Waging Nonviolence

Can now really be the best time to be alive? A dialogue across generations

Editor’s note: The following exchange is between 33-year-old organizer Yotam Marom and 82-year-old George Lakey, whose activism, organizing and training spans over 50 years.

Dear George,

I remember sitting at the small round table in your kitchen, with tea you had just made. It was Spring, and light was coming in through the window above the sink, where you were bustling around as you often do. We talked about life, work, politics. You were excited about something or other — maybe your “How We Win” book tour, or something I was up to, or a new trend of growth in the movement like the Democratic Socialists of America or Sunrise. I’m always mystified by how genuinely excited you are about things young people are doing. I think it’s part of what attracts so many of us to your kitchen table.

I think you had recently turned 82, so we were talking about your age. I like to joke that you’re now only now entering your prime. (Even as we speak, you are on a 40-city book tour, no big deal.) Between your family genes and your own stubborn goodwill, you’ve probably got another 40 years in you!

It might have been after an aside about your age that you said something like: “I’m so happy to be here now. There’s no other time in history I’d rather be alive for.”

It feels like I’m standing with my three-year-old daughter on one of those flat escalators slowly churning toward the edge of a cliff…

I don’t know if I thought much of it at the time. Old people say wacky things sometimes, and young people (on a good day) smile along and humor them (though I’m sure that, in reality, most of the time you’re the one smiling along and humoring us). But then I heard you say this again, and again – I even went to one of your book events and you said it there too. In all honesty, it seemed a bit insane to me. The fact that you could feel happy to be alive in this particular historical moment was miles away from how I felt.

Most of the time, I feel pretty unlucky to be alive at this time. I wake up with the sense that could probably manage if all we had to do was overcome the many political, economic and social crises we’re facing. But climate change changes the game dramatically, both by making the stakes completely existential, and by putting a time limit on what we can do about it. I live with a quiet, constant sadness at the loss people around the world are already facing, a nagging fear of what’s to come and a sort of ashamed hopelessness about what we can do to stop it.

I don’t think I’m alone in that. It seems that other folks in my peer group, people in our 30s, feel similarly. Depression is becoming more and more widespread, and younger generations — kids in high school now — seem to be showing even deeper signs of it.

There’s a line in the opening episode of the Sopranos, where — panning over a hollow, grey suburban life in New Jersey — Tony says: “Lately, I’ve been getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” It’s a bit harrowing, a guy really framing his whole existence inside the collapse of the American dream, and the bleakness of it all. That line now comes to me often. It feels like I’m standing with my three-year-old daughter on one of those flat escalators slowly churning toward the edge of a cliff, wondering how much more life she’s going to get to live before we get to the edge, what she’ll get to see, what she’ll miss, what happens to her, and after her, if anything.

So, George, your feeling that this is the best time to be alive doesn’t resonate. But it’s also confusing.

What is the path to power in times like these? What are you seeing, George, that I’m not seeing?

My general orientation about everything that’s fucked up in the world is that the solution is mass movements. Want to change the world? Build a movement. And so part of what is depressing to me about this particular time in human history is that our movements are, unfortunately, not prepared for the task ahead. Our labor movement has been in collapse for decades. We have no serious political power or parties of our own to wield it at a national scale. Even our most massive demonstrations are eclipsed by the average attendance of a football game. On a good day, I can see that movements are on the rise, that we are contending for political power in a way that is actually ground-breaking, that we are building institutions, getting better and sharper. Some days, I can almost taste a Green New Deal, imagine a world in which black lives really matter, see the border wall collapse, almost believe a social democratic economy is within our grasp. But most days I think: too little, too late.

And that’s where the confusion sets in: You’ve been around for so many of the movement moments I envy! You helped train some of the first lunch counter sit-ins in the civil rights movement, were part of the movement against the war in Vietnam and everything that circled it, the nuclear disarmament movement, and everything between then and now. You’ve witnessed entire decades in U.S. politics where millions of people regularly took the streets, where massive cultural change took place, where huge layers of the population were politicized, where it looked like there might even be a revolution. And yet, here we are, in the midst of a crisis perhaps deeper than human beings have ever faced, knowing that movements are our only hope, but living at a time in which our movements are not yet ready to organize at the scale of the crisis, and in which there’s a time limit to avert the worst of what’s before us.

What about that could possibly make us lucky to be alive at this time? What is the potential? What is the path to power in times like these? What are you seeing, George, that I’m not seeing?

So I decided to ask you — and ask you again, and again. And what has emerged is this response, for which I’m grateful. May we always be lucky enough to have the vision, backwards and forwards, from mentors like you. May we have the humility to learn from that wisdom and also the arrogance to break the rules when we need to. I’m sure you wouldn’t want it any other way.

Yotam Marom

Dear Yotam,

I first want to acknowledge your feelings of urgency and anguish. I see the grim picture you’re seeing. I take it personally, as you do. My housemates sometimes see me crying as I read the morning newspaper over breakfast.

Even so, I feel lucky to be alive now because this is the best chance in my lifetime to make really big progressive change. Our difference is partly that I see powerful conditions emerging, under the surface, that open new possibilities. I call them “signals of emergence.” I see evidence, right now, that these trends will give us a chance to gain victories we haven’t been able to reach before in this country.

Please notice that I said, “a chance.” No guarantees. Mine isn’t a new version of the old “scientific Marxism” — I don’t believe in the inevitability of progress. But that’s OK because I am willing to take chances. When, at age 39, I was expected to die from a very nasty cancer, my community and I committed to the chance that I would live.

I’m grateful that I went for it then, and that now I’m part of your community, eager to go for it now. And because I like to argue with you, I’ll point to evidence of conditions emerging that give our progressive movements the chance this time to make decisive change.

The signals of emergence are obscured by the drama of pain, from opioids to floods to shootings to the guy who occupies the White House. In all this high-decibel confusion, the signals of emergence can get lost.

The previous high-water mark: the 1960s-’70s

Let’s compare today with “the ’60s.” The prelude to that decade was kicked off in 1955 by the Montgomery bus boycott, a mass movement of 50,000 black people in Alabama. Although neither political party wanted to touch the civil rights movement in the early ‘60s, we forced major changes.

Victories continued for Chicano and Filipino farmworkers, women, LGBTQ people, elders, mental health consumers, environmentalists, and many other groups inspired to stand up and fight for their rights. The momentum of “the ‘60s” continued well into the ‘70s.

Previous Coverage
  • How movements can use drama to seize the public imagination
  • We often needed the drama of direct action in order to arouse the numbers needed for success. When I joined the tiny opposition to the Vietnam War I found it hard to draw attention to something happening in a small country few people had even heard of.

    Soon I found myself on a Quaker sailing ship confronting naval gunboats off the coast of Vietnam, one of the dramatic campaigns in 1967 that awakened Americans to the war. The peace movement grew massive and helped force the U.S. to give up its self-appointed mission of replacing the French Empire in running Vietnam.

    Millions of Americans in that period took direct action, acting outside the box defined by high school textbooks as the proper place for civic duty: the electoral system. Inspired by the drama of nonviolent direct action, even more millions lobbied and canvassed and drove voters to the polls. It would take thousands of words to describe the progressive victories gained from 1955 to when President Ronald Reagan began the counter-offensive in 1981 by firing the air traffic controllers and breaking their union.

    What’s different now?

    Much of what discourages your generation is not new. During the ‘60s and ’70s we also faced a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, armed militias, and a revival of the Nazi movement. We saw militarization of police departments and police infiltration of social movements. We saw the shooting and killing of students by Mississippi State Police at Jackson State and the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. We even saw assassinations of some of our greatest political leaders, and an all-out war by the police on black organizations and communities. In other countries, the U.S. Empire — run by politicians at home in the interests of the economic elite — was killing millions of people.

    In those days of rampant injustice we built mighty movements that forced progressive change. Dick Cluster mischievously titled his book about those movements and the sparking role that had been played by the student sit-ins, “They Should Have Served that Cup of Coffee.”

    You and I agree that those movements didn’t change the system deeply enough. This time around, with the climate crisis at our door, we need to go farther. In this letter I’ll focus on what makes that possible, like the signs that the system itself is cracking.

    Trends that open the door for a bigger leap forward

    I see four new trends that open the door for bigger change than we could make in the 1960s: inequality-led polarization, economic insecurity, decline of federal governmental legitimacy and climate disasters. We also have assets we didn’t have “back in the day.”

    1. The two-headed impact of polarization

    While traveling on book tours I’ve heard a widespread belief that political polarization keeps us stuck. Intuitively, the claim sounds true. How can a country move forward if everyone’s shouting and no one’s listening?

    Historically, however, polarization has a double impact. One is stalemated governments and divided communities. The other impact is a loosening, a setting in motion. My favorite metaphor is a blacksmith’s forge: polarization heats up society, making it malleable.

    Previous Coverage
  • How to build a progressive movement in a polarized country
  • We’re frustrated and saddened by the first impact of polarization: relationships fracture, racism becomes more overt, violence more frequent.

    However, the volatility also makes positive change easier to get. In the polarized 1930s progressive movements got changes they could only dream of in the ‘20s, like unions, labor laws, Social Security, conservation, electricity for millions, bank regulation and better policies for family farmers.

    There’s no guarantee that increased volatility will yield changes for the better. In Germany and Italy during the 1920s and ‘30s polarization made fascist outcomes possible.

    During those same decades Scandinavian polarization predictably generated fascist growth. Fortunately, the left in those countries navigated the polarization brilliantly, using the volatility to grow mass democratic socialist movements. The result: more individual freedom than Americans have, accompanied by more equality, a stronger social safety net, and higher productivity.

    The late black historian Vincent Harding likened history to a river. Remembering my experience on a class V river in West Virginia I think of activism during polarization as white water rafting. In the 1920s and ‘30s the river of history for Germany and Italy, the United States, and the Scandinavians all hit the turbulence of white water. The first two countries capsized. The United States navigated pretty well and made progress. The Scandinavians, with historical advantages and better strategy, made a breakthrough everyone can learn from.

    Forward to my lifetime, the 1960s and ’70s: racial, gender, generational and other conflicts created turbulence. Even though we lacked then some assets we have today, we made important gains.

    Different now from the 1960s is the economic inequality that’s driving polarization. Political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal found that political polarization correlates directly with economic inequality. The more inequality, the more polarization. The United States has now become one of the most unequal societies in history.

    The 2018 tax law generates even more inequality. That in turn drives more polarization. We can expect, therefore, that the resulting volatility opens more opportunity for progressive change than I’ve experienced in my lifetime.

    2. Economic insecurity

    In the ‘60s, the United States experienced an overall condition of stable prosperity. Young people in each generation expected to become more prosperous than their parents. Since then we’ve seen the loss of well-paid working class jobs and debt-bondage for those who try to get into the middle class through college. At the same time, a pension crisis looms.

    Falling economic security compared with the ‘60s shakes things up. The result: more openness to new ideas and bolder approaches.

    Increasingly teachers can’t afford to live in growing cities where they teach. Commuting becomes more difficult – the national engineers’ give the United States a D- grade on infrastructure. The war on immigration makes it even harder to imagine either re-populating emptying towns or re-building the infrastructure.

    A dysfunctional health care system fails to control costs, leaves tens of millions uninsured, ignores untold numbers of trauma victims, and has waiting lists for the mentally ill and drug addicted. Some life expectancies are declining. Healthcare bills drive up bankruptcies, destabilizing towns already reeling from loss of jobs.

    All these trends hit people of color even harder than white people.

    Compare that to the ‘60s when the American dream was still around: Upward mobility was high, especially for white men, and life expectancies were increasing. For us social movement organizers, the situation was daunting: So many people could ignore the value of collective action for change because their individual prospects looked promising.

    Previous Coverage
  • How to take on fascism without getting played
  • Upward mobility has declined. The economic dream is fading.

    Many express their disappointment and rage by moving away from centrism, opening to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories or, on the other hand, voting for the first time in their lives for a socialist, even an elderly Jew from Brooklyn who represents hippie Vermont in the U.S. Senate!

    Falling economic security compared with the ‘60s shakes things up. The result: more openness to new ideas and bolder approaches.

    3. Decline in government’s legitimacy

    In the ‘60s governmental legitimacy was high. When the public was awakened to the scandal of widespread poverty in the wealthiest country on earth, President Lyndon B. Johnson responded with a “War on Poverty” that was met with widespread approval.

    At the time I heard civil rights leader Bayard Rustin cynically comment that the War on Poverty was “the first time the United States is going to war with a BB gun.” He was right, but an outlier. Most people had a sunny confidence that, if the federal government chose to solve a problem like poverty, it could do it.

    That confidence has largely disappeared, regarding poverty (most national politicians avoid the subject) and a whole lot else. The feds have trouble simply keeping the government open to do basic functions like safety inspections and collecting taxes.

    Compared with earlier in my lifetime, the loss of confidence in government makes it easier now to initiate grassroots actions.

    Since 2001, the Gallup organization has sought data on how proud Americans are of our country. The polls show pride has been sinking, hitting its lowest point so far in 2019. Of the various aspects measured, pride is lowest in our political system.

    Many people nowadays believe there is widespread corruption, prompting presidential candidate Donald Trump to promise to “drain the swamp.” A majority even of Republicans polled believe the economic elite has too much power in governmental policy-making. One poll shows a majority of Americans now believe that ordinary people would “do a better job of solving problems” than elected officials.

    Compared with earlier in my lifetime, the loss of confidence in government makes it easier now to initiate grassroots actions, and new technology makes it easier for the actions to spread.

    4. Climate –the game changer

    I agree with you that this is fundamental. Climate is also linked to the previous trend: government failures further undermine its own legitimacy.

    Additionally, the mind-blowing nature of the climate challenge is at last impacting activists who once defined it as a single-issue effort. Now movement leadership is shifting toward those who can hold a bigger picture and design visions to fight for, like the Green New Deal.

    The dynamics unleashed by climate change can promote unity in a larger, broader, and more visionary mass movement powerful enough to take on the 1 percent.

    Psychologist Abraham Maslow long ago outlined a hierarchy of human needs that prioritized security as well as physiological needs like food. From extreme weather following hurricane Katrina in 2005 to the growth of severe asthma to the epidemic of wildfires, basic human needs for safety are at risk because of government’s incapacity to respond to the climate crisis on the scale needed. The science is clear. To come even close to competency, the federal government would need to respond to the climate crisis the way it did to World War II: an all-out mobilization.

    The government can’t deal with climate because the 1 percent vetoes significant action. Its veto power is not new. According to the Princeton University “oligarchy” study, the economic elite was the primary player in governmental policy even before the Supreme Court issued the Citizens United ruling released even more money into elections. That’s why leading Democrats as well as Republicans have refused until now to respond to the climate crisis.

    Barack Obama discovered this early in his presidency when he asked then-Sen. John Kerry to develop a climate bill (the Dems being in control of Congress at the time) and Kerry reported back that he couldn’t create a bill his colleagues would support.

    While part of the economic elite is doubling down on climate denial, another part is moderating on climate, as reflected in the activity of billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer. That split gives permission to Democrats to shift so they can play their traditional “good cop” role in U.S. politics, leaving once again the “bad cop” role to the Republicans.

    In that way the Democratic leadership, constrained by loyalty to the elite, can hope to co-opt the growing climate justice movement, as it did with the labor and civil rights movements. It’s worth recalling that the civil rights movement made its greatest gains 1955-65, when it was independent, then slowed to a crawl once embraced by the Democrats.

    One Democratic professional politician prominent in his state actually said to me with a cheerful grin, after I called out the Democrats for co-opting movements: “You’re right about what we do, and we’re good at it.”

    Climate disasters and the decline of some prejudices mean that divide-and-rule is less available for the establishment’s defense of its dominance.

    The traditional U.S. political division of labor is now playing out with climate: the Republicans are deniers while Democratic leadership talks climate and rejects the only proposal before them that takes the crisis seriously: the Green New Deal.

    As journalist/activist Bill McKibben says, even Congress cannot suspend the laws of physics. Growing failure on the environmental front produces what political scientists consider a recipe for rapid change and even revolution: the demonstrated inability of a government to solve the basic problems faced by society.

    How does all this influence me to say we’re facing the biggest chance of my lifetime to make breakthrough change? The dynamics unleashed by climate change can promote unity in a larger, broader, and more visionary mass movement powerful enough to take on the 1 percent.

    In the 1960s and ‘70s we were able to generate sufficient grassroots power to change some laws and policies backed by the 1 percent, but we could not challenge the elite’s dominance. Although the elite was put on the defensive, it was able to use lines of cleavage in our society, especially race, to regain the offensive in the 1980s.

    When he was interviewed by the New York Times in 2006 billionaire Warren Buffett described the economic elite’s move as “class warfare,” and he went on to say “…it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

    True enough — their counter-offensive launched in the 1980s has been winning victory after victory. The climate crisis is something new; it provides an existential basis for solidarity that did not exist previously. The third “500-year flood” that hit Houston in three years hurt everyone except the very rich, as do the wildfires and floods in the Midwest.

    Each crisis impacts different groups differently, but the accumulated impact is felt by all except the class that has vetoed real action for sustainability. (The very rich are currently buying property in New Zealand for their new homes.)

    While climate change itself can become a force for solidarity, it comes at a time in which Americans have already reduced the lines of division that were so deep in the 1960s. Even though we are still far from reaching Martin Luther King’s dream, and classism has hardly been touched, the United States is much less racist, sexist, homophobic and elder-intolerant than it was in the ‘60s.

    To put it together: Climate disasters and the decline of some prejudices mean that divide-and-rule is less available for the establishment’s defense of its dominance. Many more people are losing confidence that the “masters of the universe” and elected officials are able to protect life and dignity. They are looking to each other for leadership, and we see that in the emergence of more grassroots activism in the last decade. Expect these powerful trends to accelerate.

    How to navigate the river

    Earlier I mentioned Vincent Harding’s metaphor for history as a long river. Sometimes it moves very slowly and other times quickens to white water. I’ve studied and participated in movements that handled the rapids poorly and drowned, and also movements that absorbed the energy of the white water to navigate successfully.

    Previous Coverage
  • Navigating the white water of these turbulent times
  • That’s how I can picture what our successful navigation might look like. I’m not predicting exactly how the river will run this time, or the exact moves we’ll make. I’m describing how I think our paddling might turn out, based on the right moves other movements made in other times and circumstances, and what moves are available to us as we hit the white water.

    I picture American activists realizing how much they can learn from their mistakes, rather than repeating them. Organizers and leaders decide to base their moves on evidence-based knowledge, gained through wide use of study groups and training workshops. Movement cultures adopt a focus on “our learning curve.”

    This makes quite a difference when it comes to the question of whether to use violence in direct actions. Organizers use the evidence produced by social scientists showing that nonviolent action is much more practical and effective than violence, even for protection. The resulting discipline frustrates our opponents, who are still sending provocateurs into the movement to try to instigate violence and make it possible to shut us down.

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  • How movements build strength through training
  • Training also helps us build solidarity more quickly. Prior to the 2020s some activists were unwittingly helping out the elite’s divide-and-rule strategy by activists using the “calling out” tactic to respond to oppression dynamics they found in the movement. Resorting to shame-and-blame generated a toxic activist culture in some movements and a sense of scarcity that meant any oppressed group that wasn’t in the limelight at a particular moment was somehow being left out.

    However, training organizations like Momentum, Wildfire, and Training for Change grow rapidly to meet the movements’ need to drop old divisive habits.

    Activists shift from one-off protests to sustained campaigns. In nonviolent direct action campaigns organizers use a series of escalating actions directed toward deciders who can yield our demand. With campaign strategy activists move beyond “protests” — really just the expression of their opinion — to the sustained series of actions that gains actual wins.

    This shift is influenced by the popularity of electoral campaigns by Bernie Sanders and other outliers. Activists watching Sanders’ 2015 espousal of Medicare for All grow into a major policy proposal that occupied center stage in 2019 learned how much it matters to focus on a demand in a sustained way over time.

    Previous Coverage
  • Why doesn’t American political culture understand the power of direct action campaigns?
  • Even though the mass media still call the campaigners’ dramatic actions “protests,” most organizers move on to the advanced technology of direct action campaigns. The wins support morale and build the spirit of unity. The community that activists experience over time by learning how to struggle together proves an excellent antidote to despair.

    In addition to re-discovering direct action campaigns, activists from various movements are learning from the civil rights struggle the “movement power grid.” Multiple local campaigns in the South networked with each other in the 1960s. When one of them needed help or seemed ready for a growth spurt, energy could flow into that one from elsewhere, in the form of organizers, money, “name” leaders.

    To cite just two examples, that strength of the grid made it possible for Birmingham in 1964 and Selma in 1965 to shake the national power structure. Alabama, geographically far from Washington, D.C., twice provided the pivot to force national wins!

    I see national movement leaders realizing that, instead of calling national marches at this or that place, they can become strategically organic by directing energy and mass to local campaign sites. To use military terms, movement leaders’ shift turns the entire nation into potential “battlefields” instead of relying on the tired destinations of New York City and Washington, D.C. That strategy shift accelerates our struggle.

    In fact, back in 2016-17 grassroots activists anticipated the strategy shift when a mass influx showed up in South Dakota at the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline; it was the largest assembly of native Americans in decades, and the solidarity stimulated other pipeline fights around the nation.

    Sharpening up strategy for struggle isn’t enough

    Two other developments add to the sharpened strategy for struggle: linking a network of grassroots “helper groups,” and visioning the society we want. These additional moves are accelerated by the further decline in governmental legitimacy induced by climate disruption.

    What mobilizes grassroots helpers is that federal and local governments are responding to climate disasters with money taken from the already-insufficient funding for healthcare, housing, education, immigration support, welfare, and environmental upgrades. Governments prefer this method to taxing the rich (who most benefitted from conditions that led to the climate crisis).

    These widening gaps in human services induce people not drawn to direct action campaigns to try to meet needs by expanding co-ops and other direct service initiatives. Their experience, in turn, awakens them to the need for larger institutions that put people ahead of profit. This encourages working class supporters of the right wing to shift their allegiance to the needs of themselves and their neighbors. They increasingly welcome a vision of a society that assures the rights of all for survival and well-being.

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  • Vision is finally on the rise in U.S. politics
  • The vision breakthrough builds on the Movement for Black Lives’ 2016 platform and the series of initiatives like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Many centrists join the discussion, realizing that neo-liberal, incrementalist Democrats beholden to the rich for campaign cash are simply unable to fight for a viable future.

    The vision work and helper networks reinforce each other, encouraging national leaders of the movement of movements to shift their style from “complainers” to “proclaimers” — of a new society.

    Both vision and helper networks also help to transfer the legitimacy lost by capitalism and government to the movements for change. The positivity of the vision and helpers offsets the disruptiveness of the increasing number of direct action campaigns demanding major change.

    Previous Coverage
  • What the US can learn from Scandinavia in the struggle against inequality
  • Macro vision-work is turning out to be easier than initially thought. Countries like Scandinavia that were already setting the pace in the climate crisis are known for providing more equality, democracy, opportunity for immigrants, and individual freedom than the U.S. Americans who like to be pragmatic realize it’s sensible to borrow from the Nordic model with its half-century track record of global best practices. After all, the U.S. borrowed Social Security and Medicare from other countries, and a huge majority of Americans learned to count on those “foreign imports.”

    Emerging consensus on vision within the movement of movements builds unity, since the vision shows how each of the groups fighting for progressive change can realize their goals in a new America that pushes aside the economic elite fighting to retain its dominance. This vision plays a role in generating something new: a movement of movements that senses the possibility of a power shift.

    Climate disruption continues to accelerate the flow of the river. Liberal and progressive politicians continue to move to the left in their policy proposals, and more of them win elections, but the Democrats’ need to retain the party’s main source of financial support and retain the support of the economic elite reduces the centrists’ wiggle room. The really big changes remain stymied.

    A people whose only political practice is electoral is at a disadvantage against an elite that plays the dictatorship card.

    For the public, however, crisis sharpens the mind. As multiple coastal cities submerge in floods while wildfires rage and pollinating bees disappear, Washington is the target of bitter laughter. I remember the midst of the 2008 financial crisis when the cover of a mainstream magazine proclaimed in bold letters that “We’re all socialists now”? That’s what’s happening: the bold alternative macro-vision proposed by the movement makes more and more sense to a majority whose belief in Washington has gone beyond cynical.

    Writing this now, in 2019, I can’t picture what the endgame of our struggle in the late 2020s looks like — there are too many unknown factors, including how much violence the economic elite might unleash in their attempt to preserve their domination. Even though we know that followers of economist James M. Buchanan would likely push for dictatorship, we can’t know for sure whether the elite will try to rule through presidential decree backed by the military, using the pretext of climate emergency as its excuse.

    We do know from the research of political scientists that multiple movements in other countries have gone up against military dictatorships and won through the power of mass nonviolent direct action. Compared with many of those movements, we are arguably better prepared for that struggle.

    In fact, knowing now about the possibility of attempted dictatorship down the road reinforces our wide use of direct action campaigns rather than relying only on electoral means to make change. A people whose only political practice is electoral is at a disadvantage against an elite that plays the dictatorship card. Practicing direct action skills along the way makes the public battle-ready if that possibility shows up.

