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Will ‘The Last Jedi’ betray Luke Skywalker’s turn toward nonviolence?

Fri, 12/08/2017 - 12:32

by David Goodner

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in ‘The Last Jedi.’ (Walt Disney Studios)

With new Star Wars movie “The Last Jedi” approaching release next week, fan theories abound about the possibility of Luke Skywalker becoming a so-called “Grey Jedi,” a knight who rejects dogmatic views about good and evil and strives to balance the Light and Dark sides of the Force. In other words, many fans want Skywalker to become an even deadlier warrior, while still claiming to be one of the good guys.

Why so much excitement for such a morally dubious hero? Perhaps we need only look to our present cultural and political moment for the answer. With the Democratic establishment offering only a weak resistance to the far right’s open embrace of fascism, many on the left are anxious to fight fire with fire and uncritically accept the antifa movement’s “punch a Nazi” black bloc tactics. Meanwhile, the average apolitical moviegoer just wants to see the good guys, whoever they might be, kick some ass — which is to be expected after years of escalating violence in Hollywood films that increasingly portray protagonists as loner anti-heroes.

If the Grey Jedi fan theory is correct, many critics will praise the film as a sophisticated commentary on today’s complex, dark, pluralistic society. Yet, what Disney is most likely to promote is a worldview that says violence is the answer to all our problems — albeit violence approved by “the very serious people” of the establishment.

In the real world, however, there is no middle road when it comes to violence, or justice. Killing has devastating consequences for the human spirit, regardless of which side is doing it. Only sociopaths are able to kill without remorse and psychic trauma.

In fact, modern psychological research suggests that the heroic young Skywalker himself exhibited the traits of a sociopath through much of the original Star Wars trilogy. But his refusal to kill his father, Darth Vader, in “Return of the Jedi” concludes his story with a clear cut rejection of violence and any moral shade of grey.

It would therefore betray his character arc, if Luke Skywalker became anything other than a staunch pacifist in “The Last Jedi.”

Our innate resistance to killing

One helpful tool to analyze “Star Wars” is the groundbreaking five-year research study, “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.” It’s author, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, finds that the vast majority of soldiers throughout human history have refused to kill at the moment of truth. Grossman argues that human beings have a profound, innate resistance to killing other humans, a resistance so strong that most people on the battlefield — even when confronted with imminent danger from an enemy soldier — will posture, flee, submit or temporarily become conscientious objectors, either by refusing to fire or by firing into the air or ground, rather than shooting to kill.

During the Civil War for example, evidence suggests that half of all soldiers never fired their weapons in battle, and only a small percentage of those who did aimed to kill. The same was true during both world wars in the 20th century. “Only 15 to 20 percent of the American riflemen in combat during World War II fired at the enemy,” he writes.

Firing rates for U.S. soldiers increased to 55 percent in the Korean War and 90-95 percent in the Vietnam War due to new conditioning techniques developed by the military to force enlistees to overcome their natural aversion to killing. But even when this is overcome, soldiers who are forced to kill are almost always scarred for life with immense guilt, shame and trauma. Grossman’s interview subjects from World War II, Korea and Vietnam were all haunted for life by the ghosts of the men they had killed.

Only two percent of men do not possess this innate resistance to killing, he finds. This small subset of people — in addition to being essentially murderous sociopaths — are responsible for the vast majority of killing in war.

Is Luke Skywalker a sociopath?

If we apply the findings of Grossman’s study to Star Wars, we can see that many of Luke Skywalker’s actions during the original trilogy are highly problematic, and may even fit the profile of a sociopath.

In “A New Hope,” for instance, Luke Skywalker shoots and kills multiple stormtroopers without hesitation while rescuing Princess Leia. Perhaps this ease at killing can be explained by the distance between himself and his enemies, or his use of laser blasters, which make the killings fairly sterile.

As Grossman finds, the innate human resistance to killing lessens the further away a soldier is from his or her target. A pilot or artillery operator may drop bombs on a city from long range without a corresponding psychological cost to themselves. Because they do not see the result of their actions firsthand, they can plausibly deny the truth to themselves about what they have done. This is why drone operators have much higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, than traditional fighter pilots. A drone hovers above its target after firing, taking pictures of the gruesome aftermath, rather than flying away during the detonation and subsequent explosion.

This may explain away Luke’s proton torpedo shot that blows up tens of thousands of people on the Death Star during the movie’s epic climax. The same dynamic might also justify a scene on the ice planet Hoth in “The Empire Strikes Back,” when Luke takes down two imperial AT-AT walkers, without having to actually see first-hand evidence of his kills.

The fact that the masks of the stormtroopers prevent Luke from seeing their faces may also have made it easier for him to pull the trigger of his blaster. As Grossman explains, the emotional distance between a soldier and his or her enemy also makes killing easier.

The U.S. military exploits this through classic dehumanizing techniques meant to turn enemy soldiers into inhuman “others,” thus making it easier to kill them. The new recruit, whether serving in World War II, Vietnam or Iraq, is taught that their enemy is not human. They are Japs, gooks, towelheads, hajis, dogs, terrorists, and a host of other epithets, but never humans with families, hopes and dreams. “Kill, Kill, Kill!” is repeated hundreds of times a day in basic training.

But how then do we explain Luke Skywalker’s killing spree in “Return of the Jedi”? After returning to Tatooine to rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt, Luke Force-chokes two Gammorean guards (a definitively Dark Side power) and, after recovering his lightsaber, goes on a one-man crusade, chopping down foe after foe with impunity, before blowing up a sail barge full of dozens of people, many of whom are slaves. This scene raises serious questions about whether or not Skywalker is, in fact, a sociopath.

As Grossman explains, the innate human resistance to killing increases the closer one gets to the victim. “This process culminates at the close end of the spectrum, when the resistance to bayoneting or stabbing becomes tremendously intense, almost unthinkable,” he writes. “The horror associated with pinning a man down, feeling him struggle, and watching him bleed to death is something that can give a man nightmares for years afterwards.”

Another path

Contrast Luke Skywalker’s actions in “Return of the Jedi” with his mentor, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. In the first Star Wars, Kenobi uses cunning, guile and self sacrifice to complete his objectives, not violence. When he saves Luke from the sand people, Obi-Wan imitates the sound of a Komodo dragon to scare them away, rather than killing them all. To get past the stormtrooper blockade in Mos Eisley, Kenobi uses a simple Jedi mind trick to talk his way out of a bad situation, rather than igniting his lightsaber.

On the Death Star, Obi-Wan stealthily avoids all confrontation to shut down the tractor beam preventing the Millennium Falcon from escaping. When he is finally face-to-face with Darth Vader, Kenobi allows violence and death to be brought upon himself rather than inflicting harm on another person, even someone as evil as Vader. In “A New Hope,” Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Jesus-like character, whose selfless and nonviolent act of self-sacrifice results in his resurrection as a Force ghost.

Although Obi-Wan cuts off the arm of a criminal earlier in the movie to protect the young and naive Luke Skywalker, Kenobi does not kill him. And the scene was probably necessary to foreshadow his lightsaber skills before his eventual duel with Lord Vader.

In “The Empire Strikes Back,” the Jedi Master Yoda tries to teach Luke Skywalker again and again that violence is not the way of the Jedi. When Luke refuses to heed Yoda’s teachings and runs off to Bespin in a futile effort to rescue Princess Leia and Han Solo from capture by Darth Vader, his use of violence to achieve his objectives is met with grave consequences. Just as the anarchist Black Bloc can never match the violence of the state, neither can a half-trained Luke Skywalker match the violence of Lord Vader, and Luke is severely injured and almost dies because of his folly.

Without some kind of alternative explanation, “Return of the Jedi,” at least at first, seems to imply that strength in the Light Side of the Force makes the Jedi even more efficient killers, only killers for good instead of for evil. The heroic Jedi music plays during Luke’s one-man berserker rage on Tatooine.

But it could be argued that Luke Skywalker was actually using the Dark Side of the Force during the opening scenes of “Return of the Jedi,” as the movie hinges on if Luke will fall to the Dark Side or not. Later in the movie, nonviolence is clearly Luke’s preferred strategy when he surrenders to Darth Vader and attempts to morally persuade him to “turn back to the good side,” rather than fight alongside the rest of the Rebel Alliance on Endor.

Later, thanks to the emperor’s manipulations, Luke Skywalker succumbs to his anger and hatred when he duels again with Darth Vader, eventually defeating him in a fit of rage. But at the last minute, Luke hesitates, refuses to deal his father a killing blow, and throws away his weapon rather than fight anymore.

It is only then, after Luke Skywalker renounces violence and refuses to kill his father, that he finally becomes a Jedi. This scene is a call back to Obi-Wan Kenobi’s self-sacrifice in “A New Hope,” as Luke becomes the victim of violence himself after the emperor attacks him with Force Lightning. And it is Luke’s turn away from violence, and his subsequent torture at the hands of the emperor, that finally convinces his father to return to the Light Side of the Force, and once again become Anakin Skywalker.

Grossman can also be used to analyze “The Force Awakens.” In one of the opening scenes, the new hero Finn, at this point still a stormtrooper, is ordered to participate in a massacre of innocent civilians. However, Finn refuses to fire, becoming exactly like one of the conscientious objectors Grossman details in his book. But Finn is still deeply traumatized by the massacre he witnessed, which becomes his main motivation for leaving the First Order and joining the Resistance.

Later on in the movie, Kylo Ren impales his own father, Han Solo, with his lightsaber, the most intimate and psychologically devastating method of killing. In the novelization of “The Force Awakens,” it is clear that Kylo Ren is horrified by what he has done. Rather than feeling empowered by killing his father, as Supreme Leader Snoke promised, Kylo Ren is weakened.

Alternatives to fighting

Grossman’s biggest contribution to the literature on warfare isn’t just his theory about human beings’ innate resistance to killing; it is also his corresponding thesis that the mainstream media, and violent video games, have replicated military conditioning to such a degree that most of our society is completely desensitized to violence.

“The media in our modern information society have done much to perpetuate the myth of easy killing and have thereby become part of society’s unspoken conspiracy of deception that glorifies killing and war,” Grossman writes. “A culture raised on Rambo, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker and James Bond wants to believe that combat and killing can be done with impunity — that we can declare someone to be the enemy and that for cause and country the soldiers will cleanly and remorselessly wipe him from the face of the earth.”

Perhaps it is this corrupting influence of violence in the media that has so many bloodthirsty Star Wars fans pining for the new movie to depict Luke Skywalker as a Grey Jedi willing to use violence to accomplish the greater good. A critical viewing of the original Star Wars trilogy suggests something different. There can be no balance of the Light and the Dark, no middle ground between good and bad, no compromise between violence and nonviolence. Anger, fear and aggression will always lead to the Dark Side, no matter how much we try to walk the line. Evil must be fought, yes, but not with violence. With compassion. Not with moral ambivalence, but with moral purity.

That’s why Luke Skywalker should be portrayed in “The Last Jedi” as a pacifist, an ideology consistent with his character arc in the original Star Wars, when both he and the Jedi Order stood for something meaningful, a morality that neither the violent left, right, or center will ever have.

Of course, all signs point to “The Last Jedi” making a very different kind of argument. What little is known of the plot suggests a centrist view of the world, where the violence of the ideological left feeds the violence of the ideological right, and where the violence of the center is the answer to both.

If true, then “The Last Jedi” will ultimately be just another forgettable Hollywood blockbuster, a movie about redemptive violence that claims to be smart and politically relevant, but one which fails to live up to the moral high ground that made the original Star Wars trilogy such a poignant cultural milestone.

The necessity of imagining an unimaginable war

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 11:08

by Lisa Fuller

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The prospect of nuclear war with North Korea has repeatedly been described as “unimaginable” – and in fact, most of us have literally failed to imagine it. As the New York TimesNicholas Kristof points out, “We’re complacent — neither the public nor the financial markets appreciate how high the risk is of a war, and how devastating one could be.”

Admittedly, with biological, conventional and nuclear weapons expected to kill millions, the scenario is genuinely difficult to comprehend. We struggle to translate such high numbers into pictures of individual men, women and children suffering.

Nevertheless, we can no longer afford to be in denial. Top military and political experts warn that the risk of war is at an all-time high, the threat is imminent and the impact would be catastrophic. Even before North Korea’s latest missile test, former U.S. Army General Barry McCraffrey, Council of Foreign Relations President Richard Haass and the International Institute for Strategic Studies Executive Director Mark Fitzpatrick all estimated that the risk of war was 50 percent. General McCaffrey expects that war will breakout by summer 2018.

There is a significant risk that a war would escalate beyond a regional conflict. China has warned that it would intervene on behalf of North Korea in the case of a U.S. preemptive strike, and international security experts Nora Bensahel and David Barno argue that China may launch attacks on “U.S. bases in the region or possibly even the U.S. homeland, especially since radiation would inevitably blanket some of its territory.” China has been carrying out military drills near the Korean peninsula since July, and tested an ICBM capable of hitting the continental United States on November 6. Russia also recently publicly warned that it is preparing for war as well.

Even if the war was confined to the Korean peninsula, however, it has the “potential to cause mass starvation worldwide,” as a result of nuclear winter, according to nuclear experts Alan Robock and Owen Toon.

In other words, World War III is no longer just the stuff of sci-fi movies — it may be right around the corner.

With such high stakes, it is critical that we voluntarily imagine the “unimaginable,” as uncomfortable as it may be. Those who do imagine war are much more likely to take action to prevent it. Journalist and author Jonathan Schell advocated for this position in his 1982 book “The Fate of the Earth,” writing that “Only by descending into this hell in imagination now can we hope to escape descending into it in reality … the knowledge we thus gain cannot in itself protect us from nuclear annihilation, but without it we cannot begin to take measures that can actually protect us.”

It is no coincidence that members of Congress who are war veterans have been some of the most outspoken and active in raising the alarm over the crisis in North Korea.

Although President Reagan never personally experienced war, a movie depicting a nuclear attack on the United States was enough to activate his imagination and change his entire orientation to nuclear war. After seeing the “The Day After,” he wrote in his diary that the film “left me greatly depressed … We have to do all we can to have a deterrent and see there is never a nuclear war.” A few months later, he announced that “reducing the risk of war, and especially nuclear war, is priority number one.” His shift in perspective is often credited with being one of the most important factors in de-escalating the Cold War.

As our brains are hard-wired to protect us from thinking about large-scale suffering, we too may need to take proactive efforts to imagine a potential war. For example, we can look at pictures of Hiroshima and read the stories of atomic bomb survivors, transposing such scenarios to our own cities. We can use nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein’s Nukemap to understand what would happen if a bomb was dropped on our own cities. We can ensure that we stay updated on the crisis and that we obtain information from reliable sources with expertise.

However, while imagining the prospect of war may be necessary, it is not sufficient: Americans must mobilize quickly and effectively to address the threat. If they are able to do so, there is good reason to believe they can prevent war.

First, there are viable options to resolve the Korean crisis — the Trump administration just hasn’t tried any of them yet. In 1994, the Clinton administration successfully negotiated a framework agreement that centered on the idea of a freeze-for-freeze: North Korea suspended its nuclear program in exchange for the U.S. suspending some of its military exercises. The agreement held up until 2003 when the Bush administration — not North Korea — ended the agreement.

A new freeze-for-freeze (which North Korea has repeatedly indicated it would be open to), in combination with legislation preventing Trump from launching a pre-emptive strike, would be the best possible option to solve the current crisis. Essentially, if North Korea doesn’t feel threatened, it will probably stop threatening others.

Second, there is already an existing grassroots structure with the capabilities to organize an effective large-scale movement. Since Trump became president, “an astounding number of new grassroots groups, at least six times the number the Tea Party could boast at its height,” have formed according to grassroots leader L.A. Kauffman. Activists have already done the hard part — they have formed movements, mobilized large segments of the American population, and proven their efficacy, successfully organizing to prevent the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, for example.

Third, unlike with Obamacare, there is already bipartisan support for efforts to prevent war with North Korea. There are already over 60 co-sponsors, including two Republicans, to the “No Unconstitutional Strike against North Korea Act” in the House. Although there are only three Democrats co-sponsoring the Senate bill, several Republican senators — including Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Dan Sullivan, and John Thune — have all publicly expressed concern about Trump’s approach to North Korea.

However, there hasn’t been any movement on the bill since it was introduced in October, nor on various other bills that would restrict Trump’s power to start a pre-emptive war. Public pressure is needed to ensure that Congress prioritizes such legislation.

Although no bills have been introduced as of yet to support a freeze-for-freeze, 61 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in August highlighting the success of the aforementioned 1994 Agreed Framework, stating that there is an “urgent need to replicate these successes.” While the Trump administration is responsible for making international treaties, Congress could still force a freeze-for-freeze by passing legislation that prevents funds from being used for the most provocative military drills.

Fourth, there is a historical precedent for a large-scale nuclear freeze movement. During the Cold War, as activist and writer Duncan Meisel explained, over a third of Americans participated in “a series of city and state referendum campaigns calling for a Nuclear Freeze.” What’s more, “Reagan’s militaristic temperament” — according to Andrew Lanham of the Boston Review — actually aided the movement’s efforts to garner support across the political spectrum.

