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Activists challenge World Hindu Congress over links to global fascism

Fri, 09/21/2018 - 13:27

by Skanda Kadirgamar

Six protesters were attacked by conference goers at the World Hindu Congress on Sept. 8. (WNV/Skanda Kadirgamar)

On Sept. 8, a coalition of South Asian organizations mobilized outside and inside the Lombard Westin Hotel, just west of Chicago, to disrupt the the World Hindu Congress, an influential forum that brings together governments, heads of corporations and religious leaders, using religious language to normalize fascism. The Alliance for Justice and Accountability spearheaded this inter-caste and interfaith convergence of activists from groups across the country, including the South Asia Solidarity Initiative and Chicago South Asians for Social Justice.

The World Hindu Congress, or WHC, professes an agenda of religious acceptance and “Hindu unity,” but this rhetoric is a thinly-veiled attempt to normalize the politics of India’s far right within the American mainstream. Dalit, Muslim, Kashmiri and other organizations representing oppressed communities throughout South Asia have long been attuned to the Hindu right’s dog whistles and blatant calls for ethno-religious massacres, in addition to their defense of rigid social hierarchy. As the WHC came together for its second conference, organizers refused to let this agenda go unchallenged.

The protest against the WHC aimed to expose the Hindu right’s strategy in the United States. Early Saturday morning, two trucks bedecked with images denouncing the WHC’s ideological roots in Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, circled the parking lot of the Lombard Westin. This provoked a small outcry from conference goers, one of who approached a parked truck carrying a banner that read “Hindutva Kills” and cursed at the organizers inside, calling them “traitors” who would “kill [their] own people.”

The events on Sept. 8 came to a head during the closing plenary in the Westin’s main ballroom, where around a thousand people had assembled. Demonstrators slipped in with the intention of silencing Mohan Rao Bhagwat, the head of Rashstriya Swayansevak Sangh, or RSS — India’s most powerful Hindu right institution.

The audience had been engrossed in nationalist speeches about a new age in which the “sun would always rise over” India for the better part of an hour. When they heard chants of “RSS, turn around! We don’t want you in our town!” they transformed into a violent mob. Demonstrators said they were kicked and choked. Encircled by angry attendees, two women who were part of the protest had their banner ripped away before they could unfurl it. They were dragged out before being handed over to the police. One of the conference attendees received a battery charge for spitting on them.

According to a statement released by Chicago South Asians for Justice, conference goers called one of these women a “dirty Muslim” and made death threats. The Alliance for Justice and Accountability, or AJA, released footage of the WHC mob online — in addition to a compilation of clips detailing more Hindutva threats and violence.

After that uproar, WHC organizers tightened security and called upon Lombard’s police force to drive protesters away from the hotel. Protests continued regardless of these efforts. Demonstrators from Muslim organizations, Sikhs decrying the Indian government’s atrocities against their community, and Kashmiris demanding an end to India’s occupation of their home joined the demonstrations outside of the Westin, moving in a circuit around the building and parading through Lombard.

Protesters outside the World Hindu Congress. (Twitter/Ashok Swain)

The primary organizer of the WHC was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or VHP. Originating in India, the VHP is an ardent proponent of Hindutva. Hindutvatis are culpable in the massacres of Muslim, Bahujan and Dalit communities. The VHP itself has been connected to armed religious vigilantes. Indeed, the organization’s late president, Ashok Singhal, was notorious for praising the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat. Hailing the riots — which killed more than 2,000 people — as a successful “experiment,” Singhal went on to advocate their replication. The weekend of conference, the WHC renamed the Westin’s main ballroom after Singhal and used the space to hold its largest plenaries.

Activists have struggled to expose this brutality, which has been concealed by the VHP and other supporters of Hindu nationalism efforts to represent themselves as moderate or even progressive voice. Their strategy revolves around juxtaposing fascist positions next to ostensibly progressive ones. The WHC included a panel on how Hindu women might break the glass ceiling, while also accommodating a booth and diorama asserting that Hindu-Muslim dating is part of a “Holocaust of Hindus.”

Political speakers from the U.S. establishment who were invited to speak at the WHC ran the gamut from left to right. Several progressive Democrats who had been invited to attend the conference eventually backed out after being targeted by an AJA letter-writing campaign.

“Do I think all attendees were Hindu Nationalists?” AJA organizer Ashwin Khobragade asked. “No, I think that many of the attendees are looking to use their faith as a platform to give back to their communities.” There were many community service organization that also attended the gathering.

At the same time, those in AJA believe it is imperative to push back against what it identifies as a move to co-opt well-meaning organizations into a fascist agenda. “We wouldn’t want people with social justice values sitting down with people who are like Richard Spencer,” Khobragade explained.

Among the politicians who declined an invitation was Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an icon of Bernie Sanders Democrats, who cited “ethical” concerns with “partisan Indian politicians” on the speakers list. Gabbard has been known to be an admirer of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been accused of being linked to the Gujarat genocide and Hindu nationalism more broadly. She has also come under scrutiny for other relationships with the far right and her support for the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria.

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, another progressive Democrat, also became the focus of AJA’s accountability letters. Unlike Chicago State Senator-elect Ram Villavam and Alderman Ameya Pawar, Krishnamoorthi has not disavowed the WHC. He has continued to insist that the gathering promotes “acceptance,” despite the links to the far right that protesters have elucidated.

Opponents of the Hindu right began organizing their resistance far in advance of the WHC. The AJA extensively researched the conference, its speakers list and its attendees. CEOs, government officials and even the Dalai Lama were among the VIPs. Identifying key attendees was crucial to the aforementioned letter-writing campaign. On Sept. 4, AJA announced that this effort had prompted the withdrawal of delegates from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — the political wing of the RSS.

The goal of AJA’s investigative approach has been to prevent progressives from being co-opted into the vast network of Hindutva organizations that have been working for decades to guarantee the supremacy of dominant-caste (also known as “upper-caste”) Hindus. The RSS, which was founded in 1925, boasts large volunteer and paramilitary sections, and was inspired by the Nazi party and had connections to Mussolini’s fascists. The RSS founded the BJP as its political wing in 1951 and the VHP as a cultural organization in 1964.

The protest outside the Lombard Westin. (Twitter)

In an effort to carefully cultivate a more benign profile, Hinduvatis and their sympathizers have obscured this history. For instance, the American branch of the VHP includes commitments to providing community service and bridging faith communities in its mission statement. Yet this pretense of moderation has helped spread far-right militancy among Hindu American diaspora leadership. Organizers from Chicago South Asians for Social Justice noted that WHC speakers used eugenic language. During the closing plenary, one speaker, framing racial science in religious language, exhorted Hindus to have bigger families due to a supposed decline in Hindu births relative to Muslims.

Historian Maia Ramnath, who is a member of an AJA ally group known as the South Asia Solidarity Initiative, argues that the right-wing militancy that drives these groups originates from a politics of “wounded egos” and “victim consciousness” among members of dominant-caste power structures. The closing plenary speeches overflowed with resentment and were obsessed with a mythic homeland that had been overrun by the British, Islam and Christianity. Ramnath says this forms a distinctive part of their ideology of racial supremacy, which extols caste and religious hierarchies that became more rigid as they adapted to colonial rule by Britain.

“Their logic is that they are supposed to have been supreme,” she said, “but the colonialists denied [them] this rightful supremacy. They will now exercise that supremacy over their so-called inferiors,” such as the Dalits, Adivasis (India’s indigenous people), Muslims and other minority communities.  

Ramnath despairs of a “stubborn myopia” among Western progressives and anti-fascists when it comes to confronting these groups. She argues that today’s anti-fascist movement does not see how Hindutva emerged from the racism of colonialism, which is an observation that has been made since the resistance to fascism in the 1920s and ‘30s.

South Asian diaspora progressives also suffer from blind spots that enable them to decry Donald Trump yet continue to support Narendra Modi. Trump, who has praised fascists, has repeatedly celebrated Modi. Prior to his election in 2016, Trump attended an event billed as a fundraiser for Kashmiri Pandits, a dominant-caste community used as a political football by the Hindu right. Ramnath says this illustrates a problem that coalitions like the one spearheaded by AJA are forced to contend with. The far right is having a much easier time, in her opinion, organizing transnationally than its progressive opponents.

What follows in the wake of the WHC protests remains unclear, especially after the attacks on organizers. What is abundantly apparent, however, is that AJA and its allies helped unveil political affiliations that the VHP would rather remain hidden from American political discourse. Whatever concrete steps AJA take next, they are sure to use that footage against attempts to normalize Hindu fascism in the United States.

How grassroots activists made peace with North Korea possible

Thu, 09/20/2018 - 12:48

by Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

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In April, it was a handshake. On Tuesday, it was a hug — one that might end a 70-year-long war.

The leaders of North and South Korea are meeting in Pyongyang this week to discuss the possibility of a peace treaty to end the decades-long conflict dividing the Korean Peninsula. This marks the third meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in since April, when the leaders famously shook hands across the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, separating the two countries.

After a swell of global optimism at warming relations between Kim and Moon, attention shifted to Donald Trump’s June meeting with Kim in Singapore. Despite the peace community’s hope for increased diplomacy following the summit’s vague yet optimistic outcome, many voices on both sides of the aisle in Congress, as well as within Trump’s own administration, have since disparaged the possibility for peace.

Contrary to the frequent inflammatory rhetoric from leaders in Washington and the media, North Korea has made modest concessions since June, such as the dismantling of certain missile launch sites. In this week’s meeting, Kim has agreed to allow international experts to observe a permanent dismantling of a missile test site and nuclear facility.

Despite these steps toward diplomacy, many government leaders are still demanding the immediate and complete denuclearization of North Korea — and they are doing so without offering any assurance that the United States won’t invade. At the same time, they are also refusing to announce the end of the Korean War, mostly due to fears that it could lead to a withdrawal of the 28,500 American troops stationed on the peninsula — even though Moon has dispelled such concerns.

Amid the clamor and saber-rattling, however, a steady, persistent grassroots peace movement is working hard to counter the negativity. By influencing stakeholders behind the scenes, building new coalitions and reframing the narrative to promote negotiation as a difficult but worthwhile process, this movement has risen above “fire and fury” to chart the way toward lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Building coalitions

Among the most important developments for the peace movement in the last year is the formation of broad coalitions. According to international scholar-activist Simone Chun, 2018 marked “the first time we saw a formidable, sustaining coalition with major American peace activists and the Korean activist communities.”

These coalitions have allowed actors to coordinate strategically in pushing for clear goals, like a formal declaration ending the Korean War and sustained diplomacy on a path to peace. These coalitions have also been key in elevating a range of voices, particularly those of Koreans, women and people of color, who have often been marginalized from the mainstream policy debates in Washington D.C.

Korea Peace Network, or KPN, is one of the key U.S.-based coalitions promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula. Spearheaded by the American Friends Service Committee, Peace Action and Korean-American peace activist Christine Ahn, KPN works to educate and organize Korean peace activists around the country, from birddogging congressional candidates to hosting webinars and strategizing sessions. In June, the network organized an action called KPN Advocacy Days, which saw a group of advocates from KPN visit Capitol Hill to meet with key legislators, like members of the Armed Services Committee, to promote negotiations with North Korea.

Members of Korea Peace Network outside the White House in June. (Facebook/KPN)

“I think it’s important that Koreans decide the fate for the peninsula,” said Korean-American activist Kwan Nam. With only 50 miles separating Seoul from the DMZ, and 25 million people living within 100 miles from the DMZ itself, Kwan described the possibility of war as “devastating for Koreans.”

“We cannot afford any kind of war,” he added. “My aunt lives near the DMZ. My older brother lives in Seoul. So when I see the possibility of war growing, I get really scared.”

Kwan mobilized around 20 Korean organizations throughout the United States into a network called One Korea Now, so that they could better support each other’s efforts to advocate for peace. This mobilization became even more effective once they partnered with larger, more established organizations like Peace Action, which formed during the anti-nuclear movement of the 1950s and has a wider national network of its own.

“It’s important to try to lift up those people who have much more expertise and more at stake for their families [if there were a war on the Korean Peninsula],” said Peace Action president Kevin Martin.

At the same time, however, Kwan has found it uniquely challenging to incorporate some parts of the Korean-American community into this peace work.

“Korean-speaking Korean Americans are somewhat isolated people in the Korean-American community,” he said. “We are working with some of the largest peace organizations in the United States, but a lot of Korean-Americans have never heard the names of these groups. My role is to get the Korean-speaking Korean-Americans more engaged with the general peace movement in the United States, and to think of Korean peace in terms of the global peace movement.”

Women Cross DMZ at the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean Peninsula in May. (Facebook/Women Cross DMZ/Jeehyun Kwon)

Recent organizing for peace on the Korean Peninsula has also underscored the importance of women-led organizations in mobilizing public support for peace.

Women Cross DMZ is one of the leading groups in this movement, along with partners like the women-led activist group Code Pink. Headed by Korean-American peace activist Christine Ahn, Women Cross DMZ launched its efforts in 2015 by leading an international delegation of 30 women in a walk across the DMZ, followed by international peace symposiums in Pyongyang and Seoul. In May 2018, the group sent another women’s delegation to Korea, in partnership with the Nobel Women’s Initiative and Women’s Peace Walk. While there, the organizers convened an all-women’s symposium, met with key stakeholders and called for a peace treaty in an historic crossing of the Reunification Bridge.

Not only have these coalition-building efforts raised attention and public awareness – they’ve also raised much-needed funding. Women Cross DMZ, Nobel Women’s Initiative and PeaceWomen were the recipients of a $2 million grant supporting women-led campaigns pushing for a viable peace process by 2020. Part of this funding will be allocated to a network of South Korean women working for peace, elevating their voices in the ongoing public debate about the Korean peace process.

“In a moment when we all felt stuck, the fact that women’s groups began the process to break through this deadlock really shows the power of what peace movements can do, especially what women’s peace groups can do,” Ahn said. She also emphasized the important role women’s organizations have played in challenging those demanding total and immediate disarmament by stating clearly that there should be as much attention on diplomacy and steps toward signing a formal peace treaty, as there is on denuclearization.

Still, despite the breadth of this coalition-building work, Women Cross DMZ has faced challenges, particularly when it comes to gaining proper attention within the broader peace community, which has focused much of its attention on the Middle East — even after President Barack Obama’s so-called “Asia Pivot.”

“In some ways, I feel the peace movement has really failed to look at the shift in U.S. military war policy,” Ahn explained, pointing to the often overlooked South Korean protests of U.S. military bases. “The Korean peninsula has provided a way to shift our attention, but we’re so far behind where we need to be as a global anti-war and peace movement.”

Peace Action president Kevin Martin echoed this concern, but suggested that the problem is even more widespread. “We’re in denial about the militarism of our society,” he said. “There are conferences bringing together all progressive movements, but they leave out peace.”

Influencing key stakeholders

For 40 years, popular movements have demanded peace, democracy and human rights on the Korean Peninsula, including the 1979 student-worker demonstrations in Pusan, the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, and the campaign for direct presidential elections in 1987.

In many ways, these uprisings culminated in 2016 with the South Korean Candlelight Revolution. This movement, which drew over 16 million people, denounced the corruption of then-President Park Geun-hye and paved the way to elect Moon Jae-in, a president determined to prioritize peace on the Korean Peninsula.

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Moon has made a marked departure from previous South Korean leaders’ provocative rhetoric over North Korea’s nuclear and missile-testing programs, returning to the “Sunshine Policy” of South Korea’s last two progressive presidents. In doing so, he has emphasized economic projects and cultural exchanges between the two countries, like building railways to connect the peninsula, arranging family reunions, and hosting joint sports matches with North and South Koreans. There have been numerous public events promoting reconciliation, like the Pyeongchang Olympic games in February, when both teams marched under a single flag and played a unified women’s hockey team.

Since his election, Moon’s efforts to promote peace with North Korea have extended far beyond the two countries’ bilateral relationship. Trump has asked Moon to serve as “chief negotiator” for the third inter-Korea summit in September. This role is not only a testament to Moon’s diplomatic skills, but highlights the credibility he has built as a key actor in the negotiating process.

As with Moon’s election, the peace movement has an important role to play in influencing key stakeholders within the Korean peace process, including members of Congress.

“North Korea is a long-term marathon issue,” said Charissa Zehr of the Mennonite Central Committee, a Christian organization which advocates for peace and humanitarian relief around the world, including in North Korea. “There was very little we could advocate for within [the Obama administration’s policy of] strategic patience. Now there is more space and more possibility, but it’s still so volatile.”

The involvement of faith-based organizations like the Mennonite Central Committee and the Friends Committee on National Legislation, or FCNL, has been influential in pressuring stakeholders by finding common ground with legislators in Washington. FCNL has mobilized a network of over 1,500 people across the country in grassroots advocacy teams to lobby their congressional representatives. [Full disclosure: The author of this piece works for FCNL’s Advocacy Teams program]. These teams are promoting legislation that would require congressional authorization for any war with North Korea, as opposed to a unilateral decision by the president. According to FCNL North Korea specialist Anthony Wier, a congressional vote for war would make war less likely, as it would be a huge gamble for anyone running for reelection.

Pursuing this goal of grassroots legislative pressure, advocacy teams have incorporated creative tactics, like giving out homemade bubble bath, or “bath bombs,” at their local farmer’s market. An accompanying sign reads “Bath Bombs Not Atomic Bombs,” seeking signatures on a petition for their members of Congress to support the legislation.

Efforts to influence stakeholders in Washington has faced the predictable challenges of political partisanship — the force driving many leaders in the Democratic Party to decry negotiations and the drawdown of U.S. troops in South Korea. Despite misgivings about the Trump administration’s commitment to follow through on peace negotiations, leaders advocating a peace treaty with North Korea say it makes more strategic sense to acknowledge when the administration is ostensibly taking steps in the direction of peace.

“The partisan bitterness, particularly of Democrats who you’d think would support diplomacy, is a real and ongoing challenge,” Martin said. “Save your energy to fight Trump on any other issue. It’s right to be skeptical. The [Singapore] Summit didn’t produce a lot of specifics, but compared to last fall when we were threatening nuclear war, we’re in a much better place.”

Nam echoed these sentiments, adding, “We have to take the peace whenever we can. We always talk about ‘Give peace a chance.’ Now the liberals and progressives, who have been promoting peace for the last 100 years, should give peace a chance — for real this time — even if it comes from Trump.”

Ahn shared the same frustration, recounting how two leading members of Congress — both advocates of “the resistance” — introduced legislation intended to hamper the president’s ability to reduce U.S. troops in South Korea. “How is that resistance, when it just maintains militarization of South Korea and a foreign occupation of another country?”

Comparing the situation to Richard Nixon’s talks with China, Ahn described refusals to engage the Trump administration on matters of peace as “huge” missed opportunities. “He’s wrong on everything else, but this is a sweet spot,” she said. “Give them the credit to do what no other president has done: to hopefully end the Korean War.”

While many dismiss this view as wishful thinking or simply naive, the peace community believes incremental, tangible concessions from North Korea in exchange for economic and diplomatic incentives is a far more realistic pathway to peace than demanding a full dismantling of their nuclear program before they see any benefits.

According to Martin, this is where the voices of Korean-Americans can be quite impactful. “It’s very important for Korean-Americans to say, ‘Hey Dems, we understand that you hate Trump and are opposed to everything [he does], but this is about what Koreans want.’”

Ultimately, Martin’s point underscores the necessity of building a peace movement – and a peace process – that centers Koreans, the most direct stakeholders on this issue.

“I’ve never seen so much unity among Korean-Americans around this peace process,” Chun said. “When I meet young people, I realize this is a very different generation. Their participation is very important, because they’re the ones who will lead the future.”

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The re-centering of Koreans’ role and voices in the peace process could create friction between South Korea and the United States, as exemplified by Moon’s Liberation Day speech. Delivered last month, the speech laid out a plan for greater economic integration between North and South Korea, declaring, “We are the protagonists in Korean Peninsula-related issues.”

Ahn celebrated this statement, saying, “For me, that feels like we are in a moment. This is a process that is moving irrespective of the United States. Now we have to put in the time and the sweat to really make it happen.”

Reframing the narrative

As evidenced by Moon’s Liberation Day speech, language is helping to shape public opinion in favor of the peace process — with 90 percent of South Koreans supporting dialogue. Leaders of the peace movement are trying to do the same in United States, where a smaller majority — around 70 percent — support talks with North Korea. Such support is hampered by Trump’s low approval ratings and a distrust of Kim Jong Un.

“We need to shift who talks about foreign policy away from a Cold War, white man framework,” Ahn said.

One way of doing this is by giving a human face to the issue. Already, family reunifications and joint North-South soccer matches are taking place on the Korean Peninsula — something most Americans don’t even know about.

“The peace movement should be helping to amplify these messages,” Ahn said.

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Ultimately, according to Chun, it’s about forging a narrative that is less about denuclearization and more about Koreans determining their own path towards peace.

“Everything is centered around whether North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons,” Chun said. “For Koreans, this is about the ability to shape the future of [their] country.”

Many Korean-Americans are seizing the opportunity to make this known, while — at the same time — also providing a model for the rest of America on how to shift the narrative.

“Before the North and South Korean leaders met on April 27, reunification was a taboo issue,” Kwan said. “It took a lot of courage to discuss North and South Korean reunification in the Korean-American community. If you talked about it, you would be labeled a communist and pro-North Korean sympathizer. Now it’s something everybody talks about!”

This widening of citizen engagement and action can only be a good thing for advocates of the peace process. The more people come together in support of peace on the Korean Peninsula, the harder it becomes for world leaders to deny it to them.

Guatemalans protest president’s decision to end a popular anti-corruption body

Sat, 09/15/2018 - 13:40

by Jeff Abbott

Police hold back protesters as a member of the Guatemalan congress leaves the congressional building on Sept. 11. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

Almost three years to the date after the largest protests against the corruption of Otto Pérez Molina’s administration, Guatemala City’s central plaza is once again the site of protests against corruption. Yet these protests have become all the more important as President Jimmy Morales announced on Aug. 31 the end of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, which uncovered the graft in the administration of Pérez Molina in 2015.

Morales made the declaration flanked by Vice President Jafeth Cabrera and Minister of Foreign Relations Sandra Jovel, as well as the ministers of the interior, defense and the secretary of intelligence. Behind them stood nearly 60 officials from the Guatemalan military and national police force.

The president gave the anti-corruption body until September 3, 2019 to close their offices and transfer their investigations. The outcry from Guatemalan citizens was almost immediate.

