Waging Nonviolence

The genius of John Lewis’ unyielding nonviolent discipline

I was privileged to work alongside the esteemed civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis from 1963-66 while on the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. My responsibility was in communications, which plays a critical role in nonviolent struggle, because putting across the claims, demands, calls and requests of the campaign is essential. If observers cannot clearly grasp why and what social change is being sought, they are unlikely to respond or be recruited. I would often need to issue news releases quoting John, our chairman, that I had written. John’s consistency of purpose and uncompromising insistence on treating the opponent with respect made it possible for me to conjure what he would like to say.

The technique called nonviolent action has been frequently found throughout human history as an alternative for violence or passivity. Yet I find it fascinating that what may be John’s greatest capacity and attribute has not always been understood. He deeply grasped that how one fights determines the end result achieved. This has long been called the connection between the means and ends. It is based on grasping that the way one acts and speaks can modify the outcome, which is tightly associated with maintaining nonviolent discipline. John, more than anyone in our ranks, made real and tangible that the ability to control any verbal or physical retaliation could make or break effectiveness.

I could often see John reaching inside himself to find a place that sought neither retribution nor retaliation — seeking solely justice and the dismantling of inequities. Without comprehending the necessity for tenacious self-restraint, it’s hard to appreciate how the social power of nonviolent action actually works.

Many have missed that what made John exceptional and helped him to maintain a guiding role in the U.S. Congress — up until he drew his last breath — was his understanding of nonviolent discipline. What does this mean? Large numbers of individuals utilizing rigorous willpower is part of the way that the technique of nonviolent struggle operates. This form of power is entirely different from that utilized in armed conflict. To explain, let me turn to social philosopher Hannah Arendt, who has been influential with theoreticians of nonviolent action. Arendt’s 1969 essay “On Violence” distinguishes between violence and power. Violence, far from being the most “powerful” force in power relations, she says, needs to use instruments, so it’s not real power. Arendt writes, “Power and violence are opposites … to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant.” For her, power is what happens when people willingly come together to take action on common purposes.

Impact of the 1960 southern student sit-in campaigns

The 1960 southern student sit-in campaigns spread to cities throughout the region. The point of a sit-in is not that a group of people sat down somewhere. The feature of this nonviolent method (one of hundreds, with unlimited potential) is that when asked to leave, the participants refuse to move. This is where maintaining an iron grip on discipline is crucial.

I could often see John reaching inside himself to find a place that sought neither retribution nor retaliation — seeking solely justice and the dismantling of inequities.

Sekou M. Franklin, president of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, has been studying with colleagues how the engagement of some 60,000 to 70,000 participants in the southern student sit-in campaigns affected the Southland over the decades. Their research is showing that students sitting down at lunch counters and refusing to leave when asked has had greater ongoing significance than previously understood. Franklin and other social scientists are additionally finding that the sit-in campaigns — which were crucial to desegregating lunch counters as public accommodations — were also catalytic for spurring small-town organizing by local people. “Dozens of local movements are now being catalogued that have not heretofore been assessed,” Franklin said. “They were much more widespread than previously understood.”

SNCC was a galvanizing force with field secretaries living and working with local communities and all the while sharing the basics and versatilities of organizing and nonviolent action. It can now be seen that as a result, communities and their neighborhoods, homegrown institutions, churches, women’s and youth groups became engaged to work for social change with nonviolent direct action. According to Franklin, “The southern student movement was one of the critical mobilizing inflection points spurring local movements South-wide.” Such home-grown sit-in campaigns often spread into downtown shopping districts “in dozens of cities.” From the Arkansas Delta to Southwest Georgia to Tallahassee, Florida, to Southside Virginia, to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and points in between, these drives often became the stimuli for demolishing racial discrimination in both public accommodations and among private department stores in city centers, while also congealing local movements that produced tangible results.​

When John was elected to chair SNCC at age 23, he was the youngest of the six speakers at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. To me, John’s remarks were the climax of the entire spectacle. Among SNCC workers, we had already adopted the slogan from the African independence struggles in Ghana, Kenya and Zambia: “One man, one vote.” John proceeded to tell a quarter of a million marchers that this was the African cry and “It should be ours too.” He expressed with utter clarity a democratic ideal in which every citizen, including those at the bottommost rung of the U.S. social order, must be able to partake in determining its destiny.

John Lewis and the author, Mary King, revisited Neshoba County, Mississippi, in 1994 to commemorate the horrific murders of three fellow workers by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964. They stand before the historical marker on Highway 19, where the deputy sheriff intercepted the voter canvassers before turning them over to Klansmen to be killed. This official acknowledgment was the result of action by the state legislature.” (WNV/Mary King)   

Sponsored by an amalgam of all civil rights groups working in Mississippi in 1964, Mississippi Freedom Summer saw the horrifying murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner by the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Thirty years later, I would return with John to the Mount Zion Methodist Church that had been set ablaze by Klansmen to lure the three vote canvassers to what would be their deaths. The wanton killings of an interracial team, all in their early twenties, would eventually be revealed to have had heavy state involvement. The enormity of the tragedy had the effect of forcing the nation to begin to face the malevolence of its tolerance for domestic terrorism in the form of the Klan’s racial depravity. Two commemorations in Philadelphia, Mississippi — on the 1989 and 2004 anniversaries of the killings — forced the community to face its past and undertake the Mississippi Truth Commission.

John’s sincerity and earnestness helped to get the Civil Rights Act passed that same year. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act followed, in some ways making the passage of the 15th Amendment of 1869 a reality for African Americans.

John’s perspective often echoed the viewpoint of senior SNCC advisor Ella Jo Baker, whose views were both penetrating and influential. A significant exemplar for justice in U.S. social history, Baker is noted for saying, “Oppressed people, whatever their level of formal education, have the ability to understand and interpret the world around them, to see the world for what it is, and move to transform it.” The centrality of this tenet radiated through all of SNCC’s work. It was later articulated in a poster when John directed the Voter Education Project, where the authenticity of his conviction was expressed as “The hands that once picked cotton can now pick presidents.”

Previous Coverage
  • How to think strategically when facing violent racism and police
  • Crucial to the success of the nonviolent method of fighting for justice, which goes back to ancient times and has been found wherever historians have looked for it, is an understanding of the basic prerequisite for maintaining a restrained stance of nonretaliation. You can praise John’s bravery when, on March 7, 1965, “Bloody Sunday,” he led some 600 citizens onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of Selma, Alabama. Walking solemnly and steadily among armed mounted police, troopers and posses of deputized civilians with batons, he ended up suffering a skull fracture, as news cameras recorded police in gas masks assaulting unarmed children, women and men, many dressed for church. Incontestably, John exuded courage. Yet I do not think that this was his concentration. He was holding tight to his firm mastery of unyielding nonviolent discipline. Since the 1930s it has been understood that when police or security officers face unarmed people who respectfully and nonviolently express their grievances, it can have an unbalancing effect on police and security authorities, sometimes causing defections. Scholars today call this political jiu-jitsu.

    The Nashville Workshops

    The Rev. James Lawson began weekly workshops at Clark Memorial United Methodist Church, and other houses of worship in Nashville, in autumn 1959, which eventually included students from all of the city’s institutions of higher learning. The Nashville campaign that developed is worthy of study: It was interlinked with the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference, local leadership and the broader Black community. There, John deeply internalized the basic theories and methods of nonviolent action, including the necessity for focus on maintaining discipline. With nonviolent direct action, it is crucial to retain mastery over any impulse to retaliation, and to remain non-belligerent in practicing noncooperation, in order to allow larger and more inscrutable dynamics to occur when the unarmed stand up to those who are heavily supplied with weaponry. By nonviolent direct action, I am speaking of an historic phenomenon in which action is taken directly to the source of a grievance or injustice, rather than working through representatives, agencies or standard political institutions. In the words of scholar April F. Carter, “nonviolent direct action is adopted by social groups or whole communities suffering injustice or oppression as a form of protest that demands change by addressing the issues directly, rather than formally appealing to those in power to effect change.”

    Lawson met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Oberlin College in February 1957, upon returning from teaching for three years in Maharashtra state in India. Lawson would become the critical interpreter of Gandhian insights for the U.S. mid-20th century Black community, selectively introducing knowledge from India’s struggles against European colonialism. The historical crossroads for both the practice and theory of nonviolent civil resistance was Mohandas K. Gandhi, whose experiments with satyagraha (or a relentless pursuit of Truth) in South Africa and India placed nonviolent methods on the world political map. In retrospect it can be seen that — as a result of his ability to meet with countless individuals who had worked alongside Gandhi — Lawson, in a figurative sense, would become the go-between for the world’s two most consequential and influential nonviolent movements: the Indian independence campaigns and the southern freedom movement of the United States. Lawson interwove Gandhian comprehensions with the religious culture and biblical ethos of Southern Black communities. He also became the main strategic advisor for the wing of nonviolent direct action of the civil rights era.

    John Lewis’ life’s work was a national tutorial on the power possessed by the maintenance of strict nonviolent discipline, and Black Lives Matter supporters exemplified this essential self-restraint.

    For the rest of his life, John would reach deep into himself to enact the philosophies and insights he had absorbed and adopted in the Nashville workshops. This is how he became the exemplar within our ranks for what it means to possess nonviolent discipline — a crucial requirement for effectiveness in using “people power,” the term that emerged from the national nonviolent struggle in the Philippines that ended the Ferdinand Marcos regime in 1986. It is important to recognize that the ongoing preparation, advice and counsel from advisors — like Ella Baker and Lawson, as well as historians Staughton Lynd and Howard Zinn — set a high standard for proving the validity of nonviolent direct action as a potent process for disassembling injustices in the 1960s southern freedom struggle.

    Indeed, the modeling being done by the wing of direct action groups in the mass mobilization — such as SNCC, the Congress of Racial Equality and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — can now be seen across the world. Television coverage became commonplace in 1963, just in time for the international community to see children being arrested and transported to jails in school buses, during the Birmingham Children’s Crusade.

    Within the United States, news coverage invigorated other constituencies. In 1978, Native Americans conducted the “Longest Walk” from San Francisco to Washington, a distance of 3,600 miles, arising from their benefiting from the Civil Rights Act. Moreover, many actions of dramatic nonviolent resistance were being carried out in the 1970s and 1980s by U.S. adults and children with physical disabilities who had been prevented from having equal access. As Andrea Faville of Syracuse University, phrased it, “Inspired by the success of the African American civil rights movement, people with disabilities began to campaign.” Indeed, by 1990, they had secured the far-reaching and impactful Americans with Disabilities Act.

    Black Lives Matter and maintaining critical nonviolent discipline

    As massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations took place in thousands of U.S. cities, across all 50 states, in response to the killing of George Floyd on May 25, you could see various forms of disarray resulting from the protesters’ political jiu-jitsu. For more than a month, newscasts showed instances of police officers breaking rank, disobeying orders, defecting from their fellow officers, others standing back silently and motionless, while in certain locations the police physically joined the demonstrators.

    The study and practice of nonviolent action is for life. It does not belong to the young. It is not something one outgrows. Seeking tangible justice without stooping to violence or passivity can empower one for life.

    By June, Black Lives Matter chapters wisely appeared in step with maintaining the critical nonviolent discipline John modeled for 61 years — ever since enlisting in Lawson’s Nashville workshops. His life’s work was a national tutorial on the power possessed by the maintenance of strict nonviolent discipline, and Black Lives Matter supporters exemplified this essential self-restraint.

    Additionally, Black Lives Matter is seeking social change through nonviolent action with the involvement of multiple generations. Without intergenerational involvement, we forfeit cross-generational human expansiveness. This is part of what can continue to effect attitudinal and tangible change in the United States with the urgency of holding up a mirror for self-evaluation, bringing about racial healing and stoking pride in human diversity.

    John exemplified something else that I have been appreciating with the passage of time: The study and practice of nonviolent action is for life. It does not belong to the young. It is not something one outgrows. Seeking tangible justice without stooping to violence or passivity can empower one for life.

    Numbers count with nonviolent methods. Combining headcounts with exacting self-restraint is partly how nonviolent struggle works, which is entirely different from the power wielded in armed, militarized power that seeks to incite fear, vanquish and kill. In the past 60 years a volcanic explosion of research, study, and documentation of the accomplishments of this technique of struggle has become available, and translations are widely available in dozens of languages.

    Yale historian Geoffrey Parker once stated that “the major export of Western civilization is violence.” John Lewis did not need to attend Yale for this insight. He became the recognized catalytic agent for spreading knowledge of a technique of struggle that is invigorating nonviolent civil resistance worldwide. In the past half century, more than 50 nations have made democratic transitions from tyrannies or dictatorships through carefully planned nonviolent action. John’s mastery of nonviolent discipline will remain the way.

    Understanding Trump’s game plan in Portland could be the key to preventing a coup in November

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    While outrage was still growing in Oregon over federal agents’ intervention in Portland, President Trump on July 20 named Chicago, New York, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland, California as possible next targets. Since then Albuquerque was added to the list.

    Although the agents’ mission was supposedly to protect federal buildings, they were ranging around the city, dressed in camouflage outfits in unmarked vans, joining police in responding to demonstrators. The New York Times reported them seizing people and locking them into a van with no explanation and wearing no insignia.

    The feds began to arrive June 27 and have ramped up in numbers since. The Washington Post reported that a curious 53-year-old Navy vet, Christopher David, approached a demonstration where he saw agents acting aggressively. He asked the officers to remember their oaths to protect the Constitution. They attacked him and broke his hand.

    Previous Coverage
  • Inside the battle for Portland with the independent journalists on the streets
  • Agents were assembled from Customs and Border Protection, Transportation Security Administration, Coast Guard, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. According to The New York Times, “The tactical agents deployed by Homeland Security include officials from a group known as BORTAC, the Border Patrol’s equivalent of a SWAT team — a highly trained group that normally is tasked with investigating drug smuggling organizations, as opposed to protesters in cities.”

    Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler called it “an attack on our democracy.” That was before he was tear-gassed on the street in a demonstration. Oregon Attorney Gen. Ellen Rosenblum filed a lawsuit, seeking a restraining order.

    Gov. Kate Brown, who called Trump’s intervention “a blatant abuse of power,” said that the protests were starting to ease before federal officers arrived. What might have prompted Trump to act? Why Portland? How might this choice be strategic for Trump, both to bolster his chance to win the election — and perhaps to remain in office even if he doesn’t win? And what can activists do about it?

    Trump’s “law and order” strategy really can help him win

    Trump’s earlier hopes to win based on a strong economy and conquest of the coronavirus have faded. He needs another emotional issue that responds to people’s need for security: public order. The narrative couldn’t be clearer. In new advertising and tweets Trump has argued that Biden “is a harbinger of chaos and destruction.” During a two-week period in July the Trump campaign spent nearly $14 million to air a television spot suggesting that police departments won’t respond to 911 calls if Biden is elected.

    Trump’s team figures that a percentage of voters who might otherwise be ambivalent about him can be tipped toward supporting him by appealing to their anxiety. In the 1960s, when the nonviolent civil rights movement moved national public opinion sufficiently to pass two landmark U.S. civil rights acts, I watched a series of riots in Philadelphia and elsewhere, from 1965-66, break the movement’s momentum.

    To measure the impact of riots carefully scholars have examined other examples. Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow studied the April 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was one of the many outraged in the streets — although, our Philadelphia Black-led mass protest was nonviolent.

    Wasow found that the violent protests measurably helped Republican Richard Nixon become President in 1968. (His study kicked off a recent dialogue, including Nathan J. Robinson’s critique in Current Affairs. However, Robinson admits he doesn’t challenge the fact that right-winger Nixon did benefit from the riot.)

    Previous Coverage
  • Today’s progressive movements must learn from Black Lives Matter — and join together
  • Another Princeton researcher, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, investigated the outcome of the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion — also sparked by a just cause — and found it resulted in the Democrats moving to a “law and order” posture, mass incarceration and increased poverty.

    Clearly, the Trump team’s strategic calculation on voter behavior is a reasonable one. But why target Oregon for this intervention?

    Portland is known nationally for having some activists who try to defend themselves against police violence in a violent way. By sending in federal agents who will escalate violent tactics, there seemed a good chance of getting video footage for Trump’s election campaign, proclaiming him as “the law and order candidate.” With luck they would get vivid pictures at the site of federal buildings that give the feds their protective justification for being there.

    A long-time white anti-racist activist and conflict studies professor at Portland State University, Tom Hastings, told me another reason why Portland is an obvious choice for Trump’s team: Oregon’s electoral votes were already certain to go to Biden. It doesn’t matter for November’s election that Oregon’s major elected officials are protesting the federal intervention. Hastings also pointed out that the cities on Trump’s list for more interventions have Democratic mayors.

    Will activists play Trump’s game?

    One key to a winning strategy is to figure out what the opponent’s strategy is and refuse to be manipulated — in Portland and in the other cities on Trump’s target list.

    Federal intervention in Portland has turned the previous hundreds of late-night protesters into thousands. Nonviolent tactics include dancing, a “Wall of Moms,” and orange-clad dads with leaf-blowers, who blow away tear gas.

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    Other activists have escalated violent tactics in response to the escalation by the feds. According to The New York Times, some of the protesters used lasers while federal officers fired projectiles into the crowd. Court papers claim that a Molotov cocktail was thrown and one protester was charged with hitting an officer with a hammer, while the Times reported multiple efforts by some protesters to set alight the wood on the façade of the federal courthouse. The fire attempt of course reinforces Trump’s dubious claim that the feds need to be there to protect federal property.

    Activists everywhere can learn from the major shift in tactics made this year by looking at the national response to the May 25 police killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd. Our spontaneous reactions expressed grief and anger in multiple ways.

    The mass media (as usual) gave most headlines to the rioting. That meant, as historical research has shown, the impact of the movement could have set back the struggle for racial justice. However, from the start, the vast majority of people were protesting nonviolently. The more fact-based mass media caught up with that quickly. The rioting quickly ebbed, and the image of the movement shifted to one that fairly consistent uses nonviolent action.

    When police in some locations continued to act out violently against the peaceable demonstrators, they only proved the point demonstrators were making. Their brutality displayed on nightly TV boomeranged against them, and more people joined the protests.

    Almost all activists found far more effective ways to escalate than using fire and projectiles: They escalated the contrast between their behavior and that of the police.

    Previous Coverage
  • In times of rapid change, victory comes to those who train for it
  • By channeling rage and grief into nonviolent tactics, the Black Lives Matter surge sustained itself, grew exponentially, introduced new people to the streets and a national conversation about racial injustice. It continues to chalk up a series of limited victories. Bigger victories await even more focused nonviolent campaigning.

    Any effective strategizing — Trump’s or ours — includes a back-up plan, and my guess is that the Trump team has one. If Portland activists refuse to play into Trump’s hand by adopting a nonviolent discipline, Trump has a list of other places to try. Trump can hope that in Chicago or Oakland activists might not see how much he wants them to fall for his ploy.

    A more sinister goal Trump may have in mind

    When announcing to the media his list of targeted cities, Trump revealed how important this narrative is to him. His next statement was that if Joe Biden is elected, “the whole country would go to hell. And we’re not going to let it go to hell.”

    Although Trump would undoubtedly claim voting fraud because of mailed-in ballots, the emotionally more impactful narrative would be “hell” in the form of violent chaos in the streets happening in real time following the vote. He has plenty of armed Trump loyalists ready to do their part. While the courts wrangle about voting fraud, the chaos can serve as Trump’s immediate rationale for staying in the White House in January.  

    The “violent chaos” narrative is Trump’s growing emphasis, and I think it’s linked to his hope that police will give a break to Trump-followers in the streets. On July 19 on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, Trump said again that he would not agree ahead of time to obey the results of the election. But then he added, “Biden wants to defund the police.” As I mentioned, his campaign is already investing millions in TV ads attacking Biden’s capacity to support the public’s basic need for safety and security.

    Even a man as reckless as Trump likely knows that initiating a Constitutional crisis is an unusually chancy operation. He needs preparation even to have a chance of success. By “success” I mean at least making a deal in which he and his family would avoid the parade of lawsuits that await him when he is no longer in office.

    I see him and his team taking a number of steps to prepare. Right now in Portland he’s trying out the narrative that justifies a refusal to exit.

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    Chaos is good for him. For years he’s been preparing his base to produce an armed force of “irregulars” that can generate chaos. Armed men are showing up in places of political tension and conspicuously being allowed to remain there by local police. Examples include April 30 in Lansing, Michigan, June 2 in Philadelphia and July 20 at the Utah State Capitol.

    Trump also needs the legitimacy of a governmental force at his command. On his home ground in Washington, D.C. he experimented with soldiers in combat gear and military helicoptors attacking peaceful demonstrators to clear the way for a photo-op.

    That test didn’t work out well. The demonstrators didn’t turn to violence to give him justification, so the media revealed a military behaving disgracefully. Trump received enormous push-back from military leaders. They clearly vetoed further use of the their forces for his own political purposes.

    Still wanting the availability of loyal government guns, in Portland he’s testing civilian federal armed agencies that represent governmental legitimacy. Chad Wolf, the acting head of Homeland Security underlined his loyalty when he visited Portland on July 16. How that works out is yet to be seen.

    Since Trump does believe in the art of the deal, if a take-over doesn’t work he needs also political enablers with some credibility who will step in to arrange a compromise that protects Trump and his family when they leave. He’s in good shape there. Republican leaders have plenty of practice enabling Trump’s corruption and presumably will be available for this service in the midst of a crisis that’s not turning his way.

    What strategy can defend against a coup?

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    Jo Ann Hardesty is a long-time activist and Black community leader in Portland who became a city commissioner last year. In the midst of this crisis she voiced the most important strategic insight that activists need, although not an easy one to grasp.

    On July 20, she called a mass protest outside the county Justice Center downtown, saying the city would “not allow armed military forces to attack our people.”

    At the rally she gave us the key: “Today we show the country and the world that the city of Portland, even as much as we fight among ourselves, will come together to stand up for our Constitutional rights.”

    The key is unity — a challenging concept in a polarized time, especially for those of us who think of ourselves as social change activists.

    A successful direct action campaign for change, after all, doesn’t start out assuming unity with our point of view. Change activists generally start out as a minority voice, often a tiny minority, like the first women who asserted the right to vote or the first LGBT people demanding freedom to be who we are.

    Our initial minority typically finds allies, persuades more doubters, and reaches the point of launching direct action, becoming what Bayard Rustin called “angelic troublemakers” who dramatize our point of view. Then, when we grow and achieve critical mass, we polarize the issue in such a way that the center of gravity comes down on our side — leading us to victory.

    Right now in Portland he’s trying out the narrative that justifies a refusal to exit.

    In Hardesty’s words, change activists in Portland (and everywhere) assume we’ll “fight among ourselves” hoping our point of view will someday win out. However, she calls us to learn to do more than only one thing. She wants us to be able at one moment to fight for change and at another moment to be able to fight for defense, to protect something worth defending.

    She believes that the city of Portland, for all its problems, is worth defending against Trump’s attack. You likely agree that your city, or state or country, is worth defending against a would-be dictator.

    But here’s the challenge to us: Strategizing for defense is different from strategizing for change.

    When we’re on defense, we not only minimize actions that polarize, as Hardesty says, but we also design actions that play more to the center. The “center” is the people in your system (be it your community or nation) who are not committed strongly one way or the other.

    The leaders in a stable system pay a lot of attention to the people in center and also, as leaders, they see themselves as balancers who need to hold things together in whatever system they’re leading. (The military leadership in the United States is an example of this.) They usually think “leadership” means at least some care for the system’s cohesion, integrity and security.

    What this means for activists gets clearer in a story about a puzzle I watched environmental organizers solve.

    Finding the difference between offense and defense

    When I was consulting with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, I saw their local organizers make sense of a confusing and surprising phenomenon. Their issue was commercial waste companies trying to dump toxic waste in local communities.

    The organizers had been schooled in social change projects and were therefore accustomed to entering a community, finding some sympathetic people more on the periphery of the community (perhaps a Black minister, a white union member, a Jewish teacher, a Unitarian librarian) who agreed that toxics shouldn’t be dumped there. By supporting the activism of these initial contacts and using house meetings to follow their links in toward the power center of the community, the organizers expected at last to rouse the leaders of the community to join in defense against the waste haulers.

    To their surprise, the organizers discovered that the leaders of the community frequently “jumped the gun,” adopting the defense against toxics as their own issue and even taking leadership in organizing sit-downs in front of the trucks.

    By comparing experiences, the organizers realized that community leaders believed they needed to be seen as defending their system against violations of its integrity and security.

    Trump enjoys being outrageous so he can watch us react — and then waste our time moralizing.

    On a national level, this is why Republican leaders are so uneasy about Trump’s relationship with Putin and his denial of Russian electoral attacks. Their conflict is between their loyalty to Trump and their own responsibility to defend the system’s integrity against attack from outside. That responsibility goes with being part of the system’s center.