However, all of these advantages are meaningless if activists fail to focus sufficient attention on the North Korea crisis. With so many important issues at stake, activism can feel like triage these days: Efforts tend to be focused on whatever legislative calamity is most imminent. The problem with that approach is that activists’ focus becomes determined by Congress’ agenda rather than grassroots priorities.

If activists take a breath from firefighting long enough to imagine a potential war with North Korea, they may realize that they need to proactively organize to insist that Congress urgently focuses its attention on the North Korea crisis, and implements an effective legislative strategy to prevent war.

As the Bulletin of Scientists President Rachel Bronson says, “we have reversed the hands of the Doomsday Clock before. We can do it again.”

March demands justice for teen who was allegedly raped by NYPD officers

Fri, 12/01/2017 - 17:45

by Ashoka Jegroo

Protesters gathered for march in support of Anna Chambers. (Twitter/Robert Gerhardt)

Dozens of activists marched in lower Manhattan and unfurled a banner off the High Line park on November 30 to support and demand justice for a young woman who claims she was raped while in handcuffs by two NYPD officers in Brooklyn earlier this year.

Despite the recent media attention on various influential and powerful men being called out for sexual assault and harassment, this recent case of NYPD officers allegedly raping a teenager in custody has largely remained a local story.

The woman, who calls herself Anna Chambers on social media, hasn’t attended any of the protests, but has expressed support and gratitude on social media. Her lawyer, Michael David, is confident that the cops will be found guilty, but in a city where police have literally killed people on camera and gotten away with it, it’s hard to know what will happen with this case.

“I can’t conceivably see any jury not convicting these cops,” David said. “Under these circumstances, they have to be convicted. There’s overwhelming evidence [against them].”

According to Chambers’ lawyer, it was around 8 p.m. on September 15 when Edward Martins and Richard Hall, two plain clothes cops with the Brooklyn South Narcotics unit, pulled over a car in Brooklyn’s Calvert Vaux Park containing then-18-year-old Anna Chambers and two male friends. The officers began searching them for drugs, at one point even demanding Chambers lift up her shirt. The cops claim they found a small amount of weed and a few Klonopin pills on her. According to David, the police then ordered Chambers out of the car, handcuffed her, and put her into the backseat of their black, unmarked Dodge van.

Then, according to prosecutor Frank DeGaetano, as the cops drove off with Chambers, Martins used his cellphone, while blocking his number, to call her two male friends and told them not to follow the van. After being told she was being taken to the nearby 60th precinct, David said the cops instead drove Chambers to a nearby Chipotle parking lot and raped her. She was handcuffed the entire time.

About 45 minutes after being handcuffed, the cops shoved her out of the van near the 60th precinct, according to David. Chambers then contacted her mother, who took her to Maimonides Medical Center in Borough Park, Brooklyn. While she was in the hospital for a sexual assault forensic exam, commonly known as a rape kit, a group of more than nine NYPD officers came to intimidate and gaslight Chambers and her mother. David said that one officer even spoke to Chambers’ mother in her native Russian, insisting that she often filed complaints against police and that the men who raped her weren’t actual cops.

Despite this intimidation, Chambers proceeded with the rape kit, and the genetic material recovered from Chambers during the medical exam matched Martins and Hall’s DNA. After their names and faces were withheld for some time, the two cops were eventually exposed, pleaded not guilty to a 50-count indictment, were released on bail, and resigned from their jobs in early November. They admit to having sex with Chambers while on the job, but insist that it was consensual.

“This whole ‘consensual’ thing is just ridiculous,” David said. “When you’re under arrest and you’re handcuffed, you’re put into a police minivan and you’re with two officers over 6-feet tall and over 200 pounds, there can’t be consent. Based on that power dynamic, you cannot have consent under those circumstances.”

In an attempt to undermine Chambers’s credibility, the lawyers for the two cops also wrote a letter to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, in which they pointed to “provocative ‘selfies’” on her social media accounts and the fact that she has filed a $50 million lawsuit against the city.

Chambers’ supporters at the march expressed disgust at the cops’ almost-cliche rapist apologetics and attempts to “slut-shame” her.

“We are not going to let the continuing press coverage on this be about the photos on Anna’s Instagram, and it’s not about what she may or may not have been wearing at the time,” said Jun, an activist with Hoods4Justice, who helped organize the march. “It’s about never letting this happen again and about being out in the street and being present to show support and solidarity for someone who went through a horrible trauma.”

The first march in support of Chambers happened on October 17 in Coney Island, Brooklyn. The protesters rallied in Calvert Vaux Park, marched around the neighborhood, and were apparently later denied entry into a local community meeting regarding the incident. During the second and most recent march on November 30, protesters gathered in Washington Square Park in Manhattan and started with facts on police sexual violence and speeches, including one by Victoria Davis, the sister of Delrawn Small who was killed by an off-duty NYPD officer last year.

A banner dropped off the High Line park during a protest demanding justice for Anna Chambers in New York City on Nov. 30. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

The NYPD soon arrived in large numbers to try to break up the protest, threatening to arrest the activists and pushing them onto the sidewalk. The march continued with the protesters chanting, blocking traffic, and, at one point, taking over the High Line and unfurling a banner from it reading “NYPD cops E. Martin & R. Hall Are Rapists.” Despite police repression, the march ended with no arrests, and Chambers expressed her gratitude for the support.

Statistics on sexual violence by police are hard to come by, but a 2011 Cato Institute study found that more than 9 percent of reported police misconduct involved sexual abuse, making it the second-most reported form of police misconduct after the use of excessive force. The Associated Press, in their year-long 2015 investigation of sexual misconduct by cops, found over 1,000 officers who lost their jobs over a six-year period for rape, sodomy and sexual assault.

This number was also acknowledged as an undercount since states like California and New York have no statewide system to decertify officers for sexual misconduct. Indeed, it isn’t even illegal in New York City for cops to have sex with people in their custody, a problem that a local Brooklyn politician is now trying to solve precisely because of this case.

Chambers’s supporters ultimately want the two cops to be held accountable, for her to get the full amount she’s requested in her civil suit against the city, and for an end to police violence against women and gender nonconforming people.

“Her life is ruined, and we don’t know how many others there are.” David said. “We want as much public awareness as we can about police sexual misconduct so people can be aware of it and people can report it. And we want it to stop. We don’t want any more victims like Anna Chambers again.”

How internet co-ops can protect us from net neutrality rollbacks

Tue, 11/28/2017 - 15:13

by Sammi-Jo Lee

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This article was first published by Yes! Magazine

In 2011, brand new fiber optic cables lit up for the first time across the forested terrain of the Ozarks and up and down the farmlands of central Missouri.

Here among the hickories and red oaks, you might expect to be in the land that the internet forgot. That’s what it could have been, had residents not decided to stop waiting on large for-profit telecommunications companies. They built their own internet instead.

They turned to their electric utility for a solution, and Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, established in 1939 to bring power to the region’s farms, answered the call.

“What got the project off the ground was the membership demand,” said Randy Klindt, who at the time was the general manager of Co-Mo Connect, the co-op’s internet branch. “The members all drove it from the grassroots. They went door to door. They paid their neighbors’ $100 deposit.”

Later at a community meeting, a local bank surprised the room by paying the deposit of everyone present. They quickly crowdfunded enough money to begin construction, and in 2011, just before Christmas, its first members came online.

Co-Mo’s members aren’t the only people who can say they own their own internet utility. In cities and rural swaths across the country, there are hundreds of small internet service providers owned by member cooperatives, local municipalities, or tribal governments. Over the past two decades, these small ISPs have been spreading and gaining notice. As success stories travel and inspire other communities to ask how they can do the same thing, they’re multiplying faster than ever.

These locally owned networks are poised to do what federal and state governments and the marketplace couldn’t. One, they can bring affordable access to fast internet to anyone, narrowing the digital divide that deepens individual and regional socioeconomic disparities.

Two, these small operators can protect open internet access from the handful of large ISPs that stand to pocket the profits from net neutrality rollbacks that the Trump administration announced Nov. 21. That’s according to Christopher Mitchell, who is the director of Community Broadband Projects, a project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Mitchell, who has been tracking and advocating community-owned broadband networks for a decade, hopes that this will be the moment when people rebel against the administration’s attack on net neutrality and expand rural cooperative and municipal ISPs.

“The FCC is basically taking the regulations off of big companies, but local companies can still offer high-quality internet access at good prices,” Mitchell said.

Without net neutrality, broadband providers will be able to charge more for better access and faster speeds, or be able to restrict traffic to preferred business partners over competitors. More independent ISPs can offer consumers a wider variety of choices.

“No one will have to offer prioritized content in the ways that we fear AT&T and Comcast will. So local investments can preserve access to the open internet,” Mitchell said.

But, for many, before the question of open internet and net neutrality comes the question of whether people can have access to and afford the internet at all.

Remote, sparsely populated areas like the rural Ozarks are often synonymous with the digital divide. Large carriers don’t have a financial incentive to enter those markets where getting high returns on their investment are unlikely if not impossible. According to the FCC, 39 percent of rural Americans — 23 million people — don’t have access to broadband speeds.

Before Co-Mo Connect got off the ground, Klindt says, only 1 out of 5 members had access to broadband. Many still crawled along on obsolete dial-up connections. By 2014, however, nearby Tipton (population 3,351) enjoyed connection speeds in the top 20 percent of the United States, and the fastest in Missouri. By 2016, Co-Mo’s entire service area was on the digital grid.

ILSR estimates that there are more than 300 telephone and electric co-ops that provide rural fiber-optic internet service. Since the late 1990s, these co-ops have been installing more cable and leveraging existing infrastructure to provide faster service to their communities. A few have even built networks from scratch, such as RS Fiber in Minnesota and Allband in Michigan.

Matthew Rantanen, the director of technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, tells another story of access and adoption from reservation lands, where the FCC estimates that 68 percent of residents — 1.3 million people — lack access. Rantanen directed the Tribal Digital Village initiative, which introduced wireless internet to 17 tribal reservation communities in San Diego County.

The initiative, Rantanen says, inspired Valerie Fast Horse, the IT director of the Coeur d’Alene tribe in Idaho, to build a fully fiber tribal network. “Networking is in its very early stages, and I can’t wait to see some of this blossom,” Rantanen says. He estimates that just 30 of more than 300 tribal reservations in the United States have broadband access.

Internet connectivity is a crucial economic leveler, he says, without which people fall behind in schools, health, and the job market. “Without that resource,” Rantanen said, “you’re a different class. You’re [on] a different level of participation in the U.S. and the world.”

Though unequal access is primarily thought of as a rural problem, it affects urban centers, as well. ILSR estimates 90 cities are connected with high-quality municipal networks, while more than 200 are connected with more basic networks.

“Customers want reliable, fast, and inexpensive service. The market is not solving this problem,” said Deb Socia, the executive director of Next Century Cities, which works with 183 mayors across the country in hatching plans to fund locally based solutions.

“The biggest dilemma for cities is that there has been an erosion of the capacity for communities to solve their own problems, and that has happened primarily at the state and federal level,” Socia said. Some networks, like the one in Ammon, Idaho, lease their networks to other providers. Others, like the one in Chattanooga, Tennessee, sell services like a conventional ISP.

“There are a lot of workable models,” said Mitchell, “and whatever is right for the local culture and the local government capacity is probably the best way forward.”

Cobbling together local solutions is the common challenge across all of these community projects, said Mitchell, whether it’s cracking the funding code, slashing through governmental red tape, or cultivating enthusiastic leadership to convince communities that, in order to have their own internet service provider, it’s worth it to try something new.

Looking down the road, Mitchell believes that a strong network of small, competitive community-owned ISPs is possible. By siphoning revenue away from the monopoly ISPs, they could disrupt their ability to dominate their markets. And also, if net neutrality does indeed get rolled back, competition could make it less appealing for large ISPs to restrict content.

“I would say that if we had a flourishing of these local networks, it would still significantly hurt the ability of Comcast and AT&T to create tollbooths” to prioritize content, Mitchell says. “It’s going to be fascinating to see what’s going to happen in coming years.”

Labor fights back against end to ‘temporary protected status’ for 59,000 Haitians

Wed, 11/22/2017 - 16:03

by Max Zahn

SEIU 1199 Vice President Gerard Cadet speaks at a press conference in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday. (WNV/Max Zahn)

Wilna Destin, a UNITE HERE organizer, fled political unrest in Haiti 17 years ago for asylum in the United States. After arriving on her own in Miami, Florida, she worked restaurant and hospitality jobs in Orlando, eventually gaining accreditation as a nursing assistant. She married and had two children. She built a life.

When the Trump administration announced on Monday night that it would end temporary protected status, or TPS, for approximately 59,000 Haitians in 2019, Destin learned that she will have to leave in a matter of months.

“I was shocked,” she said. “I’m not ready to go back.”

Labor advocates across the country aren’t ready to see her and her fellow Hatians go either. In the latest surge of labor opposition to the Trump administration’s immigration agenda, union leaders and rank-and-file members rallied on short notice Tuesday, vowing to fight the TPS decision and seek a path to citizenship for the Haitians affected by it.

TPS is an immigration status granted to foreign-born residents unable to return home due to dangerous or challenging circumstances in their native countries. In 2010, the Obama administration granted TPS to Haitian-born residents after a devastating earthquake struck Haiti that year.

“This is a very, very terrible moment for us in the labor movement,” said Gerard Cadet, vice president of Service Employees International Union 1199, at a press conference in lower Manhattan on Tuesday morning. According to Cadet, who was born in Haiti, over 12 percent of SEIU 1199 members are Haitian immigrants.

“Haitians tend to gravitate toward healthcare when they come into this country,” he said. “Immigrants built up our union, just like immigrants built up our country.”

Cadet spoke alongside immigrant rights leaders and SEIU 32BJ President Hector Figueroa, who echoed the sentiment.

“The Haitian TPS recipients are our brothers and sisters,” he said. “They are members of 32BJ. They are members of many of our unions. Their absence would result in a quarter of a billion dollars lost from the economy.”

Later on Tuesday, approximately 400 demonstrators marched to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s resort in Palm Beach, Florida. They included members of UNITE HERE, SEIU and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, along with advocates from faith and immigration groups, said Wendi Walsh, the secretary-treasurer at UNITE HERE local 355 in Miami.

“It was good to see a lot of people from all kinds of organizations,” Destin said, noting that the solidarity on display at the rally gave her hope. “At the end of the day, it’s one fight.”

According to Walsh, South Florida has the largest population of Haitians outside of Haiti, many of whom have stayed in the country under TPS.

“They have good union jobs,” she said. “They pay their taxes. We have people on TPS who have bought homes and who have American-born children. [We have people] who have contributed to communities and established lives here. To now be told your status in this country is ending for no good reason and you’re facing deportation to a country that’s not prepared to accept you when you return — it’s devastating.”

South Florida businesses and trade organizations — such as the Walt Disney Company, Four Seasons Hotel Miami, the Beaches and Greater Miami Hotel Association, and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association — oppose an end to TPS designation for Haitians.

“I’d like Trump to answer a question of what these employers are expected to do,” Walsh said. “These employers will scramble to find new employees.”

In total, over 300,000 people from 10 different countries live in America with the designation, according to the immigrant advocacy group National Immigration Forum. A study conducted in April by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center found that if companies laid off all of the TPS holders from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti, it would result in $967 million in turnover costs.

Walsh said she supports a path to permanent residency for all people in the United States under TPS. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka went a step further. He called on Congress to “pass immediate legislation to give working people with TPS a well-earned path to citizenship.”

At the press conference in Manhattan, Rep. Nydia Velazquez touted the American Promise Act, a bill she introduced on Nov. 3 that offers a path to citizenship for people who have been in the United States under TPS for at least three years. When introduced, the bill had 17 co-sponsors.

“It seems that the American promise — the promise of a nation that cares for the vulnerable and benefits from diversity and inclusiveness — is too strong for Donald Trump,” Velazquez said.

Cadet said he “absolutely” supports the bill, but that SEIU 1199 has not vetted the legislation sufficiently to give its endorsement as a union. According to Figueroa, SEIU 32BJ backs the bill.

“We’re going to reach out deeply into Congress,” he said. “We are going to knock at the doors of every person in Congress to stop this abuse — to stop this assault on our TPS communities.”

On Tuesday night, Trump arrived at Mar-a-Lago to spend Thanksgiving with his family. Hours earlier, Destin and other TPS holders had protested outside the resort to ensure that they could spend future Thanksgivings in the United States with their families.

“Thanksgiving for us will be a struggle,” Destin said. “For him, it’s a good thing to have Thanksgiving in a mansion. We want to show him we’re struggling.”

First Nations occupy fish farms in British Columbia to force government action

Tue, 11/21/2017 - 11:51

by Brandon Jordan

Indigenous people camping in a section of the Midsummer Island fish farm in British Columbia, Canada. (WNV/Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw Cleansing Our Waters)

The sign outside the protest encampment on Midsummer Island in British Columbia, Canada, is a blunt summation of what its inhabitants — indigenous people from various First Nations tribes — have been trying to accomplish for the past two months: “Get Fish Farms Out.” Yet, due to a Supreme Court ruling issued last week, it is not the fish farms that must leave the island, but rather the demonstrators and their camp, which consists of two small houses with beds, solar panels and a replenishing supply of food.