As Morales finished his declaration, protesters quickly returned to the central plaza to reject the president’s decision. Over a thousand protesters braved heavy rains the day after Morales’ announcement, continuing to express their disdain for the expulsion of CICIG. Some protesters brought with them piñatas bearing the likeness of Morales, which were set on fire in effigy.

Yet this was not the end of Morales’ actions against CICIG.

On Sept. 4, Morales announced that he was banning Velásquez from re-entering the country following his trip to the United States to meet with United Nations representatives who were looking to resolve the crisis. In the letter to the National Institute of Migration, Morales accused Velásquez of intending to destabilize “public order and security.”

Activists have worked to raise their voices against the administration to continue to denounce Morales’ decisions. Activists called for a series of actions and protests across the country.

“We have been working and organizing with other organizations,” said Gabriel Wer, one of the founders of Justicia Ya, which emerged during the protests against Pérez Molina in 2015. “We are trying to carry out some type of action that shows that we are not a few people, and that we are against what is occurring in our country. These actions come as a result of the work being done to organize between different organizations in both rural and urban parts of the country.”

The week of actions began on Sept. 10 when tens of thousands of residents of the department of Sololá blocked the Pan American Highway in several places for nearly eight hours to protest Morales’ decision. Members of the Indigenous Municipality expressed concern that corruption would surge and would further impact their communities.

The following day, on Sept. 11, the indigenous government of Totonicapán mobilized another day of roadblocks along the same highway. As the indigenous communities shut down the road, students from the University of San Carlos joined campesino organizations and other activists outside of Congress to protest a series of proposed reforms that would undo anti-corruption efforts within the government.

“We are here to condemn and reject the nefarious congressional members who look to reform the law of impeachment of officials, and to allow officials to annul the decisions of the Constitutional Court,” said Daniel Pascual, the leader of the United Campesino Committee. “We are uniting with the protests that were held in Sololá and Totonicapán to reject the decision of Jimmy Morales to cut the contract with the CICIG and to ban Ivan Velásquez from the country.”

A small farmer from Sololá holds a sign demanding that President Jimmy Morales resigns and that CICIG commissioner Ivan Velasquez returns. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

The next day, thousands of campesinos associated with the Campesino Development Committee, the Campesino Committee of the Highlands, and the Union of Campesino Organizations of Verapaz, traveled from across the country to the historic center of Guatemala City to join with urban collectives, religious organizations and residents to show their discontent with the decision by Morales to expel the CICIG.

Tensions were high in the city as the organizations demonstrated in front of the National Palace. The situation was worsened by the presence of hundreds of police and military special forces, known as Kaibiles, which stood guard at the gates that they had established as part of a three-block perimeter to keep protesters from reaching Congress.

Undermining the 2019 election and democracy

Morales’ decision to end the CICIG comes at a critical time in Guatemala, as the preparations for the 2019 presidential election have begun. The undermining of CICIG and the anti-corruption efforts are poised to guarantee the continuation of the cooptation of the state by organized crime.

“They are preparing conditions with these reforms for next year,” Pascual said. “They are trying to reform the law over elections so that politicians can change parties during their terms, which the law prohibits. They are also trying to reform the finance laws. They are trying to protect the president and keep the country subjugated.”

Weeks prior to the announcement ending the CICIG, the commissioner and representatives from the Supreme Electoral Council signed an agreement to work together. The signing ceremony was interrupted by far-right activists, which forced the event to end early.

Former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, who gained recognition for her work to root out corruption in the Guatemalan government, is widely considered to be a potential candidate for the presidency for the newly formed, center-right Semilla Party. Yet Aldana’s critics have taken steps to derail her campaign.

On Sept. 7, Felipe Alejos, a far-right member of congress who faces corruption accusations, established a commission to investigate the purchase of a building for the Guatemalan public prosecutor’s office in Zona 5 of Guatemala City while Aldana was heading the office. Previously, Alejos had traveled to the United States to complain of an ideological bias in the investigations of CICIG and the public prosecutor, something echoed by Morales and other members of the far right.

Yet analysts argue that there is no ideological bias involved in CICIG’s investigations.

“This could not be further from the truth,” said Iduvina Hernández, the director of Security in Democracy, a Guatemala City-based human rights organization. “I see this as being proportional because the right has had power and it has governed for centuries. It is their acts of corruption as a result of being in power that are being investigated. It is not because of their ideology.”

A member of the Campesino Development Committee stands in Guatemala City’s central plaza during the protests on Sept. 12. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

The CICIG is widely viewed by the public as a critical organization in the Guatemala government. Polls have regularly found that the CICIG is one of the most trusted institutions in Guatemala.

The anti-corruption body was established in December 2006 following a request from the Guatemalan government to the United Nations in order to combat impunity. Since its establishment, the CICIG has carried out over 80 investigations into corruption, organized crime and assassinations.

CICIG gained international notoriety in 2015 after an investigation into the criminal network known as La Linea, or The Line, led to the resignations of President Otto Pérez Molina, his Vice President Roxana Baldetti, and the majority of the administration. Pérez Molina and Baldetti both are facing prosecution for orchestrating the criminal network that stole millions of dollars.

The 2015 political crisis was marked by some of the largest protests Guatemala has seen in decades. These protests laid the foundations for the current movement against corruption in the country.

Morales has maintained a hostile relationship with the CICIG since taking office in 2016. The president, who had promised voters he was “neither corrupt nor a thief” has faced three investigations into his 2015 campaign for illicit financing.

In August 2017, Morales attempted to expel Velásquez from Guatemala by declaring him a “persona non grata.” Yet this was overturned by the country’s constitutional court.

In June 2018, the CICIG and public prosecutor’s office requested that Morales lose his immunity so that he could face charges for receiving illicit financing. The country’s Supreme Court deferred to Congress to decide the fate of the president’s immunity.

Declaring Morales “non grata”

The outrage over Morales’ decision quickly spread on social media across the country. This has quickly led to spontaneous organizing to declare Jimmy Morales a “persona non grata” across the country.

“In this moment, there is an spontaneous organized reaction emerging in Quetzaltenango,” said Brenda Hernandez, an activist who was among the first to launch the movement against corruption in 2015.

Morales had traveled to Quetzaltenango on Sept. 7 to inaugurate the Independence Day fair, but he was forced to leave following outcry from residents. During the parade, students carried banners rejecting the president and declaring him unwelcome in Quetzaltenango.

The repercussions for the actions by schools and students came swiftly. The departmental director of the Ministry of Education sanctioned the teachers and students, who in turn argued that their right to freedom of speech was violated.

Yet the example was set, and Morales was quickly declared unwelcome in departments and towns across the country. On Sept. 12, Morales and Vice President Cabrera were declared unwelcome at the University of San Carlos, with the portrait of Cabrera being covered by a black plastic bag. The decision at the university came after pressure from the University Student Association, which made the demand to the Superior University Council.

Students from the school of agronomy at the University of San Carlos demonstrate outside the Guatemalan congress on Sept. 11. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

The current protests come after years of organizing by groups like Justicia Ya and the Campesino Development Committee, as well as the Indigenous Ancestral Authorities, which have managed to bring together the rural and urban social movements.

The internet and social media have been important tools for organizers across Guatemala in the movement against Morales and his administration. But the alliances with rural organizations have also played a key part.

“Since 2015 we have been learning to organize ourselves, largely through social media,” Wer said. “But we have also organized with other organizations, such as students, campesinos and other citizens like us. This allows us to have much larger and diverse actions.”

Building alliances with the rural communities is key for the continuation of the movement.

“One of the things we learned is that from the urban centers we will not achieve anything when the country is primarily rural,” Wer explained. “One of the key means to transform the politics and economy of this country is to build alliances with rural communities.”

How Afghanistan’s peace movement is winning hearts and minds

Thu, 09/13/2018 - 15:56

by Roshni Kapur

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In May 2018, a group of seven Afghans in the mostly Taliban controlled province of Helmand set off on a more than 370-mile peace journey to the capital city, Kabul, sparking a nationwide movement.

Residents of Helmand have been paying a high price ever since the province turned into a battleground between Afghan forces and the Taliban. The catalyst for the peace march was a car bomb attack during a wrestling match in March that killed 14 people.

The protesters began with a hunger strike and a sit-in protest in the province’s capital, Lashkar Gah, within 24 hours of the suicide attack to demand an end to the violence. The activists held meetings with both the government and the Taliban, but when no results were produced they decided to walk to Kabul to further advocate for their peace message.

The war-weary Afghans traveled across the country, passing through difficult terrain in the scorching hot sun. The final leg of their march happened during the holy month of Ramadan, which they continued while observing their fast. They were welcomed in the villages which they passed through and were offered food, water and places to rest.

In total, they marched across six provinces, passing by Taliban-controlled areas. In the city of Ghazni, they were even warned by the Taliban not to enter an area because it would be dangerous. “We met Taliban fighters and, after an introduction, they told us we shouldn’t have come here because the area is planted with bombs, and they had planned an attack,” one of the protesters told The Telegraph. “After minutes of discussion with them, they seemed tired of it all, and the war. They directed us back to the safest area.”

Their tenacity and courage attracted around a hundred Afghans from places like Kandahar and Herat to join their peace movement, including women. The female protesters were asked to return home after protesting during the day, due to traditional sensitivities around spending nights on the roads. They reached Kabul when the ceasefire on Eid al-Fitr was just coming to an end in June. The protesters had covered over 370 miles by foot in a span of 40 days. They were given a warm greeting by Kabul residents who offered them food and water as well.

Despite being exhausted, the protesters were ready for their next phase of activism. They met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and gave him a list of demands for sustainable peace. Some of the demands included hosting a place for peace talks, brokering a one-year ceasefire and launching a new mechanism that will look into the interests and needs of all Afghans. The protesters also formed a committee to reach out to the Taliban with a similar set of demands.

The activists then held sit-in protests outside the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan office and sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, urging him to take a proactive approach towards the ongoing conflict in the country.

The group also strategically targeted key stakeholders and institutions, such as the American, British, Russian, Iranian and Pakistani embassies, which are perceived to have an external hand in the war. They held sit-ins for three days outside each of the embassies and plan to launch solidarity demonstrations in their home countries. “By holding our demonstrations, we want to create a relationship between our people and the citizens of those countries,” Bismillah Watandost, one of the protesters, told TOLO News. “And we hope the citizens of the foreign countries ask their governments why Afghans are protesting outside their embassies.”

After Kabul, the Helmand protesters carried on with their mission by walking barefoot another 340 miles to reach Mazar-e-Sharif from Aug. 10 to Sept. 11. Their purpose was to bring their message of peace to residents in northern Afghanistan. They also conducted dialogues with religious leaders, tribal elders and the general public in places where they stopped. The protesters had developed various strategies of persuasion and deterrence tailored to the different institutions they were engaging.

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Their activism was the result of a well-planned strategy to reach out to their fellow citizens from the southern and northern provinces. The movement was led by Iqbal Khaibar, who is a demonstrator from Helmand and was a key member of the Lashkar Gah sit-in. Khaibar said that they were fearful of reprisals along the way, which is why they developed a strategy of establishing support groups that would continue the march if some of the participants were attacked or killed.

Moreover, the peace march emerged at the right time, just when the Afghan government reached out to the Taliban with an unconditional ceasefire offer. The Afghan High Peace Council — a body established by former President Hamid Karzai to negotiate with the Taliban — has also echoed its support for the Helmand peace movement. The council has played a substantial role in the country’s reconciliation and peacebuilding process.

Nationwide protests

The Helmand peace march has set a precedent for other nonviolent protests across the country. In June, Afghan women and girls personally welcomed the Taliban with flowers in Helmand province and urged them to extend the Eid al-Fitr ceasefire. Although the Taliban did not respond to the ceasefire extension request, the protest was bold. Their action would have been unthinkable in recent decades, when there were strict restrictions on women’s freedom of movement. Most Afghan women do not leave their houses to attend protests. By pouring out into the streets for an all-female protest, they displayed their audacity and strength.

The peace movement has been one of the key factors pressuring both the government and the Taliban to reach a peace agreement and end the civil war. The three-day ceasefire during Eid al-Fitr was a product of this nonviolent resistance, which added pressure on the Taliban to accept the offer. Although the Taliban ruled out the government’s offer for another ceasefire during Eid al-Adha, it has not stopped the peace movement’s momentum. More peace marches, protests and acts of civil disobedience are regularly springing up in Afghanistan.

The impetus for the peace movement is the growing insecurity and increase in violence since 2001. Most Afghans are simply frustrated with their living conditions and want the war to end. The Uppsala Conflict Data Program has shown a surge in the number of casualties in recent years. In 2001, there were 5,553 deaths in the country. By 2017, the number soared to 19,694.

A 2017 Asia Foundation survey revealed that as the number of fatalities has increased, so too has the fear for personal safety or insecurity — from 40 percent in 2001 to 71 percent in 2017. The survey also demonstrated that the movement is reflective of public opinion in Afghanistan. It found that over 60 percent of Afghans think that a peace process would usher in long-term stability in the country, and more than half of Afghans think that reconciliation with the Taliban is likely to happen. This growing mandate for a peace process has added weight to the country’s peace movement.

Although the Helmand protesters have not said anything about their next phase of activism, the peace movement has become a nationwide phenomenon. It has won the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans. Moreover, it was also heartening to see the Taliban show compassion to the peace activists. Currently, the Helmand protesters are interacting with residents in the north to gain more support for their movement.

“We [continue to] go to villages and meet the people to support our efforts,” said Mirwais Kanai, one of the organizers. “In the beginning, some people had doubts and were blaming the protesters for being a project of foreigners or the government. That’s why only a small number of protesters marched to Kabul. We have been working on people’s mindsets and now the people have understood that [we] are really working for peace.”

Modi’s McCarthyist attack on left-leaning intellectuals threatens India’s democracy

Fri, 09/07/2018 - 14:56

by Tekendra Parmar

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In a nationwide operation on Aug. 28 by the government of right-wing Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, security officials raided the homes of eight activists, lawyers and journalists, eventually arresting Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj and Varavara Rao. They were booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, a draconian anti-terrorism law that has been used by the government to curb freedom of expression and association in the name of national security.

They are not terrorists. Neither are Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson or Mahesh Raut, who were arrested in June. They are activists, writers, poets, journalists and lawyers. They are citizens of India who believe in the plurality of our country and fight for its most marginalized. For that, they are being punished by a regime that, since its ascendance, has worked to polarize Indian democracy along fault lines of religion, caste and creed.

The crackdown reinforces what some Indian intellectuals have referred to as a silent “emergency” — alluding to the India of the 1970s, when the authoritarian regime of Indira Gandhi consolidated power to gut all political opposition. She gave Indian security forces undue power against journalists and effectively turned the world’s largest democracy into a police state.

Protests have since sprung up across India to rally for these activists. Last week, nearly a thousand people marched near the country’s parliament, sparking satellite actions across the country and online. The movement is using the hashtag #MeTooUrbanNaxal, which is an allusion to the derogatory phrase used by the government to discredit left-leaning activists and thinkers as members of the Naxalites, a Maoist rebel group that has been at war with the Indian government since the 1960s.

I met some of these activists while reporting for The Nation on the detention of GN Saibaba, a paralyzed Delhi University professor who was sentenced to life in prison in March 2017. Saibaba has been held in solitary confinement at the colonial-era penitentiary Nagpur Central Prison since last year. Like those arrested last week and in June, Saibaba was a vocal activist for India’s indigenous community, whose land has been claimed by dozens of multinational mining corporations. Surendra Gadling was his defense attorney. Arun Ferreira — himself a political dissident, who spent five years in prison — was also working for the professor’s defense.

The latest crackdown resembles the one that led to Saibaba’s arrest. According to news reports, police seized pen drives, laptops and cellphones from the homes of those who were raided. A police spokesperson told local press that “all evidence was scientifically analyzed,” a laughable claim from a regime that has promoted Hindu astrology, attacked the theory of evolution and promoted the use of cow urine as a catch-all cure for disease. Perhaps more tellingly, a government prosecutor told the media, the reason for the arrests were that the accused were part of an “anti-fascist front,” indicative of the drastic shift in India’s idea of tolerated discourse.

Even the letters allegedly seized from the home of activist Rona Wilson in June are reminiscent of Saibaba’s case: Police presented letters from an unidentified “R” to an equally mysterious “Comrade Prakash” proposing to overthrow the Modi regime in a “Rajiv Gandhi-like attack,” referencing the Indian prime minister killed by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber in 1991. In Saibaba’s case, the prosecution made tenuous claims that “Comrade Prakash” was one of Saibaba’s aliases, which is made even less credible by the fact that the electronic evidence collected against Saibaba, who was made to give up his passwords, was mishandled and improperly stored.

Sept. 5 marked the one-year anniversary of the murder of writer Gauri Lankesh, a prominent critic of the prime minister and his Hindu nationalist ideology. Since then the Modi regime has been eliminating dissent with sniper-like efficiency. India ranks 138 out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Ranking — behind war-torn Afghanistan, Duterte’s Philippines and even Myanmar, a quasi-democracy that is accused of genocide by an independent U.N. investigation. This is largely thanks to the murders of atheist bloggers and writers by goons linked to the government’s Hindu nationalist parent organization; it’s also attributable to the influence of Fox-like news on Indian media, where a new crop of nationalist broadcast networks routinely label government critics as desh drohi, or “anti-national,” and to the muzzling of civil society activists and protests at universities.

The Supreme Court has stepped in, first declaring that the dissidents should be kept under house arrest until September 6, before extending their house arrest by another six days. This was not a privilege afforded to those arrested alongside Saibaba, whose health is in peril, and whose case is disappearing into the bureaucratic gridlock of the Indian judiciary.

The Modi regime is honing its aim ahead of the country’s upcoming election, and the human cost is grave. Today I am thinking of advocate Gadling, who welcomed me into his home last winter, feeding me copious amounts of chai and poha as he gushed about the possibility of his pre-teen son pursuing a career in law.

I am thinking of Arun Ferreira, whose last words to me as I left his small Bombay office have stuck with me. I asked him about his five years in prison, about the torture and dehumanization, about not being able to see his infant son for the first few years of his life.

“How did you continue on?” I asked. “We continue on because we have to, because there is nothing else you can do,” he replied. Hours after my meeting with Ferreira, my father passed away. Those words helped me through my grief.

Most of all I am thinking of Professor GN Saibaba, for whom the possibility of dying in prison is even more real, now that his defenders are suffering the same fate.

Camus said it was the job of the thinking man not to be on the side of the executioner. Today, Modi holds the hangman’s rope.

Inmigrantes indocumentados planean un paro estatal para aumentar presión para las licencias de conducir en Nueva Jersey

Wed, 09/05/2018 - 17:29

by Catalina Adorno

Silvia Huerta se dirige a la multitud en una acción en marzo. (Facebook/Cosecha New Jersey)

This article is also available in English.

Después de 15 años de llamar y presionar a legisladores estatales en vano, inmigrantes indocumentados en Nueva Jersey se han unido para lanzar una nueva campaña de licencias de conducir, esta vez con una perspectiva e estrategia única. El 17 de septiembre, cientos de personas participarán en un acto al que llaman “paro estatal”; un día de no-cooperación en el que trabajadores inmigrantes se quedarán en casa, padres no mandarán a sus hijos a la escuela y las tiendas locales cerraran, todo para apoyar la campaña de licencias de conducir.

He estado organizando durante casi dos años con Movimiento Cosecha, un movimiento popular no violento que lucha por la protección permanente, dignidad y respeto para los 11 millones de inmigrantes indocumentados en los Estados Unidos. Cosecha es el grupo principal que usa una estrategia de no-cooperación económica en la lucha para los derechos de inmigrantes. Además de participar en la huelga de un día, miembros de Cosecha marcharán hacia la capital del estado en Trenton cantando “Licencias Si, Promesas No”

La comunidad indocumentada necesita urgentemente las licencias de conducir, cuya falta se siente todos los días mientras conducen al trabajo, dejan a sus hijos en la escuela o hacen mandados simples como conducir al supermercado. Si los inmigrantes indocumentados son detenidos por conducir sin licencia, las consecuencias pueden ser graves, incluyendo la detención indefinida y la deportación. Dichas amenazas solo continuarán a medida que se renuevan y amplían los contratos de Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) por todo el estado.

En el condado de Hudson, que tiene las ciudades inmigrantes más diversas y densamente pobladas del estado, ICE acaba de renovar su contrato por otros 10 años. Contratos como estos le permiten al estado a recibir dinero de ICE para “alojar” inmigrantes. Con el estado beneficiándose de la detención de inmigrantes, es fácil ver por qué otorgar licencias de conducir va en contra de los intereses de los funcionarios del gobierno: más personas con licencias minimizaran las detenciones (al menos por violaciones de tráfico), lo cual significa menos personas detenidas.

Nueva Jersey es un estado con una de las mayores poblaciones de inmigrantes indocumentados, casi medio millón. El estado se inclina hacia el partido Demócrata durante la mayoría de las elecciones presidenciales, pero ha sido gobernado por los dos partidos principales en los últimos años. Durante los últimos ocho años, el gobernador Republicano Chris Christie dirigió el estado hasta que Phil Murphy, un Demócrata, ganó las elecciones del noviembre 2017. El Gobernador Murphy se postuló con una plataforma que incluía la promesa de licencias de conducir para inmigrantes indocumentados en los primeros 100 días de su administración. Ahora, a los siete meses de su gobierno, la comunidad inmigrante todavía no tiene licencias de conducir.

Una marcha dirigida por el círculo de Cosecha en Atlantic City. (Facebook/Cosecha New Jersey)

“Cosecha activó a trabajadores inmigrantes indocumentados en el estado que ya no quieren esperar a los políticos. Sabemos que nadie peleará esta pelea más que nosotros”, dijo Carlos Castañeda, un organizador de Cosecha que está coordinando el plan para el 17 de septiembre.

La campaña de Cosecha para las licencias de conducir está compuesta por tres fases. El objetivo de la primera fase fue organizar a los trabajadores inmigrantes indocumentados en equipos o círculos de Cosecha. Estos equipos se convirtieron en la base fundamental de la campaña. Esta fase incluyó reuniones comunitarias y talleres donde las personas aprendieron sobre dicha campaña, y discutían ideas para crecer el movimiento en sus comunidades locales.

La segunda fase fue activar a todas las personas que habían asistido a las reuniones comunitarias y talleres. Durante esta fase, Cosecha recorrió el estado planificado y participando en marchas y reuniones locales con el propósito de crear conciencia sobre el problema con aquellos que aún no conocían la campaña. Los círculos de todos los estados también participaron en una caminata de 11 días por Nueva Jersey, visitando 25 ciudades y sosteniendo reuniones comunitarias a medida que pasaban por ellas. Esto resultó en la creación de más círculos en ciudades como Passaic, Paterson y Red Bank. Ahora, después de mucha deliberación, estos círculos se están preparando para lanzar la tercera fase el 17 de septiembre: la fase de escalación.

