Waging Nonviolence

Lessons for resisting police violence and building a strong racial justice movement

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The protests that erupted over the last week in response to George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers have sparked many conversations and arguments on police violence, racial justice and protest. While these conversations aren’t new, there are people joining the struggle who can learn from past insights. For those looking for inspiration, tools and other resources on how to navigate these conversations — and make movements stronger — we offer this collection of stories and quotes from the Waging Nonviolence archive.

Rioting

When riots and looting accompany protests, they become the focus of most media coverage and police use them as an excuse to crackdown on protests. These articles offer a way of understanding riots and pushing past the common narratives that often make the situation more dangerous for oppressed communities.

The problem with wanting ‘peace’ in Baltimore | By Kazu Haga

  • “The calls for ‘peace’ that act as a euphemism for ‘stop protesting’ sicken me. When law enforcement and politicians tell people to protest ‘peacefully’ as a way of saying ‘stop being so mad,’ it repulses me.”
  • “People too often associate ‘peace’ with quiet, with calm, with candles and kumbaya. People too often understand ‘peace’ simply as the absence of tension. And that is a problem.”
  • “Peace is a messy process. Justice is loud. If people think that building ‘peace’ in a society as violent as the United States is a neat, calm and pretty process, they are in for a surprise.”

Having faith in Baltimore’s ‘criminals’ | By Lucas Johnson

  • “To my brothers and sisters … standing up against the irrevocable violence of police forces across the United States … you’ve been castigated because in our society, private property has incredible value. It represents the accumulation of wealth; it embodies generations of labor and toil, a livelihood and security. It is with this vantage point that a well-intentioned public respond with horror to the vandalism and destruction that some have unleashed. Yet, in a system of economic exploitation as pronounced as ours, no reasonable person should expect you to have that vantage point.”
  • “I don’t seek an end to the rioting in order to appease the majority — who regularly ignores your existence, and would rather you demonstrate your discontent in a manner more palatable to their tastes — but because destruction is easy, and what we really need to do is much harder.” 
  • “We need to develop a strategy to ensure that this ends, forever. Destruction is what those whose interests are tragically represented by the police forces occupying your neighborhoods and terrorizing your communities have been doing to us for generations. If we must succeed at anything, we must succeed in not becoming them. We must not succeed in mimicking their capacity to destroy.”

Militant tactics

While instances of left-wing violence have been magnified in further attempts to discredit the protests, it’s important to understand how the use of more militant tactics affects movements.

The problem with saying movements must be ‘totally nonviolent’ to succeed | By Steve Chase

  • “While social movements often need rebellious direct action campaigns to win, their success can also be compromised by negative rebels riddled with such personal limitations as despair, powerlessness, vanguardism, disdain for ordinary people, extreme radicalism, and quickness to denounce others based on ideology — or an unwillingness to cooperate well with others who may disagree with them. Some negative rebels also focus on individual/small sect expressions of violent protest rather than on an effective approach to building multicultural, multi-class majority support for meaningful reforms and victories.”
  • “Today, the best available evidence strongly suggests that civil resistance movements with a high degree of popular participation and nonviolent discipline will have significantly higher success rates than movements either focused on armed struggle, or mixed campaigns with spotty nonviolent discipline and/or organized violent flanks.”
  • “Yet, some movements still succeed in spite of some violence… If you think a movement can only be successful if it is ‘totally nonviolent,’ you are likely to give up whenever there is a riot, or angry protesters engage in street fights with police, or a small sector of the movement organizes an ongoing violent flank.”

Don’t feed the trolls — how to combat the alt-right | By Kazu Haga

  • “When the levels of hatred are as extreme as they are, our responses to it — nonviolent or otherwise — has to match its intensity, and antifa has done that. But as these battles rage on, it’s critical that we not get dogmatic and are able to evaluate our strategies.”
  • “Rather than meeting violence with violence, we need to expose [white supremacist] violence. Trump is finding himself more and more isolated as he continues to expose his violence. We need to do the same with the alt-right, and fighting them with sticks makes that harder.”
  • “Violence limits the number of people who are willing to come out to these types of events. We can’t let the alt-right feel like this is anything close to an equal fight.” 
  • “While the actions of antifa are getting support on my social media feed, we know that social media can be an echo chamber of limited political views. The masses do not support violence, and that needs to be part of our calculations.”
  • “For those of us committed to nonviolence, it is easy to criticize people who have played a role in escalating violence. But if we are not at least in the streets with them, then our criticisms ring hollow. If we believe that we can defeat hate by building a popular movement, then we need to get into the streets and create one.”
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Defending against right-wing violence

With right-wing extremists ramping up threats and showing up with guns at police violence protests, there’s a grave concern for violent attacks on black protesters. These articles explain how movements can defend against such attacks.

How Black Lives Matter came back stronger after white supremacist attacks | By Celia Kutz

  • “When many people hear about violent attacks on their friends and fellow protesters, they react with numbness, shock and rage. Some are caught like deer in the headlights, unable to move because it seems beyond comprehension. Some simply want to fight back with violence, and others want to withdraw. Sometimes, though, we can see other options that strengthen our inner resilience — the ability to acknowledge events, feel their effect and seek to heal by expressing the power we have in that moment. That’s precisely what the Black Lives Matter organizers did…”
  • “When white supremacists attack you with violence, increase the pressure of your nonviolent action. The reward the racists were hoping for — to intimidate you into submission or to evoke counter-violence — is not the reward you’ll give them. Instead, you come back with stronger action, legitimate leaders applaud your nonviolence, and additional allies come forward. That’s the way to win local struggles…”

5 ways movements can handle threats and attacks | By George Lakey

  • “In the ‘60s and ‘70s American social movements forced the greatest progressive changes in my lifetime, despite sometimes violent resistance. Activists developed ways of increasing our safety and — when we did get hurt — maximizing the change potential of those incidents.”
  • “In the ‘60s, we routinely had medics with us at our demonstrations, as well as trained marshals to head off trouble when possible. Marshals in the midst of a larger crowd often found it possible to isolate a fight between attackers and demonstrators. Sometimes the marshals encircled the fight and kept the fight from spreading, then de-escalated. Groups expecting trouble routinely trained marshals/peacekeepers for each action and trained the demonstrators as well.”
  • “In situations more polarized than ours, black people and their white allies faced terror and won victories. Today’s activists will add creative new movement tools for handling threat.”

The need for vision

Dwelling only on what we’re against is hard to maintain and leads to burnout. Positive vision helps to sustain the long-term fight, as this article about the Movement for Black Lives’ policy platform explains.

‘A Vision for Black Lives’ is a vision for everyone | By George Lakey

  • “Thoughtful visionaries know that stopping historic injustice requires creating alternatives.”
  • “We choose more effective everyday tactics when we know where we’re headed. Strategy’s job is to put tactics together over time to increase the movement’s growth and power, so it’s even more important to know our destination when we choose a strategy.”
  • “I’ve known plenty of people who burned out while working against something. A negative posture doesn’t protect against the inevitable hurts and disappointments that go along with justice work. The initiators of the Movement for Black Lives’ vision clearly know that this struggle will go on for a while.”
  • “Vision also helps by supporting unity. Activists may disagree about this or that tactic, or an organization’s style, but if we agree on our aims, we have reason to “agree to disagree” and accept a diversity that’s uncomfortable. Shared, big-picture goals encourage us to work together.”
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Demilitarizing police

When movements have a clear vision of what they want to attain, they can create actions and campaigns designed to move society in that direction. These articles show the many ways — from awareness-raising to electoral organizing — activists have been working toward prison reform, if not outright abolition. 

Meet the new group that wants to disarm and displace the NYPD | By Ashoka Jegroo

  • “Disarm NYPD is a new collective seeking to immediately stop the New York Police Department from killing anyone ever again. The group seeks to monitor and pressure police, with the help of local communities and Copwatch groups, until they retreat from over-policed neighborhoods and then maintain these cop-free zones with alternative, community-based forms of conflict resolution. Along with that, the group also seeks the total disarmament of the police.”
  • “Disarm NYPD originally got the idea for ‘no-cop zones’ from the group Take Back The Bronx. After Take Back The Bronx formed in 2011, members would, for a day, take a corner and put up signs on heavily-policed blocks throughout the Bronx to let police know that they were not welcome, encourage residents to roam their streets unafraid of police harassment by creating a block party-like atmosphere, and raise consciousness amongst neighbors on how they could resolve conflicts without involving the police.”
  • “Residents were often very receptive to the no-cop zones and used the opportunity to rant openly against cops, as well as connect with their neighbors. Despite the lack of police during these events, the no-cops zones managed to maintain a jovial atmosphere and always happened without any incidents.” 

NYC activists ticket Park Slope residents to show how cops treat communities of color | By Ashoka Jegroo

  • “Anti-police brutality activists in New York City took a trip to a gentrified neighborhood to catch white people freely committing the type of crimes that get black and brown people regularly harassed by cops.”
  • “Blocking the sidewalk, jaywalking — those are the two main activities where we found white people were violating some aspect of the municipal code,” said Police Reform Organizing Project Founder Robert Gangi. “The point of [the action] is to put into sharp relief how starkly discriminatory police practices are. White people in Park Slope virtually never get ticketed for these kind of activities whereas African-American and Latino people in different neighborhoods in this city will get sanctioned — ticketed and sometimes arrested — for these kind of activities on a regular basis.”

Policing isn’t working for cops either | By Kazu Haga

  • “The system of policing is one that relies on violence, fear, repression and a colonizer mentality. But the individuals who are employed to enforce that mentality are human beings with a human psyche, just like any other. It’s silly to assume that these men and women aren’t impacted by the violence they witness and participate in every day. No human being can participate in the levels of heightened violence that police are engaged in without being affected by it.”
  • “This is not about being an apologist for the individuals responsible for the killing of black life. It is not about comparing the suffering of black communities to that of law enforcement. But in nonviolence, we know that if you don’t understand the perspective of those who you are in conflict with, you do not understand the conflict. You do not need to agree with, excuse or justify the other’s perspective, you simply need to understand it so you can see the complete picture.”
  • “When the system comes together to defend cops, their defense of him is a smokescreen. The system doesn’t care about any individuals — the individuals are dispensable. But for us, the more we focus our anger on the individual who pulled the trigger, the more we are letting the system off the hook. And the more the system defends the individual, the more we want to see him or her locked up, as if they are the problem.”

How prisoners organized to elect a just DA in Philly | By Kerry “Shakaboona” Marshall and John Bergen

  • “The November 2017 general election in Philadelphia saw a former civil rights attorney running on an anti-incarceration platform elected district attorney to the country’s fifth largest city.” 
  • “In order to shift the race to the left and hold Krasner accountable as he prepares to take office, a broad coalition of progressive groups put aside their differences to focus on winning. The leaders of this alliance are the people most impacted by the city’s justice system, including prisoners in Pennsylvania state prisons. Their efforts, which helped create the conditions for Krasner’s victory, are part of a long history of Pennsylvania’s incarcerated citizens changing public discourse.”
  • “When it comes to policies around mass incarceration and policing, movements for justice and equality cannot be afraid to use our capacity to shift the conversation.”
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Bail funds

With thousands arrested over the weekend, bail funds began popping up all around the country. Prison abolition activists working to end racist and unjust pre-trial bail requirements have been organizing such efforts for years. Learn more about them from these articles.

#FreeBlackMamas bails black mothers from jail for Mother’s Day | By Victoria Law

  • “On any given day, 462,000 people (of all genders and races) are held in jail pretrial, meaning that they are currently awaiting their day in court. The majority are jailed simply because they cannot afford to post bail.”
  • “In 2017, #FreeBlackMamas organizers raised over $1 million in two months, enough to post bail for 106 mothers nationwide. Not only did they bail these mothers out of jail, but they also connected them with support services — such as housing and counseling — while also providing transportation to their follow-up court dates. Their efforts sparked other bailouts, including a Father’s Day bailout and a Black August bailout, which freed 71 other people.”
  • “Bailouts aren’t limited to Mother’s Day or holidays. In some states, organizations [such as The Massachusetts Bail Fund] have arisen to bail people out all year round.” 
  • “In the United States, black mothers who had been freed through #FreeBlackMamas in previous years traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to participate in a convening of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls… Some had never been involved in political advocacy before being bailed out. Now, every one of the women on the stage was deeply involved in anti-prison work, including participating in and organizing this year’s bailouts.” 

How organizers raised over $233,000 in one day to bail hundreds out of jail | By Victoria Law

  • “Bail fund organizers are not only working to free people from jail, but also fighting to end cash bail altogether. In some places, they are beginning to see results. Organizers with the Chicago Community Bond Fund have pushed for court interventions and worked with legislators on bills to change bail laws. In July 2017, in response to a lawsuit, a judge issued a rule requiring that all bails in Chicago’s Cook County must be affordable.”
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How white people can confront racism

White people have a duty to step up and take action for racial justice. These articles highlight the efforts they can take to speak out against and work to dismantle white supremacy. 

The sacredness of working to end white supremacy — a conversation with Rev. Anne Dunlap | By Chris Crass

  • “White folk are longing for some white models for racial justice and solidarity, and so we need those of us more practiced at it and/or are willing to “be public” to continue to do that, and encourage more folks to try it. And here I don’t mean posting your selfie at the latest action, but more importantly being public about our questions and wrestlings, being public about our mistakes, being public about the resources we find helpful, being public about our horror at what is continuing to be done in our name.”

When working-class white people close the road to Trump — a conversation with Ben Laughlin | By Caitlin Breedlove

  • “People in power in the United States have been scapegoating poor people and people of color from the moment Europeans set foot on this land. For me, it is really important that I am trying to meet my people where they’re at and have real conversations about that frustration and anger. We have to dig into the misplaced hate and misguided, destructive solutions Trump is putting forward together. Trump speaks in a way that resonates with us, but you can best believe that when push comes to shove he doesn’t care about white working-class people at all. I want to validate my family’s real anger, while also exposing the scapegoating, misplaced hate and fear mongering.”
  • “I wholeheartedly believe working-class and poor white people have a real stake in dismantling white supremacy and racial capitalism. The allure of aligning with whiteness is powerful; as working-class white people we need to expose this force for the deadly lie that it is and be organizing our people against it with everything we have.”

Why reconciliation and redemption are central to countering white supremacy — a conversation with Life After Hate Executive Director Sammy Rangel | By Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

  • “Where is the safe place for someone who is second-guessing their membership [in a white supremacist group]? What are we doing in our community to create a space for those people? Right now, Life After Hate is the only place to go, which is a shame because we can’t be everywhere all the time. But if the community took that stance, they might actually win some of those people right there on the spot, who say, “You know what, I want more of what you have.” When they look out their window beyond their group, they see a raging, angry crowd with nowhere to exit.”

Americans have long ignored Iraqis — now is the perfect time to connect with their stories

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“This tragedy is an opportunity.” We’ve heard these words a lot lately.

And it’s a good point, one that has been argued both adeptly and disastrously since the COVID-19 outbreak took the country by storm 10 weeks ago. From well-informed officials like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to well-intended celebrities like Gal Gadot, leaders from every sector have framed the pandemic as an opportunity to evaluate the state of American life, and possibly change our course.

This sentiment has been especially embraced by major resistance movements. Prison reform organizations are encouraging activists to use the dire situation to effect lasting policy change, including an end to solitary confinement and incarceration for people too poor to pay court fees. Union and non-union workers have harnessed their heightened visibility and “essential” status to advance key labor issues, such as income inequality and protections for low-wage workers. And climate scientists are urging lawmakers and industry leaders to view the collective response to the pandemic as a blueprint for combating global warming.

The task of interpreting the global COVID-19 crisis is happening privately as well. Many are asking, how am I being affected by this unprecedented upheaval? How have some of my most basic values and structures — like my sense of time and space — been morphed, renewed or lost? What are my responsibilities (and limits) as a human, citizen, community member, employee, friend, parent and partner? Should I feel angry about how the pandemic is unfolding? Or sad, anxious, hopeful, serene? Should I make a TikTok video?

Where the personal and political tasks of grappling with this catastrophic event merge is a vital space. If we can occupy this space after the shelter-in-place orders are lifted and the bare fact of our interdependence is rushed off stage, the coronavirus tragedy may in fact materialize into something substantial, something good.

One way Americans can inhabit this crossroads in the weeks and months to come is by reading Iraqi occupation literature — that is, literature by Iraqis about life between 2003 to 2011, when the U.S.-led Coalition Forces occupied the country. Over the last decade, a number of brilliant fiction and nonfiction books about the occupation have become available in English. Two that stand out among this emerging subgenre are “The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq” by the award-winning Arabic writer and filmmaker Hassan Blasim and “Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq” by the anonymous Iraqi software engineer-turned-blogger Riverbend. Others include “The Corpse Washer” by Sinan Antoon, “Frankenstein in Baghdad” by Ahmed Saadaw, “The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq” by Dunya Mikhail, and “Baghdad Noir” edited by Samuel Shimon.

These works challenge readers to share in the experience of being occupied. Just three months ago, this experience might have been considered a subject for only niche academic audiences or, worse, written off as the plight of an unlucky pocket of the globe. But the demanding isolation of social distancing, deepening precarity caused by the shutdown of all “nonessential” sectors, and seemingly imminent threat of infection and illness have made these narratives relatable to a wider American public. The idea of being confined, indefinitely, to one shelter was inconceivable for many of us prior to the coronavirus. During the first two weeks of the shutdown, my students, who were forcibly dispersed across four continents in a matter of days, began each virtual meeting by noting how surreal and dystopian it all felt. As one New Jersey-native put it, “It’s like we’re in a ‘Black Mirror’ episode, right?”

It’s also the first time since the Vietnam War that the U.S. public has been confronted with so many dead bodies, and so many lives that cannot be fully grieved. The drone footage from New York’s Hart Island, where hundreds of unclaimed corpses are being buried in mass graves, crystallizes this phenomenon. It’s also a dilemma shaping our daily lives in less spectacular ways: health care workers broadcasting a patient’s final moments via FaceTime, essential employees beginning their shift after a brief announcement about a coworker passing, reporters updating listeners and viewers with the latest death toll.

While this is new ground for many Americans, it’s old ground for many Iraqis. The mortality rate in Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion was about 5.5 people per 1,000 per year and rose to 19.8 deaths per 1,000 in the year 2006. That same year, the rate of violence rose by 51 percent in just three months, with an estimated 5,000 deaths per month. The country’s medical facilities struggled to cope with the influx of bodies and the lack of capacity in their morgues, and families hired civilians to search dumps, river banks and morgues for the bodies of missing relatives.

Occupation literature is richly attentive to this history. Hassan Blasim’s title story in “The Corpse Exhibition,” for instance, is narrated by the leader of a fastidious murder cult, a Kafkaesque conceit that’s as horrifying as it is absurd. He explains how the assassins artfully display corpses throughout the city, and these grotesque exhibitions distinguish their victims from the “random” and “stupid” deaths filling the country’s mortuaries. The story dramatizes a question that underwrites the entire collection: How do we see, narrate and interpret so much death?

While Iraq now seems a distant memory, especially in the midst of our pandemic, it’s a war that we barely remembered to begin with. 

The virus has also laid bare the nation’s deepest fault lines. Atrocious racial inequality, an impoverished commons after decades of winner-takes-all capitalism and neoliberal privatization, single-minded partisanship, a plutocratic agenda, and a fiercely polarized and disenfranchised public underwrite the devastating evolution of the pandemic in the United States. As the national death toll surpasses 100,000 — more than eight times the American death toll in 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War combined (although still less than deaths caused by opioid overdoses and gun violence since 2018) — these glaring failures seem bigger than ever. They have roots in the origins of this country and are also inseparable from America’s 21st century wars.

Only 2.5 million Americans (0.75 percent of the population) served in Iraq or Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014. This strategically isolated and privatized military sector therefore made it possible for 99.25 percent of the country to see the Iraq War as just a “bad dream” from the start. The New York Times reported in May 2004, “The invasion of Iraq, which has already begun to seem like a bad dream in so many ways, cannot get much more nightmarish than this,” and yet, “this” went on for seven more years. And it’s arguably still going on. (Just this February, the Iraqi parliament pressed for American troops to “be withdrawn from all the bases.” In response, the Trump administration drafted sanctions against Iraq should they expel U.S. troops.)

The conflict’s less-than-real quality — the way Iraq was always already out of focus and at arm’s length — is one reason why the U.S. government’s cataclysmic “War on Terror” was met with so little resistance. It explains why, in an age of robust social unrest and political protest, the conflict remains mostly absent from public discourse, and why even my brightest and most woke students can’t tell me when the Iraq War began or ended. In short, while Iraq now seems a distant memory, especially in the midst of our pandemic, it’s a war that we barely remembered to begin with. Moreover, the continuing situation in Iraq and our involvement across the Middle East make grappling with this history an urgent political project. As the writer Derek Miller argues, “The story of Iraq has ended, we feel, because we see nothing but repetition. But the story is not over. If anything, it is only the beginning.”

Hassan Blasim’s “The Corpse Exhibition” and Riverbend’s “Baghdad Burning” are emblems of Iraqi-authored occupation literature. They are also valuable resources for drawing connections between the so-called War on Terror and America’s current crisis. Each book represents a very different genre and medium. “The Corpse Exhibition” is an experimental collection of surreal, poetic and absurd short stories that mostly serve as allegories to the occupation. “Baghdad Burning,” on the other hand, is a collection pieced together from a civilian blog that gained worldwide attention for chronicling daily life in Iraq’s occupied capital from December 2003 to September 2004. It’s telling, therefore, that these books share a number of defining features.

One of those features is the trope of Iraq’s occupied civilians as ghosts, jinnis (supernatural spirits in Arabic mythology), or divided subjects — liminal figures existing at the threshold between life and death, waking and dreaming, human and non-human, here and there. “Baghdad Burning” opens about five months after the American invasion with the pseudonymous author resolving to blog about daily life under the occupation because, as she writes, “I guess I’ve got nothing to lose.” She quickly distinguishes herself from the “third world” Muslim women of the Western imagination. A university-educated engineer with a music collection ranging from Britney Spears to Nirvana, the 24-year-old had a budding career and busy social life prior to May 2003. She was free to move — solo and hijabless — around the city as she pleased. All that changed with the occupation.

Riverbend chronicles the shift from her pre- to post-invasion life in details that are equal parts humorous and harrowing, raw and cerebral. She notes how the American troops carry out conventional forms of combat: killing, wounding and torturing Iraqi people. (Abu Ghraib, she affirms, was a watershed moment). But more often, she attends to the military’s more abstract and indirect engagement with those living in Baghdad. The occupying troops ravage the country’s infrastructure — electricity, water, gas and other basic services are constant problems — and they spread themselves everywhere in order to control and reconstruct the city. They also conduct patrols and raids that operate along the same logic as terrorism: surprise, chaos, asymmetry and mistrust. These strategies seem to facilitate the Islamic State’s domination and violence, a phenomenon that Riverbend highlights in her interrogative about the sounds that wake her at night: “What can it be? A burglar? A gang of looters? An attack? A bomb? Or maybe just an American midnight raid.”

“Baghdad Burning” also gives readers a window into the psychological and social effects of the occupation. This form of militarism makes Riverbend and other Iraqis feel like they exist in an alternate reality, outside recognizable social and structural forms, like politics and time. When Donald Rumsfeld visits the country in September 2003, Riverbend observes how he moves through Baghdad “safe in the middle of all his bodyguards.” Rumsfeld’s movement is a particularly cruel and distressing element of the occupation for Riverbend, whose own mobility had become radically restricted (by that point, she couldn’t leave home without a head covering and male relative). “It’s awful to see him strutting all over the place … like he’s here to add insult to injury … you know, just in case anyone forgets we’re in an occupied country.” The young Baghdadi woman’s experience of the perverse and unassailable distance between herself and the U.S. Secretary of Defense typifies the occupier-occupied relationship in “Baghdad Burning,” a dynamic that leads Riverbend to the hopeless feeling that “everything now belongs to someone else … I can’t see the future at this point.”

“The Corpse Exhibition” homes in on the effects of living under an occupying force as well. However, Hassan Blasim goes a step further and presents the occupation as a fatal or near-fatal form of governance for Iraqi civilians. Blasim was born in Baghdad in 1973 and fled to Finland in 2004, where he still resides. While Blasim primarily evokes the American occupation of Iraq, which began after the 2003 invasion, the region’s long history of legal and structural subjugation is never out of focus. Multiple tales blur the line between the country’s past, present and future, situating stony-eyed allusions to the Iraq Petroleum Company, Baathist regime, Iran-Iraq war and American occupation side by side.

The short story “The Hole,” for instance, opens with the narrator getting food from his old shop, which he was forced to close after the invasion. Three masked gunmen appear, and while running to escape the indistinct threat, the narrator falls into a hole occupied by an aged and spectral Baghdadi man. Rather than a sense of causality, historicity, materiality and so on, life in the hole is characterized by randomness, boundlessness and immateriality. It is an “endless chain,” a game based on “a series of experiments” whose inventors “couldn’t control the game, which rolls ceaselessly on and on through the curves of time.” The narrator is unable to apprehend the game’s inventors and terms and, thus, achieve movement and an ending — quite literally to die or escape the hole. So he becomes a “ghost” or a “jinni” like the old Baghdadi man before him, and the story ends with a new subject falling into the hole. It’s an ending that emphatically resists narrative resolution and confronts readers with the experience of being stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of subjugation and dispossession.

This idea comes to a head in the final short story, “The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes.” Salim Abdul Husain is an Iraqi man who works for the municipality cleaning up the aftermath of explosions: “chickens, fruits and vegetables and some people,” he notes with grim frankness on the opening page. Salim is granted asylum in Holland, changes his name to Carlos Fuentes (wholly unaware of the irony), and dedicates himself to disavowing his Iraqi self and past. But uncontrollable nightmares threaten his painstaking efforts to forge a new identity as a Dutch national. Trapped between his dreaming and waking life, Fuentes resolves to “put an end” to his divided state by “sweeping out all the rubbish of the unconscious” — a claim that evokes his job cleaning up the aftermath of explosions in Iraq and connects the Sunni immigrant’s psychic suffering to the uniquely indirect violence involved in the occupation. Fuentes studies conscious dreaming in order to gain control of his sleeping life and, by extension, the seemingly random death and violence that defined his life in occupied Iraq.

At last, Fuentes finds himself in a state of conscious dreaming. He enters a building in central Baghdad and shoots every man, woman and child “with skill and precision.” Upon reaching the top floor, Fuentes meets Salim — or rather, himself. He aims his rifle at Salim’s head and then, panicked, “let out a resounding scream and started to spray Salim Abdul Husain with bullets, but Salim jumped out the window and not a single bullet hit him.” “Carlos Fuentes,” on the other hand, “was dead on the pavement, and a pool of blood was spreading slowly under his head.” Much like the narrator turned jinni in “The Hole,” only the unreal, dreaming subject survives in Blasim’s closing story. Life in occupied Iraq, in other words, leaves the Iraqi people neither alive nor dead, forced to exist at the threshold of existence.

The pandemic is an opportunity for Americans to connect with the stories of the millions of Iraqis we have refused to look squarely in the face. 

The vision of ordinary citizens forced into an unlivable situation, as offered up by “The Corpse Exhibition” and “Baghdad Burning,” distinguishes Iraqi occupation literature, and it points to one grounds for a renewed peace movement. By seeing America’s 21st century wars from the perspective of the “other” — a perspective displaced by Hollywood’s faceless terrorists and the post-Cold War military’s “zero death” doctrine — we can begin to resist what Barack Obama called the nation’s “permanent war footing.” Put differently, once we see the occupation as a real nightmare for real Iraqi people, rather than just a bad dream for Americans, we can begin to re-politicize the strategically depoliticized activity of war.

At times, dissent has emerged from unlikely quarters. After being made Trump’s first Secretary of Defense, James “Mad Dog” Mattis — the four-star Marine general who commanded U.S. troops in the Gulf War, Afghanistan and the Iraq War — proved that he wasn’t the hawkish isolationist of Trump’s imagination. Mattis resigned in December 2018, citing “policy differences,” while Trump, of course, replied that he “fired” him. At a conference last spring, Mattis advocated for greater diplomacy in the country’s approach to radical terrorism in the Middle East. He also made a plea to the international community that echoes his ongoing counsel to the American people: “We need to hold fast to each other. We need to engage more with each other.”

