saw that ‘the only chance for my ultimatum to succeed was to convince the Communists that I could depend on solid support at home if they decided to call my bluff.’”

    That support did not materialize. With more than two million taking part in the Moratorium, and over half-million flooding the nation’s capital a month later for the Mobilization, “the size and breadth of both the October and November protests surpassed the organizers’ most grandiose expectations,” Levering continued.

    The evidence suggests that the president jettisoned his threat to use nuclear weapons because of this immense outpouring of nonviolent dissent.

    Although today’s circumstances are quite different from those a half-century ago, the structural problem remains. We have built and reinforced — year after year, decade after decade — a system that hinges on unimaginable terror and, at the same time, its weakest link: a single human being. Whether mad or not, human beings are fallible.

    While we may yet get through this crisis by the skin of our teeth, it is time to break the spell of nuclear weapons and dismantle them.

    Even deeper, nuclear weapons and the national security state it buttresses are stupendously racist, violent and dangerous. They unleash overwhelmingly destructive environmental, biological, political, cultural and economic consequences, even when they are not detonated. But, of course, they always risk being detonated.

    While we may yet get through this specific crisis by the skin of our teeth, it is time to break the spell of nuclear weapons and to dismantle these systems. This should be a priority of the incoming administration. Fortunately, there are several clear openings for this, which the new president could seize.

    First, Rep. Adam Smith and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have introduced the No First Use Act to establish, unequivocally, that “It is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first.”  Joe Biden could throw his support behind this legislation and take an historic step toward ending the nuclear threat.

    Even more dramatically, two days after Joe Biden is inaugurated, the historic Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons comes into force. This “Ban Treaty” is the first legally-binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons. The treaty “comprehensively prohibits states from participating in any nuclear weapons-related activities, including development, testing, possession, stockpile, use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.”

    It was adopted on July 7, 2017, and opened for signature on Sept. 20, 2017. Following the lead of Pope Francis — who has condemned the use, as well as the possession, of nuclear weapons — the Vatican was the first state to ratify the treaty. In October, Honduras became the 50th nation to sign on, bringing the agreement into force. On Jan. 22, it will be deemed an official part of international law.

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    Unsurprisingly, the United States has not ratified the treaty. In fact, the United States is scheduled to continue to expand and upgrade its nuclear weapons complex and systems. In the light of the new Ban Treaty, this is now illegal in regard to international law.

    But it doesn’t have to be like this.

    Precarious moments like the one we are currently living through drive home the point that renouncing and dismantling nuclear arms is the only way to clear the space for true peace, justice and security.

    Let’s call on the new government to set out on this critically important course. And if it doesn’t, we, like our predecessors who helped prevent a nuclear attack during the Vietnam War, will deepen our effort to create the powerful, nonviolent movements necessary to spark this historic shift.

    We need to prepare for ongoing insurrectionary violence and address its root causes

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    Following the Jan. 6 insurrectionary attack on the U.S. Capitol and on the country, the FBI has warned of violent actions being planned in all 50 states and D.C. nationwide next week. Last week’s assault, which was incited by Donald Trump, enabled by GOP officials and members of Congress, planned on social media, and buoyed by deeply entrenched white supremacy and Christian nationalism at the heart of our democratic dysfunctionality, were not attacks on any political party or ideology — they were attacks on all of us. The entire country has to be involved in responding to what could become a protracted violent conflict or, quite possibly, an insurgency. Meanwhile, historian Timothy Snyder warned of the need to prevent proto-fascism from becoming full-on fascism.

    What happens over the next 10 days will set the tone for what happens over the next 10 months and 10 years. In the immediate term, the national response should focus on ensuring accountability and telling the truth about the election, exploiting divisions between those committed to democracy and those willing to destroy it, and preventing further violence from far-right extremist groups like the Proud Boys and QAnon. Longer term efforts require an honest reckoning with the white supremacist roots of our political malaise, addressing the toxic nature of polarization in this country fueled by social media platforms’ monetization of hate and division, and building and supporting movements capable of transforming our social, political and economic systems.

    Previous Coverage
  • Despite flagrant assault on the Capitol, the pillars of democracy are holding
  • First, the politicians and officials who incited and enabled the attacks must be held accountable for their actions. Unless there are real consequences to engaging in illegal, dangerous or recklessly anti-democratic behavior, it will be impossible to reckon with our present and deter future attacks. Trump is a clear and present danger to the United States and should be removed from power and prevented from ever running for federal office again. The NAACP is organizing bipartisan support for Trump’s impeachment. Missouri Representative Cori Bush has filed a resolution calling for the expulsion of more than 100 Republican members of the House who voted against certification. Indivisible is mobilizing for the expulsion of members of Congress who supported the insurrection.   

    There are clear signs that the insurrection is backfiring and GOP enablers are paying a price. We need to learn from and exploit this backfire. Trump’s approval rating has plummeted to 33 percent and he was impeached Monday by the U.S. House for the second time. Major companies have suspended political contributions to members of Congress who voted against certifying the result of the election. A pro-Trump candidate for governor of New Jersey abruptly dropped his campaign. Republican Attorneys General who supported the election lawsuit are facing disciplinary complaints and the Republican Attorneys General association is distancing itself from robocalls urging supporters to go to D.C. to “fight” and overturn the election. Facebook and Twitter banned Trump and took down the accounts of over a thousand far-right groups while Google and Apple shut down Parler, a platform favored by extremists.    

    Despots and extremist groups alike want people to feel afraid and helpless. They need to know that they will not succeed.

    Mainstream media outlets should be encouraged to report on these fissures, defections, and divestments and explain their significance in defending democracy. Further economic and social pressure should target the media enablers of violence and violent extremism, which have profited immensely from spreading hatred and conspiracy theories. Prominent Evangelical and Catholic religious leaders, priests, and clergy who spread lies about the election being stolen from Trump should be persuaded and pressured to tell the truth and repent.

    Faced with heightened risks of violence in Washington, D.C. and across the country this weekend and next week, it is critical to amplify the work of peacebuilders and invest in de-escalation and violence prevention trainings and capacity-building provided by groups like DC Peace Teams, Cure Violence, Nonviolent Peaceforce, Over Zero, and the TRUST Network. Activist groups have rightly assessed that encouraging people to take to the streets to confront Trump supporters and extremists is the wrong move — both for very serious health reasons and because they know that Trump and the far-right are desperate to make this a clash between opposing groups, rather than a one-sided attack on the country.

    Many civic groups are promoting alternative plans for action. Indivisible, The Frontline and #ShutDownDC are planning dispersed nonviolent actions across the country and in the capital to demand impeachment and denounce white supremacy. These include banner drops over highways, car caravans and a #DontrentDC campaign calling on those who rent out apartments in D.C. to refrain from doing so from Jan. 17-20, when white supremacists will be back in town. In a clear victory for activists and a further sign of backfire from the violent insurrection, Airbnb has announced that it is cancelling all D.C. reservations.   

    Despots and extremist groups alike want people to feel afraid and helpless. They need to know that they will not succeed. In the upcoming week, a tactical option beyond telling people to stay home and avoid street confrontations would be to invite every American across the country — regardless of their race, political affiliation, or zip code — to participate in a synchronized act of national unity and democratic solidarity. The tactic of cacerolazo, or the banging of pots and pans in unison, has been used in places like Chile, Brazil, Turkey and elsewhere to unite people around struggles for freedom and justice. In the United States, it was used during the George Floyd protests and in response to the pandemic, as people in New York City and across the country banged pots and pans from their rooftops, balconies and porches to pay homage to the nurses, doctors and other essential works on the frontlines of the Covid response. It was a powerful and emotionally gripping act of togetherness.

    What if, sometime between Jan. 17 and 20 (perhaps on Inauguration Day itself), every American were invited to honk horns and bang pots for a full minute, starting at the same time everywhere across the country? This trans-partisan, pro-democracy and pro-peace national action, if promoted by youth, workers, professional groups, business leaders, media outlets, artists and entertainers, would be a powerful, joyful antidote to the angry far-right shouting and violence. It would send a message that “we the people” will not tolerate violence and are committed to each other, our country and our future together.

    Toxic polarization, in which the other side is seen as a monolithic enemy and an existential threat, is dangerous and cripples our ability to solve serious problems.

