Waging Nonviolence

US opinion is shifting in favor of the Nordic model — can activists keep up?

Surprisingly, for a mainstream daily newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer ended its March 22 editorial on the coronavirus by calling for system change, writing, “This crisis has laid bare some hard truths: that we’ve built a society that has removed protections for workers, supported the creation and growth of the gig economy, kept wages low and has continued to shrink basic supports for essential needs.”

The editorial went on to call the COVID-19 epidemic “a public health emergency that has exposed the weaknesses inherent in the system as a whole,” and say “It’s clear the system will have to be rebuilt. We only hope that can begin in the near future.”

A big-city, mainstream editorial board is talking “system change.” We activists need to be able to answer such an invitation not with piecemeal policies, but with a system alternative — one that delivers what the pandemic has shown that we need.

The most attractive starting point in such a discussion, I’ve found, is the political economy of the Nordic countries. They’ve generated more shared prosperity, justice, climate adaptation and individual freedom than anybody.

Previous Coverage
  • As coronavirus opens the door to big changes, the left’s most attractive vision faces pushback
  • In response to the coronavirus, Denmark reached into the socialist planning toolkit to take a bold economic initiative. The Danish plan to maintain jobs — which I described in my first article of this series — was lauded the next day by The New York Times!

    The editorial board prefers Denmark’s employment “freeze” strategy to that of the U.S. government’s bailout approach, which has an almost-equivalent price tag. The editorial’s headline is a direct challenge to Congress: “Why Is America Choosing Mass Unemployment?

    It can be hard for activists to keep track of how the ground is shifting beneath our feet, giving us a new opportunity. Some of us who want more radical change than the Nordics have so far achieved may fall back on our critiques of those countries: not racing fast enough to zero carbon emissions, still retaining armies, not yet fully empowering workers in firms outside the coop sector.

    But the Scandinavians are the first to tell you they don’t live in utopia, and radicals there work to leap even farther ahead. Consider the remarkable initiative of Greta Thunberg.

    In the United States, where activists are embedded in a climate-denying empire that structures in poverty and entrenched domination by the economic elite, the awakening of our fellow citizens to the possibility of something much, much better offers a breakthrough moment.

    It’s in the interests of the 1 percent that we not use the Nordic model as a way to talk about vision. They’ve watched with alarm the growing public appeal of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, which are partial versions of the Nordic model. Especially now, they don’t want us to expand, to talk in an appealing way about system-change.

    Efforts to ‘head us off at the pass’

    Seeing the attractiveness of the Nordics to Americans, liberal establishment pundits have been swinging into action. In the first article of this series I described their new rhetorical strategy. Here, I want to analyze another example of that strategy: a famous journalist — Thomas Friedman of The New York Times — claiming that “Joe Biden, not Bernie, Is the True Scandinavian.”

    Through evidence-based planning, the Nordics almost abolished poverty, while the free-market United States, mired in poverty for all its wealth, has an establishment that vetoes what works.

    Co-optation seems to be the goal of Friedman’s recent column. He argues that the United States and Nordic countries already share the same model: a market economy. He acknowledges that Denmark, for example, has a superior social safety net compared to ours, but sees such an arrangement within our reach if led by liberals like Biden who believe in the wealth-producing character of free enterprise.

    In his column, Friedman doesn’t explain why Denmark — with historically far less wealth than the United States — has enjoyed its safety net for over half a century while the United States doesn’t even try to build it here. Biden, for example, opposes the Danish single-payer healthcare system for Americans despite its consistently superior results.

    A false choice

    Friedman demands that Bernie Sanders choose either the free enterprise system or central planning, i.e. “socialism.” By posing this either/or, Friedman claims something he wouldn’t do in describing an automobile: Cars must be powered either by gasoline or by electricity — no hybrids allowed.

    Happily for Nordic economists, Friedman’s either/or is a false choice. Nordics mix what they see as the positive features of both approaches. They believe a market for trading some goods and services can be a good thing; it’s flexible and doesn’t ask planners to be God. For some purposes, like health care, a market is terrible. Be pragmatic: Research to find out where the market can be useful.

    Planning is also a good thing, because it can set goals that support the well-being of the whole, and can structure the market in a way that prevents it from wrecking people’s lives.

    In actual free market countries like the United States, the client is capital. In the Nordic model, however, the client is the common good, as expressed through democratic discussion and decision.

    For example, the Nordics redesigned their economies with a goal of abolishing poverty, realizing, as I show in a chapter in my book “Viking Economics,” that no one method will do the job. They replaced means-tested services — what we call “welfare” — with universal services, and a whole lot else besides. Through evidence-based planning, they’ve almost abolished poverty, while the free-market United States, mired in poverty for all its wealth, has an establishment that vetoes what works.

    In another example of planning, the Norwegians distinguish between what they call the “real economy” and the financial sector. Norway designed its hybrid so its stock market stays small and can’t distort the real economy. There’s also the precaution of Norwegian public entities like governments owning about a third of the stock market.

    Norway refuses to join the European Union partly because of EU loyalty to the free market. Norwegian family farmers would virtually disappear. A majority of Norwegians value their family farmers, for cultural reasons and food security.

    For the Nordics these are design decisions, like hybrids and plug-in cars are. A professional association of Nordic economists invited me to Norway to keynote their international conference, and I found them to be very pragmatic. They appeared to me to be people who would rather be like engineers or architects than preachers.

    Like architects, they ask their client what its priorities are. In actual free market countries like the United States, the client is capital. In the Nordic model, however, the client is the common good, as expressed through democratic discussion and decision.

    Friedman quotes former Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen saying at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “I would like to make one thing clear: Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”

    In 1920 the Nordics genuinely had free market economies. The economic elites ran those countries, with no intention of giving up their privilege and dominant position.

    It’s strange to hear a Danish leader resort to that false dichotomy. But the Nordics are small countries trying to manage alliances with large countries in a complex world. Their spokespeople are usually diplomatic, minimizing differences and maximizing commonalities.

    Their political discourse is also quite different from ours because their spectrum is skewed to the left. To over-simplify a bit, among the major players in Nordic politics, the so-called “right wing” has the politics of the Democratic National Committee in the United States.

    I wish journalists reporting from the Nordic countries made that clear to U.S. listeners. After a Nordic election, when journalists report that “the political right gained seats in parliament,” it’s the equivalent of saying that “the election showed growing strength by moderate Democrats” in the United States.

    I remember a Norwegian Conservative Party leader telling me she wished Barack Obama were Norwegian since he would be a splendid member of her party.

    A century ago Denmark was, in truth, a free market economy, like the United States. Rasmussen’s modern-day political economy is hugely different from those days, but it’s understandable that he would minimize the difference from the United States when he was speaking at Harvard.

    Thomas Friedman claims the Nordic model is a triumph of evolution, not revolution, but the real story is quite different.

    Friedman tells us he was invited to a Danish retreat at the prime minister’s residence where he found “all the country’s stakeholders — corporate leaders, national union leaders, educators, social entrepreneurs and cabinet ministers” gathered to think together about the future of Denmark. He was amazed by a conversation that took into account the “balancing of all their interests” and wishes he could find that here.

    A century ago Friedman would not have found that assembly in the prime minister’s house. In 1920 the Nordics genuinely had free market economies. The economic elites ran those countries, with no intention of giving up their privilege and dominant position.

    Mass struggle created the Nordic model

    What changed? Friedman claims the Nordic model is a triumph of evolution, not revolution, but the real story is quite different.

    In Nordic history as in our own, the economic elite used every trick — even calling out the troops — to maintain its power and privilege. (See my description of the Danish mass struggle in my first article in this series.)

    Previous Coverage
  • How Swedes and Norwegians broke the power of the ‘1 percent’
  • The history of the largest of the Nordics, Sweden, also contradicts Friedman’s impression. In the early 1900s farmers organized co-ops and industrial workers organized unions. When Swedish employers decided to reduce wages in 1909, hundreds of thousands of workers resisted by going on strike, without success. Conflict continued between the rich, who made the decisions, and the farmers and workers, who were tired of insecurity, long work days and poverty. Unwilling to give up, socialist-inspired workers discussed their emerging vision of an alternative, just system — with input from outstanding economists like Nobel-prize winning Gunnar Myrdal.

    In 1931, in southern Sweden, 4,000 striking lumber mill workers picketed the owners and the political authorities who backed them. National soldiers were mobilized to crush the strike, killing five and injuring five more. Thousands attended funerals of the slain workers.

    The workers’ grief and outrage might have become a moment to turn to violence, but instead the alliance of labor unions called a massive general strike throughout Sweden. The government fell.

    An election was called and Swedes elected the Social Democrats in 1932, who began to implement the Swedish version of the hybrid Nordic model. They proceeded to lead the country almost without a break until 1976.

    In short, the conversation among stakeholders that Friedman enjoyed, now common in all Nordic countries, was made possible by successful nonviolent campaigns against the economic elite and the free market system that it owned. The common people and their allies, inspired by a democratic socialist vision, needed to generate a power shift that forced a compromise and the implementation of the hybrid model.

    If Friedman wants that enjoyable stakeholder conversation in the United States — and believes it won’t take a power shift — he first needs to read the Princeton “oligarchy study,” which found that the United States makes nearly all its major decisions according to the wishes of its economic elite. To import the hybrid Nordic model to this country, Friedman would find the same resistance here that the Scandinavians tackled there.

    I doubt that waging a nonviolent revolution to overthrow the dominance of the economic elite is what Joe Biden has in mind.

    Amid the coronavirus crisis, mutual aid networks erupt across the country

    As the first coronavirus cases came to Washington state, the government response was both slow and confused. That’s when community members knew they were going to have to build something themselves if they wanted to get through this pandemic.

    “We recognized that we couldn’t rely on our current systems in place and needed to take care of each other directly,” said Janelle Walter of Tacoma Mutual Aid Collective, an all-volunteer organization of community members sharing resources. Mutual aid means creating “a network that can be mobilized immediately, without needing permission.”

    Set right near the Puget Sound, Tacoma is a working-class city down the road from Seattle that does not have a large left-wing political scene like other West Coast metropolises. They were hit with the first wave of what would become a nationwide, and global, pandemic — shutting down social services, forcing people out of their jobs and leaving entire communities struggling to hold on. This was a crisis of catastrophic proportions that no one was prepared to deal with, and it came on like an avalanche over just a couple of days.

    “Human cooperation, solidarity, and communalism is built deep into our DNA, and mutual aid is just what that aspect of humanity looks like in practice.”

    The Tacoma Mutual Aid Collective formed quickly from people who wanted to create a strong system for supporting those most affected, and immediately started doing grocery and prescription pick-ups and deliveries for people who could not risk going out in public. They began a Saturday grocery and school supply distribution in front of the local McCarver Elementary School, where families could drive up, grab what they needed and head out without violating the new rules of “social distancing.” The goal was to listen to those they shared the neighborhoods with, to hear what people needed and to start a system of sharing.

    “Mutual aid is community,” Walter explained. “Relying on each other builds trust and capacity. It removes the need for paternalistic approaches to aid, like we see with nonprofits and other state programs. We are seeing mutual aid projects pop up all over — several here in Tacoma — and it’s because folks are realizing that our systems collapse in emergency situations, whether it be a pandemic or a natural disaster. Systems that are already inefficient and officials who are already incompetent are unable to meet basic human needs, so we need to take care of each other.”

    The community of helping

    The United States, the world’s largest economy, has been driven to a practical halt as every single state is dealing with outbreaks of a deadly coronavirus, called COVID-19. As the global death toll rises to the tens of thousands, and people are reminded of earlier flu pandemics that knocked percentage points off of the world’s population, governments have scrambled to figure out what the best course of action could be.

    This bureaucracy has left many communities behind, particularly as “shelter orders” come down and businesses close, leaving many people without income to support their families. This is one of the worst case scenarios for a public health threat, and most communities have been left to fend for themselves.

    The clarity of this situation has led people active in their community — some political and some simply looking for the best tools for survival — to start developing a series of “mutual aid” groups to help each other meet their basic needs.

    “Mutual aid is the idea that humans should help humans, even and especially outside any market forces,” said Breht O’Shea, of Nebraska Left Coalition, who also hosts the podcast “Revolutionary Left Radio.” “Human cooperation, solidarity and communalism is built deep into our DNA, and mutual aid is just what that aspect of humanity looks like in practice.”

    Mutual aid is the idea that when we support each other’s needs in a reciprocal relationship, but without obligation or exchange, we have the best chance to survive and flourish. Mutual aid projects have been a staple of radical social movements for decades — from food distribution services like Food Not Bombs to the “Survival Pending Revolution” programs of the Black Panthers, which included free health clinics and breakfast programs. When the state fails to meet the needs of the public, many communities will build resources themselves, and in doing so will build an alternative to the hierarchical bureaucracies of the government.

    An illustrated summary of our #WeGotOurBlock mutual aid training. (Twitter/Becca Barad)

    “Mutual aid is a reciprocal, respectful relationship, and it is distinct from charity or government programs,” said Devin Ceartas of Triangle Mutual Aid in Piedmont, North Carolina. Mutual aid avoids the bureaucratic inefficiencies we often see in governments and large non-governmental organizations, and instead hopes to build community. “Every event that stresses our system forces us to choose: Will we hoard toilet paper and sanitizer, bolt the door and embrace the National Guard enforcing curfews? Mutual aid chooses instead to plant gardens, pool our resources, prioritize those most in need,and protect those most vulnerable,” Ceartas continued.

    In almost every city around the United States mutual aid networks have started to form — ranging from projects for resource distribution to simple options like fundraising, compiling lists of resources and contacts, and creating “chat threads” so that people in the same area can stay in contact with one another. The speed with which these groups have arrived, and the depth of care that many of them offer, have started to show what options communities have when the large institutions around them fail, or are unwilling to deal with the disaster.

    Getting what we need

    The COVID-19 crisis is unlike many others because it affects everyone, shuts down business and government in a massive sweep and prevents us from coming together because of the risk of cross-infection. This has created an urgent need for resources that is massive in scope, including everything from medical supplies to food and childcare. This is why many of the groups that first formed focused on centralizing all the resources that were available, letting people know how to get a hold of each other and any services that are at their disposal. 

    “This project is serving as a hub or clearinghouse of information, as opposed to other organizations which are directly providing aid. We do not have the people, time or money to directly provide assistance, but we can help people find the resources that they need,” said Andy Rutto of NYC United Against the Coronavirus, which came together on March 12 to create a master resource document. “I believe we have already passed the point where our governments — at the city, state or national level — can adequately meet the needs of society under this ongoing coronavirus pandemic. That means that we will need to take care of each other, and we will need to keep each other safe.”

    Previous Coverage
  • Coronavirus is a historic trigger event — and it needs a movement to respond
  • COVID-19 can affect some people with underlying health conditions uniquely hard, so it is up to many people in the mutual aid organizations to volunteer to do errands for them, such as picking up and delivering groceries. Many of the organizations have created a system where volunteers can sign up to do specific duties or “shifts,” and then they connect the people in need with the people offering the aid.

    “Every day we are getting endless amounts of volunteers,” said Kevin Van Meter, who is working with the Benton County Family Response Team in Corvallis, Oregon. This mutual aid organization was started by the Coalition of Graduate Employees, a graduate student union at Oregon State University, which has been doing mutual aid work before this crisis to help support the struggling student workers. Now they have 150 volunteers ready to do runs, more than the requests coming in. “That’s probably changing now for the fact that this stuff is starting to shut down. People are having a stay at home order. The crisis is deepening in their own lives and now they have to lean on these services like never before,” Van Meter added.

    The Mutual Aid Network of Ypsilanti, or MANY, in Michigan, predated the crisis and was created by people involved with other organizations, including the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief and the Industrial Workers of the World. MANY, which actually has a 501(c)3 status, was able to respond quickly to the pandemic because they had already been doing the work of building community connections in advance, doing support work for local food pantries and providing meals.

    Ypsilanti has faced the same tough economic circumstances that many cities in the Rust Belt have, with a 30 percent poverty rate and a 13 percent of students being homelessness. Before the coronavirus hit, the community was still grasping for resources that were not available through government programs.

    “Because we’ve spent the last year building intentionally, we plan on responding to the pandemic with the same slow-moving processes we’ve used to build this project out,” said Payton MacDonald, an organizer with MANY. “We are committed to a ‘solidarity, not charity’ approach to organizing and won’t claim to be the experts on mutual aid since we believe that it is an inherent part of life. It’s important to stress that we don’t ‘give’ mutual aid to the ‘less fortunate.’ Our existing programs are still taking off, and this global crisis is testing their limits.” 

    Health resources are particularly scarce, including basic sanitation tools, such as cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer, which were sold out in many places within days of the pandemic starting. In Portland, groups organized in a coalition, including the Democratic Socialists of America, Symbiosis, Pop Mob, and Portland Action Medics have begun a network that delivers resources and creates materials from scratch — including making their own hand sanitizer using a World Health Organization recipe.

    People’s Breakfast Oakland prepare hygiene packs for the houseless community. (Twitter/@BlakeDontCrack)

    “A really simple thing you can do is contribute to any efforts to get food or sanitation supplies out into the community. We need to slow the spread, which means making it easier for people to avoid close proximity and keep their hands clean,” said Aya Leigh, a street medic who was helping to put on a resource fair to hand out important tools before the “shelter at home” orders were put in place. “Each of our actions affects others. We’re all on this planet together. We’re all in this pandemic together, and we need to start acting like it. The more we take care of each other, the better off we’ll all be.”

    Volunteers from the network are now distributing supplies, including the hand sanitizer, and working to create dependable drop-off locations that people will know to visit when in need.

    As 3.3 million people are laid off because of coronavirus closures, the need for money is going to become as pressing as food and medicine. That is why several of the mutual aid organizations have simply prioritized fundraising efforts to get money where it is most needed. The Baltimore Mutual Aid & Emergency Relief Fund was created by members of the Food, Clothing & Resistance Collective – Maroon Movement, which formed in 2015 to do ongoing mutual aid work like food distributions, garden support projects and group meals.

    “We are part of the community as opposed to some outside entity doing charity work or bougie handouts,” explained member Sima Lee, who was inspired to get involved because of the basic need for resources that many marginalized communities have — particularly communities with indigenous people and people of color. “We are just looking out for our people. We are fiercely anti-capitalist, so our work emphasizes doing things in a cooperative manner without money always being involved.”

    They have also been working with Baltimore Safe Haven to support sex workers during the crisis, who have the added difficulties of finding shelters and being without income. 

    Sima Lee with cleaning supplies, food and diapers ready to be given to those in need in Baltimore. (Facebook/Sima Lee)

    “Our examples and my personal mentors were the Black Panther Party and their survival programs that would help take care of the needs the state would neglect while also providing political education in the process,” Lee continued. “We are about horizontal power for the people. We don’t just show up at a disaster for a photo op. We are always here!”

    As these projects sprout up, or build on the work they have already been doing, people are building new methods of coordinating between them and trying to construct relationships to allow these groups to be dependable beyond the next few weeks. Adam Greenburg created the COVID-19 Mutual Aid Coordination Slack channel — an instant message service popular in the tech world — to start building those bridges between groups so that people would have a central place to share resources.

    “My hope is that with this Slack, organizers can make their needs known and people can swarm towards what makes sense for them,” Greenberg said. “This could look like more modular distribution templates for direct, needs-based aid, or consolidation around a set of progressive demands to keep our communities safe.” The difficulty will be in responding to circumstances that are changing quickly, particularly when the response from public officials and law enforcement changes daily.

    A radical imagination

    While the practical utility of these mutual aid groups is what has received attention and inspired participation, the motivations run a lot deeper for many of the organizers involved. As income inequality increases and periods of climate and economic crisis expand, many are feeling pulled to build a strong community that can remain vibrant as much as it centers the bonds of solidarity. In a world where preparing for disaster, or “prepping,” has a lot of consumer cache, those who practice mutual aid believe that it is actually the relationships and commitment of support people rely on that is the most critical to our survival.

    “This can serve as a model for others because we hope to provide an impetus to overcome the cultural inertia associated with individualism,” explained the prison-support and antifascist group Nashville Anarchist Black Cross in a recent interview. “If anything positive can be gleaned from the COVID-19 outbreak, it is that our bodies are extremely connected, and we should be more mindful of the numerous ways we can and do love collectively. That is empowering for us to recognize that we are only as strong as the most vulnerable in our community, therefore we all need to take part in actions to protect our community as a whole.”

    “The crisis is bigger than the virus … We have to start now deciding what things will look like long after this is over.”

    They have used their resources to create hygiene packs, hand sanitizer, and other tools to hand out to anyone who needs them — with the understanding that fighting a pandemic requires everyone’s participation and that everyone needs support.

    The coming weeks are going to be difficult, yet the actual results will depend on how people on the ground respond. For radical activists at the center of many of these projects, there is a desire to simply apply the principles that have been learned from social movements to do their best to support the community in crisis. In doing so they can open the door to the world they want to build, one that puts value on each member of the community and finds its strength and resilience through collaboration.

    “Mutual aid shows you there is more than enough to go around and that we all have more in common than the elites and bosses would have you believe. It is much easier to organize around other issues when that rapport is built,” said Sima Lee, who emphasized that the long-term effects of the coronavirus are going to be felt for months, maybe years. “I fully expect to see rent strikes and more after so many neighbors have connected over disaster mutual aid during COVID-19. The crisis is bigger than the virus. The crisis is 400 years of white supremacist capitalism and all the contradictions are falling apart before our eyes. We have to start now deciding what things will look like long after this is over.”

    The impact of mutual aid efforts can do far more than meet immediate health needs. They can build the kind of bonds that all mass movements emerge from — the willingness to stand in solidarity and struggle as a community. As weeks turn into months, and we potentially enter a new era of recession, job losses and evictions, those relationships that have been formed doing mutual aid can also be used to push for the deeper, more systemic change that is so desperately needed.

    As coronavirus opens the door to big changes, the left’s most attractive vision faces pushback

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    Emergencies have a way of shaking up old, limiting beliefs. The coronavirus pandemic is pushing people back to the drawing board.

    In the United States, many are noticing the institutional failures forced on us in recent decades, during what billionaire Warren Buffett calls the “class warfare” waged by the economic elite. The health crisis opens the door to bolder thinking. Even establishment politicians today consider moves that cost trillions, but their motivation is to save the existing system, not to transition to a better one.

    For many Americans, however, it’s time for a system change. Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch. The American left in recent years has been shaking off its vision-aversion that began in the Reagan presidency.

    Previous Coverage
  • Vision is finally on the rise in U.S. politics
  • In 2016 the Movement for Black Lives took the initiative with its vision: measures needed to make racial and economic justice a reality. Ever since, activists have been waking up to the need. Grassroots people in Vermont even created a statewide Vision Summit.

    This trend is crucial for all activists, whether or not their favorite thing is to think about systemic change. History suggests that the social movements that make the most difference are those that project a vision, especially when it can be expressed in common sense terms.

    Vision now threatens the U.S. political center

    Establishment political leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, are in trouble. The past four years have not been kind to them, and not only because of the uncontrollable Trump. In 2016 Bernie Sanders emerged from the margins to gain political traction with bold alternatives. He proudly identified as a democratic socialist. He couldn’t be dismissed as an irrelevant left ideologue because he used the Nordic model as a vision-turned-practical, a brilliant success in the real world.

