Waging Nonviolence

What happened when Chile woke up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 years, not only 30 pesos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Building internal barricades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “The spark that started the fire”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “We hold The Rock”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The end of the occupation

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

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

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

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

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

    The fight continues

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

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

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

    And yet the spirit of Alcatraz lives on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    How a growing movement made impeachment politically feasible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Diabetes patients are leading a new access to medicines movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Patients rising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Patients have beaten Big Pharma before

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What opportunities are people mobilizing around?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    An academic against patriarchy

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Harassment of public women

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

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

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

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

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

    A feminist revolution or no revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    How Palestinian women successfully defended their village from demolition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What went right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The blood of your neighbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The ‘Pretty Dolls’ of Khan al-Amar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Next year, inshallah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Earnest missteps on untouchability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Putting the nation ahead of the hearth

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Gandhi spinning. (Wikimedia Commons)

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

    Fervent opposition to India‘s partition

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

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

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

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

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

    Gandhi’s consequence today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    How South Africa forced Gandhi to reckon with racism and imperialism

    Born 150 years ago this week, Mohandas K. Gandhi was a polarizing figure during his life and remains a lightning rod for controversy to this day. For example, in December 2018, a university in Ghana removed a statue of Gandhi because faculty and students claimed that he had shown contempt for black people while working in South Africa from 1893‒1914. The following month, as India memorialized Gandhi’s assassination in January 1948, a woman in Ghana used a toy gun to squirt red liquid on a statue of Gandhi, whom she held responsible for India’s partition. Most recently, however, in South Africa, a group of people in South Africa carried placards proclaiming “Racist Gandhi must fall” while defacing a statue that depicted him as an attorney. They threw buckets of white paint on it, as well as on accompanying plaques that explained his history in the country.

    Meanwhile, Hindu nationalists in India have erected statues to honor Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Vinayak Godse, who was a member of a Hindu nationalist group to which Prime Minister Narendra Modi and many of his political allies belong. Some Hindu supremacists now voice the view that Godse is India’s real hero while others remain incensed with Gandhi for having expressed sympathy for the country’s Muslim minority and blame him for Pakistan’s separation from India during partition.

    Gandhi the person who arrived in South Africa would not be Gandhi the man who returned to India two decades later.

    Gandhi is also often condemned by Dalits, who, because they are considered lower than the lowest caste by Hindus, have long suffered egregious persecution. The term “Dalit” means “broken men” in Marathi. These so-called untouchables now exceed 300 million and have increasing political sway, and many resent Gandhi’s rejection of a 1932 government proposal to create separate electorates, like distinct constituencies, for what the British called “depressed classes.” As Gandhi saw it, the measure would neither serve as penance by caste Hindus for having inflicted suffering on the Dalits, nor would it be a remedy for them.

    So, what’s driving the attacks on Gandhi? Social scientists maintain that the present political environment in the Americas, Europe, South Asia and elsewhere has increased the disparagement (or worse) of the “other” along the lines of nationalism, religion, race, creed, gender and caste. Another possibility might be the current popularity of “purity tests,” which have been leading aggrieved groups to demand and expect what is, in essence, infallibility on the part of those perceived to be leaders or exemplars of a cause. Their perspective leaves no room for deviance, much less error — perceived or real.

    Gandhi was attacked and criticized for his views and actions most of his life and to this day. The current allegations of racism are merely the most recent. Gandhi’s childhood under the British Raj, meaning rule by the British Crown, virtually guaranteed that he would be inadvertently conditioned toward bias regarding race. As an adult, he became in effect a British barrister and — while studying in Britain and later working in South Africa — appeared to internalize elements of the racism fortifying European colonialism.

    When Gandhi moved to South Africa in 1893 to practice law, he found an Indian immigrant community inexperienced with political action and unable to unite cooperatively to fight the policies and laws demeaning and oppressing them. Being a brown newcomer himself meant that Gandhi too suffered the brunt of that country’s aggressive color bigotry.

    Previous Coverage
  • Gandhi’s strategy for success — use more than one strategy
  • In the end, Gandhi the person who arrived in South Africa would not be Gandhi the man who returned to India two decades later. Few people, if any, would have been. What Gandhi saw and experienced there, and what he learned firsthand and through diligent reading, would contribute to alterations in his perceptions about human sensibilities, social power and political truths. It would also generate his formulation of methods and processes available for human beings of all backgrounds to take action nonviolently in the pursuit of fairness and justice.

    Gandhi often showed flexibility regarding the outcomes that he sought, but was exceedingly precise regarding the actions to be used, for reasons of maintaining nonviolent discipline. Even today, the man and his contributions and failings continue to be misunderstood and sometimes misrepresented.

    The prevailing acceptance of human rights and equality today is in part because of transformations set in motion by Gandhi. Though not always acknowledged, human rights laws and international conventions have often resulted because massive civil resistance campaigns fought for their recognition. Moreover, major civil rights, minority rights, women’s rights, and other evolving norms have been institutionalized as a result of movements utilizing insights gleaned from Gandhi’s experiments. His work on an inventory of problems in India altered people’s sense of right and wrong around the world. Gandhi not only exhorted that individuals have the power to refuse to cooperate with coercion and that social and political change can be produced through their own reasoning and cooperative action, he also gave them tools with which to acquire those rights. Across the world today, the inheritors of Gandhi’s bequests are considerable in civil society groups and organizations.

    Gandhi thwarts easy analysis partly because he often acted as if he were a social scientist, repeatedly gathering information and learning from trial and error. He had not set out to acquire a prominent role in life on Earth. In fact, he was painfully shy well into his early adulthood. Although targeted for racist attacks as a brown foreigner in South Africa, his commitment to experimentation with nonviolent action was continually evolving, in that he tested himself repeatedly.

    Today’s standards cannot be used to judge someone or events from an utterly different period. Human beings evolve, and without appropriate interpretation, meaning is lost. To judge Gandhi as racist requires accepting what is called ahistoricism, meaning holding to the concerns of the present while ignoring the complexities and contexts of the past. Historical periods must be fathomed in their own terms.

    Gandhi’s rough start in South Africa

    Gandhi codified the first comprehensive theory and praxis of nonviolent struggle through the work he began in South Africa and continued throughout his life. Aiming to follow in his father’s footsteps in what is now Gujarat and become a diwan, or chief executive officer, Gandhi had sought to obtain a foreign degree. Thus, at the age of 18 in 1888, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi sailed for Britain, where he would read at the Inner Temple in London for the law examination — despite being excruciatingly shy, indeed all but unable to speak publicly. During nearly three years in London, he absorbed sundry cultural attributes, perceptions, and attitudes, becoming for all intents and purposes a British barrister. While studying in London, Gandhi further internalized the racist conditioning that he had absorbed from the British colonialism of his early childhood rearing. Upon arrival in South Africa, he had not begun to fathom the lessons of diversity and inclusivity that would later animate his thinking.

    Returning from London to India, Gandhi realized that being called to the bar in England did not mean success in Bombay. In 1894, he accepted a modest offer of 105 pounds sterling, first-class round-trip fare, and expenses to work on a commercial disagreement as counsel for Dada Abdulla and Company, a law firm in Natal, South Africa. Gandhi knew nothing of the colony’s “indentured” laborers imported from India three decades earlier to work in coffee, sugar and tea plantations. By 1890, some 40,000 mostly male Indians had been lured into semi-slavery through contracts binding them into service for a specified term. The dearth of opportunities at home, plus shortfalls of cheap labor in Natal, meant that more than half the migrant Indians remained in South Africa after their five-year contracts concluded.

    Indentured Indian laborers aboard the SS Umzinto during the early 1900s. (Stewart and Sar Fairbairn)

    By 1891, some 46,788 Indians were resident in the coastal colony of Natal, dominated by the British, with an African population estimated at 455,983. Only 10,729 men could then vote in Natal, all of them European apart from a handful. Another tier of Indian merchants, professionals, traders, and white-collar workers comprised 2,000 men, with 1,000 of that rank in the smaller inland colony of Transvaal, ruled by Afrikaners of Dutch descent who called themselves Boers. All the Indian settlers were contemptuously and without distinction dubbed “coolies” and forbidden to walk on footpaths or be out at night without permits.

    Gandhi quickly discovered color discrimination in South Africa and confronted the realization that being Indian subjected him to it as well. He would not be an exception. At the Pietermaritzburg train station, railway employees ordered him out of the carriage despite his possessing a first-class ticket. Then on the stagecoach for the next leg of his journey, the coachman, who was white, boxed his ears. A Johannesburg hotel also barred him from lodging there.

    Historian Maureen Swan portrays the typical working week of most Indian laborers who toiled on the sugar plantations as six nine-hour days. During crushing and planting seasons, however, these laborers faced 17- or 18-hour days, producing “abnormally high disease and death rates.” Indentured Indians also suffered privations and immigration restrictions and could not venture more than two miles beyond their place of work without written permission. Indians were commonly forbidden to own land in Natal, while ownership was more permissible for native-born peoples.

    Gandhi found himself in a quagmire of animosity created by European administrators while simultaneously witnessing the defenselessness of Indian merchants and laborers of Hindu, Parsi, Muslim and Christian backgrounds — all of whom lacked parliamentary representation. The Boers and Britons, despite their differences, were tightly joined in perpetuating white monopolies of power and control.