    When Jo Ann Hardesty spoke at the rally, she was coaching activists to see the difference between offense and defense. She said, “This is not about ‘Fuck the police.’ This is not about who did what, when. As you know, Portlanders will continue to fight once we get rid of these federal occupying forces. But when Portland is under attack, whether you’re Black or white, whether you’re right or left, Portlanders come together.”

    Defeating an attempted coup – nonviolently

    When Germans overthrew would-be dictator Wolfgang Kapp in 1920, they used a defensive strategy. It wasn’t easy. World War I left Germany intensely polarized, much more than the United States is now. The right wing saw an opportunity to try a coup d’etat, backed by some of the armed forces.

    Germany’s center read the attempt as an attack on the integrity and security of the system, and responded to the left when it called for a general strike. Along with ordinary people staying home, governmental civil servants failed to show up for work.

    Kapp found empty offices, with no one to type out a manifesto saying he was the new ruler of Germany. He needed to bring his daughter to the capitol the next day to do the typing!

    Even an economically battered, partly destroyed, and politically divided Germany found so many leaders and ordinary people linked to that sense of integrity and security of the whole system that within a week the coup was defeated by nonviolent defense.

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    How can individuals prepare for defense?

    As Bill McKibben is fond of saying, “Stop being an individual.” Recruit your activist group. Talk with others about our possible need to use Jo Ann Hardesty’s call for an “all-in” shift from change to defense.

    On Zoom calls discuss with others cases of community and national defense, hundreds of which are available on the Global Nonviolent Action Database.

    As you read cases, note what the strengths were that winning activists used, and ask what you and your comrades’ strengths are. If you’ve done only change activism up until now, build your flexibility so you can start or join defense actions as well. With people in the center in mind, think “unity” rather than “further polarization.”

    Don’t under-rate our opponent. Just because it’s easy to deride Trump’s limited information about things we think are important, like the virus, is no reason to under-estimate how wily he is, how he “reads” his opponents and goes after their (and our) weak points.

    One of our weak points is that many of us would rather moralize than strategize. Trump enjoys being outrageous so he can watch us react — and then waste our time moralizing.

    If you’re out late at night and and get attacked on the street, it’s a waste of time and brain-space to analyze the ethics of the attacker. Similarly, we’ll do better in an attempted coup if we give up moralizing and identify our strengths, Trump’s weaknesses and create a strategy to win.

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  • Re-writing an attacker’s script — getting in practice
  • Acknowledge your fears, to yourself and friends. If in contemporary America you have no fear, you simply don’t understand what’s up. I find my teeth chattering more often these days, which is a way of acknowledging and letting go of my fear.

    Build on the strengths of previous movements that found ways to handle threats and attacks.

    One way to practice your strategy chops is to keep looking at tactical possibilities for nonviolent noncooperation. This formula might help you:

    Ask: “What do they want me to do?” Then don’t do it.
    Ask: What don’t they want me to do?” Then consider it.

    The United States is a polarized country. The path of least resistance is for each pole to become obsessed by the other: The right wing wastes time learning about and despising us, and vice versa. That’s the trap.

    The way out is to pay attention to the center, which especially in defense scenarios, is the prize. Learn about centrists, make friends with them, discuss your points of agreement and disagreement. Your growth as an activist is guaranteed.

    Our own fear may urge us to “look good” to our comrades, perhaps by doubling down on whatever campaign we’re now involved with. Our campaigns (for racial justice, immigrant justice, stopping a pipeline, etc.) are in one sense addressing sub-systems. That’s good, because in ordinary times the sub-system offers concrete gains when we win.

    However, if my analysis is correct, in this situation what’s in play is the national system as a whole, which will make it more critical for a moment — and also will make the center available in a new way.

    Remind your friends that because the center is easily alarmed by disorder and especially violence, its willingness to defend the whole depends partly on the degree to which it sees “our side” as nonviolent and “the threat” as violent. Because the overwhelming majority of Portlanders have been demonstrating for Black Lives Matter in nonviolent ways, elected officials are mobilizing against Trump’s intervention. If the majority had been violent, Trump’s intervention would be welcomed by the center.

    Reduced to bare bones, our three-point plan in this political moment may be: stand with the community as a whole, communicate the power of strategic nonviolent action, and then — as Hardesty reminds us — as soon as Trump is really out, we can return to our disagreements and our struggle for revolutionary change!

    5 pitfalls Black Lives Matter must avoid to maintain momentum and achieve meaningful change

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    In just over a month the Black Lives Matter whirlwind has shaken things up. Change is afoot far and wide — from NASCAR to the NFL, from racist statues being torn down to corporate posturing and statements of solidarity. And there is momentum for core shifts: cities promising some reduction of funding for policing, Minneapolis considering disbanding police, and the Movement for Black Lives’ recently introduced the BREATHE Act, which offers a map on how to turn the values of the movement into concrete federal policy.

    To the cynic, many of these acts are symbolic and may disappear when the pressure dies down. To the hopeful, these represent shifts — including the widespread participation of white people — that signal real meaningful change in our culture is underway.

    Whatever you believe, there are steps the movement could take to carry on that energy — and steps that could cause it to disappear. Based on my work in numerous movements, here are some key perspectives to hold onto.

    Don’t measure success with growing numbers

    The movement has to be very careful about which yardstick gets used to measure “success.”

    Traditional politics is best at measuring which way the wind is blowing. Movements are about changing the headwinds of our time.

    Capitalism teaches shareholders to look at how much money has been made and how many new plants have been opened. The goal is constant growth. That’s not a good yardstick for movements.

    The most obvious way this sneaks into our thinking is when we ask ourselves: Are the number of protests growing? Are more people in the streets? Is more money coming into movement organizations?

    Movement success shouldn’t be measured that way.

    Another yardstick for progress that we are taught by traditional politics involves the current strength of the legislation we support. Do we have a bill with lots of sponsors? Do we have cross-party support? Do we have editorial support from the Washington Post and New York Times? Is our bill seen as politically likely to win?

    To be clear: having these things can be good. But traditional politics is best at measuring which way the wind is blowing. Movements are about changing the headwinds of our time.

    Radical bills often look unpalatable — until they pass. Movements go through ups and downs — so if the movement clings to these yardsticks too much during the ups, it can be devastating when they come back down.

    Therefore, emails highlighting huge numbers at protests, or getting endorsements from major newspapers, might unwittingly set the movement up for failure by teaching people to defer to those yardsticks.

    Previous Coverage
  • There’s no predicting when movements will erupt, but this classic activist resource maps their path to success
  • An alternative movement yardstick was put out by Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan years ago, which outlined the natural ups and downs of movements, which typically progress through three steps:

    1. Prove there is a problem.
    2. Prove the failure of established institutions to solve the problem
    3. Prove our alternatives are better than inaction.

    The movement has finally, successfully convinced the nation that there is a problem: Black lives don’t matter to this country. A growing percentage of the public is now accepting that police — as a whole — are not up to the task of respecting Black lives. These are two huge successes.

    The movement’s messages instead could focus on shifts in the cultural mood, the changing narrative — even the clarifying vehemence of our opponents! Because next, we have the daunting task of proving that our alternatives — while not perfect and with their own growing pains — are better than inaction.

    Don’t think movements are synonymous with protests

    One of the most tricky moments for activists comes when the near daily protests in the streets fade. It’s hard to predict when this moment of the whirlwind will slow down. We’re in a pandemic where there is no “normal” life to return to — there are few jobs, no school, and for some of us no places to hang out and socialize.

    But eventually it will happen. Protests will get smaller or disappear. The media will be quick to say the movement has ended. In fact, quite ignorantly, the front page of CNN already quotes people saying it!

    Savvy movements accept that numbers may be smaller in street protests, but take solace in the solidifying of movement language, concepts and support in mainstream society.

    Movement historian Vincent Harding talked about the Black freedom struggle as a “river.” While this moment has new twists — like widespread participation by white people — movement rivers have some predictable ebbs and flows.

    When the movement uprising moves beyond the turbulence of the whitewater, there will be versions of backlash. The media will forget that any change has happened and eventually turn their attention elsewhere. Testing any easing up of the public outcry, politicians and corporate leaders will tiptoe away from their previous stances. As the number of protests dwindle, the exposure of frontline protesters to police retaliation will increase. Wins will become much harder to achieve. All this emboldens the opposition to return to the old status quo.

    The movement should let people know this now, so they’re not unprepared.

    In response, the movement may attempt riskier and bolder actions to try to remake the glory of the whirlwind. If that doesn’t work (and it rarely does), protesters can have a sense of failure, potentially leading to toxic internal power struggles.

    Savvy movements, however, accept that numbers may be smaller in street protests, but take solace in the solidifying of movement language, concepts and support in mainstream society. They dig in and proceed to the task of campaigning for radical reforms where they can — and convincing more people to embrace the revolutionary changes needed.

    As Tamiko Beyer writes, “Street protests grab headlines, and there’s a tendency to focus almost solely on policy and electoral politics as the pathway to change.” But there are many other roles to play in supporting a movement, some of which I explore in “Building A Movement To End the New Jim Crow,” an organizing guide to accompany Michelle Alexander’s acclaimed book “The New Jim Crow.”

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    Don’t be disappointed with the failure of cheap reform 

    Not wanting to appear too tone deaf to public outcry, Senate Republicans put together a reform bill. It was awful: using “training” to limit chokeholds and “reporting” to try to stem the wave of police violence. The movement can be glad it failed to gain energy.

    Not to be outdone, House and Senate Democrats put together their own reform bill. This too barely even nibbled away at the fundamental power of police or the structure of our criminal injustice system. Making chokeholds illegal? Limiting the transfer of military-grade weapons? More police training? That’s nowhere near the problem. Thankfully, it appears destined to fail as well.

    One response to these legislative losses is movement anxiety and feelings of failure or hopelessness. Maybe the government simply does not care. Maybe we cannot win. Maybe we have already lost.

    Breathe. It’s actually good news.

    The 1960s student sit-ins against segregation did not immediately result in legislative wins. Even after the peak event of the March on Washington, it took another year for the 1964 Civil Rights Act to pass. That gap in time was full of legislative maneuvers to try to offer the most watered-down bill possible.

    The Movement for Black Lives has already taken a tremendous step forward, not waiting around for politicians to keep proposing bad policies but instead presenting their own alternative proposals. They are demanding a radical defunding of police and pouring money into services for the Black community.

    The upcoming phase of the movement requires stopping cheap reforms and advancing these radical proposals. Once the public demands action, the opposition wants to know how little they can do to get us off their backs. They therefore offer the easiest actions — the ones that require the smallest change — first.

    From the vantage point of teachable moments, the movement can embrace these cheap reforms as a chance to clarify, educate and do political education.

    The dance with these cheap reforms is more complex than simply shaming them for being insufficient.

    An early concession by the police during this uprising was the symbolic act of police kneeling. Parts of the movement responded differently: Some praised the cops for breaking ranks and challenging their own. Others condemned the cops for doing the least possible while still retaining their guns, their immunity and their intent to kill.

    Because I’m an educator, I’m aware that when learning a new paradigm, two contrary things need to happen. People often implement the easiest reforms first — like a baby learning to walk. If people are met with only negativity, they can get discouraged. So people need some encouragement.

    They also need to be challenged. Few people move into a new worldview casually; it often involves heat and painful reflection. 

    Divergent movement responses speak to these different aspects. Therefore, it’s insufficient to just condemn reforms as not being enough. Showing the way with encouragement for steps made also matters.

    This dance is not simple. It’s painful if Black folks are always left doing the condemnation. Or if the different responses attack each other for not saying the same thing. With bad legislation, foot-dragging politicians and bureaucratic intransigence, the movement will thankfully get lots of practice and have many opportunities for teachable moments.

    From the vantage point of teachable moments, the movement can embrace these cheap reforms as a chance to clarify, educate and do political education. The opposition’s job is to offer the easiest reforms; our job is to teach society why that’s not enough.

    Don’t assume Biden will save us — think of him as a balloon

    If you really believe Biden will save us, then you and I need to have a long talk.

    But even if we know in our hearts that Biden won’t save us, many of us place too much emphasis on the November election. Don’t get me wrong, I expect to do my share of phone calls to turn people out to vote. But after Nov. 3, I plan to be right back in the streets. I hope you will too.

    When Obama was elected, far too many of us waited for him to give us marching orders on health care. The result was a few measured wins, but not the revolutionary change we needed.

    Previous Coverage
  • Movements must give Biden no choice but to move left — as they’ve done with centrist Democrats in the past
  • Thankfully, few of us believe Biden will be a transformative president. That disbelief may be a gift for the movement, if we use it to take strong leadership and lay down the criteria for victory. Movements should dictate values, not elections.

    Those in social movements should see politicians as balloons. A balloon follows the wind. If you blow on it, it can be pushed one way or the other. Politicians follow the wind as well, readily changing their opinions and stances.

    But politicians are balloons tied to a rock. If we swat at them, they may sway to the left or the right. But, tied down, they can only go so far. Instead of simply batting at them, we should focus on moving the rock, which is people’s activated social values.

    Depending on the makeup of our government, the string on the balloon might be longer or shorter. But politicians know they can only be pushed so far one way or the other. If they absolutely violate the activated social norms of their constituents, they are in trouble.

    Politically speaking, our job is to activate those values — and showing up on the streets Nov. 4 is a good way to start.

    Don’t assume our legislative process can’t work, but don’t depend on it

    Governance in this country is a big problem. During my lifetime, virtually no big problems are being solved at the federal level. Pick any episode of the 90s TV show “West Wing” and the problems from that era are still around: immigration, gun control, climate change, partisan gridlock, the Electoral College and the list goes on.

    This isn’t how all countries work. In Western Europe, where they continue to have governments that function more democratically, the elites have been forced to confront big challenges. They are using the pandemic to accede to some demands of the climate movement and outlaw some of the worst carbon polluters, while each level of our government is passing the buck to someone else until blame finally lands on individuals for not wearing masks.

    This is one of the classic signs of an empire in decline. Like Rome or the British Empire, the government is unable to address its core problems. The pandemic has exposed the U.S. government’s fatal inability to protect its own people. In short, our government may not be up to the task of instituting the kind of radical change needed.

    This decline is beyond left or right, Democrat or Republican. The U.S. empire is cracking. Its ability to control countries’ elsewhere is eroding; its sway in international politics and ability to control the global economic order are in retreat. The decline is speeding more and more erratically — as our financial and corporate elites cling to the support that Trump offers them, even in the face of his narcissistic inability to grasp facts, pursue coherent policies, or lead the nation). 

    Previous Coverage
  • Today’s progressive movements must learn from Black Lives Matter — and join together
  • The movement may face the possibility that there’s a lack of political ability to pass meaningful legislation under this current system. In the face of this decline, Black Lives Matter may need to be ready to join other movements in a “movement of movements” to prepare for a revolution in this country.

    That doesn’t mean the movement shouldn’t fight each legislative fight and try to win at each local campaign it can. It has to because our lives depend on it — and that’s a vehicle for moving more people into our corner. 

    But federal, state or local campaigns may not be able to give what the movement wants — especially because the system is too decrepit or weighted down by fanatical devotion to the empire. We should be ready to think about what kind of changes we need so we might actually have a functioning, fruitful, lively democracy. 

    Movements get nurtured when we do these things — when we teach people it’s more than just protest and numbers but about winning over the hearts and minds of the people. Movements win when they stop being in reactive mode to politicians and instead move them like balloons. And movements really win big when they ask for changes they want and prepare the people to understand that the system may need revolutionary action to pull it off. If we do all these things, we’ll have an even stronger, more resilient and powerful movement.

    Inside the battle for Portland with the independent journalists on the streets

    On the night of June 11, as hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters amassed around the Justice Center in Portland, Oregon, federal Homeland Security officers opened fire with “crowd control” munitions. They shot a teargas canister directly at the head of Donavan LaBella, a peaceful protester who had been standing across the street holding a sign. The video that captured the protester — unconscious, bleeding and being carried to safety by other demonstrators and street medics — went viral almost immediately, pushing state officials to make public statements and demand that federal law enforcement pull back.

    This video was shot by a 17-year-old independent journalist Garrison Davis, who was filming on his cell phone and broadcasting on Twitter. He had spent almost every night of the past two months documenting the uprising and the police’s response to it.

    “We wouldn’t have the statements from [Gov.] Kate Brown today if it wasn’t for people like me filming last night,” Davis said. After the video was circulated, the governor, Sen. Ron Wyden, and most of the Portland City Council spoke up and condemned the police behavior. 

    “I see folks running into tear gas with cameras recording to document the brutality, and I just don’t see mainstream news doing that.

    Davis is part of a growing group of independent journalists who have been documenting this massive surge of protests — both in Portland and around the country — without any major media affiliation or expensive equipment. By using social media tools like Twitter and Periscope, they are giving people a first-hand view of what is happening on the streets — something local newspapers and television stations are unable to do on a daily basis due to shrinking budgets. In essence, these independent journalists are filling the gap in coverage, creating the video that is used by the major outlets and providing a clear picture of police behavior that is only possible by being in the middle of the action.

    At the same time, reporters like Davis are also documenting their own repression. As the police continue to use controversial “crowd control” tactics, the definition of who is a journalist and who is a protester has been called into question, and this may be providing cover for police to target the most essential journalists reporting from the field.

    The center of the action

    As the protests emerged in Portland on May 29, the first large demonstration led to a riot in downtown Portland, and the images and reports that people saw came largely from those wielding cell phones, able to get in close to film both police and protesters. Many of the establishment journalists had to report from a distance or were not able to blend into the crowd, which gave them a more distant viewpoint. However, many were willing to film the faces of protesters, a practice that has come under fire as progressive activists have been threatened and targeted by the far right. 

    Federal agents in Portland confront protesters on July 11. (WNV/Daniel V. Media)

    As the protests turned from days into weeks, several of the independent journalists started to establish themselves as people to “follow” on social media sites. Those who wanted to stay informed knew to check in with specific journalists, watch their videos and livestreams and get a direct feed from the center of the protests.

    “There’s no real mainstream media out here. They rely on people like me to record videos for them,” Davis said.

    This is reflected in a lot of the wider coverage, which often uses the videos from independent Portland reporters in major reports. Without their on-the-ground reporting it would be hard for the larger outlets to have a view of the events as they are happening, which means that most of the journalism that has been done about the Portland protests has heavily relied on these accounts.

    “I’ve noticed that independent journalists aren’t afraid or held back,” said a journalist who goes by the handle Jung Sisyphus and is a part of Defend PDX, a media collective of radicals-turned-reporters documenting the protests. “I see folks running into tear gas with cameras recording to document the brutality, and I just don’t see mainstream news doing that. The people who are out there acting as an independent, individual, or citizen reporters have a lot more skin in the game than someone who works for a Sinclair station. So I think they’re going to do a better job.”

    Previous Coverage
  • Increased restrictions on protest won’t keep communities safer
  • With the heavy-handed tactics that the police have been using, many of these unaffiliated journalists have gotten hit hard. While reporters from larger regional stations — such as the PBS affiliate Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Portland — reported being attacked by police, many of the independent journalists got less notice.

    One of the stories that first brought attention to the repression was of local journalist Cory Elia, who has been a reporter for a few years, working with both the community radio station KBOO and the website the Village Portland. Elia says that he was outraged by the killing of George Floyd and wanted to come down to document the protest, speeches and art that people were making against police violence.

    “I thought it was just going to be regular protests like in the past,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting [the] extreme levels of force that I have [now] seen used so far in multiple occasions.” Over six weeks of encounters with the police Elia reports seeing protesters and journalists beaten with batons, hit with tear gas and regularly attacked. “There were a half dozen incidents where I was struck with a baton,” je noted.

    On June 30, the night that demonstrations surrounded the Portland Police Association building in North Portland, Elia was filming the rough treatment police were leveling on protesters. He says that shortly after he identified one officer by name, he was suddenly swooped up by a group of them and arrested, spending the night in jail and having his property seized. He has now been charged with two felonies and two misdemeanors, including assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. 

    An assault on journalism

    The assault on journalists is not just a Portland phenomenon as reporters across the country began documenting — oftentimes with clear evidence — the aggressive abuse police were levying against them while in the line of duty. High profile incidents in Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles and other cities saw police beating and arresting journalists, even while they were showing their press passes or explaining that they were reporters. 

    Federal agents in Portland confront protesters on July 11. (WNV/Daniel V. Media)

    As the uprising continued city to city, the blanket response from police was so aggressive that journalists became some of the most vocal advocates for a review of use-of-force protocols — particularly as the aggression threatened their ability to accurately report the situation on the ground.

    Attacks on journalists in Portland became so common that the police tried to explain themselves on July 14, saying that journalists had to follow dispersal orders. This, of course, runs counter to the very nature of journalism, which is o be there to capture events as they are happening, despite the conflicts or disruptions taking place.

    “After that first week, it quickly escalated to us being treated like protesters. We weren’t being treated as neutral observers,” said Sergio Olmos, a freelance reporter who has been at the protest nightly capturing footage.

    The behavior by the police created outrage and a petition signed by journalists began circulating, asking police to stop infringing on their First Amendment rights. On June 30, the Oregon ACLU filed a class action lawsuit against the city seeking to stop the Portland police from “assaulting news reporters, photographers, legal observers and other neutrals who are documenting the police’s violent response to protests over the murder of George Floyd.” 

    “Police do not seem interested in protecting freedom of speech, assembly or press, despite what they may claim on the LRAD,” said Tuck Woodstock, a freelance journalist who has been covering the protests and has signed on as a co-plaintiff in the ACLU suit. The LRAD is the audio system police use to communicate with protesters or to disperse them with dangerously loud sounds.

    “The police might even act more violent than they already have been if the videos, photos and stories journalists share weren’t used to help hold them accountable.”

    Elia has filed his own suit as well, along with his co-plaintiff Lesley McLam, which alleges “the deprivation of rights guaranteed to them by the First, Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution.” The petition goes on to say that the behavior of the police has led to a violation of basic rights by their use of force, disallowed access to space, and disregard shown for protesters and press.

    “One of the main things I am really frustrated about is the level of respect they were showing not only to myself but to every member of the media,” said Elia, who is demanding in his lawsuit, among other things, that police be put through de-escalation training. 

    Part of the argument police made was that anyone with a phone and a social media account could call themselves a journalist. So they felt they should not have to treat them all with the same credibility as legacy media. 

    “With the advent of livestreaming and social media there are many more independent journalists in the field … the unlawful orders apply to everyone, without exception,” said Lt. Tina Jones in a June 14 video posted to Portland Police social media.

    What much of the argument misses is that these independent journalists — many of whom are just starting out or have joined in support of the protests — are crucial to providing the in-depth coverage the public deserves.

    Federal agents in Portland confront protesters on July 11. (WNV/Daniel V. Media)

    “I’m out there to tell the story of what is happening in the streets and in our communities,” said Daniel Vincent, an independent journalist who runs the YouTube account Daniel V. Media. “Without journalists out there, documenting important stories can go untold. The police might even act more violent than they already have been if the videos, photos and stories journalists share weren’t used to help hold them accountable.” 

    After outcry from public officials and additional lawsuits, there were some changes put into place. Don’t Shoot PDX, a local anti-racist organization that has been organizing with some of the protest actions, filed a lawsuit related to the use of tear gas, which resulted in a temporary injunction last month. Then, on July 2, a federal judge issued a “temporary restraining order” that limited some of the Portland police’s treatment of protesters, including barring arresting anyone who obviously appears to be a reporter. The independent journalists who felt targeted have followed suit by ensuring that press passes are visible and that they have “PRESS” written on clothing and helmets, clearly visible to police clearing the area with crowd control methods.

    In come the Feds

    Journalists say that the lawsuits, injunctions and high profile response by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and other officials condemning the police’s actions had a calming effect on the police behavior. That was until Department of Homeland Security agents were deployed to Portland following President Trump’s June 26 executive order designed to protect monuments. While the Portland police were sanctioned for their aggressive treatment, and subsequently modified their protocols, the federal law enforcement personnel have no such orders.

    “The ACLU lawsuit offered journalists some protections from Portland Police Bureau [or PBB]. But days later, the federal officials took over, and journalists were back to getting bull-rushed away from the scenes they were trying to cover,” Woodstock said. “Federal officials operate under different rules than PPB, so it’s definitely very different. We all got used to the rhythms and processes of PPB. This is a new ballgame.”

    Previous Coverage
  • As the far-right descends on Portland, police target counter-protesters
  • The federal officers have reportedly failed to pull back and respect the rights of journalists, as the Portland police have recently done. Instead, there is a blanket use of force, where they have cleared protest spaces with an aggressive use of tear gas and crowd control munitions. This is what led to the blow that fractured the skull of LaBella.

    Now the repression against journalists is back on the table as the entire city has to reckon with the incredibly aggressive law enforcement approach that has been implemented.

