Waging Nonviolence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning our lives for November

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

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

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

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

    How can we influence the center to join us?

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

    “Authoritarian rulers fear peaceful resistance above all else.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    The pragmatic, strategic sense of the people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “And what did they say?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

    Meet the environmental activists campaigning to save Nairobi National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A clinic of people

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Lessons for today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Post-crisis mutual aid

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

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

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

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

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

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

    We are traumatized. Let’s start there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Sound familiar?

    And it’s happening on all sides.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Study trauma

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

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

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

    Move through trauma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Shutting it down vs. opening it up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Building a grassroots campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A youth movement takes shape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Winning new support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What we have going for us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What’s special about a coup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    What else works to defeat a power grab?

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Most Americans will be surprised, even shocked

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What if Trump’s forces use violence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    How to be punk in a pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The road to nuclear disarmament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The humanitarian appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The role of peace education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What inspired you to team up to write this book? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Alice Paul, circa 1915. (Library of Congress)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I’d been put in my place.

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

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

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

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

    Facing a racist, patriarchal and huge country

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

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

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

    Deciding to win

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Paul’s controversial use of polarization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Nonviolent escalation drove the victory arc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    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.

    Previous Coverage
  • 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.

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