Waging Nonviolence

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.

Previous Coverage
  • 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.”

    Previous Coverage
  • 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.

    Previous Coverage
  • 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.”

    Previous Coverage
  • 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.

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  • 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.”

    Meet the volunteer organizing team helping non-union workers during the pandemic

    When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and lockdowns started in March, a new class of “essential workers” continued to go to work across the United States under new dangerous conditions. As stories came out about workers lacking personal protective equipment, or PPE, and working in crowded workplaces, union workers began to take action. They stopped work, organized sick-outs, won hazard pay, protested employer COVID-19 policies that left them unsafe and negotiated for improvements.

    Unions have made workplaces safer, as research has shown that unionized essential workers have had better COVID-19 workplace practices during the pandemic. The presence of unions makes conditions safer for the general public as well. For example, unionized nursing homes in New York were found to have a 30 percent lower COVID-19 mortality rate among residents. When the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, and other government agencies failed to take adequate steps to protect workers, these workers had to take action. But 90 percent of U.S. workers are not union members, and millions of these non-union workers still need help. For too many of them, essential has meant expendable.

    There was a clear need to find ways to assist workers in confronting this new unsafe world at work. That’s when the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, or EWOC, was born. A joint project of the Democratic Socialists of America and the United Electrical workers union, EWOC recruited volunteer organizers to talk with workers who wanted to organize around COVID-19 concerns. It created a request form for workers to fill out, which it spread through social media. Inquiries from workers started coming in every day.

    Organizing with EWOC

    When EWOC receives the form, there’s an initial intake conversation, and an advanced organizer is assigned to collaborate with the workers on a plan to organize for improvements at work, on COVID-19, or any other issues. This takes the form of a series of phone and Zoom calls where they work through the basics of organizing.

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  • When workers at Barnes & Noble got sick, we organized our warehouse and won
  • Dawn Tefft is one of the leaders of the EWOC advanced organizers team. She was involved in the Milwaukee Graduate Assistants Association during the Wisconsin uprising of 2011, the movement that formed in response to Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union legislation. However, the massive protests at the capital failed to stop the new law. That experience taught her that protest wasn’t enough, and that workers and union leaders throughout the state should have done more to prepare for a strike wave, as her union did.

    She brought this focus on rank-and-file workplace power-building to EWOC, as part of a team that has developed the strategy for organizing with workers. On a recent EWOC call for volunteers and workers, she described that at the beginning of a campaign, an advanced organizer and the workers would rank issues and draft a set of demands. Together, they begin building a list of workers, divide up workers to contact in order to ask them to join an organizing committee or sign a demands petition, and begin planning a first action or a series of escalating actions. The organizing process is built around conversations among coworkers, and throughout these steps, the workers themselves must run the campaign, with EWOC organizers playing an advisory and mentorship role.

    Since its launch, EWOC has already racked up a number of significant victories. Taco Bell workers in Michigan won PPE, paid sick leave and hazard pay; Jimmy John’s workers in Utah received better plexiglass barriers and rules allowing fewer customers in the store at any one time; Sprouts grocery store workers in Texas demanded and got PPE and store customer limits; and Good Vibrations store workers in Massachusetts had their concerns with COVID-19 and other issues addressed after a six week strike. While most of these campaigns are organized at fairly small workplaces, they provide lessons for growing and sustaining organizing at larger employers, which is always a tough challenge.

    I have been involved as an EWOC organizer for several months, talking with workers to develop their campaigns. It’s clear from these conversations that most workers don’t have a solid understanding of unions or what workplace organizing is about. Rarely do people learn much about the labor movement, and much of what they do hear is distorted and filtered through corporate media. For the workers who want to move forward, it’s been inspiring to see them start to learn the art and science of workplace organizing.

    These workers have faced a variety of issues. One university worker wondered why her department couldn’t continue working from home. A retail worker realized that coronavirus issues showed the real need to have a union at her store. A health care clinic worker has started talking with colleagues about the danger of the new surge in COVID-19 cases, and how they could be safer at work.

    EWOC is an experiment in running a labor organizing project through a large network of volunteers outside of formal unions or worker centers.

    I worked with one woman who is employed at a small retail store. She organized with her coworkers for a better sick leave policy. “It was extremely empowering, as a low wage worker,” she said. “You often have a sense of powerlessness that there’s nothing you can do. But with organizing, it’s the one thing you can do to actually give yourself the things that you really need in the workplace.” She went on to describe the solidarity developed between her colleagues during their fight for sick leave. “Having conversations with team members really built that sense of comradery and power amongst ourselves. Realizing that we actually wanted the same things was a big deal too.”

    I interviewed another worker at an agency that provides social services. The workers there had a number of COVID-19 safety concerns and other issues. She organized with her department to write a letter to their supervisor, and won regular health and safety meetings to design better COVID-19 protocols, more PPE, and paid travel time to their various work sites. She says this process has had a tremendous impact and folks feel more confident in bringing up issues. This has led to broader conversations with workers at other agencies about the systemically bad working conditions and treatment of clients in the industry, and how they can better advocate for, and organize with, their clients.

    “[EWOC] has really helped give us a framework to understand how to start making changes about issues and grievances that we have about the care industry and treatment of people by organizing the workplace,” she said.

    This work is not complicated, but it is challenging. Organizing is built on something as basic as having conversations with coworkers, but with an eye toward building power. It involves developing relationships, assessing concerns, understanding workplace social networks, identifying leaders and agitating toward collective solutions to the personal problems everyone has at work. It requires forging common demands and building the confidence of the workers with escalating collective actions that may lead to a strike if necessary.

    EWOC has developed a training series to teach these organizing skills. It sees this project as not only helping workers to improve working conditions now, but also disseminating an understanding of workplace power and collective action to a large network of non-union workers. They can spread these skills and may want to organize or join more formal unions later on. Some of those workers eventually join EWOC as volunteers.

    Now over six months old, EWOC has a few staff coordinators and has grown to involve hundreds of volunteers serving as intake and campaign organizers, media strategists, database administrators, trainers, researchers and other roles. So far over 2,000 workers have reached out to EWOC, and 25 workplace campaigns have won some of their demands, impacting about 1,000 workers. Currently there are 60 campaigns running, and over 500 workers have been through some EWOC organizing training.

    Where does this go?

    EWOC is an experiment in running a labor organizing project through a large network of volunteers outside of formal unions or worker centers. Moreover, during the pandemic this organizing work necessarily occurs on the phone and online. When the pandemic subsides, EWOC will have to coordinate a transition to some in-person conversations and events.

    The EWOC approach can be seen as part of a larger effort to bring a class struggle organizing framework back into the labor movement, with similar politics to the United Electrical workers’ Them and Us Unionism. This may look very different from standard workplace organizing campaigns based on government-run union elections. Many workers may win improvements with direct action, but never seek official union recognition or a written contract. Rooted in rank-and-file workplace organizing, the EWOC model is perhaps most similar to the “solidarity unionism” of the Industrial Workers of the World.

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    As the network of workers involved in EWOC-assisted campaigns grows, organizers face a number of questions about the evolution of the project, including whether this group should evolve into a dues-funded membership organization. We need to ensure that when workers win gains, they maintain an “organized workplace” over time as turnover happens, and possibly solidify their victory through unionization and a contract. We have to find ways to grow linkages of solidarity between all these workplaces and develop the capacity to initiate successful organizing at huge employers with thousands or tens of thousands of workers. Can we distill some lessons from the growing list of campaigns, so we can learn how to win more effectively?

    EWOC is exploring ways to incorporate workers from the campaigns directly into these conversations. EWOC has developed an encouraging new model in worker organizing that also draws from militant rank-and-file labor traditions. As we continue through this horrific pandemic, workers are demonstrating that they can save themselves. They just need the tools and training to do it.