    An optimistic view would be that electoral means can implement a power shift in which the economic elite loses its ability to dominate and democracy becomes a reality.

    Previous Coverage
  • How Swedes and Norwegians broke the power of the ‘1 percent’
  • In the 1930s movements of movements pulled off that feat in Sweden and Norway: they used mass nonviolent direct action to make their countries ungovernable by their economic elites while using elections and parliaments to transfer power to the people. The Swedish elite did use the army to try to enforce its will, but the people’s general strike responding to a massacre signaled “game over.”

    Mass noncooperation forced the resignation of the Swedish Parliament’s ruling party. The Social Democrats then re-organized the country to set a new standard of justice, equality, shared prosperity, and individual freedom. That would not be a bad goal for the American people.

    The signals of emergence

    And so, Yotam, this is my picture of how we can make the biggest progress in my lifetime. I’ll italicize the main features.

    Four major trends are inequality-led polarization, economic insecurity, decline of federal governmental legitimacy and disasters compounded by the climate crisis. None of these existed in our country’s previous high-water mark, the 1960s-‘70s.

    Together, these trends are already beginning to incentivize masses of people to act boldly for change who have not before been in the ranks of self-identified activists. Millions are bringing with them not only their talents and connections, but also their sense of urgency. They see the whitewater ahead; they will want to make it safely through.

    The power these millions will generate partly depends on the strategy, skill and learning curve of organizers. We’re now in better shape in those respects than we were in the beginning of the ‘60s. Training is more effective at dealing with dynamics of division, it’s more available, and it’s more easily expanded than it was in those days.

    The art of nonviolent direct action campaigning is being de-mythologized and turned into technique. Communications technology makes networking easier and faster. The “movement power grid” becomes available even where defined leaders forget to structure it.

    The increase of larger disruption caused by direct action campaigns is offset by a growing network of grassroots helper groups to meet human needs. People are also inspired by the promise that, on the other side of the white water, is a just order — the vision projected by a movement of movements.

    The possibility of repressive violence can be met by a combination of new knowledge and training capacity. The dangers faced by the civil rights movement can be met with more confidence than before. Progressive shifts in electoral politics may diminish the use of violence against us but in any case the wins that accumulate through nonviolent direct action campaigns will continue to give heart to the whitewater rafters.

    Whether the movement of movements forces the economic elite to give up its dominance, or simply gains major concessions, the resulting changes can be significantly larger for justice and equality than the gains of the 1960s and ‘70s.

    For you, me, and everyone who hungers for a fresh start for our country, let’s make this happen.

    George Lakey

    How a rising anti-mining movement is challenging Portugal’s ‘white gold’ rush

    The global transition to renewable energy and electric vehicles — technologies that are currently powered by lithium-ion batteries — is creating a high demand for lithium, popularly known as white gold, among other minerals. In Portugal, where some of the largest reserves of lithium in Europe are located, the government recently launched a strategy to increase mining and supply of the mineral for this emerging market. However, residents and organizations throughout the country are questioning the impacts of that large-scale mining plan and who will really benefit from it.

    “Lithium mining in Portugal involves large open-cast mines that rip open huge tracts of land-destroying soils and ecosystems,” said Laura Williams, a resident based in central Portugal, who is having to deal with lithium mining activities on her doorstep. “It uses huge amounts of water in the processing, which then contaminates ground and river water. The huge machines that are used have a massive impact in terms of noise and vibrations on local communities.”

    Awareness raising

    In August, Williams helped to organize a creative protest at the highest point in mainland Portugal, on Serra da Estrela mountain. About 400 residents and organizations gathered to perform a “die-in” and to send a collective message: “No to Mines, Water is Life.” The demonstration was filmed with drones and distributed across the media to raise awareness about the environmental and social impacts of mining for lithium and other minerals, which are often not officially disclosed.

    “I do not campaign on this issue simply to get mines out of Portugal and send them somewhere else,” Williams explained. “For me, the real issue is that attempting to solve an ecological problem with a solution that involves more extraction — in this case, mining for lithium to make electric cars to reduce CO2 emissions — is not a solution. In fact, it is heading in the opposite direction of what is called for at this time: to protect and restore ecosystems.”

    In the last three years alone, Portugal has received hundreds of requests for prospecting and exploration of lithium by national and foreign companies. Today it is estimated that lithium prospecting already covers more than 10 percent of the country’s territory. And in some cases, proposed areas of exploration are adjacent to protected or classified sites, which is fueling opposition.

    In the Serra da Estrela region, for example, several requests for the prospecting of lithium and other minerals were recently made. However, the area is surrounded by sites of cultural, ecological and geological importance, such as the Serra da Estrela Natural Park, which is in the process of being classified as a Global Geopark by UNESCO. As a result, four local organizations issued a joint written statement to express their “deep concern” and reasons for opposing the mining interests in that area. The groups also declared that they are preparing to give “more rigorous and detailed technical advice on this issue” and urged the local authorities to make their position clear as well.

    Community organizing

    “We have been working in unison with other associations that are struggling with the same problem,” said Maria do Carmo Mendes, a member of the Guardians of Serra da Estrela, one of the groups confronting mining in sites of community importance. She said that the group has already sent a letter of complaint to the Directorate General for Energy and Geology, the administration that oversees mining developments in Portugal. And together with other local organizations, they are pressuring the directorate for “absolute transparency in the process of granting mining licenses,” in addition to having an outside entity conduct environmental impact studies before a decision is made.  

    In the north of Portugal, in a rural town called Covas do Barroso, a group of residents has united to defend their land and livelihoods from big mining interests. They came together after finding out about requests for open-pit lithium mining in their area, which is classified as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. A spokesperson from the Association United in Defense of Covas do Barroso, announced that the local community realized they would have to fight “powerful economic and political interests.” Therefore, they decided “to unite and speak in unison” to ensure that the rights and needs of the community are respected.

    The group has been working to educate the community and has organized protests to persuade the national government to withdraw lithium prospecting concessions in Covas do Barroso, which is already causing environmental and social problems. Last week, after a visit from the state secretary for energy in the City Hall of Covas’ municipality, dozens of residents surrounded the secretary’s vehicle making it difficult for him to leave. As they held posters with messages against lithium mining in the area, protesters shouted: “No to the Mine, Yes to Life.”

    Around 400 people participated in this aerial art action on Serra da Estrela mountain, the highest point in mainland Portugal, to protest lithium mining on Aug. 24. (WNV/Laura Williams)

    Also, citizens from two neighbor municipalities in central Portugal have united to defend the preservation of the Serra da Argemela region and to “protect the environmental, health, economic and cultural heritage” of its community. The Group for the Preservation of Serra da Argemela, or GPSA, has organized several demonstrations, public meetings and interventions against mining for lithium and other minerals in the region since 2017. This year, following a petition that gained the signature of many residents, organizations and representatives of local government, the group persuaded the national authorities to reject current mining requests in the Argemela (at least, until an Environmental Impact Study is officially presented by mining companies).

    “A big victory would be if citizens could rest assured that their rights will always be defended by the state,” GPSA member Ana Morão said, when asked if the Portuguese government’s move was a victory for them. “Until then, in addition to the right to demonstrate, the GPSA will exercise its rights of reply and contestation, particularly in the context of the public consultation that will be carried out alongside the Environmental Impact Study.”

    Online organizing

    Residents across the country have also been organizing online, through Facebook groups, for instance, to exchange information about the mining development plans and their implications, and to mobilize offline demonstrations.

    The Movement Against Mining Beira Serra, is one of the Facebook groups created this year in response to the lithium mining boom, which now has over 5,000 members. Nik Völker, an administrator of the group, said that they are currently focusing on raising awareness around the issue, but have already taken part in local and national demonstrations, information sessions and campaigns in cooperation with other similar movements.

    “Our main demand is the right to free, prior and informed consent of any local community being considered for any new mineral exploration or exploitation project,” Völker said. “As long as these conditions are not met, both companies and government will have to deal with our local and national peaceful protest, and possible legal interventions in the near future.”

    Vítor Afonso, one of the members from the Movement Against Exploitation of Mineral Resources in the Municipality of Montalegre, a Facebook group with more than 3,600 members, created in May 2019, explained that he is against open-pit mining for lithium and other minerals not only in his area but throughout the country. “It’s not a desirable or sustainable development model,” he said. “The planet has no capacity to regenerate if it continues to be exploited the way it has been.”

    As a form of protest against the lithium mining plans for Montalegre, residents decided to boycott the European elections in May and the local elections in October. In addition to demonstrating on the streets during election day, they also placed banners that read “No to the Mine, Yes to Life” in front of the City Hall and across public spaces.

    A national platform called Say No To Mines was recently created to facilitate the learning and cooperation between activists and movements that oppose the mining plans, especially for lithium, adopted in Portugal. Yet the Portuguese people are far from being alone in this endeavor. Yes to Life, No to Mining is a global network of and for communities that are battling against destructive mining projects and seeking life-sustaining alternatives.

    Contesting the political economy strategy

    The exploitation of lithium — considered a fundamental step for an “energy transition” by the Portuguese government — has been systematically contested by the National Association for Nature Conservation, called Quercus. The organization publicly requested an “immediate suspension of the government’s strategy for lithium,” after conducting a study that concluded the process of mining for lithium, a non-renewable resource, will result in “high levels of CO2 emissions.” They estimated that each lithium mine will emit an additional 1.79 million tons of greenhouse gases per year, which means it’s an energy development plan that’s still environmentally unsustainable.

    Quercus also organized the first National Forum on the Environment and Lithium, on June 22, that was attended by several representatives of movements, organizations and political parties, who are concerned about the consequences of lithium mining. The event was developed in partnership with the organization Environment in Uraniferous Zones, which has been fighting for the environmental recovery of abandoned uranium mines that still affect the health of local populations in various parts of the country, since 2002.

    Alternatives to lithium mining were also discussed in the forum, including the various technologies that can support a sustainable energy transition and electric mobility, such as the use of hydrogen and biogas fuel, which are renewable and generate low or zero carbon emissions. The next steps agreed upon at the event include organizing a formal meeting with all political parties, the minister of environment and energy transition, and Portugal’s president to debate problems with the lithium mining strategy and potential alternatives.

    The anti-mining movement that is emerging in Portugal, and growing globally, is a clear sign that a “business as usual” development model — oriented to the ever-increasing exploitation of natural resources and unfair economic practices — is no longer accepted by society. And decision-makers will have to respond accordingly.

    “Article 66 of the Portuguese Constitution states that ‘everyone is entitled to an environment of human life, healthy and ecologically balanced, and the duty to defend it,’” Afonso said. “The duty to defend our territories will certainly be exercised [by the people].”

    Why be a pacifist?

    Tim Gee had a transformative experience as a teenager. A group of bullies taunted him and his friends with homophobic slurs, then pelted them with eggs. Gee and his group decided to retaliate: They went out and bought a carton of eggs, snuck up on the bullies and made their own attack — feeling victorious as they drove away.

    It wasn’t long, however, before Gee had the sinking feeling that they had done something wrong. Having grown up in a British Quaker family, he was perhaps primed to feel deeply affected by this schoolyard feud. While some people become pacifists after going to war, throwing those eggs was all the convincing Gee needed to start his lifelong journey of exploring what it means to be a pacifist in the world today.

    In the two decades since that day, Gee has dedicated his life to peace activism and environmental organizing. In 2010, he was a member of a group dubbed the “Superglue 3,” having glued himself to the Royal Bank of Scotland protesting its investment in tar sands. More recently, he was campaign manager of the London Climate Strike, and helped organize the Quaker sit-in that disrupted the London Arms Fair in September 2019. Gee’s third and recently published book, “Why I Am A Pacifist,” explores the personal experiences and philosophical arguments that led him to become a pacifist, and how this informs his activism today.

    I spoke to Gee on Remembrance Day, an occasion when people in the United Kingdom wear red poppy pins on their shirts to commemorate the end of the First World War. We spoke about the role of faith in his pacifist approach to activism, and the linkages between war and climate change. Gee emphasized that a truly pacifist movement will require a nuanced approach to building a new society. From developing a pacifist economy to addressing structural injustice — bound up in racism, misogyny and xenophobia — Gee described the challenge and potential of pacifism in the 21st century.

    In “Why I Am A Pacifist,” you emphasize an important point: Pacifism is not passive. Do you find that people struggle with this concept and can’t imagine pacifism adequately dealing with tough issues, like fascism or the climate crisis?

    I thought long and hard about whether to use “pacifist” in the title of the book. It was when I looked up the origins of the word that I decided I would. Pacifism literally means “peacemaking.” And although it has often been conflated with not doing something, the case I make in the book — building on lots of other people’s work — is that pacifism is a process of creating the conditions of peace. It is the presence of justice, not the absence of tension, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said.

    When I think about fascism, and what the core components are of the fascist point of view, these are ultimately the things pacifism tries to take away: toxic masculinity and the swaggering aggression that goes with it, strong pride in the military and obviously a deep racism. If we take an approach to pacifism that addresses racism and economic inequality, fascist ideas can’t thrive in that environment.

    Furthermore, the climate crisis is deeply related to peace. The very power dynamics that have led to the current destruction of the planet are the same ones that lead to war. I became an environmentalist shortly after I became a pacifist, after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. I made the link between wars for oil and oil causing climate change, and have been almost a full-time activist ever since.

    Quakers have a long tradition of working for peace and justice. How has your Quaker faith shaped your pacifist beliefs?

    One of the images used for peace, the dove, is an image that arises out of Christianity. It can often be used as a representation of the presence of God. The idea that peace and the presence of God are the same is quite a powerful one. Beyond the rational arguments, this is the experienced truth for many Quakers of what keeps them going in the context of an extremely violent society.

    Previous Coverage
  • New language for nonviolence — a conversation with Tim Gee
  • In some of the nonviolent discourse, and particularly among some advocates of strategic nonviolence, there’s a hesitancy for an approach that allows space for the spirit. We need something inside us to keep us going. When I wrote my first book, “Counterpower,” I was reading Gandhi and King, and just focusing on their political strategy. It was only when re-reading [Gandhi and King] that I found it is very difficult to read these people in an entirely secular way. The spiritual struggle was every bit as much of it for them as the political struggle. So I’m not saying that nonviolence needs to be religious or spiritual, but I would like to make space for it because it can be an important part of social change.

    In your vision of a pacifist society, what is the interplay between direct action against militarism — like the London Arms Fair blockade — and the deeper structural work of addressing racism, sexism and economic injustice?

    Previous Coverage
  • While Britain’s Parliament is suspended, its arms fair is open for business
  • The London Arms Fair is one of the world’s largest arms fairs, and there are literally tanks on the streets, on the backs of lorries. There are human rights-abusing countries from around the world — Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Israel — who all came [to the Arms Fair] this year. I would also include countries like the United States, which is going to be using weapons bought there in its current policies. There are only two main gates to enter the Arms Fair, so I went there with Quakers and people of many faiths, and together we blocked one of the gates for most of a day.

    We held two Quaker meetings for worship that were very moving. At one point, a constable interrupted us and said that anyone who didn’t move was going to get arrested. For a lot of people, that prompted cultural memories of Quaker meetings in the early days being broken up by constables. Not one person moved until the scheduled end of the Quaker meeting.

    But they still managed to get the other gate open, and even if we had closed both of the gates, we wouldn’t have stopped war. It would have been a wonderful symbolic victory, but we wouldn’t have stopped war. And I think that’s one of the reasons why I wrote “Why I Am A Pacifist.” It’s because I want to make a distinction by saying that we can go protest outside the London Arms Fair every two years, but being a pacifist means identifying the injustices, the metaphorical traffic leading to war that we experience in our everyday lives, of which I would include any policy or practice informed by racism, gender inequality or anything that perpetuates economic inequality.

    By broadening out and saying the traffic to war exists in all our lives, I want to say that each of us has many opportunities each day to prevent the conditions that lead to war. That means campaigning against things like the flagship racist policy in the United Kingdom, the Hostile Environment Policy, which is every bit as important and integral to pacifism as is going to the Arms Fair and sitting in lorries loaded with tanks.

    What does a pacifist foreign policy look like to you? When President Trump made the sudden announcement to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria in October, he appropriated language of the peace community by claiming this was a step towards “ending endless war.” Are you ever challenged by those who equate pacifism with international isolationism?

    A pacifist foreign policy would naturally have to be internationalist and solidarist. I don’t see any other way to do it. I support the idea of a uniformed service because I think there’s a lot of ways the passion and skill currently used in the military could be used, as it is to some extent in clearing mine fields or rescuing people from the most extreme effects of climate change that we’re already facing. So I support a pacifist and internationalist foreign policy.

    On Syria and the situation of the Kurds, I found myself — for the first time — on a march to call not for the withdrawal of our troops alongside the Kurdish community in the United Kingdom. That was maybe a surprise, but this ultimately wasn’t a withdrawal of troops in order to build peace. The United States could have brought parties together in such a way as to create an agreement and slowly withdraw, leaving peace behind. Instead, the United States left in a way that has led to war crimes and maybe even worse than that. So that’s why I protested against that withdrawal, and that’s why I’ve protested against the Arms Fair when Turkey attended.

    I think intentionality is important. When people say the United States and United Kingdom go to war in the Middle East on some kind of humanitarian mission, this withdrawal shows that’s not the case. This withdrawal has opened the way for an awful humanitarian situation. That’s how I’ve approached the issue — I do so as a pacifist. To my Kurdish fellow activists I’ve said, “I am a pacifist. Am I welcome? How can I help?” And they have said, “Yes, you are welcome,” and “Yes, you can help.” It needs to be done from a position of solidarity. You sometimes do find puritanical pacifists who would not march alongside someone who isn’t a pacifist, and I think that approach is not fully thought through.

    We are seeing such a powerful shift in the momentum around climate justice work. What are some of the deep linkages between a movement to address the climate crisis and global militarism?

    The climate justice movement in the United Kingdom is bigger right now than it has ever been. Awareness of climate change, including in the priority lists of issues by voters, has skyrocketed in the last year alone. The youth climate movement and school strikers are the most intersectional environmental movement I’ve ever encountered. So my experience with school strikers is that the arguments I make in the book about all of these issues needing to be linked is just obvious to them. It doesn’t need explaining.

    One of the slogans people have been chanting on the streets is “Cash for climate, not for war.” It’s an overwhelmingly nonviolent movement, and a movement which understands that a more climate friendly world would be a more peaceful world, by not pursuing so many wars for oil — not to mention the contribution of militaries to climate change directly. So I have a lot of hope for the youth climate movement. I think about my generation, the people who became politicized through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, who are now beginning to enter politics and take some positions of responsibility. But young people today are even more passionate and determined, and they’re not going to wait 15 years until they are put in positions of leadership. I think it’s up to the rest of us to listen and follow.

    Celebrate movements with WNV’s new T-shirt and tote

    At Waging Nonviolence’s 10-year anniversary party last month, we were excited to debut our first ever T-shirt and tote bag, which are now available as gifts when you become a sustaining member of the site at $5/month or more. They are the fruit of a collaboration with designer Josh Yoder, who has produced some stunning visuals for a number of social justice movements.

    When we began brainstorming ideas for the design, we really weren’t sure what to do. We’ve always been reticent to sell “merch” because our goal is to put the movements we cover front and center. After talking this through with Josh, it became clear that we needed a design that did the very same thing. Ultimately, we settled on one that features 25 movement logos and icons, both historic and present. We wanted to pay tribute to the movements that have inspired and informed our work over the years.

    We deliberately chose some symbols that are more widely known and others that are more obscure. They include official organizational logos, as well as remixed iconic movement imagery. Our hope is that it will serve as a conversation starter, with people swapping stories about the different symbols they can identify. And in the process, we can take stock of the power and impact of so many different movements that have shaped our world for the better.

    To help facilitate these conversations, we thought it’d be helpful to give you an answer key with a little information about each of the symbols in the design. We’ll take one row at a time starting with the top, so let’s dive in. 

    The dove is a traditional symbol of peace going back thousands of years. This particular image has been widely used by antiwar groups and is an adaption of Picasso’s “La Colombe. 

    A raised, clenched fist could be associated with countless movements around the world dating back to at least the Industrial Workers of the World in their 1917 “Solidarity” cartoon. Since then, versions of the fist have been used by the feminist, Black Power and indigenous rights movements, as well as Otpor! in Serbia and the April 6 movement in Egypt.

    The crane became an international peace symbol thanks to Sadako Sasaki — a 12-year-old girl, who was a victim of the atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After being diagnosed with leukemia from the radiation, Sadako began folding cranes when her father shared a Japanese legend that if you fold a thousand origami cranes you will be granted a wish. 

    The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP, chose to use a pink triangle accompanied by the slogan “Silence = Death” as their logo in 1987. The group went on to organize some of the most bold and disruptive protests of the era, and played an influential role in developing life-saving treatments for those with HIV/AIDS. Despite the progress that has been made, the crisis persists and ACT UP is still at the forefront of the struggle to end it. 

    The image of the black cat, known as “Sabo Tabby,” is a long-time symbol of the Industrial Workers of the World and labor strikes more generally. As the union explains, “its original purpose was as a code or symbol for direct action at the point of production, specifically sabotage… [though] it must be emphasized that the latter did not mean destruction of machinery or equipment.” Since then, the image has been modified and adopted by many other movements that they have inspired. 

    The woman wearing a sash represents the suffragettes, who secured U.S. women the right to vote in 1920 through what WNV columnist Nadine Bloch called a “phenomenal, inspirational, often nail-biting and groundbreaking campaign.” Their creative tactics have been a source of inspiration to countless movements around the world. 

    The image of a man in front of a tank is referencing Tank Man, the unidentified Chinese man who blocked a column of tanks following the massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. The photo has since become one of the most iconic images of protest and resistance.

    British artist Gerald Holtom created the next design for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958. The symbol combines the semaphore signals for the letters “N” and “D” — denoting “nuclear disarmament”  — enclosed in a circle. That history is lost on many, who simply know this as perhaps the most recognizable “peace sign” in the world. 

    The Aztec eagle is taken from the red and white flag for the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers. It was designed in 1962, just after the founding of the union by César Chavez and Dolores Huerta. “A symbol is an important thing. That is why we chose an Aztec eagle. It gives pride,” Chavez said, referring to the flag. “When people see it they know it means dignity.”

    Designed in 1975 by Danish activist Anne Lund, the image of the “Smiling Sun” is the most common international symbol of the movement against nuclear power. Accompanied by the words “Nuclear Power? No Thanks,” the logo has been translated into 55 languages and seen a resurgence in its use since the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. 

    Growing out of the student sit-ins in 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, played a critical role in many of the major campaigns and actions during the civil rights movement. They used this image of a black hand shaking a white hand as their logo.

    The modified yin and yang symbol was a symbol created by the Anti-Apartheid Movement, or AAM. Founded in London, in response to a call for international support from Albert Luthuli, AAM first used this image during protests following the Sharpeville massacre of black protesters by police in 1960. 

    Transfeminism, according to scholar and activist Emi Koyama, is “a movement by and for trans women who view their liberation to be intrinsically linked to the liberation of all women and beyond.” The logo combines male, female and mixed gender symbols, with a fist in the middle. 

    Sunflowers have been a symbol used by the climate justice movement since at least the first Earth Day in 1970. In addition to their beauty and bright color, they also have “the ability to remove harmful toxins from our soil,” as the Farmers Almanac has noted.

    Handala is a character created by the Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali, one of the most well-known cartoonists in the Arab world. The image of this 10-year-old refugee child has become a powerful symbol of the Palestinian struggle for justice. In describing the child, Al-Ali wrote that “His hands are clasped behind his back as a sign of rejection at a time when solutions are presented to us the American way.”  

    The migrant justice movement has embraced the monarch butterfly as one of its symbols for good reason. “To me, the monarch butterfly represents the dignity and resilience of migrants and the right that all living beings have to move freely,” said artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez, who launched the “Migration is Beautiful” campaign in 2012.  

    In July 2011, the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters published a poster of a ballerina on top of the Charging Bull statue. Behind her are protesters in gas masks obscured by a cloud of tear gas with the hashtag #OCCUPYWALLSTREET and a date. The image would spark the imagination of organizers in New York City who would turn the idea into a reality and a worldwide movement for economic justice.

    The image of a person in a wheelchair breaking their chains is the logo for ADAPT, the national grassroots disability rights organization. By organizing bold acts of civil disobedience — like chaining themselves to buses and crawling up the steps of the U.S. Capitol — ADAPT activists played a critical role in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. They drew national attention again in 2017 for leading protests that successfully thwarted the Republican health care reform bill, which would have drastically cut Medicaid and led to 22 million losing their health coverage.

    According to the United Nations, over 10 percent of the world’s population are technically squatters, in that they live on land or in buildings they do not own or rent. Squatting is a nonviolent act — in opposition to the commodification of housing — taken by people to meet their basic needs, and the circle with the arrow cutting through it is the international squatters’ symbol.    

