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Remembering Dorothy Cotton, movement educator for democracy and freedom

Fri, 06/15/2018 - 16:41

by Lucas Johnson

Dorothy Cotton was the director of education for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the King years. (Twitter / @natcivilrightsmuseum)

On June 11, the world lost another veteran of the 20th century struggles for freedom and democracy. Dorothy Cotton, director of education for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, when it was led by Martin Luther King Jr., passed away at the age of 88.

As an invaluable member of a legendary team of preachers and organizers, she was one of the few women at SCLC to have served in a senior leadership position. Amid the efforts to register black voters in the segregated South, SCLC came to realize that registration was not enough for a population that had been disenfranchised for centuries. Cotton wanted people to understand the mechanisms of a government that had never really represented them or their interests and, ultimately, make that government their own — a process that would involve much more than voting.

She devoted herself to this work in the 1960s, ensuring that black people were taught black history and lessons important to economic empowerment, alongside classes on the constitution and ways to pass literacy tests. After the movement years, she went on to become the director of student activities at Cornell University and, among other things, supported students who were organizing in solidarity with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

I didn’t meet Dorothy until long after she retired from Cornell. In 2012, Vincent Harding had asked me to join a historic delegation to Palestine that was being organized by the Dorothy Cotton Institute. I was uneasy about joining the delegation — which was mainly veterans of the black freedom struggles of the 1950s and ‘60s — but eventually agreed. It was a tremendous honor to be among such a remarkable group. Led by Cotton and Harding, the delegation was, in part, a testament to her commitment to education. Even before leaving, we read, discussed and shared insights. Since the delegation was composed mostly of African Americans and Jews, we delved into the complicated history of relationships between the two groups in the United States. But that was just one part of the journey we undertook together.

The Dorothy Cotton Institute’s delegation to Palestine in 2012. Dorothy is at the center, holding hands with Vincent Harding. (WNV / Lucas Johnson)

I learned an incredible amount on that delegation, and I owe Dorothy a great deal for it. Perhaps one of the most significant lessons was one I didn’t notice I was even learning. Dorothy would use movement to push us forward during the more difficult moments of the delegation. She was modeling for me, and the rest of us, the role of music in the movement. She would sing because we needed it and call us to song because she needed it.

I had learned about the important role of music in the movement before — that it gave strength and courage to weary and sometimes frightened marchers. I knew of the power of song, but the demonstrations of my generation had more chants than songs. To experience Dorothy Cotton leading us all in song, in an effort to renew our souls on a hot and exhausting day, is among the greatest blessings of my life.

We sang often during the trip. I don’t recall exactly when we began, but there was a notable moment for me in the West Bank, after our group of travelers had been listening all day to the painful stories of the occupation. We had heard of the destruction of homes, the stories of beatings, brutality and unequal treatment under the law. The truth of the occupation of Palestine is difficult for anyone to hear and see, much less a group of people who witnessed and survived similar treatment in the segregated United States.

Our bus had stopped in front of the “separation barrier,” which interrupts the ancient route of the Jericho Road. We had gotten off to see the tear gas canisters marked “Made in the U.S.A.” The canisters added the burden of our complicity to the weight of all that we had seen and heard. In my memory, we were quite silent when we returned to the bus, and it was Dorothy Cotton’s singing that broke the silence. “Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumblin down.” It seemed at once an expression of lament and a defiant call to hope. The song represented a strange juxtaposition of time: the story of the ancient Israelites, carried in a song composed by our ancestors while they were enslaved, being sung in a location closer to the original story, but at a time far removed.

Palestine in 2012 was also quite far from the movement years of the 1960’s. But the lessons Dorothy Cotton, Septima Clark and others involved in SCLC’s Citizen Education Program could be felt in that moment. They understood the importance of vigilance in the struggle ahead. Then, as much as now, in order to transform the world, we have to see ourselves and each other differently. We will need to believe ourselves capable of something more than the dehumanizing roles our society has given us. We have to look beyond the caricatures of ourselves, caricatures that we are so often tempted to become.

In 1960, that meant that African Americans needed to free ourselves of the beliefs we internalized about our own inferiority, our own criminality. This was the importance of black history in the citizenship education workshops. The lies told about us for centuries were so pervasive and so penetrating that even if they had stopped 50 years ago, the struggle to free ourselves from them would still be necessary.

For all of us in this country, and most especially for white Americans, our task was and still is to free ourselves of the corrosive myth of white supremacy — a myth that has touched every fabric of American life from local economic structures to foreign policy. It is a myth that so distorts one’s sense of self that it has the power to suppress empathy, perhaps the key component of our humanity.

We know today, as clear as ever, that this myth is not easily defeated. This was the vigilance for which Dorothy and others prepared us. They knew democracy, equality and freedom would not be secured by the right to vote. To have considered this and prepared for it at a time when people were being killed for such efforts is a testament to the remarkable foresight and tenacity within the movement.

Dorothy Cotton speaking at the National Civil Rights Museum. (Twitter / @natcivilrightsmuseum)

Dorothy’s vigilance and commitment to freedom is what inspired her to travel to Palestine while in her 80s. She was unsatisfied with the official narrative of events. Through the pain of what we saw, the difficult conversations we had upon our return and the relationships we risked to tell the truth, she wrestled alongside us. Dorothy demonstrated a consistency of courage, even at a time when she could have rested on her well-deserved laurels. She modeled a life dedicated to the destruction of walls that divide us, and she was anchored by the belief of who we could become.

I will remember her and celebrate her life not only because of who she was in the 1960’s — and the sacrifices of her generation that made my life possible — but also because of all she continued to be. She taught us how to be a citizen and how to be more fully human, even until the end.

South Asian community mobilizes to support Kashmir after brutal sexual violence

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 10:25

by Skanda Kadirgamar

A rally calling for justice for Asifa Bano at Union Square in New York on April 18. (WNV/Sainatee Ninkhong)

Earlier this month, the War Resisters League launched a discussion series focused on zones of conflict that are neglected in American anti-war circles. The first event centered on Kashmir, the site of the world’s longest running military occupation, dating back to the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Both countries make territorial claims in the region that clash with Kashmiri demands for self-determination and drive settler colonial violence. The South Asia Solidarity Initiative, or SASI, used this opportunity to draw attention to violence in the region, such as the brutal rape and murder of eight-year-old Asifa Bano, a Kashmiri Muslim girl.

Asifa was a member of the Bakarwal Muslim community, which relies on herding livestock in the Kathua district of Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Her alleged perpetrators were Hindu nationalists. She was kidnapped in January and held in a local Hindu temple, where she was drugged, gang raped and beaten to death.

The identities of the alleged perpetrators were confirmed in March by a Special Investigation Team. Reports say they meant to terrorize her community in order to drive them from the area. Sanji Ram, a former bureaucrat who has been named as the mastermind behind this attack, has a history of violence aimed at Bakarwals in Kathua. Ram’s record as a bigot and agitator includes sexual violence and inciting Hindus in Kathua to deny Bakarwals access to land. Attempts to displace Kashmiris based on religious and ethnic identity date back to 1947. More recently, the Bakarwals have been subjected to a boycott pushed by Hindu nationalists aiming to undermine their livelihoods.

As details of the case came to light, local Hindu nationalists tied to India’s ruling party, the chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, scrambled to defend a posse of eight men who were arrested over connections to the rape and homicide. They mobilized a campaign called the Hindu Ekta Manch aimed at obstructing justice in this case. Lal Singh Chaudry, a former BJP politician who threatened Kashmiri Muslims with ethnic cleansing in 2016, joined a rally defending the alleged perpetrators.

Over the past few months, SASI has aimed to mobilize South Asian communities against both the Hindu right’s salvos and the ideology justifying Kashmir’s occupation. On April 18, the organization partnered with Equality Labs, a tech startup led by South Asian activists from marginalized communities, to rally people to New York’s Union Square. Around a hundred people showed up to decry the atrocities perpetrated against Asifa Bano and her community.

A Kashmiri activist who was invited to speak at the mobilization called on attendees to see Asifa’s death as part of an occupation that “continues to use sexual violence as a weapon of war, continues to brutalize Kashmiri bodies and erase Kashmiri identity.” This activist, who asked to remain anonymous, said that India’s vision of Kashmir as part of its territory is a crucial factor in that brutality and erasure.

Self-identified Hindu progressives and adherents of a more secular nationalism tended to view the atrocity perpetrated against Asifa as a “social-sexual” crime linked solely to religious hatred. On April 16, Sadhana, a group describing itself as a “coalition of progressive Hindus,” held its own “Against the Rapes in India” rally in Union Square. Asifa’s story was shared alongside those of Indian rape victims in Unnao and Surat. Board member Sunita Vishwanath responded to the BJP, specifically addressing the Hindu Ekta Manch. “Ekta is [a] word that’s very important to the Hindus,” she told India Abroad. “[I]t means oneness, it means unity, and we will not let such words that are sacred to us be co-opted by hate mongers and rapists.”

Responses like this, however, have been criticized for characterizing Asifa as an Indian victim. Including her in a list of Indian victims erases the fact that she was a Kashmiri victim of India’s occupation. One of SASI’s goals in the coming months, explained organizer Robindra Deb, is to challenge and unpack the ways in which Indians treat Kashmir — as if it were part of India irrespective of how Kashmiris feel. One Kashmiri organizer contended that the effect of calling Asifa an Indian victim was to “selectively erase the decades of violence that Kashmiri women have suffered and the persistent use of sexual violence against Kashmiri individuals across the gender spectrum.”

Furthermore, historian Hafsa Kanjwal has noted that “when Kashmiri women get raped … and when young Kashmiri girls are … killed” by the Indian army “there is no liberal outrage in India.” Kashmir is one of the world’s most militarized areas, with a ratio of one soldier for every 20 civilians. Over 700,000 Indian soldiers have been deployed to the region in response to mass movements for Kashmiri self-determination and as part of an exercise of power directed at Pakistan. This military presence is known for responding to protests and demands for autonomy with extreme violence.

As in other conflict zones, sexual violence towards Kashmiris is a constant feature of the Indian occupation and is used to “punish, intimidate and degrade Kashmiris at large,” Kanjwal explained. The 1991 siege of the villages of Kunan and Poshpura — during which the Indian army allegedly raped up to 100 women — along with the alleged rape and murder in 2009 of two women by police in the town of Shopian illustrate this dynamic. “Kashmiri civil society groups have documented 7,000 cases of sexual violence that also include violence against men in custody, including sodomy,” Kanjwal said.

Both Kanjwal and Mohamad Junaid, a Kashmiri scholar and activist, note how the suffering of Kashmiris in Jammu and Kashmir is obscured because India claims them as citizens. “In Kashmir, the Indian government claims the people it shoots down, blinds and treats with cruelty are Indian citizens,” Junaid said. “This confuses people who are not so familiar with what is going on in Kashmir because they think Kashmiris are Indians when they are facing the same kind of cruelty and atrocity as Palestinians.”

SASI hopes to illuminate these dynamics for a broad audience. This objective underpinned the teach-in that SASI co-hosted with the War Resister League on June 3, which covered both the history of occupation and movements for self-determination in Kashmir. Hafsa Kanjwal and Mohamad Junaid discussed these issues and were joined by a third speaker, Palestinian activist and member of the Decolonize This Place collective Amin Hussain. Hussain explained how the dearth of attention paid to Kashmiri resistance undermines the positions of those purporting to oppose other occupations, such as the Israeli presence in Palestine.

The teach-in drew upon groundwork that has been laid for transnational opposition to the occupation of Kashmir. “When you are from Palestine, or are a Tamil from Sri Lanka, or a Kurd — when you are any other nationality who has had a war imposed upon you or are living under an occupation — [Kashmir] instinctively resonates,” Juniad said prior to the event.

Amin Hussein attested to this during the teach-in when he talked about a longstanding affinity between self-determination movements that link Palestine and Kashmir. Recalling how he has been active in the Palestinian resistance since the age of 12, Hussein said he was “raised knowing about Kashmir.” He situated the struggles against settler colonialism in Kashmir alongside the Ferguson uprising and Standing Rock, calling each of these struggles for self-determination part of a “spirit that has been coming back.”

Ambazonians struggle for independence from Cameroon amid military takeover

Tue, 06/12/2018 - 12:08

by Phil Wilmot

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Northwestern and southwestern Cameroon have seen relentless bloodshed over the past few weeks. Something akin to civil war has broken out since factions of a separatist movement in English-speaking areas adopted violent tactics — including abductions and guerilla-style attacks — following years of nonviolent struggle against the Francophone government headed by despot Paul Biya.

Anglophone Cameroon — which is affectionately known to its inhabitants as Ambazonia — declared independence from Cameroon on October 1, following industrial strikes against government marginalization of Anglophone citizens. Biya’s government, as in the past, cracked down swiftly. Since declaring independence, Ambazonia has seen periodic waves of arsons, killings and pillaging of villages. The displaced likely amount to more than 100,000.

