Waging Nonviolence

Meet the students organizing the first campus-wide undergraduate union

This article was originally published by In These Times.

On Aug. 31, stu­dents at Keny­on Col­lege, a pri­vate lib­er­al arts col­lege in Gam­bier, Ohio, announced their intent to union­ize with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, or UE, in an open let­ter to the school’s pres­i­dent and board of trustees. Stu­dents have request­ed vol­un­tary recog­ni­tion through a card-check neu­tral­i­ty agree­ment with the school’s admin­is­tra­tion. If suc­cess­ful, the Keny­on Stu­dent Work­er Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee, or K‑SWOC, will become the first union to orga­nize its entire under­grad­u­ate work­force, which will include all 800 stu­dent work­er posi­tions avail­able on campus.

“This is a his­to­ry mak­ing cam­paign,” said Dan Nap­sha, a senior major­ing in polit­i­cal sci­ence. ​“If we win, it real­ly does send a mes­sage that this is pos­si­ble and that stu­dent work­ers should be ask­ing for more.”

Labor Day wrapped up a week of action by stu­dent orga­niz­ers, which includ­ed tes­ti­mo­ni­als from stu­dent work­ers, pan­els on inter­na­tion­al labor and racial jus­tice and vir­tu­al socials and con­clud­ed with endorse­ments from Sens. Sher­rod Brown and Bernie Sanders. In a let­ter of sup­port to Keny­on stu­dent work­ers, Sanders wrote, ​“When you and your col­leagues join togeth­er as a union, the admin­is­tra­tion will be required to bar­gain with you in good faith… I respect the crit­i­cal work you do and wish you the very best in your efforts to cre­ate a demo­c­ra­t­ic work­place where your voice has a seat at the table.”

Dis­rup­tion in cam­pus employ­ment due to the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic sparked new urgency for stu­dents’ abil­i­ty to bar­gain with the school. When Keny­on closed its cam­pus and switched to remote learn­ing in March, many stu­dents had their work hours cut or stopped work­ing entire­ly. Under­grad­u­ate jobs include work­ing in the din­ing hall, library, admis­sions office and as research assis­tants. Stu­dents say there was a lack of cer­tain­ty around their employ­ment sta­tus or work­ing con­di­tions that has car­ried over into the Fall semes­ter which start­ed Aug. 31 and has about half of the stu­dent body on cam­pus and the oth­er half learn­ing remotely. 

“The pan­dem­ic real­ly served as the cat­a­lyst for us and basi­cal­ly was a sig­nal that enough is enough — that we’re fed up,” said Napsha.

In late March, a peti­tion signed by over 200 mem­bers of the col­lege com­mu­ni­ty and spon­sored by Keny­on Young Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca, or KYD­SA, to secure stu­dent pay for the rest of the school year proved suc­cess­ful. Though the admin­is­tra­tion did not acknowl­edge the peti­tion, stu­dents were paid for their aver­age week­ly hours regard­less of their abil­i­ty to work remote­ly. A few months lat­er, when the admin­is­tra­tion announced it would be sus­pend­ing retire­ment ben­e­fits for Keny­on staff due to a $19.3 mil­lion deficit in the school’s oper­at­ing bud­get, anoth­er peti­tion, again ini­ti­at­ed by KYD­SA, was cir­cu­lat­ed to ​“stop the cuts.” With the sup­port of stu­dents, UE, which rep­re­sents the main­te­nance work­ers on cam­pus, was able to come to an agree­ment with the admin­is­tra­tion that the major­i­ty of the missed retire­ment ben­e­fits be refund­ed to employ­ees over a peri­od of three years. 

“Both of those [peti­tions] prompt­ed more con­ver­sa­tions about some of the broad­er, more struc­tur­al issues with stu­dent employ­ment,” said Nathan Geesing, a senior major­ing in his­to­ry. ​“That was a sign to orga­niz­ers that col­lec­tive action real­ly had an impact.” 

See­ing the out­come of both peti­tions reaf­firmed to stu­dents that a union would be the best way to move for­ward. Geesing says a union is ​“a mech­a­nism to bar­gain with the admin­is­tra­tion, to not have to rely on the admin­is­tra­tion’s end­less slew of task forces and work­ing groups that con­stant­ly promise change, but rarely, if ever, deliv­er.” Right now, wages for stu­dent work­ers fall into a three-tier wage sys­tem start­ing at $8.70 an hour and capped at $11.17 an hour. Stu­dents say these rates are arbi­trary and do not reflect the nec­es­sary labor they per­form on cam­pus and instead reflect a desire to save the school mon­ey. The wage sys­tem was deter­mined joint­ly by a now dis­band­ed ​“Stu­dent Employ­ment Task Force.”

“The admin­is­tra­tion has nev­er real­ly tak­en stu­dent demands or stu­dent con­cerns seri­ous­ly,” said Geesing. K‑SWOC’s demands include greater involve­ment in work­place deci­sion-mak­ing, greater pro­tec­tions and acces­si­bil­i­ty for work-study stu­dents, jus­tice for inter­na­tion­al stu­dent work­ers and a liv­ing wage, among oth­ers. Though stu­dents have not agreed on a dol­lar fig­ure, they say a liv­ing wage would be high enough that stu­dents don’t have to feel like they’re choos­ing between work and their aca­d­e­m­ic stud­ies. ​“The union could actu­al­ly give us the bar­gain­ing pow­er that we need, espe­cial­ly in a time like this, where not hav­ing a say in your reopen­ing plan can lit­er­al­ly be a mat­ter of life and death,” Geesing said. 

Keny­on stu­dents, who are both orga­niz­ing under unprece­dent­ed cir­cum­stances and break­ing new ground by orga­niz­ing their entire under­grad­u­ate work­force, have lim­it­ed exam­ples to point to as a mod­el. Most stu­dent work­er unions are con­cen­trat­ed among grad­u­ate stu­dents in pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, though Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Amherst and Grin­nell Col­lege, which man­aged to orga­nize indi­vid­ual shops among under­grad­u­ate res­i­dent advi­sors and din­ing work­ers, has served as a source of inspi­ra­tion for K‑SWOC organizers. 

“I imag­ine that if we suc­ceed, you’ll be see­ing a lot more unions on col­lege cam­pus­es,” said Nap­sha. ​“Part­ly because we are build­ing off of the Grin­nell mod­el and we are build­ing off of the UMass Amherst model.” 

“In a larg­er sense,” Geesing said, ​“hav­ing a union at Keny­on could serve as a source of inspi­ra­tion for stu­dent work­ers in oth­ers places in the coun­try to say if they can do it, why can’t we.”

A major source of sup­port has come from the main­te­nance work­ers on cam­pus, a stu­dent-labor alliance that dates back to 2012 when the admin­is­tra­tion attempt­ed to out­source main­te­nance jobs to Sodexo, a food and facil­i­ties man­age­ment com­pa­ny with near­ly half a mil­lion employ­ees world­wide. ​“They’ve giv­en us a kind of men­tor­ship that’s real­ly valu­able,” said Dani Mar­tinez, a senior major­ing in Eng­lish. ​“They def­i­nite­ly want the best for us because they have sim­i­lar things that they have fought for in the past and can give us guid­ance on those things too.”

The main­te­nance work­ers, who are rep­re­sent­ed by UE Local 712, helped ini­ti­ate a rela­tion­ship between stu­dents on cam­pus and UE, with whom they are now orga­niz­ing with. The main­te­nance work­ers, Nap­sha said, have ​“been part­ners with us through this entire process. The rea­son why we have been so suc­cess­ful — get­ting close to 200 cards signed, hav­ing hun­dreds of peo­ple orga­nized and hav­ing a 60 per­son strong orga­niz­ing team is because of the strength of our rela­tion­ship with UE.”

As of Labor Day, K‑SWOC has sent two requests for vol­un­tary recog­ni­tion of their union and the response from the admin­is­tra­tion has most­ly been silence. Mean­while, many stu­dents whose jobs can­not be per­formed remote­ly lack clar­i­ty around their employ­ment sta­tus for this semes­ter and next. Mar­tinez believes that stu­dents who can­not work remote­ly should be trans­ferred and trained in a dif­fer­ent depart­ment with pri­or­i­ty giv­en to stu­dents with work-study, a fed­er­al­ly-fund­ed pro­gram that is sup­posed to guar­an­tee cam­pus employ­ment as part of their finan­cial aid package. 

Mar­tinez, who has worked in library and infor­ma­tion ser­vices since she was a fresh­man, says her employ­ment sta­tus is still up in the air. With Kenyon’s admin­is­tra­tion ulti­mate­ly decid­ing on a sys­tem of teach­ing fresh­man and sopho­mores on cam­pus and teach­ing juniors and seniors remote­ly, many in-per­son jobs will not be avail­able this semes­ter and union organiz­ing con­tin­ues to be almost entire­ly remote — a strat­e­gy Nap­sha and Geesing say may be play­ing in their favor espe­cial­ly with many stu­dents now stuck at home with lim­it­ed in-per­son distractions. 

Those stu­dents who are work­ing remote­ly and are liv­ing out­side of Ohio are now being paid accord­ing to the state min­i­mum wage where stu­dents are based if it exceeds Keny­on wages. Geesing, who is liv­ing in Mary­land where the min­i­mum wage is high­er, says he got an email from the career devel­op­ment office over the sum­mer inform­ing him that he’d be paid a bonus to make up the wage dif­fer­ence. Geesing says it ​“just shows you how com­plete­ly arbi­trary the tiered sys­tem has been and how they could have paid us more the entire time.”

10 cosas que debes saber para detener un golpe de estado

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This article is also available in English.

Tenemos un presidente que ha dicho abiertamente que podría no respetar el resultado de las elecciones. Tenemos que prepararnos por si declara su victoria antes de que se cuenten los votos, por si intenta detener el conteo de votos o por si se niega a aceptar la derrota.

Algunos días tengo confianza en que esto sucederá. Una encuesta mostró que más del 75 por ciento de los demócratas creen que esto es posible, ¡y un sorprendente 30 por ciento de los republicanos también lo creen!

Otros días estoy seguro de que se trata de la mano dura de un presidente que no planifica. Aún así, él es muy bueno en este tipo de despiste que puede mantenernos en una posición confiada y reaccionaria, lo que podría llevarnos a dejar de hacer el importante trabajo de base para conseguir el voto, proteger la oficina de correos y luchar contra la represión del voto.

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  • Lo que sugiero no es que dejemos de hacer lo que estamos haciendo ahora. De hecho, soy parte de un esfuerzo colectivo llamado Choose Democracy, que está preparando a la gente para la posibilidad de un golpe de estado, al tiempo que la mantiene enfocada en un proceso electoral sólido y fuerte. Después de todo, la mejor manera de detener un golpe es evitarlo.

    Estas pautas provienen de un número amplio de experiencias y evidencias de los muchos países que han experimentado un golpe de estado desde la Segunda Guerra Mundial. Algunos casos de estudio detallados pueden encontrarse en Choose Democracy o en un manual más extenso basado en evidencias, pertinente para el momento presente, llamado “Hold the Line: A Guide to Defender Democracy.”

    1. No espere resultados la noche de las elecciones.

    La temporada de elecciones 2020 se perfila bastante extraña. Es posible que muchas papeletas enviadas por correo no se cuenten hasta días o semanas después del día de las elecciones. Ya que se espera que los demócratas utilicen el voto por correo con más frecuencia que los republicanos, se espera que el conteo de votos por correo se mueva hacia el lado demócrata la noche después de las elecciones (lo llaman un “cambio azul”). Como resultado, una ola de confusión puede desarrollarse a partir de la noche de las elecciones.

    El extraño Colegio Electoral crea múltiples puntos de intervención. Después de la noche de las elecciones (3 de noviembre), la denuncia falsa de votos fraudulentos puede ocasionar que un fiscal general descarriado u otros funcionarios gubernamentales intenten detener el recuento o excluir los votos.

    A medida que los resultados de las elecciones comiencen a llegar, el mensaje debe ser alto y claro: cuenten todos los votos y respeten el resultado.

    El 14 de diciembre, los delegados del Colegio Electoral se reúnen y votan por el resultado de su estado. Por lo general, esto se hace sin fanfarrias, pero en los estados en disputa, es posible que veamos a los gobernadores y legisladores estatales declarando resultados diferentes: uno que refleje los resultados de los votantes; el otro que reclame que “es un fraude” y “nosotros sabemos más”. Esto es preocupante en estados “oscilantes” como Pennsylvania, donde el gobernador y la legislatura estatal son de partidos diferentes.

    El nuevo Congreso resolverá todos estos problemas el 6 de enero. Y si la Cámara de Representantes y el Senado no están de acuerdo con el resultado, entonces se desarrolla un proceso complicado en el que la Cámara recién asentada, a través del proceso de un estado/un voto, determina al presidente. Mientras tanto, el Senado (por mayoría) vota por el nuevo vicepresidente. (#ShutDownDC proporciona un desglose visual paso a paso de este proceso).

    Durante este tiempo, espere afirmaciones falsas y extravagantes. Tenga mucho cuidado con las noticias. No se limite a transmitir cualquier cosa que parezca un ejemplo dramático de irregularidades, pero tómese el tiempo para verificar que la noticia sea cierta, ya desacreditada o de una fuente en la que no confía. Anime a las personas de su comunidad a prepararse para algunas semanas de incertidumbre. A medida que los resultados de las elecciones comiencen a llegar, el mensaje debe ser claro: cuenten todos los votos y respeten los resultados.

    2. Llámalo un golpe de estado.

    Una de las razones por las que es importante usar el lenguaje de un golpe de estado es que la gente sabe que está mal y que es una violación de las normas democráticas, incluso si no están familiarizados con la definición exacta de golpe de estado.

    Tenemos que estar preparados para declarar alto y claro: esto es un golpe de estado.

    Expresiones como “manipulación electoral” o “supresión del voto” señalan el deterioro del proceso democrático. Pero si entramos en un escenario de golpe (donde Trump simplemente no dejará la presidencia) debemos ayudar a otras personas a facilitar a nuestro país esta entrada en una crisis.

    Sabemos que es un golpe de estado si el gobierno:

    • Deja de contar votos;
    • Declara ganador a alguien que no obtuvo la mayor cantidad de votos; o
    • Permite que permanezca en el poder alguien que no ganó las elecciones.

    Estas son líneas rojas que la gente puede captar de inmediato (y en las que la mayoría de los estadounidenses sigue creyendo).

    Las personas que toman el poder de manera autoritaria reivindican que lo hacen para salvar la democracia o afirman que conocen los resultados electorales “reales”. Así que esto no tiene por qué parecer un golpe militar con un líder ordenando el arresto de la oposición. Si alguno de esos tres principios es violado, tenemos que declarar alto y claro: Esto es un golpe de estado.

    3. Sepa que la gente común ha detenido golpes de estado.

    Se han producido intentos de golpe en todo el mundo y más de la mitad han fracasado. Eso es porque los golpes de estado son difíciles de orquestar. Son una violación de las normas que requieren la rápida toma de múltiples niveles de las instituciones del estado con el reclamo de que son los herederos legítimos.

    Los golpes tienden a fracasar cuando se confía en las instituciones gubernamentales (como las elecciones), hay una ciudadanía activa y otras naciones están listas para participar.

    El papel de la ciudadanía es fundamental. Eso se debe a que, durante el período inmediatamente posterior a un intento de golpe de estado, cuando el nuevo gobierno afirma que es el gobierno “real”, todas las instituciones tienen que decidir a quién escuchar.

    Para comenzar a prepararse, hable con al menos 5 personas que irían a la calle con usted; la forma más segura de salir a la calle es con personas que conoce y en las que confía.

    Un golpe fallido en Alemania en 1920 nos sirve de ejemplo. La población se sintió abatida por la derrota en la Primera Guerra Mundial y el alto desempleo. Los nacionalistas de derecha organizaron un golpe y consiguieron la ayuda de algunos generales para apoderarse de los edificios gubernamentales. El gobierno depuesto huyó, pero ordenó a todos los ciudadanos que les obedecieran. “Ninguna empresa debe funcionar mientras reine la dictadura militar,” declararon.

    Rápidamente comenzó una resistencia pacífica generalizada. Las imprentas se negaron a imprimir los periódicos del nuevo gobierno. Los funcionarios públicos se negaron a cumplir las órdenes de los golpistas. Y se difundieron en avión y a mano folletos que pedían el final del golpe.

    Hay una historia del líder golpista deambulando por los pasillos buscando en vano una secretaria que mecanografíe sus proclamas. Los actos de resistencia crecieron y finalmente el gobierno democrático (que aún tenía graves problemas) recuperó el poder.

    Los momentos posteriores a un golpe son momentos de heroísmo de la población general. Así es como la democracia se hace real.

    4. Prepárese para actuar con rapidez – y no lo haga solo.

    Normalmente, las tomas de poder se organizan en secreto y se lanzan de repente. La mayoría de las campañas que derrotan los golpes de estado lo hacen en días: la Unión Soviética, en 1991, tomó tres días; Francia, en 1961, tomó cuatro días, y Bolivia, en 1978, tomó 16 días.

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  • Es raro que el líder de un país admita públicamente que tal vez no respete los resultados de una elección. Esto es una buena noticia, porque las personas que detienen los golpes rara vez tienen la oportunidad de recibir entrenamiento, una advertencia o preparación alguna. De esta manera, les llevamos la delantera.

    Un grupo de expertos de D.C. llamado Transition Integrity Project ejecutó múltiples simulaciones, como lo que podría suceder si Biden gana por un pequeño margen o si Trump simplemente declara la victoria sin que haya un ganador claro. En cada simulación concluyeron que una “cantidad importante de personas en las calles puede ser decisiva”. Las personas comunes marcan la diferencia.

    5. Enfóquese en los valores democráticos compartidos por todos, no en valores individuales.

    En Argentina, en 1987, se inició un golpe de Estado cuando un alto mando de la Fuerza Aérea, resentido por los intentos de democratizar al ejército y ponerlo bajo el control civil, organizó a cientos de soldados en su base.

    Mientras el gobierno civil intentaba negociar discretamente un acuerdo, la gente salió a las calles. Contra las súplicas del gobierno, 500 ciudadanos comunes marcharon a la base con el lema “¡Viva la democracia! ¡Argentina! ¡Argentina!”. Podrían haberse dedicado a atacar directamente al alto mando. En cambio, estaban apelando a sus conciudadanos para que eligieran la democracia.

    El militar trató de mantenerlos alejados con un tanque de guerra, pero los manifestantes entraron a la base de todos modos, y él sabía que disparar abiertamente contra civiles no violentos le haría perder más credibilidad. Pronto 400.000 personas salieron a las calles de Buenos Aires para manifestarse en contra del golpe.

    Los golpes no son un momento para quedarse mirando y esperando hasta que “alguien más” decida qué hacer. No importa quién sea, usted puede ser una parte en el rescate de la democracia.

    Esto dio fuerza al gobierno civil (que en gran parte había estado ausente). Las organizaciones civiles, la iglesia católica, los grupos empresariales y los sindicatos se unieron bajo el compromiso de “apoyar de todas las formas posibles la constitución, el desarrollo normal de las instituciones de gobierno y la democracia como la única forma de vida viable”. Los golpistas perdieron su legitimidad y pronto se rindieron.

    Este enfoque es diferente al de los manifestantes que salen a la calle con una lista de problemas o una queja contra un líder vilipendiado. En cambio, es una exaltación de valores democráticos fundamentales ampliamente compartidos. En nuestro proyecto usamos la expresión “elegir la democracia”.

    Esto afirma otro hallazgo de la investigación antigolpista: debido a que los golpes son un ataque a la institución actual, las personas leales a la forma tradicional, quienes quizás nunca se unan a otras causas del movimiento, están abiertos a unirse a acciones directas en la calle. Eso pasará si basamos la invitación en la importancia de cuidar los valores democráticos con los que se conectan.

    6. Convenza a la gente de que no se congele o simplemente siga adelante.

    Imagine que en su trabajo despiden a un jefe corrupto y traen a uno nuevo. Y en lugar de irse, su antiguo jefe dice: “Todavía estoy a cargo. Haz lo que te digo”. Un grupo de tus compañeros de trabajo dicen: “Sólo recibimos órdenes del antiguo jefe”. En ese momento, surge la duda.

    Esa duda es la que hace que los golpes triunfen. Demasiada gente se congela. Incluso cuando solo unas pocas personas están de acuerdo con el golpe y actúan como si fuera normal, la gente puede llegar a aceptarlo de mala gana como inevitable.

    En toda la investigación sobre la prevención de golpes, hay un tema en común: la gente deja de hacer lo que los golpistas le dicen que haga.

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  • En Alemania, desde los comandantes militares hasta los secretarios, se negaron a obedecer las órdenes del golpe. En Mali convocaron una huelga nacional. En Sudán, los manifestantes cerraron estaciones de radio respaldadas por el gobierno y ocuparon pistas de aeropuertos. En Venezuela todas las tiendas estaban cerradas.

    Esto es muy diferente a las marchas masivas en la capital o las protestas callejeras que cierran las intersecciones. No se trata de protestar, sino de lograr que la gente reafirme valores fundamentales, como presentarse ante las oficinas de los funcionarios electos para que estos hagan respetar los resultados de las elecciones. No se trata de acciones concretas como marchas en D.C., sino de acciones como huelgas masivas de jóvenes y estudiantes que se niegan a ir al trabajo o la escuela hasta que se cuenten todos los votos.

    Los golpes no son un momento para quedarse mirando y esperando hasta que “alguien más” decida qué hacer. No importa quién sea, usted puede ser una parte importante en el rescate de la democracia.

    7. Comprométase con acciones que representen el estado de derecho, la estabilidad y la no violencia.

    Detener un golpe depende del tamaño de las movilizaciones y de ganar al centro. Se trata de una lucha por la legitimidad. ¿Qué voz es legítima? Algunas personas ya habrán tomado una decisión. El objetivo, entonces, es convencer a quienes no están seguros, que pueden ser un número más sorprendente de lo que espera.

    La resistencia masiva a los golpes gana mediante el uso de paros y huelgas, rechazando órdenes y cerrando la sociedad civil.

    Para ponerlos de nuestro lado, ese centro incierto tiene que estar convencido de que “nosotros” representamos la estabilidad y “los golpistas” representan la hostilidad a las normas democráticas de las elecciones y el voto.

    Prevenimos esa posibilidad cuando deshumanizamos a los potenciales desertores, cuando hacemos declaraciones radicales como “la policía no ayudará”, cuando no alentamos a la gente a unirse a nuestro lado y cuando creamos escenas caóticas en la calle.

    Históricamente, el lado que más recurre a la violencia tiende a perder. En un momento de incertidumbre, la gente elige el lado que promete la máxima estabilidad, respeta las normas democráticas y parece ser la apuesta más segura. Es un concurso por qué lado es el más legítimo.

    La resistencia masiva a los golpes gana mediante el uso de paros y huelgas, rechazando órdenes y cerrando la sociedad civil hasta que se instale al líder legítimo elegido democráticamente. Para que los movimientos de masas tengan éxito contra los golpes de estado, deben negarse a ser violentos con el otro lado.

    8. Sí, puede ocurrir un golpe en Estados Unidos.

    Puede ser difícil imaginar que pueda ocurrir un golpe en este país. Pero siempre que se dé una orden para dejar de contar votos, lo llamamos golpe.

    Incluso según la definición más estricta de golpes de estado, ya ha habido un golpe militarizado en Estados Unidos. En 1898, después de la reconstrucción en Wilmington, Carolina del Norte, viendo el surgimiento de una población negra próspera y exitosa, los racistas blancos organizaron un golpe. Dieron gritos de guerra como: “Nunca nos rendiremos a un grupo salvaje de negros, incluso si tenemos que llenar el río Cape Fear con cadáveres.”

    A pesar de una campaña de terror antes de las elecciones, la participación de la población negra fue alta y se votó a una lista de candidatos negro. El poder negro se enfrentó con la violencia de la supremacía blanca, con escuadrones blancos que mataron de 30 a 300 personas, incluidos funcionarios recién elegidos. Más de 3,000 negros huyeron de esta violencia extrema y comenzó la era de Jim Crow.