The court made its decision after receiving an injunction, or demand for removal request, by Marine Harvest, the Norwegian seafood company that operates the facility. Demonstrators were given three days to dismantle the camp and 30 days to leave the island — or risk arrest. As the decision was being handed down, more demonstrators gathered outside the court in Vancouver to tell reporters and supporters that they are still committed to their demand of removing fish farms on indigenous territory.

“That doesn’t mean the occupation is over,” said Ernest Alfred, hereditary chief of a few First Nations tribes in British Columbia. “We just have to strategize and come up with a plan of relocation.”

The plan that unfolded saw a handful of First Nations people remove and transport all their Midsummer Island supplies, including the homes, to another encampment at nearby Swanson Island, which is also the site of another Marine Harvest facility. Fish farm facilities are actually housed in the ocean, where species such as smelts and salmon are raised in open pens surrounded by nets. Operation permits can only be obtained through federal and provincial governments, not First Nations tribes — even if firms are working in their territory.

First Nations people have been frustrated with these facilities for years, seeing them as threats to native livelihoods. According to the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture, the region has experienced a near 80 percent decline in wild salmon since 1990. Fish farm opponents blame sea lice, which are a common problem at the facilities. These parasites feed off skin, blood, or mucus and can spread infectious disease — not only among the farmed fish, but also to wild ones on the other side of the netting.

The science does support fish farm opponents’ worries to an extent. In 2015, University of Toronto researchers found an abundance of sea lice among salmon that was at least partially caused by the fish farms. Other factors, such as warmer ocean temperatures, were important factors as well. A commission set up by the Canadian government in 2009, following the decline of salmon in British Columbia’s Fraser River, more-or-less came to the same conclusion: It could not thoroughly name fish farms as the source of the problem, but suggested the government stop promoting salmon farming.

Regardless of the factors, the declining wild salmon population has many First Nations people worried about losing a way of life. Sherry Moon, a tour guide from the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw First Nations territory, grew up learning how to cut, smoke and dry salmon — spending every year fishing for them until the population shrank. The last time she fished was four years ago.

“I can’t even teach my two little ones because we don’t have fish,” she said. “It’s devastating because there’s so much that comes with that salmon. Everything depends on that salmon — the trees, the bears, the orcas, us.”

A handful of people began occupying the Midsummer Island facility, starting September 4. (WNV/Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw Cleansing Our Waters)

It was this understanding, coupled with years of government inaction, that led Alfred and his niece to launch a protest that would be hard to ignore. So, in August, they built a floating structure at the Swanson Island farm and started camping out on it. This led to a rapid response across British Columbia. Six indigenous communities started an encampment at Marine Harvest’s Port Elizabeth and Wicklow Point farms. The latter was eventually moved to the Midsummer Island facility when demonstrators got word that the company had restocked fish there. Meanwhile, a group of female indigenous leaders set up what they call a Matriarch Camp outside of government offices in Victoria.

Moon was among those who immediately joined in, arranging boat trips to the islands and organizing rallies as well as fundraisers.

“I put a lot of myself into this,” she said, explaining that demonstrators prefer not to use the word occupation and instead opt for observation. “We call our occupiers ‘observers.’ We’re not protesters, we’re protectors.”

As a result of their efforts, provincial officials have begun to show interest in working with indigenous groups to solve their problems with the fish farms.

“I got a call from a member of parliament in Ottawa,” Alfred said. “That minister told me we have a very strong presence in Ottawa and that we have the eyes and ears of the federal government.”

This comes more than a year after First Nations communities tried to gain the attention of government officials by issuing an eviction notice to Marine Harvest, as it operates in waters that were never delegated to province. The letter detailed the dwindling wild salmon numbers and accused the industry of “infringing on our way of life, by breaking the natural circle of life that has sustained First Nation people for time immemorial.”

According to Anushka Azadi, a legal advocate for many indigenous groups, the letter went unanswered. “The fish farm companies didn’t do anything about it, the province didn’t do anything about it, and the federal government didn’t do anything about it,” she said. “For one year, everything continued as normal.”

Then the occupations forced everyone to pay attention. Yet, despite their recent promises, Azadi is skeptical that government officials will do anything about the fish farms — if for no other reason than that the provincial economy depends on the industry for tax revenues. Her doubts have merit, particularly since the New Democratic Party has yet to actually follow through on its campaign pledges last spring to “make sure that these territories … are clear of fish farms.”

Inhabitants at the Swanson Island camp left these signs on one of the facility’s walkways. (WNV/Swanson Occupation)

Still, there are signs that the government may make good on its word. Agricultural Minister Lana Popham has already issued Marine Harvest a letter saying that the government is considering asking the firm to relinquish control of its sites in “an effort to develop and maintain healthy relationships with First Nations in whose territories companies are doing business.”

According to Marine Harvest director of public affairs Ian Roberts, the letter “sent a shock and chill to the business community,” which has upwards of 70,000 leases in the province. He described the fish farm occupations as unprecedented and said they have caused the company significant delays.

While Marine Harvest has tried to establish a dialogue with the demonstrators, Alfred says there is nothing to discuss since the company is operating on indigenous land and waters without their consent. As a result, Marine Harvest has turned to the courts to remove all protesters from their fish farms. In addition to the injunction filed against the demonstrators at Midsummer Island, Marine Harvest has also filed injunctions against demonstrators at the Swanson Island and Port Elizabeth facilities.

“We’re disappointed some First Nations in the province have taken it upon themselves to bypass a diplomatic and peaceful opportunity to raise concerns about our business operations,” Roberts said, while also stressing the lack of concrete evidence linking fish farms to the decline in wild salmon populations.

According to Alfred, however, the protest is about more than that. Ultimately, it is about their human rights as indigenous people.

“It’s not that we happen to like salmon,” he said, summarizing the words of another chief. “Our entire culture is based on our ability to be connected with the planet and our ecosystems. Our world view is that we are just a tiny section of a huge web of life.”

Fighting fake news starts with challenging the narrative of Trumpism

Fri, 11/17/2017 - 12:41

by Doyle Canning and Patrick Reinsborough

As we hit the one year anniversary of the 2016 elections, many of us are still recovering from residual feelings of shock, despair and terror — while ramping up the resistance with increasing momentum. Politics in the United States has always been a rigged game — legalized bribery, voter suppression, racist fear-mongering, sexist norms. But Trump has taken it to a whole new level, at least in our lifetimes.

Like it or not, we are in a dangerous political moment of “alternative facts” and alternate realities. As is typical, the progressive response to the right’s deceitful antics has been to focus on fact-checking, while continuing to allow the right to define the framing of the dominant narrative. Obviously, the facts matter. But we will never fact check our way to power.

If we want to defeat Trump and build momentum to address the systemic crises of our time, progressives need to confront one of Trump’s most effective strategies: harnessing the power of narrative. But what does that mean, and how do we do it?

For the past 15 years we have been helping organizers, communities and grassroots movements contest dominant narratives and “change the story” in order to build power and advance progressive campaigns. We are co-founders of the Center for Story-based Strategy, which supports movements and trains organizers to develop creative, narrative strategies. The recently released second edition of our book — “Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements and Change the World” — provides theoretical frameworks and hands-on guidance to challenge oppressive narratives and amplify progressive campaigns. The updated version features inspiring examples from a wide range of issues, campaigns and movements, including Black Lives Matter, environmental justice, immigrant rights, anti-war, climate justice and the Trump resistance.

As a right-wing reviewer of our book so succinctly explained in Forbes: “The narratives by which we live are the fulcrum on which our political, economic and cultural levers rest. Shrewdly adjusting the character of the fulcrum provides activists with far more power than does toying with the levers. ‘Re:Imagining Change’ shows how to do that with astonishing lucidity and power.”

Despite the dire circumstances of 2017, these times are abundant with possibility. The flood of resistance, the outpouring of solidarity and the increasing popularity of anti-capitalist alternatives points to a rising left in the United States. The Trump resistance can evolve into the progressive renaissance we so desperately need, if we can have the courage and clarity to articulate and organize around a different narrative. A first step is to embrace the power of narrative to build power and create change.

The following excerpt comes from the chapter on “Narrative Power” and offers frameworks to understand how narrative operates as a critical component of all power relationships.

Truth vs. meaning

We live in a world shaped by stories. They come in all shapes and sizes: mundane anecdotes, Hollywood blockbusters, prepackaged “news” stories, cherished childhood memories, religious stories conveying ancient lessons. A story can unite or divide people, obscure issues or spotlight new perspectives. A story can inform or deceive, enlighten or entertain, even do all of the above. Stories are the threads of our lives and the fabric of human cultures. But how does narrative power actually work?

We absorb stories from many sources: family, personal experience, the media, and religious, cultural and educational institutions. Some stories we learn consciously while others are just part of the cultural background. These stories teach us how society functions, and create a sense of shared culture and identity. The most powerful of these stories operate as contemporary mythologies.

Lesson one in narrative power: Myth is meaning. Don’t be limited by the common pejorative use of “myth” to mean “lie,” and miss the deeper relevance of mythology as a framework for shared meaning. Myths are often mistakenly dismissed as folktales from long ago describing fantastical realities, but even today a sea of stories tell us who we are, what to believe and towards what we should aspire. These stories play the same role that myths always have: answering fundamental questions of identity, origin and worldview. Today we may be less likely to believe that the Sun is pulled across the sky by a God in a chariot, but many people are perfectly willing to believe a specific personal care product will make us more beautiful, or accept the claims that their country is “exceptional,” superior or even specially favored by God.

As the narrative animal, we use story to structure the patterns we observe around us. Take the example of the night sky. In the illustration above you see an image that you probably recognize. Were you taught a name for this grouping of stars? Different cultures have given it different names: the Plough, the Wagon, the Great Bear, the Saucepan and frequently, different versions of the Big Dipper.

But is there really a giant saucepan in the sky?

Of course not (at least we don’t think so), but that’s not the point. The stories used to map constellations helped our ancestors make sense of the night sky and pass down practical skills like finding the North Star to navigate at night. Different cultures connect the dots to see the shapes associated with their own stories, but across the world, people looked to the sky and created myths that gave them meaning.

The Big Dipper is a simple example, but it shows us a critical aspect of narrative power: the difference between truth and meaning. Meaning doesn’t just exist in the world waiting to be discovered, rather meaning is produced by human interpretation as we translate it into language (what cultural theorists like Stuart Hall call “representation”). The power of the story does not derive from its factual truth but rather from the story’s ability to provide meaning. Narrative is one of the primary ways we humans create meaning in the world.

Understanding the complicated relationship between truth and meaning is the foundation of story-based strategy.

Too often progressives think that just because a story is factually true, it will be meaningful to our audiences, and therefore, build our power. But the reality is just the opposite: If a story is meaningful to people, they will believe that it is true. The currency of narrative is not truth but rather meaning. In other words, there is no inherent connection between the power of a story and whether or not the content is objectively true. After all, if having the facts on your side was enough to win, we would live in a very different world.

Narrative power manifests as a fight over how to make meaning. We often believe in a story not because it is factually true but because it connects with our values, or is relevant to our experiences in a way that is compelling. Having the facts on your side is only the first step towards winning, because the facts alone are not enough to transform understanding and reshape meaning in people’s hearts and minds.

Thus people fighting for a better world need to take our truths — about injustice, racism, environmental destruction or whatever issue we are working on — and make them meaningful to the people we are trying to reach. Story-based strategy is not an invitation to ignore or distort the facts but rather a recognition that to be persuasive you need to use the power of story to make the most important facts matter.

Since humans understand the world and our role in it through stories, all power relationships have a narrative dimension. Stories are imbued with power. This could be the power to legitimize an unjust status quo or justify acts of coercion and brutality. Likewise, story has the power to make change imaginable and urgent, to convince people to see a better future and believe in their own collective agency.

Many of our current social and ecological problems have their roots in the silent consensus of assumptions underlying current political discourse, for example: Humans can dominate and outsmart nature; women are worth less than men; racism and war are part of human nature; white people are better than people of color; and U.S. foreign policy benevolently spreads democracy and liberation around the world.

To make real and lasting social change these latent narratives must be surfaced and challenged.

A narrative analysis of power encourages us to look at how meaning is operating and ask: Which stories define cultural norms? Where did these stories come from? Whose stories were ignored or erased? What new stories can we tell to more accurately describe the world we see? And, perhaps most urgently, what are the stories that can help move us towards the world we desire?

The role of narrative in rendering meaning in our minds is what makes story a powerful force. These power dynamics operate both in terms of our individual identities — whether or not you get to determine your own story — and on the larger cultural level: Which stories are used to make meaning and shape our world? What individuals, groups or nations are portrayed as heroic? And whose story is presented as villainous, weak or just irrelevant?

These questions are the narrative dimensions of the physical relationships of power and privilege, the unequal access to resources and denials of self-determination that shape contemporary society. Asking these questions can help bring a narrative power analysis into social change campaigns.

Uganda rises up in unprecedented opposition to 31-year dictator

Wed, 11/15/2017 - 12:23

by Patience Nitumwesiga

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During the early morning hours of September 21, nine young activists — all in their twenties — hauled a coffin toward a police station in the northern city of Lira. The coffin was draped with posters of Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni and a number of his other allies in government. Written across the coffin on one side were the words “Change the constitution and bury Uganda” — a reference to a proposed constitutional amendment that would do away with the presidential age limit.

At 6.30 a.m., when they arrived at a major intersection, they set the coffin down and lit it on fire. By the time the police station came alive to start the day, the protesters had already left. Not knowing who they were looking for, the officers nevertheless set out on a hunt to find them.

Over the next 12 hours, the young people invaded street after street in Lira, chanting anti-constitutional change slogans, lifting up placards and even setting some tires on fire. The small group soon grew into large crowds in all corners of Lira. The protesters had allies everywhere, and as soon as the police set out to stop a protest on a given street, someone would call the protesters and inform them. They would quickly disperse and reorganize at a different place, and the police would arrive too late, finding no one to arrest.

Eventually, when the police got fed up with the constant evasion, they decided to storm the offices of the nonviolent training organization Solidarity Uganda, claiming that they were hiding the protesters. Police checked behind all doors and in ceiling boards, finding no one. But they didn’t leave empty-handed. Solidarity Uganda staff member Dickens Otim was arrested and charged with inciting violence. Due to a lack of evidence, however, the charge was downgraded, and he was released on bail.

Actions like these have been happening all over the country, as those against the age limit amendment bill voice their concerns in the corridors of power and in the streets of most cities — oftentimes accompanied by the Luganda hashtag and slogan #Togikwatako, which means “Don’t you dare touch” (the constitution).

Uganda’s history with dictatorship

Uganda has never had a peaceful transition of power. Since independence in October 1962, one dictator after another has taken the reigns of the country by force.

Museveni and his National Resistance Army led a military coup in 1985 that toppled then-President Milton Obote. After a few months, the whole country was in the hands of one-time rebels.

Over 30 years later, Museveni still wants to govern the country, even though, legally, he will soon no longer be eligible. Article 102b in the Ugandan Constitution sets the presidential age limit at 75. Museveni is 73.

Ruling party MP Raphael Magyezi proposed an amendment bill on October 21 that would scrap the presidential age limit from the constitution. Opposition MPs protested the bill by singing the national anthem as he attempted to read it. They kept singing for more than five minutes, refusing him the chance to continue his proposal. Meanwhile, pro-Museveni MPs rose up to defend Magyezi, turning chairs into weapons as parliament descended into open fighting for several minutes. Parliament was ultimately adjourned for the day due to the chaos, but a video of the incident became a national sensation. Following its fame, the Uganda Communications Commission banned the live broadcasting of all protest events by television and radio stations, claiming they incited the public to violence.

Members of Parliament were each offered 29 million Ugandan shillings (or about $8,000) to carry out age limit consultations in their constituencies. Some have returned the money, describing it as an attempt to “sanitize bribery of Members of Parliament.” Jonathan Odur, an MP for Erute South (in nothern Uganda) wrote a message to his WhatsApp contacts, as well as on other social media, saying: “In Solidarity with our struggle against abuse of the constitution through DON’T TOUCH campaign, I have also decided NOT TO TOUCH the 29m ‘consultation fee.’”

Police crackdown on civil society and activists

After the first week of protests, police repression increased dramatically. Troops were deployed to Parliament, as well as many roads, towns and residential neighborhoods. Police raided the offices of political parties and civil society organizations, including ActionAid Uganda, Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies, Corruption Brakes Crusade and the Uhuru Institute. Solidarity Uganda was also raided again, resulting in the re-arrest of Dickens Otim, along with Solidarity Uganda Director Suzan Abong Wilmot. Many more from other organizations were arrested, such as Norman Tumuhimbise, of the Jobless Brotherhood, who was taken to an unknown location for about a week.