After a May 25 attack by Biya’s forces in the small town of Menka in the Anglophone Northwest Region — during which about 30 civilians were killed — politicians, leaders and local residents gathered to express disgust at the killings carried out by the military. During this open dialogue, 76-year-old Ni John Fru Ndi — a celebrated politician among Anglophones and the founder of the Social Democratic Front opposition party — told representatives of Biya’s government, “If I were 50 years old, I would be fighting in the bush.”

While the Anglophone minority is enraged by Biya’s refusal to grant Ambazonia autonomy, the Francophone majority isn’t particularly enthralled with him either, particularly after 35 years in power. “Bad governance is the common grievance Anglophones and Francophones share,” said Bergeline Domou, a French-speaking activist and politician with the Cameroon People’s Party. “Cameroonians face over 30 years of governance without goals. Our health system is a catastrophe. Our education system only produces more unemployed. To that you add harassment, embezzlement, violence and control of people’s freedoms.”

Ambazonians form a nation

Although interim president Sisiku Ayuk Tabe formed his cabinet in exile, Ambazonia is not without its own symbols. Passports, currency, a flag and a national anthem have all been created.

Meanwhile, the Southern Cameroons Broadcasting Corporation, or Ambazonia TV, has been popularizing the secession struggle since early 2017. The station launched in defiance of a ban by the Ministry of Communications. This helped bring tens of thousands to the streets in support of independence a week prior to the declaration.

“[Ambazonia TV] has been a major source of information to the population about the calling of ghost towns, boycotts and tax resistance,” said Dzebam Godlove Ayaba, an organizer with the youth movement Draufsicht in the Bamenda area of Ambazonia. “The channel also shows images of military violence, sensitizing the Anglophone people.”

While such high-level tech resistance is not common among African political movements, Ambazonia has a special asset working to its advantage. The southwestern area of Ambazonia called Buea is home to a number of universities and functions as a convergence point for developers, hackers, coders, entrepreneurs and creatives. At least 30 high-tech startups are headquartered in the area — which is also known as Silicon Mountain — and an annual conference attracts hundreds from Ambazonia and other parts of Africa.

As a likely result of its success, Biya’s regime has shut down internet access in Buea for months at a time on several occasions since early 2017. Members of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium — a coalition with many members pushing for succession — fought one of the earlier internet blackouts (as well as the arrests and crackdowns by the state that took place during it) by mobilizing “ghost town” actions. People stayed at home and businesses remained closed. Some blocked trucks exporting timber and petroleum to Francophone Cameroon.

The government then banned the consortium and arrested President Felix Agbor Nkongho and Secretary General Fontem Neba. As the consortium was squelched, a communiqué was hastily issued, designating members of the diaspora with sufficient internet access to preside over the campaign. These new leaders in the United States and Belgium were briefed on the nonviolent nature of the Anglophone struggle.

“The diaspora funds the struggle and provides enormous coordination and social media presence,” said Emmanuel Abeng, a diaspora activist originally from Bamenda. “More impactful decisions can’t be made [by diaspora leaders] because their boots are not feeling the actual heat on the ground.”

Ambazonia’s citizens aren’t waiting for outside leadership, even if it has played a crucial role. On September 22, just before Biya was about to address the United Nations, tens of thousands flocked to Bamenda’s streets with plants symbolizing peace. They converged at the palaces of traditional leaders, recognizing them as authoritative rulers, instead of Biya’s government.

Repression intensified after violent tactics

The patience of some Ambazonians has worn thin over the past several months, as government repression continues to escalate. While the majority have stuck with nonviolent resistance, a violent flank of separatists have armed themselves, using guerrilla tactics to abduct and kill agents of Biya’s government. This has enabled Biya to brand the military occupation of Ambazonia as a struggle against terrorism. And scorched-earth tactics have increased since late 2017 as a result.

Reliance on violent tactics has also enabled prosecution of nonviolent leaders as terrorists. In one instance just after the massacre in Menka, radio journalist Mancho Bibixy was sentenced to 15 years in prison for terrorism, hostility, secession, revolution and insurrection.

“Supporters of the accused have attended every session at the military court in Yaounde,” said activist Edna Njilin. Meanwhile, Francophone allies are stepping up their game at this time of crisis, offering pro bono legal support to those sentenced, spearheading hashtag campaigns like #FreeAllArrested and #BringBackOurInternet.

Shortly after the May 25 massacre, French-speaking activist and politician Bergeline Domou joined 30 Francophone women in a visit to the northwest to stand in solidarity with victims. “We were there to let them know that we too are facing difficulties under this government,” he said. “Acting together is a necessity. We used to have many moderates, but today more and more are giving their support to the secessionists.”

What immigrants can learn from the teachers strikes

Sat, 06/09/2018 - 11:21

by Catalina Adorno

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The wave of teacher strikes across the United States this year is a reminder of what workers can accomplish if they use their labor as leverage when making demands. Following strikes that ranged from six days to over two weeks, teachers won wage increases in four states. Some also won more funding for their schools — a clear benefit not just to teachers, but students and parents as well.

Such victories should serve as inspiration to all workers. But for immigrants — the backbone of this country’s economy — it should be a rallying force. Without immigrant labor, the economy would collapse. Yet most people do not recognize the role immigrants play as workers.

As an immigrant myself, I see this all the time. We are not even acknowledged as members of this society. This becomes even more clear when people talk about undocumented immigrants, a sector of workers that gets pushed into the shadows. The media vilify undocumented immigrants, referring to them as “aliens,” “illegals” and “thugs and drug lords.” Undocumented immigrants are also targeted by law enforcement and by abusive employers.

The criminal justice system is set up to target undocumented immigrants. At the local level, many states have collaboration agreements between police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Local policies like that result in the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants. ICE also targets communities by coming into our neighborhoods and picking up people in the streets, outside the courthouses, inside schools and hospitals, and even at our workplaces. How much longer are we willing to suffer these injustices?

Many immigrants assume that if we simply trust the political process and the politicians who claim to be our friends, we will find a solution. The truth is that we have trusted the system for decades. We’ve trusted politicians when they have promised immigration reform and pledged to pass some sort of legislation in their first 100 days in office. But they have failed us every single time.

They don’t seem to care that our friends, families and neighbors are getting picked up by immigration officials right in our streets or that many of us end up in detention for simply driving without a license. And what have they done about the children being separated from their parents simply because they don’t have a social security number?

We have seen how both Republicans and Democrats have made deals with for-profit detention centers to keep us locked up. Neither of these parties have ever intervened when ICE steps into our communities and raids our workplaces. We have heard countless empty promises from different political parties, which — at the end of the day — only care about their political seats.

If anything, we have been constantly told to wait. For decades, we have been told that we cannot win. Time and time again people have tried to tell us how we should behave, how we should fight and what we should be fighting for. Every time we raise our voice, we are told that we have to wait.

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The economy of this country functions because of us. We work in multiple sectors, from service to transportation to farming. And while that work doesn’t define us, we are a powerful labor force that needs to be reckoned with. We will use this power to fight back because we are tired of waiting. We know that if we decide to not go to work, entire services and companies will shut down.

At the same time, going on strike is scary prospect for many of us. In those moments of fear we must remember that we are capable of taking risks. We’ve mobilized in big numbers before, and we’ve gone on strike before. In 2006, millions of us flooded the streets of Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and other major cities across the country because an anti-immigrant bill was about to become law. Known as the Sensenbrenner bill, this legislation would have criminalized all of the undocumented people in this country, as well as any person who provided aid or services to them.

People didn’t know what to do. We couldn’t rely on the same political process that was just about to criminalize us all. After all, we couldn’t vote. What we could do, however, was mobilize. And we did! We made our banners and posters that said “Ningún Ser Humano es Ilegal” and “Inmigrantes Unidos,” and we went on strike on May 1, 2006 — a day that became known as A Day Without Immigrants. Millions of us took the streets and won, forcing the failure of the Sensenbrenner bill.

Members of the South Central Farm attending the immigrant rights march in downtown Los Angeles California on May Day, 2006. (Wikimedia/Jonathan McIntosh)

We did it again last year. Following the organizing efforts of Movimiento Cosecha, a nonviolent movement fighting for the permanent protection and dignity of all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, immigrant workers once again went on strike on May 1. This time it was to highlight the immigrant labor that sustains this country and the value we bring — an important message to raise amidst an anti-immigrant climate. We knew that our community was under attack. We also knew that we could no longer remain in the shadows or live in fear.

We showed our presence that May 1. Businesses like bakeries, markets, clothing stores and restaurants closed down in solidarity, and people who have never been part of a march or rally organized themselves and took to the streets. However, one day is not enough. In order to win permanent protection dignity and respect we must not only go on strike, but we need to be able to sustain the strike. As the teachers demonstrated, to win they had to hold their ground and refuse to go to work until their demands were met. That is what the immigrant community needs to do when we go on strike, and we have to do it in large numbers across the country — just like the teachers.

Movimiento Cosecha is working towards organizing such a strike. It will be holding a National Assembly this September and will be inviting the immigrant community to make this vision a reality. We can create change through direct action and economic non-cooperation, as the teachers have shown. Now it is time for us to follow their lead.

When you have an AR-15 but want a garden hoe

Wed, 06/06/2018 - 14:17

by Julia Travers

Mike Martin with local participant Cherie Ryans in Philadelphia forging tools from guns. (Yes! Magazine/Dan Brearley)

This article was first published by Yes! Magazine.

Blacksmiths in Colorado use their anvils to turn guns into gardening tools, reshaping America’s gun culture one strike of the hammer at a time.

This is the work of the “Swords to Plows” initiative of the nonprofit RAWTools. Gun owners from around the country send RAWTools their disassembled weapons for transformation. Most guns can be made into several tools, such as hoes and pickaxes. Shotguns often become hand spades, and a weapon like the AR-15 that was used in recent mass shootings has a thicker barrel that suits an afterlife as a mattock.

RAWTools’ first donated gun was an AK-47 from a retired public defender. Since then, it has reshaped more than 200 weapons so far, with more in progress. The tools they create are typically returned to the donor, given to community gardens, or sold to raise money for programming.

RAWTools founder and executive director Mike Martin was inspired to learn blacksmithing and start the nonprofit after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. By late May 2018, 23 school shootings in the United States have involved injury or death this year.

This summer, RAWTools and the Newtown Foundation, an organization formed after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting to focus on post-gun violence healing, will carry out an extensive version of weapons transformation. In cooperation with the New Haven Police Department in Connecticut, weapons from a gun buyback program will be taken apart by a local metal sculptor. Volunteer inmates from the New Haven Correctional Center will do the blacksmithing to create the tools, which will be used by students at local high schools to plant gardens. The harvests will be donated to soup kitchen and shelters.

“The entire process will essentially transform weapons of death into implements of life,” Newtown Foundation communications director Steve Yanovsky said.

Martin is a former Mennonite pastor. “Swords to Plows” is a reference to the biblical quote, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks … nor will they train for war anymore.”

He works with his dad and three other blacksmiths locally in Colorado Springs, as well as in traveling programs. RAWTools also promotes community dialogue around gun violence and leads peacemaking workshops. It partners with churches, community groups and organizations like the Newtown Foundation and the Children’s Defense Fund.

During the group’s community demos and workshops, participants can try their hand at forging the metal. Cherie Ryans is one of numerous mothers who lost a child to gun violence and has taken a turn at the RAWTools forge. Martin said that between each swing of the hammer to the iron she said: “This bang is bang for bang my bang son.”

“I was holding the hot metal as she did it. Everyone was in tears, and it was all I could do to hold the metal safely,” Martin said.

More than 300 million guns are loose in America — the equivalent of about one gun per person. About 96 people are killed by guns in America every day.

The type of gun surrender program that RAWTools is reimagining has been going on in the United States since the 90s in the form of police-run buybacks. Weapons can be turned in anonymously to police, no questions asked. To encourage participation, police often give out gift cards in return.

A 1994 study evaluating a Seattle buyback, which the National Rifle Association references, concluded that while buybacks are broadly supported by communities, their effect on decreasing violent crime and reducing firearm mortality is unknown. The nonprofit GUNXGUN, which mobilizes community-funded buybacks, states the infrequent and isolated nature of U.S. buyback programs makes it hard to analyze their effectiveness. But, it points out that after a 1996 mass shooting in Australia, an extensive buyback program coupled with stricter gun regulations led to a significant reduction in firearm deaths.

Getting firearms out of circulation is only one of many potential ways to reduce gun violence. Along with changing guns into peaceful instruments, RAWTools runs workshops on intentional conflict resolution. Martin says these range from “serious to silly” and integrate dramatic arts, role-playing and direct instruction.

RAWTools artist-in-residence Mary Sprunger-Froese leads many of these multi-age programs, which might include rapping, personal storytelling, skits, and other ways to train in de-escalation and peacemaking. So far she has taught an adult bystander intervention class and led a theater and nonviolent tools workshop for middle schoolers.

Martin envisions a nationwide RAWTools network, and said it’s happening already.

Volunteers across the country have helped gun donors disable guns for the forge, and churches have opened their parking lots for tents and anvils. Blacksmiths throughout the United States have signed on, and Martin says he needs “more people to help make tools, especially if they come from guns in their region.”