    9. Manténgase en la calma, no en el miedo.

    Da miedo pensar que tenemos que hablar de un golpe federal en Estados Unidos. Y sabemos que es menos probable que las personas con miedo tomen buenas decisiones.

    Practiquemos la calma y evitemos la hipérbole. Sea una fuente confiable al verificar los rumores y difundir hechos probados. Por supuesto, lea las redes sociales … pero pase algo de tiempo, ya sabe, haciendo cosas reales que le alimenten.

    Respire profundamente.

    Recuerde cómo maneja el miedo.

    Prepárese para diferentes escenarios, pero no se deje atrapar por ellos.

    Estamos haciendo esto para prepararnos, por si acaso.

    10. Prepárese para disuadir un golpe antes de las elecciones.

    La mejor manera de detener un golpe es nunca tenerlo. La gente está trabajando duro en cuestiones del derecho al voto, instando a la participación, deteniendo la represión, descubriendo el fraude y haciendo que la gente se comprometa con la democracia. Eso puede ser suficiente.

    La mejor manera de detener un golpe es evitar que suceda.

    Otra forma de prepararse es hacer que las personas adopten la mentalidad de actuar para que no se queden paralizadas. La formula clásica de esto es el modelo “si-esto-entonces-aquello” diseñado por el Compromiso de Resistencia. En ese modelo, la gente se prepara para una acción diciendo “Si se viene algo malo, actuaré”. Firmar un compromiso antes del momento decisivo lleva a una aceptación más amplia.

    Con ese espíritu, Choose Democracy ha creado un compromiso:

    1. Votaremos.
    2. Nos negaremos a aceptar los resultados de las elecciones hasta que se cuenten todos los votos.
    3. Saldremos a las calles de manera pacífica si se intenta un golpe de estado.
    4. Si es necesario, cerraremos este país para proteger la integridad del proceso democrático.

    ¡Puede firmar el compromiso de Choose Democracy (Elija la democracia) y unirse a personas de todo el espectro político! Estos compromisos públicos previos aumentan el coste político de intentar un golpe, porque la mejor manera de detener un golpe es evitar que suceda.

    Traducido por Ana Cornide y Ana María Vásquez.

    10 things you need to know to stop a coup

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    We have a president who has openly said he might not respect the outcome of our election. We have to be ready if he claims victory before votes are counted, tries to stop counting, or refuses to accept a loss.

    Some days I feel confident it will happen. A poll showed over 75 percent of Democrats think this is possible — and a shocking 30 percent of Republicans do too!

    Other days I feel confident this is tough talk from a president not good at planning ahead. Still, he is good at the kind of misdirection that can keep us complacent and reactionary — which could lead us to stop doing the important groundwork of getting out the vote, protecting the post office and fighting voter suppression.

    Previous Coverage
  • We need a plan to prevent a Trump takeover — and this anti-coup research shows the way
  • So what I’m offering isn’t asking us to stop what we’re doing now. Instead I’m part of an effort called Choose Democracy, which is prepping people for the possibility of a coup while keeping people focused on a strong, robust election process. After all, the best way to stop a coup is to not have one.

    These guidelines are drawn from the wide body of experience and evidence from the many countries that have experienced a coup since World War II. You can read some fuller case studies from Choose Democracy or a longer evidence-based handbook for this moment from “Hold the Line: A Guide to Defending Democracy.”

    1. Don’t expect results election night.

    Election season 2020 is shaping up to be very unusual. Many mail-in ballots may not be counted until days or weeks after Election Day. Since Democrats are expected to use them more frequently than Republicans, voter tallies are expected to swing towards Democrats post-election night (they call it a “blue shift”). As a result, a wave of confusion may unfold starting election night.

    The strange Electoral College creates multiple intervention points. After election night (Nov. 3), trumped up claims of fraudulent ballots may cause a wayward attorney general or other government officials to try halting counts or excluding ballots.

    As election results start coming in the message needs to come through loud and clear: Count all the votes and honor the result.

    On Dec. 14, the delegates of the Electoral College meet and vote for the state’s outcome. This is typically done without fanfare, but in contested states we might see governors and state legislatures sending in different results — one reflecting the results from voters, the other claiming “it’s a fraud” and “we know best.” This is worrying in swing states like Pennsylvania, where the governor and state legislature are of different parties.

    All these issues then get resolved on Jan. 6 by the new Congress. And if the House and Senate don’t agree about the result, then a convoluted process unfolds where the newly seated House — via one state, one-vote — determines the president. Meanwhile, the Senate (by majority) votes for the new vice president. (#ShutDownDC provides a visual break-down of these steps.)

    During this time expect false flags and outlandish claims. Be very cautious with news. Don’t simply pass on whatever seems like dramatic examples of wrongdoing — but take the time to check if it has been verified, already debunked, or from a source you don’t trust. Encourage people in your community to prepare for some uncertain weeks. As election results start coming in the message needs to come through loud and clear: Count all the votes and honor the result.

    2. Do call it a coup.

    One reason to use the language of a coup is that people know it’s wrong and a violation of Democratic norms — even if they’re not familiar with the exact definition of a coup.

    We have to be ready to declare loudly and strongly: This is a coup.

    Language like “election tampering” or “voter suppression” signal deterioration of the democratic process. But if we get ourselves into a coup situation — like where Trump just won’t go — we need to help people help our country move into a psychic break.

    We know it’s a coup if the government:

    • Stops counting votes;
    • Declares someone a winner who didn’t get the most votes; or
    • Allows someone to stay in power who didn’t win the election.

    These are sensible red lines that people can grasp right away (and that the majority of Americans continue to believe in).

    People who do power grabs always claim they’re doing it to save democracy or claim they know the “real” election results. So this doesn’t have to look like a military coup with one leader ordering the opposition to be arrested.

    If any of those three principles are violated, we have to declare loudly and strongly: This is a coup.

    3. Know that coups have been stopped by regular folks.

    Coup attempts have happened all over the world, and over half have failed. That’s because coups are hard to orchestrate. They are a violation of norms that require quick seizure of multiple levels of institutions with a claim that they are the rightful heir.

    Coups tend to fail when government institutions (like elections) are trusted, there is an active citizenry and other nations are ready to become involved.

    The role of citizenry is crucial. That’s because during the period right after a coup attempt— when the new government is claiming it is the “real” government — all the institutions have to decide who to listen to.

    To start preparing, talk to at least 5 people who would go into the streets with you — the safest way to take to the streets is with people you know and trust. 

    A failed coup in Germany in 1920 gives an example. The population felt beaten down by defeat in World War I and high unemployment. Right-wing nationalists organized a coup and got the help of a few generals to seize government buildings. The deposed government fled but ordered all citizens to obey them. “No enterprise must work as long as the military dictatorship reigns,” they declared.

    Widespread nonviolent resistance quickly began. Printers refused to print the new government’s newspapers. Civil servants refused to carry out any orders from the coup. And leaflets calling for an end to the coup were spread by airplane and by hand.

    There’s a story of the coup leader wandering up and down the corridors looking in vain for a secretary to type up his proclamations. The acts of resistance grew and eventually the democratic government (which still had grave problems) was returned to power.

    The moments after a coup are moments for heroism amongst the general population. It’s how we make democracy real.

    4. Be ready to act quickly — and not alone.

    Typically power grabs are organized in secret and launched suddenly. Most campaigns that defeat coups do so in days: The Soviet Union in 1991 took three days, France in 1961 took four days and Bolivia in 1978 took 16 days.

    Previous Coverage
  • Mass direct action might be the only way to stop Trump from stealing the election
  • It’s rare for any country’s leader to publicly admit they might not respect the results of an election. There’s some good news in that — because people who stop coups rarely have the chance to get training, warning or preparation. In that way, we’re ahead of the game.

    A group of D.C. insiders called the Transition Integrity Project ran multiple simulations, such as what might happen if Biden wins by a slim margin or if Trump simply declares victory when there’s no clear winner. In every simulation they concluded that a “show of numbers in the streets may be decisive.” Regular people make the difference.

    To start preparing, talk to at least five people who would go into the streets with you — the safest way to take to the streets is with people you know and trust. Talk to people you know in civil service and various roles about how they could non-comply with coup attempts. Use this time to get yourself ready to act.

    5. Focus on widely shared democratic values, not on individuals.

    In Argentina in 1987, a coup got started when an Air Force major, resenting attempts to democratize the military and bring it under civilian control, organized hundreds of soldiers at his base.

    While the civilian government tried to quietly negotiate a settlement, people took to the streets. Against the government’s pleading, 500 regular citizens marched to the base with the slogan “Long live democracy! Argentina! Argentina!” They could have spent time attacking the major. Instead, they were appealing to their fellow citizens to choose democracy.

    The major tried to keep them away with a tank, but the protesters entered the base anyway, and he knew that open firing on nonviolent civilians would cause him to lose more credibility. Soon 400,000 people took to the streets in Buenos Aires to rally in opposition to the coup.

    Coups are not a time to just watch and wait until “someone else” figures it out. No matter who you are you can be a part of choosing democracy.

    This gave strength to the civilian government (which had largely been absent). Civic organizations, the Catholic church, business groups and labor unions united under a pledge to “support in all ways possible the constitution, the normal development of the institutions of government and democracy as the only viable way of life.” The coup plotters lost their legitimacy and soon surrendered.

    This approach is different than protesters going in the street with a list of issues or a grievance against a vilified leader. Instead, it’s exalting widely-shared core democratic values. In our project we use the language of “choosing democracy.”

    This affirms another finding from the research on anti-coups: Because coups are an attack on the current institution, loyalists to the traditional way — who may never join other movement causes — are open to joining actions in the street. That’s if we make the invitation about democratic values they can connect with.

    6. Convince people not to freeze or just go along.

    Imagine that at your job a corrupt boss gets fired and a new one is brought in. Instead of leaving, your old boss says, “I’m still in charge. Do what I say.” A bunch of your co-workers say, “We only take orders from the old boss.” At that point, doubt arises.

    That doubt is how coups succeed. Enough people freeze. Even when only a few people go along with the coup and act as though that’s normal, people may reluctantly accept it as inevitable.

    In all the research on preventing coups, there’s one common theme: People stop doing what the coup plotters tell them to do.

    Previous Coverage
  • What will it take to defend the election? Here’s one winning strategy
  • In Germany, from military commanders to secretaries, they refused to obey the orders of the coup. In Mali they called a nationwide strike. In Sudan protesters shut down government-supported radio stations and occupied airport runways. In Venezuela all shops were closed.

    This is very different than mass marches at the capital or street protests shutting down intersections. It’s not about protest but about getting people to reassert core values — like showing up at elected officials’ offices to get them to agree to honor election results. And it’s not about single points of actions like marches in D.C. — but instead actions like mass strikes from youth and students refusing to go to work or school until all votes are counted.

    Coups are not a time to just watch and wait until “someone else” figures it out. No matter who you are you can be a part of choosing democracy.

    7. Commit to actions that represent rule of law, stability and nonviolence.

    Stopping a coup is dependent on the size of mobilizations and winning over the center. It is really a fight for legitimacy. Which voice is legitimate? Some people will have already made up their minds. The aim, then, is convincing those who are uncertain — which may be a more surprising number than you expect.

    Mass resistance to coups wins by using walk-outs and strikes, refusing orders and shutting down civil society.

    To swing them to our side, that uncertain center has to be convinced that “we” represent stability and “the coup plotters” represent hostility to the democratic norms of elections and voting.

    We prevent that possibility when we dehumanize potential defectors, make sweeping statements like “the police won’t help,” never encourage people to join our side and create chaotic scenes on the street.

    Historically, whichever side resorts to violence the most tends to lose. In a moment of uncertainty, people pick the side that promises maximum stability, respects democratic norms and appears to be the safer bet. It’s a contest of who can be the most legitimate.

    Mass resistance to coups wins by using walk-outs and strikes, refusing orders and shutting down civil society until the rightful democratically-elected leader is installed. For mass movements to succeed against coups, they should refuse to do violence to the other side.

    8. Yes, a coup can happen in the United States.

    It may be hard to imagine that a coup could happen in this country. But whenever there is an order to stop counting votes, we call it a coup.

    Even by the strictest definition of coups, there has been a militarized coup in the United States. In 1898 after reconstruction in Wilmington, North Carolina, seeing the rise of a prosperous and successful Black population, white racists organized a coup. They gave rallying cries like, “We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes, even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.”

    Despite a terror campaign before the election, Black turnout was high and a slate of Black candidates was voted in. Black power was met with white supremacist violence, with white squads killing 30 to 300 people, including newly elected officials. Over 3,000 Blacks fled this extreme violence, and the era of Jim Crow began.

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    9. Center in calm, not fear.

    It’s scary to believe we’re having to talk about a federal coup in the United States. And we know that fearful people are less likely to make good decisions.

    Let’s aim for calm and avoid hyperbole. Be a reliable source by double-checking rumors and spreading high-quality facts. Sure, read social media… but spend some time, you know, doing real things that ground you.

    Breathe deeply.

    Remember how you handle fear.

    Play out scenarios, but don’t become captured by them.

    We’re doing this to prepare, just in case.

    10. Prepare to deter a coup before the election.

    The best way to stop a coup is to never have one. People are doing lots of good work on issues of voting rights, urging turn-out, stopping repression, uncovering fraud and getting people to commit to democracy. That may be enough.

    The best way to stop a coup is to deter it.

    Another way to prepare is to get people into the mindset of taking action so they don’t freeze. The classic formulation of this is the “if-this-then-that” model designed by the Pledge of Resistance. In that model people prepare themselves for an action by saying “If it comes to this bad thing, then I’ll act.” By signing a pledge before the crunch moment, you get wider buy-in.

    In that spirit, Choose Democracy has created a pledge:

    1. We will vote.
    2. We will refuse to accept election results until all the votes are counted.
    3. We will nonviolently take to the streets if a coup is attempted.
    4. If we need to, we will shut down this country to protect the integrity of the democratic process.

    You can sign the pledge to Choose Democracy and join with folks across the political spectrum! These public commitments ahead of time increase the political cost of attempting a coup — because the best way to stop a coup is to deter it.

    How protesting nuclear weapons helped me find my community, sexual identity and sense of purpose

    Author Stephanie Davies (left) with a fellow Greenham woman in London in 1985. (Ming de Nasty)

    With nuclear treaties expiring and a new arms race under way, the threat of nuclear annihilation seems more possible today than it has since the Cold War. It was because of a dread of nuclear war that I joined the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in 1984 to protest the siting of American cruise missiles at a U.S. Air Force base in Newbury, England — not far from where I had once lived.

    The origins of the peace camp date to 1981, when a group called Women for Life on Earth marched from Wales to the military base, where they chained themselves to the fence and set up camp permanently. Over the next several years, tens of thousands of women joined them to take part in this mass women’s peace movement that swept the United Kingdom. We set up camps at several of the entrances to the base, all around the nine-mile perimeter fence, naming these gates after the colors of the rainbow.

    We broke into the base regularly to spray paint warplanes and lie down in front of military vehicles, stopping them from entering or exiting the base. Right from the start, the women attracted a great deal of media attention. I will never forget the iconic image of women dancing on the silos housing the cruise missiles the New Year’s Eve before I moved there. It happened just days after an infamous speech by Margaret Thatcher’s Minister of Defense, declaring them the most secure silos in Europe.

    The cruise missiles were eventually removed from Greenham Common in 1991, and the camp dismantled not long thereafter. I seldom hear mention of the Greenham Common women any more, yet we were a vital part of the peace, women’s and queer movements.

    In addition to protesting nuclear war, this women-only space was a place of refuge and discovery. That’s why I decided to write my memoir, “Other Girls Like Me,” which centers on my time at the peace camp, where I found community, sexual identity and a sense of purpose through activism.

    The following excerpt describes my arrival at the base for my first prolonged visit and an initial foray into nonviolent direct action — which didn’t end well, but nevertheless initiated me into years of resistance work.

    I was washing dishes in our kitchen when I heard them on the radio. Women singing, chanting and yelling, as the police dragged their deliberately-limp bodies from the gates of the military base. I put down my sponge, wiped my hands, sat at the kitchen table and turned up the volume. Greenham women were in the headlines pretty much every day those days. They lived in makeshift camps outside the U.S. military base at Greenham Common in Newbury, close to my childhood village, and regularly broke into the base or lay down together in the road in huge, singing, laughing piles to stop military vehicles from entering or exiting the base.

    It was the height of the Cold War, and the United States had 102 bases in the United Kingdom — a country the size of the state of New York. Imagine if the British government set up 102 bases in New York to reciprocate. The Royal Air Force Base at Greenham Common was loaned to the Americans during the Second World War but was not returned to the local community at the war’s end. It sat on hundreds of acres of what was once — and still should have been — common land, dating back to Roman times, a place for the local townspeople to walk their dogs and water and graze their animals, disturbing only the occasional wild deer, rabbit or pheasant. Now, it was closed off by wire fences, scarred with concrete bunkers and tarmac roads, and protected by fresh-faced young British soldiers, while further inside the camp steely-jawed American soldiers were poised to launch cruise missiles, first strike nuclear weapons, at the Soviet Union at any moment.

    I had been to Greenham twice already on demonstrations, once with my mother in December of the year before. I’d arrived on a bus from Bath filled with women in multi-colored clothes carrying hand-made banners, and my mother and I had met at one of the gates to the camp. I carried a constant feeling of dread deep inside me about nuclear war, and often woke in the night covered in sweat from nuclear nightmares. I felt a surge of belonging and hope holding hands in a chain of 30,000 women as we formed a circle around the nine-mile perimeter fence, while others attached homemade patchwork banners to the fence — “Women Say No to the Bomb,” “Take the Toys from the Boys.”

    Since then, I had followed the antics of the Greenham women avidly in the news. They weren’t able to stop the missiles arriving, but they certainly knew how to bring attention to them. I thought back to the famous photograph that had graced the front pages of our newspapers — and many around the world — the previous New Year’s Day, when dozens of women broke through the fence and made it to the silos being prepared to house the cruise missiles.

    The haunting and inspiring image showed dozens of women holding hands and dancing in a joyous circle on top of a silo at midnight to ring in the New Year, jubilant and triumphant. Silhouetted against the bright lights of the base were huge rolls of barbed wire that had been no match for their bolt cutters. It was an image that made my heart race just that little bit faster whenever I thought of it, as if the peace activist seeds it had planted all across the country were also taking root inside me, waiting for their moment to rise into the sun.

    “We need more women to join us.” A passionate Greenham woman’s voice filled my lifeless kitchen.

    The next morning, I rushed to my new job at Wigan Women’s Aid, an organization that ran a battered women’s shelter and hotline, and asked my co-workers Meg and Briana, if they fancied visiting Greenham Common with me. They both said yes and days later, we hitchhiked to the small market town of Newbury. It was late afternoon, and a cool drizzle brushed across our faces as we completed the last mile or so of our journey on foot, through housing estates dotted with red phone boxes, across smaller and smaller roundabouts, until we reached Greenham Common, on Newbury’s outskirts. I was just 15 miles from my family home in St. Mary Bourne with its thatched cottages, watercress beds, three pubs and three churches, but I could have been on another planet. The vast grey military base with its wire fencing topped with rolls of razor wire stretched before me, with muddy pathways along its perimeter where thousands of women’s feet had walked in protest.

    Previous Coverage
  • How militarism manipulates the lives of women — an interview with feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe
  • A handful of uniformed policemen were standing in front of the gate chatting with some British soldiers who were behind the gate. Outside the gate, dozens of confident looking Greenham women with playful faces and wearing big boots and heavy jackets were milling about. Some were sitting around the fire and singing, while a Goth, looking like a witch from a fairy tale with her jet-black hair and clothes, was stirring a massive pot of bubbling stew that was balanced precariously on a metal grill sitting over the fire. I could easily tell who the visitors were — there were men, for one thing, but also women whose hands were clean, like mine, who were wearing conventional clothes, and whose shoes were not encrusted with mud. They were wearing sensible anoraks as they unpacked gifts of clothing, firewood, food and bedding from the backs of cars and vans, watching over children in yellow and red wellingtons splashing in the recently formed puddles. Like me, they had come in answer to the women’s call for support in the face of imminent eviction. I heard them thanking the women for what they were doing, saying they wished they could do more.

    Standing alone in front of this bustling scene, I was at a complete loss. I had borrowed a tent, but I didn’t know how to put it up. I hadn’t been allowed to join the boy scouts, only play football for them, so I didn’t know one end of my tent from the other. These women seemed to be capable of anything, and I wondered how I would ever dare speak to any of them. I resisted the temptation to ask a passing man to help me out.

    “Welcome to Blue Gate.” A woman with long, wild, dirty-blond hair with shaved sides and multiple ear and nose piercings, was striding toward me. Before I knew it, my tent was being erected, a word I soon learned was very funny here, because this was a women’s peace camp, with a lot of lesbians, and a local law had just been passed banning “erections on the common” — hence the recent attempts at eviction.

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    “My name’s Elena,” she said in a broad Yorkshire accent as she pushed the last tent peg into the ground and stepped back to admire the now upright orange tent that would be my home for the next week. “Come and have some tea at the fire.”

    I followed her shyly to the fire pit, where we squeezed between two visitors who moved apart to make room for us. A posh-sounding woman with a deep voice and short hair dyed to look like camouflage was speaking to a rapt group of visitors. She was talking about her hair.

    “It’s a spider’s web gone wrong,” she said. “I’m waiting for it to grow out. I feel the worst about Biscuit.” She pointed to the kitchen where a large, white, wiry-haired dog was looking for scraps. The dog had bright blue ears.

    The next morning, I was in a deep, dreamless sleep when I was jolted awake by someone whooping loudly. I opened my eyes, wriggled onto my belly in my sleeping bag, and poked my head blearily out of the tent flap. Silhouetted against the base in the pink morning light, three large bin lorries were discharging several bulky men. It was an eviction.

    The men raced around the camp, grabbing anything they could get their hands on, throwing tents, sleeping bags, food and clothes into the back of the lorries, while the policemen looked on. Women raced behind them, pulling on their belongings, while two women, one of them Trish, the witchy Goth who had cooked the night before, were dragging the kitchen supplies cabinet out onto the road on wheels — how ingenious, I thought, as I pulled on my jeans and sweatshirt, jumped out of my tent, and started to take it down, following the lead of the women around me, who were hurriedly dismantling tents and rolling up sleeping bags. My heart was racing, not with fear or anger, but with a kind of joyful excitement. I was being evicted along with the Greenham women. This was why I was here. I was one of them!

    When they were done, the fire stamped out, and the camp erased, we gathered at the top of the hill, on the pavement at the side of the road, and stood in an indignant group clutching our remaining belongings, yelling a favorite singing taunt:

    “Which side are you on, boys/Which side are you on?/Are you on the side that don’t like life?/Are you on the side of racial strife?/Are you on the side that beats your wife?/Which side are you on?”

    Between each verse, we turned and laughed to each other, breathless, then took a collective deep breath to deliver the final verse in even louder roars: “Are you on the side of suicide?/Are you on the side of homicide?/Are you on the side of genocide?/Which side are you on?”

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    Eventually the police and bailiffs moved on. And then we went back and set up camp again. Elena was already at my side, smiling. While Trish the Goth and Lucy of the camouflage hair re-started the fire, and women all around us started to rebuild the camp, Elena and I put up my tent to the sound of women singing softly in the background.

    As we worked together, giggling and tripping over the ropes, Elena told me that, until recently, most of the women had lived in handcrafted shelters made of plastic sheeting draped over bent tree branches. They covered the soft green moss on the ground with plastic sheeting to keep out the damp, then lay their sleeping bags on top, while candles balanced on homemade shelves of stone or wood made for cosy, glowing, hobbit- like homes at night. They called these structures benders, because the tree branches only needed to bend a little to give shelter. I imagined how lovely it would be to sleep on the moss in a bender deep in the woods, my new friend, Elena, at my side.