    His argument is reinforced at this moment when, during the epidemic, we look across the Atlantic and find dramatic Nordic initiatives that are made possible by the advantages of their model.

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    In March, the Danes — looking ahead because that’s what democratic socialists do — realized that after the epidemic the economy will re-start more quickly and smoothly if people simply return to their previous work. And the way to guarantee that is to pay their regular wages in the meantime.

    Denmark therefore decided to “freeze” its economy for 13 weeks, maintaining payrolls while safety requires temporary lay-offs of most workers. Workers will receive their full wages while at home. The employers pay 25 percent of the cost while the government pays 75 percent. The plan means spending the equivalent in the United States of a $2.5 trillion stimulus!

    The American Dream has fled the United States and gone to live in Scandinavia.

    Even in ordinary times, the Nordic region is where you’ll find the best countries for women, for elders, for raising children, for equality, for environmental performance and even for individual freedom. Black Americans settling down in Oslo even find relief from most of the racism they encounter in the United States.

    In all these ways and others, the Nordic countries far out-rank the United States — which is why this country is now rated as a “flawed democracy.”

    The researchers issuing the World Happiness Report were struck by finding the Nordics consistently at the top. In the current report they devote a chapter trying to come up with reasons. They conclude that the Nordics’ superior performance has nothing to do with their size, or even historic homogeneity. (In recent years Nordic governments have welcomed migrants, diversified and still managed to hold their place in the top tier.)

    Previous Coverage
  • What the US can learn from Scandinavia in the struggle against inequality
  • What many Americans forget is that a century ago the Nordic countries were a mess. Poverty, inequality, lack of freedom drove millions to emigrate to Canada and the United States. Now the situation is reversed. Even by measures of social mobility, the American Dream has fled the United States and gone to live in Scandinavia. In my book “Viking Economics” I tell the dramatic story of how Sweden and Norway made their big turn-arounds.

    All these facts cause worry among American political centrists, who may want some limited reforms here but nothing like the dramatic changes made by the Nordics — especially not the power shift within those countries that made possible their new model.

    Ignoring the Nordics is proving impossible

    For decades the American establishment counted on a simple strategy: ignore them! Academia used to conform. While criss-crossing the United States on book tours I’ve asked economics majors, both undergrads and graduate students, what they were being taught about the Nordic model. The answer was almost always “nothing.”

    “Not even in comparative economics?” I asked.

    “No, why should we learn about what they do in Scandinavia?”

    In the Nordic model it’s the people who decide the direction of the economy. There’s a reason it’s called democratic socialism, or social democracy.

    I offered a hint. “Because it’s the most successful economic model yet invented.”

    Happily, the academic abdication is changing. I’m getting invitations from colleges and universities — even a business school — to describe the Nordic model. Bucknell University gathered all its Econ 101 students in an auditorium for the purpose, where I met wide-awake students full of questions.

    Pundits come to the rescue of the establishment

    Alert to how dangerously attractive the Nordics are becoming to Americans, establishment writers like David Brooks, Fareed Zakaria and Thomas Friedman are coming to the rescue. Some use the rhetorical device reminiscent of George Orwell’s “1984,” in which a banner proclaims: “War is peace.” Or, as Anu Partanen and Trevor Corson put it in the New York Times: “Finland Is a Capitalist Paradise.”

    Rather than using the strategy of an earlier generation, warning us of the dangers of “collectivism,” current establishment writers acknowledge the Nordic success, then re-brand it as capitalism. The problem for these writers, however, is explaining how those pesky Nordics became so much more successful than our country, which is supposed to be capitalism’s shining star.

    From my audiences the answer I hear most often is oil and gas. “The Nordics can provide all these goodies that we would like to have because they are afloat in oil.” (They overlook the oil and gas in our own backyard, sometimes literally.)

    The trouble with the oil explanation is that only Norway has a treasure trove of oil and gas. Denmark has little, and Finland, Iceland and Sweden have none. Yet those other countries join Norway in the top of the heap on multiple international ratings.

    The Nordic peoples exhibit enormous trust in their governments and other institutions. That trust pays off in addressing emergencies like the coronavirus.

    What they do have in common, with some individual differences, is their economic model.

    Actually, oil doesn’t account for even Norway’s main achievements. The North Sea oil didn’t come on line until the 1970s, and Norway pretty much got rid of poverty before that time — as did their Nordic cousins.

    The Norwegian oil story does tip us off, however, to how mistaken it is to call these countries “capitalist.” When the oil was discovered the people had a national debate: who will own it, and how will it be handled?

    Capitalists believe the answer to those questions is obvious: private ownership, the same as with other resources like coal.

    In the Nordic model, on the contrary, it’s the people who decide the direction of the economy. There’s a reason it’s called democratic socialism, or social democracy.

    After debating, Norwegians made several decisions. First, oil and gas would be owned by the people as a whole. Second, the government would set up a nationalized company to extract, refine and sell it. Third, the company would avoid a boom-and-bust cycle, protect the integrity of cities near the oil fields, employ a highly-paid, unionized workforce, and maintain the highest environmental standards. Further, the proceeds would benefit the people as a whole, and aside from a small fraction of profits going to fund national projects, the money would go into a nationally-owned “pension fund” for future generations.

    Does this approach in any way resemble the capitalist history of United States and its global exploitation of resources, workers and communities?

    Maybe it’s the culture

    In his New York Times column “This is How the Scandinavians Got Great,” David Brooks attributes Nordic achievement to the evolution of their education system. As he says, in mid-19th century Denmark the folk high school movement began to make a powerful and lasting impact.

    The masses of Danes after World War I launched a nonviolent struggle for economic justice, and then in 1924 became the first of the Nordic peoples to elect a social democratic prime minister.

    Between harvest and spring planting, farmers could take time to attend the residential schools and learn in an atmosphere that nurtured inner awareness, cooperation, innovation and big picture critical thinking. Members of Danish working class families could come, too. Norwegians adopted the growing movement, and then the other Nordics.

    David Brooks leaves out the role of folk high schools in building leadership for the growing cooperative movement, an alternative to capitalism that enabled both producers and consumers to “eliminate the middleman” and become more prosperous.

    A bigger problem for Brooks is trying to link the new education to the building of “social trust.” True, today the Nordic peoples exhibit enormous trust in their governments and other institutions. That trust pays off in addressing emergencies like the coronavirus. Also true is that the education movement helped ordinary people build trust in each other, hence the coop movement.

    Brooks clearly wants education to be able to play that role, given his alarm about Americans’ present lack of trust in the U.S. establishment. He seems to hope that, if the battered and starved U.S. educational system could somehow flourish once again, maybe we Americans, too, could trust each other and our institutions — and obtain the rewards of the Danish system!

    The trouble is that the big-picture — critical thinking featured in Nordic education doesn’t necessarily yield trust. Instead, it gives tools for citizens to evaluate their social reality. They learn to discern what is — and is not — worthy of trust.

    Danes educated in this way could both experience the positives of their community and see that their society in the 1800s was stuck between sentimental loyalty to a feudal past and dreams of riches in a future of competitive capitalism.

    Most Danes wanted neither their feudal past nor a dog-eat-dog capitalist future. They were far more inspired by the socialist vision brought to them by the Social Democrats, which became Denmark’s largest party. Having gained literacy and confidence, they could read socialist materials and discuss them. Factory workers could form study groups.

    Previous Coverage
  • Why are the Danes so happy? Because their economy makes sense
  • Far from blessing capitalism, the masses of Danes after World War I launched a nonviolent struggle for economic justice, and then in 1924 became the first of the Nordic peoples to elect a social democratic prime minister. Networking with their socialist comrades in other Scandinavian countries, they laid early groundwork for what economists now call “the Nordic model.”

    I found while teaching in a Norwegian high school that, even in modern times, Nordic education supports students to notice that there is such a thing as a class structure. The name of one of Norway’s government-subsidized daily newspapers is Klassekampen, or “Class Struggle.”

    The pay-off of Nordic education continues, but not in the way David Brooks imagines. When in the mid-1980s Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were urging the view that economies thrive through deregulation, the Danish government tried to follow the neoliberal example.

    In response, Danish workers declared a general strike and 100,000 surrounded the parliament building to stop neoliberal legislation from getting through. The government was forced to back off.

    Denmark thereby avoided a deep recession of the kind that later, in 2008, marked the United States, United Kingdom and many other countries. The reason we know Denmark dodged the bullet in the 1980s is that the workers of Norway and Sweden were not so alert. Their governments went for the Reagan/Thatcher line and deregulated their banks.

    The bankers went wild, created a bubble, and in the early 1990s most banks tottered, sending both countries toward the financial cliff.

    The U.S. establishment is afraid to describe accurately the Nordic achievement because its success shows pragmatic Americans that a really different model is practical.

    The crisis returned Sweden and Norway to their senses. Because their basic social democratic model was still intact, their governments could seize the largest banks, fire the senior management, make sure the shareholders didn’t get a krona and restore the previous regime of heavy regulation.

    Norway learned its lesson so well that it chose public ownership of Norges Bank, the country’s biggest. By 2015 Norway’s public institutions (co-ops, municipalities, the state) owned roughly 60 percent of the country’s wealth — again not exactly what we expect of capitalism!

    The lesson for David Brooks from the Nordics is the opposite of his hoped-for trust: a good education prepares workers and other thoughtful people to expect that, even within the Nordic model, class struggle will continue.

    Why we must counter attacks on the Nordic model

    In the next part of this series I’ll respond to more writers in the mainstream media who mis-characterize the Nordic model. There’s a reason to counter their effort to co-opt the most attractive vision we have.

    The reason lies in how we win. Successful movements lift up a vision of change that we can describe in common-sense terms. A vision supports us to move from protest to change, from reacting to going on the offensive.

    A vision enables us to reach the scale we need to win. It inspires people to sacrifice and transform their anger into a positive spirit that moves others to join.

    The U.S. establishment is afraid to describe accurately the Nordic achievement because its success shows pragmatic Americans that a really different model, even though technically a hybrid of capitalism and socialism, is practical.

    Of course U.S. radicals may want to go farther than today’s Nordics’ achievement — Nordic radicals do, too. But our call in the United States to “go farther” will be credible only when we show we can sustain a mass “movement of movements” to force major change.

    If our movements cannot generate the power to get what the Nordics have, why would people join us when we proclaim even loftier goals?

    These are some of the questions alive in this moment of motion and change.

    HOLY SH*T! 7 things to do instead of hoarding toilet paper

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    We’re facing down a global pandemic. If you find yourself saying “Holy shit! What do I do?!” you’re not alone.

    A renegade bug is showing how deeply broken our system is. Beyond the absolutely critical tasks of taking care of yourself, harm-reduction, social distancing, hand-washing, and looking out for those around us who are most struggling, we must also make that brokenness plain.

    We do not get to choose the historic moments we are born into, but we do get to choose how we respond. And as we recover, and put our world back together, we have a chance to put it back together differently and better.

    In that spirit, we’ve done a roundup of the most creative and effective social movement responses to COVID-19, filtered through seven of the most relevant tools from the Beautiful Trouble toolbox, with links to resources compiled especially for this moment:

    1. Take leadership from the most impacted 
    Effective activism requires providing appropriate support to — and taking direction from — those who have the most at stake.

    Jet-setters might spread it, but COVID-19’s impact is felt the hardest by our most vulnerable — immigrants, the precariously employed, the homeless, the elderly, people living with chronic illness and disability, prisoners, healthcare workers, and those on the margins of society. Let’s center ourselves in their needs, and build our social solidarity outwards from there.

    The risk is universal, and our response must be universal as well: Medicare for All, paid sick leave, debt forgiveness, universal basic income — these are the acts of social solidarity that can see us all through.

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    We sink or swim together. Our actions today and in the coming days must be oriented toward lifting up those on the frontlines, not bailing out corporations and the wealthy.

    2. Make 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.

    In many ways, this pandemic has cracked open the veneer of our economic and social system to expose how unjust and unhealthy capitalism is. Our job is to make it clear that this is a system-problem, and to showcase more equitable, compassionate and creative solutions.

    Here are just a few of the harsh realities we’ve grown accustomed to that this crisis exposes. Let’s name, shame and change these realities!

    If “healthcare is a human right” was a slogan before, it is a dire necessity now, as we see the gross lack of preparedness in our health care system for pandemic care. What are we doing to guarantee free health care for all people? 

    Demanding that those who are sick stay home from work exposes our lack of affordable health care. Many workplaces simply do not guarantee sick leave to employees — especially food service and hospitality which are most at risk for transmitting illness. Failing to ensure those workers feel safe to take the time off they need puts all of us at risk. What are we doing to ensure these workers feel safe to take the sick leave that they need? 

    Suggesting people prepare for weeks to months of containment, or be able to cover living expenses without employment, exposes the reality that many live paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford this kind of expense. As restaurants, bars, clubs and other businesses close, what do we have in place to insure long-term economic safety for low-income workers? What are we doing to ensure people aren’t losing sleep wondering how they’ll make rent at the end of the month?

    What seems a simple response of closing schools to limit community spread, exposes the impoverished situation of many students who depend on school programs to eat each day. Who will ensure those kids get the nutrition they need? Who will ensure they are cared for if their parents have no choice but to go to work? (See Beautiful Trouble’s module: Breakfast is persuasive.)

    All of this is exacerbated if you are part of a marginalized community and already oppressed by the current economic system because of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, ableism and more. What are we doing to fight for the people who are the most vulnerable in the current moment?

    The principle of making the invisible visible helps us reframe our work and messaging toward a systems approach. “Social distancing” can be reframed as “spacious solidarity,” which connects us together in an act of taking space, rather than self-isolation. And if we can win some essential early victories (suspension of evictions, TSA regulations governing liquid limits on board flights, etc.), creative re-framing can help expose those oppressive structures as arbitrary and requiring systemic change.

    3. Simple rules can have grand results 
    Movements, viral campaigns and large-scale actions can’t be scripted from the top down. An invitation to participate and the right set of simple rules are often all the starter-structure you need.

    Like the coronavirus itself, which multiplies a simple cough into a global pandemic, we, too, by following simple rules — from washing hands to small acts of kindness to a flash mob in Italy that goes viral — can both defend against the virus and scale-up our activism.

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    Italians are singing rooftop to rooftop. Online actions coordinate phone banking and letter-writing to politicians who fail to act quickly enough. People collaborate on and distribute shared documents to build and support community. (Here are some of our favorites: Coronavirus Resource Kit, Plan Now to Adapt to Coronavirus Safety, Mutual Aid & Advocacy Resources, Resource Toolkit, Circles of Survival, COVID-19 Resources for Students).

    In “Fractals: The Relationship Between Small and Large,” adrienne maree brown reminds us: “How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale. The patterns of the universe repeat at scale … what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system.”

    4. An abundance of tactics
    Whose streets? Empty streets!

    What to do when you can’t go out and organize mass protests? Get creative, as people all around the world are doing. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention and in response to this unprecedented moment, we are seeing a proliferation of creative tactics that build community and pressure the powerful.

    In such moments, Al-Faza’a, or a surge of solidarity, is ever relevant in describing the idea of people stepping up in times of need/emergency and capitalizing on the popular sense of urgency and moral high. A good organizer will make the most of this surge, riding this wave of support to score victories that seemed impossible before.

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    Tactics for building a sense of community (even while social distancing):  

    Cacerolazos: Italians took to their rooftops banging pots and pans and singing, an act that went viral. Cacerolazo has been used around the world, in Puerto Rico, Lebanon, Iceland, Quebec, Turkey and across Latin America.

    Distributed action: Let your neighbors know you support your health workers, your community mutual aid response, and more by hanging out a flag or poster, or wearing something identifiable when you take walks. Host a rooftop gym class or living room dance party, with an online DJ, like this.

    Use the power of ritual: Ritual can be a powerful tool for decreasing anxiety, building community, and unlocking the power of collective contemplation and action. Many faith leaders are responding to this moment by coordinating virtual services. Our familiarity with ritual makes it a great format for self-organizing. 

    Training for the win: What better time to host an online training than now? Education and training have been documented as strategically critical for winning movements. (P.S. If you’re a professor trying to figure out what to teach your students online, check out our study guide or contact us.) 

     Mutual aid networks are blossoming and expanding in many places to support vulnerable neighbors, and strengthen community capacity so we can take care of each other where there is an unmet need. Mutual aid can take many forms: getting medicine to a neighbor, coordinating volunteers to call those suffering from anxiety during the pandemic, and organizing together for structural change. As any of us who are navigating oppression daily, this is how we’ve survived so long. 

    Tactics for continuing to pressure people in power when mass street action is off-limits: 

     Shine a light on it: Guerilla projections and protest holograms require just a few people, and often require no permit! Consider projecting a live feed of comments as well.

     Mass distributed phone-banking: A new take on gathering in person to phonebank. From our own homes, we can all connect digitally and then simultaneously call elected officials with demands, encourage voters to vote, and canvass community members to see if they need support.

    Hashtag campaigns: Using a common visual element or #hashtag, people can share on their own channels while contributing to a bigger collated story, making a “social media bullhorn.” Connect online to offline activities like phone calls, flying flags, singing out your windows. 

     Artistic vigil: Ask people to place signs (downloaded or made-at-home) visibly in their window or doors. Or consider this: an in-person vigil where everyone keeps a six-foot distance from each other with appropriate costumes (hey, masks are in!) and signs. Or, gather photos made of individuals with signs, print them out and display en masse publicly at the specific target. Consider chalking outlines of participants. Have a virtual political art making party. Check out these other ideas.

    Livestream rally and action: Hold the event as a livestream from the actual site of the protest or home/office. People can engage in the chat box, sharing who they are and why they are participating, and the facilitator can read aloud. Or visit each Facebook/LinkedIn/Yelp page of your target and leave the campaign message there!

    Divestment or investment: Get your (institutional) money out (of big pharma, oil and gas, war profiteers…) Or take advantage of low prices to buy stock for shareholder activism in the future! Invest in union-made cleaning products, local family-owned businesses and people in need right now: single parents, food service workers and artists who are out of work.

    Especially in this very serious moment, remember culture jamming and humor are powerful tools to undermine authority. Disrupt mainstream narratives that breed fear and unhelpful responses. Parody songs, like “My Corona,” the Wash Your Hands song generator, and laughter-inducing games, memes and cartoons are good for the soul! Disruption is not the only superpower of culture jamming — it is expert at the jiujitsu of redirecting the power of these symbols towards transformation.

    Activate international mechanisms: Not only is this pandemic affecting us globally, we also know that solutions will not be possible alone. Supporting global agencies (like the World Health Organization) rather than individualistic, nationalist America-First!-style responses are not only smart but necessary. Progressive responses must include capacity to share knowledge across borders, communicate globally about what works and what doesn’t and share implementation scenarios. It’s worth mentioning that some parts of the Global South have been persistently under emergencies for decades. When places like Somalia, Congo and Yemen had their own apocalypses, the international community failed to react to these world crises with efficiency and urgency. As one viral meme said, “Dear world, How is the lockdown? — Gaza.” 

    As many governments have so terribly botched their response to this virus, several groups have put together lists of demands for municipal and state governments.  Don’t be boring, use these and other tactics for effective action on these demands!

    5. Practice cultural disobedience
    Civil disobedience is the deliberate violation of unjust laws. In a similar spirit, cultural disobedience bravely subverts dominant cultural norms.

    Who knew that overthrowing patriarchy could help fight a virus, but consent culture is more important now than ever. It is not appropriate to touch or hug without asking first. We can elbow bump. We can bow. We can connect heart to heart instead of hand to hand. We can use the Wakanda salute. The handshake was created to show disarmament — to demonstrate that one was not carrying a weapon. Disarming connection now looks like not shaking hands as a sign of love.

    It is beyond past time to overturn outdated, unhealthy cultural norms about who holds wisdom, power and answers and who sets the rules. We are the experts of what is best for our own communities, not those from the outside, whatever their bona fides. Maybe your boss isn’t going to make the best decisions for your workplace. We might have to do that for ourselves.

    If slowing down and prioritizing care for loved ones is bad for the economy, then maybe it’s time for some new rules! Let’s prioritize compassion, provide needed services, and reclaim non-mainstream marginalized histories and experiences that show healthier ways of being.

    Shame the authorities by doing their job for them. We can learn from past movements how to do this. On the “Irresistible” podcast episode “Coronavirus: Wisdom from a Social Justice Lens,” JD Davids, founder of The Cranky Queer, shared how in the absence of any medical standard of care during the early years of the HIV pandemic, ACT UP Philadelphia developed and published their own guidelines in English and Spanish. “It was something that people could take with them to their medical providers … and say, ‘Here’s what I know I know, and here’s what I know I need.’” 

    6. Let’s be careful with each other, so we can be dangerous together.

    Flatten the curve. So we can rise up together for the long haul. Rest and joy are  also radical acts. Finding Steady Ground provides (a lucky?) seven reminders for us on self-care.

    “Feeling good is not frivolous,” adrienne maree brown reminds us. “It is freedom.” Joy is a revolutionary force.

    Take risks but take care. Some tactics should never be attempted without a thorough safety plan and skill-level assessment. Develop a list of questions to ask yourself. Here’s some to start with (adapted from Beautiful Trouble’s strategy card deck): 

    What’s the risk of… 

    • Contracting the virus oneself? 
    • Exposing others? (Including those you may come into contact with and those in your immediate home.) 
    • Doing nothing? 
    • Are there economic, environmental, legal, political or cultural considerations?

    How we take care of ourselves and each other now is everything. Again, we fall back to poetry to say it all: Read “Lockdown,” by  Rev. Richard Hendrick, OFM.

    7. Now is the time to build a solidarity economy.
    A tradition of radical economic organizing that strives to replace dependence on exploitative economic relations with “solidarity chains” linking community-based alternatives.

    Day by day as we witness the unraveling of an old system, capitalism, that no longer works, we are also seeing the upscaling of the new one. Why wait when we can build the future now? Many of the actions we’re seeing are prefigurative interventions: mutual aid, free online classes, food sharing, buying local and spending more time in nature. This crisis can be an emergent opportunity to change oppressive policies for good. As J.M. Greer says, “Let’s turn new normals into new beautifuls.”

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    In the aftermath of the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, where young women seamstresses jumped to their death because exit doors were locked, new labor laws required accessible, safe exits at all times. After the Titanic sank, killing more than 1,500 people, the rules changed to require life rafts and lifeboats for all passengers. How can we emerge from COVID-19 times to be more resilient, to provide more care for all, to ensure a safety net that supports humanity and the Earth?  

    While in conversation with adrienne maree brown (“On Rushing Toward Apocalypse”) Aja Taylor noted that this moment of apocalypse, or “uncovering,”  presents many opportunities. “The things we fight for are not just right, but possible … COVID-19 came, and reminded me that the world we are fighting for is nigh. Now is not the time … to abandon hope. The world we are fighting for is just on the other side of apocalypse.”

    If you made it to the end of this piece, you are cordially invited to vet your own creative ideas via our Resistance Hotline Facebook page. Have an organizing question? Contact us at 1-844-NVDA-NOW or training@beautifultrouble.org. And, while you’re at home, why not play a game of revolution with our new strategy card deck? Don’t just wash your hands, have a better hand available!