    Why Indigenous activists are occupying the Hamptons until Thanksgiving

    Between the Atlantic Ocean and the Peconic Bay of Long Island, there is an isthmus known as Canoe Place. Thousands of years ago, the land was where the native Shinnecock tribe carried their canoes during travel. Today, the territory is surrounded by the glitzy luxury housing of the Hamptons. It is also the site of Sovereignty Camp 2020, where Indigenous Shinnecock activists have been demanding justice for their people since the beginning of November. 

    The occupation is being led by the Warriors of the Sunrise, a group made up mostly of Shinnecock elders who are affectionately known by their community as “the Grandmothers.” The Grandmothers’ primary demand: an end to the legal battle that the state of New York has waged against the Shinnecock Nation for more than a year. 

    The lawsuit began in May 2019, when the Shinnecock Nation erected a 61-foot monument on Sunrise Highway, the only expressway into the Hamptons. The monument, which is topped with the seal of the Shinnecock Nation, serves two purposes: first, it is a tribute to Shinnecock resilience and a reminder to passersby that they are driving on tribal land. Beneath the seal is an electronic billboard, where companies can pay to advertise to the wealthy clientele of the Hamptons — a way for the tribe to generate desperately-needed revenue. This quickly resulted in an uproar from public officials and wealthy vacationers, who objected to it on grounds that it was an “eyesore” that could “potentially distract motorists.”

    The 61-foot tall Shinnecock monument sits right off Sunrise Highway. (WNV/Matt Ballard)

    Soon after, the state of New York filed a temporary restraining order against the project, despite the fact that it was located on land that rightfully belonged to the Shinnecock. The second monument that the tribe had planned was never built. Now, as the Shinnecock community struggles to feed and house their people during a global pandemic, they are being forced to pay thousands in legal defense fees.

    The youngest among the Warriors of the Sunrise is Tela Troge, a 33-year-old attorney who helped envision the monument and defend it in court. Troge, who grew up in Shinnecock territory, has known the Grandmothers since she was a baby. “People may not be ready to hear the truth, but when it’s a grandmother yelling at you about the way it is, you stop and you listen,” she said.

    For the past few weeks, she has been helping run Sovereignty Camp 2020, where more than 30 activists plan to camp until Thanksgiving. Troge describes the camp as “a place where anyone can share a story and know there’s going to be somebody to listen.” There, the warriors have staged protests, established Shinnecock history classes, and compiled a library of Native authors. At night, the Grandmothers sit around the fire and recount details of the Indigenous occupation of Alcatraz and the American Indian Movement of the 1960s.

    So far, the movement has garnered inter-tribal support, a steady stream of visitors and thousands of dollars in donations. “We’ve gotten messages from people around the world who have grievances with billionaires living on stolen land,” Troge said. “A lot of the donations are labeled ‘back rent.’”

    I spoke with Troge about the occupation, Shinnecock history and how to stand in solidarity with Indigenous people this Thanksgiving.

    How did the occupation come together?

    The occupation has been envisioned by Margo Thunderbird — one of the grandmothers — for at least 45 years. But the monument is what made it possible for us to gather here. It really strengthened us and unified us. The first time it was lit up, my entire tribe came out. I’m 33 years old, and it was the first time I’ve ever seen everyone in my tribe happy and able to come together. 

    Tribal Attorney Tela Troge holding a sign that reads “This is Sacred Shinnecock Land.” The area has always been a place of ceremony and Shinnecock ancestors’ are buried nearby. (WNV/Matt Ballard)

    Since then, we’ve built the alliances we needed to have a meaningful occupation. It feels like the stars aligned to make this possible. We’ve been saying all of these things for hundreds of years, and no one’s listened to us. But we’re going to have people hear us this time. 

    One of the reasons this lawsuit is so devastating is because the monument is more than just a tribute to your people — it’s also an opportunity for your tribe to generate revenue. How has the lawsuit affected economic development in your community?

    The monument has two visual screens that we have advertising on. When we were starting to build, we had contracts with all of these internationally well-known companies. But we lost every single one of those contracts because the town came in with the assertion that it wasn’t our land. 

    People really turned against us. Our neighbors turned against us, and the advertisers turned against us. There was a group of local residents who, if they saw your ad up on the sign, they would boycott you. We’ve really been struggling to put up the second sign that we planned. No bank wants to finance you when your project is under litigation. 

    It’s insane, and this isn’t the first time that New York state or the town of Southampton has done this. It’s just been this history of 400 years of flat-out economic oppression. 

    How has the economic oppression of the Shinnecock people manifested over the years?

    Our territory is surrounded by the town of Southampton. Our neighbors are some of the wealthiest people in the world. They’re celebrities and millionaires with these gigantic summer estates. And meanwhile, our people are literally living in campers, or 200-year-old houses with no roofs. Or they’re living in tents — if they’re lucky enough to even have a tent. The housing conditions are absolutely horrific, but if you drive a minute down the road, you’ll see the biggest house you’ve ever seen in your life. It’s absolutely sickening and disgusting.

    We have about 1,200 Shinnecock people who are living on our territory. Since we only have 800 acres of land, we’re running out of room. We’re on a peninsula that’s extraordinarily vulnerable to flooding and storms, so not many of the acres are even livable.

    We don’t have addresses, so we can’t get bank accounts. And because of that, we’re unable to obtain any type of financing that would allow us to build new homes, or improve the structures of the ones we have. The rest of the world depends on mortgages for that kind of thing. But we just don’t have any access to that capital at all, and we can’t generate our own through economic development.

    You’re also the COVID-19 director for your nation. What has been the impact of the pandemic on your community?

    I’ve had families come to me with absolutely heartbreaking struggles. Things were bad before the pandemic, but things are even worse now. There’s a lot of food insecurity. Even with the food bank, so much of the food is high sodium, and a lot of people are affected by diabetes and can’t even eat that. And a lot of young families lack access to baby supplies like diapers and formula. 

    Homelessness is also a huge concern. A lot of homeless people in the territory were using the church for shelter, but with COVID-19, that became a safety issue. And since so many families have three or four generations of family living in one home, there’s not really any way to quarantine and protect the more vulnerable elders of the family. So it’s a huge challenge we’re facing as we’re going into winter.

    Another thing you’re fighting for is trust land, a land status that grants Native tribes a certain level of sovereignty and protection. Why has trust land been historically denied to your tribe?

    Our tribe’s relationship has always been with the town of Southampton, and the state of New York. We’ve never had a federal relationship with the United States, because we had a relationship with the colonists before the United States was even formed. We’re in a similar situation to the Mashpee Wampanoag, the tribe most people know from their engagement with the Pilgrims.

    “You are on stolen land” projected on trees over Sovereignty Camp that drivers can see before entering the Shinnecock Hills. (WNV/Matt Ballard)

    In 1934, as part of the New Deal, there was the Indian Reorganization Act. Washington sent out an agent to our community to explore the possibility of starting a federal relationship with us. The agent they sent ended up writing back to Washington saying that he felt our features were more African than Indian, and because of that, we’ve always been overlooked by the United States. We’ve never been provided with any type of assistance from colonial oppressors. 

    This was all based on racial policy at the time. Back then, Long Island was a hotspot for eugenics. The super wealthy people out here were engaging with all kinds or research about racial tyranny at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which isn’t far from our territory. There’s a really horrible history of racial prejudice there. 

    What are some of your other demands?

    New York state is one of four states in the country that has no laws to protect unmarked Native graves. Shinnecock Hills is one of our most sacred burial sites. It was stolen from us, and developers have been digging up our ancestors to build houses, pools and tennis courts. They do it right in front of us. I can’t describe how horrible it is to watch them taking our skulls out of the earth so that they can build a house — and then fighting with us when we tell them it’s the wrong thing to do. It’s the worst thing you could ever see in your life.