As part of its efforts to squash the opposition from organizing, the government then froze the bank accounts for ActionAid and Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies, as well as the personal bank accounts of their staff. Authorities sent a letter to 25 other non-governmental organizations demanding their bank account details. While some refused to divulge that information, a number of civil society organizations also resolved to boycott the banks complying with government orders to freeze their accounts, deciding to instead start their own cooperative bank.

Many activists were detained for longer than the legal 48 hours without any charge. Hashtags like #FreeNorman, #FreeSuzan and #Free Dickens circulated until police released them. Since their release, court dates have been postponed without any explanation.

Meanwhile, crowds that have marched in protest have been tear-gassed and arrested, including university students and masses in major and small towns around the country. But the crackdowns have not deterred resistance efforts.

New heights of nonviolent resistance in Uganda

Opposition MP and musician Robert Kyagulanyi — also known as Bobi Wine — wrote to Museveni, saying, “There comes a time when people are TIRED. UGANDANS ARE TIRED! They have been patient with you. They have been respectful and generous to you knowing that in 2021 a new dispensation will come.” The letter has been circulating all over social media and in mainstream newspapers.

In Ugandan history, there hasn’t been anything close to the level of resistance seen these past couple months — particularly not this kind of decentralized, dispersed type of nonviolent resistance. Typically, when there is the occasional march in Kampala, the rest of the country remains silent. This time, many towns have organized nonviolent actions around the country, and some have been cooperating across geography and tribe.

On October 18, in Rukungiri (located in southwestern Uganda) those participating in a march chased away police forces who at first shot live bullets into the crowd when it refused to disperse. The crowd, who were also singing religious songs and chanting anti-age limit amendment slogans, moved against the officers relentlessly. Some members shouted at police, telling them they were ready to die and that “Rukungiri is not Kampala,” where protesters flee from the police. Ingrid Turinawe, a leader in the opposition party who was slated to speak at the event, described the situation as “police firing bullets like popcorn,” and said the sky was “raining stones” in response.

The people kept coming at the police in their large groups, wearing red ribbons — a symbol against the lifting of the age limit — and singing “Don’t dare touch [the constitution].” All the while, despite being unarmed, the masses braved tear gas and live bullets.

Meanwhile, in Bushenyi District, in western Uganda, things got quite violent. In late September, social media platforms were filled with concerns that residents had allegedly slashed the banana plantation of MP Magyezi, the Museveni loyalist who introduced the amendment of article 102b in parliament.

Culturally, in this area, the slashing of plantains is a way of symbolically cutting off the food supply and showing the wrath of a village toward someone. It is usually done to criminals who escape justice, especially hardcore criminals like murderers and rapists. It is an expression of helplessness in the face of severe transgression. Magyezi has since denied these allegations, claiming that his people are happy with the amendment. But widespread reports of protests in this area tell a different story.

Even in Mbarara, which is a ruling party stronghold and Museveni’s home region, a crowd of peaceful protesters was dispersed by live bullets and tear gas. There was another demonstration by youths who carried a coffin which they marked with placards, mocking Museveni, Constitutional Affairs’ Minister Kahinda Otafiire and ruling party parliamentarians, as corpses. Three of the protesters were arrested.

This kind of collaboration between different activists from different backgrounds proves that mobilization is happening, people are talking more to each other and coming together to unite for a common cause. A Solidarity Uganda street watch map highlights the major resistances in towns around the country and police crackdowns on people’s rights in relation to the resistance.

See full screen

In one of his letters to Museveni and to the people, Kyagulanyi has asked opposition supporters to “Call your Member of Parliament, or better still, pay them a visit and demand accountability. Stand up NOW before it is too late.”

People in many parts of the country have made big plans for their members of parliament. In nothern Uganda, Lango residents have decided to boycott all MPs who support the age limit amendment. They want to put them in what’s often termed a double-bind, where whatever step they take, they lose. For example, on October 9, during independence celebrations in northern Uganda, an MP from Amolatar district was taken off a platform and had the microphone removed from her hand when she attempted to address people in her constituency about the so-called age limit consultations. The same happened in Mbale, Eastern Uganda when an MP attempted to compare Museveni to the pope. Three elderly women pulled the Mbale MP off the platform.

As with any movement, there are stages in the #Togikwatako struggle. National movements to oust dictators often endure a phase of severe repression. That repression is mounting, but Ugandans are using it to energize themselves. They are not playing with a defensive strategy, but one of counter-attack. If they can keep the momentum rising across the nation, Museveni will have more to worry about than the pending age limit.

Indigenous and community groups pressure for strong climate solutions at COP 23

Mon, 11/13/2017 - 12:36

by Brandon Jordan

Protesters disrupted Jerry Brown’s speech at COP 23 on Saturday. (Twitter/@IENearth)

As California Gov. Jerry Brown detailed his plans to curb climate change at the 23rd session of the United Nations Climate Conference in Bonn, Germany on Saturday, protesters interrupted his speech to demand tougher climate policies and an end to policies that favor the fossil fuel industry.

The action was organized by It Takes Roots, a coalition of people of color from groups such as the Indigenous Environmental Network and Cooperation Jackson. They went to COP 23 to pressure officials and government representatives like Jerry Brown — who are there to work on specific goals to reduce carbon emissions — as well as to highlight the damage caused to frontline groups, such as indigenous people.

Daniel Ilario, an activist with Idle No More San Francisco and part of the It Takes Roots delegation, attended Brown’s speech because of the history of fracking and refinery expansions in California that affect marginalized communities.

“We [are] demanding more aggressive emissions reductions and a just transition from an extractive to a regenerative economy that respects all life for generations to come,” Ilario said.

The delegation also wants countries in attendance to accept other solutions, such as renewable energy commitments across the globe and preventing new fossil fuel projects from happening. There is a sense of urgency for action as “many of our people, especially indigenous people and people of color, have already experienced the point of no return,” Illario said. “They have lost their lands and their lives. Humans need to remember that there is nothing more sacred than Mother Earth and her natural resources of clean air, water and soil.”

The coalition organized and joined a series of actions before and during COP 23. On November 5, they protested at a coal mine with 4,500 other activists. On November 7, they held a press conference under the banner of the U.S. People’s Delegation, which involved a larger group of organizations, including 350.org, Global Grassroots Justice Alliance, Our Children’s Trust and Sunrise Movement. Speakers from various Pacific islands shared their experiences at a speak out in Bonn. Members of the delegation also spoke at the conference, listing their demands for climate justice to government representatives, reporters and other activists.

Members of the It Takes Roots coalition in Bonn, Germany. (Twitter/IENearth)

Katia Avilés-Vázquez, a resident from Puerto Rico and member of the coalition, highlighted the impacts of climate change in Puerto Rico. In September, Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm, struck the island and destroyed much of its infrastructure. Puerto Ricans are still dependent on imported supplies as they await restoration of services. By the end of October, around 70 percent of the island still had no electrical power.

Avilés-Vázquez, who was personally affected by the hurricane, put forward one demand that the U.S. government could fulfill: reparations. “We have taken it upon ourselves to rebuild our country and rebuild our soil,” she said. “Not only that, we are offering all of you the solutions to get out of this place as we recover together. One of the things we propose is a just transition and just reparations because we all know fossil fuel emissions are the cause of this.”

The delegation is focused on the 2015 Paris climate agreement as well. The current framework guides countries to reduce carbon emissions and, ideally, prevent global temperatures from increasing over 2 degrees Celsius.

Kandi Mossett, a North Dakotan activist with the Indigenous Environmental Network, said that while many countries applauded the agreement, it still suffered from flaws. One is the lack of recognition for the rights of indigenous people. In fact, representatives removed such language from the final agreement in Paris.

“We want to make sure that we’re still at the table having a voice for the indigenous peoples and pushing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was finalized 10 years ago, but is not necessarily being implemented on the ground in our communities,” she said.

Notably, the accord lacks the signature of just one country: the United States. In June, Donald Trump announced that the United States would leave the agreement, citing its “draconian financial and economic burdens” as a major reason. While Trump is currently on a 12-day trip throughout Asia, his administration is present at the conference to promote fossil fuels as an answer to climate change.

His absence is a major reason why Mossett and others attended the conference. “It’s frustrating to know we have a president who doesn’t even realize what he’s doing or the impacts that he has on the country, let alone the rest of the world,” Mossett said. “He doesn’t seem to care about [that] at all.”

Trump’s carelessness is evident in how he has repeatedly changed his mind on the topic. Months after he announced the United States was leaving the accord, his administration sent mixed messages, at first expressing interest in staying and, later, insisting on leaving without hesitation.

As It Takes Roots ends their series of actions today, the activists in Bonn are urging representatives to take action before it is too late for everyone. Mossett highlighted that activists are in Germany to show solidarity with others affected by climate change and to emphasize that unity is needed to win real climate solutions.

“[Trump] may not be there forever, but the people have to live in these places impacted by the fossil fuel industry forever. That’s what we have to look at — the long term,” she said.

‘Violent flank effects’ and the strategic naiveté of Antifa

Sat, 11/11/2017 - 11:17

by Molly Wallace

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Published in collaboration with the Peace Science Digest, which summarizes and reflects on current academic research in the field of peace and conflict studies.

We’ve all heard the argument before: However “nice” the use of nonviolence may be, in the real world violence is necessary — and ultimately more effective, so the thinking goes — for challenging a brutal regime, fighting injustice or defending against an armed opponent. But what are the actual effects of adding violence to a movement’s repertoire of resistance strategies?

Previous scholarship has been inconclusive on this question of so-called “radical flank effects,” as studies tend to focus on individual cases and also reflect collective confusion over what is meant by “radical.” Does it, for instance, refer to the means used or the ends sought?

Focusing, therefore, on violent — as opposed to “radical” — flanks, researchers Erica Chenoweth and Kurt Schock sought to bring clarity and systematic analysis to bear on this question of positive versus negative violent flank effects. In a 2015 article for the journal Mobilization, they examined all nonviolent campaigns from  1900-2006 with radical (i.e. “maximalist”) goals — such as the “removal of an incumbent national government, self-determination, secession, or the expulsion of foreign occupation” — to see how the presence or absence of armed resistance affected the success of these nonviolent campaigns. Their findings offer compelling evidence that violence is not generally a helpful addition to nonviolent resistance movements.

How did they arrive at this conclusion? Using both quantitative and qualitative research methods, the authors begin by generating three hypotheses. First, nonviolent campaigns with violent flanks are more likely to succeed than nonviolent campaigns without violent flanks. Second, nonviolent campaigns without violent flanks are more likely to succeed than nonviolent campaigns with violent flanks. And third, violent flanks have no impact on the success rates of nonviolent campaigns.

To test these hypotheses, they search for any significant statistical relationships that might exist between the presence of violent flanks and the success or failure of nonviolent campaigns. They find none, thus providing no support for either the first or second hypothesis. As the authors note, this could mean either that the presence of violent flanks has no discernible effect on outcomes or that it has mixed positive and negative effects that cancel each other out when taken together. When they compare the effects of violent flanks that emerge from inside a nonviolent movement to those of violent flanks that develop parallel to a nonviolent movement, they find that the former are associated with failure, suggesting that negative violent flank effects are more pronounced when a nonviolent campaign cannot distance itself from its armed counterpart. Moreover, they find that mass participation is the strongest determinant of nonviolent campaign success and that the presence of violent flanks has a negative effect on participation levels, suggesting that violent flanks may indirectly decrease the likelihood of success.

To flesh out how violent flanks operate within individual cases, Chenoweth and Schock examine four cases where violent flanks were present: Burma in 1988, the Philippines from 1983-1986, South Africa from 1952-1961 and South Africa from 1983-1994. Two campaigns were successful (the Philippines and South Africa from 1983-1994) and two were not (Burma and South Africa from 1952-1961). Meanwhile, two had violent flanks outside of the nonviolent movement (Burma and the Philippines) and two had violent flanks associated with the nonviolent movement (the two South Africa cases).

After examining the histories of these nonviolent campaigns — and the ways they interacted with armed resistance — the authors find mixed results. Violent flanks had negative effects in the two unsuccessful cases, no net impact in one of the successful cases (the Philippines) and a weak positive effect in the other (the later South African case). Overall there was greater evidence for negative violent flank effect mechanisms than for positive ones.

In the one case where a violent flank had a weak positive effect (South Africa from 1983-1994), Chenoweth and Schock argue that that effect was mostly symbolic — energizing activists around the revolutionary mystique of violent resistance — rather than instrumental to gaining power over the apartheid regime (something that was accomplished, instead, by the nonviolent resistance movement).

However, in the two cases where violent flanks had negative effects, these effects were seriously detrimental. The presence of an armed movement, according to the authors, diminished “chances of success for otherwise nonviolent campaigns by legitimating repression, demobilizing participants, shifting to violent strategies where the state [wa]s superior, and discrediting regime opponents.”

Notably, the armed movements were consistently shown not to protect nonviolent activists but rather to put them at greater risk, as authorities used the presence of armed actors to justify widespread repression against all resistance movements, violent and nonviolent alike.

Chenoweth and Schock find evidence in the case studies, then, that violent flanks do actually influence the outcomes of nonviolent campaigns, despite the earlier quantitative findings suggesting otherwise. Negative and positive effects simply appear to cancel each other out when taken together over a large number of cases, with negative violent flank effects being somewhat more prominent than positive ones. The authors argue, therefore, that “on average, maximalist nonviolent campaigns often succeed despite violent flanks — rarely because of them.”

Contemporary relevance

Despite recent scholarship demonstrating the greater effectiveness of nonviolent resistance (see Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s 2011 book, “How Civil Resistance Works”), assumptions about the effectiveness of violence — along with its supposedly radical and/or revolutionary nature — stubbornly persist. When faced with a brutal or blatantly unjust opponent, many people are inclined to believe that only violence will bring about needed change or be able to protect and defend one’s community or fellow activists. We have seen this recent thinking everywhere from Syria to Venezuela, but for those of us in the United States struggling against the Trump administration and the white supremacist and neo-Nazi forces it has unleashed, we need look no further than the presence of Antifa (anti-fascist groups who do not rule out engaging in violent confrontations) in our own protests to see this same logic at work — as well as its counterproductive effects. Such groups see themselves as a necessary counterpart to white supremacist or neo-Nazi groups who come armed to demonstrations, ready to engage in street battles with left-wing activists.

Although this logic of needing to use violence to defend against violence is so widespread and deeply ingrained as to be almost intuitive, the problem is that such moves feed into and reinforce narratives on the right that inspire — and provide cover for — their own claims to self-defense. Just as the presence of a violent flank in an anti-regime nonviolent movement can provide necessary or further justification for government security forces to fire on protesters, so too can it create a similar dynamic among non-state groups, including neo-Nazis and white supremacists, mobilizing more recruits and ultimately increasing the vulnerability of anti-racist and anti-fascist activists and the marginalized and targeted communities whom they wish to defend.

Practical implications

In the wake of recent events in Charlottesville, outrage has rightly focused on the neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups who came armed and even killed one of the counter-protesters. Their goals of racial supremacy and purity, fueled by hate and fear and devoid of empathy, have no place in a country that values equality, pluralism and human dignity, and their ascendancy at the moment is nothing short of terrifying.

For the sake of effectively challenging these groups and their repulsive vision, however, those of us who consider ourselves part of the resistance must also engage in critical inward reflection, especially with regards to the strategic implications of the presence of Antifa affiliates who also came armed to Charlottesville, among otherwise nonviolent counter-protesters.

Although their work to expose and tirelessly organize against fascism is admirable and necessary, those who identify with Antifa and its full range of tactics appear to endorse at least two flawed assumptions. First, they assume that truly radical action to effectively challenge fascism must include violence — what is often termed “physical confrontation” — and that nonviolence equals “dialogue” or “normal politics,” which  implies acquiescence, submission or cooptation. Second, they assume that violence is also necessary to protect activists and targeted communities.

But, in fact, here is what we know from recent social scientific research: Nonviolent resistance is twice as likely to be effective as violent resistance when used for radical goals such as the removal of an authoritarian regime or national liberation, cases with no shortage of brutal, unreasonable opponents. Furthermore, nonviolent resistance strategy is all about analyzing and dismantling an opponent’s sources of power, including through direct action. Finally, as noted in Chenoweth and Schock’s research above, instead of protecting nonviolent activists, the presence of a violent flank frequently creates justification for further repression against them, making them more vulnerable to violence.

It is time, therefore, that we untether violence from its “radical” and “protective/defensive” associations. Not doing so — and hanging on, as Antifa does, to these tired old assertions that violence is a necessary response — is, quite simply, poor strategy. It gives white supremacists and neo-Nazis exactly what they want, reinforcing their “we’re embattled” narratives, thereby strengthening their movement. It muddies the waters by giving commentators on the right something to point to when they try to create ludicrous moral equivalencies between white supremacists/neo-Nazis and anti-fascist activists. And, in doing so, it does nothing to actually diminish the strength of white supremacism.

Furthermore, the continued presence of armed elements like Antifa has negative effects within the resistance. Speaking from personal experience, as the mother of a three-year-old, it makes me, for one, feel more vulnerable to violence and therefore less likely to show up to demonstrations with my daughter. I can only assume that many others — not just parents — feel and act similarly, resulting in diminished mass participation in the movement and thereby a decrease in its power and effectiveness.