    “I’ve been flash banged, tear gassed and shot with pepper rounds and rubber bullets dozens of times — often for just filming the scene, sometimes in an empty park with not even a protest happening and marked identifiably as press,” said Mierin Fanucchi, an independent reporter who has been broadcasting on Twitter. “I know that there would be a higher risk — if only slightly — of being detained without my press pass, but it certainly doesn’t stop us from getting shot at and gassed. More so now that the feds have been mobilized, I’ve been shot at, gassed and disrespected with increasing frequency and aggression.”

    The protests have continued nightly as both Portland police and federal law enforcement use weapons to disperse the crowds, and the anger across the city is becoming palpable. Mayor Wheeler has said that he expects the federal officers to follow the same protocols as was given to the city police, and he is facing angry denunciations and lawsuits from protesters and journalists alike. The police response seems a likely culprit for why the protests have been going on for more than six weeks in Portland, despite having somewhat subsided around the country.

    “I think a lot of people are honestly committed to the idea of police reform or abolition,” says Laura Kedeed, who reports for the Defend PDX collective on Twitter. “The more you go to these protests, the more names you learn and the more you realize how deep the problem goes. And feeling that brutality on your own skin does tend to inspire one to continue fighting. But if we’re all being honest, it’s not the only reason. With COVID, there’s not a lot of sanctioned nighttime activities, and I think just socializing with humans is a huge draw.”

    The federal officers shocked the entire country when video from an independent journalist surfaced where officers, dressed in fatigues as though they were there for war, “snatched” a protester and shoved them into an unmarked van without warning. This seeming violation of basic rights frightened many and became the leading story across the country, as Trump’s treatment of protesters has come to a head. While local officials are now demanding that federal authorities leave, they are there on Trump’s orders, and there is no indication they are going anywhere.

    Committed journalism

    On the 46th night of protests, the crowds decided to move from the Justice Center back to the police union’s building, where police arrested five protesters in what they said was a riot. As with previous nights, reporters, protesters and politicians raised concerns about the violent methods the police have used, which are causing serious injuries. Over the following nights, they moved around the city, and federal officers were continuing to use impact munitions and broad blankets of tear gas to clear crowds.

    As the protests continue, a growing collection of independent journalists are continuing to create an uninterrupted stream of coverage of the demonstrations. Since few of these reporters are getting paid for their work — and many just have apps like Venmo or CashApp listed on their profiles — they are driven by the importance of their journalism work.

    “You go out there and people really test their character,” Olmos said. “You see medics throw water on people’s eyes. Outside of this it’s very hard to show valor or a sense of brotherhood or sisterhood. That’s the kind of thing you see in conflict areas, and we’re seeing it in downtown Portland. People go down there and put themselves at risk for others, and that is pretty amazing.”

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    On July 17 the ACLU announced that it was filing a lawsuit against DHS to stop federal officers from “dispersing, arresting, threatening to arrest, or using physical force against journalists or legal observers.” There are multiple independent journalists named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including Woodstock and Olmos. Now most of the state’s elected officials are calling for the officers to stand down.

    Portland has already made public moves to alter the police force, such as disbanding a long-controversial gang unit, now called the Gun Violence Team. Without the close documentation of alleged abuses, this likely would not have happened. Protesters are not stopping there and are demanding a more systemic end to the structure of policing. With this in mind, the journalists documenting what is happening in the streets play a critical role in exposing the exact police practices that have sparked the demonstrations in the first place.

    The unionization attempt at No Evil Foods holds lessons for workers across the country

    Employees who try to unionize their workplace can usually expect what is called a “captive audience” meeting, where management gives their “perspective” on the unionization drive. Because management can force workers to attend these meetings, it is often an effective tool if the leadership of a workplace is looking to dispel interest in building a union. 

    Since a union in the workplace leads to both higher wages and better benefits — as well as erodes management’s authority — few bosses remain neutral during a union fight. It is not uncommon to find them returning to tactics that workers describe as intimidating or coercive. This is even true in workplaces that espouse “progressive” or left-wing principles, where rhetoric and politics mean little when money and power are on the line.

    This is what several employees allege happened when they tried to unionize at No Evil Foods — a large vegan foods brand founded in 2014 and available at more than 5,500 retail locations, including Whole Foods. No Evil Foods sought to appeal to social justice activists by using names like El Zapatista or Comrade Chuck for their products, but were firm in their opposition to a union.

    Since they appeal to the tradition of the militant workers’ movement and tout themselves as being a pro-worker company, many people were surprised when audio surfaced in May of management using what workers called intimidation tactics in their captive audience meeting to undermine a union organizing drive at their Weaverville, North Carolina plant.

    “I sincerely believe that right now a union would be a terrible thing for you and for No Evil Foods,” said Mike Woliansky, the CEO of No Evil Foods. He went on to say that the union would hurt the company and not give workers a voice. Wolinsky gave the impression that union cards were scary legal documents that could lead to unintended ramifications for the workers signing them. He added that the union in question — the United Food and Commercial Workers, or UFCW — has a history of high paid executives, scandal and supporting slaughterhouses.

    “You could get more than you currently have,” Woliansky said, seemingly trying to incite anxiety over the prospect of a union. “You could get the same thing you currently have. You could get less than you currently have. I don’t think you need a union voice here.”

    The organizing employees at No Evil Food eventually lost their union election 43-15 on Feb. 13, but their story provides many lessons on the challenges of unionizing in a liberal workplace and how workers can try to overcome them.

    Driving for a voice in a progressive workplace

    Despite what Woliansky’s statements, many of the employees believed that a union intervention was necessary to address working conditions, compensation and what kind of say they have in the workplace.

    “The union was brought up by past employees who originally were wanting higher wages, healthcare and a voice within the company,” said a former employee who chose to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

    Previous Coverage
  • The Little Big Union joins the growing movement to transform fast food
  • Workers called out their supervisors for micromanagement, a double standard between management and rank-and-file employees on COVID-19 prevention measures, shifting schedules, turnover and other major issues. During the crisis, workers say that it was impossible to adequately follow social distancing protocols and still meet the production goals that workers were being held to.

    “The primary workplace issue I noticed involved poor management, almost always stemming from a dead-set focus on the bottom line,” said Jon Reynolds, a production employee who worked at No Evil Foods from October 2019 to May 1. “For most of my employment, even after the union drive, we were using skiing goggles for protective eyewear and gloves with holes. We worked with a chemical which is extremely toxic and should never get on your skin, yet almost everyone who worked in the [dishwashing space] ended up getting it on them.” 

    Management countered that they follow current regulations on good manufacturing practices, which are intended to ensure customer and staff safety, when we reached out to them for comment.

    Captive audiences

    The “captive audience” meetings were one of the primary ways that workers say No Evil Foods undermined the strength of the unionization effort. The employees argue that those meetings instilled fear as a way of collapsing organizing efforts, often by encouraging confusion. By presenting a unionized workplace as a total unknown, then offering examples of what could happen, it created a great deal of uncertainty that made a “no vote” more attractive.

    “They essentially scared and confused everyone. Fears about dues, about the union suing us, about sexual harassment running rampant, about union corruption, about pay, about the investors,” Reynolds said, noting that there was more support for the union before these tactics were used by management in the required “captive audience” meetings.

    “These meetings were without a doubt, the most aggressive, confrontational and ridiculous propaganda presentations I have ever been subjected to on such a personal level,” said Meagan Sullivan, a former No Evil Foods employee who started in December and left in June because she was becoming “physically sick with anxiety” each day before starting her shift. “Between their blatant misinformation about the UFCW, unions in general, and hyperbolic claims about how sexual harassers will be impossible to fire, it was incredibly difficult to not be constantly on the defensive during these meetings. They were mandatory, even for an employee who was experiencing panic attacks as a result of them.”

    “We responded to their flyers and mudslinging, when we should have stuck to the issues that mattered to people.”

    While the unionizing employees were working with the support of UFCW Local 1208, which also represents workers at Smithfield Foods, the workers themselves were building support for the campaign through relationships. This was centered on trying to correct misinformation the workers allege was coming from management in these meetings.

    “I held meetings at my home and invited people over to eat, drink, chill out and casually talk about the union while building solidarity,” said Reynolds, who spent their time trying to counter fear messaging that management had offered about unions protecting predators and abusers in the workplace. “This was incredibly useful and helped foster a tight-knit group of people who would go on and vote for the union, even if we ended up being a minority. We were resilient to the propaganda and did our best to try to talk to others and sway them.” Despite their best efforts, Reynolds said that many who were initially supportive of forming a union were slowly swayed to vote against it by the company. 

    Staffing

    One of the difficulties of unionizing low-wage workplaces is that turnover is often incredibly high. People will move on quickly and do not often identify strongly with their job. This was the case at No Evil Foods, particularly when workers say they started to increase working hours in 2019. This creates a difficult situation since the workers who initiate the organizing drive may not still be employed by the time the bureaucratic National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, process comes to a head. This was part of the problem at No Evil Foods, as many of the employees who started the drive were forced to move on by the time the vote was held. 

    When No Evil Foods started shifting people’s schedules, this made it hard to maintain the same employees since people often take a particular job because they are able to make it work with their own obligations. Whether intentional or not on management’s part, this often squashes organizing by forcing out the employees who had started the organizing drive.

    According to an anonymous former employee, “The early attempts at unionizing were shut down with a forced schedule change, which changed our work week from Monday-Thursday to Monday-Friday — with one forced Saturday overtime shift a month. One-third of the crew left during this time.” After new people were hired, the remaining unionizing staff would approach them about the issues and get them involved in the union. Interest in unionization began to pick up steam again, but it was an uphill battle with a workforce in flux.

    Workers who are organizing often try to address this issue by sticking with their workplace for the long-haul in advance of the unionization effort, but also by refusing to let the unionization process be led by only a small inner circle. This was why the staff at No Evil Foods worked to constantly involve new employees in the unionization effort as they came in. 

    It is also why some campaigns at low-wage workplaces with high turnover, such as the Burgerville Workers Union, has had success over long periods of time. At Burgerville, the union became an established presence even in workplaces where a union election has not taken place yet, ensuring workers would get involved in shop-floor organizing.

    Firing workers

    While No Evil Foods workers lost their union election, many of the employees continued to organize around their issues using a solidarity union model, as has been done in many other workplaces. This approach to unionization focuses more on taking action in the workplace to push for changes rather than only relying on federally regulated procedures, which many people see as weighted in the direction of the boss. These actions could be anything from petitions to wearing pro-union buttons to strikes and civil disobedience. 

    Previous Coverage
  • Burgerville workers aim to take Fight for $15 to next level
  • Solidarity unionism can win workplace victories like raises or safety improvements, reorient the rest of the workers to the union and it can counter the messaging from the boss about the union’s intention. By continuing to take action, this type of organizing can also build up a base of support to launch another election in the future.

    After the union lost the election, the pandemic hit and management offered a pay differential, but it had a series of caveats, including 90 days of perfect attendance. The organizing workers were outraged by this, and began a workplace petition for a $1.50 raise without exception. After the majority of employees signed, management offered a total $2.25 “hazard pay” differential. Management has pointed out that this differential, which they are calling “hero pay,” has continued indefinitely for the employees while many companies have ended it as reopening proceeds. After the employees saw the success they had, they planned for more petitions. Reynolds alleges that the threat of petitions and the public backlash to the company’s anti-union tactics raised the stakes for the employees who were fighting for change on the job. It was then that several workers who had signed the petition and had voted in favor of the union were fired.

    “In late April, they started firing people who had the most legible signatures on the petition,” Reynolds said. “I was fired for allegedly not taking social distancing seriously, even as it remains impossible to always social distance and enforcement is sporadic and random. Someone else was fired for a dress code violation. Someone else was fired for having a wallet in their pocket. It was retaliation against organizers and against anyone who legibly signed the first petition for hazard pay.”

    Firing employees for unionizing or taking workplace action is illegal, though it is surprisingly common and one of the primary reasons that unions file Unfair Labor Practice, or ULP, complaints with the NLRB.

    No Evil Foods worker Cortne Roche has two open ULPs over these actions (and one that is now closed). The charges in these complaints include discharging workers for concerted activities, intimidation of organizing workers and coercive action. 

    Roche says she was fired for a reason no other employee was fired for — a supposed dress code violation that was allegedly selectively enforced. “This [was] a mere [three] weeks after being a known purveyor of a petition for hazard pay, making pro-worker, pro-union posts on my social media, and being a known supporter of the union,” she said. “It’s not rocket science. They say a few of us were not going to shut up about problems we saw and how to solve them through concerted activity. That hurts the dynamic of power and control all companies enjoy when they have an unorganized labor force, so they fired us.”

    No Evil Foods disputes that any worker was fired for concerted activity and says that they respect the employees’ right to organize.

    “No Evil Foods absolutely did not terminate any employees in response to union-related or other protected activities,” said Charlie Stone, a spokesperson for the company. “To protect the privacy of any former employee, we cannot discuss the numerous and various documented violations of company policy that would lead to dismissal.”

    The firing of organizing employees is so common that many unions prepare for it to happen during an organizing drive, and will inoculate workers to management’s threats by telling them in advance. ULPs and public accountability can be effective counter-measures to the firing of workers, and employees can even build campaigns specifically around a fired employee. Marches on the boss, public petitions, rallies, strikes and other workplace actions can then be taken to get the worker rehired, and this can further animate the employees to get more involved in the unionization attempt.

    False promises

    A common tactic management uses to squash workplace organizing is to offer small improvements, like raises or the ability to air grievances. It is not uncommon to see workers get a raise directly after they vote down a union, or even in advance of the election, as a way of showing that the union is not needed. No Evil Foods has gone one step further by presenting themselves as a genuinely left-wing company, which sends the message to employees that they care about their interests.

    Management at No Evil Foods allegedly divided employees into groups so they could share their issues, which they said was simply a way of addressing problems in the workplace. Many organizers saw this as an attempt to actually divide workers, see who are the biggest union agitators, and break up attempts at collective action.

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    “At the time I believed management was doing this to help resolve any workplace issues that led to people contacting a union in the first place,” Sullivan said. “I’m now aware this is a common tactic used for the purpose of union busting — to determine who is leading the charge while addressing people in small groups — and can break solidarity among workers who are all frustrated over one particular issue(s).”

    This dynamic gives workers the sense that they have a voice in decision making. But without a contract and an independent labor organization ensuring those rights, they are entirely up to the whims of management. This is why the organizing workers had decided to form a union in the first place, and organizers can make this point to their coworkers to counter the messaging coming from management.

    Make them play by their rules

    The idea of a progressive company pushing back on unionization despite their professed values is not new. There have been many other high profile examples in recent years. Non-profit workers, liberal media companies, political campaigners and even union staff people have all been part of a successful wave of unionization over the last few years. Despite the politics of the organizations they work for, they have argued that they still need a voice on the job to ensure an equitable workplace. In the case of No Evil Foods, the politics could simply have been a branding technique, since they saw a gold rush in the world of plant-based alternative meats and wanted to appeal to a progressive customer base.

    This dynamic creates an opportunity for organizing employees to force their employers to live up to the values they publicly profess. When organizers went to the media, they forced No Evil Foods to respond and defend their image. This likely hurt their brand loyalty from the left-wing of their customer base, who called them to account over their seemingly leftist politics. The use of these political slogans is a strategy that workers can use to pressure the company to stop fighting the union since it gives organizers the opportunity to force management to live up to its public rhetoric.

    The workers who worked to unionize have looked back on the campaign in an effort to extract lessons that can help other employees who are trying to unionize in similar situations.

    “No one will deny that the pay and benefits at No Evil Foods are competitive for the area, but any of that is subject to change without it being solidified in a contract.”

    “We got on the defensive when the company started its anti-union campaign,” Roche said reflecting on why she thinks the campaign lost and how the workers could have done it differently. “We responded to their flyers and mudslinging, when we should have stuck to the issues that mattered to people. We did not systematically survey our coworkers on the issues and change they wanted. We didn’t bring enough workers onto the organizing committee. Most importantly we did not boldly present our commitment to being pro-union through wearing shirts, pins or posting our faces on the walls with why we believed the union makes us strong.”

    No Evil Foods has its own explanation for why the union lost in an election. “Five months ago, after hearing all sides of this issue and in a fair and free election, the employees by close to a 70 percent margin declined the union (commonly referred to as a meat packers union) as not the right choice for this vegan company,” said Stone, a company spokesperson. “The employees did this because the founders do the right thing, and the employees believe the union is not needed — they know their voices are heard and they trust the vegan founders, who provide a progressive culture, living wages, excellent benefits (including covering 100 percent of healthcare premiums), and a mission to provide consumers with plant-based options to improve their health, preserve the environment, and help end corporate cruelty to animals.”

    The No Evil Foods workers trying to unionize were part of a new generation of workers who are looking toward unions as a solution to precarious, low-wage jobs. The lessons from this campaign can apply across industries, but especially to those companies that have a progressive image.

    “This company will inevitably be huge,” Sullivan said. “They’re growing extremely fast and backed by the same venture capitalists that fund other large vegan brands like Impossible Foods. No one will deny that the pay and benefits at No Evil Foods are competitive for the area, but any of that is subject to change without it being solidified in a contract. These employees deserve a voice and job security.”

    As the economy changes, the only way that employees can ensure that their concerns are taken seriously is through collective action. Without demonstrating their independent power, they will be beholden to their bosses’ decisions and the liberal politics management espouses in public will only go so far.

    Community peacemakers in Chicago offer a proven alternative to policing

    Imagine a world where after being accused of using a counterfeit bill, George Floyd was approached by a community member who helped mediate the situation, rather than the police officer who suffocated him as he begged for his life. A world where Rayshard Brooks was not murdered for falling asleep in his car in a Wendy’s parking lot, but given a ride home. A world where Elijah McClain was not choked and injected with ketamine for “acting suspicious,” but simply asked by a neighbor how he was doing.

    Those in power would have us believe that such a world is impossible — but for the past four years, the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago has been providing a roadmap for what this radical reimagining of justice might look like. 

    For decades, Chicago has been plagued by gun violence, which has taken the lives of more than 350 people in the city this year. Nonviolence Chicago’s workers are guided by Martin Luther King’s principles and defuse conflict through mediation rather than by force. Whenever there is a shooting, outreach workers arrive at the scene within 30 minutes to advocate against retaliation — and even when they insert themselves in potentially dangerous situations, they do not wear bullet proof vests and refuse to carry weapons. 

    “People who are involved in violence are human, just like anyone else,” said Sam Castro, the institute’s outreach program supervisor. “They need love and resources.”

    “Many of our staff have been formerly incarcerated or gang involved — and yet, when given an opportunity and purpose, they dedicate their entire lives to shaping the lives of others.”

    The institute was founded in 2015, right after the city was left reeling from yet another devastating loss. This time, it was the police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times as he ran away. The increasingly-militarized Chicago Police Department later funded an elaborate cover-up, further confirming that they could not be depended on to address the homicide rates in the community. In fact, police were frequently the purveyors of violence themselves. 

    In Chicago, this violence is especially appalling: It includes the assassination of the Black revolutionary Fred Hampton in 1969, two decades of torturing Black suspects, imprisoning thousands at a secretive interrogation site and spending millions of taxpayer dollars on brutality settlements while local schools are shuttered due to lack of funds.

    The background of the institute’s founder, Teny Gross, prepared him to relate to the violence in Chicago — both as a victim and perpetrator. On the one hand, members of family had been persecuted by the Nazis and killed during the Holocaust. On the other, he helped enforce a violent military occupation during his time in the Israeli Defense Force, a perspective which moved him to spend the rest of his life studying, teaching and practicing a philosophy of nonviolence.

    Since 2015, the institute has expanded to Austin, Back of Yards and West Garfield Park — some of the city’s most at-risk districts. Most of its workers grew up in the neighborhoods they serve. As Senior Director Chris Patterson explained, “Many of our staff have been formerly incarcerated or gang involved — and yet, when given an opportunity and purpose, they dedicate their entire lives to shaping the lives of others. They put on their invisible capes everyday to go out and help people.”

    Outreach workers from across the city came together to show Black and brown unity through a march in the Little Village neighborhood. (WNV/Chris Patterson)

    Although it’s impossible to attribute lowering crime levels in Chicago to any one source, Nonviolence Chicago’s outreach has been overwhelmingly successful. Between 2016 and 2019, Austin had 47 percent fewer homicides and 45 percent fewer nonfatal shootings. After leading the city in homicides for over a decade, Austin had the sharpest reduction in violence in 2018. 

    Similar organizations have had positive results in other cities, including Philadelphia, Nashville, Oakland and Washington, D.C. 

    Restorative justice in action

    Unlike the United States’ current criminal justice system, which aims to punish people after they commit acts of violence, Nonviolence Chicago focuses on nurturing and empowering at-risk individuals so that they can prevent violence from ever taking place. In 2019 alone, its workers were able to make 45,467 contacts with individuals involved in violence.  

    “When we do our job, people don’t get shot, and they also don’t go to jail,” Patterson said. “When there’s a conflict, we’ve asked community members to try calling us before they call the police. We’ve said that in front of the police, and they agree.”

    Before joining Nonviolence Chicago’s team, Castro spent nearly 17 years in state and federal prisons. His past has enabled him to reach out to people who are going through what he once was. “If you’re a person who’s never lived through it, and you see a shooting on TV where an innocent bystander gets shot, you might be like, ‘Why would somebody do that? They’re monsters,’” Castro said. “But for me, it used to be normal. You don’t know what these people go through — we had trauma, we had bottled up anger, we had frustrations. We were looking for love, and we found it on the street.”

    Sam Castro, the institute’s outreach program supervisor, coordinating donations during the pandemic. (WNV/Janet Alonso)

    To demonstrate the power of violence intervention, Castro often shares a story about a group of young people who had a reputation for being involved in violence in the community. “I went to their house. There were maybe 13 guys and 15 guns. I took off my shirt, we ordered pizza. We talked for about four hours,” Castro said. Later, he assisted their mothers with resources, and got a few of the men jobs. “Now, whenever I see them, they’ll pull up their shirts, and be like, ‘Hey, we don’t got no guns! We’re about to go play basketball.’”

    For Tasha Poplous, a victims advocate for Nonviolence Chicago, the work of building relationships with people immersed in violence is deeply personal. “I’ve lost someone in my life to gun violence,” she said. “After a while, the text messages and the phone calls slow down. But everybody needs someone, in one way or another. They need to know that someone cares about them.” 

    Whenever there is a shooting in the neighborhood she serves, Poplous will track down the victims to visit them in the hospital. In some cases, she is their only visitor — and her presence can be critical when it comes to discouraging retaliatory shootings. “I tell them if they don’t want to end up in jail or end up dead, they have to take precautions,” she said. “Some of them are welcoming. Even when they’re bleeding from every which way, they’ll say, ‘Yes, I need your help.’”

    For many people involved in violence, this is the first opportunity they’ve had to speak about a lifetime of trauma, which is an experience that can be transformative. “I’ve been shot a few times, and I never talked to anybody about it,” Castro said. “The hard part is getting them to open up.”

    “Our job is to connect and build relationships, whether they’re the person being shot or the person doing the shooting. At the end of the day, they’re both victims of something.” 

    Since the pandemic, Poplous is no longer able to visit victims in hospitals. The virus has also impacted her role in planning funerals and memorial services for those lost to gun violence. As funeral homes try to adhere to social distancing protocols, Nonviolence Chicago’s workers have been standing outside, limiting the amount of people who can go in. They’ve also been comforting families who have been robbed of their chance to properly mourn their loved ones. 

    Even when the world isn’t in the midst of a pandemic, being on the frontlines can be emotionally exhausting — especially because being available to respond to community members in crisis can leave little room for self-care. Recent weeks have been especially busy for the institute’s peacemakers, who have been protesting the brutal murder of George Floyd while trying to de-escalate conflict to keep the community safe, facing pepper spray in the process. 

    “Quite a few times we were able to help people in dire situations,” said Patterson, who recounted a shooting that took place after a group of people stole a TV from a family’s van during one of the protests. “A member of the family was grazed, and the car was so messed up with bullets that they were pretty much stranded. The family had guns, and they were initially so panicked that they were ready to shoot anything that came their way. But we were able to calm them down, and we gave them a ride home. If we hadn’t been there, who knows what that could have turned into.”

    Chris Patterson in the Back of the Yards neighborhood building peace. (WNV/Chris Patterson)

    Shootings, which have increased due to tensions surrounding the pandemic, continue to rise as the weather gets warmer. Father’s Day weekend was especially brutal — with more than 100 people shot and 14 people killed, including five children. 

    “We feel like if we don’t take a call, or if we take a day off, something may happen to a person,” Castro said. “I understand that sometimes you can’t save people, but it still hurts my heart when a person is killed. You always think, ‘Man, did we do everything we could have done?’”