    Another thing we’re fighting for is our sovereign right to hunt and fish. This was one of the basic agreements we had with early colonial governments, but they’ve never been honored. It’s even worse during the pandemic, because we’re at the point where we need to hunt and fish to support our people, but we’re under attack for trying to exercise that right.

    For many Indigenous people, Thanksgiving is a National Day of Mourning to reflect on settler colonization and genocide. As the holiday approaches, what are some ways that non-Natives can stand in solidarity with Indigenous folks?

    I want people to know the true, raw history of early America, and the true history of Thanksgiving. It’s not people’s fault that they were never taught this, but I want people to know who the Mashpee Wampanoag are. I don’t want to have to say, “Oh, they’re the Thanksgiving tribe.” 

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    There’s a lot of other ways people can stand in solidarity with us, too. They can come down to Sovereignty Camp, or they can make a donation on GoFundMe or PayPal. But what we really need is for people to call the governor of New York, or the attorney general, and ask them to drop the lawsuit. If you’re going to do one thing to honor and recognize Native people during this time, that’s an action you can take. 

    As one of the architects of the monument, you’ve been a part of this movement from the beginning. What has been the most fulfilling part?

    Having everyone come together has been really beautiful. And standing on the edge of the water on my ancestral land, knowing that I’m looking at the same thing that my ancestors looked at 10,000 years ago — I just can’t describe how incredible that is. I love where I’m from, and I’ll do anything to protect it.

    The real threat to democracy isn’t Julian Assange — it’s the espionage case against him

    Beginning in 2010, we, the Yes Men, developed a friendship with Julian Assange and a collaboration with Wikileaks. In 2015, we made this short video about it, originally for inclusion in our third film, “The Yes Men Are Revolting, but it didn’t quite fit. We think it shows a charming, funny and thoughtful side of the man, and so — despite our more complicated feelings about him after 2016 — we’re making it available now, given the dire threats facing Assange and free speech more broadly.

    Assange is currently facing extradition to the United States from London, for allegedly violating the U.S. Espionage Act — marking the first time the act has been used to prosecute the publishing of information. If the extradition is successful, he’ll face trial in a Virginia “espionage court” that has never once absolved a national security defendant.  Allowing the Virginia court to try (and most likely convict) him would be a disaster for democracy — something even Obama’s Justice Department believed in 2013, when they determined that indicting Assange would mean having to prosecute any news organization or writer who publishes classified material. (They called it “the New York Times problem.”)

    Assange’s extradition hearing began in February 2020, with the second part delayed from May until Sept. 7 because of COVID-19. In its apparent eagerness to extradite Assange, the court has committed some egregious abuses — such as introducing new charges in June that Assange couldn’t respond to — that are mentioned in this summary by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and this short film by Wikileaks collaborator Juan Passarelli. 

    Meeting the mastermind

    We first met Assange in the summer of 2010, in an awkward English manor/organic farm. He was under house arrest as he awaited a hearing for extradition to Sweden, where authorities wanted to question him on allegations of sex crimes. (The case was later dropped.) From Sweden, he would have been vulnerable to extradition to the United States, where he might have been subject to torture or worse; all things considered, he seemed pretty calm, not to mention funny and thoughtful, as we hope our little film shows. 

    A screenshot of the landing page for Wikileaks’ release of Stratfor’s internal emails, called The Global Intelligence Files. (WNV/The Yes Men)

    We saw Julian again in February of 2011. Wikileaks had received thousands of internal emails from corporate spy agency Stratfor; a few dozen emails showed that Dow Chemical had hired Stratfor to spy on us, which was flattering to say the least. 

    In 2015, we shared a delicious rotisserie chicken and bottle of wine at London’s Ecuadorian embassy, where Julian was receiving diplomatic protection from Ecuador’s left-wing government.

    Angry at the DNC, angry at Wikileaks

    Our feelings about Julian got more complicated when, a year later — not long before the disastrous U.S. election of 2016 — Wikileaks released a trove of private emails showing the Democratic National Committee had conspired with the Clinton campaign against Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. The first group of emails came just before the summer congress of the DNC, and the second, more directly linked to Clinton, a week before the election.

    Of course, the DNC’s actions against its own party’s populist leanings were loathsome, not to mention myopic and stupid. Forty years of bipartisan neoliberalism had left millions expecting nothing from government, laying the groundwork for the rise of a right-wing populist like Donald Trump. Now, the DNC was squelching the only thing that could have countered him: a left-wing populist like Bernie Sanders, offering much-needed popular solutions based in reality rather than hatred. 

    Without Sanders in the mix, millions faced a choice between the same old neoliberal shit they’d been offered for decades, and a brand new kind of shit, untested and unproven. Many chose Trump, who became far and away the worst and most dangerous president in American history.

    Still, for as much as we’ve mainly blamed Democrats for the horrible outcome of the 2016 election — see our 2017 #DNCTakeBack intervention — we’re also angry that Wikileaks chose to release the DNC emails, especially the second batch, when they did. The timing undoubtedly helped an unhinged authoritarian, in charge of an unhinged party, to win the election. Had Trump been more competent, we could easily be looking at the end of any sort of democracy in America; a Clinton presidency could have been many things, but not that.

    Wikileaks claims that releasing the DNC emails when they did was a matter of “journalistic integrity.” But “journalistic integrity” could also have justified not releasing them at that time, considering the widely-supported possibility that the emails came from a concerted foreign campaign against Clinton. (Assange continues to insist they were not from a “state actor,” but it’s hard to see how that could be strictly ruled out.) It also seems that “journalistic integrity” could have meant releasing the emails after the election was over, rather than give the advantage to a scoundrel known to have even worse skeletons in the closet (that were known then but not publicized until later). 

    Also, “journalistic integrity” would have probably precluded talking to Donald Trump Jr. about what they could do for each other.

    The real reasons?

    We don’t believe that “journalistic integrity” was Julian’s main reason for releasing those emails at the moments he did. There was also his abiding hatred of at least two things Hillary Clinton represented: her hawkishness and her neoliberalism. 

    While Clinton had supported the Iraq war, Wikileaks shined a light on U.S. abuses there with its “Collateral Murder” videos. (Among the revelations for which Assange is on trial is Wikileaks’ release of the Army’s rules of engagement, which it used to prove that such drone strikes on civilians are in fact murder.) According to leaked online chats, Assange seems to have believed that Clinton’s hawkish tendencies would only worsen if she became president.

    Wikileaks has published a lot of crucial information and revolutionized the idea of what journalism can do, whether or not we like all its results.

    And while Clinton was the most prominent champion of the neoliberal consensus — which helped lead to Trump — Assange had long fought that consensus and the financialization it led to. (Financialization, the increase in size and influence of financial institutions and markets, was why Visa, MasterCard, Paypal and others were able to cut off contributions to Wikileaks following its release of the “Collateral Murder” videos, effectively censoring the organization with no legislative recourse to speak of.)

    It’s also possible that Julian, like some others on the left, thought a Trump presidency would put a dent in U.S. power abroad, both militarily and economically. But when strongmen succeed the results are predictable — just look at China, Russia or, yes, Germany in the 1930s. Luckily, Trump was too incompetent to succeed, even if he did directly and profoundly affect millions of Americans, including the hundreds of thousands who’ve unnecessarily died of COVID-19. You just can’t tell an American that the gambit was worth it. 

    Now what?

    We intensely regret that Julian acted as he did in 2016, whether it was out of “journalistic integrity,” hatred for Clintonite warmongering or other policies, or a desire to see American power fail. 

    But we even more intensely believe that extraditing Julian to the United States to face trial under the Espionage Act would be a disaster for journalism and democracy worldwide. Wikileaks is a media organization, and an incredibly effective one at that. It has published a lot of crucial information and revolutionized the idea of what journalism can do, whether or not we like all its results.