    In 1894, the Natal Bar Association tried to reject Gandhi on the basis of race. He was nearly lynched in 1897 upon returning from India while disembarking from a ship moored at Durban after he, his family, and 600 other Indians had been forcibly quarantined, allegedly due to medical fears that they carried plague germs. Local newspapers had reported an “Asiatic invasion,” stoking large numbers of hostile working-class Europeans to mobilize onshore, while the passengers awaited clearance for three weeks. Gandhi survived thanks to the quick thinking and artful use of a parasol by the police superintendent’s wife.

    The cover of Indian Opinion, the newspaper published by Gandhi in South Africa, in 1913. (Wikimedia)

    Although having arrived in South Africa to settle a legal dispute, Gandhi became a novice community organizer at the age of 34. His early efforts there on behalf of the Indian community generally involved incremental entreaties through letters, formal appeals and special delegations. In 1896, he published 10,000 copies of “The Grievances of the British Indians in South Africa,” the so-called “Green Pamphlet,” his first substantive publication, which he sent to newspaper editors throughout the country. In it, he addressed insulting and demoralizing practices faced by the Indians, mainly in Natal. With exceedingly limited experience, in 1903 he founded a weekly newspaper, Indian Opinion, with the goal of informing South African whites and Indians about each other, while also developing a framework to assist the Indians in addressing injustices.

    By narrowing his focus to helping Indians in Natal and the Transvaal learn to restrain the colonial regime through political action, Gandhi tried to harness the broadest amount of sympathy while defying the government on specific, limited problems the Indians faced. These included the humiliating measures for registering immigrants and removal of oppressive restrictions on merchants.

    Through the numerous activities undertaken on behalf of the Indian community, Gandhi slowly began developing into an unelected political figure in South Africa. His thinking was initially most compatible with that of Indian merchants, many of them from Gujarat and of his caste. His reformist approach remained far from anything remotely revolutionary. In Swan’s judgment, Gandhi cannot be considered a leader before 1906, nor for some time after that, because of his “timid strategy” and “unimaginative tactics.”

    In the patois of the day, Gandhi considered the British Indians, along with African communities, as “colored.” Evocative of a perspective heard in the current political debates on the status of black and brown peoples in the United States, he understood that there existed scores of common hardships, but considered that every adversity could not be identically resolved. He wrote in 1906 in Indian Opinion, “[While] the Indian and non-Indian sections of the Coloured communities should, and do, remain apart, and have their separate organisations, there is no doubt that each can give strength to the other in urging their common rights.”

    Gandhi did not seek to incorporate the indigenous African population into his campaigns in part because it was not bowed under the disabilities against which the Indians alone chafed, among them a three-pound sterling tax on Indian indentured laborers in Natal. Also, a century later, one cannot blithely assume that if he had approached the African indigenous peoples that they would have wholeheartedly welcomed an untested Indian trial lawyer to speak for them. Why would they?

    Rare insight into Gandhi’s perspective at this time came to light decades later after his return to India, when on February 21, 1936, Gandhi invited a delegation of African American leaders to meet with him. Professor Howard Thurman, dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University, Washington, D.C., questioned Gandhi about his South African experiences: “Did the South African Negro take any part in your movement?” Gandhi replied: “No, I purposely did not invite them. It would have endangered their cause.” The years required to persuade the Indians of the logic for why they should neither accept violence nor retaliate in kind may have made Gandhi cautious about asking comparable sacrifices from the African peoples.

    Historian Ramachandra Guha observes that the types of indignities, discrimination, and restrictions of British and Boer imperialism burdening Indian immigrants would subsequently be applied more systematically to black Africans under the Afrikaners’ racially segregationist policy of apartheid, introduced in 1948. Such treatment of the Indians led Guha to assert, “The Indians should really be considered to be among apartheid’s first victims.” If that is the case, then Gandhi deserves credit for being among the earliest of apartheid’s adversaries.

    John Dube (middle) was part of the 1914 South African Native National Congress (which later became the ANC) delegation to Britain. (sahistory.org)

    With Africans comprising the overwhelming majority of Natal’s population, Gandhi developed meaningful social and professional relationships among an intergenerational community of black leaders. In 1900 in Inanda, John Langalibalele Dube, the founder of the South African Native National Congress, which became the African National Congress, or ANC, established the Ohlange High School, the first secondary educational institution for blacks in South Africa apart from missionary schools. It included a 300-acre communal settlement and training facility at Phoenix, where three years later Gandhi bought land and created his first ashram. Gandhi resided intermittently in this valley directly below Inanda, near Durban, until 1913. He and Dube sometimes met to discuss their (similar) philosophies of pursuing equality without violence in their respective communities. Each published a weekly newspaper to aid communications with the constituencies they assisted.

    By 1914, Albert John Luthuli, a future chief of the Zulu people, was studying at Ohlange. Thirty-eight years later, Luthuli would be elected president-general of the ANC, in 1952. Although Gandhi was not directly involved in the ANC’s struggle, the influence of his thinking on it, including with Luthuli, is unmistakable. Luthuli’s adamantine insistence on the necessity for civil resistance as opposed to armed struggle was recognized worldwide when he became the first African awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1960, recognizing him as “the leader of 10 million black Africans in their nonviolent campaign for civil rights in South Africa” and for advancing nonviolent action as “non-revolutionary, legitimate and humane.”

    Internal and external conflict

    During the Second Boer War — which took place between the British and the Boers in 1899-1902 — Gandhi held to his early convictions that because the Indians were in South Africa due to the British presence, they owed a certain allegiance to the Crown. He enlisted 1,100 Indian volunteers to serve as stretcher-bearers for an ambulance corps supporting British combat troops. 

    Gandhi with the stretcher-bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps during the Boer War in South Africa. (Wikimedia)

    In 1906, a Zulu revolt erupted in British-dominated Natal after the government imposed a one-pound sterling tax on each male African. The Zulu are a branch of the Bantu ethnic group in southern Africa and the largest such ethnic grouping in South Africa, in what in 1994 became KwaZulu-Natal. Smaller in size than the Transvaal, Natal had 10 times the number of Asians. Zulu armed resistance began when Natal officials tried seizing the monies. Gandhi wrote, “A genuine sense of loyalty prevented me from even wishing ill to the Empire.” Hoping to make a favorable impression on government officials whose respect might facilitate his work on behalf of the Indians in Natal, Gandhi suggested yet another Indian ambulance corps. The British accepted the offer and assigned 24 Indians to serve as stretcher-bearers for nearly six weeks, nursing wounded Zulus.

    “[M]y heart was with the Zulus,” Gandhi later wrote in his 1948 autobiography. “The wounded in our charge were not wounded in battle … [but] had been taken prisoners as suspects.” He wrote of the Zulus being flogged, causing “severe sores.” A medical officer told him, “The white people [are] not willing nurses for the wounded Zulus … [whose] wounds were festering.” Although Gandhi retained loyalties to the British for years, in little more than a decade his experiences would irrevocably alter his views on the British Empire.

    After the war, from 1904 through 1906, Gandhi shared with his Indian Opinion readers the examples he had found in African and international news reports of how to overcome disunity and instill a shared sense of responsibility — in short, the prerequisites for political action. By 1905, Gandhi had differentiated a potent understanding while seeking ways to embolden the apprehensive Indians into overcoming their disagreements, telling them, “Even the most powerful cannot rule without the co-operation of the ruled.” He wanted them to understand that the ruling power must secure their cooperation and obedience, willing or coerced. In short, they were not powerless. They had a choice in the matter. This foundational comprehension of power would govern his experiments for the next 42 years and subsequently fuel the quest of contemporary nonviolent movements worldwide into the 21st century.

    Gandhi came to envision both Indians and Africans as eventually winning freedom and enjoying the same rights as whites.

    In August 1906, Gandhi learned that the Transvaal Legislative Assembly was considering the Draft Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance, dubbed the Black Act, which would obligate every Indian man, woman and child from age eight to register their finger and thumb prints. Any Indian seeking work and lawful residence in the Transvaal would need to produce the registration certificate on demand. Gandhi viewed it as “abominable,” treating Indians like criminal offenders. Two concepts characterizing Gandhi’s work in South Africa were crucial to his approach to this ordinance and for his place in history: ahimsa — which is a core doctrine of Jainism forbidding injury to living beings — and satyagraha.

    In brief, Gandhi interpreted ahimsa as a form of power whose essence is nonviolence, molding it into a tool of nonviolent action for effecting change in which, significantly, beliefs alone are insufficient. Distressed by the idiom “passive resistance” then used by English speakers to denote the absence of violence, and because the technique he was developing for social action was anything but compliant, in 1906 he turned to Sanskrit to define what would become the concept of satyagraha, a melding of satya, meaning Truth or justice, and agraha conveying firmness, force or persuasion. For today’s reader, satyagraha can best be understood as a concept corresponding with nonviolent direct action or civil resistance. In 1907, he predicted that the time would come when “it may well be adopted by every oppressed people … as being a more reliable and more honourable instrument for securing the redress of wrongs than any which has heretofore been adopted.”

    In October 1908, Gandhi would cross into the Transvaal without a certificate, an action of satyagraha against the ordinance, therefore courting arrest and jail time in a long complex struggle against the registration certificates. No longer primarily an organizer, he was maturing into a moral philosopher and political leader. For the satyagrahas in the Transvaal during 1907–10, some 3,000 Indians, including normally wary merchants, adopted his example by anticipating arrest, implying acceptance of jail. This was a remarkable development. By 1913, two decades after Gandhi’s arrival in South Africa, satyagraha would replace his initial conciliation-based sanctions of petitionary letters, appeals, delegations and court cases.