For all these reasons, if Antifa activists care — as they no doubt do — about effectively challenging resurgent fascist, white supremacist forces, they must think more strategically, considering the short- and long-term effects of their actions. Although “punching a Nazi” may feel like effective action due to the immediate, physical consequences of violence — someone’s bloody nose, someone’s body on the ground — what actually matters for the strategic value of an action is how others respond to it afterwards.

Does it strengthen the opponent group — reinforcing its narratives, drawing more recruits and unifying them against a more easily vilified adversary — or weaken it? Does it strengthen one’s own side — drawing a broader array of activists of all ages and from all walks of life to the resistance movement, unified around a common vision — or weaken it? Does it bring uncommitted third parties to one’s side or alienate them? These — not the number of individuals punched or bludgeoned on the other side — should be the metrics of a strategic response to fascism.

The dangers of white supremacism and fascism are real, and the stakes for American democracy and values are high. It is precisely for these reasons that activists need to engage in discussions about the strategic merits and radical credentials of disciplined nonviolent resistance (both for movement effectiveness and for protection), together strategizing about those actions that will best diminish the power of the opponent to realize its white supremacist, fascist agenda. A few points, in particular, are worth raising.

First, despite common-sense associations of violent action with defense and protection, nonviolent discipline has a better chance of keeping activists safe than armed resistance does, even — counter-intuitively — in the face of a violent adversary. There is no guarantee of complete safety with either type of resistance, but armed resistance is much more likely to elicit further — not less — violence from the other side. Nonetheless, assumptions about arms and their role in defense or protection are so engrained that this is a tough point to get across. If presented with a scenario where a few unarmed activists in a completely nonviolent movement are killed by armed opponents versus one where a greater number of unarmed activists are killed by these opponents while joined by fellow armed activists fighting back, most of us are likely to characterize the unarmed activists in the first instance as “defenseless” and those in the second instance as being “defended,” despite the fact that they were, in fact, better protected in the first instance. These deeply engrained — and flawed — assumptions about the defensive or protective value of weapons must be brought to the surface and critically examined.

Second, there is a strategic logic to nonviolent resistance that most Antifa adherents seem to not know (as demonstrated through the claim on one Antifa website that “only popular self-defense, not simply debate, has succeeded in stopping fascism” or statements made by various Antifa activists in the New York Times suggesting that our choice in response to fascism takes binary form: use violence or “do nothing.”) Far from being synonymous with “debate” or inaction, nonviolent resistance involves the dismantling of an opponent’s sources of power through a range of methods, including various forms of disruption and direct action, and is twice as likely as violent resistance to succeed in achieving radical goals. In other words, the success of nonviolent resistance does not depend on the presence — and persuasion — of a “nice” adversary.

Contrary to mainstream belief, there is a historical record of successful nonviolent resistance against fascism in countries under Nazi control, including the Rosenstrasse demonstrations in Berlin where wives saved their Jewish husbands, Denmark’s rescue of most of its Jewish community, resistance to the Nazi policies of the Quisling government in Norway, and so on. Jacques Semelin’s 1993 book “Unarmed Against Hitler” is one resource that examines these and other cases throughout Europe.

Third, only by maintaining nonviolent discipline can the resistance dramatize and capitalize on the clear contrast between its activists and the white supremacists or neo-Nazis they confront. Stooping to the level of armed hooligans on the other side, engaging them on their own terms, weakens the anti-fascist cause by surrendering the high ground in media representations of demonstrations, providing cover for commentators who wish to draw a specious moral equivalency between the two sides, and alienating people who would otherwise ally themselves with an anti-fascist movement.

Finally, violence is less — not more — “radical” than nonviolence is, especially insofar as it is less effective in achieving radical goals and less likely to dismantle white supremacism and fascism than nonviolent resistance. Far from embodying a radical challenge to fascism, Antifa affiliates are doing exactly what neo-Nazis and white supremacists are hoping they will do — this is precisely the reaction that will energize the very fascists they are hoping to shut down, reinforcing their embattled narratives and strengthening their ranks. Only by disassociating one’s radical credentials from participation in violence will we ultimately move away from these knee-jerk responses to racist violence that do nothing to minimize the draw and strength of white supremacy — and instead move towards more strategic, effective action that actually has a chance of advancing the cause of a diverse, inclusive, just society.

To subscribe or download the full special issue on “nonviolent resistance,” which includes additional resources for each article, visit their website.

How prisoners organized to elect a just DA in Philly

Wed, 11/08/2017 - 12:18

by Kerry "Shakaboona" Marshall and John Bergen

Larry Krasner and his supporters celebrating on the night of his primary victory in May. (Photo: Michael Candelori / @ccwirephoto)

Tuesday’s general election in Philadelphia saw a former civil rights attorney running on an anti-incarceration platform elected district attorney to the country’s fifth largest city. Larry Krasner, who defended Black Lives Matter activists and indicted police officers while in private practice, promised sweeping reforms and Philadelphia voters responded.

In a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one, the fact that Krasner won might seem unsurprising. However, back in May, when the Democratic primary was in full swing, Krasner wasn’t the party favorite. Most other candidates, like Tariq El-Shabazz, were considered favorites because they towed a more moderate line and touted their experience as prosecutors. Then, during the general election, he was faced with pressure to moderate his proposals, and the battle continued to make sure that a message of systematic reform was front and center in the race.

In order to shift the race to the left and hold Krasner accountable as he prepares to take office, a broad coalition of progressive groups put aside their differences to focus on winning. The leaders of this alliance are the people most impacted by the city’s justice system, including prisoners in Pennsylvania state prisons. Their efforts, which helped create the conditions for Krasner’s victory, are part of a long history of Pennsylvania’s incarcerated citizens changing public discourse.

Setting the stage with prisoner organizing

Twenty years ago, radical black prisoners in the State Correctional Institution Greene, a super-max prison in rural southwest Pennsylvania, started the Human Rights Coalition, or HRC — a radical new model of advocacy for human rights in criminal justice reform. Distinguishing itself from the old paternal/liberal model — which put professional “advocates” in charge of decision-making — prisoners voted on all major decisions. This model built on the legacy of the National Prisoners’ Rights Movement established by George Jackson in California, and represented a historically significant shift in ideals, organization and actions during the age of Bill Clinton’s “three strikes” law and reign of Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, also known as “America’s Deadliest DA.”

Over the past two decades, the HRC has sown the seeds of criminal justice reform in the city of Philadelphia and throughout the state of Pennsylvania. The HRC has also inspired the formation of several other prisoners’ human rights organizations in Philadelphia.

Prisoners who were leaders in HRC joined the advisory boards of local and national organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee, Decarcerate PA, Families and Communities United and Reconstruction, Inc. They then encouraged their family members and loved ones to join community organizations as rank-and-file members to ensure their voices were heard. Prisoners at State Correctional Institution Graterford, in particular, organized a political action campaign in Philadelphia that saw their families and communities influence the 2015 Pennsylvania Supreme Court judicial elections, resulting in a clean-sweep of Democratic justices being elected to the state’s Supreme Court.

Earlier this year, the community organizations’ spokespersons were able to contact the candidates and explain that SCI-Graterford prisoners are 5,000 in number and have an average of five family members who will vote for the candidate of their choice. That means a potential 25,000-strong voting bloc.

That number of potential voters compelled El-Shabazz to campaign at SCI-Graterford on four occasions. Krasner also scheduled a campaign event at SCI-Graterford, but prison officials cancelled the event, claiming they had not been given enough notice. After the primary, Graterford prisoners were able to reschedule Krasner’s visit. Speaking to several hundred prisoners, he unequivocally adopted their proposed criminal justice reform agenda.

As a result, according to leaders of organizations in the prison, Krasner earned the overwhelming support of the incarcerated men at SCI-Graterford. His impeccable record and reputation of being a civil rights attorney for the people of Philadelphia also made him the candidate of choice for multiple prisoners’ organizations, such as Right to Redemption (an organizing group focusing on ending life-without-parole sentencing, or what they call Death By Incarceration), the Latin American Cultural Exchange Organization (representing Latino lifers) and the Grey Panthers (representing elderly prisoners).

That being said, support for Krasner wasn’t universal. El-Shabazz received the endorsement of Graterford’s NAACP group. That wasn’t enough, however, to overcome his ambiguous stance on the prisoners’ criminal justice reform agenda or his tainted reputation as a former criminal defense attorney and deputy district attorney.

After discussing which candidate would best represent the collective interests of prisoners and their communities in society, Graterford prisoners reached a general consensus that Krasner would be their candidate of choice. Prisoners supported Krasner’s candidacy with a robust political action campaign of voter education, voter registration, political forums, and get-out-the-vote drives directed towards their families, loved ones, friends and returned citizens.

Building a coalition for a just district attorney

A year ago, high up in a 16th floor law office in downtown Philadelphia, a collection of community leaders gathered to discuss the upcoming district attorney race. Convened by Media Mobilizing Project, a local media justice organization, ACLU Pennsylvania, and Color of Change, the first meeting was a raucous affair. Donald Trump had just won the election. The current district attorney was under investigation. Organizers crowded on windowsills and along the walls argued over who would run, whose issues would take center stage, and what needed to happen. Like so many efforts, it could have died right there.

But it didn’t. Held together by those convening organizations and a deep belief that they could all benefit by working together, the group — calling itself the Coalition for a Just DA — kept pushing, bringing in more groups and widening the table. Organizations flooded the city, coordinated door-knocking efforts, mobilized people who wouldn’t have otherwise voted, and hosted a large forum where candidates were grilled by people directly impacted by policing, incarceration and “crimmigration” (the intersection of immigration policy and the criminal legal system).

Larry Krasner and supporters holding a banner that reads “Build schools not jails.” (Krasner for DA / Richard Garella)

The Coalition for a Just DA didn’t stop after the primary. When centrist Democrats tried to regain control of the race and quell the insurgency, coalition members pushed back. The city’s Democratic machine showed they were more interested in maintaining the status quo — essentially Republican candidate Beth Grossman’s platform — than in reform by quietly stepping back from the race.

In meetings with insiders, the coalition learned that moderate Democrats from around the country were interested in helping Krasner if he won. So, they responded by becoming more bold. Groups directly impacted by youth incarceration, the bail system, crimmigration, policing, Death By Incarceration sentences, and other issues got together and drafted in-depth policy proposals. Prisoners contributed directly to a number of these proposals. The coalition then articulated a set of demands for the first 100 days in office for the new district attorney and presented both candidates with a list of what could be done on day one.

At the same time, moderates became more critical of the radical positions of some Krasner supporters. Instead of throwing other progressives under the bus for being “too radical” or “dangerous,” the coalition kept the focus on winning meaningful reforms. When the Philadelphia Inquirer backed Grossman, worried about looking too progressive, coalition members stepped up canvassing and organizing efforts, bringing in more community organizations.

Lessons for radicals

Politicians and political commentators generally operate within the range of ideas that have broad public support. Anything outside that range is generally considered politically impractical, or even impossible.

The Tea Party and the so-called alt-right are textbook cases of movements widening the range of ideas. While many liberals continue to be shocked by racist statements made by President Trump or other members of the far right, neo-Nazis rally and advocate for genocide in public spaces. When it comes to policies around mass incarceration and policing, movements for justice and equality cannot be afraid to use our capacity to shift the conversation.

A year ago, political leaders in Philadelphia would have told you that only very moderate criminal justice reform was possible. A report from the Philadelphia City Council from fall 2016 recommends a slight reduction in bail for a few nonviolent offenders. Today, the incoming district attorney advocates for the complete end of bail for nonviolent offenders. Earlier this year, and just weeks before he went to jail for corruption, former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said he would seek life sentences for a number of people sentenced to die in prison as juveniles. Throughout the campaign, Krasner publicly stated his support for HB 135, a bill in the Philadelphia House of Representatives that would end life without parole and make over 5,000 prisoners in Pennsylvania currently sentenced to die in prison eligible for parole after 15 years.

Larry Krasner with canvassing volunteers (Facebook / Lawrence Krasner for DA)

This sea change in the district attorney’s office is just one part of the struggle to radically rethink policing, prisons and punishment. This shift in the range of what’s politically possible could not have happened without the many campaigns that came together to form the Coalition for a Just DA or the vision and organizing of Philadelphia’s politically-active prisoners.

Prisoners mobilized a base — their family and friends — that is often disconnected and disenfranchised from politics, showing that winning isn’t necessarily predicated on co-opting centrists. It can also be done by organizing people who aren’t normally involved in the election process to vote as a bloc. That’s why last night 147,666 people voted for Krasner, as compared to just 89,238 votes for the Democratic candidate in 2013.

This campaign can be a blueprint for other prisoners, their families and community groups to wage a grassroots radical criminal justice reform campaign. By organizing alongside prisoners, recognizing the possibilities of mobilizing new constituencies, and keeping the focus on building inclusive coalitions and winning real change, radicals can get practical and win.

Where Catalonia’s secession movement goes now

Mon, 11/06/2017 - 15:37

by Oscar Berglund

Thousands chanted slogans outside of Spain’s police headquarters to protest the violence that marred the referendum vote on October 3, 2017 in Barcelona. (Flickr/Sasha Popovic)

This article was first published by The Conversation.

As tension increases in Catalonia, there have been calls for widespread civil disobedience against the Spanish government. Even the recent referendum itself, along with its 2014 precursor, have been described as acts of civil disobedience.

This popularity of gathering en masse in disobedience to the central government has been inspired in large part by the anti-austerity efforts of one group: the Platform for the Mortgage-Affected, or PAH. The outgoing disobedient Catalan government is a peculiar mix of anti-austerity parties, which have supported the PAH’s fight for people’s housing rights, and the Catalan establishment party that has generally opposed it.

The PAH was founded in Barcelona in 2009 in the aftermath of the financial crisis, which burst the Spanish housing bubble. It now has around 200 groups across Spain. Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau was the movement’s spokesperson before moving into institutional politics. The PAH is famous for its innovative protests, which it calls acts of civil disobedience. This includes physically stopping evictions, organizing sit-ins in banks and squats in empty buildings that belong to banks.

The movement arose as a response to hundreds of thousands of Spanish households facing mortgage defaults, evictions, homelessness and lifelong debt. Unlike many other countries, Spain lacks personal bankruptcy legislation. This leaves people in negative equity with large debts even after having their homes repossessed and becoming homeless. In contrast to all the evictions and homelessness, Spain has more than 3 million empty homes, mainly in the hands of banks, vulture funds and other financial institutions.

Through the PAH, people collectively put pressure on both the banks and the state to cancel people’s debts and provide social housing. The movement campaigns for legal changes to eradicate mortgage debt for repossessed families and increase social housing by using the empty housing stock. Alongside this, the PAH practices civil disobedience, both to support the campaign and to solve the homelessness and indebtedness of individual households.

In action

The PAH stops evictions everyday across Spain by gathering dozens of people at short notice to block the doorway of families due to be evicted. In most cases, bailiffs and police refrain from forcing their way in and the eviction is suspended or postponed. Through sit-ins, the PAH puts pressure on the bank to negotiate and to pardon mortgage debt and provide social housing. In many cases, usually after years of struggle, families achieve these aims in full or in part.

The PAH also runs a social housing project called Obra Social by taking control of empty properties that are owned by banks. Here, the PAH occupies entire empty apartment blocks and carries out a needs-based assessment of which families should be allowed to move in.

The aim is to turn the buildings into official social housing where the households pay an affordable rent based on their income. Most households in Obra Social buildings remain, some have been granted permission to stay, and only in very few cases have people been evicted from them.

These seemingly radical methods of political activism have gained widespread legitimacy. Most Spanish people now think that housing and mortgage legislation illegitimately favors the banks and that adequate housing should be a right, as article 47 of the Spanish constitution states.

Legitimacy versus the law

Civil disobedience is a liberal concept, which (unlike anarchism) does not mean a general disregard for the law. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. claimed to have “the very highest respect for the law,” while disobeying illegitimate discriminatory segregation laws. For the practitioners of civil disobedience, legitimacy comes from a higher sense of morality or justice than the law that they protest.

This separation between the legal and the legitimate lies at the heart of civil disobedience. And over the last eight years, the PAH has made civil disobedience acceptable to a large part of the Catalan population.

Nobody disputes that the Spanish law and constitution leave no room for secession. For the Spanish government, the buck stops with the constitution (though not when it comes to housing apparently).

For the majority of Catalans, who want a proper referendum, this position lacks legitimacy because they see their right to decide their future as a higher form of morality and justice than the constitution. For many observers outside of Spain, a legal and orderly referendum also seems like a reasonable solution.

So the situation is ripe for widespread civil disobedience against the Spanish government in Catalonia. Unilateral declarations of independence, without a proper referendum, are unlikely to gain legitimacy for the Catalan government internationally. But, equally, more repression from the central government will likely reduce its legitimacy.

Catalan institutions may now become laboratories for how to disobey state policies. For many Catalans, it will mean a form of resisting occupation. And if this disobedience remains civil and non-violent, it could well win the battle for international legitimacy, too.