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    To continue persecuting Julian is to persecute journalism. If Democrats keep squelching their own best ideas, fascism may take over — but without journalism, without a free press, democracy fails for sure. 

    More than ever these days, the left needs to support, not destroy, the small groups that are part of the “forces of light,” as Julian calls them near the end of our film — even when they get things a bit wrong. For one thing, we’ll need every force of light imaginable to pressure our president-elect into doing what America needs, much as other movements did with LBJ, FDR and Lincoln

    Should we fail in that project, we’ll have mainly ourselves to blame when a smarter Trump comes to power in 2024 — no matter what steps or missteps, aided or not by a foreign power, lead to that outcome.

    How cultural rituals and healing ceremonies can strengthen our movements

    As we struggle against the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racist violence, which continues to cause the deaths of the poor and people of color, it is important for activists and community members to create opportunities for healing our traumatic experiences on the cultural front.

    In Chicago, Black and Brown communities have been devastated by decades of systemic oppression, disinvestment and neglect. It is no secret that the violence and devastation caused by those social evils often define our communities to the outside world. But violence is the direct result of oppression. Our ghettos, neighborhoods and barrios are seen as dangerous and decaying places in the “inner city.” As a Mexican-American growing up in Chicago, I often wondered why we are referred to as the “inner city” in the first place, when Black and Brown communities make up the majority. We are the city.

    There is a remarkable history of Black and Brown unity, dating back to the Great Migrations of African-Americans and Mexicans to Chicago.

    Currently in Chicago, the communities with the highest rates of COVID-19 infections have been those zip codes with majority Black and Brown residents. According to data published by the Latino Policy Forum, my neighborhood of Little Village and neighboring North Lawndale rank first in death rate due to COVID-19 compared to all other zip codes in Cook County, Illinois.

    Moreover, in Illinois, the Black and Latino population has contracted COVID-19 at over two and three times the rate of the white population, respectively. The virus has made visible what has always been hidden in plain sight: the huge racial disparities of health and wealth in American society. As the impact of COVID-19 rises, so does the violence in our neighborhoods. How do we begin to heal the wounds of such traumatic and violent realities that continue to plague our neighborhoods?

    African and Aztec traditional healing ceremonies

    There is a remarkable history of Black and Brown unity, dating back to the Great Migrations of African-Americans and Mexicans to Chicago. These communities have always lived side by side, sharing an often-hidden heritage of Black and Brown solidarity and healing in our movements for change and social justice. Our local history remembers names like Lucy Gonzales Parsons, Fred Hampton and Rudy Lozano, who dedicated their lives to racial solidarity, struggle and healing. Black and Brown cultural resistance work continues in Chicago to this day.

    One example of collective healing is embodied in a series of African and Aztec healing ceremonies, which have been organized for the past three years to help heal wounds of violence in our communities. I form part of the Aztec dance group Xochitl-Quetzal, and in collaboration with two local organizations — Healing Every Youth and Culture Saving — we have been working closely with several Black healers and groups focused on cultural preservation in the city.

    A dancer with the Xochitl-Quetzal Danza Azteca wears ceremonial attire while performing in a cultural ceremony in September 2020. (Facebook/Xochitl-Quetzal Danza Azteca)

    For the past several years, we have organized Black and Brown Unity events in the form of African and Aztec healing ceremonies held within communities impacted by violence. We do this with the support of local community members and organizations. Due to the history of segregation in Chicago, Black and Brown communities neighbor one another. We try to bridge Black communities like Englewood to Brown communities like The Back of the Yards.

    These ceremonies are rooted in healing rituals dating back to before the enslavement of African peoples and the conquest of Mexicans in North America. At these ceremonies, African and Aztec dancers smudge each other with traditional copal and sage, herbs to heal each other in a sign of respect. The drummers gather to play rhythms and songs that have existed for many centuries. The ceremony begins with an offering of thanks to the four cardinal directions, thanking the ancestors for passing on these traditional ways to each generation.

    Our ceremonies are one way to unify Black and Brown communities through cultural racial healing.

    Dressed in ceremonial regalia, the dancers form a circle and take turns offering their prayers in forms of dance. The ritual helps tell the stories of our survival, because the oral tradition and spiritual resistance of our people live in these songs and dances. I am amazed at how the instruments used in African and Aztec dances are so similar — the drums, ankle shakers, even the bead work on the regalia, with their bright colors and patterns sharing similar characteristics. The structure of the dance groups are similar, as well as the dance formations and the fact that it is mostly women who are keeping these cultures alive. These common traits connect these dance traditions, despite the geographic distance between their origins.

    The African and Aztec dance groups have organized ceremonies in Chicago, which are often held along the dividing lines between Black and Brown communities. In 2020, during the pandemic, our cultural resistance work continues to hold sacred space in places for healing. This pandemic has isolated many of our people who are struggling to meet their basic needs, and part of those needs are also emotional and spiritual. Our ceremonies are one way to unify Black and Brown communities through cultural racial healing. This is embodied in a saying: La cultura cura, or culture heals.

    Connecting healing practices to the broader movement

    We are living through the largest social movement our country has ever seen. While the vast majority of Black Lives Matter protests this year — 93 percent according to a recent study — were completely nonviolent, riots and looting did take place in Chicago. This led to a rise in racial tensions between Black and Brown communities. At times, those tensions did escalate to violence and vigilantism.

    This was true between my neighborhood of Little Village, which is a Mexican immigrant neighborhood, and North Lawndale, which is a Black neighborhood. Youth and community activists mobilized several types of demonstrations to bring the Greater Lawndale community together to address anti-Blackness that resurfaced in my community as a result of the looting.

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    At one solidarity march, I was walking from my house with a friend to a Black and Brown feeder march that was going to join a unity march. As we crossed into North Lawndale, I was carrying my Black Lives Matter sign and passed several young African American people who were sitting on their porches.

    One of the young men stopped us and said, “Hey man. Why you carrying that sign? You should be carrying that in your own neighborhood.” Several people noticed nearby and tried to help ease the tension. I explained that I was walking in an act of solidarity, but I tried to hide the fear, shame and embarrassment I felt. One young African-American woman in particular tried to jump in, saying, “It’s cool, let them be, they with us.”

    We did keep going and eventually met up with the solidarity march, but I kept reflecting on what had occurred. After the action, I walked home and, as I crossed back into Little Village, a young Latino man driving by noticed my sign and shouted out of his car to me, “Get the fuck out of here with that, Black lives don’t matter,” laughing as he drove away.

    What happened before and after that demonstration left a profound impact on me. Those words shook me and challenged my convictions and activism. What we do with our time before and after protest is what truly matters. Those words made me question how much work we are doing in the Mexican community to address the anti-Blackness that has existed both subtly and not-so-subtly for generations. The young Black and Brown men who made those comments really made me think of the reality: not enough is being done in Brown communities to address anti-Blackness where it persists, and this is where we need to focus our energies.

    Performers organized traditional dances and rituals from both Aztec and African cultures to build solidarity between Black and Brown communities in Chicago. (Facebook/Xochitl-Quetzal Danza Azteca)

    Because of that experience, in September we held our most recent African and Aztec indigenous ritual followed by a peace talking circle with activist and community members. Talking circles provide a sacred space for community members to gather to speak, reflect, process and heal. We chose to host the ceremony at the intersection of Ogden and Lawndale Avenue, the dividing line between North Lawndale and Little Village. On that intersection is a corner store and an auto body shop with a mural of Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez. In these businesses, Black and Brown people work together every day.

    After the ceremony, local activist Shelby Chaney and Luis Narvaez hosted the talking peace circle in a vacant lot next to the mural. Talking circles are rooted in indigenous practices from First Nation peoples in North America. The circle gathers community stakeholders to address and resolve important issues to a tribe or community in a meaningful way.