    The institutional violence fueling gun violence

    The peacemakers of Nonviolence Chicago take on many roles, but at the heart of all their work is a willingness to reach out to people and meet them where they are. “Our job is to connect and build relationships, whether they’re the person being shot or the person doing the shooting,” Castro said. “At the end of the day, they’re both victims of something.” 

    In a country founded on white supremacy that maintains the largest imprisonment rate in the world, it’s impossible to combat street violence without confronting the institutional violence that fuels it. For decades, impoverished Black and Latino youth have been criminalized by a war on drugs designed to incentivize the mass incarceration of human beings for free labor and profit. This so-called “war” has willfully devastated low-income communities of color, like many areas of Chicago, that already faced segregation and housing discrimination. 

    Combined with police corruption and lax gun laws in neighboring states, where nearly 60 percent of the guns in Chicago come from, these policies have been lethal. Never has this been more evident than during the pandemic — one in six of Chicago’s coronavirus cases can be traced back to Cook County Jail, where 1,000 employees and detainees have tested positive.

    “Mass incarceration may be working for those old farmers who now have a new plantation, but it’s not working for Black America, so restorative justice is an answer,” Patterson said. 

    Restorative justice is a theory of justice that focuses on addressing the harm that crime causes to people, relationships and community. The theory emphasizes cooperation between offenders and victims, the prevention of future harm and rehabilitation. 

    Institute of Nonviolence Chicago staff unloading a large donation of diapers, toiletries and food from Chicago Cares in our office. (WNV/Tara Dabney)

    Because people often turn to violence as a means of survival, the workers of Nonviolence Chicago believe that providing the community with resources is a vital element of violence prevention. Since the pandemic began, their team has been distributing hundreds of meals, boxes of groceries and hygiene kits each week. They’ve quickly adapted to addressing people’s needs as they arise — including helping families pay rent, connecting essential workers with daycares and finding shelter for people who are homeless.

    “It’s important for people to understand that this wasn’t some white savior who came from outside of the community,” said Tara Dabney, the institute’s director of communications. “The people that the rest of the country see as ‘violent’ or as throwaways — because they have been convicted — these are the people who have never stopped working. They’ve been there since day one, responding to both COVID and violence in ways that are loving and compassionate and real.”

    Building Chicago’s beloved community

    The ultimate vision of Nonviolence Chicago is not simply to end the cycle of violence, but to create what King called “a beloved community” — a fellowship of human beings built on redemption, reconciliation and radical love. According to King, this requires both “a qualitative change in our souls and a qualitative change in our lives.”

    “I’ve had staff who have been in jail for murder who have shed tears when people die on the street, because they understand how tragic the loss of life really is,” Patterson said. “There’s a strength and toughness, but also a tender care from people who have been downtrodden for so long. Chicago is full of beautiful, spirited people … and when given the opportunity to change their life, most people take it.” 

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    In wake of the current uprisings, the institute’s peacemakers are hoping to develop a model that can be used by communities across the country. Because street outreach usually takes place in neighborhoods that outsiders rarely step foot in, they’ve also been encouraging volunteers to join them in passing out food, so that they can witness what restorative justice looks like in action. Lastly, they hope to increase the city’s budget for street outreach, which is currently only $11.5 million, as opposed to the more than $2.45 billion allocated to the Chicago Police Department.  

    When the institute first expanded to Austin in 2016, workers struggled to get the word out about nonviolence. “Now there are people on the streets quoting Dr. King — I’m talking about gang-involved individuals,” Patterson said. “They may not be able to understand all the principles, but they understand ‘beloved community.’”

    Inside the sudden, rising wave of military and veteran dissent

    This article was originally published by TomDispatch.

    It was June 20th and we antiwar vets had traveled all the way to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the midst of a pandemic to protest President Trump’s latest folly, an election 2020 rally where he was to parade his goods and pretend all was well with this country.

    We never planned to go inside the cavernous arena where that rally was to be held. I was part of our impromptu reconnaissance team that called an audible at the last moment. We suddenly decided to infiltrate not just the perimeter of that Tulsa rally, but the BOK Center itself. That meant I got a long, close look at the MAGA crowd there in what turned out to be a more than half-empty arena.

    Our boots-on-the-ground coalition of two national antiwar veteran organizations — About Face and Veterans for Peace, or VFP — had thrown together a rather risky direct action event in coordination with the local activists who invited us.

    We planned to climb the three main flagpoles around that center and replace an Old Glory, an Oklahoma state flag and a Tulsa one with Black Lives-themed banners. Only on arrival, we found ourselves stymied by an eleventh-hour change in the security picture: new gates and unexpected police deployments. Hopping metal barriers and penetrating a sizable line of cops and National Guardsmen seemed to ensure a fruitless trip to jail, so into the under-attended indoor rally we went, to — successfully it turned out — find a backdoor route to those flagpoles.

    Once inside, we had time to kill. While others in the group infiltrated and the flagpole climbers donned their gear, five of us — three white male ex-foot soldiers in America’s forever wars and two Native American women (one a vet herself) — took a breather in the largely empty upper deck of the rally. Nervous joking then ensued about the absurdity of wearing the Trump “camouflage” that had eased our entrance. My favorite disguise: a Hispanic ex-Marine buddy’s red-white-and-blue “BBQ, Beer, Freedom” tank top.

    The music irked me instantly. Much to the concern of the rest of the team, I’d brought a notebook along and was already furtively scribbling. At one point, we listened sequentially to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” The Beatles’s “Let It Be,” and Queen’s “We Are The Champions” over the arena’s loudspeakers. I couldn’t help but wonder how that Black man of, let’s say, complicated sexual orientation, four outspoken British hippies and a gay AIDs victim (Freddie Mercury) would feel about the way the Trump campaign had co-oped their songs. We can guess though, since the late Tom Petty’s family quickly denounced the use of his rock song “I Won’t Back Down” at the rally.

    I watched an older white woman in a “Joe Biden Sucks, Nancy Pelosi Swallows” T-shirt gleefully dancing to Michael Jackson’s falsetto (“But the kid is not my son!”). Given that “Billie Jean” blatantly describes an out-of-wedlock paternity battle and that odds were this woman was a pro-life proponent of “family values,” there was something obscene about her carefree shimmy.

    A contrast in patriotism

    And then, of course, there was the version of patriotism on display in the arena. I’ve never seen so many representations of the Stars and Stripes in my life, classic flags everywhere and flag designs plastered on all manner of attire. Remember, I went to West Point. No one showed the slightest concern that many of the red-white-and-blue adaptations worn or waved strictly violated the statutes colloquially known as the U.S. Flag Code (United States Code, Title 4, Chapter 1).

    That said, going undercover in Trumplandia means entering a universe in which it’s exceedingly clear that one political faction holds the flag hostage. They see it as theirs — and only theirs. They define its meaning, its symbolism and its proper use, not to speak of whom it represents. The crowd, after all, was vanilla. (There were more people of color serving beers than cheering the president.)

    By a rough estimate, half of the attendees had some version of the flag on their clothing, Trump banners, or other accessories, signaling more than mere national pride. Frequently sharing space with Old Glory were images of (often military-grade) weaponry, skulls (one wearing an orange toupee) and anti-liberal slogans. Notable shirts included: the old Texas War of Independence challenge “Come And Take It!” above the sort of AK-47 assault rifle long favored by America’s enemies; a riff on a classic Nixonian line, “The Silent Majority Is Coming”; and the slanderous “Go To Your Safe Space, Snowflake!”; not to mention a sprinkling of the purely conspiratorial like “Alex Jones Did Nothing Wrong” (with a small flag design on it, too).

    The banners were even more aggressive. “Trump 2020: Fuck Your Feelings” was a fan favorite. Another popular one photo-shopped The Donald’s puffy face onto Sylvester Stallone’s muscle-bound physique, a machine gun at his hip. That image, of course, had been lifted from the Reagan-era, pro-Vietnam War film “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” a fitting accompaniment to Trump’s classically plagiarized Reaganesque rallying cry “Make America Great Again.” Finally, a black banner with pink lettering read “L G B T.” Above the letters, also in pink, were logos depicting, respectively, the Statue of Liberty, a Gun (an M16 assault rifle), a Beer mug and a profile bust of Donald Trump. Get it?

    For our small group of multi-war/multi-tour combat veterans, it was hard not to wonder whether many of these flag-and-weaponry enthusiasts had ever seen a shot fired in anger or sported Old Glory on a right-shoulder uniform sleeve. Though we were all wearing standard black veteran ball-caps and overtly Trump-friendly shirts, several of us interlopers feared the crowd might somehow guess what we actually were. Yet tellingly, the closest we came to outing ourselves — before later pulling off our disguises to expose black “About Face: Veterans Against The War” shirts — was during the national anthem.

    Nothing better exemplified the contrast between what I’ve come to think of as the “pageantry patriotism” of the crowd and the more complex “participatory patriotism” of the dissenting vets than that moment. At its first notes — we were still waiting in the arena’s encircling lobby — our whole team reflexively stood at attention, removed our hats, faced the nearest draped flags and placed our hands upon our hearts. We were the only ones who did so — until, at mid-anthem, a few embarrassed passersby followed our example. Most of the folks, however, just continued to scamper along, often chomping on soft pretzels and sometimes casting quizzical glances at us. Trumpian patriotism only goes so far.

    Our crew was, in fact, rather diverse, but mostly such vets groups remain disproportionately white and male. In fact, one reason local Black and native communities undoubtedly requested our attendance was a vague (and not unreasonable) assumption that maleness, whiteness and veteran’s status might offer their protests some semblance of protection. Nevertheless, my old boss on West Point’s faculty, retired Colonel Gregory Daddis, summed up the limits of such protection in this phrase: “Patriotic” Veterans Only, Please. And just how accurate that was became violently apparent the moment we “unmasked” at the base of those flagpoles.

    Approximately three-dozen combat tours braved between us surely didn’t save our nonviolent team from the instant, distinctly physical rancor of the police — or four members of our group from arrest as the climbers shimmied those flagpoles. Nor did deliberately visible veteran’s gear offer any salvation from the instantly jeering crowd, as the rest of us were being escorted to the nearest exit and tossed out. “Antifa!” one man yelled directly into a Marine vet’s face. Truthfully, America’s “thanks for your service” hyper-adulation culture has never been more than the thinnest of veneers. However much we veterans reputedly fought for “our freedom,” that freedom and the respect for the First Amendment rights of antiwar, anti-Trump vets that should go with it evaporates with remarkable speed in such situations.

    Three strands of veteran or military dissent

    Still, the intensity of the MAGA crowd’s vitriol — as suggested by the recent hate mail both About Face and I have received — is partly driven by a suspicion that Team Trump is losing the military’s loyalty. In fact, there’s evidence that something is indeed astir in both the soldier and veteran communities the likes of which this country hasn’t seen since the tail end of the Vietnam War, almost half a century ago. Today’s rising doubt and opposition has three main components: retired senior officers, younger combat veterans, and — most disturbingly for national-security elites — rank-and-file serving soldiers and National Guardsmen.

    The first crew, those senior officers, have received just about the only media attention, even though they may, in the end, prove the least important of the three. Many of the 89 former defense officials who expressed “alarm” in a Washington Post op-ed over the president’s response to the nationwide George Floyd protests, as well as other retired senior military officers who decried President Trump’s martial threats at the time, had widespread name recognition. They included former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine Corps General Jim (“Mad Dog”) Mattis and that perennial latecomer, former Secretary of State and Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell. And yes, it’s remarkable that such a who’s-who of former military leaders has spoken as if with one voice against Trump’s abhorrent and inflammatory recent behavior.

    Still, a little caution is in order before canonizing a crew that, lest we forget, has neither won nor opposed a generation’s worth of unethical wars that shouldn’t have been fought. Recall, for example, that Saint Mattis resigned his post not over his department’s complicity in the borderline genocide underway in Yemen or pointlessly escalatory drone strikes in Somalia, but in response to a mere presidential suggestion of pulling U.S. troops out of the quicksand of the Syrian conflict.

    In fact, for all their chatter about the Constitution, oaths betrayed and citizen rights violated, anti-Trumpism ultimately glues this star-studded crew together. If Joe Biden ever takes the helm, expect these former flag officers to go mute on this country’s forever wars waged in Baghdad and Baltimore alike.

    More significant and unique is the recent wave of defiance from normally conservative low- to mid-level combat veterans, most, though not all, a generation junior to the attention-grabbing ex-Pentagon brass and suits. There were early signs of a shift among those post-9/11 boots-on-the-ground types. In the last year, credible polls showed that two-thirds of veterans believed the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria “were not worth fighting,” and 73 percent supported full withdrawal from the Afghan War in particular. Notably, such rates of antiwar sentiment exceed those of civilians, something for which there may be no precedent.

    Furthermore, just before the president’s controversial West Point graduation speech, more than 1,000 military academy alumni signed an open letter addressed to the matriculating class and blatantly critical of Trump’s urge to militarily crack down on the Black Lives Matter protests. Mainly ex-captains and colonels who spanned graduating classes from 1948 to 2019, they briefly grabbed mainstream headlines with their missive. Robin Wright of the New Yorker even interviewed and quoted a few outspoken signatories (myself included). Then there was the powerful visual statement of Marine Corps veteran Todd Winn, twice wounded in Iraq, who stood for hours outside the Utah state capitol in the sweltering heat in full dress uniform with the message “I Can’t Breathe” taped over his mouth.

    At the left end of the veterans’ community, the traditional heart of antiwar military dissent, the ranks of the organizations I belong to and with whom I “deployed” to Tulsa have also swelled. Both in that joint operation and in the recent joint Veterans for Peace (largely Vietnam alumni)and About Face decision to launch a “Stand Down for Black Lives” campaign — encouraging and supporting serving soldiers and guardsmen to refuse mobilization orders — the two groups have taken real steps toward encouraging multi-generational opposition to systemic militarism. In fact, more than 700 vets publicly signed their names (as I did) to About Face’s provocative open letter urging just such a refusal. There were even ex-service members among the far greater mass of unaffiliated veterans who joined protesters in the streets of this country’s cities and towns in significant numbers during that month or more of demonstrations.

    Which brings us to the final (most fear-inducing) strand of such dissent: those in the serving military itself. Their numbers are, of course, impossible to measure, since such resistance can range from the passive to the overt and the Pentagon is loathe to publicize the slightest hint of its existence. However, About Face quickly received scores of calls from concerned soldiers and Guardsmen, while VFP reported the first mobilization refusals almost immediately. At a minimum, 10 service members are known to have taken “concrete steps” to avoid deployment to the protests and, according to a New York magazine investigation, some troops were “reconsidering their service,” or “ready to quit.”

    Finally, there’s my own correspondence. Over the years, I’ve received notes from distraught service members with some regularity. However, in the month-plus since George Floyd’s death, I’ve gotten nearly 100 such messages from serving strangers — as well as from several former West Point students turned lieutenants — more, that is, than in the preceding four years. Last month, one of those former cadets of mine became the first West Point graduate in the last 15 years to be granted conscientious objector status. He will complete his service obligation as a noncombatant in the Medical Service Corps. Within 36 hours of that news spreading, a handful of other former students expressed interest in his case and wondered if I could put them in touch with him.

    Intersectional vets

    In a moment of crankiness this January, using a bullhorn pointed at the University of Kansas campus, I decried the pathetic student turnout at a post-Qasem Soleimani assassination rally against a possible war with Iran. And it still remains an open question whether the array of activist groups that About Face and Veterans for Peace have so recently stood in solidarity with will show up for our future antiwar endeavors.

    Still, the growth across generations of today’s antiwar veterans’ movement has, I suspect, value in itself — and part of that value lies in our recognition that the problem of American militarism isn’t restricted to the combat zones of this country’s forever wars. By standing up for Black lives, pitching tents at Standing Rock Reservation to fight a community-threatening pipeline, and similar solidarity actions, this generation of antiwar veterans is beginning to set itself apart in its opposition to America’s wars abroad and at home.

    As both the Covid-19 crisis and the militarization of the police in the streets of American cities have made clear, the imperial power that we veterans fought for abroad is the same one some of us are now struggling against at home and the two couldn’t be more intimately linked. Our struggle is, at least in part, over who gets to define patriotism.

    Should the sudden wave of military and veteran dissent keep rising, it will invariably crash against the pageantry patriots of Chickenhawk America who attended that Tulsa rally and we’ll all face a new and critical theater in this nation’s culture wars. I don’t pretend to know whether such protests will last or military dissent will augur real change of any sort. What I do know is what my favorite rock star, Bruce Springsteen, used to repeat before live renditions of his song “Born to Run”: Remember, in the end nobody wins, unless everybody wins.

    5 lessons from the K-pop fans who fizzled Trump’s Tulsa rally, and the Black organizers who led the way

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    When the Trump campaign announced it would hold its first “post-quarantine” rally in a 19,000-seat stadium in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 19 — or Juneteenth — people were outraged. Not only were there the health concerns posed by an indoor rally with people who likely would not social distance, but there was also the troubling likelihood that the campaign had deliberately chosen the date and place for its connection to the horrific massacre of Black people by white mobs in 1921. Although the campaign eventually moved the rally to the next day, it was still a slap in the face to the millions of people across the country rising up in defense of Black lives.

    On June 11, TikTok user Mary Jo Laup posted a video and a call to action. Overnight, the video got 2 million views, and TikTok users and K-pop fans mobilized across social media platforms. The action was simple: reserve tickets for the rally and don’t show. They did so by the thousands. Days before the rally the Trump campaign bragged that it was expecting a million people to pack the stadium and the overflow spaces that had been hastily put together.

    However, on the day of the rally, the Tulsa Fire Department counted only 6,200 attendees. With a capacity approaching 20,000, the stadium glistened with empty seats.

    While there’s been some debate as to exactly how much TikTok users and K-pop fans were responsible for the low turn-out, it’s clear that their mobilization caused the campaign to overestimate the attendance. There is no doubt they helped shape the narrative of the campaign’s hype around the rally, and therefore played an important role in embarrassing the campaign as it tried to explain the empty seats.

    In truth, no single act of organizing is ever responsible for victories or shifts in public opinion. As author Rebecca Solnit has pointed out, social change is nonlinear and cumulative. And in this context, the TikTok/K-pop fan action can be seen as a beautiful work of nonviolent activism that took its cues from the uprising for Black lives — certainly not a prank, as many media outlets have termed it.

    As a result, there are some important lessons we can draw for efforts going forward:

    1. Seize the moment for action.

    Black organizers and activists have demonstrated the power of this lesson for centuries. Most recently, the uprisings following George Floyd’s murder have spurred necessary and significant shifts in our public conversations and policies, made possible by the decades-long organizing by Black folks.

    This climate also made it possible for K-pop fans to flex their imagination and considerable power to take action in the best way they know how — not just with the rally. A few weeks prior, K-pop fans broke an app put out by the Dallas Police Department to capture video of “illegal protesters” and “looters.” They flooded the cops with videos of their favorite stars singing and dancing. They also subverted racist hashtags, posting pictures and videos of K-pop stars.

    A lot of social change work is about laying the groundwork — the slow, hard work of organizing, building relationships, creating infrastructure, making mistakes and figuring out new ways of doing things. When there is an unexpected spark that mobilizes millions of people, we must trust that the groundwork is solid. And we must channel all our imagination, creativity and courage into action.

    2. You have the skills and tools you need.

    Apparently, K-pop fans are masters at snapping up tickets for the concerts of their favorite stars. They know how to get their hashtags to trend. They have skills that most adults over 30 can’t even really begin to understand. They put all these skills to use, not only helping to turn the rally into a mere sputter, but also creating a huge data mess for the campaign.

    Street protests grab headlines, and there’s a tendency to focus almost solely on policy and electoral politics as the pathway to change. That’s great if you live to organize rallies, love to lobby for policies, or can’t wait to get door-knocking for your favorite candidate. But beyond those activities, there’s a whole world of work that needs to be done.

    Artists, writers, filmmakers and other storytellers are critical in shaping stories that determine who has value and power, what solutions are possible and what a different society could look like. Educators and parents have tremendous power to shape the next generation. We need coders to help build alternative platforms that help us connect without turning us into data-mines for corporations. From cooking to growing vegetables to making accessible, beautiful and sustainable spaces — there are so many ways to help create the change we need.

    3. Connect across differences toward a common goal.

    K-pop fans have factions and feuds — fans of BTS (known as ARMY) vs. fans of Exo (EXO-L), for example. But for the rally and other disruptive political actions they’ve taken lately, they’ve joined together to become a formidable force. Also, K-pop fans are racially, nationally and age-diverse. In this moment, some have been having difficult conversations with each other about racism and the appropriation of Black culture within K-pop.

    If some K-pop fans can do it, can the political left in the United States do it too? How do we join forces as a vibrant, diverse movement, where differences are not just acknowledged but honored? Grappling with our differences honestly and respectfully is an important part of moving us toward the strongest and most equitable solutions to the economic, climate and societal crises. This necessitates that the white folks who have historically been running the show and setting the agenda for the left need to step back, listen and stop decrying identity politics. They must follow the leadership of the people who have been on the frontlines of these crises for decades, and who have some brilliant ideas of how to move forward — Black and Indigenous people, other people of color, poor/low-income people, disabled people, women, and queer and trans people.

    4. Be smart and stealthy: Don’t let the powers that be catch on to what you are doing.

    Apparently, the TikTok users and K-pop stans who were rallying their fellow fans to snap up rally tickets deleted their posts after 24-48 hours, so the mainstream media wouldn’t start picking it up. And it worked. Neither the Trump campaign nor its opponents suspected that the rally wouldn’t be the million-people, virus-spreading, racist bonanza that it was predicted to be.

    “All warfare is based on deception,” Lao Tzu wrote in the 5th century BC. “When near, make it appear that you are far away; when far away, that you are near.” So yes, this lesson has been around for thousands of years. But in the age of social media and emphasis on transparency, it is worth meditating on. Alt-right trolls have recently infiltrated Black Lives Matter Telegram channels, while police and the FBI continue to spy on Black Lives Matter activists. Those working for social change will need to get increasingly smart about how to keep tactics and strategies under wraps, how to organize without forecasting their moves, and how to “flock,” as author adrienne maree brown describes it in her book “Emergent Strategy,” writing: “Staying separate enough not to crowd each other, aligned enough to maintain a shared direction and cohesive enough to always move towards each other.”

    5. Imagination, play, art and joy aren’t bonuses — they are absolutely essential to the revolution.

    K-pop fans are unabashed in their love for their favorite stars, their music and dancing. It’s what brings them together in the first place. And their recent, politically disruptive actions are imbued with the playfulness and energy that they bring to their stanning.

    In the 1930s, Emma Goldman famously declared that if she couldn’t dance, she didn’t want to be part of the revolution. Almost a century later, political and social change work still too often has a sense of grim determination and seriousness. It makes sense: We’re challenging enormous institutional power, work every day knowing that systemic racism, patriarchy and capitalism are causing real harm to people — it’s serious work. But as K-pop fans and Black organizers and artists are demonstrating, art, play and love are also necessary. They create a joyful, powerful movement that draws more people in and reflects the kind of world we want to live in.

    Meet the vibrant community of resistance behind New Orleans’ historic protests

    New Orleans has recently seen some of the largest protests in the city’s modern history — with thousands of people taking to the streets daily to demand systemic change, including defunding police and money for housing, healthcare and jobs. These protests are the visible manifestation of grassroots organizing that has been going for decades and did not stop with COVID-19.

    This video highlights just a few of the many organizations that have built and organized for this moment — even as the city was under quarantine — culminating not only in mass protests, but also direct action that seized an empty home for housing homeless community members.

    For years, the New Orleans Peoples’ Assembly has been working to “flip the budget,” to defund police and reallocate this money towards essential needs and rights. When New Orleanians took to the streets to demand justice in response to police violence locally and nationally — including the killing of welder and musician Modesto Reyes — The Peoples’ Assembly was among the organizations leading daily protests.

    In New Orleans and across the country, Black trans women have been disproportionately targeted by police violence, and face discrimination in employment, housing and health care. The House of Tulip, a new organization founded by veteran trans organizers, seeks to provide housing for homeless members of the transgender and gender-nonconforming communities.

    Beginning days after the quarantine, a new collective named Southern Solidarity began organizing mutual aid to support those in need. As a mutual aid organization with an abolitionist analysis, they go beyond providing support, to challenging the systems that make people homeless and hungry. They have been part of all the organizing featured in the video, led by affected communities and working to build power and liberation.

    On May 5, sanitation workers working for Metro Service Group (the “hoppers” that ride in the back of the trucks and pick up garbage) formed a new City Waste Union and went on strike for hazard pay, PPE equipment, a living wage and safer working conditions. Their struggle has pulled in support from across the city, including DSA New Orleans, Stand With Dignity and many other organizations.

