Waging Nonviolence

Meet the US veterans returning to make amends in Vietnam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Unraveling the lies of war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What Americans left behind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Finding peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    To learn nonviolence, we must unlearn violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Systemic violence trickles down to local violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Jails make unique nonviolence training centers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ‘All the news we hope to print’

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Thankfully, presidents can’t just do what they want

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The civil rights movement confronts a loss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A resource for this moment that strengthens activist groups

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

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

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

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

    Organizations can learn to handle more turbulence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    For climate activists, coronavirus lockdown means more time to organize

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

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

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

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

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

    Climate organizing goes online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Exposing the myth of climate helplessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Climate activism in a world on pause

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ‘Like rats!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ‘A greatness that I don’t have’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    However, Camus does let his character Tarrou have it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ‘Fashion an art of living in times of catastrophe’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ‘Free them all’ 

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

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

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

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

    Holding ICE accountable for their failures

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

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

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

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

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

    Campaigns for commissary and worker relief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The future of the immigrant rights movement

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

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

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

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

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

    In the face of corporate bailouts, rent strikers demand relief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Rent strike in Austin. (Twitter/Midwest Unrest)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Are there any other thoughts you would like to add?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Pandemic as a rehearsal for facing climate disasters to come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Efforts to ‘head us off at the pass’

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

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

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

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

    A false choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Mass struggle created the Nordic model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The community of helping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Getting what we need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A radical imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Vision now threatens the U.S. political center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Ignoring the Nordics is proving impossible

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

    “Not even in comparative economics?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

    Pundits come to the rescue of the establishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Maybe it’s the culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Why we must counter attacks on the Nordic model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What’s the risk of… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Social movements are the vehicle for mass participation

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The people have responded before

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

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

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

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

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

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

    How to make it happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Repurposing our objectives 

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

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

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

    1. Becoming electable in the vacuum of presidentialism 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    3. The revolution takes on the pandemic 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Muslim women as the new voice

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

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

    Cutting across class and caste

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

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

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

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

    The road ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Origins of the divestment movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A new wave of student activism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Rebelling for climate justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Winning campaigns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Supporting frontline communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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