The COVID-19 tragedy is an opportunity for just this. The pandemic is an opportunity for Americans to connect with the stories of the millions of Iraqis we have refused to look squarely in the face. It’s an opportunity for us to engage with those who have persisted in a global system that seems hell bent on destroying them and to begin accounting for their reality. In June 2004, after a long week of scorching temperatures, outrageous government appointments, and a border teeming with Iraqi asylum seekers, Riverbend concluded, “People are simply tired of waiting for normality and security. It was difficult enough during the year … this summer promises to be a particularly long one.”

As Americans now look forward to a particularly long summer, activists, artists, educators and public figures would be wise to read, teach and promote Iraqi occupation literature. The pandemic — our struggle with the unprecedented — has primed us to identify with the struggle of the real and fictional Iraqis who inhabit this subgenre. Without seeing the story of contemporary Iraq as our story, we cannot remedy the devastation unleashed on the region or intervene to stop America’s “permanent” war machine — a system which relies upon a civilian population who passively consents to violence against non-Western people. And we cannot transform American militarism into what it should be: a central political issue of our time.

When activist burnout was a problem 50 years ago, this group found a solution

“I’m throwin’ in the towel,” he said in a tone of resignation. I’d been away for a while and didn’t expect this. I started to interrupt, but he went right on speaking.

“The shootings, man. Even the FBI admits that bombings of religious groups are increasing. We have a president who wants to be a dictator. Nobody knows what’s coming next. I just can’t handle it.”

We weren’t close, but more than once we’d shared a beer after a political meeting, and when we were on the same picket line we were glad to see each other. Now he tells me he’s dropping out of the movement.

It was the end of the summer in 1970, a few months after the Jackson State and Kent State killings, and he was right about President Nixon wanting to be a dictator. America’s war in Indochina was terrible, along with poverty here at home. Things looked bad.

I couldn’t blame him for burnout, but he represented a growing number of caring activists who hadn’t been able to sustain themselves for the longer run. I understood the stress. I remember someone else reaching for some humor to say what it was like: “If you’re not overwhelmed, you’re not paying attention.”

That was 50 years ago, and now, in the midst of what we’re going through these days, the question comes up again: How do we sustain our activism for the long run? When people drop out, movements miss their hard-won skills, experience and relationships that make alliances stronger. On multiple levels, burn-out costs movements dearly.

Learning together, in a supportive community, would handle anxiety by emphasizing, “It’s not all about you, it’s about us. Together we’ll learn to make a difference.”

The good news is that the 1970 version of the sustainability problem spurred an informal group eager to find a solution. After a year’s worth of research and development, the Movement for a New Society, or MNS, was born in 1971. MNS became a national cadre organization whose members supported larger movements to make a difference.

A number of elements in the organizational design supported resilience in the members. We also made mistakes, one of which was big enough eventually to end the organization after nearly two decades. Notably, even after dissolution in 1988, many MNS members continued as activists, sharing their skills and experience with subsequent movements.

Using organizational forms that teach members to support each other

While based in London in 1969-70, speaking and training in Europe, I was intrigued by the Dutch activist group Shalom, which built a training center to serve a network of autonomous action groups. When I came back home to the United States, along with the burnout I also found new people coming forward to give activism a try.

I pulled together some veterans of the ‘60s movements along with several different clusters of young activists. The invitation was to explore ingredients for a group that could do radical action and at the same time support the sustainability of the members. We realized that training would be key, because it builds competency and a sense of craft, and therefore reduces overwhelm.

Our first decision was to adopt the proposal of long-time activists George and Lillian Willoughby to put training together with cooperative living, in a center. Learning together, in a supportive community, would handle anxiety by emphasizing over and over, “It’s not all about you, it’s about us. Together we’ll learn to make a difference.”

Another way of experiencing that support is through task collectives (if that’s the premise and the members get the training). Because we could invite task collectives around the country to form a network, do action and — if they chose — live together, we thought the Shalom structure would suit us well. We also expected the Philadelphia base (or “hub” in today’s language) to achieve critical mass, which could then provide training resources that supported everyone in the network.

George Lakey in the 1970’s, outside the West Philadelphia home where he still lives.

We found an inexpensive neighborhood in Philadelphia where we could buy and rent large Victorian houses for cooperative living, with 6-10 in a house. Our five collective houses grew rapidly to 10, and then stabilized at about 15.

Expenses, childcare, cooking, cleaning and repairs were shared within each household. Income needs for individuals dropped dramatically. Bringing living expenses down meant most people worked only part-time for income, saving the rest of their time for movement work.

Easily available socializing created a natural context for support, and we imported a peer counseling method that addressed the inevitable issues that come up when individualists try to cooperate.

We planted our training community in a high-turnover Philadelphia middle- and working-class neighborhood which some realtors, unbeknown to us, planned to turn into a slum. Our community organizing succeeded in saving the neighborhood. In fact, two neighborhood institutions that we started are still thriving 50 years later: a food coop and a land trust. Researcher Andrew Cornell presents a lively picture of MNS in his book “Oppose and Propose: Lessons from Movement for a New Society.”

A network of teams, or collectives

The fundamental national structure of MNS became a horizontal network of collectives. Each collective was a face-to-face group focused on a project, like organizing the direct action blockade campaign that aroused the longshoremen’s union to refuse work in solidarity with the suffering people of Bangladesh. Another collective organized a neighborhood safety program, which put us and our neighbors side by side in dealing with a crime surge. A third did outreach and communication for the national network, while a fourth started and ran New Society Publishers (still going, on its own). There were many others; each collective was autonomous in relation to its own work, once having agreed to the basics of the overall concept of nonviolent revolution.

After the MNS network was established, new collectives applied to join, which involved a dialogue to achieve clarity on the high common denominator that characterized the network. One of the expectations was willingness on the part of a collective’s members to “have each others’ backs” when a collective got over its head. Giving and receiving support was another element in our design for sustaining activists. Inspired by the Wobblies of the early 1900s, MNS created a kind of “power grid” in which members were pledged to come to each others’ aid when a collective called “Crunch!”

The MNS theory of change supported sustainability by giving up a typical activist preoccupation with analyzing what’s wrong. Our alternative was to focus on vision.

The only way a person could become a member of MNS was to be a member of a collective. Non-members interacted with MNS members in many ways, including residing in the cooperative households, joining the co-op, going to the numerous parties, sing-alongs and other social life. Still, the right to a voice in MNS decision-making was reserved to those who were part of a mutual-accountability structure — the collective.

This part of the structural design was key: The organization was accountable to members who were themselves accountable to the people they worked with most intimately. This feature increased reliability, which maximized safety and trust, which in turn reduced anxiety and burn-out.

The reliability that maximized trust also made internal conflict safe for the members, since internal conflict is essential to ensure a robust learning curve. Activists, we believed, are less likely to burn out when they experience themselves as actively learning and growing.

To strengthen the learning we built into MNS the expectation of continual evaluation and feedback. A working collective often invited a facilitator to help them reflect on their work, including their teamwork. Individuals sometimes asked others to meet with them to help them reflect on their personal growth. I used that method when I had a cancer that was expected to kill me; my support group of MNS members assisted me to look honestly at my life and empower myself for healing.

A collaborative learning style

MNS had a slogan: “Most of what we need to know, we have yet to learn.” We found that this helped support serious study, training and also sustainability. Part of burning out can be giving up on ourselves when our performance doesn’t fully meet needs and expectations. Members found that the slogan embedded forgiveness.

A July 1977 issue of “Communities” magazine about Movement for a New Society. (Foundation for Intentional Community)

In contrast to the individualism of high school and college study, the favored learning style for MNS was collaborative. Members enrolled themselves in one of the Macro-analysis Seminar groupings to study the large forces that influence our chances for success. The Macro-analysis Seminar was mainly initiated by Bill Moyer, who — while on Martin Luther King’s national staff — had seen the importance of the macro level for King, and ways that capacity could be furthered through MNS.

The MNS theory of change supported sustainability by giving up a typical activist preoccupation with analyzing what’s wrong. Our alternative was A/V/S: Analysis, Vision and Strategy. The emphasis on vision put us in line with trainers of Olympic athletes: Clarify and make as real as possible the vision of what winning will look like.

Just as important to Olympians is to develop a strategy for getting there. The seminar emphasized that strategy and vision are as important as analysis if we are to make the degree of change we want.

The Macro-analysis Seminar taught people how to learn in small groups, just as MNS organizers in direct action situations encouraged crowds to form face-to-face affinity groups. There is no substitute for the degree of support that small groups can give. This lesson had been learned by military researchers investigating combat situations: The face-to-face units are the most effective in assisting soldiers to reduce fear and stay with the challenge.

MNS members dissatisfied with the quality of training then available to most activists formed a training collective that studied adult learning, read Paolo Freire, learned from Swedish activists and the civil rights movement, and created experiential methods that improved training.

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  • 4 lessons for climate organizers from the anti-nuclear movement
  • As a result, training became crucial to MNS’ networking with and influencing the burgeoning movement against nuclear power. When MNS members were locked up in New Hampshire armories along with thousands of anti-nuclear activists in the Clamshell Alliance, they ran many hours of training sessions for the Clamshell’s affinity groups. Training across the country assisted the grassroots anti-nuclear movement to remain grassroots, and win. Even today, Leif Taranta, a young climate organizer, reports that memories of Clamshell make it easier to recruit New Englanders for today’s climate fights.

    Oppression/liberation issues

    MNS valued liberation from sexism, racism, classism and homophobia, knowing that those burdens and others drag us down and lead to burn-out. Working on those issues, however, can be divisive, and indeed has torn some organizations apart and left individuals adrift.

    Knowing that, MNS emphasized solidarity — our fights with each other need to acknowledge that we are, fundamentally, allies. Even while MNS was forming, the women’s movement was accelerating, and we quickly formed men’s support groups to assist the processing of women’s powerful speak-outs and the inevitable gender conflicts in collectives and cooperative living. The expectation that members of the oppressor group, as well as the oppressed group, would form support groups became a support for sustainability.

    Our approach to classism was a striking departure from Marxist studies. Even though MNS included a Marxism study group, the work with the larger membership was highly experiential — as we working-class members liked to say, “Down to earth.” As our awareness deepened we noticed that the work on other oppressions was frequently marred by classist patterns. One way this showed up was competition: “My oppression is more important than yours and should get priority attention.” The attempt to pull “oppression rank” sometimes evoked hilarity, when we caught ourselves competing to be at the top of the food chain.

    As MNS tried to change we found ourselves held back by our commitment from the outset to consensus decision-making.

    To handle the complexity of this dance, MNS largely focused on one area of oppression at a time. In the early ‘70s sexism was the primary work, then as gains were made in that arena, we tackled homophobia with speak-outs, informal confrontations and the essential support groups. After hard work and progress noted, MNS moved on to classism and racism.

    The willingness of MNS to say “yes” to conflict, and emphasize both the value of joining and differentiating, supported its members to grow as activists and human beings. By focusing mostly on one oppression at a time, members were able see commonalities and differences in the liberation process, grow both as allies and as people subject to mistreatment, and heal from injuries in a way that supported their personal power and effectiveness as activists.

    A sustainability element that didn’t work out well

    MNS handled many differences and tried to maintain an internal culture that was conflict-friendly, while at the same time uniting, by framing its organizational mission in a highly rigorous way: Service to people’s movements that contributed to a nonviolent revolution.

    Throughout the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, MNS “punched well above its weight.” Circumstances change, however, and organizations need to change as well. As MNS tried to change we found ourselves held back by our commitment from the outset to consensus decision-making. That choice was consistent with trying to give every member a sense of belonging, as we believed that belonging helps to sustain people in the struggle. That structural element, however, prevented making needed changes, since even a tiny minority could block forward motion.

    We looked for ways to taste liberation in the collective reality of our work and daily life.

    I learned, too late, that a change organization structured so it cannot change itself is a contradiction in terms. As the person who’d catalyzed the creation of MNS, I felt it my responsibility to catalyze its dissolution, and helped the group lay itself down in 1988.

    Ever since, I’ve remained proud of many of the experiments we tried. In later organizational contexts I saw many of our design elements working well, delivering strong support for people who might otherwise give way to hopelessness or find themselves stymied by inner conflict. I’m curious now to learn which of the supports for sustainable activism that MNS found valuable will work for organizations facing that question anew.

    ‘Living the revolution now’

    Having large aspirations risks burnout when results turn out to be less than what was hoped for. An incrementalist’s solution is to give up large aspirations. MNS’ solution had two parts, both of which kept us in touch with our aspirational vision. Each of them might be applicable right now.

    The first part was to work for achievable steps that help strategically to build the mass movements required to make the needed system change. A new collective wanting to be “cleared into” the MNS network needed to explain how its work would increase the chance of making a revolution. Our theory of change offered examples: nonviolent direct action campaigns that could build movements, alternative institutions that could be proving grounds for revolutionary vision and training for grassroots leadership development.

    None of these activities was considered a substitute for the needed revolution, but instead as steps toward its realization. At each step we could declare victory while affirming where the steps lead to: our large aspirations.

    The second part of the MNS solution was to “Live the revolution now.” We looked for ways to taste liberation in the collective reality of our work and daily life. Singing in jail, dancing at parties, using our spiritual practices, conflicting and celebrating in our retreats, and loving in liberated relationships gave members the experience of what we expected would one day be common for everyone: living with respect and equality, supported by the institutions of a new society.

    I remember a national network meeting at which we gathered to do business after lunch, starting as usual in a circle of singing. Song after song, with rising spirit, and some members dancing and weaving, the agenda waited for over an hour in a usually punctual group, because the circle of radiant faces spontaneously took precedence.

    As we reached with each other to touch base with a spirit beyond words, our high aspiration was renewed, as well as the determination to continue taking necessary risks for the revolution to come.

    Activists fought the US military draft for decades — they may soon have to again

    As if there weren’t enough to worry about these days, women soon may be required to register for the military draft.

    You may not have heard about this development because of the avalanche of COVID-19 news. In late March, a national commission urged Congress to mandate that all women between 18 and 25 enroll with the Selective Service System, the agency that oversees the military draft.  

    Congress may well ratify this proposal. Many prominent figures in both parties endorse the idea from Hillary Clinton to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. If the past is any guide, however, we can expect activists to resist. During the Vietnam War, a massive draft resistance movement forced the government to eliminate the conscription system altogether. When Jimmy Carter reintroduced the current registration system in 1980, a powerful anti-draft movement hobbled the government’s efforts to implement it. 

    Nevertheless, the system has continued to register young men. The issue faded from national consciousness until 2015, when Obama allowed women to serve in combat roles. Various commentators and politicians asked: If women can fight on the front lines, why shouldn’t they also be subjected to the draft? Others raised a related question: Why not require everyone to perform some form of national service? Congress then charged the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service to examine such issues.

    The commission spent three years and $45 million, conducted hearings throughout the country and solicited several thousand public comments. Its 245-page final report contained 49 recommendations, mostly ways to encourage voluntary opportunities for public and governmental service. 

    Only the recommendation that would force women to register for the draft contains a compulsory element. If adopted, women who refuse to register would, like their male counterparts, be liable to criminal prosecution subject to up to five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine.

    Some progressives and feminists support the commission’s proposal. Jackie Speer, a liberal Democratic congresswoman from California, told The Hill: “If we want equality in this country, if we want women to be treated precisely like men are treated and that they should not be discriminated against, then we should support a universal conscription.”

    Meanwhile, Rivera Sun of CODEPINK, a women-led grassroots antiwar organization, disagrees. She told the commission: “The draft is not a women’s rights issue. Women’s equality will not be achieved by including women in a draft system that forces civilians to participate in activities that are against their will and harm others in large numbers, such as war. There is only one way for draft registration to treat everyone equally: abolish draft registration.”

    This is not a radical idea. Except for brief periods during the Civil War and World War I, the United States had been conscription-free until the eve of World War II. Compulsory military service was considered un-American, incompatible with the values espoused by the land of the free. Countless numbers of immigrants came here to keep from being drafted in their native lands. One such immigrant was Frederick Trump, grandfather of the current president, who fled Bavaria to avoid being pressed into the Imperial German Army.

    The United States discontinued conscription after World War II but resumed it in time for the Korean War. After that war ended, however, the United States continued to draft young men into the military. Relatively few were called up in those years. However, its very existence meant that any president could quickly mobilize troops without any check from Congress or the public.

    The draft made it easy for the president to launch the war. But resisters exploited its main vulnerability: The draft requires the cooperation of those subjected to it.

    That’s exactly what Lyndon B. Johnson did starting in 1965. The previous year he ran as the “peace candidate” saying he would not get the United States into a land war in Asia. Within months of the election, using pretexts of a fraudulent attack on a warship and an assault on a U.S. base, Johnson started pouring American troops into Vietnam. Because the president could issue draft calls on his own, he ordered nearly a quarter-million draftees into military service in 1965 and nearly 400,000 the next year. Soon there were a half-million American troops fighting in Vietnam, mostly draftees or men who’d enlisted to keep from being drafted. (Enlistees could choose their branch of service but had to spend three years, rather than two, in the military.)

    Having the draft enabled Johnson to drag the United States into a major land war before the public fully grasped what was happening. The gross inequities of the draft system also helped him blunt public awareness of the massive buildup. Despite large numbers sent to Asia, only a fraction of those eligible served. Of the 27 million men of draft age during the decade of the war, only 2.5 million — or less than 10 percent — served in Vietnam.

    To determine who would be drafted, the Selective Service offered lots of loopholes for the children of the political and economic elite, as well as much of the middle class. College students like Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney weren’t touched. Nor were those able to obtain doctor’s notes for minor — or contrived — maladies like bone spurs, as was the case with Donald Trump. For fear of ruffling affluent feathers, Johnson refused to call up the reserves or National Guard — another preserve of the middle class, some of whom, like George W. Bush, secured spots through political connections.

    As a result, Vietnam became a working-class war. What’s more, most conscripts couldn’t even vote, as the voting age then was 21. Talk about taxation without representation!

    The draft resistance movement takes rise

    The draft made it easy for the president to launch the war. But resisters exploited its main vulnerability: The draft requires the cooperation of those subjected to it. Gene Sharp, a disciple of Gandhi and one of the chief theorists of nonviolence, explains: “Nonviolent action is based on a very simple postulate: People do not always do what they are told to do, and sometimes they act in ways that have been forbidden … If people do this in sufficient numbers for long enough, that government or hierarchical system will no longer have power.”

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    At the time when Johnson upped the draft calls, men were required to carry their draft cards at all times and obey orders from Selective Service or face up to five years imprisonment. Defying the law, men began burning their draft cards or returning them to the government at public antiwar rallies. In the most impressive action, more than a thousand men turned in their cards at simultaneous rallies held in over two dozen cities on October 16, 1967. Organizers collected the cards and hand delivered them to the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. The government responded by indicting Benjamin Spock, a well-known pediatrician, and four others for aiding and abetting men violating the law. The crackdown backfired. Not only did the government lose the case, but hundreds of older adults, including Martin Luther King Jr., signed petitions or made public statements in support of draft resisters.

    Two points should be made about draft resistance during the Vietnam War. First, it was an explicitly nonviolent movement. Many of its leaders had been involved in the civil rights movement in the South, and they deepened their commitment to nonviolence from esteemed mentors.

    David Miller burned his draft card at a public rally just after Congress passed a law specifically to make that act a crime. At the time, he lived and worked in a Catholic Worker house in New York. Bruce Dancis coordinated the first mass draft resistance action when some 200 men burned their cards before a major protest march led by Martin Luther King Jr. in New York. Dancis studied at Cornell where poet and priest Daniel Berrigan taught.

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    David Harris, who helped organize the national card turn-in in October 1967, was part of the Gandhian Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in Palo Alto, founded by Ira Sandperl and Joan Baez. Michael Ferber, a leader of the Boston Resistance group and indicted along with Dr. Spock, was the college roommate of David Dellinger’s son. A World War II draft resister, Dellinger was one of the defendants in the infamous Chicago 7 trial. Ferber wrote an excellent history of the Vietnam anti-draft movement called “The Resistance.” He coauthored the book with historian Staughton Lynd, a well-known peace and labor activist. (In my personal case, Martin Luther King Jr. inspired me. I turned in my draft card along with about a dozen other men at a public gathering a few days after his assassination.)

    The second important point about the draft resistance movement is that it succeeded by undermining the system. Its organizers believed that if we could get enough men to resist, we could overwhelm the prison system. They explicitly used the model of the civil rights campaign in Birmingham in 1963, when hundreds of citizens (including children) were jailed and brought the city to a standstill. They believed they could achieve the same result with enough draft resisters. Yet this tactic didn’t work as quickly, nor as obviously, as it had in the South. Ultimately, the draft resistance movement did overwhelm the system, but few of us realized our impact.

    The draft becomes a major liability

    During the war years, the Selective Service referred some 210,000 men to the Justice Department for prosecution. Of that number, less than 10 percent were indicted, just 4 percent were convicted, and only 1.5 percent (about 4,000) were sentenced to prison. Public sympathy for draft resisters helps explain why federal prosecutors were reluctant to go after violators and judges declined to sentence many of those convicted to prison. By the spring of 1970, a Gallup survey revealed that only 17 percent of adults favored jail time for those who refused to cooperate. According to the most detailed study of the Vietnam draft: “Had [draft law violators] been prosecuted as vigorously as bank robbers, the federal prison system would have had to double its capacity at the height of the war.”

    Brayton Harris, Assistant Director of Selective Service, admitted to a TV reporter that many men had registered as “Jimmy Carter” and some women registered as a protest.

    By showing they were not intimidated, draft resisters demystified the system and helped create an environment where increasing numbers of their peers were emboldened to find their own ways to avoid going to Vietnam. An estimated 250,000 simply didn’t register (almost none were ever caught). Many intentionally flunked their military physical exams (two out of three failed to pass in mid-1970, as opposed to less than half six months earlier). Some 30,000 fled to Canada or Sweden. And nearly 800,000 filed for conscientious objector designation during the war. In 1972 more men received conscientious objector status than were inducted in the Army.

    An article in New York magazine in June 29, 1970, entitled “Selective Service Meets Massive Resistance,” described the situation: “Draft resistance in New York City has become so widespread and so sophisticated that the Selective Service System, cumbersome to begin with, today seems barely capable of drafting anybody who doesn’t care to be drafted.” In Oakland, California, 53 percent of 4,500 who were ordered for induction did not show up, and another 5 percent appeared but refused to be inducted.

    Many women and overage men joined draft-age resisters to challenge the system. They often targeted the 4,000-plus local draft boards and induction centers for vigils, rallies, sit-ins, or even actual raids where activists broke in and destroyed files. (Daniel and Philip Berrigan conducted the most famous break-in in Catonsville, Maryland, in 1968.) By 1970, the Selective Service reported that, on average, there was at least one “antidraft occurrence” (demonstration or break-in) every day. The situation was so bad the agency reported that local boards had difficulty renting space and keeping staff.

    Instead of being a dependable system for funneling cannon fodder into the swamps and jungles of Vietnam, the draft had become a major liability for the war machine. Soon after Richard Nixon became president in 1969, he decided that the best way to blunt opposition to the war was to get rid of the draft altogether. The system was dismantled in 1973.

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    The draft returns, but so does protest

    Jimmy Carter decided to resurrect conscription seven years later after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. He decreed that all men born in 1960 or 1961 register at local post offices during a two-week period in the summer of 1980 — or face up to five years in prison. To encourage voluntary compliance, Selective Service paid $200,000 to a public relations firm to produce pro-registration commercials featuring such notables as the coach of the “Miracles on Ice” U.S. Olympic hockey team. Anti-draft groups countered with their own radio spots by Lily Tomlin and Martin Sheen. Those who showed up to register were greeted with rallies, demonstrations and sit-ins in dozens of cities. Some protesters removed the registration forms from post offices and destroyed them.

    Brayton Harris, Assistant Director of Selective Service, admitted to a TV reporter that many men had registered as “Jimmy Carter” and some women registered as a protest. He claimed, however, that in 90 days the IRS would have tabulated data about those who had not registered, so that “we will go into high gear on enforcement.” As it turned out, only about 70 percent of the 1.5 million men required to register had done so voluntarily, leaving some 450,000 in violation of the law.

    Realizing the impossibility of prosecuting nearly a half-million young men, the Department of Justice — according to an internal memo — decided that “an initial round of well-publicized, successful prosecutions … might well yield sufficient general deterrence so that the Selective Service System [could] maintain the credibility of the system.”

    Edward Hasbrouck in front of the Federal courthouse in Boston before being sentenced for refusing to register for the draft in January 1983. (Hasbrouck.org/Ellen Shub)

    The government’s “high gear on enforcement” failed miserably. Only 20 men were prosecuted, and that failed to deter the thousands who publicly refused to register and the hundreds of thousands who did so quietly.

    One of those singled out for prosecution was Edward Hasbrouck, a nonregistrant who’d been an outspoken organizer of the anti-draft campaign. An ambitious young federal attorney named Robert Mueller (yes, that Robert Mueller) represented the government. The case became a cause celebre in New England with several demonstrations, including one when three people chained themselves to Boston’s federal courthouse doors to prevent the trial from proceeding. Mueller won the court case, but the judge suspended a six-month jail sentence and ordered Hasbrouck to do 1,000 hours of community service. (A year later, displeased that Hasbrouck was continuing his anti-draft organizing work, the judge reimposed the prison term.)

    The Selective Service becomes a political sinecure

    Selective Service then became a stealth system. Since not all men would voluntarily sign up nor be frightened into it, the agency enlisted other government agencies. Now about 50 percent of registrations occur when men get their state driver’s license (31 states require draft registration). Another 20 percent when they apply for a college loan. (Most student loans are backed by the federal or state governments.)

    Much like other parts of the military-industrial complex and America’s forever wars, the Selective Service occupies a niche in the military apparatus that endures because nobody challenges it.

    Penalties for not registering can be severe. Someone who has not registered by the age of 26 will be refused a job or job training with the federal government or with most state governments. Meanwhile, any noncitizen who fails to register before age 26 will be ineligible for citizenship.

    Still, despite having spent more than $800 million over the last 35 years, the Selective Service admits that only about 90 percent comply with the law. So, every year about 200,000 men slip through the various Selective Service nets, and more than one million men could be prosecuted as felons. That does not count the numbers who have technically violated the law because they do not notify Selective Service every time they change their address — a requirement almost universally ignored.

    Former Selective Service Director Bernard Rostker described the resulting situation with the commission last year, saying, “the current system of registration does not provide a comprehensive and nor an accurate database upon which to implement conscription. It systematically lacks large segments of the eligible male population and for those that are included, the currency of information contained is questionable.” Indeed, Rostker concluded: “My bottom line is there is no need to continue to register people.”

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    So, why does the Selective Service carry on despite its inability to perform its most basic functions? Bureaucratic inertia is part of the answer. Much like other parts of the military-industrial complex and America’s forever wars, the Selective Service occupies a little niche in the military apparatus that endures because nobody challenges it.

    The agency also serves as a political sinecure. Its current director is Don Benton, whose main qualification for the job appears to be that he chaired Trump’s campaign in the Pacific Northwest. Trump originally appointed him to the Environmental Protection Agency, but he was pushed out after only two months because of his “bizarre” behavior and then put in charge of the Selective Service. His resume may receive even more scrutiny when Congress considers the commission’s proposal to register women. While a Washington state senator, he once told a female Republican senator that she was acting as a “trashy trampy-mouthed little girl.”

    Shouldn’t we transform the draft into something useful?

    Granted, the Selective Service may be badly flawed, but shouldn’t we keep the draft registration system just in case we need to fight another major war? That’s precisely how its supporters defend the agency. Its website quotes President Trump as saying: “Historically, the nation has maintained Selective Service registration to provide a hedge against the catastrophe not yet anticipated. Registration is a means to sustain preparedness.”

    Prepared for what? Conscription’s supporters invariably bring up the specter of World War II, the “Good War,” when about 50 million men between the ages of 18 and 45 registered, 10 million were drafted, and another 6 million enlisted for military service. The vast majority of the public believes that war was righteous and that conscription was necessary to defeat fascism.