RAWTools is piloting a regional chapter in Toledo, Ohio. This summer, it will host youth workshops involving making tools from guns, creative expression and conflict mediation.

“There’s something beautiful and good about participants forging something that destroyed our community in some way into something that will bring beauty and life to our community,” said pastor Joel Shenk, who is leading the project.

New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence in Santa Fe, which previously collaborated with RAWTools, has now started their own creative gun transformation program. They invite community members to use the metal and the plastic from relinquished guns to make tools, sculptures and jewelry.

Elsewhere in the United States, a group called Lead to Life changes guns into shovels for tree plantings at sites affected by violence in Atlanta and Oakland, also citing the “swords to plowshares” tradition as an inspiration. So does Mexican artist Pedro Reyes, who also turned guns into shovels.

For Martin, transforming weapons at the forge and teaching nonviolence are important because guns in America are “elevated to such a level that they are viewed as an ultimate problem-solver.” He said, “Guns drain so much of our imagination to explore other ways to engage with conflict or confrontation. They are a tool to use power over others for the sake of the individual and not the community. This is what motivates me to do the work of RAWTools.”

A military veteran named James gave his guns to RAWTools after studying Christian scripture supporting pacifism. He wrote that he could no longer justify owning the guns because there was “no way to guarantee they would never be used to take a life.”

Another participant, who chose to remain anonymous, wrote: “I’m a teacher. After Parkland, I can’t own a gun anymore. How do I get it to you?”

The rise of resistance and resilience to tear gas

Wed, 05/30/2018 - 15:55

by Anna Feigenbaum

This text is adapted from “Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today

All around the world people invent, adapt and share techniques for resilience and resistance to tear gas. In doing so, they care for each other. They transform this weapon into a collectivizing tool. There is a growing transnational solidarity of tear gas resilience, aided by social media and mobile technologies that help protesters circulate relief remedies, gas mask designs and grenade throwback techniques. Displaying what social movement researcher Gavin Grindon has called “grassroots cultural diplomacy,” these tips are tweeted from Greece to New York, from Palestine to Ferguson, from Egypt to Hong Kong.

In places like Bahrain and Palestine, widespread and even daily use of tear gas has made this chemical weapon a part of life. As a way of exhibiting and collectively processing this trauma, people sometimes transform tear gas canisters into other objects. Acts of anger, grief and memorializing emerge as artistic practices. For example, in Bahrain, people designed a throne made out of tear gas canisters to signify their royal family’s role in the suppression of democracy protests. In Palestine, tear gas canisters have been used as Christmas tree ornaments to send a holiday message to the United States about the role of its tear gas and arms manufacturers in the violence of the Occupied Territories. In 2013, images of a Palestinian garden made out of plants potted in empty tear gas shells went viral, picked up by mainstream media outlets as an image of hope and quiet resistance. Yet, as Elias Nawawieh pointed out in +972 Magazine, absent from the news stories, Twitter photos and Facebook posts was the grave built as the garden’s centerpiece. It bears a translucent photo of Bassem Abu Rahmah, who was killed by the IDF in 2009 after being shot in the chest at close range by a tear gas grenade.

In 2013, Occupy Gezi in Turkey became a site of innovation, a place where people designed, adopted and adapted novel modes of resistance and resilience to tear gas. There was Ceyda Sungur, the woman in the red dress, pepper-sprayed at close range and turned into a movement icon. There were dancing ballerinas in whirling, brightly colored skirts that contrasted against the harshness of the full-cover gas masks they wore as they spun around. Penguins wore gas masks to symbolize the media’s failure to cover police violence, after television news stations attempted to block out news of the uprisings by screening a documentary about penguins instead of footage from the protests. Christian Gubar writes that “as both political commodities and stage props, goggles and gas masks were embraced for their eerie theatricality, speaking volumes to the grotesque banality of living under billows of noxious gas.”

A whirling sufi wearing gas mask during the 2013 protests in Turkey in Gezi Park. (Wikimedia/ Azirlazarus)

Rampant tear gas use on protesters and point-blank pepper-spray blasts are as common today as they were in the 1990s and early 2000s, with their use rapidly increasing across the Middle East and Eastern Africa. Like mobile video recording the decade before, the emergence of digital social media has meant that images of police violence against public demonstrators can circulate around the world in seconds. People directly hit with aerosol CS, pepper spray, and other tear gases take photos and videos that travel around Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, spreading stories often before the release of any official news reports. Such images can become movement icons.

The 2011 Occupy movement in the United States was marked by a number of these tear-gassed iconic images. First there were the young women penned in plastic while unarmed and peacefully protesting. Images of this action went viral, picked up by social and mainstream media. Then there was retiree Dorli Rainey, who was sprayed directly in the face at Occupy Portland.

These objects were as much about material reality as symbolism. Protesters in Gezi borrowed, translated, and reproduced instructions for making a gas mask out of a plastic bottle, and for using Maalox and other household ingredients as remedies for the painful effects of tear gas. Talcid Man appeared after a rumor spread that Talcid (a liquid medicine to relieve stomach inflammation) could help ease the effects of pepper spray. He emerged onsite, distributing the medicine as an embodied mobile care unit, and became a symbol of the movement’s resilience and generosity — depicted in stencils and sketches that circulated far beyond the occupied park.

Street medics

In the gas-flooded streets, a variety of shops, sidewalk stands, ground-level flats and even a hotel became makeshift medical field stations, providing remedies and treatments to protesters. At these sites, health workers and those with basic first-aid skills converged. These medical volunteers often have a clearer and more accurate understanding of the real-world impact of “less lethals” than scientists running tests in sterile laboratories. It is here, under the tarpaulins of protest architecture and in the pop-up clinics, amid the chaos these weapons intentionally provoke, that the bruises and bleeding, the choking and vomiting, the inability to breathe, the concussions, and the paralysis are immediately felt.

At the site of protest, pain is not a toxicity count or a threshold percentage. “Less lethal” is no longer a technical term but a vision of how much torment a body can take, of how close someone can come to death without dying. Measured in human experience, the medical field stations of protests can make visible the reality of riot control. Their ways of seeing and knowing medical injury can move us beyond the flames and smoke of media screens. They can provide far more accurate and detailed on-the-ground accounts than hospital records can. Their testimony can be mobilized to challenge the clinical trials produced by military-paid scientists.

Stopping shipments

The export chains that enable the sales of less lethal weapons are also often targeted by campaigns seeking to intervene in what Amnesty International calls the “trade in torture.” In an act of defiance that ignited the unions in Egypt, customs worker Asma Mohammed, a member of her union’s women’s committee, refused to process a shipment of seven tons of tear gas from Combined Systems Inc. According to the War Resisters League, which honored her with its 2012 Peace Award, Mohammed recalled, “I said ‘No, I refuse — because I don’t want to be the cause of someone’s pain or death.’ So in solidarity with me, or with the cause, my co-workers said, ‘No, we’re not going to work on it either.’”

South Korean activists protest a shipment of tear gas to Turkey. (War Resisters International)

In 2014, Bahrain Watch launched a #stoptheshipment campaign targeting Korean manufacturer Dae Kwang Chemical, which had contracted to supply more than a million canisters of tear gas to Bahrain — a country where more than 40 people have died and thousands more have been injured as a result of tear gas. Campaigners worked with Amnesty South Korea, Korean unions and local campaigns, as well as journalists at agenda-setting publications such as the Financial Times and New York Times. These longstanding tactics were combined with sophisticated, contemporary uses of social media, including a catchy, action-based hashtag, timed retweets and a campaign-specific website. They succeeded in pressuring the South Korean government into placing an embargo on tear gas to Bahrain, stopping the Dae Kwang shipment.

Engaging in direct action

Another way to resist excessive uses of riot control and protest profiteering is engaging in direct actions that intervene at sites where the transnational training of police forces takes place.

In October 2013, the Facing Tear Gas campaign brought together organizations to protest against Urban Shield, an annual SWAT team training session and security sales expo that promotes the use of military tactics for protest policing. The campaign built a coalition of more than 30 local groups in Oakland, including the Oscar Grant Foundation and the Arab Resource and Organizing Center. The next year they came back more organized, more informed and determined to make a difference. They created online petitions, held dedicated coalition-building meetings with council members, adopted a preemptive press strategy, and staged a demonstration outside the expo site that drew hundreds to the streets. Their efforts paid off: The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office announced that Urban Shield would no longer be held at the Marriott, and Mayor Jean Quan said that the City of Oakland would not renew its contract with Urban Shield. This was a small victory in a much larger struggle to change policing policies and practices.

Asians for Black Lives block the entrance Urban Shield at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in 2016. (Brooke Anderson Photography)

A key part of the success of the Stop Urban Shield campaign is sometimes called “going for the low-hanging fruit.” Trying to counter police use of force at the level of government policy or even at the sites of corporate headquarters will likely be slow and require legal action. Expos and SWAT training events held in public, or in spaces that have some public access (like hotel lobbies), are often easier to reach. They offer a convergence site for demonstrations, architecturally and territorially. Likewise, as sites where policing products are sold and displayed, expos offer activists an opportunity to make the secretive world of the arms trade visible. As the wide circulation of Shane Bauer’s 2014 video exposé of Urban Shield for Mother Jones evidenced, in today’s journalistic world of fake news, seeing verified information is believing.

In addition, social media has changed PR, making image management a two-way process where customers’ influence is bigger than ever before. This transition is expanding the field of image-based activism, as people find key image locations — moments and partnerships — that are ripe for intervention. While this can appear to be auxiliary, targeting theaters or museums sponsored by arms dealers hits PR teams where it hurts. In this case, by linking Urban Shield to ongoing events in Ferguson and to Oakland’s past cases of police brutality, particularly against young black men, the Stop Urban Shield coalition’s multi-ethnic, queer membership made it impossible for the city council to support the expo without further damaging the city’s image.

Importantly, it was not just the act of showing up and demonstrating at an arms fair that had this effect: It was making a global struggle local through grassroots mobilization and antiracist critique. Similarly, in explicitly targeting the Marriott, a large international hotel chain popular with families, Stop Urban Shield forced the company to weigh the profits of running this policing event against the risks of tarnishing its image. Getting the Marriott to pull out of Oakland’s Urban Shield is no guarantee that it will stop hosting similar expos elsewhere. However, Stop Urban Shield’s success in Oakland reveals a key pressure point that could become the grounds for a sustained campaign to get for-profit policing out of the Marriott.

Resisting from within

In 2013, after I began writing in the media about tear gas, I received an email from a police trainer working in Eastern Europe. “I hope you will continue to read my message after I confess [my job] … I worked in this field for 20 years, and I realized that the high-profile policing (using force against demonstrators) is a dead-end, and I campaign for the communication-based or low profile approach. Now I lead a police training center and hope I can use my influence to spread this idea.” The officer went on to ask for training materials that he might be able to translate for his trainees. Letters like this one serve as a much-needed reminder that other worlds are possible. They remind us that we often have more in common than we think.

It is not an easy thing to question the principles and protocols that shape your job and the way it is done. While my focus has been on advocacy from the outside, there are also a number of ways you can help transform how police are trained from the inside. In doing so you are likely to upset others around you, and you will certainly upset all those private consultants and experts who make money off the Saturdays you spend in their classrooms. Yet, by speaking out from within, you will be joining the ranks of many officers who have fought against the way excessive force is taught, enacted, and then covered up and protected within police departments. You will be speaking out against the cycles of trauma that can produce and perpetuate unnecessary uses of force. Change cannot just be about better public relations; it must also come from the bravery of speaking out from your heart and mind against systems you know are broken or corrupt.

What now? What next?

The increasing deployment of tear gas around the world has led to more canister strikes to the head, more asphyxiation from grenades launched in enclosed spaces, more tear gas offensives coupled with rubber bullets and live ammunition. These violent deployments of chemical weapons continue to leave people dead, disfigured, and with chronic physical and mental health conditions. If the century-long medical history of modern tear gas shows us anything, it is the problem with for-profit science. When science is leveraged for the profit of the few instead of the protection and health of the many, all of society suffers. At the most basic level, people deserve to know more about the chemicals that can be used against them. This is an issue of public health that must be researched independently and disclosed in ways that allows people to clearly understand the effects.

Tear gas must also be considered in its material form — as an object designed to torment people, to break their spirits, to cause physical and psychological damage. No amount of corporate public relations or safety guidelines can hide that foundational truth of chemical design. Tear gas is a weapon that polices the atmosphere and pollutes the very air we breathe. It turns the square, the march, the public assembly into a toxic space, taking away what is so often the last communication channel people have left to use. If the right to gather, to speak out, is to mean anything, then we must also have the right to do so in air we can breathe.

Guatemalan farmers occupy plantation formerly owned by drug traffickers

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 15:58

by Jeff Abbott

Two children ride a bike through the plantation known as Las Palmeras in Guatemala. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

Guatemala’s southern coast is in a constant conflict caused by the expansion of agro-industry. Across the region, small farmers struggle to feed their families as companies buy up more and more land for export crops.