“Desde que llegamos a este país, hemos vivido con miedo a la deportación por el solo hecho de que no tenemos licencias de conducir”, dijo Álvaro Márquez, miembro de uno de los círculos de Cosecha. “Algunas cosas ya no podemos cambiarlas, pero tenemos la oportunidad de luchar por un poco de tranquilidad para nosotros y nuestra familia. Integrándonos a la lucha para obtener licencias de conducir. Cuando la historia cambie, podemos mirar a los ojos de nuestros hijos,  de nuestros padres, y contarles que fuimos parte de este cambio. Uniéndonos, participando podremos lograr cosas que no imaginamos”.

Sin embargo, ninguna campaña está libre de desafíos. Dado que Cosecha está siguiendo una estrategia externa y exponiendo a políticos, están teniendo problemas para obtener información sobre cómo la ley actual de licencias de conducir se está moviendo a través de la legislatura estatal. Un segundo desafío es que otros grupos en el estado promoviendo los derechos de los inmigrantes continúan reciclando las mismas tácticas que se han utilizado en los últimos 15 años, y por lo tanto ven la introducción de nuevas tácticas y estrategias por parte de Cosecha como una amenaza a su trabajo anterior. El obstáculo más grande y prevalente, sin embargo, viene con la organización de la comunidad inmigrante.

“A la comunidad inmigrante se le ha hecho a creer que son dependientes”, dijo Castañeda. “Se les hizo creer que tienen que depender de las organizaciones para luchar por ellos, a que los ciudadanos estadounidenses voten por ellos, o a que los políticos representen realmente sus intereses. Les han hecho creer que como trabajadores no tienen poder”.

Un niño llamado Diego sostiene un letrero en una marcha en Trenton el 21 de abril.(Facebook/Cosecha New Jersey)

El 17 de septiembre será el principio de muchos días en que la comunidad inmigrante ejercerá su poder. La interrupción del estado marcará una nueva etapa en la campaña de licencias de conducir, y esto es solo el comienzo de una lucha más larga por los derechos de los inmigrantes.

Este punto se manifiesta durante las reuniones comunitarias, cuando la comunidad habla sobre el rol de la campaña de licencias de conducir en relación con el movimiento en general. “Cuando hablamos de la campaña, las personas dicen ‘licencias hoy, papeles mañana’ para hablar sobre cómo la lucha va más allá de las licencias”, explicó Dara Márquez, una organizadora de Cosecha basada en New Brunswick. “También estamos claros que la lucha es por la protección permanente, y más importante, por la dignidad y el respeto, porque sabemos que la ciudadanía no resolverá todas las injusticias”.

Ella también cree que el momento es propicio para esta campaña. “Nuestra comunidad está siendo perseguida. ¿Cuál es la alternativa?”, Preguntó ella. “Podemos auto-deportarnos hacia dónde venimos y comenzar de nuevo, o podemos unirnos a nuestras comunidades aquí, donde ahora tenemos raíces y luchar. Ya no tenemos nada que perder”.

Cuando se habla de las muchas huelgas laborales de inmigrantes en California, el líder laboral y activista de derechos civiles César Chávez dijo una vez: “La lucha nunca es sobre uvas o lechuga. Siempre se trata de personas”. En una frase similar, la campaña de licencias no se trata solo de licencias, sino de personas que desarrollan una conciencia política y se dan cuenta de su poder.

Independientemente de su estatus legal, los inmigrantes no tienen que depender de los políticos para salvarlos. Cuando se organizan y actúan, se convierten en agentes de su propio destino y pueden cambiar la historia. Los trabajadores indocumentados continuarán luchando y liderando el movimiento ellos mismos, como dice Castañeda, “sin miedo y con ganas de luchar hasta ganar”.

Undocumented immigrants plan statewide halt, escalating campaign for driver’s licenses in New Jersey

Wed, 09/05/2018 - 14:32

by Catalina Adorno

Silvia Huerta addresses the crowd at an action in March. (Facebook/Cosecha New Jersey)

Este artículo también está disponible en Español.

After 15 years of calling and lobbying state legislators to no avail, undocumented immigrants in New Jersey are coming together to launch a new campaign for driver’s licenses — this time with a unique twist. On Sept. 17, hundreds will participate in an act they are calling “paro estatal,” or a statewide-halt — a day of noncooperation in which workers will stay home, parents will keep  their children from going to school, and local shops will stay closed, all in support of the demand for driver’s licenses.

The main group pushing this new strategy of economic non-cooperation is Movimiento Cosecha — a nonviolent movement fighting for the permanent protection and dignity of all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. (Full disclosure, I have been organizing with Cosecha for the past two years.) In addition to participating in the one day strike, Cosecha will march to the state capital in Trenton chanting “Licensias Si, Promesas No” or “Yes to Licenses, No to Promises.”

The undocumented community is in critical need of driver’s licenses — the lack of which is felt every day with needs like driving to work, taking children at school and running simple errands. If undocumented immigrants are stopped for driving without a license the consequences can be severe, including detention and deportation. Such threats will only continue as Immigration Customs and Enforcement, or ICE, has its contracts renewed and expanded across the state.

Hudson County, which has the most diverse and densely-populated immigrant cities in the state, just renewed its contract with ICE for another 10 years. Contracts like these allow the state to receive money from ICE to “house” immigrants. With the state profiting off the detention of immigrants, it is easy to see why granting driver’s licenses goes against the interests of government officials: More people with licenses will minimize arrests (at least for traffic violations), which means fewer people in detention.  

New Jersey is a state with one of the largest undocumented immigrant populations, almost half a million. The state leans Democratic during most presidential elections, but has been governed by both major parties in recent years. For the last eight years, Republican Gov. Chris Christie ran the state until Phil Murphy, a Democrat, won last November’s election. Gov. Murphy ran on a platform that included driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants in the first 100 days of his administration. Now seven months into his governorship, the immigrant community still does not have driver’s licenses.

A march by the Cosecha circle in Atlantic City. (Facebook/Cosecha New Jersey)

“Cosecha activated undocumented immigrant workers in the state who no longer want to wait for politicians. We know that no one else will fight this fight but us,” said Carlos Castaneda, an organizer with Cosecha who is coordinating the plan for Sept. 17.

Cosecha’s campaign for driver’s licenses is comprised of three phases. In the first phase, the objective was to organize undocumented immigrant workers into teams, or Cosecha circles. These teams are the now base, anchoring the whole campaign. Getting to this point involved holding community meetings and workshops where people learned and discussed the issue, as well as brainstormed ways to take action in their local communities.

In the second phase, the objective was to activate all the people who had come to the community meetings and workshops. During this phase, Cosecha circles across the state planned and participated in local marches and rallies with the purpose of raising awareness on the issue with those who weren’t yet familiar with the campaign. Circles across the states also participated in an 11-day walk across New Jersey, visiting 25 cities and holding community meetings as they passed through them. This resulted in the creation of more circles in towns like Passaic, Paterson and Red Bank. Now, after much deliberation, these circles are gearing up to launch the third phase on Sept. 17: escalation.  

“Since we arrived in this country we have lived in fear of deportation for the mere fact that we don’t have driver’s licenses,” said Alvaro Marquez, a member of one of Cosecha’s circles. “Some things we can’t change, but we have the opportunity to fight for a little peace for ourselves and our family by joining the fight to obtain driver’s licenses. Once we change history, we can look into the eyes of our children, our parents, and tell them that we were part of this change. By joining, participating, we can achieve things we cannot even begin to imagine.”

Yet, no campaign is free of challenges. Since Cosecha is pursuing an outside strategy and calling out politicians, they are having trouble getting information about how the current driver’s license bill is moving through the state’s legislature. A second challenge is that other immigrant rights groups continue to recycle the same actions that have been used over the last 15 years, seeing Cosecha’s introduction of new tactics and strategy as a threat to their past work. The largest and most prevalent hurdle, however, is organizing the immigrant community.

“The immigrant community has been led to believe they are dependent,” Castaneda said. “They were made to believe that they have to rely on organizations to fight for them, for U.S. citizens to vote for them or for politicians to truly represent their interests. They’ve been led to believe that as workers they have no power.”  

A child named Diego holds a sign at a march in Trenton on April 21. (Facebook/Cosecha New Jersey)

Sept. 17 will be the one of the many days to come when the immigrant community will exercise its power. The state-wide halt will mark a new phase in the driver’s license campaign, which is just the beginning of a longer fight for immigrant rights.

This point is made clear during organizing meetings, when the community talks about the role of the driver’s license campaign in relation to the wider movement. “When we discuss the campaign, people use the slogan ‘licenses today, papers tomorrow’ to talk about how the fight goes beyond the licenses,” explained Dara Marquez, a Cosecha organizer from New Brunswick. “We also ground ourselves in the fight for permanent protection — and more importantly in dignity and respect — because we know that citizenship will not solve all the injustices.”

She also believes the time is ripe for this campaign. “Our community is getting persecuted. What’s the alternative?” she asked. “We can self-deport to where we came from and start all over again, or we can join our communities here, where we now have roots, and fight. We have nothing left to lose.”

When talking about the many strikes by immigrant workers in California, the labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez once said, “The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.” In a similar vein, the campaign for licenses is not just about licenses, but about people developing a political consciousness and realizing their power.

Regardless of their legal status, immigrants don’t have to depend on politicians to save them. When they organize and take action they become agents of their own destiny and can change history. Undocumented workers will continue to fight, leading the movement themselves, as Castaneda said, “without fear and until they win.”

David McReynolds modeled a life of building peace and living without apology

Mon, 09/03/2018 - 12:14

by Frida Berrigan

David McReynolds getting arrested outside the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in 2015. (WNV / Felton Davis)

I met David McReynolds when I was still a searching young adult, unsure of how to square my radical upbringing and inherited principles with being a grown up who had bills to pay and stars to catch in New York City. I started coming to War Resisters League meetings and listening as decades-old debates raged between socialists and anarchists, strategic and moral pacifists, young and old radicals, and those who believed in confronting war with a pointed, learned essay and those who believed it required a mass mobilization or a general strike.

David — who passed away last month at the age of 88 — was already an elder within the organization when I joined nearly 20 years ago. He wasn’t always on one side or the other, but he was always trying to impart hard-won wisdom from a life of pacifist strategizing, struggling and experimentation.

By now, David’s accomplishments and contributions have been enumerated and lauded in countless publications from the New York Times to Tikkun, so I won’t reprise them all here. If you didn’t know David, the best way to understand who he was and what his life meant to so many is to listen to Democracy Now’s extended interview with his friend and colleague Ed Hedemann and Jeremy Scahill, activist and journalist. I have found myself hungry for his voice in the weeks since his death. Luckily, YouTube has loads of interviews with David, including a whip-sharp appearance on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher in August 2000, where he held his own — refusing to be caricatured as a political quack. Invited to sit alongside Shari Belafonte and two other actors, David stayed focused on the issues, got in his talking points and is not cowed by celebrity. He won the crowd’s respect and affection.

David was self-critical. He called himself a peace movement bureaucrat and would honor the courage of others, like his friend Carmen Trotta, who participated in the Kings Bay Trident Plowshares in April. Yet, as I reflect on his life, all I see is courage. He came out as gay when that identity was a jail sentence, a tightly shut closet and a career killer even within progressive circles. He came out as a pacifist when that identity was mocked as naive, bourgeois and traitorous. He came out as a socialist when that identity was misunderstood, feared and hated. David was out; he learned to live without apology, without shame, without caveat.

And while he bemoaned that he wasn’t going to jail all the time for his beliefs, he took a bust more than most and was consistent over more than half a century in his opposition to war and militarism. As his friend and longtime colleague Ed Hedemann told me, “I believe one of his first arrests (if not the first) was April 17, 1959, in City Hall Park for refusing to take shelter during the annual nuclear war air raid drill; and his last arrest — 56 years later — on April 28, 2015, was in front of the U.S. Mission, demanding the elimination of all nuclear weapons.” Ed wrote back a few hours later to revise the record, “Actually, his first arrest appears to be in 1954 when he refused induction.” That is 61 years of pacifist, creative, brave witness.

I watched and listened and learned. The work of building peace with justice is a lifelong undertaking. It can’t all happen today. How do you sustain a sense of urgency without going crazy? How do you care for yourself and care for the world? How do you — as his friend and mentor A.J. Muste posited — remain steadfast in your principles, remain unchanged in a changing world?

Here are some lessons I am trying to learn from David McReynolds:

You need beauty

David loved scents. He had hundreds of vials of perfume and essential oils and always smelled good. He took and shared beautiful photographs. He learned about E.E. Cummings and William Carlos Williams from the great dancer Alvin Ailey when they were both young, and Ailey imparted a lifelong love of poetry to David. He was a member of the New York Bromeliad Society and traveled all over to continue to learn about these incredible plants. I had to look up what that meant (it’s a plant that thrives without soil). He paused over and appreciated beauty.

You need friends

David mailed birthday cards to his friends. Mostly up-close photos of flowers with a penned or typed line of appreciation. He cultivated friendship and maintained them even amid bitter political and philosophical disagreements. He had an open door policy at his tiny and incredibly cluttered apartment, which served as a late night salon for a wide circle of of friends. Every year, he called together his community to “the Night of the Candles.” In the dark, he and his friends named and remembered those who had died in the past year, lighting candles and speaking their names. It is a tradition he kept for many years. In addition to his many human friends, David also cared for and loved cat companions. David was a good friend.

You need to eat

My husband, Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer, knew David through the War Resisters League as a kid. The two of them would sneak out for forbidden hamburgers at McDonald’s, eschewing the veggie movement fare. David made a hummus redolent with garlic. It was almost more garlic than beans. His recipe, captured for a War Resisters League desk calendar, calls for a healthy dose of MSG. He brought it to every gathering. And now we will too, in celebration of his distinct palate.

You need to believe

David was an atheist. He did not subscribe to any religion. But he carried a deep respect for many and was curious about faith traditions. He believed in ritual and created meaning, making gatherings like his Night of Candles. He believed in socialism, saying he didn’t just want to be anti-imperialist or anti-racist, but pro-solution. He believed in people, in beauty, in tomorrow.

David McReynolds hosting one of his Night of the Candles events. (WNV / Matthew Daloisio)

In his last Night of Candles invitation, in 2017, David wrote: “I am very aware that at 88 I am pushing the odds of whether I will be here next year. The event is meant to pay homage to our personal pasts, to the people (or cats, dogs, birds) that, for good or bad, shaped us. We rush to the future, but the past is still alive in us.”

This year, there will be a new candle flickering in the darkness. David McReynolds, thank you for all you are teaching me.

#MeToo campaign for Sudanese teen highlights the need to end Western saviorism

Thu, 08/30/2018 - 12:22

by Erin Mazursky

Noura Hussein (Amnesty International)

On June 27, Sudanese activists and the global human rights community declared victory when a 19-year old Sudanese woman, Noura Hussein, was spared the death penalty. She was instead sentenced to a five-year prison sentence for murdering her husband in self-defense, as he tried to rape her when she was 16 years old.

After news of the court’s initial decision for the death penalty broke in early May, Sudanese activists quickly took to Twitter and Facebook with the hashtags #SaveNoura and #JusticeforNoura. Within a week, the story caught the attention of major international organizations like UN Women, Amnesty International and the European Union, who all issued statements against the ruling. A Sudanese diaspora blogger inspired a petition that received close to 1.7 million signatures worldwide. Celebrities like Rose McGowan, Emma Watson, Naomi Campbell and former Australian Prime Minister Julia Guillard also used their platforms to speak out.

Within a few weeks, a higher Sudanese court repealed the death sentence to a still-shocking five-year prison sentence. Sudan’s prisons are known for their brutality and instances of unbridled torture.

The subsequent headlines from international media outlets described the win as a triumph of the international human rights community and the #MeToo movement over a waning Sudanese regime that has repressed its people for almost 30 years, eager to appease Western governments. Assuming the case was closed, international attention turned to other horrors.

Unfortunately, the case isn’t closed. It reemerged last week — registering only a blip on the international radar — when a government prosecutor filed an appeal to have Noura’s death penalty sentence reinstated. What’s more, Noura isn’t an isolated case. Wini Omer, a high profile women’s rights activist in Sudan who campaigned on behalf of Noura, was jailed for over a week around the time of Noura’s sentencing. A police officer arrested her because he simply “didn’t like the way she walked,” which led to charges of prostitution and crimes against the state. She now potentially faces capital punishment.

While the attention #MeToo brought to Noura’s case led to a positive outcome, the notion of “saving a life” without giving light to the structural causes that enabled her oppression in the first place must be called into question. “All of the assumptions [of Westerners] about women in the East and Africa accidentally played a positive role in Noura’s case,” said Amgad Fareid Eltayeb, an activist with Sudan Change Now, the group that raised the profile of the initial sentencing. “Noura had a genuine cause, and the campaign had a victory. But what the campaign achieved is a small thing in the scales of [the abuses] that are actually happening,” he continued.

The Western human rights legal approach generally takes the horrors and injustices of the Nouras of the world case by case, with some harmful assumptions that create an “us” and “them” dynamic. Yet, there is far more interplay and collusion between Western governments and oppressive regimes like the Sudanese government than face value might suggest. For example, the European Union has funneled millions of dollars into Sudan for “border security” in order to stop the flow of African migrants into Europe. These funds have gone directly to the Rapid Support Forces, formerly known as the Janjaweed, which are the same militias that carried out ethnic cleansing campaigns in Darfur (in western Sudan) and who systematically use rape as a weapon of war.

The flash-in-the-pan activism of Noura’s case also begs some questions around the #MeToo movement’s ability to support long-term change and to truly challenge entrenched systems of racism, colonialism and patriarchy, especially when it comes to women in the Global South. While activism has become increasingly in vogue in the West, there is a danger that this mode of change simply replicates the same white (or Western) savior complex as the charity-driven humanitarianism that preceded it.

Western countries have flourished because of the violence and destruction they carried out to build their societies, and they continue to be complicit by failing to take responsibility for this past. “The white man’s burden should not be the motivation to act,” Eltayeb said. “It should be the culpability of 400 years of colonization that stopped the progress of the civilizations in the Global South that led to the situation in our countries now.” Action driven by guilt can be fleeting, but action driven by a sense of conviction and obligation can put societies on much more equal footing.

“Sudanese activists, themselves raising the profile of this case, is what [got the attention of] international circles … Without them, Noura would not be here today,” Eltayeb continued. “Public opinion has begun to shift and recognize that, at least for cases like Noura, it was a clear act of self-defense. This creates openings for more debate, but no laws or policies changed as a result of Noura’s case.”

Noura’s victory indicates that Sudanese activists are having some success changing the understanding of women’s rights domestically in a way that could enable more systemic change to take hold. The fact that Noura’s story spread so quickly on social and independent media outlets in Sudan is a testament to the effective, decentralized organizing of Sudanese activists, especially women.

Noura’s case became known because an audacious female journalist, Tahani Abbas, quietly followed her legal proceedings from the onset through the death penalty sentencing — interviewing her, visiting her in prison and risking her own safety to do so. The “No Oppression for Women” movement in Sudan stood ready to push out news of Noura’s case once the court made its ruling. The day of her death penalty sentencing, this women’s group also staged a sit-in in front of the court.

Other activist groups like Sudan Change Now helped amplify and spread the #SaveNoura and #JusticeforNoura messages. Opinion editorials, media articles and petitions followed, ultimately reaching an international audience. This in turn helped expose new strategic openings for the domestic movement. “One of the lessons learned from this campaign is the regime’s growing concern of their image in the West. We can use this leverage in the future,” explained Fatima, who was active in Noura’s campaign (and whose name has been changed for security).

But rather than coincidentally playing off each other, Sudanese and outside activists alike could coordinate more intentionally in the future. One place to start is recognizing that it is not simply an act of good will but an obligation to support and work in partnership with Noura, Tahani, Wini, Fatima and the other Sudanese women on the frontlines. Their names should be known outside of Sudan so they can continue to be uplifted and recognized as heroes in the global #MeToo movement. They continue to risk their lives far after international attention deflects to other atrocities.

At the same time, Westerners are responsible for holding their governments accountable for perpetuating a system that allows these atrocities to happen. Otherwise, there will continue to be more Nouras of the world than social media can work to “save.” This will enable us to root our work, connect our struggles and pave a path towards more authentic solidarity.

Ugandan farmers emerge victorious after monthlong occupation of UN office

Tue, 08/28/2018 - 12:29

by Phil Wilmot

After 37 days of occupying a United Nations office in Gulu, Uganda, 234 farmers, youth, mothers with young babies and elderly men packed their gear into trucks and returned to their homes in Apaa — an area of rich farmland and forest in the north of the country. Far from being a quiet and somber event, their departure was marked by an explosion of song and ululation. It was part collective exhale — following a month of cramped conditions, an overflowing pit latrine and daily hostilities from their reluctant “hosts” — and part cry of triumph and hope.

The occupiers from Apaa had uprooted themselves and thrust their community upon the only global stage accessible to them. They strategically chose the only office in the entire country that could be occupied without immediate forceful eviction. By the sustained, pure inconvenience of their presence, they forced the United Nations and other actors to address their struggle for land and security in a country that has inflicted great violence on them.

The long struggle for land and rights in Apaa

The occupiers began their trek from Apaa to Gulu on July 10, a journey that took over 20 hours on foot and by truck, due to bad roads and mechanical breakdowns. They arrived, silently, at 7 a.m. outside the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, with a petition on behalf of over 26,000 Apaa residents. The petition requested that the high commissioner in Geneva call on Uganda’s government to halt the arsons, killings, arrests and other abuses perpetrated against their community.

Such violence has been inflicted on the people of Apaa for almost a decade, as political elites have used state armed forces to attempt to drive residents from their land and clear the way for foreign investment. While one plan — to develop the area into a high-end trophy hunting park — was abandoned in 2015, locals believe that elites continue to pursue other deals.

The decision to occupy the OHCHR was not made lightly. It came after residents in Apaa tried many other methods to protect their homes. Following a new wave of attacks in March, they lobbied their representatives to raise the issue in parliament, guided researchers from local human rights groups to meticulously document recent abuses, requested meetings with foreign embassies, attended court hearings, and intercepted soldiers who perpetrated attacks with an envoy of local religious and political leaders.