    How likely is such a scenario in the contemporary world? Military technology — such as drones, artificial intelligence and long-range missiles — has changed the nature of modern warfare. These changes have eliminated the need for large numbers of lightly trained manpower, that is, conscripted cannon fodder.

    If members of Congress look at conscription as something that might apply to themselves, they would undoubtedly support bills to abolish the antiquated and ineffective Military Selective Service System.

    Consider the past half century. The United States has engaged in numerous conflicts without the draft: In 1991 the government quickly assembled more than 540,000 troops to fight the Gulf War. For the so-called War on Terror, there was at one point 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 150,000 in Iraq, and much smaller numbers deployed in Syria, Libya, Somalia, Niger, Chad, Mali and the Philippines.

    What about military preparedness for a “catastrophe not yet anticipated”? According to retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and historian William Astore, the United States has what he calls a “potent quick-strike force” of roughly 250,000 troops of Special Operations forces and Marines. If you add to that total, the Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne 10th Mountain Divisions, Astore insists that the United States has “more than enough military power to provide for America’s actual national security.”

    The Selective Service may not play a role in terms of national security, but it does perpetuate the war machine’s grip on American consciousness. It’s one of those subtle ways the military has become an accepted backdrop of our society. Aside from those unlucky ones who are denied jobs or college loans, the rest of us rarely get reminded that the draft is lurking behind the scenes. An exception took place earlier this year after the president ordered the assassination of a senior Iranian official and threatened to go to war with Iran. The next day the Selective Service’s website crashed because of the deluge of anxious men checking whether they were about to be drafted.

    Ending conscription once and for all

    When Congress begins to debate the commission’s recommendation, we can expect to hear arguments favoring conscription that are unrelated to military preparedness. Some will contend that the draft would enforce a kind of social egalitarianism and point nostalgically to the experiences of draftees in the past.

    Essayist Joseph Epstein, who was drafted in the late 1950s, claimed that “Under the draft, the American social fabric would change — and, judging from my experience, for the better.” He recalled: “I slept in barracks and shared all my meals with American Indians, African Americans from Detroit, white Appalachians, Christian Scientists from Kansas, and discovered myself befriending and being befriended by young men I would not otherwise have met. I have never felt more American than when I was in the Army.”

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    That may be a powerful argument, but other draftees had much less rosy recollections of military life — the enforced regimentation, the petty rules, the training to kill and maim. And Epstein doesn’t consider the “selective” part of Selective Service. Any resumption of the draft would only impact a small percentage of the population as the military simply doesn’t need millions of warm bodies. The Armed Forces have set the bar so high that 70 percent of all volunteers fail to pass the physical exam.

    What about national service? After all, the country desperately needs work done on its infrastructure, work to develop renewable energy sources, improve educational opportunities and health care. Why not greatly expand Americorps and the Peace Corps or other agencies with “draftees”?

    What about the current pandemic? “Why isn’t compulsory service on the menu of policy options right now?” Charli Carpenter, a professor at UMass-Amherst, conjectured in a recent op-ed. “Imagine that the Selective Service called up members of the age group least vulnerable to a severe course of — let alone death from — COVID-19 and drafted them not to join the military but to perform paid civilian service.” She suggested that her 18-year-old son Liam would be perfect for such service.

    National service is a laudable idea, and the commission made dozens of valuable recommendations in this regard. But many who advocate for national service insist that it be made compulsory. And why just young men or just young men and women? Virtually everyone in any age group can make useful contributions to society, even septuagenarians like myself. After all, almost half of all U.S. senators (48) are older than 65, as are 147 U.S. representatives and 15 governors. The current president is 73.

    Yet you never hear someone recommend compulsory military or national service for people in their own age group. Or demand that middle-aged and older people be required to register with a government agency and be available to spend two years of their lives in the military or voluntary service opportunities under penalty of five years in jail and/or a fine of $250,000.

    It’s certainly no surprise that a national survey found that only 38 percent of women vs. 61 percent of men favor the commission’s recommendation that females be registered. If members of Congress look at conscription as something that might apply to themselves, they would undoubtedly support bills to abolish the antiquated and ineffective Military Selective Service System. If they don’t get rid of the agency, it will be up to nonviolent resisters to find creative ways to put an end to conscription once and for all.

    The French villages that rescued thousands during WWII continue to welcome refugees

    [Listen to this bonus “City of Refuge” episode or read a Q&A version below that has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]

    Just as I was about to launch “City of Refuge” last fall, a new book came out on Le Chambon — the French village that was at the center of a remarkable World War II rescue operation. Having just read 10 or so other books on the subject over the past few years, I wasn’t exactly ready to read another. I just couldn’t imagine what new information I would learn at this point.

    Then I got an email from Patrick Henry, the author of another book on Le Chambon, “We Only Know Men.” He had just read the new release — which is very simply titled “The Plateau” (a reference to Le Chambon’s remote mountain location) — and he was excited to tell me about it.

    “‘The Plateau’ is beautifully written,” Henry said, “and it shows what no other book shows: that the people on the plateau continue to do the same rescue today — as they did in the 16th-century and during the Holocaust.”

    This was total news to me. I knew nothing about what this place was like today. My limited travel budget and non-existent French basically narrowed my field of interest to the past. I hadn’t considered what the plateau might be like now — let alone that it might still be continuing its long history of rescue work. So, I knew I would not only need to read “The Plateau,” I would also have to speak with its author Maggie Paxson, who, I quickly learned, had a rather fateful introduction to the place she would spend nearly 10 years researching and writing about.

    “My first encounter with the story of Le Chambon,” Paxson told me, “was when this aunt of mine gave me a book called ‘Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed’ by Philip Hallie. And she told me: ‘This has something to do with our family.’”

    Paxson shrugged it off at the time, figuring she would check it out eventually. That point didn’t happen until years later, after she had become an anthropologist — living among, and studying, rural people in northern Russia, scarred by years of war and violence. Paxson was looking for something uplifting, some way out of that dark, distant, analytical world she had been dwelling in.

    “I remember thinking: ‘What are we doing when we’re asking people these stories about their lives? Are we helping these people? Are we hurting these people?’ I didn’t know. I started thinking really hard about what the point was, and how I might contribute to the betterment of the world.”

    She then had a realization: What if, instead of studying war and its effects on a population, she could use her knowledge and skills to study peace and a place that might actually specialize in it?

    “I could listen to its stories, and I could try to take those stories as a way of [finding out]: What do they know how to do that the rest of us don’t? What do they know about being good when it’s hard to be good that we don’t know how to do?”

    It was around this time that Paxson visited the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and had another major realization: “I saw this last name, which was Trocmé, featured in an exhibit.”

    She recognized it not as the last name of Magda and André Trocmé — the husband and wife who helped lead the rescue operation on the plateau — but as the last name of a distant relative named Suzie, who she had grown up hearing about. Suzie was actually her great grandfather’s second wife, and Paxson’s mother — who is Jewish — had always been keen to note that Suzie’s family had had something to do with the French Resistance during World War II.

    “I began to put together this story, that Suzie’s family was part of not only the French Resistance, but a special kind of resistance.”

    By this point, Paxson was finally ready to read Philip Hallie’s book and become fully immersed in the story. She found out that Suzie Trocmé was the sister of Daniel Trocmé, André’s young cousin who ran two refugee children’s homes in Le Chambon, but was tragically arrested and killed by the Nazis.

    “I started thinking about Daniel, and I remember writing the line ‘searching for Daniel,’ because he was somebody I thought I understood. He was a young man, he was seeking, he was traveling, he was wrestling with things and he wanted to be good. I started conceiving that this young Daniel went to the plateau and I followed him, and that became my kind of way through the story.”

    So, let’s now follow Paxson, as she recounts her experiences on the plateau and what she learned about its ongoing rescue work.

    Even 10 years ago, when you made your first trip to the plateau, you noticed pretty quickly upon arriving that it was becoming a place of refuge for some of today’s asylum seekers. Can you describe your first encounters with that?

    “The Plateau” author Maggie Paxson. (Matt Mendelsohn)

    On this very first trip I was really lucky to meet a teacher who worked at the Collège Cévenole. She invited me over for dinner and said “Well you know we have in town these asylum seekers.” And I was like “Wait, really?” It was amazing to hear and learn that there were these waves of sheltering on the plateau — not just before and during the war, but right now. That meant that I could see what it was like to be a stranger now, and that gave this incredible new dimension [to my work]. Because my [approach] had been: In this place, a very rare amazing thing had happened. Are there any traces socially, now, that could help me understand this rare thing that happened during the Second World War?” But now I was like, “Oh there are asylum seekers. There are people in need now.” I could learn what it would be like now. Just at the level of social science it was amazing.

    Could you say more about the organization that was running this refugee center or asylum center?

    They’re called Centres D’Accueil Pour Demandeurs D’Asile, or Welcoming Centers for Asylum Seekers. France is divided up into departments, or départements. They’re something like states, and each département will have a number of these little centers. They’re there to help this process happen. If you come into France as an asylum seeker you would be lucky to attach yourself to one of these centers, and some portion of asylum seekers are able to do this. Basically, it’s if you can find one, if you can make it there, then you have access to this. While you are at one of these centers, generally speaking, you have some resources. You have a place to sleep. You have social workers who can help you fill out forms. There are lawyers who are there. So you have a better chance of getting asylum if you can get into one of these centers.

    In Le Chambon, which is part of the plateau, there is one of these centers. It so happens that this one is a bit different from the other centers in France. It is made of apartments for each of the families, where they get their own door that they can lock. Most of the time they’re in shared housing, where there’s one kitchen and many families. These families get to have their own space, and many of them have come from areas that have been war-torn and dangerous. In the span of time that I was there, there were people from the North and South Caucasus of Russia, Eastern Europe, Congo, Rwanda, Angola, Guinea and — then later on, by the time I was finishing the research on the book — people who had traveled across the Mediterranean Sea from Africa.

    You mentioned that it was a teacher from the Collège Cévenole who first pointed this out to you. “City of Refuge” listeners will recognize it as the school that was founded just prior to the war by the Trocmés and the Theises. So it was still operating when you were there?

    It was indeed, and I also learned on this first visit that there were students at this school from all over the world. This was another remarkable thing for me because it gave me this window into what it would be like for young people from different countries to be in this really remote place in France and a school whose reason for being was an orientation toward openness, acceptance and the teachings of nonviolence. I thought, “How can I get myself into that school to see what it’s like, to roll up my sleeves and get to know these kids?”

    Could you tell us a little bit about the asylum seekers you got to meet and know?

    Because I speak Russian and a lot of these families who came from various parts of Russia did not speak French yet, I was able to cast off the social science part of myself and help translate for folks. I got to know a couple of Chechen families. People may or may not recall that there was a very big terrible war in Chechnya, in this one republic of Russia. Without getting into too much detail, it’s the kind of thing where, if you were just a regular person trying to live a regular life, you could get caught up in a lot of trouble. There were religious extremists on one side, mafiosi on the other side, ethnic nationalists on yet another side, and just plain regular old chaos and violence.

    There was one family in particular who had lived in a village in Chechnya, and because all my work was in villages both in the north and in the south of Russia, I kind of felt like I knew them. When they fled Chechnya, their lives were being threatened. You gather up all your money and you pay somebody, and that person gets you inside of a truck of some kind, and you have no idea where you are going. You’re paying to be safe. You’re paying to go to Europe. So they didn’t know where they were going to be going, and they landed in France, not speaking a word of French.

    At the time, there was a husband and a wife, three children, and the wife was pregnant. I started just realizing what it was like to spend time with a family like this — this beautiful, grounded, sane, family that had been ripped from their lives. I fell in love with them, and the story of falling in love with these refugees, it became very important to me. [I grappled with] how to take this on, how to think about their fate, how to worry about them. What do you do when you start caring about people in this precarious situation?

    There was another family, a mother and her children, from Guinea. She fled because her daughter was about to have to go through female circumcision, and she was like “Nope, I’m not going to do it.” She is a wonderful woman, very warm, very loving with her children, very practical and very moral. We’d sit and talk, and she’d cite the Quran and how we are supposed to love one another and how there’s nowhere in the Quran that says we’re supposed to cut women. So, another very balanced family.

    There were also families that were obviously shaken, and their children were not in good shape. They were just as lovable, but the winds of pain that are in the world, they create these families that are quite vulnerable.

    What did you observe of the people of the plateau that impressed you? How did they interact with the asylum seekers?

    It’s a small community. These are villages. [The population in] Le Chambon ranges from summer to winter, but let’s say roughly 3,000-4,000 people, and the whole of the plateau is 20-some thousand that live there year-round. But these [asylum seekers] are people coming in from the outside. In other communities in France, to see people who look different, who dress differently, who speak different languages — it can be quite jarring, especially in times of deficit, where you are worried about resources. Whereas, in the plateau, it’s not that every last person I heard speak about these asylum seekers in their midst spoke in sunny terms. Communities are communities, and people are people. They probably have mixed views at times.

    But, on the whole, what I saw was a community that knew how to activate this sort of orientation toward strangers. Just simple things like volunteers, people who would teach French to non-French speakers, people who were constantly giving stuff like clothes. They would also give their time for [the local soup kitchen]. This started getting a little more dramatic [later on]. When an asylum seeker was refused refugee status, locals would start giving money, help, encouragement, prayers. And then, even more so, I learned that people were taking them into their homes, sight unseen.

    It was humbling, amazing and life-affirming to get to see people, in these very simple ways, take in a stranger. And this is what I think is special: When they would see a stranger, they wouldn’t see an identity. They don’t see a religion. They don’t see a race or a country. They see a person. I came to see that as a kind of alchemy, an ability to go from seeing someone as a stranger to seeing that stranger as a friend. How do they do that? I don’t think there are any two ways about it. They live the belief in the essential oneness of humanity. They practice it, and they know how to do it. That doesn’t mean everybody is in a great mood every day and does their best every day. [It also doesn’t mean] everybody in the community is as equal as everyone else, but to get to see an example of a community that knows what that means — that sees that and knows it and does it quietly and humbly — it was extraordinary.

    Do you think that this largely stemmed from their awareness of their history, much like it did for those living on the plateau in the war years? Are they still very in touch with their history in this way?

    Yes, I would say that has something to do with it. I’ll put my social science hat back on again. Communities can recall things in many ways. They can reproduce what they once did in many ways, and some of the ways of doing that is through stories you tell about the past. So do they tell stories about their past? Yes. Do some embrace that and say “Yeah, this is who we are, we do this”? Yes, I’m sure they do. But I think for me, as a social scientist, what’s even more interesting is what they learn how to do regardless of the past. It’s sort of like you get good at something if you practice it, and they practice this.

    To what extent were the asylum seekers aware of the history of this place? Was it something they learned over time? Or was it just sort of there in the background?

    I was actually curious about that myself. When I was introduced to families at times, the social worker would say “This is Maggie, and she’s here looking at stuff from before and what it’s like to be a stranger now.” And they would like blank. They’d never heard the story because why would they? That’s all nice and everything, but they’ve got these papers that have to get through the legal system, and if they don’t get the papers they’ll have to be shipped back to some other country. So their very vital concerns are survival, and they mostly didn’t know. Maybe in school they would learn a little something about it, but they’re so humble there. They don’t brag about these things. There’s the museum [the Lieu De Memoire], but they’re not going to necessarily require these folks who are living through really hard things to visit it. They might become aware of it later, but it’s like the stuff in the past too. If you were a Jewish refugee living there during the Second World War, I don’t know what you would know about the place.

    You point out in the book that one of the key things you witnessed — in terms of the interaction between asylum seekers and the villagers — was that children were often the bridge between these groups. Can you talk about that a little bit?

    There’s a wonderful historian named Gérard Bollon who has written a great deal about the plateau. He’s a local man, and he’s the person who first pointed this out to me. He said, “Pay attention to this because you will notice that it is the children who bridge the families.” So the asylum seeking kids would go to school like everybody else, like the local kids, and they’d meet, and then they’d have a friend, and then their little friend would have a birthday, and then somebody would get invited to the birthday party. The parents, what they’re living oftentimes, was so heavy and so hard. They were really kind of healing from these very traumatic experiences, right? But the children would bring their friend to the house, or get an invitation from the French family to get to go to their house. It was really a very simple social science kind of pattern. Also, this is a reserved community. It takes time to get to know folks [on the plateau]. So some random family moves in, they wouldn’t necessarily invite them over for a party. But through the kids, that’s the way to do it.

    Unfortunately one of the big things that happened while you were visiting the plateau involved a pretty horrific tragedy at the Cévenole school. Can you explain what happened there?

    The Cévenole school had a small number of local students, but also students from different parts of the country and world. It’s a private school, so you had to pay tuition, and one of its mandates was “We will accept people from all over, young people who are in need.” [This included] kids who were kicked out of other schools or having trouble in other schools. So there was a young man who had trouble with his other school, and people didn’t know the extent of that. He had a friend who was a girl, who was also from another town, and it turned out he was just a very unbalanced young person. The school is surrounded by woods, and one day the two of them went looking for mushrooms. I’d rather not get into the details right now — they’re quite terrible — but he killed the girl. He murdered her. It took a very short amount of time to figure out that he had done it. She went missing, and it’s the kind of a place where people were activated to go find her. It just took a couple of days before they figured out that he was the one who did it. It was just a really wretched moment for everybody.

    It’s hard to be a private school in France and especially such a unique one in a remote area. After that it didn’t take long before the school had to close. It became a big news story all through France and parents didn’t want to send their kids there anymore. It was devastating in a million different ways, and it caused me, in my own reflections, to think: “OK, so, this is real. These risks of taking in people are real.” This one dear friend was saying to me, “Look this doesn’t happen. We’re not ready for this.” And I said to her, “It could have happened anywhere,” and she said, “Maybe, but we’re not ready for that. We don’t know the world yet.”

    Sadly, you detail another tragedy that occurred while you were doing your research: the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. Explain what that meant for France and what kind of reactions you were seeing on the plateau.

    You could see, in Europe, pressure from different waves of immigration, but really a context of insecurity taking hold and what happens to countries when they’re pressed. There was a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment and violence, and the mood towards people of this faith was darkened seriously. People thought terrorism was around the corner. They were suspicious all over the country. So it was a context where the views toward asylum seekers, or towards any outsider, were hardening in many parts of the country. That was a concern for these individual families who had nothing to do with any of this, but had come to France in hopes of refuge. Of course, the pressures have only increased in many ways.

    You mentioned observing a sermon by the current pastor of Le Chambon and how what he was saying was actually kind of reminiscent of what André Trocmé was saying during the war.

    Inscribed above the door to the church in Le Chambon is the phrase “Love one another.” (Kupferberg Holocaust Center)

    That was a lovely sermon, and I can’t remember the details of it at this point, but it was really wonderful for me to get to sit in that church and hear these really simple, fundamental messages about, frankly, loving one another. And you feel like if you’re in a church that says “Aime vous les un les otre,” “love one another,” as the church in Le Chambon says, that’s the best church to be in. No matter what your religion, go to that one.

    The book comes to an end as the plateau is starting to take on a new wave of refugees. Have you followed what’s happened in the years since then and does the plateau remain a place of refuge?

    I stay in fairly regular contact with my closest people there. There’s a woman who does a lot of work — not just with asylum seekers, but migrants in need — and she kind of gives me regular updates and photographs.

    [One thing I’ve come to learn is that] the area will activate itself in times of stress, like right now, where there’s worry about strangers or foreigners or whatever, and they will activate themselves and sort of say “This is a place of welcome.” And they’ll stand outside the church, and they’ll make sure that they get that message out as they can. So the origins of the various refugees do change over time, but as far as I know that does continue. All those people giving their time, and all those people giving their heart, and all those people helping with logistics — that continues.

    Can you say what your biggest takeaways were from your time spent in Le Chambon and the wider plateau?

    It seems like there are two ways to get where this community got and that is to sort of grow up in that world, where people know how to do this stuff. They know how to see a stranger as a future friend. They know how to not see people as a list of identities, but as a fellow member of humanity. They learn those technologies, and they practice them. If you’re not like that, if your instincts are other, the community helps guide you toward them. So, it’s very lucky to be born in that kind of community.

    The other thing I learned comes from Daniel Trocmé, who was an outsider to the community. He was raised very well also. He learned great, wonderful values from his family, but I think he learned another thing in Le Chambon, which is that, when seeking his purpose in life, he fell in love. He fell in love with these children in need and that changed his heart. It galvanized him. So, if you can’t be born in a place where you know how to do these things, you can be galvanized by falling in love. For Daniel, I think it was irresistible to fall in love with these children whose lives he had intertwined with.

    Lastly, we’re in the midst of this global pandemic, and it’s impossible not to see things through this lens. Have you had any thoughts in recent weeks about what the plateau can teach us about dealing with this crisis?

    I think about it all the time, or some version of that question all the time. I think I started “The Plateau” with having this sense that when we are living in important times we don’t necessarily know it. The people who lived through the Second World War didn’t know, to a large extent, until it was right in their face, that they were living in a huge moment of time — a time in which the future was going to judge their actions. It’s not like there’s a sign in the sky that says, “Beware because the future will judge you now.” We have to figure that out in our hearts.

    In the plateau, people without the benefit of that sign in the air, were able — because of the internal workings of their hearts and minds and actions — to resist this sort of violent, terrible swirl. Other people in that same time, in other villages all over France, all over Europe, were not behaving like they were behaving. They had an internal mechanism that allowed them to understand the importance of the moment.

    There’s something about right now in this moment — this strange frightening tragic, sad, world-encompassing moment — where it’s like we’re being asked to right ourselves. And something about the solitude that we’re all experiencing is giving us this chance. I also think it is an invitation that we are all connected. There are such things as countries, but the unit of humanity is not the country. The unit is humanity, all of us together, and we are in this together. And again [the people of the plateau] understood that already. They didn’t need a pandemic. So hopefully we’ll take this time and learn.

    The established order has never been weaker — movements need to get to work

    All around the globe, governments are starting to move forward with reopening plans that lift some degree of COVID-19 social distancing. With that comes talk of recovery and rebuilding. While some of the attention is on green stimulus and a range of progressive demands for just and equitable recoveries, the only way we can win any such advances is through movements that are prepared to take on the fight.

    Before the COVID-19 crisis began, the world was — by and large — governed by a neoliberal common sense with its roots in Reagan- and Thatcher-era politics. The same leaders who upheld that order are still in power and, with a few notable exceptions, most of them are seeing increases in their approval numbers through this crisis. 

    In Europe, Germany’s Angela Merkel has a soaring approval rating of 78 percent, Italy’s Giuseppe Conte is at 71 percent and France’s Emmanuel Macron is up 14 points. In Australia, Scott Morrison brought his approval numbers from negative to positive 26. Where I live in Canada, Justin Trudeau has a 74 percent approval, and even UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has seen a significant increase. While many of these leaders, and others seeing less of an approval bump, have been forced to fund public health and support people through this crisis, it hasn’t changed their political DNA. As the crisis lifts, we can expect them to try to make a hard turn back to business as usual, putting corporate profits ahead of public needs. 

    The last time the world went through a crisis even close to the scale of this one — the 2008 financial crisis — it was followed by a wave of viral protests against inequality.

    The push towards this is already underway, with a mix of corporate lobbying, astroturf protests and media punditry leading the charge. It’s not hard to imagine that in a few weeks or months, we’ll see governments passing massive austerity budgets, suddenly worried about the debt load from pandemic spending. Nor is it hard to imagine massive corporate tax cuts and the diversion of public finance and subsidies to the kind of “shovel-ready” fossil fuel and other extraction projects that these leaders have prioritized for years. But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

    Neoliberal ideas that argue for small government, trusting corporations and letting the market sort out social problems have been considered common sense politics since the 1980s. Together, these ideas make up what both the Sunrise Movement and “Hegemony How-To” author Jonathan Smucker refer to as our “dominant political alignment,” guiding who and what our governments prioritize. And, thanks to this crisis, this alignment has never been weaker. The pandemic has shone bright lights on so many of its failings, demonstrating how easy it could be for our governments to simply choose to put peoples’ needs first. Social movements now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the dominant alignment. 

    So how do we do it? 

    We need to start planning big 

    A few weeks ago, that bastion of radical left thought, Bloomberg News, published an article titled “This Pandemic Will Lead to Social Revolutions.” The article’s thesis is correct in saying that “the coronavirus has put a magnifying glass on inequality both between and within countries” and that if this isn’t addressed “these pressures will erupt.” While the article’s author sees this as an argument for a pragmatic centrist response that can calm eruptions and protect business as usual, the impetus for organizers is to build, ignite and steer them to fuel a transformation.  

    Doing this requires three basic steps. The first is to build a broad base that opposes a return to an unjust, unsustainable model of “business as usual.” 

    With so many people impacted by this crisis, or by the gaps in our system it has exacerbated, there are millions of people who could make up this base. That’s a lot of potential passive support. The job of organizers and activists is to activate that support. The challenge, made greater by this pandemic, will be figuring out how to reach them when traditional face-to-face organizing methods are off the table. 

    Once this base starts to grow and get hungry for action, the next big task will be orchestrating what Mark and Paul Engler, authors of “This is an Uprising,” call “trigger moments.” These are moments of public action meant to unleash a wave of support and spark exponential movement activity. The most effective trigger moments dramatize the broader social conflict we’re trying to lift up, and do it in such a compelling way that massive numbers of the previously passive or inactive public feel either compelled to join actions, or at least move into publicly supporting the cause. 

    Previous Coverage
  • Coronavirus is a historic trigger event — and it needs a movement to respond
  • In some ways, COVID-19 is a trigger moment in itself, in that it has activated a massive outpouring of public action in response to the crisis. Looking forward, organizers will need to consciously create follow-up trigger moments that politicize the activated masses, active passive support and build tension in the system towards the third step: something the Englers call “the moment of the whirlwind.”

    The last time the world went through a crisis even close to the scale of this one — the 2008 financial crisis — it was followed by a wave of viral protests against inequality. Perhaps the most famous, the Occupy movement, grew from a small camp in New York’s Zuccotti Park to a global movement almost overnight. This was a moment of the whirlwind. A series of successful trigger events — in the form of smart, strategic nonviolent actions that married disruption and sacrifice to garner global attention — sparked widespread support and interest. The movement grew massively and rapidly, with its viral top-bottom polarization of the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent sweeping the globe. By stacking up trigger moments, Occupy created an irresistible public conflict that transformed the way we understand and talk about economic inequality. 

    This moment obviously can’t crib exactly from the Occupy playbook, as public camp-outs aren’t the easiest tactic when you’re in a pandemic. Also, Occupy’s tactical focus creates its own suite of challenges. Nevertheless, the roadmap is still instructive: Connect with people impacted and activated by this crisis, organize those people toward trigger moments and stack those trigger moments up with a plan to set off whirlwinds.

    We need demands, symbolic ones 

    One of the biggest potential pitfalls that organizers face in a moment like this is what exactly to demand. The simple truth is that, more often than not, oppositional movements come together quicker and with more vigor than propositional ones. As a climate organizer, that’s been clearest to me juxtaposing any anti-pipeline campaign with even the most well-organized carbon policy fight. The former has clearer villains, a more imminent threat and better outlets for organizing people than the latter ever could. 

    The job for organizers then is to build a bridge from this crisis to the Green New Deal future.

    That’s why, when thinking about this moment, our first step is to organize people around the threat of governments bringing us out of this crisis with cuts and corporate handouts. With this, we have clear villains, high stakes and a direct connection to people. Our demands need to make a clear, moral call that we will not return to business as usual. 

    This call would have the added benefit of linking directly to clear tactics. Imagine student climate strike organizers committing to not return to class without bold action towards a just transition, or workers refusing to return to their jobs without increased benefits and health care. Where transit has been made free during the pandemic, a step back could be met with a fare strike. Rent strike movements that have coalesced in this moment could continue and grow to demand affordable housing. And on it could go. 

    In the climate movement, where I spend most of my time, it’s not hard to imagine climate justice activists literally getting in the way of a return to business as usual by disrupting the construction, approval or financing of fossil fuels. What’s more, a call for not going back could also borrow one of Occupy’s strengths —  making the call to action the same as the primary tactic. 