    Over the longer term, dialogue and direct action, nonviolent resistance and peacebuilding, will both be necessary to address deeply rooted violence and injustices in this country. It is telling that last week’s mob attack occurred right after the remarkable election in Georgia, a state with the second highest number of lynching in the country, that saw a Black pastor and a Jewish son of immigrants win and flip the U.S. Senate. Years of Black women-led organizing and powerful coalition-building in the state made the victory possible. Similarly last summer, following the murder of George Floyd and enabled by years of Black-led organizing, there were thousands of protests and demonstrations calling for an end to police brutality and systemic racism — the broadest and most persistent movement in U.S. history.

    The forces that brought Americans together across political, racial, gender, generational and class divides to confront the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow authoritarianism — and to win improbable electoral victories — are those needed to transform the racist and anti-democratic structures and systems in this country. That includes mobilizing around the passage of state and federal legislation, like H.R. 1 and H.R. 4464 that are necessary to protect voting rights, dismantle systemic barriers to participation in the electoral process and chip away at structural minority-rule entrenchment.

    At the same time, building broad-based coalitions and movements necessary to transform social and political systems in a deeply divided society is a huge challenge. While conflict, disagreements and issues-related polarization are normal and necessary, toxic polarization — in which the other side is seen as a monolithic enemy and an existential threat — is dangerous and cripples our ability to solve serious problems. Toxic polarization, which some have referred to as political sectarianism, encourages an extreme simplification of reality and the creation of an “us vs. them” framework where “out-party hate [is] more powerful than in-party love.” Making contact with anyone from the other side or making any sort of compromise are seen as a betrayals to your own side. The result is that there are huge incentives to adopting anti-democratic practices and tactics to advance electoral and political goals, ultimately undermining representative democracy.

    There is no easy solution to toxic polarization. On the one hand, the rise of far-right extremist groups, backed by a faction of the GOP, is an existential threat to many fellow Americans, notably those who are Black and Brown. Four days after seditionist Sen. Ted Cruz defended Trump’s attempted coup and invoked the Compromise of 1877, which effectively disenfranchised African-Americans and created an apartheid system, Confederate flags paraded through the Capitol. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed far-right extremist groups as the greatest domestic terrorism threat.

    Still, toxic polarization, which affects every aspect of our social and political lives, makes it difficult to collectively confront the structural sources of political sectarianism — like economic inequity and structural racism — and makes violence more likely.

    Scholars and experts have recommended many potential interventions to address political sectarianism, ranging from creating awareness campaigns about partisan misperceptions and highlighting areas of agreement on key policy issues (like immigration reform and gun policy), to encouraging and acknowledging positive experiences with neighbors, friends and family who share opposing political viewpoints. They also suggest engaging with opinion leaders to stop the spread of polarizing narratives and encouraging restorative narratives, pressuring social media companies to end the commodification of hate and outrage, and creating incentives for politicians and other elites to decrease sectarian behaviors.  

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    These recommendations highlight the importance of making our analyses and narratives more nuanced, engaging in deep listening, highlighting collaborative problem-solving and civic engagement across partisan divisions, and building powerful coalitions and movements capable of building power and disincentivizing anti-democratic and anti-social policies and practices.

    At this time of intersecting crises in the United States, there is a great need for the social justice, democracy and peacebuilding communities in the United States to come together and collaborate based on their comparative strengths. The peacebuilding community’s expertise in analyzing the roots of conflict and building inclusive processes, the social justice community’s ability to raise urgency and shift power, and the democracy community’s laser sharp focus on necessary structural reforms are all needed to move the country along a transformational path. Meanwhile, there are tremendous opportunities to learn from activists, organizers, and peacebuilders around the world who are challenging authoritarianism and building peace with justice in highly-divided societies.

    While we face the threat of real violence in the coming days, if we can come together and work to address the roots of our deep divide it is possible to imagine a brighter future.

    Despite the flagrant assault on the Capitol, the pillars of democracy are holding

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    On Wednesday, we witnessed an attempted coup in the United States as a rally of pro-Trump militants breached the Capitol building and temporarily stopped a joint session of Congress from counting the presidential votes.

    Donald Trump called for the protest, spoke at it and told his supporters to march to the Capitol. Fueled by weeks of his false claims of election fraud, they broke windows, scaled walls and looted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. Amid the chaos, two pipe bombs and a cooler of molotov cocktails were found, along with other weapons. One protester was shot and killed by Capitol police, and three others died, reportedly of medical conditions. Meanwhile, 14 police officers were injured by the rioters.

    Previous Coverage
  • Choose Democracy’s whirlwind effort to prevent a coup is a crash course in good organizing
  • Choose Democracy was one of many organizations to quickly write to its followers to put these outrageous events in context. Founded this summer to prepare people to resist a potential coup, the whirlwind startup — where I served as trainings coordinator — had long predicted that if defeated at the polls, Donald Trump was unlikely to concede. However, his denial alone would not constitute an illegal power grab. What mattered would be what other people did, especially institutions like the military, police, the business community, government bureaucrats and the many other politicians involved in the electoral process.

    As disturbing and dangerous as the coup attempt was, the pillars of our society largely stood and supported democracy. “We always said a coup needs legitimacy to be successful. If the goal of today’s seizure of the Capitol was to gain legitimacy, the action backfired spectacularly,” we explained in our letter on Wednesday evening. “This coup is not gaining traction or convincing the majority of lawmakers, particularly those required to certify election results.”

    After fleeing the Capitol, Republican politicians quickly distanced themselves from the violence, even Sen. Ted Cruz, who had moments earlier fueled the flames of sedition by spreading Trump’s lies and demanding that Congress delay the vote count. Under fire for his role, Cruz issued a statement calling the attack on the Capitol “a despicable act of terrorism and a shocking assault on our democratic system.” Conservative Sen. Tom Cotton tweeted, “Violence and anarchy are unacceptable… This needs to end now.” 

    Previous Coverage
  • 10 things you need to know to stop a coup
  • The Choose Democracy trainings always emphasized the importance of bi-partisan opposition to any coup attempt, and the reason for that swiftly appeared. As an afternoon Politico headline put it, “Trump world pleads with the president to condemn the storming of the Capitol.” Alyssa Farah, Trump’s former White House communications director, implored Trump, tweeting the truth that many loyalists had been dodging for weeks: “The Election was NOT stolen. We lost.” Meanwhile commentators like Piers Morgan called for Trump’s resignation, the NAACP demanded impeachment and the National Association of Manufacturers called for Vice President Mike Pence to institute the 25th Amendment, which allows the cabinet and vice president to remove the president from office.

    After President-elect Joe Biden made a national speech demanding Trump unequivocally tell protesters to go home, Trump relented, though his video message was mixed at best. He called on his supporters to “peacefully go home” while praising their motives and repeating the lie that the election was stolen.

    The swift backlash against the coup attempt could be felt within the Capitol, which police successfully cleared of protesters within a few hours. When Congress resumed the divisive vote count at 8 p.m., some of the Republicans who had planned to raise objections relented, moving more quickly to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory than they originally planned. Even Trump ally Sen. Lindsay Graham declared, “enough is enough.” In the early hours of Thursday, Pence read the final count, affirming Joe Biden’s victory. Trump soon released a statement promising an “orderly transition” on Jan. 20.

    This violent coup attempt appears to be backfiring on its perpetrators, and they seem to be losing both in the electoral process and in the sphere of public opinion.

    While the backlash to the violent coup attempt may have turned the tide on denial of the election results, there were already many signs that the pillars of democracy were holding, despite the flagrant assault on them. Before the riot began on Wednesday, Pence signalled he would not and could not stop certification with a letter to Congress, as Trump had suggested. In recent days, all 10 living former Secretaries of Defense published a strongly-worded op-ed in the Washington Post warning against military involvement in settling the election. In a famously recorded phone call, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State rebuffed Trump’s demand to “find” enough votes to change the state’s election result. 

    For weeks, Choose Democracy had been affirming the many local and bi-partisan election officials who were doing their jobs according to the law, sometimes in the face of death threats by Trump supporters. As the vote counting and certification proceeded, it became clear that the kind of national strikes or protests planned for an actual coup did not make sense in this situation, despite the president’s outrageous fraud claims and the growing number of supporters who believed them. Instead, the group encouraged anti-coup activists to call their local officials and continue to urge them to uphold the will of the voters, a strategy that began weeks before the election.