    Elena told me the women were always making up names for themselves — like Anna Key, Eva Brick and Freda People — when they were arrested. It seemed English law allowed you to use any name you liked when you were arrested, and when I was arrested the next day for breaking into the base, nobody asked me for any ID. When dozens of women called themselves Karen Silkwood after the American anti-nuclear activist and broke into the base on the anniversary of her death, that wasn’t questioned by the authorities either.

    On my second night at Blue Gate, I sat shyly at the campfire next to a woman called Diana who was visiting from Oswestry on the Welsh border, and her quiet friend, Linda. At the fire, we all jostled for warmth as we listened to the Greenham women sharing stories of actions and arrests. Trish the Goth was there, with her strong Northern Irish accent and twinkly smile; and Lucy, too, her large dog, Biscuit, sitting adoringly at her side; while Elena sat across from me. I could have told who the seasoned Greenham women were even without their grubby fingers, smoke-smelling rainbow clothes, and big boots, by their raucous, unselfconscious laughter.

    Diana turned to me, her strong face shining in the orange glow of the dancing flames. “I have some bolt cutters. Want to break in?”

    I swallowed hard. I couldn’t think of any good reason why not, so I said in a voice that I hoped was not as small as how I was feeling, “OK.”

    I knew that breaking into the base was a regular nighttime activity for the women. Sometimes they went for a pint to one of the two pubs in Newbury that still served Greenham women, where some played pool with local men in tense games filled with a rare mutual respect. And sometimes they found a patch of fence and cut it down and saw how far they could get into the military base without being arrested. They were like American groundhogs, but instead of looking for food, they were deliberately being a nuisance, and making a political point at the same time. I would rather have been going to the pub to play pool, even though I was not very good at it. But instead, I was about to do my first action, and my heart felt as if it had broken loose and was battering on my chest to find its way out.

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    We stepped away from the comfort of the fire and made our way to Diana’s tent, where she crawled inside to extract three pairs of bolt cutters. She smiled as she handed a pair to me and to Linda, and said, “They are gifts for the camp, but we can try them out first, right?”

    She was fearless and I smiled wanly. It felt like the rite of passage to being a true Greenham woman. And of course the famous image of the women dancing on the silos was at the back of my mind. But there were only three of us right now, and there’d been almost 50 of them, and it was only my second day and already I was about to break the law, and I didn’t feel the least bit prepared. Diana and Linda were only visitors too, and I wondered at their bravado.

    As we made our way along the fence, I glanced back at the women at the fire. Some of them would be up all night, on the lookout for local men who sometimes came to trash the camp, driving their bikes through the kitchen area knocking things over, calling the women names. Once, someone stuck a knife through a woman’s tent while she was sleeping, and ever since, all the gates around the base were aglow at night with night watch fires, small groups of women huddled around them drinking tea, smoking, and telling whispered stories into the early hours, while their sisters slept.

    I wanted to tell the night watchers what we were doing, so that someone knew, but I was too shy, and I didn’t know what the protocol was and didn’t want to appear foolish, so I said nothing. It was midnight as we walked around the perimeter fence past Turquoise Gate and toward Green Gate, the darkness of the forest on our right, the floodlights of the base to our left.

    “Here,” Diana said, pointing confidently, and the three of us set to work with the bolt cutters, snipping away at a section of the fence, which came away easily as we pulled it toward us. We crouched low and climbed through the fence, looked around us at the emptiness, crossed the brightly lit road that ran along the edge of the fence, and set off on the grass and into the base. There were buildings ahead of us on an incline, and we set off toward them, with no real plan in mind but to get in as far as we could.

    There was no moon, and thin clouds created a veil across the sky, obscuring then revealing the stars. But our way was well lit from the floodlights of the base, as the dark of the forest, the safety of the women’s dwellings, and the glow of the fire pits slowly receded behind us.

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    We hadn’t gone very far when we heard a shout, then another, and suddenly several British soldiers in full uniform were running down the hill toward us, yelling. There was no time for us to turn and run as they surrounded us, a pack of young, angry men carrying guns.

    “Keep walking,” one said, “to the top of that hill.”

    We obeyed, glancing at each other nervously. When we arrived at the top, the ringleader, a Londoner with straw-colored hair and small blue eyes, ordered us to lie belly down on the grass.

    “In a star shape!” he yelled. “Open your arms. Open your legs.”

    The soldiers laughed out loud. We obeyed, arms and legs splayed flat on the ground, our faces pressed into the damp earth. Then they stood around us, their guns pointing down at us. All I could see was their big boots.

    “We’re not calling the police, you know,” the ringleader said. “We’ve got our own way of dealing with sluts like you.”

    “No one knows you’re here,” another said with a sneer. “We’re gonna rape you and kill you and throw your dead bodies into the lake.”

    I turned my head in panic to look at my new friends, and the ringleader yelled, “Don’t move!”

    I squashed my face back into the grass. Lifting my head ever so slightly, I could see the barrel of his gun and his boots.

    “Don’t move an inch, just do what they say,” a whisper came to us from one of the soldiers, while his mates laughed raucously, discussing what other horrors they planned to inflict on us. He had a Northern Irish accent, like Trish’s. “Don’t move and you will be alright.”

    We lay frozen to the ground in silence for a long while, the soldiers’ scenarios getting uglier, their laughter louder. The soft-spoken soldier whispered reassurances to us, becoming my anchor, my only hope.

    I was shivering uncontrollably, from being so close to the ground, from the crisp night air, from terror, and then I heard the sirens, saw the blue flashing lights of a police car, and hoped with all my heart it was coming to arrest me. I heard tires crunching over the gravel, doors opening, low male voices talking. Then I heard and saw boots approaching, appearing and disappearing in the flashing strobe lights of the car.

    “You can get up now,” a voice said, in the Berkshire accent I knew so well.

    I got to my feet and glanced at the others, mouthing, “Are you OK? Yes, Yes.” We followed the officers to their police car, our heads down, not daring to look at the soldiers. I sneaked a quick glance, hoping that the one who had become our ally might make himself known, but none of them gave me eye contact. We climbed into the back seat of the police car, its lights creating flashes of blue trees and bushes in the surrounding countryside. I grabbed Diana’s hand and she grabbed Linda’s and we sat in shocked silence as we were driven to Newbury Police Station, where the police officers on duty put us in separate cells. No one said a word about finding us lying on the ground at the feet of the soldiers, and we were too traumatized and grateful to be rescued to mention it. None of the Greenham women had ever talked about this kind of treatment. They appeared that much braver to me now.

    What will it take to defend the election? Here’s one winning strategy

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    How would you like a strategy that does all of the following?

    Enables you and your friends to act close to home.

    Gives you some “wins” on the way to the big goal of defeating a power grab.

    Is easy to explain to your friends.

    Allows any number of people to participate because it will all add up.

    Reduces the risk of violent confrontations.

    Can be calibrated to the amount of risk of arrest that you can handle.

    Can be done in-person in a way that keeps the pandemic at bay.

    Targets a set of people who especially have a personal stake in the elective process.

    Takes on the politically powerful who are hesitating to commit, pressuring them to do the right thing.

    Draws on the strengths that already exist in our political system.

    Puts us on the offensive instead of merely protesting.

    Invites the 30 percent of Trump supporters polled who fear that Trump won’t obey the law and leave if he loses the election.

    Doesn’t add to the polarization that already has our country in overload.

    Maximizes the number of people who participate in the movement.

    Doesn’t have to be the only strategy being carried out in order to be successful.

    OK, here’s the idea: Go to people who hold elective political power near you, in your town, county, city, state. Urge them to “Join us in demanding every vote be counted.”

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  • Mass direct action might be the only way to stop Trump from stealing the election
  • Wait for them to join our demand, then issue a press release telling how they did so. Wait in their office, in the corridor outside, on the sidewalk, at their place of worship, at their child’s school, at their home, at a meeting where they plan to speak. Share the results with ChooseDemocracy.us — a new website founded by Daniel Hunter, me and others that offers a unity-building pledge, strategy development and training.  We’ll publicize the actions and keep track of the “wins.”

    Don’t assume that Democratic office-holders already agree. Some might be ready to compromise. Insist they find ways to beat their own drum louder.

    You have options. Your team can be there 24/7. You can barge in and refuse to leave. You can sing, dance and bring your brass band. You can bring your children and your aged relatives. You can sell crafts and goodies to eat. You can rotate kinds of people who do the action: one day youths, then workers, then religious leaders, then elders, then Rotarians.

    You’re not protesting. Protest may make sense when someone does something wrong and you know that, if you protest, they’ll change and fix it. Trump will not change his mind because we protest! Actually, he’ll double down.

    The way to meet a possible disaster with strength and confidence is to have a plan.

    Instead of protesting something the elected official is doing wrong, you’re insisting they do something right. Something that is as American as the flag. If they refuse, they’re the ones trying to justify an impossible position. Instead of complaining, moaning or otherwise creating the drama of exasperation, all you need to do is insist (boldly, nonviolently, firmly) that they do the right thing, the fair thing. (If you’re OK to put it this way, “the American thing.”) Your tone is full expectation that they’ll figure out sooner or later that it’s wise for their future as politicians to say yes.

    Notice this is not about opinions on Trump’s politics — pro-Trump politicians can agree that every vote should be counted, that the election should be concluded fairly.

    Notice also that this strategy need not wait until November, though it can be highly effective if started then. Hardy Merriman, author of the new handbook “Hold the Line: A Guide to Defending Democracy,” points out that starting to implement it early might get media attention — especially the more dramatic tactics — and encourage others to do likewise.

    It’s a big country. As the strategy spreads in October, it could influence the DNA of the mass November upsurge that happens if Trump makes a power grab. That would be good because this strategy minimizes violent attack on us. After all, who would invade the office of a town council member to beat us up? Yet, were that to actually happen, the positive value of a beating would be maximized. As Merriman says, “The messaging, tone, levels of organization — all of that may be noticed by the wider movement.”

    The thinking behind this approach

    This is not the only strategy needed. Others can also be used, even simultaneously. Hopefully those strategies will also be clear, coherent, with specific objectives. This proposal has the following strategic objectives:

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  • We need a plan to prevent a Trump takeover — and this anti-coup research shows the way
  • 1. To maximize participation, throughout the country. Anti-coup research suggests it helps to have size — participation “beyond the choir.” A recent example is the participation by small-town America in this spring’s Black Lives Matter movement, generating responses even by NASCAR and the National Football League! Obviously, having a target that is geographically within reach of nearly everyone is an easy way to maximize participation.

    2. To step aside from the polarized Trump mania, which will only increase in the fall, with its accompanying violence. We like safety not only to maximize participation but also for its own sake: Haven’t we had enough injury and death in this country in 2020?

    3. To encourage tactics that include a range of risk while harmonizing for maximum impact.

    4. To disperse the places where the actions can happen (office, outside, the office-holder’s home, religious place, golf course where they play, etc.) That reduces the chance of violence, which would confuse the message we’re sending.

    5. To invite creativity and life affirmation, one of the American strengths that goes overlooked in too many earnest activist initiatives, and again changes the subject from the toxic shame-and-blame cloud that pollutes our political discourse.

    6. To present as soon as possible to nervous Americans a strong, do-able strategy that gives them a vivid, clear sense of how they can make a difference if that moment comes. The way to meet a possible disaster with strength and confidence is to have a plan. Don’t worry that no plan is ever complete. When we have a plan, we can move into a challenging situation with the presence of mind needed to deal additionally with the unexpected.

    And perhaps most importantly…

    7. To exert maximum pressure on the political center that would rather not commit during chaotic polarization, to commit to fair play. We know, again from coup research, that the outcome of an attempted power grab is often decided by whether the center commits and, if so, which way it commits. This strategy is dedicated to influence this crucial variable.

    Why say this proposal is only one strategy among several?

    A broad struggle often needs more than one strategy. During the American Revolution, Bostonians were prepared for British invasion: “One if by land; two if by sea.” An analogous strategy to this proposal might be developed targeting the financial and economic elite, who have a vested interest in an outcome that promises stability so they can make money. We leave it to people in that world to develop a strategy for that.

    This may be the big chance for activists to enter the wonderful world of strategy. Gamers, this is your moment!

    While this strategy pointedly ignores Washington, D.C. — in favor of the many advantages that come with reaching this country’s somewhat decentralized political structure — a strategy also needs to be proposed for the federal level.

    The advantages of getting strategy proposals out in September include anxiety-reduction, helping people “wrap their minds around” the practical needs for possible action, and stimulating other strategy-creation.

    The worst thing that could happen would be for activists to continue in knee-jerk “protest mode” — therefore easily manipulated by Trump and even contributing toward a situation verging on civil war.

    The election threat is nothing that can be handled by protest. Period. Therefore this may be the big chance for activists to enter the wonderful world of strategy. Gamers, this is your moment!

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    A model for other strategies

    This strategy proposal suggests how people can do actions/tactics to accomplish specific objectives that in turn contribute to an overall purpose.

    Its strength is that the strategy is specific, targeting a particular pillar that currently supports Trump: politicians accessible on state and local levels who won’t directly challenge a power grab, but can’t oppose calls to count every vote. The strategy is limited, clear, internally coherent, practical and do-able!

    We need the same thing for the other pillars that might support or resist a power grab — for example, federal government workers in Washington, D.C.

    If you’re reading this and want to do something, you might try to assemble a team to create another strategy proposal that meets criteria important to you, stimulating discussion and debate. Show how it will achieve your objectives and the overall result that we want when we choose democracy.

    Let’s create a multi-prong “grand strategy” by the end of October. If it’s strong enough and meets people’s needs it might make quite a difference.

    After 4 decades of Plowshares actions, it’s nuclear warfare that should be on trial — not activists

    “Nuclear warfare is not on trial here, you are!” said Judge Samuel Salus, in exasperation.

    Before him were eight activists, including two priests and a nun. As Judge Salus tried to preside over the government’s prosecution of them for their trespass onto — and destruction of — private property, the eight were trying to put nuclear warfare, nuclear weapons, nuclear policy and U.S. exceptionalism on trial.

    That was 40 years ago this week — ancient history by some measures. And no one reading this will be surprised to find that the eight were found guilty and the human family is still threatened by almost 15,000 nuclear warheads. So, four decades later, why isn’t nuclear warfare on trial?

    They are the crime responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians 75 years ago. They have littered the landscape with radioactive waste. They have cost the United States more than $5 trillion from the public coffers. They are the apocalyptic nightmare on hair-trigger alert that haunt our children’s dreams.

    The Plowshares Eight, from left to right: Fr. Carl Kabat, Elmer Maas, Phil Berrigan, Molly Rush, Fr. Dan Berrigan, Sr. Anne Montgomery, John Schuchardt, Dean Hammer.

    On September 9, 1980, my father, Philip Berrigan, along with his brother Daniel, John Schuchardt, Dean Hammer, Elmer Maas, Molly Rush, Sister Anne Montgomery, and Father Carl Kabat, gained entry into the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Once inside the complex, they poured blood over two nuclear weapons’ nose cones, and used household hammers to dent the metal. They came to be known as The Plowshares Eight. They were motivated by the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures who enjoined that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

    As we mark this 40th anniversary in a strange and fearful time of pandemic, white violence, political instability and economic insecurity, it is heartening and instructive to reflect back on the origins of the Plowshares movement. It was largely white, largely Catholic and relatively small. Their purpose was to take personal responsibility for nuclear weapons — these implements of mass destruction shrouded in almost mystical secrecy and reverence — and label them improper property, converting, transforming, exposing and ultimately abolishing them. Plowshares activists don’t just hold these views or espouse these beliefs. They conspire. They pray. They act through nonviolent means.

    People are attracted to, and inspired by, the alchemic mixture of symbolic disarmament and real transformation that carries through the action, jail witness, courtroom saga and time in prison.

    Over and over in the last 40 years, small groups of activists have gained entry to military installations, warships, submarines, missile silos, weapons manufacturer’s office parks and warehouses, air shows, communication hubs and other sites. They have carried bibles and banners, densely researched indictments, blood, hammers and other household tools. More than a hundred of these actions have happened since the Plowshares Eight, and the activists involved have cumulatively spent lifetimes in jails and prisons.

    As a priest, my dad has resisted the Vietnam War, trespassed and destroyed property — at that earlier time, it was the draft records that were calling young men to the killing fields of Indochina. While inviting his older brother Daniel into this new nuclear age conspiracy, Dad called it “a second Catonsville,” referring to their May 1968 draft board raid. In a letter included in Daniel Cosacchi and Eric Martin’s “The Berrigan Letters,” Dad wrote to Dan that; “Quite nearby and we hope, accessible, lies a noxious toy assembly line to which stalwarts may gain entry for an admiring view and perhaps something more.”

    It is a testament to their well-honed connection and commitment that Uncle Dan did not need a decoder ring to parse out the meaning here. That letter was written on March 4, 1980, and after just six months of planning, the eight acted. In their action statement they declared: “We come to GE to beat swords into plowshares and to expose the criminality of nuclear weapons and corporate piracy. We want to expose the lethal lie spun by GE through its motto ‘we bring good things to life.’ At GE, darkness shuts out light, death reigns over life. GE is helping the Pentagon prepare for atomic holocaust.”

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  • Nuclear weapons ruined my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way
  • Arrested and jailed, tried and found guilty, my father and his friends faced 25 years in jail. My brother Jerry and I were 5 and 6 years old at the time, and our sister Kathleen was conceived in the midst of the trial. The dire consequences did not temper the activists’ spirits or dull their courage. In fact, they were so adamant that they carried their resistance into the courtroom, turning their backs on Judge Salus when he refused to admit some of their expert witnesses and walking out of the court house and heading back to General Electric for a demonstration. When they refused to return to court the next day, vigiling again at the gates of GE instead, they were arrested there and brought back to court in cuffs. In the end, four of the eight received sentences of 3-10 years, three were sentenced to 1.5 -5 years, and Molly Rush, a first-time offender, got 2-5 years.

    That first Plowshares action set off a chain reaction. Over the last 40 years, there have been more than 100 similar actions. People are attracted to, and inspired by, the alchemic mixture of symbolic disarmament and real transformation that carries through the action, jail witness, courtroom saga and time in prison. It is a long haul commitment that measures effectiveness in the ineffable stirrings of conscience, the trim-tab turnings toward nonviolence, new strands of conversation and musings — rather than in Senate bills passed, dollars raised or ground gained.

    Arthur Laffin, who compiled “Swords Into Plowshares: Nonviolent Direct Action for Disarmament, Peace, Social Justice,” writes of the process of community building and prayer that is a key component of the Plowshares witness, sharing that “People who have been involved in Plowshares actions have undertaken a process of intense spiritual preparation, nonviolence training and community formation, and have given careful consideration to the risks involved. Plowshares activists, accepting full responsibility for their actions, remain at the site of their action so that they can publicly explain their witness.”

    Indeed, many see the prayer and preparation as the piece of the work that “makes the magic happen.” My Uncle Dan recalled the furor around the action as they were first arrested. How did they gain entry? How did they know about the weapons? Was there a leak? Was there inside information? In “Swords Into Plowshares” Dan wrote “Of course we had inside information; of course there was a leak — our informant is otherwise known in the New Testament as Advocate, Friend, Spirit. We had been at prayer for days.”

    From King of Prussia to Kings Bay, Georgia

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  • How do you tell the kids that Grandma is in jail for resisting nuclear weapons?
  • My mother, Elizabeth McAlister, is a veteran of two Plowshares actions herself. Jonah House — the community she, my father and their friends founded in the early 1970s — was the incubator of countless others. Mom’s most recent Plowshares action took place in April 2018, at the Kings Bay Naval Base in Georgia. She and six others gained entry to the 16,000-acre base on the 60th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. They trekked through the night to reach sites on the base where nuclear weapons are celebrated and memorialized. Four of the group dismantled the memorials and marked office buildings with blood and messages. Mom and two others were apprehended as they tried to reach bunkers where Trident submarines are stored. Their banners read: “Nuclear Weapons: Illegal – Immoral” and “‘The Ultimate Logic of Racism is Genocide’ Dr. Martin Luther King” and “The Ultimate Logic of Trident is Omnicide.”

    Six Trident submarines operate out of Kings Bay, and they are the likely launchers of a first-strike nuclear attack. They are armed with D5 missiles capable of traveling over 1,370 miles in less than 13 minutes, allowing for a U.S. nuclear strike anywhere on planet Earth within 15 minutes. The Navy plans to replace its aging fleet of Tridents with the Columbia-class submarine. These new submarines are estimated to cost $122.3 billion. In the indictment they carried on to the base, the Kings Bay Plowshares activists highlighted that “each day this program steals from all in our nation and world by its theft of much-needed resources.”

    In October 2019, they were tried and found guilty in relatively short order. The judge was willing to engage with the activists about their conscience and formation, but would not allow expert testimony about nuclear weapons, foreign policy or international law. In the end, it took her longer to instruct the jury than it took for the jury members to find the defendants guilty.

    We can also draw a line of inspiration and mutual respect between the actions of religiously-motivated nuclear disarmers and the (perhaps more secular) racial justice activists who are toppling, dismantling and replacing racist statues and monuments.

    In January 2020, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock 20 seconds closer to midnight. We stand at 100 seconds to midnight, closer than ever before, because they say “Civilization-ending nuclear war — whether started by design, blunder, or simple miscommunication — is a genuine possibility. Climate change that could devastate the planet is undeniably happening. And for a variety of reasons that include a corrupted and manipulated media environment, democratic governments and other institutions that should be working to address these threats have failed to rise to the challenge.”

    Most of the Kings Bay Plowshares still await sentencing. Mom was sentenced to time served by video conference in June — a surreal and dislocating experience that is now more and more common in our criminal justice system. Her co-defendants opted to postpone sentencing in hopes that it could be in person, but it is unclear if that will happen.

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    Reaping the peace dividends

    Last week, my mom and I sat at the edge of a playground watching my 6 and 8 year olds climb and jump. I asked her what she remembered of September 1980. “I remember the feeling of utter relief when I heard that your dad and the rest of the eight were still alive. I felt such gratitude that they were able to do the action without being hurt or damaged. Your dad, when I finally talked to him from jail, was tired but satisfied. He was prayerfully grateful.”

    My mom, who has spent years in prison after following her conscience, mused, “No one in their right mind wants to take these weapons on. No one wants to take on the consequences. Jail is dehumanizing and removes you from the people you love. Going up against that which defines the United States of America as ‘number one’ is terrifying. But, I think, that we can address these weapons of mass destruction and help people understand how wrong they are, how destructive they are. We can show people that these weapons take away from every good effort people engage in. They undercut everything we try to do. Nuclear weapons forfeit our future. But our ‘no’ is heard and inspires others.”

    Just as there is a direct line between King of Prussia and Kings Bay, we can also draw a line of inspiration and mutual respect between the actions of religiously-motivated nuclear disarmers and the (perhaps more secular) racial justice activists who are toppling, dismantling and replacing racist statues and monuments.

    We hope that by the time we mark 50 years since the Plowshares Eight, we are erecting windmills for energy, planting sunflowers to detox the soil, practicing mutual aid, building community and finally prosecuting nuclear warfare and reaping the peace dividends that flower from global nuclear abolition.

    In a time of unprecedented protest, Belarus’ uprising is exceptional

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    Often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” Aleksander Lukashenko has said that only the “unemployed” and “people with a criminal record” are participating in the mass pro-democracy protests in Belarus. If this were true, then Belarus would break the world record in the number of “unemployed criminals” per capita, as the nationwide protest movement against the dictatorial regime of Lukashenko continues for the fourth consecutive week.

    While many political commentators and journalists predict that the protests will weaken — or warn about the possibility of Russia’s military interference, such as in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2014 — the people of Belarus continue to surprise everyone with their persistence. Even if it is still difficult to measure the potential success of Belarus’ civil uprising, Belarusians have already shown the world that Belarus will walk its own unique path towards democracy.

