Waging Nonviolence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The civil rights movement expanded our understanding of training

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

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

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

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

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

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    Mobilizing a group to support deep learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Activist training needs to develop courage

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

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

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

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

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

    The risk of cultural imperialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Seeking a name for this kind of teaching and training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Armed deployment as lockdown begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A dictator’s dream come true

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

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

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

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

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

    Dismantling a predatory quarantine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A hungry people in the region’s breadbasket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    All Black Lives Matter

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

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

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

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

    Finding solutions within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Protecting the Sacred Place Where Life Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A long fight in Congress

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

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

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

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

    Divest, sue and organize

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A mass movement to protect the refuge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The pillars of support (Beautiful Trouble)

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

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

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

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

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

    Pillar 1: The police

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

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

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

    Pillar 2: The military

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

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

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

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

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

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    Pillar 3: The education system

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

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

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

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

    Pillar 4: Public officials and workers

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

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

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

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

    Pillar 5: Religious institutions

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

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

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

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

    Pillar 6: Business institutions and labor unions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Seattle intends to cut police funding by 50 percent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    So how has all of this moved so quickly? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Looking ahead

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

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

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

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

    Pre-During-Post Action Check List HERE

    Assertive Intervention & De-Escalation Tips

    Action Street Smarts & Personal Prep

    Greenpeace also has new guides for activists:

    Protest Safety Tips from Greenpeace

    Toolkit to Defend Black Lives

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

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

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

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

    Early achievements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The whirlwind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    How other movements can join in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    This story was first published by Witness Against Torture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    To the police of good conscience:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    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.


    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.”