NYC activists protest Chinatown gallery exhibit for being ‘racism disguised as art’

Wed, 11/01/2017 - 10:41

by Skanda Kadirgamar

Activists drop a banner reading “Racism disguised as art,” in front of the James Cohan Gallery in Chinatown. (WNV/Louis Chan)

Artist Omer Fast’s crass, stereotypical mock up of a business in pre-gentrified Chinatown has finally left New York City. His transformation of the James Cohan gallery into a dingy, fake storefront with a waiting area that proudly displayed a broken ATM sign, drew fire from the community. Its emphasis on depicting faux squalor was received as poverty porn. Both artist and venue were charged with mocking immigrants being driven from the neighborhood.

On October 28, protesters from the Chinatown Art Brigade, Decolonize This Place, Bushwick’s Mi Casa No Es Su Casa, and the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement hoisted a banner, which read “Racism disguised as art,” across the faded awning Fast had installed. Faced with protesters banging drums and chanting “Chinatown, not for sale,” the Israeli-American artist received quite the send off.

This symbolic intervention featured a conference with local Chinese language press and a bilingual speak-out about the pivotal role galleries and the art world play in gentrification. This was key, as residents and neighborhood advocates needed space to loudly decry the ongoing displacement and demand a municipal model that would protect the neighborhood. Activists say these issues are simultaneously connected to and bigger than the individual prejudices of Omer Fast and individuals like him.

In fact, the link between the art world and gentrifying developers deserves intense scrutiny. According to the Chinatown Art Brigade — a collective of activists, artists and media makers committed to defending tenants rights and fighting evictions — galleries are often involved in displacing the most vulnerable long-term residents in neighborhoods they enter. Viewed in that light, Fast and James Cohan’s conduct was simply a particularly bold iteration of entrenched structural racism that abets creeping gentrification.

The Chinatown Art Brigade has worked alongside the Coalition Against Anti-Asian Violence and the Chinatown Tenant Union. They helped launch the “Here to Stay” project, which used massive outdoor projections to illuminate art “based on oral histories, photography and video created in community-led workshops.” They have also confronted galleries for being implicated in the expulsion of 30 percent of the Chinese population and elimination of 50 percent of affordable housing throughout Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

This has catalyzed a drastic transformation of these neighborhoods. The galleries are a vanguard for pricey condos and megatowers that push out grocery stores and other services on which the community has relied. The gentrification of Chinatown is a brutal business. Ambitious landlords heap abuse on poorer tenants and reserve needed repairs for units intended for newer tenants with higher disposable incomes. At the same time, outlets like Paper and i-D ponder whether Chinatown is the “new Chelsea.”

Residents and advocates protest gentrification of Chinatown outside the James Cohan Gallery. (WNV/Louis Chan)

In reality, an incoming population that is whiter and more affluent is receiving benefits largely withheld from the existing community. This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, though. This kind of discrimination has been integral to the historically racist treatment of Chinatown, which has taken many forms including unreliable trash collection and residential segregation. Today, these each factor into the exodus of Chinese and other residents of color from Lower Manhattan.

Moreover, gallery owners are directly involved in the real estate transformation that is making life in Chinatown prohibitively expensive. Marc Straus, for example, owns several properties near James Cohan that have been slated for demolition and replacement by a seven-story luxury building. On his website, it says his gallery at 299 Grand Street is located in what “began as a tenement and in the last century has housed various retail stores consistent with a changing population.”

James Fuentes, who fastidiously emphasizes his Lower East Side and South Bronx roots, is a creative-class nomad, like many in the gallery scene. Fuentes has relocated several times, beginning on Broome Street and then settling at 55 Delancey Street two years ago. Gallery owners, it turns out, aren’t immune to the rent cycle either. The difference is that they can pay more than Chinatown’s working class residents. When there’s a large gap between the disposable incomes of newer and established tenants, landlords see the opportunity to raise rents. Fuentes has noted this, saying that he “knew he was implicated from the minute” he signed a 10-year renewal on his latest space.

Fuentes waxes nostalgic about the Lower East Side — and by extension Chinatown — being a hub for the immigrant community. He is a fatalist about gentrification, though, convinced that the immigrant presence is bound to be supplanted and that galleries are the future of development. During an interview with the Art Dealers Association of America, he referenced Darwin when describing the “nature” of New York, explaining that “the species that survives is able to best adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

The Chinatown Art Brigade and its allies would dispute that sort of received wisdom. Presenting the transformation of Chinatown and the Lower East Side as an evolutionary process, where those who cannot adapt are naturally selected out, is in and of itself a historically racist position. It obscures how powerful entrepreneurs aggressively leverage their advantages, which were largely conferred by historic discrimination and segregation, over tenants.

The protest continues inside Omer Fast’s racist exhibit at the James Cohan Gallery. (WNV/Louis Chan)

Individuals like Fuentes and Straus like to brand their ventures as small businesses. Fuentes has gone so far as to anoint his space a “Mom-and-Pop” fighting the good fight before the culture of Lower Manhattan gets erased. That framing, however, is relative. As Liz Moy, one of the brigade’s activists, pointed out, a bakery in Chinatown would have to do significantly more business than a gallery to make rent, since the latter need only sell a few pieces. Moreover, the capital concentrated in galleries won’t be reinvested in the neighborhood long term, at least not in ways that are immediately beneficial to the community. Straus’ work demonstrates how investment in galleries eventually leads to building high-end condos.

This is why the Chinatown Art Brigade has been putting these owners on notice and fighting for an alternative development model in the neighborhood. Before the latest protest, a small contingent of organizers live-streamed a gallery tour in which they presented each owner with a pledge to support Chinatown’s middle and lower-class residents’ right to public and residential space, as well as initiatives to curb the impact of gentrification.

Last year, Margaret Lee of the 47 Canal gallery responded positively to a similar pledge. Straus, on the other hand, refused to look at the current version. Regardless, the gallery owners should know by now that those who won’t respect Chinatown’s existence can expect continued resistance.

How Weatherman confused violence with militancy and triggered the downfall of SDS

Thu, 10/26/2017 - 10:12

by Jonathan Lerner

To those of us deeply immersed in the New Left in the summer of 1969, apocalypse felt imminent. Despite growing opposition, the war in Vietnam was still escalating, with no end in sight. There had been strikes and building seizures at scores of campuses. Demonstrations were increasingly confrontational and bloody. The civil rights movement was reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the year before, and the massive riots that followed, and from the emergence of separatist groups that rejected the goal of integration. Some of those were armed, including the Black Panthers, whose offices were routinely and lethally attacked by police.

Within Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, the New Left’s principal organization, there was desperation to articulate a strategy in response — and to create the conditions for revolution, which many of us had convinced ourselves was necessary. Factions formed and competed bitterly. At the SDS convention in June 1969, the organization burst apart. Control was seized by a group called Weatherman, which eventually went underground and carried out a campaign of bombings. But in the months before doing so, we trashed SDS, abandoned the mass movement it represented, and dedicated ourselves to ultra-militance and fighting in the streets.

To many people today, apocalypse feels imminent once again. And activism feels mandatory. How to build organization, devise strategy and be effective are pressing questions. So is the distinction between militancy and violence. What follows is an excerpt from “Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary,” the story of my path through SDS and the Weather Underground. For activists grappling with those questions, it should be a cautionary tale.

Through the summer and into the fall of 1969, we forged ourselves into an infantry of swaggering kamikazes dedicated to the ideas in the Weatherman position paper. Every effort was aimed toward a series of demonstrations we called for Chicago in October. They became known after the fact as the Days of Rage, although in building for it we just called them “the National Action.” Our goal was to get tens of thousands of angry young people fighting the cops in the streets. In the event, only about 400 people actually participated, maybe fewer. There was an opening night salvo when our troops ran through a fancy neighborhood trashing things and attacking the cops, who responded with shotguns, wounding 11, and arrested more than 60. A couple of actions planned for the following days didn’t go forward at all — one was defused by the police as people were gathering, and we canceled another out of fear because the National Guard had been called out. The final day’s march was another melee, with numerous injuries and mass arrests. Altogether, considering our inflated vision of it, the Days of Rage was a spectacular failure. So, smarting from our abandonment by the movement we had alienated and from the failure of our fantasized masses of followers to materialize, we in turn abandoned the movement and the masses in a huff. Obviously, nobody else was as committed as we were! That’s when we began preparing to go underground.

This spoiled-brat, feelings-hurt motivation for such a consequential step was obscured behind our overblown rhetoric about the need for armed action. We pointed for justification — and reflected glory — to revolutions, such as the Cubans’, that started with small, clandestine military ventures. We also rationalized the intention to go underground as a refusal to surrender. Many of our members accrued felony charges for things like mob action and assaulting an officer, and didn’t want to face trials and jail. But our unwillingness to admit that our strategy had been a farce — that is, our shame at having talked so big and delivered so little — would also be a powerful impetus.

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Over that summer leading up to the Days of Rage, we built a network of collectives in half a dozen cities; membership was somewhat fluid during those months, as some people bailed out and others were recruited, but I don’t believe there were ever more than 200 or maybe 250 members. They were disciplined to a leadership group that we cutely called the Weather Bureau. Not insignificantly, while there had been two women among the 11 signers of the position paper, Karin Ashley and Bernardine Dohrn, Karin was very quickly kicked off the Weather Bureau and Bernardine remained the only female member. (In the fall another woman was brought on, for cosmetic reasons I should think. She also didn’t last long, most likely because she was a nascent lesbian feminist.)

The local groups that became Weather collectives had originally been meant as short-term organizing projects. Many who joined them were students expecting to return to college in the fall. But by fall our sense of reality was so skewed that for many, the idea of resuming life as a student would have been as inconceivable as volunteering to become a police informer. This first incarnation of Weatherman, as a public and visible organization, was nicknamed by someone — me, I think — the Weather Machine. This image gave us something to keep in mind as we subordinated our individual wills and learned to function like cogs and gears. We didn’t consider its other implication, the repetitive, controlled, mechanistic way we were thinking.

At the SDS national office, where I was, there was a staff that fluctuated in number between perhaps half a dozen and a dozen people. From there, the transformation of the summer projects into the Machine only reached us in anecdotes and rumors of bizarre and thrilling and scary goings-on. We began to hear of marathon meetings, “criticism/self-criticism” sessions that lasted until dawn. This was a technique appropriated from the Cultural Revolution then going on in China, aimed at beating the bourgeois individualism and wimpiness out of each other. For example, out on the street you were supposed to “lay down” the correct “raps,” as if upon hearing the perfect formulation, strangers would magically abandon their own lives and join up. If your rhetoric hadn’t been perfectly congruent with what the leadership was promulgating at the moment, that could be the focus of a criticism. Whatever you’d said would be picked apart — along with your self-esteem — and you were expected to recant, repent and parrot back the right phraseology. Worse, perhaps, would be to have appeared weak. “A lot of those criticism sessions grew out of how you performed that morning leafleting, or in some confrontation with the cops. Everyone doubted themselves. I was really scared on the street,” one friend remembers. Of course, it would have been rational to fear physical combat with the police. But thinking rationally wasn’t possible, once you’d committed to meekly following orders and forcing yourself to be something you were not.

We heard that collective members were learning karate. There were also tales of erupting promiscuity. And we would sometimes receive surprising news that a person who had been a trusted cadre had been “offed” — ghetto slang for “killed” — and was now a non-person with whom nobody should interact. Occasionally, following one of those torturous criticism sessions, the non-person was liable just as surprisingly to be rehabilitated. Then there was the campaign of “smashing monogamy.” Smashing monogamy was justified as a way to free girlfriends from the domination of their boyfriends, but it also had the effect of freeing previously attached women to be sexually available to the leaders, or any other guy who felt empowered to coerce them.

What made us so willing to trash people no worse than ourselves, and take orders from people no smarter? The organization we created was a vehicle for our politics. But its peculiar nature was enabled not so much by the ideology as by the psychic crisis created within each of us by that ideology.

Weatherman held that in making a revolution, not only would black people be the vanguard but that “the blacks could do it alone.” This was more than a challenge to the arrogance of white leftists, it was a profound invalidation: We were not only not primary, we were not even necessary. The acknowledgment of white privilege, an enormously important understanding that was new to most of us at the time, also permeated Weather thinking. But it became a club with which to beat ourselves up: we were coddled, and whiteness would always give us an easy out; we were racists objectively and inevitably simply by dint of being white in a racist society. There’s truth to that, and value in realizing it. It makes possible an understanding of the nuances, and insidiousness, of racism both within us as individuals and in the structure of society. We, though, did not examine nuances. We leapt from this insight to judging ourselves to be worthless, along with every other white person in the country. Hence the despair and bitterness with which we took such crazy risks with our lives, and with the lives of others. But here was a group of people who were so confident — or unreflective, or power hungry — that they could promulgate these ideas without themselves being similarly debilitated. Following their leadership would be our path to rehabilitation.

No one involved, however — except the undercover cops — set out on a path of political activism with any less idealism and heart than I had at 13 when in my first political act I joined a picket line to integrate a segregated apartment complex. And at the core of the original Weatherman position paper were humane and passionate convictions. Its authors understood that the war in Vietnam — and unnecessary American military meddling in other countries, in general — was a tragic blunder. And they knew that for this country racism is central to the history, and the biggest challenge. Both observations remain demonstrably true today. The leaders I criticize were right to insist on these ideas. Their failure was not in their motivations to activism, or in their instinctive radicalism and boldness, or in their analysis — well, not in those two elements of their analysis. But they lacked humility. They liked being right way too much. They were not saints, as most leaders of most movements, even righteous ones, turn out not to be. They aren’t saints, and this isn’t heaven.

So in the Weather Machine we created a structure that perpetuated, endlessly and with no possible resolution, repeated mood swings between cockiness and self-loathing. We could strut around like bullies all day, and cower and pule before our hierophants in the evening. The breaking down of self-esteem, the abdication of critical judgment, the omnipotent leadership, the not-quite-free free love, the ever-present threat of banishment: We didn’t identify our organization as a cult, but I guess people in cults generally don’t.

Reinforcing the separate reality of life in the Machine was the escalating state of confrontation with the cops, not all of which was directly provoked by us. People were routinely followed by plainclothes officers who made no attempt to be surreptitious, pulled over for the slightest real or concocted infraction of traffic rules, illegally searched and arrested. “I remember at least three or four times that summer when we were raided by the police,” my friend recalls. “We’d be sitting around in the collective house and they’d just come in, without any warrants, and terrorize us for an hour or so. Once they hung somebody out the window of a third-floor apartment by his heels.”

In Chicago, as the days counted down to Oct. 8 and our National Action, we still had close ties with a local group of leftist lawyers, and with Rising Up Angry, a Chicago organizing project among working-class white kids started by some people from SDS. The radical Student Health Organization had agreed — reluctantly — to provide first aid during the demonstrations. But we had succeeded in alienating virtually everybody else. No matter; we knew that the masses of kids were with us. I was cited in the newspaper Chicago Today, as late as September 23, asserting that between 5,000 and 10,000 of them would be joining us in the streets.

But the reality was that we had isolated ourselves almost completely. This is what happens when you insist you are totally right, belittle everybody else as wrongheaded and “objectively” counter-revolutionary, and deride them all as wimps. We acted as if we didn’t care that our ties to the larger movement were being severed. We pretended it proved our superiority. Driven by spite, it seemed easy to cut ourselves off from the rest of the New Left.

The last issue of the SDS newspaper we published before the National Action had an unambiguous theme of armed revolution, with articles on four Latin American insurgencies. New Left Notes had often printed a roundup of short items of movement news. This time, under the headline “Insurrection!” we ticked off several militant street battles of the Weatherman type, and seven recent bombings of National Guard armories and federal buildings in various locations around the country. Weatherman hadn’t yet blown anything up, but that idea was in the air. Some people were beating us to it.

It was right in the middle of those feverish Days of Rage that the Weather Bureau made the decision to transform the visible Weather Machine into an invisible underground. Perspective and composure were apparently not deemed essential for the taking of such a momentous decision. But we had gone far out on a limb and discovered that everybody else was ready to leave us dangling there, so I think we all felt that we might as well jump; it certainly wouldn’t do to wimp out on our commitment to ceaseless escalation. There is also the reading of this decision as an adolescent tantrum: If we were to die in the act of committing revolutionary suicide, it would serve everybody else right. And there is the psychological reading, in which it isn’t a surprise that the leadership made the decision to go underground when they did. What a spectacular way to repair their punctured collective self-esteem, given the colossal defeat they had ushered us to.

‘Divest The Globe’ protests urge banks to cut ties with fossil fuels

Tue, 10/24/2017 - 12:58

by Brandon Jordan

On Monday, activists in Washington, D.C. demonstrated outside the John A. Wilson Building — home to both the mayor and city council. (350 DC)

While banking executives from over 90 of the world’s largest financial institutions gathered in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Monday for the start of a three-day meeting on the environmental and social impacts of their infrastructure investments, activists in at least 15 U.S. states and several other countries staged protests under the banner of “Divest The Globe.” Their message to the banks was simple: cut ties with fossil fuel companies, or face major divestment campaigns.