    The dictator who is afraid

    The last time Belarus had free and fair elections was in 1994. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Lukashenko, who had worked at a collective pig farm, became the independent country’s first president. This was the first and only time the European Union and the United States recognized the results of Belarusian elections as legitimate. After holding onto power for 26 years, Lukashenko still refuses to step down.

    By preserving elements of the Soviet system in Belarus like no one else in the post-Soviet states, he has maintained power over the state media. At the same time, most of the manufacturing industry has remained in state ownership, and the secret service agency (the infamous KGB) officially remained in place. Lukashenko also changed the national flag of the independent Belarus Republic — the white-red-white flag currently used by the opposition protesters — back to the red-green flag of Soviet Belarus, and marginalized the Belarusian language in favor of Russian.

    After a night of interrogation and threats, we were brought to a forest, tortured and threatened to be raped and murdered.

    Over the years, Lukashenko intensified his authoritarian rule with violent crackdowns on the opposition, involving numerous cases of torture and disappearances of his critics. Even though many Belarusians, until recently, accepted Lukashenko’s claim of being a strong leader who defends the interests of 9.5 million citizens against dangerous “foreign powers,” the support for his regime has been in decline for a long time.

    After he was traditionally declared the winner of the presidential elections in 2010 with over 79 percent of the votes, spontaneous and unexpected protests took place in Minsk, challenging the official results. The protest however was swiftly and violently suppressed by riot police the night after the elections and all seven opposition candidates were arrested.

    Andrei Sannikov, who received the second-highest percentage of voters’ support was among the imprisoned. “Lukashenko has been scared to lose his power since 2010,” he said. “Back then, he staged a crackdown on the opposition in front of the whole world for the first time. Before 2010, the persecutions were hidden from the media and international community. But when he saw people were suddenly gathering in the streets following the election fraud in 2010, he decided to use violence right away, even despite the presence of some international observers and foreign press.” And since then, the regime has used only more violence against the opposition, fearing a larger civil uprising, similar to what transpired in neighboring Ukraine.

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    A year after the first public crackdown during the elections of 2010, I myself experienced the fear of Lukashenko. As members of the Ukrainian protest movement FEMEN at that time, Oksana Shachko, Aleksandra Nemchinova and I staged an action in Minsk to show solidarity with hundreds of political prisoners like Andrei Sannikov. In FEMEN’s provocative and spectacular manner, the three of us mocked Lukashenko in front of the KGB headquarters in Minsk, while demanding the release of political prisoners. Our fragile voices screamed the patriotic motto used by pro-democracy opposition “Жыве Беларусь!” or Long Live Belarus!” surrounded by the silence of semi-empty streets.

    Following the ironic theatrical action, Shachko, Nemchinova and I were kidnapped by a group of KGB agents at a bus station on our way back to Ukraine. After a night of interrogation and threats, we were brought to a forest, tortured and threatened with rape and murder. After the hours of the most cruel experiences in my activist life, we were abandoned in the forest near the Ukrainian border.

    Women made the change

    For the fourth week in a row, tens of thousands of voices are shouting “Long Live Belarus!” all across the country, and protesters are filling Minsk’s streets with white-red-white flags promising to never be silent again. The country has changed and that is largely thanks to women.

    This year ahead of the presidential elections, Lukashenko’s popularity was swiftly declining, in part due to the disastrous mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis. As a result, Lukashenko decided not to wait and began the repression two months before election day. All independent opposition candidates were imprisoned, except one: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who registered as a candidate in place of her arrested husband Sergey Tikhanovsky. The opposition formed a female trio against Lukashenko, as Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was joined by the representatives of other persecuted opposition candidates, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronica Tsepkalo.

    Lukashenko, who positioned himself as the “father of the nation,” did not consider a woman as a threat to his leadership. “Our constitution is not suitable for a woman,” Lukashenko ensured back in May, at the beginning of the presidential campaign. “Our society is not ready to vote for a woman.”

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    Nevertheless, once the authorities released the official election results on Aug. 9 suggesting that Aleksander Lukashenko had won with 80 percent of the vote, while Tikhanovskaya received only 10 percent, few could believe these numbers. The opposition trio pointed out that all independent exit polls were predicting a victory for Tikhanovskaya with 60-70 percent of votes. Disbelief in the results manifested itself immediately in the streets, as thousands went out to protest the election fraud on the night after election day.

    The protesters were met with violence, as police did not hesitate to use tear gas, rubber bullets and even stun grenades against the peaceful protesters. Thousands were detained and mistreated. As the heartbreaking testimonies of women and men who experienced humiliation and violence in detention centers were spreading, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya announced in an emotional video addressed to the nation that she was forced to flee the country as a result of threats and pressure from authorities.

    Following the violent crackdown on protesters during the first two nights after election day, thousands of women spontaneously self-organized a march against violence. As the images of extreme brutal force used by the police against the peaceful protesters were spreading all over the international press, Belarusian women went to the streets to face the police and the special KGB forces responsible for those crimes. Holding hands, wearing white clothes and carrying flowers, the women shouted “Do not beat us,” “We demand peace” and “You are someone’s child too” to the masked and heavily-equipped riot policemen.

    Taking its own path towards democracy

    The nationwide civil uprising started with cars honking in solidarity with a few thousand protesters in Minsk and grew to large protests taking place in more than 30 cities. They were then joined by workers, who went on strike at the major state owned factories, including 15,000 employees of the Minsk Tractor Works. The strike was then supported by more than 300 state media employees, who finally refused to continue spreading the regime’s propaganda, as well as some diplomats and numerous artists. And since Aug. 9, Belarusian citizens tirelessly protest everyday in small groups all across the country, while every weekend hundreds of thousands protest in Minsk.

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    In the time of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and the gilets jeunes, or yellow vests in France, the Belarusian protests are exceptional in a number of aspects.

    The nonviolent nature of every demonstration that took place across the country in August was both impressive and effective. Even after being targeted with rubber bullets, surrounded by riot police and experiencing physical violence and humiliation during detention, the protesters continued to patiently sing, dance or clap in response to the brutality of the regime. Such attitude does not only result in admiration of the democratic world, but also paralyzes the authorities who seek to discredit and repress the movement.

    Taking place at all times across the country — and without defined organizers — the decentralized protests are a sign of their exceptional scale. This fact emphasizes that we are not witnessing yet another activist movement against a political leadership of the country. In Belarus, it is the whole nation that protests against the dictator Lukashenko, who refuses to step down and keeps the nation hostage. During the weekdays, people self-organize and gather for protests and symbolic actions near their workplaces, in front of churches and in others public spaces — while on weekends, hundreds of thousands of protesters rally in the capital. People shout “Everyday!” and “See you tomorrow” to encourage each other to continue the uprising.

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    The lack of political colors, political leaders and identity politics make the Belarus uprising radically different from many other recent protest movements and the latest revolutions in neighboring Eastern European countries. The streets are crowded with people, most of whom weren’t interested in politics until this summer. Unlike in Ukraine, where the Maidan revolution took place in 2014, people do not express pro-Russian or pro-West sentiments, and do not carry any ideological slogans or symbols. Their demands are simple, coherent and clear: They demand Lukashenko to step down, the organization of new free and fair elections and the release of all political prisoners.

    However, Lukashenko has not given into these popular demands yet. He has not only intensified the repression with a brutal crackdown on protesters and the press, he has also refused any dialogue with the opposition and international community. He still relies on the support of the riot police and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the only foreign leader he will talk with. Therefore, even if the peaceful civilians are powerful enough to stop the police violence, effective action by the international community, using instruments like the Magnitsky Act, will still be required to prevent bloodshed or another hybrid war staged by Putin and Lukashenko in Belarus.

    How Black-led resistance movements are paving the way for reparations

    Months after the police killing of George Floyd sparked racial justice protests around the world, Black Lives Matter activists are once again flooding the streets — this time in response to the recent police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Among the demands that continue to ring out is the call for reparations, or payment to people of African descent. Several African countries — including Namibia, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — have also joined the call, demanding reparations from European countries for the perpetration of genocide under colonialism.

    For many U.S. communities, these questions have been the subject of debate and discussion for years. In Ferguson, Missouri, one group of community leaders came together in 2014 after the police killing of Mike Brown to found the Truth-Telling Project — an initiative to share stories, educate communities and drive structural change against racism and systemic violence. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Truth-Telling Project has been working on a COVID-19 Community Story Project to lift up the stories of how the pandemic has affected the lives of people of color.

    Co-Founder David Ragland has witnessed the movement for reparations transform over time — from the streets of Ferguson to the recent Congressional victory of Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush. I spoke with Ragland about the role of resistance in the fight for reparations, and the changing landscape of racial justice organizing at this historic moment. 

    You worked closely with Cori Bush in founding the Truth-Telling Project. What does her victory over William Lacy Clay in St. Louis signify for the role of movement leaders to shift political power in the United States?

    Truth-Telling Project Co-Director David Ragland.

    Cori is bringing the movement to Washington, D.C. to explain why people go to the streets. Clay represented the class strivings of the baby boomers, who often sought to become a part of the system without challenging it enough. Our parents wanted us to be a part of the system so we could have a better life. Cori’s vision demands a better life, while also demanding economic, social, ecological and political justice.

    I believe that hope is emerging to challenge the issues that our generation is grappling with, like climate change, racial justice and gender identity. We also see the global issues that connect the injustice here with injustice abroad. 

    You have written about the “Four Rs” of reparations: resistance, repentance, restitution and reconciliation. What is the role of resistance specifically in the movement for reparations? 

    This moment of resistance is opening the door to things people wouldn’t even consider just six months ago. When the protests began around the country, people thought, “Oh, these are new ideas.” But to some extent they’re just new to the larger American public. 

    “This society is irredeemable unless it pays the bill for what it’s done.”

    In South Africa, you wouldn’t have had Truth and Reconciliation without resistance to bring attention to what was happening. But as we resist, our resistance has to be able to educate. Some civil rights-era policies like affirmative action benefit more white women than Black people, and the Fair Housing Act is currently part of the legislation fueling gentrification in urban communities for the last three decades, if not more. If we create a reparations program, for example, we have to make sure that racist banks are not benefitting [from that program]. So resistance is part of the continuum of making people aware with truth-telling.

    As co-founder of the Truth-Telling Project, what are some of the things that have changed in the context of Black Lives Matter organizing since the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson?

    Truth-telling really came along as a way to reinforce some of the experiences that were coming out of Ferguson, as well as places like Baltimore and Minneapolis, where Freddie Gray and Phillando Castille were murdered. We had people from around the country come to share stories, and we created an online curriculum called “It’s Time to Listen.” We partnered in solidarity with a number of groups, including Indigenous folks and Latinx folks, to add voices telling stories and shifting narratives.

    [The Truth-Telling Project has] always been rooted in this truth and reconciliation framework, asking ourselves what kind of process can help our society get from where it is to where it needs to be. Over time, the hearings helped us see that stories weren’t enough — that we needed reparations. 

    “[Reparations] also entail measures like defunding the police, for which there is urgent importance, especially if you think about police as descendants of slave catchers.”

    Indigenous land and Black bodies fueled [American capitalism]. They were the first inputs, they’re the people who maintained it and made this country possible. If you go to any major city in the United States and look at a building or structure, some person of color helped to create it. They didn’t get credit for it, and they were underpaid and abused while doing it. If many churches in Maine were built [on the profits of] mercenaries who sold the scalps of Indigenous people for $1,000 each, reconciliation is over. Reconcile with what? Pay reparations. Give back land. Restore sovereignty. It’s that simple for me. It’s a debt and it has to be paid.

    If we ever want to get to reconciliation, you have to set it right. That’s gonna have a cost, and it shouldn’t just be on the government. Reparations have to be from both white institutions and white individuals, whether their relatives benefited from slavery or not. This society is irredeemable unless it pays the bill for what it’s done. I was a little bit more hopeful that peoples’ stories would change the way people behaved, that we would be able to connect on an empathetic level, and that people would be able to feel the pain we were experiencing and want to change. Then I realized the only God in this country is money. So that’s where we’re at.

    I wonder if you could speak more about the role of faith communities and religious institutions in paying reparations. Archbishop Desmond Tutu played such an important role in the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa, and you’ve written about the role of faith communities in the history of slavery and oppression. Why is the role of religious institutions so important?

    Religion was one of the core methods used to maintain slavery. Churches operated as slush funds for slaveholders who essentially brought wealth into these institutions. In 1805, the Anglican Church created what they called the Slave Bible. They removed all passages about liberation and freedom and justice from it, and they promoted it around the Caribbean and southern states where slavery was happening. 

    So there is a long legacy of faith communities not just selling slaves and owning slaves, but propagating the institution of slavery, benefiting from discrimination and reinforcing neighborhoods’ segregation codes. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that Sunday was the most segregated day in America.

    When it comes to reparations — if not churches, if not mosques, if not temples, then who? God’s justice has to begin somewhere, and it begins with God’s people. So it is an urgent moral and spiritual responsibility that I believe is connected with the salvation of not just individual white folks, but with the entire nation.

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    You have also written about enacting reparations through measures like a gentrification tax, or looking at income and land to create a land trust that benefits people historically impacted by violence. What are some of the other policies that movements are advocating to be part of a national reparations process?

    [What we need are ways for] people to redistribute wealth, allowing them to begin making what we call interpersonal repair. But reparations are rooted in what the communities need, not what people want to do. This also entails measures like defunding the police, for which there is urgent importance, especially if you think about police as descendants of slave catchers and the way they operate in our communities. Defunding the police would contribute to mental health and community [well-being] because people have so much fear of how police deal with certain situations. 

    We can shift to think more about the role of social workers and educators in our communities, while acknowledging that both of those fields also need to be decolonized. We need a Black parent-to-teacher pipeline, because most new teachers are likely white, and most new white teachers go to Black neighborhoods without a background in restorative justice. I don’t know if I want those people teaching my kid.

    Then we have the food supply, and the importance of supporting community gardens and garden-shares. We need legislation so people can grow their own food locally in their communities. 

    But this reparations process is going to look different in different communities. In St. Louis, churches and universities owe a great deal. Washington University has completely gentrified University City, where Black people lived and hung out. So it’s real. It is putting the truth at these peoples’ feet and asking them to respond to it. There are various policies like ending the military transfer of weapons to local police departments, cutting support for the Pentagon, ending weapons manufacturing — it all has to be on the table now. That’s what makes this moment so important, and that’s why we can’t stop now.

    New webinar series explores how to build effective movements in a pandemic and beyond

    Solidarity 2020 and Beyond is partnering with Waging Nonviolence to launch an exciting new webinar series called People Power: COVID-19 and Beyond. Anchored by grassroots activists, along with high-profile scholar-activists and journalists, the series will debut on Sept. 8 at 11 a.m. EDT on Zoom and Facebook Live with a conversation on the major unfolding nonviolent uprisings in the United States, Lebanon, Thailand and Zimbabwe. Regular installments will follow through the end of the year. You can click here to register. All recordings will also be posted and archived on the YouTube channels for Waging Nonviolence and Solidarity 2020 and Beyond, making them easily accessible to those unable to participate in the live events.

    The series will highlight the voices of experienced and trained grassroots activists who are part of Solidarity 2020 and Beyond’s Global Grassroots Activist Network, working in more than 100 countries around the world. While educational webinars and ideological discussions have increased significantly since COVID-19, there has arguably been a dearth of grassroots voices working in the trenches. People want to know not only why, but how, to wage effective struggle at this key time.

    With our new series, we hope to focus on the nuts and bolts of how to build and wage nonviolent campaigns and movements for dignity, justice and freedom around the world. The goal is to answer questions like: How do I begin to bring awareness and mobilize people to work for change? What do I do when my government chooses to use violence against unarmed protesters? Can nonviolence really overcome violent armed actors and militaries? How do I create a strategy and tactics that will work in my unique situation? What does my situation have in common with others? How important is training and preparation versus organic events that bring people out?

    The field activists who will participate in these webinars have been trained by local groups and networks around the world, including Afrikan Youth Movement and Action Aid’s Global Platform, Beautiful Trouble, International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, RHIZE, Inclusive Global Leadership Institute, Ekta Parishad, Training for Change and many more.

    Movements in the Global South have been less understood and covered in mainstream media, which is why this series will prioritize these under-resourced and difficult mobilizing efforts in Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Yet, at the same time, we are also seeing major threats to democracy, climate crisis prevention and human rights in the United States and Europe. So solidarity is what we need most now.

    Through locally-led initiatives, the activists taking part in this series have built peer-to-peer learning exchanges, written articles and disseminated culturally appropriate curriculum translated into local languages, developed creative resistance, messaging and mobilizing strategies, utilized technology and security tools, and implemented self-care initiatives. These efforts slowed initially during COVID-19, but are now building back strong.

    This webinar series plans to amplify and make evident the truth that nonviolent campaigns and revolutions are happening at record numbers around the world, and its participants are learning from each other. The activists that will be featured are waging a broad variety of local, national and international struggles. These include movements for women’s rights and gender justice, environmental justice, racial justice, anti-corruption and good governance, disability rights, indigenous rights, democratization and self-determination.

    The activists hope to accomplish four main goals through this series: to connect diverse activists from around the world to share experience and provide moral support; provide lessons learned and detailed knowledge to new organizers and activists; to share and discuss new and effective ways to continue struggles during COVID-19 and beyond; and to provide evidence of the extensive reach and activity of strategic and effective movements around the world today to build hope and resilience at this dark time.

    On Sept. 8, the first webinar in the series will explore a range of ongoing movements, and feature:

    • Lucas Johnson, a community organizer and writer, who is the executive director of Civil Conversations and Social Healing at The On Being Project. He previously served as the International Coordinator of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.
    • Rania Masri, an activist and scholar who has advocated for human rights and social justice across the Arab world — including for Palestinian rights and anti-corruption in Lebanon, her homeland — as well as recent mutual aid responses after the huge explosion in the Lebanese port. She joined the new Citizen’s in a State Party after years of grassroots organizing and was a candidate for the parliamentary elections in Lebanon in 2018.
    • Robson Chere, a high-profile labor and human rights activist in Zimbabwe, Secretary General of Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe. He became a national leader of resistance after organizing a cross country march to call for teacher and student rights in December 2018 after which he was arrested and tortured by the government. After his release, Robson continues in his role of organizer, including the recent July 31 national strike that was shut down after prominent journalists were killed or imprisoned days before.
    • Pimsiri Petchnarob, a young student activist from Thailand who researches and trains in nonviolent resistance. She has been actively involved in the recent Thai student uprisings calling for reform in the political and social systems of the country.
    • We also hope to include Zahra, a grassroots activist and trainer in the Sudanese nonviolent revolution who is playing a key role in the transitional organizing.

    The details for future webinars will be included in Waging Nonviolence’s weekly newsletter and on Solidarity 2020 and Beyond’s soon-to-be-launched website. The topics for upcoming webinars this month include: COVID-19 and the anti-corruption nexus (Sept. 16), nonviolent struggles for environmental justice (Sept. 22) and women’s leadership in movements (Sept. 30).

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    If you are an experienced activist, a budding organizer, a policy maker, researcher or journalist, or an ordinary citizen searching for hope and evidence of people working together for a better world, please join us for this exciting series of conversations.

    Mass direct action might be the only way to stop Trump from stealing the election

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    The warning drums for a contested election are beating louder and louder. At a recent campaign stop in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Trump once again laid the groundwork for not stepping down by saying, “The only way [the Democrats] are going to win is by a rigged election.”

    The concern for what Trump might do in the absence of a landslide Biden victory has even led one bi-partisan group of experienced legal and political minds to run a “war-game” type experiment called the Transition Integrity Project.

    As co-convener Rosa Brooks told The New York Times, “The depressing overall thrust of our exercises ended up being that if the Trump campaign is in fact truly determined to stay in power no matter what, and is willing to be absolutely ruthless about it, it’s hard to know what stops that.”

    If there is a way, however, the project did note it would come in the form of mass direct action. This is why many individuals and activist groups — including many involved in the recent protests across the country — are beginning to do preliminary thinking.

    Planning our lives for November

    As we begin to wrap our minds around a situation demanding we be “all-in,” one question is: What we can expect? No one knows, of course, but at least we can look at coup attempts that have been defeated by mass action in other countries to get an idea.

    Previous Coverage
  • We need a plan to prevent a Trump takeover — and this anti-coup research shows the way
  • Political scientist Stephen Zunes researched eight countries where mass action defeated a coup attempt, and found that in most of them the resolution was quick. For example, it took three days for the Russians in 1991, 4 days for the French in 1961 and 16 days for Bolivians in 1978. However, it took much longer in Venezuela in 1958, with the struggle lasting 11 months.

    Zunes’s research suggests that the quicker the mobilization, the quicker the resolution. In Thailand in 1992, for example, people resisted on a smaller scale for 13 months, but when their movement swelled in size the Thais won only six weeks later. This was one of the cases supporting Zunes’ thesis that for winning, alliance-building matters.

    While each situation is unique and we can’t know just how our crisis will play out, one take-away from the research is clear: The more quickly we nonviolently disrupt the plans of Trump’s team — at scale — the less longer-term disruption to our country and our lives.

    How can we influence the center to join us?

    I asked Stephen Zunes about how the perceptions of different people on the political spectrum influence the outcome of a power grab. He confirmed the importance of the political center, especially if the center initially holds itself aloof from the mass struggle. (In this country, that might look like the national Democratic Party leadership appealing to the Supreme Court instead of joining the mass noncooperation campaign.)

    “Authoritarian rulers fear peaceful resistance above all else.”

    When the first people to resist use tactics and rhetoric that make sense to those in the center who have been hoping to stay “above the fray,” the center is likely to throw its weight more strongly against the coup. Then, together, it can be defeated.

    On the flip side, choosing tactics and rhetoric that seem highly righteous and glorious — but make it harder for the center to join — risks prolonging the struggle. Early alliance-building across political lines is key, and our tactics influence our success in doing that.

    Fortunately, the choice is in our hands: We can choose direct action tactics that strongly contrast with Trump’s likely call for armed members of his base to rise up to defend him. Through our own behavior we can take the moral high ground.

    Would-be dictators hate this. That’s why Trump tried to minimize the difference between nonviolent demonstrators at Charlottesville and violent white supremacists. “Fine people on both sides,” he said. Authoritarians fear the increased power that people have when they choose nonviolence.

    A dramatic example of this fear was revealed when Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad released hundreds of terrorists from prison during the nonviolent uprising against him in the Arab Spring of 2011. His problem in Damascus was that more and more people were joining massive peaceful demonstrations against his rule.

    Assad therefore released the terrorists he held in prison, in order to radicalize the protests and justify his unleashing heavy violence against the mass demonstrations. As it turned out, Assad was willing to gas and kill any number of people strongly opposed to him, in the name of “law and order.” The center hesitated, and the movement lost.

    The center is often reluctant to side with a violent mass movement. That’s why Assad wanted Syria’s nonviolent movement to turn violent. Assad is not unique. A historian of authoritarian regimes at George Washington University, Matthew Levinger, writes that “authoritarian rulers fear peaceful resistance above all else.”

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    The pragmatic, strategic sense of the people

    Another question is sure to come up: How did the successful anti-coup movements remain nonviolent when violence was used against them? Did they have an equivalent of Gandhi or King in their midst, preaching nonviolence?

    According to Zunes, “None of the successful cases I studied included a pacifist or moral commitment to nonviolence. They realized as a practical matter that using violence would play into the strengths of the coup plotters. Instead, they wanted to weaken the morale, and even win over as many as possible of those on the ground level who were supposed to repress them. And the activists couldn’t win them over if they were attacking them.”

    Moralism sometimes blocks the ordinary human process of figuring out “what works.”

    In Zunes’ paper he tells about Argentina in 1987, when the people resisted an attempted military coup. Thousands of people marched past a tank into a military base just outside Buenos Aires and persuaded the soldiers to refuse to act against them, forcing the 80 officers at that base to surrender.

    In the Soviet Union in 1991,“protesters in Moscow and elsewhere distributed leaflets, food, and sanctuary to soldiers, and spoke and argued with them on the streets to convince them to defect or refuse orders. This resulted in large numbers of soldiers and even entire military units switching sides.”