Since the arrival of the Spanish to Guatemala in 1524, the country’s fertile southern coast has been the site of some of the most intense social conflicts over land. These conflicts have continued into the 21st century with the massive expansion of sugar cane and palm oil production.

Many of these land holdings have come to include illicit interests, including drug trafficking. But local small farmers, known as campesinos, have pushed back.

Since September 2016, 135 families associated with the Committee for Campesino Unity, also known by its Spanish acronym CUC, have maintained an occupation of a finca, or a large plantation, named Las Palmeras near the municipality of Cuyotenango. They are calling for the state to expropriate the land, which was once owned by a known drug trafficker, to the campesinos.

“We see the necessity [in our communities],” said Marcos (a pseudonym), a resident of the community of Progreso, who is supporting the occupation. “We have no place to work the land due to the amount of monoculture that surround us. They have made themselves the owners of the land. We have taken this finca because we need the land to sow the basic crops.”

The campesinos come from the surrounding departments of Quetzaltenango, Suchitepequez, and Retalhuleu.

The farmers have set up a small settlement on the finca, building small structures, as well as using the houses that are on the finca. They have established a collective store in the center of the finca, where they sell sodas, cooking oil and other common household items.

Since taking the finca, the campesinos have also begun to divide the land among the families. Many families have spent nearly two years sowing and harvesting several seasons of crops, including maize, beans, peanuts and fruits.

“They accuse us of land invasion,” said Francisco (a pseudonym), a campesino from a neighboring town who is supporting the occupation. “This is not an invasion, but rather a recuperation the lands of our ancestors.”

Organizing the occupations

Occupations have long been used in Guatemala by campesinos to gain titles to land. That practice grew dramatically in the 1950s following the passage of land reform under President Jacobo Arbenz. His administration expropriated unused land from large land holders, including the U.S.-based United Fruit Company, to be distributed among landless farmers across the country. After the U.S.-backed coup d’état in 1954, however, the tactic fell out of practice due to the threat of violence.

According to research by Charles D. Brockett, occupations would return to prominence in the late 1970s with the formation of the CUC. The organization was founded during the Guatemalan internal armed conflict and worked for the interests of the small farmers across Guatemala, as well as against structural inequalities and racism.

A woman wears a CUC flag while holding the hand of her daughter who wears a CUC hat during the 2016 water march. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the region has seen the massive expansion of monocrops, such as sugar cane and bananas, for export by large landholders. This expansion of export crops further exacerbated the land crisis on the coast, driving many campesinos on the coast to organize to occupy the land due to the inequalities in land availability.

“The problem is that there is a lot of African palm oil, sugar cane, rubber and bananas being planted on the coast,” Marcos said. “These monocrops are leaving us without land to support our families. It was the necessity that drove us to take the finca. [The large land owners] have left us without any land.”

But the support from the CUC has been the key for the occupation on the Guatemalan coast, with the organization providing moral and legal support for the campesinos in Suchitepequez.

“After we launched the occupation, the CUC arrived to provide support,” Francisco said. “The CUC has worked for years to serve and support campesinos across Guatemala.”

The campesinos have also received support from other farmers who have participated in other occupations in the country. They sent others to support the occupation when it began.

“We had a meeting a few days [before the occupation] with other campesinos [that had participated in occupations],” Francisco said. “They saw the necessity of launching the occupation of the land. They decided on the date, where everyone came at 4 p.m. to occupy the land.”

Guatemala has a land problem that has dictated social relations from the Spanish invasion until today. A small percentage of the population controls the majority of arable lands that they utilize for the production of export crops for foreign markets such as sugar cane, African palm oil and bananas. This problem is being exacerbated by the rise of the influence of drug traffickers and criminal networks in the two decades since the end of the internal armed conflict in 1996.

Following the signing of the peace accords, the Guatemalan government established the Land Fund, which was meant to resolve the historic land problem. Yet the high price of the land often keeps it out of reach of landless farmers.

Narcos and land

Drug traffickers have increasingly taken to purchasing land as a means of laundering money, and as a means of transporting narcotics through Central America. As the country continues to work to fight drug trafficking in the country, campesinos have increasingly taken to occupying lands owned by convicted and accused drug traffickers, as well as lands owned by their associates.

The case of Finca Palmeras is a good example of this.

The finca was founded when the Ralda family purchased extensive land holdings in the department of Suchitepequez. Prior to the establishment of the finca, the land was largely used for rice production and cattle ranching.

When Manuel Ralda died, he divided the farm among his children, but his children chose to sell the land, including Finca Palmeras. In 1995, the lands of Finca Palmeras were transferred into the national land registry. Campesinos and others lined up to purchase the lands, but the price was outside the range made available by the Land Fund. The owners of the nine caballerias of land (or a little more than 850 acres) were set at 1.5 million quetzales per caballeria, or a little over 205,000 dollars.

“A group of campesinos entered that wanted to purchase the finca,” Francisco said. “But at the time, the Land Fund only provided credit for 1 million quetzales per caballeria. The fund would not provide the money to buy the land.”

Then entered Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez — commonly known as Juan Chamale — who was one of the principal drug traffickers in Guatemala, and the main connection to the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel. He offered to buy the finca for 3 million quetzales per caballeria, and purchased the property. His goal was to create a front company to hide the transit of drugs from Colombia through the coastal region.

He quickly put in place security to block the local residents from passing through the finca to access the nearby Icán river, which was a popular fishing spot.

“Before we could fish in the rivers without any problem,” Francisco said. “But when Jaun Charmale bought the finca he put in place security guards, and it was prohibited to pass through the finca.”

According to the neighbors and campesinos occupying the finca, Charmale built new routes through the finca in order to move drugs. These routes connected to other fincas, eventually arriving at the Mexican border.

During the time that Ortiz Lopez owned the finca he would rent the lands to the neighboring fincas. This has caused problems for the campesinos occupying the land.

Furthermore, the campesino communities face an uphill battle to gain access to the land. The campesinos have faced intimidation and repression from the nearby fincas, including legal action over their occupation.

“We found ourselves with a problem,” Francisco said. “The neighboring fincas had sugar cane on part of the finca, and they filed a lawsuit against us in order to harvest that years’ crop.”

These lawsuits have included orders for the arrest of the organizers. The farmers also faced an eviction order that the police to date have not carried out.

Ortiz Lopez was finally arrested in 2011 on drug trafficking charges, and eventually extradited to the United States in 2014. At the time of his arrest, he was in possession of eight or nine fincas across Guatemala, which he would rent out to sugarcane producers, especially the nearby finca Palo Gordo. He had used the fincas as a means to launder his money from trafficking.

“The end of [Alvaro] Colom’s administration was when he finally fell,” Francisco said. “The government began to take the cattle that he had on the land.”

The campesinos are emboldened through the Law of Extinction of Domain, which was established in 2010. The law permits the expropriation of any assets of anyone convicted of a crime related to narco-trafficking, or any illicit crime.

Yet the campesinos’ claim is complicated. By the time he was arrested, Ortiz Lopez had put the titles for his land in his youngest son’s name. But campesinos from the region have laid claim to the lands, arguing that the Guatemalan government must apply the law, and expropriate the farm and distribute it among the small farmers.

Violence against occupying farmers

Despite the constant threat of eviction, the community has yet to see any violence. Meanwhile, other communities that have utilized the same law to argue for expropriating land have not been so lucky.

On October 30, 2017, the residents of the Q’eqchi’ Maya community of Chaab’il Ch’och were violently evicted from the homes they had occupied for a year. Police and military burned houses and crops, as well as the belongings of residents.

The community of Chaab’il Ch’och sits on a finca called Santa Isabel located in the municipality of Livingston, Ixabal. The finca was acquired by a shell company owned by former President Otto Pérez Molina.

The finca is currently being administered by Rodrigo Lainfiesta, a businessman and ally of Pérez Molina, who is also facing corruption charges. Pérez Molina is currently being prosecuted for corruption, as well as charges related to his association with drug traffickers.

In an interview for Upside Down World, one member of the occupation stated that they believed the land was used or going to be used for drug trafficking.

Yet, in spite of the violence against other communities, the campesinos in Suchitipequez are confident that they will emerge victorious.

“We are asking God that we will win, and believe we will,” Francisco said. “For our children, we do not want to see any more malnutrition in our communities.”

International resistance builds to save Sudanese teen from death penalty

Fri, 05/18/2018 - 12:27

by Phil Wilmot

Trigger warning: The entire article talks about sexual assaults and abuse.

Last Thursday, Sudanese teenager Noura Hussein Hammad — a rape survivor in a forced marriage — was sentenced to death for killing her husband in self-defense.

It was two years ago when Noura was raped by her husband, while his male relatives forcefully restrained her. When her husband attempted to rape her again the following day, she defended herself by stabbing him to death.

Noura then sought refuge at her family’s home. But this was the same family that — three years earlier, when she was just 15 — had arranged for her to marry her cousin. Upon hearing Noura’s account of what had transpired, her family turned her over to the police, never again visiting or supporting her.

Noura was held in Omdurman prison for a year. During that time, her husband’s family could have urged the court toward monetary restitution and forgiveness, but instead they pushed for the death penalty. The date of Noura’s execution has not yet been set.

In the Sharia law of Sudan, marital rape is not a crime. To the contrary, its family law dictates that a woman cannot refuse sex with her husband, and a girl can be wedded once she hits puberty.

Noura was simply trying to defend her own life in a nation with extremely repressive and patriarchal laws and traditions. But over 700,000 petitioners — organized across the world under the hashtag #JusticeForNoura — are trying to save her life, as well as eliminate laws and practices that punish survivors who resist marital rape with the death penalty.

“I had to do something and not let this happen like it did for Asifa, and Zainab, two little girls that have been recently raped and killed in Pakistan,” wrote petition creator Zaynub Afinnih, who is based in Rouen, France. “I am, too, a teenager, and I could have faced the same thing as Noura if I was born in Sudan.”

Arfinih’s petition is being aided by a complementary strategy. Since direct appeals to Sudan’s government, which is headed by war criminal Omar al-Bashir, might fall upon deaf ears, activists with the Pan-African network Afrika Youth Movement, or AYM, have begun targeting the leaders of other African countries.

“We acknowledge that the Sudanese president is not that interested in the reaction of — or calls from — the West,” AYM North Africa coordinator Sodfa Daaji said. “But we do know that he has an interest in maintaining good relations with African countries. This is why we are asking the African Union to directly follow up Noura’s sensitive case and urge [al-Bashir’s] intervention.”

Despite AYM’s strong desire to save Noura’s life, the group hadn’t heard her story until a few days prior to Thursday’s court hearing. What’s more, Daaji had never worked on an anti-death penalty campaign and had to spend the first three days learning about Sudan’s judicial system, religions and cultures to ensure their advocacy would be impactful.

Using the relationships they have built while lobbying for various causes over the years, movement organizers with AYM’s Pan-African network have managed to draw attention to Noura’s story within the United Nations and the African Union.

According to Sudanese activist Zahra Hayder, outside pressure on Sudan “has often worked.” She cited the case of Meriam Yahya Ibrahim, a pregnant Christian teenager who was imprisoned for refusing to convert to Islam and forced to give birth while shackled to the floor in 2014. International outcry drew attention to the plight of non-Muslim Sudanese, and eventually Ibrahim obtained asylum.

If an equally effective international campaign for Noura succeeds, much remains to be done at the grassroots level to protect her and countless other young women facing similar charges. Among the most pressing short-term concerns is Noura’s care while she remains in prison. Nahid Jabralla, director of the Center for Training and Protection of Women and Child’s Rights, or SEEMA, has been in direct contact with Noura.

“She is strong because she knows that a lot of people are supporting her,” Daaji said. “The support is making her feel that she is not alone and that she has a family.”

Even if Noura is released, she faces the possibility of revenge from her husband’s family, or even her own family. So Jabralla and her colleagues are doing everything in their power to ensure adequate protection. Such work, however, carries great risk in Sudan. While attempting to protect females and children within and beyond the capital city of Khartoum, where SEEMA is based, Jabralla has been imprisoned on multiple occasions and subjected to torture. In July 2012, she disappeared for some time, together with more than 2,000 other activists, journalists and members of the opposition during a wave of protests that were ultimately squelched by al-Bashir.

A local campaign called “No To Women Oppression Initiative” organized by a coalition of activists and progressive organizations has built solidarity support groups, a legal support group and awareness-raising actions (mostly on social media) that critique bad laws and practices.

On the legal end, Noura’s lawyers are developing an appeal based on the fact that she never gave consent to her marriage. At the same time, they are also doing all they can to raise awareness of Noura’s story. However, a recent planned press conference was banned by Sudan’s repressive national security forces. According to human rights activists in Khartoum, the crackdown is a direct result of the civil society campaign and the international media attention it’s drawing.

“She’s strong,” Daaji said, in explaining Noura’s current spirits. “Of course, a little depressed, but strong.” Daaji hopes that this campaign positively impacts the lives of more girls than Noura, even in countries beyond Sudan. “We cannot excuse [early marriage] anymore in the name of culture and tradition. Muslims do know that rape is haram, not halal [or forbidden, not permissible.]”