    Meanwhile, the New Orleans Citizen Relief Team formed among homeless communities to organize for housing and protections. Working with musician and organizer Cole Williams, Rev. Gregory Manning and civil rights movement veteran Curtis Muhammad, the group began demanding hotels make housing available. They then moved on to protesting at City Hall before recently seizing an empty housing to provide homes to those who still are on the street.

    New Orleans has a reputation for music and festivals, but the culture of the city has always been rooted in struggle, especially Black-led resistance. From the 1811 uprising to end slavery to fighting for the right to return after Hurricane Katrina to today’s movements, there would be no New Orleans culture without the struggle for freedom.

    In times of rapid change, victory comes to those who train for it

    One of the gifts of the Black Lives Matter movement is that it doesn’t pretend that a quick fix will solve the problem. The many signs of change — from NASCAR giving up the Confederate flag to the majority of Minneapolis City Council members resolving to dismantle their police department — are welcome, but not nearly enough.

    Decades of failed reforms plus research into racism have come to the same conclusion: Only radical change will deliver what we need. The present whirlwind moment will subside. What then? How do successful movements dig in for a next stage of growth?

    The young people who organized the Sunrise Movement built into its DNA a large commitment to training. No use taking on the climate crisis, they figured, if people are simply going to do “the usual.” As Christopher Fry put it in a play of his, “Affairs are now soul-sized.” For many of us that means learning how to do the unusual.

    If we were fighting an armed struggle, we’d likely want combat training. If we were solarizing a city, we might want technical training. And if we were going to turn around a political-economic structure that’s killing our chances for a just future, we’d want social movement training.

    While elections can, on a good day, make reforms, only social movements can deliver radical change. Mainstream institutions in society back small reforms at most, so they teach the strategy and skills of electioneering. Movements are left to themselves to teach the skills that make for big change, and that’s where training comes in.

    My first encounter with movement training was scary. I was a student volunteer in 1958 and one of my mentors, Charlie Walker, told me the single best training method he knew was standing on the street corner on a box speaking to whoever walked by. He would hook me up with “the best street speaker in Philadelphia,” he said, “a socialist named Carl Dahlgren.”

    In addition to being scared, I was intrigued. Obviously training for activism is more challenging than traditional education, which usually keeps us pretty comfortable. Movement training might be more like combat training in the army. And that figures, I thought, because the stakes are higher for soldiers, and the stakes are higher for us.

    So despite my nervousness I got in touch with Carl Dahlgren and volunteered for his next evening venture. On the phone I admitted my nervousness. He laughed.

    “Of course you’re nervous,” he said. “I still am myself. Every time. It’s only stage fright. If actors let stage fright stop them, we’d never see any plays. See you Friday night.”

    By Friday night I was more nervous than ever, but turned up to meet Carl and the others. I carried a wooden crate down the street, and took my turn speaking. When I got down I was flooded with relief . . . and immediately forgot what I said.

    It would take several more times before I could relax enough to respond to hecklers and hold my own. “Maybe,” I thought, “I can become an activist after all.”

    The civil rights movement expanded our understanding of training

    A few years later we were being called to combat — nonviolent style — in the civil rights movement. Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, needed to mobilize their courage, for sure, but also polish their skills: How do you deal with the white supremacists who come at you with violence?

    Previous Coverage
  • How movements build strength through training
  • As shown in Danny Glover‘s absorbing film, “Freedom Song,” SNCC and the others used the training technique of roleplaying, which turned out to be hugely flexible in almost any situation.

    In 1963 SNCC decided to take on the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, where the Klan was strongest. The KKK was for many decades America’s most powerful terrorist movement. The following year SNCC escalated and, with allies, launched the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. They attracted nearly 1,000 student volunteers from the North to spend the summer risking their lives by organizing voter registration and Freedom Schools.

    I joined the training staff, leading roleplays every day and watching the young volunteers grow in confidence and skill in nonviolent confrontation. We also taught skills in de-escalating tense situations, a skill many more Americans will need to learn today if we want to deliver public safety without police.

    The hundreds of young volunteers were organized into many training groups. Because I was assigned to different training teams each day I saw that some of our training groups seemed to go deeper than others in the debriefs, and I began to form a hypothesis: The dynamics within a learning group might have an impact on the learning the individuals do, and some trainers seemed to know more about group dynamics than others.

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    Mobilizing a group to support deep learning

    Most education and training formats bring individuals together for convenience, then ignore the power of the group. Traditional teachers and trainers see little besides the assortment of individuals in front of them.

    Leaving the group out of the equation is a denial of human nature, indigenous cultures remind us. Humans are essentially social creatures, constantly influenced (mostly on subtle levels) by the dynamics of whatever group they are a part of.

    The dynamics of a learning group might be neutral regarding the learning goals of the session, or positive, or negative. Under the surface there may be a power struggle going on between two would-be leaders, or a minority may quietly bail out because it sees no acknowledgement of its presence.

    What I call the secret life of the group can be decisive in how much individuals do or don’t learn. A teacher or trainer may have brilliant slides to show and clever rhetoric and still have nothing but the most superficial impact to show for it.

    ‘Courage’ is a muscle developed through a series of successfully-taken risks. Each success expands the courage muscle, and loosens the self-limiting beliefs we walk around with.

    For the next couple of decades I researched tools and designs that could turn an array of individuals who show up for a workshop or class into a pro-learning group. I experimented both in movement workshops and in courses I taught at the University of Pennsylvania. 

    “You know I hated you by the middle of the semester, professor,” one student told me as we parted at the end. “I felt uncomfortable most of the time I was there.”

    “I was a business major, so I thought taking peace studies would be an easy A,” he went on. “But you had me working harder than I’ve ever worked in a course.”

    “So why didn’t you drop out?” I asked. He grinned shyly, then laughed out loud. “I don’t know. I guess I felt like it was win/lose between us and that if I left, you’d win. I didn’t want that.”

    He paused for further reflection. “Or maybe it was that I didn’t want to drop out of the group.”

    Activist training needs to develop courage

    For many decades I’ve kept street speaking up my sleeve as a workshop activity for two reasons. First, it built my own courage as a newbie activist. Second, because it worked when I tried it in places as culturally different as black South Africa, Denmark, Thailand and New Zealand.

    When I use it as a workshop exercise, however, I first make sure the group dynamics will support the individuals taking the risk. I also bring to a conscious level an observation that most people know already: that their biggest learnings happen when they are outside their comfort zones.

    Afterward the debrief of a speak-out reveals relief, joy, excitement, group solidarity and surprise that “I could do it!”

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  • Finding courage in anxious times
  • Of course the key is risk. We can’t grow without going outside our comfort zones, which means tolerating the subjective experience of risk even if the activity is, objectively speaking, safe. “Courage” is a muscle developed through a series of successfully-taken risks. Each success expands the courage muscle, and loosens the self-limiting beliefs we walk around with.

    Trainers and teachers who want to maximize learning get the group’s support for individuals to take risks, expand and grow. Each time that happens the group itself becomes stronger and more able to support even more fully the individuals who risk. The ropes course version of this process is often called experiential education, or adventure-based learning. Street speaking is a kind of ropes course for social activists, and there are other such activities in the direct education toolbox.

    The risk of cultural imperialism

    By the time black community leader Barbara Smith and I started Training for Change in 1991 we’d developed a good set of tools for working the group, but we were curious about whether they could cross cultural lines. Maybe they were limited — too “professional middle-class American.” I was freer to travel than Barbara, so other training partners and I tested our tools in workshops on five continents and diverse cultures, for example Mohawks within Canada and Indigenous Taiwanese.

    We found, not surprisingly, that some tools worked in diverse settings and some did not — so we dropped the latter. We also picked up new learning tools in other cultures.

    Today’s teenagers know intuitively what older people are discovering: In a time of rapid change, victory comes to the movements that have the strongest learning curve.

    Our training approach became controversial in Thailand, where activists have considerable pride that their country was never colonized by any of the Western empires that tried. They worried that the Thai Buddhist group that was annually importing our “American” trainings was unwittingly engaged in cultural imperialism.

    Before my next Thai workshop I was told by the sponsor that one of the participants would be a prestigious Thai Buddhist monk who’d been a Communist revolutionary in his university days. His intention would be to detect subtle western imperialist assumptions that might underlie the pedagogy we used.

    Two-thirds of the way through our 10-day training the sponsor stopped the workshop and invited the distinguished monk to give us his opinion. The room went still, with all eyes on the older man in saffron robes. He looked around, smiled and said, “I have paid close attention to these experiential activities we’ve been doing and the assumptions underlying them. On reflection, I believe that they are completely consistent with what the Buddha himself would have wanted in support of our learning.”

    Seeking a name for this kind of teaching and training

    Our work reminded some people of the popular education of the Brazilian radical Paolo Freire, but our observations of popular education — at least as transplanted to the Global North – left out the conscious use of the group’s power to support individual learning. We needed a name other than “popular education.”

    While we were looking for a name I noticed that a variety of experienced trainers who tried our approach for their own content reported that the added group power enabled them to reach their goals more fully and more quickly than previously. Four-hour workshops became three-hour workshops when they used our methods. So we called our approach “direct education.”

    I wrote a book in 2008 to describe it: “Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Diverse Adult Learners.” The book includes a lot of tools — with attribution if we picked them up elsewhere — and stories about their use. While a new edition is set for release this fall, the previous edition in 2010 was picked up by some high school teachers who found direct education worked very well for teenagers, too.

    In recent years I’ve noticed that more teenagers were showing up in my book tour audiences than ever before, and they had great stories to tell about their activist adventures. They know, intuitively, what older people are discovering: In a time of rapid change, victory comes to the movements that have the strongest learning curve. Training has become a priority for everyone.

    Militarized lockdowns and a predatory quarantine — the unique story of Uganda’s pandemic response

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    Eight young Ugandan men swarmed the streets of a bustling-yet-militarized Kampala. They were banging empty saucepans to demand food, which the government had promised to distribute. For this June 17 noisemaking “crime,” police packed them into a tiny cell at Kitalya Maximum Security Prison.

    The arrests and the politically motivated killings won’t slow down anytime soon. As elections near, dictator Yoweri Museveni’s armed forces — cushioned by the ongoing financial support of the U.S. government — enjoy conditions of impunity as they attack starving women and youth protesting for their survival.

    Since the 2009 Kabaka Riots, Uganda has witnessed a gradual but steady surge in resistance to Museveni’s autocracy. This struggle was recently offered a boost of morale as Black Lives Matter protests in the United States inspired a surge of resistance in Africa.

    Even so, Ugandans have been hard at work fighting deplorable circumstances long before the straw broke the camel’s back. The story of the COVID-19 pandemic in Uganda is quite a unique one, but it underscores the seemingly universal opportunism of authoritarians amidst crisis, and reveals that this opportunism can be resisted.

    Armed deployment as lockdown begins

    On March 19, the first full day of Uganda’s COVID-19 lockdown, I ventured on foot to my nearest trading center to stock up on supplies for our household. The street bustle was lighter than usual, but not substantially so. Supermarkets were equipped with washing stations, and most staff were wearing masks.

    A motorcycle raced by, sharply cutting off my footpath. The driver slammed on the breaks at the now non-operational minibus stop. He and his passenger, as it turned out, were police officers.

    “Didn’t you guys hear the boss’ directives last night?” I teased while continuing on my way. “No motorcycle is to carry people — only cargo!” I got a few laughs from onlookers who overheard my lighthearted civilian enforcement of Museveni’s lockdown decrees. But the police officers were not amused. 

    When I came out of the nearby supermarket five minutes later, more police had arrived to patrol the area. Seeing them armed with AK-47s — but no masks and standing shoulder to shoulder — I couldn’t help but offer more humor to diffuse the growing feeling of a military dystopia.

    “Guys, the big man said no large groups! Protect yourselves by keeping a distance! You don’t want to take this virus home to your relatives.” 

    The tenseness of the trading center loosened with a few giggles, until one of the officers barked in my face, saying I wasn’t supposed to be out in public.

    Unpleasant as it was, it was helpful to see how the authorities were enforcing Museveni’s new lockdown measures because later that day we intended to test them. Some neighbors and I were planning to deliver clean drinking water and snacks to the victims of a shoddy, opportunistic quarantine — a mismanaged detainment center for travelers arriving at Entebbe International Airport. Our goal was to expose the wretched conditions and the private profiteering that was going on at the expense of the travelers, even healthy ones. It was a sign of how Uganda’s dictator, in power for the past 34 years, would exploit this new global health crisis. Sure enough, rumors of swindling a half-billion-dollar International Monetary Fund loan ensued soon thereafter.

    A dictator’s dream come true

    Uganda had been relatively insulated from the pandemic, especially in March. The outbreak of COVID-19 traced the routes of the global economy, spreading especially in those areas of hypermobility. Uganda is a largely agrarian inland country without a large international transportation hub. Currently, only less than a thousand positive COVID-19 cases have been registered to date, none of them thus far fatal.

    What has been fatal, however, are the autocratic measures imposed upon Ugandans. Pregnant women and the sick are dying because they can no longer reach health centers to give birth under professional care and treat basic curable illnesses like malaria. Securing the proper paperwork to enable them to travel beyond police checkpoints to obtain professional medical assistance is a seemingly impossible nightmare for most. As a result, it is likely that more people have died from the harsh lockdown measures than those that currently test positive for COVID-19.

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    How can this be, when the outbreak has barely begun to penetrate Uganda’s borders? The short answer is that this pandemic arrived as a blessing to autocrats across the globe — especially those like Museveni with just a few months remaining until elections. Museveni has imposed convenient edicts to consolidate his power and political capital.

    In the first few days of the 12-hour curfew, Kampala’s urban poor — especially adult women selling produce at public markets for meager earnings — were brutalized by armed forces, including at least six who were killed. Stories surfaced that even before curfew hours, police were rounding up pedestrians, placing them together in confined spaces and releasing them only after extorting bribes.

    Museveni’s ban on private transportation began April 1. Most Ugandans use public transportation, which had already been restricted, but the total ban on all transportation of passengers (as opposed to cargo) ushered in a surge of existential threats. Adding insult to injury, those in need of medical services would have to get permission from their Resident District Commissioner, or RDC — the person heading districts of hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of residents — to travel to the nearest professional health facility. Otherwise, the vehicles of their transporters would be impounded at police checkpoints.

    Dismantling a predatory quarantine

    As the COVID-19 outbreak spread globally and a few cases began popping up around East Africa, Uganda’s Ministry of Health opened a quarantine at Central Inn, a private hotel in Entebbe, three miles from the international airport.

    Central Inn and the Ministry of Health agreed that those under quarantine would foot their own bills — upward of $100 per day. This resulted in Ugandans and foreign nationals being bussed to Central Inn without warning and being held against their will at their own expense. An alliance of travelers and Ugandans returning home — led in part by quarantined political cartoonist Jimmy Spire Ssentongo — resisted the Ministry of Health’s neglect by sleeping in the hotel lobby. No extra beds or mosquito nets were brought to this small space for those quarantined. Clean water and meals were being sold at four times the market price. Neither armed forces patrolling the quarantine nor hotel staff were equipped with the proper personal protective equipment. The so-called quarantine became a petri dish for a COVID-19 outbreak, among other diseases.

    Ssentongo sent a message to Merab Ingabire — a management member at the movement support network Solidarity Uganda — requesting water. He also noted that the quarantined either could not afford private rooms or had refused them on principle, even as sickness spread without due attention from the Ministry of Health.

    As neighbors to the quarantine, we pitched in and brought the water and a few snacks to the gate of Central Inn. Here we were met by armed forces and a man from the Civil Aviation Authority who asked upon seeing my white skin whether we were from the Ministry of Health.

    Phil Wilmot waiting outside the gates of Central Inn, where quarantined travelers were in need of water and other supplies. (Facebook/Solidarity Uganda)

    “We have come to deliver water to those quarantined here who have not been given rooms,” I explained.

    The man had a difficult time finding grounds to refuse this delivery and, before he could, we quickly unloaded our contributions at the gate. Ssentongo met us there, and we were then allowed to stack the items on the ground for the quarantined to bring back to their fellow residents occupying the lobby.

    That day, publicity about the situation at Central Inn grew. The Ministry of Health convened emergency meetings and took action to begin disbanding the mismanaged quarantine. Some support from state budgets trickled in, and the financial burden no longer solely fell upon those unfortunate enough to arrive in Uganda at the wrong time.

    Yet, even when the Ministry of Health finally agreed to deliver on its mandate, it did so reluctantly. Some under the 14-day quarantine were still forced to foot their own bills. In several cases, the quarantine was prolonged due to test results that had been mishandled and lost. Although several in quarantine showed no symptoms after 14 days, they were still being forced to pay room and board for an indefinite period of time so that additional tests could be administered.

    A foreign national under quarantine posted this message to their door at Central Inn. (Twitter/@bwesigye)

    Soon foreign nationals started posting videos of themselves pledging a hunger strike. They refused to answer their doors, except for a health certificate allowing their exit. Using toilet paper and scrap paper, they posted demands to their doors and, after days of protests, most were eventually released.

    But these activists weren’t the only ones in Uganda running on empty stomachs. 

    A hungry people in the region’s breadbasket

    Uganda has the most fertile land in East Africa, and farmers comprise the majority of the population.

    The urban poor — nearly one in every four Ugandans — have had a difficult time feeding themselves under lockdown. Museveni had threatened murder charges to any rival politicians who attempted to distribute food, while his own convoys circulated communities doing exactly this while advertising the ruling party.

    In solidarity with the hungry, Member of Parliament Francis Zaake openly violated presidential orders by distributing food within his Mityana constituency, resulting in his arrest and brutal torture. His grotesque wounds were declared “self-inflicted” by a Ministry of Internal Affairs report to parliament.

    Nonviolent acts of desperation have been waged by the hungry across the country. Sex workers are among the better organized urban poor of Uganda, and in the northern Ugandan towns of Gulu and Lira sex workers received foodstuffs from local government leaders after threatening to reveal the identities of their clients, many of whom are government officials.

    Meanwhile, in Kampala, the relentless protester Nana Mwafrika held three consecutive days of arrestable public actions demanding food. Authorities eventually gave in and offered her family a supply. This triggered an outpouring of contributions from other well-wishers, which Mwafrika then redistributed to needy families. Days later, she took to the streets with activist-academic Stella Nyanzi and events promoter Andrew Mukasa, banging empty pots until their violent arrest.

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    In addition to empty saucepans, stones are becoming another symbol of hunger across East Africa. After a Mombasa woman cooked stones for her family, another woman in Mbale, Uganda adapted this as a protest tactic at the office of her RDC. The tactic migrated from eastern to western Uganda, including communities of Kamwenge, Kyenjojo and Isingiro, where whole communities then converged for “feasts” of stones.

    Political history teaches us that hunger unites revolutionary forces. From the French Revolution to Sudan’s 2018 bread subsidy cuts, people power has often been fueled by those with empty stomachs.

    All Black Lives Matter

    While the George Floyd protests sparked calls to defund police departments in U.S. cities starting in early June, communities across East Africa began to protest their own police states. This was in large part due to the 20 unarmed citizens killed by armed forces in Kenya and Uganda — both recipients of U.S. funding — while enforcing so-called COVID-19 protective measures.

    Kaepernick-style kneeling actions took place at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi — organized jointly by members of Nairobi’s Social Justice Centers, Americans and other foreign nationals living in Kenya. These peaceful actions proposing U.S. financial sanctions on Ugandan and Kenyan police forces and militaries led to arrests in both countries, including 15 Black Lives Matter activists in Uganda at a single protest.

    The spirit of resistance spilled into other grievances of Ugandans affected by the pandemic. On June 10, business tycoon Sudhir Ruparelia fired the entire staff of his radio station, Sanyu FM, in response to their sit-down strike against his 25 percent paycut. The former employees retaliated by temporarily seizing control of the Sanyu FM Twitter account, threatening a lawsuit and causing embarrassment to the politically-connected Ruparelia, notorious for leveraging his political connections to steal land for luxury hotels.

    In the same week, activists in Amuru pledged to resume direct action against businessmen driving deforestation in their communities, despite curfews that complicate the logistics of their blockades and resource repossessions.

    Finding solutions within

    According to famed theorist Paulo Freire, one of the best ways to begin to solve a problem is by engaging in discourse and listening to those most affected by it. Sanyu FM staff and Amuru youth are among those who have found their own solutions to their present predicaments.

    Museveni, on the other hand, has done the opposite. He has imposed the “social distancing” mantra of the Global North upon his own national context, where food comes more often from the garden or the market than a refrigerator in the house — even for the few who are privileged enough to own such appliances. In many congested neighborhoods, several families may share space, water sources and bathrooms. Shouting at people to keep distance from one another places responsibility (and blame) for public health upon the urban poor.

    Had Museveni heeded his own nation’s experience managing epidemics, he might have gleaned a lesson or two. The late physician Matthew Lukwiya guided health workers through the 2000 Ebola crisis in the middle of a war. Lukwiya convinced scared and defected professionals to return to work to save the community. At the same time, he bravely navigated the perilous bureaucracy of the Ministry of Health to pull the necessary strings ensuring adequate support was promptly rendered to victims.

    “Lukwiya is still celebrated for his Dr. King-like charisma and ability to rally people toward a vision,” said Nicolas Laing, a doctor based in Lacor where Lukwiya had served. “He did this at the expense of his own life, but completely eradicated Ebola from Uganda.”

    Uganda is not the only African nation to have dealt with contagious outbreaks with immense efficacy, but amidst this particular pandemic, Uganda is not exactly a shining example. Museveni’s autocratic measures are causing very real death and suffering while doing little to flatten the COVID-19 curve. As hunger, medical emergencies and brutality continue to surge, Museveni may be left with no other option than to succumb to the voices of Ugandans who offer more reasonable proposals for survival.

    The struggle to protect the Sacred Place Where Life Begins — Indigenous groups lead fight against Arctic oil drilling

    As the Trump administration neared the end of its first year in office in 2017, it seemed environmental activists had lost one of the most hard-fought battles in the movement’s history. Thanks to a last-minute maneuver by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Congressional Republicans succeeded in passing legislation allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR. Some of the worst fears of environmental and Indigenous rights groups for what might happen under the administration appeared to be coming true.

    However, two and a half years later, no drilling or seismic testing has taken place in the refuge — and there is a very real chance it might never happen. A nationwide grassroots movement led by the Indigenous Gwich’in people has repeatedly delayed the oil leasing process and made the prospect of drilling less attractive to major companies. In the process, the movement has built momentum toward the ultimate goal of permanently protecting the refuge.

    Protecting the Sacred Place Where Life Begins

    In many ways, the modern movement to protect ANWR began in 1988 at an event unprecedented in recent history. For the first time in more than a hundred years, leaders from throughout the Gwich’in Nation converged in a single place — Arctic Village, Alaska — to discuss an existential threat to their way of life. The Reagan administration had recommended opening ANWR’s coastal plain to oil drilling, a move that needed to be approved by Congress under the terms of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. Drilling would threaten the Porcupine caribou herd, an essential source of food and cultural sustenance for the Gwich’in people.

    “It was imperative for us as Gwich’in people to protect the caribou and our way of life.”

    For countless millennia, the Gwich’in have relied on the vast numbers of caribou who migrate each year between their calving grounds on the ANWR coastal plain, and the forests and tundra to the south where the herd spends the winter. The relationship between the Gwich’in and the Porcupine herd has often been likened to that between bison and the various Indigenous nations of the Great Plains region.

    “In the lower 48, the great buffalo herds that provided for Native peoples were decimated during the genocide of those communities,” said Evon Peter, who helped lead the fight against oil drilling during his time as chief of Arctic Village in the early 2000s. “We Gwich’in are blessed to still have the caribou.”

    The traditional territory of the Gwich’in encompasses much of what is now Northeast Alaska, extending east to the Mackenzie River Valley in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The Gwich’in Nation includes more than a dozen separate villages, each with its own tribal government. The imposition of an arbitrary national border by the colonial U.S. and Canadian governments in the 19th century cut their territory in two and made it more difficult for bands to travel back and forth as they once had. However, Gwich’in communities continued to rely on the Porcupine herd, whose calving grounds on the coastal plain are traditionally referred to as the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.

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    At the time of the 1988 gathering Evon Peter was still a boy, too young to be part of the official proceedings, but along with the rest of the community he participated in group meals and traditional dances organized in conjunction with the event. There was a sense in the air that something momentous was occurring. “It was imperative for us as Gwich’in people to protect the caribou and our way of life,” Peter said. “The seeds of that understanding had been planted very early for me, but in 1988 it became more formulated — not only for me, but for the entire Gwich’in nation.”

    By day, inside the community hall, leaders held discussions conducted entirely in the Gwich’in language. Together they arrived at a unanimous consensus: they would present a united front of opposition against any attempt to drill in the Porcupine herd’s calving grounds.