    The research points to a weakness we have on the radical left, as we assess our strengths and weaknesses prior to a possible coup attempt. Years of shaming and blaming on the left in the name of anti-oppression work have resulted in moralism growing stronger among us — so strong that it can even drown out strategy. Saying the right words, taking the “correct moral positions,” is sometimes considered more important than figuring out what it takes to win struggles for a just society.

    Previous Coverage
  • What makes effective white allies? Training, not shaming
  • Moralists are fearful of any appearance of lack of solidarity with the oppressed, to the point that moralists will sometimes justify behavior that weakens our actual chance to win — behavior like setting cars aflame, which aids Trump’s efforts to make a bigger issue of “law and order.”

    Moralism sometimes blocks the ordinary human process of figuring out “what works.” It becomes a philosophy that insists that it’s more important to be righteous than to succeed. As a gay, working-class man I’m on intimate terms with my own righteous anger, but have tried to remain open to people outside my oppressed identities who were good at strategy. I am that hungry to win.

    Strategic wisdom is also available among strong survivors — people whose life experience has been especially challenging. That was one reason why, when I taught at the Martin Luther King School of Social Change, our curriculum included field placements in poor neighborhoods. Our students were sometimes astonished at their discoveries.

    One of my students began with a different picture of moralism. She believed that moralism was preventing a pragmatic appreciation for violence. Lily Everett, a Black woman from the South, said she believed that it was Martin Luther King Jr., who was the moralist. What would make pragmatic sense was to add violence to the toolkit of the movement for Black liberation. These days we call this view “diversity of tactics.” She and my other students debated this vigorously.

    Lily was excited when she learned that her field placement would be in a poor Black neighborhood in North Philly — where at last she could discuss her own perspective with “the people.”

    I met with her after a few weeks in the neighborhood and asked her how it was going. “Well,” she said, “I raised my idea of adding some violence to our struggle.”

    “And what did they say?” I asked.

    “They said to me, ‘Girl, are you trying to get us killed?’”

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    Another Black student at the King School, Phil McLaurin, shared with us the concept of “mother-wit” — a wisdom of Black working-class people that promotes resilience and attention to what works. Philosophers might call it pragmatism. It’s what Zunes believes is the reasoning in mass nonviolent movements that succeed in defeating violent coup plotters. People reason: If we do this, then our opponent will do that – not good!

    Our own radical left movement may need to learn (or re-learn) pragmatism. In their study of a century’s worth of both violent and nonviolent mass movements up against violent forces, political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found that movements doubled their chance of success if they chose nonviolent struggle.

    If Trump attempts a power grab in November, let’s double our chance of winning.

    For more resources on resisting a stolen election visit ChooseDemocracy.us. You can also register for a training with George Lakey.

    Meet the environmental activists campaigning to save Nairobi National Park

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    The Nairobi National Park is a rare gem that defines the Kenyan capital and it is the only national park in the world that shares a fence with a city. It boasts of abundant wildlife, including the “big five” animals — the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo — that can, in places, be viewed against a backdrop of city skyscrapers and planes coming in to land at the local airports.

    Despite the park being only a five-minute drive from the Nairobi central business district, the Kenyan government has a history of approving development projects inside the park, which threaten its existence and that of the wildlife that inhabits it.

    One major project was the more than four-mile-long stretch of the standard gauge railway cutting across the park that activists and conservation experts say has disturbed the wildlife. These encroachments have always led to conflicts between humans and animals, with lions and pythons roaming the neighboring city estates from time to time.

    As a result, environmental activists are pushing back to stop the government from pursuing these development projects that threaten to wipe out the park and its wildlife.

    “They want to build an amphitheater and a high-end boutique hotel inside the Nairobi National Park on the forest area, which is the black rhino breeding site,” said Reinhard Bonke, the founding executive director of the African Sustainability Network. “And Nairobi National Park is the only highly-endangered black rhino sanctuary in East and Central Africa!”  

    Bonke was referring to the plan by the Kenya Wildlife Service, or KWS, to build a state-of-the-art amphitheater and a hotel inside the park — complete with swimming pools and other amenities. It also plans to construct a house for the director-general within the conservation area. They call it the Nairobi National Park Management Plan 2020-2030.

    The announcement had rubbed conservationists the wrong way and they have staged protests in Nairobi against the decision.

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    Protests to protect the park started in 2016, when the then Kenya Wildlife Chairman Richard Leakey approved a plan by Chinese contractors to build the standard gauge railway across the park, oblivious to a court order stopping it. Protesters marched to the Chinese embassy in Nairobi, calling on the China Exim Bank to stop funding the destructive project.

    In 2018, the conservationists led street protests and filed lawsuits and appeals against court rulings after contractors started the construction of the railway inside the park. On March 1, protesters marched in the hundreds, demanding that the Chinese-built railway be rerouted around the park.

    But this May, the protests were different. The demands of the protesters were no longer about the railway, but rather about the planned construction of a hotel, an amphitheater and a house by the Kenya Wildlife Service. Also, they were not able to physically protest in the street, since the country was in partial lockdown and movement was restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

    Patricia Kombo, an environmental enthusiast and founder of Patree Initiative — an environmental startup that fights for green spaces — took part in the May protests. She says that the decision by the government is ill informed and that it will cause a lot of damage to the biodiversity inside the park.

    “Building the hotel poses a threat to biodiversity as there will be a lot of pollution, and it will reduce the number of green spaces,” Kombo said. There will also be an issue with sewage disposals.”  

    “The hotel will benefit the elite economically at the expense of the rest [of us].”

    The Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife then directed KWS to pause construction and give a one month period for public participation to gather the views of the concerned parties. The participation came to an end on June 30.

    But conservationists are now raising concerns about how KWS carried out the public participation, citing a lack of involvement of the local Maasai community who have been the custodians of the wildlife for centuries and are the rightful owners of the park. The service held some stakeholder meetings online, which the community could not access due to a lack of technology.

    “KWS’ role is to manage our animals, plants and protect their territories from human interference,” said Brian Waswala, an environmental science lecturer at Maasai Mara University. “The hotel will benefit the elite economically at the expense of the rest [of us].”

    The park was once part of the greater Nairobi-Athi-Kapiti plains ecosystem, and animals could migrate in and out of it, depending on seasonality and resource access. But now, the park is fenced on the southern side — meaning that wildlife movement is restricted — and the standard gauge railway now passes through it.

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    Waswala is also concerned that KWS has not thought through the many possible negative ramifications on the park and its natural resources that its planned construction is likely to pose.

    “Have they considered the behavior of wildlife? What about the environmental aspect? How much would be affected during construction and after?” he asked. “Hotels are not just buildings, but also transport (food delivery and ferrying of guests), and a source of waste (noise, solid and liquid, including human effluence and food waste). The machinery will also compact the soil, and this is known to have a negative impact on soil water infiltration.”

    Bonke’s organization is challenging the legality of the process of drafting of the park’s management plan in court and questioning the deal between KWS and the private developers, some of whom have illegally encroached on the park.

    “We also focus on creating more awareness among Kenyans on matters of wildlife conservation, and inform them about the values and challenges facing such areas of ecological importance,” he pointed out. “Through the court we hope to get a proper legal moratorium preventing further encroachment into the park and call for a more ecosystem-based management plan.”

    “After the hustle and bustle of activities in a city, one needs a place to relax, rejuvenate and connect with nature.”

    Josphat Ngonyo, the chief executive officer at the Africa Network for Animal Welfare says that this is an unwelcome move by the government. “The park is only 117 square kilometers,” he explained. “It’s too small to host a hotel, and we do not need to have a hotel in the park while we have so many hotels around Nairobi that can host anyone who would want to visit Nairobi National Park.”

    The population in Nairobi has been steadily rising and the city has struggled to find land to accommodate the influx of people. This has led some to see Nairobi National Park as space for the city to expand and provide amenities for those who live there. Ngonyo strongly refutes this argument.

    “Whoever is saying that is making a huge mistake, because a city needs such a place,” he said. “We can’t afford to live in a concrete jungle. After the hustle and bustle of activities in a city, one needs a place to relax, rejuvenate and connect with nature.”   

    Currently, the African Sustainability Network is engaging the public on scrutinizing the park’s controversial management plan. The organization is training members of the community to understand what the draft management plan means to the park and their livelihoods. As such, they will be better informed of their rights and what they stand to lose if KWS goes forward to build a hotel inside the park. They will then join in the protests and make it a stronger force, since they are the original custodians of the park. They are also starting a long-term science-based initiative to conduct an ecological survey of the park to showcase what they stand to lose from an ecological perspective and how this links to public health and wellbeing.

    The network is also working on a more sustainable strategy to control the invasive species in Nairobi National Park, with a key focus on parthenium (parthenium hysterophorus), which is the second most serious threat to the park — aside from infrastructural encroachments, followed by solid and liquid waste pollution.

    From his experience, Bonke says the fight to save the Nairobi National Park has made him realize that there has never been good cooperation between the policy makers and the concerned organizations to provide the basis of an integrated approach towards wildlife conservation.

    “Saving wildlife and the entire habitat is a climate change mitigation process and a public health issue, which makes the silence from these two groups — when wildlife habitats are being destroyed — a huge concern,” he said. “There needs to be proper implementation of land use policy to gauge the type of human activities allowed in protected areas and other areas of ecological importance, otherwise the word ‘protected areas’ will be rendered a joke.”

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    With Westernization, Bonke points out that many African communities have gradually drifted away from conserving wildlife, which used to be a more integral part of their lives.

    “We are so focused on becoming like Europe who realized the same mistakes we are making and are working on a ‘regreening Europe’ initiative,” he said. “If this continues, then Africa will lose its pride in being the richest continent in terms of biodiversity, health and natural resources. Let’s embrace our roots and develop a more sustainable approach.

    The timeline for when the project will begin, and therefore how long activists have to stop it is currently unknown.

    “There is no time frame really, Nairobi National Park will be facing challenges year in, year out. So the protest is an ongoing process,” Bonke said.

    Currently, the organization is advocating for an ecosystem-based approach, one that promotes the nature of the park and aligns with the national wildlife strategy.

    “We are working with the adjacent community and the relevant stakeholders,” Bonke explained. “The community itself is playing a key role and have even taken the legal route to file a case in court against the planned construction.”

    What New Orleans’ Common Ground Collective can teach us about surviving crisis together

    It started in Malik Rahim’s kitchen, as the waters from the broken levees continued to flow through New Orleans’ lower 9th Ward. A small group of activists from the city and Austin, Texas, including former Black Panthers, began scratching down notes and trying to figure out exactly what they could do to provide support to the neighborhoods obliterated by Hurricane Katrina. 

    This was in 2005, just days after the storm had battered the city and demolished the levees, overwhelming the surrounding blocks with a toxic water sludge. Services had entirely collapsed and government officials were unable, or in many cases unwilling, to intervene and support the people who had stayed to weather the storm. In this vacuum, white militias began patrolling black neighborhoods, murdering people under the guise of protecting against “looters.”

    A group came together to address the growing needs in the community called the Common Ground Collective, which became an example of the type of mutual aid projects that are possible during a disaster. Using a horizontal, all-volunteer approach, the project evolved from a collection of people simply providing basic disaster relief, such as food and medicine distribution, into a fully working clinic where people could receive health care. 

    “As people started coming, more and more ideas started coming … but the first question was like ‘If we build a first aid station, could a first aid station become a clinic? Could a clinic become a hospital?’” said scott crow, one of the organizers who founded the Common Ground Collective and wrote the book “Black Flags and Windmills” about the experience.

    “It was really like a baptism into activism, because we were growing something I had never experienced before in those early days that was so powerful.”

    As this unprecedented health crisis continues around the world, which has painted our communities with uncertainty, the uncommon success of the Common Ground Collective holds some lessons for how a “liberatory approach” to organizing can provide options for survival. This means organizing that intends to build new social relationships and create a participatory alternative to the top-down institutions we rely on today. 

    With climate catastrophe worsening and natural disasters growing more common, people are looking for new models to meet the material needs of affected communities. The Common Ground Collective’s successes and failures provide some useful insights into how to build new, effective mutual aid projects during this crisis and the next.

    A clinic of people

    The Common Ground Collective began by doing food and resource distribution — working with organizations like Veterans for Peace — and began scaling up their services from there. This began with very basic health care options, which were almost totally missing at that point, including things like taking blood pressure, running diabetes testing, and checking on a range of symptoms. 

    The collective went forward on a three-phase, long-term strategy. This started with the immediate relief effort, then moved into creating worker cooperatives and economic initiatives and finally to rebuilding, with the hope of a green approach to construction. According to Common Ground, they created seven mobile clinics to serve the community, started shelters and offered legal support to neighborhoods still reeling both from what the flood had done and how the state responded. They eventually set up several health clinics, worker cooperatives and a free school, gave people bicycles to get around difficult roadways, worked on eviction defense, and even started building homes and community gardens. 

    “It was really like a baptism into activism, because we were growing something I had never experienced before in those early days that was so powerful and so effective,” said Jackie Sumell, an artist and organizer who helped run the clinic. 

    What set the collective apart from other mutual aid projects, was that it was founded on a liberatory framework from the beginning.

    As a sprawling radical project, it became one of the largest efforts built on “liberatory” principles in decades, with around 23,000 volunteers from around the world helping to keep the project going. All told, they gutted around 3,000 buildings hit by the storm, planted 16,000 plugs of marshland grasses (which helps stabilize the land), and even put together a “bioremediation” service to remove the toxic soil and black mold that was at dangerous levels in areas hit by the flood.

    In its first two years the Common Ground Collective raised a staggering $3 million — with donations from people like Michael Moore and Bruce Springsteen — which would be impressive if it had been a non-governmental organization and was unthinkable for an anarchist mutual aid project. But the people around them could see the value they had created to the community — that they were living up to their promise and offering something that the state was not able or willing to provide.

    Lessons for today

    Common Ground was created as a sort of trial by fire, in response to one of the worst disasters in U.S. history, so the lessons gleaned from it have resonance far beyond that moment. There is predictive power to what was learned there, and mutual aid organizers can use some of these experiences as they build their own projects today. The central concept of the collective, and what set it apart from other mutual aid projects, was that it was founded on a liberatory framework from the beginning.

    “There’s definitely dual power from an anarchist perspective, there is solidarity not charity … [and] leading by asking,” crow explained. “These are three major components that are very important from the very beginning that made us different than other organizations.” “Dual power” means creating an institution that challenges the legitimacy and reach of a larger institution, such as the state and health care system, and offering it as an alternative to those larger structures. 

    Focusing on solidarity meant that organizers saw themselves on the same footing as those receiving resources, and they were creating a mutually reinforcing relationship where both parties felt that they benefited from a common structure of support. The third point, leading by asking, was founded on the notion that no political organizer can come into a community and decide what the people there need. Instead, people must actually ask and listen, and adapt the project to what the intersecting communities of an area actually want and need.

    All of this requires a certain intentionality, an understanding of why the organizers are doing this work, beyond simple survival. For instance, in the current pandemic, those involved in mutual aid should ask whether they are doing this work to simply protect their neighborhood and the overlapping communities from infection and its consequences, or if  there is an overarching reason for engaging in it. This is where the “liberatory approach” comes in. It offers a particular vision for why the work is critical and can be more than simply a stopgap for the failures of the state.

    “One of the things that does apply [today] is the long-term vision of Common Ground, which was to be that social organizing force for community needs and desires and to make sure that community people were involved at every stage. That is one of the key lessons,” said Kevin Van Meter, a volunteer organizer who went to New Orleans to offer support. 

    When building these structures, organizers had to think about how to make them sustainable outside of the immediate crisis. If these sorts of emergencies continue, as they are likely to, then mutual aid organizations formed amid the COVID-19 outbreak will have to find a way to both give themselves some permanence and keep control of them in the communities they serve.

    “[I learned that] we need to build more infrastructures. More autonomous and networked infrastructures, with liberatory potential or liberatory foundations to them,” crow said. “That we needed more of those so that when the next disaster happened in those communities, we were ready for it.” 

    Previous Coverage
  • Repression against grassroots hurricane relief lingers in New Orleans
  • One of the commonalities shared by the post-Hurricane Katrina disaster area of New Orleans and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis is the climate of fear, which can be either disempowering or motivating depending on its tone. This was one of the key lessons that organizers in New Orleans took from building something in a place with an uncertain future — that fear is a bad place to make decisions from. It can stop rational thinking and can make problems feel insurmountable. They learned that it is better to acknowledge that everyone is afraid and then start making attempts to move beyond the paralysis that those feelings can sometimes create.

    “When the very idea of Common Ground was coming together, we had a whole new way of existing that was so different, special and effective,” Sumell said. “Then the nonprofit industrial complex, money and capital came in and said ‘Now it needs to look like this.’ And it destroyed what we thought was beautiful.” 

    As it started to leave its initial phases and grow, Common Ground eventually became a non-profit. Many of the founders became critical of the form it took in later years because they say it lost some of the core features that made it such a breakthrough. Sumell used the analogy of raising okra in a garden, which the tender has to work hard to avoid becoming too large too fast.

    The argument here is simple: rather than turning mutual aid projects over to large global organizations, they should be accountable to the communities they are in and at a scale where people can still control them without relying on a professional class. Then they can support other local projects to work together on a large scale, but without missing the essential core that made it a direct action project to begin with.

    Post-crisis mutual aid

    One of the lessons of Common Ground is that the particular crisis that inspired the mutual aid project should not determine its life. The needs that mutual aid organizations hope to fulfill are particularly obvious amidst a disaster, such as a hurricane or a global infectious disease pandemic, but those needs were already there. The communities in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans were already lacking access to comprehensive health care, affordable food and housing, and other basic necessities, and if this “liberatory approach” is at the center of a mutual aid project, then there is a much longer-term vision at play. 

    Common Ground still exists today, with the Common Ground Health Clinic operating in Algiers and Common Ground projects like the New Orleans Women’s & Children’s Shelter and the Common Ground Legal Clinic, now an affiliate of the Louisiana Civil Justice Center, still providing support to the community. Many of the people involved in the mutual aid projects of the collective are still fighting to build dual power around the world. Many other groups built on the legacy they provided, such as Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, a decentralized organization of mutual aid organizers that uses many of the lessons of the Common Ground Collective to do horizontally structured disaster relief.

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    “Common Ground was successful because the entire country’s attention was on New Orleans after the storm,” Van Meter said.  “As long as thousands are participating in General Assemblies — and thousands are turning up to provide relief efforts in New Orleans — many of the limitations and barriers to the organizing efforts can be overcome.”

    This is both a criticism and advantage, but one that becomes even more distinct as the upsurge of coronavirus cases is on people’s minds. While everyone’s attention is centered on the crisis, it can be easy to recruit. The difficulty is in maintaining that participation in the months and years afterward.

    As we reach the peak of the coronavirus, the ongoing impact on the communities most affected is going to be staggering. In response, the infrastructure of the mutual aid networks that formed to support people through the crisis will have to continue and, in many ways, evolve. People who are out of work are going to face back rent, layoffs and unemployment will increase, bills for health care will become due, and state budget crises will likely lead to brutal austerity. So those mutual aid networks that have been created will need to offer a new infrastructure of solidarity as the real needs of the community change. Listening to the community and adapting may be the most prescient legacy of the Common Ground Collective.

    Fighting injustice can trigger trauma — we need to learn how to process it and take healing action

    We are traumatized. Let’s start there.

    Trauma can be defined as your body’s reaction to experiencing or witnessing something deeply disturbing. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a condition caused by exposure to a distressing event “outside the range of usual human experience.”

    A global pandemic. The resulting economic crisis. Videos of police killing unarmed Black people. Images of federal troops in military fatigues and assault rifles confronting protesters every night. The global climate crisis. The ever-increasing population of houseless people. Trump.

    One could argue that none of these things are within the “range of usual human experience.” Even if you have not been directly impacted by them or do not know anyone who has gotten ill from COVID-19 ― and even if you have a stable income, have never been attacked by police and live in a wealthy community ― witnessing these events in the media over and over can cause what psychologists call indirect, insidious or vicarious trauma. We absorb it simply because there is so much of it in the air.

    Perhaps you have noticed signs of trauma playing out in your own life, in your relationships and in your household. Common responses to trauma can include anxiety, short tempers, hyper-vigilance, withdrawal, fatigue, cynicism, lack of empathy and restlessness, among countless others.

    And in recent months, I have witnessed all of that come pouring into the streets and manifesting as collective trauma.

    When trauma is triggered, we lack the ability to take in new information, to be creative, consider different perspectives or think about long-term consequences.

    I don’t know if I am overreacting, but I feel like in my 39 years on this planet, I have never witnessed a time when things felt so fragmented and polarized, where things are so heated that it feels like society is tearing apart at the seams. Whether it’s protesters getting shot and run over, deadly violence over face masks or the general tragedy that passes for our political system these days, I feel like we are experiencing a collective trauma response.

    When trauma is triggered, our neocortex ― the part of our brain that gives us the ability to reason, think through consequences, solve problems and take in and process new information ― becomes disengaged. We begin operating from the less evolved part of our brains: the limbic system (responsible for emotions) and the reptilian complex (responsible for survival instincts).

    When trauma is triggered, our lives may not be in actual danger, but our brains don’t know that. Our survival instinct kicks in, and we lose the ability to see nuance and see everything in black and white. Something is either threatening or it’s not. Something is either right or it’s wrong.

    When trauma is triggered, we lack the ability to take in new pieces of information, to be creative, consider different perspectives or think about long-term consequences. If our lives are being threatened, there is no time to consider any of that. You simply need to react, to fight or run away so that you can stay alive.

    When trauma is triggered, everything feels escalated even if it is not. The brain floods your body with adrenalin and cortisol, leading your muscles to tighten. You begin to feel that the next threat is around every corner. And that sort of hyper-vigilance goes against our natural resiliency.

    A Black/white worldview. An inability to see nuance. Struggling to think about long-term strategy. Being unable to consider different pieces of information.

    Sound familiar?

    And it’s happening on all sides.

    I believe that Trump is an incredibly traumatized individual who has not had any opportunity for real healing. And him acting out of a place of trauma is waking up the trauma of a lot of his followers and supporters.

    And in movement spaces, activists are constantly facing militarized police violence and having conversations about historical trauma ― oftentimes in unskillful ways that open up trauma but do not help move through them.

    And then we hit the streets, and it’s trauma meeting trauma. And that is not an interaction conducive to healing.

    Preparing for nonviolent action should include learning emotional regulation tools and committing to learn about our own triggers and heal from our own wounds.

    Spaces for nonviolent direct action can be intense, scary and easily trigger a trauma response. And yet, those spaces are critically important right now to push for change. Our responses to violence and injustice have to match the escalation that it is responding to. And we are responding to incredibly escalated forms of harm. Nothing short of a direct confrontation with the systems of power feels appropriate.

    So how do we engage in those spaces in a way that is likely to bring about healing? How do we not meet trauma with trauma, panic with panic, fire with fire? How do we build movements that can tactically “shut down” a highway, while leading with a spirit of “opening up” possibilities for healing and transformation?

    Study trauma

    Racial justice advocate and healer Victor Lee Lewis says that every activist needs to have some understanding of neuroscience and how trauma works in the body. In addition to classic literature on nonviolence strategies such as Gene Sharp’s “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” or Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” we should also be studying books like “My Grandmother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakin, “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk and “The Politics of Trauma” by Staci Haines.

    Names like Peter Levine and Brené Brown should be as commonly spoken in organizing circles as Grace Lee Boggs or Leonard Peltier.

    This nation is undergoing a collective trauma response. Trauma, whether it is manifesting in one individual or in a collective, will exhibit the same characteristics, and will require similar strategies to heal. The more we can understand the dynamics of trauma, the better position we will be in to help us move through it.

    Move through trauma

    Preparing our communities for nonviolent action should not only consist of the traditional “nonviolence” training methodologies ― blockades, medic training, legal observation, etc. It should also include learning emotional regulation tools in the short term, and a long-term commitment for each of us to learn about our own triggers and heal from our own wounds.