    It’s important to note, however, that while this opposition will start our organizing engine, it won’t be enough to keep it going. The natural question, both from supporters and those looking to derail us, will be: “If we’re not going back, where are we going?” 

    That’s where we’ll need our own vision of a solution to this crisis. Thankfully, a lot of the groundwork for this has already happened. 

    The various Green New Deals around the globe, sets of policies and plans meant to tackle converging crises of climate change and inequality by transforming our economies, are more relevant than ever before. They’re built on the kinds of ideas that societies will need to come out of this pandemic: public health for all, creating millions of good green jobs, prioritizing vulnerable communities, and tackling the climate crisis, to name a few. They’re also really popular and — where polling has been done on them — they’re even more popular when you tie them to making corporations and the wealthy pay their costs. 

    The job for organizers then is to build a bridge from this crisis to the Green New Deal future. That bridge will be mortared with symbolic popular demands, big ideas meant to rally the largest “we” behind them and isolate a small opposition that opposes them. When well-crafted, they excite and activate our base, move the political middle to our side and force our opposition into narrow, unpopular positions. 

    It’s cliche to talk about how unprecedented this moment is, but the simple truth is that what happens in the weeks, months and years to come will likely shape the next chapter of our story.

    These are different from instrumental demands, which focus on very specific policy ideas. While valuable and critical, these demands are often hard for the broad public to understand, and can be too narrow to build the kind of mass base of public support we need right now. What’s more, building power behind symbolic demands moves the political window, creating the conditions for instrumental wins along the way. That’s not to say policy work won’t be critical right now, it just won’t be the foundation of an effective mass movement. 

    There’s also good news on this front. In many corners of the globe, efforts pushing for a people’s bailout and justice at the center of recovery plans, have included strong, principle-driven platforms. The job of organizers is to translate these into language that works for the people they’re bringing together and turn them into clear, symbolic demand sets that they can build a mass movement behind. 

    We need to get political 

    It’s helpful to sort this work into three phases: responding, recovering and rebuilding. In Canada, we’ve been in the first phase since the pandemic really landed, with a focus on supporting mutual aid organizing and other efforts making sure people have what they need to weather the storm. As I write this, things are lurching towards recovery, which is a lot of the work already outlined in this piece. If we, as organizers, can build and deploy mass movement pressure, we’ll enter the rebuilding phase where the conflict between returning to a neoliberal order or ushering in a transformative Green New Deal will become starkest.

    There are no shortcuts or easy answers right now, but we do have the tools.

    Eventually, that conflict will bleed over into our politics. Obviously, this is going to have to look different all over the world, where local politics will determine some of the terms of engagement. But, in democracies, it’s probably going to mean elections that both serve as a litmus test — of how this conflict is shaping politics — and offer an opportunity for our political alignment to govern. 

    That means we can’t just make a plan to contest with power. We also need a plan to take it. The important thing is to start thinking about that now because not only are elections coming up soon in a lot of places, but also because we know that mass movements activate some of our strongest political champions. Remember that New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cites Standing Rock as the start of her journey to Congress. Organizers need to have plans to build powerful protest movements that can also support movement politicians and put our people into power. 

    It’s cliche to talk about how unprecedented this moment is, but the simple truth is that what happens in the weeks, months and years to come will likely shape the next chapter of our story. The decisions made as we recover and rebuild from this crisis will either help or hurt people. They will either put us on track to tackle the climate crisis or derail it. They will either strengthen our established order or remake it. There are no shortcuts or easy answers right now, but we do have the tools. It’s just a matter of getting to work.

    How Serbian activists started a nationwide anti-authoritarian protest during COVID-19 lockdown

    A poster created by the Ne Davimo Beograd movement to promote a May Day solidarity evening protest on social media. (Facebook/Ne Davimo Beograd)

    For the past few years around election time in Serbia, people have taken to the streets to protest government corruption, attacks on free press and voter suppression. This Spring, despite a nationwide lock-down to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, activists are finding new ways to protest the country’s increasingly-repressive government. 

    After a curfew was imposed throughout the country on March 18, people started applauding out their windows every evening for doctors and medical workers. The Ne Davimo Beograd (Don’t Drown Belgrade) movement, or NDB which I have been involved with for over three years — created a Facebook group called “Applause at 8.” The action involved thousands of people and showed strong public support for essential workers. At the same time, we also organized a few “themed” applauses, such as when we clapped in solidarity with people in the nearby city of Zagreb, which was hit by an earthquake on March 22. 

    After a month of applauses, on the day elections were supposed to be held, we called citizens to stay at their windows five minutes longer to participate in a distributed protest called “Raise your voice: Noise against dictatorship.” This nightly action encourages people to come to their windows and balconies to make noise against the regime — by banging pots and pans, shouting, playing instruments, blowing whistles or any other way they can. Some activists have also projected images onto buildings in their neighborhoods to amplify the action.

    Activists project message in support of balcony protests onto a building in Belgrade. (Instagram/ @NeDavimoBGD)

    This nightly noise-making has drawn thousands of people to participate all across the country, flooding the internet with videos and using the hashtag #BukomProtivDiktature. Sometimes there is a specific theme for one of the evening protests highlighted on the Facebook event pages, like support for workers on May 1.

    The group, which has more than 20,000 members, provides a platform for people to share ideas and suggestions, as well as videos and support messages. The actions have reached far beyond Serbia’s capital city to smaller towns around the country. Although NDB is based in Belgrade, it belongs to an association called the “Civic Front” with seven other cities that have coordinated actions, like clean air rallies, around the country. 

    Banging pots and pans is a tactic that has been used in many social movements around the world, beginning with the carcerolazos that emerged in Chile under the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet. This kind of noise-making was used as a form of protest in Barcelona during the COVID-19 lockdown, when citizens demanded more support from the state and royal family. It was also popular in Serbia in the 1990s under the regime of Slobodan Milošević. During the evening national television news broadcasts, which were notoriously filled with propaganda, people would use kitchen equipment to make noise protesting the regime.

    The “Civic Front” is an association of activists across eight cities in Serbia who coordinate protest actions, like this banner drop on a bridge in the town of Kosjeríć.

    But now we call on the demonstrators to use anything they can find — drum sticks, loud speakers, even vuvuzela horns — to make a mishmash of sounds together. These protests have drawn participation from a wide range of the population, including one 97-year-old woman who shared a video joining in the noise-making from her window.

    Public outrage has grown in recent years to corruption in Serbia’s government, from mass demonstrations four years ago after an illegal waterfront demolition to last year’s #1od5miliona campaign against state repression. Now, citizens fear the government is using the COVID-19 crisis to violate democratic freedoms. With these balcony protests, public outrage is spreading in opposition to President Aleksandar Vucic’s abuses of power, including the arrest of journalists and manipulating elections. 

    Extending presidential powers during the pandemic

    On March 15, President Aleksandar Vucic declared a state of emergency during a live press conference in response to the coronavirus situation. This state of emergency was applied nationwide throughout the Republic of Serbia, despite the fact that — according to the Constitution — a state of emergency must be declared by the National Assembly. This was a warning sign that the president was abusing his power and violating the Constitution — something President Vucic has been accused of doing throughout his political career.

    After declaring the state of emergency, the government announced specific measures to counter the disastrous COVID-19 outbreak: schools and universities were closed, companies were urged to let employees work from home and a curfew was imposed between 5 p.m. and 5 a.m. each day. The most extreme measure forbade all citizens over 65 years old from leaving their homes at all. The Serbian health system has been eroded over time by corruption, low investments in healthcare and poor treatment of medical workers. As a result, public officials feared that hospitals would be quickly overwhelmed with patients.

    Image projected in support of noise-making protests in Belgrade (nedavimobeograd.rs)

    National elections in Serbia were scheduled to take place on April 26 — the date we first called people to protest from their windows and balconies — but they were postponed for the duration of the state of emergency. Now Vucic is advocating to hold elections as early as June, despite the ongoing crisis, after telling people he will give each adult citizen 100 Euros as a financial stimulus during the COVID-19 crisis, an effort aimed to boost his performance in the polls.

    Just days before the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Serbia, Vucic’s ruling party was gathering crowds of people and collecting signatures — even though one of the doctors from the COVID-19 response team later said that they had known about the initial cases of the virus at the time. The doctor later changed her story and said she had gotten the dates confused. Serbia’s opposition had already planned to boycott the elections to protest ongoing abuses of power by the ruling party, lack of media freedom and increasing concerns that Vucic’s regime is sliding towards authoritarianism. 

    The state of emergency announcement was followed by a series of long and dramatic press conferences led by Vucic. NDB gained over 4,000 signatures on a petition calling for medical experts to take the stand with concrete information and instructions, instead of using these press conferences as a platform for the president’s political campaign. His frequent public appearances are inciting panic by telling people that all the graveyards in Belgrade won’t be enough to manage the virus’s death toll. Activists are not calling for people to go to the streets or for protective measures to stop, but they argue that doctors should have the last word in advising the public — not Vucic.

    After imposing the state of emergency, Serbia is closer to a one-man dictatorship than ever. One journalist was arrested because she pointed out the poor conditions where one hospital was treating patients. A viral video shows a police officer repeatedly slapping a citizen because he was out during curfew. At the same time, pro-regime hooligans are climbing onto rooftops after curfew during the 8:05 noise protests, carrying lit torches and playing loud slogans against Vucic’s political opponents. Members of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, Srpska Napredna Stranka or SNS, are also going around Belgrade during curfew, handing out Serbian flags “as a gift from the city manager” — one of the officials involved in the highly unpopular 2016 demolitions in Belgrade’s Savamala waterfront.

    Previous Coverage
  • Repression backfires in Serbia, fueling anti-corruption movement
  • NDB actually marked the fourth anniversary of these illegal demolitions on April 24, an event that changed Serbia. In order to build a luxury waterfront development project, the government hired a group of masked men to conduct illegal demolitions in the middle of the night, during which one witness died under mysterious circumstances. Public outrage exploded, and tens of thousands took to the streets in 2016 demanding accountability of city and government officials. Even today, the case has not been officially solved, and it remains one of the biggest government scandals. 

    Mobilizing people to take action from home

    The noise-making protests have only been one element of how NDB has been organizing demands since the state of emergency began. The movement has also called on city officials to reallocate traffic lanes for bike use during the crisis, since public transportation is not operating and car traffic is reduced. Through a press release, social media statements and a formal letter, we called on the city to change the yellow traffic lanes — which are used for buses and taxis — into bike lanes. Cycling has been an important mode of transportation during the COVID-19 crisis, both for public health and for people who rely on public transportation to buy groceries and supplies.

    Creativity is an important part of the protests, and people find different ways to make noise each night. (Facebook/Dobrica Veselinovic)

    While so many people are sitting at home and surfing the internet, NDB has used this time as an opportunity to organize people online. NDB launched a participatory internet platform where citizens can chat, share opinions and discuss important topics. It is primarily oriented towards formulating political demands for the city of Belgrade. 

    Our perception of democracy is that it has to be bottom-up, and that only through the involvement of a great number of citizens can we bring real change in politics. These are the ideas we promoted when we ran in the Belgrade elections in 2018, and although we received over 30,000 votes, we did not win enough to gain seats in the Belgrade Parliament. We will continue to promote these ideals, to learn from our mistakes as a movement, and to improve our efforts. We believe that decision-making has to include us, the citizens, and this is only the first step towards a more participatory society. 

    How permaculture can build resilience and meet basic needs during a pandemic

    Despite their urgency, coronavirus outbreaks, health crises and failing institutions are just some of the problems our global society is facing today. Billions of people worldwide still lack access to healthy food, clean water and sanitation services — being unable to properly wash hands and stay safe in the midst of a pandemic. And we are still trapped in an economic system that fuels environmental damage, from biodiversity loss to climate change, which is threatening the quality and sustainability of life on Earth.

    Now, more than ever, it is crucial that we rethink and redesign our modes of living and doing things in society. Permaculture, or “permanent culture” systems thinking, a set of ethical principles and DIY techniques, conceptualized by Australian scientist Bill Mollison, provides a way forward to address those issues. Mollison used to say that “although the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”

    Permaculture — a fusion of indigenous knowledge with modern science and technology — offers ways for people to meet their essential needs for food, water, sanitation and other non-material needs, with autonomy and harmony with nature. Its core ethical principles are: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. More importantly, it is a tool that anybody can make use of to be more resilient and to help overcome the critical challenges we are facing today.

    Since its conception in the late 1970s, it has grown into a global grassroots movement. Permaculture is now practiced by hundreds of thousands of people, individually and in community, with projects being developed in more than 120 countries on all continents.

    From powerlessness to positive change-making

    “Permaculture offered me a positive way forward in a world where I’d wanted to change so many things,” said Aranya Austin, a trained permaculture practitioner and educator based in the United Kingdom. “When shown what we can do on a personal scale, our perspective changes from powerlessness to positivity.”

    Aranya Austin’s permaculture teaching in action. (Learn Permaculture)

    The most practical form to learn permaculture is by taking a Permaculture Design Course, or PDC. These courses aim to educate individuals and communities about how to grow their own food — using organic, biodiverse and low-cost methods. It also provides lessons on why and how to harvest rainwater, build waterless toilets, use renewable energies, develop composting and reusing skills, co-develop ethical communities and fair economies, and more.

    Aranya has taught over 90 PDC courses throughout the U.K. since 2004. “Permaculture offers a grounding in many of the life skills we should have been taught at school,” he said. He also has a YouTube channel for those seeking to learn permaculture online, for free, and for those that currently must stay at home.

    “One key skill we introduce is observation — something our fast-paced society tells us we don’t have time for,” Austin said. “Ironically, this is the very reason we’ve made such a mess of the world.”

    In the United States, an educational organization called Permaculture Rising is on a mission to help people learn how to meet their needs for food, water, energy and other essentials in a resilient and environmentally sustainable manner. The educators, Andrew Millison and Marisha Auerbach, have taught over 100 PDCs across the Cascadia bioregion and abroad. Currently, they teach permaculture at Oregon State University and Portland Community College, including through online courses and free learning materials. (In this talk on SoundCloud, Millison and his guest discuss permaculture responses to the coronavirus pandemic.)

    “We hope to offer ways that people can participate in lowering their carbon footprint, while engaging in their local environment and building community,” said Auerbach, co-founder of Permaculture Rising and a member of the Permaculture Institute of North America.

    Auerbach explained that she also applies permaculture in her life and at home. Together with her partner, they grow about 80 percent of the food they eat, year-round, on an average-size urban backyard. They share surplus food and exchange seeds with neighbors and the local community. They also compost any organic waste they generate, storing carbon back into the soil and increasing its fertility.

    The couple also collects rainwater for watering the garden and have a composting toilet to cut down on water use. They installed solar panels on their home, for a clean energy supply, and have a biodigester that allows them to cook with “biogas.” And while benefiting from a waste collection service at their doorstep, they almost never use it — as they rarely generate garbage, especially because packaged products and supermarket shopping is not a part of their routine.

    When asked what motivated her to embrace this alternative lifestyle, Auerbach said that, given the critical problems people and the planet are facing nowadays, she consciously decided to be a part of the solution.

    Turning problems into solutions

    Permaculture encompasses a multitude of techniques that can be applied in small or large scale, in both rural and urban areas, and adapted to anywhere in the world. Yet it incorporates a universal mindset that problems can be turned into solutions — and ordinary people have the personal and collective power to do it.

    Luwayo Biswick is one the many people that have benefited from Never Ending Food’s permaculture training in Malawi. He now grows almost 300 food crops on his land, which became a permaculture demonstration and learning site. (Permaculture Paradise Institute/Never Ending Food)

    In Malawi, in southeastern Africa, for example, a significant portion of the population has suffered from malnutrition, health problems and poverty. These conditions were mainly driven by agricultural policies that supported the production and consumption of maize, a crop native to Central America that has low nutritional value, while overlooking the local traditional and highly nutritious food crops. In an effort to overcome those issues, two permaculture designers together with community members created a project called Never Ending Food.

    They have been cultivating over 200 traditional food crops, including medicinal plants, that now grow year-round, which is helping to boost nutrition, health and food resilience across the country. In parallel, smallholder farmers are able to diversify their sources of income and improve their livelihoods, because they do not need to expend money on imported seeds and industrial fertilizers anymore. Given the project’s success, Malawi’s national school curriculum has recently incorporated lessons on permaculture.

    As risks of global food shortage have started to increase — driven by current coronavirus measures and climate change conditions — everybody in the world could benefit from learning permaculture, at least how to grow food at home or in their local area. But that’s easier said than done.

    Robin Clayfield, who has been living for over 30 years in the Crystal Waters Permaculture Ecovillage in Australia, said there are two times of the year that are hard to grow food in the subtropics. One is during the wet season, because plants tend to rot with excessive humidity, and the other is in the dry season, when the water dries out. She explained that it has been very hard to keep plants growing in recent months due to the severe bushfires that spread across the country — a risk that’s increasing in Australia as the climate becomes drier and warmer.

    Fortunately, the permaculture know-how that circulates in Crystal Waters is helping the community to adapt to climate change and obtain food and water resilience. Clayfield said most residents have raised beds in the garden, rainwater catchment tanks coming from their rooftops and use “swales” for land irrigation. These techniques are traditionally used by permaculture practitioners and can improve plant growing conditions, as well as better control water supply during flooding or drought seasons.

    The Crystal Waters community, based in southeast Queensland, Australia, is currently formed by around 200 people of at least 16 nationalities. (Facebook/Crystal Waters Eco Village)

    Clayfield mentioned that another challenge to her ability to be self-sufficient for food, is that it’s up to her to do most of the gardening on an acre of land, which is a lot of work for just one person. Yet living in a cooperative style of community can take some of the burden off individuals trying to do everything by themselves to meet their needs.

    “In a permaculture village system we can look at how do we support each other,” Clayfield said. “And we can see who is doing what, so that we don’t have to do everything [individually].”

    Monthly markets are organized in Crystal Waters, where residents of the village and nearby areas can buy and sell their local produce. There is also a bakery and coffee shop inside the village that are co-managed by residents, which support local access to food, income sources and social interaction (although they are currently closed due to the coronavirus quarantine in Australia).

    Another strategy that the community uses is purchasing groups or bulk buying. Clayfield mentioned that they recently organized a bulk buying of solar-powered hot water systems, among 12 residents, getting it for a much more affordable price.

    Besides doing things cooperatively, what seems to make the Crystal Waters community thrive is their approach to “sociocracy” and nature preservation — striving for a harmonious interaction between human beings, wildlife and the natural environment.

    Pathway to a better future for all

    Scientists who have studied the coronavirus disease have concluded that the virus originated in wildlife, probably in bats (that were sold in China’s live-animal markets), and then spread to humans. Studies have also shown that most epidemics that have emerged in recent decades — such as the Plague, Malaria, Ebola, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more — were caused by the increasing human-wildlife conflicts and destruction of natural habitats. That means the best way to prevent the emergence of infectious diseases is by preserving nature and biodiversity.

    But the preservation of nature requires profound changes to how humans produce and consume resources in the modern age. Fortunately, permaculture can guide people on co-creating those essential changes. This “indigenous science” can also empower individuals to get more resilient during and after the pandemic — with lessons on how to grow food at home to exploring alternatives to toilet paper use.

    Alternatives to toilet paper use, by Brenna Quinlan, a permaculture illustrator. (Facebook/Brenna Quinlan)

    Permaculture is empowering people to transition from passive consumers — dependent on structurally unhealthy, unjust and unsustainable socioeconomic systems — to active citizens and problem-solvers. Its transformative potential has no boundaries. As long as people don’t lose inspiration and the willingness to try something different.

    “One could lose inspiration, but I never do,” Clayfield said, while reflecting about the challenges of cultivating an alternative, permaculture lifestyle. “I do it for my own sanity and to offer positive solutions to our world.”

    Meet the US veterans returning to make amends in Vietnam

    Many American veterans remember the first moment they stepped foot on the shores of Vietnam in vivid detail. But for David Clark, who arrived in 1968 as a 19-year-old combat engineer, the memory is much hazier. Mostly, he remembers the overwhelming heat — and how badly he wanted to make it out of the mountainous landscape alive.

    “I kept thinking there’s been thousands of guys who did this before me, and they got to go home,” Clark said. “That’s all I wanted to do. I just wanted to go home.” 

    Nearly 50 years later, “home” means Vietnam — a country that Clark, now 70, believes is “the most beautiful, peaceful place in the world.”

    Since 2010, Clark has lived in Da Nang, a coastal city only a few miles away from the Marble Mountains, an ancient Buddhist sanctuary. His home is not far from where he was once stationed in the Marine Corps. At that time, leaving his camp without a weapon was considered a court-martial offense. “Back then, I did not hesitate to put that M-16 in front of any man, woman or child’s face,” Clark said. “I wanted them to fear me — because I felt if they feared me, my chances of going home were a lot better.” 

    Despite the violence carried out by American troops during the war, Clark’s presence in Da Nang has been met with nothing but warmth from the local community. “When the Vietnamese people find out that you are an American veteran, they treat you like a comrade-in-arms,” Clark said. “Because they know that you were here in the same bucket of shit that they were in. It’s a very humbling feeling.” 

    Previous Coverage
  • How anti-Vietnam War protests thwarted Nixon’s plans and saved lives
  • April 30 is the 45th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the North Vietnamese offensive that definitively ended the war on April 30, 1975. Since relations between the countries were normalized in the 1990s, thousands of former servicemen have journeyed to Vietnam. However, Clark is a member of a small community of veterans who have established permanent residence there. Many of them come seeking inner peace after years of battling PTSD, addiction and grief — and often, they find healing by immersing themselves in reconciliation efforts and working to alleviate the consequences of war.

    A few years after moving back to Vietnam, Clark met his wife, a Vietnamese woman named Ushi, who runs a restaurant often frequented by American vets. Through her, Clark was introduced to Veterans for Peace, an organization that seeks to expose the true costs of militarism while advocating for a culture of peacemaking. For Clark, this means raising money for young victims of Agent Orange and supporting efforts to remove the unexploded bombs that remain beneath the soil decades later.

    “When I was here in ‘68, I was a very small part of the problem,” Clark said. “So it’s very meaningful for me to be here today and be a very small part of the solution.” 

    Unraveling the lies of war

    The U.S. veteran most widely known by the Vietnamese community is Chuck Searcy, a lanky, soft-spoken Southerner who served in Vietnam in 1965. Like Clark, he is a member of Veterans for Peace who now lives in Vietnam. I interviewed him on the top floor of a hotel in Hanoi, the city he has called home for the past 25 years. 

    During the war, Searcy served as a military analyst in Saigon. His position required him to learn about Vietnamese culture and the nation’s centuries-long resistance against foreign occupation by imperial and colonial forces. The more he read, the more he questioned what he was being asked to tell the American people. Often, when his unit’s reports would go up the chain of command, they came back with revisions. “What we were writing was not the same as what they were saying in Washington,” Searcy said. “And so our reports would come back with a clear message: ‘Get it right.’”

    After only a few months, most of the men in his unit had turned against the war. “We began to realize that what we were doing made no sense,” Searcy said. “We had been lied to, and we were also part of the lie. We were part of the institutional machinery that was creating those fabrications.”   

    Chuck Searcy works with a team of first responders to track down cluster bombs in the Quang Tri province. (Project RENEW)

    Searcy returned home shortly after the Tet Offensive of 1968, a series of North Vietnamese attacks aimed at encouraging the United States to scale back its involvement in the war. The attacks left hundreds of civilian bodies lining the streets — and by the time Searcy returned home, he was bitter and confused, with more questions than answers. 

    “I had just witnessed so much destruction, and so much of it had been caused by us,” Searcy said. “I didn’t know who I was as an American. Everything that I’d been taught growing up about the values of America, and that our government could do no wrong — all of that had just been cut out from under me.”

    A few months after his homecoming, Searcy was asked to speak at an anti-war rally at the University of Georgia, where he voiced his dissent in front of thousands. His views on the war alienated his conservative military family, who feared their son had come back from Vietnam a communist. It would be two years before he spoke to his family again.

    Despite their opposition, Searcy was determined to bring an end to the bloodshed any way he could. Soon after the rally, Searcy became active in the resistance group Vietnam Veterans Against the War — thus beginning his lifelong journey as an activist.

    What Americans left behind

    In 1995, Searcy returned to Vietnam to take part in reconciliation efforts. He has been living in Vietnam — and working to reverse the painful aftermath of the war — ever since. In 2001, he helped launch an initiative called Project RENEW, which stands for Restoring the Environment and Neutralizing the Effects of War. The project aims to unearth the unexploded bombs that remain in the land, especially in the Quang Tri Province. In addition to locating and cleaning up munitions, they offer aid to families with members who have survived explosions.

    Between 1957 and 1975, the United States dropped more than seven million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia — more than twice what the U.S dropped on Europe and Asia during World War II. For many in Vietnam, the war may have ended, but the bombing has never truly stopped. Ten percent of the ordnance dropped by the United States never detonated when deployed, meaning that many of these bombs, also known as UXOs, remain buried beneath the ground to this day.

    “Those bombs aren’t designed to destroy buildings,” said Clark, who aids in Project RENEW’s education efforts. “They’re only to kill people.”

    Elementary school children in Vietnam are as accustomed to identifying grenades as American children are to fire drills.

    It’s impossible to tell how many people have been injured or killed by UXOs in Vietnam since the war ended, but some estimate that there have been more than 40,000 deaths. Those who encounter the bombs but survive often lose limbs or are blinded, a particularly devastating occurrence for those living in poverty in areas with few options for income. According to Clark, many of these victims are rural farmers working in rice paddies or collecting scrap metal to sell for survival. It’s also not uncommon for children to stumble upon the bombs while playing outside — which is why much of Project RENEW’s work is done in a classroom setting.

    Because of Project RENEW, children in the Quang Tri Province learn about UXOs in elementary school — and they are as accustomed to identifying grenades as American children are to fire drills. When they encounter UXOs, they are instructed to stay away from them and notify a team of first responders, who will arrive with an ambulance and evacuate the neighborhood within the hour. Upon assessing the land, the team will often find three or four more bombs in the area — and after the roads are blocked, the bombs will be strategically detonated.

    According to Searcy, safe, controlled explosions done by first responders happen in the province four or five times every day. “There’s no such thing as stepping back and saying, ‘okay, we did it. It’s finished. Vietnam is safe,’” Searcy explained. “Vietnam will never be safe. This will go on for centuries — but people can be safe. They now live with the confidence that they know what to do, and how to control the situation.”

    Finding peace

    Despite their surprise at where life has taken them, both Clark and Searcy believe they are where they are supposed to be. “When I’m in the United States, the Vietnam War haunts me every day and every night,” Clark said. “When I’m in Vietnam, the American War has been over for 45 years.”

    When Searcy first moved to Vietnam almost 30 years ago, he wasn’t sure how long he would stay — but his role as a bridge between Americans and the Vietnamese people has kept him there. “Every year since I’ve moved here I’ve thought, ‘This might be the year. I’ll probably go back to Georgia and sit on my front porch,’” Searcy said. “But each year, there’s a tangible step towards the goals that we’ve all been seeking.”

    “One of the greatest things that’s happened to me is that, after all these years, I am going to die in Vietnam — but I get to die here of my own choosing.”

    Because of Project RENEW’s efforts, casualties from unexploded ordnance in the Quang Tri Province have declined drastically. In 2001, when the project began, 89 people in the area were killed or injured by UXOs. By 2017, that number had dwindled down to two — and for the past two years, the area has seen zero accidents.

    In addition to their work with Project RENEW and Veterans for Peace, Clark and Searcy spend their days visiting the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange, or VAVA. In Da Nang alone, there are 1,000 children living with serious medical conditions caused by toxins sprayed by the U.S. military. The VAVA center provides these children with rehabilitation, schooling and vocational training, as well as plenty of dance parties to keep their spirits up. The children are always excited to get visitors — when Clark and his wife Ushi walk into the center, they are often bombarded by hugs. 