    “Throughout history, Black and Brown communities have been strategically divided,” said Chaney, a bilingual Black woman. “We therefore have to have strategic conversations in order to mediate the existing tensions and foster opportunities for growth.” Chaney described the historical and cultural roots of anti-Blackness in Latino communities, and identified this as a moment of opportunity to call this out. “Through this, we can begin to foster conversations that move towards healing the generational traumas, stereotypes and misunderstandings,” she said. “We can learn so much from each other and begin much-needed healing processes when spaces are provided to communicate our hurts, wants and needs as communities.”

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    Luis Narvaez, a program director for the Chicago Public Schools, reflected that even though Chicago is a diverse city where African Americans and Latinx people make up the majority of residents, these conversations do not happen enough. “This is personal to me as the parent of both Black and Brown children,” Narvaez said. “I want to make sure to provide them with a future where they feel safe and supported by all groups around them.”

    Narvaez works to provide support for undocumented students in the city. “[We need to] call out the multigenerational usage of the word ‘Black’ as a derogatory term among Spanish-speaking communities,” he said. “It is up to us in this generation to call it out and hold each other accountable for our words and actions.”

    These Black and Brown healing ceremonies provide a space to share and learn from the similarities that exist in our shared experiences in this country. It is remarkable that indigenous traditions can still be found in the heart of the community. “It was powerful to be in that space and experience dance and culture from both Black and Brown ancestral practices along with modern urban spoken word,” Narvaez reflected. “The sight is not a common one to see here in Chicago, despite the diversity of its residents.”

    In Thailand, nonviolent discipline is key in surging pro-democracy movement

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    For weeks, protesters have flooded the streets in Thailand, demanding reforms to the country’s monarchy, a rewrite of the Constitution and the resignation of the Thai Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha. But the military, which has staged over a dozen successful coups in the past century, faces a dilemma. With pro-democracy demonstrators maintaining strict nonviolent discipline, the military’s repressive tactics — including the use of water cannons against peaceful protesters — have backfired, driving more people into the streets.

    Pimsiri “Mook” Petchnamrob, a human rights activist from Thailand, has been involved as a supporter in the pro-democracy movement for the past 10 years. Since 2010, she has watched the movement leadership change dramatically — from a small, centralized group of strong male leaders, to the current movement, which is led by a distributed network of young people, queer activists and women. 

    From flash mobs to mock fashion runways, Thailand’s pro-democracy movement is employing creative tactics to drive democratic change throughout the country. Identified by the iconic three-finger Hunger Games salute, the movement has drawn in a wide range of citizens throughout the country, from drag queens to food vendors, K-pop fans and motorbike drivers. Although the struggle will be a long one, Petchnarob says, the protesters’ steadfast commitment to nonviolence in the face of police repression and violent counter-protests could undermine the legitimacy of another military takeover if one takes place. I spoke to her about anti-coup resistance, the “backfire effect,” and the future of the movement as Thai police continue to escalate violence against protesters in the street.

    It seems like police repression against protesters in Thailand has backfired and made the protests stronger. Is that repression mobilizing more people to take to the streets?

    After the first crack down on the early morning of Oct. 15, when they [increased the] state of emergency from moderate to severe and used water cannons against protesters, at least 50,000 people took to the streets. It backfired, and the government realized they had made a mistake by using water cannons and violent force to disperse the protesters. 

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    That’s why they lifted the severe state of emergency [a week later] — they knew that they made a mistake. They know that using state security forces will not work in this case, so they’re using other tactics like [supporting counter-protests through] royalist mobilizations. They learned that using force against peaceful protesters is not going to give them a good image, and people will just support the protests even more.

    In the United States right now, everyone has been talking about the presidential election and how to resist an attempted coup. But in Thailand, you all have more experience with coups — and resistance to coups — than almost any country in the world. Can you tell us more about the role of the military in the current protests, and how these repeated coups have affected the pro-democracy movement? 

    Of course, coups are tough for movement building. After the pro-democracy Future Forward Party was disbanded in February, people were still saying, “Don’t go to the streets or protest, because it will give the military justification to stage another coup. But the protesters proved it wrong. Of course, the military doesn’t have enough justification yet [for a coup] at this point. That’s why the [military] is mobilizing pro-monarchy supporters. They’re expecting to see clashes on the street and people fighting each other, so the military can appear to take the mediator role. 

    So when we see something provocative, we walk the other way. The other side is very enthusiastic to use violence against pro-democracy protesters. Their number is smaller, but they know they have the palace and the state backing them up. I think the military is just waiting for that moment to happen, so they can take control.

    How has the pro-democracy movement been able to maintain nonviolent discipline?

    We know this is the only card we have. Once we start using any violence, or even burn a car, they’re going to use it against protesters. That’s why we have to be super disciplined. Generally the protesters know that once we use any violence, that is what the government and the military want. They are longing to see it, so they can use that as justification for military intervention or the use of stronger force against protesters, not just water cannons. 

    Everyone here realizes that this is our condition. Even in Indonesia, they protested for a week, then they burned a lot of cars. They realized the military is not going to stage a coup. With the conditions in Indonesia it’s not possible for a coup to take place, even if there are lootings or other violence during protests. But we know this is our condition. They are ready for this to happen, so I think everyone realizes there’s a line we can’t cross. Of course we are angry, of course we’re upset, but if we lose it right now, we’ll lose it forever.

    The last coup in 2014 came with this kind of justification. They said, “Okay, there are Red Shirt [pro-democracy] protesters and Yellow Shirt [pro-monarchy] protesters,” so they said they needed to make an intervention to bring harmony. This time we’re not involved in any kind of violence that may take place. 

    Are there a few people who stand out as leaders of the movement, or is leadership more widely distributed? 

    There are some leaders — the first ones who started to talk publicly about the role of the monarchy in Thai politics in August — and now they’re being arrested. They were the charismatic characters of the movement. At this point, they’re in jail, so the movement maintains a more leaderless structure in terms of who is organizing protests and mobilizations throughout the country. After the announcement of the state of emergency, pretty much everything was banned, including gatherings of more than five people and the use of sound amplifiers, so it’s better to use this kind of leaderless strategy. If you want to organize something at this or that location, you just post it on the main Facebook page. 

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    Right now, those leaders who were brave enough to talk about the monarchy in public are being released, so maybe there would be different forms of organization now. I think the government or police bureau realized that leaderless movements are impossible to control. Protesters can talk nastily about the king and his wife. They might expect that the leaders will cool down the tone of the protests [now that they’ve been released from jail].

    In your view, why do so many people still support the monarchy and is the pro-democracy movement reaching out to these people in any way?

    There are actually two groups of so-called royalists, or “Yellow Shirts,” who support the monarchy. One is organic — they actually support the monarchy without any forcing or recruitment. Some of them benefit from the existence of the monarchy. They want the monarchy to stay forever because they profit from it. Others have just internalized the strong propaganda, so they actually believe it. But I don’t think this is a huge group. 

    The second group is those who are low-rank government officials, like street cleaners and janitors in government offices. They are recruited and forced to join this kind of gathering. If they don’t, it will affect their jobs because it’s easy to check the list of who appears in this kind of mobilization or who is absent. 

    [Some of these people are] already with us. On Oct. 14, when they were recruited to join the counter protest wearing yellow shirts, many of them flashed the three finger salute. Some of them took off the yellow shirt and joined the protest later, after they were allowed to leave. They’re already with us, because working-class people know what we are fighting for. Mostly it’s for them. The protest leaders, [some of them] might be upper-middle-class kids, but they want a better society, and working-class people understand this. 

    With such widespread support for the movement, including among some of the supposed counter-protesters, do you think things will reach a tipping point in the coming weeks? 