    This logic held Wednesday afternoon and evening, even as the Choose Democracy letter acknowledged “the emotional weight of this moment” of an actual coup attempt. “Strategically we think this is a last gasp and the risks are huge if we simply tell people to rush into the streets,” we wrote. The reasons were simple. It was widely believed that Trump was looking for an excuse to declare martial law, and large anti-Trump protests could provide the pretext, even giving him an excuse to try to delay the inauguration. If any conflict occurred between Trump supporters and opponents, Trump would use that to bolster his own narrative. In fact, the right was already blaming the violence at the Capitol on antifa and other Trump opponents, against all evidence.

    Trump overplayed his hand. As scary and sad as it is, this is a great last memory for Americans to have of his presidency.

    “This violent coup attempt appears to be backfiring on its perpetrators, and they seem to be losing both in the electoral process and in the sphere of public opinion,” Choose Democracy explained, urging supporters to stay home. “They look out of control. Tonight, the most effective action is to let the coup plotters expose how isolated and unsupported they are. Their actions are doing that.”

    In fact, the protest at the Capitol had not been very large or well organized by D.C. standards. Similar protests around the country had revealed a movement bigger on bluster than support or strategy. 

    In addition to the danger of lies and a media echo-chamber that doesn’t challenge them, the attempted coup highlighted other serious issues, including the attitude of the police, which seemed shockingly unprepared and relatively unconcerned about the predominantly white mob that got through the barricades with relative ease. Some rioters even appeared to take selfies with the police charged with protecting the Capitol they were occupying. Remarkably few of the rioters were arrested when the Capitol was cleared in a largely nonviolent operation — a sharp contrast to the violent treatment of nonviolent Black Lives Matter protesters this summer. As our Thursday morning follow-up-letter noted, “The side-by-side images of previous Black protesters’ treatment versus the overwhelmingly white crowd of Trump supporters is breath-taking. It is an example of how racism plays into policing.”

    Meanwhile, the role of social media is also coming under fire, as Twitter and Facebook froze Trump’s account under charges that they contributed to the violence and chaos by spreading Trump’s lies.

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    By far the most outstanding question is what will happen between now and Inauguration Day. Trump’s promise of a peaceful transition came as calls for his imminent removal grew, with even White House staff reportedly discussing the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment. By Thursday morning, Choose Democracy was encouraging people to sign the NAACP’s petition for impeachment, which could preclude Trump from holding office again, while forcing Congress to take a stand on his treasonous behavior. This could be helpful in convincing at least some of the many Americans who believed his lies while also providing a forum to highlight the complicity of people like Cruz. As our Thursday morning letter noted, “We are glad they decried the violence yesterday. But they planted the seeds. When they talk about a stolen election or non-existent fraud, they are still watering them. We will not forget that.”

    George Lakey, Choose Democracy’s lead trainer, noted in an email to his own followers on Wednesday night that the pillars may ultimately be strengthened by the failed coup attempt. “Trump overplayed his hand. As scary and sad as it is, this is a great last memory for Americans to have of his presidency; it helps inoculate against his leadership in the future.”

    We didn’t win our demands for safety on campus, but going on strike saved our student union

    As the winter university semester is set to begin, the coronavirus is surging. The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, like many universities reliant on tuition dollars, tried to reopen in September with a “public health-informed” semester, as the university called it. That meant a mix of in-person and remote classes and dormitories operating at about 70 percent capacity.

    Throughout the summer, the graduate workers union at the University of Michigan, the Graduate Employees Organization, or GEO, and Local 3550 of the American Federation of Teachers, had also been preparing for the fall semester by organizing against an unsafe campus opening in the face of a global pandemic. We are members of GEO and stewards to our academic department, and had first hand experience in this organizing process.

    GEO’s membership called for a more robust testing program, an option for graduate students to work remotely, child care subsidies for caregivers, and better resources for international students. In a further call for safety on campus, we also demanded radical changes to university policing, including demilitarizing and defunding campus police. The university, however, was intransigent and uncompromising.

    As a result, during the first weeks of classes, GEO members voted to strike. This decision was bold: it was both a breach of our newly signed contract, and a breach of state law (in Michigan, it is illegal for public sector employees to strike). After a whirlwind nine-day campaign, with undergraduate resident advisors also walking off the job, dining hall workers instituting a work slow-down, and thousands supporting our effort both in the Ann Arbor region and across the country, our strike ended with little movement on our demands. However, the solidarity that we built during the strike lays the groundwork for future local organizing, and serves as a model for other campus organizers looking to win better conditions for students, workers and community members.  

    Throughout the semester, as the university refused to alter its original pandemic plan, coronavirus cases climbed. In late October, increasing COVID-19 numbers led to the Washtenaw County Health Department enacting a two-week stay-at-home order for all University of Michigan undergraduates. The statewide Michigan order in November moved the university entirely to remote classes. Because of the near-disastrous fall, the spring semester plans look entirely different. Most courses will be fully remote, and the university is urging undergraduates to stay home.

    The University of Michigan, it seems, is adopting some of the recommendations from GEO — months too late, however, and only after threatening to sue our union out of existence.

    The critical work of department stewards 

    As stewards, we serve as the liaisons between graduate student workers in our departments and the rest of GEO. With a membership of about 2,200, departmental stewards are the primary sources of knowledge and information for union members and thus are key to member mobilization. Michigan is a so-called “right-to-work” state, so graduate workers can still enjoy the benefits won by GEO without becoming members and paying union dues. It’s up to stewards, then, to inform their departments about the importance of worker organizing and why graduate student workers should join the union.

    We had to initiate a fundamental shift in the way that many of our peers viewed themselves in relation to the university.

    But that’s often a tall order. The declining power of unions in the United States — from more than a third of private sector workers belonging to a union in the 1950s to a mere 6.2 percent today — has meant that our generation has largely grown up without seeing what unions can do for workers. And this absence of an ingrained union culture has a considerable impact on the ways in which our generation understands and interacts with union organizing. 

    This presented a considerable challenge in organizing our fellow student workers during the strike. Along with keeping a pulse on the concerns of GEO members in our department, we expended much of our organizing energy on communicating the importance of the very idea of a union. We had to initiate a fundamental shift in the way that many of our peers viewed themselves in relation to the university: They weren’t just students, but employees, and as workers they deserved a say in their working conditions. While this work was compelling, it was at times arduous, and drew away from time that we could have spent organizing pickets, mobilizing for discrete actions, or educating undergraduates. 

    While we often found this work tedious, other stewards saw the strike as an exciting moment for real-time political education and activation. Ember McCoy, a steward in the School of Environment and Sustainability, described the strike as an exciting opportunity to educate her peers about the importance of GEO’s power. “It gave us the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, you know how we have great health care coverage? That all came from GEO!’” 

    She noted that the strike also raised GEO’s profile, which is particularly important in a workplace in which most workers stay no more than a few years. “Besides during contract negotiations every couple years,” she said, “GEO sort of sits below the surface for most students.”

    The strike undoubtedly changed that.

    The need to foster solidarity

    At an “elite” university like the University of Michigan, the cult of meritocracy cultivates a deeply competitive and atomizing social space — creating an environment that is hostile to union organizing, and concomitantly, hostile to the cultivation of an ideology of solidarity. And there are tens of thousands of people affiliated with the university with varying roles and priorities: undergraduate students, graduate students, professors, lecturers, staff and more. To build power, we need a strategy that connects with a wide range of university stakeholders and we must directly combat institutional individualism and cultivate an understanding of collective power as a robust force for change.

    Failing to effectively build solidarity has considerable consequences, and we witnessed that directly. The absence of a foundational ideology of solidarity, compounded by the atomization induced by working and learning in quarantine, created an environment in which student workers were quick to question union leadership and sometimes feel disconnected from decision making processes. Add to this any pressure from professors that striking members worked for (and often had close personal relationships with), and it was sometimes difficult to convince our peers to hold the picket line. 

    GEO 3550 picket signs in the doors of the Rackham Graduate School. (WNV/Peter Martel)

    This severely constrained the power that GEO could have in meaningfully disrupting business-as-usual: had all graduate students, GEO members and non-members alike, jointly refused to attend classes, university operations would have ground to a halt, providing GEO with far more leverage. Unfortunately, while 79 percent of GEO members voted to strike, students continued to attend classes, professors continued to teach, and many failed to even consider the fact that doing so constituted crossing picket lines.

    This phenomenon was not unique to graduate student workers. While some faculty were willing to articulate their support privately — and 712 faculty members signed an open letter to the university in support of the strike — few were willing to take more tangible action by cancelling classes. 