    Over the last couple years, the youth-led Sunrise Movement has quickly moved to the forefront of the climate justice movement and through bold action put the Green New Deal on the political map

    Inspired by Edward Abbey’s novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” the radical environmental group Earth First! developed provocative new direct action tactics — known as monkeywrenching — to prevent logging and stop the construction of dams or other forms of development that harm the wilderness and wildlife. Their logo is the stone tomahawk crossed with a monkey wrench.

    Accompanied by the words “Water is Life,” the image of “Thunderbird Woman,” became popular during the Standing Rock encampment to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock in 2016. Created by Anishinaabe artist Isaac Murdoch, it has since been used by frontline water protectors around the world. 

    The day after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, more than 4 million people participated in the Women’s March, which is likely the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. A common sight at the demonstrations was the pink, knitted or crocheted “pussy hat,” with cat ears. In addition to making a powerful visual statement at the marches, the idea was conceived of by Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman as a way for those who could not physically attend to be a part of the action by making hats.

    In 2014, a mass pro-democracy movement exploded in Hong Kong. While its full name was Occupy Central with Love and Peace, it was commonly called the Umbrella Revolution because umbrellas were widely used by protesters to shield themselves from not just from the sun, but the tear gas that was regularly fired at them by police. 

    Finally, there’s the V-sign that appears in place of the letter “v” in our logo. This is, of course, the well-known symbol for peace in the United States. It is used in other countries to mean different things, but its origins as an activist symbol date back to the 1960s antiwar movement. Peace activists — including celebrities like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who helped popularize it — adopted the V-sign from World War II, when it meant “V for victory” or “end of war.” It also was used to mock President Richard Nixon, who had made it his trademark sign.

    With this knowledge you will now be able to impress your friends when they ask any questions about the design. And if you know of any iconic movement symbols or logos that we didn’t include, let us know in the comments and we may feature them in the next iteration of the design!

    Unlikely allies win campaign to stop state monopoly in Kenya

    On Dec. 4, Kenya’s senate committee on transport summoned the cabinet secretary for transport over his directive to haul cargo from the port city of Mombasa to Nairobi exclusively by rail. The meeting — attended by activists, businessmen and leaders from Mombasa — ended with the cabinet secretary, James Macharia, promising to rescind the directive, which has hurt business in the coastal city.

    The senate meeting was a culmination of two months of action led by the affected business people in Mombasa. It all started one September morning when Harriet Muganda arrived at the governor’s offices in Mombasa. There was a presentation of findings on the effects of a newly-commissioned Chinese-built railway on the economy of Mombasa by the University of Nairobi. The hall was already full, so she stood near the door with others who weren’t able to get a seat.

    It was Muganda’s first time at such a function, as she considered herself apolitical and had never attended a political rally or event before. Since it spoke to her livelihood, this one, however, was dear to her. She worked in Mombasa, a key cargo entry point for East Africa, as a clearing agent charged with handling custom documentation related to shipments getting into the country on behalf of her clients.

    For the past year, business has been bad, following a government directive to have all cargo hauled to Nairobi via the government-run railway. The government said it made this decision to reign in malpractices at the Mombasa port, according to the cabinet secretary for transport. Businessmen and activists, however, believe that it was to ensure that standard-gauge railway, or SGR, has as much business as possible in order to be able to repay the Chinese loan that was used to develop it.

    Economists have argued that the Chinese-built railway doesn’t make economic sense and therefore the government had to enforce a monopoly in cargo haulage in order to make money. Processing of custom documentation for all cargo getting into the country by ship is now being done in Nairobi, over 300 miles away. This has left many businesses without work, and trucking, bulk handlers and other cargo-handling companies have since moved or closed shop. Muganda estimates that 200,000 people have lost their jobs. 

    The University of Nairobi’s findings aligned with what the transporters were experiencing. James Ambok, the CEO of Kenya Truckers Association decries the effects brought about by the state’s monopolization of cargo haulage. “I am telling you that the SGR sometimes does around 14 trips to Nairobi, and in each trip it has got 108 containers,” he explained. “So, it means each and every day, over 1,000 drivers do not have jobs. It means each and every day 1,000 turnboys do not have jobs.”

    Harriet Muganda at a Fast Action protest in early November. (WNV/Anthony Langat)

    After the presentation, Muganda and a few other business people felt that they had to do something. Salim Karama, who owns trucks for long-distance delivery, asked Muganda to take the contacts of the people who were there. She was also tasked with forming a WhatsApp group to enable them to communicate and deliberate on what to do next.

    “It was on a Thursday when we met and by that evening, we had 50 people in the group. They included business owners and their employees. By the next day we were over 256 and I had to form another WhatsApp group,” she said.

    They called the group “Fast Action,” and they lived up to their name. Three days later, on Sept. 16, Fast Action Business Community organized its first protest in the streets of Mombasa. They marched six miles from the courthouse in Mombasa to Changamwe and back. The action caused businesses along the route to come to a standstill, and transport was paralyzed as trucks followed them at a snail’s pace, honking in support.

    Every Monday since then they continued with their protest. The group uses WhatsApp to fundraise for things like banners, T-shirts and even the water that they need on the days of the protests. They would sing and chant slogans — including “people power” and “no to SGR monopoly” — as they slowly walked their route. Since their first protest in September, the numbers grew every week. On the second week of November, they expected 3,000 protesters, but the rain reduced the number by half, according to Muganda.

    Haki Africa — a Mombasa-based NGO that campaigns against land grabbing, police brutality, corruption, gender-based violence and other issues — has been supporting Fast Action’s protests. They assist Fast Action with the planning to ensure that they follow due process with regards to the law governing protests. They have worked to obtain the permit for their protests and offered them free representation in court when they were denied permits by the police.

    This campaign has faced serious challenges. Twelve protesters, including Fast Action organizers and Haki Africa staff, were arrested and locked up on Oct. 7 for six hours despite having all the necessary permits to carry out the protest. “I think the main challenge so far have been the police,” said Haki Africa Executive Director Hussein Khalid. “We have had some of the protesters arrested here, including the business people and ourselves.”

    Haki Africa Executive Director Hussein Khalid addressing the press, as they awaited the court’s ruling on Fast Action Business Community’s petition to continue their protest. (WNV/Anthony Langat)

    Khalid said that they have been approached by civil society movements based in Nairobi who want to be part of the movement. However, their immediate plans were to organize protests in every town along the Mombasa-Nairobi route, since they are more directly affected.  As of mid-November, they were meeting and planning with people in the towns of Voi and Mtito-Andei, which are along the route to Nairobi. Their intention was to hold subsequent protests in at least three towns along the Mombasa-Nairobi corridor. These are towns that depend mostly on the trucks passing through for business. They managed to hold a protest in Mtito-Andei in late November which was disrupted by the police despite having the necessary permits.

    While protests by civil society and organized labor have been common in Kenya, it is unheard of for businessmen to be at the forefront of a movement. “It is the business community that is taking the lead and agitating for their rights as business people,” Khalid explained. “The economy has really taken a hard hit, and there are concerns that this has affected their businesses and families and livelihoods as well.”

    Nevertheless, the actions have struck a chord with the political and civil society groups and drawn attention to the coastal town, which isn’t regarded as a protest capital in the country.

    Apart from Haki Africa, Muslims for Human Rights, or Muhuri, another coast-based non-governmental organization that works on land access and gender equality has gotten involved in the campaign. Notable figures from Kenya’s civil society — including Katiba Institute founder Yash Pal Ghai, economist and activist David Ndii, and InformAction Director Maina Kiai — have also come out to support Fast Action’s protests.

    Toward the end of October, the Fast Action Business Community had planned to have a public lecture at the Technical University of Mombasa. Ndii, Ghai and Kiai were set to address the crowd, but that morning, the police cordoned off the venue to block anyone from entering. The meeting was then cancelled. The protests now include business people from many spheres including shopkeepers, tuktuk and motorbike taxi operators, among others who indirectly benefit from the cargo business.

    Mvita MP Abdulswamad Nassir (middle) with Fast Action Business Community members as they await the court decision on their right to protest. (WNV/Anthony Langat)

    Abdulswamad Nassir, a member of parliament for Mvita in Mombasa, has been supportive of the group and went to show solidarity with them in court when the police denied them permits to protest. “People need to express their views and opinions,” he said. “You can’t suppress a whole society and community, and decide without any reason whatsoever that they do not have [the right] to raise their opinions.” The court ruled in favor of Fast Action.

    Protesting in Kenya is not viewed favorably by the authorities and instances of injuries or even death of protesters due to excessive use of force by the police are a normal occurrence. A 2018 report by Amnesty International stated that “the police used excessive force to disperse protesters who supported the opposition party and demonstrated against the electoral process, including with live ammunition and tear gas. Dozens died in the violence, including at least 33 people who were shot by police and of whom two were children.”

    The leadership of the Fast Action protests were clear in what they wanted: non-monopolization of the cargo transport by the state and the reinstatement of cargo-handling and clearing services to Mombasa. “We just want our businesses back; we want our livelihoods back to normal as they were before the SGR,” Muganda said. “If the government would agree to stop the monopolization of cargo transportation so that there is a healthy competition between the government’s SGR and the private transporters, I don’t think anyone would go back to the street to protest.” However, until something is done, she said that the protests would continue.

    The group mobilized more residents of Mombasa and friends from other towns — through social media and by talking with people one-on-one — to join in the protests every Monday. “We will continue with the protests,” Muganda said.  “It will stop being black Mondays and it will be black every day, because we now have no work and all the time to do this.”

    On Dec. 2, their protests were disrupted by police as had become the norm. Two days later, they were invited for a meeting at the senate in Nairobi. The cabinet secretary for transport had been summoned by the senate committee on transport. In the meeting, the cabinet secretary promised to rescind the directive on mandatory hauling of cargo via rail. In a statement released a day later, Karama said that Fast Action had postponed the planned Monday protests after the successful meeting.

    However, the group is cautious about the victory and not ruling out a possible return to protests. A few days after the meeting, all the cargo was still being ferried by rail to Nairobi, according to Muganda. She is still skeptical about the government’s commitment to lifting the directive. Only a few days after the senate meeting, the government spokesperson vowed to crack down on the protesters on the premise that the they were hurting operations of the port. “We are suspending the Monday demonstrations to gauge and monitor the movement,” Karama said. “We will come up with the final decision when we are satisfied that the situation has improved to bring life to Mombasa county’s economy.”

    Is it time to put the Baby Trump blimp to bed?

    It began as an irreverent stunt during Donald Trump’s 2018 visit to London, a helium-filled swirl of yellow hair atop an obese, orange, diaper-clad Trump, his small hands clutching a phone. After a brief nap, Baby Trump has been pressed into service as the unofficial mascot of the anti-Trump resistance, with at least nine appearances in the United States so far.

    It’s easy and gratifying to insult Trump. He offers a daily smorgasbord of contemptible flaws to feast upon. And he dishes out as good as he gets, his Twitter feed a virtual firing range of baseless, crude and bigoted put-downs. Mocking him as a fat, tantruming baby may seem a fitting and well-deserved counterattack, one that is orders of magnitude less terrible than the many acts of cruelty Trump has perpetrated.

    The Baby Trump blimp, however, is emblematic of the counterproductive manner in which the left too often registers our very justified outrage.

    To start with, there’s the body shaming. Hardly a day goes by without Trump’s body size, shape and color being ridiculed as grotesque. Body shaming is a form of bullying that isn’t any less cruel when done to people we don’t like. Even though Trump is the target, the blimp stigmatizes every person with bodies deemed too fat by our thinness-obsessed culture, much like the atrociously cruel and classist — yet wildly popular — People of Walmart website, which lampoon unsuspecting shoppers with shabby clothes, fat asses and other “white trash” offenses. Sizeism is one of the few forms of bigotry still tolerated by mainstream society. Why do we perpetuate it?

    Liberal mockery of Trump’s copious flaws only serves to entrench his supporters’ loyalty and bolster Trump’s persecution narrative.

    Spectacles of leftist schadenfreude paint us into a hypocritical corner, as was pointed out to me by a conservative woman I met at a cross-partisan dialogue. To put it in crass, realpolitik terms, cruelty damages our brand. It prompts the public to fixate on our ugliness instead of the dastardly policies of the Trump administration. Furthermore, it perpetuates the us-versus-them divisiveness that adult Trump so masterfully leverages to his advantage. (One of his supporters recently slashed a Baby Trump balloon with a razor blade in a self-proclaimed act of “good versus evil.”

    Like any skillful demagogue, Trump has forged a counterfeit bond with his base, a bond premised on a shared victimhood narrative of lost honor and wounded pride. What I’ve learned from conservatives over the past two years is that Trump supporters perceive an attack on him as an attack on themselves — those high and mighty liberal elites are not only smugly self-righteous, they’re mean, they hate us, we are under siege and must protect our tribe and our leader Trump.

    Conservative journalist Rod Dreher has written that, when Trump goes off the rails, his voters justify their support by saying to themselves, “He may be a fool, but he’s our fool.” Liberal mockery of Trump’s copious flaws only serves to entrench their loyalty and bolster Trump’s persecution narrative.

    As has been amply documented, partisan (some call it “tribal”) polarization has reached a deleterious extreme in the United States, leading people to form knee-jerk partisan opinions instead of reflecting on the merits of contentious issues. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt told National Affairs that, when we attempt to rationalize our partisan bias, we get rewarded with a highly pleasurable hit of dopamine. It feels good to belong to our team, our party, our tribe, and if tribal membership requires that we denigrate the “other” tribe and publicly humiliate their leader, we do it, and we do it gleefully. And when we do so, we prompt the right to hate and fear us back. For this reason, humiliating Trump plays into Trump’s us-versus-them strategy of rousing his supporters to battle against the common enemy: us.

    There is, to be sure, a long tradition of satire aimed at undermining the authority and respectability of the powerful. The question is, what, if anything, does the public learn from it? Literary critic Tim Parks distinguishes effective satire, which points toward positive change, from failed satire. “[W]itty mockery of a political enemy can be hilarious and gratifying and can intensify our sense of being morally superior. But as satire it has failed,” he writes in the New York Review of Book. “The worst case is when satire reinforces the state of mind it purports to undercut, polarizes prejudices, and provokes the very behavior it condemns.”

    Previous Coverage
  • Don’t feed the trolls — how to combat the alt-right
  • Baby Trump falls short of Park’s standard, for it is no more enlightening than a playground taunts — such as “you’re a baby,” “no you are” and “I know you are but what am I?” The overarching problem with Trump isn’t that he’s immature (or fat), it’s that he’s created what Ralph Nader calls a “cocoon of falsity” in which he smashes and breaks democratic and cultural norms and governmental functions that keep people safe, healthy, fully included and respected.

    Poking fun at a degenerate figurehead is not automatically effective. If mocking Trump turned fence-sitters against him, late night comedians would have successfully blocked Trump’s candidacy before it ever gathered steam. For all the ridicule Trump’s endured, it doesn’t seem to have undermined his brazen abuse of power.

    Perhaps if our national culture were one of reverence for politicians, then the mere act of mocking one would have some shock value and jolt us into seeing them in a new and unflattering light. Perhaps if Trump attempted to present himself as a dignified head of state, we would need Baby Trump to expose the contradiction between his pretend and actual disposition. At this point, anyone who doesn’t already see that the emperor has no clothes is not likely to be enlightened upon seeing him in diapers. It’s simply meanness for meanness sake.

    The creators of Baby Trump said they wanted to boost the morale of Trump’s foes and to “get under his skin.” As one of the organizers wrote in the Independent, “Trump has repeatedly shown that he doesn’t respond to reason, to facts or to science. What he does respond to is humiliation.” Yes, he sure does, and that’s precisely the problem.

    Evelin Lindner, a psychologist and founder of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, or Human DHS, has documented cycles of humiliation met by violent reprisals met by more humiliation, until the society spirals into genocidal violence. “Humiliation,” she writes, “is the nuclear bomb of the emotions, perhaps the most toxic social dynamic of our age.” It reinforces the tyrant’s self-serving rationalization that they are valiantly fighting the evildoers who are attacking them.

    Linda Hartling, a community psychologist and director of Human DHS, emphasizes the boomerang nature of humiliation. “If you use humiliation as a shortcut to attack an opponent, it will come back in some way, if not at you then at someone more vulnerable,” she said. Hartling sees Trump as a “humiliation entrepreneur” who is constantly retaliating against those who pierce his thin skin.

    Trump has already been ratcheting up his incitement of violence, calling for his persecutors to be tried and executed for treason and warning that civil war could break out if he’s impeached. Dozens of preeminent psychiatrists have raised red flag warnings about Trump’s anti-social, narcissistic, sadistic and sociopathic behavior. “Trump’s sociopathic characteristics … create a profound danger for America’s democracy and safety,” retired Harvard psychiatry professor Lance Dodes told the Washington Post. “Over time these characteristics will only become worse, either because Mr. Trump will succeed in gaining more power and more grandiosity with less grasp on reality, or because he will engender more criticism producing more paranoia, more lies and more enraged destruction.”

    “Speak the truth but not to punish,” Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh counsels.

    Ridiculing Trump achieves nothing and risks provoking him to even more outrageous attacks and counterattacks. That’s what narcissists and demagogues do when their fragile egos are threatened. Psychiatrists warn that someone with Trump’s malignant narcissism and anti-social personality is vulnerable to a total psychotic breakdown and that, by the time the warning signs are evident, it may already be too late.

    Criticism of Trump and vigorous efforts to remove him are vitally necessary, no matter what the risk of further destabilizing his mental health. But piling on personal insults adds unnecessary fuel to the fire. A deranged Trump is incredibly dangerous.

    For all the grievous harm Trump has done, I cannot and do not respect him. But withholding respect and diminishing his humanity are two different things. At a minimum, I feel obliged to treat Trump with the basic decency I extend to every human being, no matter how awful I find them. To do otherwise, to dehumanize them as the “enemy other,” is to set in motion a vindictive spiral that cannot end well. Human dignity is sacred and, when it’s violated, our ability to negotiate and tolerate discord erodes, and hate and violence reign.

    “Humiliation is the most destructive force on the planet,” Hartling said. “It leaves a wake of destruction, disrupting relationships in ways that are extremely difficult to repair.” Why risk so much collateral damage just for the sake of inflicting suffering on a man who is already seemingly one of the unhappiest on earth, his inner life its own perpetual torment?

    “Speak the truth but not to punish,” Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh counsels. What that means to me is that, when I criticize Trump’s rampant misconduct, I focus on the actions, not the person, and contextualize the actions in systems and structures of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, militarism and the resource extraction mindset. I also want to contrast Trump’s nihilism with my vision for an equitable and sustainable future, a beautiful, inclusively-interconnected sacred place where humans and all living creatures bow to each other in the great dance of life.

    Over two city blocks in San Francisco, community groups painted their visions of solutions to climate chaos on Sept. 25. (Maluco Studios/Anesti Vega)

    During the Sept. 25 Climate Strike in San Francisco, artists and activists from 10 environmental justice and human rights groups transformed two downtown blocks into a series of street murals representing “community-oriented and earth-based solutions” to the climate crisis. Taken together, the murals invited viewers to envision a more beautiful future that celebrates the interconnected lives of people, plants and wildlife. To me, honoring what’s sacred is worlds more inspiring than denigrating what we already know is awful.

    Diné (Navajo) land and water protector and poet Lyla June Johnston suggests that the struggle of resistance against Trump and fossil fuels shouldn’t be one of hate-driven revenge against but, rather, a movement for life in all its sacred beauty. It’s not about winning, Johnston said in an interview with the podcast “For the Wild,” it’s about sustaining, diversifying, protecting and, above all, loving life.

    So long as I attempt to implement my vision by denigrating those evil people who stand in my way, I am taking one step forward and two back. Aggressors usually rationalize their behavior as serving some higher purpose; seldom is that the case.

    Trump must be held accountable but accountability need not take a vindictive cast. I don’t believe murderers should be executed or rapists raped. I don’t want Trump hung in effigy or body shamed, I simply want him gone and, potentially, imprisoned where he can do no further damage. And I want his supporters to feel that they have a rightful place in a post-Trump America, a place where they are treated with the same basic decency and respect as everyone else. If they don’t feel this way, brace yourself for President Donald Trump, Jr. or whatever other humiliation entrepreneur is waiting in the wings.

    Hating on Trump incessantly isn’t going to be any more effective in 2020 than it was in 2016. The more we hate and humiliate him, the more his supporters will be inclined to defend him. Even if we win, we’ll be sowing the seeds of a vicious backlash. And our hatred could trigger an adult Trump tantrum of existential dimensions. Our desperately sick culture needs to heal, and more poison isn’t what the doctor ordered.

    Remembering G. Simon Harak — a powerful ally of all victims of war

    On Nov. 3, 2019, G. Simon Harak, a Jesuit priest and passionate advocate for peace and justice, died peacefully in a Jesuit health care facility in Weston, Massachusetts. He had been suffering from a rare form of dementia for several years, with physical effects similar to ALS.

    Nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, Simon’s steadfast commitment to recognizing each person’s humanity and dignity made him a powerful ally for all people displaced and devastated by war, wounded by violence of all kinds, and marginalized or ostracized by society.

    He and his twin sister, Adele, were born on April 15, 1948 in Derby, Connecticut, though for most of his adult life, Simon would celebrate his Catholic baptism in June as his “true birth date.” His father, Simon Gabriel, was an immigrant from Lebanon, and was a singer who formed his own orchestra in the big band era and performed on nationwide radio. His mother Laurice, a first-generation Lebanese immigrant, was a professional opera singer in New York City. 

    It was likely from those artistic performers that Simon inherited his life-long love of teaching, preaching and public speaking. Simon dedicated all of his public and private service to advancing Christ’s nonviolent Kingdom of God, challenging and inviting people to see beyond what is socially constructed, and to decide how to act rightfully and justly. 

    Simon was a brilliant intellectual, graduating valedictorian from Fairfield University in 1970, majoring in classics. He possessed a reading knowledge of Latin, Greek, French and German. Although accepted into Harvard Law School, Simon answered a deep calling and joined the Jesuits in September 1970. He said that Jesus “called me by name,” and thus began a lifelong companionship with Jesus that became the center of everything he did and said. 

    During his nine-year preparation for ordination, Simon furthered his formal education, earning a Masters of Divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California. But he never let his broad academic accomplishments stop him from ministering to the people. One fall, Simon returned home for a short visit. I noticed that my slightly built brother had developed large forearm muscles. When I asked why his arms looked like that, he told me that he had spent the summer using a chainsaw to help the impoverished people in Appalachia clear trees and build homes.

    Simon celebrating his first mass as a Jesuit in May 1979. (WNV/Philip J. Harak)

    After his ordination in 1979, he went to Jamaica as a missioner, working as a chaplain with young people. He took the school boys to visits to the public hospital, elderly residences and a home for lepers. Whether individually or as a group, Simon always sought out and ministered to those who were marginalized, suffering and outcast. 

    Upon his return to the United States, he earned a doctorate in theology and ethics from Notre Dame in 1986. He crafted his dissertation into his first book, “Virtuous Passions: The Formation of Christian Character.” Preeminent theologian Stanley Hauerwas called Simon’s work “stunning,” and wrote that “he is able to write about Aquinas on the passions making that text come alive in a way that no one else has been able to do.” 

    Simon often said that he loved to share knowledge and to incite people to think critically for themselves. Teaching and lecturing were lifelong passions. Accordingly, he became a beloved, life-changing teacher and award-winning professor of religion and Christian ethics at Fairfield University from 1986 to 2000. While there, his focus on justice and peace was both local and global. For example, he and his students became involved in protests for equitable salaries for dining hall workers (to the chagrin of most in the administration). 

    In the fall of 1995, he embarked on a cause that intentionally put him and his fellow activists in violation of both U.S. State Department policy and the U.S. Constitution’s forbiddance of aiding and abetting the enemy. Then, the Iraqi people were the “enemy,” and they suffered terribly from U.S.-imposed sanctions, especially the children. With about 250 children under the age of five dying daily since the inception of the sanctions regime in 1990, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clarke described the situation as genocide against the Iraqis. Always committed to deep research, which he said would lead to facts, and then to truth, Simon felt an irresistible movement to act on behalf of the Iraqis. 

    Along with Kathy Kelly, Simon started a humanitarian organization called Voices in the Wilderness, which is now called Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Simon traveled to Iraq three times, ministering to the children and people there. Their delegations brought much-needed food, medicines, clean water, and even toys to the children and people in need.

    “Without Simon, I wonder if Voices in the Wilderness would ever have been initiated,” Kathy recently said. “Simon’s guidance, energy, scholarship and kindness greatly helped Voices send 70 delegations to Iraq, all in open and public defiance of the U.S./U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq. Whether leading delegations to Iraq, organizing local actions, joining in lengthy fasts, or making presentations, Simon always made time for Voices in the Wilderness.” 