    The government is confident that if they can [drag this out] until next year, the protest will lose its momentum. So it seems like it’s going to be a long-term struggle. The government won’t give up easily. They think the movement is just something temporary. Right now, the protests might still be too small to force the prime minister’s resignation, but in March, the government might not have enough money to pay the public servants’ salary any more. So maybe then we’ll see more people from the public sector [joining].

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    Are there certain tactics or strategies in other pro-democracy movements that have inspired activists in Thailand?

    Of course we learned from the movement in Hong Kong. During the state of civil emergency, we didn’t announce the gathering point ahead of time so the police couldn’t prepare themselves. We just announced it an hour before the gathering time, and when they closed down the public transportation, people still got there by foot. I saw people walk four kilometers to join the protest because the government closed public transportation. That part we learned from Hong Kong. 

    This is also a very youth-led movement and a queer-led movement — that’s why it’s so good. The People’s Runway, for example, was a queer-led event, along with actions by Drag Queens Against Dictatorship. It’s good that this movement is not only led by tough, strong, male leaders anymore, it’s a lot of queer people and women. 

    How youth organizers in Texas mobilized Gen Z to score local victories and build for the future

    On one of the final days of early voting in the 2020 presidential election, a woman marched up to the Carver Library polling station in Austin, Texas with a purpose. Another woman trailing behind her told the crowd of onlookers, “That’s my mother, Joyce. This is her first time voting. Will you cheer for her when she comes out?”

    Joyce wasn’t just someone who had previously chosen not to vote. As her daughter explained, Joyce was formerly incarcerated — which meant, according to Texas law, she had to complete her sentence and the conditions of parole or probation before regaining her right to cast a ballot.

    This election and this work are a chance for us to make systemic change in our society.

    For me and the other young people who work with Youth Rise Texas — a nonprofit organization that uplifts youth impacted by familial incarceration or deportation — it was a moment of catharsis and celebration as Joyce walked out of the library having participated in her first election.

    Like many of my fellow organizers at Youth Rise Texas, I’ve had friends and family affected by unjust immigration laws. I’ve also experienced firsthand how my family, hailing from Bolivia, has been othered in this country because of the way we look and the languages we speak. This election and this work are a chance for us to make systemic change in our society.

    Our get-out-the-vote street team worked for moments like this one in the weeks leading up to Election Day. We organized youth through local high schools, taught them about the voting process and why it’s important, hosted weekly Zoom “power hours” to discuss voting, provided rides to the polls, created a GOTV zine with information on registering and casting a ballot, and registered nearly 1,000 first-time voters.

    As frustratingly slow as it was for the results to come in last week, when they finally did we were relieved to see clear support for a return to the values of democracy and equality.

    The city of Austin passed a $7 billion transportation plan. It will serve citizens of all ages, skin colors and socioeconomic backgrounds by adding light rail that will connect the city and greatly expand our bus service. While a progressive wave didn’t happen here in Texas, in the rest of the country, representation of women, people of color and LGBTQ+ increased all the way down the ballot.

    Youth organizers in Texas created a zine to get out the vote and engage young people in the election. (WNV/Cindy Elizabeth Photography)

    Of course, some of the results are still out. Here in Central Texas, we’re closely watching the Austin Independent School District runoffs in District 5 and for the At-Large Place 8 seat, which represents the entire district. As a young person in Travis County, I want to ensure that our schools are places of sanctuary for Black and Brown kids. Our school board should reflect those values, and its seats should be filled with folks who will help remove police influence from our classrooms.

    Over the last six months, grassroots organizations helped convince young voters that — despite a seemingly broken system — their votes still count and could shape the future.

    From what we know of the election results, we’re in a good position to see such changes.

    Already, it has been a landmark year for the youth vote. By the end of October, Texans under 30 had cast one million votes, a 600 percent increase over the 2016 election. Four years ago, the majority of non-voters in Austin were under 30, with seniors outpacing them at a rate of three to one. But over the last six months, grassroots organizations helped convince young voters that — despite a seemingly broken system — their votes still count and could shape the future.

    Youth Rise and our partners at the Texas Youth Power Alliance were only a few of the many groups doing similar grassroots organizing throughout the country. The work that we did as a community helped create a record-breaking turnout by Generation Z. We don’t know the number of voters with restored voting rights in 2020, but efforts continue in Texas and across the country to end the practice of disenfranchising people with felony convictions on parole or probation. Local organizing works, and we must continue!

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    While the election may be over (depending on who you ask, unfortunately) our organizing efforts are just gearing up. We’re going to be working nonstop to fortify the wave of progressive voters who established themselves this year. We’ll continue to engage the voters we registered during election season, expand our reach in local schools, and help our young activists organize for school districts that educate rather than criminalize their students.

    Texas and the country are still gerrymandered to the point that most races are all but inevitable for one party or the other. We still have systems in place that criminalize Black and Brown people and persecute immigrants. We still have schools that excessively discipline and police children of color. So, we’ll continue the organizing work — for Joyce, her daughter and all the first-time voters we engaged during our GOTV efforts. As one of my fellow youth organizers said a few days before the final results came in, “No matter who wins, we have to continue to organize and keep our people safe.”

    6 ways to stay focused on movement-building amid the post-election chaos

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    Almost as clear as the deep divisions within the United States is the exhaustion we feel about the current political process unfolding during a growing wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The surprises and swings of this post-election period must be met with a careful, nuanced look at the realities we are facing — so we can best prepare and organize today for a more just and peaceful tomorrow.

    With that in mind, here are six talking points — looked at through a lens of historic movement-building — that provide some possibilities for hope and a sense of the hard work that lies ahead.

    1. Trump is a trickster with amazing staying power. While he has defied all expectations, he alone is not able to alter reality based on his house of lies.

    In the weeks leading up to the Jan. 20 inauguration, there is likely to be one after another outrageous and infuriating action — not only on the part of Trump but also possibly on the part of some anti-Trump individuals who do not share a holistic vision of a world free of oppression and violence. It would be both disastrous and untenably exhausting to try to prepare for, counter-act and/or resist each and every one of these outrages.

    We must first be alert for repression against the most targeted communities and leaders among us.

    We must choose our actions wisely, remembering that there are many, many people across the United States preparing for many different scenarios: machinations on the state legislative level; interventions at the electoral college; state, federal and Supreme Court legal subterfuge; hiring and firings to enable disruption of government departments and agencies; fundraising to deal with massive personal and campaign debt; media manipulation and the expansion of direct lies to undermine the transition and government in general; and attempting to mobilize parts of the military and law enforcement. We must first be alert for repression against the most targeted communities and leaders among us. We must plan for the inauguration and the post-inauguration period. But we must not think that each of us or our organizations must respond to every disruptive move.

    Successfully reversing a popular victory of over five million votes and a comfortable electoral victory — which virtually every credible authority has stated was essentially free from fraud — will take a massive effort well beyond the reach of Trump’s inner circle or a divided Republican Party. We must remain vigilant, while also recognizing these realities.

    2. We ride on the cusp of amazing mass organizing, but one that can only wield real influence if we consolidate into a full-fledged movement with successful short-term campaigns and long-term goals.

    Joe Biden didn’t receive the largest vote in U.S. history because he is such an overwhelmingly inspiring, unifying or visionary figure. The close to 78 million ballots cast in the midst of the coronavirus show the depth of anti-Trump sentiment more than any pro-Biden feelings, but they also evidence the successes of extraordinary registration, get-out-the-vote and grassroots empowerment efforts.

    Contrary to myths that are already being spread within progressive circles, these efforts were led mainly by Black and Latinx communities, militant trade unions, young people concerned about their future and that of the planet, and others long disenfranchised but deciding once again to come out in record numbers to prevent further devastation. We would do well to keep sight of this instead of quickly cashing in on the idea that only “lowest-common-denominator” compromising principles will yield the power we need to make basic change.