Despite momentary victories, none of these efforts yielded long lasting results. Foreign embassies expressed sympathy, but didn’t respond to requests to meet. In a June parliament session, the deputy speaker called for an immediate halt on eviction operations. But attacks resumed just 15 days later. That’s when a core group of local leaders from affected areas decided on a new strategy: occupy the U.N. OHCHR, a body mandated to “promote and protect human rights for all,” as well as “speak out objectively in the face of human rights violations worldwide.”

According to a community leader of women in Apaa, who asked not to be named for security reasons, “We decided to occupy the United Nations to ensure that our struggle in Apaa would come to light, and become known internationally.”

The petition they drafted called on High Commissioner Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein to demand that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni put an immediate halt to all attacks on homes and people in Apaa. In the event that the government failed to engage with these requests, the petitioners asked that the high commissioner call on foreign embassies to withhold funding to state security forces and the Ugandan Wildlife Authority. Making it clear that they wouldn’t leave without results, the petitioners emphasized, “We will seek refuge and assistance here till our pleas are met.”

Protecting the United Nations instead of human rights

In the first hours after the occupiers entered the U.N. gates, U.N. office assistants hovered anxiously on their phones, consulting their superiors in the capital Kampala. Security personnel stood rigid and agitated. The 234 occupiers from Apaa sat silently on the grass, heads bowed in prayer, waiting to see if police would be summoned to forcibly evict them. The word finally came from Kampala: They would not be expelled. The fact of the occupation was reluctantly accepted. The occupiers then began erecting tarpaulins to establish the camp and set up an outdoor kitchen with huge cooking pots propped up on rocks. The surprised U.N. staff rushed back to Gulu from meetings in the capital to the unprecedented scene awaiting them in their usually sleepy office.

Occupiers placed photos of 844 homes burned by government soldiers in the middle of the U.N. compound, as evidence of the abuses perpetrated against them. (WNV)

It quickly became clear to the occupiers why the OHCHR refused to engage with their petition, or to publicly condemn attacks in Apaa. Operating on a “terminal mandate” from the Ugandan government that is due to expire in early January, the OHCHR feared it could be forced to leave the country if it caused too much agitation. In endless meetings, the United Nations tried in vain to explain to community leaders, local members of parliament and local human rights organizations that making public statements about abuses in Apaa could comprise its very existence in the country. Unsurprisingly, the occupiers saw this as weak, self-interested logic. Numerous local civil society groups began to question the very purpose and validity of the OHCHR’s work in Uganda.

According to several occupiers, the OHCHR then began to make life difficult for them in the compound. Free press and freedom of expression were suppressed. All media were blocked from entering the compound to speak with the occupiers, and when they organized their own press conference outside the U.N. walls, they were not permitted to leave to attend it. A member of the occupation who took photos with his cell phone reported that he was threatened with arrest if he continued to “leak” photos to media outside the U.N. walls. His phone was confiscated until he agreed not to take photos. Occupiers explained that meetings within the camp were monitored, and movements in and out of the compound were heavily restricted.

According to another Apaa community leader, who also asked not to be named, “the United Nations tried to block us from talking to the media because they were so concerned with their own image. They also wanted to keep their relationship with the government comfortable.”

Apaa community members gathered with signs that were later confiscated. (WNV)

To make matters worse, when the U.N. compound’s single pit latrine became full, staff refused to let concerned local NGOs have it drained. For four days, Apaa residents squatted over a pit close to over-flowing, swarming with maggots. It eventually took the intervention of a member of parliament to convince the OHCHR to allow a sanitation truck to enter and empty the contents of the latrine.

Almost every day, the OHCHR staff in Gulu, Kampala and, eventually, even Geneva were forced into a dilemma: Without the option of neutrality, would they stand with and support those suffering human rights abuses on their doorstep, or would they act to protect their comfortable jobs?

Local solidarity boosts occupiers’ morale

Some of the most beautiful moments of the occupation were displays of solidarity from surprising and far-flung locations. Since the United Nations wouldn’t provide any practical support for the occupiers, they had to turn to others for help when their supplies began to run low. In the first week, hundreds of local market vendors arrived in a giant truck, packed with huge sacks of cassava, millet flour, beans, huge cans of cooking oil, sacks of clothes and blankets, and pots and basins. While a range of local groups in Gulu contributed practical support to the occupation, community and activist groups in other parts of Uganda delivered bags of peanuts, chickens, firewood, soap and food staples. Members of parliament organized for trucks to deliver water when the national water supply dried up, and local NGOs were at the ready to top off food supplies.

Local NGOs and market vendors delivered relief items to the occupiers after their initial supply ran low. (WNV)

Beyond practical support, many groups spoke out, tipping the balance of public opinion in favor of the occupiers and their brave action to defend their community’s rights. The National Land Defense League held a press conference in Kampala in solidarity, giving the prime spot to representatives from Apaa. An alliance of prominent human rights groups and activists in Gulu came out in support of the occupation, pledging to help them for “as long as they decided to stay” and to escort them home when they decided to leave.

Traditional advocacy gains new power

Doors that had previously been closed to the community, when they were out of sight in Apaa, suddenly opened after the occupiers seized center stage in Gulu. In the fourth week of the occupation, four community representatives and a baby sneaked out of the U.N. compound and took a bus to Kampala to attend a series of meetings. After presenting their testimonies to the deputy speaker of parliament, along with eight Acholi district chairmen, the group opened a case in the Ugandan Land Inquiry Commission. They met with the U.S. ambassador, the E.U. ambassador, representatives from the embassies of Norway and Denmark, and — finally — Nicole Bjerler, the head of the OHCHR Uganda office, who was accompanied by Alan Sibenaler, the acting head of all U.N. programs in Uganda.

With the leverage generated by the occupation, the Apaa community’s traditional advocacy meetings gained real power. The occupation forced embassies to grasp human rights abuses in Apaa as concrete and urgent, rather than remote and abstract. Both the U.S. ambassador and the E.U. ambassador engaged deeply in the details of the Apaa case, saying they would discuss Apaa in their upcoming meetings with President Museveni. Meanwhile, the deputy speaker had already met with the president and reported back to the district chairpersons that he had issued a directive against eviction operations in Apaa.

Despite constant pressure from U.N. staff to pack up and leave, the occupiers had — by this point — sustained their presence for almost a month. In a three-hour, translated meeting in Kampala, Bjerler emphasized that their diplomacy efforts had yielded fruit: the Ugandan Army assured them they would follow the directive against evictions in Apaa.

Meanwhile, Sibenaler offered a more unexpected, startling concession, that even surprised other U.N. staff: health and education programs in Apaa. When the Apaa representatives reported back to their community waiting in Gulu, this news was met with triumph. In the words of one Apaa community leader, “If they are serious about education support, they will build a school, as ours have been burned down. And building a school would show the world they are defending Apaa as our land, not a game reserve. Animals don’t need schools.”

The decision to pack up and return home

After their envoy returned from Kampala, community leaders of the occupation held a strategy meeting in their camp. While the team decided that the assurances they received were strong enough to end their protest, the occupiers are far from naïve about their decision to return home. As one of the occupiers reflected, “Our fight is not complete. But we have achieved a lot, and we now have powerful allies. We hope our struggle will give others across Uganda the courage to organize for their rights.”

By surprising the United Nations, the Ugandan government and even their own local politicians, the community of Apaa has shown the world they are not passive victims, but powerful agents of change. Ground has been won, and power has been built. The ongoing struggle of the Apaa community and their right to live in peace on their own land is not over, but it will never be the same again.

How Mister Rogers modeled Gandhi’s vision in the age of mass media

Thu, 08/23/2018 - 14:16

by Stephanie Van Hook

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This article was first published by Yes! Magazine.

Kids have it really hard right now. Many adults have forgotten that a world where children are safe and cared for with dignity is not a utopian vision, but a necessity.

Take Ben, for example, who happened to be sitting in my office recently. I told him about a paid internship opportunity for high school youth at a local nonviolence organization, wondering if he would be interested in pursuing it. But he liked violence, he asserted, with a certain confidence, a wry smile on his face and a mesh of hair falling across his serious brown eyes.

“I’m not very peaceful.”

“That could make you the ideal candidate,” I replied. “You might actually have the courage it takes to practice nonviolence.”

Ben is 17 and had been expelled from school a few days before because he’d threatened, not for the first time, to fight another student. “Just go,” responded the school administrator. It was the end of the school year and they were kicking him out for the rest of the year. That evening the other kid sent him threats on Snapchat, ready to pick up the fight now that they were off campus.

“But I swallowed my pride and talked him out of it. I told him I didn’t want to fight him,” said Ben. He went back to his school administrators to tell them that he and the other guy were “cool now” and there wouldn’t be any more trouble, but to no avail. They wouldn’t revoke the expulsion. He was not worth their while—he was not worthwhile. “I have one friend who really understands this, too,” he told me quietly later in our conversation. “Nothing matters. Life really doesn’t matter.”

Something in what he’d said caught my attention. And it wasn’t his violence.

“Wait, you mean, you figured out how to reconcile with this other kid even though a few hours before the two of you were ready to take each other on? You sound like someone who’s done this before.”

And sure enough, he told me about another time when he’d not only broken up a fight between two friends, but helped them forgive each other and even reconcile.

“Ben, I’m gonna make a wild guess that you might have a real gift for peacemaking.” He became attentive now: Maybe no one had ever seen him in this light — or said so. He’d been typed as a “bad” kid, aggressive, violent; he picks a fight and is punished, but he reconciles a conflict and no one cares.

Ben was not failing school, or society. They — or rather, we — were failing him. One administrator actually told him, “You’re going to end up dead or in prison.”

“It makes me want to prove him right,” Ben said, almost imploringly.

His story made me wonder: What are we telling ourselves, and our children, about what it means to be a human being? Are we problems or are we problem-solvers? It depends on what qualities we are trained to look for.

The day before my conversation with Ben, I saw the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” Morgan Neville’s appropriately complex exploration of the unconventional children’s television pioneer Fred McFeely Rogers. The messages we send to the very young were of primary concern to Rogers, who chose a career in television — in the early days of the medium — expressly to care for children. As the originator and host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Rogers celebrated dignity and kindness in a slow-paced, low-budget children’s show that was a beloved cultural institution for just over three decades.

Giving his full attention to everyone and everything that came into his neighborhood, especially the challenges, Mister Rogers took up serious conversations normally censored from children, going right to the heart of the toughest problems the world faces: war, racism, assassination, even terrorism. He reminded us of our responsibility to look at how to understand and repair these conflicts, because  —and this is the important part — all of us have the capacity to do that work.

In an interview included in the film, Rogers says that in times of “scary news,” of tragedy and disaster, his mother taught him not to focus just on destruction or violence, but to “look for the helpers,” who are everywhere. Rogers often said that he admired Mahatma Gandhi, another unassuming person with an extraordinary capacity for separating negative behaviors from the fundamental dignity of the person doing them, and then using that relationship as a basis for constructive action. Gandhi coined a special term for nonviolence that takes it out of the conceptual realm of passivity, satyagraha. Satya means what is good, what is real, what is true, and agraha means to grasp, to hold tightly.

With his inner strength hidden behind his homemade sweaters and signature blue tennis shoes, Mister Rogers modeled satyagraha in the age of mass media. Look at his boldness, how he taught children to resist mindless indignity: giving lessons on how to turn off a television set — his very own medium — when what is shown is degrading.

Giving back agency to the dehumanized mass viewer? That’s subversive. Firmly taking his industry colleagues to task for producing media that was harmful to the development of children? Courage with a capital C.

Rogers’ influence was such that he was often invited to give commencement speeches to college graduates who grew up with his show. “As human beings,” he exhorted in one of these, “our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has — or ever will have — something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.” This is not an easy task when we’re exposed to anywhere between 500 and 10,000 brand messages a day telling us the exact opposite.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” offers a scene from the television show: The year is 1969. Officer Clemmons and Mister Rogers sit next to a wading pool, dipping their feet together for a friendly respite from the day’s heat. Officer Clemmons is Black and Mister Rogers is White. The film now flashes to news footage of a White man pouring chemicals into a swimming pool where Black and White youth are swimming as an act of nonviolent civil disobedience to segregation and the violent “Whites Only” sign on the wall. Cut back to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” where Rogers takes a towel and carefully dries Officer Clemmons’ feet. What do we see? Two people, profoundly caring about each other, as well as the other people in their neighborhood and world around them. “Pay attention to our message,” they quietly urge through their actions.

In early childhood education, as in nonviolence for that matter, there are two key principles: to dignify the child/person and model the behavior you want others to emulate. Like a master teacher, Rogers invites us into this struggle with him, imperfect as we may be now. “It’s You I Like” is the famous song he would sing to children (though we know that some grown-ups were listening, too). If we don’t love people the way they are, he would say, they can never grow. And if we don’t turn off and resist the degrading images of ourselves from commercial media, how can we love? How can we grow?

This is timeless wisdom that Rogers lived, and the challenge of a lifetime: to refuse the degradation that turns us into consumers, offer people dignity even while resisting their behavior, and, above all, love them as they are right now.

‘The price on everything is love’ — How a Detroit community overcomes a lack of city services

Sun, 08/19/2018 - 15:40

by Kevon Paynter

Jessica Ramirez in front of the storefront that houses Detroiters Helping Each Other. (Yes! Magazine/Kevon Paynter)

This article was first published by Yes! Magazine.

A multitude of voicemails and text messages from desperate neighbors flooded Jessica Ramirez’s cell phone on a brisk morning in October 2013. Winter was coming.

Using social media to reach potential donors as well as those seeking help, Ramirez created a makeshift donation center on the sidewalk outside her Southwest Detroit home. There, the community organizer and her neighbors handed out warm clothing to children and recycled beds, dressers and microwaves to new mothers who needed furniture.

When school began the next year, she was at it again, donating reams of school supplies she had collected from businesses and individuals. “Everything was being done out of my home when I started,” Ramirez says.

Recognizing her efforts, the property manager of an abandoned local storefront gave her use of the facility. That’s when her charitable acts became a community shop — Detroiters Helping Each Other, or DHEO — where kindness and generosity, not money, is the currency of exchange. Their motto: Teamwork makes the dream work.

“I would love to see us not need this anymore,” she says.

“In the meantime it’s showing people the community still cares.”

Decades of economic and population decline, a depleted tax base, and critically underfunded city services have forced Southwest Detroiters to self-organize, establishing a local network of goods and services to fill in for missing city services. The result is a range of neighbor-to-neighbor efforts, like DHEO, that seek to address broader needs that are going unmet by local government agencies.

The Congress of Communities, for example, is a charitable programming organization that, among other things, offers anti-domestic violence trainings to Southwest Detroit residents in 2010. The trainings aimed to improve public safety at a time when it took police nearly an hour to arrive at a crime scene.

A coordinated effort called Detroit Mowers Gang organized volunteers with gloves and protective eye gear to mow overgrown grass in the city’s abandoned lots and public playgrounds. The so-called weed vigilantes get together every other Wednesday to do what the city doesn’t, calling itself a “crafty crew” that refuses to let budgets and bureaucracy stand in the way of unruly grass on a playground getting cut.

And the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, organized educational programs for youth and adults, and operated a food co-op to ensure Detroiters had access to affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate food. Its ongoing work includes a food council that promotes a sustainable food system and advocates for food justice and food sovereignty in the city.

“The price on everything is love, man,” said Rico Razo, a native Southwest Detroiter and a former mayor-appointed district manager tasked with ensuring city services respond to residents’ needs.

“It’s spreading love through giving with the hopes that the people they’re helping out — if they catch someone else who’s on hard times — that they pay it forward. That’s the model that [DHEO] rolls with. I think it’s been successful.”

Three years ago, the city of Detroit named DHEO “Organization of the Year” for its role helping families recover from a fire that burned seven homes to the ground, just blocks from Ramirez’s home. Her generosity has extended beyond helping people in need. She collected a U-Haul truck of dog food to feed 369 of her neighbors’ dogs and donated straw to keep their kennels warm during Detroit’s cold months.

She shares stories about DHEO’s work on social media, so that donors can see who they’re helping.

She vets people who say they are in need to make sure no one is taking undue advantage of the community’s generosity. “We do our homework,” she says.

She has asked for a police report in the case of a family replacing items they say were taken in a home burglary or documentation when a family asked for a donated bed to keep their children out of Child Protective Services.

But Ramirez says a family’s inability to produce any of those things won’t be a hindrance to receiving help. And ultimately, the organization relies on trust between neighbors in the community and the social networks that underlie it.

“Yeah, they get stuff for free,” Ramirez says. “But we can call recipients up and say ‘come volunteer.’ If they’re able-bodied, we tell them ‘hey go cut the elderlies’ grass’ or ‘show up to a community feeding event.’ And they show up,” she says.

Razo said that for the longest time when the city cut back on services, including trash pickup, streetlights, and lawn maintenance, he saw self-organized community initiatives and nonprofits offer food and healthcare to people in need. After-school programs and summer jobs for high school students emerged as well as job training and job readiness efforts.

City and state government services are rebounding but the hope is they won’t threaten what neighbors have already built to save their communities.

Rather, Razo said he believes the city should look to them and partner with them to remove some of the burden and empower them to continue. He’s said he running for state representative to the Michigan Legislature on a platform that seeks to bolster Detroit’s community-based sharing economies, especially by integrating them into city services.

“They don’t do it for us,” Ramirez says of business and city government. “The community takes care of itself without the suit and ties.”

This article was funded in part by a grant from the Surdna Foundation. 


As the far-right descends on Portland, police target counter-protesters

Tue, 08/14/2018 - 10:11

by Shane Burley and Alexander Reid Ross

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For an event forecasted by media as the “next Charlottesville,” indicating a possible tragedy resulting from clashes between Patriot Prayer and anti-fascist protesters, the scene on Aug. 4 was remarkably familiar. Over the past couple of years, as protest movements in response to Trump and the alt-right have ramped up in intensity in Portland, Oregon, so has the aggressive use of dispersal tactics on leftist demonstrators by police.

There was yet another event from the far-right organization, Patriot Prayer, and its leader, Washington State Senate candidate Joey Gibson on Aug. 4. (Gibson lost the primary election on Aug. 7, receiving only 24,029 votes, or 2.3 percent of the votes counted.) Over the past two years, Patriot Prayer has led frequent demonstrations with the apparent support of white nationalist organizations and the Proud Boys, a radical-right fraternity. Often mixing in far-right talking points and alt-right agitation, the organization has become a thorn in Portland’s side, prompting mass-organized counter-protests that the Patriot Prayer attendees use as an invitation to attack demonstrators.

At another event on June 30, the Patriot Prayer crowd, led largely by the Proud Boys, initiated a series of attacks in clashes with anti-fascist protesters leading to a level of brutality unprecedented in Portland’s recent history. The violence had been escalating as the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer continued to stoke resentment against the relatively progressive city, and what they felt was unfair treatment at their rallies by both police and community members.

As the dust settled from the June 30 attack, which left several people arrested and in the hospital, Gibson announced the follow up for Aug. 4 while denouncing the police’s response. This surprised many counter-protesters, who insist that the Portland Police Bureau focused their crowd-dispersal methods — including chemical weapons and exploding “flash grenades” — almost exclusively on the left while actively protecting Patriot Prayer from advancing crowds.

In response to Gibson’s Aug. 4 announcement, a mass coalition organized by Pop Mob, short for popular mobilization, and anti-fascist groups like Rose City Antifa and the Pacific Northwest Antifascist Workers Collective, planned a rally and march to meet Patriot Prayer at the popular Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

Pop Mob, the coalition that brought almost 40 organizations together in a mass anti-fascist protest, started the day at City Hall at 10:30 a.m. with speakers discussing the issues that intersected with the growth of the far-right.

“Today, we offer our complete and unwavering solidarity with workers, immigrants, migrant justice organizers, and human rights activists to say loudly and clearly no to fascist organizing taking place in Portland, Oregon,” said Angelica Lim, an organizer with Gabriela Portland, in a speech at the rally.

Well over a thousand counter-demonstrated then marched through the city to meet Patriot Prayer’s group, which numbered between 300 and 400 people. When protesters made their way through downtown Portland and to the waterfront, police separated them across a large parkway from Patriot Prayer’s fenced-off position. The police, noting the threat level, had declared that the waterfront was to be weapons free, but since Patriot Prayer had agreed to stay in the confined area the police did not actually employ any methods for checking attendees for weapons. As eye witness accounts and photos revealed, there were people in the Patriot Prayer side that ignored this order, yet there were no police orders of dispersal. While both Patriot Prayer and counter-demonstrators were supposed to have access to the park, no pathway was provided for the anti-fascist march, and they were instead ordered to leave.

About two hours into the demonstration, during which protesters did not visibly antagonize the police line or try to get into the park — where Patriot Prayer yelled slurs and taunts — police used gas, flash grenades, plastic bullets and “pepper balls,” white pellets that serve as both an irritant and less-lethal ammunition. One protester was struck in the head with a large munition, which punctured their helmet, melting the area around the hole. Their head showed significant damage and they were rushed to the hospital with serious injuries.

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Within minutes, police used dozens of flash grenades as they rushed protesters, spraying them with military-grade pepper spray and other weapons. While there were previous dispersal orders, there seemed to be no instigation when police made the charge. The Patriot Prayer crowd cheered while protesters desperately ran for safety.

A second protester, documentary filmmaker Michelle Fawcett, was hit with a flash grenade, which sent her to the emergency room with third-degree chemical burns on her arm and chest. A total of three people had to go the hospital from injuries from police activity.

James Peach was a protester who was present when police began escalating their crowd dispersal techniques. “I assumed something must have happened at the front of the protest line,” said Peach, who was sitting on the curb towards of the back of the crowd when the flash grenades were heard.

When the police came closer they fired two projectiles at him, and the second one tore open his arm. A street medic, who was a medical doctor, had to provide emergency stitches with a triage kit in the backseat of a car.

“Clearly the police used unnecessary force,” Peach said about his injury. “[The police] have been warned about these munitions and what they can do to people. You turn the streets into the war zone and people are going to die.”

Organizers across the crowd have had an almost uniform story of police aggression, saying that a common protest was treated as though it was a violent street mob.

“The police’s response was completely unprovoked,” said Effie Baum, organizer and spokesperson for Pop Mob. “This is a tactic I’ve seen them employ in other actions in the recent past. They will start announcing things over the loudspeaker that no one has witnessed, such as [the presence of] weapons, and then use those claims to justify an attack.”

Later, Patriot Prayer was allowed to leave their assigned protest area, despite the limitations that were previously set, and chaperoned through city blocks of downtown Portland by police. After returning to their original location, Patriot Prayer attendees allegedly assaulted protesters without police intervention.