    After a lifetime of addiction, nightmares and PTSD, Clark has found peace in the last place he ever expected. “When I first went to Vietnam, I was ready to die for my country,” Clark said. “And I’m grateful that I didn’t. But one of the greatest things that’s happened to me is that, after all these years, I am going to die in Vietnam — but I get to die here of my own choosing.”

    I teach nonviolence in the prisons hit hardest by COVID-19. Here’s why we must decarcerate now.

    My neighborhood in Chicago, “Little Village,” is the single largest jail site in the United States. The Cook County Jail is notorious for jail riots, attacks on guards and inmates, suicides and shootings outside of the courthouse. It has also become what the New York Times called a top national “hot spot” for the coronavirus in recent weeks. As of this writing a staggering 491 inmates and over 360 staff have tested positive for COVID-19. Six inmates have recently died because of the virus, and the numbers of cases continue to grow. 

    There are several important efforts taking place locally, like the Chicago Community Bond Fund and The Bail Project, to reduce the number of people behind bars during this pandemic. Their efforts can teach us about the importance of decarceration efforts for nonviolent offenders. By pooling community resources to get inmates out of jail, these initiatives help reduce the immediate risk of infection in the short-term. They are also building a vision of community-led responses to incarceration.

    From my experiences working with incarcerated young men, I believe that inmates trained in nonviolence — even violent offenders — can help make positive contributions to the outside world. Incarcerated individuals can change on the inside, but they are often overlooked by the society outside prison walls. Now more than ever, when incarcerated people are so disproportionately at risk from COVID-19, it is important to remember the inherent worth of all people and to stand in solidarity with the communities most affected by crises like this health pandemic.

    For the past three years, I have served as a volunteer facilitating workshops in peace and conflict studies in Cook County Jail. At our weekly sessions, we explore the power of nonviolent change with young male inmates detained for violent offenses, ranging from armed robberies to gang-related violence in their own communities. I’ve also had the opportunity to teach a master level course for North Park Theological Seminary on nonviolent conflict transformation at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison just outside of Chicago. Like most jails and prisons in America, this one is filled with predominately African-American and Latino young men, all of whom participate in the training voluntarily. During my years teaching nonviolence to the incarcerated community, they have also taught me many lessons.

    To learn nonviolence, we must unlearn violence

    The first lesson is that in order to learn nonviolence, we first must unlearn violence. For individuals who have grown up where violence is the norm, this can be very difficult — but not impossible. Moreover, the incarcerated men I teach come from some of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods. Not only that, but they represent the thousands of young people that are caught up in cycles of systemic and local violence. It is thus no surprise that many of my incarcerated students have been shot or shot at multiple times, and they speak openly about their personal histories living through cycles of violence.  

    The author leads a nonviolence training session at Chicago’s Cook County Jail in December 2018. (WNV/John Mjoseth)

    Training in such an environment is as difficult as it is rewarding, since jails and prisons place limits on the instructor and students. Additionally, some inmates may not be receptive to the message of peace, love and nonviolence, or may feel that discussing these topics puts them at risk in this environment. I have been mocked, insulted and cursed at during these nonviolent education workshops. In a particular division, students are handcuffed to their seats for their own safety, as well as for the officers and mine. In spite of these barriers, the discussions in these sessions are powerful, and I am often struck by how the young men have been able to unlearn violence in the midst of such violent surroundings.

    In other divisions, where students are not shackled during workshops, we explore violence and nonviolence through interactive activities. We once outlined an imaginary scale from one to 10 on the floor, and asked men to position themselves with respect to how they would rate the severity of striking a child with a belt, hitting a woman, and a drive-by shooting in which no one was hit. The discussion that accompanied each scenario was profound, and it allowed us to safely discuss our understanding of violence and how to redefine violence. In many discussions, we arrived at a conclusion that violence, more often than not, defeats its very purpose. 

    For some inmates, violence has become the norm and it is not their first or even second time in jail. This is the case with Devon (which is a pseudonym, as all the students’ names are in this story), who has been to County Jail three times and hails from the North Lawndale community. Devon is a tall, thin young man with tattoos on his arms and face. When I asked how he thinks people view his community, he said, “My community is a great one. The only thing is that there is a shadow that is cast over the community that gives it a bad reputation. The shadow of violence is what most people in the outside world see, and that is not representative of our neighborhoods.”  

    Students participate in interactive activities while nonviolence at Stateville Correctional Center. (WNV/Karl Clifton-Soderstrom)

    He has been one of the most engaged students in the workshops, so I asked if he would be willing to act as a voice for peace back in the neighborhood. He responded, “yes and no.” In other words, Devon said that he saw this as an important responsibility, but admitted a belief that it might be too late for him to transform his role in the community. He thinks nonviolence workshops should start with younger people. “If we want to make a difference, I would say we need to start teaching peace and conflict as early as possible, like the 6th, 7th or 8th grades,” he explained.

    At Stateville Correctional Center, many of my students have lived behind prison walls for 15, 20 or even 30 years. Alvaro, a man from Little Village, is an ex-gang-member who has been involved in violence since his early youth. “We are no different than those on the outside,” he said. “We too have been wounded, traumatized and have experienced deep hurt in our lives … I would tell young people involved with violence today that they themselves have so much to give our society.” 

    “The shadow of violence is what most people in the outside world see, and that is not representative of our neighborhoods.”

    When asked what it would take for there to be a reduction in violence in our community, he encourages caring adults to mentor young people who may be at risk of committing violence and take them under their wing. “We need a deep analysis of the root causes of violence,” Alvaro said. “We also need to meet one-on-one with these young people, and really hear them out and nurture them.” 

    For many of my students, this is the first time they have heard words like “nonviolence” or “peacebuilding.” Their backgrounds, stories and experiences of incarceration provide a deeper meaning when discussing ideas of peace and alternatives to violent aggression. 

    Systemic violence trickles down to local violence

    The second lesson I have learned is that many young men in jail or prison share a similar and insightful perspective: that they come from beautiful communities worthy of recognition and respect. 

    Tabar, a heavyset young man from the Englewood neighborhood with dreads and arm tattoos, reflected on this point. “We are not a violent community,” he said. “We are a very nice community that is family oriented … It is just some circumstances that make some of our people crack under pressure.”

    For people who have never lived or even visited our “hoods” this may sound strange. People assume that violence is the result of “bad” influences or hanging out with the “wrong” people. The pressures are instead the result of a violent system that has intentionally neglected poor people of color over generations. Malcom X once connected these dots, arguing that if you come from a poor neighborhood, that leads to poor schools, poor education, poor paying jobs and makes it next to impossible to break free from these systemic injustices. The cycle of violence begins with structural violence. 

    After all, people of color in our society have faced violent repression and oppression over centuries. Could the violence perpetuated in local poor communities be the manifestation of the violence our communities have received over decades? I believe there is a correlation between institutionalized violence and internalized violence, and the poor are always the most impacted.

    Participants in a nonviolence course through Stateville Correctional Center in October 2019. (WNV/Karl Clifton-Soderstrom)

    At Stateville, Jay, a former-gang member from the Back of the Yards community who has survived multiple shootings wrote, “The layers of oppression run deep in the United States … Growing up in these cities, adolescents aren’t aware of the social constructs that are fueling systemic oppression … While children in America were pretending to be their favorite superhero, my friends and I were pretending to be the roughest and toughest character we knew.” 

    Jay’s reflection offers insight into the fact that many young people from marginalized communities who are engaged in violence might not know that they too are systematically oppressed. They have been surrounded by violence, which has informed their worldview and left few options besides the school-to-prison pipeline.

    Jails make unique nonviolence training centers

    My third takeaway is that jails and prisons offer a unique opportunity to train people. During some of our workshops, we explore the violence and nonviolence spectrum. We discuss the worst and best and “a’ight” actions to deal with real life scenarios and social problems in day-to-day conflicts. We explore if peace is just a bunch of “bull shit” or some “real shit.”  

    I have learned from these young men that peace is not an easy route. Real peacemaking takes heart and nerve when violence often dominates the narrative. I have taught peace in elementary schools, high schools and universities, at home and abroad, and I have had — without a doubt — my most profound and rich conversations exploring these subjects behind jail and prison bars. The young men are subject matter experts in violence and in peace, and they are much more attuned to subtleties in society and social interactions than most people. 

    At the county jail, Victor, a heavyset young man with glasses and a distinctive long haircut, expressed his views on the benefits of nonviolence training in jail. “I’ve learned a lot in these training sessions, especially the history of it,” he said. “Learning of the lives of Cesar Chavez and Dr. King, Ella Baker and Harriet Tubman, makes me want to do something positive for the society. Come to think of it, I’ve never done anything positive for the community. Once I get out, that is something I really want to do.” 

    Real peacemaking takes heart and nerve when violence often dominates the narrative.

    We rarely study the lives and struggles of those who came before us and how they utilized strategies and tactics of nonviolent social change to confront violence. In formal school settings we might learn dates or events, but not the specific ways nonviolence and peace building was applied to defeat violence.

    At Stateville, Brett, a thin young man with tattoos across his arms and neck, shared his story of how he went from Englewood to the Cook County Jail and ended up in Stateville. He asked me to share his story with the young people coming up in his neighborhood. “Many things happen that lead our people here, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” he explained. “We have the power to change how we act out in the world in the conflicts that confront us.” The next time we teach workshops in the Englewood schools, I told him, I would be sure to include his story of struggle and transformation. 

    Previous Coverage
  • The transformation of a warrior behind bars
  • It might be difficult for some to understand, but regardless of what violent crimes people have been accused of, they still deserve respect. Black and Latino men in our society have historically been denied respect and their right to be heard. These men are just like any one of us. They have families, communities, emotions and their own perspectives on society. They can teach us their truth and something about our own lives outside of prison walls. 

    The COVID-19 pandemic has effected all of us in more ways than one. In essence, nothing we do as a society will be the same again. This moment has allowed us to really deal with the struggles to advance life and what a just world truly looks like. This pandemic has impacted our most vulnerable communities — our elders, our poor, our sick, people of color, the incarcerated and their families. We as a society must also learn to humanize incarcerated communities.

    We have to meet people where they are at. We should not indoctrinate them or lead them to join our campaigns, but only try to inspire them to discover their own journeys for life, truth, power and justice. Because of these young men, I’ve become a better person. Many incarcerated men and I can relate to Cesar Chavez, who said, “I am not a nonviolent man, I am a violent man trying to be nonviolent.”

    This story is dedicated to our incarcerated community members who have passed away as a result of COVID-19, including two of my students from Stateville Correctional Center.

    Meet the new generation of tax resisters refusing to pay for war

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    In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the IRS has taken the unusual step of extending the tax season to July 15 — a move that gives people more time to consider using the old, but often overlooked tactic of war tax resistance from the safety of their homes.

    For most people tax season is a hassle — involving organizing paperwork, gathering receipts, slogging through indecipherable forms — but it’s hardly an ethical or moral quandary. However, war tax resisters see taxes through a moral lens. For them it is a time ripe with opportunities for civil disobedience, charitable giving, and sophisticated accounting in the pursuit of peace — and now public health — by refusing to pay some or all of their income tax (and even their employment taxes in some cases).

    The tactic is most associated with historic peace churches, including Quakers and Mennonites, and Vietnam-era anti-war activists. As a result, the demographic associated with the tactic tends to be older, but in an age of never-ending wars, climate change and an escalating pandemic, it is now being explored by millenials and younger people.

    The War Resisters League, or WRL, a secular pacifist organization founded in 1923, estimates that in fiscal year 2021, some 47 percent of the federal budget will be allocated to military spending. The budget (nearly $3.5 trillion dollars in 2021) is funded by income taxes, hence war tax resisters primary focus on refusing to pay income taxes.

    There are a variety of ways to avoid income taxes, some of which are legal and others which are not. Resisters may choose to live under the taxable level ($12,400 for an individual in 2020), which is legal, while others choose to file their taxes and refuse to pay any amount owed, which is illegal. Some even choose to send the money that they would have paid in taxes to a charity or non-profit, which could be an attractive option for those wanting to redirect their money to support those risking their lives to respond to the coronavirus. A host of options between those two poles are outlined by WRL and the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, or NWTRCC, a coalition of groups and individuals founded in 1982 to support war tax resistance.

    “It encourages you to question how you’re relating to other people and society,” said Rev. Jerry Maynard, a 26-year-old Independent Catholic Priest, founding pastor of The People’s Church, and NWTRCC board member, who has been practicing war tax resistance since 2013. “It makes you aware that you aren’t just a fleeting reality in this giant, expansive world, but you’re really a cog in the machine. [At the same time] you’re conscious, so you can decide whether you want to turn this way or that way or if you don’t want to turn at all.”

    Previous Coverage
  • Why tax resistance under Trump needs its antiwar edge
  • Kody Hersh is the youth and young adult coordinator for the Southeastern Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and has been practicing tax resistance for 13 years. Like many in the movement, Hersh has come to see all peace and justice work as interconnected and their opposition to war is not only that it kills people, but the belief that war reinforces racism and classism at home through military recruitment strategies, imperialism and white supremacy abroad.

    While they acknowledge challenges, millennials frequently mention how their ability to engage in justice work is advanced by their involvement with tax resistance. “The particular way that I’ve resisted has meant that I have only worked part-time [to stay below the taxable level],” Hersh said, who is 32 years old. “There’s a spaciousness that gives my life in terms of pursuing interests that don’t get me paid, [like] getting to do volunteer work that I’m really passionate about.”

    Despite the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, increased militarization at the U.S.-Mexico border, and rising awareness about the military’s contribution to the climate crisis, tax resistance remains largely outside the popular discourse on nonviolent tactics. Lincoln Rice of NWTRCC estimates 10,000 to 20,000 people are currently resisting war taxes, but says the number is hard to determine and breaking it down demographically is impossible due to the lack of information on resisters.

    Sam Yergler, who is 34 years old and has been resisting since 2008, says fear is one major reason young people are not refusing to pay their taxes in larger numbers. The opacity of the tax code combined with the Internal Revenue Service’s fearsome reputation makes many millennials think twice about engaging in tax resistance.

    “The IRS is not a gangster organization that’s going to beat us up if we don’t pay,” Yergler pointed out. At the same time, however, he admitted that it “is scary to get letters saying they’re going to take your house or take your car.”

    The key for many tax resisters pursuing this tactic in spite of the IRS’s reputation is to build community and amass knowledge. “The consequences may seem like they’re really high, but if you get down to it and talk to people who have done it, sometimes they’re not as bad as you might think,” Yergler said.

    Previous Coverage
  • Protecting war tax resistance strengthens antiwar movement
  • On its website, the NWTRCC points out there are numerous opportunities to essentially bail out of resistance by paying up, and there are many steps taken by the IRS before anything as serious as arrest is considered. In most ways this form of resistance is just like other more familiar resistance methods. For example, people risking arrest during a sit-in typically are warned at least once that arrest is imminent, and they can choose to leave instead.

    The risks also depend on the tactic chosen. Maynard, who lives below the taxable income level, recommends individuals considering resistance educate themselves on the different methods by talking to people who have done it and finding out their motivations and best practices. For those who may not be sure where to start that process, WRL and NWTRCC, which offers a list of war tax resistance counselors, can be helpful resources.

    “Community support has been so important to me,” Hersh said. “I think if I was starting out doing this now I would want to have lots of conversations with people in my life and what that would look like and ways they might be able to support me.” They have found many people are interested in helping them because the concept of tax resistance resonates with people even if they are not interested in pursuing it in their own lives.

    “Building community is an act of resistance. It’s revolutionary, especially in this country, because in this country we’re taught that being the individual is the highest level of achievement,” Maynard said. Tax resistance may seem like a solitary and private action, but with a community network it can begin to feel akin to other types of resistance, like marches, and other movements where collective action and relationship building is the norm.

    “What happens behind closed doors is sometimes, and I think in most cases, more important than what happens in public.”

    The support that community can offer may be particularly important to millennial resisters, because of the relative lack of public discussion on the method during their lifetimes and the rise of student debt. While some, like Hersh, grew up in Quaker communities where the concept was known, discussion of war tax resistance tends to be relegated to history books covering the Vietnam War and focused on the experiences of older generations.

    “There are so many young people who are just crippled by debt alone and a lot of them are just trying to keep their heads above water,” Yergler said, as he discussed why there is a lack of interest among his peers. One 35-year-old tax resister, who did not want to give her name, believes her tax resistance is a practice shaped over time and that it takes tenacity and a certain amount of financial literacy that may be difficult to muster for some people. Many younger people may be just too overwhelmed by debt to consider the idea of tax resistance as an on-going practice.

    But Hersh also sees benefits to beginning resistance at a young age. “Just being in a position in life, which I think is partly related to age, where I can kind of wing it a little bit has been really important to me being able to do tax resistance in the form that I’ve done it,” Hersh said.

    Another frequently mentioned roadblock for millennials considering resistance or already practicing it is healthcare. “I hope I stay in really good health until I drop dead,” Hersh said. Since not every state chose to expand access to Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, resisters attempting to live below the taxable income level may find they do not qualify for free health insurance. Some states require applicants to have both a low income and to meet other qualifications, like having a disability. People who choose not to file taxes are presented with the conundrum of providing proof of income when applying for health insurance in federal or state marketplaces. If they receive insurance through those marketplaces then that information will be reported to the IRS at the end of the year. It is unclear yet what impact these new systems will have on non-filers.

    Previous Coverage
  • What if they gave a war and nobody paid?
  • Despite the challenges, resistance to paying for war continues to strike a chord. “Combating militarism and building cultures of peace has always been the driving force of my desires and the work for justice,” Maynard said, who sees war tax resistance as part of his practice to cultivate integrity in his private life. “What happens behind closed doors is sometimes, and I think in most cases, more important than what happens in public. Because in public it’s easy to have a narrative and it’s easy to create a persona.”

    Hersh has spent time with Christian Peacemakers Teams as they acted in solidarity with people directly impacted by the U.S. military. “The more that I live into [war tax resistance], it feels less and less morally possible for me to imagine being able to pay into the system that is doing violence against people who I’ve met, and interacted with, and stood with,” Hersh explained.

    Time and again resisting millennials speak of the connectedness between issues and how integrating tax resistance into their justice work makes practical sense. Indeed their resistance often allows them to pursue other justice work more wholeheartedly.

    “I don’t think just the absence of paying for taxes would feel like enough on its own, and so the structural ways of not paying those taxes [working part-time to be below the taxable level] allows me to do more active and engaged peace and justice work,” Hersh said.

    Millennials practicing war tax resistance express a need to be conscious of their role in existing systems and how their interaction with those systems creates a more or less just world. “We live in a capitalist society, and we’re always going to be compromised in some way,” Maynard explained. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t choose to at least manage how compromised we are.”

    Helping people manage those compromises and learn how to limit their involvement with the financing of war is the work of NWTRCC. Its website includes the history of war tax resistance, the reasoning behind it, practical pamphlets on how to use the tactic, and information on people and organizations that can help individuals at all steps of the process. In 2019 they ran an intensive web-based focus group with activists under 30 years old who were not familiar with tax resistance to learn more about what motivates them to join movements. NWTRCC plans to host another round of focus groups in 2020 before rolling out an outreach plan geared towards younger activists and people of color.

    Clearly for many resisters this is a practice that enriches their lives. They emphasize that war tax resistance does not need to be done perpetually — Yergler’s advice is for each person to follow their heart and do what they think is right — but they had trouble seeing any other way forward for themselves. “I do encourage people to try it,” says Maynard. “Mainly because I want people to realize they have a say in this justice work, it’s not passive; you have to take a stand on something.”

    Movements must give Biden no choice but to move left — as they’ve done with centrist Democrats in the past

    Democratic voters had a choice of who to run against Trump. On one side was Bernie Sanders, the candidate most likely to win over tens of thousands of the working-class Trump voters who’d opposed business as usual more than they’d liked the former “Apprentice” star. Sanders promised plenty that any disaffected working-class American would like, minus the charlatanry, scapegoating and blaming of immigrants. On the other side was Joe Biden — a candidate who seemed almost designed for older and wealthier Trump voters. Their support for Biden wouldn’t be about change, but rather fear of what four more years of psychopathocracy might mean for their pocketbooks and the future of American empire. 

    The Democrats’ actual choice appeals not to the better instincts of the Trump-voting poor, but the baser instincts of the Trump-voting rich. It feels like a huge missed opportunity: for one thing, it’ll do nothing to change the dynamic that’s brought us to within a stone’s throw of fascism — unless, starting now, progressives push to make Biden into the candidate the whole world needs. 

    That’s more or less what happened during two earlier periods of landmark progressive policy change. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson were both centrist Democrats who ascended to the presidency in times of mass discontent — and reacted to that unrest with the most obvious, expeditious and convenient way to defuse it: They met, at least in large part, the movement’s demands. 

    Neither president disagreed with those demands, but their powerful action for good came not because they cared — both would have been happy to drag their feet and do far less. Rather, they saw that decisive action was the only way to exit the morass that had engulfed their predecessors, and they might even have thought it was needed to forestall revolution: The mass movements that had ramped up were that scary. 

    In Roosevelt’s case, pressure from a huge mass of unemployed workers, combined with Huey Long’s left-populist candidacy (cut short by a bullet), made implementing the New Deal the obvious thing to do in the circumstances. Safety-net measures like Social Security (in their day quite visionary), relief for struggling farmers, and jobs for millions of unemployed were simply what his electorate needed, and without these measures they would clearly give him no peace (nor a second term).

    Thousands of unemployed workers demonstrated for jobs or relief payments outside city hall in Los Angeles on February 26, 1930. (Twitter/@wrkclasshistory)

    As for Johnson, he’d seen how the civil rights movement gave the recalcitrant Kennedy administration no end of headaches. And so after his landslide 1964 reelection he took advantage of a fresh start to push through legislation addressing education, medical care, urban problems, rural poverty, transportation and of course, with the Civil Rights Act, race. I’m sure he thought these were all good things, and good for his legacy — but the fact that they’d quell discontent was certainly not incidental. 

    ‘All the news we hope to print’

    One thing operating in our favor this year is that we know exactly the raw material that we’re dealing with. In the summer of 2008, many of us didn’t. After eight years of destructive, unworkable, and just plain evil Republican rule, it was a relief to be staring at the likely victory of America’s first black president. But Barack Obama was a definite centrist, who’d increasingly toed the middle line as his career picked up steam over decades, and many progressives didn’t quite realize this.

    Some who did campaigned for him anyway — because they knew that only a Democrat could be moved by public pressure to do truly progressive things (again, think FDR and LBJ). But most seemed to absorb the sentiment the marketers wanted: not hope that a fierce mass movement would force change to happen, but more like “I sure hope this guy changes everything.”

    A small group of us, foreseeing that many progressives would think the battle was won when Obama reached office, prepared a 14-page lookalike New York Times and, one week after Obama’s victory, distributed 80,000 copies of it on the streets of New York. The paper was set six months in the future, and it concretized all the unspoken visions of what could, in actual honest-to-God fact, change, and what needed to if the Democrats were to remain relevant. Its top headline announced the end of the disastrous war in Iraq, and articles throughout the paper described the passage of universal health care and free higher education, the implementation of a maximum wage for CEOs and environmental-effects taxes, the elimination of corporate lobbying and a great deal more. 

    Between every utopian line, our paper had one clear message: “This guy won’t do any of this by himself — not even the small part of it that he’s promised. If you want ‘hope’ for ‘change,’ you have to make it yourself.” So each article described how, shortly after his victory, people had maintained the election’s momentum and used all sorts of tactics — riots, sit-ins, occupations — to pressure the new president to make it happen.

    Previous Coverage
  • Why campaigns, not protests, get the goods
  • Our fake newspaper — with its proposals for the ambitious programs that someone like Obama could have been pressured to institute — made a big splash. Unfortunately, however, it remains a sad gravestone for the hopes of that era. Stunts, no matter how huge, only work as parts of campaigns, and there weren’t yet movements like Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter calling for much of what our paper imagined. (Once those movements did emerge, for all that they did to affect public consciousness in the short and long term, they weren’t quite enough to hold Obama’s feet to the fire.) 

    Progressives had, by and large, let themselves be lulled into complacency by the clever marketing of “change” and “hope.” As a result, they’d failed to see that what we were going to get — beyond all the hype — was just business as usual. Instead of our newspaper’s visions, what we ended up with were massive bailouts for the banks that had caused the 2008 economic collapse, no real end to the wars that our front page had declared over, and the half-measure Affordable Care Act instead of universal health care. There was also the DREAM Act — a result of activist pressure — but, behind the scenes, a torrent of deportations that not enough people cried out about. 

    Thankfully, presidents can’t just do what they want

    Today, Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee, and progressives are disappointed. Bernie Sanders has been a rock-solid promoter for decades of the policies we so desperately need today. He was the only candidate with a chance of appealing to the “fuck you” Trump voters, the ones who, in 2016, had pulled the lever to “blow it all up,” as Michael Moore put it. With Bernie those voters would have had a chance to change things for real. 

    But here’s the thing: Even with Bernie in the White House — acting as the best possible organizer-in-chief — we would have still had to fight alongside him and sometimes against him, in all kinds of ways, to help him make the no-brainer policies we so desperately need today. Bernie could never have instituted Medicare for All or free higher education on his own; he would have needed truly prodigious amounts of our help. 

    We must, starting now, make life so uncomfortable for Biden that his only choice will be to ignore powerful corporate pressure and do what movements are demanding.

    And it’s a good thing, of course, that presidents can’t just do what they want. Our current president chose to downplay the threat of coronavirus when he knew full well that hundreds of thousands could die (as a number of investigations have shown, most recently this one). Now, he continues to downplay the pandemic and push for early “reopening” — out of fear of what more bad economic indicators will mean for his re-election. In other words, he’s effectively trying to send tens of thousands of his supporters (and others) to their deaths, for his own personal glory. 

    Do we doubt that this tin-pot Stalin would abolish both houses of Congress if he could — perhaps calling on his supporters to “liberate” them? Or that he’d be happy to find scapegoats to not just imprison in cages, but exterminate? This is all just to say that limits on a president’s power can be unfortunate when that president is good, but let’s be very happy they exist.

    Biden, as clearly centrist as he is, makes it evident what progressives must do: Use every (nonviolent) trick in the books to make it inescapable for him to champion the sort of bold measures that Bernie was promising, and that mainstream Democrats often championed until the 1970s. Only such measures — appealing to everyone, white or black, poor or middle class — can turn this country from the nightmare it’s been for vast swathes of the population into a society that’s truly worth living in. 

    Also, by the way, it’s the only way Democrats will start winning elections again.

    We must, starting now, make life so uncomfortable for Biden that the obvious, inexorable choice for his administration will be to ignore pressure from powerful corporate entities, and do what movements are demanding — just as FDR and LBJ did. If we don’t build that pressure, we’ll be sure to get more corporate rule, and our recent threatened descent into fascism will merely be slowed — with a smarter, less instinct-driven psychopath up next at the helm.

    The pandemic is an opportunity for major change — we need to get ready to come out charging

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    The pandemic is many things for many people. For a lot of activists, it offers both frustration and opportunity. It’s frustrating not to be able to stage a sit-in or picket line. The opportunity, though, is the shake-up in politics and society: History shows many examples of when a convulsive historic event altered conditions in such a way as to promote positive change. That happened with the Great Depression in the United States and World War II in the U.K. Both societies took a leap forward in terms of progressive social, economic and cultural change.

    It’s not that anyone would wish for the shake-up, given its enormous pain and suffering. But massive history-making events don’t ask our opinion. They are what they are. The question is, what do we make of them? In Christopher Fry’s anti-war play, “A Sleep of Prisoners,” a character says, “Affairs are now soul size.”

    Fear may overwhelm us, leading us to overlook an expanding opportunity. That’s why we need each other, via Zoom or any other means of connecting, to expand our souls and notice the expansion of opportunity. One place I look in the midst of suffering and lockdown — to remind myself what expansion looks like — is how activists have used hard moments in the past.

    The civil rights movement confronts a loss

    In Georgia in 1962 the Albany movement lost its desegregation campaign, painfully, despite mass participation in civil disobedience reinforced by the brilliance of the emerging Freedom Singers. Martin Luther King Jr., already a national figure, threw himself and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, into the fight to back up the initiative of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC.