    By 1908, the 39-year-old Gandhi had cultivated a view of all the so-called races as being within one human compass. Nothing had prepared him “for the intensity of racial prejudice in South Africa,” historian Guha judged, but he “decisively outgrew the racism of his youth.” Abandoning presumed disparities between the “civilized” and the “uncivilized,” Gandhi came to envision both Indians and Africans as eventually winning freedom and enjoying the same rights as whites. In much the same way that racism seeks “racial purity,” its lack of scientific substantiation was comparable with the theoretical degrees of purity from pollution upon which the social demarcations of the Hindu caste system had been built over thousands of years, so that by the early 20th century, more than 2,000 Hindu castes regulated the lines of interaction. Their speculative purity from pollution can no more be proved than assumptions of racial inferiority or superiority.

    Gandhi had come to understand nonviolent resistance as a form of political struggle, not an assorted collection of personal beliefs and persuasions. His experiments in South Africa also led him to recognize the basic concept of the need to have women centrally involved in the nonviolent direct action of satyagraha. In 1912, Indian women migrants were compelled to action alongside men for the first time, opposing the governmental immigration legislation that would invalidate the legitimacy of non-Christian Indian marriages and nullify domicile rights for wives. 

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    In what became known as the Natal Indian Strike, laborers left the collieries and plantations on foot so they would not be forced back to work, with women among those encouraging the strike. The campaign began with a small group of satyagrahis — four women, including Gandhi’s wife Kasturbai, and 10 men — who, at Gandhi’s behest, set out for the Transvaal. Their plan was to urge Indian mine workers to strike against the nullification law, and they were prepared to be arrested, given their lack of entry permits. Some of the party reached the miners without being arrested and persuaded them to join what historian Swan calls “a prolonged and widespread work stoppage,” by workers “only a few years removed from the pre-industrial Indian countryside” against the proposed injurious statute. On September 23, others pleaded guilty to having violated the immigrant acts and were sentenced to three months in prison. Kasturbai spent three months at hard labor.

    Vowing not to accept the invalidation of their marriages, between 4,000 and 5,000 Indian laborers in northern Natal responded to the call within two weeks, when, Swan notes, 3,883 Indians worked the mines. As the campaign endured, white South Africans became sympathetic to the Indians’ plight and added their demands for the government to amend its discriminatory policies. What became an eight-year satyagraha culminated when Gandhi was released from prison in June 1913 to negotiate with Field Marshall J. C. Smuts, representing the government, which produced results for their campaign.

    Admittedly, the circumstances faced by migrant Indians in South Africa would worsen after Gandhi’s departure in July 1914. Yet the impact of his presence would be significantly felt there again some 40 years later, with historian Guha crediting the South African campaigns against apartheid as being “directly inspired by Gandhi.” Indeed, “the first major mass movement against apartheid, the Defiance Campaign of 1952, would use methods pioneered by Gandhi, with African and Indian protesters defying racial laws by entering offices, train compartments and other public spaces designated for ‘Europeans only.’” Even now, Gandhi’s experiences in South Africa remain cornerstones for the uncompleted efforts by South Africans to resolve their enduring struggles over race and class.

    By the time Gandhi left to return to India, he was a far different man than he was upon arrival in South Africa 20 years earlier. As his relationships with native black South Africans grew stronger, he was able in time to transcend the racism he had absorbed from the British — a fact that modern-day critics often fail to acknowledge. He also arrived back in his homeland possessing a nonviolent technique for achieving justice, which he believed was ethical, practical and effective, and would go on to reshape dramatically our world for the better over the next century.

    Washington DC natives fight displacement and cultural erasure to the beat of go-go music

    After Thursday’s historic congressional hearing on whether Washington, D.C. should become the 51st state, hundreds of D.C. residents paraded through the streets of the nation’s capital to the blasting beat of go-go — the funk-inspired music that has shaped the city’s culture of resistance for decades.

    While the hearing marked the first time in 25 years that a House committee has publicly reviewed a bill for D.C. statehood, the crowds that marched to the National Mall on Sept. 19 were celebrating something bigger. They were gathered for the “Million Moe March,” one of the latest musical protests in a broader struggle for racial and economic justice in the district.

    Using the D.C. slang of “moe” for friend, the march aimed to draw attention to the epidemic of gun violence in the city, with survivors and City Council members speaking to the crowd. It emphasized the important role that D.C. statehood would play in allowing the district to assert local control in addressing community problems. Currently, the city government doesn’t hold jurisdiction over the local laws or budget — let alone have a representative who can vote in Congress. The march also featured popular D.C. artists like Backyard Band and a local marching band from Eastern High School, building on a growing movement using go-go music to assert power and affect policy in the district.

    “We wanted to do a tribute to the lives that have been lost and to create a spectacle for people to see that we are all standing against this,” said march organizer and D.C.-based music producer Justin “Yaddiya” Johnson. “But we also want to be a beacon of hope for the community, to preserve and sustain the culture.”

    The Million Moe March is only the latest mass mobilization for what has become a strategic and creative movement of cultural resistance fighting against the displacement of native Washingtonians. Employing diverse tactics — from large-scale cultural events to targeted policy campaigns — the movement has engaged a wide range of stakeholders, including children, professors, performing artists, community organizations, faith leaders and government officials.

    Importantly, it has also been gaining serious momentum in recent months. Much of that stems from an incident in April, when residents in a new luxury apartment complex in one of D.C.’s fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods complained about the go-go music that was playing on a popular street corner, forcing the music to go silent. Pretty quickly, however, the hashtag #DontMuteDC emerged in response, becoming both a rallying cry for the movement, as well as a symbol of resistance to displacement around the country.

    Longtime D.C. organizer and activist Ronald “Mo” Moten is a leader of the #DontMuteDC movement. (Smithsonian Rinzler Archives)

    “People from all over the country have called, saying that they’re going through the same thing and that this is an inspiration to them to fight,” said Ronald Moten, a veteran D.C. cultural and political activist and a leader of #DontMuteDC.

    For years, D.C. activists have been using go-go music as a symbol of resistance. But momentum is now building at a faster pace, from Yaddiya’s go-go rallies to the #DontMuteDC campaign to the statehood hearing. The movement’s broader vision — using music as a tool to preserve culture and reclaim space — is needed now more than ever, as communities of color fight to preserve their rights in the face of rapid gentrification. It is only fitting that Washington, D.C. — the country’s first predominantly African-American metropolis — would emerge as a leader in this struggle.

    The birth of #DontMuteDC

    Go-go has served as a symbol for D.C.’s black culture since its birth in the 1970s, but the music has been dying out for decades in the face of ongoing gentrification — along with false accusations that it incites violence or is linked to crime.

    “The music was getting marginalized,” said Natalie Hopkinson, an assistant professor at Howard University who has researched the social history of go-go music for years. “The people who love go-go were getting pushed out [of the city].”

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    Donald Campbell, who owns the cellphone shop that was forced to turn off its music after neighborhood complaints, saw that go-go music was fading and wanted to preserve the culture of the community. Campbell was a club owner in the 1990s, and after the club closed down he decided to keep the music going as a business owner. He began to develop one of the most extensive collections of live go-go recordings in the world — almost 30,000 tapes and CDs — and has displayed the collection in his shop, Central Communications, for over two decades. Campbell has also amplified the music outside his storefront from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day since 1995, making the beats blasting at the intersection of Florida Avenue and 7th Street a hallmark of Shaw, one of D.C.’s most gentrified neighborhoods.

    “If you were a student at Howard University for the last 24 years, you knew this corner,” Campbell said. “This was like a landmark. If you get off the Metro and say, ‘Where’s Howard University?’ People will say, ‘Go up past the music one block.’”

    So when T-Mobile, the shop’s parent company, forced Campbell to silence the music after neighbors threatened a lawsuit, the community’s response was overwhelming. Moten and Hopkinson gathered 80,000 signatures on a petition to save the music. Julien Broomfield, then a student at Howard University, coined the hashtag #DontMuteDC, which quickly went viral. Yaddiya and other artists organized a series of musical protests and go-go rallies, drawing crowds of neighbors, go-go artists and City Council members to the corner of 14th and U Streets NW in front of the Reeves Municipal Center, where go-go music was actually banned in 2005.

    “When we saw that our petition got 80,000 signatures [and that] a lot of the people were white, we were like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of people — black and white — who think this is wrong,’” Moten said. “And that’s good, because sometimes you give up hope when you don’t know that.”

    The issue made national headlines, and the day after the public outcry began, John Legere, the CEO of T-Mobile, tweeted that “the music should NOT stop in D.C.!” reversing the decision to silence go-go. The announcement was met with widespread celebration in the community.

    “We were the spark plug,” Campbell said. “I’m so appreciative of the customers and #DontMuteDC responding the way they did. This was a light that needed to be ignited a long time ago, but we just sparked go-go being relevant again.”

    Strategic campaigns secure local victories

    After the initial spark, activists wanted to use this momentum to make lasting policy change by advancing a series of issue-specific campaigns tied to urgent local issues. Moten has organized bi-weekly community meetings with #DontMuteDC in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood, which have given the movement a sense of power and direction amid the more celebratory mobilizations, like concerts and street rallies.

    On May 24, #DontMuteDC organized a rally called Go-Go For Justice, demanding the city restore funding to United Medical Center, or UMC, the only hospital in two underserved wards of Southeast D.C., as well as 31 schools that faced budget cuts in 2020. Organizers’ demands also included the implementation of a city-wide curriculum about D.C.’s history and go-go culture at all schools that receive public funds. The rally featured local go-go artists as well as faith leaders and members of the D.C. Nurses Association, and activists encouraged those who could not attend to call and email the City Council before the final vote. Ultimately, the council voted to restore vital operating funds in the short term, though plans still remain to close UMC in 2023.