This scene, where far-right protesters appear to receive delicate treatment while counter-demonstrators are placed in a critically dangerous situation, is common. During the “May Day” demonstration in 2017, flash bangs and tear gas were deployed with almost no warning on the largely family-friendly crowd after some protesters threw sodas in the air.

Just weeks later, at the June 4, 2017 counter-demonstration to Patriot Prayer that brought out over 4,000 protesters, police again turned their sights on the anti-fascist crowd with almost no visible provocation and “kettled” the crowd in a tactical move that was roundly denounced. They later said that there had been bricks thrown, yet this could not be verified. Since then this has been a pattern, and the police’s statements about the seeming “mainstream” nature of Patriot Prayer versus their left-wing counter-protesters seems to verify this imbalance in treatment.

“The police were completely duplicitous in their dealings with the counter-protest,” said David Rose, a spokesperson with Rose City Antifa. “The Portland Police has a long history of lying about their reasons for attacking protests, justifying their brutality and violence with poorly constructed and unproven statements. Both on June 4, 2017, and on Aug. 4, 2018, their pitiful excuses for blindly firing into a crowd with chemical and explosive weapons can’t disguise their true motivations — to allow fascist and white supremacist groups free rein of Portland streets.”

Multiple videos seem to corroborate protesters’ accounts, showing the police conferring before firing tear gas and advancing on protesters without provocation. In a video released by Daniel V. Media, the police appear to discuss things quietly and then, without warning, a flash grenade is fired directly into the crowd and police begin an aggressive charge on the protest line, including using military-grade pepper spray on the journalist filming.

“I saw no projectiles thrown from the protesters and had actually observed them doing their best to avoid confrontations with the police,” said the producer from Daniel V. Media who shot the video. “I saw the police shoot explosives aimed above and, several times, directly at protesters, along with blast balls and tear gas thrown by hand towards protesters, and pepper ball rounds fired from paintball guns.”

Shortly after the protest, the Oregon chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which contributed a sizable presence at the Saturday event, issued a joint statement denouncing police behavior and calling on “government officials to investigate and enact reforms in the wake of the Portland Police Bureau’s violent actions that targeted Portland’s residents peacefully counter-protesting against racist far-right groups.”

They were followed by multiple groups, including the ACLU of Oregon, which declared the use of these crowd control weapons an infringement of individual rights. “The Portland Police Bureau’s response to protest is completely unacceptable in a free society. The repeated use of excessive force, and the targeting of demonstrators based on political beliefs are a danger to the First Amendment rights of all people,” the ACLU of Oregon said in a statement posted on social media.

Police ended up making four arrests from the counter-demonstration, pressing charges like disorderly conduct and harassment. While there were a range of weapons confiscated from the Patriot Prayer side, including baseball bats, they were never forcefully dispersed and police allowed some of them to stay into the evening.

The question that many in Portland are left with is how the police’s priorities are being determined — especially given the nature of hate groups, like the Proud Boys, which have a history of extremely violent street conflict. In a public statement put out shortly after the incidents, Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw said that the reports of the injured protester hit by a flash grenade are serious and will be investigated.

“This morning I learned of allegations of injury as a result of law enforcement action,” Outlaw wrote. “I take all force applications by members seriously and have directed the Professional Standards Division to begin the intake process regarding these allegations to determine if force was used and if so, [whether it] was within our policy and training guidelines.” Outlaw later announced the suspension of the use of flash grenades pending an investigation into their use.

While Pop Mob organizers were angered by the Portland Police’s treatment, they highlighted the sheer number of participants as a victory. “The action itself was incredibly successful,” Baum said. “The amount of people we were able to bring out, the diversity of the people we were able to bring out, and our ability to function, throughout the day, as one united left, was really inspiring.”

On Aug. 8 protesters showed up at the City Council meeting to raise the issue of police violence. Several of the people who were there were injured by the police, including both Michelle Fawcett and James Peach. They wanted to have city officials hear about their experience with police tactics. This protest became heated after many protesters, including those exhibiting injuries, were not allowed into the proceedings. A conflict with guards and police ensued, resulting in several arrests and at least one security guard receiving a minor head injury.

As anger around the continuing far-right street action and police overreach grows, it is likely that this groundswell in Portland — and across the country, in what has been given the hashtag #AllOutAugust — will only escalate.

New NYC regulations on Uber and Lyft a victory for union organizing

Sat, 08/11/2018 - 15:25

by Skanda Kadirgamar

From left, Taxi Workers Alliance executive director Bhairavi Desai and organizer M. Tippu Sultan after the City Council hearing on Aug. 8. (WNV/Skanda Kadirgamar)

The New York City Taxi Workers Alliance achieved a crucial victory on Aug. 8 when the City Council passed key regulations on ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft. Organizers from the drivers’ union have long opposed the free hand New York’s leaders have given Uber and its peers to inundate the streets with for-hire vehicles, which has added to congestion and suppressed wages. A 12-month freeze on the addition of new ride-hailing vehicles, with an exception for wheelchair accessible cars, and authorization for the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission to guarantee ride-hail drivers a $15 living wage are among the key measures that passed. After the City Council hearing, Taxi Workers Alliance executive director Bhairavi Desai told reporters it was the “dawning of a new day for a workforce of a hundred thousand men and women.”

For the union, which brought both ride hail and traditional drivers together in support of capping the number of ride-hailing vehicles, this decision marks a stunning reversal in political terms. Three years ago Uber bested attempts at regulation. The company had friends in high places, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and over the years remained unchecked as it rolled out more and more cars. This has contributed to a scenario in which traditional cabs are now outnumbered by app-based cars. The glut of new vehicles decreased the number of available fares for each driver, contributing to a major reductions in income.

This helped create dire working conditions. Over the course of six months, six professional drivers committed suicide, some of whom directly cited changes in the industry as motivation. Sixty-one-year-old driver Douglas Schifter, who penned a manifesto against the current state of the industry before shooting himself in front of City Hall, claimed to have been working 120 hours a week. Schifter named Uber, Gov. Cuomo and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg as complicit in creating the harsh conditions pushing him to end his life. He was soon joined by Nichanor Ochisor, who also found his livelihood compromised by ride-hailing apps, and Kenny Chow, who threw himself into the East River to escape mounting debt. Fifty-nine-year-old Yemeni immigrant Abdul Saleh became the sixth driver to commit suicide in June. All of Saleh’s earnings had gone into leasing his car.

The Taxi Workers Alliance and their supporters now believe that the city can move in a safer direction for drivers. As she spoke with the press, Desai was joined by George Schifter and Richard Chow, both brothers of the deceased. Schifter said that the City Council decision would allow drivers and their families to “be able to put food on the table, keep a roof above their head and pay the electric bill.” Schifter traveled from Florida to attend the hearing. In the wake of his brother’s death, he has been indirectly involved with the Taxi Workers Alliance campaign to regulate ride-hailing companies. “My goal is to have a halt to the loss of life… and to bring fairness,” he said. “If they made adjustments in the industry, maybe other people won’t suffer the same.”

Richard Chow, a driver of 13 years and owner of a taxi medallion, lauded the measures and spoke to some of the hardships he experienced after being forced to compete with Uber. Chow criticized Uber and other ride-hailing services’ exemption from purchasing medallions, which essentially function as permits for yellow cabs. Medallions were once valued at $1.3 million, but then sank to $300,000, making them financially burdensome for owners like Nichanor Ochisor and Kenny and Richard Chow. Uber and Lyft’s success is intrinsically tied to this collapse. Richard Chow said he is $400,000 in debt on his medallion while his brother owed $700,000 before ending his life.

After these tragedies, however, these new laws could herald a change in drivers’ political fortunes. “Today means that there’s a new day for us. It’s a reminder that worker organizing can beat corporate lobbying when we come together,” Desai said. The role of the Taxi Workers Alliance in bringing City Council to this point was pivotal. Desai explained that while the NYTWA is a comparatively small union that does not have a great deal of formal lobbying infrastructure, it has managed to garner a considerable amount of influence. Desai noted that the recent legislation was directly responsive to the union’s policy platform. “This was a grassroots organizing win,” she said, pointing to the over 20 actions in front of City Hall undertaken to compel the council’s response to the both the taxi worker suicides and brutal working conditions. Desai also mentioned that throughout this fight the union has put together a mental health program for drivers in addition to providing both bankruptcy and eviction services.

Lacking the “political operation” of their larger ally SEIU 32BJ, the NYTWA relied on the reputation it had garnered over 22 years of organizing. This decades-long commitment to organizing drivers has drawn the attention of allies on the City Council like Ruben Diaz Sr., Brad Lander and Steve Levins. Desai also thanked 32BJ for supporting the Taxi Workers Alliance, which demonstrated that they were “not alone” and that their “fight would have a bigger impact for other workforces.”

Desai commented on the wider significance of this victory, saying that New York’s approach to regulation is probably the “most comprehensive.” Moreover, she noted that New York is “Uber’s biggest market” in the United States and thus subject to tremendous investment and lobbying from the company. Desai hopes that New York’s position will be a trailblazer for other cities looking to regulate ride-hailing services.

“Three years ago we lost,” she remarked, noting Uber’s key victories in 2015. “Often times corporations think that once the workers lose, it’s a done deal. The fact that we were able to keep organizing and come back three years later and win is really an important message to these companies that [they] can’t keep underestimating the workers.”

Desai and the rest of the union know, however, that the city’s reversal was the beginning of another struggle. The legislation that just passed must now be implemented, so workers have to wait for the beneficial effects to kick in. Moreover, later that day City Council introduced six additional pieces of legislation that, if approved, would incorporate even more of the Taxi Workers Alliance’s platform into law. Among these are the establishment of a health benefits fund for drivers and requirements that the Taxi and Limousine Commission find ways of relieving indebted medallion owners. The commission would also be obligated to provide centers for mental and financial counseling in addition to establishing an Office of Inclusion focused on “promoting diversity, inclusion, and cultural sensitivity in the industry, especially as they relate to service refusals.” This last measure is presumably meant to address complaints from black and Latinx New Yorkers who experience discrimination by cabbies.

How international travel is changing the narrative on violence in Chicago

Fri, 08/10/2018 - 15:32

by Henry Cervantes

Jenn Resendiz and an Adventures in Learning summer camper during of Speaking Peace on July 18. (Facebook/Peace Exchange)

When one sees Chicago in headlines, violent images — particularly those involving African American and Latino youth — often come to mind. The city’s segregated neighborhoods, like Austin, Englewood, North Lawndale, Garfield Park and Little Village, are predominantly black and brown communities that have a reputation as tough and violent. The common narrative of these neighborhoods is that they are where the lives of poor people of color are lost to the streets, jails or gun violence.

A small program called Peace Exchange is using the teachings of nonviolence to help change the narrative of these communities by working with youth leaders who are interested in peaceful change. Founded in 2013 by youth leaders, the program’s vision was to bring youth out of their neighborhoods to experience transformational international travel to learn about nonviolent social movements abroad.

Peace Exchange works primarily with young African American and Latino youth from the west and south sides of Chicago who are exposed to high levels of injustice, from closed schools to police brutality to gun violence. These young people come from some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods and know first-hand the effects of inner city violence. The program has developed a model for training and supporting young Chicagoans to become role models and mentors for their own communities.

“The purpose is to expand the world view of inner city youth and get them out of their American bubble,” said Jess Work, who serves as international program manager for Peace Exchange. “Our youth travel internationally to continue their peace studies with neighborhood organizers, student leaders and peace activists. Our choice of destinations, particularly to disadvantaged communities, provides a remarkable range of experiences and broadens our travelers’ world views.”

Each year, Peace Exchange works with partner sponsor organizations to support a cohort of six youth from ages 17-22 that it calls Peace Builders. Once the youth are nominated and selected, they go through an intensive 12–month, three-phase program.

In the first phase, Peace Builders undertake 80 hours of training from experts and professionals working to address violence in various forms. Training providers include institutions like the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center and the Anti-Defamation League. The trainings are on a variety of topics, from domestic violence and genocide to conflict resolution and peace circles. All training are anchored in nonviolence, mindfulness and compassion to better equip the Peace Builders in bringing their leadership back into their own communities.

The Peace Builders joined the DRW Westside Peace March in the Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale in May 2017. (Facebook/Peace Exchange)

During the second phase, the Peace Builders travel for 2-3 weeks to an international destination to learn about nonviolent social movements and youth strategies for social change. Past groups have traveled to Myanmar, Thailand, Nicaragua, South Africa and, most recently, India. In each country, partnerships are developed with local organizations, which are youth-led or work with young people.

The class of 2013-14 traveled to Thailand and Myanmar, where they spent days at Thai Plum Village, a meditation community founded by Thich Nhat Hanh. Peace Builders learned the art of living in mindfulness and practiced strategies to help improve interpersonal relationships. In Myanmar, they learned from local youth leaders from the Karen State and their struggle for autonomy and survival, as well as their cultural and spiritual ways of staying resilient and peaceful in the face of war and violence.

In 2015, the Peace Builders traveled to Nicaragua to learn from the young people at Los Quinchos, a center for street youth who have survived poverty and violence. And the class of 2016 traveled to South Africa, where they learned from the youth of Imagine Scholars about how to create empathy and prevent abuse. Peace Builders visited Soweto and met with local activists who worked to end apartheid. They also went to Nelson Mandela’s home and learned about how young people and students had led a nonviolent movement that helped bring about the changes there.

Peace Exchange’s creative approach allows it to help build local and international youth peace movements. The purpose of these trips is to expose participants to peace activists who are working for peace and social justice. All of their experiences are documented by youth documentary filmmakers from Free Spirit Media. (The films can be seen here.)

For the third phase, Peace Builders are challenged to come back to Chicago and share what they have learned about nonviolent social change from their training and experiences abroad with young people in their neighborhoods. In the past five years, they have reached over 6,000 youth and allies in their schools and communities. Peace Builders use the power of their personal stories — melded with the lessons they learned from their travels about peacemaking processes and nonviolence — to spread their message to younger youth in their communities. Their films and stories are also shared with audiences at the annual Peace on Earth Film Festival.

In addition to the three-phase program, Peace Exchange provides a four session modular program to partner schools called Speaking Peace that offers a deeper dive into nonviolence. The Peace Exchange does this thanks to the help of the Communities in Schools of Chicago, a partner organization that makes referrals from local public and private schools. Speaking Peace is driven by requests from elementary schools that seek peace education.

The program teaches tolerance, responsible decision-making and nonviolence through discussions, storytelling, role-playing, games and documentary films. Each of the four sessions, which are taught by Peace Builder alumni, touches on a number of social and emotional learning skills with an emphasis on fostering self-awareness, developing empathy, nurturing positive relationships and acting responsibly. Peace Exchange’s goal is that 3,000 students in the Chicago area, primarily in the fourth through eighth grades at schools, will take part in Speaking Peace each school year.

Those who have studied and participated in nonviolent social movements know two key lessons: Peacemakers are not born, they are made; and before any social change can occur, individuals must first change. It is on these premises that Peace Exchange exists. Alumni have been transformed by their experiences in the program.

Take Anthony Green, a Peace Builder from the North Lawndale community, who works part time at a local chain store. North Lawndale has an unemployment rate almost triple the average in Chicago. At age 22, he is the oldest brother to 12 siblings and has had violence personally affect him. He was nominated by UCAN, a sponsor organization in Chicago that works with high risk youth.

“The trip to India has really empowered me and motivated me to be a driving force in helping bring peace not only in my community, but others as well,” Green said. “Peace Exchange has shown me that there are various ways to bring peace into the community and that by understanding each others’ needs we will be much closer to obtaining it for every community.”

Stefany Rendon and Sergio Melgarejo met with nearly 500 K-8 students as part of Namaste Charter School’s Peace Day Celebration in 2015. (Facebook/Peace Exchange)

Stefany Rendon, a 20-year-old from Cicero, was another participant in the program. She was nominated by her sponsor organization, the Josephinum Academy of the Sacred Heart High School. She remembers growing up and becoming immune to violence. When she was a child, gunshots went through her living room windows and over her head. In 2015 she traveled to Nicaragua and now leads with a message of peace wherever she goes.

“Peace Exchange has helped me establish relationships that enable me to lead, educate, mentor and nurture peace in my own communities,” Rendon said.  “Being a Peace Builder here in Chicago means that I have to be an example for the youth of my community, because I know when I was young I always looked for someone that I could look up to. What has surprised me the most is how much Peace Exchange has impacted my life and changed it. I have seen that peace is possible in various communities throughout the world.”

Peace Exchange believes in the power of youth and of nonviolence. The root causes of youth violence are many. If violence is to be stopped, allies and mentors must ask themselves some tough questions: How am I creating opportunities for poor young people of color impacted by violence? How am I encouraging their interest in peacemaking? How am I supporting youth voices for change in this society and around the world?

With nonviolence, one must recognize that the ultimate resource is within oneself and others. Every young person has unlimited potential and all they need is to be provided with meaningful opportunities for positive change to occur. In doing this work, it has become clear that young people are hungry for this kind of peace knowledge and skills. The key to changing society is changing oneself, and Peace Exchange is helping to make that happen, one young person at a time.

Is it now too easy to organize mass protest?

Tue, 08/07/2018 - 10:52

by Brian Martin

In Turkey, in 2013, there was an anti-government protest in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. It grew tremendously, thanks to messages and photos on social media. For those involved, it was an amazing, empowering experience. It seemed to signal a major challenge to the government. But it didn’t last. It was a large protest event, but lacked the foundations to be sustained.

Welcome to the world of “networked protest,” in which social media can be used to bring together thousands of people with remarkably little preparation. To understand how protest organizing has been changed by the rapid uptake of mobile electronic devices, it is valuable to turn to the insightful book by Zeynep Tufekci titled “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.”

Tufekci is from Turkey and works at the University of North Carolina. She has spent many years studying the role of media in social movements by participating on the front lines, as well as interviewing activists in Chiapas, Egypt, Turkey, the United States and elsewhere. “Twitter and Tear Gas” is an incredibly impressive account drawing equally on activist experiences and relevant scholarship. Several of Tufekci’s key insights are valuable for improving nonviolent theory and practice, while at the same time her analysis can be strengthened and extended by taking into account ideas about nonviolent action and participatory decision-making.

Organizing then and now

Before the internet, it was, of course, possible to organize protest actions, but it took a lot more effort. Tufekci gives a detailed account of the months of preparation and planning, by dozens of volunteers, for the massive March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Whereas large rallies seem almost routine these days, getting hundreds of thousands of people together decades ago was a triumph of planning and preparation.

In his 1973 book “The Politics of Nonviolent Action,” Gene Sharp described the preparation stage of a nonviolent campaign as “laying the groundwork.” As part of this stage, he argued that movements needed to be ready to handle reprisals because the next stage is “challenge brings repression.” What Sharp didn’t anticipate was that movements could grow so rapidly that they would skim through preparation stages and be unable to take advantage of their opportunities.

One of the features of networked protest that Tufekci describes is a lack of formal leadership. When large rallies are organized at short notice via social media, often there is no agreed upon leader who can negotiate with authorities. The individuals who initiated the action may not be widely known and be reluctant to take a leadership role, while movement organizations are sometimes peripheral to the organizing process. Most importantly, there is not sufficient time for building the personal relationships and decision-making processes necessary for a well-recognized leader to emerge.

In some ways, lack of formal leadership is a positive. Authorities cannot so easily undermine a movement by taking out or co-opting its leaders. Tufekci describes how, in many actions that last for days or weeks, there is a semi-spontaneous system of cooperation to provide food, clothing, medical assistance, cleaning, libraries and other services, largely coordinated by social media. The experience of cooperative living, in which the usual commercial relationships are replaced by altruistic sharing, is incredibly powerful for many participants, giving a sense of the sort of society they would like to create. The emotional impact is increased by the possibility of imminent danger should authorities attack.

New vulnerabilities

While social media enable rapid mobilization of protests and coordination of actions as they occur, they also introduce new vulnerabilities and complexities. Before the internet, movements under repressive regimes had no chance of obtaining mass media coverage and so had to build networks using face-to-face contact, phones, posters, leaflets and newsletters. Today, social media are an alternative to mass media for broadcasting information and coordinating actions.

The problem is that the dominant social media platforms are owned by large corporations, notably Facebook and Google. The advantage for activists is that these platforms are so widely used that authorities are reluctant to shut them down just to target a few activists, because this alienates much of the rest of the population. But activists can be targeted in other ways that are hard to counter.

Facebook has a real-names policy. This may be okay for many purposes, but for political dissidents and stigmatized minorities anonymity can be valuable, because revealing your identity can make you vulnerable to arrest, torture and reprisals on your family.

In 2010, in Egypt, Wael Ghonim set up a Facebook page named “We are all Khalid Said”, named after a young man — not an activist — who was tortured and killed by the Egyptian police. The page attracted a huge following and became a focus for anti-regime sentiment. The Egyptian government wasn’t paying that much attention to social media, but Ghonim’s page was closed by Facebook because he had used a pseudonym. Tufekci tells how the page was only rescued when a sympathizer, who lived outside Egypt, put her name to it despite the risk.

Tufekci provides an illuminating account of the problems posed to movements by commercial domination of online platforms. She provides anecdotes and research findings suggesting that in many cases problems arise not because of government pressure but because company algorithms are applied automatically and snare activist pages, especially ones that other users dislike. It can be difficult for activists to determine whether takedowns of their pages or low ranks in searches or news feeds are due to opposition or to the arbitrary application of an algorithm designed to maximize page views and profits rather than free speech.

Signals and capacities

For assessing a movement’s power, Tufekci draws on a framework based on signals and capacities. Actions by a movement serve as signals to authorities and to potential supporters about the capacities of the movement. She focuses on three types of capacity. The first, narrative capacity, is about a movement’s ability to tell a story that resonates with audiences. Narrative capacity, in the form of framing theory, has been addressed exhaustively in studies of social movements. For activists, a more practical approach is narrative power analysis.

Second is disruptive capacity, which is about being able to challenge business as usual. This is much the same as methods of protest, noncooperation and intervention in the repertoire of nonviolent action.

Tufekci’s third type of capacity is electoral, which is the power to influence outcomes of elections. Tufekci notes that some movements, such as the Occupy movement, do not engage with electoral politics because many participants are skeptical of representative government. So, the example she focuses on is the conservative Tea Party movement, which targeted the U.S. electoral system to great effect.