    3. As we work to build a “Beloved Community” movement — multi-issue, Black, Indigenous and people-of-color-led, with clear class and gender analysis — we must stay focused on what we are organizing for (not just a single presidential campaign). We also need to remember that the Trump constituency is also large and continuing to organize.

    Just as it would be foolish to see the election outcome as “a people’s victory against fascism,” it would be a terrible mistake to see even the formal transition of power in January as the end of an era. Trump’s power has always been his ability to mobilize a base with an overt acceptance of white supremacy, patriarchy, militarism and/or nationalism — and those mobilized will not go away.

    Organizing for real democracy — beyond a single election, individual candidate or electoral politics itself — must be one task of a creative progressive movement.

    Unless we look very closely and stay focused, we aren’t likely to see how a more covert, armed, locally-based, right-wing series of groupings will intensify over the next two to six years. At the same time, we shouldn’t be surprised if a figure far less brash and chaotic than Trump (but equally or more charismatic) emerges in the coming years to take power through elections or others means. Recognizing and preparing for this — organizing for real democracy beyond a single election, individual candidate or electoral politics itself — must be one task of a creative progressive movement.

    4. We must remember that as good as Biden may seem to some in comparison to Trump, he is in many ways a Blue MAGA.” His brand ofMake America Great” neoliberalism may look different than his conservative friends in the Senate, but it shares the same roots.

    Giving Biden a “pass” at this time or pinning our hopes on him or Kamala Harris would be like giving an endorsement to our jailers. There is a reason why, in response to last summer’s Black Lives Matter uprisings, Biden loudly asked: “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters!?” Clearly the two of them will attempt to split those they deem to be “nonviolent” and acceptable and those they condemn as “the bad protesters.” Many who consider themselves liberal might look the other way as a new generation of those working for social change are criminalized, disempowered or worse.

    Let us also not forget that it was former President Barack Obama — in his behind-the-scenes moves to push Biden’s White House bid — who undercut the budding NBA and wider sports strike. It will be a primary task to stand up against cooptation, sectarianism and shadier forms of repression — and in favor of an explicitly revolutionary nonviolence which defends all people’s organizing in defense of their self-determination rights.

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    5. We must be appealing, use positive messaging, build bright cultural icons and tell the truth as we go well beyond “preaching to the choir!”

    If Late Night talk show celebrity Seth Meyers feels comfortable talking about the roots of systemic injustice beyond Trump and the need for long-term organizing, surely we can do no less. On Nov. 10, Meyers exclaimed, “Clearly the deep rot in our political system and the conservative movement exposed by Trump’s rise is not going away anytime soon; he is not unique and fixing that will require bold, systemic change!”

    We must be aware that the United States is an empire in decline. Whomever the government “leader,” the United States now faces divisions typical of such a historic moment. Instead of being passive consumers of left or right orthodoxies, we must dare to take radical and inspiring direct actions which build political-economic programs that educate and bring people into a progressive movement. We must dare to have fun — to laugh and love and take care of and pace ourselves — while doing this!

    6. Build for a #PeoplesStrike.

    The last year has seen a great rise in successful, local workers strikes. And more and more people are now preparing for a possible general strike — a need which will still be necessary to pressure a new administration. Centering on a singular, coordinated date and time is not the only way to organize. However, ongoing, rolling actions that boldly challenge all systemic injustices can take place on a limited monthly basis (as the group Peoples Strike has proposed, calling for actions on the first of each month).

    We have to construct the kinds of transformative policies that even the next generation and seven generations forward can be proud of.

    Fighting back against the austerity measures that are trying to save capitalism, has been the unifying focus of People’s Strike since its founding in April 2020. Initiated and led by Mississippi-based Cooperation Jackson, People’s Strike respects and encourages diverse local work around people-centered decolonization, decarbonization and environmentalism, a people’s bailout, universal health care and critical-thinking education. If we are to hope for success in reversing not just Trump but the root politics he gave voice to, we have to build strong coalitions and united fronts like the People’s Strike — to construct the kinds of transformative policies that even the next generation and seven generations forward can be proud of.

    It is our collective job to learn from history and not get fooled (again) by half-baked efforts to lull us into minimal reforms tomorrow, which will only be taken away the day after. It is time to build across ideological differences and borders — to fight all forms of fascism and neofascism. It is time to build decentralized institutions of people’s power that provide mutual aid and sustenance in our times, no matter who holds the reigns of the state.

    Nigeria’s #EndSARS movement has suspended protests, but vows to come back stronger

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    On Oct. 3, Nicholas Makolomi, a videographer in the town of Ughelli in Nigeria’s Delta State saw a boy jump out of a moving police car in front of him. Whether he jumped on his own or was pushed out was unclear, but he appeared injured. Makolomi and his friends trailed and recorded the police officers suspected to be members of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS. A white SUV, believed to be owned by the injured youth, could be seen ahead of the police car. It was allegedly being driven by a SARS officer, in what the public interpreted as a carjacking.

    Upon hitting social media, Makolomi’s video went viral, tapping into the existing youth anger against SARS. Other SARS brutality videos, unrelated to the incident, soon flooded the internet, sparking a mob attack in Ughelli on an off-duty SARS officer who was eventually rescued.

    When the police traced and arrested Makolomi on Oct. 5 for “inciting violence and false information,” public anger had already hardened on social media, followed by unrest in Ughelli. The police clampdown on the unrest, as well as the emergence of more footage of police sadism, sustained the conversation online. Douglas Agu, a Nigerian pop musician known as Runtown, tweeted that he would lead a protest on Oct. 8 to #EndSARS. The hashtag was already in use as a symbol of long-ignored outrage.

    In an attempt to thwart the protest, Nigeria Police spokesperson Frank Mba reached out to Naira Marley, a rebel musician who, with the rapper Falz, had voiced support for the Oct. 8 protest. On the day of the action, Marley’s massive supporters had gathered in Agege, a sprawling local council area in Lagos. They waited despondently for him, but he failed to show up.  An equally highly rated R&B singer named Small Doctor did turn up, however, and pulled the large crowd to Alausa Ikeja, office of the Lagos State government. With Nigerians seeing the size of the crowd, the game changed instantly.

    Comedian Mr. Macaroni, and Tacha, a star of the “Big Brother Naija” reality TV show, led another gathering in Lagos the next day. The momentum grew and drew even more celebrities, who mobilized their followers on social media. The Macaroni-led group converged on Alausa, refusing to leave until someone addressed them. Since no one responded, they slept there on the open street. Images of their night watch triggered patriotic fervor never before seen among Nigerian youth.

    Even after state government officials addressed them the next day, they demanded action. Public distrust of government was further aggravated when Nigeria’s Inspector-General of Police Mohammed Adamu announced the disbandment of SARS, only to introduce a new unit he called the Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT, team. The protest continued over the following days despite brutal police attacks, as “the mother of all marches” was scheduled in Rivers State for Oct. 13.

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    The Rivers State Gov. Nyesom Wike instantly banned the planned protest, apparently misreading the public mood. For a governor known to be high-handed, Wike’s action frightened observers. To defy his order was to risk a bloodbath, but the youth had had enough. Their defiance produced a gathering of over 10,000 people — the largest the new movement had seen — which sent a strong message to the powers-that-be in Nigeria, and inspired even more people to join.

    With daily, simultaneous protests across other states came the challenge of funding and crowd discipline. The protest had no central leadership, so organizers leading each gathering took care to ensure order. They called for funding to provide for health emergency services, and volunteers to help manage activities on protest grounds. Aware that protests are can sometimes degenerate into violence, they introduced entertainment.