50 years later, the spirit of the Catonsville Nine lives on

Wed, 05/16/2018 - 12:34

by Frida Berrigan

Frida Berrigan stands in front of the newly unveiled Catonsville Nine historical marker in Catonsville, Maryland with her children. (WNV)

It was a big moment. More than a hundred people watched as a college professor held one end of a heavy vinyl cover, helping an 88-year-old woman, pull it from the top of a tall metal sign. Together, they unveiled a familiar looking historic marker — the kind that draws attention to battlefields drenched in centuries-old blood and the birth places of famous men all over the country.

This one, however, was different.

It read: “On May 17, 1968, nine Catholic activists raided the selective service office in Catonsville and burned hundreds of draft files to protest the Vietnam war.” It now stands on Frederick Road in Catonsville, Maryland — about a block from the building that housed the young men’s draft files.

The 88-year-old woman was Marjorie Melville — one of those nine Catholic activists and, along with George Mische, one of only two still living.

After the unveiling, which took place on May 5, she shared recollections of the action at a nearby church, including a funny story about her husband, Thomas Melville, who responded with a rousing and immediate “I’m in,” when invited to join the action. The two had recently married after leaving the Maryknoll order, where they served as a priest and a nun. “I was mad,” she recalled. “He didn’t consult me, but then I thought about it and decided, ‘I’m in too.’”

In its few sentences of block letters, the historic marker only mentions “priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan” by name. It doesn’t capture Melville’s motivation to join the Catonsville action and draw attention to U.S. military involvement in Guatemala as another Vietnam. She and Thomas shared their experiences in that Central American country in searing testimony captured in my uncle Daniel Berrigan’s play, “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.” The Melvilles brought John Hogan — a former Maryknoll brother who they had served with in Guatemala — into the action. Mary Moylan, another one of the nine, had been a nurse in Uganda, while George Mische had worked in the Dominican Republic. They all said that part of their radicalization, part of the journey that led them to Catonsville, was a result of seeing the far-flung damage wrought by U.S. foreign policy. David Darst, a Christian brother, and Tom Lewis, an artist and recidivist, had both lived in the inner cities and saw a less exotic version of the same brutal dynamic.

The hallmark of so much of our political expression is reactive outrage. It was then too. “Hell no, we won’t go,” was a slogan to be chanted by the young men who were drafted. There is so much to be outraged about, and our outrage matters. But the members of the Catonsville Nine were not outraged. And their action was not a response to the massacre du jour, but to the whole of U.S. foreign policy. As John Hogan said at the trial, “I just want people to live. That is all.” And it was not carried out by those most affected by the draft. In fact, every member of the action was personally exempt from military service by their age, gender or profession, as priests and brothers. It was nine people stepping out of comfort and into commission and conscience.

My father knew he was but one of nine; he was moved by Mary Moylan and Marjorie Melville and her husband. He learned from David Darst, John Hogan and Tom Lewis — his dear friend and co-conspirator in many actions. He was challenged and inspired by George Mische and his brother Daniel Berrigan. He would be quick to point out that the Catonsville Nine was not just the “Berrigan Brothers.”

I don’t have any recollections of the action, since I wasn’t born until six years later. My father also wasn’t one to sit around and tell the peace movement’s “war stories.” But I learned the lasting impact of this one action by listening. Strangers would come up to my father — men of a certain age — while he was pumping gas, buying a newspaper or attending a demonstration to confirm his identity and then share some version of this: “I’m alive today because you destroyed my file. My card was at Catonsville. I was about to be sent to Vietnam. Thank you.” My father would accept their thanks with discomfort and pride. Now, from a greater distance, I can understand the discomfort as part of a veteran’s process of atonement, a life saved from war after so many lives lost in war, and an affirmation of the path — narrow, rocky, grueling and lonely — that he had chosen for himself.

And then there were the friends, fellow community members — people as close as family. One was a young mother on Long Island, raising five boys. On May 17, 1968, she was sitting in her kitchen, listening to the radio, busy with some household task. The news announcer reported that nine Catholic antiwar activists were arrested after destroying draft records. She was a devoted Catholic, and this was an action involving two priests, a brother, a former priest, a former nun and four lay people. “I was sitting down, and I stood up. I haven’t sat down since,” she said. She went on to be a Catholic Worker, peace activist and a dear friend. I have heard that story countless times, from her and many others who were similarly catalyzed into activism by the Catonsville Nine.

Learning about this one day in May through the prism of the transformations of both strangers and friends has helped me see the draft board raid as living and continuing. It may have been 50 years ago that my father was one of nine who broke the law to prevent a greater crime, but it was only a month and a half ago that my mother, Liz McAlister, was one of seven, acting in that same spirit. As a member of the Kings Bay Plowshares, she gained access to the Kings Bay Trident Base in Georgia and symbolically disarmed the warheads, marking them as criminal.

From the Camden County Detention Facility in Woodbine, Georgia, she sent me a statement to share with those who gathered in Catonsville for the unveiling: “May the disarmament continue.” This was in keeping with the message the Kings Bay Plowshares carried onto the naval base, which read, in part: “We come in peace on this sorrowful anniversary of the martyrdom of a great prophet Martin Luther King, Jr. Fifty years ago today on April 4, 1968 Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee as a reaction to his efforts to address the ‘giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism.’ We come to Kings Bay to answer the call of the prophet Isaiah to ‘beat swords into plowshares’ by disarming the world’s deadliest nuclear weapon, the Trident submarine.” For this action, they face more than 20 years in prison.

It seems like a very long time.

The Catonsville activists were sentenced to two and three year prison terms, which is also a long time. How do we use our time? My uncle, Dan Berrigan wrote in “Portraits of Those I Love” that “on the one hand, I do not want to live in a world without anger; on the other hand, I am not interested in dying just yet. But I don’t want anger to burn uselessly as a waste flame from an oil stack. Living on, nursing my flame I write. It is a way of surviving. It tells me my soul is my own.”

Action, community, collective courage — that’s the spirit of the Catonsville action. It is a way of survival. It tells us our souls are our own. So, thank you, Brother David Darst, John Hogan, Thomas Melville, Marjorie Melville, George Mische, Tom Lewis, Mary Moylan. Thank you Uncle Dan. Thank you Dad.

And thank you, Kings Bay activists, friends, family: Martha Hennessy, Clare Grady, Father Steve Kelly, Patrick O’Neil, Mark Colville, Carmen Trotta. Thank you, Mom.

Lebanese press for accountability after claims of election fraud

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 11:33

by Rayyan Dabbous

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Following Lebanon’s parliamentary elections on May 6, more than a thousand Lebanese gathered in front of the Ministry of Interior to challenge its official electoral results. According to the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, an election monitoring group, there were approximately 7,300 legal complaints, including the removal of its monitors from electoral polls during the counting of votes.

Few media outlets, national or global, have focused on these electoral violations, covering instead the unexpected victories of Hezbollah in several districts and the severe losses for the pro-West Future Movement party. Nevertheless, Lebanese civil society groups are continuing to push for accountability. “We would have accepted the results if the electoral process was fair,” said Gilbert Hobeich, a member of the new political party Sabaa. “But there have been all kinds of violations even before election day, from buying votes to threats.”

Civil society groups like Sabaa, LiBaladi, and You Stink have been organizing in recent years and are beginning to catch the country’s attention. The latter only recently got involved in elections, having initially formed during Lebanon’s 2015 trash crisis — a political stalemate that resulted in the piling up of trash all over the country’s streets. The group first gained attention for organizing a protest on August 29, 2015, which attracted 250,000 Lebanese from all sides of the political spectrum. More peaceful protests followed, but they were met with violence from police forces when, according to You Stink, infiltrators sent by the regime vandalized several commercial properties.

Since then, You Stink has been unable to protest in public spaces, forcing its members to build a strong online presence, with a Facebook page that has amassed more than 250,000 followers. The group posts cartoons mocking party leaders as well as memes that add ironic captions next to politicians’ tweets, which regularly go viral in Lebanon. Other actions have reached more of a global audience, including one that involved the use of drones to spoof a film made by the Ministry of Tourism. You Stink juxtaposed the picturesque beaches and mountains of the country in the official video with shots of “rivers of trash,” some of which were real footage from locations the original film had intentionally left out of the frame.

Sabaa is another political party born shortly after the trash crisis. Described on their website as “modern” and “cross-sectarian,” Sabaa is considered to be one of the more organized and better funded new parties. As a result, the traditional parties have accused it of being a “foreign export.” Sabaa’s candidate, Paula Yacoubian, a famous television host, won the party’s only parliamentary seat, although Hobeich insists they should have won “at least two or three more seats.”

Despite having a smaller online presence than Sabaa, LiBaladi is another new political party gaining momentum. It has reached a wide audience in its campaigning by partnering with celebrities — like award-winning director Nadine Labaki and actor Fouad Yammine — who often have more followers on social media than the average Lebanese TV channel. Even TV host Dima Sadek dedicated the last show of her popular program to LiBaladi’s Naila Geagea and Ziyad Baroud, a former Minister of Interior who doesn’t affiliate himself with any of the traditional parties.

Despite the three groups’ intense campaigning in the last few months, Lebanon’s traditional parties have created a united front against them to limit their rise through methods used by totalitarian regimes. Sabaa, LiBaladi and You Stink have all received limited coverage from the country’s main TV channels, which are affiliated with the mainstream parties. They have also faced difficulty hosting their campaigning activities in private spaces. For example, Sabaa had to cancel an event at a restaurant last year because its host received pressure from local officials to close. Meanwhile, around the same time, more than 10 members from You Stink were arrested for hanging posters in Beirut that depicted the faces of the country’s leaders with a caption, saying, “Report them to 112 [911 in Lebanon], those who raped the power of the state.”

Despite the renewed shunning of these groups following claims of election fraud, the nonviolent fight is far from over. While Sabaa and LiBaladi intend to appeal several electoral results, You Stink asked its followers via a Facebook poll if it should “move to the streets.” The results showed resounding support.

New data offers insights into the dynamics of nonviolent resistance

Sat, 05/12/2018 - 12:02

by Jonathan Pinckney and Erica Chenoweth

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In a recent article for The Guardian, L.A. Kaufman argues that we are living in a “golden age” of protest. But, she cautions, protests are often not enough for movements to realize their desired outcomes. Applying more disruptive methods, like sit-ins or blockades, is a necessary next step for organizers who wish to effect transformative change.

Indeed, tactical innovation and the adoption of a broad range of nonviolent methods is a hallmark of successful resistance campaigns in the past. That said, little systematic research exists to help organizers understand when and how to use different methods of resistance. How can shifting between acts of omission and commission, concentration and dispersion, or protest, noncooperation and intervention advantage or disadvantage nonviolent movements? And how do their trajectories change depending on the national context, the political regime, or the actions of third parties?

Despite a growing literature on nonviolent resistance, many of these questions remain unresolved. In the absence of systematic study, the lessons of prominent nonviolent resistance movements can often be misinterpreted or misunderstood.

For example, in early 2011, the world watched as Cairo’s Tahrir Square filled with protesters refusing to leave until President Hosni Mubarak left power. The occupation of the square was a highly visible tactic that caught the attention of global media and easily spread across front pages and cable news broadcasts. When Mubarak fell in mid-February it was easy for spectators to conclude that mass protests and occupations in key symbolic spaces led directly to his demise.

Yet the occupation of Tahrir Square was not the only action of the 2011 Egyptian Uprising that influenced this outcome. In the days immediately preceding Mubarak stepping down, a wave of strikes also broke out across the country. Organized labor and professional groups walked out of their jobs. In many smaller cities out of sight of major media outlets, protesters also stormed police stations in revenge attacks for police repression.

Moreover, the uprising that swept across Egypt was only the latest iteration in years of popular contention there. Since the early 2000s, beginning with protests against Israel during the Second Intifada and the American invasion of Iraq, Egyptians had been using various techniques of nonviolent action to advocate for major political changes. The 2011 uprising built on the tactical successes and failures of a series of protests in 2008 for greater protection of human rights, which built on an earlier campaign, Kefaya (“Enough!”) that called for the expansion of electoral rights.

In other words, the 17 historic days in Tahrir Square were part of a broader series of contentious acts that followed many years of less visible organizing. To understand the outcome in Egypt and elsewhere, we must understand this complexity — both the intricate repertoire and sequence of tactics that make up nonviolent uprisings as well as the enduring, small-scale mobilization that often precedes them.

To contribute to greater scholarly and practical understandings of the ways in which the timing and sequencing of different tactics lead to different outcomes, and with generous support from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (as well as from the co-investigators’ universities), we introduce the latest version of the long-running Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes data project, NAVCO 3.0. The NAVCO 1.0 dataset contained aggregated information on violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns as a whole and played a crucial role in statistically demonstrating that higher effectiveness of nonviolent resistance relative to violent resistance. NAVCO 2.0 split up these campaigns into yearly observations, allowing for more detailed analysis of change in campaigns over time.