The final chapter in “Twitter and Tear Gas” explains how governments are learning about networked protest and developing ways to counter movements. In the online domain, it is now usually futile to try to maintain comprehensive censorship because there are so many options to get around controls using social media. Tufekci cites the Chinese government as particularly sophisticated in controlling online discourse. Despite the so-called “great wall of China” to control the internet, the government allows a considerable amount of anti-regime commentary. Where censors intervene is not against criticism but against communication that can mobilize resistance.

One important government technique is to allow dissident communication but to weaken its impact by flooding communication channels with information, so dissent is lost in information overload. Another, related technique is to attempt to reduce the credibility of key dissident voices by spreading rumors and encouraging people to start questioning any source. The result, in many cases, is a disengagement with politics because there seem to be no credible voices, either government authorities or their opponents.

This analysis by Tufekci is a worthy successor to William Dobson’s book “The Dictator’s Learning Curve.” Movements often think mainly of what they are doing themselves and not enough about what their opponents are doing to counter them.

The nonviolence connection

Although Tufekci draws on a wide range of scholarly studies, surprisingly she does not cite or discuss ideas from nonviolent action. Many of Tufekci’s observations and assessments are fully in accord with findings from nonviolence research. What could be added? Two things stand out.

Much of Tufekci’s attention is given to mass rallies and occupations, such as with Tahrir Square in Egypt, Gezi Park in Turkey and Zuccotti Park in New York. These are important, of course, but they receive disproportionate attention because they are highly visible signs of resistance and, by extension, a magnet for journalists. Nonviolence research points to the wide variety of methods that can be used, such as numerous types of strikes, boycotts and alternative institutions. Methods of noncooperation are less publicly visible than mass rallies but can be more powerful.

Tufekci is attuned to the importance of tactical flexibility; indeed, one of her main themes is the inability of networked protests to make decisions, leading to continuation of actions when they have lost their effectiveness. Paying attention to other forms of action would broaden her analysis.

Another key contribution from nonviolence research is the importance of strategic analysis. Rallies, strikes, boycotts and so forth are the methods, but to be effective, methods need to be deployed in a calculated way to build the movement, respond to opponents and, in general, do the most to be effective in the long run. Of course movements are seldom so organized that they can be directed by a few leaders with strategic acumen. Instead, effective movements allow experimentation with techniques — for example, the choice to use or not use humor in different parts of Serbia during the challenge to Milosevic and learning from experience.


Tufekci provides a vivid account of the challenge of making decisions in a large rally or occupation organized at short notice via social media, and where there is a rejection of electoral methods and instead a commitment to nonhierarchical processes. When formal leadership is rejected or challenged, the scene is set for informal domination of proceedings, typically by those who are more articulate and confident, and who sometimes are manipulative.

Tufekci cites Jo Freeman’s famous article “The tyranny of structurelessness”: without formal processes, unspoken hierarchies emerge. However, activists long ago adopted participatory processes, most notably affinity groups and consensus decision-making, which are widely used. One trouble with a rapidly organized action is that there is little time to form affinity groups. Another is that participants may have little experience with consensus processes.

A deeper problem is that affinity groups and consensus processes do not scale up easily. Reaching consensus in a group of 10 is one thing; reaching it in a group of 10,000 is another. This problem suggests the need to develop new decision-making methods for mass actions.

One option is to draw on experience with groups of randomly selected decision-makers in what are called citizens juries or mini-publics. As in a court jury, members are chosen randomly, hear evidence and opinions, deliberate and are entrusted to make decisions in the best interests of the wider community. There have been thousands of trials and applications of this approach around the world, usually with positive results. Participants nearly always find the experience empowering.

Applying the citizens jury model to a protest action requires some advance preparation. One aspect is outlining decision-making processes when the action is organized. Another is that sufficient numbers of participants need some knowledge and experience with citizen jury processes. The implication is that these methods need to be tested and refined in the community, especially in action groups, when pressures are less intense.

Citizens juries are one option worth exploring. The key point is that because there are shortcomings in decision-making in mass actions, there is a need for experimentation with a range of possibilities. Some of these might turn out to be alternatives to the electoral processes rejected by so many activists.

Added value

“Twitter and Tear Gas” is an exceedingly valuable analysis of the conditions for mass protest in the age of social media, and there is much that nonviolent campaigners can learn from Tufekci’s analysis. She highlights the importance of movement building prior to organizing major action. Key aspects of movement building are developing relationships and methods of decision making.

She points to the importance of attention. Traditionally, censorship is implemented by blocking access to information. With widespread use of social media, new techniques are used, including information overload, hoaxes, questioning credibility and harassing social media leaders. These techniques are seldom addressed in discussions of nonviolent action.

Assessments of movement strength need to take into account that it’s now so much easier to organize large rallies. This is relevant to studies comparing the strength of nonviolent campaigns in different time periods.

“Twitter and Tear Gas” is a remarkable achievement, combining personal experience and research to provide insights from campaigners in the age of networks, and presented in an engaging style. For even better value, Tufekci’s insights can be combined with those from nonviolence research and participatory decision-making.

How women in Zimbabwe overcame a culture of fear to build a culture of resistance

Sat, 08/04/2018 - 12:53

by Jenni Williams

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This text is adapted from “The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements,” edited by Lester R. Kurtz and Lee A. Smithey for Syracuse University Press.

Suffering under the brutal dictatorship of the Robert Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, a group of women rose up courageously as “mothers of the nation” to challenge his elite rule and build grassroots democratic change in their communities. Women of Zimbabwe Arise, or WOZA, mobilized a campaign of “tough love,” using the traditional role and moral authority of mother to scold the repressive and corrupt leaders of the country and call for a new kind of society where equality and social justice prevail. This joining of love, power and justice echoes the vision and experience of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who declared, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

The idea of tough love emerged and added value to the role of motherhood we embraced. Tough love is the disciplining love a “mother” uses for a “child” who has gone astray or is disrespecting the family. Robert Mugabe and members of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF Party, are first and foremost children of Zimbabwe, who are disrespecting the “family” — the nation. For us, as women, our issues were not about political rule but about the everyday issues that affect us and our families. Finding our kitchens empty and the cat using the stove to warm itself, we moved from the kitchen to the streets. We found we had a talent for organizing and put nonviolent direct action behind our collective voice to loudly demand dramatic changes for Zimbabwe and to call for Zimbabweans to choose love and unity over hatred and violence.

Forging a culture of resistance among courageous women, WOZA helped women to overcome their fear of the repressive forces governing the country. Following the words of Gandhi, we looked upon time spent in police custody as a trip to our fields to plant seeds for a good harvest. So, we turned arrests into a celebration of successful resistance. We regarded our time under arrest as a chance to “workshop” or educate the police officers about human rights and to correct those in positions of power who harassed us. We called on them to stop their childlike behavior and abuse of power. Because we were able to play our motherly role so well and with such love, we were able to make our persecutors respect us and appreciate the issues that drove us into the streets in protest. With demonstrations of love — even for arresting police officers — WOZA women provided the nation with a new way to hold policymakers accountable. The high-visibility protest with women speaking truth to power shocked the nation out of its complacency. This form of tough love also challenged a deeply polarized political environment, opening up a new space in the center white line on the “highway” of Zimbabwean political life: women standing their ground on their issues demanding attention as the politicians and citizens drove by to the left and to the right.

Tough love was a litmus test to prove that the power of love can overcome the love of power.

Political and social contexts in Zimbabwe

WOZA was founded in 2002 at a time when a raft of unjust laws were put in place in Zimbabwe, entrenching dictatorship and closing down space for any form of resistance. With the media now restricted, the Public Order Security Act then limited the association and assembly of citizens. WOZA was established to create a collective voice for women to speak out on their everyday issues. WOZA wanted to empower them with knowledge and nonviolent direct action skills and thereby provide a platform for them to demand social justice. WOZA knew that this mandate would also challenge the authoritarian rule of Robert Mugabe and that this empowerment would build a new foundation for democratic change.

Robert Mugabe’s rule emerged from a protracted violent struggle for independence in Zimbabwe in which he played a minor role. Mugabe’s initial overtures of tolerance and forgiveness were quickly overturned by elite pacts and patronage systems to keep the military in check and to maintain the loyalty of a partisan civil service that held the nation hostage with liberation rhetoric and false appeals for social justice. A one-party state was being set in place, and the dictatorship was entrenching itself.

During colonial times, the white political system governed Zimbabwe. At independence in 1980, a black ruling elite supplanted this system. This entrenched dictatorship is still in place 37 years later in the form of the ZANU-PF Party, which has politicized all arms of the state, the economy and even the citizens. ZANU-PF has captured democracy, and all citizens are supposed to give their loyalty unquestioningly. Zimbabwe’s economy continues to bounce along the rock bottom, with over 90 percent formal unemployment widening the gap between the rich and the poor. The crisis of governance has destroyed the education and health systems of the nation, once the pride of Africa, preoccupying citizens with daily survival and leaving little time to mobilize citizen power. Those who find life intolerable have left the country as economic or political migrants, further tearing apart the social fabric of an otherwise peace-loving and always smiling nation.

The Public Order Security Act established in 2002 barred meetings of more than three people and required notification of the police regarding any meetings. Meanwhile, the word “notification” was in practice changed into “approval” for any meeting by the police. The Protection of Privacy Act curtailed access to information, so all the various spaces in which people could formerly express themselves or speak out were effectively closing. The ruling party simultaneously co-opted television and radio stations and major daily newspapers to ensure distribution of party propaganda.

The nation was thus silenced and rendered unable to organize due to indiscriminate arrests of opposition and other activists by the police and intelligence forces, and life became intolerable for women and their families. Gender discriminatory norms limited their mobility, and poverty constrained their ability to run for the borders and other greener pastures as men could do.

Enacting tough love

When women gathered and started to discuss the formation of WOZA, the silence had become too loud to bear, and the culture of fear that prevailed shot right through to our bones — we had to put our fear aside and act. As women sat and talked, we viewed ourselves as “the mothers of the nation,” still a key phrase in our movement today. We said we had to do something within the role God had ordained for us. We had to be visible to Zimbabweans and show citizens a new way to speak out about ordinary people’s everyday needs.

WOZA members wanted to address simple issues of their everyday lives but with far-reaching impact that would touch all Zimbabweans, even the police officers whom we knew would be sent to beat and arrest us: the cost of bread and staple diet of maize meal; the rapidly deteriorating state of the education for our children; prevailing joblessness; and poor service delivery in the health sector. We were deeply concerned about the continuing violence permeating all parts of society, including the increasing domestic violence against women. One of our first protests was over the high cost and general unavailability of sanitary pads for women, a vital and basic monthly need but a major source of female dignity.

We also said we would not speak without acting. If we were going to hold the moral high ground — if we were going to do something effective — we also needed to appropriate a very visible space showing love and highlighting our issues in our own language. So, our version of nonviolent strategy is firmly grounded in our gender and our mothering role, so ordained. More than 15 years later, we are still in the streets showing love, speaking about our issues and how they affect us and our families.

Because the number of participants is important for peaceful protest, we decided to build a mass movement and invented a democratic structure that could mobilize numbers through a shared leadership model. We wanted to make sure we remained grounded in our constituency. We also wanted to make sure that we could stand on the center white line on the “highway” of Zimbabwean political life, opening a space for these issues and drawing the attention of fellow citizens who had grown accustomed to our highly polarized society. In Zimbabwe, you are either ZANU-PF or you are opposition, and we felt that this segmenting of society could be healed with the spirit of love that we wanted to build and sustain. We chose to stand on issues, not on formal political platforms, and this was the hardest part of our mandate, but we have succeeded in remaining in our own independent space. The Zimbabwean and global human rights networks have also agreed that socioeconomic rights are as important as civil and political rights, and the new Zimbabwean constitution now has an expanded bill of rights to include these.

Challenging patriarchy and repression

Beyond the realm of politics, it is important to note that patriarchy rules in Africa. When we decided to form WOZA, we realized that the time had come for women to be out front and visible demanding policy change in society. We wanted to show that we are good at mobilizing around issues and organizing within communities on their issues. Just as we organize our families, we can organize in public life. An integral part of the tough love approach is the use of nonviolent tactics and strategies of peaceful protest that deliver visibility, amplify important messages, and motivate us to invent new ways of organizing and communicating. Within our femininity we also found creativity and use this in formulating our protest theatrics.

We, as women, are breaking stereotypes and breaking patriarchy as well as the space it commands. We are proud to say that organizing is a skill women naturally command; we quickly commit to a course of action and stay the course to deliver the message. The belief that women must be quietly confined to the kitchen is slowing fading away. We act out our right to make demands, and we expect the police to respect our right to peaceful protest.

Many people assumed our strategy was too risky and that we would not be able to build and sustain our movement. We were breaking those stereotypes too. Women are collectively challenging power and unjust laws and rule in a way that builds democracy and empowers individual people to feel that they are whole citizens — we call this the work of EVEolution, not revolution.

Africa is a continent of contradictions — women can be indiscriminately beaten in their homes, but the same society looks down on a man beating a woman in public. So, we addressed the issue of repression in our first strategy session and debated what the typical African male anti-riot police officer would do upon seeing us in the street. Would other men look on and encourage them to beat us? Our answer came in the form of baton stick injuries. The Mugabe regime has demonstrated its willingness to use open repression against those who challenge its legitimacy. Mugabe has boasted that he has “degrees in violence” and has declared, “If I am a Hitler, let me be a Hitler tenfold.”

Along with the beatings came arbitrary arrests and detentions in police cells and also in prison. And then, paradoxically, the beatings, arrests and detentions became a badge of honor. I remember this period well, and joined in the singing of a religious hymn with lyrics modified from “will your name be called when you reach heaven?” to “will the police call your name as one of those arrested for defending your rights?”

When one is in custody, every day all detainees are lined up and their names are called. We would face horrid harassment and insults during these parades, and very soon we responded with pride, heads held high. When our names were called we each walked forward saying “human rights defender” while staring the police officers straight in the face. It is quite a feat to be proud when you are barefoot and stinking, having been kept in inhumane conditions, sleeping on hard concrete floors in lice-infested police cells.

The police saw that their repression was backfiring, that the core activist base was becoming radicalized and that our movement was expanding and had now won the moral high ground. Police officers were surprised when bystanders shouted at them for beating peaceful mothers of the nation. When hundreds were arrested, crowded into trucks, or frog marched to police stations, bystanders expressed their concerns verbally by telling off the police officers. The police officers were forced to develop new strategies for dealing with us. They adopted tactics, such as conducting random stops and searches, to attempt to prevent the protests from starting or from reaching their planned target point. They set up police cordons around cities to block women from entering the city, directly accusing any woman of being a “WOZA woman.” Police officers thought that if they stopped every woman, they could confiscate any banners and handwritten placards and thus prevent the protest from taking place. This tactic prompted us to restrategize as well — we conducted simultaneous multiple protests using different routes to get to the targeted location and deliver our demands. This new tactic stretched police resources, rendering them unable to stop all protest groups.

On Valentine’s Day 2014, our traditional day of protest, more than 150 anti-riot police occupied Bulawayo’s central business district at 8 a.m. in anticipation of an 11 a.m. protest. Police were deployed in groups of four on main street corners. They expected us to be intimidated and fail to enter the city. We not only came to our starting points but ignored the police and mobilized such high numbers that, as we started the protests, the police officers began studying the polish on their shoes in fear while we marched away and reached the government complex peacefully singing. On this occasion, the police were forced to return to their barracks in embarrassment.

The state went a step further to try to demobilize our tough love. They used persecution by prosecution. Requiring a person to appear constantly in court on charges constitutes a form of harassment. At one time, I was personally appearing in court on four different charges, with appearance dates synchronized around or in anticipation of known protest dates, such as Valentine’s Day or International Woman’s Day on March 8. The state even concocted criminal charges against the leadership in hopes of criminalizing the movement — this too failed.

Despite the efforts of the police, WOZA adopted a high risk mandate during the height of repression. Some might have said what we planned was impossible, impractical, dangerous or foolish, but that would have underestimated the lived reality of Zimbabweans in 2002. We had to do something courageous, something expected of us as the mothers of the nation, and we did it. But to do it well, we had to be able to shove fear aside and put something else in its place.

Overcoming culture of fear and building a culture of resistance

It was important that we break the culture of fear that prevailed in Zimbabwe, and we found that repression often backfired on Mugabe’s regime, especially once people were empowered and fear was replaced with a culture of resistance. An incident in July 2003 illustrates the shift from isolation to solidarity that we experienced. We held a wonderful protest, marching along with placards, singing our songs with our messages, and calling for the repeal of the Public Order Security Act.

As we dispersed, we entered a large bus terminal; as I walked through the terminal, a police officer tapped me on the shoulder and said to me, “Jennifer, you are arrested.”

As I turned to him, I said “Ok, well, what for?”

He replied, “You were leading the protest.”

I said, “Ok, let’s go.” He started to walk with me, and fellow WOZA members turned to walk with me as well.

The officer pointed to the others and said, “No, no, no, no. You are not under arrest. Go away.”

My comrades asked, “Why not?” and he said, “We are only arresting Jennifer. She was leading the protest.”

They replied, “No, we were all leading the protest.”

As we marched back through the bus terminal with this police officer, the news quickly spread that I was being arrested. By the time we got to the police Land Rover, it was already full of members who had turned themselves in. There was no room for me in the vehicle, but in high spirits my fellow protesters created room, and I was squeezed in. As the vehicle drove to the nearby police station, other members walked or ran there and marched into the police station, arresting themselves as well. By accepting and even courting arrest, we had taken away the regime’s major weapon of repression, turning it instead into a source of empowerment for the movement and individual participants.

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What happened to make people so committed and confident about what we were defending together, what our protests were all about? In the culture of fear that prevailed under the Public Order Security Act, most people did not want to be arrested. Our resistance and the solidarity arrests came as quite a shock for the police, and we have maintained and built on that momentum by building a leadership structure that empowers the movement. We also draw energy from exposing injustice, because our members feel they own the issues and that they can be defended through thick and thin.

Ironically, during the war for liberation (1964–1979), Mugabe and other nationalists had also been arrested under the public order acts and had promised to repeal these repressive laws. But now, here they were, the so-called liberators, arresting women and charging them under the very same repressive law they had faced when challenging colonialism. The hypocrisy of their use of repression was only highlighted in contrast with our peaceful marches and singing. However, to capitalize on the power of this framing of Mugabe’s authoritarian and patriarchal rule, we had to build a movement that empowered Zimbabweans to overcome fear and take risks. We had to prove that the power of love could conquer the love of power.


The way in which we constructed our style of leadership has been a key in mobilizing people within a culture of fear. We agreed that any elected leader of WOZA must be prepared to lead in all the necessary spaces, including peaceful protest. In most situations in Zimbabwe, political leaders would send other people to do the hard work of protest, making them take the risk of being beaten. They would not risk getting their bottoms beaten. However, WOZA leaders must be prepared to be in the front of peaceful demonstrations. If there are to be beatings, leaders must be among the first to suffer as well. Consequently, people were able to feel, “If that is the way a leader in WOZA behaves, then I will never be alone and beaten by myself.”

It would be wrong to give the impression that responsibility always falls on the same leaders. Shared leadership is also important. It is true that, in the first few years, I had to be the one to start the demonstration and call out the first slogans in the center of the street. As with the July 2003 protest, police identified me as the one who started the protest and perceived me to be the “organizer.” Also, because WOZA never formally notifies police of a protest, the police target the one who starts the protest. WOZA actions begin with gathering members together at a central business district point. Then, somebody has got to be brave enough to walk into the street and start the demonstration and open up the banner. So, in the initial phases, I often took on that role. However, I was later able to embolden other people to initiate the demonstration, and now everyone wants a chance to start the demonstration or hold the banners at the front of the march. Leadership by example became shared leadership.

The police began to target leaders, hoping to break the growing culture of resistance they had established, and in hopes that people would run away because the leaders were no longer there. Soon, however, there were too many leaders and too many brave faces to remember due to our movement structure. Authorities then tried taking photos of the protests to identify the leaders, but ordinary members increasingly wanted a chance to start the protests. Consequently, the police officers could not keep track of the growing number of faces and names. This also translated into police officers refusing to allow large numbers to be arrested, as the handwritten, tedious paperwork required to process members into detention (along with photographs and fingerprints) meant late-night shifts without overtime pay. By overcoming fear and building collective leadership, we were able to face and effectively manage or blunt repression.


The building of a culture of resistance involves a redefinition of repression and of how the system secures obedience. When we challenge dictatorship and patriarchy, we may risk being beaten, but in receiving that beating without retaliating we score a victory for the oppressed. From our perspective, repression is not only a victory for the cause but also an indication that the issue being addressed has currency and credibility. I have been in custody many times with other members, and we are all battered and blue, but we are elated! How can we be so elated and yet also be in such pain? Because in our minds we had planned and implemented a successful campaign, kept nonviolent discipline and neutralized repression. A power holder can only use their power over you if you let them, but by simply flicking the switch and taking our power back, we reverse the roles and disempower the authorities. We also decided not to be the victims of repression but to be the victors, celebrating each victory, which helps shake away fear. This process is empowering and boosts personal confidence, building strength of character and leadership capacity. Interestingly, despite the amount of trauma we have suffered, these experiences are stored not in the negative part of our brains but in the positive side.

Civic education

WOZA members used to have a one-track mind that was always focused on peaceful protest, but we learned that building a culture of resistance requires more than effective protest; it takes building a movement and creating a daily culture of activism — daily vigilance. And so we started to build a movement around the culture of resistance. Not many people realize that 98 percent of our work is conducted quietly through trainings at the community level. We began to conduct very concise, specific civic education campaigns. To build daily activism and vigilance, we translated Gene Sharp’s 198 methods of nonviolent action into all the local languages, built independent activist capacity to plan a protest, and conducted workshops on how to overcome fear. Ultimately, we stress that the 198 methods approach is something people can use to plan and organize around their own local issues by themselves.

Building and then expanding the culture of protest helped to maintain the sustainability of the movement by inculcating members with the habit of noting repression but then immediately trying to manage the repression while exposing it as an injustice. Suddenly, the police could not target only certain leaders. There were people doing things in the community seemingly all by themselves and unconnected to the main organization of WOZA, yet operating under the banner of WOZA. Additionally, WOZA found that this decentralized culture of resistance would also strengthen the likelihood that repression would backfire. Police at more suburban police stations live within those communities, are more familiar with bad governance, and quietly support WOZA. These police who live outside the center of official power are less susceptible to patronage and corruption, so they can more easily be pulled over to support people power.