    A long fight in Congress

    Big Oil’s push to drill in ANWR in the late 1980s was derailed by a combination of grassroots opposition led by the Gwich’in, as well as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which damaged the industry’s reputation and made ANWR drilling politically untenable. However, attempts to open the refuge to oil exploration have resurfaced periodically ever since. In 2005, a series of pro-drilling bills introduced in the Republican-led Congress were narrowly defeated by Democrats. Environmental groups and Gwich’in leaders like Evon Peter rallied the public opposition needed to stop the legislation.

    “We propped open the doors with buckets so they could hear us from inside the bank, and called out Chase for funding the climate crisis.”

    For several years after that, the Sacred Place Where Life Begins seemed safe from immediate harm. In January 2015, the Obama administration formally proposed permanent protections for the coastal plain. However, Congress never acted on the recommendation and in 2017 the ANWR controversy heated up again, though with much less public attention. As Congress fought over the Trump tax bill, Sen. Murkowski unexpectedly inserted a provision calling for oil drilling in ANWR. While the media focused on the larger tax bill debate, the ANWR measure passed without most U.S. residents even realizing it had happened.

    Suddenly, the Porcupine herd’s calving grounds were in more danger than ever before. To defend the coastal plain, activists knew they would have to adjust their strategy and take their fight beyond Congress to the halls of corporate power.

    Divest, sue and organize

    Boise Extinction Rebellion Youth took action at the Chase bank in downtown Boise in January. (Instagram/XRBoise)

    On Jan. 31 this year, more than 70 middle and high school students arrived at a Chase Bank in Boise, Idaho with signs calling on Chase to divest from fossil fuels. The students, organizing under the banner of Boise Extinction Rebellion Youth, gathered outside in numbers large enough to shut down the block in front of the bank. Although employees prevented the protesters from coming inside, the youth found creative ways to make sure their message was heard.

    “We propped open the doors with buckets so they could hear us from inside the bank, and called out Chase for funding the climate crisis,” said Shiva Rajbhandari, one of the organizers. The nonviolent protest eventually caused the bank to shut down for the day.

    The Boise action was part of an ongoing, nationwide effort to pressure Chase to stop funding fossil fuels — and it fit right in with the latest phase in the fight to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The idea is to ensure that even if drilling lease sales are held, no company will want to bid for them or be able to get funding to commence drilling. A major part of the strategy centers on pressuring big banks.

    Since 2017, members of the Gwich’in Steering Committee — an organization founded at the 1988 meeting in Arctic Village — have met with the management of numerous banks and pressured them to rule out involvement in Arctic drilling. So far, more than a dozen banks from around the world have responded with policies that prevent direct investment in such projects. The list includes financial giants like Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Barclays — and, surprisingly, Chase, one of the biggest financiers of the global fossil fuel industry. In late February, the bank that had been targeted by protests like the one in Boise announced it would withhold funding from Arctic oil drilling and certain other fossil fuel projects.

    The Chase victory came after years of work by climate activists targeting the bank’s fossil fuel investments. While climate groups are still urging Chase to end its remaining fossil fuel investments, the move against Arctic drilling was a sign grassroots pressure is working — and a welcome development for the Gwich’in. But other financial institutions, like Bank of America, have yet to rule out drilling.

    “Bank of America is one of the last big banks that still hasn’t made the pledge not to fund drilling in the Arctic Refuge,” said Christin Swearingen, a volunteer with the Alaska Sierra Club. “So now our focus is on them.” At its annual shareholder meeting in April, Bank of America refused to directly address questions about its Arctic oil policy.

    Previous Coverage
  • Seattle activists throw ‘unwelcome party’ for Arctic-bound Shell oil rig
  • Some banks’ announcements may be partly symbolic, as they likely wouldn’t have made direct investments in Arctic drilling anyway. Still, they help send a message to the corporate world that oil exploration in ANWR is socially unacceptable. The strategy climate activists are pursuing is reminiscent of the successful campaign to prevent Alaskan offshore oil development in 2015, which culminated with dramatic “kayaktivist” protests against a Shell Oil drilling rig and icebreaker ship in Pacific Northwest ports. Shell later abandoned plans to drill in the Arctic — ostensibly because early exploration turned up only minimal amounts of oil, but it was hard to escape the impression that public pressure played a decisive role.

    If climate activists and the Gwich’in can show exploring for oil in ANWR is just as unacceptable as drilling off the Alaskan coast, they may be able to stop oil projects in their tracks. Meanwhile, groups like the Sierra Club are preparing for a drawn-out legal battle and the threat of lawsuits has significantly delayed the Trump administration’s plans. Soon after the tax bill’s passage, Interior Department officials pledged to hold an oil drilling lease sale by the end of 2019, but as of now no such sale has taken place.

    “The administration is trying to shore up the legality of offering lease sales so they can defend the move in court,” Swearingen said. “They know as soon as a sale happens, all the environmental groups involved are going to sue.”

    “The best way to have an impact on this issue is to align with Indigenous-led groups, because they know the solutions.”

    Nor has there been any seismic testing for oil — a process that could tell companies whether there are in fact any sizable reserves in the coastal plain at all. Last year a company that had planned to conduct such tests, SAExploration, postponed the project amid delays in the Interior Department’s environmental review process. The Gwich’in Steering Committee delivered 100,000 petition signatures to SAExploration opposing seismic testing.

    In September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill reversing the drilling provision in the 2017 tax law. While the anti-drilling legislation has no chance of passage in the Senate right now, it is yet another sign of political momentum building to permanently protect the refuge. Ultimately, securing those protections will require a mass public outcry on the scale of those that have stopped drilling in the refuge before.

    A mass movement to protect the refuge

    Gwich’in women stand united at the U.S Capitol to protect their homelands and ways of life. (Facebook/Gwichin Steering Committee)

    In 2019, a small group of young people from communities across North America joined Gwich’in leaders in Washington, D.C. to push for congressional action to protect ANWR. In meetings with members of Congress and their staff, the group shared photos from the refuge taken by Aundre Larrow, a professional photographer who had traveled to the Arctic Refuge that June with four other young adults as part of a trip sponsored by North Face.

    “It was a powerful experience,” Larrow said of hearing Gwich’in leaders talk about the refuge as they showed members of Congress his photos on an iPad. “It was about using images to hold up Gwich’in leaders’ message.”

    The purpose of the North Face trip, organized by professional skier and environmental activist Kit DesLauriers, was to bring the Gwich’in’s fight to protect ANWR to a larger audience by enlisting young people with expertise in storytelling. In addition to Larrow, the group included Gwich’in Steering Committee member Julia Fisher-Salmon, visual artist Monica Hernandez, Teen Vogue writer Maia Wikler and YouTube comedian Nathan Zed.

    Shortly before venturing into ANWR, Wikler traveled from her home in Vancouver, British Columbia to Gwich’in territory to attend and report on the Arctic Indigenous Climate Summit, a first-of-its-kind event focused on the threats of Arctic oil drilling and climate change. “Gwich’in leaders emphasized how drilling would impact their identity, food security and livelihood,” Wikler wrote in her Teen Vogue piece. “Hunters shared their stories of noticing changes in animal behavior [due to climate change]. Elders offered prayers and encouraged healing in the community.”

    Indigenous leaders from across the country gathered at the Arctic Indigenous Climate Summit in June 2019 to discuss climate change and its impacts. (Twitter/@OurArcticRefuge)

    While members of Generation Z are, as a whole, highly concerned about climate change, a survey commissioned by North Face found nearly 70 percent are unaware of the threat to ANWR. In part, this can be attributed to the last-minute manner in which the drilling provision was inserted into the 2017 tax bill with little public scrutiny.

    For Larrow, one key to reversing this is to help people who will never visit ANWR understand its importance in a visceral way. To this end he created a photography website after visiting the refuge last year. “My goal was for anybody who clicks on the site and sees the pictures to feel a little immersed in that place like I was,” Larrow said.

    As more people wake up to the refuge’s plight, the Gwich’in continue to lead the way as they always have. “Sierra Club’s priority is to follow the Gwich’in, because they have the most at stake in this fight,” Swearingen said. “We are just assisting.”

    “The best way to have an impact on this issue is to align with Indigenous-led groups, because they know the solutions,” Wikler said. “Get behind and support groups like the Gwich’in Steering Committee — that can mean raising donations or calling members of Congress. There are a multitude of ways to be involved.”

    There’s no predicting when movements will erupt, but this classic activist resource maps their path to success

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    When Claudette Colvin, a Black teenager from Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus, few people paid attention. A few months later, when Rosa Parks was arrested for the same act, it touched off a yearlong bus boycott and ignited a movement.

    When Seymour Hersh revealed the details of the My Lai Massacre in 1969, it touched off Congressional investigations but not mass action. When President Nixon announced that U.S. troops had invaded Cambodia the following spring, college campuses, including Kent State, erupted in protest.

    The partial meltdown of the Enrico Fermi nuclear reactor in Michigan in 1966 captured little public concern or attention. A decade later, the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 sparked demonstrations, songs, legislation and a reversal of Wall Street’s bullish attitude toward nuclear power. (The coincidental release of a major Hollywood film, “The China Syndrome,” was an unexpected factor.)

    When news came out that Ahmaud Arbery had been killed by vigilantes in Georgia, it touched off waves of outrage — like, sadly, many other incidents of police violence before it. But just two months later, when videos of George Floyd being murdered by Minneapolis police went viral, that outrage grew into something completely unprecedented for the Black Lives Matter movement.

    According to a recent New York Times story, demonstrations have taken place in 2,000 cities and towns, with hundreds of thousands of participants. That’s probably an understatement, and it doesn’t even count demonstrations in Mexico, Britain, Australia and elsewhere. Meanwhile, legislation to restrain police violence is advancing across the country, as are calls to divest from policing and reinvest in communities.

    While it can’t be predicted exactly which outrages spark major uprisings and fuel social movements, the mere fact that some do reflects a pattern described 40 years ago by activist and author Bill Moyer in a newsprint pamphlet called “The Movement Action Plan.” It’s especially worth reading, or re-reading, now.

    Moyer was a community organizer active in the 1960s and 70s, working for fair housing with the American Friends Service Committee in Chicago. He helped organize the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, and later joined the Movement for a New Society in Philadelphia, which developed skills to help movements for peace, equality and environmentalist goals.

    After years of deeply analyzing social movements, Moyer identified a particular set of stages that successful ones go through. The first stage, which Moyer called “Normal Times,” is characterized by the public being unaware of the issues and supporting power holders. Then comes Stage Two, as opposition groups form and begin to “Prove the Failure of Official Institutions.” In Stage Three, “Ripening Conditions” lead to significant public opposition to power holder policies — but not yet a majority. Stage Four is when movements “Take Off” — and that’s what we’re currently seeing with Black Lives Matter.

    During the earlier phases, issues like police violence and militarism might get the attention of researchers, politicians and what Moyer calls “professional opposition organizations,” but he says those groups are too wedded to the stability of their own institutions to instigate and lead massive social uprisings.

    Then comes a “trigger event,” like the videotaped murder of George Floyd. “During these times,” write Mark and Paul Engler in their invaluable book, “This Is an Uprising,” “new participants are inspired to join in their first demonstrations, and groups that had previously been building slowly find themselves amid a tempest, surrounded by a rush of urgent activity.”

    Trigger events make an issue impossible to deny and, as Moyer explained, set off “a profound sense of moral outrage within a majority of the general citizenry.” Sufficiently triggered, the public responds, for example, by joining demonstrations for the first time. These trigger events also act like “a trumpet’s call to action for the new wave of local movement opposition groups that built up around the country during the previous stage.”

    Previous Coverage
  • ‘Doing Democracy’ follow-up puts the emphasis on finding common ground
  • Together with JoAnn McAllister, Mar Lou Finley, and Steven Soifer, Moyer expanded on his previous work with a book titled “Doing Democracy: the MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements,” published nearly 20 years ago. The George Floyd murder, of course, was hardly the first time that police brutality against African Americans was revealed, but otherwise Moyer’s words aptly describe the current “Take Off” moment.

    In what could be a description of Donald Trump’s reaction to recent protests, Moyer says that during the “Take Off” phase, “Powerholders take a hard line in defending their policies and criticize the new movement, describing it as radical, dangerous, communist-inspired, violent, led by outsiders and irresponsible.”

    Moyer has warnings for movement organizers, though. There’s a danger that activists, especially those who have been drawn into dramatic demonstrations for the first time, will confuse public attention with victory. Failure to win changes quickly can lead to burnout, frustration, and resignation, or lead activists to take paths which might feel more “radical,” but can be counter-productive.

    It’s worth noting that Moyer developed the “Movement Action Plan” after he gave a presentation to members of the Clamshell Alliance in 1978. The “Clams” had just pulled off a historic occupation at the construction site for a nuclear power plant in the small seaside town of Seabrook, New Hampshire. More than 1,400 people (me among them) were arrested and packed off to National Guard armories scattered across the state and held there for nearly two weeks. The size of the demonstration, its nonviolent discipline and the standoff with the state’s rabidly pro-nuclear governor earned considerable attention — as did the movement’s claims that nuclear power was too risky, too expensive, and unnecessary as long as the sun was shining and the wind was blowing.

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    As the Englers noted in their book, the No Nukes movement “had created a model whirlwind: In the wake of the Clamshell actions, hundreds of new grassroots groups formed around the country. The Seabrook protest inspired further occupations of places such as the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California. Moreover, the organization’s methods — its affinity groups, spokescouncils, consensus projects and focus on militant nonviolent blockades — would ultimately become an influential template for direct action in the United States.”

    Yet, instead of finding an upbeat band of organizers ready for the next step in the campaign to shut down nuclear power for good, Moyer saw something else entirely. As he later wrote, he was “shocked when the Clamshell activists arrived with heads bowed” and were “dispirited and depressed, saying their efforts had been in vain” because their short-term goal had not yet been achieved.

    It is fitting, then, that the phase following “Take-Off” in Moyer’s MAP is called “Perception of Failure.” It is a time in the movement when activists who have deepened their understanding of the problem at hand, including “the agonizing suffering of the victims” and the complicity of those in power, sink into despair when change is not immediate. Moyer wants them to know they’re probably winning and that they need to keep up the pressure for change.

    Previous Coverage
  • What role were you born to play in social change?
  • It’s at this point where another element of Moyer’s analysis bears examination. Activists fit into four roles, he says, all of which are needed for success: citizen, rebel, change agent and reformer. Those who fill the four roles can be effective or ineffective. For example, ineffective change agents might advance agendas that are too tepid or too bold. Reformers from the world of “professional opposition organizations” can find the rebels just as problematic as the powerholders do and try to maintain control over movement dynamics. Citizens can be naïve about the forces resisting change or subservient to the powers that be. And rebels can be so programmed to rebel that they disrupt the very processes they helped to instigate. Those he calls “negative rebels” may even see the growth of popular support for activist goals as an indicator that the movement has grown too comfortable with the status quo rather than as proof of progress.

    As movements pass through the phases from “Normalcy” to “Success” (and “Continued Struggle”), the relationships between people in the different roles shift. For example, no one pays much attention to the change agents before the take-off phase, but after the rebels have gotten attention from powerholders and the general public, their function rises in significance. Of course, some people may be adept at playing multiple roles, while others stay put in just one.

    I have some quibbles with Moyer’s plan, though they are relatively minor. He terms Stage Six as gaining “majority public opinion,” as if we live in a society in which the majority actually rules. While change may be driven in part by public opinion, there is no magic to topping 50 percent in a poll. When the numerical minority still has its hands on the levers of power, for example via the dynamics of our money-drenched election system, movements can’t rely just on majority support.

    Despite that, Moyer’s advice for Stage Six is still worth heeding. While powerholders may come calling, movement activists should still be more attentive to reaching and activating more people through strategic campaigns that weaken the forces propping up an unjust status quo. Nonviolent protest can still be effective but can’t be relied upon as the major driver of change.

    Interestingly, Moyer refers to the occurrence of “re-trigger events,” which “touch off a replay of the take-off stage.” That’s a pretty good description of the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests, nearly six years after Ferguson police killed Michael Brown. The fact that Black communities and allies have been through this before and have developed agendas for change is one reason why the movement is progressing so quickly this time from Stage Four to Six.

    Ultimately, the protest is not the movement. To succeed, movements need research, training, organization, communications strategies, resources like money and staff, and a spirit to press on even in the face of setbacks, repression and backlash. However, without the pressure and attention generated by protest, movements may get stuck in slow motion when the crises we face demand something more dramatic.

    When workers at Barnes & Noble got sick, we organized our warehouse and won

    I have been working the night shift at a Barnes & Noble warehouse in Monroe, New Jersey for the past 16 years. For decades I have witnessed abuses at my workplace, but the COVID-19 crisis spurred me into collective action for the first time.  

    Every evening, I come into work on a shop floor with hundreds of other immigrant workers, all packaging deliveries in close quarters. As news of the pandemic spread, I began to worry about the conditions in my warehouse. My managers were not providing us with any protective equipment, and we were expected to maintain the same rate of productivity, working dangerously close to one another. 

    I told my boss that I was concerned for my safety, and that of my co-workers. I told him that I was worried if things carried on in the same way we would all get sick, and that I wanted to use my personal days to stay home. My supervisor responded by telling me I was exaggerating, and that my personal days would not get approved, but the choice was mine if I wanted to take two weeks of unpaid leave. I spoke with my sons about the situation at my warehouse, and as a family we wrestled with the same choice that so many working-class families across the country are being forced to make every single day. Should I put my health and life at risk in order to keep working and provide for the basic necessities? It is a calculus that is not unfamiliar to immigrant families in normal times, but has become clearer and inescapable during the COVID-19 crisis. 

    Previous Coverage
  • What immigrants can learn from the teachers strikes
  • Ultimately, as a family, we decided that the risk was not worth it, and that we would be able to cover the bills for a couple of weeks. I told my boss I would not be returning to work, but I was worried about my co-workers, who were not able to make that choice. The state calls all warehouse workers “essential,” including those packaging and delivering books, but Barnes & Noble had done next to nothing to protect us from COVID-19. 

    After a week the managers called me back, and tried to force me to come back to work. They told me I only had one week of unpaid leave, and that because of the time I had taken off, I was no longer eligible for vacation. Meanwhile my co-workers were telling me about the deteriorating conditions inside the warehouse. The company still had not given workers masks or gloves, and workers were sharing scanners without access to cleaning supplies. While the managers sat protected inside of their offices, workers were coughing on the shop floor as their colleagues tried to sound the alarm.

    By April 1, when Barnes & Noble finally admitted to having its first case, coworkers said that many on the shop floor were already exhibiting symptoms of the virus. I received panicked calls from my co-workers who told me the warehouse was refusing to shut down and forcing them to come back to work. The more stories I heard, the angrier I became. Our bosses tell us they appreciate our work; they give us certificates of gratitude on Christmas. But for all of their empty words of gratitude, in this moment — when it mattered the most — they callously denied us even basic protections. My co-workers were in the hospital, and it was management’s fault. I realized we had to do something. 

    In our determination to provide for our families, many of us believed that if we just put down our heads and worked hard enough we would be able to give our children a better life. We were so focused on the task we set out to do when we came to this country — work, put food on the table, buy a car and a home — that we believed our problems could be solved individually. But there are some dreams that will never be realized unless we fight for them together, collectively: to live and work with dignity, to keep our families together, to leave our children a better world. 

    Now, in this moment when so many of us risk losing the little we thought was in our control, we are waking up to the reality that no matter how hard we work in this country, the powerful will not give us anything. Instead, they continue to take and take. It is not enough to have a job, when a job can be lost from one day to the next. Immigrant workers who have been criminalized by a government that makes us feel we do not belong here are beginning to realize that nothing will change until we demand more — to believe in the first instance that we deserve more. 

    Elsa Rodriguez Flores participated in a caravan on May 1 that went from warehouse to warehouse in New Jeresy. (Cosecha)

    With the support of Movimiento Cosecha and Warehouse Workers Stand Up, I organized a call with my co-workers to discuss the options. For years Barnes & Noble has stopped us from forming a union, but we decided to draft up a list of demands and called for a protest to put pressure on management. We demanded the warehouse close for two weeks to decontaminate, and give workers paid time off, hazard pay and protective equipment. Over the next three days more and more workers began joining our chat, slowly overcoming their fear and doubt. 

    We collected hundreds of petitions and on the day of the protest, management was waiting for us outside. They were prepared to intimidate and stop other workers from joining. But I know they were also scared because they depend on our labor, and we have the ability to shut down the warehouse. That same week they began handing out protective equipment, and soon thereafter announced they would close the warehouse for five days and give workers paid leave in order to decontaminate. Today, things look very different at my warehouse, and I know it is thanks to the public pressure we put on the company. 

    But the fight does not end here, and our fight was never just about conditions in one warehouse. Since we began to organize at Barnes & Noble, immigrant workers across New Jersey have been calling to share similar stories of bosses taking advantage of the crisis to exploit their workers, or else allowing them to get sick in their warehouses. Businesses are hiring workers at rates below minimum wage, and many families are so desperate to put food on their tables that they are willing to accept far less than they deserve. It is the foreseeable consequence of mass unemployment, in a country that refuses to grant its workers basic protections. 

    Yet sitting quietly alongside the desperation there is also a growing anger. It is an anger that has been simmering beneath the surface for decades, but has reached its boiling point. It is the anger we feel when faced with the unassailable truth that they are letting us die — that they don’t care if we die. This crisis has uncovered what many of us already knew to be true: that the rich and powerful in this country depend on our labor, while denying our dignity, respect and protection. Faced with this undeniable truth, many immigrant workers across the state are waking up and demanding more. 

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    We have before us a tremendous opportunity to organize workers, particularly those who, like us, do not have the benefit of a union. In the United States only 10 percent of all workers are unionized, and in industries with large numbers of immigrant workers, unionization rates are even lower. We must take advantage of the opportunity presented to us in this moment to teach one another how to fight for our dignity and to bring newly awakened workers into our organizations. In the midst of the public health and economic crisis facing our communities, we have a precious window of opportunity to grow the power of worker-led movements in this country by reaching workers who have long been excluded from the traditional labor movement, but who are ready to fight. 

    In New Jersey, we are supporting workers in other warehouses who have reached out in the face of similarly dangerous working conditions. We are sharing our experiences in order to help workers at other warehouses overcome fear of retaliation, and I know we are not alone. Over the last few months we have seen workers at Amazon challenge the goliath, and Minneapolis bus drivers refusing to cooperate with police in powerful alignment with the Movement for Black Lives. They are showing us the seeds of what is possible if we begin to take seriously the power that low-wage, Black, Latinx and immigrant workers have in this country, and build the capacity we need in order to wield it. 

    By targeting the pillars that uphold police violence, Black Lives Matter is shifting power to the people

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    “My captain said, ‘You can’t take a knee.’ So I said, ‘Here’s my badge, and I won’t come back.’” 

    In a now-viral video, Keval Williams described quitting his job as a corrections officer at the Oklahoma City Sheriff’s Department while standing in a protest on June 1, holding up a sign that read “Black lives > white feelings.” For Williams, a Black man whose girlfriend is nine months pregnant, quitting his job was a tough but necessary decision amid a nationwide uprising against racist police violence.

    The pillars of support (Beautiful Trouble)

    Williams’ actions are more than one brave individual standing up for his beliefs. They represent one of the key elements that has made the surge of anti-racist protests in the past three weeks so powerful. When members of the police and the military start disobeying orders, and bus drivers refuse to transport protesters to jail, and restaurant workers walk off the job instead of filling orders for police departments, a movement begins eroding the “pillars of support” — a term popularized by Serbian activists from the Otpor! movement to refer to the institutions that support the power structure in a given society. 

    Systems of power do not only exist through coercion, but they are upheld by the tacit acceptance and cooperation of millions of people, from the dockworkers who receive shipments of weapons to the school boards who sign contracts that bring police into schools. By attracting people from pillars like the business sector, education system and religious institutions to turn against the ruling regime and join with the movement, activists can tip the scales of power in their favor. It is important to pull these people into the movement rather than push them away to build a broader spectrum of allies for the cause. 

    Some pillars wield power through the threat of force — like the police and the military — and when they begin to doubt their allegiance to the regime, it weakens a ruler’s coercive power. Other pillars — like religious institutions and the media — exercise power to shape public opinion and social norms in the movement’s favor. When faith leaders, school teachers and celebrities take a public stand together, the movement gains a moral high ground and expands its base of supporters.

    Previous Coverage
  • When the pillars fall — How social movements can win more victories like same-sex marriage
  • Countless social movements in the past have borne witness to the importance of targeting pillars of support for a ruling regime. Gandhi’s strategy for Indian independence undermined British colonial power in India through large-scale boycotts, blockades and mass resignations by civil servants. The U.S. civil rights movement exposed the violence of Jim Crow to the American public through sustained media coverage of police attacks against peaceful protesters, shifting public opinion in favor of civil rights. 