NAVCO 3.0 provides data at a much more granular level, with observations of individual violent and nonviolent tactics on specific days. This allows us to examine the whole complex set of actions and reactions by activists, governments and third parties during violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns. Unlike the previous versions of NAVCO, we also include actions from before and after resistance campaigns, allowing us to examine the dynamics of smaller-scale resistance that do and do not lead to major resistance campaigns, and the cumulative effects of different contentious actions over the long term.

Because of the labor-intensive nature of the data collection (these data are over six years in the making), 3.0 is limited to 21 countries from 1991 through 2012. Even limiting to these countries, the complete dataset contains information on over 120,000 events. We picked the countries in NAVCO 3.0 based on the existence of campaigns in these countries that would give us new insight into the dynamics of nonviolent action. Thus, the dataset includes every country that experienced a major Arab Spring uprising, as well as several additional countries that experienced major nonviolent resistance movements during the time period we were examining (such as Mexico and Kenya) and a few that didn’t have a major nonviolent resistance movement that can be useful to compare as a baseline.

Scholars of peace and conflict have created many amazing resources on events related to nonviolent resistance. In addition to NAVCO, those interested in broader movements around the world can find a wealth of information at the Swarthmore Global Nonviolent Action Database. And for those interested in data about protest events specifically, the ACLED and SCAD datasets contain information on contentious politics in Africa and some additional countries outside the continent. Where NAVCO 3.0 improves these existing resources is in building the theoretical insights of the nonviolent resistance literature directly into the data structure. So, for instance, NAVCO 3.0 includes information on whether events were acts of commission or omission, and what category of Gene Sharp’s division of nonviolent tactics an event falls into (protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention). NAVCO 3.0 also includes measures for whether an individual action sparked backlash, and if so what kind.

Finally, NAVCO 3.0 contains extensive resources for considering the rhetorical picture surrounding nonviolent resistance movements. We have detailed information not just on physical actions by activists like protests and strikes, or government actions like arrests or killings, but also what domestic and international actions said about a particular event — or how nonviolent action helped to change the narrative about a particular issue at home or abroad.

The amount of detail in the data means scholars, activists and other practitioners can use it to gain insight into many questions about nonviolent resistance. Early research has already used the data to look at the factors that lead to breakdowns in nonviolent discipline and gain new insight on how crowd size affects the likelihood that both nonviolent and violent resistance actions have faced repression.

The NAVCO data is freely available for download here. For more information on the structure and sourcing of the data, you can read our article in the Journal of Peace Research, currently available here.

Nicaragua’s protests transcend old political divides

Thu, 05/10/2018 - 12:27

by Ryan Mallett-Outtrim

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For Nicaraguan university student Rosa, it was the sheer brutality of the police crackdown that left her terrified in her own country.

“I never thought it would be like that,” she said, reflecting on the first time she joined a peaceful protest against proposed social security reforms. Like tens of thousands of other Nicaraguan students, she participated in a wave of demonstrations in mid-April against the Ortega administration’s plans to slash pensions and increase employee contributions to the financially troubled Nicaraguan Institute for Social Security, or INSS.

Despite the tropical heat, Rosa — whose real name has been omitted due to concerns for her safety — and other students hit the streets, joining a human tide that flowed through the capital city of Managua. She had never even thought about protesting before, but on that day hopes were high and the atmosphere exhilarating — that is, until the tear gas canisters started flying.

“At first, I thought I had something in my eyes,” she said, “but then someone told me it was tear gas.”

As she approached the frontlines between protesters and police, the stench of the tear gas seared her eyes and nostrils. Volunteers rushed from person to person distributing cheap surgical masks, vinegar and baking soda. As the day wore on, the city was jolted into a state of fear by the sounds of gunfire.

Since then, human rights groups say more than 60 people were killed amid a violent police crackdown on protests. Over 160 people have been injured by gunfire, with protesters accusing police of spraying crowds of demonstrators with live ammunition.

“What took place is a massacre,” said Marcos Carmona, the director of Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights.

“It’s crazy,” Rosa said, shaking her head. “People were just peacefully protesting.”

The Nicaraguan government has responded by condemning protesters who burned tires and erected barricades, while also vowing to investigate allegations of police misconduct.

“We will start a formal and responsible investigation into the loss of life of students, national police and civilians,” Public Prosecutor Ines Miranda stated.

The government has also announced a truth and reconciliation commission, along with agreeing to participate in national dialogue with opposition groups. The INSS reforms have likewise been suspended — at least for now. Rosa cautiously welcomed these developments, but with little optimism.

“After all these deaths, I think it’s all we have,” she said, referring to the negotiations. Indeed, in recent days Managua has seen a lull in clashes, and a return to normality in much of the city.

However, another protester, feminist activist Maria, whose name has also been changed to protect her identity, said it would be “very optimistic” to believe the crisis is over.

“How can we trust them?” she asked, lamenting that she had little faith in the government’s promises to investigate police brutality.

“It’s like if you killed someone, and were allowed to investigate yourself,” she said. For her, the protests were a sign that now is the time to “rethink the country we want to build. This is the chaos we needed.”

Where did the protests come from?

Until a few weeks ago, such unrest in Nicaragua would have seemed unthinkable. With neighbors like the crime-ridden Honduras and El Salvador, for over a decade Nicaragua has quietly been garnering a reputation as an oasis of peace and security in an oft-troubled region. It’s the kind of place travel aficionados drool over for its idyllic slow pace of life, stunning tropical landscape and welcoming culture. So much so, that in 2010 Nicaragua proudly announced it had hit a milestone of bringing in over a million tourists annually — a major achievement for a country of barely six million inhabitants.

Even the World Bank has praised Nicaragua for its “pioneering strategies to fight poverty.” According to figures cited by the World Bank, between 2014 and 2016 the overall poverty rate in Nicaragua fell from 29.6 to 24.9 percent, while extreme poverty fell from 8.3 to 6.9 percent

Even politically, to the casual observer, Nicaragua appeared to be moving past the scars of the 20th century. However, as the old saying goes, looks can be deceiving.

The legacy of the Banana Wars

At the dawn of the last century, Nicaragua was a key battlefield in the so-called Banana Wars, when the United States sought to assert dominance over its neighbors through a series of military interventions in countries like Panama, Haiti, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Nicaragua itself effectively became a U.S. protectorate in 1916, and remained subject to a U.S. military occupation until 1933.

The American grip on the country was largely motivated by fears that Nicaragua might one day build its own canal — one that might rival the canal the United States had just finished building in Panama. The U.S. withdrew, leaving the country’s security in the hands of their close collaborator, National Guard head Anastasio Somoza. Over the next three years, Somoza used terror, political assassinations and election rigging to establish himself as the country’s undisputed dictator.

The Somoza dynasty ruled the country like a family fiefdom until 1979, when the Marxist-inspired Sandinista revolutionaries seized power. The victory, however, was short lived, and throughout the 1980s the U.S.-backed Contra terrorists waged an insurgency against the Sandinistas that left over 30,000 dead. In 1990, the war-weary Nicaraguan electorate delivered a surprise blow to the Sandinistas, voting out incumbent president Daniel Ortega.

However, that wasn’t the last of Ortega, who won the 2006 presidential elections with 38 percent of the vote. Despite the middling victory, Ortega would go on to remain in office until today.

The new Sandinismo

Ortega built his administration on two pillars of support. On one hand, welfare programs funded by regional ally Venezuela maintained Ortega’s revolutionary credentials. At the height of the Chavez-era, Venezuelan aid made up roughly a third of the Nicaraguan government’s annual budget.

On the other hand, the new Sandinismo was more than willing to compromise with their old enemies: Nicaragua’s business elite. Ortega even formed an alliance with COSEP, an influential council of business leaders. The deal was simple: COSEP would provide political support for the Ortega administration, so long as the president consulted them on economic matters.

This uneasy alliance worked – at least on paper. Poverty rates were nudged downwards, and Ortega even dusted off those old plans to build a Nicaraguan canal. To the outside world it looked as though Nicaragua was finally at peace.

“But it was a fake peace,” said Maria.

Critics of Ortega have accused him of presiding over a purge of public sector employees and a campaign of persecution against opposition parties. Nonetheless, even until earlier this year polls indicated Ortega remained one of the most popular heads of state in the region. Then came the International Monetary Fund.

The INSS reforms

For years, COSEP and the Ortega government have been negotiating over long overdue reforms to Nicaragua’s social security system, the INSS. In 2017, the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, warned the INSS’s financial situation was becoming untenable, and urged Ortega to slash welfare benefits by 20-30 percent. The IMF also called for increasing the retirement age to anywhere from 63 to 65. COSEP has agreed reforms are needed, but in April withdrew from talks with the government after Ortega refused to agree to deeper economic reforms. The government reacted by publishing its own proposed INSS reforms, which included cuts far below what the IMF demanded, while also balancing the increased costs between both employers and employees.

According to economist Jake Johnston, who is a research associate at the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, the government proposed increasing employer and employee contributions to the INSS by 3.5 and 0.75 percent respectively, along with a 5 percent cut to pensions.

COSEP responded by accusing Ortega of failing to consult them and called for protests. The call was immediately met by university students, who took to the streets by the thousands.

Johnston said the original IMF proposals would have likewise probably been rejected by the Nicaraguan public. “There is little question that a 20 percent reduction in benefits and/or an increase in the retirement age would have been met with resistance by workers and pensioners alike,” he said.

Nonetheless, he argued the IMF itself wasn’t to blame for the current unrest — at least not directly.

“I don’t think you can put blame on the IMF directly, since there is no current IMF program in Nicaragua and therefore no direct implications for the government not to follow its recommendations. Of course, the IMF research can be used by those advocating for more draconian reforms,” he said.

Reflecting on the political maneuvering that preceded the protests, Maria said the IMF deserves part of the blame, adding, “But what makes it ironic is that Ortega … is accepting [these reforms] from a capitalist, imperialist organization. [Ortega] is supposed to be from the left, fighting imperialism. All his speeches are about fighting the Yankees and defending the country from imperialists. But it’s all just bullshit.”

Sandinismo betrayed?

Frustrated and exasperated, Maria said she felt Ortega had betrayed the original, revolutionary Sandinista ideals.

“Yes, the Sandinistas made mistakes [in the 1980s] … but what we have today is not what people died for. What we have is exactly what they were willing to give their lives against,” she said.

Of course, not everyone agrees. The Nicaraguan left-wing media collective Tortilla con Sal has argued Ortega is the victim of a misinformation campaign from the right-wing. “In Nicaragua, the trigger for the initial protests was extreme misrepresentation of proposed social security reforms,” they noted in a recent article for the Venezuela-based teleSUR network.

“Right-wing news outlets and social media networks demonized and distorted the government’s proposal for modest, fairly distributed increases in social security contributions, plus better health care coverage for pensioners. But they systematically omitted the business sector’s savage, IMF-inspired neoliberal proposals to cut benefits,” they argued.

“We have two narratives, I think both have a little bit of truth,” Maria conceded, noting that “we have CNN, Telemundo and Univision” all promoting an inaccurate narrative that “people are uprising because Ortega is socialist.”

However, she also lambasted news outlets sympathetic to Ortega, like teleSUR and RT, for dismissing protesters as paid agitators.

“We don’t receive any money, and we’re risking our lives going to the streets,” she said firmly, noting that many of the protesters themselves were once ardent, revolutionary Sandinistas.

“My neighborhood in general is Sandinista,” she said, reflecting on one of the initial protests in her neighborhood in late April.

“Some of my neighbors who I considered very, very strong Sandinistas were there,” she said. The words of one disgruntled Sandinista in particular stuck in her mind. It was a woman who had lived through the violence of the 1980s and remained committed to the original revolutionary cause. “She said, ‘We’re [still] the same Sandinistas, but we don’t agree with this prick.”

What comes next?

At this point, the discussion on the streets of Managua has moved beyond the INSS reforms, COSEP, the role of the IMF and even the students. Instead, the crisis has given birth to a much broader discussion about the future of Nicaragua — a discussion that supersedes old political identities.

“This is not coming from the right parties. It’s not like Venezuela. We don’t have a Leopoldo Lopez; We don’t even have a leader,” Maria insisted. Instead, ordinary Nicaraguans are uniting in response to the crisis in ways that would have been unimaginable even just a few months ago. “My feminist, head-shaved, free-the-nipple-types are now [marching] alongside Catholics. We don’t have right-wing parties or the CIA paying us.”

Rosa agreed, saying, “It’s not even about the politicians anymore.” She argued the discussion is now about giving everyday Nicaraguans the opportunity to once again dream of a better country — of speaking openly about the nation’s problems. Since no political party represents their interests, Rosa said she hoped to see the protests tackle the culture of “bad politics” across the spectrum. In the end though, it’ll be up to the people to decide what happens next.

“We’re going to keep fighting. We just want a better country, and all of the youth, the people, who believe in a better future for us,” she said, though she admitted the road ahead for Nicaragua seems unclear right now.

“I know we’re going to get through this,” she affirmed. “[Nicaragua] has so much to offer the world … I don’t know when or how, but we’re gonna make it work.”