    Additional support for this piece was provided by Juman Abujbara, Andrew Boyd, Chelsea Lee Byers, Dave Mitchell, Hazel Sher-Kisch, Phil Wilmot / Beautiful Trouble crew.

    Coronavirus is a historic trigger event — and it needs a movement to respond

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    There are times in history when sudden events — natural disasters, economic collapses, pandemics, wars, famines — change everything. They change politics, they change economics and they change public opinion in drastic ways. Many social movements analysts call these “trigger events.” During a trigger event, things that were previously unimaginable quickly become reality, as the social and political map is remade. On the one hand, major triggers are rare; but on the other, we have seen them regularly in recent decades. Events such as 9/11, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crash of 2008 have all had major repercussions on national life, leading to political changes that would have been difficult to predict beforehand.

    COVID-19, the coronavirus pandemic, is by far the biggest trigger event of our generation. It is a combination of natural disaster and economic collapse happening at the same time. Topping it off, this public health crisis is coming right in the middle of one of the most consequential political seasons of our lifetime.

    Previous Coverage
  • We need a people’s response to coronavirus — and the Sanders campaign is uniquely poised to lead
  • Trigger events can create confusion and unease. But they also present tremendous opportunities for people who have a plan and know how to use the moment to push forward their agendas. These agendas can be reactionary, as when conservatives and fascists pass harsh austerity measures and spread xenophobia — the type of activity documented in Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine.” Yet, this type of response need not prevail. With a counter-agenda rooted in a commitment to democracy and a deep sense of collective empathy, communities can flourish, even amid a crisis.

    In fact, we can find many examples in history of how progressive and solidaristic impulses have come to the fore in response to trigger events. The New Deal’s emergence as a response to the Great Depression of the 1930s is one example, as is the more recent Occupy Sandy’s mobilization in New York City to support hurricane-ravaged communities in 2012. Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 book “A Paradise Built in Hell” contains myriad more examples of humane, collective efforts that responded to disaster.

    Today, as we face the prospect that hundreds of thousands of people in the United States — and millions around the world — may die, the only way we can prevent some of the worst tragedy and destruction is with such a response.

    In my writing on social movements, I have argued that triggers create liminal spaces that mass protest movements can use to mobilize the forces of grassroots democracy. In the wake of such an event, organizers often find themselves in a “moment of the whirlwind,” in which the standard rules of how politics works are turned on their head. Many of the great social movements of the past have been born out of these moments. But these moments require skillful navigation, the ability to use “prophetic promotion” to spread a humane vision, and the faith that mass mobilization can open new avenues to change that, at the outset, seem distant and improbable.

    In order to craft a people’s response to the pandemic, we should draw both on the possibilities of new technology that allow for decentralized action and some time-honored lessons from past social movements.

    Social movements are the vehicle for mass participation

    Right now, lots of people are formulating action plans and policy demands, focusing on how the government should respond or measures that elected officials might pass by way of emergency response. These include plans by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s call for an emergency universal basic income, and proposals by groups like the Working Families Party, National Nurses United and collections of grassroots organizers

    What’s missing is a platform and vision for mass participation — a means through which people can join in and collectively take part in a movement to create the type of just response our society needs. A movement can support, amplify, and fill in the gaps left by government and the health care infrastructure.

    The good news is that there are clear historical examples in which social movements have been able to step into the vacuum of a crisis.

    Obviously, social distancing and the isolation required to slow the spread of the pandemic presents unique challenges. For one thing, people are limited in their ability to physically come together and congregate. Meanwhile, many of the traditional tools and tactics of social movements cannot be deployed under current circumstances. This should not, however, blind us to the things that can be done. From mutual support in local areas to collective responses of protest from home, we can build a powerful people’s response that brings us together and uses our combined effort to provide care in our communities and reshape the limits of what is politically possible.

    A social movement response to major trigger events often emerges from unexpected places. Major structure-based organizations have infrastructure and resources that seem like they would make them natural candidates for rallying the wider public into a response. However, they also face institutional limitations that prevent them from scaling their efforts to meet the enormity of the challenge. Groups like labor unions are commonly preoccupied with responding to how the crisis is affecting their own membership, making them essential hubs of action for people within their structures but leaving them with little capacity to engage people outside of their ranks or to absorb the energy of others who might want to get involved.

    Meanwhile, politicians and leading advocacy organizations are often focused on the details of the inside game — carefully monitoring and attempting to use insider leverage to influence the policies that are being debated at the local, state and federal levels. This is an important role, but it does not address the vacuum that exists in terms of mobilizing large numbers of people to change what are perceived as needed and possible solutions to the crisis. Therefore, it is often scrappy, decentralized and sometimes ad hoc groups that play vital roles in shaping a social movement response — which more institutionalized organizations can get behind once underway.

    The people have responded before

    The good news is that there are clear historical examples in which social movements have been able to step into the vacuum of a crisis, and we have seen several of these in the past decade and a half. After Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012, the mutual support operation Occupy Sandy — which drew on networks and infrastructure built during Occupy Wall Street — coordinated thousands of people into a fast and efficient response, providing food and medical attention to those in need. It also opened a collection and distribution center for needed supplies, kept track of individuals who might otherwise have been isolated and abandoned, and moved debris from homes and streets. Likewise, Common Ground — one of the most significant relief organizations to quickly form and respond in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans — served some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, set up temporary medical clinics and repaired damaged homes. Meanwhile, in recent years, the DREAM movement, which works in communities of undocumented immigrants, has provided services such as scholarships, job opportunities and legal support for immigrants denied services from state and federal governments.

    Millions of people stuck in their homes can still pursue action on two tracks: one focused on mutual aid and the other building political pressure around a platform of people’s demands.

    Looking back at another public health emergency, we can remember that, during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the LGBTQ community came together to respond to the sickness and death of thousands of individuals — even as society ostracized people who were HIV-positive, and the medical establishment often turned a blind eye to their suffering. Groups like Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City organized the community to raise money for research, distribute information about prevention and care, and provide counseling and social workers for thousands who needed it. At a time when the doctors and hospitals were either overwhelmed, indifferent, or antagonistic, they stepped up to fill the gap and meet basic human needs.

    Meanwhile, the decentralized affinity groups of the more militant ACT UP worked tirelessly to raise public awareness about the crisis, rallying under the motto “Silence Equals Death.” They quickly became on-the-ground experts in the community impact of the disease — publicly confronting leaders who spread misinformation or were hesitant to adequately fund public health efforts, calling out drug companies more fixated on profits than humane treatment and brashly insisting that health professionals be in dialogue with patients themselves. Ultimately, ACT UP fundamentally changed the country’s response to AIDS.

    “They helped revolutionize the American practice of medicine,” The New Yorker’s Michael Specter wrote in 2002. “The average approval time for some critical drugs fell from a decade to a year, and the character of placebo-controlled trials was altered for good … Soon changes in the way AIDS drugs were approved were adopted for other diseases, ranging from breast cancer to Alzheimer’s.” In 1990, the New York Times paid reluctant tribute to the group with a headline reading, “Rude, Rash, Effective, Act Up Shifts AIDS Policy.”

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    In response to the current coronavirus epidemic, the only thing that most people have been given to do is to participate in social distancing and join preemptive measures to slow the spread of disease. But if people really believed they could participate meaningfully in a mass campaign to care for others and pressure public officials to adopt humane emergency policies, we can be confident that hundreds of thousands would quickly join in.

    How to make it happen

    If we know that we need a mass social movement response, how do we make it happen — especially in times of social distancing?

    Millions of people are stuck in their homes, unable to go to work. But they can still pursue action on two tracks: one focused on mutual aid and the other building political pressure around a platform of people’s demands.

    Previous Coverage
  • The best response to disaster: Go on the offensive
  • At the level of local communities, an army of volunteers should be enlisted in mutual aid efforts to care for one another and meet basic human needs. The possibilities for this type of action are manifold, but some immediate priorities include assisting the elderly with obtaining food and prescription medications, creating hubs (online or otherwise) to facilitate the sharing of information in local areas about households in need of help, and creating community solutions to the childcare needs that emerge as schools and daycare centers close. As the pandemic spreads — and particularly if hospitals and formal systems are overwhelmed — the need for and potential of this type of activity will grow tremendously. Grassroots initiatives to collect information about the spread of the disease, help those who need to be quarantined, distribute information and supplies to promote public hygiene, and assist with the dissemination and proper use of testing supplies will become urgent.

    Already, this type of activity is bubbling up. Communities around the country are creating Facebook Groups and Google Docs — many of them listed here — to coordinate mutual aid. At the same time, countless religious congregations, unions, community organizations and neighborhood associations are beginning to mobilize responses for people in their areas. These activities have tremendous promise, but for them to take on the character of a movement they need what former United Farmworkers organizer and current movement trainer Marshall Ganz would call a unified “story, strategy and structure.”

    Organizers should be looking to create means for local groups to share information and best practices. And they should encourage common vision and messaging. In each of the historical examples mentioned here, it was crucial that participants had a sense that they were part of something larger than the sum of individual efforts. Intentional moves toward unity and coordination help build that collective understanding.

    If Sanders decided to transform his campaign into a mass movement against the pandemic and its impacts, a drive with massive infrastructure would emerge overnight.

    Beyond mutual aid, a common story, strategy and structure can allow a mass movement to legitimate political demands that might otherwise be deemed impractical or undesirable, and to compel public officials to adopt them. The function of mass movements is not to hash out the instrumental details of proposals currently being debated in the U.S. Congress or at more local levels of government. Rather, it is to build momentum for popular, symbolically-resonant demands that would form the backbone of a progressive national response — ideas like emergency universal basic income, free testing and treatment for all, and suspension of rent and mortgage payments for those unable to pay during the crisis. 

    A movement can advance such demands with campaigns of distributed actions. While the realities of “social distancing” limit some of the tactics that grassroots groups might typically employ, organizer David Solnit, for one, has proposed a range of protest methods that can be viable during the coronavirus pandemic, including many that can be joined at home. Among those he lists are livestream rallies, the proliferation of window and door signs, call-ins, online teach-ins, social media barrages, and cacerolazo — the mass banging or pots and pans, commonly used by movements abroad.

    Given the activity currently percolating, we cannot know what efforts will gain traction or what overarching frameworks for unity might take hold. But we can assess the possibilities that have presented themselves. One of the most potent is the prospect that the Bernie Sanders campaign could pivot to become a movement focused on pandemic response. The Sanders campaign has built one of the largest and most sophisticated grassroots organizing campaigns in American history. They have tens of thousands of volunteers who know how to run phone banks and talk to their neighbors. They also have more than a million donors who are willing to contribute funds to help support a people’s movement advancing justice and democracy. If Sanders decided to transform his campaign from a political, presidential electoral campaign into a mass movement against the pandemic and its impacts, a drive with massive infrastructure would emerge overnight.

    Whether the Sanders campaign seizes this opportunity, or an alternate framework for collective action arises, a mass movement response to the coronavirus pandemic cannot come too soon. For our own sake, and that of our society as a whole, let us help the drive toward solidarity emerge.

    We need a people’s response to coronavirus — and the Sanders campaign is uniquely poised to lead

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    The eve of Super Tuesday was just 12 days ago, a moment when many of us in the progressive left were feeling the possibility of a strong path for Bernie Sanders’ Democratic nomination. Today, leading up to tonight’s debate, many polls show that we are in a weak position to get a plurality of delegates that can lead us to a Sanders victory at the convention.

    However, as of the past week, election conversations have given way to a major national dialogue around the coronavirus. America is experiencing a stark encounter with its health care and economic systems — where its shortcomings are brought to the surface and exacerbated by the inadequate response of the government, as well as the massive amount of needs during a pandemic.

    Elections aren’t just fought in the voting booth and Bernie Sanders’ campaign is uniquely positioned to rise to this nationally unprecedented crisis and address the coronavirus pandemic in ways that can manifest concretely the vision of his campaign beyond the electoral arena. 

    Together, we can mobilize a people’s movement that can, during this void of leadership, transform its national campaign infrastructure of volunteers towards the development of mutual aid networks and advocate for concrete policy wins during this emergency.

    As community organizers, crises like these have propelled us and others to study what we refer to as “moments of the whirlwind,” or moments where the conditions and events are volatile enough that the rules of engagement change. We’ve witnessed similar moments to these in the past, like in 2006 when the “sleeping giant” woke up and millions of immigrants were in the streets responding to proposed anti-immigrant legislation. We also saw this during the financial crisis of 2008 and during Trump’s Muslim ban when there were hundreds of unprecedented airport mobilizations.

    The current conditions might allow us to do considerably more things that we weren’t able to do just 11 days ago, when the results of Super Tuesday were announced. 

    Repurposing our objectives 

    As observers, we know that there have been three major objectives that the Sanders campaign has been seeking to achieve. One is to polarize and bolster support for policies that can benefit the widest range of people and centers the issues of marginalized communities in this country. Another is to elect and endorse candidates like Sanders that support progressive issues across various congressional races in the country like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and more. And last, but not least, to build a political revolution beyond Bernie’s election, that’s about a movement of people who hold a similar vision for this country and can build a mandate for strong progressive policies.

    The difficulty of the moment we’re in is reflected in the fact that these objectives are being tested all at the same time. As we see the diminishing chances of a Sanders election, we begin to see a schism between Democrats largely supporting Bernie Sanders’ agenda while not seeing him as electable as Biden. Meanwhile, due to the coronavirus, the movement is undergoing a tremendous test as people and volunteers who share this progressive vision are unable to go out on the streets to gain more support for Sanders. Even more so, continuing to campaign is contradictory to the reality people are facing.

    The volatility and uncertainty that arises from our circumstances obfuscates us from seeing all the possibilities that we actually have to meet our objectives in a variety of ways. It’s important to understand that moments of the whirlwind have the potential to be transformative, where the population is finding themselves at odds with their situation. We need to understand what this moment requires and the new possibilities it opens for all of us. In particular, we see three new possibilities that this crisis presents for the Bernie campaign. 

    1. Becoming electable in the vacuum of presidentialism 

    Our collective uncertainty and our government’s inadequate and piecemeal responses have led many to take actions that directly and indirectly harm others. In the past week we’ve seen countless stories of people panic shopping and hoarding supplies leaving many who are unable to easily shop to be greeted with empty shelves; low-income families asking for schools to stay open so that their kids can receive a meal; college students being told to move out of their dorms without having a place to go or stay; workers in hospitality sectors being laid off or told to go home without pay. This does not even reflect the effects of the February public charge rule, which punishes immigrants by making them ineligible for legalization if they seek public services.

    We need Sanders to rise up to the occasion and show — in a vacuum of presidentialism — what is possible.

    As organizer and scholar Marshall Ganz has explained, “Leadership is accepting responsibility to create conditions that enable others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty.” We need a leader who can provide certainty. This does not mean delivering all the answers but rather an understanding of what is taking place and the emotional fortitude to lead us through it. We need a leader whose scope is beyond electoral politics and is transformational enough to, as Ganz said, “engage followers in the risky and often exhilarating work of changing the world.” 

    During these troubling times we need to demonstrate leadership, to guide us as a nation through this uncertainty. Who we decide to be in this moment of transition will lead us to who we’ll become in the future. As Malcolm X said, “The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.” So this isn’t just about issues on paper; we need Bernie and our campaign to show that there’s a greater moral to the story — to be there for us, to guide us through the difficulty of this time and to remind us that there will be lessons learned. 

    If the biggest hindrance to Sanders’ executive trajectory is voters questioning his electability, then we need Sanders to rise up to the occasion and show — in a vacuum of presidentialism — what is possible. Moments where normalcy is questioned are the instances where we seek a resilient, certain and guiding force. Who is better poised than someone who has a track record and vision of a better government approach to our health and economy?

    2. Not me. Us: Towards a national culture of solidarity

    We are all paying attention to the same issues, going through very similar problems, all at the same time. In our age of social media and perpetual distractions, this is a very special moment. Right now, there are public debates about hoarding versus sharing resources, about the role of our government in providing to its people (within our health care system or the role of schools in providing food to children, etc), and about the role of corporations in how they treat our social welfare (providing paid leave, etc). These are essential debates between “me” and “us,” a key distinction in Bernie’s campaign narrative about the country we want to see. A country that is not just about an individual or a set of wealthy individuals, but about the country as a whole, and especially the most marginalized — like those who will be most impacted by the virus.

    From washing our hands to staying at home, people all over the country are experiencing day-to-day the strengths and weaknesses of our collective culture, in every single act of reciprocity and selfishness. In this moment where the elderly and the immunocompromised are most at risk, it’s important for us to understand that our choices are more than just for ourselves. We’re living in a defining moment for our culture. 

    We must embody democratic socialism by creating massive numbers of local mutual aid support networks and taking care of each other.

    This is our time to organize and bring people towards an experience of what Bernie means when he says “democratic socialism.” Whether our return to some form of normalcy takes place in six months, like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on “The Daily Show,” or whether it’s a year, this is our time to dramatically increase support for the progressive issues we are fighting for. 

    There are so many ways to fight. The 198 methods of nonviolent action that scholar Gene Sharp documented reminds us that even from home we can organize and protest for “us.” We can use social media to polarize more people to join our cause. We can put signs, posters and banners on our windows and homes for paid sick leave, Medicare for All and an eviction moratorium. We can make noise with our pots and pans at our doorfronts at noon every day to remind everyone of the aliveness of our in-home mass protest. We can even chant “Not me. Us.” every night at 8 p.m. to remind our neighbors that we are here for each other. We must liberate ourselves from the thinking that the primaries and elections are the only way to build a movement for “us” so that we can use all the organizing and protest tools at our disposal.

    We must embody democratic socialism by creating massive numbers of local mutual aid support networks, taking care of each other, and being the line of defense of our welfare system and our culture of solidarity. What better way for Sanders to demonstrate the slogan “Not me. Us.” than by encouraging his thousands of supporters and campaign volunteers to do just that?

    3. The revolution takes on the pandemic 

    The greatest test we are facing in our country (and globally) is the strength and support of our social welfare system. A key issue with the virus is the core message of why people should physically distance in order to avoid infection; it is because of the inability of our health care system to respond to a mass contracting of the disease instead of manageable rates over a longer period of time. At the core of this idea is that we as a society must protect and strengthen our health care system.

    We are seeing the private sector and the government trying to respond to this crisis, but that won’t be enough without a civic society that can take leadership to protect its social welfare institutions. We have to be a second line of defense.

    There are many needs that we need to meet. For example, an elderly couple in Oregon waited in their car for 45 minutes outside of a supermarket because they were too afraid to get out. They asked for help from a young woman nearby who gladly got them their groceries. Now, imagine if our community consciousness was acute enough to notice an elderly couple in their car, to reach out to them, and to ask how to support them in this moment? This is why we need mutual aid networks. 

    Our political revolution has an incredible opportunity because of our infrastructure, culture and leadership to seize this moment.

    We need an army of volunteers across the country, in every block and every neighborhood that can create mutual aid networks; that can track each other’s health; support one another with food, resources, information; and to be with each other while physically distanced to show solidarity and emotional strength. We have some examples recently in Siena, Italy and Wuhan, China of neighbors doing just that.

    However, as more localized mutual aid networks keep bubbling up, we’ll also need more robust national infrastructure. The infrastructure of our campaign — livestream capabilities, volunteer networks, staff structure, texting technologies, etc. — can provide the resources millions need.

    Examples include creating a national emergency database — we already have millions on our list — that can help us address the need of testing and seeing who in our localities has symptoms and needs. Bernie volunteers and staff have built up and demonstrated their capacity to lead for years and have an infrastructure that shouldn’t be in limbo or feel disheartened because of the state of the primaries. 

    We have hundreds of thousands of volunteers who can embody the culture of solidarity through creating and supporting their local mutual aid networks. The impact of our involvement en masse, coupled with politicians advocating for changes, will set us up to withstand the storm that is coming. 

    Our political revolution has an incredible opportunity because of our infrastructure, culture and leadership to seize this moment. This will also be a test for all of us, to see whether our organization can be nimble enough to generate effectiveness and resiliency beyond the election cycle.

    While we are all trying to make sense of the moment of the whirlwind we are in, there are many variables and important decisions ahead of us. The work of believing in a new country and working for it is difficult, and it comes with a huge share of disappointment. 

    In times where everything seems to feel closed and unmoving, we must be reminded that there is a real opportunity to push for transformational change right now, that there is still organizing to do, and that we have the resources, the creativity and the will to bring forward this political revolution.

    Women protesting India’s anti-Muslim citizenship law are undeterred by violence

    Starting in the early morning of Feb. 24, sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims broke out in several neighborhoods in northeast New Delhi — all while Donald Trump was on a visit to India. Videos emerged on social media of Hindus chanting “Jai Shri Ram,” or “Hail Lord Ram,” pelting Muslims with stones, attacking them with bricks and bats, destroying mosques, and setting homes and shops on fire. Over 100 have been reported dead so far and several hundreds were injured.

    The violence was sparked when protesters staging a sit-in protest against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act were confronted by government supporters, who had gathered there after a call to action by Kapil Mishra, a local leader from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Allegations over the complicity of the state and anger over police inaction remains, but protests have not stopped around the country.

    Situated in the southwest part of New Delhi, a peaceful, indefinite sit-in driven by the women of the Muslim neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh first caught the country’s attention in December. It has since become a new front of resistance against India’s increasingly authoritative government. Chants for freedom, passionate speeches calling on leaders to uphold the Indian Constitution and sloganeering on the rights of the marginalized — as well as poetry and music — can be heard throughout the day at this protest site, which is strategically located on a busy highway between Delhi and the nearby city of Noida.

    Women can be seen carrying posters calling for safeguarding the Indian constitution at Shaheen Bagh. (WNV/Mehk Chakraborty)

    The protest comes in the face of the recently introduced Citizenship Amendment Act, or CAA, a law dealing with citizenship provisions for refugees in India from neighboring countries, including Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The law would grant citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Jain, Christian and Buddhist minorities, who migrated to India by the end of 2014. It has been criticized for its deliberate exclusion of persecuted Muslim refugees. At the same time, many people perceive it as violating India’s constitutionally safeguarded Fundamental Right to Equality, which guarantees equality to all persons before the law, irrespective of factors such as religion.

    What’s more, the CAA is linked to two other processes — the creation of the National Population Register, or NPR, and consequently the National Registry of Citizens, or NRC. The NPR is meant to compile data regarding the population inhabiting the country, and the NRC is supposed to be a list of bonafide citizens of the country, building on data from the NPR as well as the collecting of documents. Those not included in the NRC have a chance to fight their case before a Foreigner’s Tribunal, which is where the CAA would provide immunity to the specified communities.

    The NRC has already proven dangerous for minorities and marginalized communities in the state of Assam, where over 1.9 million people were excluded when it was first implemented. It is quite commonplace in India for people of a lower economic background to not have the necessary documents to prove their citizenship. There have also been other glaring examples of people not included in the NRC — from government officials and military veterans to even family members of a former president of India — showcasing how arbitrary the registry has been in practice.

    This protest began in mid-December after the then-proposed CAA began to be discussed widely across the country. Police brutality against students at a protest at the Jamia Millia Islamia, a prominent university in New Delhi, served as the ultimate trigger. Anti-CAA protests were ongoing for several days at the university and on Dec. 15, during a massive peaceful protest, the Delhi police blocked entry and exit gates to the campus, fired teargas shells, beat up students with lathis (batons) and went through the library, bathrooms and the mosque on campus to clear out students. Several students were injured and over 50 were detained for participating in these protests.