The demonstrations unfolded in over 50 cities — including Seattle, where at least six people were arrested during a protest at a Chase bank — and are being called the largest ever protest against banks’ investments in fossil fuels. As the meeting continues in Sao Paolo over the next two days, solidarity protests are expected in more cities across Europe, Asia and Africa.

The group largely responsible for organizing these Divest The Globe actions is the Seattle-based, indigenous-led divestment campaign Mazaska Talks, which means “money talks” in Lakota. They chose this gathering of bankers as their target because it’s the annual meeting of the Equator Principles Association, which provides guidelines, or so-called Equator Principles, “for determining, assessing and managing environmental and social risk in projects.”

According to organizer Jackie Fielder, activists want to ensure the association gets its “Equator Principles in line with the Paris Agreement, as well as internationally-recognized standards on indigenous rights upheld in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.” Fielder went on to cite “the spirit of the Standing Rock resistance camps” as inspiration for the Divest The Globe protests, saying it “really raised the consciousness of people to think about where their money has been going when it’s sitting in a bank.”

In Seattle, Washington, activists marched toward different banks and staged protests both inside and outside the buildings. (350 Seattle)

Protests around the country differed, with some involving the closure of bank accounts, while others focused on demonstrations outside of banks. In an entirely different approach, Alice Warner, an activist in Eugene, Oregon, took her protest not to a bank, but rather the national outdoor cooperative Recreational Equipment Incorporated, or REI. She and other members of the co-op want REI to divest itself from any bank tied to the fossil fuel industry and are petitioning its board of directors to have a member-vote on the matter next year.

On October 21, as REI members waited in line for a special sale of products, Warner and others spoke with members about the co-op having money in banks tied to fossil fuel companies, whose business threatens the outdoor life of REI owners.

“[We talked] to people about how the co-op was based on purpose over profit, and how its long-term survival depends on a stable climate,” she said, highlighting the wildfires in Oregon as an example of climate change’s impacts in the state.

“This year — especially in parts of Oregon — has been frightening and very emotional,” Warner said. “Not so much as for the people in Puerto Rico or other parts of the globe, but we had days here where you could not go outside because of the smoke from the forest fires. That’s a new thing here.”

Meanwhile, in Austin, Texas, local activists headed to a number of banks across the city. While activists stood outside demonstrating, some locals entered their banks to close accounts and provide a letter of explanation. Those who didn’t have accounts called the banks to voice their demands and express their intention to boycott.

“In a capitalist society, the way you stop [these fossil fuel companies] is through money,” said 350 Austin activist Gil Starkey, citing divestment and boycotts as the two most powerful tactics. He then pointed to institutions and individuals who have pledged to divest nearly $5.5 trillion since 2012, all thanks to the efforts of activists. Divest The Globe aims to keep this momentum going.

“It’s incredible these days of action are happening and that we are shining a spotlight on this issue,” said Justin Morris, a local coordinator for Greenpeace St. Petersburg and a member of the Tampa Bay Divestment Coalition. “We will never stop shining a spotlight until the work is done.”

Morris and other Florida activists went to a Chase bank in downtown St. Petersburg on Monday to deliver a petition signed by 152,000 people from around the world, calling on the bank to respect the rights of indigenous people and withdraw from funding oil and gas projects that negatively affect the environment and health of people.

Demonstrators standing outside of a Wells Fargo bank in Oakland, California on October 23. (WNV / Nicole Ghio)

Despite their firm demands, activists are being careful not to target employees or individuals involved with the banks. Isabella Zizi, an activist with Idle No More San Francisco Bay, stressed that the Divest The Globe actions were about the nature of the institutions.

“We’re not targeting these individuals for the jobs they have. It’s more about letting them see how corrupt their job is,” she said, noting that the protest she attended in Oakland was more of a teach-in — since Oakland already divested from fossil fuels and is in the process of divesting from banks tied with oil and gas firms. Nevertheless, Zizi said she admired the resiliency of activists in fighting for a cause.

“The system is not going to break people down. We will stand stronger together no matter the distance,” she said.

How can we turn military spending into a budget for the people?

Fri, 10/20/2017 - 12:04

by Frida Berrigan

Rep. Keith Ellison spoke outside the Capitol last May, when the Congressional Progressive Caucus unveiled its People’s Budget. (Twitter/@ProgCongress)

Connecticut is the only state in the union that does not have a budget, and the state’s bills are being paid in emergency supplementals — or going past due. The state is budget-less, so my town of New London — one of its smaller urban communities — doesn’t have a budget either. That means a hiring freeze at our local schools, budget cuts and tax increases from City Council, the farmer’s markets not accepting senior citizen vouchers this summer, the downtown library cutting its hours, a smaller pool of money to pay for the heating needs of low-income people this winter and several other important city-funded offerings.

So far, this belt tightening has resulted in longer lines at the food pantries and an added weight of stress to already vulnerable and burdened people. Eventually, if it goes on long enough, the people impacted by these cuts — and the bigger ones on the horizon — will look across our river to the big industrial facilities that mar our otherwise beautiful view. The General Dynamics Electric Boat corporation isn’t tightening its belt or trimming its excess or trying to make more with less. It just got a $5 billion contract to build a new class of nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed submarines.

Have you been worried about the United States not having enough nuclear submarines? Me neither. But Electric Boat is booming. The same can be said for most of the bad old military-industrial complex. President Trump’s 2018 budget is a brutal behemoth that proposes giving more than $700 billion to the military — a lot of it going right into the very pockets of the military-industrial complex.

That would be bad enough, but the problem isn’t that we are spending more on the military — it’s that it comes at the expense of just about every social good imaginable. Over the next decade, the Republican-held White House and Congress are planning over $5 trillion in cuts to the safety net.

Comparisons to the military budget abound: We spend more than the next seven nations combined; one year of military spending could hire every unemployed person in the United States and put them to work in a high paid infrastructure rebuilding job; if you took the military budget in $100 bills it would circle the equator 500 times. (OK, I made that last one up.) But here is one that is pretty profound: According to the math of Alex Emmons, a reporter for The Intercept, just the increase to the military budget from 2017 to 2018 ($80 billion) that the Senate approved would be enough to make “public colleges and universities in America tuition free.”

Let’s pause here. The budget situation in Connecticut is so severe that one version of the budget being promoted by state Republicans would cut hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding for the University of Connecticut system. University representatives and Democratic leaders responded by saying that such cuts would essentially shutter institutions where lower-income, first generation students seek higher education. Why cry poverty when there are billions that could be gleaned out of the military-industrial complex?

Getting there is the hard part, but — thanks to the People’s Budget — we have a map to follow.

More than 100 representatives voted for the People’s Budget earlier this month, which limits investment in the military and pumps money into jobs, education, health care and climate resiliency. Of course, the resolution was not binding and was voted down by the House. Nevertheless, the ideas in the People’s Budget provide a clear, concise plan for mobilizing the significant resources of the United States in the service of its people — which is kind of how it is supposed to be, right?

The document comes courtesy of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — they compile it every year — but it is more than a Washington effort. The breadth of organizational support for the People’s Budget is impressive: from Planned Parenthood to Network: The Catholic Social Justice Lobby to VoteVets to Peace Action to dozens of other organizations representing the interests of hundreds of thousands of people, all setting aside policy differences to work together to achieve a different kind of national security.

Their aims include a $2 trillion investment in America’s energy, water and transportation systems; higher taxes on Wall Street firms and corporations that offshore jobs; a minimum wage hike and stronger union rights; auditing the Pentagon budget; and making debt-free college “a reality for all students.”

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the People’s Budget would add 2.4 million jobs and increase GDP by 2 percent in the near term. And when it turns its attention to the military, the Progressive Caucus’ budget “prohibits any expansion of U.S. combat troops in Syria, prohibits an increase in defense spending and slashes wasteful Pentagon spending.”

Peace Action senior director for policy and political affairs Paul Kawika Martin sees something fundamentally hopeful in this annual process. “Every year, it gets better,” he said in a recent interview. “More Democrats vote for the People’s Budget and we push the party closer to representing our ideals.”

Up against the Pentagon’s pervasive reach and endless resources — not to mention the military-industrial complex’s practice of strategically citing its manufacturing in key congressional districts and spending millions on lobbying every year — this has to count as real progress.

Still, it can’t just happen inside the Beltway. The People’s Budget also provides an opportunity to organize locally and to ask the questions: What is security? How much should it cost? Is it walls? Impregnable borders? Militarized police forces? Pervasive surveillance? Guns? Or is it local autonomy, affordable housing, accessible medical care, livable wages, truly representative government, and a sense of well-being that doesn’t cost a lot, but sure is priceless? With the war in Afghanistan entering its 17th year, swaths of our country digging out of damage from fires and hurricanes, and communities trying to find sanity in the wake of another mass shooting, it is a critical question.

Police restrict medics ahead of Richard Spencer protest at University of Florida

Wed, 10/18/2017 - 17:53

by Mike Isaacson

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Student organizers at the University of Florida have worked with local organizations to provide a team of street medics for an October 19 protest of Richard Spencer, but the uniformed command — the many law enforcement officials coordinating to provide security — says the medics can’t bring any supplies.

On a website set up specifically to answer questions about the accommodations and restrictions for the speech, the university listed several prohibited items including water bottles and bags of any kind. A student representative for No Nazis at UF, a student-led coalition of local and national organizations founded when Spencer’s speech was first announced in August, called the policy “ridiculous,” and lamented that “medics can’t even carry supplies in order to help anyone.”

Street medics — who wear the red cross on a shirt, armband or backpack — train regularly to carry injured protesters away from danger and administer first aid for ailments ranging from broken bones to heat exhaustion. One medic, who asked to be referred to as Jane, completed the initial 20-hour street medic training in August only to treat head wounds in Charlottesville later that month. “I can’t imagine Charlottesville without medics,” Jane said. “Whether we’re dealing with injuries, chemical agents, or just making sure people stay hydrated, there’s always something to do.”

Another medic, who asked to be referred to as Bo, said he has mostly seen cuts, burns and concussions over the past year of helping out in the streets. Bo has been an Emergency Medical Service, or EMS, for the past eight years and used his training to treat these injuries, as well as diabetic emergencies, heat stroke, and “penetrating trauma” caused by stabs and gunshot wounds.

To prepare for a protest, street medics need to be able to carry equipment to treat injured protesters. Jane packs what is needed for any given protest, ranging from some snacks, gauze, tape, gloves and salts for peaceful rallies to flashlights, fold-up splints, hot and cold packs, and menstrual pads for more intense protests.

At the top of the priority list for Gainesville is water and cold packs. “Florida’s hot and people are at risk for dehydration and heat stroke,” Jane said. “If people get arrested, they’re likely to be denied water in jail, and under stressful circumstances, bodies need proper electrolytes and good hydration. Bringing hundreds of protesters to the infirmary is going to be expensive and dangerous.” No Nazis at UF says it has alerted the University of Florida police of their safety concerns and is investigating legal action against the uniformed command’s restrictions.

Bo has experienced being stripped of his ability to provide care before. At a protest in Virginia, a state trooper actively prevented him from performing CPR on a patient in critical condition. “As a professional,” he said, “I feel best equipped to serve in a caregiver role.”

The restrictions in place by the uniformed command will prevent street medics from being able to treat common protest injuries. They will have no water to flush eyes of chemical spray and will only have as much gauze as they can carry in their pockets — assuming the police don’t confiscate it anyway. At the end of the prohibited items list is, “Any other items that campus police determine pose a risk to safety or a disruption of classes or vehicular or pedestrian traffic.”

So far, the university plans to spend over $500,000 with other agencies to neutralize the protests both on campus and around the city of Gainesville. To No Nazis at UF, this is a hefty price tag to protect an uninvited lecture from a widely acknowledged crackpot who paid $10,564 to reserve a university auditorium to pontificate on biological and psychological theories roundly rejected by the scientific community.

On the group’s Twitter account, No Nazis at UF proposed a shortlist of items this security tab could have funded at the university, including additional full time professors, minority outreach and retention programs, and departments for African American and Latinx Studies.

They were critical of the president’s emailed statement to the university which encouraged students to attend alternative events or stay home. He also tweeted, “Not only is UF paying for Spencer’s platform, they are actively encouraging students not to protest.”

On Monday, student and faculty protesters held a press conference that turned into an impromptu march to the university president’s house. Nicole Long, a University of Florida grad student and organizer with National Women’s Liberation, said the marchers developed a list of three successive demands, asking him to cancel the event or, failing that, roll back the prohibited items list. Failing these first two demands, protesters demanded that the president, “Resign so we can get someone in leadership who will actually stand up for our students.”

While the university has closed numerous buildings including the main wellness center, classes are otherwise not cancelled. According to the university website, students are expected to request to be excused by their instructors. Faculty who want to cancel their classes may only do so with the permission of their deans.

“The proposed Richard Spencer visit,” said Paul Ortiz, a history professor and vice president of the United Faculty of Florida union, “is a violation of our collective bargaining agreement, because it is a violation of worker’s safety. When Richard Spencer comes here with his acolytes it makes the staff unsafe; it makes our students unsafe; it makes our faculty unsafe. So we believe the proposed Richard Spencer visit is a violation of not only federal labor law, but a violation of our collective bargaining agreement.”

Union officials have reported hate crimes at the African American Studies department as well as nooses left in the classrooms of black faculty members. The union has circulated a petition demanding the president and board of trustees cancel the event and is exploring legal options. While the university is coercing its faculty to work in such a hostile environment, it is simultaneously cutting the hours of staff who work in the shuttered buildings.

The event had originally been scheduled for a month prior, before public outcry shortly after the attack on Charlottesville antifascist protesters by a member of the white nationalist Vanguard America that left one dead and 19 injured. Vanguard America was one of the groups that teamed up with Richard Spencer to hold the Charlottesville rally.

In an open letter from August on the United Faculty of Florida website, UFF chapter president Steven Kim exposed credible threats of violence to student and faculty protesters from the far right on various blog posts and forums in response to the original announcement. The event was cancelled amid security concerns, but the university capitulated to Spencer when he threatened legal action last month.

According to the university website, the event was merely postponed to allow for significant security arrangements. Malini Johar Schueller, an English professor for over 30 years at the University of Florida, was skeptical that more heavily armed police would make anyone safer. “A lot of violent tragic things happen when the police are trained,” she said, pointing to a video documenting the shooting of University of Florida doctoral student Kofi Adu-Brempong by the campus police in 2010. In response to a noise complaint from a neighbor, campus police arrived in SWAT gear, kicked down the door of Adu-Brempong’s apartment, and shot him with bean bag rounds, a taser and an M4 rifle.

Schueller estimates the $500,000 security budget would be better spent on financial aid and graduate assistantships for the student population the university is intended to serve. “The disruption it’s causing is totally ridiculous,” she said.

Ken Burns’ powerful anti-war film on Vietnam ignores the power of the anti-war movement

Tue, 10/17/2017 - 12:25

by Robert Levering

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Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS series, “The Vietnam War,” deserves an Oscar for its depiction of the gore of war and the criminality of the warmakers. But it also deserves to be critiqued for its portrayal of the anti-war movement.

Millions of us joined the struggle against the war. I worked for years as an organizer for major national demonstrations and many smaller ones. Any semblance between the peace movement I experienced and the one depicted by the Burns/Novick series is purely coincidental.

Two of my fellow activists, Ron Young and Steve Ladd had similar reactions to the series. Historian Maurice Isserman says the film is “both anti-war and anti-antiwar movement.” Another historian Jerry Lembcke says the filmmakers use the technique of “false balancing” to perpetuate myths about the anti-war movement.

These criticisms are valid. But for today’s resisters, the PBS series misses the most relevant story of the Vietnam era: How the anti-war movement played a critical role in limiting and ultimately helping to end the war.

You would never guess from this series that as many Americans took to the streets to protest the war on one day (October 15, 1969) as served in Vietnam during the 10 years of the war (about 2 million for both). Nor would you realize that the peace movement was, in the words of respected historian Charles DeBenedetti, “the largest domestic opposition to a warring government in the history of modern industrial society.”

Instead of celebrating the war’s resistance, Burns, Novick and series writer Geoffrey C. Ward consistently minimize, caricature and distort what was by far the largest nonviolent movement in American history.

Anti-war vets are the only participants of the peace movement that Burns and Novick relate to with any sympathy or depth. John Musgrave, a former Marine who joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, describes his transformation. We also hear anti-war vet John Kerry’s moving testimony before Congress: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” And we see and hear from war veterans who threw back their medals at the Capitol steps. The filmmakers would have done well, however, to describe the extent of that GI resistance movement, such as the 300-plus underground newspapers and dozens of GI coffeehouses.

So, it’s disconcerting that the filmmakers did not interview even one draft resister. Had they done so, we could hear why tens of thousands of young men risked up to five years in prison rather than fight in Vietnam. The filmmakers would not have had difficulty finding any as there were at least 200,000 draft resisters. Another 480,000 applied for conscientious objector status during the war. In fact, more men were granted CO status in 1971 than were drafted that year.