    Bargaining for more than wages and benefits

    The work of building solidarity can facilitate a different vision of union organizing — that of the union as a steward of the community. This is exactly what GEO did with our strike, mobilizing for issues beyond graduate worker salaries: Our demands focused on the safety of those in Washtenaw County as a whole. Not only does this build the power of the union by allying with other community members and organizations, but it’s a model for winning community demands.

    One of the best examples of this strategy is known as “bargaining for the common good,” in which unions work with community allies to use collective bargaining as a tool to improve the entire community. The strategy was famously demonstrated by the Chicago Teachers Union in 2012. Then, 26,000 teachers walked off the job — to considerable media backlash — for green spaces, more equitable class sizes and homeless student coordinators. They went on strike for their students

    Bargaining for the common good can serve as a “cohesive strategy for how unions [can act as] social justice organizations coalescing a movement,” said KB Brower, organizing director for Bargaining for the Common Good, a project of the Center for Innovation in Worker Organizing at Rutgers University. 

    Graduate students were on strike for demands that were intimately connected: a campus that was both safe from a deadly virus and from the danger, which disproportionately affects students of color, posed by the presence of militarized police.

    For instance, instead of starting the semester by listening to the summer’s calls for justice against police violence after the police murder of George Floyd — or designing more effective bulwarks against the virus — the university increased policing by launching a program to monitor students for COVID-19 compliance. However, after months of a separate organizing effort led by the Students of Color Liberation Front — an umbrella group representing several underrepresented minority student organizations — the program was altered to reduce police presence, and then canceled entirely.

    An opening for future organizing

    Unfortunately, the strike ended with little movement on any of our demands. After we rejected an initial offer that offered meager progress, the university filed a court injunction against GEO, which, if granted, threatened to bankrupt the union. Days later, we were presented with another offer which bore a striking resemblance to the first; this time however, GEO’s very existence was under threat. Motivated more by fear than by satisfaction with the offer, we voted to accept. 

    By the end of the strike, enough rank-and-file members had heeded the call that nearly all vacant steward positions were filled.

    While most members were largely disappointed with this outcome, it would be a mistake to overlook the strike’s very real, though less tangible, important impacts on the university community. 

    One such impact was a considerable expansion of organizing capacity. During the strike, GEO saw a spike in membership, making up for the backslide brought about by remote teaching. Moreover, while high membership turnover means that departments often go years without stewards, by the end of the strike, enough rank-and-file members had heeded the call that nearly all vacant steward positions were filled. This critical boost in organizing power was a shot in the arm. Operating in a right-to-work state, with a hostile university administration, the success of future campaigns hinges on strong, engaged membership.

    Outside of GEO itself, reverberations of the action were felt across the university. A hundred resident advisors, emboldened by our strike, staged a simultaneous work stoppage and won significant concessions from university housing — as did the dining hall workers who engaged in a work slowdown. The strike also raised the profile of the burgeoning All Campus Labor Coalition, a collective of university unions. 

    “I think there’s increased labor organizing and activism on campus because our conditions are increasingly intolerable, and the prioritization of profits over people is increasingly evident,” said Liz Ratzloff, GEO’s staff organizer. 

    While outward faculty support for GEO was sparse, the strike had an interesting influence on dynamics in some departments. Venky Nagar, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, credited the strike with changes in how faculty interact with each other. Junior faculty speak up more in faculty meetings, and there’s a renewed focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.

    Members and allies of GEO 3550 picketed at different locations across campus for each day of the strike. (WNV/Conner Swift)

    We asked Nagar if he thought the new culture was really about our strike, since millions of people had gathered in the streets this summer to force a reckoning with racism. “What the GEO strike did was show that [the university] is not immune” to these conversations, he said. “Suddenly this [action] erupted, and [equity issues were] brought home to people.”

    The strike also offered important lessons in organizing effectively in a university setting. Student and faculty organizers alike identified political education as a critical precondition for activating peers. They also realized that effective political education requires a groundwork of strong personal relationships. We experienced this firsthand: It was through intimate, often individual conversations that minds were changed — conversations that required trust and care. Similarly, Shane DuBay, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, noted that his most effective faculty organizing conversations were with peers with whom he already had established relationships. 

    While by no means a novel idea in organizing, this underscores the critical value of the department steward, especially in a setting in which year-over-year turnover is so high. If patient conversations among trusted peers are the site of political change, diligent stewards are perhaps the union’s most important asset. Activating new, engaged stewards should be a key focus of the union moving forward, so that the next time we engage in a job action, we’re more prepared to bring the rest of the university along with us. 

    If we’re ever going to stop losing, bargaining for the entire community is the future of labor organizing.

    But we do believe the GEO strike could be a first step to winning both worker and community demands. Rather than an outright loss, the strike “saved the union,” according to Sasha Bishop, the steward for the ecology and evolutionary biology department. “Prior to the strike, we were losing power and credibility [and] membership was declining,” she said. 

    Collective actions like strikes get people organized and motivate them enough to actually join movements. Such collective work also pushes against rampant individualism and a university culture of ego and self-reliance.

    Bishop also thinks that the strike should reorient our strategic organizing priorities: It’s job actions that have the power to disrupt business-as-usual, not merely negotiating on the university’s terms. 

    Indeed, we were forced to end the official strike because of the injunction, but we could have used our momentum to continue agitating for the university to accept our demands. GEO members have six weeks of paid medical leave, so we could have organized a mass sick-out. Instead, the tremendous energy that we had built across the university and region fizzled out rather unceremoniously. 

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    But as Bishop reminded us, there is reason to celebrate what we accomplished: We pushed the “Overton window” for campus labor organizing. We activated more than 1,000 members to walk off the job for a more safe and just campus. Dining workers, resident assistants, and construction workers stood in solidarity with us. We increased our membership and activated more departmental stewards. We boosted our profile — citywide, statewide and even nationally — and according to Ratzloff, in the months since the strike, campuses across the country have reached out to GEO to seek guidance on their own campaigns.

    We didn’t win, but we staged an abolitionist strike on a university campus. “Sometimes we do the right thing and lose. You don’t know what you’re setting up to make happen in the future,” Brower said. 

    If we’re ever going to stop losing, bargaining for the entire community is the future of labor organizing. After all, Brower added, “even having one example [of a radical strike can] totally transform what’s possible.”

    WNV’s top stories of 2020

    Every year, with great joy, we present the list of most-read stories on Waging Nonviolence. And this year is no exception — even after all the devastation that 2020 has wrought. That’s because our most-read stories are a reflection of what Waging Nonviolence does best: Shine a light on the ways in which people are fighting for peace and justice.

    Not surprisingly, the list is dominated by our early, groundbreaking analysis of how to stop a coup and mobilize around the pandemic to push for transformative social change. In any other year, you might see the more diverse array of issues and regions we cover. So to remedy that, we are including a second list (chosen by us) encompassing our other top stories of 2020 — ranging from Black Lives Matter to climate action to international struggles.

    As you go through the lists, please be aware that support from readers like you is what makes these stories possible. If we are going to have another year where we produce early, groundbreaking analysis of the movements and issues shaping our world we need to reach our $15,000 end-of-year fundraising goal. Right now, we are still $5,600 short. So, please make a one-time donation or become a sustaining member today. Both options are tax deductible.

    Support Us WNV’s Most-Read Stories of 2020

    10. We need to build a movement that heals our nation’s traumas
    By Kazu Haga
    If we don’t have an unwavering commitment to healing as we mobilize this election season, we will always be in crisis.

    9. What will it take to defend the election? Here’s one winning strategy
    By George Lakey
    A knee-jerk protest won’t stop a Trump power grab. It’s going to take several clear, do-able strategies that together enable us to win.

    8. Inside the battle for Portland with the independent journalists on the streets
    By Shane Burley
    As federal agents snatch protesters in unmarked vans, the reporters covering the Portland uprising are facing intense and unprecedented repression.

    7. Coronavirus is a historic trigger event — and it needs a movement to respond
    By Paul Engler
    Even in times of social distancing, building a collective, social response to the pandemic is our only salvation.

    6. HOLY SH*T! 7 things to do instead of hoarding toilet paper
    By Rae Abileah and Nadine Bloch
    Beautiful Trouble’s irreverent guide to activism in the time of pandemic

    5. Mass direct action might be the only way to stop Trump from stealing the election
    By George Lakey
    The more quickly we nonviolently disrupt Trump’s plans — at scale — the less longer-term disruption to our country and our lives.

    4. What’s the game plan if Trump really does try to steal the election? 7 tactics to stop a coup
    By Daniel Hunter
    As coup prevention has gained mainstream attention, here’s a series of tactics with a plan to defend our democracy.