Repression management

Repression is a common experience in our movement, and we work intentionally to prepare ourselves, to build solidarity, to build effective strategy, and to gain advantage despite repression and sometimes even because of repression. We may organize a protest and walk away battered and bruised, and we acknowledge that we have put ourselves in that circumstance. We put ourselves there, and we were injured, but we created a dilemma for the security apparatus. The dilemma presented by our protest could be described this way: “Leave us to our peaceful protest on our issues, which is also your personal lived reality, Mr. Policeman,” or “Beat us and arrest us for our peaceful protest and only you look bad to ordinary citizens for using violence against peaceful women, mothers of the nation. Beating us is also an acknowledgement that our issues carry weight.” We may be injured, but by the repression the regime’s leaders have made themselves look bad.

Who won and who lost? We have to be careful about how we define victory: If I am beaten, one could say I was successful at commanding my space with moral authority, which forced them to do something that undermines their moral authority. I do not want to be killed, obviously, but we must take some responsibility for the role we play as activists when we put ourselves out there and challenge authoritarian rule with the tough love of a mother.

On Valentine’s Day each year, we hold a signature protest. In 2013, police arrested 20 of our members, mostly young males. In response to this arrest and discrimination, 180 of us marched politely and quietly into the courtyard of the police station in downtown Bulawayo. It fell to a senior police officer to address us. He had been at the scene of the protest and had refused to give the order for arrest. He addressed us in his courtyard saying, “We don’t know how you people got to be here, but anyway, please will you leave?” So, it appeared that instead of being arrested, we were being un-arrested, if there is such a thing. However, we refused to leave because they were keeping the male members in custody, and we demanded that all of us should be released. We proceeded to conduct a sit-in to make sure that we were all released. They had to deploy the anti-riot police to come into the police station and un-arrest us! The police officers started to walk among us hitting their baton sticks against their hands making ready to beat us as we sat there in disbelief at the change of tactic. After a brief consultation, we asked those seated to stand up calmly and walk out of the police station, making the point that we were able to maintain discipline and determine the course of action, just as we had done by entering the courtyard in the first place.

We have come to redefine and take advantage of repression while at the same time building a spirit of resistance and collective solidarity. It is a hard fact to understand, but collective action and unity of purpose is more easily mobilized than the blind loyalty of a police constable ordered to beat a woman demanding more affordable food. A democratic movement structure working on issues of concern to the members themselves is much more likely to elicit buy-in than orders flowing along a militaristic chain of command.

Managing fear

We must also address fear, which is an underestimated issue. Conducting workshops and refresher workshops on overcoming fear is a vital activity. Due to the courage displayed by top leadership, ordinary WOZA members could have been demotivated in the face of repression — telling themselves that they are not as brave as others. I do not believe fear can be completely overcome, as there are physically occurring symptoms that manifest. But by making fear something even the top leadership experienced, we made ordinary members capable of managing fear.

A man once came to me in a supermarket and said, “I am glad you are not wearing a mini skirt, or your balls would be showing.” This was an awkward compliment, but it drove home to me that people think I am a superwoman (or man in this case), when really I am still fearful for my life. It is just that I am more fearful of doing nothing. If you do not recognize that you are afraid, you will not take the next step to overcome fear.

There are ways to overcome fear, and many can be facilitated. For example, we conduct workshops covering what to do if you are under arrest and what your rights are during detention. We then insist on detailed planning before we conduct a protest. Planning introduces predictability and helps to dispel fear of the unknown. In the planning session, we go through the details of the issue about which we are demonstrating. We develop a collective understanding of the facts and how they affect us and our families. We then decide on which policy maker we need to target during the protest, what demands we will make, how the protest will start and the route to be taken. We also decide the song that will be sung to communicate the message. All this detail helps members “see” the protest and immerse themselves within it. This immersion process helps prepare protesters to confront all possible outcomes and eventually helps them to overcome fear.

We use singing and dancing a lot. In the first few years of our resistance, I was bothered that many people were dancing during the protests, especially the very young. I would say, “Hey, come on, let’s be serious, this is a serious issue.” However, I began to realize that when people begin exercising their freedom on their own terms, they become hooked on their freedom and the empowerment of that space they have created and enjoyed together. It becomes a catalyst for the person’s own self-identity. It builds their personal confidence and makes them feel, “I can do this. I can lead others doing this.” It gives them their full citizenship, and this is a joyful achievement. For that moment, there is no hunger, no repression, only the joy and the need to dance. Once they have collectively abandoned fear for freedom, they are able to locate themselves as full citizens.

We must respect and nurture the transformation of our members. There is a level of responsibility before, during, and after peaceful protest, especially under repression. We must have support and security structures in place. We plan for the worst case scenario and prepare to take people to the doctor or at least offer some care for their injuries. Providing practical care and encouraging members in their quest to overcome or at least manage their own fears is a crucial step in keeping people mobilized.

Police, fear and repression

In order to understand repression and how to manage it, we must also understand what motivates those who threaten and even attack us. Over many years of activism, I have become very familiar with police procedures and strategy, as well as the behavior and thinking of police officers. In my experience, rank-and-file police officers operate by habit, training and sometimes perceived orders or loyalties. They automatically want to repress because an authoritarian system is in place. Police officers at low levels in the command structure do not make decisions; junior police officers are trained to follow orders without thinking. There is little benefit in questioning the baton-stick holder’s cost-benefit analysis regarding beating this person or arresting that person. They do not think, and it is not their role to think. Sadly, some officers seem particularly prone to repression and have internalized it during their training. We often see the same police officers perpetrating abuse over and over, perhaps because of an addiction to trauma.

I will never forget how once, when I was arrested and taken for fingerprinting, the police officer who was holding my hand and fingerprinting me said, “These are the hands of someone who is telling the truth.” He was still fingerprinting me out of habit even as he was declaring his belief that my actions were just. I was still charged, and I was sent to prison for three weeks.

Strategic decisions do take place at a higher level of command, where officers must decide “What order should I give? How do I give the order?” or “How do I make sure no one sees that it is me giving the order?” Consequently, when we are in the street, we know that very few senior police officers want to be on the ground and seen doing the dirty work. We engage that level of our arresting police officers by demanding their names and details so that we can prepare for our legal cases of police harassment. We also mention that we will place a press statement on the internet mentioning their harassment. This has proven to be a good strategy for police at this level. The higher level police officer has to be dealt with on a legal basis by lawyers and occasionally cited in constitutional court challenges.

We should also understand that the regime and its agents of repression are influenced by fear. In my experience, some of the police officers — if you watch them closely — have severe fear. I am not sure if it is fear of me, my colleagues, or what the chain of command will do to them. I know that our actions can create fearful dilemmas for them. They fear we will build a critical mass and then wonder what will be done with that critical mass. How will they fare as change unfolds? Interestingly, declining fear among activists increases fear on the other side. As that fear is increased, there is a tendency for agents of repression to employ more violence. Nevertheless, as ranking officers decide whether to employ the baton stick, they must also think about how they will maneuver through the reporting process that follows. They may fear for their own consciences and their futures, the kind of future the protesters are offering them. Will it feature retaliation or inclusiveness?

Repression management through tough love

Our tough love approach is one of the integral ways in which we have reduced repression or made it more likely to backfire on the police. We call the police to accountability while also signaling the kind of inclusiveness that only mothers could represent. We show love in our peaceful protest by holding our hands up in the shape of the letter L. Our commitment to love takes the sting out of some of the baton sticks. It is tough on the police to have such a loving protest converge upon their position. It is tough to have the whole of WOZA come loudly singing, carrying placards and making pavement speeches. But it is done under the banner of disciplining love. To ensure that love rules, we observe strict nonviolent discipline during marches. We also insist that members sign a code of conduct observing nonviolence in their lives.

In every city block, or at the traffic lights, someone goes to the front of the protest group and chants a slogan asking protest participants to sit down and observe nonviolent discipline. This is an important message to all, including the police: “We are marching for the love of Zimbabwe, which means that we care about you. We are not a threat to you, but the love that motivates us is powerful and makes us committed to fighting for our rights and yours, too.” The observance of discipline is so pronounced in the movement that many times the police officers have to engage us to quiet the protest. They will come to one of us and say, “Please, can you keep people quiet now?” and so then we will be empowered by the police request. We then chant the slogan and sit the protest down. So the police now have to actually ask for our help to facilitate them addressing the protest participants. Nonviolent discipline helps us maintain moral authority — the high ground — and shows that we are prepared to continue our nonviolent direct action until our issue is addressed. It is tough love. It is love, but we recognize it is tough to be on the receiving end because it means you will have done something wrong needing discipline.

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The power to respond to repression relies on the ability of a dispersed network of activists to shift tactics. An activist movement can more easily change tactics than its monolithic adversary. Whereas the state uses authoritarian force and hard and fast command structures, our planning allows us to respond to the potential for violent repression by becoming more flexible and nimble than the police. Officers deployed to specific street corners have no latitude to change position without a highly militarized and bureaucratic chain of command, and low ranking officers are often too scared to make suggestions to their bosses. Dispersed networks of activists can more quickly shift tactics to cope with or blunt repression and implement a successful protest action. This ability to shift gears often stretches police resources or leaves them looking silly, standing on street corners in helmets with shields and batons sticks in the hot sun.

When police occupied all our starting points in the central business district of Bulawayo on February 14, 2014, we knew that we could not pull off 10 smaller protests so we shifted and combined starting points so there would be higher numbers at three places and that our numbers might work in our favor to get the police to back off. The higher ranking police officers, seeing that we had higher numbers and the upper hand, tried to drive a huge truck into the road and threatened to run us over, honking loudly. Once again, we had to draw on courage and ignore this threat; we got the protest group to pack in close together and march away from the truck before it ran us over. This ability to restrategize (and a huge dose of courage) made for a successful protest.

Repression management can involve elaborate proactive measures. For example, to ensure that police engage in more cost-benefit analysis before arresting someone, we have taken successful proactive legal actions against the police that remind them such repression can have predictable costs. In 2010, three colleagues and I sued the police commissioner for keeping us in filthy conditions in Harare police cells for seven days, making some of us remove our underwear. The Constitutional Court has ruled for a structural modification of police cells and that women cannot be forced to remove underwear or shoes. This kind of sanction of police requires lawyers who have an activist orientation and are brave enough to take on such cases. Through this legal challenge, WOZA has established an increased level of respect for rights for millions of citizens and possibly changed arrest procedures and practice in Zimbabwe.


The experience of Women of Zimbabwe Arise provides a number of insights about repression and its management, notably the advantage of culturally resonant themes in a movement’s message, the ability to shift from a culture of fear to a culture of resistance, the importance of innovative leadership structures, and the value of being creative in relating to police.

The basic impression management strategy of WOZA activists involved refashioning the traditional role of women in Zimbabwean society, which provided unique opportunities for action. Transforming the stereotypical motherhood role into one of political activism created a dilemma for government authorities, especially the police who were the government agents interacting with WOZA participants on a regular basis.

Part of a mother’s role is providing tough love, a critical perspective, and direct confrontation over unacceptable behavior in order to benefit the child and the family. It is the mother’s job to correct, guide, and shape the behavior of family members who are damaging the social fabric of the family. WOZA expanded that domestic role into the public sphere, where authorities, who were usually accustomed to obeying their mothers, found themselves confronted and corrected in the streets for engaging in their official duties. This clash of roles made it difficult for them to use their limited repertoire of repressive acts successfully against the women of WOZA. Indeed, arresting officers were publicly shamed when they attempted to use incarceration as a way to suppress the movement, and we essentially arrested ourselves, piling into police vehicles to be taken to jail and thus grabbing even the authority to arrest away from the police. By responding to the authorities with love rather than fear — and expressing it with our iconic symbol of a hand sign making an L for love, we were able to manage repression more successfully.

Showing the love sign while also practicing tough love was a successful action in transforming the culture of fear into a culture of resistance, empowering Zimbabweans to confront the regime and participate as citizens demanding democratic reform. This transformation of the emotions of fear begins with an acknowledgement that one is afraid — but then thinking about the options, such as what would happen if one does nothing — and then finding outlets. WOZA activists sometimes used singing and dancing, for example, as a way of expressing freedom in the face of repression, and these expressions of exuberance empowered us to carry on despite the danger.

A third strategy for repression management was a creative leadership structure that enabled the movement to continue even when our most visible leaders were jailed. A dispersed leadership network was more flexible than the rigid authoritarianism of the security forces, so while we could adapt tactically to whatever situation we faced, they were constantly stuck with the same narrow set of options.

This approach is related to a final central strategy for managing repression, an ability to understand the agents of repression and be creative in relating to them. The police were themselves responding with fear, and our tough love tactics could often disarm them, creating dilemmas for them and reducing their ability to repress the movement. Whereas the police establishment has a limited repertoire of tactics, the activist movement’s possibilities are almost unlimited, bounded only by norms against violence.

In short, even the authoritarian regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, with all of its resources — weapons, state power and security forces — has not repressed the movement. They could make our lives difficult and manage to postpone the inevitable collapse of the dictatorship, but they could never defeat us. Anyway, it was never about Mugabe and his ruling elite — it was not about a revolution. It was a story about EVEolution — women taking the lead and showing Zimbabweans that the power of love can conquer the love of power.

Purchase a copy of The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements at Syracuse University Press.

Community museum showcases Washington, DC’s long history of activism

Thu, 08/02/2018 - 14:14

by Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

Anacostia Community Museum chief curator Samir Meghelli in front of the new exhibit “A Right to the City.” (WNV/Sarah Freeman-Woolpert]

One of the most unique and vital museums in the Smithsonian network can be found in the heart of Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood, a place long-neglected by government funds and all but forgotten by the city’s tourist crowds. Since its founding 50 years ago — when it became both the first Smithsonian museum located off the National Mall and the first federally-funded community museum in the country — the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum has served as an interactive space, engaging local residents in the power of neighborhood storytelling.

In April, the museum launched a landmark exhibit called “A Right to the City,” which uses artifacts, photographs and oral histories to explore the history of activism and community organizing in six Washington, D.C. neighborhoods. The exhibit, which will be on display for the next two years, is a testament to the ways in which D.C. residents have fought to influence the forces shaping their city, particularly in a context of displacement and dispossession.

On my first visit to the exhibit, I was surprised to hear a security guard tell me, “I have lived in this neighborhood all my life and never knew all this happened.” But responses like that are precisely why chief curator Samir Meghelli worked on putting the exhibit together. I recently spoke with Meghelli to find out more about the exhibit’s impact on the community and the city as a whole. In the process, he told me about the little-known stories uncovered throughout the exhibit and the lessons these stories offer residents still fighting for their right to the city.

What inspired you to spend three years conducting research to create this exhibit?

The issues of neighborhood change and gentrification were very much a part of my own experience growing up. One of the focuses of this exhibition is the federal policy of urban renewal, which started in the 1950s [and continued] into the 1970s and 80s, and really led to the redevelopment — and ultimately the destruction of — a lot of cities across the country. I grew up in the city of New Haven, Connecticut, the city that received more urban renewal dollars per capita than any other city in the country. So I had a sense — both as a historian and as someone who grew up in a city shaped by these forces — of some of the broader structural issues that have shaped this city. To be able to document stories of Washingtonians who have spent their lives shaping the city, to tell this history from the perspective of folks who live here, was a transformative experience.

Why is the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum the right place for this history to be told?

As we were looking toward our 50th anniversary, we wanted to develop an exhibition in the tradition of the museum’s work. Our work has always broached urgent social issues, and it has always been about developing exhibitions collaboratively with the communities whose history we’re sharing. There is probably no issue that has been as urgent and on peoples’ minds as neighborhood change and gentrification in Washington, D.C. So we started to explore how and why neighborhoods change and are transformed, but also how communities have mobilized in the face of that change to try to shape their neighborhoods in ways that best serve their needs and interests.

We wanted to feature neighborhoods from across the city that each tell different stories about change, but also about organizing and activism. We wanted to connect the much larger history of organizing to the contemporary moment — so people can draw lessons from the successes and failures of redevelopment policies, as well as organizing tactics.

The title of the exhibition, “A Right to the City,” is really raising a question: Do people have a right to the city? [Do they have a] right to exercise influence over the change that’s happening to their city? And do they have a right to access the resources and opportunities that a city provides?

What I think is distinctive at this museum is that our approach to building exhibitions is deeply collaborative. The history we’re telling in the exhibition is told from the perspective of the people who’ve lived in these neighborhoods and shaped these neighborhoods for years. We interviewed nearly 200 people from across the city — longtime residents, activists, organizers, architects, planners — to better document that history and share it in a way that is from a first-person perspective.

What are some stories from your research that can serve as inspiration to groups of organizers or activists still fighting for their right to the city today?

There are many largely untold stories throughout the city of really powerful and impactful organizing. In Anacostia, there are two groups that grew out of the organizing work of the Southeast Neighborhood House, which was founded in 1929 as a community center providing social services to displaced and low-income residents in Southwest. One group, called Rebels With A Cause, was an outgrowth of their work with young people east of the river. The Rebels got the city government to build more recreational facilities and to renovate older recreational facilities, including getting several Olympic-sized swimming pools built here. They had streetlights installed where there were pedestrian accidents. They had an after-school program and a police relations committee. They served as an important model for cities across the country who did similar work.

[The other group, called] the Band of Angels, was made up of the women residents of Barry Farm dwellings — which is public housing here in Anacostia. They were self-proclaimed “welfare mothers” who did organizing work around getting the city to repair and better maintain Barry Farm dwellings. A couple of the women also became some of the early founders of the city-wide Welfare Alliance and ultimately the National Welfare Rights Organization, which advocated locally and nationally around things like a guaranteed minimum income. [The Band of Angels pushed for] better and more public assistance, but also for things like dignity and justice for those receiving public assistance. So they ended up being really important, both locally and nationally.

The Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis, centered in Brookland, standing up for the anti-freeway cause at a D.C. City Council meeting in 1969. (DC Public Library/Washington Post)

There are a lot of stories like that, where people living in these neighborhoods were able to do things that, at the time, seemed nearly impossible — things like defeating the North Central Freeway, which was going to cut through the entire city, until residents from [the neighborhood of] Brookland organized to fight its construction. There’s also the story of the Adams Morgan Organization, which created a literal neighborhood government at the time when the city had no elected city council or mayor. When the city did finally get home rule in the 1970s, what are today called the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions were in part modeled after the neighborhood government that the Adams Morgan Organization had set up. So there’s lots of stories like that that are too little known and reveal a rich history of organizing in this city.

One of the central features in this exhibit is previously unseen footage of a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. during a 1967 visit to Washington, D.C. Could you tell us more about the significance of his visit and the message he gave to residents?

[The video is a] powerful window into this moment in the late 1960s, just a year before Dr. King’s assassination. He’s lending his support to what he calls one of the most important efforts happening anywhere in the country, led by residents in the neighborhood to devise a plan for the renewal of their neighborhood.

[King’s visit came about through his connection to] Reverend Walter Fontroy, who was born and raised in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington D.C. [Rev. Fontroy] saw what had happened in Southwest D.C. with [the federal policy of] “Urban Renewal,” and how it had resulted in the large-scale demolition and clearance of much of the neighborhood. It became clear to him that Shaw was another potential victim of that kind of urban renewal, so he helped create an organization called the Model Inner City Community Organization, or MICO, whose mission was to create a resident-led, small business owner-led redevelopment plan for the neighborhood. Part of their idea was to have urban renewal “with the people, by the people, for the people,” in contrast to the top-down federally-informed renewal that had destroyed much of Southwest.

Reverend Walter Fauntroy (right) reviews redevelopment plans for a block destroyed during the 1968 civil disturbances. (DC Public Library/Washington Post)

Rev. Fontroy had also served as the D.C. representative of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and helped organize the March on Washington in 1963. He invited Dr. King to come to Shaw to lead a parade from Dunbar High School to Cardozo High School, and to give a speech in support of MICO’s efforts to involve the residents in its redevelopment efforts.

In March of 1967, Dr. King led the parade through that neighborhood, which drew people of all ages. There were marching bands, beauty queens, all kinds of people involved in that parade. And in the speech that he gave at Cardozo High School, he had this refrain where he said, “Prepare to participate. Tell it in the pool rooms, tell it in the market, tell it in the town square. Prepare to participate.” He was really encouraging [the idea that] if this resident-led redevelopment plan is going to be successful, it would require the participation of the residents of the neighborhood. That idea is one we wanted to echo throughout this exhibition, and we wanted people to carry it with them when they left.

How do you hope this exhibit will impact the communities it features?

The idea of sharing these stories is really to inform people about a history that is too little known in a moment when that history is crucially needed. People three blocks away who have lived here all their lives can come and see their neighborhoods’ history recognized and celebrated, maybe even learn something. As part of the exhibition, we created a storytelling hotline that anyone can access by calling (202) 335-7288. We interviewed 200 people for the exhibition, and we wanted to share those stories, but also to let people record and share their own stories about their neighborhoods [for others to hear].

[The exhibit can also serve to educate] young people who are coming to D.C. for the first time to learn this city’s history, so they can start asking difficult questions about how it parallels to their own home communities. The questions we wrestle with in this exhibition are not just about the past, but about the present and about [creating] a more equitable and just future for our communities. Our ultimate hope is that people will leave better informed and inspired to engage more with these issues.

How women led a peaceful flotilla to reclaim their island from the Sri Lankan Navy

Tue, 07/31/2018 - 13:05

by Lisa Fuller

Members of the Iranaitheevu community on their way to the island. (WNV/Ruki Fernando)

When a flotilla of 44 motorboats filled with 300 Sri Lankan Tamils — and a small group of activists, journalists and clergy — ignored the navy’s explicit orders and set sail for their former homes on the navy-occupied island of Iranaitheevu, they didn’t actually think they’d make it in one piece.

“We were very, very scared,” said Elisabeth, one of the women who helped organize the initiative.

At the very least, they expected the navy to prevent them from docking their boats on the island. Far worse, but also possible, was the navy opening fire and even killing some of them. After all, it had spent the past 26 years preventing them from returning to their island.

What they did not anticipate the morning of their departure on April 23 — as navy officials and intelligence officers swarmed the mainland port and photographed their preparations — was meeting no resistance upon their arrival.

Nearly three months later, 100 community members have permanently moved back to the island. After a quarter century of displacement, they have begun to rebuild the long-neglected, war-ravaged town.

Their success was not a result of luck, nor did the navy have a sudden change of heart. Instead, a group of women from the community had developed and implemented a nonviolent strategy that closely resembles techniques implemented by professional civilian peacekeepers in conflict zones across the world.

Scorched earth

Sri Lanka’s civil war — which was fought between the majority Sinhala-dominated government and a minority separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE — engulfed Iranaitheevu in 1992, forcing all 650 of its residents to flee to the mainland. They spent the next 17 years in a state of constant displacement, relocating to different areas in northern Sri Lanka to avoid the fighting.