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Even worse, “The Vietnam War” fails to tell the story of the organized movement of draft resisters that grew to such proportions that the draft itself became virtually unworkable and that was a major factor why Nixon ended the draft. In “Jailed for Peace: The History of American Draft Law Violators, 1658-1985,” Stephen M. Kohn writes: “By the end of the Vietnam War, the Selective Service System was demoralized and frustrated. It was increasingly difficult to induct men into the army. There was more and more illegal resistance, and the popularity of resistance was rising. The draft was all but dead.”

The movement’s crippling of the draft system was not the only major achievement of the anti-war movement omitted from the Burns/Novick epic. The film shows scenes from the March on the Pentagon in 1967, where more than 25,000 protesters confronted thousands of Army troops. But it does not tell us that the Pentagon demonstration and the increasingly radical anti-war movement were among the factors that led Johnson to refuse General Westmoreland’s pending request for 206,000 more troops and why the president himself refused to run for another term just six months later. (The Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee is holding a gathering October 20-21 in Washington, D.C. to mark the 50th anniversary of the march.)

Likewise, the film shows footage from both the Moratorium on October 15, 1969 (demonstrations that drew more than two million people in hundreds of towns and campuses) and the Mobilization in Washington the next month, which drew more than a half-million marchers (the largest single demonstration in American history until the Women’s March earlier this year). Unfortunately, Burns and Novick do not tell us about the impact of the peace movement’s fall offensive: It forced Nixon to abandon his plans for bombing the dykes of North Vietnam and/or using tactical nuclear weapons. This story was not known at the time, but numerous historians have written about it based on interviews with Nixon administration officials, documents from the period and White House tapes.

Another missed opportunity: We see scenes of the massive demonstrations throughout the country — and on college campuses — in reaction to the Cambodian invasion and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State. That eruption forced Nixon to withdraw from Cambodia prematurely, another point Burns and Novick failed to tell.

Meanwhile, the scenes related to Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 do not make clear that Nixon’s reaction led directly to Watergate and his resignation. Had Burns and Novick also interviewed Ellsberg, who is alive and well in California, they would have discovered that the most significant individual act of civil disobedience during the war was inspired by the example set by draft resisters.

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Finally, the film does not explain that Congress cut off funds to the war largely because of the intensive lobbying efforts by such groups as the American Friends Service Committee and Indochina Peace Campaign, or IPC, led by Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda. Don’t take my word for it. In his testimony before Congress the year after the fall of Saigon, the last U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam blamed the peace movement’s lobbying efforts for eliminating the funds needed to forestall the final North Vietnamese offensive. Not mentioning IPC’s lobbying efforts is particularly puzzling since the only peace movement activist interviewed for the series was Bill Zimmerman, one of IPC’s principal organizers. We hear opinions from Zimmerman about a variety of other issues, but absolutely nothing about the organization he describes in detail in his memoir.

All these omissions and distortions notwithstanding, we must credit this 18-hour epic as one of the most powerful anti-war films of all time. “The Vietnam War” certainly rivals “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Just as that World War I classic portrays the nightmare of trench warfare, Burns and Novick show horrific scene after horrific scene of mutilated bodies and corpses. Through the words of combatants on both sides, you can almost feel what it’s like having bullets and shrapnel flying at you and watching your buddies get hit while you’re trying to kill other human beings.

You may find yourself emotionally drained after watching countless gruesome battles and stomach-churning scenes of mutilated Vietnamese peasants and torched villages. Several of my friends stopped viewing after two or three episodes because they found it too upsetting. Still, I encourage you to view it if you haven’t already. (PBS stations will air episodes on Tuesday nights through Nov. 28.)

Burns and Novick do more than immerse you in blood. They demonstrate the callousness, ignorance and hubris of the warmakers. You can hear tapes of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara revealing that they knew from the outset that the war was unwinnable and that more combat troops and bombings would not change the outcome. Yet they lied to the public and sent hundreds upon thousands of Americans into the fray, while dropping more tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia than the total tonnage of bombs exploded by all combatants in World War II. You can also hear Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger cynically plotting to prolong the war for four more years so that he could run in 1972 without the stain of losing Vietnam to the communists.

Generals and battlefield commanders in Vietnam show just as little regard for the lives and limbs of their men as their bosses in Washington. Soldiers fight valiantly to capture hills, where dozens are killed or maimed only to have their leaders tell them to abandon their conquests.

It’s no wonder then that, almost without exception, the American soldiers tell the filmmakers that they now believe the war was senseless and feel betrayed. Many voice support for the anti-war movement. Some even proudly became part of the GI resistance movement after they returned home. (My brother-in-law, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam and later joined the Secret Service, expressed the same sentiment when he told me, “We were suckers.”)

Burns and Novick should also be applauded for incorporating numerous Vietnamese soldiers on both sides of the civil war. By humanizing “the enemy,” the film goes beyond a condemnation of American perfidy in Vietnam and becomes an indictment of war itself. Particularly touching is hearing a North Vietnamese officer talk of how his unit spent three days in mourning after losing over half of his men in a particularly bloody skirmish. (They did not do as good a job portraying the toll on Vietnamese civilians, however.)

We also see how North Vietnam’s leaders mirrored their counterparts in Washington by consistently lying to their citizens and by callously sending tens of thousands of their young on suicidal offensives that had little chance of success. Similarly, the filmmakers get beneath the surface enough to reveal who actually fought the war. Just as the overwhelming majority of American soldiers were working class or minorities, the North Vietnamese side was composed almost entirely of peasants and workers. Meanwhile, children of Hanoi’s elite went to the safe environs of Moscow to further their education. Back in the United States, children of the white upper middle class and the privileged found safety in their student and other draft deferments.

Military recruiters would hate to have any of their potential enlistees watch this series. Those who sit through all 10 episodes will have a tough time discerning significant differences between the war in Vietnam and the ones in Iraq or Afghanistan. Common themes abound: lies, pointless battles, mindless violence, corruption, stupidity.

Unfortunately, most viewers will justifiably feel totally overwhelmed and helpless by the end of this epic film. That’s why it’s important to spotlight the misrepresentations and underestimations of the peace movement. For the success of the anti-Vietnam war movement provides hope and illustrates the power of resistance.

Rarely in history have citizens been effective in challenging a war. Other unpopular American conflicts have had their protesters – the Mexican, Civil and Spanish-American Wars, World War I, and more recently the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Opposition typically fizzled out soon after troops were sent into action. Not so in the case of Vietnam. No other antiwar cause has developed a movement nearly as massive, endured as long or accomplished as much as the struggle against the Vietnam war.

The Vietnam peace movement provides an inspiring example of the power of ordinary citizens willing to stand up to the world’s most powerful government in a time of war. Its story deserves to be told fairly and fully.

Oklahomans turn ‘Oilfield Prayer Day’ into a protest against Big Oil

Sun, 10/15/2017 - 12:00

by Brandon Jordan

Demonstrators gather in front of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission’s building in Oklahoma City on October 13. (KOCO)

“Pipelines are genocide!” and “Keep the frack out of my water” were just a few of the signs held by protesters at a rally in Oklahoma City on Friday. Standing outside the building that houses the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, protesters rallied for nearly two hours to demand that the public utilities commission ban fracking and limit the damage of the fossil fuel industry.

The rally was set up to coincide with the one year anniversary of “Oilfield Prayer Day,” a state-sanctioned event proclaimed by Gov. Mary Fallin in an effort to recognize, as she explained it, “the incredible economic, community and faith-based impact demonstrated across the state by oil and natural gas companies.” Last year’s celebration involved a prayer breakfast in Oklahoma City with more than 400 people in attendance, including Gov. Fallin, to support an industry suffering from low prices and mass layoffs.

Indigenous people and other local residents at Friday’s gathering said they weren’t protesting prayer itself, but rather the harmful impacts of the fossil fuel industry. One such impact has been measured regularly by the state government itself. In 2010, the Oklahoma Geological Survey reported 41 earthquakes with a magnitude of 3 or greater in center and north-central Oklahoma. Five years later, the same region experienced 903 such earthquakes in a single year. According to the survey, they were “very likely triggered by the injection of produced water in [wastewater] disposal wells” used by oil and gas firms.

In addition to earthquakes, Oklahomans are regularly faced with oil and gas leaks. A few years ago, Oklahoma was second in the country for most spills. The state’s drinking water is at risk of contamination from fracking, and polluted ecosystems can lead to dead wildlife. The latter issue led the Ponca tribe, an indigenous group near Ponca City, Oklahoma, to pass a moratorium on any future fossil fuel work near their lands.

“Tribal sovereignty is also being ignored for the sake of Big Oil,” said Ashley Nicole McCray, a member of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. “The Pawnee nation is one example of a tribe that has banned this sort of resource extraction from taking place on their lands, but this has been ignored by the state of Oklahoma. Last year, the Pawnee nation was hit hard by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that destroyed much of the community.”

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, or OCC, is a three-person board that regulates industries such as oil and gas. The commission, as McCray noted, possesses “scientific information that shows the direct correlation between fracking and earthquakes,” yet are not opposed to the presence of fracking companies.

“We want to not only draw attention to the purpose of the OCC for Oklahomans who were unaware of their purpose prior to this day, but also demand that they ban fracking statewide,” she said.

Meanwhile, Casey Holcomb, a community organizer from Norman, Oklahoma, noted the importance of pressuring officials who can change the state’s oil and gas policy.

“We’re really tired of the earthquakes. We’re tired of the negligence of the industry. We’re tired of [oil and gas companies] bankrupting our state,” Holcomb said.

He then pointed out the connection between the state’s budget crisis and gross production taxes paid by the industry. The state’s gross production tax used to be 7 percent — until, in 2015, lawmakers temporarily lowered it to 2 percent, essentially as a tax cut for companies. Yet, some smaller producers actually favor a return to the old rate amid the state’s monetary shortfall.

“We wouldn’t be in this situation if the horizontal drillers paid their fair share,” Holcomb said. “But they’re not, and they’re being subsidized by the taxpayers of Oklahoma. As a result, we have schools that are only open four days a week because they can’t afford to pay the salaries of the teachers and overhead costs of the schools.”

Oklahoma residents face additional barriers in curtailing the power of the oil and gas industry. For example, in 2015, some lawmakers drafted a bill barring local governments from banning fracking, while also establishing the OCC as the only entity allowed to regulate oil and gas firms. After lawmakers voted in favor of the measure, Gov. Fallin signed it into law.

“The single biggest issue that we are trying to convey to Oklahomans is that this is not an anti-fossil fuel movement,” said Jonathan Bridgwater, the director of Sierra Club’s Oklahoma chapter. “This is a pro-Oklahoma movement.”

Activists in the state are emphasizing the failure of Oklahoma’s politicians to advocate an economic system that does not rely on fossil fuels and instead focuses on other industries such as renewable energy.

“To sum it up, we completely see the state government of Oklahoma heading down a track that’s going to turn Oklahoma into the next West Virginia, rather than turn it into, say, Texas or California,” Bridgwater said.

Organizers are determined to pressure officials into changing their relationship with fossil fuel companies despite the crackdown they continue to face. Earlier this year, their efforts against the Diamond pipeline — a nearly $900 million interstate venture — were deemed “domestic terrorist threats” by the Department of Homeland Security. In addition, officials implemented a law on May 3 that penalizes citizens who protest “critical infrastructure,” which are mainly oil and gas facilities.

“The situation in Oklahoma is tense to say the least,” McCray explained. “Fighting against Big Oil — which has had a huge hold over Oklahoma since the illegal inception of this so-called state — is difficult for everyone, especially indigenous people.”

Nicole wants the state to acknowledge and respect the federally-recognized tribes in Oklahoma. She recalled how former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, “repeatedly ignored tribal sovereignty to the benefit of Big Oil and the detriment of the people of the state of Oklahoma.”

With Pruitt now heading the Environmental Protection Agency, McCray said, “It is vital that the rest of the nation look back to Oklahoma and see how our path has unfolded. What we have endured and what we continue to experience is a mere sample of what the rest of the nation is in for if something drastic doesn’t happen now.”

For now, Oklahoma activists are preparing and training for future actions. Right after the rally, some organizers headed nearly 20 miles east of Oklahoma City to attend the grand opening of the Good Hearted Peoples Camp, where residents are sharing strategies and experiences, while also getting some rest before continuing their actions against fossil fuels.

Anti-Columbus Day Tour redefines the American Museum of Natural History for a day

Tue, 10/10/2017 - 12:09

by Skanda Kadirgamar

Banners block the statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on Oct. 9, as part of the Anti-Columbus Day Tour. (Twitter/Andres Rodriguez)

On October 9, the collective of political artists and organizers known as Decolonize This Place took over the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. This was in part a bid to pressure the city to rename Columbus Day as “Indigenous People Day,” but the action also zeroed in on how the museum’s exhibits preserve racist depictions of non-European peoples. Over the years several groups have demanded the museum confront and overcome this violent lineage, which is rooted in Western colonialism.

Over the course of weeks, these activists planned an action that would allow them to control the museum by hijacking its daily routine. Decolonize This Place joined with New York City Stands with Standing Rock, Black Youth Project 100, Eagle and Condor Community Center, South Asia Solidarity Initiative, the Chinatown Arts Brigade and many others organizations to offer a guided tour of the museum’s racism and colonial character. The ultimate goal was to showcase the retrograde side of the museum in hopes that it would inspire participants to imagine how the institution might be decolonized and redesigned.

The day of action began at 11 a.m. as activists prepared three, huge red banners emblazoned with images of indigenous peoples’ ongoing struggle against American settler colonialism. One of these depicted an eagle and condor, symbols of solidarity across the Americas, ripping apart a colonizing black serpent under the words “We Heal.” These were used to block the Theodore Roosevelt statue, regarded as a symbol of white supremacy, at the museum entrance.

After activists distributed free tickets to participants, the tour wound its way from the Roosevelt Rotunda through the culture halls of the Americas, Asia and Africa. Activists stationed at exhibits provided brief overviews of the stereotypes, inaccuracies and omissions upon which the museum relies for its descriptions of non-European peoples. The tour ended with a speak out in the rotunda that challenged Roosevelt’s writings on youth, manhood, nature and the state, which adorn the walls. Organizers charged the famed president as being implicated in seizing indigenous land, promoting a white heteronormative definition of youth, advocating genocidal statecraft, and being the “forefather of today’s fascists.”

Roosevelt’s ideological framework, defined by his belief in eugenics — or scientific racism — and racialized militarism, has been a sticking point for those demanding the museum remove his statue. Comparing non-Europeans to livestock, he once remarked that “society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind.” This sort of thinking is intimately tied in with the museum’s history, given that it hosted the International Eugenics Congress in 1921 and 1932. The calls for the statue’s removal and indictment of the museum are particularly poignant given the alt-right’s recent defense of Confederate monuments. Alt-right ideology often mirrors Roosevelt’s thinking on nature and race, especially considering the movement’s penchant for rebranding eugenics.

The museum’s adulation of a prominent white supremacist has drawn the ire of people of color for years. On February 21, 2015, the death anniversary of Malcolm X, the Black Youth Project 100 strung a banner across the base of Roosevelt’s statue that read “White Supremacy Kills.” Decolonize This Place began focusing on the monument last year while developing ties with the Eagle Condor Community Center and American Indian Community House. These New York based organizations advocate for and support indigenous communities. The statue, which is on land owned by the state, the museum and Manhattan island all fall within the territory of the Lenape people, who still struggle against settler colonialism and its impact today.

Maintaining the Roosevelt statue is only one example of how the museum commits itself to racist ideologies. In their letter to the public, Decolonize This Place observe that though Greek and Roman art is stored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History lays claim to the works and culture of indigenous people.

Tlingit organizer and artist Jackson Polys notes a disturbing juxtaposition between non-European people and the museum’s primate exhibits. The exhibits dedicated to African peoples are similarly arranged in the museum just off of the Ackley Hall of African Mammals. The India section of the Stout Hall of Asian People boasts a plaque that is entitled “Indian Cycle of Life,” as if it were acceptable to frame the daily lives of 1.3 billion people as an expert might a study on fleas or protozoa.

What could the museum do to pursue a drastically different trajectory? Amrit Trewn of BYP 100, which is interested in building political relationships at the intersection of black and indigenous struggle, says that institutions like the American Museum of Natural History must strive to incorporate a “decolonial genealogy” into their exhibits that acknowledges their historic complicity in communal harm. Unlike institutions like the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the San Diego Museum of Man, the American Museum of Natural History is far from implementing such measures.

The museum has announced an overhaul of its Northwest Coast Hall, which is slated for completion in 2020. The project’s website says that the “Museum’s curatorial and conservation staff will be consulting with several Pacific Northwest Coast communities.”

However, NYU Professor Jane Anderson argued that consultations will not provide a meaningful basis for collaboration. The museum “has no permanently employed curators from any of the indigenous communities represented in their exhibit culture halls,” she said. “Indigenous peoples who are represented in these halls, must be represented through their own terms and frameworks of meaning.”

Returning control of items taken from indigenous communities could represent the beginning of a dialogue acknowledging that territory has been seized. As Polys pointed out, “actual decolonization entails repatriation of land and territory.”

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