    3. Understanding Trump’s game plan in Portland could be the key to preventing a coup in November
    By George Lakey
    Defeating Trump’s “law and order” strategy will mean creating a plan to win based on our strengths and his weaknesses.

    2. We need a plan to prevent a Trump takeover — and this anti-coup research shows the way
    By George Lakey
    By studying the research that shows how other countries have handled coup attempts, we can better counter or even prevent one of our own.

    1. 10 things you need to know to stop a coup
    By Daniel Hunter
    While keeping people focused on a strong, robust election process is a must, we also need to prepare for a coup.

    WNV’s Other Top Stories of 2020

    Nigeria’s #EndSARS movement has suspended protests, but vows to come back stronger | By Immanuel James Ibe-Anyanwu

    What activists who fought the AIDS crisis can teach us about organizing during a pandemic | By Loretta Graceffo

    As the smoke subsides, West Coast climate activists show what an effective response looks like | By Nick Engelfried

    In a time of unprecedented protest, Belarus’ uprising is exceptional | By Inna Shevchenko

    5 pitfalls Black Lives Matter must avoid to maintain momentum and achieve meaningful change | By Daniel Hunter

    When workers at Barnes & Noble got sick, we organized our warehouse and won | By Elsa Rodriguez Flores

    From fringe idea to law of the land — a look inside the creativity fueling the struggle to defund the police | By Nadine Bloch and Folabi Olagbaju

    Climate activists mount utility strike to urge the shutdown of New England coal plant

    Santa is not the only one giving out coal this year. Climate activists like Johnny Sanchez and Sonja Birthisel in Portland, Maine, recently sent their utility company an envelope of coal instead of payment towards their electric bill. This symbolic act of defiance, organized by the No Coal No Gas coalition, is part of a broad New England consumer strike against utility payments to protest the continued burning of coal.

    The Strike Down Coal campaign launched on Sept. 1 and aims to continue until ISO New England — the system operator responsible for running New England’s energy grid and power system — agrees to stop subsidizing coal. By withholding payments, activists hope to send the utility company a message that burning coal is unnecessary, not to mention financially and morally irresponsible. Fifty people are currently withholding payments, while more than 40 others have participated in orientation sessions, and dozens are acting as volunteer support. Many of the strikers have recorded videos of themselves mailing envelopes of coal to ISO-NE on social media, and some residents are donating their payments to support racial and environmental justice organizations.

    “The strike is a powerful way that we can connect economic and racial justice to the atrocities of our utility system,” said Leif Taranta, an organizer with the No Coal No Gas coalition. “It’s time to demand that our ratepayer dollars go towards helping our communities, not destroying our livelihoods and our planet.”

    Previous Coverage
  • Blocking trains and removing coal, climate activists fight to close one of New England’s largest power plants
  • The No Coal No Gas coalition has been engaging in direct action for over a year to force the shutdown of Merrimack Station in Bow, New Hampshire. Organizations such as 350NH and 350VT have mobilized more residents to join the strike. No Coal No Gas is currently forming partnerships with organizations in different New England states to have them promote the strike with their members. Meanwhile, activists are “friend-banking,” or calling people in their networks, to spread the word and recruit more participants.

    Once people have pledged to join the strike, they receive an envelope of coal in the mail — collected by activists during a direct action last year — to send to their utility company in lieu of a payment. Some participants are also opting to donate their utility payments to organizations helping marginalized communities hit hard by the economic fallout of the climate crisis and COVID-19.

    Why a consumer strike?

    Strike Down Coal is a powerful direct action campaign that not only withdraws financial support from Merrimack Station, but also models a way for other consumers to exercise power against the fossil fuel industry. As students of such nonviolent tactics, Strike Down Coal’s organizing team (which includes me) believes this kind of direct action can force a large-scale industry change quicker than electoral or advocacy efforts. And when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, time is of the essence.

    Previous Coverage
  • Can civil disobedience be seen as ‘good behavior’ in a time of climate crisis?
  • That’s why No Coal No Gas has been committed to direct action from the beginning. In August 2019, a dozen activists risked arrest by walking onto the grounds of the power plant and removing 500 pounds of coal. A few days later, we dumped most of the coal in front of the New Hampshire State House, and a portion of the rest is what’s being sent to ISO-NE in lieu of utility payments. This action motivated a network of groups to take further collective action to shut down the plant.

    A month later, on Sept. 28, 67 of us were arrested for trying to “liberate” more coal from the plant. As we sang songs of love and unity, we were prevented from reaching the coal piles by local law enforcement, state police in full riot gear, the National Guard and the sheriff’s department.

    Throughout last winter, activists also staged six railroad blockades, which caused significant delays and disruptions to the coal trains on the route to Bow. The last blockade stopped the train for nearly 17 hours in Harvard, Massachusetts, as protesters assembled and occupied a 16-foot-tall scaffolding structure on the tracks.

    Since participants in the utility strike aren’t risking arrest or facing potential exposure to COVID-19, the strike provides a more accessible way for people to join in nonviolent direct action with the campaign. It withdraws consent from the system, but without facing criminal charges or infection.

    Strikers like Lindsay Allen are mailing envelopes of coal to their utility company instead of paying their bills as part of a regional strike. (Facebook/No Coal No Gas)

    “We’re drawing on the age-old history of strikes and boycotts, where lots of us collectively withhold consent or participation, demanding more from whoever is in power,” said Jeff Gang, one of the strike organizers. “It’s exciting to get people to think about ways they can engage in direct action and try to build the kind of world we want. The strike is not the same as blocking a train or removing coal, but it’s withdrawing consent from the system, and it’s exciting to see people respond to that.”

    The Strike Down Coal campaign is providing people from all walks of life the opportunity to engage in a powerful action without putting themselves or their loved ones in physical danger. Nevertheless, some have expressed concern that a consumer strike during the COVID-19 pandemic could pose a risk to the state’s moratorium on shutting off people’s electricity for nonpayment. But so far, there is no indication from any government officials that the moratorium is at risk. In fact, the moratorium was a strategic asset to the strike, because people are not at risk of losing their electricity for nonpayment of their utility bills.

    Taking urgent action against climate change

    One of the strike’s main objectives is to bring awareness to the issue of burning coal and the carbon footprint it creates. In the case of Merrimack Station, the plant produces the same amount of carbon in just one hour as the average American over the course of 26 years. While advocates like to point out that the plant is only in operation approximately four months out of the year, during peak energy usage, activists see this as part of the problem.

    Every year, hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies are provided by New England taxpayers to keep Merrimack Station open during the months it’s not in use. These funds could go toward more sustainable, economically viable energy sources, like wind turbines and solar sites.

    In October, activists built an art installation in front of the Merrimack Station in Bow, New Hampshire, urging the coal plant’s closure. (Facebook/No Coal No Gas)

    While organizers work to draw attention to this wasteful spending, along with the plant’s pollution, participants of the strike are also building community. In Hooksett, New Hampshire, approximately 35 people joined a masked and socially-distant gathering on Oct. 17, as a one-year celebration of the grassroots effort to shut down the Bow plant. We built art installations in front of Merrimack Station to highlight its obsolescence, with tombstones bearing messages like “Zombie Plant Ahead.”

    Then, earlier this month, strikers held a remote watch party for a webinar hosted by the attorney general of Massachusetts, who is doing outreach to consumers about reorganizing ISO-NE. The watch party provided a virtual gathering space for organizers to better understand how electricity is produced, delivered and managed in New England — so that we can improve our messaging about why the strike is necessary.

    According to strike organizer and ecologist Sonja Birthisel, the strike is not just about opposition to coal, but building a new vision for a just future. “We’re making it possible to envision and create a better world — one in which everyone has access to the resources we all need, and where we are serving as stewards of this planet.”

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    As organizers work to increase strike participation to 250 people by Spring 2021, there has not yet been any formal response from ISO-NE. By withdrawing consent from an unjust system, activists are showing elected officials and corporate executives that their power depends entirely on the people’s willingness to cooperate.

    For decades, strikes have empowered activists to bring daily operations of large industries to a halt, forcing those in power to pay attention to the demands of ordinary people. The Strike Down Coal campaign is an opportunity for New Englanders to join in that long history of direct action and show energy companies that people are the ones who hold the power, if they choose to wield it.