    It began with serving water and light snacks, then full meals — including to security officers dispatched to protest venues. In addition to food, as the crowd surged each day, there were music shows and art performances. Each altruistic action had a multiplier effect: More volunteers turned up — including over 200 lawyers helping to bail out arrested protesters — and more people marched and donated. Then came the Feminist Coalition, a Nigerian pro-equality group which was started months earlier in July.

    The group, in collaboration with money-transfer startup Flutterwave, created a central fund for donations. They shared the link on social media, which was retweeted by many Twitter influencers, including Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Feminist Coalition injected credibility into the funding by accounting for proceeds and disbursements on a daily basis. But the donation link was soon disabled by Nigeria’s Central Bank, as the government panicked about the flood of cash. The group, however, switched to cryptocurrency and the authorities went violent in apparent desperation. 

    Government vehicles were seen picking up some armed persons off the streets and releasing them around protest venues in Abuja and Lagos. Protesters were attacked by armed strangers who hijacked the protest and staged a reported jail break in Edo State. Organizers in Lagos, which was the center of the protest, were still able to maintain crowd control as protesters kept daily vigil at the Lekki Toll Gate, a highbrow area of Lagos, before mayhem descended on the night of Oct. 20.

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    Protesters sat peacefully on the ground, sang the national anthem and waved the national flag that evening, as soldiers arrived. Unprovoked, the officers from the Nigerian Army proceeded to shoot into the crowd, injuring dozens and killing at least 11 people. DJ Switch was on ground and streamed the shooting live at the risk of her life. News of the shooting sparked violence in Lagos, as rioters unconnected to the protest began a burning and looting spree the next day. Other states soon broke out into violence that lasted over a week, which targeted police stations, as well as other public and private property. In order not to aggravate an already tense situation, organizers at different levels called for the suspension of the campaign.

    Global and local outrage at the shooting compelled the Lagos State government — which initially denied inviting the army, but later admitted to doing so — to set up judicial panels of inquiry. In the meantime, an investigative report by Premium Times indicted the state government, police authorities and the Nigerian Army in the carnage and confirmed the killings. Pent-up youth anger endures over the incident. The hashtag #ItIsNotFinished trended days after, keeping the spirit of the agitation alive.

    While protesters immortalize their rage in hashtags and digital archives, the government has begun efforts to shrink the civic space and ensure a protest of this type never happens again. Minister of Information Lai Mohammed and some Lagos lawmakers, who are members of the ruling All Progressives Congress, exhumed a perennial debate about “regulating social media” in the country. In the aftermath of the protest, the government has frozen the bank accounts of some protest supporters. Some wanting to travel have had their passports seized.

    Some activists, meanwhile, suggested that the protest should mutate into a political party. They see that as a path to addressing #EndSARS grievances, which transcend police brutality and include other core issues like political restructuring, governance and human rights.

    Others have rightly argued that #EndSARS as a political party has little prospect. Police brutality unites Nigerian youth across social and economic classes but Nigerian politics has not. Ethnic and religious fault lines remain. In fact, the movement was seen by many in the north of the country as a power-grab — which explains why all counter-protests emanated from that region. That is where the president is from, and SARS operatives in the region have been known to work with better discipline.

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    Even in southern Nigeria, with different ethnic groups, the unity of the protest was soon shattered with violence. A narrative suspected by many to be engineered by politicians — claiming the arsonists and looters were Igbo people (southeasterners) bent on destroying the economy of the Yoruba (the southwest) — gained traction. Calls for reprisals followed, and tension mounted.

    For days, #EndSARS supporters on social media worked tirelessly to debunk these narratives, which later fizzled out as many Nigerians, including the Yoruba, denounced it. A political future for the protest is not impossible, but the movement needs time to build on existing energy, learn the playbook of political detractors and develop an enduring blueprint.

    At the moment, the country knows a seed has been sown. The youth will never forget and supporters are taking a break to study developments. No one knows exactly when, but there’s little doubt that Nigeria has another date with the protest. Perhaps it will resurface with another name, but the character will be the same. A digitally smart generation for the first time has tasted social power for a few weeks and, like the old foxes with a grip on Nigeria, they will return.

    What Trump’s claim of a ‘stolen election’ means for activists today

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    I’m encountering a great deal of alarm among progressive activists regarding continued Republican claims of a stolen election. Do these anti-democratic efforts mean a coup attempt is under way?

    Despite being among the first to write about the possibilities of a coup, I have to say (as of this moment) the answer is “No.” My colleagues at Choose Democracy — who have been preparing Americans to defeat a power grab for the past several months — have also stopped short of describing what we’ve seen and heard this week as a coup. In a release today, they said: “What we have seen has been slow, poorly rolled out, and has none of the surprise elements associated with a traditional coup.”

    So what are we to make of the Trump campaign’s lawsuits, Republicans refusing to honor the election results and the Department of Justice looking into “allegations” of supposed voter fraud? If this isn’t a coup, then what is it?

    The politics of grievance

    I believe Trump’s “stolen election” claim is a choice to continue a kind of politics that has served him well in the past — so well that he’s re-shaped the Republican Party in its image. Trump specializes in the politics of grievance.

    Millions of words have been written since 2016 about manipulating grievance to gain political power. The question for the politics of grievance is never whether or not something is true — it can be laughably untrue. The claim that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States was obviously bogus, but it was useful as a way to reduce his legitimacy as president and fit nicely into the politics of grievance.

    I believe the point of claiming a stolen election is not to set the stage for a coup, but to add more juice to the right’s list of grievances for building political power in the future. The bigger the publicity that’s produced around this claim, the more juice is created — and that’s what they are trying to do now.

    Count on it: the juice will ferment in 2021 and be stronger in 2022. Everything that hurts Americans will be laid on the door of Biden, “who was fraudulently elected!”

    What can we do about it?

    First, as the Choose Democracy team advises, “Breathe.” Our anxiety doesn’t actually serve us in this case. Additional immediate action steps are also recommended on the site, including writing elected officials and supporting and thanking poll workers.

    Second, in the coming months pay attention to the grievances that arise from the circumstances of living in a declining empire. It’s no accident that exit polls showed more people who earned less than $50,000 favored Biden than those with higher incomes. That was also true for those who didn’t work full time. More people also favored Biden who saw the nation’s economy as “not good” or “poor.”

    It makes sense: More well-off people supported Trump more often because they are more able to insulate themselves from the deteriorating conditions of American life.

    The Green New Deal is a vision that pays attention to some of the real grievances: job insecurity, climate disasters, neglected infrastructure, exploding rents.

    The third thing we can do is build a liberatory political culture that substitutes empathy for political correctness. The electoral map makes plain the results of bi-coastal condescension. If you were looked down on, why wouldn’t you want a champion who says “Fuck you” to elitists? This is a grievance that’s within the power of progressives to do something about. As I’ve explained many times, the make-over starts with a sober examination of how classism distorts our understanding of oppression.

    A great place to start is with sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s beautifully-written book about Republicans in Louisiana, “Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.”

    We have momentum

    In some ways we’re in good shape for growing in numbers and power in the Biden years. On multiple issues we’ve been on the move, and we’re not likely to make the tragic mistake of progressives in the Obama years of expecting the Democratic Party to do the job for us. The neoliberal Democratic Party leadership will do what Democrats did last time: allow conditions to grow that invite a grievance-based Republican take-over in the next election.

    Empathic social movements that retain a big picture of our country and world — and stay independent of co-optative moves from the Democrats — can grow rapidly by developing visions like Medicare for All that respond to the real needs of people, especially in rural areas, who otherwise are tempted by the grievance party. Police and public safety are one example of an issue mired in the dynamics of racism until more work in alternative visioning is done.

    We can do all this. The workshops of Choose Democracy were designed to help prepare for movement-building on the chance we wouldn’t need to defeat a serious coup attempt. That chance has arrived.

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