The war ended in 2009 after the government implemented a scorched earth policy. It bombed hospitals, aid distributions and no-fire zones in LTTE territory to secure a military victory. The LTTE, meanwhile, refused to allow civilians to flee, in a futile effort to use them as human shields. The Iranaitheevu community was among the 350,000 civilians caught in the middle.

After the war ended — in an apparent attempt to weed out any potential LTTE remnants — the government detained the Iranaitheevu community and the rest of the surviving civilian population in overcrowded displacement camps, which were rife with human rights violations, including sexual violence and torture. When the government released the Iranaitheevu community members from the camps six months later, they expected to finally return home. Instead, they found the navy was still occupying their island and had no plans to leave.

The community engaged in political advocacy for the next seven years, but made no progress in convincing the government to allow their return. In May 2017, they began engaging in a continuous protest outside a church in Iranaimaatha Nagar, a port town and one of the closest points on the mainland to Iranaitheevu. Community members would alternate shifts, ensuring that at least a few protesters were always stationed at the church, holding signs that said “release our native land,” while also indicating how many days they had been protesting.

However, a group of women — known as the Iranaitheevu Women’s Development Society, or WDS — soon began to suspect that the protest would not be effective either. They didn’t think — as a disaffected minority group in a remote part of north Sri Lanka — that a traditional protest would be able to sufficiently pressure the government into complying with their demands. Other displaced communities were carrying out similar protests, and most were having little success. Plus, with Iranaitheevu lying in a strategic military location along the Palk Strait, the navy seemed adamant about retaining control of the island.

While the community never stopped protesting, the WDS began simultaneously planning another strategy to secure their return — one that wasn’t dependent on the government’s permission or the navy’s consent. It took them almost a year to prepare their strategy and gather the courage to execute it.

How to defeat a military with nonviolence

The women were confident they could organize the logistics of their return — since most of the men in the community are fishermen and had motorboats to sail the 13 miles from mainland to Iranaitheevu. The harder part was figuring out how to make sure the navy didn’t attack them in the process.

If they attempted to return alone, they feared the navy would retaliate. They would, after all, be in a remote location with no witnesses. It would be easy for the navy to get away with violence against unarmed civilians.

With that in mind, the WDS set out to find a group of witnesses that could accompany them to the island. At the same time, these witnesses couldn’t be just anyone. They had to confer some degree of influence and respect — that way the consequences for retaliating would increase significantly and likely discourage the navy from turning to violence.

In their search for strategic witnesses, the WDS recruited human rights activists (who could report on the navy’s behavior), clergy (who brought a degree of moral authority) and journalists, including a camera crew (who could document the entire event so that it could be shared with the outside world).

With that taken care of, they then turned to designing the optics of the event. First, to ensure the navy couldn’t justify an attack on the pretense of self-defense, they tied white flags to each motorboat, signaling they were unarmed. Then they made signs with slogans such as “release the Iranaitheevu people’s land and let them resettle,” making sure to use large letters and all three of Sri Lanka’s languages. And when they sailed, they made sure that the flags and signs were clearly visible so that the navy could not mistake their intentions.

The Iranaitheevu community preparing to leave the mainland. (WNV/Ruki Fernando)

When the community disembarked on Iranaitheevu, they were confronted by three surprised navy officers, who inquired about their intentions. One of the priests spoke up, having been assigned the role of negotiator, due to his pre-existing relationship with the navy. Politely, but firmly — and with the cameras still rolling — he informed the officers that the Iranaitheevu people were moving back into their homes, and that they would not be deterred.

Unprepared to respond, the navy officers retreated, saying they would have to consult senior navy officials.

At that moment, the community realized it had succeeded.

“They cried tears of joy, and they ran into the church and started hymns,” said a nun who accompanied them and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The navy never made any subsequent attempts to expel the Iranaitheevu people from the island.

Instead, three weeks later, the government granted the community official permission to remain, giving up its quarter century campaign to keep them from their land.

The science of protective accompaniment

While such a victory may seem unlikely or even just lucky — given the risk factors involved — the WDS actually employed a methodology developed and honed by civilian peacekeepers. Known as protective accompaniment, the practice involves positioning a respected third party to be visibly present in close physical proximity to vulnerable civilians in order to deter potential perpetrators from engaging in violence.

The strategy is effective because it creates unacceptable consequences for engaging in violence — in terms of both practical repercussions and social disapproval. As an analogy, domestic violence is much more common in homes than in shopping malls, not only because potential perpetrators want to avoid legal repercussions, but also because they don’t want the other shoppers to think they are bad people. Protective accompaniment, in essence, makes vulnerable civilians safer by transforming their environment from a private home into a public shopping mall.

Research in social psychology and neurology also helps to explain why protective accompaniment is effective in deterring violence: The human brain is wired to modify behavior to avoid social disapproval when it perceives that it is being watched by a third party. Some biologists have concluded that this tendency is actually a product of evolution, as our ancestors were reliant on social cooperation for survival.

It turns out that this response is so ingrained that even the illusion of being watched causes people to be more cooperative. Various studies in different countries have shown that posting pictures of eyes in key locations can deter bicycle theft, motivate bystanders to pick up litter and incentivize people to make donations.

Specialized civilian peacekeeping organizations like Nonviolent Peaceforce and Peace Brigades International, provide accompaniment to groups of civilians who are being directly targeted by armed groups, women in conflict zones who are vulnerable to sexual assault and human rights defenders who are under threat as a result of their work.

Iranaitheevu appears to be a unique case for protective accompaniment, as the WDS recruited their own civilian peacekeepers, while also planning and directing the entire operation. As remarkable as their story is, however, political scholars like Casey Barrs and Oliver Kaplan have found that conflict-affected communities often develop sophisticated self-protection strategies, many of which have close links to civilian peacekeeping.

Yet, such initiatives are often overlooked. When self-protection strategies are successful, people don’t get hurt, and the effect can appear to be much less dramatic than violence.

We tell stories about violence and atrocities in an attempt prevent them from happening in the future, often in line with the “never again” mantra. But to effectively prevent violence, we must also tell the stories in which violence ultimately didn’t happen — for it is these stories that give us the guidance to make “never again” a reality.

How repression can fuel a movement

Sun, 07/29/2018 - 11:09

by Lester Kurtz and Lee Smithey

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This text is adapted from “The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements,” edited by Lester R. Kurtz and Lee A. Smithey for Syracuse University Press.

From Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses attacking U.S. civil rights demonstrators to the massacre at Amritsar in colonial India, the use of coercive force against dissidents often backfires, becoming a transformative event that can change the course of a conflict. Rather than demobilizing a movement, repression often ironically fuels resistance and undercuts the legitimacy of a power elite. Although a long scholarly tradition explores the unintended consequences of martyrdom and other acts of violence, more attention could be paid to what we call the paradox of repression — that is, when repression creates unanticipated consequences that authorities do not desire. Efforts by power elites to oppress movements often backfire, mobilizing popular support for the movements and undermining authorities, potentially leading to significant reforms or even a regime’s overthrow.

As civil rights activist, clergyman and author Will Campbell writes, “Of one thing I am certain: [the civil rights movement] was not destroyed by hooded vigilantes and flaming crosses. Nor by chains used on school children, dynamiting of churches and homes, mass jailings. All those things were an impetus to the movement and brought determination to the victims.” Repressive coercion can weaken a regime’s authority, turning public opinion against it. Paradoxically, the more a power elite applies force, the more citizens and third parties are likely to become disaffected, sometimes inducing the regime to disintegrate from internal dissent.

According to political scientist Christian Davenport, repression is often defined as “actual or threatened use of physical sanctions against an individual or organization, within the territorial jurisdiction of the state, for the purpose of imposing a cost on the target as well as deterring specific activities and/or beliefs perceived to be challenging to government personnel, practices or institutions.” We prefer to see repression as a much more complex phenomenon that goes far beyond physical threats or sanctions. We find it conceptually helpful to place these methods along a continuum stretching from overt violence, on one end, to hegemony on the other. Viewing repression from this broad perspective helps to correct some of the narrowness of previous research.

Overt violence includes the actions we usually think of when we consider repression, such as beatings, torture, shooting unarmed demonstrators and arrests. They are the repressive tactics most likely to cause moral outrage within the broader population and are, therefore, more likely to precipitate backfire. Because authorities are sometimes aware of the risks involved in using brute force, they may employ less-lethal methods such as pepper spray or “active denial systems” or simply intimidate activists with indirect threats, harassment or surveillance. Soft repression, a concept developed by Myra Marx Ferree, includes such actions as stigmatization of protesters and their movements, framing contests, and manipulative attempts to divide, divert, or distract social movement organizations or their pool of potential recruits. “The distinguishing criterion of soft repression,” Marx Ferree explains, “is the collective mobilization of power, albeit in nonviolent forms and often highly informal ways, to limit and exclude ideas and identities from the public forum.” Although she develops the concept to explain gender-based movements, it is a strategy widely used by power elites to minimize the participation of movements and dissidents. Finally, the most effective demobilization technique used by authorities is the promotion of hegemony, in which dissidents censor themselves.

Nonviolence and the paradox of repression

As Jonathan Schell eloquently asserts in “The Unconquerable World,” one of the most profound legacies within modernity has been the realization of popular nonviolent power. The last century produced a surge of innovation in nonviolent conflict strategies and methods, many of which have made effective use of the paradox of repression. (Violent insurgencies may also sometimes benefit from the paradox of repression, but their own use of violence can undermine and diminish support within their own communities and especially among third parties.)

Despite its ubiquity, the obscurity of the paradox of repression should not be particularly surprising. It is most apparent in conflicts in which one party employs strategic nonviolent strategy. However, it is only in the 20th century that we witness the prodigious expansion of nonviolence corresponding with globalization and accelerating technological development. In a globalizing world where communications, travel and arms technologies have become widely available, even small pockets of resistance have developed the capacity to challenge more traditionally powerful institutions, such as corporations and states.

Greater international interdependence requires economic and political cooperation across an increasingly complex network of cross-cutting alliances. The use of coercive force in this environment may offend or inconvenience mutual allies and neighbors and leave an aggressor isolated. The United States has experienced this dilemma in connection with the invasion of Iraq. Despite considerable support from the United Kingdom, the Bush administration encountered significant obstacles in cobbling together a coalition of smaller, less influential states. Larger states on the United Nations Security Council, such as France, Germany, and Russia, probably declined to participate in part because of significant economic interests in the region, but they were also under pressure from their own citizens who sympathized with the Iraqi people and considered the invasion unjustified aggression.

The structure of insurgent groups has also changed to take advantage of ever-emerging electronic communications technologies, such as fax machines, the internet, cell phones and instant messaging, while limiting the ability of authorities to repress resistance. Nonviolent direct action sometimes takes on the form of cell or affinity groups developed by non-state terror organizations to avoid repression. However, this trend may diminish the paradox of repression. As explained later in the book, the paradox of repression relies in large part not on avoiding repression but on enduring and sometimes provoking it. In order for insurgents to invoke the sympathy and outrage of bystander publics, these publics must relate to and identify with the target of repression. Although affinity groups may make resistance groups appear shadowy and unrecognizable, much important organizing for nonviolent campaigns has taken place underground. The latter approach is more likely to prove effective in highly asymmetrical scenarios, where there is little ambiguity over public sympathies and the illegitimacy of a regime.

The paradox of repression is one manifestation of what the pre-eminent scholar of nonviolence, Gene Sharp, calls “political jiu-jitsu.” In the martial art of jiu-jitsu, one uses the weight and momentum of one’s opponent to throw the opponent. Similarly, in strategic nonviolent action, one can use an opponent’s resources, needs and culture to one’s own advantage. Thus, for example, arrests and imprisonment have always been a primary tool of governmental authorities against agents of social change. Nonviolent activists, however, have often prepared for arrest and willingly accepted or even sought incarceration in order to overload jails and strain government bureaucracies. The same dynamic can apply to the use of cultural resources to trigger the paradox of repression. Social philosopher Richard Gregg first wrote about this dynamic as “moral jiu-jitsu,” drawing on Gandhi’s idea that self-suffering would induce conversion by an opponent, who, when confronted by a nonviolent resister, would lose “the moral support which the violent resistance of most victims would render him.”

As students and activists of nonviolence understand, the paradox of repression can be cultivated. True, in some cases, such as the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, repression has been so complete as to overcome nearly all resistance. In other cases, however, where the relationship between opponents has been better integrated and where those traditionally considered less powerful have developed effective methods of resistance (such as cell structures and nonviolent collective action techniques), imperial and authoritarian states have found themselves unable to contend with grassroots opposition, often because the movement was able to rob the regime of some of its legitimacy. While the overtly systematic use of nonviolent collective action theory varies widely from case to case, training and strategic planning continues to spread. The cases we offer as illustrations do not always document an intentional preparation for the paradox of repression (though preparation is common, as we elaborate below) but indicate how challengers adopted collective action tactics that often both amplified and subverted attempts to repress and intimidate nonviolent activists.

An overview of the book

The chapters in this book have two main goals: to gain a more nuanced understanding of how the paradox of repression works and when it has happened, on the one hand, and to examine how nonviolent activists have managed it, on the other, to enhance the extent to which it empowers movements and undermines unjust systems. We hope this book will be valuable to scholars and activists alike, and we have recruited both scholars and activists as chapter authors (including several authors who are both). The first task of the contributors is thus to look at various aspects and cases of the paradox of repression to get a better sense of its topography beyond the isolated anecdotal cases diffused through the scholarly literature and activists’ lore. We provide a conceptual and empirical overview and bring together quantitative and qualitative scholarship with activists who have experienced repression and experimented with its management. We begin with Erica Chenoweth’s quantitative birdseye view of the phenomenon across the globe over half a century. Chapter two, “Backfire in Action: Insights from Nonviolent Campaigns, 1945–2006,” analyzes her large data set comparing 323 violent and nonviolent campaigns for major change to evaluate how backfire works and which movement features are most likely to provoke it.

Chenoweth identifies three critical factors facilitating a positive outcome from repression: (1) sustained high levels of campaign participation, (2) loyalty shifts among security forces and civilian leaders, and (3) the withdrawal of support from its foreign allies.

Doron Shultziner’s conceptual chapter addresses a key aspect of the paradox of repression by delving into two historical cases. In chapter three, “Transformative Events, Repression, and Regime Change,” he focuses on the central tension between the parameters of opportunity structures and the agency of collective action. He explores the social psychological impact of “transformative events,” which can sometimes suspend the habits and assumptions that normally underpin the political status quo and open up new opportunities for resistance. Transformative events that involve repression can thus operate as a causal mechanism or path to regime change and democratic outcomes. Shultziner focuses on cases such as the Soweto Uprising in South Africa and the Montgomery bus boycott to illustrate the relationship between repression and backfire as transformative events.

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Elite defection has been identified as an important factor in the success or failure of nonviolent civil resistance campaigns, demanding that we delve into the ways in which agents of repression experience the repression they carry out. In her exploration of successful nonviolent revolutions, Sharon Erickson Nepstad found that defections by security forces were an important strategic factor. Nonviolent resistance has an advantage in managing and framing repression because it can create dilemmas for repressors.

Rachel MacNair reminds us in chapter four, “The Psychology of Agents of Repression: The Paradox of Defection,” that aggression and fear are not physical properties that people hold in their hands, but are psychological experiences. Agents of repression do not merely follow orders; they are caught up in complex psychological dynamics and risk suffering what she calls perpetration induced traumatic stress.

In recent years, the nature of civil resistance has changed with the increased role of the internet and social media in political processes. Jessica Beyer and Jennifer Earl bring their extensive expertise in this emerging field to bear in chapter five, “Backfire Online: Studying Reactions to the Repression of Internet Activism.” It is crucial to understand the ways in which online activism and the activists behind it interact with the state and other entities interested in silencing them. Drawing on recent cases studies, Beyer and Earl systematically present various forms of online repression and show how it has backfired on elites. They explore the affinities between different types of internet activism and repressive tactics, identifying multiple levels of analysis of how backfire and deterrence can be differentiated according to the actors involved (individual versus group and public versus private).

A second major aspect of the book turns to repression management — that is, how nonviolent resisters, but also repressors, have attempted to shape the outcome of repression to their benefit. We begin with the firsthand experience of Jenni Williams, founder of the movement Women of Zimbabwe Arise, or WOZA. In chapter six, “Overcoming Fear to Overcome Repression,” Williams emphasizes the importance of establishing a movement culture that prioritizes nonviolence and encourages empowerment through shared leadership and the creative use of traditional cultural themes to withstand and blunt repression. When WOZA transformed the traditional role of motherhood to scold and challenge the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe, the activists were met with a brutal repression of their movement. By accepting and even courting arrest, Williams argues, the activists took away the regime’s major weapon of repression, turning it instead into a source of empowerment for the movement and individual participants, increasing the costs of the regime’s efforts to thwart them. They mobilized a campaign of “tough love,” transforming a culture of fear into a culture of resistance and constructing a creative leadership structure that allowed them to be more flexible in their tactics than the rigid authoritarian police establishment bound by its limited repertoire.

Chapter seven, “Culture and Repression Management,” focuses on the symbolic aspects of repression and its backfire. We conceptualize nonviolent struggle as a dance between an establishment and its dissidents, a regime and its insurgents, as they contest the frames used to make meaning of repressive events. This chapter explores proactive efforts by nonviolent activists to choreograph actions in ways that help to ensure the backfire effect of repression by clearly establishing the aggression of the agents of repression. In chapter eight, “‘Smart’ Repression,” we address the growing efforts by elites to be more strategic about how they use repression, in order to mitigate the effects of its potentially backfiring. That chapter examines a relatively unexplored aspect of repression, the use of tactics that are deliberately crafted to demobilize movements while mitigating or eliminating a backfire effect.

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Dalia Ziada gives us a participant’s-eye-view of the Egyptian revolution of 2011 in chapter nine, “Egypt: Military Strategy and the 2011 Revolution,” although she is also familiar with the literature on strategic nonviolent action. What she found most remarkable was that the army in some instances chose not to use violence during the citizen uprising, and ended up collaborating with the activists to oust President Hosni Mubarak, although they returned to the usual armed forces modus operandi after seizing power from Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2014. Ziada provides a firsthand account of the events of 2011 based on her own participation in the revolution and draws on her interviews with Egyptian and American military personnel.

In chapter 10, “Repression Engendering Creative Nonviolent Action in Thailand,” Chaiwat Satha-Anand explores activist creativity following repression in Thailand. He argues that repression, such as the violent actions in 2010 of the Thai government against protesters in the Red Shirts movement, created space for new movement leadership and the introduction of creative nonviolent resistance. He calls this dynamic “the cleansing effect of violent repression.” In this Thai case, Sombat Boonngamanong developed a series of highly symbolic and creative flash mob actions that drew on a history of nonviolent resistance in Thai society.

Finally, veteran activist, scholar and trainer George Lakey concludes the volume by providing insights from decades of practical experience and reflection in chapter 11, “Making Meaning of Pain and Fear: Enacting the Paradox of Repression.” According to Lakey, nonviolent activists create narratives that provide meaning for their risks, injuries, suffering and losses, helping them to transform pain and fear into opportunities for mobilization. These stories in turn have consequences for the tactics and strategies they choose and help to trigger the paradox of repression. Activists use these stories to prepare in advance for repressive events by training and shaping confrontations.

By weaving together these case studies, scholarly analysis and activists’ reflection, we aim to shed light on how the paradox of repression works in multiple contexts and how activists have managed repression to enhance its potential to backfire and empower resistance.

Repression as relational conflict

Nonviolent resistance is based in large part on the strategic harnessing of relational power. We focus on one subform in this volume: the strategic cultivation of the paradox of repression. Sometimes, when one party takes coercive action that violates basic norms, its ability to rally support and cooperation — its legitimacy — is undermined, threatening its capacity to meet its own goals. The contributors to this volume present cases in which authorities or elites used intimidation, coercion and sometimes violence in attempts to crush dissident movements. However, in each case, intimidation and physical force were seen to violate norms of proportionate response and helped to mobilize movement recruits. Elites’ efforts rebounded on them, undermining their legitimacy and diminishing their ability to govern as they wished.

Moreover, activists can rhetorically frame the actions of their opponents or can choreograph their own actions in ways that draw attention to repression by opponents. By adopting nonviolent tactics, activists can generate a striking contrast between their own actions and the “unfair” tactics of their opponents. The dissonance that gap creates can, in turn, provoke a moral outrage that increases the support and involvement of local and third parties. Such a contrast can also cause factions to develop among a movement’s opponents as some withdraw their cooperation and refuse to participate in further repression. When repression does occur against nonviolent civilians, it may serve as a deterrent to other regimes, as when Gorbachev took note of the negative consequences worldwide of the Tiananmen Square massacre and decided not to back communist states across Eastern Europe with force when they faced nonviolent uprisings a few months later.

Activists may also draw on local indigenous cultural resources to sensitize potential recruits and sympathetic publics to acts of repression. Legacies may be framed that perpetuate the paradox of repression long after the immediate crisis has passed. Dissidents in Czechoslovakia in 1989 commemorated the death of a young student, Jan Palach, who self-immolated in response to the 1968 invasion of Prague by Warsaw Pact troops two decades earlier. Similarly, the legacy of the British Army’s killing of civilians on Bloody Sunday in 1972 continues to influence Northern Ireland politics today, more than 40 years after the event. Figuring out how to harness cultural resources requires indigenous creativity or what sociologist James Jasper has called “artfulness” in developing effective tactics. The ability of activists to design effective nonviolent collective action creatively that mitigates repression or induces it to backfire may develop out of rational strategizing, but it will often emerge instinctively from the habitus, the intimate, unspoken and inarticulable perception of relations that is uniquely local. This creativity is the source of agency, which complicates cost-benefit paradigms since it is elusive and difficult to measure, and yet can significantly enhance the power potential of groups who might otherwise be considered susceptible to repression.

In short, although the paradox of repression is a phenomenon that is widely glossed over in both policy and academic circles, it seems an obvious and ubiquitous fact in 21st century political culture and a key element in the history of successful nonviolent movements. We hope that this collection of studies will enhance understanding by reconceptualizing repression as an interaction between conflicting parties, by expanding our scope of the spheres in which repression occurs, by delving into the social, psychological and cultural dimensions of repression, by thinking more closely about the costs of repression among agents of repression, and by introducing repression management to explore ways in which strategic nonviolent activists become powerful agents within repressive contexts.

Purchase a copy of “The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements” at Syracuse University Press.


Waging Nonviolence