    ‘I Ain’t Marching Anymore’ chronicles 260 years of war resistance and conscientious objection

    Everywhere I look, violence is the answer. Geopolitics and foreign policy, criminal justice and incarceration, education and housing policy, entertainment — especially entertainment. The guns are so seductive. The violence is so addictive, at least when it is in high-definition and packaged as entertainment. It goes down as easy as salty chips.

    After reading Chris Lombardi’s epic new book “I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Dissenters, Deserters and Objectors to America’s Wars,” I felt compelled to count the deaths I witnessed on a nightly basis. My husband and I recently got stuck in “Altered Carbon” — a confusing but watchable future dystopian who-dunnit — and in one 40-minute episode, we saw more than 100 people die. Until I counted, I hadn’t really been conscious of the ways I had been enjoying the carnage. Then I felt sick and manipulated and pressed the pause button.

    The real life characters in Lombardi’s book watch people die too, but they aren’t doing it for fun. They are stuck in the midst of real wars and forced to confront their own humanity and the visceral, undeniable humanity of those on the other side of the battlefield. What is striking and uplifting about this densely researched book is how often, and how naturally, people rediscover or unearth their humanity by refusing to kill and organizing against war. Thankfully, Lombardi’s granular, human-sized history of armed conflict — and the people who put their guns down — is truly satisfying food for the heart and soul in this difficult and frightening time.

    Lombardi starts with the American revolution and moves chronologically through U.S. history, telling 260 years of stories of resisters, organizers and conscientious objectors from the American Revolution through the Global War on Terror. A cursory and superficial examination of U.S. war history might pause on the Quaker’s conscientious objection or Muhammed Ali heading off to prison instead of Vietnam, but Lombardi offers tightly embroidered instances of dissent, resistance and conscience in every war the United States has fought.

    As I read, I kept trying to imagine the piles of papers on Lombardi’s desk. Her notes take up more than 30 pages and she references hundreds of first-hand accounts — diaries, letters, newspaper articles and unpublished memoirs in order to ensure that the stories of war and war resisters are told in their own words. What’s more, she shows how one act of resistance sparks additional acts — and how one generation inspires the next. This must be why we don’t learn these stories in school.

    Lombardi’s book provokes the question: Who gets to be a hero? The victors and the war makers stand on every plinth and pedestal and glower from the town squares. Meanwhile, names like William Apess and Susan Schnall are barely known: These human beings trained as fighters who clung to their humanity, as well as the belief that the only way to survive is to ensure that no one else sees what they saw, smells what they smelled or perpetrates what they were forced to perpetrate.

    Throughout “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” Lombardi weaves a tapestry of interconnection, mutual inspiration and motivation. She centers to center the voices and experiences of women, African Americans, Native Americans and recent immigrants. Again and again, these marginalized people experienced war — fought, suffered and cared for the wounded and buried the dead. They were forever changed by their harrowing experiences. And so, they resisted war and violence and worked to ensure that those conscripted to fight the nation’s wars were taken care of in the aftermath.

    While reading the book, I kept highlighted every unfamiliar name. These are just a few that stood out:

    • Jacob Ritter, a Revolutionary War soldier from a Lutheran family, did not fire his musket in the Battle of Brandywine. Instead he prayed that God deliver him “from shedding the blood of my fellow creatures that day, I would never fight again.” He kept his promise, fleeing the battle and hiding until he was arrested by the British and held in their prison in Philadelphia. He joined the Quakers after his prison ordeal and worked against war making for the rest of his life.
    • William Apess, an African-American Pequot boy from Massachusetts, was plied with alcohol by military recruiters and illegally signed up for the Army despite his status as a minor and an indentured servant at just 15. Apess experienced the brutality of the War of 1812 and went on to serve the cause of Native American rights as a Methodist preacher, organizer and sought-after orator. He said, “Does it not appear that the cause of all wars was and is that the whites have always been the aggressors and the wars, cruelties and bloodshed is a job of their own making and not the Indians.”
    • Jackie Robinson, who went on to integrate Major League Baseball, was courtmartialed as a young lieutenant when he refused to go to the back of an interstate bus in 1944.
    • Clarence Adams, an 18-year-old African American, who wanted to be a boxer, enlisted in the Army in Memphis. He was sent to Korea, and all but 10 men from his unit were killed before he was captured by the North Koreans and marched North. Once he was freed three years later, he decided to stay in China rather than return to the Jim Crow south. Adams settled in China, went to university, started a family, hosted W.E.B. DuBois and worked for Radio Hanoi. In one broadcast, he reached out to Black troops, telling them, “You are supposedly fighting for freedom of the Vietnamese, but what kind of freedom do you have at home… Go home and fight for equality in America.” Adams lived in China for 14 years until the Cultural Revolution made life difficult, and he brought his family home to Memphis.
    • Susan Schnall, a Navy Nurse, dropped anti-war posters all over the West Coast in a rented plane to advertise the first GI and Veterans March for Peace in October 1968 through San Francisco. Four hundred soldiers and 10,000 civilians marched behind Schnall and the friends she recruited with her airdropped posters. She was convicted of “conduct unbecoming an officer” and spent four months in the brig in Oakland.

    I learned so much of my history — our history — reading Lombardi’s book and only missed one story that could have been included: World War I resister Ben Salmon. This Catholic farmer with an 8th grade education was sentenced to life in prison after refusing induction on the grounds of his faith. He spent three years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, for refusing to work while in prison. Still there after the war ended, Salmon was committed to an insane asylum, where he wrote a 229-page justification for his refusal to participate in war-making. In it, he asserts, “Either Jesus was a liar or war is never necessary.”

    He was one of four Catholic conscientious objectors to the Great War who all suffered disproportionately because of the Vatican’s blessing on “just wars.” Ben Salmon died at the age of 43, his health destroyed by his time in prison. But his memory lives on. Two of his three children entered religious life, and there is a movement to shed more light on his writings, his example and his lived faith.

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    Lombardi’s book begins with Jacob Ritter in a blood-soaked field at the Battle of Brandywine, not too far from Philadelphia. It ends with accounts of young people resisting militarism from within the military in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Jennifer Hoag, a National Guardswoman called to active duty after 9/11, recalled not feeling comfortable hugging or kissing her girlfriend goodbye. That discomfort led to more questions: “What freedom could we offer to the world if we treat it so restricted based on who a person falls in love with?” She felt moved to join anti-war actions in the early days of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq in 2003. “I knew that there was something not right about this unfolding appetite for destruction… I took a stand against the war in Iraq and it was not even 24 hours old.” The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq morphed into the Global War on Terror and nearly two decades later, they grind on still. The technology of war has developed and advanced in the last two and a half centuries as war planners attempt to circumvent and short circuit conscience. But military personnel are still gripped by conscience just as Jacob Ritter was 1777.

    Reading Lombardi’s book in these last days of such a brutal year has been a balm. Her story reconnects me to the strong spirit of dissent, resistance and organizing that has always run through our history (but is seldom found on TV or Netflix). Her book reminds me that the spirit that animated Ritter, Apess, Schnall and their more recent counterparts is still pulsing and robust. What a relief — because we need it now more than ever!

    Choose Democracy’s whirlwind effort to prevent a coup is a crash course in good organizing

    Choose Democracy — the whirlwind start-up that trained 10,000 people to prevent an election-related power grab — started with just three folks. Two had full-time jobs and small children. The other was 82 years old. Over the summer of 2020, Daniel Hunter, Jenny Marienau and George Lakey observed alarming signs that Donald Trump might not go quietly if defeated at the polls. As experienced trainers and organizers, they knew that preparation helped people to act powerfully. So they decided to prepare people to resist a potential coup based on nonviolent strategies that have worked in other countries.

    The articles George and Daniel published here on Waging Nonviolence went viral to a degree this site has never experienced before. Daniel’s “10 Things You Need to Know to Stop a Coup” reached nearly 800,000 readers just on its own. Soon, Choose Democracy was getting featured in the kinds of publications most activists dream of: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Guardian and Boston Globe, among others. By Election Day, their Pledge for Democracy had 40,000 signers, four times their original goal. More importantly, the principles they were promoting had influenced the preparations of labor unions and a wide network of grassroots organizations determined to resist if the will of the voters was subverted.

    Choose Democracy progressed so quickly in large part because it hoisted its sail just in time to catch a big wind. But good organizing mattered, too. For me, joining the team as Trainings Coordinator taught me five principles I want to practice in my post-Inauguration Day social change work.