    Gandhi spoke of the importance of “self-purification” as part of the spiritual preparation for a satyagrahi ― a nonviolent warrior. The language of “trauma healing” did not exist in his time, but part of our emotional and spiritual preparation as we get ready to face potentially traumatic events (getting tear gassed, pepper sprayed, assaulted and arrested) should be to have some awareness of how much unprocessed pain, grief or resentment we are holding, and releasing enough of it so that we are heading into the streets with spaciousness in our hearts.

    Emotions like grief and rage are not only natural, but critical for us to honor and embody. And yet, I can’t help but feel that direct action ― with the yelling, the tear gas, the public and fast-paced nature of these spaces ― is not the most productive or safe space for us to be releasing unprocessed grief and rage.

    Instead, we need to be creating more safe containers, held by experienced facilitators, that are explicitly designed for the purpose of tending to our grief and our rage. Once we have processed them and moved through them, the raging inferno of emotions can settle into a piece of charcoal: sustained, concentrated energy that is easier for us to utilize in skillful ways.

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    This is in no way to cast judgement on the outpouring of grief and rage in the streets. Particularly for marginalized communities, each instance of injustice can recall generations of violence for which the state that perpetuated them has never been accountable.

    This in only an invitation for us to think hard about the right spaces to do the right work. Not every space can be everything for everyone in every moment. Direct action should be a place where we are inviting society to look at its trauma, not a place where we should feel safe processing our own pains.

    Of course, moving through and processing our trauma is long-term work. In the meantime, nonviolence trainings should also emphasize short-term emotional regulation tools, like learning to bring awareness to our triggers, breathing or titration exercises or collective activities like singing. These practices can help us reengage our neocortex in a heated moment.

    Shutting it down vs. opening it up

    Finally, we need to be intentional about the purpose of our actions. Is it to simply overpower the “other side” and force change down their throats, or is our long-term goal to bring about social healing, transformation and liberation for all?

    Are we simply trying to “shut shit down,” or are we trying to open up this nation’s wounds and clean out the infections of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism and other forms of separation and domination so that we can all heal?

    If it is the latter, then let us be mindful of what kinds of actions may lead to healing. How do we balance the power and assertiveness that we so desperately need in these times, and maintain a commitment to the love and relationships that will bring about healing?

    Previous Coverage
  • The urgency of slowing down
  • While I certainly do not have all of the answers, I oftentimes think about the power of silent marches, meditation blockades, or actions of spiritual atonement like the Reparations Procession that is currently making its daily walks through the East Bay.

    When I was at Standing Rock, the elders told us, as we were preparing to go to town to engage in a direct action, “Remember, you are going to a ceremony.” What kind of creative actions could we think up if we viewed direct action as ceremony, or a modality of healing collective trauma? What possibilities could be opened up then?

    In order for us to have that level of creativity, we cannot be in our trauma state. Trauma is not conducive to creative thinking. Which brings us to another paradox of these times ― how do we slow down enough so that we can fully utilize our neocortex and listen to our hearts while addressing the real urgency and opportunity of this moment?

    I suppose it can start with something as simple as a breath. As the Rev. René August once said, “The struggle for justice is a marathon, not a sprint. The difference between a marathon and a sprint is in how you breath. Learn to breath.”

    What the movement to defund police can learn from Baltimore’s corrupt gun task force

    “I Got A Monster” is a page turner that’s as hard to put down as it is disturbing. What’s more, it could not be more relevant to our times. Through extensive reporting, authors Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg show that repressive police tactics — like throwing civilians into unmarked cars and fabricating and planting evidence — are more than recent national news topics. They have been used for years against Black communities. 

    Immaculately researched, the authors use court documents, wiretaps, interviews, and body camera footage to recreate the unraveling of one of the greatest police scandals of our lifetime: the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force, or GTTF.  “I Got A Monster” examines in graphic and horrific detail how an elite police squad got away with robbing, stealing and framing civilians under the color of law for years, while facing few consequences.

    Woods and Soderberg provide insight into why there’s a growing movement that’s dissatisfied with so-called reform like police body cameras — and wants systemic change instead. The book leaves you with little reason to expect that the removal of rogue police will result in serious change, when leadership turns a blind eye to their behavior for years. The story unfolds in Baltimore, where the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 and a subsequent uprising put Baltimore’s Police Department in the national spotlight, highlighting the deep disparities and racist treatment police have inflicted on Black residents for decades. 

    I recently spoke to the authors, starting off by talking about the global Black Lives Matter rebellion against racism that has changed the conversation around policing in a significant way. 

    What lessons can the movement take from “I Got A Monster,” and Baltimore — a city where many liberal reforms were implemented (i.e. body cameras) but police corruption still ran rampant?

    Baynard: The book is a portrait of a post-uprising American city and in that regard, it offers a lot of lessons for the current moment. In reporting on the GTTF, we learned that, at least certain factions within police departments will do everything possible to thwart reform. It’s one of the reasons that the Obama-era reforms aren’t enough. We can’t act as if the police squads are neutral actors who will go along with political directives. They are an anti-reform, counterinsurgency. In a recent story for the Washington Post, we laid out the ways that these attempts to thwart reform resulted in more violence in the city. The response of the GTTF to minimal reforms, should spur people to think more creatively about how to live without police. 

    Brandon: Because of Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, the Department of Justice was in Baltimore doing a civil rights investigation into the Baltimore Police Department at the same time that the police in our book were running wild, robbing people, stealing drugs, dealing drugs and more. So that’s some serious federal oversight that still wasn’t able to expose cops running a criminal enterprise in the department. That’s a pretty strong case for the limits of reform, you know? And now we’re facing a moment where the federal government is not even providing the veneer of reform but rather, sending in goon squads to create violence. And most police departments are glad to see feds coming in and creating more chaos like this. They’re fine with it because it’s just an even more aggressive version of the policing already happening. 

    One of the strongest arguments opponents of the defunding the police have is that police keep the public safe, which is what Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force was tasked with doing — keeping guns off the street in one of America’s deadliest cities. Did the GTTF fulfill its mission?

    Baynard: If you define the mission as “keeping people safe” the answer is obviously no. The murder rate was at a historic high while they rampaged through the city. But if their mission was to exact social control, using the war on guns, instead of a war on drugs, to do that, then the answer is “yes, they absolutely fulfilled their mission.” GTTF Sgt. Wayne Jenkins and his crew got a lot of guns off the street — but that doesn’t do a lot to actually keep the city safer. For years, BPD have been letting people go if you can get them a gun. It’s mostly just statistically driven bullshit that allows them to do what they want. And every time the GTTF stole drugs, without making an arrest, they disrupted the street economy and created violence rather than solving it. 

    Brandon: Seizing guns doesn’t do much to stop crime. We discussed this in a New York Times op-ed. The strategy by Baltimore Police as the drug war became an apparent failure even to cops was to shift to focusing on guns. The war on guns repeated the problems of the war on drugs in a lot of ways, down to the obsession with numbers and seizures. Just as we all know when you see a bunch of cocaine seized that it won’t make a dent in the market because there’s more kilos coming in, you know that when you see a bunch of guns on a table, it won’t make a dent because there are so many guns being sold and passed around. So the strategy of the GTTF — to seize guns to curb crime — even if they were doing their job “legitimately,” was unsuccessful.

    One of the key demands of the defunding the police movement is providing more resources for community-based violence prevention programs like Nonviolence Chicago, and Safe Streets Baltimore. Researchers at Johns Hopkins found Safe Streets reduced homicides by 56 percent in one neighborhood, making it one of Baltimore’s most-effective violence reduction tools. What was the relationship between GTTF and Safe Streets?

    Baynard: We just had a story in the Intercept about two cases where GTTF targeted Safe Streets workers. These “elite, proactive” police squads and organizations like Safe Streets that use a Cure Violence approach to violence interruption model are dealing with the same populations — the people who are most likely to shoot. Violence interrupters know a lot about what is happening in their communities and so police often hit them for information. When they won’t give it, they become targets themselves. For police squads, this is good PR — and helps undermine organizations that are active competitors for funding. We’re likely to see this get worse as the calls to shift funds from police to other models intensifies. 

    Previous Coverage
  • Community peacemakers in Chicago offer a proven alternative to policing
  • Brandon: Safe Streets was launched in Baltimore in 2007 the same year the Gun Trace Task Force police unit was created. In a sense both were founded on similar ideas: “Targeting” specific people who are known for committing acts of gun violence and trying to prevent that or slow it down at least. Safe Streets did it through mediation, GTTF did it through investigation. So right there, you see two different tracks Baltimore could have gone. The city of course went with empowering cops rather than mediators. You also see why GTTF disliked Safe Streets: It was trying to engage the people GTTF just wanted to put in jail.

    Talk of “community policing” would have us believe the approach of the police and the approach of violence interrupters for example is not necessarily incompatible but what we’ve seen is that police want total control over the crime fight and see any other way of reducing crime or helping people as an affront to what they do. 

    Some of the most harrowing scenes in your book take place during the Baltimore uprising, sparked by the death of 25-year-old Baltimore resident Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015. How has today’s movement been informed by the 2015 uprising, and the lessons of the GTTF?

    Brandon: Among the events that happened during the Baltimore Uprising is that on April 27, the day that there was rioting, the GTTF’s Sgt. Jenkins was robbing people who came out of pharmacies with looted drugs. He then took those drugs to a friend who sold them. That’s an extreme example but you see in that example, how cops will take advantage of unrest.

    And then there are the cops as a whole who claimed protests damaged morale so they “slowed down” in response (essentially, as we said in the Washington Post, leveraging violence against citizens to stop reforms). Basically they used the post-uprising moment to garner support and seize power. There was no reflection by police in Baltimore after the city was on the verge of a revolution. Only that they needed to make sure that they kept that revolutionary energy squashed. So one lesson would be, “realize cops don’t want change” and the other lesson would be, “refuse to let the propaganda machine police engage in post-uprising become the prevailing narrative.”

    Robbery gear found in Sgt. Jenkins’ car. (U.S. Attorney’s Office)

    Baynard: We tried really hard to capture the atmosphere for Baltimore as a post-uprising city where police acted as a counterinsurgency. And I think there are a lot of lessons in that, starting with the fact that a lot of violence attributed to the community was actually caused by the police. In 2015, the Baltimore police commissioner attributed a spike in crime to the drugs looted from pharmacies. We now know that at least some of those drugs were stolen and sold by GTTF Sgt. Wayne Jenkins. 

    GTTF destroyed numerous lives in the process, including accused drug dealers, who were left with little recourse. Why was it important for you to uplift their stories?

    Baynard: The press has done a really bad job at covering the drug war and the related war on guns that we’ve let it morph into. When citizens were arrested by GTTF members, if the press covered it at all, it was mostly reporting the police side of the story. Reporters love documents and police departments produce them. Drug dealers and alleged drug dealers don’t. So there has been a role that we have all played in helping the state carry out a war on its citizens by being too credible when it comes to official sources. Though reporters like to present themselves as “objective” they were no more neutral in this war than any other. The press clearly took sides. GTTF made that painfully obvious.

    Brandon: It was important to tell these people’s stories because these people’s stories were ignored for so long—and they should be heard. So that’s part of telling these stories for us: To correct the record. To expose these cops and also show you that plenty of working people tried to expose them for years. A book, especially ours which has lots of cross-cutting and allows you to encounter characters and catch up with them later, is a good vehicle for presenting the long-term effects of police corruption on citizens. Most importantly, these people were telling the truth about police for years. So they have the insight into policing that the whole country craves right now. You wanna understand American policing? Listen to the people being overpoliced, listen to the people, like the people in our book, who had their lives ruined by police. 

    In a recent New York Times op-ed a former cop turned professor argues if progressives want to change policing, they should join the force. What’s your response to such arguments?

    Baynard: L-o-fucking-l. Brandon already made a lot of good jokes about this, so I’ll leave that to him. But it misdiagnoses the problem with policing and the way that it not only destroys our communities but it also destroys cops.  

    For a lot of the people in our book, what the police did to them was only the beginning.

    Brandon: This idea that people who want to make change should join up with the thing they want changed and make a difference from within is generally naive (it’s also a cynical placating tactic). But that’s especially [true] with this argument because there’s just such a vast difference of influence between the institution that is bad and the individual in that institution who may or may not be bad. The only way an individual cop could maybe change policing would be if they moved through the ranks and eventually had some kind of command position. Then maybe — maybe — they could influence policing in their own department. That would take years or even a decade and they’d face a lot of opposition from the other cops. So even if you buy into this argument that an armada of good cops entering departments all around the country to change them over a few years or a decade or more makes sense, it’s just not efficient. Solutions like defunding or abolishment — or even basic reforms — are ones that politicians could if they wanted to, introduce tomorrow.

    In your view, are there changes or reforms that would actually have prevented the GTTF corruption scandal? 

    Baynard: They were able to get away with what they did because we shield police officers. There is no simple solution, but eliminating Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which gives cops a whole separate set of legal protections, is a start. 

    Brandon: That a police officer’s Internal Affairs files are protected in Maryland or that body camera footage is selectively released by the department (and always contextualized by police so you see what they want you to see) are part of the reason why these cops got away with so much. Anything resembling oversight regarding cops lying or stealing or beating people up would have meant at the least, three of these cops (Wayne Jenkins, Daniel Hersl, Jemell Rayam) would have no longer been in the department by the time they all came together in one squad. So that basic oversight could have helped prevent this. But again, what the GTTF story shows is that the basic tenets of policing are the problem. Police are not reform-able.  

    You spend a lot of time looking at the role that Baltimore’s chief prosecutor, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby played in enabling GTTF’s crimes. Why is it important for progressive movements to focus on the role prosecutors play in relation to police abuse? And are there examples of positive models of change movements can reference?

    Brandon: Those critiques of Mosby in the book come from defense attorneys who had been trying to tell the State’s Attorney’s Office about these dirty cops for years. Through court scenes where you see prosecutors from Mosby’s office overlooking or ignoring damning body worn camera footage or being either oblivious — or playing dumb — to certain officers’ lengthy internal affairs files, you get a sense of how this is bigger than a police problem.

    Prosecutors and judges assist in the corruption. And for a lot of the people in our book, what the police did to them was only the beginning. They were then put in jail or prison, called liars by prosecutors, and not believed by judges. For some that was even worse because the nightmare that began when these cops rolled up on them or kidnapped them kept getting worse as they moved through the system.

    I guess I’m supposed to talk up progressive prosecutors as how change can happen but I’m suspicious of that idea. Our book shows that it is defense attorneys that everyone should listen to about dirty cops. They’re the positive models of change in my opinion.

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    Baynard: Ivan Bates, one of our main characters ran against her and so he certainly thought a lot about what he saw as her missteps. But it is the every day decisions that nearly all prosecutors make to believe police officers and not to believe defendants that really help keep this corruption from coming to light. We see it clearly when Bates has body cam footage that shows GTTF breaking into the house of his client — a Safe Streets worker — and neither the prosecutor or the judge want to hear it. But when Bates starts his campaign, his role in the book also shifts and the public defenders like Deborah Levi begin to play the role he played earlier in the book. 

    Look, prosecutors prosecute people so I don’t have a lot of faith that prosecutors will end up being some kind of heroes. But if you read Emily Bazelon’s great book “Charged” about the rise of “progressive prosecutors,” it shows the very real differences that reform can have on people’s lives — and makes it clear that Mosby, despite her decision to charge the cops in the Freddie Gray case, falls more comfortably within the old law and order school of prosecutor than among the more progressive prosecutors she’s often lumped in with.

    After a big win against coal, NY climate activists are closer than ever to ending all fossil fuel investments

    When New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli announced last month that the state would divest its over $200 billion Common Retirement Fund from more than 20 coal companies, it marked an important milestone for a grassroots campaign that has seen a recent burst of new momentum. In an op-ed published on July 12, DiNapoli stated, “After a thorough assessment, the fund has divested from 22 thermal coal mining companies that are not prepared to thrive, or even survive, in the low-carbon economy.”

    This victory is thanks to a near decade-long effort by activists who have been pressuring New York to divest from the companies most responsible for causing the climate crisis. A surge in youth-led activism has brought new energy to this campaign, putting pressure on both the comptroller’s office and state legislators. While New York still has not ended its investments in oil and gas companies, DiNapoli’s decision to divest from coal shows climate activists are having a real impact on one of the largest state pension funds in the United States.

    Building a grassroots campaign

    The New York fossil fuel divestment campaign began in earnest in 2012, at a time when calls for public institutions to shed investments in coal, oil and gas corporations were sweeping the nation. A student-led divestment movement that began at Swarthmore College a couple years earlier was being amplified by national climate groups like 350.org, which saw divestment as an effective way to challenge the fossil fuel industry’s grip on political power. The movement soon spread to churches, private foundations and local governments.

    Previous Coverage
  • How a new generation of climate activists is reviving fossil fuel divestment and gaining victories
  • Today, more than a thousand institutions across the United States and the world — including colleges and universities, local governments, faith organizations and foundations — have committed to divest a total of over $14 trillion from some or all fossil fuel companies. However, getting state pension funds on board has been more difficult. While states like Massachusetts and Hawaii have seen divestment campaigns gain traction, they have not yet committed to ending their fossil fuel investments. California’s State Teachers’ Retirement System and Public Employees’ Retirement System have divested from coal only.

    In New York, activists have argued since 2012 that divestment should be part of the state’s response to the climate crisis — often pointing to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and coastal communities’ vulnerability to rising sea levels. However, for years divestment proposals have made little headway despite other encouraging wins for the fight against fossil fuels.

    In 2015, responding to a years-long public pressure campaign, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration banned the toxic practice of natural gas fracking — making New York the first state with significant gas reserves to do so. (In April this year, legislators codified this executive action into law.) At the local level, New York City announced its largest pension funds would divest from fossil fuels in 2018. The city has also enacted climate policies that include a law requiring large buildings reduce their carbon emissions 40 percent by 2030.

    “New York prides itself on being ahead of the curve on climate. With divestment we’re pushing them to live up to that reputation.”

    At the same time, however, state-level legislative action on climate in New York was stalled for years by the Independent Democratic Caucus, a group of conservative Democratic legislators who joined with Republicans to kill progressive legislation. When the 2018 primaries swept most caucus members out of office, climate groups saw a chance to make real progress. Sure enough, in June 2019 the legislature passed one of the most aggressive climate plans in the country, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The law is designed to put New York’s entire economy on a path to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

    Successes like this raised climate activists’ hopes that a win on divestment might be possible. “It doesn’t make sense to invest in fossil fuels when New York has to reach carbon neutrality by mid-century,” said Rochester high school student Bridget Mousaw of New York Youth Climate Leaders, or NY2CL. “It’s completely illogical to put money into in an industry we know needs to be dismantled in the next 30 years.”

    Accordingly, New York climate activists have rallied behind the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act, a bill introduced by State Sen. Liz Krueger and Assembly Assistant Speaker Félix W. Ortiz. A legislative approach seemed necessary, because Comptroller DiNapoli had so far been unwilling to take substantive unilateral action on divestment. DiNapoli has argued the state should instead use its status as a shareholder to advocate fossil fuel companies change their behavior — an approach climate groups are skeptical will work. Last year, ExxonMobil stymied a shareholder resolution supported by DiNapoli that would have required the oil company to reduce its carbon footprint.

    “New York prides itself on being ahead of the curve on climate,” said Natalie Penna, an NY2CL coordinator for the Albany area. “With divestment we’re pushing them to live up to that reputation.”

    Nevertheless, despite acting to curb New York’s own carbon emissions, the legislature at first proved reluctant to divest from the industry that has done more than any other to cause the climate crisis in the first place. To change this, activists knew they would need to increase public pressure.

    A youth movement takes shape

    On Feb. 28, high school students in Rochester, New York rallied outside the office of State Assembly member Harry Bronson, calling on him and other legislators to support a bill mandating the comptroller’s office divest from all fossil fuel companies. The demonstration was one of several occurring across the state in communities, including Kingston, Long Island and New York City.

    By adopting a two-pronged strategy of engaging both the state comptroller’s office and legislators, divestment activists won a major victory against the coal industry.

    “The logic of divestment is easy to understand,” said NY2CL Executive Director Hridesh Singh, whose group organized the day of action. “Companies like ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell are fueling the destruction of the climate, and fossil fuel stocks are underperforming because of the success of renewables. By having money invested in those industries, you’re failing your duty to stockholders and fueling the climate crisis.”

    Singh had long been concerned about climate change and helped launch a climate club at his school in Rochester. However, he was inspired to bring his involvement to the next level on Sept. 20 last year, when a quarter of a million people marched in New York City as part of a global day of action organized by the Fridays for Future climate strike movement. Singh attended with some Rochester friends. “It made me want to take my activism onto a bigger stage than just my local area,” he said.

    In November 2019, Singh and other students from around the state formally launched New York Youth Climate Leaders. The organization now includes college, high school, middle school and a few elementary school students from all over the state. In January they began focusing their efforts on divestment, partnering with the existing coalition of climate groups working on the issue called Divest New York.

    “One of our organization’s biggest successes has been collaborating with Divest New York,” said Anna Cerosaletti, another Rochester NY2CL leader. “They’ve allowed us to meet adult allies who have helped us throughout our journey. What we’ve brought to the partnership is a lot of energetic youth who are hyped to help out with the campaign.”

    NY2CL organized to support the divestment bill through actions like the Feb. 28 day of protests, as well as meetings between students and their individual representatives. Although frustrating at times, these interactions have helped the divestment bill slowly gain traction. “Even if you’re talking with a politician who doesn’t believe climate change is an issue, it’s important to understand where they’re coming from,” Singh said. “Then you see if you can try to move them a little bit in the right direction.”

    Winning new support

    On April 21, about 150 young people and supporters from all over New York met with their state legislators as part of a lobby day organized by NY2CL. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the organization had planned to hold in-person meetings in the lead up this year’s Earth Day, but having to move online didn’t stop them from moving forward. It may even have resulted in increased participation.

    Previous Coverage
  • For climate activists, coronavirus lockdown means more time to organize
  • “In some ways it’s been easier working online,” Cerosaletti said. “We have people scattered all over the state. Going online, we’ve been able to talk to legislators who students normally wouldn’t be able to travel to meet with.”

    The lobbying effort continued through the spring, with local organizing leads around the state coordinating communication with legislators. As a result, the Divestment Act is now only one vote away from majority support in the New York Senate, and a handful away from passage in the Assembly. Pushback has come from certain unions who have a close relationship with the comptroller’s office, including New York’s police union. Other organizations, like the Working Families Party and Albany County Central Federation of Labor, support the Divestment Act.

    Even as climate activists continue working to increase support in the legislature, their efforts indirectly put pressure on DiNapoli’s office. If the Divestment Act passes, it would force the comptroller to take action according to the legislature’s timeline — something DiNapoli could avoid by getting out in front of the issue. “As more legislators sign onto the bill, DiNapoli will feel more pressure to support divestment himself,” Mousaw said.

    In January 2019, DiNapoli announced his office would review its investments in over two dozen coal companies — including four that the comptroller later determined had adequate plans in place for shifting their business models away from the fuel. Last month’s announcement that the state will divest from the remaining 22 companies marks the culmination of its assessment of the coal industry.

    DiNapoli’s July 12 op-ed stated that the comptroller is also reviewing its investments in tar sands extraction companies, and that “we will follow that with assessments of other industries that are at high risk from climate change, including other companies in the energy, utility and transportation sectors.”

    According to a December 2019 news release from Sen. Krueger’s office, New York’s investments in the oil and gas industry include $133 million in Shell Oil and more than $1 billion in ExxonMobil. NY2CL and the Divest New York coalition plan to continue pushing for divestment from all fossil fuels, engaging both legislators and the comptroller’s office.

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    “Our main strategy has been focused on legislation because DiNapoli has been so strident in his opposition to full divestment,” Singh said. “But legislative momentum also pushes the comptroller to take action. He probably wouldn’t have divested from coal if we hadn’t gotten nearly 100 legislators signed onto the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act.”