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  • What a failed civil rights campaign can teach climate activists trying to stop Kinder Morgan
  • I later met Albany’s Sheriff Laurie Pritchett and heard him brag about “beating Dr. King,” a boast he made across the South as he toured speaking to white police chiefs about how to shut down a civil rights campaign.

    King knew it was time to re-charge, to evaluate and go back to the drawing board. For one thing, they discovered a strategic mistake: choosing the wrong target (the Albany politicians instead of the business community). They took their time and re-charged the organization as well.

    Boldly taking the time to re-charge — that’s one take-away needed by many of us at this moment. Yes, the violence of southern racism in 1962 was as urgent as ever, but SCLC resisted the temptation to fling themselves at one or another example of injustice.

    Instead, they wanted to come out powerfully, at a moment of their choosing, which meant re-grouping and sharpening their strategic chops. The stakes were too high to be reactive, contenting themselves with moral witness that doesn’t change anything. Their reading of history was that wins were possible, but they needed to increase their learning curve and up their game.

    SCLC’s next big strategic campaign was in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, where they escalated so powerfully that their demand for equal accommodations forced a response from Washington. They won a breakthrough civil rights bill.

    Birmingham as the site of battle was contrary to conventional thinking, as brilliant strategy sometimes is. To get action from the president and Congress you go to Washington, right?

    Instead, SCLC and its allies joined the grassroots activists in Birmingham. They dislocated what was then a major industrial city with a campaign prolonged and dramatic enough to force Washington’s hand. Being able to sustain a long and bloody campaign meant that their organization needed to be resourceful and creative, functioning as a strong team. Mark and Paul Engler begin their necessary book “This Is An Uprising” with the dramatic story of Birmingham.

    Because history is now giving us the opportunity for larger change, we can use this time to get ready to come out charging. That means sharpening our strategy skills and giving up the distraction of one-off witness events. It means getting more clarity about our vision so we can win more people over to our cause through common-sense descriptions of what we want. And it means building more effective organizations so our teamwork is more powerful and our capacity is larger.

    A resource for this moment that strengthens activist groups

    Training for Change recently re-published “Grassroots and Nonprofit Leadership: A Guide for Organizations in Changing Times,” which gives us a grounding in “what works” for increasing effectiveness. Training for Change has for decades been consulting and leading workshops for grassroots and labor groups, as well as sharing its activist-friendly pedagogy known as direct education. Its trainers found that many of the groups they worked with needed not only skills but also new structures to be more effective.

    The book was written in a highly collective way by me, Berit Lakey, Janice Robinson and Rod Napier. We started by doing intensive interviews with a wide range of diverse organizers who’ve worked in civil rights, peace, environment and LGBTQ groups, as well as labor and grassroots neighborhood organizations. We asked them what works for start-ups and for longer-established groups.

    Four of us drew the interviews together and added our own experience. Berit Lakey was a pioneer in anti-rape and anti-racism groups, and Janice Robinson built a community health center in Harlem. Meanwhile, Rod Napier helped innovative schools, and I built direct action campaigning groups. We’d all done consulting work, helping groups handle divisive conflicts and developing better structures that fit the work they were doing.

    The book is full of stories from groups’ experiences. Because the groups were mostly in the United States, we were surprised when the book was published, in translation, in Egypt, Serbia and Thailand. In the latter, for example, it helped some grassroots groups innovate beyond traditional lines of hierarchy.

    Organizations can learn to handle more turbulence

    Taking a cue from black historian Vincent Harding’s book “There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America,” the central metaphor of our manual is white-water rafting. The chapters are organized into: “Approaching the River, Fortifying the Raft, Steering through White Water, and Facing the Boulders.” The authors include the typical nonprofit structure and go beyond it, describing alternatives. Accepting that one size does not fit all, the book invites readers to choose among options to find what will work with the characteristics of your group.

    Our opponents try to maximize their profits through shake-ups like this one, pouring time and energy into learning how to use their opportunity. We can also increase our learning curve as rapidly as possible.

    The book is also unique in encouraging a conflict-friendly culture suitable for social change movements. There are specific tools for supporting members to express their differences directly, whether that’s differences over strategy or identity. The goal is developing a cohesive and united team that can handle repression or infiltration.

    The book also offers tips on how to facilitate effective meetings that make decisions while saving time, and how to form task groups that get their job done and develop a learning curve at the same time. Too many activists overlook the loss of morale that comes from repeating the “same-old, same-old” practices that yield only mediocre results. An easy way to improve morale, for example, is to take a short amount of time de-briefing each meeting. Over time, a learning curve develops, the meetings improve, people notice and morale goes up.

    The manual puts organizational practice in the larger context of building social movements that can force major change. That means keeping a group’s attention outward, “beyond the choir” as Jonathan Matthew Smucker puts it, and also inward through thoughtful attention to leadership development.

    The pandemic’s shake-up is accelerating the pace of change in all societies I know about. That means opportunity, for those who know how to use it. Naomi Klein has pointed to “disaster capitalism”: Our opponents try to maximize their profits through using shake-ups like this one, pouring time and energy into learning as rapidly as possible how to use their opportunity.

    We can also increase our learning curve as rapidly as possible. This book supports that, and you can enhance the book’s power by reading it with others in your group and scheduling Zoom conversations to speed through it, chapter by chapter.

    For climate activists, coronavirus lockdown means more time to organize

    When world leaders met for the latest round of U.N. climate talks in Madrid last December, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to call for action on the climate crisis. This capped off a year of unprecedented climate-related mass uprisings, with millions of people all over the world participating in movements like the Fridays For Future climate strikes.

    While there’s no reason to think public concern about climate change has dissipated any in 2020, it is certainly hard to focus on much beyond the COVID-19 pandemic right now. In fact, with that in mind — and to prevent a possible new wave of virus infections — the U.N. recently announced the postponement of COP26 to some yet-to-be-determined date next year. Beyond the logistics of adapting to a new COP schedule, climate activists are being forced to confront an even bigger question: how to keep building the movement for climate justice in an age of global pandemic?

    On the positive side of things, the movement has adapted successfully to disruptive global events in the past. Just a couple of weeks before COP21 in 2015, Paris — the host city — was hit by a deadly series of terrorist attacks that killed more than 120 people. The ability to hold mass street actions was suddenly cast into doubt as security clamped down on the city. Yet climate activists still had a presence at COP21 and came away with the Paris Agreement, probably the most important climate document the U.N. process has been able to produce.

    Another example of activist resiliency occurred last fall, when climate groups — planning to mobilize for COP25 in Santiago, Chile — were forced to change course after the talks were moved to Madrid at the last moment in response to Chile’s social unrest. With barely more than a month to plan, activists in Madrid managed to pull off one of the largest demonstrations to ever take place at a COP meeting, including a march with about 500,000 people.

    Previous Coverage
  • How Generation Z is leading the climate movement
  • The responses to these earlier disruptions suggest that — in an emergency — the climate movement can adapt very quickly to new circumstances. However, the effects of COVID-19 are much wider reaching than either of those earlier events and have impacted climate organizing all over the world to a far greater degree. The barriers to building a mass movement when large street mobilizations are impossible are very real. But for a movement led largely by young people — the most internet-savvy generation in history — keeping the momentum going without being able to meet in person may not be quite as difficult as it seems.

    Climate organizing goes online

    “We’ve actually seen increased attendance on our calls since the COVID-19 stay-at-home order,” said high school senior Hridesh Singh of New York Youth Climate Leaders, an organization of middle school, high school and college students pushing for state-level climate action. No state has been hit harder by COVID-19 than New York, but the pandemic has hardly interrupted young climate activists’ planning there. While many students have had their remote coursework reduced to the minimum needed to finish out the school year, groups like New York Youth Climate Leaders have continued working, communicating through online tools like Zoom and Slack. “Everyone being quarantined means we’re able to spend more time organizing,” Singh said.

    Previous Coverage
  • How young activists turned the old idea of a Green New Deal into a powerful movement
  • Climate groups are even implementing their own, alternative online schooling programs. In late March, Sunrise Movement introduced Sunrise School, which the organization describes as “an online training program designed to develop thousands of young leaders and introduce them to the fight for a Green New Deal.” By helping students connect with each other remotely, learn about how the climate crisis overlaps with systems of oppression, and develop grassroots organizing skills, Sunrise School aims to ensure young climate activists are ready to fight harder than ever after the threat of COVID-19 lifts.

    Zero Hour, another national group, is also helping students continue their education while schools are closed. Last month, the youth-led organization launched a multi-week webinar version of its existing Getting to the Roots Campaign, which prepares young people to be ambassadors for climate justice. The program involves digging into the racist, patriarchal and colonial roots of the climate crisis. “Getting to the Roots highlights the reasons why we fight for climate justice, rather than just mainstream environmentalism,” said Rachel Lee, a resident of North New Jersey and organizer with Zero Hour New York City.

    There’s no denying some actions and organizing simply cannot be moved online. Lee had been involved in planning a Northeast Zero Hour summit for April, but the organizers now hope to be able to hold it sometime this summer. “Most of Zero Hour NYC’s communication is online anyway, so that hasn’t really changed,” she said. “But it’s definitely a disappointment to have to move important in-person organizing opportunities to a later date.”

    The climate movement’s next mass mobilization is set to kick off on Earth Day — and rather than reschedule, activists have decided to move it online as much as possible. The action, originally conceived as a three-day climate strike with protests targeting elected leaders and financial institutions, will now be replaced by a livestream from April 22-24. Day one will focus on telling stories from communities affected by the climate crisis, with nationally-broadcast content and windows of time set aside for regional organizations to stream their own, locally relevant information. Day two will highlight the role of banks in funding the fossil fuel industry. On day three activists will hold a mass online voter registration drive.

    “It’s definitely different from an in-person strike,” said Lee, who is planning for the livestream in North Jersey. “But overall, the motivation to make something big happen is still there.”

    It is notable that many steps the government is taking in response to COVID-19 sound remarkably like the types of actions that could turn the corner on climate change.

    Activists are also experimenting with strategies for conveying their concerns directly to lawmakers, even without in-person meetings. New York Youth Climate Leaders is adept at this, having already held Zoom meetings with state legislators in the past. In New Jersey, climate groups had originally planned to hold a people’s hearing on the Green New Deal as part of their Earth Day mobilization. “Now we’re doing a modified, online people’s testimony instead,” said high school senior Ananya Singh (no relation to Hridesh Singh above). “It will use videos, art and storytelling to get our message across.”

    The New Jersey people’s hearing was going to be accompanied by actions at the offices of Gov. Phil Murphy and Congressman Frank Pallone, chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. The impact of such events, where large groups of people show up in person to send their message directly to key decision makers, can only be partially duplicated through online actions. Similarly, perhaps the most important lesson from last year’s mass climate mobilizations is that there’s simply no substitute for getting thousands or millions of people in the streets. Still, online organizing is providing a way to keep building the movement’s momentum until in-person actions are once again possible.

    Meanwhile, as activists wait to be able to take their message back to lawmakers’ physical offices and into the streets, the government’s own response to the COVID-19 crisis is bolstering some of the arguments climate groups have been making for a long time.

    Exposing the myth of climate helplessness

    According to 18-year-old climate activist and Zero Hour founder Jamie Margolin, writing in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “Our leaders have demonstrated a sudden, passionate willingness to make corporations completely modify the way they operate and to shame people into changing their habits” in an effort to combat COVID-19. “All of this contradicts the usual excuses for climate inaction.”

    ‘This pandemic is a preview of what could happen to our world if we don’t adequately address the climate crisis. Only it’s going to be tenfold worse.’

    Short of outright climate change denial, there is probably no tool fossil fuel interests have wielded more effectively than the argument that it’s just not feasible to take meaningful action on climate change. Yet, the response to COVID-19 belies this idea of climate helplessness. Within a remarkably short span of time, Congress has passed multiple pieces of major new legislation to rapidly mobilize trillions of dollars. Governors have persuaded millions of people to quickly change their behavior in service to a greater good. Even the 2009 U.S. stimulus bill — a one-time legislative intervention in the economy that was never repeated — pales in comparison to what is happening today.

    It is notable that many steps the government is taking in response to COVID-19 sound remarkably like the types of actions that could turn the corner on climate change: injecting trillions of dollars into key parts of the economy, ordering corporations to quickly mass-produce certain technologies, widespread campaigns to get people to change their behavior while recognizing that government action is also essential. These are the sorts of actions groups like Sunrise Movement, which advocates for a sweeping Green New Deal, have long been calling for. At the same time, the pandemic itself is preparing us for our coming climate reality.

    “COVID-19 shows us something similar to what continued climate change is going to look like,” said Sam DiFalco, a recent college graduate and climate activist from New Jersey. “The spread of infectious disease is something we’re going to see a lot more of. But there’s also the question of how we respond with compassion and justice for everyone when these disasters hit.”

    While the spread of COVID-19 itself does not appear to be directly linked to climate change, scientists have long predicted deadly viruses will migrate to new parts of the globe as climate patterns shift. It’s also important to remember that in a world of climate chaos, pandemics are likely to be compounded by extreme weather events and many other disasters hitting simultaneously. “This pandemic is a preview of what could happen to our world if we don’t adequately address the climate crisis,” said Hridesh Singh. “Only it’s going to be tenfold worse.”

    Climate activism in a world on pause

    It remains to be seen if large segments of the public will make these connections. But if they do, it will be in no small part thanks to the work of the climate movement itself.

    ‘COVID-19 has helped give us an understanding that we can build solidarity with each other and fight back in a global crisis.’

    “I think it’s interesting that COVID-19 came at this particular time,” Hridesh Singh said. “Last year was clearly the year of climate globally — with mass climate strikes, extreme weather disasters across the world, the rise of the Green New Deal and even some politicians making climate change their top priority issue.” Singh believes this attention on climate change in 2019 means it’s more likely people will see the parallels between the effects of the pandemic and those of climate change, or the response to COVID-19 and what’s needed to combat the climate crisis.

    The spread of COVID-19 is a global tragedy unlike anything in recent memory. However, in contrast to the situation with climate change, there is a clear end in sight even if no one knows exactly when it will come. When quarantines and social distancing measures lift, the climate movement will have a chance to pick up where it left off in late 2019. How successfully it manages to do this will likely depend on whether the movement can make the most of this time when public events around the world are essentially on pause.

    “COVID-19 has helped give us an understanding that we can build solidarity with each other and fight back in a global crisis,” DiFalco said. “Hopefully we can use the online work and public education we’re doing during this time to emerge from the pandemic crisis with a stronger climate movement, ready to take on the systems that have gotten us into this position in the first place.”

    Bonus episode: Albert Camus’ ‘The Plague’ and the art of living during times of catastrophe

    [Listen to this bonus “City of Refuge” episode or read the following article adapted from the transcript.]

    As the world shuts down amid this terrifying pandemic, it’s hard to know what to do — or, just simply, how to be. I’ve tried reading news story after news story and scrolling endlessly through Twitter, but neither have left me feeling any more enlightened.

    The only thing that’s proven helpful thus far is a 73-year-old novel that’s been on my reading list for several years now: Albert Camus’ “The Plague.”

    Although written during World War II — and intended as an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France — this classic novel feels immediately relevant. A disease that spreads from animals to humans wreaks havoc on an unprepared population, one that is too wrapped up in itself and its economic dealings to take the threat seriously at first. Meanwhile, self-interested politicians delay making important decisions. Eventually, when denial no longer works, there are quarantines, supply shortages, fake remedies, issues with masks and, of course, mounting deaths. If not for the fact that the plague only ravishes a single town — instead of the entire world — it would seem almost perfectly prescient.

    Nevertheless, the novel resonates in other ways, such as with its theme of exile and isolation. Camus actually introduces it even before the plague arrives, as a comment on modern life in general. The quarantines only make this sense of isolation more acute — something that no doubt feels familiar and will no doubt only sink in further once we are fully bored with streaming movies and video chats.

    Ultimately, as the novel unfolds, Camus shows us that it’s possible to break out of this depression — even in a moment of crisis — by depicting a kind of active resistance to the plague that fosters solidarity and compassion, with a focus on saving lives.

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    While I’m far from the first to find this classic so insightful and relevant in our current moment of crisis, I doubt few have had it near the top of their reading list for as long as me. The reason for that is my recently completed 10-part podcast series “City of Refuge,” which tells the little-known story of a cluster of French villages on a remote plateau that rescued 5,000 refugees during World War II.

    All throughout my research, Albert Camus and “The Plague” kept popping up. It was mainly as just a side note, because, as it happens, the famous French-Algerian author wrote much of the novel while living on the plateau in one of those courageous villages. He was, in essence, completely surrounded by people doing everything they could to save the lives of those in need.

    I was never quite sure how, or whether, to mention this interesting fact in my series. And now I’m glad I didn’t merely mention it, because it’s deserving of a deeper dive. So, what follows is an examination of Albert Camus’ “The Plague” and the real-life nonviolent history that helped shape its timely, and timeless, message.

    ‘Like rats!’

    Albert Camus left his native Algeria in the summer of 1943 with the plan of spending the winter in the mountains of France. He had contracted tuberculosis in both of his lungs, and his doctor prescribed the fresh air as part of his treatment. Camus’ wife, Francine, knew of the perfect place — a quiet, sparsely populated plateau in south-central France, where she had often vacationed as a child.

    Once they were settled into a boarding house — only two miles from the village of Le Chambon, the center of the plateau’s nonviolent resistance — Camus and his wife enjoyed the rest of their summer together. Then, in the fall, Francine returned to her teaching position in Algeria. Camus soon decided to join her, as the war was worsening and getting home seemed like a good idea. But just as he had made plans to hop a steamer back to Algeria, the Allies invaded North Africa.

    It was November 7, 1942, and with the Nazis quickly responding to the invasion by occupying Southern France, Camus was now trapped. Days later, in his notebook, he drove the point home further, writing down the phrase “Like rats!”

    Camus’ plague was a stand-in for more than fascism. It was also a symbol for what he considered to be, more broadly, our culture of death.

    It isn’t surprising he made this analogy. Rats were on his mind a lot in those days. They were the harbinger of death in the novel he had begun working on a year earlier — a novel that would, of course, become the acclaimed “La Peste” or “The Plague.” At this early stage, however, Camus was far from settled on a title. Not only did most of the work lie ahead of him, but the next 14-15 months he would spend on the plateau — exposed to its unique culture of resistance and rescue — would have a serious impact on the novel. Surprisingly, this fact isn’t widely discussed.

    “Many of the biographers assumed that Camus didn’t know anything about what was going on on the plateau,” said Patrick Henry, author of “We Only Know Men,” the first book to truly explore Camus’ time on the plateau. “[They] never did their homework.”

    In other words, Camus’ biographers weren’t in contact with the plateau’s local historians and researchers to the degree that Henry was. In fact, it was thanks to one of those contacts that he was able to interview an old friend of Camus’ — a Jewish French Algerian named André Chouraqui, who lived on the plateau during the war.

    “Camus used to go to his house, and they would eat Algerian food and talk,” Henry said. “He was a specialist on the Bible, and he talked to Camus about the plague and the significance of the plague in the Hebrew Bible.”

    The village of Panelier, where Camus resided from 1942-43, is only a 45-minute walk from Le Chambon.

    Importantly, Chouraqui did clandestine work for the Jewish relief organization Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants, or OSE. “City of Refuge” listeners will recognize it as the organization Jewish rescuer Madeleine Dreyfus worked with. In fact, after she was arrested, it was Chouraqui who took over her duties of bringing refugee children to the plateau and hiding them. Learning this naturally made Henry wonder how much Camus knew about the rescue operation being conducted on the plateau.

    “André Chouraqui wrote and told me, ‘Of course Camus knew everything that was going on,’” Henry explained. In fact, it would have been hard for him to miss — as, according to Henry, “There were actually Jews living in the same boarding house where Camus was living.”

    Given how ubiquitous the rescue operation was on the plateau by this point, the next obvious question was whether or not Camus knew André Trocmé, the plateau’s charismatic pastor who lived in Le Chambon and was one of the driving forces behind the rescue effort.

    Chouraqui told Henry that “Albert Camus had always known about the resistance that Pastors [Edouard] Theis and Trocmé conducted in Le Chambon,” but wasn’t sure Camus knew André Trocmé personally.

    Nelly Hewett, André Trocmé’s daughter, confirmed this when I spoke to her. She said that although her parents never met Camus, “They knew of Chouraqui and he knew of them.” She also mentioned Pierre Fayol, the Jewish leader of the plateau’s armed resistance.

    “They all were friends those guys. Fayol visited with my dad. Chouraqui visited with my dad. They had an inner group of which my dad was not a part. But they respected my dad’s work.”

    In ‘The Plague’ resistance is depicted through what are called ‘sanitary squads,’ a sort of civilian-based defense against the death-dealing pathogen.

    Henry did some more digging and found that Fayol mentioned Camus in his memoir several times, noting that they often listened to the BBC together. This meant that Camus was plugged into all aspects of resistance on the plateau. That said, it’s important to note that resistance armies didn’t start popping up in France until around the time Camus arrived on the plateau, about midway through the war. The nonviolent resistance in Le Chambon and the surrounding area, on the other hand, had been going on for a couple of years already. Nevertheless, Fayol was respectful of its mission.

    “On the plateau, there was very little killing going on,” Henry said. “Trocmé and Fayol were working together because they knew that, if they attacked, the Germans would bomb the place or kill people and the whole rescue mission would be destroyed. There wasn’t a great question of violence on the plateau.”

    ‘A greatness that I don’t have’

    Realizing that Camus was apprised of these goings on, Henry began to see “The Plague” in a new light.

    “Once I got that, it was like the key to the novel,” he said. “Let me read the novel now with everything I know about Le Chambon, and see what connections I can make.”

    For starters, at just the surface level, there was the obvious allegory to the Occupation.

    “In France the Germans were considered like a plague,” Henry explained, adding that they were called “la peste brune,” or “the brown plague,” because of their brown uniforms.

    Although the idea of the allegory is well-established, it’s not always been appreciated by critics. Jean-Paul Sartre and other French thinkers were upset with Camus for comparing Nazism to a nonhuman phenomenon that was unrelated to human evil and therefore out of our control. But Camus’ plague was a stand-in for more than fascism. It was also a symbol for what he considered to be, more broadly, our culture of death — which he saw on all sides of the political spectrum, from the wealthy conservative establishment to the revolutionary dictatorships of the left. As a result, existential Marxists like Sartre were already primed to take issue with Camus and his novel. According to Henry, Sartre’s magazine Les Temps Modernes called it “boy scout morality” — really denigrating it in the worst way.

    While the Marxists saw Camus as a pacifist, his actual views were a bit more complicated. We’ll explore that more momentarily. But first, let’s continue to examine the other connections between “The Plague” and the plateau — namely how some of the characters in the book resemble real people Camus knew or heard about.

    One such character is Joseph Grand, a sort of secondary character who the narrator at one point refers to as the hero. But that comes with a bit of a qualification. Since Camus didn’t find the concept of heroism appealing, he has his narrator say that if there were a hero, it would be Grand because he’s just an ordinary man who did the right thing without thinking about it or seeking recognition.

    “That’s the guy who is living right next to Camus,” Henry noted, referring to a scene in the 1989 documentary “Weapons of the Spirit,” where Director Pierre Sauvage interviews Camus’ real-life neighbor on the plateau, a man named Émile Grand. Whether the character in the novel is meant to be him it’s hard to say. More broadly, the Grand character seems to be a strong representation of the plateau’s rescuers at large. As André Trocmé’s wife, Magda, once said, “None of us thought that we were heroes. We were just people trying to do our best.”

    In “The Plague” resistance is depicted through what are called “sanitary squads,” a sort of civilian-based defense against the death-dealing pathogen. Notably, they are created and organized by a rather idiosyncratic pacifist character named Jean Tarrou, who shares a few commonalities with Camus himself — aside from his rhyming last name.

    “Camus was against killing,” Henry explained. “He waged war against the death penalty in France. His father saw an execution and came home and vomited. Camus heard the story about his father, and he tells the it in ‘The Plague.’”

    More specifically, the character of Tarrou tells it. Only, instead of Tarrou’s father witnessing the execution, his father is actually the prosecutor demanding the death penalty. Tarrou explains that he saw his father’s state-sanctioned blood lust and decided to run away. At first, he joins various leftist struggles against oppression. Eventually, though, he comes to the realization that because these struggles sometimes involved killing to achieve their means he was fighting against an unjust system without bringing a just one into existence. Because of this, Tarrou says, “I had the plague already, long before I came to this town.” In short, he’s noting Camus’ broader use of the plague as a metaphor for humanity’s self-destructive qualities.

    As Camus saw it, there is only one thing you can do with this knowledge: Become what he called “a rebel,” or someone who stands up for life and solidarity. In the novel, Tarrou explains his philosophy by saying, “There are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”

    For this reason, Henry describes Tarrou as “the ideal total nonviolent person.”

    At one point in the novel, Tarrou lays out his basic formulation on pacifism, saying, “I decided to reject everything which directly or indirectly, for good reasons or for bad, kills. I definitely refuse to kill.”

    Camus even tried to help hide a Jewish woman he met, writing a letter to Pierre Fayol back on the plateau saying, ‘I’m sending someone to you who has a hereditary infection.’

    It’s such a perfectly stated position on pacifism, and yet Camus himself was not an absolute pacifist. For all the nonviolence imagery in the novel, Camus saw violence as both “unavoidable and unjustifiable.” In fact, while writing to a friend nearly a decade after the war, he said: “I studied the theory of nonviolence, and I’m not far from concluding that it represents a truth worthy of being taught by example, but to do so one would need a greatness that I don’t have.”

    However, Camus does let his character Tarrou have it.

    “Tarrou has the greatness, and it links to Trocmé, who believes that one must resist violence but only with ‘the weapons of the spirit,’” Henry said.

    At the same time, however, Tarrou has key differences with André Trocmé — namely religion. Tarrou says he wants to become a saint without God. But André Trocmé, a Protestant minister, was absolutely a man of God. Interestingly, though, his wife Magda was not religious and therefore, in many ways, embodied this idea of a secular saint.

    “Mother always said that she really didn’t believe in God — the God that was usually a ‘He’ and was the head of the world and solving the problems,” Hewitt said. “But she had everything else that made her a Christian. All the qualities, all the generosity.”

    So, if Tarrou was a match for anyone on the plateau at that time, it was almost certainly Magda Trocmé. That said, as I mentioned earlier, the Tarrou character is closer to Camus himself than any other real person.

    According to the acclaimed theologian and writer Thomas Merton, Camus had a hard time accepting nonviolence because of how much he associated it with Christianity, which he largely rejected and saw as pushing a kind of self-interested do-nothing nonviolence. This is unfortunate, Merton argues, because it led Camus to overlook authentic nonviolence, which in many ways mirrors the kind of active resistance he clearly admired.

    Ultimately, in Merton’s assessment, Camus didn’t like to offer precise doctrines or absolute formulas. He was quite reasonably — like any woke activist today — not wanting to preach or prescribe from a position of privilege. So, according to Merton, “at the risk of seeming inconclusive,” Camus “does not prescribe a method or tactic.”

    Nevertheless, it’s not hard to read between the lines of “The Plague” and see what kind of resistance Camus is getting at.

    “Camus is recognizing the nonviolent struggle for saving human lives,” Henry said. “Stopping people from getting infected, etc.”

    In fact, the one instance of “revolutionary violence” that appears in the novel fails to achieve anything. It happens when a few armed men attack the gates of the town, trying to break out. They exchange fire with security forces, leading to a few deaths. This only really succeeds in sparking a wave of looting, that in turn led to martial law and executions. But, as Camus notes, there were so many deaths from the plague at this point, nobody cared — they were “a mere drop in the ocean.”

    This isn’t to say Camus isn’t sympathetic to the stress and anxiety that led to the violence and lawlessness. We relate to one of his characters, a journalist named Raymond Rambert, who — like Camus — is an outsider, trapped in this place and separated from his wife. Rambert tries to escape by securing clearance papers through an illicit underground network. But along the way he has a change of heart and decides to stay, joining the sanitary squads and aiding the struggle to defeat the plague.

    “That’s what happened to Camus,” Henry explained. “He tried to get out, and then he didn’t go out. And just like the character in the novel, he believes that he belongs there. And it is his duty to be part of the Resistance.”

