Waging Nonviolence

By prioritizing electability we hurt the movements needed to beat Trump

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

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

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

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

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

The forgotten opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

How the primaries affect mass direct action in 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Leadership helps us see the power dynamics in the United States

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

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

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

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

    What if Trump loses the election?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Where does this strategy exercise leave us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What does this victory mean for the immigrant rights movement?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    (By The People/Anthony Torres)

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

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

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

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

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

    This story was first published by YES! Magazine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A call for a new approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Decentralizing who to call

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

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

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

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

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

    Decriminalizing drug abuse and mental illness

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Funding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Transitions take time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Addressing impacts and vulnerabilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Promoting transparency and accountability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Advocating for change and justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From #BucketByBucket to #TrainByTrain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Developing strategy and an inclusive campaign culture 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Building a regional movement against coal power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Lessons 50 years after Seabrook

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

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

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

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

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

    How new creative actions are fueling Chile’s uprising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Re-vindicating nonviolent civil disobedience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Reinventing barricades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Negative peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Disturbing complacency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    How Generation Z is leading the climate movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Inspiring a movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Patience is rewarded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Life as a youth organizer

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Pushing the boundaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Reaching the halls of power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    How did the Peace Poets get started?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    WNV’s top stories of 2019

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

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

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

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

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

    Our Most-Read Stories of 2019

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

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

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

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

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

    5 More of Our Favorites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Dear George,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Love,
    Yotam Marom

    Dear Yotam,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What’s different now?

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

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

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

    Trends that open the door for a bigger leap forward

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

    1. The two-headed impact of polarization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    2. Economic insecurity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    3. Decline in government’s legitimacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    4. Climate –the game changer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    How to navigate the river

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Sharpening up strategy for struggle isn’t enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The signals of emergence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    George Lakey

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

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

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

    Awareness raising

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

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

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

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

    Community organizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Online organizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Contesting the political economy strategy

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

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

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

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

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

    Why be a pacifist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Unlikely allies win campaign to stop state monopoly in Kenya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    – G. Simon Harak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What is a ‘nonviolent direct action campaign’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    How can we re-take the offensive?

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

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

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

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

    A new workshop is available to welcome people into campaigning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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