    All throughout his life, Simon balanced his academic pursuits with his calling to be a “priest for the people.” He loved his service as a pastoral priest, and he would often fill in for missing or vacationing parish priests across the country. He was proud of the successful marriages of more than 30 couples for whom he prepared and performed marriages, including my own marriage to Margaret Savage, in 1995. He was always available to minister to the sick, the grieving, and to the poor who approached him on the street. He was also just a good friend, always sending postcards from wherever he was in the world, and bringing home thoughtful little gifts. 

    “As a Christian commanded by my Master to love my enemies, I have yet to find a way to do that while preparing to, and then, killing them!”

    – G. Simon Harak

    Witnessing endless unspeakable suffering and pain on his last visit to Iraq seemed to galvanize Simon away from his full professorship. He decided he needed to be a full-time voice for all the victims of war, including the warriors themselves. He wanted to awaken people from the stupor of blind acceptance of warfare, and expose the real human costs of war. Using his skill for discovering hidden facts, and for expressing complex issues clearly, Simon worked diligently at the War Resisters League in New York City as the national anti-militarism coordinator, from 2003 until 2006. 

    Late in 2005, financial benefactors Terry and Sally Rynne, along with the Jesuits at Marquette University, invited Simon to found and head the Marquette University Center for Peacemaking. Students there created local and national outreach programs, focusing on teaching nonviolent conflict resolution in schools and communities. The center sponsored two national conferences and the publication of an academic journal. Simon shepherded that center until 2013, when his illness forced his resignation and his return to the Campion Health Center in Weston, Massachusetts. Even while the illness was robbing him of his mental and physical abilities, he continued to serve residents and staff there as long as he was able. 

    Simon leaves a legacy as a passionate disciple of the nonviolent Christ, performing his mission until his last breath. He had made over 2,000 television, radio and speaking engagements at venues in the United States and abroad regarding truths and human costs of the Iraqi war, and later, about war profiteering. While he was gifted in creating nonviolent actions and in intellectually dismantling the maddeningly tautological and false promises of violence, he did not see nonviolent strategies merely as an end in themselves, but as constitutive to Christian discipleship. He understood Jesus’ way to be based upon what Jesus clearly did and said: endless forgiveness, compassion, mercy and nonviolent love of friends and enemies, with no exceptions. 

    Possessing a sharp wit within a great sense of humor, Simon would sardonically comment, “As a Christian commanded by my Master to love my enemies, I have yet to find a way to do that while preparing to, and then, killing them!” Often at odds with “just warrior” advocates both within his own order and broadly inside and outside of Christianity, Simon would remind those advocates that “just war theory” was never taught by Jesus.

    He would always correct the common misunderstanding that nonviolence meant non-resistance or passivity. He would provide examples and also personally act in ways consistent with those other nonviolent resisters, both famous and ordinary, who believed and acted with “a force more powerful” than violence. He challenged the pillars of governmental, institutional and personal violence, and sought to liberate people by presenting meticulously researched information that countered the narratives purported by a culture inured in the myths of redemption or lasting safety through revenge, oppression and violence. 

    Simon loved life, and would balance his hours of research and writing, his pastoral ministry and full immersions into human suffering, with many different activities he found both revitalizing and fun. He would begin each day with private prayer with Jesus, followed by his joyful celebration of the Mass. He loved music and theater, and would thoroughly enjoy taking friends and family to concerts, plays, museums and movies. He read about two or three science fiction books per week. A lifetime baseball fan, we would attend games everywhere he was stationed. 

    His Jesuit funeral on Nov. 8 at the Weston Chapel was a beautiful and moving ceremony. It was the culmination of incredibly respectful, medically sensitive and loving treatment he always received there, from his Jesuit brothers and all the staff. 

    Simon leaves a loving and eternally grateful group of family and friends. His father, Simon, died in 1970, three weeks after his son joined the Jesuit Order. His mother, Laurice, died in 1992. Along with his sister Adele Campbell, he leaves his sister Laurice Boutagy, and his two younger brothers — me and John — his siblings’ spouses and their children. 

    When Simon left home in 1970, I felt a deep sadness. Employing his remarkable gift of witnessing and validating other’s emotions, he consoled me by explaining that, “I have to leave you and this family, Philip, in order to best serve Jesus. A true test of my Christianity is to treat everyone else in the world with the same kind of love I have for you and the family.”  “Blessed be Simon,” James Douglass wrote upon hearing of his friend’s passing, “who has walked with us all in so many ways … and will continue to do so.” Amen, Jim.

    Why doesn’t American political culture understand the power of direct action campaigns?

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    Since 2016, I’ve been book touring in dozens of states — first with “Viking Economics” and then with “How We Win.” I’ve done events in hundreds of bookstores, universities, and civic and religious spaces. Time and time again, I get the same kind of question, and my puzzlement has only grown.

    Just last month, at a crowded meeting sponsored by 350.org in Madison, Wisconsin, dozens of people were asking me how they can make their work for justice more effective. One person recalled how the move of Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 to take away public workers’ rights was met by an immense outpouring of Wisconsin citizen rage. Direct action filled the capital and paralyzed the government.

    “That was nonviolent protest, right? And it disrupted everything — even Democratic legislators traveled out of the state to prevent the Republicans from taking away the rights of state workers. And still the nonviolent struggle failed!”

    “On the contrary,” I countered, remembering that I had been in Madison at a crucial moment for consultations, along with organizer Daniel Hunter. “The nonviolent campaign was deliberately dropped. Despite our advice, the leadership shifted strategies, going instead for a recall election, which they lost.”

    Continuing to explain, I said, “The Democratic leadership and some labor allies believed that the ballot box is superior to what was actually working. It wasn’t the nonviolent campaigning that failed — it was interrupted. It’s the premature switch to an electoral strategy that failed.”

    At another recent event, in a Pennsylvania bookstore, I was challenged by some women deeply disappointed by the demise of Occupy in Harrisburg. Inspired by Occupy Wall Street in 2011, their city’s Occupy action became a dramatic presence. “If nonviolent action is so powerful, why didn’t that work?” the activists asked.

    Demand something, target the entity that can yield the demand, do a series of actions, escalate and grow.

    “In most cities, the Occupy movement focused on a single tactic,” I explained, “and didn’t have the flexibility it needed to grow beyond a protest. It was like the opening act of a play that had no larger narrative. Occupy participants needed to make clear winnable demands, adopt other direct action tactics, and escalate in order to grow. In other words, after a great start you needed to transform into a nonviolent direct action campaign.”

    What is a ‘nonviolent direct action campaign’?

    A campaign has a clear demand with a focus on a decider who’s responsible for — or can meet — the demand. Campaigners start and sustain a series of actions that escalate as the campaign grows.

    In the 1960s and ’70s, nearly everyone interested in progressive change knew what a campaign looked like. Black students walked into a lunch counter, demanded coffee, were thrown out of the store and came back again and again, often escalating by adding picketing and boycotts. In short: a demand, a decider (the store manager), a series of actions, escalation.

    Racial minorities, students, elders, differently-abled people, workers, LGBTQ people, environmentalists against nuclear power: They knew what nonviolent direct action campaigns were and often used them well. “Demand something, target the entity that can yield the demand, do a series of actions, escalate and grow.”

    Direct action campaigns were the engine that built powerful movements that changed the United States to the point that the economic elite became alarmed. The 1 percent then launched its counter-offensive, officially by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. The Democratic Party did its part in the counter-offensive by co-opting as many of the movements as it could, the Democrats pleading that the ballot box was a better technology for change than nonviolent direct action campaigns.

    The actions that campaigns did were called “protests,” supporting confusion between one-off actions and genuine campaigns. By the 1980s the mainstream media had coined a new, condescending meme: “protests vaguely reminiscent of the ’60s.”

    I can’t simply fault our opponents, their allies and the mainstream mass media for the disappearing concept of “direct action campaign.” Most of the movements themselves, previously winning, shifted in the 1980s to a defensive strategy, trying to retain the gains they’d already made.

    Defense is a loser’s game. Labor lost ground, as did civil rights, women and environmentalists. They had to lose, because as football coaches and generals (and even Gandhi) could tell you: Defense is for losers.

    Previous Coverage
  • What we can learn from the LGBTQ movement’s 50 years of achievement
  • With the stunning exception of the LGBTQ movement, which kept winning because it stayed on the offensive, the choice by the major movements to go on the defense spread a psychology of reactivity. “Let’s react to this outrage, and that one, and that one.”

    Reactivity plays the 1 percent’s game, since the elite has the money to organize as many outrages as it wants (voter suppression, attacks on Planned Parenthood, take-aways from labor, new gas pipelines, immigrant children in cages and many more). They may even enjoy watching us react; it confirms who’s in charge.

    Reactivity promotes one-off demonstrations, and activists can weary themselves running from protest to protest. In the reactive confusion, the option of becoming pro-active and starting nonviolent direct action campaigns got lost.

    Fortunately, some didn’t forget. In this period, the Coalition of Immokolee Workers — along with student allies — organized winning campaigns for farm workers by creating campaigns targeting fast food chains. Some environmentalists used campaigns to win against toxic polluting. Some students forced their colleges to abandon sweatshops when purchasing regalia, and even to pay a living wage.

    But the Democratic Party’s choice to go on the defensive after 1981 influenced many progressives who believed that mainstream Democrats are smart strategists. Even though defensive Democrats steadily lost previous gains and moved to the political right, many grassroots activists seemed to accept that reactivity is strategically correct. After all, the Democrats’ top leader, Nancy Pelosi, announced in January that her first priority would be defending Obamacare. Now she has joined a different defense: the traditional procedures of governance.

    Given this descent of political culture into reactivity, perhaps it’s not surprising that nonviolent direct action campaigning got lost as a strategic option even for many people who identify themselves as activists.

    How can we re-take the offensive?

    Campaigns are perfect for turning away from defensive fights and moving back into what works: Going on the offensive by framing an issue into a demand, choosing a decider, planning a series of actions then escalating and growing. The issue can be local, regional, national, highly ambitious in its demand or less so. We get to choose — it’s an existential move of empowerment.

    Direct action campaigns provide the power that can drive successful movements to grow and win bigger goals than each individual campaign focuses on.

    Workers can teach us. Despite being battered by the elite counter-offensive launched four decades ago, they have not forgotten what a nonviolent direct action campaign is. When, in 2018, the leadership of the West Virginia teachers resisted going on the offensive, the members forced a strike vote and the majority chose to strike — and won. Feeling inspired, teachers in multiple other states and cities went on strike (one form of the nonviolent direct action campaign), often winning, followed by the United Auto Workers taking on the giant General Motors Corporation and winning.

    In a St. Petersburg, Florida, Quaker Meetinghouse a woman came to me eagerly during the break or a workshop I was leading and told me she had helped to organize a strike as a labor organizer. “It was hard work, very hard, but it was so inspiring — all that solidarity, taking that risk to win! It was,” she said, eyes shining, “the greatest experience in my life.”

    A new workshop is available to welcome people into campaigning

    Direct action campaigns provide the power that can drive successful movements to grow and win bigger goals than each individual campaign focuses on. In this way, more macro-level changes can result from multiple campaigns combining, as happened in the movement against nuclear power and when the multiple divestment campaigns against apartheid resulted in a major power shift in South Africa. I’m eager to build on this dynamic and create a narrative in which multiple campaigns power multiple movements, which combine to reach a scale where the economic elite can be removed from dominance.

    Previous Coverage
  • What the US can learn from Scandinavia in the struggle against inequality
  • That’s the organic path that began to unfold in the United States in the 1930s and then again in the 1960s and ’70s, both times scaring the 1 percent considerably. In the Nordic countries, the same path unfolded under more favorable conditions, and they were able to move from multiple campaigns powering multiple movements to a movement of movements that could force out their economic elites. (Without that happening, there would have been no “Nordic economic model” of democratic socialism.)

    Because the stakes are so high at this political moment in the United States, I decided to create a short workshop that invites people into the world of strategic nonviolent campaigning, which I call the “How We Win Workshop.” I believe that activists can recover lost knowledge, namely: that we can strategically assert power in the face of state repression and right-wing violence against us, and win.

    In less than half a day participants learn how the rapid flow of events in the U.S. life now favors direct action campaigns, and how those campaigns can build movements on such a scale that we can contest for power on a national level.

    After I led a series on workshops on both coasts and the Midwest, I realized that many more people, ranging from college students to elders, are eager for the workshop than I can reach. I’ve begun a train-the-trainer process so other experienced facilitators can lead this workshop.

    If your organization, after discussion, wants to bring the How We Win Workshop to your area, reach out in the comments or contact me through this site.

    What happened when Chile woke up

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    It has been a month since Chileans took to the streets in a surprising and mostly nonviolent uprising that changed the country’s political agenda and shattered its image as Latin America’s most successful and stable economy. “Chile woke up” is how many describe what has happened. But the awakening has not been free from nightmares that cloud the streets and minds of Chileans, which are compounded by the memory of the 17-year-long Pinochet dictatorship that ended in 1990.

    “I studied during the dictatorship, and I have seen things I never saw then,” said Enrique Morales, president of the human rights department of the Chilean Medical Association, in a recent television interview. “Policemen firing inside a girls’ high school, I never saw that. Never 210 people losing their eyesight because of police shotguns.”

    On the other hand, never in recent history have Chileans witnessed such widespread looting and urban fires, which have mainly affected big supermarkets, banks and pharmaceutical chains, but also small businesses. At least 100,000 jobs are expected to be lost as a result of the protests and millions of dollars will have to be invested to fix damages.

    Other damages are irreversible, such as those inflicted on the more than 200 people who have suffered eye injuries and partial blindness as a result of the police firing birdshot from riot shotguns. Or the hundreds, if not thousands, who have been badly beaten, tortured or raped by the police forces. According to the governmental National Human Rights Institute, or INDH, between Oct. 17 (when widespread protests began) and Nov. 10, 5,629 people had been arrested and 2,009 treated for injuries in hospitals — among them 197 with eye injuries (which has since increased to 222). The institute has filed 384 legal actions mostly against the police, among them 273 for torture and cruel treatment and 66 for sexual violence.

    A protester next to poster that shows the faces of the people killed during the widespread demonstrations that have shocked Chile. (WNV/Alconda Opaso)

    These figures could indeed be much higher. INDH Executive Director Sergio Micco said that many people were afraid to denounce arrests and police abuse. In its regular public reports, the INDH is not detailing the number of people whose whereabouts are unknown. They also have stopped reporting the number of people who have died as a result of the protests. In the first two weeks, 23 protesters were killed, five of them victims of police forces and the army, and the rest, government sources claim, were burned to death in lootings. But, according to sources at the coroner’s office, at least one of the bodies was found to have three bullet wounds.

    Counting the dead is not an easy task. The INDH had to formally ask the coroner’s office to detail the exact number of deaths. And at the coroner’s office, Aleida Kulikoff, a high ranking employee was fired after allegedly demanding more through autopsies for the burned corpses.

    Despite the horrific violence and uncertainties, people not only continue taking to the streets, but have organized thousands of cabildos, or assemblies of neighbors, that are asking themselves about the root causes of the uprising and what people can do about it. Close to 10,000 assemblies are said to have been held across the country. They exist not only in poor neighborhoods, such as Yungay, near downtown Santiago, where neighbors have assemblies every day and also organize first aid workshops and food kitchens, but also in Vitacura, one of Santiago’s most affluent neighborhoods. 

    30 years, not only 30 pesos

    It all began the third week of October when — after a 30 pesos hike in subway fares — high school students called for massive civil disobedience and refused to pay. What started with hundreds of students jumping over the subway gates grew to thousands, as adults began to join. On Oct. 18, a massive protest resulted in the burning of dozens of subway stations. The following day President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency and ordered the armed forces to patrol the streets. But in a country that survived the Pinochet dictatorship that resulted in 3,600 dead and close to a thousand “disappeared,” protesters were not deterred. 

    A couple of days later, more than a million people gathered in Baquedano Square, in the largest demonstration seen in decades. Unidad Social, or Social Unity, a wide coalition of trade unions, human rights, student, environmental and women’s groups has helped organize the protests. For Mario Aguilar, national president of the powerful National Teachers Union — which is also one of the professional associations that is part of Social Unity — a wonderful change has taken place in Chile.

    Mario Aguilar, national president of the Chilean Teachers Association and leader of Social Unity at his office in Santiago, Nov. 9. (WNV/Cristian Opaso)

    “The most extraordinary thing is the main slogan that people shout in the streets: Chile woke up,” Aguilar said. “I think we were a people that were numbed in a big way by a model that enslaved us, that chained us to a lifestyle that, despite us not liking, we could not free ourselves from. Chile woke up and suddenly realized that it was indeed possible to change things, that together we were a mighty force, that the one next to me had the same problem.”

    On Nov. 10, Aguilar burst into tears while being interviewed live on national television at the entrance to the Santa Maria Clinic after visiting Gustavo Gatica, a 21-year-old student who was blinded by birdshot fired a police shotgun while taking photographs. “This is criminal … They are mutilating our youngsters; they are on purpose firing towards youngsters’ faces,” Aguilar said. “I ask Piñera to stop the war against the people of Chile.”

    Despite police violence, Aguilar and many others continue taking to the streets. On Nov. 12, Unidad Social called for a national strike and close to two million Chileans protested. Many governmental offices, and some ports and copper mines, joined the strike. The Baquedano Square, now known as Dignity Square, was again the scene of massive gatherings and an old university building and a church were set on fire. 

    Television, as usual, provided extensive coverage not of the largely nonviolent protests, but of the fires and confrontations between the police and protesters, and on the following day interviewed neighbors whose shops or homes were looted. 

    Previous Coverage
  • Chileans mobilize to replace a constitution written by a military dictatorship
  • Piñera has refused to resign, but nevertheless has offered a package of economic reforms to raise the minimum wage, lower medicine prices and raise some taxes. He recently conceded to drafting a new constitution and even having people choose all the delegates. The date for this process to begin has been set for April of next year. 

    On Nov. 15, exhausted members of the Chilean congress announced an “Agreement for Peace and a New Constitution.” Nonetheless, that evening 29-year-old Abel Acuña died at Dignity Square after police attacked an ambulance with water cannons and tear gas, preventing medical personnel from reanimating Acuña, who had suffered a heart attack. Since the announcement of the agreement the number of protesters has diminished, but street actions and assemblies continue in major cities across Chile.

    For the protesters, these concessions are not enough. People are demanding not only a constitutional assembly, with widespread popular participation to replace the present constitution, which was imposed by Pinochet in 1980 and only superficially reformed in later years. They are also demanding truth and justice for the human rights violations that have taken place and more drastic measures to increase pensions and wages.

    Building internal barricades

    Gustavo Gatica’s mother is encouraging people to continue with their actions. While she said in a message to fellow teachers that she is destroyed, she thanked people for their support and asked that people not give up. She also relayed a message from Gustavo: “I sacrificed my eyes, so that people would wake up.”

    The cruel blinding of Gustavo and so many others has no doubt provoked fear, but, as Aguilar says, fear can be overcome. “One has to pay attention to oneself,” he explained. “Don’t let fear paralyze you. Fear is there, but we have to have hope to defeat fear. That is what’s happening in the streets still. I hope it remains.” 

    Among the myriad number of groups organizing actions is the Visual Artists and Friends of Cultures Collective. Organized last year by a handful of female artists — who had met as art students at the University of Concepción in southern Chile — the collective carried out its first artistic action in remembrance of Camilo Catrillanca, a leader of the indigenous Mapuche population who was shot by police exactly a year ago. 

    An artists collective gathered at German Fountain, next to Dignity Square, holding sign that says “We lost an eye due to those that refuse to See” on Nov. 8. (WNV/Cristian Opaso)

    Recently they organized two actions related to the people who have been blinded by police violence. The first took place at the entrance to the Fine Arts Museum of Santiago on Nov. 3, where members of the group each covered one of their eyes — as well as one on a statue — and held a sign that read, “We lost an eye because of those that refuse to see.” They also repeatedly chanted other slogans, such as “Even if we lose our eyes, we see more than those in power,” and “Chile woke up, now let’s open our eyes.” Days later, during another massive protest at Dignity Square, they silently held their sign among the thousands who had gathered nearby.

    Alconda Gonzalez, a member of the collective is also a high school teacher in the Independencia neighborhood. She has attended recent self-organized assemblies that were held in the affluent Vitacura neighborhood. On Nov. 3, close to 30 people gathered at noon for an assembly, very close to where U.N. buildings are located, to share feelings and ideas.

    “We are not armed. Our arms are justice and dignity and against that phenomena arms can do nothing.”

    Gonzalez spoke of the importance of supporting young people who are fighting in the streets, sometimes behind barricades. Another person spoke about the need to continue with “internal barricades,” with the inner strength and inspiration to continue until real change takes place.

    Contrary to what one would expect from affluent citizens, people were concerned not so much with violence against property, but with “structural violence.” Another person noted that “there is something different now — the economic model and also representative democracy are being questioned.”

    “I feel I have to contribute with something,” said a woman who confessed that she had been crying all morning. Others added that they had to “humanize dialogue” and “strengthen the non-virtual social fabric.”

    Those human bonds are also one of the priorities that has emerged at Achawal Waru, a squat house in the Yungay sector of Santiago. Occupied for about four years, the house has offered workshops on first aid, developed a protocol for self-protection and has helped coordinate alternative journalists covering Chilean events from several countries.

    Lissette Vidal Carmona, with her partner Sergio Lillo and their 2-year-old son Kunturi outside their squat house in the Yungay neighborhood of Santiago. (WNV/Cristian Opaso)

    Lissette Vidal Carmona lives there with her partner and Kunturi, her 2-year-old son. “That shit, firing shotguns at the eyes of people, that is fear,” she said. “They are provoking fear so that you don’t go out. But we are not armed. Our arms are justice and dignity and against that phenomena arms can do nothing. What are they going to do?”

    She believes there are different spaces and roles for people to play in the movement. “There are men and women to fight in the streets. Others are organizing like us, in a trench that is a communal space” she explained, adding how important mutual support is these days. “It is important to caress each other, let others know how much we love them, how important we are. Never has it made more sense to say: Please take care of yourself. Give me a call.”

    Despite uncertain future, Lebanon’s uprising remains united against political elite

    Holding a megaphone, a women chants to the crowds gathered at Martyrs’ Square in the middle of central Beirut, “We are the revolution of the people, you are the civil war!” The people, filling up the entire square and streets leading up to Lebanon’s parliament, repeat the words in unison. “You are the civil war,” they chant, “we are the revolution.”

    It is an afternoon in early November, more than three weeks since the uprising against political corruption began in mid-October. Unlike previous protest movements in the small Mediterranean nation, demonstrations have spread to all parts of the country, including small towns and villages, and are targeting the entire Lebanese political elite.

    “All of them, and we mean all of them!” the protesters chant, sparing no one.

    Like each day, it is a diverse crowd that has gathered in the square. Parents have arrived with their children, young people with their friends. In their hands are posters with handwritten slogans or jokes, each smarter than the other.

    “We are missing our lessons to teach you one,” one student’s poster says.

    “We are not here to study history, we are here to write it,” says another.

    More than ever before, youth have come to form an important part of the movement. University students have led sit-ins and strikes; school children have articulated the most clear-sighted demands and critiques. Just like the uprising as a whole, the students do not have a unified leader. Many have organized on their own, or through university student groups.

    When schools were closed due to the protests, teachers held lessons at the sit-in in Beirut. (WNV/Jenny Gustafsson)

    A bit further away on the square, loudspeakers blast an electronic version of “The people want the regime to fall,” the slogan familiar from the Arab Spring.

    But Lebanon is different. There is no absolute ruler to be toppled, no dictatorship to be brought to an end. The country, at least on paper, has some features of a democracy — an elected government, even if many politicians are former warlords, a partly free media and a deeply rooted tradition of free speech.

    What remains is a long list of failures, which is what brought people out into the streets. There is record-high inequality (Lebanon has one of the highest rates of billionaires in a population), terrible infrastructure (the electricity cuts out daily, and despite rich rainfalls, water is in constant shortage), the looming ecological crisis (manifest most blatantly in the garbage crisis of 2015, when trash was left in the streets for weeks) and an ongoing, yet-to-be-resolved economic emergency.

    “We are in the streets because we have nothing in this country. There’s no welfare, zero. And everyone is affected.”

    The blame for all of this, say the protesters, is on the political class, which has managed, successfully and uninterrupted, to stay in power since the days of the 1975-1990 civil war, ruling through extended networks of patronage.

    The formula for ruling, since Lebanon’s foundation as a state, has been to distribute power along religious lines (the country has 18 recognized religious groups). But it has been a formula for division, not unity.

    “The sects have been hijacked by the politicians, and people have become hostages to their sects. This sectarian system will never be able to function,” said Lamia Osseiran, a long-time civil activist.

    She has been out in the streets every day since the uprising began, as have her daughters and most of her friends.

    What initially sparked the protests may seem insignificant — a tax on WhatsApp, announced as an attempt to get desperately needed funds to stave off some of the effects of the financial crisis. But to millions of Lebanese, for whom this is the only affordable way of calling, it showed just how out of touch politicians are.

    “We are in the streets because we have nothing in this country,” said Hussein Ghandour, a recent graduate. “There’s no welfare, zero. And everyone is affected. My mum has a gastric disease and is struggling all the time to get care.”