New York taxi drivers launch campaign to save their industry following suicides

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 12:02

by Skanda Kadirgamar

New York Taxi Workers Alliance’s executive director Bhairavi Desai addressed drivers and the press outside of City Hall on April 25. (WNV/Skanda Kadirgamar)

Over the past four months, four New York City taxi drivers have been pushed to suicide in an industry that is becoming increasingly dangerous. In response to the recent deaths, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance has launched a campaign for regulation and released its own proposal to re-establish driving as a viable occupation.

On April 25, the Taxi Workers Alliance demanded that city leaders address the lethal impact of lax regulation of app-based, ride-hailing services at a press conference in front of City Hall. The conference preceded a hearing on April 30 concerning regulations for app-based companies.

The business model offered by Uber and Lyft, they argued, has been instrumental in lowering labor standards so that drivers from across the taxi industry — whether they are behind the wheels of yellow cabs, green cabs or black cars — are literally working themselves to death. Ride-hailing companies have gained notoriety for being able to put an unlimited number of vehicles on the road, underpaying drivers and even going so far as to not recognize them as employees. This has created a “race to the bottom” with severe repercussions.

Before shooting himself at the gates of City Hall Park, Douglas Schifter called the industry in which he’d been working for decades “the new slavery.” Schifter wrote this in a suicide letter he posted on Facebook and blamed the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the Mayor’s Office and Gov. Andrew Cuomo for promoting deregulation without regard for the impact on workers.

Joined by fellow founders Biju Matthews, Beresford Simmons and Taxi Workers Alliance organizer Mohammed Tipu Sultan, the NYTWA’s executive director Bhairavi Desai addressed the assembled drivers and members of the press. “No matter what Uber wants to claim,” she said, “this is a struggle about the workers trying to defend a full-time job in a gig economy that offers nothing but poverty pay.” Founded in 1998, the alliance currently represents over 50,000 drivers throughout the city and has affiliates across the country. It has played a pivotal role in defending workers’ rights and livelihoods from the impacts of deregulation.

According to Matthews, the situation created by Uber and its peers has taken a broad psychological toll on drivers. It is a situation that became even more dire due to Uber clogging city streets and shrinking worker income by constantly adding new vehicles. He hopes this is the last spate of suicides, noting that the alliance regularly refers drivers to suicide prevention services.

Danilo Castillo Corporan leapt from the window of his Manhattan apartment in December of 2017 after being told by the Taxi and Limousine Commission that he could lose his license for picking up an illegal hail. Charges against him were dropped the day after his death. Castillo penned his suicide note on the back of his summons, citing the “disastrous state” of the industry. Corporan had been a Bronx-based driver, as was Alfredo Perez who also committed suicide earlier this year.

On March 16, yellow cab driver and medallion owner Nichanor Ochisor hung himself in the garage of his Maspeth home. He, like so many other drivers, found himself starved of fares after Uber led the charge in flooding the streets with vehicles. Ochisor and his wife both worked but found their combined income to be half of what he had been making individually before app-based cars flooded the streets with the blessing of both Gov. Cuomo and the mayor’s office. Last year there were a total of 83,000 app-linked cars, which outnumbered the city’s remaining yellow and green cabs. Increasingly burdened by mortgage payments and mounting debts on his medallion, Ochisor saw no way out.

In response to these tragic suicides, the Taxi Workers Alliance has gathered drivers from all sectors and their allies for repeated demonstrations in front of City Hall. They demand action to address the wide reaching harm caused by ride-hailing companies’ dominant position in the gig economy and their antipathy to regulation. These are not limited to promoting hazardous labor conditions or normalizing inconsistent and low pay. Companies like Uber and Lyft have also ensnared drivers in a web of predatory financial relationships and have been accused of discriminating against disabled passengers. City council member Ruben Diaz Sr. and members of Disabled In Action Metro NY, a group fighting for civil rights of disabled people, are among those who have joined the taxi drivers in this fight.

Working incessantly while earning very little is a norm across the industry. According to one study, 41 to 54 percent of Uber drivers make less than minimum wage. According to Taxi Workers Alliance member Bigu Haider, it’s common to work 70-80 hours a week and have nothing left over after paying rent and other living expenses. “If you want to save, you have to add 100 hours,” he said. Before taking his life, Douglas Schifter wrote he had regularly been working 100-120 hours per week.

The activists of Disabled In Action, who have been allies of the Taxi Workers Alliance since 1998, point out that the impact of ride-hailing companies’ allergy to regulation extends beyond worker abuse. Uber, Lyft and Via took the Taxi and Limousine Commission to court over whether or not they have an obligation to provide vehicles that disabled passengers can access. Starting this July, commission rules will mandate that 5 percent of outgoing trips from taxi bases be wheelchair accessible. This is part of a broader effort to ensure that half of all New York City taxis are able to accommodate passengers with disabilities. Uber, Lyft and Via filed a petition with Manhattan’s Supreme Court in early April to have the same Taxi and Limousine mandate “vacated and annulled.” “They should just bite the bullet and stop fighting the system,” Disabled in Action’s president Edith Prentis said. “You don’t want to follow the rules in New York? Then get out.”

In response to these companies’ intransigence when it comes to being regulated, Ruben Diaz Sr. is backing a measure that would require the city to vet new app-based services. Only those that fulfill an “actual need” would be allowed to operate. Additionally, this legislation would require drivers to work with only one company. Battling against diminishing incomes, many drivers currently shift from driving the city’s cars to working under one or more ride-hailing companies on a regular basis.

The Taxi Worker’s Alliance has put forward its own position, though. Their plan offers a model for fair labor standards that would also check the power ride-hailing companies have gained in New York. A cap on the number of ride-hailing vehicles, a wage floor based on the yellow and green taxi meters, an increase in fares, industry caps on drivers’ expenses and an end to predatory leasing practices are among the key points of the plan.

“We are asking for an immediate moratorium on new cars,” Biju Matthews explained. “Then, through attrition we have to bring the numbers down.” The cap itself, however, will not provide a solution to drivers’ woes concerning pay and saving. That is why Matthews says the wage floor is crucial. The plan also demands the city’s congestion pricing scheme, which would fund maintenance of the MTA, not burden drivers and that the city implement the health and wellness fund, which is the product of Taxi Workers Alliance victories in 2012 and 2013.

Biju Matthews is optimistic about the prospect of pushing regulations through despite Gov. Cuomo’s longstanding support of Uber and its model. “I think there’s enough support in city council that we’ll be able to see this through … there at least eight or 10 city council members that openly come out to say they openly support the alliance.”

8 lessons for today’s youth-led movements from a decade of youth climate organizing

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 12:24

by Nick Engelfried

Climate justice activists protest the Dakota Access pipeline outside the White House in February 2017. (Flickr / Stephen Melkisethian)

On March 24, I stood in the rain in front of City Hall in Bellingham, Washington with some 3,000 people for the local March for Our Lives demonstration. It was one of 800 similar events happening nationwide that day, with about two million people participating coast to coast.

The March for Our Lives against gun violence is one example of the wave of massive demonstrations that have swept the country since the Trump administration took office. From the Women’s March, to responses to Trump’s attacks on Muslims and immigrants, to protests against police violence, rallies for healthcare, and uprisings against pipelines, the last two years have been characterized by mass movements unparalleled in the United States in decades. Many, like the March for Our Lives, involve young people in leading roles. As someone who spent most of the past decade as a “youth activist” — in my case, a climate activist — I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.

I became an activist while attending Portland Community College at age 17 in 2005. Inspired by a political science professor who discussed social movements in class, I researched projects like the Campus Climate Challenge, a campaign to pressure school administrations to curb campus carbon emissions. I got involved in pushing for recycling at my college.

Fast forward a couple years to when Energy Action Coalition organized Power Shift 2007, a gathering of about 5,000 students in Washington, D.C. that included a multi-day organizing conference and a rally at the Capitol. At the time, it was the largest-ever demonstration for climate action in the United States. For many of us, this stands out as the moment the “youth climate movement” became a distinct force in progressive politics.

I didn’t make it to Power Shift 2007. But I was in D.C. in 2009 for the next Power Shift, an even larger gathering of some 12,000 youth. Then a senior at Oregon’s Pacific University, I convinced three classmates to fly across the country with me.

A lot has changed since those early years of youth climate activism. For one thing, many of us who got involved then are no longer “youth” — I recently turned 30. More importantly, the movement has grown in remarkable, unexpected ways, overlapping with other progressive organizing efforts. Indeed, my sense is that there’s no longer a distinct “youth climate movement” the way there was in 2009. It’s become several movements — for fossil fuel divestment, opposition to pipelines and solidarity with indigenous nations. Another way of looking at it is youth climate activists are just one part of a much larger coalition of progressive movements that simply didn’t exist on this scale 10 years ago.

For almost exactly a decade, I identified as a youth climate activist. After graduating from Pacific University in 2009 I volunteered for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, focusing on involving college students in the effort to close Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant. In 2011 I moved to Missoula, Montana and spent four years rallying students and others to oppose coal export and mining projects. These last few years I’ve made a transition to supporting the growth and leadership of a new generation of young activists working on climate change or other issues.

Like all large movements, youth climate activism has had its successes and setbacks, its enormously inspiring moments and others when it failed to live up to its ideals. What follows are some reflections on lessons from the movement, necessarily limited by my own experience and position as a white male organizer from a middle-class background. Despite this bias, I hope these reflections may be of use to people involved in today’s fast-growing youth-led movements.

1. Trust in students’ abilities. One of the best things the youth climate movement did early was stop telling young people they were apathetic — as media figures like Thomas Friedman were doing — and start saying they were powerful and inspiring. Events like Power Shift promoted positive messages about the abilities of youth. This inspired many young people, including me, to think we could make a difference and try to do so.

Still, some national groups have not fully realized this lesson, limiting their work with youth to voter turnout drives, trainings and large rallies. With some exceptions, large national groups have been more reluctant to trust students’ ability and willingness to engage in tactics like civil disobedience.

I first got arrested at a protest when I was 23, at a sit-in I helped coordinate in the Montana State Capitol. I had studied the philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience and concluded that this was a step I was ready to take. I was less sure my slightly younger peers, who possibly lacked this background, would be willing to do the same. Yet, over the next few years, I was pleasantly surprised to see students who’d only recently gotten involved in activism step forward and risk arrest blocking the paths of coal trains and sitting in at lawmakers’ offices.

We tend to underestimate the ability of young people to intuitively grasp the significance of nonviolent direct action as a strategy. Of course, the opportunity to engage in this kind of activism must be presented in a way that feels accessible and meaningful — but when this is done, youth will step up. Have faith in their abilities.

2. Follow-up is hugely important. Building a sustained movement means following up with those who participate to ensure they stay involved. A campaign that failed to do this well was Power Vote in 2008, a national multi-organization effort focused on getting students to pledge to vote ahead of the election. I was the campus lead for Power Vote at Pacific University and only later realized the flaws in how the national campaign was structured. We gathered hundreds of pledge cards with students’ contact information — but this valuable data wasn’t collated in a timely manner that would have allowed it to be used for following-up.

Follow-up is important in all campaigns, not just those with students. But it can be especially important for young people who are mostly new to political engagement. Following up and reminding students to fill out their ballots, show up to the next rally, and contact their elected officials helps build habits that will likely keep for years — but it requires mechanisms to ensure their data is preserved and used.

3. Teach transferrable skills. The best activism serves two purposes: It accomplishes a campaign objective while helping participants master skills they can put to use in other contexts. This is especially important with young people, who often have little formal activist training but can take what they learn and apply it again and again.

Many activist skills — setting up meetings with public officials, testifying at hearings, holding nonviolence trainings — aren’t actually that complicated but can seem vastly mysterious to someone who has never done them before. Once armed with the right knowledge, young people become empowered to transfer skills to new campaigns and situations. Accomplishing this means structuring movements in such a way that youth have leadership roles and get hands-on experience building campaigns from the ground up.

4. Be specific about movement goals. When I got involved in climate activism, we talked a lot about “comprehensive climate legislation” and “creating green jobs.” This sounded great, but it was sometimes unclear exactly what these words meant. This came back to bite the movement in 2009-2010, during the fight over national climate legislation that eventually went down in flames.

The problem with vague terms like “comprehensive legislation” is they mean many things to many people. As it turned out, to lawmakers — like then-Sen. John Kerry and Sen. Lindsay Graham — they meant a cap-and-trade plan riddled with loopholes and giveaways to polluters. This truly terrible piece of legislation split the climate movement — including youth activists — between those who saw it as a small step forward, and those who believed it was worse than nothing.

On the other hand, the campaigns that have done most to strengthen the climate movement have very specific goals tied to clearly defined strategies. These include efforts to stop oil pipelines, close coal plants and divest universities from fossil fuels. These campaigns have accomplished concrete wins while building coalitions that leave the movement stronger — whereas the push for national legislation left climate groups fragmented and demoralized. Fossil fuel divestment is a particularly good example of a student-focused campaign with an easily understood goal and clear framework for building power.