    Albert Camus’ false identity card (Courtesy of Collection Catherine et Jean Camus, Fonds Camus, Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence, France)

    In the fall of 1943, after more than a year on the plateau — witnessing active resistance to the Nazi agenda — Camus moved to Paris, where he became co-editor of Combat, the underground resistance newspaper. Even then, however, rescue work remained on his mind. He even tried to help hide a Jewish woman he met by writing a letter to Pierre Fayol back on the plateau saying “I’m sending someone to you who has a hereditary infection.”

    “Camus knew what was happening,” Henry said. “He was sending a Jew to be protected there in Le Chambon.”

    ‘Fashion an art of living in times of catastrophe’

    There’s one last character in “The Plague” worth exploring, and he’s probably the most important, as he’s also the novel’s narrator. His name is Bernard Rieux, and he is the town’s doctor. (Incidentally, there was a similarly named real-life Dr. Riou in Le Chambon during that time.) He is in many ways a different side of the same coin as Tarrou.

    When Tarrou says he wants to become “a saint without God,” Rieux says he just wants “to be a man.” Tarrou then responds by saying, “Yes, we’re both after the same thing, but I’m less ambitious.” It’s a rather telling bit of self-deprecating humor through which Camus is letting us know that Tarrou’s pursuit of secular sainthood and Rieux’s pursuit of being a decent person are basically the same thing.

    Camus wanted people to ‘fashion an art of living in times of catastrophe, to be reborn by fighting openly against the death instinct at work in our society.’

    However, if there is a difference in the labels, it could be argued that by the end of the novel, it is Tarrou who becomes a man and Dr. Rieux who becomes a “saint without God.” Whereas Tarrou gets out of his head a bit and starts living not as an outsider, but in solidarity with his fellow citizens, Dr. Rieux is tested and never comes up short. He just continues to cure the sick and relieve human suffering. Notably, he is a healer, a term that Tarrou seems to equate with the saints. Most importantly, though, both characters have no desire to prove anything — and this is the quality that ties them back to the people of the plateau.

    “Weapons of the Spirit” Director Pierre Sauvage underscored this connection in his film, noting this passage from the novel: “For those of our townspeople who were then risking their lives, the decision they had to make was simply whether or not they were in the midst of a plague and whether or not it was necessary to struggle against it. The essential thing was to save the largest number of people from dying. The only way to do this was to fight the plague. There was nothing admirable about this attitude. It was merely logical.”

    Ultimately, it’s the message of “The Plague” — not the characters or the type of resistance depicted — that’s in sync with what happened on the plateau during the war. When accepting the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, a decade after “The Plague” came out, Camus essentially summed up that message, saying, he wanted people to “fashion an art of living in times of catastrophe, to be reborn by fighting openly against the death instinct at work in our society.”

    Camus himself, however, did not live much longer. It was only a few years later, in 1960, that he died in a car crash at the age of 47. Despite having accomplished so much at a relatively young age, there are those who think even bigger things were in the works.

    “Camus was going somewhere,” Henry said. “Some say Camus was on the road to a religious conversion, but it could have been a conversion to something where he would be able to accept total nonviolence.”

    This is not hard to imagine. After all, as Merton noted, Camus oftentimes spoke like a pacifist and, in practice, came very close to the nonviolent position. Much like ardent pacifist André Trocmé, Camus spoke out against revenge killings after the Germans had been defeated. He also was one of the first to condemn the bombing of Hiroshima, calling it “the ultimate phase of barbarism” in human history.

    ‘When you leave it at the level of the microbe, it’s not complicated today. We don’t have to kill anybody. We have to remain decent.’

    Whether or not he was headed toward some kind of personal conversion to total nonviolence isn’t really the point. It merely underscores that Camus was one of the few leading international voices of his time willing to consider its merits. In fact, he reportedly attended a conference on peace and peacemaking in Le Chambon shortly after the war. It was organized by none other than André Trocmé and attended by pacifist leaders from around the world.

    According to Henry, “He was sitting in the back of the room and made some remark about people getting together to talk about these things is wonderful.”

    Ultimately, what drew Camus to nonviolence — at least the kind practiced on the plateau during the war — is the focus on saving, not harming, lives.

    “On the plateau he recognizes that nonviolence is a great way of saving Jews,” Henry said. “The Jews that were saved during the Holocaust were not saved by confronting the Nazis with violence. They always got killed when they did that. They couldn’t defeat this machine.”

    In short, Camus saw something special happening on this tiny, isolated plateau where he was stuck for part of the war, and he drew inspiration from it to produce a singular work of art that offers empowering lessons on how to act in moments of crisis. Viewed from our current position, in the middle of this pandemic, it’s quite simple.

    “When you leave it at the level of the microbe, it’s not complicated today,” Henry said. “We don’t have to kill anybody. We have to remain decent.”

    Even then, however, the plague is never fully defeated. As Camus’ character Dr. Rieux notes on the final page of the novel, after the city overcomes the outbreak, “The plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good.” It lies dormant, until the day it rouses up its rats again and sends them forth to die in some unsuspecting place.

    For that reason, we must never forget how to fight it — whether it comes in the form of a pathogen, fascism or some other cynical, destructive force. As the stories of the plateau and “The Plague” tell us, we are going to need solidarity, compassion and a steadfast commitment to saving lives.

    In the words of Camus, “What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”

    To maintain social distancing, immigrant rights groups use creative ‘drive-by protests’

    A procession of 60 cars honking their horns and brandishing signs proclaiming “Free Them All” circled Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey on March 27. A prisoner and guard in the jail had just tested positive for COVID-19, and the protesters were demanding that all nonviolent incarcerated people and ICE detainees be released in order to stop the spread of the virus and save thousands of lives.

    The protesters called it a “drive-by protest.” Since late March, similar actions involving hundreds of cars have taken place in other states as well, including Louisiana, Illinois and North Carolina. The protests are just one of the many creative tactics that organizers have been employing to show solidarity with the immigrant community while social distancing. 

    Ambien Mitchell is an activist and educator working at New Sanctuary Coalition, a clinic that provides legal and emotional support for people navigating the immigration system. In her view, it has never been more critical to advocate for humane policy and demand accountability for those in power. 

    “We’re living in a system of state violence, with decades of experience perpetuating incredible cruelty on vulnerable populations,” Mitchell said. “The state has already proven to have a blatant disregard for human life. And they’ve already proven that they believe some lives are less valuable than others.”

    “Every prison and every detention center is like a cruise ship that’s not allowed to dock.”

    Although the entire nation is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and its consquences, the undocumented community has been facing unique — and often overlooked — struggles. Those imprisoned in detention centers are kept in close quarters where social distancing is impossible. Economic relief plans such as the CARES Act neglect undocumented people altogether, though many undocumented workers are providing essential labor during this crisis and most undocumented people pay taxes. Meanwhile, despite the federal government’s own admission that the best thing that can be done to flatten the curve is to limit travel, deportations and ICE raids are still taking place.

    “It’s no secret that the undocumented community has been targeted and criminalized for decades,” said undocumented organizer Li Adorno, who works with the New Jersey chapter of the immigrant rights group Movimiento Cosecha. “Even in a crisis, the undocumented community is still being targeted. We’re always the ones that the government forgets about.”

    ‘Free them all’ 

    Kathy O’Leary is the region coordinator for New Jersey at Pax Christi USA, a national Catholic peace and justice organization. In the past, she has helped compile reports on the desperate conditions plaguing New Jersey jails. Since the quarantine began, O’Leary has been pouring her energy into the fight for ICE detainees and prisoners to be released. In addition to organizing drive-by protests of detention centers in New Jersey, she’s also helped draft a petition calling on Gov. Phil Murphy to use his emergency powers to take action. 

    “On a good day, getting access to health care when you’re in prison is completely at the mercy of the administration,” O’Leary said. “And a jail is not a sealed environment. Even though they cut off visitation, the guards still rotate three times a day and then go home to their families. The guards could very easily bring the virus back to the jail without knowing it — and if there is an outbreak in the jail, then that gets brought back to the community.”

    The petition is backed by over 30 social justice and immigrant rights organizations with chapters in New Jersey, including the Jewish Coalition for Refugees, the Sunrise Movement and Cosecha. 

    “Even if all the petition does is elevate the issue — that’s important too,” O’Leary said. She considers the petition an opportunity to stand with incarcerated people across New Jersey who are going on hunger strike, demanding access to essentials like gloves, masks, soap and hand sanitizer. Skipping even a single meal in the dining hall of a detention center comes with the risk of being thrown in solitary confinement. 

    Holding ICE accountable for their failures

    According to Ambien Mitchell of New Sanctuary Coalition, phone calls are another simple and remote option when it comes to advocating for undocumented people during the crisis. She suggests calling elected representatives because they can pressure ICE, as well as calling ICE field agents and detention centers themselves. 

    “Every prison and every detention center is like a cruise ship that’s not allowed to dock,” Mitchell said. “And at this point, inaction has become an incredibly brutal and violent action. These aren’t fun conversations, but they’re conversations that are worth having — ICE is a federal agency, and we do pay their salaries with our tax dollars.”

    Previous Coverage
  • How undocumented activists in New Jersey won driver’s licenses for all
  • Adorno believes that ICE’s unwillingness to cease operations is not only putting detainees at risk, but the community at large. “Even during the pandemic, ICE continues to hunt down undocumented community members,” Adorno said. “In the past, ICE has claimed they would not go to school zones and courts — but then went against their own memos. That’s why the immigrant and undocumented community has very little faith in the local or federal government.”

    The impact of this mistrust is that even if they are experiencing symptoms, many undocumented people may hesitate to go to a hospital, despite ICE’s claim that they will not be arresting people who are seeking medical care. 

    “Undocumented people don’t have health insurance, and they’re afraid to seek care at hospitals because ICE might go there,” Adorno said. “If you only have one member of the family who is working right now, and they get arrested, how is that going to impact the rest of their family?”

    Campaigns for commissary and worker relief

    First Friends is an organization of people who visit detained immigrants and asylum seekers in New York and New Jersey. Because of the crisis, their volunteers can no longer visit detention centers — so the organization has started a Gofundme to raise commissary money. Often, detainees can’t afford to buy the basics due to marked up prices and meager salaries that border on slave wages.

    “Commissary can be used to help incarcerated people feel a little more comfortable during this stressful time,” O’Leary said. “Buying an extra pack of ramen noodles or a candy bar can make them feel more human. But there are other things in there too — like soap and shampoo.”

    She noted that while inmates in places like New York are being used to produce thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer for less than a dollar an hour, they are not allowed to purchase sanitizer themselves because of the alcohol content. O’Leary also added that in addition to buying hygiene products, the crowdfunded commissary can also be used for phone calls to family, lawyers and friends  — crucial connections to the outside world in a time when many inmates are lonelier and more isolated than ever. 

    Also organizing to respond to financial need is Cosecha, a coalition of undocumented people and allies who have previously won fights like driver’s licenses for all in New Jersey. “Undocumented communities have always joined together to surpass tough times like this,” Adorno said, who is currently quarantined with Cosecha members and developing strategies for relief. “In our home countries, we don’t have a lot of help. The mutual aid we’re seeing rise up — this is the kind of thing that the undocumented community thrives at. We’re good at this because we’ve had to do it in the past. Nobody else is going to come rescue us.”

    Since the pandemic began, immigrants rights groups like Cosecha have been mobilizing to create relief funds for the undocumented community. (WNV/Loretta Graceffo)

    Because of their legal status, undocumented workers don’t have access to necessities like health insurance, paid sick leave, unemployment and other forms of government relief. In order to help ease the burden, Cosecha has started a fund to help families with needs like food, rent and utilities during the crisis.

    “You can’t feed a movement with service,” Adorno said. “You have to feed a movement by bringing people together. This fund has to be accompanied by organizing efforts. Otherwise it’s going to be really hard to sustain it.”

    Since the pandemic, Cosecha has begun training organizers through video conferences — and shifted its focus towards pushing for economic measures that will elevate undocumented and working class people, like popularizing the idea of a rent strike.

    The future of the immigrant rights movement

    COVID-19 is a health crisis of epic proportions, and its effects on the undocumented community have been devastating in ways that most Americans will never experience. At the same time, the pandemic has produced opportunities to mobilize and opened the door to conversations about issues critical to the immigrant community, like prison and detention reform, raising the minimum wage and making healthcare accessible to all.  

    “It’s amazing the resources that come together when you’re at home and not devoting all your time to capitalist pursuits,” O’Leary said, referring to the coalitions that have come together to demand justice for themselves, their communities and people they’ve never met. “It’s really heartwarming to see that light in the darkness.”

    For Adorno and organizers with Cosecha, the pandemic also presents an opportunity. Never before has the well-being of our country’s general populace been so visibly dependent on the well-being and liberation of the undocumented community. Nearly 30,000 DACA recipients are currently serving on the front lines in healthcare professions. And as farm workers on both sides of the border risk their lives to keep grocery stores stocked, it has never been more clear that undocumented people provide essential contributions to our country — a reality that can be leveraged for strikes and labor campaigns in the future. 

    As the number of people infected with the virus swells into the hundreds of thousands, it’s hard to deny that we are more connected than we are taught to believe. This is a realization that has the potential to bolster movements by radicalizing more people than ever before.

    “What ICE and our administration is doing is putting a price on individual human life,” Mitchell said. “But what makes it even more frightening and sinister in this present moment is that we see how individual human life is so beautifully and closely related with communal human life.”

    In the face of corporate bailouts, rent strikers demand relief

    On April 1, tenants at 1234 Pacific Street in Crown Heights dropped white sheets over their fire escape — a symbol borrowed from organizers in Montreal — to inform their neighbors that they would not be paying rent this month. These tenants are part of a wave of recent rent strikes in cities across the country responding to nearly 10 million new unemployment claims so far as a result of the coronavirus shutdown.

    After Pacific Street’s management company refused their collective bargain offer to reduce or eliminate rent for tenants who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, the building’s tenant association formally declared they were on strike and are instead appealing directly to the governor — #CancelRent Cuomo, one banner reads.

    In New York City, as many as 40 percent of tenants will be unable to pay rent this month. This number is only expected to go up with projections of a “return to normalcy” ranging anywhere between three to 18 months depending on the path taken: possibly millions dying from the virus or the eventual development of an effective treatment or vaccine.

    In the meantime, workers whose income has been affected can expect a $1,200 stimulus check and not a whole lot more. With shelter in place orders still in effect for the foreseeable future and an estimate of up to 47 million lost jobs, people online have been quick to note that the one-time checks, which many people will likely pay rent with, amount to a bailout for landlords. When compared to the multi-trillion-dollar corporate bailout just passed by Congress, rent cancellation is a modest proposal.

    Rent Strike 2020, “an activist organization working to build a nationwide mutual aid community and working-class power,” was initially started by Joshua Collins, a 26-year-old socialist truck driver and candidate for Washington’s 10th Congressional District. Since starting the campaign, with help from Socialist Alternative and DSA’s Rose Caucus, 1.5 million Americans have signed onto their petition for governors of every state to issue an immediate freeze on rents, residential mortgages and utility bills for a two month period. In addition, independent tenants unions and residents have been organizing in dozens of cities across the country with the ultimate goal of canceling rent for the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak.

    The rent strikes we are now witnessing differ, in many respects, from those of the past where tenants withhold rent to demand that their landlord address various grievances like rising prices, inadequate services or lack of repairs. According to Michael Leonard, a tenants rights and housing lawyer at TakeRoot Justice, “When lawyers are looking for people for rent strikes, they’re looking at people who have bad conditions in their apartments — things that could be translated into the legal language of the courts, which can result in monetary damages.” Prior to this current crisis, Leonard said, candidates who simply couldn’t pay rent did not have a strong legal case for going on rent strike.

    Rent strike in New Orleans. (Twitter/Midwest Unrest)

    The ultimate demand being put forward by organizations like Housing Justice for All, the Right to the City Alliance, Rent Strike 2020 and others this April is a complete cancellation of rent at the statewide level. In other words, individual buildings or tenant groups going on strike this time around are using the tactic within a larger strategy aimed at forcing governors to intervene. “From a strict legal perspective, you have a different kind of person who is ripe to participate in a rent strike,” Leonard added.

    Mallika Singh, 22, along with their three roommates who live in Brooklyn, are also on strike. Since graduating in May, Singh has mostly worked gig-based jobs and part-time at a farmers’ market. Once the pandemic swept through New York City — now the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States — Singh and their roommates collectively decided to enter into a two-week quarantine thinking they had likely been exposed at the market. The four of them have all either lost their jobs or are not working at the moment.

    “I think landlords are rightly afraid of a rent strike. That is one of the most potent weapons that tenants have.”

    “I was hearing stuff like landlords still have to pay their mortgages,” Singh said. “I know a landlord paying their mortgage is not the same thing as someone paying for housing.” Still, there was uncertainty around the risks involved and the terminology being thrown around online. Singh said someone reaching out through social media made them overcome their initial hesitations about joining the strike.

    After looking up their apartment on the Who owns what in NYC? website, they discovered that their property management company — which manages or owns 18 other buildings in the city — markets itself as always maximizing the bottom line. They then decided to reach out to the other tenants with flyers inviting them to join them in their strike. On Sunday they received a letter from the management company informing tenants that they were all still obligated to pay rent.

    “This is not like the movies where the evil landlord in a suit is trying to take advantage of his tenants,” the letter said. “This is an unprecedented time when everybody will suffer.” Hours later the president of the management company reached out to one of Singh’s roommates pretending to be a tenant in another building in order to join their Signal group chat. He outed himself the next day when he joined their Zoom meeting and forgot to change his display name.

    “I think landlords are rightly afraid of a rent strike,” Leonard said. “That is one of the most potent weapons that tenants have.” So far, Singh and their roommates have managed to get 25 other tenants on board from the 84 units they reached out to and have formed a tenant council.

    A rent strike is not without its risks, but there is safety in numbers. New York City recently passed one of the strongest eviction moratoriums in the country as a result of the organizing done by Housing Justice for All and Right to Counsel NYC, two coalitions that Leonard works with. The moratorium prevents landlords from evicting their tenants for a 90-day period, but only delays what could turn into a mass eviction crisis a few months down the line.

    “So many were not able to pay rent today. Why would anyone expect them to pay 3x as much in 90 days?” tweeted State Senator Michael Gianaris, who introduced a rent and mortgage relief bill to New York. With eviction courts closed, Leonard said, “tenants are definitely in a stronger position than ever to make demands. This is a moment where we can use these tactics that were not really available to us before.”

    Across the country, organizers are helping tenants plug into their local networks. Housing Justice in NYC, Philadelphia Tenants Union and the Autonomous Tenants Union in Chicago are some of the groups that have released thorough tenant toolkits specific to the COVID-19 crisis. Seasoned tenant groups like the Ridgewood Tenants Union, which lent support to Singh and their roommates, have been busy providing mutual aid, which includes initiating tenants who are new to organizing.

    Rent strike in Austin. (Twitter/Midwest Unrest)

    In Austin, a rent strike hotline has been set up to provide information on legal rights and how to negotiate collectively with landlords in addition to trying to connect tenants to legal support. “Poor and working-class people don’t have the same resources as large corporations to defend themselves,” said Sam Law, a graduate student at the University of Texas who is assisting with the hotline. “What that means is that the cost of this crisis is going to be borne by them.” Large retailers like Subway, Mattress Firm and the Cheesecake Factory have already told their landlords that they will not be paying rent this month.

    Rent Strike ATX in Austin is part of 5 Demands Global, an autonomous network that was formed by various organizers working at the local level around the time the coronavirus outbreak started to spread in the United States. In addition to setting up a map and directory of organized rent strikes in North America, 5 Demands Global is focusing its organizing efforts toward winning demands for workers at the national level: free testing, treatment and medical care for all; immediate guarantee of food stamps and paid sick leave; cancellation of rent, mortgage payments, utilities and debt payments; the immediate release of all prisoners and immigrants in detention; and for unoccupied homes to be made available to anyone who needs shelter.

    When I called the national rent strike hotline the Sunday before April 1, no one picked up. Peter, who is based in Detroit, called me back shortly after. The hotline had gone live the day before and was receiving about a call an hour. Peter said there were only two people answering calls but that they hoped to be fully staffed by the end of the week. “We’re ramping up, and we’re ready to support however we can,” he continued. “We’re anticipating that people are going to really be feeling the crunch by May 1.” Other housing organizers have also set their sights on scaling up a rent strike by next month.

    “It’s a good way to build power for a general strike for a shutdown of the economy,” Peter said, “because that’s the only way to keep us all safe during the coronavirus.” Peter admitted that the national rent strike hotline doesn’t have the full capacity to support most rent strikers, but views the five demands as a framework that can pull people in from the mainstream due to the volume of people who are “involuntarily rent striking.” As Peter noted, “Really what we’re trying to do is to connect people to their local organizations, and it would be irresponsible of us to do anything else.”

    Rent strike art during the COVID-19 pandemic in West Philadelphia/ (Twitter/Chelsea Chamberlain)

    Without an organized movement to address the rental and looming eviction crisis at the end of the coronavirus tunnel, Leonard fears we may see a repeat of some of the consequences that followed the 2008 housing crash: the mass displacement of residents, rental properties being handed over to banks and buildings left without essential services, leaving tenants to fend for themselves.

    Some of the buildings Leonard was in contact with before the outbreak have begun to reactivate the tenant networks that may have been idle over the past few months. Leonard said that the structures built by organizers “doing the slow work of tenant organizing over the past however many years are going to be valuable in crisis times.”

    A well-organized rent strike presents an opportunity to shift a housing crisis that workers will experience individually to a much larger crisis of the state or national government. Without such a movement, little can be expected from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has already declared the COVID-19 housing crisis “solved,” or President Trump, who built his real estate fortune on displacing tenants from affordable housing units and receiving generous government handouts.

    “When people are just shit out of luck with no real legal defenses, its a different kind of demand,” Leonard said. “I think you also get a different type of militancy. Everyone was pretty afraid of this idea three months ago but now folks are like, ‘It’s time.’”

    ‘Vulgarity makes the point polite conversation can’t’ — a conversation with Ugandan dissident Stella Nyanzi

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    Stella Nyanzi is celebrated across Africa. She is a heroine to sex workers and unemployed youth as much as she is to progressives scattered throughout the halls of universities and parliaments. The fierce Ugandan activist and academic known for her vulgar critiques of Uganda’s dictatorship recently completed a 16-month sentence at Luzira Prison, a notorious recurrent home for political dissidents.

    When I last saw her in September, we were both harassed by prison authorities who wouldn’t let me in to visit. Her punishment for shouting at the guards was much worse than mine — physical torture and days added on to her sentence. As someone who puts in countless hours planning strategically for action with fellow comrades, I admire her solo improvisation when confronted with injustice. It has an actively poetic quality and prophetic power that I’m not able to bring to my work.

    Previous Coverage
  • Imprisoned Ugandan academic urges ‘no revolution without a feminist revolution’
  • Nyanzi’s activist resume includes a sanitary pad drive to expose the dictatorship’s kleptocratic neglect of schoolgirls, various campaigns for LGBTQ rights, and countless social media insults of dictator Yoweri Museveni and his family and cadres. Surprisingly, it was the latter that landed her in prison — not her nude protest against patriarchy and institutional rot at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, where she has been employed for many years.

    Nyanzi, also a proud mother, has the largest social media following of any Ugandan, and she works professionally as a medical anthropologist and scholar of public health and sexuality. She received the 2020 Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression, as well as Solidarity Uganda’s 2018 Activist of the Year Award. While in prison, Nyanzi secretly released a collection of poems, “No Roses from My Mouth: Poems from Prison.”

    Following her Feb. 20 release, I finally had a chance to speak to Nyanzi without prison guards interfering. Although our conversation occurred amidst the growing COVID-19 pandemic, the first Ugandan case of the outbreak and subsequent quarantines were still weeks away. As a result, Nyanzi kept the focus of our conversation on her own niche in Uganda’s growing anti-authoritarian struggle. Since then, however, she has reached out to say that the government’s “failings and blunders” with coronavirus only offer more “fertile ground” for her to “publicly criticize and critique the dictatorship.”

    Were you surprised that — of all the things you’ve done — a Facebook post landed you in jail for two years? Were you prepared for this?

    Because I had been arrested for a 2017 Facebook post calling Museveni a “pair of buttocks,” the second arrest [which was the result of a graphic 2018 post] felt like a big joke. I didn’t think there’d be another magistrate willing to engage with me as a defendant. I was shocked when the police would not accompany me to be reinstated at Makerere Institute of Social Research. I was shocked that the president wrote an order that resulted in taking me through a sham trial with so much malpractice.

    I was surprised by the sense of community within jail among convicted murderers and thieves. Even without their families around, there are structures of support.

    But maybe I shouldn’t have been shocked to be convicted for a Facebook post, because so many people had warned me not to be rude to the so-called fountain of honor [a common title for Uganda’s president]. I was shocked at the extent of my sentence. But this was not about a person writing a Facebook post. No, it was a culmination of so many things in this moment of widespread cyber harassment. I should not have been shocked knowing how far Museveni’s regime has come. Even high court judges should have way higher standards than the magistrate who tried me, but so many were scared to preside over my matter.

    What images of your time in prison stand out in your mind? Did anything surprise you?

    In 2017, I was imprisoned for 33 days or thereabouts. Having stayed later for more than a year, there are many things that still surprise me today. I still don’t understand how prison staff who are paid as public servants to ensure our safe custody are abusing their brown uniform, their duty of protection. Wardresses were caning women just for asking questions. I was beaten, punched and kicked for showing up at the gate to see you when you came to visit me. I was always asking why we didn’t have breakfast or water; I would be punished for this, including solitary confinement and the beating of my body. If you can do this to me, how much more can you do it to those without many visitors or the cover of the media?

    The levels of congestion in prisons have increased dramatically in recent times. Lack of medicine, the number of miscarriages, women prisoners dying — I was surprised. We had cases of escapees, which was also surprising in a maximum security prison. I was also surprised by the sense of community within jail among convicted murderers and thieves. Even without their families around, there are structures of support. I was “Ssenga” [paternal auntie] or “Mama” Stella. Other times I was “Bitch Boss.” The re-creation of family was impressive, full of love, laughter, jokes, dancing, singing and religious conversions.

    You’re known, at least publicly, for being vulgar and relentless. Is this personality something that arose naturally out of your experience, or is it tactical and politically deliberate?

    Previous Coverage
  • Nude protests, sex strikes and the power of the taboo
  • Often I have to rehearse, and look for words, especially when I’m doing this ad-lib character. I have to look for these words from people who use them. One of my go-to places for information is Facebook. I have access to boda boda [motorcycle taxi] guys and sex workers who know how obscene words are best used. The idea that people say “she’s losing her African values and cursing like a colonized white woman” is wrong because in Buganda [a region within central Uganda], a Nalongo [or mother of twins] has certain powers in her speech, body language and actions.

    The Victorian era did a lot of damage in terms of culture. Perhaps my scholarship around sexuality gave me access to the power of sexualities. Because sexuality is taboo for women, the woman has to enter that tirade boldly, in a way that demands attention. I learned early when a woman says “vagina” or “penis,” people are forced to stop and listen. People are bored with talking about politics!

    I learned early in Facebooking that if I threw in metaphors of intercourse, there is a larger response. Often there are those who are daring enough to explore the deeper language of sexual metaphors. I want to know who can get what I’m saying at the second or third level of meaning. I’ve crafted a particular woman who is bold and brazen in interestingly political ways, using my “clean African woman mouth” to speak dirty politics. People may not take the offense as offensive as it is. Some may laugh at it, knowing its political value. I’d rather make the point vulgarly even if I lose a few people along the way. If the sexual currency makes the point polite conversation can’t, so be it.

    Stella Nyanzi shortly after her release from prison. (Facebook/Solidarity Uganda)

    Some encourage you to pursue formal politics, either as an MP or as president. Do you have such ambitions?