    He is standing behind a table at Martyrs’ Square, set up by an organization called Nahnoo, working on public space issues. Since the protests began, the entire area has seen a transformation. From being a privately owned and expensive part of the city, it has come — if momentarily — into the hands of the people.

    Volunteers go in the early mornings to sort and recycle garbage from the night before. Street vendors, who are normally not allowed into the square, arrive at nightfall with sweets and snacks. One afternoon, a group of people brought plants from the mountains, and planted them in holes in the concrete.

    Children walking through the main square in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city and one of the main centers of demonstrations. (WNV/Jenny Gustafsson)

    Tripoli, the second-largest city in Lebanon, has been transformed in a similar way. The central Nour Square (which despite its name is a busy roundabout) is filled with people each evening. The big building overlooking the area, previously cement grey, has been painted like a gigantic Lebanese flag. A group of women chop onions for a free communal meal; members of the youth-led volunteer group “Guardians of the City” walk around talking to people, offering help to those who might need it.

    In both cities, debates and open mics are held daily. People gather to discuss tactics and goals, share personal stories, and speak about what kind of country they want in the future.

    “We don’t know what government will come after this one falls, but power must always rest with the people,” said a woman who introduces herself as Rayan.

    Each night, in unison, people loudly beat pans with spoons from their kitchens. The message: we have nothing to put in our pots.

    But the path ahead is far from straight. Political divisions, kept in place by the sectarian system, run deep in the country, and are not easily overcome. In the face of a mostly absent state and non-existing welfare system, people are left with few options but to rely on the sectarian leaders.

    Leaders from across the political spectrum have tried to play things to their own advantage. Parties like the Kataeb and Lebanese Forces went down to join the protests — to the outrage of activists, who do not want to their revolution to be hijacked. Supporters of opposing parties, Amal and Hezbollah, intimidated and confronted demonstrators, and destroyed the tents on Martyrs’ Square.

    After two weeks of demonstrations, Prime Minister Saad Hariri came out with his resignation, leaving the country without a sitting government. But few saw this as a victory for the protesters.

    A feminist demonstration marching through the streets of Beirut. (WNV/Jenny Gustafsson)

    “He was the low-hanging fruit who was likely to resign,” political analyst Rami Khouri said to Al-Jazeera.

    It did not end the uprising either. Schools may have reopened — as have banks, amidst talks of collapse and bankruptcy — but sit-ins and demonstrations are organized daily. People take aim at symbolic institutions like the Central Bank and the state-owned electricity company, or hotels built on formerly public land.

    Across the country, at 8 p.m. each night, people beat loudly, in unison, with spoons on pans from their kitchens. The message: We have nothing to put in our pots.

    People’s demands have not changed after Hariri’s resignation. The movement, which remains broad and with no unified leadership, continues calling for an end to political corruption, the establishment of a civil state, economic reforms and social justice.

    On the evening of Nov. 12, President Michel Aoun delivered a pre-recorded speech. Midway through, he said that if people “aren’t satisfied with any of the decent leaders then let them immigrate.” Immediately, crowds took to the streets, closing off roads with burning tires. Later that night, a father of three, Alaa Abou Fakher, was shot to death by an army member in front of his wife and child.

    Few people can say where things are headed, whether there will be any real, significant change. Not everyone is optimistic. But one thing is clear, one transformation has already happened.

    “We have never seen people united like this before. Not even before the war, nor at any time in our history,” Osseiran said. “I think no one expected it to happen so soon and in such a massive way.”

    Fifteen-year-old Aya addresses the crowd in Beirut. (WNV/Jenny Gustafsson)

    At the open mic, in a corner of the expensive shopping district bordering Martyrs’ Square — which before the uprising was scarce of people and is now teeming with life in the evenings — a 15-year-old student named Aya has gone up to speak.

    “We learned about Lebanon in school, but I never learned so much about my country as now,” she said to the crowd. “It is the first time that I feel proud of being Lebanese. And the first time I feel like I want to stay here to make things better, not leave.”

    How the spirit of the indigenous occupation of Alcatraz lives on, 50 years later

    For most people, Alcatraz Island is nothing more than a San Francisco tourist destination — home to the infamous penitentiary and Al Capone’s jail cell. But for Kris Longoria, who prefers to be known by her artist name, UrbanRezLife, Alcatraz Island is home. 

    From 1969 to 1971, when UrbanRezLife was eight years old, she and her family were among a group of nearly a hundred indigenous activists who occupied the island, protesting treaty violations and boldly demanding sovereignty. Eventually, the occupation was forcibly ended by the U.S. government — but not before awakening the American public, igniting indigenous activism nationwide, and directly affecting federal policy. 

    Fifty years later, the island is where UrbanRezLife goes to be by herself, reflect and even weep. “Alcatraz is my rez,” she said, shorthand for reservation. “I love Alcatraz with all my heart. It changed all of our lives — you can’t leave that space without taking it with you.”

    “The spark that started the fire”

    The seeds for the Alcatraz occupation were planted over a decade before the activists stepped foot on the island. In 1956, the Indian Relocation Act — a law designed to encourage indigenous people to leave reservations and their traditional lands with the goal of assimilating them into urban areas — was passed. 

    Two boys in the main cell block on May 30, 1970. (Copyright Ilka Hartmann)

    The Indian Relocation Act was one of many “Indian termination policies” which sought to end the U.S. government’s recognition of tribe sovereignty, forcing indigenous people to become tax paying citizens that were subject to state and federal laws.

    The urban migration as a result of the policy played a critical role in the forced termination of many federally-recognized tribes, and often left participants struggling to adjust to life in cities where they faced unemployment, discrimination and severance from their culture.

    Because of the Indian Relocation Act, the population of Native Americans in cities like San Francisco skyrocketed. By the late 1960s, many participants in the relocation program, especially students from the Bay area, had begun organizing across tribal lines, championing “Red Power” and fighting for self-determination.

    “Alcatraz shouldn’t be viewed as a singular event, but as part of a wider activism,” said Herb Butler, a native Alaskan activist who lived on the island during the occupation. “The relocation program allowed [American Indians] to compare notes on what was happening on a nationwide scale, so they could organize and start the movement.”

    Belva Cottier and a young Chicano man during the Occupation of Alcatraz Island, May 30, 1970. (Copyright Ilka Hartmann)

    The final impetus for the occupation took place in October 1969, when a fire destroyed the San Francisco Indian Center. The center had been at the heart of the urban indigenous community, providing them with jobs, health care and a haven to hold pow wows in peace. The loss of the Indian Center was devastating, but it was also what UrbanRezLife calls “the spark that started the fire.”

    “We hold The Rock”

    Before dawn on November 20, 1969, a boat carrying nearly 80 indigenous activists arrived on the chilly shores of Alcatraz. The island, which is 22 acres and only 1.5 miles from San Francisco, had once been reserved for housing infamous criminals. However, it hadn’t been touched since it was shut down in 1963 — making it the perfect location for a new Indian cultural center. To justify reclaiming Alcatraz, the activists cited the Treaty of Fort Laramie, an 1868 agreement between the United States and the Sioux stating that all abandoned federal land was to be returned to native people.

    Upon their arrival, activists wrote in bold red letters across the water tower: “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land.”

    The Proclamation was a humorous tongue-in-cheek statement by the local Bay Area Indian community stating why the poor conditions of the island were perfectly suitable for Indians. (Copyright Ilka Hartmann)

    The group called themselves “Indians of All Tribes.” Their first official proclamation to the public was a manifesto addressed to the “The Great White Father and All His People.” In it, the activists claimed that though Alcatraz was theirs by “right of discovery,” they were also willing to buy it for $24 in glass beads and red cloth — the same price their people supposedly received for the island of Manhattan. 

    The dissidents went on to declare that they didn’t mind that Alcatraz was lacking in freshwater and completely devoid of opportunities. If anything, this would make the island “more than suitable for an Indian reservation, by the white man’s own standards.”

    The radical, inventive and tongue-in-cheek tactics of the Alcatraz occupiers immediately captivated the media, enabling the movement to garner donations from across the country. Celebrity supporters included Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando and the rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose donation was used to purchase a boat for transporting supplies.

    Michael Leach (Sioux) on the boat to Alcatraz in March 1970. (Copyright Ilka Hartmann)

    During the 19-month occupation, the activists slept in the warden’s quarters and in empty prison cells. They wasted no time in electing civil officers, setting up an infirmary, and instituting a school. The activists also established a security force to patrol the shoreline, pointedly dubbed the “Bureau of Caucasian Affairs” (a play on the widely-despised Bureau of Indian Affairs). One of the occupants, a Sioux activist named John Trudell, began broadcasting radio updates on an underground station called “Radio Free Alcatraz.”

    At the height of the occupation, there were nearly 400 people protesting on the island. For most activists living on Alcatraz, the occupation was about more than simply getting their demands met — it was about publicly reclaiming their heritage and holding the federal government accountable for the first time in history. “At that point, our people were like, ‘Oh, we can fight. We can fight openly, we don’t have to be behind any kind of closed doors and be silent,’” UrbanRezLife said.

    Before the occupation, UrbanRezLife’s childhood was spent attending Black Panther meetings in San Francisco and marching in protests. Because she grew up before the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 was passed, she also has vivid memories of her family practicing tribal ceremonies in secret. “We were doing all of these things in the community, but I didn’t feel proud until we went to Alcatraz,” she said. “It was then that I figured out I was Red. I was Indian.” 

    The end of the occupation

    In January 1970, tragedy befell the island when 13-year-old Yvonne Oakes fell down a staircase to her death. Shaken by the loss of his daughter, the movement’s frontman, a Mohawk activist named Richard Oakes, left Alcatraz to mourn. (Two years later, when he was only 30 years old, Oakes was murdered in an altercation with a white supremacist. Though Oakes was unarmed, his killer was acquitted by the jury.)

    As the months wore on, the occupation’s numbers began to dwindle. Many of the original occupiers left to return to school, and the island was rapidly becoming overrun by hippies and drug abusers. In an effort to force the occupiers to return to the mainland, the federal government cut off all electrical power and telephone services. Shortly after, several buildings caught fire.

    On June 11, 1971, the occupation was forcibly ended when three Coast Guard cutters containing 20 armed marshals arrived on the island. The 15 remaining activists on the island surrendered peacefully.

    Indigenous occupiers giving the Red Power salute moments after the removal from Alcatraz Island on June 11, 1971. (Copyright Ilka Hartmann)

    Indians of All Tribes didn’t achieve their goal of permanently seizing Alcatraz, but the movement did have a lasting effect on federal policy. In July 1970, President Richard Nixon officially rejected Indian termination policies, including the Indian Relocation Act, and called for Congress to pass a bill authorizing the return of sacred land to the Taos Pueblo Indians. A series of bills followed, all in favor of self-determination and ending government-sanctioned assimilation.

    The fight continues

    Fifty years later, the Alcatraz occupation remains a beacon of hope for the indigenous community. “Alcatraz was the start of it all,” UrbanRezLife said. “It opened the doors for our people.” 

    For Butler, the occupation was an opportunity for him and his people “to become leaders of their own destiny.” Today, Butler is 76 years old — and still regularly meets with members of Congress to advocate for Alaska natives. “Those of us that remain alive from the movement are now elders and are teaching the young,” he said. “We’re advisors across the nation. That’s a result of the movement.”

    Half a century later, there remains a lot of work to be done. Across the United States, violence against Native women has reached staggering rates. Recently, nine states approved legislation that would effectively outlaw demonstrations near pipelines, a measure which would make it easier for the government to target indigenous activists defending their land. And of course, there remains the issues of treaties, many of which continue to be broken or only partially lived up to by the U.S. government.

    And yet the spirit of Alcatraz lives on.

    UrbanRezLife standing in front of the iconic “Red Power” graffiti at Alcatraz, which she helped to restore a few years ago, in 2019. (WNV/Natassja Trujillo)

    Today, UrbanRezLife is a community activist and artist living in San Francisco. She is still teaching herself not to let anyone diminish her story. “As a child, I was surrounded by people who were doing the most beautiful work,” UrbanRezLife said. “They taught me to always be there for your people. Even if all you can do is be the person to make the coffee — be that person. There’s no role too small.”

    Ever since 1975, several thousand indigenous people have gathered on Alcatraz each year for Unthanksgiving Day, a ceremony that commemmorates the occupation while celebrating indigenous survival in the face of colonization and genocide. 

    In 2016, protests erupted at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, due to a proposed pipeline that would corrupt the water and cross ancient Sioux burial grounds. Many veterans of the Alcatraz occupation traveled across the country to show their support. Among them was UrbanRezLife, who found herself overwhelmed by “the beauty of being a part of something from the beginning.” 

    “When I was a kid, I watched the ancestors fighting for treaties and land, and the sovereignty of our nation,” she said, struggling to hold back tears. “Now here we are, all these years later. We’re still fighting — but we’re fighting stronger than we fought before.”

    How anti-Vietnam War protests thwarted Nixon’s plans and saved lives

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    “Demonstrations don’t work.” Next time you hear someone (or yourself) say that, you might consider the Moratorium and Mobilization demonstrations in the fall of 1969 — both commemorating their 50th anniversaries this year.

    On Oct.15, 1969, more than two million citizens took part in the Moratorium — a one-day national strike against the war. In hundreds of cities, towns and campuses throughout the country, people from all walks of life took the day off to march, rally, vigil or engage in teach-ins. Until the Women’s March of 2017, the Moratorium held the title as the biggest nationwide demonstration in American history.

    Exactly a month later, on Nov. 15, more than a half-million war opponents flooded the nation’s capital for the Mobilization. That was more than double the number of marchers who participated in the famous 1963 March on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr. More than 100,000 rallied in a simultaneous antiwar demonstration in San Francisco.

    It’s not just the enormous size of these antiwar protests that make them worth recalling. I was on the staff of the coalition that organized the Mobilization action. Though none of us involved knew it then, these demonstrations foiled Richard Nixon’s plans to dramatically escalate the war.

    At the time, I was delighted with the massive turnouts. I’d been working full-time as an antiwar organizer for the previous two years and would continue doing so for four more. I believed the antiwar movement was making progress as more and more people from an ever-broadening cross-section of the public were joining the actions. It seemed the tide of public opinion was shifting in our favor.

    But was the dissent having any impact on the warmakers? After all, the war was continuing to send both Americans and Vietnamese to early graves every day. I sometimes wondered whether the peace movement was no more than a side show. The government always pooh-poohed our influence. Nixon even claimed to have watched a football game while a half-million of us marched and rallied within earshot of the White House.

    Few could have predicted earlier in the year that the peace movement would have launched such massive protests. When Nixon entered the Oval Office in January, the national peace movement was in disarray. It’s well worth telling the story of how the movement transformed itself over the ensuing months. It certainly illustrates why it’s so crucial for mass protests to be creatively nonviolent.

    Fewer than 10,000 people showed up for “Counter-Inaugural” actions, which were held Washington, D.C. when Nixon took office. It was sponsored by the Mobilization coalition that had called other national demonstrations. (The two coalition protests in 1967 each drew more than 10 times that number). And the Counter-Inaugurals were widely considered a flop. The most publicized actions were minor street skirmishes between the police and small bands of protesters, some of whom threw objects at Nixon’s car as it made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.

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    Even before the Counter-Inaugurals, the Mobilization’s leadership had little credibility. Opponents of the war were wary of a repeat of the violence that occurred the previous summer at the Chicago Democratic Convention. The Chicago demonstrations had also failed to attract more than 10,000 in part because of the violent rhetoric and provocative statements made by Mobilization leaders. At one point, Tom Hayden exhorted a crowd: “Make sure that if blood is going to flow, let it flow all over the city.”

    Most antiwarriors understood that Mayor Richard Daly and the Chicago police were responsible for the violence, not the protesters. (A government commission called it a “police riot.”) Still, it’s hard to recruit large numbers of people to an event where you think you might get your head bashed in. And the Mobilization leadership had done little either in Chicago or at the Counter-Inaugural to dissuade those within the antiwar movement who spouted violent rhetoric (“Off the pig” was a favorite chant) or advocated violent tactics.

    During the first months of the new administration, some antiwarriors were willing to give the new president the benefit of the doubt to see whether he would become the “peacemaker” he so eloquently proclaimed in his inaugural address. Believing in his powers of persuasion, Nixon’s aide Henry Kissinger met with a group from the major antiwar religious coalition to urge patience. His effort backfired. Two weeks later, the group announced a series of demonstrations in the spring, as did other antiwar groups who had concluded that Nixon — like his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson — hoped to win a military victory despite his talk of turning responsibility for the war over to the South Vietnamese, as well as enacting token troop withdrawals.

    Kissinger had the same luck several weeks later with a group of student leaders. They represented more than 250 student body presidents and college newspaper editors who had signed a petition saying they would refuse to be drafted into the military. Meeting in the Situation Room in the basement of the White House, Kissinger gave his spiel about patience. It did not go over well with students who faced being drafted and possibly being sent to prison or Vietnam while Nixon and Kissinger were patiently trying to achieve “peace with honor.” After Kissinger left the room, John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s senior aide, told the group, “If you people think you can break laws just because you don’t like them, you’re going to force us to up the ante to the point we’re handing out death sentences for traffic violations.” He slammed his hand on the table and the meeting was over.

    Leaders of the student group soon organized the Vietnam Moratorium Committee and called for people to stop work or school on Oct. 15 to protest the war. They intentionally picked the word “moratorium” rather than “general strike” to appeal to a broad cross-section of the public, especially those who’d never previously taken to the streets. Leaders of the Moratorium saw the potential for enlarging the movement after having worked on the 1968 electoral campaign of antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy. They urged people to protest in their own communities with the Moratorium functioning as a clearinghouse to support local groups.

    Meanwhile, a newly formed coalition emerged with a wide spectrum of community, religious, professional, labor, political and student groups. Called the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, its organizers went to great lengths to eliminate the violent rhetoric and confrontational street tactics that had marred previous coalition actions.

    The Mobilization called for major rallies in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco for Nov. 15. To set a peaceful tone, they added a solemn two-day March Against Death immediately prior to the mass rally in Washington. The plan was to march from Arlington Cemetery to the Capitol via the White House with marchers holding placards with the name of a U.S. soldier who’d been killed in the war or the name of a Vietnamese village that had been destroyed.

    Earlier that spring, some local groups had adopted the tactic of reading the names of the war dead in front of government buildings. The tactic served to remind the public that the war was not over, that the killing was continuing. The tactic got national network coverage when a group of Quakers did it on the steps of the capitol and were joined by a handful of Congresspeople. Because it was then illegal to demonstrate on the Capitol grounds, the demonstrators were hauled off to jail, but the representatives could not be arrested because of congressional immunity. (The Quakers successfully challenged their arrests, and a judge found in their favor — making it legal to exercise one’s First Amendment rights at the Capitol.)

    While antiwarriors were making plans for the fall, Nixon had initiated what he called his “Madman Theory,” which involved threatening the other side with massive destruction if they didn’t agree to his peace terms. The president gave the communists a deadline of Nov. 1 to agree to the American peace terms or face “measures of great consequence and force” and had his aides imply that the fervently anti-Communist president could be unpredictable or even act irrationally if angry.

    Nixon then had the Pentagon and his National Security Council led by Kissinger draw up plans to deliver a “savage, decisive blow” against North Vietnam because, in Kissinger’s words, “I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.” Plans included bombing the country’s dikes — which could have killed tens of thousands of civilians — as well as dropping so-called tactical nuclear bombs near the Chinese border, which could have provoked the nuclear-armed Chinese or Soviets to retaliate.

    Unfortunately for Nixon, his ultimatum date of Nov. 1 was sandwiched between the dates for two antiwar demonstrations. When Nixon learned from CIA infiltrators that the Moratorium was “shaping up to be the most widely-supported public action in American history,” he saw trouble ahead. As Nixon later wrote, he saw that “the only chance for my ultimatum to succeed was to convince the Communists that I could depend on solid support at home if they decided to call my bluff.”

    “Solid support at home” was not forthcoming. The size and breadth of both the October and November protests surpassed the organizers’ most grandiose expectations. Reading the names of the war dead was used extensively during the Moratorium protests. And the March Against Death drew more than 45,000 protesters who walked single file along the four-mile route with their candles and placards for 36 hours.

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    The Mobilization also attempted to create a highly disciplined action by recruiting and training more than 4,000 marshals to keep order. Their one-and-a-half nonviolent training sessions included several role-playing scenarios about how to deal with potential disrupters, whether police, agents provocateurs or radical activists. (The latter was a major concern, as Bill Ayers of the newly formed Weatherman faction tried to extort $20,000 from demonstration leaders in exchange for agreeing not to disrupt the action. He was turned down.)

    As a result of the demonstrations, Nixon cancelled his war plans. He wrote in his memoirs that the protests had “undercut the credibility of the ultimatum.” Several other researchers have verified that in this instance at least, “Tricky Dick” (as he was then called), had told the truth.

    What about Nixon’s claim to have ignored the Nov. 15 Mobilization? “Untrue,” according to Daniel Ellsberg, who was then working for the Nixon administration: “Every 10 minutes he [Nixon] was calling the Situation Room and finding out what was going on, getting the reports from the U-2s on crowd size… He was totally absorbed.”

    Of course, the fall 1969 demonstrations did not end the war. It was one battle in a 10-year nonviolent struggle that ultimately helped to stop the bloodshed in Indochina. Admiral Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Nixon administration, acknowledged that the government always was concerned about how the antiwar movement would react. He said that the movement “served to inhibit and restrain the decision makers… both in the executive and legislative branches of the government.”

    It’s worth reflecting on the implication of Admiral Moorer’s statement. To “inhibit and restrain” warmakers in wartime meant less violence. Put another way, the anti-Vietnam War movement saved lives.

    Sadly, few of us who were involved in American’s largest nonviolent struggle knew then or know today that we had such power. At the time, we knew opposing the Vietnam War was the right thing to do. But it sure helps to realize that it made a real difference to have marched and rallied, petitioned and lobbied, sat through countless meetings and engaged in civil disobedience.

    Hopefully, those involved in today’s struggles will find some helpful lessons from our experiences.

    It’s not just ‘coal country’ — what the history of women’s labor reveals about Appalachia

    After the 2016 presidential election, many people in the United States sought to understand the rise of Trump through stories of rural America. Books like “Hillbilly Elegy” and “Strangers in Their Own Land” examined conservative communities as a way to explain the rise in right-wing politics.

    But for historian Jessie Wilkerson, who grew up in eastern Tennessee, there is something important missing from the stories that gained a spotlight after Donald Trump’s election. Wilkerson studies women’s history, particularly the role women have played in social movements in the south and Appalachia. These stories, she has found, shed light on the many myths of “coal country,” including the assumptions that Appalachia is exclusively white and staunchly conservative.

    In her recently-released book, “To Live Here You Have to Fight,” Wilkerson tells the stories of several women who led a range of locally-rooted movements during the 20th century — from welfare rights to community health to anti-poverty. She tells of the repression these movements faced, as well as their lasting contributions to the wellbeing of Appalachian communities.

    I interviewed Wilkerson about the significance of documenting these little-known stories of women-led movements in Appalachia, and the way this history can reshape our understanding of the region today.

    Why did you choose to research the role women played in leading Appalachian social movements?

    For me, it was really important to write Appalachian women’s history because the region is so often portrayed as a space of white masculinity. Even up until the present, the icon of Appalachia is a male coal miner. Before that, in earlier histories it was the so-called mountaineer. The region is perceived as a hyper-masculine space of working-class men. That applies to negative caricatures of the region, but also for labor histories of the region that focus on coal miners who were almost exclusively men until the 1980s.

    As a women’s labor historian, I wanted to take on the challenge of writing a book about women and labor, and to ask myself how that would change the way we think about Appalachia. Even when women are written about, they are attached to men as coal miners’ wives and daughters. But women always had their own positions of labor and worked to defend their communities.

    I started this book a long time ago, never imagining I would be finishing it at a moment when there is suddenly a spotlight on Appalachia, and what the region meant for the rise of Trump and a certain brand of right-wing politics. But I also never could have imagined that there would be so many young activists in Appalachia who — because of how the story of Appalachia has been told since 2016 — were hungry for a deeper, richer history.

    That, for me, has been the most rewarding thing about this book coming out. Of course I care what my colleagues will think, but what is more important is seeing that there is something valuable in this book for current day activists. From youth in Appalachia who want to stay in the region and are trying to imagine a post-coal economy to West Virginia teachers on strike — it was so important to me to be able to write a book that resonates with people in the region, many of whom are women and queer folks.

    Your book examines two core concepts: the “ethic of care” and “ethos of citizenship.” Why did you choose to focus on the concept of caregiving when researching the role women have played in Appalachian movements?