    “Several legal changes and judgements in India, which have been clearly xenophobic, were passed and we made peace with it,” said a woman in her 50s, who referred to herself as a grandmother of Shaheen Bagh. “But, with this kaala kanoon [or black law], and some of our own children being beaten up for merely raising their voices, we have been forced to speak up.”

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    The women who are present at the protest every single day have served as an inspiration for similar protests throughout the country. Sit-ins led by Muslim women can be seen in several major cities, including Mumbai, as well as smaller cities like Kanpur. Since December, when the law was initially proposed, protests have intensified with hundreds of strikes, sit-ins, gatherings and marches taking place across the country. The CAA, however, has been opposed by only a handful of political figures.

    The state response to the ongoing protests has also exacerbated people’s concerns surrounding the law and its implications, with violence by law enforcement and inflammatory speeches by politicians affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party becoming the standard response. Measures employed to suppress the protests have ranged from shutting off the internet, mass arrests and police brutality to charging protesters with rioting and sedition. Even with protests continuing for over two months, the government has shown no inclination to revisit or reshape the law, let alone have meaningful dialogue over legitimate concerns.

    Muslim women as the new voice

    Women are increasingly becoming visible in the movements across India’s deeply patriarchal landscape, but in the case of Shaheen Bagh, the fact that Muslim women have taken the lead has been both revolutionary and inspirational. Saba, a homemaker from Shaheen Bagh, has been attending the protests since the beginning and says that there were initially 10-15 women who would gather together and stay the night. All they had was a makeshift plastic roof with mattresses and blankets spread out at night to sleep on. But the numbers began to swell as women were encouraged by their neighbors to join. “And now here we are creating a buzz, staying out through the night!” she gleefully said. “I wouldn’t have imagined doing this in any context!”

    The women of Shaheen Bagh have not only been inspiring each other though. Prerona Sanyal, a 29-year-old volunteer at Shaheen Bagh, says the image of Muslim women organizing is enough to rattle a lot of people, and admits to being personally very affected by this fact. “As someone from an urban, privileged background, seeing these women fearlessly speak up has shaken me and given me the courage to participate in the protest.” On average, there are now hundreds of women at the main sit-in site during the day, surrounded by supporters around the area, with numbers swelling to thousands on some occasions.

    Cutting across class and caste

    As the protests go on, the women of Shaheen Bagh have been subject to endless accusations by the ruling right-wing government. Sometimes they are accused of being paid to protest. In others they are labeled as “anti-national” and “Pakistani sympathizers.” The women of Shaheen Bagh, however, have pushed back against these attacks. “We urge everyone to not be influenced by conflicting narratives of any single individual being the ‘mastermind’ of Shaheen Bagh or any claims made of representing this non-partisan citizen’s movement,” the women said in an official statement. “[We] establish yet again that there is no organizing committee at Shaheen Bagh, no leader, not any one particular organizer.”

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    Sanyal, who has been spending most of her evenings at the main protest site since mid-December, confirmed the accuracy of this statement. “The permanent volunteer base has about 20 people who have been present regularly since the beginning, with two to three elders coordinating speakers and events. But it would be grossly incorrect to call them a core committee,” she explained.

    The pluralistic nature of the protest is evident through its participants, who cut across class barriers and, in several instances even caste. Farmers from neighboring states, activists from urban spaces, prominent musicians and even filmmakers have come in to extend their support. This has led to their message being carried far and wide.

    “I don’t think this movement would have sustained itself unless the women of the area had remained as resolute as they are in this stance,” Saba said. “The momentum has definitely been built up because of the variety of supporters and allies.”

    The road ahead

    Even though the CAA triggered this wave of protests, it’s clear that the general discontent and anger towards India’s increasingly authoritative government has kept the fire going, with many inspired by calls to defend the country’s tradition of multiculturalism.

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    To evoke a sense of patriotic duty among Indians, people don tricolor caps, children paint the national flag on their faces, artwork is created rejecting divisive and hateful statements by political leaders, and it is common to hear direct references made to the Indian constitution and historical leaders like B.R. Ambedkar. The protesters have identified safeguarding secularism and democracy as central to the political identity of the country — or the ideal of it, at the very least.

    “Our path is completely opposite to the regime’s close affiliation to the Hindutva ideology, which is trying to define an Indian identity based on hatred and exclusion,” the grandmother of Shaheen Bagh said.

    While a legal proceeding to shift protesters from the site is ongoing, the women of Shaheen Bagh are committed to staying put. Despite the biased media coverage and even physical threats from a right-wing shooter, protesters at the site — and those who are in solidarity with them around the country — are clear that their struggle will continue until the government rolls back the law.

    The strong resistance from the government and its supporters is only drawing more people into the movement. The women are aware that their fight is not merely for them, but for future generations, which only furthers their resolve.

    “For us, the CAA has brought forth an existential threat — so we will oppose it even if it means police repression, arrest, or in the worst instance, death,” said one homemaker in her 40s, who has been attending the sit-in protest since the beginning. “We are not moving. This is our home, and we have nowhere else to go. We will not be kicked out of where we rightfully belong.”

    How a new generation of climate activists is reviving fossil fuel divestment and gaining victories

    A wave of student-led actions swept across the campuses of around 60 U.S. and Canadian schools last month, as students turned to sit-ins, walkouts and banner drops to pressure universities into divesting their endowments from fossil fuel companies. Called “Divestment Day” by activists, the Feb. 13 series of actions was just the latest escalation for a movement that’s been undergoing a serious revival.

    In fact, even just one year ago, something like the events of Divestment Day would have been unimaginable, as the movement was just coming out of a protracted lull. Since then, however, existing and newly formed divestment-focused groups have begun working together, old campaigns have adopted new tactics and the next generation of youth climate organizers has risen to the forefront.

    As a result, this revitalized divestment movement is now bigger, bolder and more creative than ever before. While that’s certainly a testament to scale of the climate crisis we face — and the fact that young people are running out of patience with institutions that consistently refuse to take action — there is also a deeper story about the stabilizing role movement organizations play during periods of inaction.

    Origins of the divestment movement

    The nationwide fossil fuel divestment movement first took off at Swarthmore College, when students there were inspired to launch a fossil fuel divestment campaign after a 2010 visit to Appalachian communities affected by mountaintop removal mining. Previously, a scattering of student campaigns had experimented with pressuring schools to end investments in fossil fuel industries. However, while these early efforts gave climate activists valuable experience navigating the world of school investments, they were largely isolated.

    Previous Coverage
  • Fossil fuel divestment continues to GROW — a conversation with student organizer Kate Aronoff
  • The Swarthmore campaign was different. It started when national climate groups like 350.org were looking seriously at divestment as a strategy. By 2012 several other East Coast and Midwest schools — including University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and University of Illinois — had started their own divestment campaigns. Then, later that year, 350.org held its Do The Math Tour, a nationwide series of events designed to kick the divestment movement into high gear. Within a few weeks, campaigns spread to more than 100 campuses.

    Over the next few years, hundreds of churches, local governments, and philanthropic institutions started divesting from fossil fuels. However, by about 2016, the college and university arm of the movement was losing steam. It was a victim of its own success, as much of the lower-hanging fruit had already been won, with many progressive-leaning, smaller colleges already committed to divest. At other schools, administrations and boards of trustees with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry had proven themselves to be intractable.

    “By 2017, a lot of campaigns had already gone through two or three rejections, and some older students were growing cynical,” said Alyssa Lee of Divest Ed, which works with divestment campaigns across the country and coordinated this month’s Divestment Day.

    Lee got her start as a divestment activist at University of California Los Angeles in the movement’s early years. As a freshman, she heard visiting speakers from Tuvalu and Vanuatu describe the impact of rising sea levels on their island homelands. These stories from the frontlines inspired Lee to get involved in climate activism. At another event, hosted by the California Student Sustainability Coalition, she learned about divestment. In 2012, as the movement took off nationally, Lee helped launch a divestment campaign at UCLA.

    After college Lee took a job with the Better Futures Project supporting student divestment campaigns in New England. At the time she was one of many staff spread across several organizations — including 350.org, Responsible Endowments Coalition, and Divestment Student Network — working to provide student divestment campaigns with resources. Gradually, though, most of these other groups either moved on to other priorities or dissolved.

    In 2017, Lee realized she was the only staffer left in the country doing fossil fuel divestment work full-time. It seemed like a good moment to ask whether the movement had run its course, or just needed a new injection of energy to bring it fully back to life.

    The following year Better Futures began a series of consultations with students and alumni from colleges where divestment campaigns were or had been organizing. “We found there were still lots of campaigns active across the country,” Lee said. “But they were generally not being noticed beyond their schools and had lost the feeling of being part of a national movement.”

    Convinced there was lots of life left in the student divestment movement after all, Better Futures launched the Divest Ed project. Bolstered by additional staff and resources, Divest Ed expanded Better Futures’ divestment work to the national level, attempting to fill the void left by other organizations.

    As it turned out, the timing could hardly have been better. That coming school year was an especially propitious time to be investing in student climate organizing.

    A new wave of student activism

    While Divest Ed was starting up in 2018, a group of high school students coordinating over social media were launching a new youth-led climate group called Zero Hour, which debuted with a national day of marches that July. Then, as the school year began in the fall, Zero Hour along with the burgeoning international climate strike movement began inspiring hundreds of young people to become climate activists. Meanwhile, some who had already become active earlier in the year were now starting college.

    Previous Coverage
  • How Generation Z is leading the climate movement
  • “We noticed immediately, in fall of 2018, an influx of student energy around climate activism,” Lee said.

    One of those students was Ilana Cohen, a New Yorker entering Harvard. Cohen traces her awareness of climate injustice to 2012, when she was 11 years old and Hurricane Sandy battered New York City. She was confused as to why she and other students in more affluent areas returned to school within days, while schools in lower-income neighborhoods remained closed for weeks after the storm. For the first time, she saw firsthand the effects of a social order where already-marginalized people are hit hardest by extreme weather and given fewer resources to cope with it.

    In her senior year of high school Cohen got involved in Zero Hour, after reading about the organization online. She and a friend founded a New York chapter that coordinated a march for the first Zero Hour day of action.

    On arriving at Harvard, Cohen was quickly drawn to divestment as a way to continue her activism. But the Harvard campaign, which began in 2012, had by then dwindled to only a few active members. A new cohort of activists began working to change that — including Cohen, who participated in an organizing fellowship through Divest Ed. Given that the Harvard campaign had been ongoing for years, they determined it was time to escalate.

    Activists with Divest Harvard, Fossil Free Yale and the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition ran onto the field at last year’s Harvard-Yale football game. (Facebook/Divest Harvard)

    An opportunity to do so came in November 2019 at a Harvard-Yale football game. During halftime, around 150 activists from Divest Harvard, Fossil Free Yale, and Yale Endowment Justice Coalition began running to the middle of the field. As 30,000 people watched from the stands, the students unfurled banners with messages including the phrase, “Yale and Harvard are complicit in climate injustice.” Unplanned, hundreds more people from the packed stands spontaneously ran to join them until the crowd swelled to around 500.

    Cohen believes the wider divestment movement will need to escalate to overcome the grip of fossil fuel interests on schools like Harvard. “Harvard-Yale is only the start of what we’ll be seeing here and at campuses around the country,” she said.

    As campaigns prepare for new waves of escalation, some are turning for support not only to Divest Ed, but to a new organization committed to encouraging more direct action in the climate movement: Extinction Rebellion University.

    Rebelling for climate justice

    Ayisha Siddiq was about the same age as Ilana Cohen when Hurricane Sandy brought its path of destruction to New York. But for Siddiq’s family, living in a community of mostly black and brown immigrants on Coney Island, the effects were much longer lasting. Even today, piles of rubble and abandoned buildings attest to the power of the storm.

    Siddiq, who emigrated from Pakistan with her family when she was six, didn’t grow up hearing about the climate crisis in school. Only when she was a freshman at New York’s Hunter College, taking an ecology class, did the topic begin coming up regularly. But somehow, news that something was deeply wrong with the Earth didn’t come as a shock. “I think I was aware of it subconsciously,” Siddiq said. Perhaps this came partly from living through events like Hurricane Sandy.

    Determined to do something about the climate crisis, in May 2019 Siddiq worked to launch Extinction Rebellion University, a student branch of the direct action movement that first made headlines by using massive crowds to shut down streets in the United Kingdom. Studying the history of social movements had impressed on her the value of nonviolent civil disobedience — but she wasn’t convinced Extinction Rebellion’s tactics in major cities were always strategic. On the other hand, college campuses seemed an ideal place to deploy nonviolent disruption for maximum effect.

    “When you block traffic in a city, the only people you’re inconveniencing are those getting to and from home or work,” Siddiq explained. “But at a university you can more easily be affecting actual decision makers. You can take over a college president’s office or board of trustees meeting.”

    Columbia University students hold up Extinction Rebellion banners in October. (Twitter/@xruniversityUS)

    Extinction Rebellion University has held direct action trainings at more than 50 mainly Northeastern schools, some of which have already led to disruptive protests. Last fall at Columbia University, where the movement is especially strong, students organized an occupation of the library building and a week-long hunger strike with divestment as one of their demands. “We are changing the culture of civil disobedience at schools,” Siddiq said.

    The fact that such escalation has been necessary is an indicator of the resistance school administrations have presented to divestment campaigns. But while convincing major institutions to divest is almost never easy, the movement has also had recent victories.

    Winning campaigns

    On Feb. 6, Georgetown University’s administration announced that the Jesuit school would fully divest from all fossil fuels. For the university’s student divestment activists, it was a vindication of their years-long work.

    Georgetown’s divestment campaign — Georgetown University Fossil Free, or GUFF — launched in January 2013. Early on, the campaign made use of high-visibility tactics like sit-ins, banner drops, and walking into the university board of directors’ meetings unannounced. Students got the board’s attention, prompting it to refer the fossil fuel divestment question to its Committee on Investments and Social Responsibility.

    GUFF members worried the Social Responsibility Committee, which formed in response to the anti-apartheid movement decades ago, might be used to shield divestment conversations away from public view, delaying any action. But in the face of pressure from students, the committee sent a proposal to the full board that passed in 2016, committing to divest from coal. In 2018 the board voted to also divest from tar sands companies. But GUFF’s ultimate goal — full divestment from all fossil fuels — remained elusive.

    GUFF members posing on the day of the day of the Youth Climate Strike in September. (Twitter/@GUFossilFree/)

    By late 2019, it seemed GUFF’s fears about the committee had been realized. Students pushed a proposal for full divestment, but committee members had largely stopped communicating. “There was radio silence for half a year,” said Sadie Morris, a GUFF member who grew up in California and transferred to GU from UC-Davis. “We got the occasional very short email saying they were looking at our proposal, but they didn’t actually seem to be meeting or moving forward.”

    GUFF members realized they needed to make the board feel more accountable to students through higher-visibility tactics. “We decided to go back to our roots and engage the student body in creating public pressure,” she said.

    Eventually, Morris and other GUFF members launched a campus-wide student divestment referendum — to build support they tabled, visited classes and organized through the school’s club network. In response the Social Responsibility Committee reached out, apparently alarmed about the publicity. On the same day the student referendum vote was scheduled to take place, GU’s board of directors announced they would divest from all fossil fuels.

    Supporting frontline communities

    One of the campus divestment movement’s messages is that students and educational institutions must work in solidarity with people on the frontlines of climate change and fossil fuel extraction. This theme was visible on Divestment Day, when many student protests voiced support for the Wet’suwet’en people’s fight against a TransCanada fracked gas pipeline in British Columbia. Wet’suwet’en protesters at a camp in the path of the pipeline have been met with police violence and repression, in an ongoing conflict reminiscent of the fight over indigenous rights at Standing Rock.

    “Divestment campaigns are highlighting how their schools are tied to companies that violate indigenous rights,” Lee said. “The key to climate justice is to restore sovereignty to tribes over their land and water.”

    Some divestment activists, like Siddiq, have directly experienced climate change impacts in highly visceral ways. Others feel a responsibility to act from a place of privilege. “We need to mobilize our privilege as Harvard students to work on behalf of a world that is more just, ethical and sustainable,” Cohen said.

    The Georgetown University victory is only one of the most recent signs that the new wave of divestment activism is proving effective. Last fall the massive University of California system committed to full divestment. Even at Harvard, where monied fossil fuel interests hold immense influence, there are signs of real momentum. Harvard faculty recently voted 179-20 to urge the school to divest, and Divest Harvard is calling for a commitment by Earth Day 2020.

    Other actions are also in the works as Divest Ed and Extinction Rebellion University both plan to support escalations in the spring and fall. Meanwhile, Georgetown students are working through the Catholic Divestment Network to leverage their win by offering it as a model for other Jesuit schools.

    Far from dying out, the campus fossil fuel divestment movement now has more momentum than ever, buoyed by the new wave of youth activism that inspired students like Cohen, Siddiq and Morris to get involved.

    “Divestment is just as effective as it always was, but now it’s happening against a new political backdrop,” Lee said. “It’s bringing in people at earlier ages who are already exposed to climate organizing.”

    The worsening climate crisis makes the arguments for divestment ever more compelling. “Universities’ missions are to invest in young people’s future,” Cohen said. “It’s really hard to say we’re doing that while pouring money into fossil fuel industries.”

    By prioritizing electability we hurt the movements needed to beat Trump

    I have friends who admire Bernie Sanders and what he stands for, but are worried that if he’s nominated Trump will be re-elected. The same is true for some whose favored choice is Elizabeth Warren.

    Despite their personal preferences, these friends are pulled toward what seems the more pragmatic priority: stop Trump by voting for a more centrist Democrat.

    The trouble with pragmatism these days is that our country is becoming less predictable by the minute. What is going on among the 40 percent of the electorate that didn’t bother to vote in 2016’s general election? How about the new voters who’ve become naturalized citizens in the meantime, or the many who’ve turned 18? How much will the Russians skew the results?

    Because a lot can happen between now and November, it’s hard to measure any primary candidate’s chances in November with confidence at this time.

    I believe I’ve found an outside-the-box way of thinking about this which makes the choice easier.

    The forgotten opportunity

    Strategizing includes assessing risks and opportunities. The more risks and opportunities we can identify, the better choice we can make. There is an overlooked opportunity that shows up in 2021 for progressives — and it needs to be part of a truly strategic calculation.

    Why? Because that opportunity becomes even larger depending on which candidate we support right now.

    Outside the ballot box is a source of political power that people easily forget to take into consideration: “people power.” Mass nonviolent direct action is arguably more powerful than elections, sometimes even overthrowing right-wing governments that claim legitimacy through elections.

    We easily forget to factor that opportunity into our thinking. Mainstream mass media keep us tightly focused on the U.S. elective “horse race,” failing to show the bigger picture and the need for what some scholars call “a force more powerful.”

    If we leave out the potential role of mass nonviolent direct action in 2021, we invite an opportunity cost that weighs heavily on our chances for justice and even survival in the climate emergency.

    How the primaries affect mass direct action in 2021

    Trump may be re-elected in November no matter who the Democratic opponent is. At that time, direct action immediately becomes a major option for millions of progressives who tend to hold back as long as it looks as though the election process will work.

    But we’ve been there before — in 2017. What can we learn? An estimated four million joined the Women’s March the day after inauguration, which was a historic milestone for the United States. But, it’s important to note, we weren’t given our marching orders. There was no plan for a sustained campaign with specific demands; we did not go on the offensive.

    Previous Coverage
  • A 10-point plan to stop Trump and make gains in justice and equality
  • Alarmed by the missed opportunity, I went home and wrote a 10-point plan for defeating Trump, which the national organizers of the Women’s March then shared on Twitter.

    The pattern, however, was already set: one-off protests that simply give voice to an opinion. Our opponent knows, when watching us do our march, that we’re going home at the end of the day — while they continue doing what they’re doing.

    One-offs, however large, will never generate the power of sustained campaigns that give us a chance to win.

    Most movements in 2017 went on the defensive, which any basketball coach (or military general, or Gandhi) will tell you is no way to win. Trying to romanticize the response to Trump by calling it “the Resistance” only made its defensiveness more obvious to our opponent.

    Many activists became reactivists, trying in vain to plug holes in the dike. Loss followed loss. Few — and no leading Democrats that I noticed — seemed to remember the folk wisdom about strategy: “the best defense is a strong offense.”

    Sanders and Warren, on the other hand, paid attention when they took Strategy 101. They are fighters whose instinct is to go on the offensive. This is a big difference from establishment Democratic candidates: If Sanders or Warren gained the 2020 nomination and lost to Trump, they would join the offensive, offering their coalition-building skills and cred to social movements.

    Picture some of those on-the-ground formations that would lead us in going on the offensive in 2021: The Dreamers who previously mobilized effectively and used nonviolent direct action to force President Obama to create DACA. The young people in the rapidly-growing Sunrise Movement and Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA, who count on direct action to deliver the goods even while participating in electoral campaigns. The growing edge of the union movement that forced their Democrat-connected, foot-dragging leadership to initiate strikes that won concessions for teachers, auto workers and others. Some of these forces — DSA and Sunrise — were early endorsers of Sanders, and all of them respect him.

    Leadership helps us see the power dynamics in the United States

    The mass willingness to use direct action depends on people’s understanding of who runs our country. When people believe democratic processes are alive and well, they are reluctant to “take to the streets.”

    Americans have, however, been rapidly changing their minds about whether we live in a democracy. By 2018 a CBS News poll found only 28 percent of the U.S. public believes the country, as currently governed, operates for the benefit of the American people.

    In this they are backed up by the Princeton University “oligarchy study” which did the empirical research — showing that it’s the economic elite who actually run the country, regardless of the political party that’s been elected to manage policy. Billionaire Warren Buffett was explicit when he told the New York Times that his class has been waging class war against the rest of us, noting that his class has been winning.

    In the midst of turbulence it can be hard for people to stay clear-sighted. Leadership matters. A clear difference among the Democratic candidates is what they say about who runs America. The establishment Democrats do not acknowledge what’s actually going on. Only Sanders and Warren “tell it like it is,” and in that way they assist movements to form a clear analysis that supports going on the offensive during a Trump presidency.

    What if Trump loses the election?

    Again, we can learn from the recent history of a liberal Democrat in the White House. President Barack Obama was not able to achieve his own (and the majority’s) aspirations: a public option in the Affordable Care Act (which would have been a step toward Medicare for All), a stimulus package for Main Street (which would have matched the stimulus that bailed out Wall Street), a major climate adaptation initiative and more.

    Why didn’t Obama “do it for us?” Among the complex number of reasons was the refusal of the Democratic establishment to back him and the lack of mass movements using direct action to “force” him to do what he wanted to do.

    Obama’s eight years of governing under the thumb of the economic elite continued the neo-liberal economic policies that betrayed the working class and arguably led to the Trump victory in 2016.

    If Trump is defeated in 2020 by a Democratic establishment candidate, we can expect “Obama, Act II,” because deferring to the oligarchy would remain the practice. Democratic office-holders practicing oligarchy-denial will continue to subsidize the fossil fuel companies that are killing us, and so on.