    A #DontMuteDC flyer (#DontMuteDC)

    #DontMuteDC continued with more strategic actions throughout the summer. On July 31, organizers held an emergency meeting in Anacostia to address gun violence after the shooting of an 11-year-old boy named Karon Brown. A week later, on August 8, activists organized a petition and drew over 1,000 people for a rally to protest the property developer who backed out of plans to develop a halfway house, or residential re-entry center, for men returning from prison.

    “It’s incredible that this is happening, to get a thousand people rallying on the side of a highway on a weekday, talking about why we need halfway houses,” Hopkinson said. “It’s shifting people’s perceptions of who can engage in policy. Now our task is just to continue tapping into the grassroots energy so we can keep it going.”

    There have been a number of large-scale rallies and cultural events organized in coordination with these strategic campaigns. Yaddiya, who previously organized campaigns against the Amplified Noise Amendment, convened a go-go concert called Moechella that stopped traffic at 14th and U Streets. Over 3,000 people turned out to Moechella in May, including City Council members, teachers unions and other community actors.

    “I always wanted to use music to give my community a voice,” Yaddiya said. “This is a movement. So I said, ‘We’ve gotta keep doing it. Just doing it one time would almost be an insult to the community, so we’ve gotta keep this ongoing.”

    Activists have a long history of blending go-go and politics in the district. In the latest wave, local organizers have held a range of events, from yoga classes to twerk lessons. They held an award ceremony to honor the “First Ladies of Go-Go,” and released a single called “Don’t Mute DC.” The go-go renaissance even caught the attention of the BET music awards, which opened the televised ceremony in June with a tribute to D.C.’s go-go music.

    Building a movement of movements

    #DontMuteDC has built solidarity with other communities around the country, particularly with organizers and music artists in Atlanta and New Orleans. In fact, an off-shoot movement called #DontMuteNewOrleans sprang up this summer after a white shopkeeper called the police on a local brass band playing music in the street, leading to one man’s arrest.

    In the wake of this development, #DontMuteDC decided to sponsor a Battle of the Bands that took place in D.C. last weekend, featuring a brass band from New Orleans. There was also a cook-off between chefs from both cities and a panel discussion entitled “The Sound of Chocolate Cities: Exploring Gentrification through Music and Culture.” Organizers used the events to forge a stronger connection between the movements and build support for communities facing displacement around the country.

    Meanwhile, #DontMuteDC has also been busy collaborating with local groups opposing gentrification — namely Empower D.C. and Organizing Neighborhood Equity (ONE) D.C. Both are leading grassroots organizations working to prevent displacement in the district.

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    “I have to make it bigger than myself or the five people who started #DontMuteDC, or it will fade out,” Moten said. “Five people alone can’t change policy and get people to understand how to exercise their rights and practice citizenship in their community.”

    The movement has indeed continued to grow, and it has contributed to the emergence of a true movement-of-movements for the rights of D.C. residents. From an August tenant victory against the Catholic Church to efforts to preserve historic black-owned businesses to the ongoing campaign to save the city’s first historic African American neighborhood from re-development, #DontMuteDC is one powerful actor among many, working to support each other’s efforts. In many ways, including the Million Moe March, it also connects with the wider struggle for D.C. statehood and the ongoing struggle for D.C. residents to exercise their full rights as citizens.

    Go-go as a powerful symbol of culture and unity

    The movement has succeeded in unifying and mobilizing people to take action, largely because go-go music is such a compelling symbol of D.C. identity and shared history.

    “It really is one of the best things to happen to go-go,” Hopkinson said. “This movement has brought energy and new awareness about go-go among people who never knew what it is before.”

    One outcome, beyond the initiative to teach go-go in schools, has been the increased support in the city to begin formally recognizing the importance of go-go to D.C. history and culture. Go-go music and #DontMuteDC were featured in the Smithsonian Folklife Fest on the National Mall this June, which focused on “The Social Power of Music.” This also led to a “D.C. Music Preservation Pop-Up,” with a booth playing live go-go recordings led by DJ Nico Hobson.

    Hobson told the crowd at the Folklife Fest that the power of listening to go-go live derives from the central role of the audience in shaping the music itself. The lead “talker” in a go-go band will call out local neighborhoods who will call back a response, creating a participatory process of shaping the music together with those in the crowd.

    There have been other results of the movement in revitalizing go-go. Washington D.C.’s non-voting representative in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, introduced a resolution honoring musical icon and “Godfather of Go-Go,” Chuck Brown. The resolution would establish a holiday called Chuck Brown Day to honor his contributions to shaping the music and D.C. heritage.

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    Meanwhile, Councilmember Kenyan R. McDuffie has introduced legislation that would make go-go the official music of D.C. The law would require D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to implement a program supporting and preserving go-go music in recognition of how it represents the lived experience of native Washingtonians.

    In addition to policies that recognize go-go’s significance, the movement has elevated the importance of go-go at the community level, as seen in the viral video of a neighborhood mailman teaching kids outside the Metro PCS store how to do a go-go dance called the “hee-haw.” Young people and artists have gotten more engaged in the music through the movement, contributing to this sense of the genre’s rebirth. The popular go-go band Rare Essence even held its first concert in 30 years in Fort Dupont Park last month.

    “Go-go is a symbol of D.C. culture, like jazz music in [New Orleans] or trap music in Atlanta,” Yaddiya said. “We can use the music as a tool of communication to the community, to inspire them to be more active and also preserve and sustain the culture.”

    Going forward, the movement will keep engaging people in cultural events and rallies, and organizers hope to inspire more people to join bands and pick up instruments to keep the culture thriving. But the movement will also continue to drive policy in the city by concentrating on “displacement-free zones,” and engaging people in the preservation of D.C.’s culture and history.

    “We have always known that go-go music is resistance music,” Hopkinson said. “Just the fact that it exists and has persevered through all these attacks. But now more people know that this is a really powerful stream of American culture we’re tapping into.”

    While the Amazon burns, Brazil’s indigenous peoples rise up

    A record outbreak of fires is incinerating the Amazon, the largest remaining tropical rainforest in the world, which is home to at least one in every 10 species of plants and animals on Earth and millions of indigenous people.

    Rather than working for environmental preservation, Jair Bolsonaro, the recently elected president of Brazil, is committed to opening up the Amazon to business. He has also refused to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples — who are facing a wave of increasing attacks and threats — to their ancestral land. Wealth instead of well-being seems to be Bolsonaro’s priority, which is why many are calling him the “Tropical Trump.”

    “If you open up and destroy these [rainforest] territories, not only does it spell genocide for the people who live there, but it’s also catastrophic for all of humanity in terms of our fight against climate change,” Survival International senior researcher Sarah Shenker told Earther. By far, the best way to combat climate change is to protect indigenous territories.”

    Indigenous Brazilians are now on a mission to remind society that they exist and are battling against the colonial tactics of governments and corporations, which see them — and the rain forest — as obstacles to economic development.

    “We Indians are like plants. How can we live without our soil, without our land?” asked Marta, from the Guarani tribe, in a report by Survival Brazil. “We exist. I want to tell the world that we are alive and want to be respected as peoples.”

    Making the invisible visible

    There are approximately 800,000 indigenous people in Brazil. Although they make up less than one percent of the Brazilian population, there are 305 ethnic groups and 274 unique languages among them. Most live in the Amazon region, where they have found the resources and conditions needed to sustain their way of life for generations. Some tribes still have no contact with modern society.

    In April, an estimated 4,000 indigenous people from many different tribes gathered for three days in Brazil’s capital to protest for their rights, demonstrate their traditions and debate with congressional leaders. This nonviolent mobilization, called Free Land Camp, has taken place every year since 2004 and is organized by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, or APIB — an alliance of indigenous communities and organizations from several regions of the country. This year’s assembly denounced the growing attacks against their peoples and lands, proposed changes to the current government’s anti-indigenous policies and demanded justice.

    APIB was created to unite, mobilize and strengthen the defense of indigenous peoples and their constitutional rights. Its executive coordinator — Sônia Guajajara, a 44-year-old indigenous woman with a degree in special education — is a key figure in the national indigenous movement. In 2010, she handed a “Golden Chainsaw” award to Kátia Abreu, the former minister of agriculture, to protest amendments to the Brazilian Forest Code that would increase deforestation rates for agribusiness growth. She has already participated in several United Nations climate change conferences and international events, where she denounced threats against the indigenous peoples of Brazil.

    An indigenous woman protests in front of the National Congress in Brazil’s capital during Free Land Camp in 2017. (Agência Brasil/ José Cruz)

    “We have already advanced a lot. We are showing ourselves, participating, discussing and bringing our voice,” Guajajara said in an interview with the Amazon Environmental Research Institute. “[But] we still need to work on raising awareness of society as a whole to support the process of indigenous lands demarcation because when we have land demarcated and protected, we are preserving a good that is for everyone.”

    Indigenous youth are also using social media to spread their messages and amplify their voices. Twenty-seven-year-old indigenous Brazilian Erisvan Bone — along with other young indigenous people — created Mídia Índia in 2017. The project uses social networks such as Facebook and Instagram to disseminate content that discusses important issues among indigenous peoples and also educates society at large. At the same time, Mídia Índia works to make indigenous cultural diversity and traditions — usually portrayed in a stereotypical way — better known within and beyond the Brazilian society.