    I grew up in eastern Tennessee, in a household where Appalachian history and women’s history were valued. When I became a historian, I knew I wanted to write about women in Appalachia. I ended up narrowing in on eastern Kentucky, where I could trace a series of events through these women’s lives — from the development of the coalfields to the labor strikes of the 1930s-1970s to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Then I started learning about the community health movement. There were all of these movements happening, but they seemed pretty separate. I knew there was a labor movement, an anti-poverty movement, a health movement, but I wasn’t really seeing them as interconnected. Yet, once I started tracing the stories from these women’s lives, I saw they were very much connected. And one of the threads that connected them all was this discourse around caregiving.

    I think my research shifted when I started asking the question, “What is the story of women’s labor here?” And women’s labor primarily related to caregiving. When I came to that, I went back through everything and I was struck by how often women framed their activism as driven by their position as mothers, as people caring for someone with disabilities, as women trying to create a safer environment for their children so they could raise them to adulthood. Then, of course, there was a welfare rights movement, which had been totally unknown to me. And welfare rights is all about caregiving, providing support to people who are taking care of children and the elderly and others.

    We think of social movements in these particular ways — protests, campaigns, strikes — but what I found was that caregiving was a thread running through these women’s activism. We know that everyone is participating in caregiving every single day. It’s not always a motivation to become an activist. But these stories show how caregiving labor really informed the politics of these women activists.

    What did you find most surprising about the stories you learned in your research?

    There is this story of white working-class southerners as being anti-big government and anti-welfare. That narrative is so strong that I couldn’t even imagine that a welfare rights movement existed in Appalachia. But it did! This movement was led by both women and men, black and white, who were fighting for federal policy to be implemented in their communities. They were trying to hold public officials accountable. If legislation had been passed to say that all kids should have access to food but kids in their communities didn’t have access to school lunches, they would protest, go to the school board and call federal officials. They fought for those things. They worked in broad coalitions intersecting with indigenous activists and Latinx activists and African American activists, especially black women activists who led the welfare rights movement.

    There is still this story that welfare is all about people being dependent, being cheats and frauds and living off the government. I wanted to recapture the narrative of people fighting for the things — food, shelter, basic income — that they saw as a right of citizenship in this country. That’s a very different framing than we have today.

    You wrote a lot about how racism — and the assumption that Appalachia is all white people — affected social movements in the region. How did this shape your research?

    Growing up in a predominantly white community in Appalachia, I learned a history of Appalachia that is almost entirely about white people and white settlers. I carried those myths with me for a long time. And then I studied the history and read the work of a lot of other scholars who have written about race in Appalachia, and I realized this was much more complicated.

    For me, it was really important to be clear that although the primary characters I’m writing about are white working-class women, that is the result of a couple of things. First, the history of race in Appalachia is a history of racial terror and racial violence and discrimination. So to the extent that there are predominantly white areas in Appalachia, that is the result of those structures.

    And second, the War on Poverty — which is where the book really starts — fed resources into communities that helped to generate a social movement, but the very fact that the resources flowed to these community members is because they were white. So the entire system of the War on Poverty in Appalachia was built on a racist structure. That was important to understand.

    The other part of the region’s racial history that I wanted to show was how the attacks on white activists in the War on Poverty were bound up in attacks on the black power movement. In eastern Kentucky and around the region, the state government set up the Kentucky Unamerican Activities Committee. The targets of that committee were people involved in civil rights organizing and black power organizing in Louisville, Kentucky. There were arrests of black power activists in Louisville and trials targeting them, then they turned focus on activists in eastern Kentucky, because [the committee] was broadly against the War on Poverty as well.

    The attacks made it seem like anti-poverty workers were so-called “subversives,” that they were outsiders coming into eastern Kentucky and telling people what to do, or fooling them into becoming part of the movement. Activists like Edith Easterling, who I write about, pushed against this story that people in the mountains are naturally conservative and that they would never be drawn into a movement of their own accord, but could only be manipulated by outsiders. Edith was from the community, and she refused that narrative. She would say, “We are fighting for our community, and you all are lining your pockets cause you’re part of the coal industry.” This is really interesting given narratives today that see Appalachia as a monolith where there are no progressive activists. That’s an old trope that has been used to undermine movements in the region for a long time.

    How do you think our collective perception of Appalachia would change if we knew the stories of women, people of color and LGBTQ activists leading movements in the region?

    We can understand how these stories shape our perception by looking at which stories of Appalachia make national news. The Blackjewel miner’s protest is really important, but we primarily see images of the male workers in the media. At the same time, not far away in Kingsport, Tennessee, a nonviolent protest led by women has been happening for over 170 days to protest a merger of two hospitals. They would lose the neonatal intensive care unit and Level 1 trauma center, so people would have to drive an hour or more to get to a hospital. For them, this is about rural people and their access to health care, and about hospitals prioritizing profit over the health of rural communities. That’s happening right now, not far from [the Blackjewel blockade].

    As a historian, I do think that 50 years from now we will look back and see that there was this upsurge of activism in Appalachia at the same moment that people were talking about “Trump country” and characterizing this place as the way to explain the rise of the right wing. There are right-wing activists in Appalachia too, as there are across the United States, but it does not exclusively define the place. There is so often this focus on electoral politics as the way that people express resistance. But that’s not usually the way change happens. It’s the everyday resistance that doesn’t have a Democrat or Republican gloss to it. It’s about people dealing with their everyday lives. These women activists had a different vision of society, so they started community centers, they created their own libraries, fed children and helped people gain access to Social Security or welfare. They did a number of things to create that vision.

    What is one story you learned about in your research that stood out to you as a powerful example of how women’s lives intersected with these overlapping movements over time?

    Appalachian anti-poverty activist Eula Hall in 2009. (Wikipedia)

    One example from my book is the story of a woman named Eula Hall. She worked as an anti-poverty activist in her community of Floyd County, Kentucky. Eula was born in the 1920s. She was a middle-aged mother by the time of the War on Poverty, and in a pretty difficult situation in her own life. She ended up getting involved in anti-poverty activism and became an anti-poverty worker in federal programs. She helped to start a welfare rights organization in her community, and she was trying to help people gain access to their rights to food or health care or black lung benefits.

    Then, when the welfare rights movement weakened, Eula turned to the community health movement. One of her passions was health care because she grew up in a place where she saw people die due to a lack of access to basic health care. She helps to lead the effort to start a clinic, then she learned at a community health fair about the Brookside mine strike in Harlan County, Kentucky. She knew that unions are really important to help working-class people gain labor rights and labor power, so she drove every morning to Harlan County to stand on the picket lines with miners on strike.

    She also became part of the anti-strip mining movement, and she helped to start an Appalachian women’s rights organization, which tried to center rural Appalachian working-class women in conversations about what women’s issues are. For them, it wasn’t necessarily just about gaining access to jobs — or credit — that were once closed to women. It was also about welfare, environmental justice and the economy in general.

    So I found that when you trace one woman’s life over time, you can see her — in this case, Eula Hall — moving in and out of an array of movements that are interconnected and overlapping. Her clinic is still there. It’s now called the Eula Hall Health Center, and it’s still the only clinic serving that community. For me, doing the life history work and thinking about women’s lives in the context of a lifetime, it was really important not to silo the issues that animated them. I could have written a book about feminists in Appalachia, and it would cover one slice of their activism, or about the Poor People’s Campaign and Appalachian involvement in that. But the power in her story is how she is wherever the movement is. She sees them all as interconnected, and she gives her energy at various times to each of them. I think that is really more instructive for how we live our lives.

    How a growing movement made impeachment politically feasible

    The last few weeks have been a turning point for impeachment. Suddenly, dozens of members of Congress dashed at once to announce their support until the pro-impeachment faction had grown to a majority of the House of Representatives. In the national conversation, impeachment went from politically infeasible to seemingly inevitable. As someone who has been in the trenches of this fight, I can tell you that when Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry on Sept. 24, she wasn’t just reacting to Donald Trump’s offenses with Ukraine, she was responding to pressure from an increasingly vocal movement. 

    I originally ignored calls for impeachment as a waste of time. But, after resisting attack after attack from the Trump administration, I felt our movements had to rethink our strategy. So, in August 2018, when I was approached to join a new grassroots campaign to impeach and remove Trump called By the People, I deeply aligned with their strategy of going on the offensive against Trumpism. Since then, as a volunteer and now political director of the campaign, my dedication to this mission has been driven by the belief that the stakes are simply too high to wait until the 2020 elections to remove Trump. He endangers our lives and shreds any checks on his power every day that he remains in office. 

    Winning the backing of the American public and mobilizing them into highly visible forms of collective action are the key ingredients to toppling the Trump administration.

    I’m also grounded by what we can accomplish together by waging a struggle for a democracy that works for all of us. If we don’t act, Trump will be emboldened to commit further abuses of power, including rigging elections in his favor, and his behavior will become the new normal regardless of who holds office. But, if we take the reins and contest for the soul of America, we can make this country what it should be — one that serves the many, not just the few.

    In order to protect ourselves from rising authoritarianism and bring the public with us, it was clear we were going to need a grassroots movement for impeachment. Rooted in a strategy of civil resistance, By the People sees winning the backing of the American public and mobilizing them into highly visible forms of collective action as the key ingredients to toppling the Trump administration. Fortunately, more people have supported the impeachment of Trump than supported impeaching Nixon at the start of the Watergate scandal. This is a testament to how the broad anti-Trump resistance — from waging battles against the Muslim ban and family separation to defending health care and environmental protections — have created the conditions for Trump’s historic unpopularity. 

    Millions of Americans have long been ready to remove Trump, but few organizations and leaders offered them a pathway to putting an end to this administration. We needed to show Americans that impeachment and removal are grassroots tools to stop what we cannot tolerate. What’s more, they are winnable first steps to ensuring we are a country where all are equal before the law.

    Rep. Rashida Tlaib joins activists calling for impeachment on Capitol Hill on Sept. 23. (Facebook/By the People)

    Starting in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections, we staged direct actions and street protests to capture the public imagination and to change the political debate. Just after the new Democratic House took power, we launched a pledge to impeach, which Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar were the first to sign. In March, we launched a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office on Capitol Hill to say loud and clear: It’s #TimetoImpeach. As dozens of volunteers sang and chanted from her office, Rep. Tlaib responded to the calls of the movement and announced a resolution for impeachment in the House. 

    One of the half dozen people arrested during the sit-in at Pelosi’s office was Davida Ginsberg, who took action with us as a way to combat her discouragement. As she explained, “I saw impeachment as a means to break through the disbelief that change is possible and show not just to our elected representatives, but each other, that we are unwilling to be bystanders as democracy is ripped apart.”

    The resolution proved to be an inflection point. It provided us with a vehicle to organize impeachment supporters and gain new political champions. Shortly afterward, the rest of “the squad” — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar — along with several other members of Congress joined Tlaib as co-sponsors. In April, Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced her support for impeachment. 

    Just a few weeks later, we organized another act of civil disobedience on Capitol Hill — this time occupying the Cannon Rotunda — to keep the pressure going. With momentum came alignment. As public opinion polls started to shift further in our direction, By the People began to build alliances with groups that had so far sat out the impeachment fight, allowing the movement to take on a whole new scale.

    Activists with By the People at an action calling for impeachment on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. on March 6. (Facebook/Chris Kleponis)

    As spring turned to summer, we launched the first national day of action for impeachment with MoveOn.org and other national groups that resulted in over 140 actions across the country on June 15. The pressure was working; every week, more and more members of Congress bent to pressure from their constituents and publicly endorsed an impeachment inquiry. Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee also began to take steps towards launching those very proceedings. During the August congressional recess, there wasn’t a place members of Congress could go or hide without having to answer whether or not they supported impeachment. 

    By the time Congress returned to session in September and the Ukraine whistleblower complaint hit the headlines, the foundation of the dam on impeachment was already set to burst. As I rallied alongside By the People activists and Reps. Tlaib and Al Green on Capitol Hill just one day before Pelosi’s announcement, I could feel the tide turning. Rather than follow the polls, we drove them and leveraged our growing ranks of active supporters to change the political terrain.

    There are three phases to victory in this fight. The first one involved forcing the House to begin an impeachment inquiry, which we’ve now accomplished. Next, we need to get a majority of the House to pass articles of impeachment — something that is now in progress. Finally, we have to secure 67 votes in the Senate to remove Trump from office. To win these last two phases, it is going to take Americans coming together across race, gender, class and geography in sustained mass mobilizations across the country. By stigmatizing Trump and his whole agenda, we will make it a political necessity for Trump’s enablers to abandon him and set the stage for new political alignment in America that values all of our voices.

    Previous Coverage
  • Leading Puerto Rican activists celebrate governor’s resignation, talk next steps
  • We don’t have to look far back or far away for guidance. Just this year, Puerto Ricans of all walks of life successfully tossed aside a corrupt governor who sold out his people for his own personal gain. Though triggered by a scandal over the governor’s leaked communications, the strikes and marches that spread across the island were about much more and became a stand against generations of colonialism, decades of austerity and months of crises imposed by those in power. We must follow their example and that of our neighbors in Lebanon, Ecuador, Chile, Sudan, and Hong Kong and demand the fall of a regime that doesn’t represent our interests. By removing Trump from office, we will show what kind of country we want to live in, and that his greed, division and hate will not be a part of it — and it will take millions of us to make that happen. 

    If we’re to put an end to the Trump administration, we must also seize this opportunity to make removal a truly transformative moment in our history. If we don’t act, we normalize Trump’s abuses of power as permissible by him and all who follow him. But, if we put a stop to this madness, we can isolate and stigmatize rising fascism and make a huge leap towards a freer, fairer and deeper democracy. Impeachment is about more than Trump — it’s about demanding a government that represents all of us rather than the interests of the wealthy few. If we win, we will change this country forever and we will emerge stronger for it. We will have answered for ourselves what we deem to be acceptable — and be equipped with a new muscle to topple governments that violate our freedoms. 

    The immediate task ahead of us is ensuring the House follows through this fall and votes on articles of impeachment that condemn the culture of criminality, bigotry and corruption of the Trump presidency. Polls now show consistent majorities of Americans in favor of impeaching and removing Trump from office. When we speak clearly of the full extent of Trump’s high crimes and abuses of power, the majority of the public agree: We must get rid of this lawless president. 

    The only thing powerful enough to stop the Trump administration is us. Congress will not fulfill its constitutional duty until we make it a political necessity for them to act. On Oct. 13, By the People and Women’s March, joined by 18 national partners, hosted over 60 #ImpeachNow marches nationwide to exercise and recruit the growing numbers of impeachment supporters into this movement. But, one day of action is not enough. Our rapid response corps will be responsible for consistently taking to the streets and showing up again and again in every zip code. We must force every one of our elected representatives to go on the record and make a choice: Are they with Trump or with all of us? Just as our ancestors stood up to kings, the Confederacy, fascism and Jim Crow, so too must we show that Americans will not tolerate the Trump administration.

    Diabetes patients are leading a new access to medicines movement

    Elizabeth Pfiester was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age four. To this day, she struggles with regular bouts of crashing blood sugar lows, which can trigger a seizure, and spiking sugar highs, which can lead to diabetic ketoacidosis. Like many others with Type 1, Pfiester has endured multiple emergency hospitalizations and near-death experiences. 

    All of which makes her a perfect leader for a fast-growing movement.

    “Patients will be the moving force behind sustainable change for access to medicines, as they have throughout history,” said Pfiester, the founder and director of the advocacy group T1International. “Because, for us, it’s a matter of life or death.” 

    An access to medicines movement led by policy wonks, professional activists and health care professionals is not a recipe for success.

    Popular anger about prescription drug prices is building, especially in the United States. Multiple polls show Americans naming medicine costs as the top issue Congress should tackle. The people know that corporations gifted with monopolies on government-discovered medicines are making breathtaking profits price-gouging the sick. Half of all Americans skip filling prescriptions or go without other care each year due to cost.

    Consider the case of insulin, the medicine Pfiester and others with Type 1 — and many people with Type 2 diabetes — rely upon for survival: A vial of insulin that cost pharmaceutical corporations only about $6 to manufacture is priced as high as $300, an increase of more than 1,000 percent since the 1990s. As a result, one in four Americans with Type 1 diabetes is forced to ration their insulin, causing health emergencies and, too often, death. The three corporations that have cornered the global market report annual profits that are double the average of other Fortune 500 corporations.

    In response, Washington-based advocacy groups are making drug prices a lobbying priority, and medical and economic researchers are issuing strongly-worded reports. Elected officials are introducing legislation demanding change. Yet, all of this sound and fury, and the grassroots frustration that has triggered it, has so far translated into little more than sound-bite rhetoric from leading politicians. To date, there has been no meaningful reform.

    Why haven’t things changed? The pharmaceutical industry’s substantial lobbying and political campaign contributions certainly play a role in maintaining the status quo. But the history of social movements suggests another reason for the disconnect between public opinion and enacted policy: An access to medicines movement led by policy wonks, professional activists and health care professionals is not a recipe for success. The lessons of the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the anti-apartheid movement and beyond teach us that real change will only come when those most affected are leading the push.

    Patients rising

    Fortunately for the millions who struggle to afford the medicines they need, patients are rising. Foremost among them are people with Type 1 diabetes, many coming together under the banner of T1International, founded by Pfiester in 2014.

    T1International has preserved an uncompromising patient voice by refusing all pharma donations.

    Pfiester was once an enthusiastic volunteer with well-known diabetes patient advocacy groups like the American Diabetes Association and JDRF (formerly Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), and later worked for JDRF in the U.K. for a time. “Then I noticed that they all took large sums of money from the companies that sell insulin,” she said. The groups are not required to disclose all donor data, but the available information paints a picture of non-profit organizations dependent on donations from for-profit pharma corporations. The American Diabetes Association, for example, has admitted to taking over $18 million in pharmaceutical funding in 2017. 

    A recent New England Journal of Medicine report revealed that at least 83 percent of the largest non-profit disease and patient advocacy groups accept pharmaceutical industry donations. The researchers estimated that the number would be higher if the remaining groups disclosed donor data. As the study’s lead scientist, Matthew McCoy, told Kaiser Health News, “The ‘patient’ voice is speaking with a pharma accent.”

    Unsurprisingly, Pfiester found that the major diabetes patient groups declined to bite the hand that feeds, refusing to point the finger of blame at their donor pharma corporations that enrich themselves by hiking up the cost of insulin. So, in 2013, while Pfiester was a student at the London School of Economics, she started a blog about the struggle people with Type 1 face and the corporate greed that fuels the crisis. Within a year, the blog evolved into the formal organization of T1International, which from the beginning has preserved an uncompromising patient voice by refusing all pharma donations. (Besides T1International, a notable exception to the phenomenon of pharma-dependent patient groups is Patients for Affordable Drugs, founded by cancer patient David Mitchell.)

    On World Diabetes Day in 2014, T1International helped launch a social media campaign with the hashtag #insulin4all, a call to action that has defined a fast-growing movement. T1International patients have conducted multiple demonstrations outside pharma corporation headquarters, including one supporting a dramatic face-to-face confrontation between Eli Lilly executives and Nicole Smith-Holt, the mother of Alec Smith, a young Minnesota man who died in 2017 after rationing his Lilly-produced insulin.

    In support of an agenda that includes mandated transparency for drug corporation development and manufacturing costs, emergency insulin access without a prescription, and insurance co-payment caps on insulin, people with Type 1 have testified in Congress and in multiple state legislatures, defied U.S. law with high-profile importation of insulin from Canada and conducted civil disobedience in front of pharma headquarters, all while building a network of more than 30 volunteer-led U.S. state chapters. T1International conducts the world’s largest type 1 diabetes access survey, and their work has been featured in the New York Times, The Lancet, NPR and CBS News.

    James Elliot presenting at a workshop for T1International chapter leaders. (WNV/Robert White)

    This activism must be patient-led if it is going to be successful, says James Elliott, a T1International trustee living with Type 1. “We have seen so many health campaigns come and go, on insulin as well as other issues. The ones that last, that have impact, are always driven by people who are actually living with the condition,” he said. It is not enough to simply add in patients to an existing organization, or pull them onstage at a press event to share their stories, Elliott added. “Having non-patients trying to organize on behalf of patients is like a car factory being organized by a group of labor professors from a different state. It’s just not going to work.”

    The struggle continues, but there has been progress along the way. Multiple state legislatures have passed transparency and emergency insulin access laws, Colorado has adopted an insulin co-payment cap, and T1International is helping advance the big-picture solution of public manufacturing of insulin. “Every success we have had is because people are speaking their truths, sharing their stories, and demanding better for themselves and their fellow patients,” Pfiester said. “Without patients in the lead, our authenticity would be in jeopardy.”

    Patients have beaten Big Pharma before

    Yet the path to patients making an impact is often not a smooth one. T1International pays a financial price for not accepting corporate donations that fuel other patient groups. For several years, Pfiester worked for little or no salary, and still runs the organization out of the living room of her apartment. Pfiester and her colleagues also face the need to manage their disease along with their activism.

    “Ultimately, organization must come from within the patient community, by the patient community.”

    “Advocacy is exhausting, even without a chronic condition in the mix,” Pfiester said. “Living with Type 1 diabetes means lots of ups and downs and health challenges. The mental load of Type 1 diabetes means we are thinking and worrying about our blood sugars 24/7. So, to have that weight on top of the worry of accessibility and affordability — plus to choose to fight for ourselves and others — is a lot to take on.”

    Unfortunately, allies in the access to medicines movement sometimes add to the load. Many times, the health care advocacy model mimics the care and discovery models, which highlight the expert physician or determined researcher. In that scenario, patients are the passive — often helpless — beneficiaries of the professionals’ selfless calls for better treatment. They are expected to share their compelling stories, express their gratitude, and leave the strategizing to the experts.

    “Often, patients are not taken seriously in advocacy circles, which is infuriating on many levels,” Pfiester said. “Unless we also have certain degrees, our experiences are often diminished or not taken as seriously as ‘experts,’ despite the fact that we actually live and breathe our health condition. Patients are rarely in the room, part of discussions and strategy planning for policies or campaigns that impact us directly.”

    Previous Coverage
  • Amid opioid epidemic, ‘recovery activists’ shape a powerful grassroots movement
  • Elliott echoes this frustration. “Ultimately, organization must come from within the patient community, by the patient community,” he said. “This is not to say external experts, volunteers, politicians, clergy, and well-meaning people have no role. But their role is one of support.”

    Social movement history backs up that analysis. As Pfiester and Elliott both point out, it was patients who won the access to medicines movement’s signature victories. The HIV/AIDS treatment campaigns, first the U.S. movement of the 1980s and ‘90s led by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, and then the global access movement of the turn of the century led by organizations like the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa were led by patients. Like current activists with Type 1 diabetes, they made it clear to pharmaceutical corporations and the politicians who protected them that this was a fight for their survival. As one HIV-positive activist said at a protest, “You are denying me drugs. Look me in the face and tell me to die.”

    Those patients ratcheted up the public pressure, “naming and shaming” their oppressors through demonstrations, media campaigns, and creative public advocacy like staged murder trials outside the gates of pharma corporations and the delivery of body bags to the White House. Eventually, the companies and the governments cracked. Antiretroviral drug prices plummeted over 90 percent nearly overnight, saving millions of lives.

    Pfiester and T1International are following a similar script, in part because they honor the lessons of their predecessors, and in part because patient advocates have no other choice. They know that the corporations they confront are not going to happily surrender their insulin windfall profits. Instead, the companies are weaponizing the dollars they have extracted from people with Type 1 diabetes, diverting some of the billions raked in from insulin price-gouging to pay for lobbyists and political campaign donations and PR blasts.

    But Pfiester and Elliott insist that the corporate millions cannot match the power of a movement led by people directly affected “Patients speak from a place where they know the issue because they live the issue,” Elliott said. “It is not an abstraction for us, and that is what will carry us to serious and lasting change.”

    A growing anti-racist network takes on the rise of far-right politics in Germany

    Since its founding in 2013, Germany’s far-right parliamentary party, Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD, has profoundly shaped anti-refugee politics. International headlines hone in on the pending controversies of AfD politicians’ connection to street-based Nazi movements in Germany and throughout Europe. That the AfD recently gained 37 seats in the Saxony state government is formidable. Yet, what is too often missed in these accounts of racism in Germany is the growing network of organizations working to assert the will of an anti-racist majority.

    This network is making critical interventions in the particular ways racism operates in Germany. For starters, they consistently point out how racism is built into governance and national security. At the same time, they also work to connect anti-racist and anti-fascist movements with artists and students.

    Previous Coverage
  • Anti-fascists won’t let Germany return to normal after weak verdict in neo-Nazi trial
  • Laura Frey and Vincent Bababoutilabo are two activists in this important network. I met them in 2018, during the final months of the NSU trial, as they continued to work on the Tribunal — a people’s court that was set-up to protest the systematic exclusion of families whose loved ones were killed by the National Socialist Underground, an organized terrorist network that targeted migrant communities with serial murders and bombings from 2000-2007. Laura and Vincent worked on the NSU as part of their political education efforts. While Laura had previously worked in schools with students on racism, anti-semitism, sexism and neo-Nazi ideology, Vincent had experience organizing Afro-Germans. This brought him to the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland, or the Initiative for Black People in Germany, known as ISD, which is where he now works.