    Growing mass movements would of course use nonviolent direct action, but would be continually hampered by the Democratic establishment. The historic role of the Democrats is to co-opt social movements, to pacify and domesticate them so they won’t threaten continued 1-percent rule.

    In a statewide conference on climate in Maine I used my opportunity as keynote speaker to describe this behavior of the Democratic Party, and to warn the environmental leaders to expect it. When I was finished, an experienced Maine Democratic leader running for governor came up to me, smiling with confidence, and said, “About co-optation, George – you’re right, we do that, and we’re good at it.”

    Electing an establishment Democrat means subjecting ourselves to endless manipulation that reduces our power and chance of winning victories. (Remember the Oval Office scene in the film “Selma,” when President Johnson tries to manipulate Martin Luther King?)

    Sanders or Warren, on the other hand, might be our ally, using the “bully pulpit” and other kinds of power on behalf of movement goals to accelerate reforms on a range of issues, including health care, incarceration, climate, gun control, labor laws, tax policy, police accountability, and more.

    Where does this strategy exercise leave us?

    By doing these thought experiments, I’ve tried to show that factoring in the potential force of mass nonviolent direct action from 2021 on will help us evaluate today’s Democratic candidates for nomination.

    We can’t know for sure whether a centrist Democrat has a better chance of beating Trump than Sanders or Warren. A centrist Democrat might be beaten by Trump. And Sanders or Warren might be able to defeat Trump. There are plausible arguments on all sides of this question, as long as we stay “inside the box.”

    Outside the ballot box, however, is “a force more powerful,” waiting to be fully tapped to make badly needed changes in our society. The Democratic candidates’ differences matter: Some candidates would encourage our mobilizing “people power” — and some would not. And that’s true whichever way the November election turns out.

    Whoever wins in the general election, I believe it will be easier to build successful social movements with Sanders or Warren as the Democratic candidate than with a centrist Democrat.

    Such a perspective provides one more way to think about how to make a choice today.

    Can civil disobedience be seen as ‘good behavior’ in a time of climate crisis?

    Dozens of climate activists filled the second floor lobby of the Concord, New Hampshire District Court on Feb. 14 — only they weren’t there to protest. Instead, spreading out into a circle, they listened to their attorney, Kira Kelley, as she prepared them for a pre-trial hearing.

    “This court has never seen this many people in a situation like this,” she said, referring to the 65 people currently facing trespassing charges stemming from a September arrest in Bow, New Hampshire. As part of an action dubbed “Bucket by Bucket,” activists with the #NoCoalNoGas campaign were trying to remove coal from Merrimack Station — New England’s last major coal-fired power plant without a shut-down date.

    Previous Coverage
  • Blocking trains and removing coal, climate activists fight to close one of New England’s largest power plants
  • With discussions of plea bargains ongoing, when and whether any trials will take place is uncertain, but the #NoCoalNoGas campaign is nevertheless preparing for a legal fight.

    In addition to the hearing, which will continue later next month, the state also charged 18 of the defendants with violating the terms of their bail by participating in blockades of trains delivering coal to Bow in recent months. Following the Concord hearing, the group drove to Bow’s police station, where the newly charged activists turned themselves in. They were released once again, on their own recognizance, and told to return to court in March. Nevertheless, the activists perceived the state’s punitive action as an escalation, with Prosecutor Tracy Connolly on the side of the fossil fuel industry.

    Speaking to the circle of activists before the hearing, Emma Schoenberg of the Climate Disobedience Center reminded the group of their shared goals: building community, showing that active resistance is possible and shutting down the coal plant.

    “Almost a year ago we hatched this hare-brained scheme to shut down a coal plant and, being that we couldn’t do it alone, we knew the moment had to be transformational,” Schoenberg said. “So, here we get to create a new world, and we get to invite other people into it.”

    One participant in the September action accepted a plea agreement offered by Prosecutor Connolly. Discussions about possible plea deals for the rest appear to be ongoing, with Connolly determined to deter the activists from taking further steps aimed at shutting down the power plant.

    “Criminal justice is deterring bad behavior,” she said. But for the #NoCoalNoGas campaign, it’s Merrimack Station and the fossil fuel industry that’s guilty.

    “In 2020, when the high temperature in Antarctica was just measured at 69 degrees Fahrenheit and when the climate crisis is already causing disastrous flooding on New Hampshire’s coast, it is sad that Ms. Connolly is arguing that preventing further catastrophe does not count as ‘good behavior,’” said Alissandra Rodriguez-Murray, who was arrested at the September action and was among those charged with bail violations.

    Working with their legal team, the #NoCoalNoGas campaigners are still trying to determine their legal strategy. One option might be using their concept of “good behavior” as a defense before a judge at district court. Another option might be skipping trial altogether and instead accepting a verdict of guilty in order to bring their defense to a jury trial at superior court.

    At the same time, if Connolly were to offer a more favorable plea bargain, #NoCoalNoGas activists might be willing accept it — whether it be engaging in community service or committing to “good behavior” for 24 hours, like activists with the Poor People’s Campaign did last year. Such discussions with the prosecution will continue at the next hearing, March 30, which is also when schedules for trials could be set.

    In the meantime, the campaign will be turning its attention to ISO New England — the entity that manages the regional power grid and just agreed to keep subsidy payments flowing to Merrimack Station for another year. As far as the climate activists are concerned, the campaign to shut down Merrimack Station won’t end at the courthouse.

    How undocumented activists in New Jersey won driver’s licenses for all

    In December, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill that will allow undocumented immigrants in the state to legally obtain drivers licenses by 2021. The victory was made possible by hundreds of undocumented organizers, who have been fighting for the bill for 18 years — often putting their bodies on the line and risking deportation in the process.

    Among those organizers was Li Adorno, a 27-year-old undocumented activist from Union City. For the past three years, Adorno has been working with Movimiento Cosecha, a decentralized immigrant rights group that has autonomous chapters across the United States. Cosecha’s name comes from the word “harvest” in Spanish — and their mission is to use the power of non-cooperation to leverage the power of immigrant labor and shift public opinion.

    Adorno’s advocacy, however, began long before Cosecha and the driver’s license campaign. Though he grew up as an undocumented Mexican American, he didn’t always identify with activist spaces. His political awakening eventually started with Anakbayan, a Filipino youth group. “I started learning about Mexican culture and Mexican organizing through Filipinos,” Adorno said. They were the ones who taught him about imperialism and colonization. 

    From there, Adorno got involved in tuition equity campaigns, which secured in-state tuition for undocumented students in New Jersey. In 2017, Adorno became a member of the #Dream7, a group of DACA recipients who were arrested after staging a sit-in in the Capitol building, risking deportation. Once in jail, the group refused to give their names to police and went on a six-day hunger strike to demand that a Clean Dream Act be included in the spending bill. 

    I recently had the chance to speak with Adorno about how he helped mobilize the undocumented community in New Jersey to win driver’s licenses for all — as well as his vision for the future of the immigrant rights movement. 

    What does this victory mean for the immigrant rights movement?

    It’s something so simple — it’s honestly insulting to neglect a community like that, to not allow them to drive their kids to school and be seen as equal New Jerseyans. Winters in the northeast are hard, especially for people who live far away from the big cities. Transportation can get very difficult. They’ve been neglecting this bill asking for drivers licenses for 18 years — and for 18 years, they’ve been giving undocumented people tickets. They’ve been making money. They’ve been arresting people, taking people to detention centers, and there they make more money. 

    Since the victory, undocumented organizers in states like Massachusetts and Virginia are using many of the same techniques as Movimiento Cosecha and other groups from New Jersey for their own driver’s license campaign. What do you think made your strategy so effective?

    We had to break away from the narrative of “We are weak, and we don’t know what’s going on.” That’s what Cosecha’s main focus was: to stop depending on the people who keep oppressing you and to really take the fight into your own hands. When Movimiento Cosecha came to New Jersey, that message resonated with a lot of undocumented people who were tired of their families always being scared because of ICE. They welcomed that message with open arms.

    Previous Coverage
  • Undocumented immigrants plan statewide halt, escalating campaign for driver’s licenses in New Jersey
  • The bill got passed through the state legislature in a week. It wasn’t about politics or getting on people’s good sides and begging for change. It was undocumented leaders blocking streets. It was undocumented leaders doing hunger strikes, doing walks, telling people “Now is the time. We’re sick and tired of being the victims. And it’s time to demand the dignity and the respect that we deserve.”

    Cesar Chavez used to say, “The fight was never about the grapes. It was about the bigger picture.” I used to tell that to the people at the first meetings, and they would say, “Oh, that’s cool.” But they didn’t fully understand it. It’s been very heartwarming to see them approach me lately and say, “I understand the whole thing about the grapes now. It was never about licenses. It’s about the dignity and respect we deserve.”  

    The fight was led by ordinary working people, many of whom are undocumented. How did you approach mobilizing a community that has been forced to live in fear for so long?

    There is a risk that comes with protesting if you’re undocumented. In New Jersey, specifically, a lot of the undocumented leadership was scared to do anything against the law. Because they’re brainwashed to believe that the law is always right. They face that contradiction of, “Yeah, the law is always right. But I’m technically against the law, and I’m a person.” And so they have a moment of choice. “Are you going to follow what the laws say, or are we gonna push so the laws can be better?” It is a process for people to understand that sometimes civil disobedience is necessary. It was a magical moment I got to witness. It’s been powerful not only to see the hard physical change, but also the growth that comes with it. Even if we had lost this year, we still would have won, because we’ve gone through this process. And we’ve seen so many people become leaders in their communities. They’re like, “We’re not victims no more!”

    Also, a lot of people in the fight were middle-aged. They brought their kids around, so we tried to get their kids involved. They would enact scenes of what they lived in their life, when their uncle or family member got pulled over. They would give testimony about how they felt and what they feel should be done. One of our youngest leaders in New Jersey was named David Cuatle. He’s nine years old. He was key in bringing in other kids. Usually parents say, “Oh, you stay home. I have to go to this meeting.” But David was like, “Bring your kids, and we’ll play together.” That goes beyond the campaign. That becomes movement building. We chose to build a movement, a stronger community within immigrant people.

    Does Cosecha have any plans to engage in the 2020 presidential race?

    We operate outside the lines of traditional politics. We don’t support any candidate. We really want to focus on building power with undocumented people. Because a candidate is not going to understand what it’s like to be undocumented. He’s never felt the fear of losing a loved one. There’s a big disconnect. And so if we want to change something, it has to come from people who understand it completely. That’s what we are seeing in our local campaigns for driver’s licenses. And it’s working out — people are coming out of their shells. People are becoming leaders in their communities. For us, that’s more important than supporting a candidate.

    What is something you believe the immigrant rights movement should approach differently going forward?

    Undocumented people are super criminalized, but right now, we’re only talking about criminalization on a surface level. We need to talk about where that criminalization comes from — the school-to-prison pipeline, the racism, all of that. We need to understand why there’s criminalization in the first place, and make sure that the future leaders who come after us understand who and what they’re fighting for.

    There’s a lot of narratives I want to shift, especially when it comes to DACA. When Jeff Sessions went on TV to get rid of it, immigrant rights groups wanted to make sure there was a narrative about people who were brought to the United States by their parents as children. That was a mistake, and we have to own up to it. It’s about everybody who is undocumented, not just youth.

    I am a DACA recipient and when there was a decision to be made to leave our family and move far away, that wasn’t my decision. My parents did that, and they were conscious of what they were leaving behind. I was just a kid. They were the ones who had a vision, like, “We don’t see a future for this kid here. We need to give him a better future. And I know that means sacrifice, but this is a sacrifice that we’re going to do.” And they did it. They didn’t know how to get to the United States. They didn’t even know where Mexico City is. But they took that leap of faith and came to the United States. And they dreamed this big thing. So when it comes to what people deserve, and the Dream movement, I don’t think it only has to be about those of us who came here as children. It also has to be about the people who knew what they were leaving behind.

    When the people lead, leaders follow — lessons from the fight to impeach and remove Trump

    Without hearing from witnesses or reviewing new evidence, the Senate declared last week that our Constitution does not apply to the powerful few — effectively granting this lawless president unrestricted power. The 52 senators who voted to cover up Donald Trump’s crimes accepted the argument presented by his defense team, which is that: “If a president does something he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” As a result, these senators showed that their loyalty lies not with the American people but with a strongman. Their actions are not only a betrayal to you and me, but they put our rights and lives in danger by consenting to further abuses of power by this administration.

    Previous Coverage
  • How a growing movement made impeachment politically feasible
  • While this is clearly a scary and dangerous moment, there are also many reasons to be hopeful and feel powerful. I say this as someone who has been organizing in the trenches of impeachment with By the People for the past year and a half. Despite the Senate voting to cover up Trump’s crimes, our movement for impeachment secured critical victories that will propel us forward in the longer battle for American democracy. Over the course of this campaign, we built an American majority across race, gender, class, generation, geography, and political party in support of impeaching and removing Trump from office. Through months of sustained grassroots pressure and hundreds of mobilizations, we won an inquiry, got two articles, and impeached this dangerous president in the House of Representatives — all by making it a political necessity for them to act. Then, after nearly three years of unaccountability, we forced the Senate to put Trump on trial for coercing Ukraine to interfere in our elections on his behalf, and secured the first bipartisan vote in favor of convicting a president in U.S. history.

    Although we didn’t attain the 67 votes we needed, all of the Democrats plus Rep. Sen. Mitt Romney voted to convict on abuse of power and thus denied Trump the partisan vindication he’d long been seeking. Throughout the impeachment contest, we forced the conflict between democracy and authoritarianism into the open and exposed the depth of the crisis in America. Millions of people now know which political leaders will side with their rights and freedoms and which politicians are willing to sell them out to dictatorship for their own personal gain. By rising up to stop what we could not tolerate, we demonstrated that when Congress is unwilling to enforce the Constitution, the people will.

    By the People held a rally near the Capitol Building as the final vote was taking place on Feb. 5. (By the People/Anthony Torres)

    Despite being told that impeachment was politically infeasible, we made it inevitable. Rather than waiting for others to provide direction and unite the anti-Trump resistance, By the People stepped up to make what is necessary possible. We believed in, and were committed to, building a campaign that could change the whole conversation of impeachment by showing that people were willing to fight for it in the real world. Images of young people being repeatedly arrested in congressional offices simply for asking their elected representatives to do their job helped attract and shape public and political attention. These actions created space for champions to respond to the calls of an increasingly vocal movement, such as when Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Al Green introduced the first House resolution to launch an impeachment inquiry alongside us just after we’d sat in at Nancy Pelosi’s office making that very same demand.

    In December, the day after we won impeachment, By the People led an occupation of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s D.C. office to demonstrate to the larger public that we were not done fighting. We also showed our allies and supporters that the best strategy for placing a difficult Senate trial on our terms was to leverage the threat of escalated mobilization. These successes and interventions created a snowball effect that encouraged many more fence-sitters to jump into the fight — contributing their resources, numbers and unique capabilities to the growing movement ecosystem. When By the People launched its campaign in August of 2018, there were few organizations actively pushing for impeachment. By February of 2020, we were partnering with dozens of national groups to demand his removal. To quote Star Wars Resistance hero Poe Dameron, “Good people will fight if we lead them.”

    Obviously, however, Trump is still in office, and there are many lessons and failures to wrangle with if we are to ultimately defeat this corrupt regime. For starters, while By the People and other groups — such as Remove Trump and Swarm the Senate — understood the potency of mass direct action, we didn’t do enough to make our mobilizations match the historic moment we were facing. They simply didn’t look or sound much different from more traditional protest tactics, and we didn’t escalate to a level of mass disruption and non-cooperation as much as we should have.

    By the People activists pose outside the Capitol Building on Feb 5. (By the People/Anthony Torres)

    The scale of mobilization for impeachment was in some ways limited by the unwillingness of some progressive or anti-Trump organizations to take the fight seriously. Every attack from this administration was confronted as a separate issue, rather than as a coordinated onslaught against our democracy. Too many leaders, funders and organizers on the left continue to view Trump’s abuses of power through a lens of politics as usual. This misdiagnosis denies the reality that Trump is actively eliminating systemic checks on his power and rigging the elections — our most basic form of asserting accountability and flexing citizen power — through voter suppression, and disinformation, as well as by coercing and soliciting foreign government interference. As a result, many saw the impeachment struggle as outside their purview and ceded the struggle in turn.

    Among the organizations that did eventually join the impeachment coalition, too many preferred to follow the narrow approach of House leadership rather than unite behind a powerful and cohesive message. This failure reduced pressure on the House to pass expanded articles of impeachment for the full range of Trump’s crimes and, thus, weakened the overall argument for Trump’s removal. The family separation crisis, the Muslim Ban, Kavanaugh, the threat of war with Iran — each should have been rallying cries for impeachment and removal.

    (By The People/Anthony Torres)

    Had the actual charges against Trump condemned the full pattern of corruption, racism, misogyny and criminality — as By the People, Free Speech for People, and Women’s March (among others) long called for — it would have been more difficult for Trump’s defenders to cast the Ukraine scandal as an aberration. What’s more, it would have set a stronger precedent against future presidents committing similar Trumpian violations. All that would no doubt have fired up the larger base of people who have been resisting Trump’s attacks for three years — enabling them to see the impeachment fight as not only a priority, but a decisive and compelling critique of everything Trump has done to put Americans in danger in pursuit of his own personal gain.

    Make no mistake: the acquittal of Trump shows the extent to which our institutions are failing, unable and/or unwilling to protect us from the ascent of fascism. We cannot expect action without major mobilization — when the people lead, leaders follow. Therefore, just as we did on impeachment, we, the people, must take responsibility for our lives, our liberties and our country’s future. Every American must make a choice: Will you fight for democracy or will you submit to dictatorship? Every day and every battle from this point onward is a struggle to defeat authoritarianism and to achieve a democracy that for the first time serves and represents all of us. The urgency and scale of the common threat we face requires us to continue to threaten Trump’s rule before the election and to be prepared to mobilize against him if he refuses to leave office.

    We still know and hold these truths to be self evident: Trump was and is guilty. Impeachment and removal remains the only pathway for stopping a tyrannical president. If we are to be free and safe, then we must remove Trump from office. This fight has never been about Democrats vs. Republicans. Our trajectory must be toward transforming this political system, and removing this president will allow us to move closer to making our country’s revolutionary promise of liberty and justice for all a reality.

    By the People built a grassroots campaign for impeachment and removal in service of a much larger pro-democracy movement. While the trial is over, our work remains to remove Trump and every one of his cronies and enablers from office. We will rise alongside Reps. Tlaib and Green, who responded early on to our calls to action and acted with moral courage, and we will replace those who violated their oath and betrayed their country. We will sustain our resistance to the abuses and atrocities that we cannot tolerate from this administration. We will be vigilant in securing free and fair elections. We will contest for power at the ballot box and in the streets. We will continue to call on Congress to pass articles of impeachment for all of Trump’s crimes. We will combat rising white nationalism. We will sound the alarm as Trump strives to expand his authority. The day we stop fighting for democracy is the day we lose it. Just as past Americans came together to defeat kings and Jim Crow, we will unite to make this country what it should be: a government of, by and for the people.

    Minneapolis activists ask local leaders to invest in communities, not cops

    This story was first published by YES! Magazine.

    In dramatic effect, a Minneapolis resident dumps a bag of money onto a podium during public comments at the final City Council meeting on the 2020 budget last month. The person with them, who identified himself as David, is addressing the council members.

    “This is $193.40,” David says, then begins to explain that the money represents the $193 million budget Mayor Jacob Frey proposed to give the Minneapolis Police Department in 2020, more than one-third of the city’s general fund. The budget sparked protest from a number of Minneapolis residents and activists — many who attended the meeting to voice their opposition, including members of Reclaim the Block, a coalition of Minneapolis organizers and community members who advocate for divesting from police and into community-based solutions.

    After the group’s protest of the 2020 police budget at three public meetings in the final months of 2019, the City Council voted to move $242,000 from the police budget and into the Office of Violence Prevention, a broad-reaching office that has the agency to fund community services in the name of violence prevention. 

    The budget shift was small compared to some of the other successes residents and local organizers have had over the past year and a half while advocating for the city to divest from the Minneapolis Police Department and into violence prevention. The group argues that large issues facing the city such as homelessness, opioid addiction, and mental health crises are not only not solved by the policing, but exacerbated by them. To get at the root causes of these problems, Reclaim the Block says, the city needs to invest in community-based solutions and services that are tailored to each issue. 

    While the coalition seeks to educate people year-round about community-based solutions, some of the group’s most visible work is at public government meetings where people like David advocate for a future with decentralized public services.

    Sliding a coin from the pile of money, David announces, “That’s like taking a little bit less than this quarter out of this pile of money.” He pauses to draw attention to how the pile of bills dwarfs the single coin, then continues, “This quarter actually really matters because the folks at the Office of Violence Prevention can make this money do a lot of work in our communities,” David says. “We all know the folks who somehow manage to feed a room full of people on a shoestring budget like this, but just because we can stretch a dollar doesn’t mean we have to keep doing it, especially when our city has more than enough money to address the [city’s] issue[s].”

    David and his companion’s display is effective and echoes the sentiment of the dozens of residents who addressed the council that evening: Fund communities, not cops.

    A call for a new approach

    In recent history, Minneapolis activists and organizers have made headlines calling on the city’s political leadership to defund police departments and put that money into community organizations that are making strides in violence prevention.

    Reclaim the Block, which David is a part of, was created as a movement in 2018 specifically to address the 2019 budget — last year they inspired the City Council to not only create the Office of Violence Prevention, but move $1.1 million out of the Minneapolis Police Department’s budget and into the fund. That was the first time the city had showed real interest in investigating public safety options other than traditional policing. 

    In 2016, a coalition of organizations — similar to those in Reclaim the Block — created a report detailing the Minneapolis Police Department’s 150 years serving the community to show that policing is not the answer to community violence and its related issues, such as homelessness, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, but in fact can worsen and contribute to it.

    “A key finding of the report is that there are “viable existing alternatives for policing in every area in which police engage.”

    The report, called MPD150, traced the history of the Minneapolis Police Department, from the period of slave patrols — groups tasked with preventing slave riots and capturing enslaved Africans who ran away — to modern-day U.S. police departments, and failed attempts to reform the department’s lack of “real accountability.”

    To invest in those viable alternatives, the community needs the support of the mayor or City Council to adjust the city budget says Oluchi Omeoga, a core team member of Black Visions Collective, which was one of the organizations involved in MPD150.

    A key finding of the report is that there are “viable existing alternatives for policing in every area in which police engage.”

    “But, to shift our community to be less dependent on the police department,” Omeoga says, “we need the people in the community to actually have discussions around why do we call the police, what do the police actually do, and what are the alternatives that we need in order to keep our communities actually safe.”

    Members of Black Visions Collective and other organizers lead those community conversations and help to educate their communities about police alternatives. The alternatives range from services to call — instead of calling the 9-1-1 — for people in mental health crisis, to organizations that assist people experiencing homelessness or drug addiction.

    Decentralizing who to call

    For mental health crises, Hennepin County’s Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies is a hotline and mobile team of mental health professionals who can be dispatched in the county.