    1. You don’t need to figure everything out before you begin.

    Unlike many people with a good idea, Choose Democracy’s founders did not wait to take action until they had a clear plan and an organizational chart. Especially in the early stages, they recruited a few friends, assigned roles, then let each team run with their ideas rather than establish a central decision-making structure that would have slowed things down. This model enabled them to launch a website quickly, circulate the pledge, fundraise and start training — while still figuring out things like the best way to integrate training registration with their new email list.

    On Sept. 23, George and Zein Nakoda launched the first training, assuming that it would be tweaked as they learned what worked. They soon paired it down from four hours to two. By the third training, they hit the Zoom account’s 1,000 maximum and needed to upgrade.

    When it became clear that many more training sessions would be needed, additional trainers were recruited, and I was brought on as Trainings Coordinator. Zein warned me, “We are building the plane while flying it,” and it was true. Systems were set up to respond to needs as they arose. Only in October, after the plane was mid-air, did we hire a General Manager who, hosted brief weekly meetings for the team to coordinate, where needed.

    2. Fill a niche.

    There was one important thing Choose Democracy did figure out before take-off: what role it wanted to fill. This was partly based on what the founders had to offer — a century of training experience between them, as well as two prolific writers — but also what they saw in the activist ecosystem. There were many established organizations with the ability to mobilize large numbers of people, but at the beginning no one was putting forward a clear vision of how best to use those people to thwart a coup, if one occurred.

    As groups started stepping into that space, Choose Democracy leaders connected with Momentum, Hold the Line, Protect the Results, BlackOut Collective, and the Movement for Black Lives, among others. Clear roles helped groups to support and learn from each other without getting bogged down in excessive coordination.

    As Daniel Hunter reminded the Choose Democracy team in a mid-September Slack message, “Our theory of change isn’t built on growing as an organization. It’s seeding the ideas and lessons of evidence-based strategy about how coups get stopped, so the entire broad movement is more prepared. We are acting as visionaries.” That clarity enabled Choose Democracy to focus on the simple goal of spreading its message. The digital team made a series of effective, creative videos, including “Sock Puppets Are Plotting a Coup,” which was retweeted by CNN’s Van Jones, among many others.

    3. You don’t have to be workaholics to be effective.

    Choose Democracy’s founders came out of a model of organizing and training that values the whole person and doesn’t believe that working people to exhaustion is the way to create a better world. Over my weeks on the team, I saw people announce that they needed to step back for a bit and watched others step up to cover them. One team member — whose experience is mostly working on elections — remarked how different this was from the groups he had worked with before, where announcing that you were taking care of yourself for a few days was anathema. It reminded me of the advice that went around after the last presidential election, that activism was like singing in a choir. We have to take turns breathing in order to collectively sustain the note.

    This approach enabled the team to navigate two family deaths, two back surgeries, a broken hand, wildfires and a toddler who wasn’t sleeping — all without the group slowing down. It also meant that people weren’t too stressed out to think clearly, which became particularly important when Trump started claiming election fraud.

    4. Anxiety doesn’t help our analysis.

    There were very good reasons to be afraid of a coup. Obsessively watching the election results and Trump’s blustering afterwards were nerve-wracking. But in the weekly team lead meetings, we acknowledged our anxious feelings and distinguished them from the facts, as best as we could assess them. When Trump refused to concede — something we always knew was likely — we were outraged by his antics, but kept our focus on the levers of power, not his tweets.

    When we grounded ourselves in evidence, we saw ordinary, bipartisan people across the United States upholding the integrity of our election, especially local election boards and judges. Encouraging local officials to do the right thing was a key part of our strategy, and it was working. Those politicians who supported Trump’s claims were damaging the public’s trust in our electoral system for their own political advantage, but they were not putting in place strategies that would change the results.

    Despite concerning incidents — like the Republicans in Michigan who refused to certify Biden’s victory — we mostly saw scurrilous lawsuits and political theatre, not an actual plan to grab power. Unfortunately, after four years, Trump loomed so large in our psyches, it was hard for many people to tell the difference. The national strikes and widespread resistance many had planned for didn’t make sense in this situation.

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    5. Strategy requires us to assess what will be most effective in a particular situation, not to simply do what we’ve done before.

    One message of the Choose Democracy trainings was that defeating a coup was going to be different than the knee-jerk protests many in the United States were used to. We were especially concerned about the risk-benefit of large gatherings that could attract violent attacks, which felt like a very real possibility. Violent clashes would benefit Trump, who warned — during the Portland protests over the summer — that he couldn’t let Joe Biden take over if the country was in chaos.

    Still, along with many emails from people grateful for our reassurance, we got some anxiously demanding that we tell everyone to go protest or vigil in their local town square — even as our quieter strategy was working, and there were reasons to think that public protests would play into Trump’s hands. Answering a few of these emails helped me appreciate how much current activism is based on the assumption that showing our outrage is how we make change rather thinking critically about how power works and how to leverage it.

    With the Texas Supreme Court case and the Electoral College vote behind us, the likelihood of a coup is extremely remote. Despite traitorous interference from too many Republicans, Trump never lined up enough co-conspirators with the power to pull it off. Yet, clickbait headlines stoking people’s fears continue. Choose Democracy has planned one more training webinar for December 15, where we will reflect on what we learned during this unprecedented period and celebrate the ways people power worked. We will continue watching events closely through the inauguration, along with our friends at IsThisACoup.com, but repairing the tattered public trust will fall to others. It is outside our time-limited niche.

    As I resume my courses on nonviolent activism, as well as climate activism, I want to remember what I learned from this whirlwind experiment. In particular, I plan to push the people and groups I work with to think more clearly about what might be effective in a particular situation. The stakes are too high — and the issues we care about too important — to stay stuck in the cycles of reactive outrage protest.

    Indigenous-led resistance to Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline threatens Big Oil’s last stand

    When Dawn Goodwin went down to the bank of the upper Mississippi River on Dec. 4, she just wanted to spend some time honoring the traditions of her people. Goodwin was part of a small group of Mississippi Band Anishinaabe women visiting a traditional teaching lodge, or waaginoogan, near where Enbridge’s proposed Line 3 oil pipeline would cross under the river. Upon reaching the waaginoogan, she was distressed to see the stumps of clear-cut trees and other damage where Enbridge had cut a path for the pipeline. Gazing at the destruction, Goodwin felt moved to act.

    “I thought, I needed to pray here,” Goodwin said. “I wandered off toward one of the trees they had cut. I sat down to pray and visit with it.”

    Although Goodwin has been fighting to stop Line 3 for years, in that moment she had no thought of engaging in a direct action. All around her were severed stumps, and a tree feller stood idle. “The machine was turned off, so I knew I was safe,” Goodwin said. Only when a sheriff’s department officer came toward her through the bushes did she realize she was technically trespassing in the pipeline construction zone. Because of her actions, nearby work had to stop.

    “They told me I was in the construction right-of-way,” Goodwin explained. “I said, ‘Sorry, I wasn’t even thinking about that.’” Then it occurred to her this might be an opportunity for a powerful act of protest. “A light bulb went off in my head, and I thought, ‘Oh, I guess I actually need to pray longer.’ So I sat there until dark, praying and singing.”

    By nightfall, Goodwin had caused another small delay for the Line 3 pipeline, a massive fossil fuel infrastructure project beset by half a decade of grassroots opposition. After years of lawsuits, protests and hearings, work along the pipeline route began on the first of this month. The nonviolent resistance it immediately encountered kicks off what is likely to be one of the next massive, sustained direct action campaigns in the U.S. climate movement.

    Dawn Goodwin praying near a tree feller, after a sheriff’s department officer told her she was trespassing on the pipeline construction zone. (Twitter/MikeRollin2)

    Defending White Earth from the tar sands

    Goodwin traces her concern over environmental problems back to second grade, when she learned about water pollution in school. The issue hit home because of the connection she felt to her ancestors’ land. “I’ve felt in tune with my environment all my life,” said Goodwin, who grew up harvesting berries with her mother and other relatives every summer.

    Decades later, Goodwin began hearing about Canada’s tar sands extraction project, one of the largest and most destructive industrial undertakings in history. When energy infrastructure giant Enbridge proposed building Line 3 near the reservation of the White Earth Nation, to which Goodwin belongs, she knew she had to join the campaign to stop it.

    Line 3 is actually the second major Enbridge project Goodwin has helped oppose. In 2013, the company applied for a permit to build the Sandpiper pipeline, which would have pumped oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation across Minnesota and into Wisconsin. Sandpiper was defeated when Enbridge withdrew its application in the face of stiff public opposition three years later. But in 2015, the company also applied to build Line 3, which follows a similar proposed route through Minnesota. However, instead of running east to the Bakken, it would connect with the Canadian tar sands to the north.