    I think that I am an ideas person. What makes me tick is when I’m working with and shaping ideas. Scholarship is where my heart is at. The activist-academic is a concept I was struggling with for a while, and when I was doing queer activism around the anti-homosexuality bill, I realized one cannot simply live within the ivory tower.  There was no way I could only produce knowledge when people could be killed. This has influenced how I do activism. The anti-homosexuality bill beckoned me to come and do something. I would make Stella an academic in the university, but since the dictator kicked me out, the street and Facebook have become my playing field.

    As I await my job at Makerere — because I’m in court to get my job back — I want to keep poking the leopard’s anus, and to do politics hardcore. The coming 2021 elections are an opportunity one must not miss. Parliament? Why not? Perhaps a woman may come on board among the big boys going for the presidency, but I don’t know how serious I am when I say that. If it’s an opportunity for in-your-face competition for the dictator, perhaps I will.

    I have been invited by various people to stand as Woman MP for the Central Kampala constituency where Nabilah Naggayi Sempala came in. There are increasing rumors that she has been a sellout, or at least inactive, which I can’t yet verify because I have been behind bars in Luzira. The persons who are going to contest for any post should not do so lightly. It is important to reclaim the constitution and transform our laws. Do I want to run? Yes, but because of what I can get away with as a candidate. It affords some space to say the things that must be said. In other words, running for Parliament shouldn’t be mainly about getting to Parliament.

    Uganda’s opposition is fragmented, which you have sometimes attributed to male ego. What must it do to get the dictator out of power?

    The way I understood people power [which fueled the Togikwatako campaign against authoritarian constitutional reform] was that it was a movement to build opposition capacity to resist. It was supposed to be a unifying platform for the liberation struggle. That may have been my own naïve and simplistic understanding of people power, but I think it should’ve been that way.

    In terms of movement building, the women’s movements have done many great things, but in terms of exclusions … those with high heels sit up on thrones and those with sandals sit at their feet.

    I am disappointed that that simple unity idea seems difficult to achieve among the leaders. Away from the opposition leaders, I suspect that many of us are very aware that we cannot uproot Museveni through our own homogenous circles alone, but patronage politics is keeping Museveni in power, and people don’t want to give up those privileges. This makes uniting difficult.

    Suppose the opposition won’t unite. We have seen it before — old men take a slice of the cake and wait until the next electoral season. Can Ugandans coerce them into cooperating, if they won’t do it willingly?

    Parties are male dominated and will not give up their power to each other, so we need to build a new coalition that unites various opposition party players. We need to transform and reorganize opposition party work. How do we unite? In Sudan, it was about bread. Bread united us. Maybe we need something to unite us, perhaps blood. The question of insecurity may be a platform for all of us who don’t want to fear for our lives daily while crime and murders rise in Uganda. We are still struggling and still insecure. Even a person who loves the ruling party can have their brains blown apart.

    Much as politics in Uganda is patriarchal, you’ve also criticized Kampala’s women’s movement. Your poetry speaks of “feminists in high heels.” What do you mean by this, and if the women’s movement is to build more power, what must it do differently?

    “Feminists in high heels” is my own language about the classism and elitism and separation and exclusion within the feminist and women’s movements in Uganda. There is something happening around our long history of the women’s movement in Uganda. In terms of movement building, decentralization, etc., the women’s movements have done many great things, but in terms of exclusions — decisionmaking, its agenda, gatekeeping — those with high heels sit up on thrones and those with sandals sit at their feet.

    We need a common campaign that unites us first as humans. In Sudan it was bread; in Nigeria, it was oil. In Uganda it could be land issues that unite us as a people.

    We have to be honest with ourselves. The funding for “women’s movement-ing” emphasizes divisions because we are competing for a small cake against each other and must report back to donors. We are no longer allies but competitors. First of all, we have to think about how we all matter, no matter the size of the cake. All our work is important and should be allowed to flourish, even if the funds are little. We must be critical and look inward to ourselves, as opposed to the reports we give to auditors, NGOs, donors. We must look at ourselves as political actors and assess to what extent the things we are doing are empowering to grassroots women — and accountable firstly to the women we claim to speak and act for.

    Intersectionality is difficult, and one must always be conscious that all of our work is intersectional. I don’t know why we reproduce hierarchies of abuse and oppression, especially within feminist spaces. I don’t know if humans are just wired this way or not. How do we do things differently? So many resources are spent, but we are not evaluating our achievements, doing a cost-benefit analysis, or asking how we can reshape and refashion our strategies as much and as often as we need to.

    Uganda is incredibly diverse and heterogeneous. There are many languages and cultural barriers making mass mobilization and political coordination very difficult. You have been one of the unifying inspirations for Ugandans nationwide. What advice do you give to people around the world struggling with the difficulties of organizing within very diverse contexts?

    I want to reaffirm what you’re saying. Uganda is a collage, like when you make a quilt out of kitenge [African cloth] bits. We are very diverse. The odd colonial creation called “Uganda” is a collage. Opposition leaders Kizza Besigye or Bobi Wine can appeal to the entire nation, which is surprising and inspiring. People from all walks of life come to them like the way bees go to honey. In spite of all the language, religious, class and other barriers, we are united in our oppression. This should be a uniting force despite our differences.

    Every human knows about menstruation. This is why we needed a common campaign that unites us first as humans. In Sudan it was bread; in Nigeria, it was oil. In Uganda it could be land issues that unite us as a people. Whether I’m a farmer or a Mercedes Benz driver, land is a currency of importance in Uganda. We must identify one or two unifying issues and do a power analysis around those issues to understand how the oppressor is using them to consolidate his power. There is a commonality running through all of us. Abuse of power, nepotism and lack of jobs resonate with everyone.

    I don’t strategize and structure very well. I just do ‘I am angry and enraged and we must do something.’

    They united a people to the cause of a naked woman. Not all of the people brought into the campaign loved my methods and the idea of my naked body, but they were attracted to the cause by a contract that was broken and that affected me. They understood what it means to be a Ugandan living under the normalization of employers violating contracts.

    Academia is severely crumbling in Uganda and around the world. How can we think about academia in a new way?

    I feel very cheated as a person who belongs to the university to see how much theory is being made on the streets and away from academics and board rooms. People are doing knowledge production on resistance. The story of Ugandans is being told by ghetto gurus who lack political science or anthropology credentials. It’s sad that we don’t have enough students, scholars and thinkers working with the various opposition fronts, like the feminists, queers and land right advocates. Not enough is going back to the university to enrich the existing knowledge we already have. The gap between the ivory tower and the struggling masses is growing bigger and bigger. Many Makerere students would love to sit down, watch and participate in protests and social actions.

    The bubbles are bubbling up — and may finally come together as a massive bubble big enough to take the dictator out. Why are academics sitting down and treating this moment as business as usual? Punishment has deterred critical thinking. Students asking tough questions are being penalized, expelled and punished. There are rewards, conversely, for being silent and dormant. There are punishments for those of us employing critique.

    Why aren’t more professors and PhD candidates joining at the frontlines? I was told “That isn’t what academics do; they write papers and go to conferences.” I think “No, academics would be enriched where the action and knowledge production is happening: at the mines, in the kitchens, on the streets.” Among the first things Museveni did was to shut up the minds and mouths of those who could criticize the establishment. The president himself is the one facilitating negotiations for Makerere faculty salary increments. Because we depend on the state for our bread, we have not held fast to the ability to think for ourselves. This is a dictatorial military state. A dictator would not want us to question his power.

    Are there any other thoughts you would like to add?

    I don’t strategize and structure very well. I just do “I am angry and enraged and we must do something.” I’m in the moment. I just know that we have to challenge power. I am excited to know there are now people building movements with thought and critique and structure. The refining is happening as we go along.

    How can nations best prepare to face a pandemic or climate crisis?

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    David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, envies the higher degree of social trust he observes among the Nordic people. It is a precious resource when facing an epidemic. It would also be valuable when facing disasters accompanying the climate crisis.

    The willingness of individuals to prioritize the protection of the community as a whole depends largely on social trust, and we’re far enough into this pandemic now to see that countries are showing varying levels of it. In Scandinavia, the grocery stores are not experiencing great rushes of people to stock up on food and toilet paper. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, we see not only panic buying but also angry shouting matches between city-dwellers rushing to their seashore summer houses and local dwellers trying to protect their hospitals.

    People trust a system that reliably supports security, solidarity and individual freedom to make major life choices. They learn that trust — or don’t — through how well the system comes through for them.

    The contrast between Nordics and Americans these days reveals their contrasting systems.

    It’s trust, along with self-interest, that made it possible in Denmark for political parties quickly to unite despite their differences to “bet the farm” — the integrity of their fiscal future — on a gigantic “freeze” of the economy. This revolutionary measure keeps workers on their employers’ payrolls even though the epidemic keeps them away from their jobs.

    The New York Times editorial board on March 25 praised the Danish approach as far superior to the American $2 trillion dollar package passed last week. The Times’ explanatory article a few days later emphasizes over and over ways that the ongoing Danish political economy is different from — and better than — that of the United States.

    Pandemic as a rehearsal for facing climate disasters to come

    The coronavirus is a run-through for the mega-disasters that will come if we continue carbon pollution. Subsidizing oil companies is like continuing a profit-driven health system — both ensure that the needless deaths that didn’t make the headlines last year will multiply when a crisis hits. 

    The Climate Change Performance Index, for example, in its 2020 report rates the Nordics in the top fifth of nations, while the United States is at the very bottom. This is why learning about different systems’ ability to generate social trust is essential.

    It’s not an accident that Denmark, which re-designed an approach to globalization, also innovated when facing the coronavirus pandemic by “freezing the economy.”

    A century ago the Nordics’ political economy, which was free market capitalism, did not earn people’s trust and therefore didn’t get it. True, those countries were small and homogeneous, but the common people’s trust in their system was in the toilet, as surveys find that our trust is today. Enough Nordic people rose up against their establishments to shift the power and create a different, trustworthy system.

    Fareed Zakaria, however, doesn’t believe they have a different system. In his Washington Post column “Bernie Sanders’s Scandinavian Fantasy” he observes, correctly, that the Nordics have some characteristics that are found in free market capitalism. His article then focuses on individual aspects of the Nordic model rather than looking at the system as a whole. That prevents him from seeing that the Nordics like to design their systems to prevent problems that, in the United States, we’ve tried to come up with specific remedies to correct.

    The minimum wage is one such remedy. Classic capitalism doesn’t include a minimum wage because it interferes with the free market. The labor movement, rebelling against workers’ poverty, demanded the minimum wage. Our economic elite accepted it — late and grudgingly — and is still fighting against those calling for a standard of $15 per hour.

    The Nordic countries don’t have a legislated minimum wage. Aha, cries Zakaria. They must be free market economies!

    He doesn’t even try to explain how it can be that in Copenhagen, McDonald’s hamburger flippers earn $20 per hour. This is characteristic of his article: By focusing on individual features, Zakaria misses the system. As the old saying goes, he “can’t see the forest for the trees.”

    We can understand the Danish hamburger flipper and the high wages of all workers if we stand back and look at the Scandinavian forest. We notice the very high density of union membership there, and also the Nordic model’s commitment to full employment. In that kind of system, if McDonald’s wants to sell hamburgers in Copenhagen, they’ll have to pay to get the workers.

    The Nordics love design that enhances good living through incentives. That happens at many points in their system, which is why they get high marks in the business world for relative “freedom from regulation.” You don’t need to over-regulate, bogging down the system in bureaucracy, if you have an overall design that incentivizes good behavior.

    It especially helps if people’s movements have already won so many battles with the economic elite that they’ve won a democratic system. Matt Bruenig, who also responded to Zakaria’s column, helps us to see the forest, writing, “In Finland, it is the business lobby that pleads for the creation of a minimum wage and the unions that repeatedly slam the idea as a right-wing ploy meant to undermine the wages of workers. The lack of minimum wage is not because of market liberalism. It’s because the labor institutions in the country are so far left that the minimum wage is seen as conservative by comparison.”

    While many capitalist enterprises are alive and well in Finland, they also have a widespread co-operative movement. In fact, there are more member-owners of co-ops than there are Finns!

    Considering how important globalization is in today’s economic world, Zakaria’s complete misunderstanding of the Nordics is mind-boggling. It is caused, once again, by his fascination with individual trees and an inability to see the forest.

    He’s right that globalization has left most nations engaged in a “race to the bottom,” in which jobs are moved from one country to another to exploit workers and the environment.

    The Nordics at first tried to keep jobs at home by subsidizing their corporations to keep factories open. Denmark, pessimistic about that strategy’s viability, made a major change. The government, instead of subsidizing corporate owners, re-directed its resources to the workers.

    When a factory closed, Danish workers received from the government a very high percentage of their wages while re-training for other available jobs or going back to school, including their famously free universities. Of course workers retained health care (universal), pension payments (universal) and other supports. They also got a relocation grant if their new job was in another part of the country.

    New jobs keep appearing in Nordic countries because they are far more supportive of start-ups than the free market capitalist United States. The title of Inc.’s report on entrepreneurs got it right: “In Norway, Start-ups Say ‘Ja’ to Socialism.”

    The result is something called “flexicurity”: continued high employment in high-paying quality jobs, with both start-ups and the workforce keeping pace with technology and global trends.

    Zakaria, writing about such a complex and sophisticated re-design of the Nordic model, sees only one thing: corporate investment in Danish factories is freed up to be reinvested. Free capital is the tree he sees, so score one for free market capitalism and zero for “Bernie’s socialism.”

    Without Bernie’s socialism, however, there wouldn’t be flexicurity. The Dutch deserve credit for the first draft of the idea, but the more socialist Denmark strengthened it considerably. We learn also from the next series of events: Sweden and Norway quickly picked up on flexicurity. The European Union recommended it without success to its member states. The United States also took a pass, as we’ve seen in the Rust Belt where Donald Trump picked up the electoral votes needed to win in 2016.

    Contrary to Zakaria’s conclusion, flexicurity reveals another systemic divide between the Nordics and the countries committed to free enterprise. It results from the Nordic model’s deep commitment to the well-being of workers.

    Previous Coverage
  • As coronavirus opens the door to big changes, the left’s most attractive vision faces pushback
  • I don’t think it’s an accident that the Denmark that re-designed an approach to globalization also innovated when facing the coronavirus pandemic by “freezing the economy.” Nor that the Nordics are in the vanguard in responding to the climate crisis.

    Nordic corporations that free up capital by closing factories sometimes take it to the Global South and invest it there. I don’t believe Zakaria would approve of the response from the socialist-inclined Norwegians: a law requiring Norwegian corporations operating abroad to live up to the same (very high) standards for treatment of workers and environment that they must adhere to at home. The law empowers individual Norwegians to become whistle-blowers.

    Still Viking at heart, Norwegians (and other Nordics) love to travel. Imagine you’re a Norwegian tourist visiting Chile, and you learn that there are Norwegian-owned fish farms there. Curious, you visit, and discover that the farms are polluting the water, or underpaying the workers or forgetting about occupational health and safety.

    When you return home you visit the government-supported nonprofit that monitors corporate behavior abroad and report what you learned. The agency investigates and — if it finds that you are correct — forces the corporation to make amends and change its behavior.

    Holding capital accountable is in line with the thinking of Nobel-winning Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, who almost a century ago argued that capitalism’s design had its priorities upside-down. It made the well-being of capital most important and gave labor the job of supporting capital. Myrdal argued that the priority needs instead to be the well-being of workers and farmers who produce the wealth. Capital’s job is to support the common good.

    This turning-upside-down of priorities is fundamental to the success of the Nordic model and explains both how different it is from free market capitalism and why it is so much more successful.

    Getting there is the hardest part, as it was for the Nordics too

    The New York Times recently published an op-ed headlined, “Finland is a Capitalist Paradise.”

    Here Finnish journalist Anu Partanen, who wrote the delightful book “The Nordic Theory of Everything,” partners with her American husband Trevor Corson to tell us why they have a much better life in Helsinki than in Brooklyn. Theirs is a glowing account: “What we’ve experienced is an increase in personal freedom.”

    What’s problematic about their article is how their description gets in the way of us actually gaining that personal freedom here in the United States.

    For starters, their branding is an issue. Who imagines a free market “capitalist paradise” to have a government that owns nearly a third of the nation’s wealth, or has one in three workers employed by the state, or features major state-owned enterprises?

    The authors are right to say that many capitalist enterprises are alive and well in Finland, but they ignore the widespread vitality of the cooperative movement: There are more member-owners of co-ops than there are Finns!

    The average adult is a member of two co-ops. Finns, like their Scandinavian neighbors, have employee-owned as well as customer-owned enterprises. They use co-op banks, department stores, hotels, groceries and insurance companies. In a country larger than the United Kingdom, there’s a co-op within two miles of everyone.

    Partanen and Corson also leave out the full story of struggle accounting for how Finland became such a happy place. (2020 is Finland’s third year in a row at the top of the international happiness ratings.)

    Previous Coverage
  • US opinion is shifting in favor of the Nordic model — can activists keep up?
  • To their credit, the authors — alone among the writers discussed in my previous two articles — reveal what happened in the bad old days when the capitalists were fully in the saddle. As in the other Nordic countries, Finnish people were oppressed, rebelled and were met with violence.

    Unlike the people’s movements in other Nordic countries, some Finns turned to violence, and the struggle became civil war. The authors tell what happened in 1918: “After months of fighting, the capitalists and conservatives crushed the socialist uprising. More than 35,000 people lay dead. Traumatized and impoverished, Finns spent decades trying to recover and rebuild.”

    The good news is that, despite the victory by the Finnish economic elite, it was unable to prevent a gradual resurgence of the labor unions. By the 1950s, as Tatu Ahponen recently explained in Jacobin, unions organized a nationwide 10-day metalworkers’ strike. They then organized a general strike of half a million workers. Both forced major concessions.

    Finland created a publicly-funded (mainly through taxes) health care system that gets good marks in international ratings. Today, for example, the United States allows substantially more of its citizens to die for lack of health care than does Finland, in relation to differences in population size. The numbers on preventable deaths show a grisly comparison between the capitalist, profit-driven approach to health care in the United States and the Nordic model.

    The new form of centrist resistance to a manifestly better system is to refuse to name it as different.

    The decade from 1966-76 became a “catch-up time” for Finland, with the unions pushing hard and the largest political party — the Social Democrats — able to win more of the elements that other Nordic countries already enjoyed: annual national wage negotiations, universal elementary education, universal day care and the like.

    By downplaying the recent decades of struggle between the classes in Finland, the authors present a picture of enlightened capitalists welcoming a win/win in paradise. That could mislead Americans who long for the degree of justice, personal freedom and equality that the Nordics enjoy.

    Finns, like us now, needed to struggle. They organized people’s movements that rebuilt the political economy so it reliably comes through for them, and therefore builds social trust.

    They are not done. The labor movement’s power now represents 90 percent of the workers. The new Social Democratic prime minister, 34-year-old Sanna Marin, suggested in January a new goal: a flexible six-hour work day and four-day work week. She stimulated a vigorous national debate that caught the eye of Forbes, which noted the stress due to overwork experienced by many Americans.

    The debate over models helps us prepare for the pandemic and climate crises

    Centrist Democrats want us to believe that the present American political economy deserves our loyalty. They say “yes” to liberal reforms that leave the system intact: equal wages for women, more educational opportunity for people of color, universal pre-school for children and expanded Obamacare.

    Never perfect, the Nordic struggle is available to witness. What they learned is ours to use.

    At the same time they’ve consistently said “no” to measures that make it easier to organize unions and ending subsidies for fossil fuels — even when they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. This is because those changes would mess with our economic model’s intention to put profit first. Even in the midst of the pandemic and its exposure of our inadequate, profit-driven health care system, their loyalty to the free market prevails.

    The writers critiqued in this series don’t want to call the economy shared by the Scandinavian countries “democratic socialism” or “social democracy,” or even, as academic economists often do, “the Nordic model.”

    Their new form of centrist resistance to a manifestly better system is to refuse to name it as different. This way of defending the status quo reminds me of how homophobia manifested itself to me as a young gay man urged to stay in the closet: “We’re happy to accept your contribution, but we don’t want to know who you are.”

    As many oppressed peoples have learned, naming something and giving it an identity increases its power. People address reality in a new way. The difference becomes an alternative. Naming suggests that “another world is possible.” The refusal of a name reflects profound resistance.

    The U.S. economic elite shows no more inclination to find a win/win than the Nordics’ elites did in their day. Over there, most people who wanted change realized they would simply have to fight, and they knew they were not fighting for just a laundry list of good ideas: It was an alternative system they were aiming for.

    Outside Scandinavia, we can allow ourselves to be inspired by knowing the results of their fight so far — results they couldn’t be sure would come about. The economic elite lost its dominance and the people won a historic level of health and security, democracy, economic justice and individual freedom.

    Now they innovate to lead the world in meeting pandemics and climate adaptation. Never perfect, their struggle is available to witness. What they learned is ours to use.

    Meet the civil rights activist jailed in Singapore over a Facebook post

    The day before presenting himself at the High Court to be taken to prison on March 31, Jolovan Wham was running errands for some friends in town. He seemed relaxed and cheerful, as he usually is.

    “Of course there’s still some degree of nervousness,” he said about his impending short stint behind bars. “But ever since I was arrested in 2017, I have been preparing for this day … so that’s why the effects, the stress, are not so great.”

    Wham will be serving a week in jail, and — while it’s his first time — it’s likely not going to be his last. The civil rights activist still has a number of other cases against him, largely to do with his involvement in “illegal assemblies.”

    These events, deemed so offensive by the state, would hardly merit comment in many other countries: an indoor panel discussion on civil resistance to which Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong Skyped in, a silent protest on an MRT train to draw attention to the issue of detention without trial in Singapore, and a 15-minute candlelight vigil outside Changi Prison the night before the morning execution of a death row inmate.

    Wham’s willingness to resort to direct action, despite the risk of arrest and prosecution, sets him apart even from the majority of Singaporean civil society.

    While he’s already been convicted for the first event mentioned above (but is in the midst of an appeal), the other two charges have yet to even go to trial. There’s also an ongoing investigation into yet another alleged illegal protest, involving him posing for a photo outside the State Courts holding a sign in solidarity with two other Singaporeans charged with criminal defamation.

    Under Singapore law, there’s only one park in the entire country in which Singaporean residents are allowed to assemble without prior permission. While one can technically apply to the police for a permit to protest, it’s highly unlikely that any such permit will be granted. In this environment, Wham is an anomaly.

    A long-time activist for migrant workers’ rights, he’s since branched out to work on the issue of civil liberties (or lack thereof) in Singapore, drawing attention to matters like freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. His willingness to resort to direct action, despite the risk of arrest and prosecution, sets him apart even from the majority of Singaporean civil society.

    This time, Wham’s trip to Singapore’s Changi Prison is a choice: He’d been sentenced to a fine of $3,500 after the courts found that a Facebook post, in which he’d compared the independence of Singapore’s judiciary unfavorably with its Malaysian counterpart, was in contempt of court. Wham refused to pay the fine, deciding to serve a week in prison instead.

    “Some people have said that it is unnecessary [to choose prison over the fine], because I have already raised awareness of the issue through the court case. So what’s the point of going to prison then?” he said of the comments he’s received from friends and acquaintances.

    “I think going to prison is a continuation of the resistance. To say that you do not accept the legitimacy of the judgment,” he continued. “And this is basically me saying ‘fuck you’ to the establishment. I think there’s value in this kind of resistance … there’s something good and noble about wanting to sacrifice and do something for what you believe in.”

    Previous Coverage
  • Protest culture in Singapore — wait, what?
  • The Singapore establishment isn’t exactly used to someone who would so actively and unapologetically give them the finger. The same ruling party has been in power since 1959, and over the years civil resistance campaigns or movements have been clamped down on and isolated, weeded out of society. Today, a more petitionary system exists, made up of “proper channels” to send feedback up to technocratic policymakers in the hopes that they’ll take your proposal into consideration and work it into their own plans. Tactics like protesting are seen as disruptive and destructive, and activists are often dismissed as noise-makers and rabble-rousers, a “lunatic fringe” that’s just making trouble for trouble’s sake.

    “It’s not making trouble for the sake of it, because when you do something like that [civil disobedience, or choosing to go to prison], you force it into the public consciousness,” Wham insisted. “Actions like these cast a spotlight on the injustice. And you can, of course, cast a spotlight on injustice by writing articles, you can have discussions. I don’t see anything wrong with these things — of course we can do that — but going to jail helps to magnify it, and forces you, provokes you to think.”

    In doing all this, Wham sees himself not as a popular figure, but someone in the vanguard of pushing boundaries. “I’m not expecting support from the majority of Singaporeans, that’s for sure,” he said. “But I think it’s precisely because these kinds of things don’t get support that it’s important to do them.”

    Essentially, activists like Wham aren’t interested in waiting for the “right” time to participate in direct action. Questions of whether it’s the “right” time or the “right” strategy or whether Singaporeans are “ready” for such “radical” action are common in Singapore, even among activists. They’re sometimes legitimate questions about movement-building and trying to get as many people on their side as possible, but they can also become an easy crutch to rationalize an unwillingness to take greater risks or offend the powerful. Being able to tell the difference between one motivation and another — or, on an even more basic level, to realize that this tension between savviness and fear exists — lies at the heart of the Singaporean activists’ internal struggle.

    “Change doesn’t really come because a majority of people want it,” Wham explained. “But it always starts with a minority of people who push for it, and then eventually it gathers momentum, and then change comes. This could take years. It could take decades. But I don’t think you do it because you want to see it happen in the short-term, or maybe even in your lifetime.”

    Interestingly, the Singapore establishment itself is likely aware of the potential power of even small acts of resistance. Under consecutive People’s Action Party administrations, civil liberties have been restricted and the freedom of assembly curbed to the point that even solo protests can breach public order laws. Recently, two young people, aged 18 and 20, were called in by the police for interrogation after they separately posted photos of themselves in public places holding up signs drawing attention to the climate crisis and the presence of Big Oil in Singapore as part of the local chapter of the Fridays For Future movement.

    “It shows that such actions can be very powerful,” Wham said of the authorities’ response to the young climate strikers. “The fact that the state is so eager to clamp down on even one person protesting shows that they know the power of public protests and public assembly … That’s why more Singaporeans should be empowered to do this, so that you can realize the goals and your aims and your aspirations for your community.”

    Wham holding a smiley face sign after climate activists were arrested for holding signs at the same location. (Twitter/Jolovan Wham)

    To express solidarity, days before he was due to go to prison, Wham headed down to the same spot that one of the climate strikers had been photographed in. Wearing a blue surgical mask — just like the original protester had — Wham, too, held up a cardboard sign. But instead of carrying any political message, all that had been drawn on the sign was a smiley face.

    “I wanted to inject some humor into protests. It’s not just about angry people, foaming and frothing at the mouth,” Wham said, bursting into laughter again at the idea. “[The smiley face] is also a symbol. It shows that we come in peace. We’re not just troublemakers. Underlying the request for change is that we want people to be happy. We want people to have fulfilling and enriching lives. So there’s nothing wrong with fighting for what you want for the betterment of the community.”

    This time, by choosing to go to prison, Wham hopes to erode some of the fear that presents such a solid barrier to many other Singaporeans. In a country where activists can generally carry out their work with relatively little worry for their physical safety — unlike many other countries, including those neighboring Singapore, there are no reports of activists being kidnapped, brutalized or even murdered — the threat of prosecution, fines and jail time can still be a great obstacle for many people to get over.

    The social stigma against going to prison is one major factor. “Whenever we talk about prison, we think about people who are criminals, who may find it hard to get a job in the future, who may not even be able to travel,” Wham pointed out. It might not be just prison itself that scares activists — who, for the most part in Singapore, will only be doing this on the side, while having to hold on to day jobs — but the implications of having a criminal record and being seen as an ex-convict, and the thought that this would limit future options.

    “I think that these fears are exaggerated,” Wham said. “There are lots of people who have been convicted in the court of law who’ve gone to jail, but have had successful careers, have been able to find a job, still can raise families, still can travel.”

    To him, it’s important to demonstrate that spending time in jail for your cause and belief isn’t a stain on your personal history, but a legitimate part of activism. At the end of the day, it’s about showing, through your own actions and choices, that such possibilities exist.

    A version of this article has also been published by We, The Citizens, a newsletter covering Singapore politics, democracy, civil society and social justice.

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