    Kay Pitkin, the manager of COPE, says the crisis line is not a replacement for emergency responders—it can take 30 minutes to an hour for a mobile team to reach a patient, and they only operate during the week—but can provide more in-depth, comprehensive care and deescalate situations before they turn into public safety issues.

    “Really what a person in a mental health crisis needs is mental health care,” Pitkin says.

    Operating for more than a decade, COPE has a $4 return on investment, meaning that for every dollar invested into the program, it returns $4 of benefit to the community through costs avoided and other societal benefits.

    COPE also partners with the Minneapolis Police Department and has crisis responders embedded in five precincts who respond to mental health-related 9-1-1 calls. According to Pitkin, even though the police show some resistance to working with mental health responders, the improvement in the mental health calls proves the co-responding program works. The earmarked $300,000 in the 2020 budget for the co-responders program allots enough funding to continue those embedded positions.

    Decriminalizing drug abuse and mental illness

    The most common criminal charge for people incarcerated in Minnesota is drug-related. Instead of criminalizing drug users suffering from the opioid epidemic, organizers of Reclaim the Block and MPD150 advocate for the decriminalization of drugs and harm reduction services that provide health care and supplies to active drug users.

    One such place is Southside Harm Reduction Services, a volunteer-led program providing clean syringes to intravenous drug users and advocating for drug policing reform. 

    Jack Martin, Southside’s executive director, says that the police are enforcing drug war policies that are harmful to drug users while harm reduction services meet users where they are. Providing people with the tools to avoid disease allows them to stay alive and connect with other resources if they so choose, according to Martin.

    “That’s what keeps people safe,” he says.

    Leaders in these services like Pitkin and Martin stress the importance of being in network with other services and knowing what solutions are available for the population they are serving.

    “We have relationships with just about everybody,” Pitkin says. Helping someone through a mental health crisis can involve coordinating medication, finding stable housing, and connecting them with legal services — all of which could require a different service.


    The restrictions on services such as COPE and Southside Harm Reduction circle back to funding. Both services are able to partially fund with grants, and Southside takes individual donations, but COPE’s budget is affected by local government.

    Grace Berke, the community coordinator for Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association, argues that a lack of transparency in the way government officials talk about funding contributes to the minimal input into violence prevention services.

    Berke says that when officials don’t research or include how much money it costs to fully fund a solution, they have no context for the significance of the proposed funding.

    For example, the $242,000 being moved into the violence prevention fund.

    “We are investing too much money in incarceration-based policing and not enough money in community-based safety.”

    “People tend to compare those dollar amounts to their own income,” Berke explains, but in terms of funding an effective community program “it may be two full-time employees and part of an operations budget.”

    Just stating that the government is putting $242,000 toward a problem is “different than saying ‘We’re putting $242,000 toward this problem and the need is $60 million,’” she says.

    Even though the 2020 budget passed the City Council with a unanimous vote, several council members expressed their dissatisfaction with the amount of money going toward violence prevention.

    During the final vote, one council member described the moment as “a tipping point.”

     “I even hear from police, we can’t arrest ourselves out of this,” council member Cameron Gordon said.

    Police department spokesperson John Elder wouldn’t comment on the mayor’s budget, but in response to the creation of Reclaim the Block and the community’s requests of divesting from the police, Elder says that it is “certainly people’s right to do as they wish, it’s not ours to second guess.”

    Neither Mayor Frey nor City Council President Lisa Bender could be reached for comment, but Bender stated in the final budget meeting that she thinks the “police department needs a complete overhaul of its budget.”

    “We are investing too much money in incarceration-based policing and not enough money in community-based safety,” Bender said before voting to approve the budget.

    Transitions take time

    To organizers like Omeoga of Black Visions Collective, the council member’s statements are baseless and in direct opposition to their statements.

    Oemoga described the council as “playing a very safe game, as far as what waves they want to make and where they want to push.”

    Even if local government supported divesting from the police rapidly, the transition is unprecedented and the organizers don’t pretend that they have all of the answers moving forward.

    “It’s all about practice,” says Sophia Benrud, a core team and staff member of Black Visions Collective. “As we transition into something and out of something else, you’re always going to find gaps, and I think that you have to be emergent with that. Communities that have been systemically disenfranchised throughout history have always come up and filled the gaps in the ways they need to because that’s how we survive.”

    Benrud urges people — including her City Council members — to understand that the transition takes time.

    “Why would you think the transition is going to happen in a year?” Benrud asks. “We gave [policing] time, and it’s still proving to not actually do anything, so why not allow something else to transform and shift and change and grow with the same commitment that’s [been given] to the police department?”

    Brazilians mobilize to clean up massive mysterious oil spill and end the fossil fuel era

    A major oil spill, coming from a mysterious source in the South Atlantic Ocean, has been contaminating Brazil’s coastline since Aug. 30. The oil has already reached a 1,500-mile stretch of the coast across 11 Brazilian states. It’s contaminated beaches, coral reefs, estuaries, mangroves, and at least 14 nature conservation areas. And it has been impacting the health of traditional coastal communities, including the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people.

    While the oil was spreading out of control, President Jair Bolsonaro was on a tour around the Middle East, seeking to strengthen relationships with oil-producing countries. Left with no choice, the population from affected regions, especially those that rely on the sea to make a living, together with civil society organizations, volunteered to clean up the oil mess.

    “The government took over 40 days to activate the emergency plan — or National Contingency Plan — which should have been activated immediately,” said Thiago Almeida, a climate and energy campaigner at  Greenpeace Brazil. “Due to the inaction and inability of the government to deal with the problem, the population literally rolled up their sleeves and went to do it themselves.”

    Addressing impacts and vulnerabilities

    A group of residents has been on the frontline of the emergency response in Pernambuco, one of the Brazilian states most affected by the oil spill. The Salve Maracaípe group, through Instagram, raised awareness about the urgent need in removing the oil from beaches and coastal environments, and mobilized thousands of volunteers to help. They also created crowdfunding campaigns, on national and international platforms, to raise funds for buying personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as safety masks, gloves and chemical resistant clothing, including water and food for those involved in the heavy cleanup activities. These essential resources have not been provided by the government at the urgency and scale needed.

    “We saw the need to mobilize, to act, to purchase PPEs [for safe oil cleanup by volunteers],” said Daniel Galvão, leader of the Salve Maracaípe group and a specialist in oceanography. “But we had no money for that. So we started a crowdfunding campaign.”

    Now with over 60,000 followers, Salve Maracaípe’s page on Instagram has tripled its visibility in recent months, as many people shared their messages and got sensitized about the need to help clean up the oil. In short time, the group gathered almost $30,000 with the crowdfunding campaigns, which allowed them to acquire health and safety resources and to increase the clean up efforts throughout the state.

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    In just one week, with the help of up to 4,000 volunteers, they removed more than 300,000 gallons of oil from affected areas. However, Galvão cautioned that the contamination of marine and coastal environments will not end with the oil removal, because heavy metal particles from the oil were also released into the water. And this contamination will probably last for decades. (The Gulf of Mexico ecosystem, for example, still has not fully recovered from the BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which happened a decade ago.)

    In the state of Alagoas, a local environmental organization has been playing a key role in monitoring areas affected by the spillage, and in identifying and rehabilitating animals that are injured or trapped in oil pools. The Instituto Biota is using its own resources, and the funds it had planned to invest in a rehabilitation center for marine animals, to monitor the coast of Alagoas state-wide on a daily basis. The organization has already found 22 dead animals and seven that were injured since the oil started to spread across their coastal area.

    Although most of the oil had been removed from the coast in October, Instituto Biota’s team reported that they found oil spots on a turtle’s nest in a local monitored area in the first week of December. They cautioned that the toxins released by the oil into the environment may accumulate in the bodies of marine animals — such as turtles, fish, birds and aquatic mammals — which can cause serious health issues and death risks to them. And the humans, who may eventually eat these intoxicated animals, can be seriously impacted as well.

    Greenpeace Brazil is also working to fill the gaps left by Bolsonaro’s government in addressing the oil disaster. Besides mobilizing its network of volunteers to help in the oil removal activities — for which they had donated thousands of PPEs — across many areas and states that were affected, they have been conducting field expeditions to document the environmental, social and economic impacts on local populations.

    Greenpeace Brazil volunteers and locals help clean the crude oil at the beach in Recife, Brazil. (Greenpeace/Joyce Farias)

    The organization has collected samples of oil from affected areas, with the help of researchers and specialists, which are being analyzed in university labs. This will potentially allow them to draw conclusions about the origin of the spill and who is behind it — crucial information that remains a mystery.

    Promoting transparency and accountability

    On Oct. 23, Greenpeace Brazil activists held a nonviolent protest in front of the federal congress in Brasília. They spilled a dark, non-toxic substance on the floor, to resemble the oil spill, and placed posters next to it that read: “Brazil stained with oil” and “A government against the environment.” The action aimed to remind the government of its responsibility in supporting and protecting the country’s inhabitants and nature. (Ironically, 19 activists were arrested for performing “environmentally harmful activities,” yet they were released in just three hours.)

    A few hours later, Brazil’s minister of environment, Ricardo Salles, called Greenpeace’s staff “eco-terrorists” on Twitter, and alleged that the organization was responsible for the actual oil spill. In response, Greenpeace has filed a lawsuit against Salles for this false accusation and defamation.

    The Brazilian government also blamed the government of Venezuela for the spill, and later, a Greek company, whose tanker ship passed near affected areas where the oil was first seen. These accusations were based on hypothesis and inaccurate evidence.

    Amid the dubious investigation of the oil disaster by official authorities, civil society started to call for public hearings, with the participation of specialists, to clarify things. The Salve Maracaípe group helped to build pressure for this through social media.

    Galvão participated in the first public hearing relating to the oil disaster, held in December, where he and other researchers from federal universities presented their scientific conclusions about the oil’s origin. He said his research group believes the oil came from an offshore oil rig, which was probably mismanaged by a fossil fuel company. But for some reason, the government have been disregarding this possibility in its investigations about the origin.

    It is known, however, that while the oil was spreading and contaminating Brazil’s coastline, the government was auctioning more areas for fossil fuel exploitation in the country. Three auctions have been organized in the last four months. And, according to Almeida, over 2,000 blocks for oil and gas exploration were offered in total in these auctions, including in the Amazon forest, where a sharp rise in deforestation and wildfires have been registered throughout 2019.

    “We are facing a climate emergency,” Almeida said. “We actually have to stop any new exploitation [of fossil fuels] and accelerate the transition to clean and renewable energy systems.”

    Advocating for change and justice

    In October 2019, the Brazilian government attempted to auction areas for oil exploration close to the Abrolhos Marine National Park, home to the largest marine biodiversity and coral reef in the South Atlantic Ocean. It is a region that almost 100,000 people depend on to make a living, especially from artisan fishing and ecotourism activities.

    But no oil company made an offer during the auction, thanks to a coalition of environmental organizations and activists in the country, that opposed the auction and effectively communicated the risks of exploring for oil near the region. Despite this achievement, the Conexão Abrolhos coalition is now having to combat the oil spill that happened recently, since it reached parts of Abrolhos and is threatening its ecosystem and the local population.

    Previous Coverage
  • While the Amazon burns, Brazil’s indigenous peoples rise up
  • Oceana Brazil, one of Conexão Abrolhos’ allies, is helping to mitigate the oil accident. The organization donated materials to the state government of Bahia, where Abrolhos Marine National Park is located, for safe storage and transportation of the oil removed from coastal areas. In addition, its team has traveled across the coast to plan actions with the artisan fisherman and fisherwoman, who are facing difficulties selling their catch due to the contamination of waterways.

    Internationally, Oceana works to protect the world’s oceans. At the latest United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP 25, held last December in Spain, the organization demanded a global action plan for the protection of marine ecosystems. These “blue forests” can have a key role in counteracting our climate crisis, but without conservation efforts we risk losing up to seven percent of their area every single year.

    During COP 25, civil society groups also called attention to the oil disaster that’s happening in Brazil. Led by 350.org, which advocates for a global energy transition, Brazilian activists and other participants of the conference gathered next to a petrol station in Madrid, calling for a “sea without oil.” Indigenous peoples took part in the demonstration as well, some with their faces painted in black, to symbolize the oil that reached indigenous communities in Brazil and is affecting their way of living.

    “More than palliative measures, 350.org advocates the end of the fossil fuels era, due to all of the destructive impacts of this sector on the climate, human rights and communities,” said Peri Dias, the communications manager for 350.org in Latin America.

    A photo exhibition called #SeaWithoutOil was co-organized by 350.org at COP 25, to raise public awareness about the oil spill in Brazil — one of the biggest environmental disasters in the country’s history — and to highlight how the Brazilian civil society is stepping up to resolve the crisis. The exhibition also aimed to shed light on the importance of ending the production of fossil fuels and accelerating the global clean energy transition, which would prevent catastrophic accidents like oil spills from happening again.

    While a future without oil and fossil fuels exploitation is not foreseen in Brazil, at least until a new government is put in place, community groups and non-governmental organizations plan on staying vigilant to avoid further harms done to people and the environment.

    “We are monitoring the health, not only of ecosystems and fish and shellfish stocks, but also of the population — which is actually, the government’s duty,” Almeida said. “We keep planning, together with other organizations and local groups, what else can be done over the next several months.”

    Blocking trains and removing coal, climate activists fight to close one of New England’s largest power plants

    Under cover of darkness, dozens of climate activists snuck into the forest in the small town of Harvard, Massachusetts. The air was buzzing with nervous excitement as the group filed along a dirt path next to the railroad tracks, carrying heavy metal scaffolding. After half a mile of walking, the group set up camp and assembled the scaffolding into a 16-foot-tall metal structure above the train tracks.

    Once the scaffolding was secured in place, the group formed a circle and joined hands. One of the activists announced that he had just placed a call to the railway’s emergency number, alerting the dispatcher that there were people and a metal structure on the tracks. Four people were stationed a ways ahead, waving red flags to make sure the coal train would stop. And stop it did — waiting several costly hours for police to arrive and arrest the four activists who had climbed onto the scaffolding and refused to come down.

    This blockade, which lasted through the night on Jan. 2, was just the latest action for a coalition of regional climate groups and activists calling themselves the #NoCoalNoGas campaign. With the aim of shutting down fossil fuel infrastructure — starting with Merrimack Station, New England’s last coal-fired power plant without a shutdown date — the campaign has been leading actions across Massachusetts and New Hampshire since August.

    “If [the Harvard blockade] had been an isolated action, then maybe it would feel like we didn’t accomplish much. But #NoCoalNoGas is a long-term strategic campaign.”

    As the blockades have surged in recent months, so too has the campaign. By escalating from symbolic actions to obstructing Merrimack Station’s ability to operate — leading to dozens of arrests in the process — the #NoCoalNoGas campaign is mounting the most serious challenge to the plant since it opened in Bow, New Hampshire in 1960.

    “Part of what we’re trying to do is to show that burning coal at this stage is completely unacceptable and won’t be tolerated,” said Tim DeChristopher, one of the activists arrested at the Harvard blockade. “Coal trains can’t roll through our communities anymore without being impeded.”

    DeChristopher’s group, the Climate Disobedience Center, or CDC, helped form the campaign, collaborating with 350 New Hampshire Action and a regional coalition of other climate action groups and individuals, including many first-time activists.

    From thoroughly researching and identifying a vulnerable target to prioritizing the process of community-building among participants, the #NoCoalNoGas campaign is a strong example of how to develop an effective strategy, while also creating an inclusive environment for new activists to join. Building on the growing sense of urgency to address the climate crisis, organizers have harnessed public outrage into action. 

    “A lot of people even in the town [of Bow, New Hampshire] itself don’t know we’re still burning coal in New England, much less in their own community,” said Emma Schoenberg, a nonviolent action trainer with the CDC. “We started really thinking about ways in which we can bring awareness to the fact that this coal plant exists, and to eventually shut it down with a really prominent goal of building community.”

    Previous Coverage
  • 4 lessons for climate organizers from the anti-nuclear movement
  • The campaign’s initial success at mobilizing large numbers of participants has led journalists and older activists to draw parallels with the Clamshell Alliance campaign of the 1970s, which fought to stop construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire. In 1977, during the largest of several acts of mass civil disobedience, 1,415 people were arrested while occupying the construction site. While the Clamshell Alliance wasn’t able to stop Seabrook, it sparked a national anti-nuclear movement that deserves credit for largely shutting down further nuclear construction, as well as inspiring a greater public understanding of nonviolent direct action.

    Today, the #NoCoalNoGas campaign could do for coal what Clamshell did for nuclear energy: build a blueprint for shutting down a dangerous industry through coordinated direct action.

    From #BucketByBucket to #TrainByTrain

    Although many participants in the #NoCoalNoGas campaign are new to civil disobedience, the campaign’s core organizers are veterans of nonviolent struggle. DeChristopher, who is a co-founder of the CDC, famously posed as a bidder at an oil and gas auction in 2008 to protest the sale of public lands — a stunt that landed him in prison for 21 months.

    It thus comes as no surprise that the #NoCoalNoGas campaign began with a bit of surreptitious action, when a core group of activists decided to scout out the coal plant’s layout firsthand. In August, five of them walked straight onto the grounds of the power plant to see it for themselves. 

    “After having a good look around, we went in and talked with some of the managers of the plant,” DeChristopher said. “We explained to them that we need to shut this plant down for the sake of the climate and our survival. They were pretty surprised that we were able to just walk right into the plant.”

    350 New Hampshire Action Field Organizer Emma Shapiro-Weiss poses at the fuel pile at Merrimack Station in New Hampshire. (Twitter/Shapiro-Weiss)

    On August 20, the campaign launched its first action when eight activists removed over 500 pounds of coal in buckets from the power station grounds. Three days later, they dumped buckets of coal in front of the New Hampshire State House in Concord, New Hampshire and told the media they were laying the responsibility for ending coal usage on the government’s doorstep.

    A month later, on Sept. 29, dozens of people dressed in white tyvek suits and carrying plastic buckets tried to approach the coal pile at Merrimack Station. Met by police in riot gear, 67 were arrested and charged with criminal trespassing. They sang and drummed on buckets throughout the action, while 300 more rallied in the field across the street from the plant. According to the organizers, it was one of the largest environmental civil disobedience actions in New England since the Clamshell actions at Seabrook 40 years ago. 

    Seventy-six year old Espahbad Dodd was one of the bucket-bearing activists arrested that day. Having never taken such a risk before, he noted, “It just got to the point where it was time. I figured I don’t have grandchildren, but I have lots of friends that do. I don’t want to think about any responsibility I have for not leaving them a world in which they can live.”

    “We can stop these trains fairly easily. It’s a very simple thing to do, and it needs to become commonplace.”

    The next major action took place two months later in early December. Shifting from #BucketByBucket to a rallying cry of #TrainByTrain, activists began blockading railroad tracks as trains carried shipments of coal through New England to Merrimack Station. The first blockades happened during the night of Dec. 7 and into the next day. Over 100 activists blockaded the train tracks at three different points along the route, beginning in Worcester and Ayer, Massachusetts and culminating with a third blockade in Hooksett, New Hampshire. The coal train was delayed for several hours, resulting in 20 arrests on trespassing charges. Two people were further charged with resisting arrest after refusing to come down from a railroad bridge. 

    Activists attempted to blockade the tracks again on Dec. 16 in West Boylston, Massachusetts. However, despite calling the emergency dispatcher and waving red flags to signal the conductor, the coal train did not stop, and almost two dozen activists had to jump out of the way as the train barreled towards them.

    The group remained undeterred, organizing another train blockade Dec. 29, when over 20 people in Worcester stood across the tracks. Ten were ultimately arrested, setting the stage for the scaffolding blockade in Harvard on Jan. 2. 

    “If [the Harvard blockade] had been an isolated action, then maybe it would feel like we didn’t accomplish much,” said Cody Pajic, who was arrested at the blockade on Jan. 2. “But #NoCoalNoGas is a long-term strategic campaign, and when Bow finally shuts down, we’ll know that the train blockades were part of the path that got us there.​”

    “We are building Dumbledore’s Army. We will grow in deep relationship with one another in a movement network across the region.”

    These train blockades embody one of the campaign’s guiding principles: that ordinary people can take matters into their own hands to disrupt fossil fuel infrastructure and address the climate emergency. 

    “We can stop these trains fairly easily,” DeChristopher said. “It’s a very simple thing to do, and it needs to become commonplace.” 

    Developing strategy and an inclusive campaign culture 

    Participants like Barbara Peterson, who has long studied nonviolent direct action, have emphasized the campaign’s strategic sophistication as a key reason for getting involved. From thoroughly researching a target to providing intensive training in nonviolent direct action and regularly evaluating previous actions, #NoCoalNoGas has been intentional about shaping a campaign that is smart and effective. 

    “We do a process of evaluation of the tactic after we’ve used it,” Schoenberg said. “For me, it’s important to ask, ‘Did this meet our goals? Did our strategy shift from the data and information we received? Does a different tactic make sense? Or do our people need rest?’”

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  • Asking these questions allows activists to shift focus from civil disobedience to community-building when needed. For example, in the coming weeks the campaign may place more emphasis on supporting activists facing court proceedings than conducting direct actions. In this way they would also be able to work on advancing the use and acceptance of the “climate necessity defense” — a legal argument that would allow activists to explain their unlawful actions as being for the greater good.

    Nevertheless, organizers are clear on the campaign’s three goals: The first is to develop community and ownership of the campaign among participants as they put their bodies on the line; the second is to show people in New England and around the country that it is possible to shut down a plant like Merrimack Station with direct action; and the third is to shut down the plant itself, while also preventing the plant from being converted into a natural gas facility. The community-building aspect is considered more important for building power in the long-term than simply shutting down the plant.

    “We are building Dumbledore’s Army,” said CDC Co-Founder Jay O’Hara. “We will grow in deep relationship with one another in a movement network across the region, and therefore we will grow in power. Once we are done with [Merrimack Station], we will move onto the next thing.”

    O’Hara said the campaign embraces an approach of “emergent strategy,” which allows for a flexible, ever-evolving series of actions that are not centrally planned and imposed.

    “We don’t get together and write a strategic plan that has these predetermined peak moments of escalation, timelines and how we’re going to mobilize various resources,” he explained. “It’s not that we don’t think about those things, but we don’t start from there, because when we start from there we start to think of human beings as the pieces we’re trying to plug into our plan. From my perspective, that is the central problem of the domination system we’re trying to get out from underneath.”

    Barbara Peterson is arrested during the #NoCoalNoGas campaign’s first nonviolent direct action on Sept. 29. (Twitter/DrPeace)

    Peterson said that despite the challenges of doing direct actions, being a participant in the campaign feels deeply purposeful and important. 

    “I suppose everyone’s different, but for me it’s not fun getting arrested,” she said. “It’s not fun going against the system. It’s frightening, it’s incredibly inconvenient — you have to sleep out overnight. I’m not woodsy. I’m not a camper. We do it because we can’t not do it.”

    The #NoCoalNoGas campaign builds on a longer history of climate activism in the region, including a number of other campaigns to shut down coal plants in New England.

    Part of the campaign’s strength comes from this approach of building solidarity and joy among participants. One way activists are doing this is by cultivating a culture of singing into their organizing and direct actions.