    “The goal is to give voice to traditional peoples [in Brazil] and visibility to their struggle and resistance, at a time of attacks and loss of rights,” explained Bone in a report by Instituto NET Claro Embratel. “It is to bring facts of reality told by ourselves and show that the indigenous can be protagonists of their history.”

    Meanwhile, 20-year-old Cristian Wariu, an indigenous Brazilian who grew up outside his family’s tribal territory, has been using YouTube as a weapon against discrimination and ethnocide. He created a channel on the platform two years ago where he talks about his own indigenous culture, differences across indigenous lifestyles and recent demonstrations. The most-watched video on his channel — titled “What it’s like to be indigenous in the 21st century” — has over 40,000 views so far.

    “Long ago, I realize that people who are not part of our culture have a certain prejudice against indigenous peoples,” Wariu told the BBC. “Whenever I explain things better, they come to respect us more. I saw YouTube as an opportunity to reach more people and explain to them about our [misunderstood] culture.”

    Changing roles, changing rules

    Since the beginning of this year, illegal mining has exploded in the Yanomami indigenous territory, in the Brazilian Amazon, where tribal leaders have reported the presence of more than 10,000 illegal miners on their land. It is the largest invasion since the land was demarcated in 1992, which the Yanomami people have exclusive use of according to the law.

    On July 23, several gold miners invaded the Wajãpi community and cruelly stabbed the tribe leader to death. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet promptly issued a public statement saying, “The murder of Emrya Wajãpi … is a disturbing symptom of the growing problem of encroachment on indigenous land — especially forests — by miners, loggers and farmers in Brazil.”

    For a long time Brazil has been one of the world’s most dangerous countries for land and forest defenders — approximately one million people were involved in rural conflicts in the country, many of which happened inside indigenous territories, in 2018 alone. But under Bolsonaro’s administration, land invasions, killings and displacement of indigenous peoples are becoming the rule rather than the exception.

    “This violence generated against indigenous peoples arose from the lack of recognition of indigenous lands, the extreme degree of discrimination against indigenous peoples and the impunity on what happens over indigenous lands,” explained Brazil’s first indigenous lawyer Joenia Wapichana in an interview with the Indigenous Missionary Council.

    Last year, Wapichana also became the first indigenous woman ever elected to be a federal deputy, and the second indigenous person to have a seat in the Chamber of Deputies in the history of the country. In her new role, she is working to end violence against indigenous peoples, combat corruption and promote sustainable development. And she is not alone in this quest. There has been an increase in indigenous candidates in national elections over the past five years, including a record 56 percent rise in the number of indigenous candidates last year alone.

    This year, the indigenous lobby has already shown signs of its strength. It helped block one of Bolsonaro’s first moves after taking power: an attempt to transfer the authority of the National Indian Foundation — that oversees indigenous land issues — to the Ministry of Agriculture, which traditionally favors interests of agribusiness and extractive industries.

    Defending the defenders

    From 2005 to 2012, deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon dropped by about 70 percent, thanks to effective environmental policies and zero-deforestation commitments adopted in the country by the government and corporations. However, these strategies haven’t been maintained and the situation has been worsening in recent years.

    Deforestation and wildfires in the Brazilian Amazon hit a record high this year and scientists are arguing it is not by accident. The widely respected Brazilian Space Research Institute has detected that over 2,400 square miles of rainforest have been lost in the last 12 months, which is equivalent to an area eight times the size of the city of New York. This represents a 48 percent increase in rainforest loss over the previous year. (President Bolsonaro, who has been called “Captain Chainsaw,” insists that this scientific data is a lie.) These trends, if maintained, will likely pose serious threats to all forms of life on Earth.

    Now, while many are praying for someone to “save the Amazon,” indigenous peoples are looking to technology to combat forest destruction, land grabs and climate change. The IPAM, a scientific, non-governmental and non-profit organization that works for the sustainable development of the Amazon, recently developed a cell phone app called “Alerta Clima Indígena to help indigenous Brazilians find and share alerts about fires, illegal practices in the forest and climate data.

    “The app is currently being used by indigenous brigades to combat forest fires under the supervision of IBAMA [the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources],” said IPAM Senior Researcher Paulo Moutinho. He also explained that there are important success stories that haven’t been disclosed yet, and that they are now seeking resources to expand this initiative together with indigenous leaders and related public organizations.

    Although not every indigenous person has a phone or access to the internet, technology is becoming popular particularly among the youth. “Our traditional knowledge of management is no longer enough, we need new tools,” Kayapó tribe member Paxton Metuktire told IPAM. “We need to combine our knowledge with your technology to counteract the impacts and maintain our lands, [which is] fundamental to the survival of our people.”

    How the youth-led climate strikes became a global mass movement

    It began as a call to action from a group of youth activists scattered across the globe, and soon became what is shaping up to be the largest planet-wide protest for the climate the world has ever seen.

    The Global Climate Strike, which kicks off on Sept. 20, will not be the first time people all over the world have taken action for the climate on a single day. But if things play out the way organizers hope, it could mark a turning point for the grassroots resistance to fossil fuels.

    “Strikes are happening almost everywhere you can think of,” said Jamie Margolin, a high school student from Seattle who played a role in initiating this global movement. “People are participating in literally every place in the world.”

    “Suddenly there’s this entire new generation of activists calling out everyone no matter who they are for not doing enough, and that’s woken people up.”

    Starting Friday and continuing throughout the following week, thousands or possibly millions of people will participate in actions calling on governments to address the climate crisis. From elementary school students organizing walk-outs, to experienced activists planning nonviolent disruption in major cities, people will call attention to the moral urgency of climate change by interrupting business as usual.

    “It’s a galvanizing moment for the climate movement, which frankly has been losing the battle up to now,” said Jake Woodier of the UK Student Climate Network, which is organizing for the strike in London and other cities across the United Kingdom. “Suddenly there’s this entire new generation of activists calling out everyone no matter who they are for not doing enough, and that’s woken people up.”

    As is nearly always the case for large social movements, momentum for the Climate Strike came from many different people in different places. But if its origins can be traced to a specific event, it would probably be a 2018 march spearheaded by the youth-led organization Zero Hour, which Margolin co-founded a year earlier with a small group of other young activists — mainly students of color.

    The Zero Hour youth climate march took place on July 21 of last year in Washington, D.C. and was preceded two days earlier by a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill, along with other student-led events all over the United States. Hundreds of young people joined the D.C. action despite rainy weather, drawing considerable media attention and shining a spotlight on how Generation Z is disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis. But what hardly anyone could have guessed was that behind the scenes, Zero Hour had put in motion a series of events that would lead to an even larger, worldwide mobilization led by young people.

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

    On the other side of the Atlantic, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, 15 years old at the time, had been reading news about Zero Hour online and was inspired by its leaders’ vision of a distinctively youth-led movement. She began following organizers like Margolin on social media, and soon the teens from different continents were communicating about climate activism over the internet. On August 20, 2018, Thunberg staged her first “climate strike,” skipping school to protest for climate action outside the Swedish parliament. The following month she launched the ongoing “Fridays for Future” strikes, inviting other students to join her in holding school walkouts every week.

    “Greta Thunberg’s actions sparked a movement,” Woodier said. “In a world where we’re often made to feel individualized and atomized, that we’re small and can’t make a difference, she has been a massive inspiration to many young people.”

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  • In late 2018, Thunberg began attending intergovernmental climate meetings in Europe, including a U.N. summit in Poland. She wasn’t the first young person to show up at the United Nations and call on leaders to take action, but there was something unique about her approach.

    For one thing, Thunberg was decidedly more pointed than her predecessors in calling out policymakers’ inaction, telling the leaders in Poland, “You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is.” For thousands of people around the world who were fed up with decades of government inertia, her tone was a welcome change.

    Moreover, several converging factors contributed to Thunberg’s activism coming at the perfect time. The climate movement has — over the last decade — been getting gradually better at organizing coordinated actions across continents, making possible the rapid spread of new tactics. At the same time, in the United States, the high school student-led March for Our Lives against gun violence provided a model for what a mass youth movement could look like. Finally, with extreme weather hammering nearly every part of the world, more people are waking up to the urgency of the climate crisis, making them receptive to Thunberg’s message. As a well-spoken member of the generation that will bear the costs of climate change more than any other alive today, Thunberg was the perfect movement spokesperson to harness the opportunity created by these events. Soon her addresses to world leaders were going viral on YouTube.

    Meanwhile, the Fridays for Future movement was growing — especially in Europe, where it has had the most influence so far. In July, German Chancellor Angela Merkel cited pressure from youth activists as one reason her government plans to move more aggressively to curb carbon emissions. Across much of Europe, the strike movement has helped put climate change higher on the political agenda for both policymakers and voters. A Green Party surge in May’s E.U. parliamentary elections is possibly the most concrete sign yet of the movement’s impact. But the strikes quickly spread beyond Europe.

    There are now nearly 700 strikes scheduled in the United States, and hundreds of others in 117 countries across the globe.

    By early 2019, school strikes were taking place in countries including the United States, Brazil, India and Australia. Then, over the spring and summer, calls started coming for a new escalation of the movement — one led by youth, but with participation from people of all ages. The idea was for a worldwide strike where people would leave school, work or other daily tasks to join protests for climate action.