    By adopting a two-pronged strategy of engaging both the state comptroller’s office and legislators, NY2CL and Divest New York won a major victory against the coal industry and are closer than ever to ending the state’s investments in all fossil fuel companies. Now they plan to keep pressuring lawmakers to support the Divestment Act — and if DiNapoli decides preemptively to shed the retirement fund’s oil and gas investments in the meantime, so much the better.

    “We’re in the final stretch to get a majority of legislators signed onto the bill,” Cerosaletti said. “We’ve proven that with effective organizing we can get the support of more lawmakers and win victories. Now we need to keep lobbying.”

    We need a plan to prevent a Trump takeover — and this anti-coup research shows the way

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    I’m hearing a range of views on the likelihood of President Donald Trump refusing to leave office if Joe Biden wins in November. Some don’t believe that even the reckless Trump would go that far, no matter how messed up mail-in ballots become and how close the vote is. Others point out that Trump has surprised observers again and again with bizarre behavior, doubling down even on nonsense regarding COVID-19. And he’s stated numerous times his envy of other heads of state who’ve been appointed president for life.

    Fortunately, we needn’t agree that a Trump coup attempt is likely in order to prepare for the possibility. We can think of it like insuring a house, not because it’s likely to catch on fire but “just in case.”

    Actually, a plan against a coup is better than insurance, as it can reduce the chance that we’ll face a coup attempt. The better prepared we are to counter it, the more likely that wiser heads in the Trump camp will realize that a coup is futile, and not attempt it.

    In July the well-known Harvard civil resistance researcher Erica Chenoweth joined two colleagues, Maria J. Stephan and Candace Rondeaux, in urging that democracy-loving Americans prepare for a possible “November surprise.”

    There are many aspects to preparation, and they include developing an overall strategy, a handy list of tactics that are mutually supportive and a communication network. It will help to train as many as possible because at a time of crisis, people look to the “early responders” for a way forward.

    The more that preparation is informed by research, the better. Donald Trump may scorn evidence-based conclusions, but most of us actually believe rationality is a good thing. Fortunately, some researchers have already found out how people in other countries handled coup attempts.

    In 2003, Bruce Jenkins worked with nonviolence studies founder Gene Sharp to analyze the most important features of successful defenses against a coup. The authors suggested specific preparations activists and social institutions can make ahead of time to be ready.

    In 2011, writer-activist Richard K. Taylor, who served on Martin Luther King Jr.’s national staff, wrote a research-based manual for trainers wanting to help groups in a possible pre-coup situation.

    Most recently, in 2017, political scientist Stephen Zunes studied 12 attempted coups around the world since 1958 and found that eight were defeated by nonviolent resistance. He then examined what made the difference between those eight victories and the four where the people lost.

    Altogether, the research shows that the best strategies are the ones that make the most of our strengths and the opponent’s weaknesses. At the same time, it’s clear that we also need to fix our own weaknesses, if we can, and get ready to handle the strengths of the opponent.

    What we have going for us

    We’ve recently seen enormous numbers of people in motion: Black Lives Matter, action for climate justice, the immigrant rights movement, the movement to end gun violence, teachers and other workers’ strikes, rent strikes and more. The studies of successful resistance to power grabs find that where the people won, large numbers were willing to participate in direct action. Many in the United States have already shown their readiness to act.

    Another strength we have here is that political power is not highly centralized. The federal system gives states, and even cities and towns, some flexibility. Trump unwittingly reinforced that flexibility through his irresponsibility in dealing with the pandemic. The states that wanted to had the ability to take over public health management, and many cities did as well.

    States have been stepping up in other areas. To Trump’s horror, California famously went its own way on auto pollution control measures, with other states joining it. Combinations of states are frequently in federal court on multiple issues. States and cities have defied Trump’s war on immigration.

    Previous Coverage
  • Understanding Trump’s game plan in Portland could be the key to preventing a coup in November
  • The recent Portland example — where the state intervened to get Trump to pull back federal troops — shows the usefulness of popular nonviolent pressure. Such action has the ability to motivate power centers near the grassroots to assert themselves.

    Oregon Gov. Kate Brown may have been quick to issue a statement opposing Trump’s attack, but it was grassroots pressure extending “beyond the choir” of the usual Portland street activists that enhanced her power in the subsequent negotiation. If the fires and projectiles of some protesters in front of the courthouse had been the only story, Brown’s negotiating power would have been weak or nonexistent. The larger picture was always the mass nonviolent action — as described by the mainstream media — which continued to grow as the confrontation continued.

    Even though the large influx of local white allies brought a problem as well (shifting focus away from Black Lives Matter to defending against Trump’s attack), movement growth always brings problems. In fact, the history of social movements shows that one job of movement leadership is to solve problems as they come up, confident that new problems will continue to emerge as growth continues. Bigger movements face bigger problems, and a mass revolutionary movement will face the biggest problems of all.

    While the tendency is often to complain when problems appear — and then criticize instead of solve them — life for movements is, in that way, the same as life for individuals. As author and activist adrienne maree brown might put it: power comes with learning to meet our challenges with “emergent strategy.”

    In any case, one lesson from Portland’s experience is that it can be useful, when the feds attack, that other centers of legitimate power exist. And that’s only one of many strengths movements possess.

    What’s special about a coup

    Activists are used to spotlighting problems that have been around for a while — such as fossil fuels, inadequate schools or cash bail — and developing campaigns to take them on. But it may take a while to pull the pieces together in order to wage a vigorous campaign.

    Stopping an attempted coup is not like that. Political scientist Stephen Zunes joins other scholars in finding that power grabs — whether or not they succeed — are often decided in a matter of weeks or months at the most.

    In Zunes’ study of a dozen modern cases of coup attempts, eight of the struggles were won by the people. Each win was touch-and-go because people were not prepared ahead of time to resist. They lost valuable time mobilizing actions and building alliances — two key ingredients for winning.

    In the four cases where the people lost, the mobilizing and alliance-building were too little, too late.

    The importance of preparation is why Richard K. Taylor prepared a training manual that enables any group, union or neighborhood to begin training now for the possibility that a leader will resist leaving office.

    Doing training and alliance-building ahead of time has a second use: If Trump does win the election, the workshop grads will be that much better prepared for the struggle to defeat Trump’s second-term agenda. They’ll need to shift strategies — from defense to offense — but they will still be better prepared than movements were in 2017 when Trump’s term began.

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    What else works to defeat a power grab?

    In addition to widespread participation in direct action and building alliances, Zunes found it was effective to flat-out refuse to recognize illegitimate authority. That can be difficult for many — not just politicians — whose careers have depended on their negotiation skills. They may think they can temporize and negotiate their way through the next “hard patch.”

    What works is the opposite, Zunes found. Refusing from the outset to recognize the authority of Trump’s claim to office — or the authority of anyone who answers to him — is key. The more public the refusal, the better, because it stimulates others to do likewise. For example, the immediate start of a general strike of government workers, powerful by itself, would also be a signal to everyone else to act.

    Most Americans will of course be initially surprised by an attempted coup… Bold activists will become the “first responders.”

    When? The sooner the better, because case studies suggest that coups are weakest in their first hours and days. After all, the plotters know they are taking a big chance, and they have no guarantees of success. Trump’s success depends on others complying, but will they?

    One tactic for accelerating resistance and building confidence would be to circulate a “pledge of resistance,” in which people sign on to the pledge to resist if the unexpected happens and Trump refuses to leave office. Unionized workers have an advantage: They can get a resolution of that kind passed in their union.

    That doesn’t mean Trump can only be defeated through swift action. Some coups were defeated after protracted struggle. So, a slow start is no reason to give up — it’s just simply to our advantage to act quickly.

    Most Americans will be surprised, even shocked

    Most Americans will of course be initially surprised by an attempted coup, as has been the case with Trump’s previous deviations from the norms of expected presidential behavior. Bold activists will become the “first responders.”

    Such activists are legendary for running toward disaster while others are running away. They are people who accept risk in extraordinary situations.

    In the attempted Russian coup in 1991, people climbed on the barricades and faced tanks even though they believed an attack was coming and that they might well be killed.

    Researchers agree that movement growth in response to violence is more likely the more nonviolent the movement remains.

    As Taylor noted in his manual, women linked arms and created a “sisters and mothers chain” in front of the tanks with a placard saying: “Soldiers, don’t shoot at your mothers.” Three people were killed in confrontation with the tanks. Thousands more quickly joined the nonviolent struggle and defeated the coup.

    When the French people faced a coup attempt in 1961 the workers — unlike the Russians — had independent trade unions. The French workers’ high degree of organization and experience in striking paid off: 10 million workers participated in an immediate general strike, not long enough to hurt the economy but big enough to persuade the army that it was better off not siding with the military leaders of the coup. The plotters were defeated.

    What if Trump’s forces use violence?

    In struggle after struggle a win for the people comes after the power grabbers try violence. Thailand offers one example. People there resisted a coup attempt in 1992 with public hunger strikes and major street protests of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, according to Stephen Zunes. Opposition groups quickly formed an alliance that crossed class lines.

    When half a million people nonviolently protested in Bangkok, the army tried to stop the movement’s growth with violence. Some activists responded with projectiles and started fires.

    Evidence-based knowledge shows more allies are stirred to act when we heighten the contrast between our tactics and the tactics of our opponent.

    The government then used that as an excuse to crack down more. At the next large demonstration the government upped the repression, including shooting into crowds of nonviolent demonstrators.

    As a result the movement grew: more boycotts, strikes, withdrawal of money from military-controlled banks. Other sectors of society joined in. The movement won.

    Some researchers call this phenomenon “backfire,” others call it “the paradox of repression,” but all agree that movement growth in response to violence is more likely the more nonviolent the movement remains.

    Whatever an activist’s personal code of morality about violence and property destruction is, this question is a collective and strategic one. Evidence-based knowledge shows more allies are stirred to act when we heighten the contrast between our tactics and the tactics of our opponent.

    Even though I don’t in general regard property destruction as violence, my personal definition is not what matters here. What matters is the perception of those we seek to win over to support our side. If they see the fires I set as “violence,” I’m giving them a reason not to support us. The Trumpists are delighted.

    Our opponents know that, are pleased, use it to justify increased violence, and may even win.

    The research of Zunes joins other researchers in their conclusion: nonviolent discipline is one of the predictors of success in stopping a power grab. The way a movement can maximize the chance of winning, then, is to train participants to remain nonviolent in the face of violence used against them. Training adds skills and builds courage. We’ll need all of that for the times we now live in.

    How to be punk in a pandemic

    In March, the members of War on Women were preparing to leave on tour. With a week’s notice, the Baltimore punk band’s shows were all canceled, as COVID-19 shut down venues in city after city.

    Shawna Potter is War on Women’s singer. She is also the author of “Making Spaces Safer,” a do-it-yourself guide to making music scenes and other communities more inclusive. Potter had hoped to spend much of 2020 on speaking engagements and workshops on that topic, but like the tour, those plans have evaporated, as well.

    Instead, for the next several months, she will be training workers at music venues on preventing and responding to alcohol-facilitated sexual violence. With as many as 62 percent of artists and musicians in the United States now unemployed, Potter is grateful to have the grant-funded work, though she admits that the project’s timing is a little odd.

    “It is definitely weird to reach out to places that are not open right now and may even be going out of business.” But, she said, “Now is the time for people to learn these skills. Harassment and sexual violence have not stopped, and we can use this as prep time for when things re-open.”

    Previous Coverage
  • Electing Democrats in November without confronting neoliberalism will not be enough
  • The COVID-19 pandemic marks one of the most turbulent moments in U.S. history, a simultaneous failure of political leadership, a public health crisis and a deepening economic disaster. Since May, the pandemic has also been the setting of a nationwide uprising — likely the country’s largest protest movement ever.

    For underground music, the pandemic could pose an existential threat. An estimated 90 percent of independent music venues are at risk of closing permanently, and the country’s record stores face similar uncertainty. But, for punks — and everyone else — the pandemic is also an opportunity to begin building a better post-COVID world.

    Chris Reject says everyone can do something. For nearly 20 years, Chris has run Square of Opposition Records, a punk label in Eastern Pennsylvania. Since 2008, though, most of his time has been devoted to Lehigh Valley Apparel Creations, his screen-printing company. 

    “I’m a T-shirt guy,” he said. “That’s what I know how to do. And T-shirts can raise money, signal boost and make people feel less alone in a world of monsters.”

    For years, Reject has responded to various tragedies by printing fundraising T-shirts. After the Parkland shootings, for example, he made shirts to benefit Everytown for Gun Safety. Following the election of Donald Trump, he made shirts to raise funds for Planned Parenthood, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and others.

    The COVID-19 pandemic closed Reject’s warehouse for more than two months. Shirt orders for the year are down by half, and he is not sure if the business can survive beyond August. Reject and his staff have been keeping busy, though.

    A Jesus Piece T-shirt made by Lehigh Valley Apparel Creations (Facebook/Chris Reject)

    In the last two months, they have screened free masks for Black Lives Matter marches and thousands of fundraising shirts for Jesus Piece, Iron Chic and a dozen other bands and artists. Together, Reject estimates the shirts have raised $50,000 for causes including Reclaim the Block, the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, Erase Racism and the LGBTQ Freedom Fund.

    Reject is happy to be doing work behind the scenes. “Look, I’m a heteronormative, cisgender white dude. I should not be up front,” he said. “But I can be a cog in the wheel. This spotlight is for other people, but I can help them get it.”

    Reject says that punk, especially right now, needs to be an act of defiance, not just a smaller version of the music industry. “There are a lot of eyes being opened for the first time, and we need them to stay open,” he said. “Punk can help stoke the fires. It can keep people angry, and it can empower them.”

    But to do so, punks will have to be creative. All-ages clubs, like Salt Lake City’s Beehive Collective, Seattle’s Vera Project, and Berkeley, California’s famed 924 Gilman, have long been the lifeblood of punk rock — places where young people can hear music, interact and exchange ideas. Their doors are now closed. Under the banner of #SaveOurStages, venue owners are trying to pressure Congress to provide relief, but they are only a few of the many small businesses scrambling for donations to keep their bills paid.

    924 Gilman, which has been run primarily by youth volunteers since 1986, raised more than $8,000 during a virtual event that coupled home performances by bands like Thick and Mom Jeans with archival footage of classic punk bands Fugazi, MDC and Operation Ivy. While not an ideal concert experience, the event did bring people together, and the funds will hopefully keep the club afloat. In the meantime, Gilman volunteers are furthering the club’s mission in whatever ways they can. In July, they hosted a virtual “Pride Prom” show to benefit The Okra Project, which provides home-cooked meals to Black trans people experiencing food insecurity.

    Finding ways to contribute can be overwhelming, even for a long-time activist like Shawna Potter, who says she felt “powerless” when protests began sweeping the country. “Obviously, none of my experience was under these circumstances.” She thought, “What can I do if I don’t feel comfortable marching right now and I don’t just want to post articles on social media?”

    As the social impacts of the protest wave became more apparent, Potter realized that many white Americans were discovering systematic racism for the first time — and that they had some awkward questions. She didn’t think that answering them should be the exclusive burden of people of color. So she ultimately decided to offer free consultations “for white people who want to become better allies to Black people.” 

    “I’ve been where a lot of folks are right now,” she said. “I wanted to give people the opportunity to put their foot in their mouth, without judgment — and I would support them and help move them to the other side.” Potter says that learning is a constant process — for everyone. “I’m not saying I’m perfect,” she continued. “Every white person in America is racist and always will be — and will always have to work for anti-racism. And it is work.”

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    Punk rock has work to do, too, she says. “Everyone deserves equal access to a good time. If you’re going to tout yourself as a genre for the outcasts, as something welcoming and tolerant, then you better do the work to make sure that’s true.”

    Potter says that it matters who is on stage. From the DIY spaces to the bigger clubs, headlining bands in particular have an obligation to “make sure it’s not a strictly white, cis-gender bill.” She says that there is no excuse for that in 2020 or whenever the shows resume.

    Young people and punks are not the only people who are feeling angry, frustrated and worried right now. But, Potter said, “We can change the world. We can do it ourselves. We don’t need cops. We just need each other.”

    Even amidst global tragedy, there are openings to bring more people into the fold, to support one another and to work together for a better future.

    Unlike the pandemic, nuclear war can be stopped before it begins

    Nuclear weapons have been posing a threat to humanity for 75 years — ever since the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

    These days, our focus is understandably on the COVID-19 virus and the threat it poses to human life. But as we commemorate the anniversary of these bombings, it is important to acknowledge that unlike the coronavirus, nuclear weapons can only be remediated with prevention. Millions of people could be killed if a single nuclear bomb were detonated over a large city, and the added threats of radiation and retaliation could endanger all life on Earth.

    As political and socioeconomic instabilities grow, the risk of nuclear conflicts and even a global nuclear war is growing by the day. In fact, the world’s nuclear-armed countries spent a record $73 billion on their arsenal of weapons of mass destruction last year, almost half of that sum represented by the United States, followed by China. Mobilizing global action for the abolition of nuclear weapons — to safeguard health, justice and peace — is more important now than ever.

    “When societies become more unstable, all forms of violence become more likely,” says Rick Wayman, CEO of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. “We, as individuals and as humanity, must overcome the root causes that have led to the past 75 years of nuclear weapons [development]. Absent this, we will continue to have national leaders that cling to nuclear weapons.”

    Previous Coverage
  • What will it take to ban the bomb?
  • The dangerous choice that is still being made by some government leaders of nuclear-armed nations has been threatening the world’s population for decades. But the global health threat presented by nuclear war can be stopped before it begins. And the way to do it is through the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or TPNW, which has been the focal point of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

    The road to nuclear disarmament

    Today, nine countries possess nuclear weapons — the United States, China, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea — and it is estimated that they possess almost 15,000 nuclear warheads in total. Yet another report shows that 22 countries currently have one kilogram or more of weapons-usable nuclear materials, compared to 32 nations six years ago.

    On July 7, 2017, the TPNW was adopted by the United Nations as a multilateral, legally-binding instrument for nuclear disarmament. However, the treaty will only enter into force and prohibit the development, testing and use of nuclear weapons worldwide once 50 nations have signed and ratified it. That’s what the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, is working hard to achieve.

    Meet the people behind the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, who are taking big steps toward a global ban on such weapons (Flickr/Ari Beser/ICAN).

    ICAN is a coalition of non-governmental organizations in over 100 countries that won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for its efforts to achieve a global nuclear weapons ban treaty. They have been working to raise public awareness about the catastrophic consequences of weapons of mass destruction, while persuading decision-makers and mobilizing citizens to pressure their governments to sign and ratify the TPNW — a treaty that they have managed to bring forward after years of advocacy meetings at the United Nations and in national parliaments.

    Daniel Högsta, ICAN’s campaign coordinator, says the TPNW is “the most promising new vehicle for changing attitudes and the political status quo around nuclear weapons.” He adds that residents and leaders of cities and towns “have a special responsibility and obligation to speak out on this issue” for nuclear disarmament, given that these places are the main targets of nuclear attacks.

    ICAN developed a Cities Appeal initiative and a #ICANSave online campaign, to encourage local authorities to lead the way in supporting the treaty, building momentum for national governments to sign and ratify it. This is usually done through council resolutions, official statement or press releases from municipal authorities communicating their support for the global ban treaty, sometimes including nuclear weapons divestment commitments.

    “We have been very excited by the positive responses from cities all around the world,” Högsta said. “We have just surpassed 300 cities and towns that have joined [the ICAN appeal], which includes municipalities of all sizes, from huge metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Berlin, Sydney, Paris and Toronto, to small but nevertheless committed towns.”

    These steps are not only fast tracking the success of the TPNW, explains Högsta, but it is also challenging the assumption that local politicians cannot influence foreign policy decisions. In the United States, for example, many city leaders have joined the ICAN appeal and committed to divest public pension funds from nuclear weapons companies, although President Trump has not yet shown the same interest.

    The humanitarian appeal

    The ruins of central Hiroshima after the nuclear attack in 1945. (U.S. National Archives)

    The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were completely destroyed by the nuclear bombs dropped over Japan, which killed more than 200,000 people immediately and injured countless others. Those who survived suffered long-term health effects such as cancers and chronic diseases due to the exposure to radiation. Yet their story remains very much alive.

    Some hibakusha people — survivors of the atomic bombings from 75 years ago — have partnered with ICAN to share their testimonies and make sure the world does not forget about the catastrophic consequences of nuclear conflicts. Setsuko Thurlow, one of the survivors and an anti-nuclear activist, has been sending letters to government leaders worldwide to encourage them to join the TPNW. She sent a letter to Donald Trump last month.

    Doctors around the world have also been warning about the dreadful consequences of potential nuclear conflicts amid the coronavirus pandemic, given that health professionals and facilities are already overwhelmed. A recent study showed that a limited nuclear exchange between just two countries, like India and Pakistan, would be enough to cause a global disaster in food production and natural ecosystems. That’s why these weapons must not be used and countries should commit to banning them once and for all, before irreversible damage to humanity and the planet is done.

    Fortunately, this is close to being achieved. Chuck Johnson, director of nuclear programs at the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, ICAN’s founding organization, says that 82 nations have already signed the TPNW and 40 have ratified it. That means only 10 more ratifications are needed for the global ban treaty to enter into force.

    The world has never been so close to abolishing nuclear weapons and there’s hope this may be achieved by the end of this year. After all, the pandemic is teaching government leaders about the need to put humanity at the center of security plans.

    The role of peace education

    The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation is a partner organization of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Yet their focus has been on training people in peace literacy.

    Wayman says that to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons — and free of other serious problems such as wars, mass shootings, racism and sexism — we need to look at the root causes of why our society continues to embrace these forms of violence. And it all comes down to non-physical human needs, such as belonging, self-worth and transcendence. “If people can’t find healthy ways of fulfilling them, they will find unhealthy ways,” Wayman said.

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    He believes that peace literacy can give people “the tools they need to recognize, address and heal the root causes of these serious problems plaguing societies around the world.” That is crucial because if people do not confront the root causes of violence and engage in healthy and peaceful relations with themselves and others, nuclear weapons may not be entirely abolished.

    Take slavery for example. Most countries in the world passed laws to abolish slavery in the 19th or 20th centuries, but slavery-like working conditions and forced labor are still reported nowadays. That’s because racism and other unhealthy, violent forms of human relations have not ceased to exist and oftentimes are not discouraged by individuals, organizations or politicians.

    Therefore, passing laws to ban nuclear weapons is an important step, but it is probably not enough to end this public health threat. Educating people, across all levels of society, about the importance of doing no harm and practicing nonviolence is fundamental for building a future where peace, not war, is the status quo.

    Given the immense challenges our global society is facing today, especially in terms of health, it is time to mobilize for nuclear disarmament. As Setsuko Thurlow, a hibakusha, said in her letter to President Trump: “Every second of every day, nuclear weapons endanger everyone we love and everything we hold dear. Is it not yet the time for soul searching, critical thinking and positive action about the choices we make for human survival?”

    We can’t ‘fix’ policing or prison — but we can decide how to create actual safety

    “Prison By Any Other Name” is a new book that shows how many alternatives to prison in recent years have still reinforced and extended mass incarceration. It comes as a new wave of reforms are being proposed following the George Floyd protests, and activists are calling to defund the police. The book is written by two prominent journalists ― Maya Schenwar, editor-in-chief of Truthout, and Victoria Law, co-founder of Books Through Bars-NYC and longtime editor of the women’s prison zine Tenacious. (Both are also connected with Waging Nonviolence, with Schenwar serving as an advisory board member and Law as a columnist and contributor.)

    Cautioning against any quick-fix solutions and spotlighting those doing grassroots movement building, the book includes many powerful stories from those impacted — including a Black mother who is on electronic monitor, an Asian American trans person who spent time in a mental institution and a young African American girl who was disciplined by her school for her clothing. While not confined to a formal prison setting, they were all a part of the same system that enforces white supremacy, isolation, control and surveillance.   