    “It seems like a sign that we are building a transformational movement when people sing together,” Schoenberg said. “We haven’t seen that in many movements since the civil rights movement, when black spirituals that people sang at home and in church were brought into social justice spaces. That seems like a sign that we are really building a transformational movement when people sing together, because that comes from people’s homes.”

    Building a regional movement against coal power

    While three coal-fired power plants still remain in New England, one (Bridgeport Station in Connecticut) is scheduled to be closed in 2021 and the other (Schiller Station in New Hampshire) has been partially converted to run on wood chips. This has made Merrimack Station — the only fully coal-fired power plant without a shutdown date — the target of #NoCoalNoGas.

    What’s more, Merrimack Station is also quickly becoming obsolete. Owned by Granite Shore Power, a partnership between two Connecticut-based companies, it operates infrequently under the direction of ISO New England, which manages the regional power grid.

    #NoCoalNoGas activists march to the coal pile at Merrimack Station on Sept. 29, signing and drumming on buckets. (Facebook/350 New Hampshire Action)

    “[Merrimack Station] is vulnerable because it’s unnecessary,” DeChristopher said. “If we can give a bit of an extra push in terms of making it more inconvenient and expensive to run that plant, we can put it over the edge in shutting it down.”

    The plant also receives millions of dollars in “capacity payments” from New England rate-payers even when it’s not operating, so it can stay prepared to produce energy if needed.

    “The fossil fuel industry is working up agreements with companies like ISO New England, saying ‘You’re gonna need us. What if there’s a cold snap?’” Schoenberg said. “Pushing back on that narrative is going to be critical.”

    “We are building a regional New England identity. That’s the same level at which our energy grid operates.”

    New England operates an auction-style energy grid, in which distributors purchase that energy from producers. Generating negative media attention and public outrage against the Merrimack Station and coal production could dissuade distributors from purchasing energy from the plant, organizers said.

    The #NoCoalNoGas campaign builds on a longer history of climate activism in the region, including a number of other campaigns to shut down coal plants in New England. One such effort took place back in 2013 with the Lobster Boat Blockade, during which two environmental activists, including the CDC’s Jay O’Hara, blocked a freighter from delivering a shipment of coal to the Brayton Point Power Station in Massachusetts. Brayton Point was the largest coal-fired power plant in New England until it shut down in 2017.

    In an effort to continue building momentum to drive coal out of New England, O’Hara and Marla Marcum of the CDC helped to lead the 2015 “Pipeline Pilgrimage” with a group of young Quakers as part of the Young Adult Friends Climate Working Group. They marched for 12 days along the 150-mile route of a fracked-gas pipeline that was proposed to run through Massachusetts and New Hampshire. 

    In 2017, Quakers led another pilgrimage from the Schiller power plant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to Merrimack Station, 50 miles away. The Schiller station has since converted one of its three coal-fired boilers to burning wood chips instead. Another plant, the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts was shut down in 2019 after local outrage at the poor maintenance and dangerous conditions of the plant.

    The #NoCoalNoGas campaign is part of a larger regional movement to shut down fossil fuel infrastructure, and has developed stronger linkages between various environmental campaigns in New England, including the campaign opposing the natural gas compressor station in Weymouth, Massachusetts and protests against JPMorgan Chase Bank, which has underwritten billions of dollars of funding for new coal-fired power plants.

    Step by step, bucket by bucket, and train by train, a multigenerational movement is growing to tackle the climate crisis.

    “We are building a regional New England identity,” Schoenberg said. “That’s the same level at which our energy grid operates. Each state is trying to pass a deal around the climate emergency in their own way, and we’re building a network of people helping each other with resources and skills.”

    The campaign may have lasting ripple effects on New England’s energy grid. State officials in Connecticut say the state may withdraw from the regional energy grid and reconsider pro-natural gas policies. Meanwhile, Massachusetts lawmakers are discussing the possibility of implementing carbon pricing. As the #NoCoalNoGas campaign continues, activists will use the growing regional network to apply pressure on key actors, from elected officials to presidential candidates to corporate executives.

    Lessons 50 years after Seabrook

    It’s not hard to see the Seabrook protests as ancestors of the campaign to shut down Merrimack Station. Both campaigns showed commitment to nonviolence, used blockades and occupations, employed creative expression, devoted energy to nonviolent action training, and organized participants into affinity groups.

    Both campaigns also understood the corporate connection. The Clamshell protesters knew they were up against New Hampshire’s largest electric utility company, Public Service Co. of New Hampshire, with ties to a web of local and regional financial interests. Their actions included occupying the board room of a major Boston bank and a blockade of the New York Stock Exchange in 1979 on the 50th anniversary of the market crash.

    Yet, as much as the climate activists of today are taking lessons from Seabrook, they are also aiming to forge something radically new.

    “What makes something powerful is not to try and re-inhabit or re-deploy the tactics of a previous generation,” O’Hara said. “What makes something powerful is the underlying spirit that infuses the group taking action.”

    As New England’s climate activists gear up for this next year, shutting down the region’s last coal-fired power plant is only one step along the way. Step by step, bucket by bucket, and train by train, a multigenerational movement is growing to tackle the climate crisis — and the campaign to close Merrimack Station is only the beginning.

    How new creative actions are fueling Chile’s uprising

    The Feast of Laughter group performs a scenic barricade at Anibal Pinto Square on Dec. 20. (WNV/Cristián Opaso)

    On the surface, things have calmed down in Chile, after the initial weeks of massive demonstrations that began on Oct. 18, and brought the military back into the streets almost three decades after the fall of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. But the country is far from calm.

    While new repressive tactics are being used to keep stubborn protesters away from the now legendary Dignity Square, the Chilean people — from organized traditional unions to artist collectives — are developing and implementing new creative nonviolent direct actions. The best known among them is the now world famous performance of the Las Tesis women’s collective that spread like wildfire from Valparaiso to Istanbul to Mexico City to San Francisco and beyond.

    What is it that has kept the fire of protest alive? How are Chileans dealing with the wounds inflicted on thousands and how are they seeking to overcome fear?

    Constanza Salcedo is only 25 years old. On Oct. 19, she joined neighbors protesting in the La Florida neighborhood of Santiago to nonviolently defy the curfew that had begun that day, the first of a week long state of emergency. It only took a few minutes for the Carabineros (local police) to shoot at her and change her life forever. She was to be become the first to lose her eyesight as a result of police violence. Since then, 316 other people have suffered eye injuries and 21 of them have suffered irreversible damage.

    Constanza Salcedo, 25, was one of the first of dozens of Chileans who have lost one of their eyes. (WNV/Cristián Opaso)

    “I have not lost my eye: I still have the eyeball, but I have completely lost vision,” she said calmly, before adding: “Fortunately it wasn’t both, as was the case with Gustavo Gatica or Fabiola Campillay.”

    Salcedo’s feelings have kept changing since that tragic day. “At first I was very angry and sad,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that someone would have shot to show his superiority, to obey orders. The truth is I still cannot understand. They want to provoke permanent damage and that hurts me a lot. You lose some faith in humanity.”

    But Salcedo has kept living, studying and organizing. Only three days before we spoke she had graduated from the University of Chile as a midwife, and when we met she was marching with the recently organized Coordinating Committee of Victims of Eye Injuries.

    “Now I am trying to deal with all this,” she said. “That is why I get involved in this. I am not a very extroverted person, but I know that this helps people be aware about what is going on.”

    Protesters with an injured eyes joined a recent march in front of the Presidential Palace with photographs of the disappeared during Pinochet’s regime. (WNV/Cristián Opaso)

    Dec. 20 marked the first time that the newly formed Coordinating Committee of Victims of Eye Injuries marched alongside the relatives of the disappeared, who have been marching at least since 1978, seeking the whereabouts of more than a thousand people who never returned after being captured by police following the 1973 military coup. After the return to formal democracy in 1990 they have marched many Fridays (some 160 times) between the presidential palace and the Supreme Court.

    The fact that both groups marched together made it possible for the new committee to walk the few blocks without being repressed by the police. The traditional signs showing the faces of the disappeared were now accompanied by signs showing bleeding eyes carried by protesters, some of whom covered their own injured eyes. Drawings of eyes as art objects and the covering of one eye in public have become the symbol of police repression.

    Among those who marched that Friday was Marta Valdés Recabarren, whose 17-year-old son Edgardo Navarro Valdés was shot in the face by a policeman during a high school demonstration. As a result, he suffered a serious eye injury that has prevented him from being on the frontlines of the protests and from practicing skating, which is another passion. His mother, after realizing that many did not know how to seek help — and that others offering support couldn’t find ways to channel their efforts — got together with 20 eye injury victims and organized the group.

    Marta Valdes Recabarren, founder of the Coordinating Committee of Victims of Eye Injuries with one of the victims, her son Esteban Navarro, 17. (WNV/Cristián Opaso)

    “Psychologically, and in many other aspects, it has been of great help to be united, to be together,” said Marta, who now acts as the spokesperson for the committee. “From sorrow we have come out with something beautiful: to know each other, to love each other, to caress each other, to share our pain and see how we are coping with the eye injuries. This has been of tremendous significance in a country today immersed in so much violence.”

    Despite not being new to this violence, like other victims, she remains hopeful.

    “I have five disappeared in the family” she said in an almost casual way, referring to the brothers, father and wife of the Gonzalez Recabarren family who were kidnapped in the 1970s. “The best way we can get even with those who have repressed, who have tortured, for all they have done, is to be happy. And I am cheerful, regardless of everything that we have lived through.”

    The committee is working on providing medical help to those injured across the country and also preparing a legal case against President Sebastián Piñera, who they believe is ultimately responsible for the repression. That case will at some point be seen by the Supreme Court, the exact place where the committee ended their march.

    Re-vindicating nonviolent civil disobedience

    The judicial system is in fact a key player in current events in Chile. Their main headquarters in Santiago is right across the street from the parliament. And it was precisely this space that Unidad Social, or Social Unity, the main coalition of traditional unions and social movements supporting the protests, decided to occupy in what they called Dignity Camp. Starting on Dec. 9, they came with tents, stages and sound systems, and for 11 days held public meetings, lectures and artistic performances concerning many issues, among them of course the new constitutional process that will be decided next April. For Mario Aguilar, head of the powerful teachers union, it was a re-vindication of a legitimate course of action.

    “Our main goal was to carry out an act of civil disobedience at a time when they have tried to demonize civil disobedience almost as an act of terrorism,” explained Aguilar on the teachers union’s online video channel. “We re-vindicate the right of the people to carry out nonviolent civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is a profoundly ethical act; it is fundamentally a moral act.”

    The occupation was illegal because they were not given permits to create the democratic space to debate what Chileans want for their country legally, he explained. “[It is] an illegal, but profoundly democratic action, just as there are actions that are legal, but profoundly antidemocratic and illegitimate” he added, before pointing to the offices of the Supreme Court and Parliament.

    Congress indeed has been slow in introducing changes to the process for a new constitution that is scheduled to begin with the plebiscite in late April. A preliminary agreement has been reached to have a quota system to assure equal representation for women, but disagreement remains concerning reserving quotas for indigenous representatives. Urgent social reforms demanded by the uprising that began on Oct. 18 have also not been implemented. These include an end to the privatized pension system put in place during the Pinochet dictatorship that has failed to cover basic costs of living for the great majority of retirees, and access to free health and education.

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  • Courts on the other hand have been slow to react to the widespread human rights abuses that, despite decreasing in number, have continued. Indeed, in November and December four major international human rights organizations — the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch — put out statements or reports denouncing widespread and systematic human rights abuses, many of which are ongoing.

    Some national courts have in fact been slowly restoring some basic rights. Judge Daniel Urrutia, for example, ruled that it was illegal for the city and police to prevent protesters from gathering at Dignity Square. And on Dec. 23, the Santiago Appeal Court released math teacher Roberto Campos, the first person arrested for the still unresolved destruction of 25 subway stations between Oct. 17 and 18. Charged with destruction of subway installations (allegedly proven by subway surveillance videos) and violation of Internal Security laws, Campos had been held at a maximum security prison and today awaits trial at his Santiago home.

    A couple dozen protesters who had come to support Campos celebrated outside the courthouse after the judges reviewed the case. Armando Arjona, Campos’ Mexican-born partner, highlighted the importance of the ruling.

    “I am supremely thankful. Not only are we bringing about social changes, but also political ones,” he said. “Justice belongs to the people [and is] in our hands. We have been able to change the history of Chile, and we can change the way that justice is implemented. This has not ended. There are still many compañeros and compañeras imprisoned because of the mobilizations.”

    On the following day a court in the southern city of Concepción released three students who were also held in prison awaiting trial.

    According to the prosecutor’s office, there are 1,957 people held in prison awaiting trial and 20,207 people have been indicted, most of them for theft in uninhabited locations.

    Furthermore, on Jan. 8 the government announced legal prosecutions against high school student leaders, responsible for sparking the widespread protests, and who recently occupied public schools in an effort to boycott what they claim are unfair college entrance examinations.

    On the other hand, only a handful of members of the security forces are being held in prison, despite the prosecutor’s office having opened 2,670 investigations for human rights violations. Among them are dozens of cases of sexual violence. In November 2019, the governmental (but independent) National Human Rights Institute presented 74 legal actions for sexual violence, a figure that amounted to four times those presented in the last nine years combined.

    Reinventing barricades

    It was precisely this aspect of repression that led Las Tesis to come up with a feminist dance performance known as “A rapist in your way.” It has been reenacted by groups of women in a variety of public spaces, among them Chile’s main sport arena, where thousands of women of all ages simultaneously moved their bodies, pointed their fingers and blasted patriarchy in its various forms — from state violence to daily sexism — with lyrics that defy and inspire.

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    “The rapist is you. It’s the cops, the judges, the state, the president. The oppressive state is a macho rapist,” the participants cry out in unison. “And the fault wasn’t mine, not where I was, not how I dressed. The rapist was you. The rapist is you.”

    After the group first performed on Nov. 20 in front of a police station in Valparaiso, it spread quickly around the world. It is not only a powerful denunciation of the sexist violence of the police and the state as a whole, but also an example of the many art actions that have begun replacing traditional barricades with performances on street corners and in shopping malls. Sparked by small artist collectives, these regular street performances are decentralized and spontaneous.

    The artists who constitute the group “Fire: Actions in Cement” inspired the Las Tesis collective to come up with their now legendary action.

    “We were out in the streets, participating in the protests since the first day, for at least the first three weeks,” said Andrés Ulloa, one of the members of Fire, who is an actor and teacher from Valparaiso. “But there came a time when the police changed their strategies of repression, and it became much more difficult for us to be in the protests. We are not that young anymore. It was saying to ourselves, ‘We are afraid, but we cannot remain in the margins, we have to act.’”

    Andrés Ulloa, 42, one of the founders of the Valparaiso artist collective Fire: Actions in Cement smiles next to John Lennon at Anibal Pinto Square, where the first scenic barricades were performed. (WNV/Cristián Opaso)

    It all began on Nov. 9, when Katty Lopez posted a call to fellow artists on her Facebook page.

    “I suppose it’s key to carry out actions that rub the faces of those who for years have inflicted miseries and pain on us, but I also see, even more urgently, a revolution with laughter, dissidence, joy, dance, pleasure,” the post read in part. “Make the streets become improvised theaters, make the streets become intimacy, make the streets become inextinguishable force and fire.”

    Close to a hundred people responded, and Lopez, Ulloa and three others, decided to give form to the original idea.

    “And we named it Fire to symbolize the social movement and the explosion that has resulted in a fire that has not been extinguished, and action on cement because what we proposed was to act in the streets and occupy public spaces,” Ulloa recalled.

    They came up with three types of actions: “scenic barricades” consist of blocking street traffic for no more than five minutes and performing a short theatrical piece. Another type of action they call “facades,” which involve artists performing brief plays where they talk back and forth with the institution represented by the facade. They have performed these action in front of the courts and a local church. The third kind of action is “outside the theater,” where short plays are performed in squares and other public spaces.

    Olga Echeverría Monarde, 92, performed the first scenic barricade in Valparaiso on Nov. 18. (WNV/Fire: Actions in Cement)

    The first scenic barricade, the most successful of their proposals, featured the grandmother of an artist who blocked the streets and calmly had a cup of tea, as a denunciation of the miserable conditions of many elderly people. Images of the performance went viral and the actions multiplied. The third was the one organized by Las Tesis, but dozens have occurred since. On New Years Eve for example 10 simultaneous scenic barricades took place, mostly by actors, but also one by a graphic artists collective.

    Fire: Action on Cement has helped produced many of the events, but they do not seek to become permanent coordinators nor owners of the idea.

    “Our proposal is that this function in a joint and collaborative manner,” added an inspired actor after yet another successful barricade at the Anibal Pinto square on Dec. 28. “The idea is for people to grab the idea and apply it independently. The bottom line is that we don’t want to direct anything … which is part of the spirit of the revolt … We will keep disrupting traffic even though it might bother some people, because we believe it is necessary.”

    Some 10,000 people gathered to welcome New Year in Santiago, despite not having a permit. Special tables were set up and food given to members of voluntary health brigades and others on the frontlines. However, as the street celebrations came to an end, two more Chileans — Matias Orellana, a teacher from Valparaiso, and Diego Lastra, a medical student from Santiago — were both partially blinded by tear gas canisters shot in their faces by the police.

    Voluntary health workers celebrate at a massive New Year’s dinner held next to Dignity Square, where thousands congregated despite official prohibition. (WNV/Cristián Opaso)

    Others, such as a young couple, were heavily repressed by the police. Judith Fernandez, a protester who was badly beaten with her partner Eduardo Hidalgo near Dignity Square, sent a public message on social media. Speaking with her eyes swollen by the police beating, Fernandez came close to tears when she recalled the help she had received from health volunteers.

    “Two wonderful people gave us drops that helped with the most intense pain,” she said passionately. “They were there supporting us, even though they didn’t know us — encouraging us, thanking us for having been there. Let’s continue. This is not going to stop. No beating, no mark that these assholes leave on our bodies is going to fracture our spirit. We are winning, we are going to make it.”

    Why we need to move closer to King’s understanding of nonviolence

    The following is an edited version of a chapter from Kazu Haga’s new book, “Healing Resistance: A Radically Different Response to Harm,” published with permission from Parallax Press.

    In Kingian Nonviolence, a philosophy developed out of the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., there is a distinction made between nonviolence spelled with a hyphen, and nonviolence spelled without a hyphen. “Non-violence” is essentially two words: “without” “violence.” When spelled this way, it only describes the absence of violence. As long as I am “not being violent,” I am practicing non-violence. And that is the biggest misunderstanding of nonviolence that exists.

    I live in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Oakland, with an equal mix of black, Latino and Asian residents. One day, I was taking a nap in my apartment when I was woken up by a couple yelling at each other below my second-story window. I decided to get out of bed and look, and I saw a woman on the ground being beaten, crying and screaming for help. I jumped up, put on my shoes and ran downstairs. By the time I arrived, about 15 of my neighbors had also come outside, but they were just watching this woman get beat, doing nothing to help. I managed to break up the fight and get the two to walk away from each other, one fuming with anger and the other in tears.

    My neighbors who were just watching this were practicing “non hyphen violence.” They weren’t throwing punches or kicks. They were explicitly being “not violent.” So, you see how, from a Kingian perspective, what a difference that little hyphen makes. You see how big of a misunderstanding it can create if we think that nonviolence is simply about the absence of violence. If we define nonviolence as “not violent,” then we can hide behind the veil of nonviolence while still condoning violence.

    It’s easy to be a bystander. We see rising homelessness, and we turn the other way. We see unarmed black folks being killed by police, and we blame the victim. We hear about high suicide rates among LGBTQ youth, and we do little or nothing about it. We read reports on the climate crisis but leave it to the next generation to deal with. We watch our communities and the earth being assaulted every day, and we just gather around and watch.

    Nonviolence is not about what not to do. It is about what you are going to do about the violence and injustice we see in our own hearts, our homes, our neighborhoods and society at large. It is about taking a proactive stand against violence and injustice. Nonviolence is about action, not inaction.

    Negative peace

    This misunderstanding of nonviolence leads to a dangerous misunderstanding of peace. Similar to misunderstandings of nonviolence, calling for a misunderstood peace can be an act of violence. On February 3, 1956, a woman named Autherine Lucy became the first black student to attend classes at the University of Alabama. Within days of her arrival, riots broke out. A mob of more than a thousand people surrounded the car she was traveling in, and rioters climbed on top.

    In response, the university expelled Lucy. They claimed that her presence was causing a threat to the safety of the school. The following day, the riots stopped. The local newspaper ran a headline that read, “Things are quiet in Tuscaloosa today. There is peace on the campus of the University of Alabama.”

    There is peace. What kind of peace was the paper talking about?

    A one month later, King gave a sermon in response to this titled, “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious.” In it, he said the peace the newspapers described was not a real peace. He said that this is “the type of peace that all men of goodwill hate. It is the type of peace that is obnoxious. It is the type of peace that stinks in the nostrils of the Almighty God.” Strong words from the man who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. When King spoke of a “peace boiled down to stagnant complacency,” he was talking about what peace educator Johan Galtung calls “negative peace,” a peace that describes the absence of tension at the expense of justice. King went on to say that, “peace is not merely the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.”

    Oftentimes, we think of peace as calm and quiet. We conjure up images of watching the sunset on a tropical beach, meditating in the forest by a creek, incense and scented candles. That can be as problematic as thinking that nonviolence is about not being violent. I guarantee you that the moment after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, things were really quiet. So did we create peace? If someone is screaming in my face, and I stop them by knocking them unconscious, did I just create peace?

    It is easier in the short term to sweep issues under the rug and settle for a cheap yet ultimately unsustainable negative peace.

    As ridiculous as that sounds, this is how our society tries to create peace, because we have such a gross misunderstanding of it. This is what allows us to justify going to war to create peace. If we just kill all the terrorists, we’ll have peace. It justifies the militarization of the police. If we just lock up all the protesters, then our streets will be quiet and peaceful. It justifies mass incarceration. If we just lock up all the bad people, we’ll have peaceful neighborhoods.

    Negative peace is prevalent in many of our relationships, homes, workplaces, faith communities and institutions. This is often the type of negative peace created and maintained by a ubiquitous, unspoken understanding that surfacing conflict is not welcome. My home country of Japan deals with this type of negative peace on a national level. As a culture, we tend to be conflict-averse. We are taught that the honorable thing is to hold it in, keep our heads down and endure. It is considered rude to bring up difficult topics that could create tension because we would be placing a burden on others. It’s impolite. So we endure.

    Japan may be one of the safest nations on Earth in terms of violent crime, and from the outside looking in, it looks peaceful. But we also have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. To learn to endure life’s challenges with dignity can absolutely be a positive trait, but when it results in a nation of people trying to simply endure trauma, isolation and living a life without purpose — when people are taught not to speak out about injustice and oppression and to “stay in their place” — that’s repression. It is negative peace.

    I once heard someone describe this phenomenon as the “tyranny of civility.” We’re told in corporate workplaces not to speak out about sexual harassment because it would “create conflict.” We’re told in our churches not to question the use of church funds because “it’s improper.” So we go on pretending there’s no problem. Enduring.

    We see this everywhere in our society today. Racism? Not a problem anymore; the only people still talking about racism are the racists! Patriarchy? Look at all the women leading major corporations now! Poverty? The economy has never been better! Look at the stock market!