    The date chosen to kick off the planet-wide strike coincides with the lead-up to an emergency climate summit, called by U.N. Secretary-Gen. António Guterres and is scheduled to begin in New York on Sept. 23. Many see this U.N. gathering — intended as an opportunity for countries to strengthen their goals under the Paris climate agreement — as being itself a direct reaction to the grassroots pressure governments are feeling.

    “This climate action summit was called in response to the worsening climate crisis and pressure from the strike movement,” Woodier said. “That’s a reversal from the past, when climate organizers planned demonstrations in response to official events set in stone long beforehand.”

    Greta Thunberg (center) joined other climate striking youth in New York City last month. (Twitter/@GretaThunberg)

    Thunberg has been invited to address the U.N. meeting, and a special youth summit will be attended by teens from around the world, including Margolin. On August 28, Thunberg arrived in New York after crossing the Atlantic in an emissions-free yacht. She had barely set foot on U.S. soil before joining a youth-led climate protest outside the U.N. headquarters. Meanwhile, the Global Climate Strike has been endorsed by close to 200 organizations in the U.S. alone, and hundreds more internationally.

    While the largest demonstrations will take place in major cities, strike actions are also making waves in smaller towns, even within fossil fuel-producing states. “I expect our growing local climate movement will bring out more people for the strike than we’ve ever seen before,” said Jeff Smith, co-chair of 350 Montana, one of several organization involved in planning a series of strike actions in Missoula. “I expect the crowds alone will be enough to dominate our local news cycle.”

    In the United States, national organizations encouraging their members to join the strikes include Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Sunrise Movement, Oil Change International, MoveOn, Food and Water Watch and many others. According to the international climate group 350.org, there are now nearly 700 strikes scheduled in the United States, and hundreds of others in 117 countries across the globe.

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  • 350.org has a good amount of experience with this type of international climate mobilization. The organization initiated the first truly large-scale day of action specifically devoted to climate change in October 2009. It took place in the lead-up to that year’s U.N. climate negotiations in Copenhagen and was meant to push delegates to adopt a strong, binding international climate treaty. The idea that such a goal could have been successful at that point may appear naïve in hindsight, but at the time it didn’t seem so unreasonable. The United States had recently elected Barack Obama as its president, and even many climate activists had yet to realize just how deeply entrenched fossil fuel money was in the halls of government.

    Indeed, the 2009 day of global action was largely a festive, celebratory affair. Groups posed for photos with banners in front of melting alpine glaciers and other landmarks affected by climate change. There was lots of artwork and relatively few truly large marches. This made sense for a global movement that was just finding its feet — at a time when it genuinely seemed like world leaders might be gently prodded into doing the right thing. But with international progress on climate change largely stalled, legislative action in the United States nonexistent, and the ascendancy of right-wing leaders like Donald Trump, the mood of the climate movement has changed dramatically.

    “Folks watching the science understand we are now in the runaway phase of climate catastrophe,” said Nadine Bloch, an organizer with #ShutDownDC, which is planning an action to bring work in the U.S. Capitol to a standstill next week. “The urgency of being on fire has finally been heeded by folks outside traditional activist communities.” The Global Climate Strike will take place just 10 years shy of the 2009 mobilization, and it will include larger and more escalated demonstrations. Its message — that action on climate change takes precedence over school and day jobs — reflects this increased urgency.

    Yet, while the word “strike” connotes a more militant type of nonviolent action than photo shoots and rallies, not everyone shares the same vision of what it looks like. “In the United States in particular, a lot of people don’t understand what a strike actually is,” Bloch said. “They’re still talking about getting permits for protests, which isn’t a true strike.” #ShutDownDC envisions something more disruptive, though nonviolent. “We’re planning to interrupt business as usual in the seat of government power where leaders are refusing to acknowledge the climate crisis or take responsibility.”

    “I’m motivated by two things: What I’m for and what I’m against,” Margolin said.

    Activists are also planning for how to carry momentum from the strike forward into other youth-led movements. “Dismay at government inaction has led people to get involved in the climate strikes,” said Gracie Brett of Divest Ed, which works with over 70 campus-based fossil fuel divestment campaigns. “This same urgency has led to the divestment movement getting a second wind recently. It offers an opportunity to be involved beyond the strike.”

    Jamie Margolin also sees the strike as a way to bring larger numbers of young people into the climate movement. “A lot of people aren’t initially attracted to the nitty gritty organizing, which is the vast majority of the work that goes into climate activism,” she said. “But if you say to them, ‘Hey do you want to join this mass action?’ — that attracts nearly everyone. Mobilizations like the strike are a point of entry to the wider movement.”

    Margolin, who originally helped inspire Greta Thunberg’s activism, has since followed her lead by regularly striking from school. She has relatives in Colombia and is motivated by the knowledge of how climate change will impact both her current home and the place of her family’s origins. In this sense, she has much in common with other young people in an increasingly diverse and international climate movement — where teenagers and young adults use the internet to coordinate actions across continents and oceans.

    “I’m motivated by two things: What I’m for and what I’m against,” Margolin said. “I’m fighting to protect the beautiful Pacific Northwest where I live today, and the beautiful Amazon Rainforest in the place my family is from. But I’m also fighting against the handful of people at the top of a handful of corporations who are literally destroying life on Earth for the other seven billion of us.”

    While Britain’s Parliament is suspended, its arms fair is open for business

    Activists with Trident Ploughshares and Extinction Rebellion used a boat to shut down a road in London last week, preventing arms dealers from reaching the DSEI fair. (Twitter/@CNDuk)

    In any other week, the arrival of the world’s largest arms fair to Britain would have been big news. Thirty-six thousand people are expected to attend the Defense and Security Equipment International fair, which opens on Tuesday. More than 10 percent of the governments on the official invite list are recognized by the U.K. government as having seriously problematic human rights records. Among them are Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Israel and — until they withdrew their delegation — Hong Kong.

    But this hasn’t been an ordinary week. United by the decision to suspend Parliament — a move that was labelled by opponents as an attempted coup — MPs used their remaining few days together to pass legislation designed to impede a “no deal” exit from the European Union. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s threat to sack politicians of his own party who supported the measure backfired when Parliament also refused an immediate election, leaving Johnson stranded without a majority.

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  • Broad coalition escalates campaign against London arms fair
  • While the tanks on the streets en route to the fair might not have received much media coverage, the new prime minister’s misogynist-militarist language has. It began when he branded supporters of the law discouraging “no deal” a “surrender bill.” It was then revealed that in cabinet papers he had called former Prime Minister David Cameron a “girly swot” and — while sitting in Parliament — decided to goad opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn by calling him a “big girl’s blouse.”

    These jibes might seem a long way from the tanks and guns of war, but the peace movement has long pointed out the link between toxic masculinity (especially hetero-masculinity) and militarism. In the school yard where male status has been typically defined by willingness to engage in fighting, and boys who refuse to inflict pain on others have been called “girl” or “faggot.” This is the start of socialization to a world in which most of the world’s soldiers are men, as are the majority of the politicians who send them to war. Meanwhile it is often women who are the worst affected by armed conflict.

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  • In pursuit of a more peaceful world, seven consecutive days of protests have disrupted deliveries to the exhibition center where the arms fair is held. Peaceful sit down protests in the road have led to more than 100 arrests with hundreds more taking part. A notable aspect of the organization of the actions is an emphasis on co-operation, welfare and mutual support.

    The borough council for the area where the arms fair happens has voted to do all it can to stop the arms fair from returning. In perhaps the most high profile intervention, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has called the fair “abhorrent” and said he too will take any opportunity available to prevent the arms fair in future. Maleness and militarism don’t need to go together.

    It is cruelly symbolic that even as the prime minister closes the doors on Parliament, his government opens the doors of the arms fair. By its presence though, the peace movement has shown that there’s a different way of doing things waiting at the gate.

    Lessons on overcoming fear from the overlooked 2003 global justice victory in Cancún

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    The following excerpt is from Lisa Fithian’s new book “Shut It Down: Stories From a Fierce, Loving Resistance” and is reprinted with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing.

    The 2003 global justice mobilization in Cancún, Mexico, is a relatively untold story, though the ministerial conference there collapsed, just as in Seattle. At that time in the United States, there was a debate about local versus global activism, with some making the argument that international summit-hopping was just for the privileged few. Many chose to stay home. This was unfortunate, because local organizers in the Global South could have benefited from material support from the Global North, and organizers from the Global North could have benefited from the wisdom of the indigenous resistance.

    I became involved via my participation in the Root Activist Network of Trainers, or RANT, a small trainers collective founded in 2000 by Starhawk, Hilary McQuie and myself. Star and I attended an international planning meeting in Mexico City in November 2002 that included representatives from 89 Mexican organizations and 53 international ones from 16 countries [spanning Central and South America, Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States.]

    There was a general consensus that agricultural and environmental policy, including GMO policy, protection of forests, and energy extraction, should not be governed by the World Trade Organization, or WTO. The call to defend the water, forests and food sovereignty — defined as the right to eat, produce and decide agricultural policies locally — was very strong. An overall strategy was articulated that included support for developing countries to resist the WTO, breaking consensus between the European Union and United States on key issues, national civil society campaigns, and mass mobilization and street protest.

    Starhawk and I traveled extensively to support the mobilization. We worked with a group of youth from Mexico City who formed the Global Alliance S9. Their slogans were “We Say No to Institutional Violence” and “We Support Legitimate Self Defense.” We did a big training with them, and Star and I still remember the dirty, sweat-filled wrestling mats we slept on in a gym. RANT raised over $10,000 to pay for buses to take them to Cancún. These students were inspiring and experienced, sophisticated organizers. We also met with organizers and local activists in Cancún, many of whom were working with a global network of NGOs called Our World Is Not for Sale, along with Puente a Cancún (Bridge to Cancún), a collaborative of Mexican, Irish and U.S. activists. La Vía Campesina, the international peasants movement, was a big player, bringing thousands of campesinos to the mobilization.