    This is an unapologetically abolitionist book. It includes examples of those working on the ground to create other options than prison, such as organizations like the Icarus Project, Just Practice, Visible Voices, Sero Project, Safe OUTside the System and Creative Interventions. In place of militarized police and a war economy, they seek systems for de-escalating violence, healing past trauma and investing in our communities. I spoke to the authors about what we can learn from this book at this critical moment in time. 

    What inspired you to team up to write this book? 

    Victoria: We were both growing increasingly concerned about bipartisan proposals for reform, many of which basically proposed to slightly reduce mass incarceration and then offer prison “alternatives” that looked much like prison. Both of us had observed this phenomenon in policy, in our journalism and through personal experience. I had been reporting for years on women’s criminalization and incarceration ― and their resistance. 

    Through my reporting, I noticed a disturbing trend in which some of the most popular reforms widen the carceral net to include people (of all genders) who might previously not have been incarcerated or punished. But these alternatives often come with a long set of rules and restrictions with heavy punishment for even the most minor infraction. 

    I myself had been on probation as a teenager, a time when technology had not caught up. Had technology existed to monitor my every movement under the threat of imprisonment for the smallest rule violation, I recognize that, far from an alternative, probation would have been a more circuitous pathway to imprisonment.  

    In this current moment, we’re seeing how politicians have turned demands to defund the police into shell games.

    Maya: Yes, we were both observing this ongoing trend of reforms being implemented that did not change the fundamentally racist, punitive, surveillance-oriented nature of the system. In my own life, I had long been witnessing my sister being funneled in and out of jail and prison ― and then into other harsh systems like electronic monitoring, locked down drug treatment, probation and more, all of which served to punish her and deepen her addiction to heroin. 

    At the same time, many of those I’d interviewed about their experiences in prison had ended up right back in prison, thanks to extensions of the prison-industrial complex like probation, the sex offender registry, predictive policing and more. It became clear that focusing solely on mass incarceration didn’t create a full picture of the vastness of this system. 

    This book was written before the George Floyd uprisings. How does it anticipate and speak to the current calls to defund the police? 

    Victoria: We’re in a momentous time where we’re seeing demands to defund and abolish the police, not simply to reform via body cameras, sensitivity training and diversity hires. We’re optimistic and cautious. While reporting for our book, we’ve seen how demands for decarceration have led to reforms that are kinder, gentler ways of expanding the carceral system. Some of these reforms ― such as locked down mental health and drug treatment ― are near-exact replicas of incarceration which don’t address underlying causes, such as trauma and violence, and don’t promote safety. Other reforms expand the prison into our homes and communities ― via community or neighborhood policing, electronic monitoring and school policing. 

    We have to remember that organizing towards abolition and safety takes many forms.

    In this current moment, we’re seeing how politicians have turned demands to defund the police into shell games. In New York City, for instance, organizers have demanded a $1 billion cut to police ― and that those funds be put into community resources. Instead, the City Council shifted several hundred million dollars ― and police officers ― from the NYPD to the Department of Education so that, at the start of the school year, those same school police officers will report to work, but be paid by the Department of Education rather than the NYPD. That’s one stark example ― as demands to defund the police continue and grow louder, I’m sure we’ll see other reforms that ostensibly address these demands, but instead reinforce the policing system, a pattern that we’ve already seen in some of the reforms to reduce mass incarceration.

    How have new forms of state surveillance been a repackaging of mass incarceration? How have they impacted marginalized communities? 

    Maya: The reforms that we discuss in our book ― from electronic monitoring to mandated treatment, from data-driven policing to sex offender registries ― have done nothing to uproot the structures of white supremacy and capitalism that gave rise to mass incarceration. Instead, they present themselves as “replacements.” Instead of confining people in a literal cage, for example, electronic monitoring works to turn your home into a cage. People on electronic monitoring are effectively on house arrest, not allowed to leave ― on penalty of incarceration ― except for preapproved departures. One of the people we interviewed could not even take her garbage out for fear of activating her monitor.

    Building a society in which people’s needs are met, where they can not only survive, but thrive, is crucial to abolition.

    All of these “alternatives” still disproportionately impact Black, Brown and Native communities — as well as trans people, disabled people, drug users and other marginalized groups — because these are the communities that our systems of criminalization were set up to target. 

    What I most appreciate in your book are the many voices of people directly impacted by mass incarceration. Can you describe how the experiences of some of the individuals you interviewed show how prisons and the alternatives to prison have failed? 

    Victoria: Again and again, people told us about the myriad ways that the rules and regulations prevented them from participating in family and community life while doing nothing to address the root causes of their criminalization. Let’s look at mandated drug treatment, for instance: one woman told us that, when her father was diagnosed with a terminal illness, the drug treatment center would not give her permission to leave to visit him. Because she was in drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration, leaving would have resulted in her being jailed ― which eventually happened after she had had enough and left. Like jails and prisons, the program removed even the most basic autonomy, such as how many socks and underwear people could have. At the same time, many do not offer ways for people to explore the underlying traumas and root causes of substance use.

    An important aspect of this book is the inclusion of women and queer people who are often overlooked in other books about mass incarceration. Could you say something about how their stories give us special insight into the prison system? 

    Maya: I would say the majority of the people we interviewed were women, trans or nonbinary people. There’s a misconception that almost everyone affected by these systems is a cis man. That’s not true for jails and prisons, and it’s even more false when it comes to many of the so-called “alternatives” and extensions we cover in our book. Ten percent of incarcerated people are women, but 25 percent of people on probation are women ― partly because women are more likely to be convicted of small-time offenses like drug possession and theft. 

    If violence and oppression are entrenched in institutions, you can’t try to mold them to be something different.

    Another example is the child “welfare” system, which ostensibly protects children from alleged neglect and abuse by placing their parents ― disproportionately Black and Indigenous parents ― under heightened surveillance, under threat of removing their children. In reality, it is another extension of the prison-industrial complex. Very often allegations of neglect, which comprise the majority of cases, stem from poverty: Children don’t have enough to eat, adequate housing, adequate clothing and parents are blamed for their poverty. They’re investigated and sometimes their children are torn from them ― and of course, the vast majority of parents and caregivers who are most impacted are women.

    Women are often in a uniquely difficult position to meet the strict, harsh requirements of surveillance regimens (like probation and electronic monitoring), because most women entrapped in these systems are mothers and have caregiving responsibilities. That makes them vulnerable to being incarcerated, because incarceration tends to be the penalty for violating the conditions of probation and other alternatives.

    Also, we recognize the fact that most women entrapped in the legal system are survivors. This manifests in all kinds of ways, but one that we draw attention to is within the child “welfare” system. One mother that we interviewed had her four children taken away because she called a domestic violence hotline for help. She was trying to find support in getting away from her abuser ― instead, authorities came to remove her children, saying their home was unsafe.

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    I encourage people to read all the way to the end of the book. The last chapter is really my favorite. It’s about how organizations and individuals are doing the difficult day-to-day work of transforming their communities. What are some of the tactics and strategies they employ to make change?  

    Victoria: Across the country, groups are working towards community safety. The Safe Neighborhoods Campaign in central Brooklyn, for instance, invites business owners to make their stores into safe spaces for queer and trans people. The campaign trains them not only in recognizing queer and transphobic violence, but also in de-escalation techniques. The campaign not only centers the safety of queer and trans people of color, but also pushes business owners (and employees) to imagine themselves as people who can ensure others’ safety. Participating business owners reported being better equipped to deal with immediate violence ― for example, one coffee shop owner reported witnessing a young woman fleeing a group of boys chasing her down the street. The shop owner let her in, locked the door, and got in touch with her parents to ensure the girl was able to get home safely.

    We get to decide how to actually create safety and reduce harm and violence in our communities.

    We also describe the Build the Block pilot project implemented by Rachel Herzing in a neighborhood in Oakland. Herzing supported neighbors in developing alternatives to 911 ― since so often, 911 results in the presence of police, which can lead to police violence. One strategy they used was to develop a detailed directory of the needs of all the neighbors, and the skills and resources they could offer. For example, neighbors could share that they had young children, lived with an elderly parent with dementia, had certain mental health conditions, etc. And then they could share if they were an EMT, or were trained in harm reduction, or knew de-escalation techniques, or had a whole range of other skills to offer. This paved the way for neighbors being able to call each other ― people they knew and cared about ― in many situations, instead of calling the police.

    We have to remember that organizing towards abolition and safety takes many forms. To paraphrase Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who we interviewed for our book, organizing for farm workers’ rights and environmental justice are steps away from mass incarceration. Building a society in which people’s needs are met, where they can not only survive, but thrive, is crucial to abolition. 

    Why is it important to uphold prison abolition in this moment? How can abolition provide ways for us ― as families, as neighbors and community members ― to find nonviolent ways to keep our communities safe? 

    Maya: Abolition is the only way forward. Recent acts of police violence (in cities that have already done police reform, like Minneapolis) and the ensuing uprisings have again brought to the fore the fact that the police cannot be made nonviolent. The U.S. police grew out of slave patrols and genocidal vigilante groups; they are an inherently violent, racist and oppressive force. Prisons, too, are descendants of slavery and genocide. And they are torture chambers, no matter how you dress them up; caging a human being is an inherently violent act.

    If violence and oppression are entrenched in institutions, you can’t try to mold them to be something different. Would you try to “fix” war, to make it nonviolent? So, we can’t fix policing or prison.

    But this opens up all kinds of exciting opportunities. We get to decide how to actually create safety and reduce harm and violence in our communities. People are doing this already in all kinds of ways, all over the country, in specific organizing projects but also just in daily life. So of course, now is a moment when it’s possible to get involved in some really exciting organizing work ― around defunding the police, around getting police out of schools, around creating real paths to safety. Plus, it’s a moment when we can particularly lift up all those lifegiving priorities that have been getting the short end of the stick ― like health care, education, housing. All of those priorities that would be well-resourced if we were to stop pouring funds into war and police and prisons and prison-like institutions.

    A century later, the women’s suffrage movement offers a timely lesson on how to win through escalation

    Alice Paul returned home to the United States in 1910 to face a country torn by multiple conflicts. The decade saw whites rioting on Blacks in Georgia, Illinois, Texas, Pennsylvania and other states. Workers on strike suffered police and military violence, including the notorious massacre in Ludlow, Colorado. Anti-immigrant feeling ran high. 

    Justice-loving women like Alice Paul were doubly frustrated by the situation because the political system told them they had no right to intervene politically in this mess. If they worked in the mills, they should stay away from union organizers. Middle-class women were to stay home and tend to the men and children in their care. If their family was grown, those women might do a bit of charitable work. Certainly no women should have the right to vote.

    Alice Paul, circa 1915. (Library of Congress)

    Alice Paul decided to change that situation by giving leadership in a women’s suffrage movement that itself had lively disputes, including whether property destruction would be useful as a tactic to express their passion.

    Thanks to the strenuous efforts by Black and white activists throughout the United States, all women in the North and white women in the South won the right to vote on August 26, 1920 with the passage of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Four and a half decades later their partial victory was completed on August 6, 1965, when Black people in the South won the right to vote.
    Winning the vote with direct action

    In both cases the movements hastened their victories by using a nonviolent direct action campaign — the women in Washington, D.C. and the civil rights movement in Alabama with the march from Selma to Montgomery.

    By 1965 Americans were used to direct action campaigns, although they remained a controversial strategy. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was in 1955, and many campaigns in the South followed. However, prior to 1920, direct action campaigns were, aside from labor strikes, virtually unheard of.

    As a young activist in the civil rights movement I knew the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., who led the 1965 Selma campaign. But I wondered who, five decades earlier, was the bold innovator who surprised America with suffrage militancy? I naturally wanted to meet the woman who’d led the struggle to victory in 1920.

    In the 1960s, Alice Paul was preoccupied with the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, which she launched after winning the 19th Amendment. Eventually, I landed an interview with her in 1966. We sat in comfortable chairs before a fire in the Capital Hill mansion that had long before been turned into the base of operations for the National Woman’s Party.

    When Tennessee, the 36th state ratified, on August 18, 1920, Alice Paul, National Chairman of the Woman’s Party, unfurled the ratification banner from suffrage headquarters. (Library of Congress)

    She started the interview by taking the offensive, which as I was to learn, was a hallmark of her strategic mind. “I’ve often thought of how differently the various species arrange the relations between the sexes. Take, for example, the praying mantis.”

    I mentally gulped, catching her reference to the insect nest’s queen who has a habit of, after copulating with the male, eating his head.

    I’d been put in my place.

    The women’s struggle began in 1848, when a conference in Seneca Falls, New York, declared — holding its collective breath — that women should have suffrage. Frederick Douglas, the formerly-enslaved progressive leader whose understanding of liberation was extraordinarily broad for that day, urged hesitant ones at Seneca Falls to be bold. No one there could know it would take 72 years to win even a partial victory.

    Previous Coverage
  • Alice Paul’s enduring legacy of nonviolent action
  • Setting a visionary goal is hard enough, as we see nowadays with the visions of the Movement for Black Lives and the Green New Deal. Even harder is finding the strategy that will get us there, and that’s where Alice Paul comes in.

    She did her homework. While in Britain from 1907-10 studying political economy she also attended the activist school of hard knocks that was run by the Pankhurst family, whose militant women’s suffragettes were the scandal of the empire. A shy bookish young woman from a respectable Quaker family in small-town New Jersey, Alice Paul found herself in British jails three times, learning how to withstand the dreadful punishment of force-feeding while hunger striking.

    She came back home in 1910 to study political science at the University of Pennsylvania, where two years later she became one of the few women in the United States to win a PhD in that field. While studying she spiced up her life with some street speaking on suffrage in downtown Philadelphia.

    Facing a racist, patriarchal and huge country

    Almost anyone might have warned Alice Paul that the United States would lag behind some European countries in yielding the vote to women. Then, as now, the American economic elite successfully practiced “divide and rule”: native born vs. immigrants, immigrant groups vs. each other, professional middle class vs. working class, East coast vs. the Midwest, North vs. South, urban vs. rural and, perhaps most important, white vs. Black.

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    At that time the radicals’ hope of uniting all the oppressed against the economic elite was a poignant dream. On her way to her doctorate Alice Paul considered social work and spent time in a New York City settlement house working with immigrants. She saw that their oppression could only be tackled successfully by structural change — but where would the coalition come from to provide the power to win?

    Each oppressed group faced the same problem, she realized: a national structure of domination. She’d been brought up by Quakers, who gave women far more respect and power than most women got at the time, and she felt all the more keenly the injustice experienced by most women. Her experience in Britain prepared her for that struggle. Why not start with one realistic empowerment step for women: the right to vote?

    Deciding to win

    For Alice Paul it would not be enough to witness for truth; she wanted a winning strategy. The women’s suffrage movement she observed on returning from Britain was trying to gain the right to vote state by state. Women had won in only a few states so far. A shorter route to winning, she decided, would be a federal constitutional amendment.

    She jumped into the movement and soon came to the attention of the leadership, which allowed her to open an office on its behalf in Washington, D.C. She framed the federal amendment they would fight for, which she named the Susan B. Anthony Amendment after the most prominent women’s suffrage leader of the 19th century, who’d been arrested for voting illegally. Alice Paul also reached out to the growing Black women’s suffrage movement, led by Mary Church Terrell.

    Civil rights and suffrage activist Mary Church Terrell. (Library of Congress)

    Alice Paul’s wording for the amendment was quite careful. At the time there was a welter of competing claims for attention among many oppressed groups. Mary Church Terrell was also helping to organize the NAACP, for example. In that political context the amendment was tightly focused: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

    As much as she personally cared about the downtrodden on all sides — Blacks, immigrants, so many others — this campaign would focus on a single identity. It was the only way she could see to win, and most people thought even that was a pipe dream.

    She knew, as did Black suffrage leaders, that even if the amendment were passed, Black women in the South would not get to vote. Southern Black men were also prevented from voting, except for a few who had not yet been stricken from the polls by the Jim Crow laws that followed Reconstruction. Suffrage for Blacks in the South was beyond imagination.

    On the other hand, if the Anthony amendment passed, Black women in the North would be newly enfranchised, and that major step forward was deeply desired by the Black women’s suffrage movement itself.

    There’s no doubt that racism was alive in all the progressive movements of that day. Nobody, including Alice Paul, escapes a pervasive cultural disease, and even a century later I’m not surprised to find in myself racist thoughts and reactions. In her time some of the powerful white women attracted to her campaign were explicitly racist, and it wasn’t easy for her to maintain the campaign’s unity. However, she continued to reach out to Black people and, when planning events, made sure Black leaders were visible.

    Paul’s controversial use of polarization

    To me the most striking aspect of Alice Paul’s strategizing was her eagerness to polarize the struggle. The patriarchy was quite clear on the woman’s role: to serve, to smooth ruffled feathers, to use the gentle arts of persuasion, and to be patient and long-suffering. The mainstream woman’s suffrage movement, while led by assertive women, was usually careful not to deviate too much from that ideal of femininity.

    Previous Coverage
  • 100 years later, lessons from the sufferin’ suffragettes
  • As a Quaker youngster, however, Alice Paul had been inspired by the stories she read about early Friends and the highly conflictual relationship they had with higher-ups in Britain — an estimated third of them were sent to jail in the 17th century. When Quakers mounted a direct action campaign for religious toleration in Puritan Massachusetts they were jailed, whipped, had their ears cropped, tongues cut out, and several were hung. (They won, by the way.)

    Still, she had a shy personality and — attracted though she was to the suffrage movement in Britain — needed support first even to hand out flyers to the public and then to speak on street corners. With controversial issues, street speaking is essentially polarizing: stand on a box and take a side, and it’s likely a passerby will speak up for the other side. I’ve done this in Britain (and the United States) and it’s still true. For an activist it builds skill in bringing out and handling polarization. It rests on the assumption that democratic change isn’t possible until differences are revealed and debated.

    Politicians sometimes have an interest in not revealing difference, so they can vote for vested interests without that fact being revealed or at least dwelt upon.

    When Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912 he was officially mute on women’s suffrage, but Alice Paul believed he could be the key decider on the issue. He was courteous to the women’s delegations who visited him, but she believed he was privately opposed to suffrage — or at least to doing anything about it.

    Republicans in those days were more likely to vote in favor of the amendment, but the Democratic Party, with its large base in the South defending states’ rights, was divided. Because Wilson was head of the Democratic Party and had influence on its members of Congress who were on the fence, she made him — in campaign jargon — the target.

    By then Alice Paul was leading a 40,000 member offshoot of the movement, the National Woman’s Party. The leadership of the mainstream movement didn’t agree with her polarizing strategy, and the disagreement led to a split.

    In 1917, early in Wilson’s second term, she felt it was time to escalate with a historic first: picketing the White House. Although the public was familiar with working men picketing their factories during a strike, the women would be transgressing both class and gender codes. The women’s signs read: “Mr. President, What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage?” and “How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?”

    Women suffragists picketing in front of the White House in 1917. (Wikimedia)

    Controversy grew as the vigil at the White House continued for weeks. Some of her own members and supporters withdrew from the Woman’s Party as they found their friends and relatives confronting them. Suffrage lobbyists took heat about the picketing from Congressional offices they visited.

    Alice Paul maintained the weekly vigil despite the controversy. From her point of view, it was drama — stimulating newspaper coverage and discussion, and keeping the issue in the forefront of public attention. Members of the Black women’s suffrage movement, including Mary Church Terrell, participated.

    War threatens to take over public space, but opens new opportunity

    In the meantime, the war in Europe intensified and increasing pressure was felt within the United States to join the war. American activists of all kinds faced the choice British suffragists had faced when Britain came under threat in 1914. Most of the British suffragists put their cause on the shelf and joined the war effort. The leadership of the mainstream American suffrage movement did the same.

    Alice Paul firmly refused to stand down; she went with her historic Quaker peace testimony. She also noticed that the American public was split on the war question, which opened an opportunity to increase direct action: The considerable number of anti-war women’s suffrage supporters now had no place to go except with the Woman’s Party.

    Alice Paul (right) at the 1920 Republican Convention. (Library of Congress)

    Paul declared that “Now above all times, women must hold aloft the banner calling for full political liberty for all women.” At the party’s convention, a majority supported her. While some members resigned, they were far outweighed by new members. Again, I’m amazed: Despite her shy and retiring personality, Alice Paul’s formidable organizing talent, political instincts, and fierce commitment to the cause successfully rode the tiger of world-historical events.

    The strategic opportunity that she saw was the increased vulnerability of Woodrow Wilson. When he declared that the aim of joining the war would be to “make the world safe for democracy,” her campaigners could focus on his hypocrisy.

    That’s exactly what happened. The banners at the White House gates asked why he sent Americans to die in Europe for democracy when he denied it at home. Furious passersby began to attack the picketers, then police began to arrest the women. The women were taken to an infamous prison and placed in the worst parts, complete with cockroaches and vermin-infested food.

    Half a century later, well-meaning people would strongly criticize Martin Luther King’s campaign for the polarizing impact of its nonviolent tactics. In Ava DuVernay’s riveting film “Selma,” we see the crucial confrontation of King in the Oval Office with President Lyndon B. Johnson, arguably the most powerful person in the world. Violence and killing had already hit the movement. The president tells King to stop the Selma to Montgomery march. King refuses.

    In the women’s struggle, as in the Black struggle five decades later, it took strategy chops and strong nerves to stand up to the roars of dismay that “You are setting back the movement’s previous progress.” And, indeed, there are no guarantees for strategy choices — whether in electoral or in direct action campaigns.

    Neither King nor Alice Paul was making a judgment call based simply on the present moment. In her case, Paul had in mind a strategy arc which she’d learned from reading early Quaker history. First, the polarization with a fading of the faint-hearted and renewed determination from others, then an uproar from the backlash, then a learning process for the fence-sitters as they watch the unfolding drama.

    In Alice Paul’s day, the media environment was full of unreliable press and no television. She sent women newly released from jail on train trips to towns and cities across the country, to tell about their experiences in jail and ask for support. Local newspapers were more likely to cover those events accurately. As word got out, outraged voters wrote to their members of Congress and President Wilson urging that women should vote.

    Nonviolent escalation drove the victory arc

    The war-obsessed President Wilson, having run on a peace platform, then reversed himself after winning. The last thing he wanted was some other issue demanding his attention. Knowing this, Alice Paul escalated. Women brought urns with them to the White House gates to burn any of Wilson’s speeches that mentioned “freedom” or “democracy” — which would have been all of them. The women’s banners escalated, too, going so far as to call the president by the title given to the leader of Germany, a name that was especially on the lips of the patriotic Germany-haters of the day: “Kaiser Wilson.”

    The response approached a near-riot day after day, and of course there were more arrests of the women.

    Police arresting two White House picketers in 1917. (Library of Congress)

    By the time Julia Emory endured 34 arrests, Wilson moved from taking no position on suffrage, to vague approval, to (paraphrasing) “Let’s take this up after the war,” to “This is a war for democracy and we need to pass the amendment now.”

    He did indeed round up enough votes to get the amendment passed in Congress. That signaled the end of the direct action campaign and motivated the national advocacy campaign that secured ratification in 1920.

    Alice Paul’s boldness in escalation was born in Britain, where she was mentored by the Pankhursts, but it’s striking that when the Pankhursts turned to violence and property destruction to escalate, Alice Paul did not follow their example.

    Previous Coverage
  • ‘Suffragette’ raises question of property destruction’s effectiveness
  • The results? The Pankhursts’ direct action campaign attracted many more activists than the Woman’s Party. The British also began their direct action much earlier. Still, it took them much longer to win.

    The comparison suggests that using property destruction and violence, even if that approach doesn’t prevent a win, can delay it considerably. In every just cause that I know, the majority who support it would prefer to win earlier rather than later! It may be that Alice Paul, although influenced by her earlier activist training, was also influenced by her pacifism enough to escalate in a way that was strategically sound.

    The cultural addiction to violence found in countries like Britain and the United States may sometimes need the antidote of pacifism to enable activists to think practically and well about how to get the job done as soon as possible.