    To understand the power of Black Lives Matter, we must examine how the movement is eroding the pillars of support that uphold the racist system of policing in the United States — and possibly the Trump administration as a whole.

    Pillar 1: The police

    The police make up one of the most important coercive pillars of any regime. They are the first line of defense to enforce unjust laws against civilians, and when police officers start doubting their loyalty to the force, a movement gains more power in the streets. Noncompliance or defections by police officers become more likely when police are ordered to use violence against their own communities, creating a moral crisis if they know their friends and family might be in the crowd.

    The current wave of protests have mobilized a surge of public outrage against police violence, leading many officers to speak out about the abuses they witness on the force and compelling some to quit their jobs in protest. As with Keval Williams’ resignation to join protesters in Oklahoma City, more law enforcement officers around the country are sympathizing with protesters. According to one source, in the first week of June there were six police officers resigning each day from the New York Police Department. One video shows protesters in Oakland, California trying to appeal to police, chanting “Quit your job!” Encouraging cops to defy orders and join with the movement is a strategic way to draw them in, targeting them as potential allies rather than staunch opponents.

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    Of course, most police have not quit their jobs — but the pillar is beginning to show cracks in other ways. Numerous videos from recent protests, like one on May 31 in Flint, Michigan, show police laying down riot gear and marching alongside protesters. While these actions have been criticized as publicity stunts — with police kneeling in symbolic support, only to tear gas protesters hours later — it may also indicate the internal conflict some police officers are wrestling with, especially Black officers who experienced police brutality before joining the force, or have faced discrimination while on the job. For some, like one former police officer who published an article called “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop,” the protests may compel officers to speak out against the system and, ultimately, to withdraw their consent.

    Pillar 2: The military

    Like the police, the military imposes coercive power to uphold a repressive system, but their influence can also be eroded through defections and noncooperation. After the National Guard was deployed in Washington, D.C. to suppress peaceful protests, members of the military began questioning their orders — or refusing to comply outright. GI rights organizations have seen a spike in servicemembers requesting information about their legal right to participate in protests or to defy orders and become conscientious objectors. 

    Members of the National Guard in Tennessee laid down their shields at the Capitol building in Nashville on June 1. (Twitter/@AccountistLisa)

    Meanwhile, veterans are taking to the streets to join the demonstrations in full uniform, and a group of National Guard soldiers in Tennessee laid down their shields upon protesters’ request. In Utah, one lone Marine with two Purple Hearts stood alone for hours at the State Capitol with the words “I can’t breathe” taped over his mouth. It was so hot that his shoes actually melted, creating an ethical spectacle and a powerful appeal to public sympathies. 

    Some veterans have been subject to brutal violence during protests, including one man who was shot in the head by a rubber bullet, leading to his hospitalization. Almost 900 veterans have signed an open letter telling troops to “Stand down for Black lives,” which appeals to broad popular support of veterans across the country.

    Other high-ranking military and Pentagon officials, like former Defense Secretary James Mattis, have publicly criticized the use of military troops to violate constitutional rights of American protesters — showing that significant division may exist within the Trump administration itself. When this happens, it fuels popular support for a movement and undermines the legitimacy of a ruling regime.

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    Pillar 3: The education system

    The education system plays a key role in upholding a ruling power structure because teachers educate the younger generation, and they are usually well-respected members of a community. Public school boards across the country have begun to cut ties and end contracts with police departments, from Minneapolis to Portland to Denver. Many colleges and universities across the country have followed suit, refusing to continue contracting local police for security at campus and sporting events. 

    New York City teachers and students called for less police in schools at a rally on June 6. (Twitter/@ChoiceMediatv)

    But the solidarity from educators goes beyond contracts, as many have taken to the streets themselves. Over a thousand people participated in a march led by educators and students in New York City on June 6, demanding support from the United Federation of Teachers to address systemic racism in schools, hire more Black and brown teachers and end the school-to-prison pipeline. The Chicago Teachers Union has been calling for the removal of police from schools at protests and rallies and, in Los Angeles, the union representing L.A. public school teachers voted to support drastic cuts to the budget of the L.A. School Police Department. 

    On June 14, a march in Chicago demonstrated the power of the education pillar to sway public opinion. Recent graduates and their teachers held a peaceful protest during the mayor’s virtual graduation ceremony, featuring guest speakers like Oprah Winfrey. They demanded the removal of police officers from schools and the reinvestment of funds from police departments into community services. At a time when public officials are celebrating graduates, teachers and students have an elevated platform to urge mayors and city councils to “fund Black futures” instead of treating students like criminals.

    Pillar 4: Public officials and workers

    Countless people make up the government bureaucracy, and their actions determine whether basic public services continue to function. If they withdraw their participation and consent, it becomes nearly impossible for a leader to impose control. One of the most prominent examples of resistance among public servants in the current protests is the refusal by transportation workers in cities like New York and Boston to transport police officers to protests, as well as the protesters they arrest. The Amalgamated Transit Union released a statement declaring that bus drivers have the right to refuse their services to aid police in protests, deeming this a “misuse of public transport.”

    In Minneapolis, other workers have resisted in similar ways, with over 400 nurses, postal workers and hospitality staff signing a pledge not to help police suppress the protests. First responders have also joined the fight, with an ambulance driver in New York cheering on protesters, and a coalition of Black fire fighters joining demonstrations in uniform. Nurses and doctors have also gained visibility in the protests leading “White Coats, Black Lives” marches around the country. 

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    Other government officials have taken a stand with the resistance. Hundreds of current and former staff from the mayor’s office in New York City signed an open letter criticizing Bill de Blasio’s response to George Floyd’s death and organized a march to his home on June 8. City councils have voted to dismantle or drastically cut funding to police departments in cities like Minneapolis and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the New York City Council announced its intention to cut $1 billion from the New York Police Department’s budget.

    Another drastic shift has occurred in public officials’ stances on removing Confederate statues from parks and public buildings. County commissioners across the country — including in Alabama, Texas and Kentucky — have voted to remove long-standing statues of Confederate leaders. This phenomenon has resonated with solidarity protests around the world, like the crowds in Bristol, U.K. who toppled the statue of a slave-trader and threw it into the river. Government workers — such as city councillors, county commissioners and bus drivers — make up a crucial pillar of support for any ruling regime. And, like so many Confederate statues, this pillar has begun to crumble. 

    Pillar 5: Religious institutions

    Similar to teachers, religious leaders play a key role in shoring up legitimacy of those in power. They represent a moral high ground, and usually command more respect from the general public. If police use violence against religious leaders in a demonstration, it tends to backfire and stoke public outrage. 

    This is exactly what happened on June 1, when U.S. Park Police and National Guard troops used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., enabling Trump to pose for a photo with the Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. They inadvertently gassed some of the priests at the church, leading to a massive outcry by faith leaders around the world. The Pope called on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to offer encouragement for protesters, which they did, and leaders from many other faith communities, including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Orthodox and Reform Judaism, have expressed support for the movement. 

    The DC Prayer Walk for Peace and Justice drew hundreds of participants on June 14. (Twitter/@AlfredStreetBC)

    These statements of outrage have transformed into actions across the country as faith leaders take to the streets and march against racial injustice and police brutality. On June 7, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney joined a march of nearly 1,000 Christians, led by local pastors, who walked from Ward 7 in Washington, D.C. to the White House. On June 14, Black clergy organized a march to the Black Lives Matter Plaza in front of the White House to pray with thousands of faith leaders and congregants. From a car protest in Missouri to a fast and occupation in Connecticut to a march in Tennessee, faith leaders across the country are using the moral weight of their positions in local communities to demand concrete changes in racist policing practices.

    Pillar 6: Business institutions and labor unions

    Allie’s Donuts cancelled its police and military discounts in an Instagram story. (Instagram/@AshCullinane)

    Businesses and labor unions also play a key role in upholding power structures, and many actors in the business sector have begun to stand with protesters — or faced public backlash and boycotts. Some workers have taken direct action, like the local taco shop in Ohio where employees walked off the job instead of filling a large order for the police station and a cafe where workers walked out to protest a discount given to police officers. One donut shop in Rhode Island cancelled its police discount altogether. 

    These individual cases can grow into a larger trend as activists continue building momentum. Protesters have called for a boycott of Amazon, which contracts with over 600 police departments to sell surveillance equipment, leading the company to declare a one-year moratorium on police use of facial recognition technology. Activists have also mounted a #GrabYourWallet campaign to boycott a number of brands that donate to the Trump 2020 campaign, including CVS, Planet Fitness and Charles Schwab. In Seattle, Black Lives Matter organized a statewide strike on June 12 to advance a list of demands, including cutting $100 million from the police budget in Seattle. 

    Some companies are taking action to cut off equipment for police, like Fuji Bikes, which announced that it would stop selling bikes to North American police forces after witnessing their use of “violent tactics.” Other measures are cutting police equipment on a much larger scale. In the United Kingdom, 166 Members of Parliament have called for the U.K. to end exports of rubber bullets and tear gas to the United States.

    Many unions have also responded, with calls for the AFL-CIO to expel the International Union of Police Associations from its ranks. MLK Labor in Seattle, the body representing over 150 unions and 100,000 workers, told the Police Officer’s Guild to address systemic racism or the council would disaffiliate with the guild.

    Other unions have taken action in solidarity. On June 9, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the International Longshoremen’s Association and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters participated in a work stoppage for eight minutes and 46 seconds — the length of time a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck, killing him and sparking a nationwide movement.

    Dockworkers honored George Floyd with a solidarity stand down that lasted eight minutes and 46 seconds. (Twitter/@DispatcherIlwu)

    Individually, each of these pillars can disrupt the normal order of operations in society and drive tangible changes in specific sectors. When taken together, however, the withdrawal of consent among these crucial pillars at the same time threaten to dismantle the widespread public acceptance and cooperation that have long upheld the structures of racist policing in the United States. 

    To be effective, activists and community leaders in each city or state can analyze the pillars of support that uphold institutionalized racism and police power. Some pillars play a more crucial role than others, and moving these pillars will require activists to develop careful strategy, identifying key decision makers who can be moved to advance the movement’s goals. Organizers can also examine each pillar to find weak spots, places where there might be more room to effect change. As the movement develops new tactics to undercut these pillars, activists are steadily eroding support for the police and building a new vision to invest public funds in communities instead of police. 

    From fringe idea to law of the land — a look inside the creativity fueling the struggle to defund the police

    It’s hard to keep up when the world lurches from pandemic to racial justice uprising seemingly overnight. After months of living in a quarantine pressure cooker, amidst a global pandemic that’s thrown millions out of work, exposed the vicious inequities of our current capitalist system and killed hundreds of thousands, masses of people hit a breaking point.

    Fueled by their righteous rage about the videotaped killing of George Floyd, people have flooded the streets and taken the fight against structural racism and police violence to new heights. Protests, marches, memorials — fierce and creative — have radiated out from Minneapolis, and across the world, from Mexico City to Copenhagen to East Jerusalem and beyond.

    And in their wake, with dizzying speed, we’re seeing the range of politically feasible ideas shift in real time before our eyes. Here’s just a few of the recent victories

    The repeal of statute 50-a in New York State will now require law enforcement to share police misconduct records with the public.  

    A large planned increase for the Los Angeles Police Department’s budget was cancelled and the mayor pledged to cut its funding by more than $150 million.

    Seattle intends to cut police funding by 50 percent.

    Minneapolis banned the use of choke holds, as did San Diego.

    New Jersey will update use-of-force guidelines for the first time in two decades. 

    Police brutality captured on cameras leads to near-immediate suspensions and firings of officers in Buffalo, Ft. Lauderdale and other cities.

    Portland, Oregon schools have cut ties to the police, eliminating so-called “school resource officers.”

    “Breonna’s Law” was passed in Louisville, Kentucky, banning no-knock warrants.

    There’s also a growing list of more intangible wins, including:

    Ongoing massive public dialogue about defunding police, racial inequality and oppression.

    Widespread private conversations happening about race and privilege across/within families and many communities that have benefitted from white privilege. (See this important reminder from the Nap Ministry.)

    Acknowledgement by more white and non-black people of the virus of anti-black racism and the role policing plays in the United States and other countries in maintaining white supremacy.

    Defund the Police!” has moved from fringe idea to nearly law of the land so fast, pundits have motion sickness. It shows what can happen when progressive ideas are backed by true people power in a kind of “People’s Shock Doctrine.” (This phenomenon is an inversion of the “Shock Doctrine” that Naomi Klein observed, in which a traumatized population cedes control to corporate power in a moment of crisis.)

    So how has all of this moved so quickly? 

    One answer lies in the massive scale of mobilization — protests in all 50 U.S. states, including many small, predominately-white rural communities, as well as many cities around the world. Black-led organizations and networks were already in place and ready to lead. Since the formation of Black Lives Matter, or BLM, in 2013, this female-led movement has continued to emphasize the development of young leaders and to innovate strategy and tactics. After its first national in-person action in Ferguson in 2014 following the killing of Michael Brown, the movement has honed its campaigning strategy using nonviolent direct action. It drew on the tradition of Black freedom movement and embraced the intersectionality of Black lives, while pushing for bold systemic changes to end racialized oppression. 

    Another factor is the sheer fierceness of the response — the willingness to take to the streets in spite of, or because of, quarantine. The creative, distributed, self-organized style of civic engagement, with protests happening organically, aligned in principles and demands across geographic distance has also played an important role. And all this activity has been aided and abetted by access to cell phones and social media — with hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #WeKeepUsSafe driving the growth and reach of organizing across both rural communities and international networks in record speed. 

    A less obvious piece of the answer is that these actions have been built — consciously or unconsciously — on a supercharged set of principles for making beautiful trouble. For those who are committed to continuing the struggle, and potentially escalating or innovating tactics to increase effectiveness, it can be helpful to take a deeper look at some of the principles and theories behind what is being done on the frontlines of this growing insurrection in defense of Black lives.

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    Direct action 
    A tool that oppressed people have used to build their power throughout history. When communities don’t have billions of dollars to spend, they leverage risk. They put their bodies, freedom and safety on the line.

    As Frederick Douglass famously noted, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.” In this moment, demands have coalesced around defunding the police and reimagining community security for a world that will have moved beyond anti-Black racism and other oppressions. 

    But what has allowed these protests to press those demands so effectively? Beyond their scale and breadth, it’s their staying power and intensity; they are un-permitted, ongoing and willing to disrupt business-as-usual. It’s this combination that has allowed activists in the streets to build power. 

    It’s not enough to be angry. But when you also have the moral high ground, — which is clearly the case for BLM — then that anger can grow your support and build your movement.

    In addition, the protests themselves are a “virtuous circle,” if also a brutal one. Every time the cops use disproportionate force to try to contain the protests, they prove the protesters’ point. As famed community organizer Saul Alinsky said, “The real action is your opponent’s reaction.” 

    The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone sits on the site of an abandoned police station in Seattle. Twitter/@pgcornwell

    In Seattle, an abandoned police station has become the hub of an ongoing occupation, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ. A long-standing direct action tactic, occupations can become ground zero for intense protest activity and cultural shifts, as well as prefigurative experiments in new ways of living and being. On the downside, ongoing occupations can also be highly resource and time intensive, putting many burdens on the activists involved. 

    And in an especially risky form of direct action and a striking show of intersectional solidarity, 21 ICE detainees at the Mesa Verde Detention center in Colorado went on hunger strike in honor of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

    Use the power of ritual
    Rituals like weddings, funerals, baptisms, exorcisms and vigils are powerful experiences for participants. By adapting sacred and symbolic elements you can use the power of ritual to give your actions greater depth and power.

    Rituals can connect us to the deepest truths of why politics matters. In a crisis, ritualized expression can not only help people cope, band together and grieve losses, but can also make collective meaning from traumatic events, and build new stories for our path ahead.

    As the world grieves untimely deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic and from police violence, the saying of the names of those we’ve lost helps us focus our grief, validate the lives of the fallen and re-commit ourselves to action. Many ancient traditions are reflected in some of today’s ritualized call and response chants that ring out in the streets: “Say her name … Breonna Taylor. Say his name … George Floyd.”  

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    The fence surrounding the White House in Washington, D.C., became a focal point, a shrine, for creative statements and ritualized decoration, embodying demands and visions of the people. Similarly the fence surrounding the Silver Lake Reservoir in Los Angeles became a memorial to those killed by police violence, as artists tied strips of fabric to spell out the names of those murdered.

    The traditional African ritual of altar building was the cornerstone of actions called for by the Black Feminist Futures group, providing a container for community-building, safety and “honoring our ancestors who declared unapologetically that Black Lives Matter.”

    Online rituals, like “The Soul of a Crisis” — an ongoing candlelight vigil, meditation and dialogue circle that began during the global quarantines in March — have provided additional space for reflection, processing and the important work of envisioning the systems change needed to dismantle structural racism and violence.

    In a different kind of ritualized performance, #BlackLivesMatter was written with the ashes of a burnt police van on the street, and adorned with other offerings to the struggle. Others created a memorial with 100 tombstones, each inscribed with a name of an African American who died at the hands of law enforcement.

    The Say Their Names Cemetery memorial in Minneapolis. Twitter/@marciaxthree

    Joy is a revolutionary force 
    Protests can be fun! Find pleasure in the process and let your creativity and joy guide you. As adrienne maree brown said: “Feeling good is not frivolous, it is freedom.”

    Even as direct action is a key component of BLM activism, there is also an intentional emphasis on joy and healing, and building a beautiful struggle that is not depleting

    Activists dance the electric slide in Stockton, California. (Twitter/@shumensa13)

    Through engagement with arts and culture in programs like “Black Joy Sundays,” BLM has intentionally created a space for Black activists to focus on themselves and positive expression. And it’s not just on Sundays: The “electric slide” line dance has recently become a trademark of the protests, moving minds and bodies together. 

    Music has long had an important role in Black resistance movements, and it is still true today, though the anthems are more likely to be remixes of impromptu standups or popular joyful rap songs than folk hits of the civil rights era. And these beats seem to better capture the mood of defiance and joy that characterizes the energy of the protests. 

    In a modern take on the importance of music in protest movements, Korean pop music fans have  shown their solidarity with BLM by flooding a police reporting line with K-pop fan videos — thus jamming the app, disrupting the flow of racist and pro-police posts and forcing them to take the app down.

    Take risks, but take care
    Needlessly endangering the safety of you or the people around you hurts the movement. Don’t sacrifice care of self or others for the sake of being “hardcore.”

    In-person and online healing events offer a way to ground the work and support each other’s physical and mental wellbeing. “This commitment,” said Katie Petitt of Current Movements, “led BLM DC to establish free access for all Black organizers to many kinds of healing modalities” through a Healers for Liberation program. It has been so successful that other groups have started to do similar programs.

    An emphasis on healing justice and embracing the positives in Movement for Black Lives grew out of the need to fight systemic racist oppression and — at the same time — uplift Black lives and resilience. This emphasis on infusing healing and humanity into activist campaigns is a gift to the broader movement for social justice.

    Making the invisible visible 
    Many injustices are invisible to the mainstream. When you bring these wrongs into full view, you change the game, making the need to take action palpable.

    Given that these protests started during a pandemic, there should be no surprise at the popularity of guerrilla projections, which can be done with small teams easily social distancing. In Seattle, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone is showing outdoor movies for inspiration and political education.

    George Floyds image was projected onto the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia earlier this month. Facebook/Dustin Klein

    In Richmond, Virginia, out-of-work theater lighting directors “turned their love light” on a controversial statue. The Illuminator crew projected martyred faces onto New York City skyscrapers, lighting them up with images of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and demands to defund the Minneapolis Police Department. 

    In many places, toppling statues has become the iconic statement, literally knocking colonial rulers off their historical pedestals. In Bristol, England a crowd of citizens felled a statue of their slave-trading city father, Edward Colson, and unceremoniously dumped him in the river. Native women in Minneapolis pulled down a statue of Christopher Colombus. King Leopold II of Belgium, a vicious 19th century colonizer, was tagged and set on fire in Antwerp — then removed by authorities. Although ordinary people have led the way, many governments are now stepping in and officially bringing down hurtful statues in their communities. In Mobile, Alabama the mayor ordered the removal of “a potential distraction so we may focus clearly on the future of our city.”

    Moving fast to play catch-up with the flurry of events, elected officials have started to embrace art-activist tactics, only to be subverted by those in the movement. To rankle the president, the mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser, commissioned a huge Black Lives Matter painting on 16th Street near the White House. However, very quickly BLM and other local activists edited the mural to call for defunding the police, just to make sure she got the movement’s message to reduce, not raise, the police budget.

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    Similarly, huge and beautiful street murals went up in Berkeley, California and Charlotte, North Carolina, alongside many gorgeous and provocative paintings on boarded up buildings like those in Oakland, California. Street murals make a bold statement and can be done in relative safety during physical distancing. Some murals have taken to the sky, like this one of George Floyd’s last words pulled by a plane. Big, beautiful images also help do the media’s job for them, providing a frame about the story for the public.

    Do your research 
    Whether you’re scouting an action location, doing a power analysis of your political target, or reviewing previous events — don’t skip the research.

    Documentation has been essential to the success of BLM. Activists have been working to systematically track the all-too-widespread occurrences of police brutality in a crowdsourced spreadsheet. Murder-by-police captured on video has been instrumental in pushing authorities to hold officers accountable, support calls for defunding, and make the case that that these racist and brutal behaviors are institutional across the police force — not just the work of a few “bad apples.” Successful campaigns to defund police, ICE, and mass incarceration, also may rely on data mined by organizations like the American Friends Service Committee’s Investigate database. This work is equal parts making-the-invisible-visible and political education.

    Radical book clubs and teach-ins have been popping up as community members demand anti-racist curriculum and instruction, or move to educating themselves to be more strategic and/or better allies and participants in the struggle. And books on racial justice are on backorder, including “How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective” edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies” by Resmaa Menakem.

    For people who benefit from white privilege, doing research into who is already leading the struggle locally, and following the leadership of those most impacted, is crucial, rather than trying to organize and “save the day” out of nowhere.

    On the fourth anniversary of the Pulse shootings, The Illuminator projected this message supporting Black trans lives onto the Brooklyn Bridge. (Instagram/@the.illuminator)

    Looking ahead

    There are signs of escalation on all fronts. The Divider-in-Chief was planning his first post-COVID-19 rally for Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 19, or “Juneteenth.” It’s no coincidence that this city was the site of one of the worst race massacres in U.S. history — when in 1921 Black neighborhoods were burned to the ground and an estimated 300 African Americans murdered by a white mob. While pressure forced him to postpone the rally to the following day, it is still happening on the weekend of the anniversary of the abolition of slavery. As Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted, this “isn’t just a wink to white supremacists, he’s throwing them a welcome home party.” New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg condemned the move under the headline: “A racist president trolls his enemies with a rally on Juneteenth.”

    BLM leaders are rightly furious, yet also recognize Trump’s tactical provocation for what it is. With protests already gearing up, what’s our movement’s best move? How can the fierce and innovative nonviolent action continue in the face of this kind of deliberate trolling and provocation?

    The unfolding insurrection has been a master class in creative protest. The hope here is that by reflecting on the extraordinary creativity of the recent BLM uprising — through the lens of generations of social movement best-practices — activists will find ways to keep our eyes on the prize, as we continue to escalate strategically and build power. Even the rarely optimistic Ta-Nehisi Coates has said, “I can’t believe I’m gonna say this, but I see hope. I see progress right now.”

    In whatever way you’re taking action, Beautiful Trouble is here to support. Our training materials are easy to find and use for street protests. Here are our three most relevant resources right now:

    Pre-During-Post Action Check List HERE

    Assertive Intervention & De-Escalation Tips

    Action Street Smarts & Personal Prep

    Greenpeace also has new guides for activists:

    Protest Safety Tips from Greenpeace

    Toolkit to Defend Black Lives

    Additional support for this piece was provided by Andrew Boyd, Chelsea Byers, Rae Abileah of Beautiful Trouble and Katie Petit of Current Movements.

    Today’s progressive movements must learn from Black Lives Matter — and join together

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    As the response to the killing of George Floyd has expanded to all 50 states, it has become a broad social movement — with demonstrations even taking place in small, majority-white towns where Trump gained a majority in 2016. As the Washington Post reported, one of those small towns in Ohio hadn’t seen a march since the Ku Klux Klan held one 20 years ago.

    The gratifying news is that the public gets it, more than ever before. A new ABC News/Ipsos poll found that by June 4 three-fourths of those surveyed believed Floyd’s killing not as an isolated incident but part of a broader problem in the treatment of African Americans by police. This number includes more than a majority — 55 percent — of Republicans.

    Early achievements

    One of the largest positives of the movement might be the skill with which activists linked police violence to other areas of historic racial injustice in jobs, housing, education and health care. That analysis was echoed in many arenas, as people continue to take a deeper look at their own institutional practices and vow to make changes. Even NASCAR has announced it won’t let fans wave confederate flags at the races.