    Cancún mirrors many problems and realities that the neoliberal world brings, especially the extremes of wealth and poverty. This land, on the northeast tip of the Yucatán Peninsula and historically inhabited by Mayan people, was mostly undeveloped prior to the 1970s, when the Mexican government decided to develop this lush, tropical region as a tourist destination. Today it is comprised of Cancún Centro, a city center on the mainland, and a resort area along a narrow strip of land that juts into the Caribbean. The former is a poor working-class city while the peninsula is a playground for the rich.

    In advance of the mobilization, we rented a four-story white building near Parque de las Palapas, the main city center park, to house our art making, meetings and legal support — along with a nearby house for the medics and a big space for the media center. Another location, Casa de Cultura, had large meeting spaces and was where the La Vía Campesina contingent would be sleeping. Together we partnered with a group of young punks from Mexico City to construct a model eco-village in the open fields to the north of Casa de Cultura. (In advance of the summit, they had given us a tour of their permaculture projects in the south of Mexico City.) In the fields we constructed solar showers, a solar oven, an educational display, and ingenious handwashing stations that used collected rainwater and a bike pump with funnels for basins that recycled that water back into the soil. This was real infrastructure that supported La Vía Campesina during their stay in Cancún, while also educating the thousands of people who came through that space about low-cost, simple systems to reproduce in their own communities.

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    [The first day of the ministerial was marked by the death of Lee Kyung-hae, president of the Federation of Farmers and Fishermen of Korea, who took his own life in protest of the WTO’s trade policies on South Korean farmers.] On the second day, we went forward with a powerful, youth-led, fiery night march filled with the clanging of pots and pans. It was called a cacerolazo, which was first used in Chile in 1971 during protests against food shortage. When this march approached Kilometer Zero and the memorial [to Brother Lee that was] under way, it went dead silent as everyone raised their fists in the air.

    We were more determined than ever to get into the Hotel Zone. The unique geography of Cancún made it easy for the government to keep us out; there were only two roadway entrances to the narrow strip of beach, one coming from the airport to the south, the other from the mainland to the north. It was nearly impossible for us to figure out an effective action from the south, and the government erected not one but two security fences to the north. The first, at Kilometer Zero, was breached the first day. The second, more elaborate fence was about a third of a kilometer farther down the road. We did not think we could break that fence or actually get to the ministerial itself. We were wrong.

    It didn’t seem realistic to enter the Hotel Zone en masse, but a smaller, disruptive action seemed possible if we could get into the zone. Our planning meetings were exhausting. Ideas arose, then fizzled out as the tactical impossibilities were discussed. Then a plan emerged — Operation Ballpark! What if we went into the zone as tourists? We could enter in small groups of just two or three, dressed the part, then converge around the Hard Rock Cafe and blockade the road next to the convention center. We would do this at dinnertime, when the ministerial’s delegates would be out and about at nearby restaurants.

    Early that evening Star, Juniper, our friend Brush and I drove in our rental car down Boulevard Kukulcan, easily passing through the checkpoint. We watched as the beautiful jungle scenery gave way to hotels, sparse at first, then densely packed. We parked near the Hard Rock Cafe and got some ice cream — great cover, and one of Star’s favorite things. Looking around, I saw others from our group milling about, staging as tourists, getting out of taxis, browsing at souvenir shops. So far, so good.

    Abruptly, as planned, a group of young folks bolted into the road. Taking their lead, the rest of us flowed into the streets. Out of inconspicuous tourists’ bags we pulled drums and bags of seeds. Some drummed and chanted, some sat down across the road, some danced in a spiral around two fruit trees, calling on the elements of earth, air, fire and water to be with us. We called on spirit to help in the healing of the environment against the ravages of globalized corporate industry. The road was blocked.

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    I called our media team to let them know we had taken the road, and they called some of our friends inside the ministerial, including Antonia Juhasz from the International Forum on Globalization who joined us in the street. She and other representatives with mainstream NGOs were credentialed to attend the meetings. Soon the media arrived and the sidewalks filled with onlookers. The police stood at the periphery, not making a move. As the evening grew dark, we gathered in an impromptu spokes council to decide our next move. Luke Anderson, a writer and organizer from California, urged everyone to acknowledge that we had achieved our goal and that it was wiser to be part of another action tomorrow than to go to jail. Part of the art of action is knowing when to end an action, and to me, this was a clear ending point. Much to our surprise, the police offered two luxury buses to transport us back to wherever we wanted to go. Those without cars took the buses back to Kilometer Zero.

    That night, we gathered together and worked late with the Koreans, discussing plans to tear down the second security fence. I was skeptical, but the Koreans were confident it could be done. They were unyielding, carrying a fierceness I can only describe as the spirit of Brother Lee working through them. They presented the plan of using ropes to tear down the fence, and a Mexican woman proposed that the women should go first, cutting the fence to weaken it before the ropes. I was thrilled. We had been dealing with a lot of sexism, part of the Mexican culture and also deeply rooted in some of the international male organizers, including some from the States, who had arrived in Cancún full of arrogance, assuming leadership in pretty unskillful ways. There had been growing frustration among the women.

    We presented our plan to the delegates assembly at La Casa de Cultura the next morning, and much to our surprise they all agreed. I raced to the nearest hardware store and bought every bolt cutter they had, along with wire cutters and heavy-duty pliers.

    By 10 a.m. we were ready. Thousands of us marched toward Kilometer Zero, including thousands of indigenous people in their beautifully woven clothes. The Koreans wore their tan vests and floppy sun hats, the students sang and banged on drums, and the Infernal Noise Brigade, from Seattle, brought great energy to the march. Several pushed the giant puppet my friend Gan Golan had built of Chac — the Mayan god of rain, thunder and lightning — and we asked for Chac’s support as we traveled the road that led to the ministerial.

    At Kilometer Zero we paused to honor Brother Lee, then walked toward the new fence that had been erected 100 meters closer to the Hotel Zone. The women coalesced into formation, row upon row of us wearing bandannas around our foreheads or as masks. We had learned from the Zapatistas that masking your face is a way to be seen. Before reaching the fence, we linked arms, feeling happy, excited and free. There was a crack of thunder and a brief rain poured down, cooling us all. The gods were with us! We were in our full power as we chanted “Bella Ciao,” an Italian anti-fascist song of resistance. Years later, I realized how appropriate it was in light of Lee’s suicide.

    The fence was just ahead, and it was formidable. Massive sections of thick, chain-linked metal were reinforced from behind with eight-foot boxes of steel and topped with barbed wire. Behind that were barricades, then battalions of riot police. I passed the tools out to the women and, singing our hearts out, we cut and unscrewed. The police did nothing, perhaps having confidence in the steel wall between us. Little by little, section by section, we weakened the chains and the links. As we worked, the men behind us kept pushing forward, wanting to break through the fence before it was ready to come down. Other men held the impatient ones back until we had completed our work.

    Lisa Fithian pulling the ropes attached to the police barricades. (Chelsea Green Publishing)

    Next it was the Koreans’ turn. Several of them came forward and tied the rope to the fence, then stretched the long ropes out into the crowd. When the ropes were tied tightly to the fence and secured in everyone’s hands, the man at the front yelled, “Pull!”

    The road was wide open before us, along with hundreds of riot police with their water cannons, tear gas, and Darth Vader suits, plus the brown-clothed, unarmed peasants the police had conscripted to add to their numbers. There was a moment of stillness, as nobody, police and demonstrator alike, had planned for what would happen next. We all sat down, forming rows as the Koreans lit candles in the road. We held this space for about an hour, then the Koreans led a chant, “Down, Down, WTO,” as we all rose together, drumming and singing. We marched back to Kilometer Zero, marching with joy, giving all we could to say “No Más, No More, the WTO Must Go.”

    The ministerial itself was several kilometers away. We would not get there, but we didn’t need to. We had opened the way, a political space that the state had closed.

    The next morning, news came that the Kenyan delegates — representing the desires of the Group of 22 developing nations — refused to go along with the WTO’s agricultural deal. They walked out, and the ministerial collapsed, again. There would be no deal. It was an overwhelming sight to behold as our beloved community at Kilometer Zero broke out in joy, hugging, singing, crying and dancing.

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    In Cancún, we demonstrated peacefully and powerfully with our humanity, our creativity and our hearts. Unlike in Prague and Genoa, the police did not attack, and therefore there was no violence. We voiced our opposition to the WTO through action, and the delegates inside the ministerial were emboldened to step away from deals that would have continued to do harm to their people and their lands.

    A few months later, in November, we mobilized again against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, at a summit in Miami. This led to the final unraveling of the deal we had first protested in Quebec. Bolstered by our street actions and emboldened by the growing collaborations and solidarity within the global justice movement, delegations inside the negotiating rooms from Central and South America said no. The FTAA was finished for good.

    These lessons from the global justice movement are needed now more than ever. With the rise of right-wing populism, many are afraid of violence, and fear leads to confusion and division. It is the empire’s most powerful tool for social control. We may be afraid, but we can still act. We don’t all have to agree on the best way forward, and we can work together with respect and agreements. There is no one way; there are many ways. This is what the Zapatistas have taught us: “One no, many yeses.” Our solidarity despite our differences in the midst of courageous, creative and collective action is the sweet spot where the greatest changes are possible.