    While Enbridge calls this pipeline the “Line 3 Replacement,” Goodwin argues the proposed pipeline must be regarded as a new project. An existing pipeline, also named Line 3, was built in 1961 and cuts through Minnesota en route from the Canadian border to Wisconsin. It has been plagued by leaks and spills, and few people deny it needs to be repaired or taken out of operation. However, the project Enbridge is billing as a “replacement” would in fact be a larger pipeline designed to carry more oil, which would diverge from the existing Line 3 route at Clearbrook, Minnesota and follow a new path that skirts the White Earth Reservation. It would be a bigger project with a larger carbon footprint and new environmental impacts. “It is not a replacement, it’s a relocation and expansion,” Goodwin said. “But Enbridge always leaves that part out.”

    From the beginning, Enbridge’s plans were opposed by Indigenous water protectors concerned about potential oil spills from the new Line 3 and climate activists alarmed over the project’s carbon impact, which is the equivalent to building 50 new coal plants. Thousands of people have turned out to public hearings, submitted comments and asked Minnesota agencies to deny Enbridge’s application. Still, in late November the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency approved key permits, allowing Enbridge to begin work on Dec. 1.

    As Enbridge clear-cuts along the project right-of-way, it is denuding lands where Anishinaabe peoples have treaty-protected rights to sustainably harvest wild foods. No sooner did this work begin than the company ran up against a new wave of nonviolent resistance.

    The resistance spreads

    On Dec. 4, Enbridge tree fellers approaching the Mississippi River encountered a platform in the trees where two activists sat blocking the advancing machines’ path. The ongoing tree-sit, meant to prevent Enbridge from drilling a tunnel under the river, is one of many direct action tactics pipeline opponents have been using.

    Two days later, tribal elders — including famed Indigenous rights activist Winona LaDuke — were cited for “trespassing” after refusing to leave the waaginoogan on the bank of the Mississippi. The following Thursday, two people locked themselves to a truck carrying sections of pipeline to another construction site. Meanwhile, the fight against Line 3 has become a rallying point for climate activists across Minnesota and the nation.

    Local resident Tania Aubid and Winona LaDuke visiting the waaginoogan, or teaching lodge, on the bank of the upper Mississippi River. (Twitter/MikeRollin2)

    “Even if this pipeline miraculously never leaks, it will still be responsible for staggering amounts of greenhouse gases,” U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar said Wednesday, during an online rally against Line 3 attended by around 1,000 people. “Minnesota has made some great commitments to increasing renewable energy usage across the state, but Line 3 alone would undo all that progress and make it impossible to meet our climate goals.”

    For a day of action organized by the Stop the Money Pipeline campaign on Friday, activists in more than 60 cities — across 25 states — visited branches of large financial institutions to deliver copies of a letter calling on them to stop financing tar sands projects. In St. Paul, Minnesota, 20 young people blocked the doors to a Chase Bank chanting “Stop Line 3,” holding signs with messages that included “Pipelines kill.”

    Protesting pipelines during the age of COVID presents unique challenges, but the Line 3 resistance is finding ways to navigate them. “We ask that people social distance, wear masks, and use hand sanitizer,” Goodwin said. Partly because of COVID concerns, Line 3 resisters so far have not set up a permanent encampment like the one at Standing Rock in 2016. However, they are still encouraging activists who can safely do so to come and participate in protests.

    “People can come support us on the front line,” Goodwin said. “We need bodies, we need boots on the ground. They should be self-sufficient and COVID-safe, though.” According to Goodwin, those traveling to Minnesota should know that local motels are rapidly filling to capacity with pipeline workers. Activists coming to support or participate in protests will need to be creative about finding shelter during the cold Minnesota winter.

    Line 3 itself poses a serious COVID risk from the thousands of construction workers flooding into rural communities from out of state. “There is no safe way of building a pipeline of this magnitude in a global pandemic,” said Laalitha Surapaneni of Physicians for Social Responsibility. About 200 health professionals have signed a letter calling on Minnesota Gov. Tom Walz to issue a stay on construction as a pandemic emergency measure.

    By delaying Enbridge through direct action, activists hope to buy enough time to secure a long-term victory over Line 3. Groups like Stop the Money Pipeline are pressuring President-elect Joe Biden to reverse the federal government’s approval of the project once he is sworn in. There is also still time for state agencies to intervene. At the same time, climate groups around the country are winning victories that make pipelines like Line 3 seem increasingly archaic.

    A last stand for the oil industry?

    On Dec. 9, as tree sitters continued blocking Line 3’s construction, the New York Comptroller’s office announced that the state’s $226 billion pension fund will divest from oil and gas companies, building on an earlier commitment to exit from coal. New York’s pension plan is now the largest in the world committed to full fossil fuel divestment.

    Previous Coverage
  • After a big win against coal, NY climate activists are closer than ever to ending all fossil fuel investments
  • “We are sending a signal to the world that fossil fuels are a thing of the past,” said Hridesh Singh of New York Youth Climate Leaders, or NY2CL, one of the groups that campaigned for divestment. “We must transition into a clean energy economy that doesn’t work just for fossil fuel executives, but for all people. That also means stopping the build-out of new fossil fuel infrastructure.”

    Recent victories like the one in New York add to the sense that Enbridge is in a race against time, trying to build Line 3 before oil and gas companies’ misfortunes continue. Earlier this year, the industry suffered a string of defeats and legal setbacks for projects like the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline, the Dakota Access pipeline, and the proposed Atlantic Coast gas pipeline, which developers abandoned in July.

    “We know we’re going to beat Big Oil … We have them on the run,” famed climate activist Bill McKibben told participants in the recent online rally. “That’s why what’s happening with Line 3 is so incredibly infuriating, because these are the absolute last gasps of a dying, decadent and disgusting system. If we can stop it even for a little while, then it will never be built.”

    Big Oil still has plenty of influence, as shown by its ability to persuade Minnesota’s Democratic governor to support Line 3. Still, as recently as five years ago it was almost unheard of for major pipeline projects to suffer political defeat. Divestment wins like the one in New York reinforce the message that the industry is no longer invincible. “It’s completely counterintuitive to continue building oil infrastructure when we need to move money away from fossil fuels and sunset these dirty industries,” said NY2CL leader Caitlyn Carpenter.

    Activists are pushing big banks to follow New York in divesting from companies like Enbridge, which — according to Stop the Money Pipeline — has a $2.1 billion loan up for renewal in March. With such uncertainty in its future, Enbridge can ill-afford any further Line 3 delays. Climate and water protectors are seeking to create that delay with a variety of tactics: direct action, pressure on financial institutions, and more. Yet, perhaps the most powerful weapon of all is the sovereignty of local Indigenous peoples and the treaty rights they hold.

    Signs posted near the Line 3 pipeline construction zone. (RISE Coalition)

    Asserting treaty rights

    “Treaties are the supreme law of the land,” Goodwin said. “All of us, not just Native people, have obligations under the treaties. They are how Minnesota became a state.”

    Most of Line 3’s path through Minnesota bisects territory covered under the terms of a series of treaties signed between the U.S. government and different Anishinaabe bands in the mid-1800s. These agreements set aside reservations like White Earth, while also guaranteeing Indigenous peoples’ right to harvest food and practice other traditional activities throughout their ancestral lands. Now, some Anishinaabe leaders are harnessing treaty rights to oppose Line 3.

    On Dec. 5, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a stop work order temporarily halting construction at the site of the waaginoogan where Goodwin staged her direct action. In addition to threatening Anishinaabe peoples’ ability to hunt, fish, and harvest plant-based foods, Line 3 endangers cultural sites like this. According to news reports, the Army Corps is now working with tribes to assess the cultural and historical significance of the waaginoogan. Construction at that site cannot continue until this process is complete.

    Although the fight against Line 3 has been ongoing for more than five years, the beginning of construction pushed resistance to a new level of intensity that is only likely to increase. If activists succeed, it will be a major win for the climate, but also for the Anishinaabe people who have cared for the affected landscape since time immemorial.

    “Minnesotans forget that their homes and workplaces, their favorite restaurants and their schools, are all on treaty land,” Goodwin said. “Now, we descendants of the people who signed those treaties are saying this pipeline goes too far, it’s going to exacerbate climate change and endanger our water. We’re saying no to this — and we expect to be listened to.”

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