    With far-right governance sweeping across Europe, the United States, Philippines, India and Brazil, I spoke with Laura and Vincent to learn more about the key aspects that animate the anti-racist movement in Germany.

    Laura Frey and Vincent Bababoutilabo before an anti-racist march in Dresden in August. (WNV/Hilary Moore)

    What are some of the anti-racist strategies you see in Germany?

    Laura: On the grassroots level, a lot of anti-racist work is organizing support for and together with refugees who are crossing E.U. borders, through Turkey, Greece, North Africa, as well as Spain and Italy. What is happening there is murder at the borders of the European Union. A lot of people are crossing with ships, and a lot of people are dying.

    Anti-racist education is a common intervention point in Germany. The organization I come from — Network for Democracy and Courage — started in Saxony, historically an area in Germany where neo-Nazis are living. The organization was founded because racism, antisemitism, sexism, and neo-Nazism are only taught as historical issues and not referred to as contemporary problems. The idea is teaching children how to recognize and intervene against these ideas and people promoting them.

    Vincent: Germany signed the U.N. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. And the U.N. has a commision, a group of people who go into Germany and speak with activists and initiatives, and they write a report. Every time they report on Germany, Germany always gets very low grades because of how it sees the problem as “foreigners” — xenophobia — and not racism. So, these U.N. delegates come into Germany and say that racism is actually happening. They are pushing the German government to recognize it’s a problem and to develop better, more committed anti-racist strategies and laws.

    Laura: For anti-racist groups, a part of the work is trying to shift the discourse. Until about 10 years ago, you were not able to talk about racism because racism did not exist according to the public. We would talk about xenophobia, but that would not cover what is actually happening. There was a lot of racism happening not only against people who did not have a German passport, but against people who do have a German passport but do not “look” white. This tendency — to talk about xenophobia but not racism — put conversations into more of a nation-state and citizenship discourse, but it was actually racism that was happening. Still, people are fighting [to ensure] that racism is recognized and [seen as] a problem in Germany. Calling it xenophobia is pushing the problem to the borders, making it a border issue. We are fighting a lot to name things like attacks on houses where refugees are living or former guest workers. We’re still trying to push the boundaries, trying to talk about racism on these terms.

    How has Germany’s history shaped anti-racist struggles today?

    Vincent: Today in Germany, we are fighting for a society that believes migration has always happened. We’re in the fucking middle of Europe! Throughout history there was always a Polish person who said, “Hey, I want to go to France” and stopped in Germany along the way. The German nation is not that old. But right now, the nation is the point of reference and not migration. So we’re trying to take migration as a starting point for all anti-racist organizing. Here it gets interesting, because many black anti-racist and anti-colonialist struggles tried to use nationalism as a tool for liberation. It didn’t turn out very well in my opinion.

    We also have a complicated relationship to U.S. influence in our politics. For a lot of black people in Germany, the United States is a reference because the history is tied together. Many founding members of [my group] the ISD were descendants of black American soldiers. The orientation toward the U.S. discourse seemed natural. Also, Audre Lorde came to Germany in the 1980s and organized black women. Some people even see her as a founding mother of the young black movement in Germany.

    But still, African migration always was and is the biggest factor. This state of purity that right-wing nationalists try to imagine, where the right people lived at the right place, never was a reality.

    The meaning of blackness changed a lot too. A lot of people of color in the United Kingdom used to just identify as black. And in Germany, many radical emancipatory Turkish and Kurdish people (heavily influenced by the Black Panthers) thought about calling themselves black. It’s amazing how influential the radical black tradition in the United States was for oppressed people around the world.

    Laura: The influence of U.S. perspectives on racism is important, but — at the same time — there are a lot differences [between the two countries], particularly the history of migration. There were a lot of so-called “guest workers” from Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Turkey coming to Germany during the 1960s. Their children and grandchildren are organizing in a different way than people in the United States because the idea of dividing society into black and white doesn’t work for them. However, there are a lot of similarities between the experience of black people in the United States and guest workers in Germany, especially when it comes to the intersection of race and class. These guest workers, similar to other migrant workers in Germany, experienced a loss of status when they started to work and live here. Yet, they — along with their descendants — are often perceived as white, which is why, as Vincent said, some Turkish and Kurdish groups discussed calling themselves black.

    We had an intense history of German colonialism from 1884-1914. Within a really short time, Germany became the fourth biggest colonial empire in the world. Until 10 years ago, people in Germany didn’t think it was important to talk about this time, as it was perceived as a very small, and an unimportant part of German history. However, it shaped the German state in different ways. Immigration and emigration shaped Germany differently — ranging from mass emigration in the middle of the 19th century to the Americas, labor migration to Prussia in Imperial Germany, foreign students studying in the Weimar Republic, to the mass migration in different directions connected to World War I and World War II, and the guest worker regime in the 1960s and 1970s.

    What are some challenges you find in anti-racist work today?

    Vincent: We are constantly trying to reframe racism differently than how the media and politicians talk about. They focus on neo-Nazis saying that they are the only racist ones. People believe neo-Nazis are on the fringe of society. As if, “They are from poor sites in Eastern Germany. They are poor and angry, and so they turn to racism.” There is a strange thing in Germany that we call poor people: “Bildungsferne Schichten,” or “people far away from education.” By saying “neo-Nazis are poor desperate people, the losers from the reunification of Germany, this is why they are Nazis and why they are racist,” they are basically saying only dumb poor people can be racist. But what we see now is that the huge rise of right-wing populism here is a very, very bourgeoise project. There are poor people in nationalist racist, right-wing organizations, but also people, who are very educated. It’s a strange thing in Germany where people think that racism has something to do with your level of education — as if when you go to school and get the right level of education, you cannot be racist. That’s ridiculous.

    What opportunities are people mobilizing around?

    Vincent: The NSU Tribunal was a great example, where anti-racist and anti-fascist groups put the in-fighting aside and the perspective of the victims’ families were at the center. We mourned the people killed by racists together. We condemned the system and the people responsible together and stood for a new society together.

    Laura: The NSU case joined all the different aspects of anti-racism — it was about the state supporting neo-Nazis, neo-Nazis killing people, and the media and police with their racist ideas about Turkish people supporting the neo-Nazis [who killed them]. Every group could find their topic within the NSU complex. Sadly, it showed really well how all these fights are connected. And we haven’t stopped, the investigation and the work continues. For instance, the third NSU Tribunal will take place in Chemnitz in November 2019.

    What kinds of collaborations would you like to create or grow between anti-racist organizers in the United States and Germany?

    Laura: I think it would be very fruitful to have an exchange on strategies used by organizers in the struggles against racism in the United States. [It would help us] get a different perspective on the strategies we are using in Germany and might give us ideas on how to reframe our struggles and develop new ideas to continue the fight. Also, the right is organizing transnationally, so we have to try to find common answers to the right-wing populist backlash we are experiencing globally.

    Imprisoned Ugandan academic urges ‘no revolution without a feminist revolution’

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    “Open the gate! Open the gate!” yelled Ugandan political prisoner Stella Nyanzi. She’s standing in the rain, shouting at the prison guards who have kept me in the visitors’ waiting area for two hours.

    It’s my fourth time visiting the fiery feminist academic at Luzira Prison in Kampala. Interacting with her always revitalizes my spirit, and she appreciates the opportunity to receive anyone who comes through.

    On my previous visits, I’ve witnessed Nyanzi treating the guards with a kindness uncharacteristic of her disruptive public persona. Then again, on those previous visits, the guards were positive and professional. It’s unclear why, on this particular day, they are stonewalling my presence.

    Moved by Nyanzi’s defense of our visitation rights, I step out of the waiting area and walk toward the gate that separates us. I’m aware that visitors are not supposed to go near this gate, but I’m frustrated.

    Nyanzi uses language that most Ugandans deem crude and unsettling, as a means of attacking those in power and offering her support to those who resist.

    “Our guests come on a tight budget of time!” she scolds the officer in charge, before turning to me and apologizing. The rain is pouring now, and it buys us a few more seconds of interaction. Eventually officers are called over from the opposite side of the yard to escort me out. I tell them “I’ll not leave until I’m able to sit with Nyanzi for five minutes like all the other visitors.” They implore me to leave, but I refuse. So they grab me and drag me out.

    “You are not welcome back at this prison!” the officer in charge yells. My request for a written letter stating my ban is denied, and they return to me the food and toiletries I had brought for Nyanzi.

    The next week when the visitation window opens again, human rights defender Nana Mwafrika Mbarikiwa — also a friend of Nyanzi’s — is denied entry and told Nyanzi will not be allowed to receive visitors for two weeks.

    An academic against patriarchy

    Previous Coverage
  • Nude protests, sex strikes and the power of the taboo
  • Nyanzi is one of the only Ugandan women openly critical of 33-year dictator Yoweri Museveni’s regime. Her critique is offered in a unique way, blending her love of political science and poetry with her academic focus on sexuality and reproductive health. She uses language that most Ugandans deem crude and unsettling, as a means of attacking those in power and offering her support to those who resist.

    Early in 2017, she called Museveni a “pair of buttocks” on her Facebook page, and referred to his wife — also the minister of education — as incompetent. The First Lady had failed to deliver on her 2016 campaign promise to provide sanitary pads to schoolgirls. Nyanzi then shamed her by raising funds to distribute pads to thousands of girls across the country. This is the action that landed her in jail in April 2017.

    What’s more, Museveni also sued Nyanzi for allegedly “violating his peace.” Then, while cowardly declining to appear in court to testify against her, his regime refused to let Nyanzi appear in court herself because she had too many supporters. She was instead teleconferenced into her hearing — at which point she yelled profanities, lifted up her top and shook her breasts in protest. In much of Africa and elsewhere around the world, this act is considered a curse or omen — a powerful attack.

    Nyanzi’s radical rudeness urges a feminist paradigm shift even within partisan opposition circles, where females are no longer limited to becoming passive technocrats serving male leaders.

    Magistrate Gladys Kamasanyu sentenced Nyanzi to nine additional months in jail for cyber harassment. Angered by this ruling, one of Nyanzi’s supporters threw an empty plastic bottle at Kamasanyu. Police went ballistic, arresting seven youth, who are still being charged collectively for throwing a single bottle.

    This was not the first time Nyanzi had used the tactic of disrobing. After being fired from her academic post at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, or MISR, in 2016 for calling out its director’s patriarchal behavior, she fought back with nudity. In an act that recalled the women elders of Amuru District — who protested state land grabs with nudity — Nyanzi stripped naked at her office. The uproar forced MISR to give Nyanzi her job back.

    Harassment of public women

    Stella Nyanzi (left) with Nana Mwafrika Mbarikiwa. (WNV/Nana Mwafrika Mbarikiwa)

    The Uganda Police Force has an extensive record of physical and sexual abuse toward women dissidents. When human rights defender Nana Mwafrika Mbarikiwa attempted to obtain permission for a peaceful protest against human rights violations, officers attacked her. She was seven months pregnant at the time. Incredibly, the baby was unharmed, but the brutality nonetheless caused her to lose her uterus. As a result, she is now suing her attackers.

    “Ugandan women are overwhelmed by domestic responsibilities and therefore view involvement in public and social affairs as something for men,” Mbarikiwa said.

    It comes as no surprise, then, that opposition parties are also run with centralized structures around male leadership. The resulting brand of militant activist machismo culture isolates a fearful population — especially single mothers and rural women — from political participation.

    “Even our activist and opposition circles need to more openly and zealously support women,” Mbarikiwa said. “They need to go beyond posting about us on social media to defending us against violence and helping to fund our efforts.”

    A feminist revolution or no revolution

    Pop star and Member of Parliament Robert Kyagulanyi — better known as Bobi Wine — stands perhaps the greatest chance of ousting incumbent Museveni in the 2021 election. His “people power” brand evokes many symbols of urban activist machismo: red berets and a militant disposition, despite a rhetoric of nonviolent resistance. Yet, I have not met any mothers who support his People Power Movement. All have told me the same thing: “I’m not interested. I don’t want to lose my life.”

    Previous Coverage
  • Ugandans defy fraudulent election, while Congolese prepare for one in DRC
  • At the same time, however, Kyagulanyi is perhaps the candidate most attuned to the desires of his constituents. His counterparts in opposition continue to run electoral campaigns without much innovation or enough grassroots infrastructure to organize on issues that affect common people. Kizza Besigye, the popular opposition choice during the last four elections, has been arrested hundreds of times and has yet to substantially alter his strategy. Meanwhile, Gen. Mugisha Muntu wields the rhetoric of organizing, but in his old age has yet to prove how he can do it effectively.

    As is routine in the electoral cycle for Uganda, there is chatter of leading candidates forging a unified front. Even with such an alliance, however, the absence of women organizing across geography and social class is likely to prohibit victory.

    The amazing strength and fortitude of Nyanzi and Mbarikiwa notwithstanding, most women in Uganda cannot easily engage in risky political activity. For one thing, Uganda has troublingly high rates of single mothers, who receive no support from their children’s fathers — not to mention their own hardships living in a country where three-quarters are unemployed. Leaders of the struggle against the dictatorship in Uganda will have to systematically forge visions, rhetoric and strategies that go beyond including women in tokenistic ways — while also enabling their leadership and general safety.

    Previous Coverage
  • Why women will liberate Uganda from its dictator
  • This is why the women’s movement — which burst onto the scene with an action against constitutional reforms in 2016 — is not solely focused on changing Uganda’s president. A number of feminist organizations have developed a feminist forum, and there is increased awareness, at least within Kampala, of the intersections between politics, health rights, LGBTQI rights and gender-based abuse.

    Nyanzi’s radical rudeness urges a feminist paradigm shift even within partisan opposition circles, where females are no longer limited to becoming passive technocrats serving male leaders. “Visible solidarity is key,” Mbarikiwa said. “We in opposition must show our support to the likes of Nyanzi, visiting her family and demonstrating our solidarity. That way the women she’s inspiring to speak up won’t be fearful to get involved in revolution.”

    Ultimately, this is the kind of important long-term work that begets genuine social change and not merely the façade of a change in government. That’s why Nyanzi remains so fierce and steadfast in her activism. As she told the court following her conviction, “My presence in your court as a suspect and prisoner highlights multiple facets of dictatorship. I refuse to be a mere spectator in the struggle to oust the worst dictator.”

    Introducing a new podcast about today’s most relevant WWII rescue story

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    After more than two years of research, interviews and production, I’m excited to announce the October 15 launch of “City of Refuge” — a 10-part podcast series from Waging Nonviolence.

    Each week until the end of the year, I will take listeners inside the remarkable and little-known story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon: a French community that openly resisted the Nazis and rescued 5,000 refugees. We’ll experience their heroic efforts through the words of leading figures, still living community members and some of the people they saved. We’ll also examine the important lessons this story offers us today — amidst rising authoritarianism and another global refugee crisis.

    “City of Refuge” will be available wherever you listen to podcasts, as well as right here on Waging Nonviolence. Join our weekly newsletter for updates.

    How Palestinian women successfully defended their village from demolition

    Just over one year ago, photos and videos of Israeli border police violently arresting a young Palestinian woman went viral. She appeared to be screaming as they ripped her hijab off and wrestled her to the ground.

    It captured a moment of crisis on July 4, 2018 when Israeli forces arrived with bulldozers in Khan al-Amar, poised to expel and demolish the tiny Palestinian village at gunpoint. It was an indelible scene in a theater of cruelty that has defined the beleaguered village. Army and police were met by hundreds of Palestinian, Israeli and international activists who mobilized to put their bodies on the line. Together with clergy, journalists, diplomats, educators and politicians, they ate, slept, strategized and sustained nonviolent resistance against the impending demolition.

    Immediately after police arrested the young woman in the photo and other activists, residents filed a Supreme Court petition to stop the demolition. An emergency injunction was issued to halt it temporarily.  The Supreme Court asked the parties to come up with an “agreement” to resolve the situation. Then, the court declared that Khan al-Amar residents must agree to forcible relocation to a site adjacent a garbage dump in East Jerusalem. They refused to accept these conditions and re-asserted their right to stay in their homes. Finally, on September 5, 2018, judges dismissed the previous petitions and ruled that the demolition could move forward.

    Children watch an Israeli army bulldozer preparing the ground for the demolition of the Palestinian Bedouin village of Khan al-Amar, in the occupied West Bank on July 4, 2018. (Activestills/Oren Ziv)

    Communities in occupied Palestinian territory are used to forced displacement, especially in Area C, which is under full Israeli military and administrative control. Frequent demolitions are a defining tactic of the Israeli government’s declared plans to annex all of Palestinian territory. Khan al-Amar straddles a uniquely pivotal location termed the “E1” area by Israel, lying between two massive Israeli settlements which are illegal under international law. If Khan al-Amar is destroyed, the government will succeed in engineering contiguous Israeli territory in the West Bank and cutting Palestinian society off from Jerusalem.

    International condemnation of the Israeli government’s plan to demolish the village was unprecedented. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court issued a statement that “extensive destruction of property without military necessity and population transfers in an occupied territory constitute war crimes.” The European Union warned that the consequences of the demolition would be “very serious.” Round-the-clock mass nonviolent protests kept vigil over Khan al-Amar until late October 2018, when the Israeli government declared the “evacuation” would be delayed, blaming election-year uncertainty. When the protests finally waned, hundreds of Israelis, Palestinians and internationals had protected the village for four months.

    Over a year after the demolition was given the green light, Khan al-Amar lives and breathes a sigh of relief. Its people remain in their homes. They are resolute, determined to stay there until physically removed. The young woman in the photo, Sarah, has become another icon of women-led resistance.

    What went right?

    In June 2019, I sat in Khan al-Amar drinking tea with sage and snacking on pretzels with Sarah Abu Dahouk, the woman in the viral photo, and her mother, Um Ismael (her full name cannot be used due to privacy concerns). At the entrance to the village, men reclined in plastic chairs and smoked shisha, while children played with a ball. There was a sense of welcome but hesitant calm in this isolated community buttressed by vast swaths of bare desert. We chatted about last summer’s existential crisis, euphemistically calling it mushkileh, or problems in Arabic.

    A general view of Khan al-Amar, east of Jerusalem, on September 17, 2018. (Activestills/Oren Ziv)

    Located just meters from a busy highway frequented by Israeli settlers, I wouldn’t have been able to find Khan al-Amar if I wasn’t with Sharona Weiss, a seasoned American human rights activist who spent weeks there last summer. We took a sharp turn off the highway and off-roaded several rocky meters to the village entrance. It felt absurd that even the most right-wing Kahanist supremacist could consider this community — comprised of dozens of families living in tents, or wooden and tin shacks — a threat to the state of Israel.

    Sarah is only 19 years old, much younger than I would’ve guessed from her self-possessed and confident demeanor. We giggled over the coincidence that we are both Sarahs married to, or marrying, Mohammeds. We both want a bunch of kids, boys and girls. Um Ismael played with my three-month-old baby, as Sharona’s six-year-old son lost himself among the shacks. “We just want to live here in peace, and live normal lives,” Um Ismael said repeatedly, passionately. Sarah echoed the sentiment, “We are happy for now. We just want to be left alone.”

    Previous Coverage
  • Coalition paves way for Palestinian homecoming after 20-year displacement
  • There is no insidious political calculus behind their sumud, or steadfastness. They were displaced twice by the state of Israel, and they don’t want to be refugees yet again. It is that simple. This is a common refrain in Palestinian communities, if only the world would bother to listen.

    Last year, Sarah’s hijab was ripped off by heavily armed male police as she attempted to defend her uncle from arrest. As she scrambled to get away, they forced her to the ground to arrest her as well. This particularly brutal and gendered violence drew the world’s attention to the village. The incident was deeply violating on numerous levels. Her personal exposure to the authorities, activists, and village residents was now amplified to the world as the photo was rapidly shared across social media. Even those professing to support the struggle of Khan al-Amar felt no qualms in circulating this photo. In a previous account written by Amira Hass, a family friend explained the deep shock and humiliation that the incident inspired: “To place a hand on a mandil [headscarf] is to harm a woman’s identity.”

    But her family didn’t want her to be a “hero.” Her arrest was seen as shameful and unacceptable by the village leaders, who deeply care about the safety and privacy of their families. They were distraught by the idea of a young woman being detained and imprisoned. In a brazen act, a group of men from Khan al-Amar presented themselves to the court to be arrested in Sarah’s place. Unsurprisingly, their offer was denied and she remained in custody.

    Palestinian children walk in the school yard in Khan al-Amar on September 17, 2018. (Activestills/Oren Ziv)

    Sarah was jailed at the same military prison as Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian teenager convicted for slapping a soldier, and her mother Nariman, who was imprisoned for filming the incident. Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian writer with Israeli citizenship, was also imprisoned alongside them for publishing a poem on Facebook deemed as “incitement.” They all provided much-needed emotional support. Nariman was her protector, graciously offering her bed when the cell was too crowded. At the military hearing, authorities announced that Sarah was the only individual from Khan al-Amar indicted for “security offenses” and she remained in custody. The dubious charge against her was that she had tried to hit a soldier.

    The blood of your neighbor

    Um Ismael, Sarah’s mother, is known as a pillar of the community. She kept the village’s women informed throughout the demolition crisis. This was partly because of her home’s convenient position on top of the hill, which meant that her family was often first to face police and army incursions. She was also a liaison to activists bringing supplies and donations for children. She is known to make jokes and keep spirits high, even when bulldozers were moving in to destroy her home. 

    Sharona, Sarah and Um Ismael showed me around the village, including a small school covered in colorful art that was slated for demolition. It was rescued by becoming a live-in protest site, hosting activists for months. More children appeared and greeted us enthusiastically with a chorus of “Hello, how are you?” They played with my baby girl, showing her how to slide for the first time on a donated playground.

    As we toured the school and a large permanent tent, Sharona summarized the nonviolent resistance routine last summer, and why it was so effective. “Between July and October, every night there were surveillance shifts and a sit-in protest tent in the school around the clock,” she explained. “The Bedouin women didn’t stay in the main protest tent, but Um Ismael told female activists that they were welcome to sleep in her home.”

    Palestinian and international activists share a meal as they prepare to spend the night in the village’s school on September 13, 2018. (Activestills/Oren Ziv)

    Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists gathered in the school every night for a strategy discussion and shared a huge meal together, which was prepared by a local woman, Mariam. Political parties and leaders who normally wouldn’t work together because of ideological differences coalesced around the common cause in Khan al-Amar. Mariam also made sure everyone always had a mat to sleep on, and that they were comfortable despite the circumstances.

    Women often have a uniquely powerful role to play in “de-arresting” Palestinians.

    Many nights saw around 100 activists, journalists and diplomats arrive in order to be present with residents, with more or less depending on expectations of demolition or Friday prayers. This powerful solidarity brings to mind the commandment of Leviticus 19:16: Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. The risk of normalization between Israelis and Palestinians initially made locals uncomfortable, but it became less of an issue once Israelis got arrested and showed they were willing to take risks for the village. These acts of co-resistance were welcomed by remarkable hospitality from the community whose very existence is under threat.

    Women stood steadfast on the front lines against police aggression and pepper spray, while ideas of possible women’s actions percolated. They often sat together, linking arms. There were some disagreements on tactics. Some women, including Bedouin women, wanted to form a ring around the eviction site and sing, stand strong, and cover their faces in tandem because they didn’t want to be in photos. But the men would often insist that the women go to a neighborhood that was not being threatened on the other side of the road, so they would be protected from violence.

    Activists protest in front of an Israeli bulldozer which is escorted by Israeli forces to conduct infrastructure work next to Khan al-Amar on October 15, 2018. (Activestills/Ahmad Al-Bazz)

    Across Area C, army and settler violence is a frequent experience there, women can often have a uniquely powerful role to play in “de-arresting” Palestinians. The army simply doesn’t know what to do when women jump in and start yelling in their faces. This direct action often prevents activists from being arrested and removed from the scene by interrupting their detention.

    The ‘Pretty Dolls’ of Khan al-Amar

    During the protests, international and Israeli women noticed that the local women didn’t come to the public protest tent due to local norms of privacy and gender separation. Yael Moaz from Friends of Jahalin, a local nonprofit, asked what can be done to support and include them. Eid Jahalin, a leader of the village, said, “you should do something with the women.” At first, they didn’t know what this “something” could look like. But during the mushkileh, residents often expressed frustration over their economic marginalization. Nearby settlements used to hire them in the past, and the government used to give them work permits to enter Israel, but this was all halted in retaliation for their activism. When they do work, it’s for almost no money.

    Activists asked the women a simple question: “What do you know how to do?” There was one elderly woman who remembered how to create tents, but embroidery is a cultural skill that most women had lost. First, the women said they didn’t know how to embroider. But then some of them remembered — they emulated their own embroidered clothes and came up with their own designs for dolls. Some of the women had learned as teenagers, and started telling Galya Chai — a designer and one of the Israeli women helping to keep the vigil over Khan al-Amar last summer — what kind of embroidery thread to bring.