    Anti-racists turn out en masse as far right gains new ground in Germany

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    Following parliamentary elections on Sunday, the far right party Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD, became the second strongest party in the East German states of Brandenburg and Saxony. This means that two-thirds of the population living in Saxony, for example, have chosen strongly conservative to far right wing values.

    By taking a substantial number of votes from the two leading parties — the Social Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Union — AfD will receive more state funding for its anti-immigrant initiatives. This outcome is far from surprising, as AfD’s support base has steadily increased since it was founded in 2013.

    The AfD’s new role is a major win for the right in Germany. After emerging onto the electoral scene with a strong anti-immigration position, the AfD has come under sharp criticism in recent years. From campaigns against feminism and LGBTQI struggles to controversial coalitions at the local level, the AfD has consistently raised questions about the party’s connection to violent and extremist groups.

    For instance, in August 2018, representatives of the AfD joined with anti-Muslim organization Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West and neo-Nazi party The Third Way in a series of racist riots in the city of Chemnitz. Citing the fatal stabbing of a German man allegedly by a refugee, groups of men chased down people they perceived to be refugees or immigrants. “Germany for Germans” and “Foreigners out!” became unifying positions for a range of white supremacist groups. While these messages and coalitions persist, Saxony has seen a 38 percent increase in violent attacks since 2017.

    Far right group PRO-Chemnitz organized a demonstration on August 25, one year after a German man was allegedly killed by a refugee. (Henrik Merker)

    The ground that AfD gained on Sunday did not go unchallenged. On Saturday, August 24, over 40,000 people took to the streets in Dresden, the East German capital of Saxony, sending a preemptive message to AfD and the neo-Nazi network supporting it. Protesters declared the anti-racist majority to be “unteilbar,” or indivisible, and said “solidarität verteidigen”  — defend solidarity.

    In reaction to the 2018 events in Chemnitz, people began organizing “unteilbar” demonstrations in order to build a strong anti-racist movement. In October 2018, 240,000 people took over Berlin. In July 2019, 7,500 people kept the momentum going in Leipzig. This time in Dresden, churches, migrant organizations, artists, young people representing Fridays for Future, the youth climate movement inspired by 15-year-old Greta Thunberg, and even German pop musicians were in attendance.

    Previous Coverage
  • Anti-fascists won’t let Germany return to normal after weak verdict in neo-Nazi trial
  • Of the 40,000 people who came to challenge the politics of hate, 10,000 took part in the Parade-Power-Block, an explicitly anti-racist and anti-fascist contingent. Welcome United, Nationalism is Not an Alternative, the NSU-Komplex Tribunal, Iuventa 10 and Initiative of Black Germans set the tone that anti-racism and anti-fascism are intersecting struggles, desperately needed under the influence of the far right. Thousands of “Migrantifa” stickers were plastered along the demonstration route, making the connection that migration is a normal part of society, as is resistance to fascism. 

    “I’ve been living in Dresden for 10 years,” said Hannah Zimmerman, a staff member of the Chemnitz-based Offener Prozess, or Open Process — a political education nonprofit dedicated to fostering global perspectives. “I’ve been to many demonstrations here. Mostly we were a social minority and often criminalized or discredited by the media because we were disobedient and opposed to the Nazis. Taking to the streets with so many people and demonstrating together for an open and plural society was a strong sign [that our movement is being taken seriously].”

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    Moving forward, activists and organizers concerned with democracy and the safety of all people are asking important questions, such as: How will the AfD shape the discourse of the parties in the governing coalition? What compelled several hundred thousand new voters to mobilize for AfD? What will the next five years bring? And how do anti-racist struggles stay visible and connected, especially in areas that have fewer resources or are located in smaller towns and villages?

    “It will be a really difficult five years, but I have no plans to leave,” said Anne Gersch, a staff member of Courage — a project that facilitates anti-discrimination trainings in schools throughout Saxony. “There are many of us who are staying and [who will] keep on working to discuss discimination in our society.”

    For many living in eastern states, the work will continue. Yet, longtime anti-racist organizations working in Saxony anticipate new challenges. For instance, SUPPORT, a project that provides counseling to victims of right-wing violence, expects that the new government will favor projects less critical of far right violence to do their work. “It might deter victims to report incidents,” said Andre Löscher, a counselor with SUPPORT. This means staying visible and available to victims, especially in smaller villages or towns, is incredibly important.

    Despite the election results, the fight against racism is growing. The shift in political terrain has created new anti-racist formations. For instance, the pressure of racist attacks has increased refugee self-organization. Groups like the Arab Association for Culture and Integration are working to establish a positive image of refugees in the area, by offering language courses, tutoring for children and public dialogue events. Initiatives formed by refugees are an important part of establishing networks, which help increase the likelihood of recent immigrants staying in Saxony and Germany.

    As is true in the United States, an important question for those involved in the anti-racist struggle in Germany is how to stay visible and connected. Despite shifts in the electoral field, anti-racist movements have shown that they can leverage their vast networks to mobilize for large demonstrations, as well as the on-going, everyday work against racism and fascism.

    “It is particularly frightening that the AfD could become the strongest party among 18-24 year olds, who now make up 21 percent of their votes,” Zimmermann explained. This challenges the idea that most AfD voters come from older generations that lived in the former German Democratic Republic. “Nevertheless: We continue! Our struggles here are important, and we know there is a country-wide solidarity network that stands behind us.”

    Is the United Kingdom really experiencing a coup?

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    This week Britain’s cities are echoing to the sounds of crowds chanting “defend democracy” and “stop the coup.” On Twitter, #StopTheCoup has already trended. Meanwhile, opposition politicians are comparing the actions of new U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to those of a dictator or autocrat.

    The reason for this outrage is Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks — a move that’s likely to force Britain into exiting the European Union without an agreement on how to do so smoothly, otherwise known as a “no-deal Brexit.” It is widely thought that this has been Johnson’s aim all along, but with only a working majority of one seat in Parliament — amidst cross-party plans to prevent a “no-deal Brexit” — the prime minister chose to invoke the arcane procedure of “proroguing” to cut short parliamentary time to try and get his way.

    While proroguing isn’t unknown, and the government has claimed it is simply using the procedure to prepare a new set of policies to be announced in October, this will be the longest such suspension since 1945. With that in mind, the independent Hansard Society has described the move as an “affront to parliamentary democracy,” and the speaker (parliamentary chairperson) of the House of Commons has called it a “constitutional outrage.”

    Those who have followed closely the struggles of movements against dictatorships across the world may be rightly wary in applying the term to the United Kingdom. In “Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle,” nonviolent theorist Gene Sharp defines a dictatorship as a system in which the position of ruler is occupied without constitutional limits, and without separation of powers, elections or civil liberties. With a legal challenge in the offing, a general election widely expected imminently and the sit-down protests outside Parliament for the most part passing off more-or-less peacefully, it would appear to be as yet too soon for such a term.

    The related definition of autocracy describes a structure in which a single person makes decisions and issues commands without legal limitations or right participation by others. The entry continues by pointing out that an autocratic ruler may have gained the position through heredity or violent seizure of the state but can also do so through bureaucratic manipulations. Boris Johnson was elected not through a general election, but through an internal ballot of the governing Conservative Party, following the destabilization of the former Prime Minister Theresa May. In such light the definition is too close for any comfort.

    To the supporters of the prime minister he is the opposite — a champion of the people who is doing whatever it takes to enact the result of the 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union, in which the population narrowly voted to leave. Ironically the centerpiece of that campaign’s promise was the sovereignty of the same U.K. Parliament that opposes “no deal” and is now being overridden. And as protesters point out, leaving without a deal — widely expected to have significant detrimental effects — was not one of the options on the voting paper.

    Some spokespeople for the pro-Brexit cause have claimed that it is they who represent the nonviolent independence movement, who are liberating the United Kingdom from Europe. In reality, violence has rarely been far from the surface of the campaign and has sometimes spilled over. The 2016 campaign was characterized by anti-immigrant rhetoric and warlike analogies. As the campaign reached fever pitch, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a right-wing terrorist who later gave his name in court as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” Shortly after the result, hate crime spiked. When asked what he would do if Brexit wasn’t delivered, one of the campaign’s most prominent spokespeople said he would “don khaki, pick up a rifle and head for the front lines.”

    For proponents of peace, these are anxious times. Once considered on the fringes of political discourse, architects of the Brexit campaign now have significant institutional power and considerable political influence, whether in or out of government. Some commentators are now beginning to talk of a “civil war state of mind.” More immediately, the likelihood of “no deal” creates the strongest possibility yet of a militarized border being imposed between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, in a region where the comparative peace enjoyed in recent years is still relatively fragile.

    But is it a coup? Sharp’s entry suggests such a seizure of power would usually take place through military force, but does point to the phenomenon of the “self-coup,” in which an existing ruler unconstitutionally claims greater powers. Even if temporary, such a definition lends credence to the words of the protesters, and most likely will be how this action will be remembered.  

    There is a continuum of severity. There are authoritarian regimes with which we cannot compare the United Kingdom at present. But everywhere some basics help protect civil liberties and democracy: distribution of power across institutions, noncooperation with injustice, solidarity with protesters who are attacked and civil resistance.

    Already there are politicians speaking of taking their places in parliament regardless of the decision and others talking of strikes. Major faith figures have spoken out. The protesters blocking the roads include well-turned out office workers wearing suits with tucked in shirts. A wide constituency of people stands ready to resist. What comes next is too difficult to predict.