    Previous Coverage
  • Why campaigns, not protests, get the goods
  • Unlike one-off protests, which are essentially fleeting expressions of opinion, this movement shows the superior leverage of a direct action campaign. A campaign is a series of nonviolent actions, keeping the heat on, escalating the pressure, and giving time for minds to change and more allies to climb on board.

    Despite the pandemic, people demonstrated in the streets across the country. Two weeks of actions so changed the landscape that even Republican members of Congress scrambled to find some way to respond. All of today’s progressive movements can learn from this movement’s persistence in the streets.

    Continual use of direct action illustrated the point of the demonstrators when police responded with more violence. As in the 1960s civil rights campaigns, this movement’s refusal to back away from direct action swelled its ranks because the police in real time gave added fuel. The violence of the military in front of the White House helped as well. Lee Smithey and Lester Kurtz show how this works in their book “The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements.”

    All of that was supported by the increasing clarity by demonstrators on the importance of nonviolent discipline. That fact enabled the movement to occupy the moral high ground, despite Donald Trump’s pathetic wielding of the Bible in front of a church he doesn’t go to.

    The earlier Black Lives Matter movement prepared for this current whirlwind moment by analyzing the systemic nature of the oppression.

    Some believe that the widespread impact of the uprising came from the rioting that happened in its first few days. It’s too early to form an evidence-based opinion about May’s events, but we do have research that gives us insight into the likelihood that rioting helps us make positive change.

    Omar Wasow, a professor of politics at Princeton who studies protest movements and their effects on politics, examined 137 violent protests following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April, 1968. He found that in the counties closest to the riots, the vote in November for Republican Richard Nixon for president increased 6-8 percent over the expected count for those counties. Nixon was running on a “law-and-order” platform, and won.

    Another Princeton researcher, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, looked at the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion, which she says was more similar to what we experienced in May than the 1960s riots. As she wrote in the New Yorker, “Democrats responded to the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion by pushing the country further down the road of punishment and retribution in its criminal-justice system… The Democrats’ new emphasis on law and order was coupled with a relentless assault on the right to welfare assistance.”

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    Of course, there are Black people who share the widespread belief among whites that violence is the force more powerful. American culture is almost reverential when it comes to belief in violence. But there are also Black people who count the cost to the working-class Black community.

    A week ago, I was the only white person in the room when a circle of working-class Black family friends were eating and chatting around my kitchen table. Helicopters were still passing over my house and police cars blared sirens up my street responding to rioting and vandalism at the nearby shopping district in West Philadelphia.

    The conversation burst into emotional condemnation of rioting. They talked indignantly about what the burned-out stores meant to them: jobs lost to people they knew, Black small business owners forced to close, old people with no drugstore left for getting their medicines.

    They also talked about the increased chance of gentrification as richer white people buy properties and turn them into expensive condos. Why, they wondered, don’t Black neighborhoods matter?

    The whirlwind

    Previous Coverage
  • Using momentum to build a stronger movement
  • The events of the last weeks are what Mark and Paul Engler call a “whirlwind” in their book “This Is an Uprising.” It can happen at any moment.

    Movements can make a whirlwind more likely by initiating a direct action campaign, as when Martin Luther King’s coalition initiated the Birmingham, civil rights campaign of 1964. But we’re not really in charge of history. Obviously the whirlwind can, as in this case, happen without anyone’s intention, especially if society is in a period of volatility and polarization like right now.

    For the groups that have been working for years against racial injustice by police, the challenge becomes reaching out to weave together a network that includes the new leadership now emerging.

    Activists in the gun control, climate and other movements may well experience a whirlwind after yet another disaster. When it happens, it helps to be prepared. The most successful social movements I know developed clarity in three areas: analysis of the problem, an envisioned big-picture solution and a strategy for getting from here to there.

    Each of the progressive social movements operating in the United States today has the same problem: its most formidable opponent is the economic elite.

    The earlier Black Lives Matter movement prepared for this current whirlwind moment by analyzing the systemic nature of the oppression, seeing violent policing as a symptom as well as abrasive cause.

    In 2016 the Movement for Black Lives also made a historic break with the vision-aversion that had paralyzed activists since the 1980s by publishing a vision, also called its platform. Supplementing that vision is the recent work of the Institute for Policy Studies on behalf of the Poor People’s Campaign.

    How other movements can join in

    Each of the progressive social movements operating in the United States today has the same problem: its most formidable opponent is the economic elite that, according to the Princeton “oligarchy” study, runs the country, whichever political party is formally in power.

    The people fighting for climate justice, peace, gun control, the full freedom of people of color, immigrants, women and LGBTQ people, economic equality, civil liberties and educational opportunity all find their most effective and far-reaching proposals blocked by the same source.

    It is difficult for the leaders of those movements to ally on a national level at this time; they compete for attention, funding, support from Democrats, and so on. Most movements work within their own silos, creating a highly convenient situation for the oligarchy that maintains its dominance by divide-and-rule.

    Together, we can come far closer to the goals of each than we can separately.

    Additionally, the American culture of competition energizes the belief that “my issue is the most important.” To offset that advantage held by the economic elite, we need a cultural advantage of our own: a vision broad enough to show how the values of each of these progressive movements will be expressed in a new society.

    In the countries that have taken major strides in racial justice, equality, climate adaptation, democracy and individual freedom, movement leaders found that, indeed, the oppressions that marked their times were intersectional. They created a vision that drew disparate movements into coalition.

    I tell their story in my book “Viking Economics.” They found their envisioned structures were synergistic: The new policies interacted in ways that made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Although those countries are not utopias, they took a giant step toward King’s vision of a beloved community.

    That giant step is what’s needed next. The initiative of the Movement for Black Lives needs to be picked up by others. The vision can be enlarged to advance key goals of each of the progressive movements operating today.

    Together, we can come far closer to the goals of each than we can separately, because the united power of many can overcome the resistance of the 1 percent. A coalition of movements that joins a future whirlwind moment to win the struggle can at last make racial justice a reality.

    ‘The conversation is the protest’ — how Black Lives Matter forced us to imagine a world without police

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    Prior to the historic groundswell of protest over the last two weeks, many in the media had written Black Lives Matter’s obituary — either lamenting or celebrating is supposed demise. But that narrative was clearly premature. 

    Not only was the movement not dead, it was simply progressing through the natural life-cycle of all successful social movements. There are stages where the masses are out on the streets, inevitably followed by quieter — but no less important — periods of strategizing for the next phase of the struggle. In the case of Black Lives Matter, it dramatically shifted the conversation and public opinion in its direction through waves of protest, and then began carefully laying the groundwork for the current mobilization. 

    As the conservative economist Milton Friedman famously wrote, in times of crisis “the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” By developing its bold policy platform in 2016, called the Vision for Black Lives, the Movement for Black Lives deftly articulated alternatives to be taken up during the next crisis. Their call for divesting from police — and reallocating that money towards meeting people’s basic needs — helped mainstream the demand to defund police that is now at the forefront of protests across the country. 

    Over the last decade, Nicole Carty has helped many of the most powerful movements to advance racial, gender and economic justice — from Occupy Wall Street to the Movement for Black Lives — develop their strategy, narrative and vision for a better world. She is also a core team member of Momentum, and is currently developing a movement to bring about truth, reconciliation and reparations in the United States. 

    I spoke with Nicole about what has inspired her over the last two weeks, how the movement can evolve to ramp up pressure over the long haul, and why Minneapolis is poised to lead.

    Why do you think the response to Floyd’s killing in particular has been so dramatic and brought so many more people out who wouldn’t normally get involved?

    It has been seven years since the movement began. The Movement for Black Lives’ critique of police brutality and systemic racism in the United States has had years to build and grow and fester. If people were confused in 2014, in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing, there’s a lot more consensus and support for the movement now. 

    And the video is so grotesque, undeniable and obviously horrific that it firmly re-establishes that there is a problem with policing in this country. This violence also happened on top of this global pandemic that’s already affecting in disproportionate ways Americans who are Black and brown. That Black people have to deal with police violence on top of a pandemic which is already disproportionately affecting them as a result of years of white supremacist policy has really pushed people to realize we have deep problems in this country. 

    Are there any particular moments or actions that you’ve seen over the last week that have inspired you and that you’d like to see replicated or scaled up?

    Nicole Carty at a recent protest in Brooklyn. (WNV/Nicole Carty)

    We’ve had a lot of protests all over Brooklyn. I live in Crown Heights with long-term residents who have experienced police brutality and so many other forms of systemic racism. Seeing these massive, diverse crowds showing up around this issue that they know so well — and watching the reactions of people — has been something really special and beautiful. The way people are called into this moment to stand up for Black lives has been really inspiring. And more tactically, I’ve seen a couple of spontaneous actions where white people have stood in front of Black protesters to protect them from police. 

    The movement is opening people’s eyes and has already changed the whole conversation, like how Occupy shifted the way people think and talk about inequality. 

    The conversation is the protest. The protest is the conversation. People think, “Oh, it’s just symbolic.” People are being transformed by the protests and getting deeper and sharper around these conversations that they don’t usually have. At the protests people are talking about what’s broken in the world and what needs to be fixed. The same thing is happening with people who are watching these marches on the news. So protest is focusing the conversation and opening up space to talk about these societal issues in millions of conversations across the country. 

    Police across the country have, not surprisingly, reacted with brutality and excessive force to largely peaceful protests. What can folks on the ground do to make it more likely that police violence will backfire and further fuel the movement?

    We need to seize and strengthen the critique that police are actually the ones escalating the situation. That is being done by people capturing videos of police overreacting and instigating violence against protesters. People now know that police do escalate. That was less clear to the general public five years ago. But now, even journalists who are in these protests have experienced the police escalating protests. That means they are less likely to publish their usual “protesters and police clash” headline. 

    Early on, the media’s obsession with looting and property destruction by a small minority was muddying the narrative. How can the wider movement distance itself or limit the damage from this dynamic?

    The numbers speak for themselves about how people are protesting and how they’re reacting. Black people are illuminating this choice the media is making by focusing on what they deem “looting.” The movement has enough power to launch a critique around why a journalist would focus on the acts of a few people rather than large masses of people marching. There is also an analysis that is more widespread that property is not equivalent to human life. Most of the businesses that have been negatively impacted in the protests are massive corporations. Not only does the public know that they are not going to have their bottom line altered, they are beginning to tie that the fact that these corporations rig the rules in their favor to not pay taxes, which is part of the reason we are in this mess to begin with.

    In what ways do the protests need to evolve to put greater pressure on those in power and sustain the level of energy and engagement over the long haul? 

    What’s happened in Minneapolis in many ways is creating a road map. A lot of state-wide and local work is going to follow in its wake. You also have a powerful example you can point to and say, “They’re taking it seriously, so we can do it in New York, Los Angeles or Portland.” That is where these conversations are already starting. 

    We’re going to see people rallying around the demands to defund police, and doing the work to get people to understand why that is a demand that makes sense. And there are action steps being laid out to actually make that happen. 

    Public opinion is not yet in favor of cutting funding to police departments. What do think activists need to do to people in their direction for more fundamental change? 

    For a lot of people — probably a good portion of the public — this is the first time they’ve heard of defunding, and they don’t understand it. So there’s going to be a lot of educational work around that, and it’s already happening. People get educated through action. People are going to do campaigns against the school boards in order to get police out of schools, and that is going to educate the public. 

    Consensus around the problem takes time. In 2014, there wasn’t a consensus around police brutality or the unequal treatment of Black people by police. Now there is an overwhelming consensus that there are racialized problems in policing. There could soon be a new consensus around what it means to defund the police or abolition. We know it’s possible —  it’s already happened. People needed to get used to the idea. Defunding the police is the next thing that they can get used to. That shift is already happening.

    Do you see more winnable short-term goals that can be mobilized around to build momentum for the bigger vision, or particular cities or states that the movement should focus on?

    In Minneapolis they are going to holistically rethink public safety — they kind of are abolishing the police. But we’ll see what that means. Even getting that on record is a win for the movement because it shows what’s possible. It’s possible to rethink and reshape what this institution looks like and the role that it ostensibly plays — that of course it is not playing. What else could actually meet those needs of the people better than this institution? Minneapolis is going to make the case for that kind of transformation in states across the country, and will be a real example to hold up. 

    It’s hard right now to imagine federal action on this, given this administration, but we have an election in a few months. Trump’s full-throated opposition to the demands coming from the movement asking for racial equality could backfire against him. But it might also help continue the conversation for the next couple of months. 

    Trump has bungled this so badly that he’s drawing more attention to the demands. Almost any other politician in his position, even a lot of Republicans, would probably be trying to calm things down, not fuel the fire. 

    This is gasoline for his base. In the midst of a pandemic, which poses a threat to a lot of his base, Trump’s clarity around being against racial equality and upholding white supremacy is actually a dog whistle to his people. This is his bread and butter, and I can definitely see him drilling down on that. And that’s what’s different about this time around. He is the president, not Obama, and that could make things very different.

    Calling out the military was a risky move for Trump. A lot of veterans and folks currently in the military are saying they’re not going to follow orders. 

    It’s a major development. Part of Trump’s underlying assumption is that he doesn’t believe that Black people are really American. The reason why the military is saying no is because it’s unconstitutional for them to put down the First Amendment rights of Americans. They’re largely nonviolent protesters. It really has escalated and polarized the military, forced them to a breaking point. If this continues, I could imagine defections from Trump if he keeps trying to turn the military against the American people. He likes to do things to test, and this test backfired for him. His approval rating around this situation has really tanked.

    Even though people are conflicted around using the military to put down “looters,” the public is not on his side on this one. So I could see him actually pull back and de-escalate and pivot. That’s kind of what he did in discussing these job numbers. But he often can’t resist being a white supremacist. So he could dig his own grave. 

    These are familiar dynamics, reminiscent of the situation in other countries where governments have been brought down. 

    There’s a lot of potential in this moment, but it could go different ways. There is the possibility that we will get burnt out and shift into more localized campaigns in the next couple of weeks. There’s a possibility that Trump might escalate and people will be further polarized. You could have millions of people outside the White House demanding he resign. 

    What happens next will be determined by the strategy that is used to push it forward. The level of strategy and understanding — of move, counter-move and escalation — that the civil rights movement had was very high over many years. They often charted the potential moves of their opponents before even deciding to start a campaign. We’ll see if the current movement can do that. 

    Because of the police killings in Minneapolis back in 2015 and 2016, there are already groups that have been doing this work on the ground for years. They’re not starting from scratch and seem to have a good base to build on. What is your read on the state of the organizing there?

    I have a lot of friends in Minneapolis and was there last year. Their organizing community is really tight. There is a lot to learn from. I’m not surprised that they were able to move intentionally and in a unified way. They’ve been investing in their community and whole movement ecosystem, to make it possible to move clearly with this moment. They can point people to allies they know they can trust. They can speak the same movement language and know their funders. They are really well-positioned. Minneapolis a vision of what’s possible.

    There is some concern that the protests could lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases. Are organizers doing anything to prepare for the inevitable criticism from the right?

    On the federal level, it would be rich for them to blame this movement, which is essential work, for a spike in COVID-19, when their own completely botched response created the level of the pandemic that we have in the country right now. Out of their own selfishness, they created this whole mess, and they’re downplaying their culpability. 

    And a corollary is that this is actually a movement about caring for people. You have a disproportionate number of Black people, Native people, Latinx people who are dying from COVID-19, because of generations of abuse. This movement is about life and living. They should say that.

    What are the best ways for people new to activism — or those staying inside because they are immunocompromised — to get involved and support the movement?

    This movement has always been online and offline, so there are a lot of ways to amplify what’s happening. Even getting into those Facebook conversations with your friends about police brutality and how we can end it in this country are part of the movement. The Movement for Black Lives is a critical place to plug in and donate to, but there are lots of organizations in every community that are doing really critical, essential work on these same issues. So look around.

    The world needs more ‘agitators’ like Buffalo protester Martin Gugino

    This story was first published by Witness Against Torture.

    I too reacted with horror at seeing the video of a 75-year-old man bleeding from the head after being shoved to the ground by Buffalo police. My stomach turned tighter when I realized, “Wait, I know that guy.” And now the president has tweeted about him, spinning the grotesque falsehood that his fall and terrible injury were somehow a set up.

    The man is Martin Gugino. For years we worked together in Witness Against Torture, a close-knit group dedicated to closing the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo and opposing torture. Our community is beside itself.

    None of us is surprised that it was Martin meeting the police line in a posture of nonviolence. Martin is gentle, principled and undaunted. Allied with the Catholic Worker tradition, he is also deeply committed to a tapestry of causes, from fair housing to immigrant rights. Guiding his activism is belief in the sacred power of nonviolent resistance to injustice. If that makes him an “agitator,” as Buffalo’s police chief slandered him, then the world needs more agitators.

    The video of Martin is already part of the iconography of our times, in which every disturbing visual seems a metaphor for something bigger. Eulogizing George Floyd, Rev. Al Sharpton used the image of the policeman’s knee on his neck as a symbol for centuries of anti-black oppression.

    Each video clip of police brutalizing protesters points to a much larger system of law enforcement abuse, endemic in communities of color. I saw in my friend’s vulnerability and the scene surrounding him other meanings as well, useful for understanding our troubled society.

    A galling aspect of the video is how rows of officers strut indifferently past an aged man lying still and wounded, as if dead. It made me think of the tens of thousands of elder Americans needlessly lost to COVID-19 and the callous disregard shown them by the Trump administration. Its catastrophic response to the virus has entailed the seemingly willful sacrifice of our seniors to Trump’s strongman fantasy of a virile nation. Shove the old, decrepit people out of the way. Step over them. Don’t help them. They were going to die anyway.

    COVID-19 is as also an infuriating story of race, with blacks greatly more likely to die from the virus than whites. The death of black seniors — often in poorer health and homed in under-resourced facilities — feeds that disproportion.

    The shared root of the twin crisis of COVID-19 and racism is the stunning disposability of certain lives in America, no matter its capacities and ideals. The difficult lesson of the current protest movement is to think about that failure in a new way. The police have not lapsed in their mission to serve and protect. For many communities, the police are built to dominate and abuse. Our health care system has not failed to keep us healthy. It is designed to keep only some of us healthy, while lining corporate pockets.

    Martin’s abuse signals as well the perverse priorities of our current government. Among the state’s solemn obligations is to protect the lives and well-being of its people.  So too, it must protect the nation’s ideals. For America, the true meaning of “national security” must be the defense of life and liberty.  And yet, rather than tirelessly working to mitigate the virus and safeguard our freedoms, the Trump administration has declared the urgent need to rid public space of the people exercising basic rights. Like in Buffalo, police departments have gotten the message.

    My last thoughts about the video are linked to the anti-torture activism Martin and I shared. In his eulogy for George Floyd, attorney Benjamin Crump named what was done to him as “torture.” It was a striking description I had not heard before. Floyd’s lynching needs no added indignity to stir our outrage. But torture has a special sting, both because of its willful cruelty and its supposed alienness to America.  

    For years, we in Witness Against Torture vigorously protested what was in fact America’s systematic use of torture after 9/11. Like other human rights groups, we wanted the detained men to be subjects before the law, with basic protections and access to U.S. courts. In our work, we did not think much about race.

    Yet Black Lives Matter and other activists impressed on us an uncomfortable truth: that many of the abuses in War on Terror prisons, like solitary confinement, are routine in America’s domestic prisons, holding predominantly people of color. Access to the law, moreover, is no guarantee of justice. Sometimes the law is the problem.

    We began to see torture as part of a continuum of state violence, including in its racial aspect. Almost exclusively, the victims of post-9/11 torture have been brown-skinned Muslim men, demonized with the label “terrorist.” Despite the innocence of most of the men historically held at Guantanamo, the law has been all but useless in freeing them. No one responsible for their torture has been held to legal account, including during the Obama administration. Going forward, our group sought to highlight the parallels between domestic and overseas abuses in a vast system of dehumanizing violence.

    Dismantling anti-black racism is today’s urgent priority. But abuses of power crave synergies, making other causes relevant. Recall that President Trump is an avowed supporter of torture. His former lawyer John Dowd wrote a bizarre letter, tweeted out by Trump, describing the peaceful protesters cleared from Lafayette Park as “terrorists.” Trump’s own tweet branding Martin as a member of antifa is of a piece with this nonsense that uses baseless fears to justify repression.

    Such rhetoric makes an enemy of the American people, threatening to sic on them the tactics of the War on Terror. It seems, as yet, more a sign of desperation than strength — like heavily armored police pushing a 75-year-old man to the ground and the president lying about it. Martin will get up, God-willing, and be back on the streets. The more of us who are there, the more pitifully desperate and disarmed those opposing the tides of change will become.

    To police of good conscience: These protests are for you too

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    To the police of good conscience:

    What if all this demonstrating was also for you? What if the pain you are feeling right now — the pain of feeling misunderstood and mischaracterized — is connected to the same pain expressed by protesters in the streets of Minneapolis, Atlanta, Louisville and hundreds of other cities steeped in grief? You understand that suspicion of theft or fraud doesn’t justify murder and whatever legal battles will unfold won’t change the morality of that fact.

    I know the protest chants and the opinion articles don’t cover it all. It’s a hard job and the criticism doesn’t always speak to the nuances, or the aches and pains deep in the crevices of your lives. Some of you are in pain because you too exist at the intersections of America’s most intractable problems: racism, sexism, poverty. This is compounded by the disorientation you experience because your sense of self is so wrapped up in the job you tirelessly perform. I know you joined the police force in pursuit of a vocation. You understand, in your bones, that you were put on this earth to be a protector, to be a guardian of lives and dreams and you serve to hold space that allows communities to flourish.

    Previous Coverage
  • Policing isn’t working for cops either
  • It hurts to know that lives, dreams, and what seems like whole communities are being destroyed, and the institution that you are a part of stands accused of this destruction. You are being asked to carry this hurt, disorientation, anger and work at the same time. You are being called upon to meet anger — however justified — with calm, and you don’t always feel prepared for that. It is so painful that there must be a temptation to shut down and close off the pathways to your humanity. Don’t.

    Your life is not blue — that’s an absurd proposition. But your life does matter. You matter, and your vocation is sacred. The institution that you have come to identify with, the one you think is facilitating the pursuit of your calling, is not. You have to decouple your sense of self from the institution you serve. Your calling is to serve people — it defined you before you put on that uniform, and it will still define you when it’s off. Such is the nature of vocations, they are often inescapable. I can understand how disorienting it might be to consider distancing yourself from the institution you’ve called home. Your unions will lie to you. There will be politicians who tell you to ignore public criticism. See the hollowness in their words and recognize their lack of self-reflection. They are not interested in the good you are committed to being in the world.

    If the institution you serve does not have the trust of the community, it cannot aid you in the pursuit of your vocation. Police departments were not built with whole communities in mind. They were built to protect the interests of smaller groups of people than our democracy expanded (and is expanding) to represent. You know racism exists, and you know that it’s more complicated than whether or not someone yells a slur while beating someone to death. There is work we must all do on the personal level to combat the insidious nature of racism, sexism and biases we’ve all inherited.

    Previous Coverage
  • Lessons for resisting police violence and building a strong racial justice movement
  • American society as a whole must change, empathy must expand, hearts must soften, or we will destroy each other — there’s no doubt about that. Some of our institutions have proven themselves too flawed to be reformed and too culpable to be trusted. You do not protect your integrity by defending such an institution. You do yourself harm. You make yourself more vulnerable to moral injury. Please, don’t. Consider that those of us marching in the streets right now are also marching for you. We want you to be able to pursue your vocation the way you were meant to: with deep empathy, grace, courage and the support of the community you serve. You don’t have to identify with the violence. You don’t have to be the other side of conversation that lacks nuance or compassion.

    My first negative encounter with a police officer was when I was 16. He was plain clothed, wielding a bat and called me “boy.” He followed me in his unmarked vehicle for 30 minutes before a uniformed officer arrived to give me a ticket — both of them standing over me. I have had positive experiences here and there, but they don’t outnumber or outweigh the negative. The impact of this is that I cross the street when I see you, I avoid calling you — even in times of need — and I am on edge with every encounter.

    While I have no doubt that the police have protected me in some way, I cannot imagine the police as my protectors. I long to feel safe in America, as did my grandfather and as does my father. I want to be able to be friendly with you or to thank you when I witness your kindness — without fear that any interaction could turn sour and cost me my freedom or my life. I want to walk the streets of my home town or any American city without being anxious that some white woman’s unprovoked fear will result in my mother’s grief.

    I want to feel safe. All black people want to feel safe. I know you can be a part of that. In fact, we need you to be a part of that. We need you to be able to serve the way you are truly called to serve, and that’s why these protests are also for you. Please, don’t resist the change that’s coming. It has the possibility to bring safety and redemption to us all.

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