    It is easier in the short term to sweep issues under the rug and settle for a cheap yet ultimately unsustainable negative peace. It is an entirely different conversation to proactively work against violence and build toward a positive peace that includes justice for all. It requires us to lift the veil off injustice and work to repair the harm.

    Disturbing complacency

    When we associate peace with only the absence of tension, we actually move farther away from the positive peace that King called for. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote, “My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

    In 2015, in response to the police killing of Freddie Gray, the city of Baltimore erupted into an uprising. This included some members of the Baltimore community engaging in acts of violence. Buildings were burned. Car windows were smashed. Former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis implored the protesters to “stop the violence.”

    When we use nonviolence to confront violence and injustice, we are not disturbing the peace, we are disturbing complacency.

    As a nonviolence trainer, I don’t necessarily think that burning buildings is the most effective tactic to creating lasting change. And at the same time, I was disappointed at Lewis’s statement. There is great irony in his call for protesters to “stop the violence.” Because that is exactly what the protesters were trying to do. The uprising in Baltimore wasn’t only about the killing of Freddie Gray. It was a response to 500 years of violence against people of African descent in this country. People were out in the streets because they were the ones sick of the violence perpetrated in their communities for so long.

    King once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Riots are ultimately a cry for peace from communities who have never had it. To condemn oppressed people for lashing out against centuries of violence is to ignore the larger context of violence they are lashing out against. It is the inevitable response from a community whose pain had gone unacknowledged for centuries.

    Calls for Black Lives Matter protesters to be peaceful following the latest police killing can be a form of repression. It is a call for peace that acts as a euphemism for “stop complaining” and “stay in your place.” Peace is messy. Justice is loud. If we expect that creating peace in a society as violent as the United States will be a neat, calm and quiet process, we will be in for a rude awakening.

    Real peace-building requires us to learn to have the conversations we don’t want to have with our families and with society. It may require us to hold interventions, shut down highways or perform other acts of resistance. When we do those things, we are not creating the conflict. We are simply surfacing the conflict that already exists so that it can be addressed.

    King was arrested 29 times in his short life. Many of those times, he was charged with “disturbing the peace.” Think about that for a moment. Let that sink in.

    This still happens today to many activists. When we use nonviolence to confront violence and injustice, we are not disturbing the peace, we are disturbing complacency. We are disturbing the normalization of violence. We are disturbing negative peace. When massive homeless encampments become normalized, we need to disturb that. When we accept a 50 percent dropout rate from urban high schools, we need to disturb that. When we invest in a prison system that produces an 83 percent recidivism rate, we need to disturb that. When corporate interests are destroying our planet and endangering the livelihoods of future generations, we need to disturb that.

    The charge of “disturbing the peace” should be stricken from the criminal codes of this country until we finally learn to live in real, positive peace. We cannot disturb something that doesn’t exist in the first place. When we engage in the hard work of nonviolence and social change, we are not disturbing peace. We are fighting for it.

    How Generation Z is leading the climate movement

    For the first decade and a half of her life, Jamie Margolin was like any other U.S. teen living in the suburbs. She went to school, made friends and got involved in sports. Yet all the while, beneath the surface, lurked the fear of a looming climate catastrophe — one that she felt powerless to stop.

    For a while, Margolin was able to keep this fear at bay. Her focus on school and athletics certainly helped. Then came election night 2016, when the protective wall she had built around herself finally began to crumble.

    At age 14, Margolin’s political experience was, at that point, limited to just some phone banking for the Clinton campaign. But rather than give in to despair over the election result, she decided it was time to attack head-on the problem that scared her most: climate change.

    Soon Margolin found herself volunteering for Plant for the Planet, a youth-based climate advocacy group, which she traveled with to the State Capitol in Olympia to lobby for a climate bill. She testified at hearings, spoke at protests and organized rallies. Still, she dreamed of taking even more powerful actions.

    Jamie Margolin speaking to a crowd of youth climate activists. (Facebook/Zero Hour)

    Things came to a head in 2017, as extreme weather events unfolded at home and around the globe. That summer, for the first time in her life, smoke from nearby wildfires palled Seattle’s skies.

    “I saw the smoke, then watched Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico,” Margolin said. “I decided I needed to take my activism to the next level.”

    She wrote an Instagram post that included this message: “If we have a #YouthMarchonWashington where young people flood the streets and demand climate solutions … we can change the game in the #climatecrisis.”

    Responses poured in from friends and from students around the country. Working over email and social media they launched a new youth-led organization called Zero Hour. For maybe the first time, Margolin began feeling she could have the kind of impact she’d dreamed about.

    Inspiring a movement

    Like Margolin, Andrea Manning grew up hearing about climate change. However, for years she thought the problem seemed remote. When it came up in school the focus was always on ice caps and polar bears. As an African American high schooler living near Atlanta, Georgia, these concerns felt far from Manning’s lived reality.

    Then, during her senior year of high school in 2018, a friend asked Manning to help organize a climate march as part of Zero Hour’s first major day of action. Had it been about polar bears, she likely would have passed on the invitation. But when she realized the organization put a strong emphasis on marginalized people, she became intrigued.

    Andrea Manning is now a student at the University of Georgia and part of the Zero Hour executive team. (Zero Hour)

    “I saw how climate change affects real communities and racial justice,” Manning said. “Zero Hour’s message is about the importance of a livable future, but also people on the frontline being affected by fossil fuel development today.”

    Manning was quickly drawn into Zero Hour’s remotely coordinated teenage network, becoming an organizer. The team’s first project was a nationwide day of action that summer on July 21, 2018, which included a march in Washington, D.C. and satellite actions around the country. Manning and her friends pulled off an Atlanta rally that drew 40 people. Small as this first local action may have been, the phenomenon of high schoolers protesting climate change piqued the community’s interest and garnered coverage from news media like the Georgia State Signal.

    Having been inspired by Zero Hour, Thunberg in turn served as an inspiration for many young U.S. climate activists.

    Meanwhile, young people around the world were drawing inspiration from Zero Hour — most notably Greta Thunberg, then a 15-year-old high school student in Sweden.

    Thunberg read about Zero Hour’s day of action online. Then, a month later, she began her Fridays For Future school strike campaign, protesting outside Sweden’s parliament every week. The strike movement spread across Europe and the world, becoming a key part of today’s wave of youth climate activism.

    Patience is rewarded

    Greta Thunberg and Jamie Margolin on a visit to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. in September. (Twitter/Jamie Margolin)

    Because so much of the youth climate movement is organized online, events in Seattle, Stockholm, or almost anywhere can have a near instant ripple effect across the globe. Having been inspired by Zero Hour, Thunberg in turn served as an inspiration for many young U.S. climate activists — including, coincidentally, those in the city where Zero Hour got its start.

    On Dec. 14, 2018, 12-year-old Ian Price became one of the first students to launch a school strike in the United States. Price had watched Greta Thunberg’s speeches on YouTube, and he decided to start a strike of his own outside Seattle City Hall.

    “I’m here because decision-makers like the ones in that building, who have power to make real changes, need to act,” Price said.

    By coincidence, on the same Friday Price began his strike, 14-year-old Alexandria Villaseñor of New York City started one of her own outside the U.N. headquarters. Over the next few months, other strike actions started popping up around the country. In many cases, activists like Price and Villaseñor kept lonely vigils for weeks before anyone else joined. But their patience was eventually rewarded.

    Fourteen-year-old Zoe Schurman, who was also motivated by Thunberg, began coming to the Seattle strikes a couple months after Price launched them. She had been concerned about climate change for years but wasn’t sure how young people like her could make an impact.

    “It was inspiring to see youth my age making waves,” Schurman said. “If older generations aren’t going to be responsible, then in times of crisis youth have to step up and be the adults.”

    Seattle climate strikers at a Friday action in November. (WNV/Nick Engelfried)

    Now, around 30-50 students and supporters join the Seattle strike every Friday. Like in many other cities, a small core group strikes every week with much larger numbers on occasional days of mass action. One such day was Sept. 20, the kickoff to a week of action when more than 7 million people around the world participated in a Global Climate Strike, timed to coincide with a special U.N. climate summit in New York.

    In Seattle, 10,000 people joined a march with strikers like Price and Schurman. Meanwhile, in Atlanta — a more challenging organizing environment because of the region’s conservative politics — a strike organized by Manning and others drew almost 400 participants, 10 times the size of their first Zero Hour action.

    While crowd size varied from city to city, the Global Climate Strike included more than 5,000 events spread across 163 countries. This meant that the movement — which began with only a scattering of teenagers — had just led to the planet’s largest-ever demonstration in support of climate action.

    Life as a youth organizer

    Zero Hour Advocacy Director Ethan Wright was one of about 10,000 people rallying outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. that day in September. “We were chanting so loud, I could hear our words echo off the U.S. Capitol building,” he said. “Elected officials walked out onto the balcony to see what was going on.”

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    No sooner was the rally over than Wright, a key player in the D.C. action, was off to his next activist responsibility, hopping on a train to New York with fellow Zero Hour organizer Nadia Nazar. Over the weekend they — along with Margolin and other young activists — participated in a special youth summit ahead of the main U.N. event that began Monday. Sunday evening Wright caught a plane back to the D.C. area, just in time for another week of school at George Mason University, where he is a freshman.

    “That’s being a youth organizer,” Wright said with a laugh. “We do all this activism, then I’m like, I have to go home and do my Spanish homework.”

    ‘We are upholding a mass epidemic of genocide, and I don’t want to be part of that.’

    As a white male college student, Wright freely acknowledges he came to climate activism from a place of privilege not shared by many Zero Hour leaders. He also sees the need for those with less privilege to lead the way. “I love how intersectional and women-of-color-based Zero Hour is, and also how centered it is on frontline youth and indigenous peoples. It’s about making real, tangible change — and uplifting the right people as well.”

    This intersection between climate justice and human rights concerns has motivated many young activists. Recently, it has even led some to risk arrest.

    Pushing the boundaries

    Hours before sunrise on Nov. 5, 19-year-old Lydia Stolt chained herself to a ladder on a landing dock at the Port of Vancouver on the Columbia River. Her aim was to prevent a vessel carrying Canada-bound oil pipeline parts from landing. Along with several other activists from Portland Rising Tide and Mosquito Fleet, Stolt was acting in solidarity with indigenous groups fighting projects like the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline.

    Climate activists in Washington locked themselves to a landing dock in the Port of Vancouver to block a shipment of oil pipeline parts. (Twitter/Portland Rising Tide)

    “I couldn’t sit by and say I did nothing,” said Stolt, who became a climate activist after spending summers working in Alaska where she saw the retreat of glaciers and impacts on nearby small villages. While emphasizing that she does not speak for indigenous people, Stolt nevertheless said she was motivated to act after meeting Alaska tribal members and making the connection between their fight for survival and those of other indigenous groups opposing fossil fuel pipelines. “We are upholding a mass epidemic of genocide, and I don’t want to be part of that,” she said.

    Stolt wasn’t the only student taking their activism to a new level that day. Twenty-two-year-old Kiran Ooman had also chained himself to the pier, partly in hopes that it would inspire more young people to take similar actions. “Honestly, I’d like to see more youth risking arrest and pushing the boundaries,” Ooman said. “At some point we need to escalate.”

    Ooman embodies an “all of the above” approach to nonviolent activism. At age 17, he joined 20 other youth plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States, a lawsuit alleging that by not acting on climate change, the U.S. government has failed to protect young people’s rights to life and liberty. Ooman, who is studying social movement theory in college, says legal actions, legislative work, and nonviolent direct action are all necessary. He is encouraged by the growth in youth climate organizing over the last few years.

    According to the Harvard Political Opinion Project, over 70 percent of Generation Z see climate change as a problem, with two thirds believing it is “a crisis and demands urgent action.”

    “When I got into climate activism as a high school senior, everyone else was at least five years older than me,” Ooman said. “It just wasn’t something most kids were interested in, but today they are. Now there’s a whole youth movement.”

    That movement is getting thousands of people into the streets through campaigns like the climate strikes, and confronting fossil fuel development directly through action. It’s also taking the push for climate action to the highest levels of international government.

    Reaching the halls of power

    On Dec. 10, 16-year-old Isabella Fallahi was trying to stage a peaceful protest at a panel where a Shell Oil executive was speaking. Fallahi was at COP25, the latest round of international climate negotiations, in Madrid. She traveled there from her home in Indianapolis, where pollution from coal-burning plants — which contributed to her developing asthma — motivated her to become a climate organizer.

    Isabella Fallahi (right) raises a hand with an eye drawn on it to symbolize that “we (the world) are watching,” while a Shell official speaks at COP25. (Twitter/Neil LaChapelle)

    Fallahi and other young activists were planning a silent, peaceful protest against the involvement of polluters like Shell in COP25. However, security guards told them this wasn’t allowed. “They essentially said they would kick us out if we did that,” she said.

    Out of respect for the U.N. process, Fallahi and the other youth decided not to hold the protest. But the incident seemed emblematic of how polluters held influence at COP25.

    “Nothing could get done because of major polluters like Shell,” Fallahi said. “It’s one thing if they’re participating, but they’re being invited onto panels and into closed-door discussions.” She believes it is largely because of this that COP25 failed to make significant progress on international plans to curb emissions.

    Things at COP25 came to a head on Dec. 11, when hundreds of activists led by indigenous youth occupied the main plenary room to demand rich countries pay for damage caused by climate change. A line of security officers forced them out and stripped many activists of the badges that allowed them to enter the conference. International climate group 350.org called it “a crackdown with little precedent at the annual U.N. climate talks.”

    Despite the disappointment of COP25, many young activists came away with fresh ideas about how to escalate public pressure on officials. Fallahi is now part of one such effort: a new youth-led campaign to ban polluters from COP26 in 2020. “We don’t want any polluters invited to COP26. It’s time to kick them out.” The youth will also lobby U.N. and national government officials in the lead-up to the talks.

    Meanwhile, Zero Hour is training youth ambassadors to give presentations in their communities about the Green New Deal. “We’re helping people understand what the Green New Deal really means and the importance of voting for candidates who support it,” said Andrea Manning, who is working on the project.

    Another international day of climate strikes is coming up on the 50th Earth Day in April — one more sign that the youth movement shows no indication of slowing down. This should be no surprise, since according to the Harvard Political Opinion Project over 70 percent of Generation Z see climate change as a problem, with two thirds believing it is “a crisis and demands urgent action.”

    “Climate change is connected to everything,” Fallahi said. She wants all young people to realize the importance of getting into the streets, lobbying and — for those who are old enough — voting in the 2020 election. “It’s connected to mass migration, health, and every aspect of society you can possibly think of. There’s no other way to put it.”

    ‘Music is a living thing’ — a conversation on movement music with the Peace Poets

    For as long as people have been protesting, they’ve also been singing about it. From Woody Guthrie’s leftist national anthem “This Land is Your Land” to Sam Cooke’s soulful “A Change is Gonna Come,” movement music has fostered hope and brought people together throughout history. 

    Perhaps no one knows the power of music in organizing better than the Peace Poets, a hip-hop and spoken word collective from Harlem, New York. The group, comprised of Frankie Lopez, Lu Aya, Frantz Jerome, Emmanuel Candelario and Abraham Velasquez, Jr., often refer to themselves as a family. Some of the members have known each other from age 3, while others met in college. Together, they’ve written songs that address social and political crises in over 40 countries. Their songs have been used in the Women’s March, the Standing Rock protests, and most famously, Black Lives Matter protests after the death of Eric Garner. In 2014, their song “I Can’t Breathe” went viral after actor Samuel L. Jackson recorded himself singing the song in solidarity with the protesters.

    The Peace Poets cite among their influences Peter Yarrow, Rage Against the Machine, Harry Belefonte and Mercedes Sosa — and in their words, their music “can take you from the Boogie Down to Berlin, from the border to the bodega.” I sat down with two of the Peace Poets, Lu and Frankie, to delve into their roots, the power of music and what they’ve learned from years of organizing. 

    How did the Peace Poets get started?

    Frankie: In 2006, Sean Bell was murdered by police the night before his wedding in New York. There was a group called Mahina Movement that organized an event called “50 Shots, 50 Artists.” They were calling on the New York community to come out and speak their rage, to speak their sadness and to organize. At the event, I shared a poem. Afterwards, the father of a young man named Nicholas Heyward, Jr., who was killed by the NYPD in Brooklyn, came up to me and said, “Hey, can you do that poem at my son’s memorial? I’ve been organizing it for years, and I would love if you could come there.”

    From there, we met the whole family, and the Stolen Lives Coalition, which comes together with family members that have also had their loved ones killed by police violence. And we started showing up in the streets with them — not just the memorial, but the rallies and vigils. And then we started writing songs and chants that we could use out on the streets when we gathered. 

    There were so many intersections, from police violence to mass incarceration to immigrant detention centers. We began building relationships with people in the movement and building community. When you live your life in relationship — that’s when the combination of art and activism becomes the most powerful.

    Why do you think music is such a powerful tool when it comes to organizing?

    Lu: People know the power of music. There are concerts that fill stadiums. Everywhere you go, people have their radio or their headphones on. The reason why music is so powerful in movements is because when we sing together, we literally get on the same vibration. It’s a physical thing. It’s like an audio hug, or holding each other’s hands, or putting a hand on your shoulder in support. In that way, music is exactly what we need. We all need medicine to heal. We need something to give us courage and make us feel not alone. That’s the power of music —  to connect us to our purpose, and our history and our vision. 

    Your music and poetry has allowed you to connect with communities from around the world, including Harlem, Ferguson, Standing Rock, Guantanamo and the Dominican Republic. What’s one moment that has stood out to you?

    Lu: We believe in the power of nonviolent direct action to achieve justice in our society, to break unjust laws and to stop business as usual. So I think one of the most meaningful ways that people have responded to our art is by singing our songs in direct action. The first time that happened was around the housing crisis. We did a song called “Listen Auctioneer.” People all over the country saw a video of us singing to shut down foreclosure auctions. It was like a light went on. If there’s a song that taps into what people feel, a song that they’re gonna wanna sing, then they’re gonna wanna do an action. That’s been the response to songs that resonate with people, and the love, the rage, the joy and the pain that people are feeling in their heart.

    Frankie: I think some of the most powerful moments are when young people come up to us and speak about how the message resonates. A lot of people tell us that our music helps them through hard times. I remember actually last year, I was speaking about mental health, and a young woman came up to me crying, saying that she herself had been dealing with depression and she really related to it. That was powerful — but what she also told me was, “I want you to be okay.” I was like, “whoa.” As an artist, it’s one thing to hear, like, “nice poem.” It’s another thing to hear, “Are you okay?” or “I want to check in on you.” That’s one thing that sticks out to me.

    Art education is a critical element of what the Peace Poets do. Why is working with youth so important to your group?

    Frankie: All five of the Peace Poets are artist educators. We’ve worked everywhere from detention centers to community centers and schools — from as young as third grade, all the way to the university level. Our music has led us into these spaces of education and academia. But we’re also flipping the script on academics, so sessions usually look like a circle where everyone speaks their mind and everyone is teaching each other.

    It’s important to say that we came from an organization called the Brotherhood-Sister Sol in Harlem. As teenagers we were part of the lyrical circle. Every Friday we’d get together and share poetry and rap around different focus issues, from Pan-African Latino history to sexism, racism, politics and conflict resolution. One of our members says it best: “I work with youth, because I was a youth that was worked on.” 

    What’s the most meaningful lesson you’ve learned from creating movement music?

    Lu: It’s taught me to be fearless about connecting. To listen. And to let it guide you — to follow the power of the people and the melody of the people.

    Frankie: The music is a living thing. When it wants to change, it takes on another form. And it has spread to the people. People have heard songs of ours in a particular way, and then changed the lyrics to suit their community, and that’s so beautiful. That’s one of the best things ever. There’s a song we wrote for the Climate Strike on Wall Street back in 2014. Later, it was changed lyrically and used for the Women’s March in D.C. It went from “the water rising” to “the women rising.” And how beautiful is that? The music is like water. It’s a tool in the hands of the people, and it flows with the people.

    WNV’s top stories of 2019

    From anti-corruption protests in Lebanon and Iraq to pro-democracy struggles in Sudan and Algeria to the climate-striking youths around the world, 2019 has been a big year for movements. It might even be the largest wave of nonviolent protest in history.

    Naturally, this unprecedented level of action has led to increased movement coverage across the entire media landscape. While that is, of course, a good thing, movements also deserve coverage even when they aren’t generating headlines — and that is one of the primary roles Waging Nonviolence aims to fulfill.

    We believe that every stage of a movement is important and offers lessons that help us understand how to build power and effect change.

    The following lists of our most-read and favorite stories of the past year really show this principle at work. Featuring movements both big and small, past and present, local and international, we see that our readers are interested in a wide-range of movement-related topics.

    If you want to see more stories like the ones below please send us a one-time donation or become a sustaining member. We are just $5,000 short of where we need to be to ensure consistent coverage throughout 2020. So please show your support!

    Our Most-Read Stories of 2019

    1. Why Bernie Sanders’ plan to recruit 1 million volunteers is a winning movement strategy
    By Nicole Carty
    Bernie Sanders’s plan to recruit a million volunteers shows that he’s not really building a campaign, but a movement. And movements are what win elections.

    2. Nuclear weapons ruined my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way
    By Frida Berrigan
    As someone deeply embedded in a life of anti-nuclear resistance, I know the only way to get rid of these weapons is to never stop thinking about them.

    3. Right-wing media is creating the ‘antifa shooter’ narrative out of thin air
    By Shane Burley
    The right is using the Dayton shooter’s Twitter account to make spurious connections between antiracist ideas and mass murder.

    4. How South Africa forced Gandhi to reckon with racism and imperialism
    By Mary Elizabeth King
    Born 150 years ago, Gandhi’s perceptions about human sensibilities, social power and political truths began their transformation not in India, but South Africa.

    5. Street vending is legal in Los Angeles after a decade of organizing
    By Adolf Alzuphar and Ivy Beach
    Street vending was legalized in Los Angeles on New Year’s Day, after a hard-fought campaign led by vendors and their allies that began over 10 years ago.

    5 More of Our Favorites

    Why desperation could be the key to tackling climate change
    By Cam Fenton
    Extinction Rebellion, student strikes and the Green New Deal show that desperation is starting to define climate politics. If handled well, this approach could be a game changer.

    Washington DC natives fight displacement and cultural erasure to the beat of go-go music
    By Sarah Freeman-Woolpert
    A go-go music revival is celebrating Washington D.C.’s historic black culture and helping to fuel a movement for racial and economic justice.

    How the spirit of the indigenous occupation of Alcatraz lives on, 50 years later
    By Loretta Gracefo
    In 1969, indigenous activists occupied Alcatraz Island, demanding that their treaties be honored. Fifty years later, they’re still fighting.

    #FreeBlackMamas bails black mothers from jail for Mother’s Day
    By Victoria Law
    A growing campaign to bring black mothers home from jail is putting the need to eliminate cash bail into criminal justice conversations.

    Prospects for revolution in Africa’s 55 countries
    By Phil Wilmot
    An overview of the current political situation in 55 African countries shows that many movements are making gains in the struggle against authoritarianism.