    A doll from the Lueba Helwa project for sale at Imbala, a progressive community cafe in Jerusalem. (WNV/Sarah Flatto Manasrah)

    A new project called “Lueba Heluwa,” or Pretty Doll, grew out of this effort, and it now brings in a few hundred shekels each month from visitors, tourists, activists and their friends — making a significant positive impact on residents’ quality of life.  The dolls are also sold across Israel, in progressive activist spaces like Imbala Cafe in Jerusalem. They’re now looking to sell the dolls in other places, like Bethlehem and internationally, as the supply has exceeded the local demand.

    In a village close to being wiped off the map by the Israeli government, Chai explained how they approached the obvious power imbalance. “We earned trust with long, hard work,” she said. “There were so many people last summer, coming once and twice, but it’s hard to be part of something all the time. We are the only ones who actually do that. We are there two, three, four times a month. They know that we didn’t forget about them, that we are there. We are there because we are friends. They are happy to see us, and it’s personal now.”

    The project has been unexpectedly successful without any formal funding. They are thinking of starting an Instagram account on the women’s own terms — they don’t feel comfortable being photographed, but the village itself, the children, and their hands working can be. They hosted one event that 150 visitors attended, and are thinking about holding more large-scale events. “It’s important for them because they feel so remote,” Chai explained. “Each doll carries a message that it’s telling about the village. They have the name of the maker on it.”

    The women are thinking of bringing more groups to the village to learn the art of embroidery. No two dolls are alike. “The dolls started looking like the people who make them,” Chai said with a laugh. “There is something about the doll and its identity. We have younger girls, like 15 year olds, who are very talented, and the dolls look younger. They start looking like their maker.”

    The project is growing, and anyone is welcome to join. There are currently around 30 dollmakers, including teenage girls. They work on their own, but there are collective gatherings several times a month. The project has evolved into a larger endeavor of no-nonsense problem solving, resource redistribution, and self-guided liberatory organizing. For example, the older women have vision problems, so the Israeli women are driving them to see an optometrist in Jerusalem who is offering free services. The women are now interested in learning how to sew on sewing machines. Sometimes they want to do ceramics, so the Israelis will bring clay. Sometimes they say, come with cars and let’s have a picnic.

    Palestinian Bedouin children protest the planned demolition of their school, Khan al-Amar, June 11, 2018.  (Activestills/Oren Ziv)

    Chai is careful to state that “we don’t only bring and do, they do for us as well. They always want to give us something. Sometimes they make us bread, sometimes they make us tea. Last time we were there, a woman made a doll for her with her name, Ghazala, on it.” Her name is Yael, which sounds like ghazala, meaning gazelle in Arabic. When some Israelis learn about the project, they suggest things to teach the women. But Chai is firm about the justice lens of the project — she is not there to initiate, or make things look a certain way, but to co-design. “You have to think a lot about everything you do and not to be pushy, not to be ‘Israeli.’”

    Next year, inshallah

    Running my hands over one of the doll’s intricate stitches, I inhaled the scent of the hard-packed earth that long predates and will long outlive military occupation. I was reminded that cultural memory and revival are a crucial form of resistance, just as important as Sarah straining to free her body from the grip of policemen, or hundreds of activists maintaining a four-month sit-in in Khan al-Amar’s besieged school.

    The family clearly misses the reassuring presence and solidarity of international visitors. As we were preparing to leave, Um Ismael told me I had to come back to visit Khan al-Amar soon, and to bring my husband. “Next year, inshallah,” was the most honest answer I could give. We both knew it’s entirely possible that the Israeli government would follow through on its promise, and destroy Khan al-Amar before next year. But for now, people power has prevailed. I asked Sarah and her mother if they thought the mushkileh would continue — if the armed forces, bulldozers and demolitions would return. “Of course,” Um Ismael stated wistfully. “We are Palestinians.” We all managed sad smiles, sipping our tea in silence. Together we watched the swelling sunset dip into the seemingly infinite desert hills.

    Can we celebrate Gandhi’s achievements while also learning from his errors?

    This is part two of a series commemorating the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. The first, which focused on Gandhi’s life and work in South Africa, can be read here.

    After 20 years in South Africa, Mohandas Gandhi returned to India on January 9, 1915. He was a different man from when he left his homeland as a shy teenager. He had evolved from being a British-trained lawyer — influenced by the racism of the empire — into an organizer, moral philosopher and political leader able to apply his unique experience and insights to the challenges faced by the people of the Indian sub-continent.  

    Little more than four years after his return, Gandhi would be tested by a major crisis. On April 13, 1919, a catastrophic massacre occurred in Amritsar, Punjab, at the Jallianwalla Bagh enclosure, a walled seven-acre garden area closed in on all sides. While unarmed mostly peasants peacefully celebrated a Hindu festival, British Brigadier General Reginald E. Dyer, without cause, gave orders to troops of the British Indian Army to fire. (The people of the sub-continent had been disarmed in 1857–58, after a mutiny against the British.) Gandhi’s associate Pyarelal later wrote, relying on government sources, that more than 20,000 men, women and children were trapped, as 379 were slaughtered and almost three times that number wounded. Horrified, Gandhi admitted to making a “Himalayan miscalculation” in underestimating the forces of violence — a confessional phrase he would use intermittently when admitting error. Cause and effect can be obscure, but not in this case, as his loyalties to British rule dating from young adulthood collapsed.

    Gandhi contradicted himself, had inconsistencies, sat astride dilemmas and was extraordinarily open about his own human frailty.

    It was only a matter of time until British imperial dominion in India would end. Ahead lay Gandhi’s catalytic role in national all-India civil disobedience movements during 1920–22, 1930–34 and 1940–42. No longer seeking reconciliation, he was galvanizing momentous pressures to produce social change, with scant violent episodes. Regrettably, observers of what was happening in India from the 1930s into the 1950s tended to view and characterize Gandhi as a spiritual inspirer, ignoring or not seeing what he himself called the technique, method or process of struggle that he was refining. Bestowed with the title mahatma (Sanskrit for “great soul”) while in South Africa, a term of homage that made Gandhi uncomfortable, onlookers attributed his achievements to personal charisma, often oversimplifying his thinking as limited to nonviolence as a matter of principle rather than a form of social power. Early analysts overlooked his discernments regarding consent and popular power, meaning the power from the people, as well as his challenges to mainstream political thinking that then — as now — assumes a separation of means and ends.

    Even during the 1920s as Gandhi’s profile rose on the sub-continent, he found himself subjected to opposition and controversy for virtually every statement made and action taken, in some ways little different from the allegations made today of racism. His sincerity was questioned on his work against untouchability, with unending controversies about his well-known asceticism and quirky personal traits. Responses to Gandhi were and are still intense. Even so, Gandhi’s willingness to criticize himself was a compelling attribute. He contradicted himself, had inconsistencies, sat astride dilemmas and was extraordinarily open about his own human frailty.

    As an example, in February 1922, when preparing for national civil disobedience, Gandhi suspended an immense satyagraha campaign because village dwellers in Chauri Chaura, Uttar Pradesh, set fire to a police station, killing 22 officers inside it. He had developed “satyagraha” while in South Africa, perturbed as he was by English speakers who talked of “passive resistance,” because submission played no part in his technique. Turning to Sanskrit, he bonded satya, or Truth, which for Gandhi meant justice, with agraha conveying firmness, force, or persuasion. For today’s reader, satyagraha can best be understood as corresponding with nonviolent direct action or civil resistance. Ruing his inadequacies in preparing the populace, Gandhi called the violent outbreak a “Himalayan blunder” and undertook a five-day fast of penance, despite being condemned for ruining a countrywide campaign due to one incident occurring among 700,000 villages. 

    Earnest missteps on untouchability

    Unambiguously opposing abuses associated with caste and untouchability, Gandhi showed his seriousness regarding eradication of untouchability by welcoming a so-called untouchable family into the Sabarmati Ashram, formed at Ahmedabad in 1915, as a communal settlement, retreat, sanctuary and place of seclusion. He also adopted an “outcaste” girl.

    However, he made a misstep in perceiving that Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar — himself a so-called untouchable, who would become the spokesperson and standard-bearer for those without caste — was an upper-caste advocate for the Dalits. Ambedkar was an economist, jurist, and political scientist who had been able to earn doctoral degrees from prestigious British and U.S. universities, notwithstanding the unreasonable handicaps faced by those without caste in the early 20th century. Gandhi mistook him for an upper-caste advocate, trying to act on behalf of those without caste, which had an alienating effect on Ambedkar. Dalit is a term from Ambedkar’s mother tongue. Some Dalits never forgave Gandhi for his misperception.

    Previous Coverage
  • Gandhi and the myth of conversion — The Vykom satyagraha revisited
  • Though untouchability was found everywhere in India, the Travancore princely state — which was later incorporated into the state of Kerala — condoned practices of extreme caste prohibitions not observed elsewhere, including unapproachability and unseeability. Gandhi was invited to advise the 1924–25 satyagraha pressing for opening roads around a Brahmin temple to all Hindus in the village of Vykom in Travancore. Yet he committed serious errors of judgment, including rejecting outside assistance and proscribing anyone not Hindu from participating, even if only in support functions. He sacrificed 19 key leaders to imprisonment, leaving the struggle directionless, by insisting that “conversion” of the upper castes could be prompted by the poorly-formed notion that attitudinal change would result from their witnessing the suffering of those without caste. No archival substantiation whatsoever can be found that hearts and minds of the upper castes were altered by the end of the campaign, except in an abstract long-term metaphorical sense. Yet despite these and other mistakes, Gandhi’s involvement would result in the maharajah’s 1936 decree opening not solely the roads but all temples in Travancore.  

    In 1920, Gandhi wrote in Young India, “We shall ever have to seek unity in diversity,” as he wrestled with inter-marriage and inter-dining restrictions of the caste system. A century later his phrase “unity in diversity” is extolled in cultures and languages worldwide, pertaining to any exclusions. Gandhi bestowed an honorific on the so-called untouchables, calling them Harijan, Gujarati for “child of God” and in Sanskrit “embodiment of God.” The move later provoked disputes, as many who heard it found it patronizing, and it is no longer in daily use. Meanwhile, some states, including Kerala, have banned the term Dalit.

    Gandhi’s rejection of a 1932 government proposal to create separate electorates for what the British called “depressed classes” (untouchables) came to be a source of criticism from those who allege that he was an apologist for the Hindu caste system. Ambedkar had primarily persuaded the British to accept the concept and was the person most consumed with the idea of distinct constituencies, as a way that Dalits could vote for their own leaders. Gandhi, however, feared what in modern parlance we might call rejectionism or separatism, in which those without caste would be driven even further away from the Hindu fold.

    Gandhi’s visited Odisha to launch a padayatra (foot march) for uplifting untouchables and abolishing untouchability in May 1934.

    Although Gandhi had fasted often for various purposes, it was always for a defined period of time. He now embarked on a “perpetual fast unto death from food of any kind save water,” with an unlimited timeframe. An alternative electoral procedure was struck at Gandhi’s bedside in which voters from the so-called depressed classes would hold a preliminary election to choose four candidates empaneled for each seat in the legislatures of the British India government, and they would present themselves in a joint election by Hindus with and without caste. On September 24, 1932, as Gandhi’s condition worsened, this arrangement, known as the Poona Pact, was accepted by the British government, having been signed by 22 witnesses in Gandhi’s presence — including Ambedkar authorizing on behalf of the depressed classes. This doubled representation for Dalits in provincial legislatures while revising the electoral system, leading historian B.R. Nanda to conclude that abandoning of separate electorates for those without caste was “the beginning of the end of untouchability.”

    Gandhi’s deep commitment to ending untouchability cannot be denied, nor the earnestness and tenacity of his efforts to induce social change for those without caste. Yet in Travancore during 1924–25, and in Poona in 1932, it is fair to say that Gandhi did not quite resonate with the impulses of the Dalits themselves, as they sought to transform their own condition. Their self-help anti-untouchability campaigns were in some ways beyond his understanding.

    With age, Gandhi became increasingly distressed by practices associated with the caste system. In 1941, he wrote of the “awful isolation” caused by untouchability, “such isolation as perhaps the world has never seen in the monstrous immensity one witnesses in India.” Scholars of Gandhi contend that he wrote more against untouchability than on any other subject. Though when his critics claimed that he failed to confront the Hindu caste system with vigor, it held some truth, as he never made an aggressively frontal attack on caste. He was held back by fear of provoking upper-caste denial.

    Previous Coverage
  • Gandhi and the Dalit controversy: The limits of the moral force of an individual
  • M.G.S. Narayanan and other historians whom I interviewed in Kerala consider that while advising the Vykom struggle in 1924–25, Gandhi was conservative, cautious and wary of moving uncompromisingly against untouchability. Among critical reasons given by several Keralan historians was his conviction that significant change would require public repentance by upper-caste Hindus, expressing remorse for the bitter suffering they had caused to generations of those without caste. During the 1920s and 1930s, Gandhi spoke of atonement repeatedly: “To remove the curse of untouchability is to do penance for the sin committed by the Hindus of degrading a fifth of their own religionists.” By 1945, he had concluded, “The caste system as it exists today in Hinduism is an anachronism.”

    In 1996, in a letter to me, historian Nanda wrote, “Gandhi’s lifelong campaign against untouchability brought the most depressed sections of Indian society into political awareness. It was not only the untouchables, but even middle-level castes which were affected; it was a transition from élite politics to mass politics.”

    Nevertheless, India’s news outlets offer daily evidence for how people who have fallen through the bottom of Indian society as a result of the caste system are still subjected to appalling discrimination. Last year, newspapers reported a Dalit was scalped because he had asked for fair wages. Ironically, the fact that Gandhi has been lauded as the “Father of the Nation” and is engraved on India’s currency, locates him in the spaces of everyday life where he can be chronically disparaged by those who perceive him as deficient on ending untouchability.

    Putting the nation ahead of the hearth

    Gandhi was a captive of a patriarchal worldview still constraining India. For example, he held an essentialist perspective about what is inborn in the basic natures of men and women, which cannot survive scientific vetting. Consistent with Jain religious thought, he sought sublimation of sexual desire, leading him to recommend restraint. This also prompted behaviors such as sleeping next to his grandniece and other women to test his self-control, now a favorite choice for attack by some of his critics. However, he also opposed contraception. Yet in other important ways, Gandhi’s outlook was advanced. Having been married in vows arranged by his parents at age 13, from within orthodox Hinduism he attacked social “evils” including child marriage as “unspeakable and unthinkable sin.”

    Gandhi was outspokenly opposed to dowry (payment of money or property the wife brings her husband, the absence of which has resulted in dowry-related violence) and purdah (a system of seclusion of women from public observation by means of walled enclosures or screens). He also denounced the severe restrictions on widows. Social scientists report that some 40 million widows are currently enduring extreme forms of discrimination, dire enough that India’s Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that the government must provide them with food, medical care and sanitary living conditions. Gandhi openly addressed attitudes of male superiority toward women and called for women to have equity even if illiterate.  

    Early in life, Gandhi’s reasoning was that of an upper-caste, middle-class man who thought women should be cloistered at home, while ignoring that most Indian women then were forced by necessity to earn livelihoods by working in fields and laboring in factories. His outlook was conventional on gendered allocations of housework. Even so, his South Africa experiences brought him to rank the nationalist cause ahead of the hearth in advocating women’s leadership. By 1921, he was calling on women to become involved in national political deliberations, to secure the vote and to press for legal status equivalent to men.

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    By the late 1920s, Indian women were leading local struggles on the subcontinent. Gandhi encouraged the nationalist poet Sarojini Naidu’s appointment as president of the Congress Party at a time when few women anywhere led political parties. During the 1930 Salt March, Naidu was the first to be arrested among the 17,000 women jailed for participating. Later, she became the first woman governor of free India.

    While not equating the enormity of Gandhi’s political efforts to abolish untouchability as comparable to his concern for women, historian Ramachandra Guha concludes that during 30 years of work in India Gandhi personally and significantly brought about alterations in customary gendered hierarchies. Ahead of his time in making this a priority, Gandhi asserted in 1918, “So long as women in India remain ever so little suppressed or do not have the same rights [as men], India will not make real progress.”

    Historian David Hardiman contends, “Fellow nationalists and women activists never subjected Gandhi to any strong criticism for his patriarchal attitudes. In this, we find a contrast to his other major fields of work, in which sharp differences were expressed in a way that forced him to often qualify or modify his position.” Had Gandhi been more assiduously challenged about failures to deploy the creativity of woman, his attainments might have been even more admirable in recognizing their salience as agents of social change.

    Gandhi spinning. (Wikimedia Commons)

    Gandhi’s 1941 book “Constructive Program” sought to accomplish a social order aimed at interlocking goals of societal reconstruction. Though conceptually potent and ultimately more important to him than resistance, his presentation was sketchy and unsystematic. He saw political independence as requiring comprehensive undertakings by millions, including the construction of decentralized institutions to serve as the infrastructure for a just society. Its most trenchant feature was that it allowed advancing toward a new social reality in the midst of the old. The hand-looming of khadi, or khaddar, hand-spun cotton cloth of village production, was among 17 components that would help the poor to decentralize economic production, while nationally (at least symbolically) freeing the country of dependency for textiles on British mills. Also included were cottage industries making soap and paper; village sanitation; adult education; and labor unions committed to nonviolent action. Critics have said the only source of earning for women that Gandhi could advance was hand-looming, which has some validity. Yet it can also be said that millions of women participated in the national struggle (however emblematically) by making homespun cloth, even if poverty stricken or sequestered under purdah.

    Fervent opposition to India‘s partition

    Every historical era has its own touchstones for determining what was considered reliable knowledge and defensible truth. The Hindu-Muslim question on the Indian subcontinent long antedated Gandhi’s ascendance. Yet Hindu absolutists are heard today blaming Gandhi as having been sympathetic to the country’s Muslim minority, accusing him of promoting Pakistan’s separation from India during partition.

    Those who hold Gandhi responsible for the severing of the Indian subcontinent seemingly ignore the role of the British. On February 20, 1947, a decade after recommending the partition of historic Palestine, setting in motion several wars and military occupation, Britain again promoted partition as a solution to a problem it had partly created. Its plan provided for the British to transfer power to two states, India and Pakistan, implementing partition on Aug. 15, with only two and a half months for effectuating complex transfers of power. Recent research suggests that this timeframe affected the accompanying catastrophes that led to between 10-12 million persons being displaced, with perhaps two million mortalities.

    A difference of opinion between Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Bombay, 1944. (Wikimedia Commons)

    Embittered controversies raged as the Muslim League put forward a two-nation theory and the secession of the Muslim-majority areas in the northwest and northeast to create Pakistan. Gandhi’s view was that dividing the country was not in the interest of the Muslims, who comprised one-quarter of India’s population, or that of the non-Muslims. He believed it detrimental for the future. Nanda wrote of Gandhi, “His opposition to partition was an open secret.”

    Anyone who seriously examines the public record of Gandhi’s life cannot question the intensity and duration of his labors to prevent the severance of India. He worked intensively for nearly two years to temper communal fanaticism, from October 1946 almost to the moment of transferring power from Britain.

    Gandhi’s consequence today

    Some of Gandhi’s views about transforming conflict are more applicable today than in his own era. He understood that strife cannot be eradicated like a disease and also grasped the more important reality that it can be rearranged, managed and made less deadly. To be sure, civil resistance does not mean the settlement of disputes, although this may be one outcome from a nonviolent struggle. Indeed, actual “resolution” of conflict rarely occurred with Gandhi. Some condemn him for “managing” acute disagreements, akin to dealing with a chronic condition. Yet learning to manage deadly discord is fully compatible with the field of peace and conflict studies as it has gained authority in the 20th and 21st centuries. Acute strife is now more readily understood as being susceptible to rearrangement, able to become less destructive, contained, redefined, or downgraded, rather than presuming the rarity of resolution.

    Gandhi gathered from his own experiences that nonviolent methods are effective regardless of whether they are religiously motivated. He appreciated that nonviolent mobilizations are composed of people with immensely diversified beliefs, principles and creeds. Rather than expecting that everyone on the Indian sub-continent share his own religious scruples and personal regimen, he asked for adherence to the policies for nonviolent action. A pragmatic understanding of the practice of civil resistance was acceptable for Gandhi, as he expressed in his 70s. “I admit at once that there is ‘a doubtful proportion of full believers’ in my ‘theory of nonviolence,’” he wrote. “[F]or my movement I do not at all need believers in the theory of nonviolence, full or imperfect. It is enough if people carry out the rules of nonviolent action.”

    Previous Coverage
  • How did Gandhi win?
  • In today’s world, the turn to civil resistance is growing. Its practitioners presuppose that political conflict cannot be eliminated and thus they increasingly tend to turn to Gandhi’s substitute method for creatively facing violent discord. This technique relies on a philosophy of action and conscious noncooperation — the withholding, suspension or discontinuance of obedience and cooperation — either spontaneous or planned, legal or illegal.

    Gandhi was a product of his time and therefore had certain limitations. His consciousness was anchored in a mindset of experimenting with nonviolent action. Some allegations of racism against him give the impression that he was not paying enough attention to black struggles. Yet he was not a traveling salesman peddling theories but avoiding certain neighborhoods. Neither an ideologue nor theoretician, he saw his experiments as leading to potentially universal application, and in fact his discernments provided much more than mere sustenance to the U.S. civil rights movement.

    By the 1920s, pockets of black communities in the United States were reading newspapers owned by African Americans that avidly covered Gandhi’s adoptions of strategies for resisting oppression, which might be applicable for them. Historian Sudarshan Kapur’s 1992 book “Raising up a Prophet” shows how black leaders traveled from 1919 to 1955 on 12,000-mile sea voyages to India for study of its nonviolent struggles. Some of the trail blazers met with Gandhi. Concepts and lessons were exchanged in an interaction between two freedom movements, one in full velocity, the other emergent, while Indian figures also spoke in the United States.

    Using today’s standards in judging someone or events occurring within a period wholly different from our own, without appropriate contextualization, cheats comprehension of two realities: first, human beings evolve, and second, today’s world is dramatically different from that in which Gandhi labored for two decades in South Africa and for 30 years in India.  

    Gandhi became tutor to the human race on the forces made operative through social power.

    What are now called boycotts, strikes, and other forms of civil resistance were being used in ancient Rome and Egypt, and elsewhere in antiquity. Yet the worldwide historical turning point for knowledge of the practice and theory of nonviolent action is Gandhi. Recognition of embryonic conceptions of human rights and expansion of concepts of equality benefited from the transformations of conflict led by Gandhi in South Africa and India, which placed nonviolent struggle on the world political map.

    So-called “universal” human rights often begin with massive nonviolent movements fighting for their recognition, only later to be codified in human rights laws and international conventions. Minority rights, women’s rights, rights of the disabled, and other advancements have been institutionalized as a result of campaigns directly or indirectly indebted to Gandhi’s provision of a foundational technique for addressing human conflict that can be used by average people. (Laws alone are insufficient and often enshrine wrongs; time and again the most cruel and barbaric practices of gendered inequities are perfectly legal.)

    Applying the core sanction of noncooperation, Gandhi became tutor to the human race on the forces made operative through social power. With their civil society leaders often utilizing his writings in the process, within the past half-century more than 50 countries have made democratic transitions from tyrannies and dictatorships. Historian David A. Bell contends, “Since the 1970s, the idea of human rights as the basis for how states should behave has profoundly transformed international politics.” That nation-states have for over 70 years benefited from Gandhian insights is a reminder of the folly of applying present-day standards and ideals to individuals who lived in past eras.

    Advocates for Gandhi’s methods nowadays are generally not found in elected office, although parliamentarians, mayors and governors, chosen by ballot as office-holders, have themselves used civil resistance in parliaments and government departments, termed “constitutional action.” Gandhi’s successors currently are fighting systemic and technological debasement of democratic governance, rectifying corruption, cleansing democratic elections, battling nativism and neo-nationalism, and assailing white supremacy and the fallacy of racial inferiority — quandaries being deepened and worsened by misinformation rapidly and irresponsibly spread by social media. Contemporary Gandhi apprentices — some of them in their teens — populate environmental networks fighting climate heating. Other inheritors safeguard traditional rural areas, build alliances against impoverishment, pursue women’s equity, and further religious harmony and human rights for all, including the LGBTQ community. Their numbers are growing.

    Among Gandhi’s most notable traits was his admission of vulnerability to error. Demonstrating appealing strength of character, some editions of his 1909 “Hind Swaraj,” or “Indian Home Rule” include his note to the reader: “I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my search after Truth I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things … [W]hen anybody finds an inconsistency between any two writings of mine … choose the later of the two on the same subject.” Can this be considered an invitation to focus on learning from Gandhi’s errors rather than judging them?

    Gandhi was a person of color himself, who had to struggle with internalized racism, conditioned prejudices, and unsubstantiated perceptions of purity and pollution. Yet he was able to demonstrate throughout his adult life his willingness to learn and teach what he had differentiated through testing and experimentation. The selective adoption of Gandhian insights, procedures, methods, and practice within the U.S. freedom movement has reverberated to innumerable other nonviolent struggles worldwide. This reality perhaps makes perceptible Gandhi’s parting statement to Professor Howard Thurman, of Howard University, and his wife Sue Bailey Thurman: “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”