5. Partner with frontline communities. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it’s strategic, fun and empowering. Some of the most inspiring moments I can think of from youth climate campaigns involved students interacting with people on the frontlines of extraction and polluting industries. I’ve seen student activists collaborate with farmers impacted by natural gas pipelines, residents of working-class rail line neighborhoods affected by coal trains and indigenous groups fighting oil infrastructure. In each case, the partnerships that developed were (I believe) mutually rewarding for both groups.

That said, building effective, lasting partnerships with frontline communities takes work. It’s not just about saying the words “people of color” and “climate justice” in every press release. This kind of work requires commitment to lasting relationships built on good faith and the belief in a shared stake in a better future. It requires learning form the people most affected by pollution so as to challenge fossil fuel industries effectively.

6. Partner with older activists. Another of the most empowering experiences youth activists can have is the opportunity to work with no-longer-quite-so-young individuals who have a whole different set of life experiences. For students, it can be heartening to see that their generation isn’t the only one concerned about the status quo. Similarly, non-youth activists tend to find it encouraging to see young people rising to build a movement.

This doesn’t mean student and older activist groups should merge. There’s real value in youth-specific organizations that let young people bond and learn from their peers in a familiar setting. Different activist generations also tend to have different organizational cultures, which don’t always mesh well in the meeting room. However, none of this prevents youth and non-youth from collaborating on campaigns, attending each other’s events and building strong alliances. I’ve seen college freshmen and retirees sit down for campaign conversations that were eye-opening for both parties.

7. Have hard conversations about equity and inclusion. From the movement’s early days, national youth climate organizations have used a lot of language about racial and economic justice. This positive language hasn’t always been supported by the kind of on-the-ground organizing needed to truly combat environmental injustice and oppressive hierarchies embedded in the movement itself.

The mainstream climate movement and environmentalism generally continue to be overwhelmingly white middle-class affairs. But today’s students seem more ready than ever to have tough conversations about dismantling racism and deconstructing environmentalism’s Euro-centric dominant narratives. As a white teenager, I wasn’t asking the kinds of questions that I should have been about these subjects — and I’m continually impressed by how much more aware today’s students, including white students, tend to be.

This isn’t to say white students don’t have a lot of hard work to do to address the implications of their privilege — and some will do it clumsily, especially at first. However, while the hard work remains to be done, I see a willingness to begin it that seems more widespread than it was 10 years ago. To do this work effectively, students need support from mentors and organizations that are committed to equity and inclusion as much more than catchphrases or boxes to be checked.

8. Youth need mentors, not sages. As a young person, there’s nothing less empowering than listening to an older person tell you how real activism was done in the good old ‘60s (or the ‘90s, ‘00s, etc.). Young people don’t need sages telling them what to do. What they can use are mentors — people who’ve left their 20s behind and have experience and knowledge they’re willing to share, but do so humbly and with the realization that youth also have their own knowledge and skills to share.

As a student, I was never particularly motivated by the argument that because the generation before mine screwed up, it was my generation’s job to fix things. I wanted to know, since that older generation was still around, why they couldn’t pitch in and help. I’ve also known many, many older activists who have tried to help in just this way, and taught me things I never could have learned by myself.

The “youth climate movement” of today looks very different from the one of 2007. To become more effective it has both narrowed and broadened its focus. The narrowing is a result of it zeroing in on winnable campaigns like divestment and stopping pipelines, while the broadening is due to a growing focus on building bridges with other movements. Done effectively, both of these approaches may succeed in generating the kinds of incremental wins that could cascade into a national wave of climate and progressive victories.

I’m deeply humbled by campaigns like the March for Our Lives, which succeeded in building a truly massive youth-led movement in a way climate activists of my generation never quite managed to do. Yet, when 5,000 students came together for the first Power Shift in 2007, few movements were prioritizing youth leadership the way climate organizers were. The story of youth activism these last 10-plus years has been one of gradually building power, learning hard lessons and setting examples of what dedicated organizing looks like. The climate movement made a significant contribution to this process. Without the work of climate and other youth activists over the last decade, some of the larger mass movements of today might not have come into being.

What will youth climate activism, and young people’s organizing more generally, look like over the next 10 years? I don’t know, but I look forward to finding out.

Queer anti-war activists challenge military inclusion

Mon, 04/30/2018 - 13:46

by Toshio Meronek

An anti-war banner carried during the Twin Cities Pride Parade in the Twin Cities in 2013. (Flickr/Tony Webster)

Is all inclusion good inclusion?

Mainstream LGBTQ groups like the Human Rights Campaign promote any increase in gay representation as good — even representation in some of the world’s most deadly organizations, like the U.S. military and the Central Intelligence Agency.

“It’s either you’re with Trump and against trans military service, or you celebrate trans military service as a wonderful thing for trans people,” said Dean Spade, co-founder of a New York-based trans justice organization called the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. A few weeks after participating in a Queer Anti-Militarism Town Hall held in Seattle’s Public Library on April 2, Spade spoke about how a network of queer anti-war activists is working to undo the mainstream narrative.

This summer, Spade and trans anti-war activists across the country will coordinate protests and info-booths at Gay Pride events to “offer people real information about military service and what the U.S. military is doing all over the planet.”

They won’t be the first queers to take up the anti-war cause. Deeg Gold is a longtime activist with the group Lesbians and Gays Against Intervention, or LAGAI, which formed in the Bay Area in the 1980s to combat U.S.-sponsored terror in Latin America. To Gold, the ability to serve in the military isn’t at all the version of liberation they (Gold uses gender-neutral pronouns they and them) were fighting for when they started their activism in the 1970s.

Later, during the first Gulf War, LAGAI came out with its “We Like Our Queers Out of Uniform” campaign. Released in the summer of 1992, the campaign’s associated zine contains narratives about queer conscientious objectors and people who joined the military only to regret it later. The group even debated military inclusion on Sally Jessie Raphael’s daytime talk show on NBC. A “We Like Our Queers Out of Uniform” banner showed up at the 1993 March on Washington, and reappeared at various anti-war actions over the years. Members dusted off campaign signs as recently as April 15 in Oakland, for an anti-war rally highlighting U.S. bombing in Syria.

Deeg Gold and Daniel Ward hold a “We Like Our Queers Out Of Uniform” banner at an anti-military demonstration in San Francisco, March 2010.
(WNV/Tory Becker)

People like Gold and Spade are actively working to blow up the idea that representation matters more than the lives of people lost through our country’s acts of aggression. They’re up against LGBTQ groups who have more money and slick public relations teams.

‘Perverts’ on the payroll

The official shirt of the 2018 Lesbians Who Tech conference reads: “Lesbians Who Tech. Queer. Inclusive. Badass.” The shirt does not, however, mention that the conference has been openly sponsored for the last two years by none other than the Central Intelligence Agency.

“It is hard to imagine that any queers would knowingly associate themselves with the CIA, given its history of overthrowing progressive governments, and putting brutal dictatorships in place, and the torture conducted at facilities such as Abu Ghraib,” Gold said. “Not to mention the recent revelations of the CIA spying on people in the United States.”

An audience member at the April 2 Queer Anti-Militarism Town Hall, Corinne Manning, agreed. She said the pro-LGBTQ propaganda on the CIA’s website is an “attractive illusion.” She said the message to LGBTQ people is that “as long as you are the one surveilling, the one torturing, and as long as you collude with institutions that terrorize, you get to be ‘safe.’”

In an email exchange, Lesbians Who Tech founder Leanne Pittsford proudly stated that her group is “the largest LGBTQ technology community in the world, committed to visibility, intersectionality and changing the face of technology.” Pittsford names a real problem: At the same time, the tech industry’s hard-to-penetrate white-and-Asian bro culture has spurred a thousand calls for increasing diversity within Big Tech companies.

The popular tech developer website StackOverflow surveys its users each year, including on industry demographics. It found that 85 percent of respondents were white or Asian. More than 92 percent identified as male and more than 93 percent were straight. Under pressure to hire outside these populations, companies are embracing queers across the rainbow spectrum.

Plenty of LGBTQ people want a piece of the pie, as the 5,000-strong Lesbians Who Tech conference in San Francisco this year made clear. One of the March gathering’s main speakers was Sandy Adams, a director at the military contractor Raytheon. Adams made her pitch for inclusion in the company’s missile technology program on the stage of the city’s Castro Theater against a backdrop of an enormous American flag — a moment one attendee called “cringe-worthy.” For those seeking to diversify companies that feed the military-industrial complex, the question is whether the quest for fairer labor opportunities can be untangled from the human cost of war.

From its earliest days, the CIA had an anti-gay agenda. In declassified documents from 1950, the CIA’s very first director, Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, explained to Congress that gays were “perverts” who had innate “psychopathic tendencies which affect the soundness of their judgment, physical cowardice, susceptibility to pressure, and general instability.”

“Homosexuals,” Hillenkoetter said, “are often too stupid to realize it, or through inflation of their ego or through not letting themselves realize the truth, they are usually the center of gossip, rumor, derision, and so forth.” Under Hillenkoetter, the CIA helped to purge hundreds of suspected “perverts” from the U.S. government during what became known as the Lavender Scare of the 1950s.

As Deeg Gold mentioned, the CIA has long used covert intervention in U.S. culture as a means to stifle dissent and progressive ideas. Under Hillenkoetter, the CIA created the anti-communist Congress for Cultural Freedom, which eventually had offices in 35 countries and published lifestyle magazines and funded artists to popularize its missions in the United States and abroad. It organized classical and jazz concerts, abstract impression art exhibits, and even employed cultural icons like Louis Armstrong, Jackson Pollock and Gloria Steinem.

Later, Gold continued, “during the movement against the Vietnam War, we found out that a number of the ‘leaders’ of the National Student Association were being paid by the CIA. They pushed for anti-communist policies in student organizations, attended international conferences to make contacts and collect information, and undermined the U.S. student peace movement.” Now, Gold said, it’s using identity politics and “progressive” hiring policies to justify acts of terror, and “queer groups are falling for it.”

By 2012, the CIA was holding its own Pride celebration at the Pentagon. According to Kate Kendall — the long-time executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, who has spoken at several Lesbians Who Tech conferences — it’s a sign of progress. “In virtually every facet of civil life the lives and opportunities for LGBT [people] are elevated,” she said. “We used to be criminals in the eyes of our government and now a career in the CIA is not only an option, but they are recruiting us!”

This excitement would not likely be shared by the dozens of Pakistani transgender people who, in 2012, called for an end to the CIA’s drone strikes in their country. That year, trans people held a public protest against the growing number of deadly drone strikes by the Obama administration, which resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths. The Pakistani trans group, led by a trans woman named Sanam Fakir, made it clear that queer and trans people overseas were being killed by the same U.S. agencies that were holding Gay Pride parties back on American soil.

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Speaking about the CIA’s program to recruit queers that began a decade ago, Gold called the “progressive” hiring campaign similar to a pro-gay public relations campaign funded by the Israeli government. “It’s just like the Zionist-Israeli tactic of pinkwashing [or the use of liberal-leaning policies on sexuality to cover up violence and terror],” they said. “It’s almost as if they hired the same consultant.” Queer Palestinian groups such as ASWAT – Palestinian Gay Women have openly opposed U.S. complicity in the violence. Israel receives more than $3 billion in U.S. military aid each year.

One of the CIA’s major contractors is Google, which provides the agency with drone technology. Meanwhile, it has attempted to counteract the flak it has gotten for a lack of diversity among its staff through major sponsorships for Lesbians Who Tech and San Francisco Gay Pride, the world’s largest gay event. Google’s most famous intracompany slogan may be “Don’t be evil,” but it and many of the world’s largest tech companies can’t get around the fact that they’ve been part of the U.S. war machine for many years.

“Technology isn’t inherently a bad thing,” said Soya Jung, a queer racial justice activist based in Seattle who participated in the April Queer Anti-Militarism Town Hall with Spade. The problem is that “if it continues without ethical critique, without questioning who and what the technology is for,” it can become a source for suffering, whether intentional or not. “Faster, cheaper, and more effective surveillance and drone technology and military logistics, for example, are aiding and abetting the deaths not only of queers, but of poor and marginalized people.”

Question everything

A lesbian in tech who declined to be named because of fears around her job — we’ll call her Alison — noted plenty of reasons that queer coders might be drawn to companies like Raytheon. “Big companies that have contracts with the military include companies that pay really well, are impressive to say you work at, and are solving interesting technical challenges,” she explained. “Some people have a lot of debt from school and are happy to work at a big tech company if they can.” That doesn’t excuse the fact, she said, that missile systems like the ones Raytheon helps create “are mostly used to kill black and brown people, some of whom are queer, all over the world.”

An advertisement put in a bus shelter in the Castro district of San Francisco by guerrilla artists in 2010. (Indybay)

Still, the connection isn’t always an obvious one to make. As Alison pointed out, people who work for companies like Raytheon “are probably not having their work framed as ‘How do we solve the problem of remotely killing people more efficiently?’” She added, “I think there’s a lot of ideological work” that tech companies do “to wrap up the stuff they make with workers’ identities in a way that makes it hard for people to” be critical about their workplaces. (In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that is still unraveling, for example, some Facebook employees made it clear in internal discussions that they were company loyalists, no matter the cost.)

That is why the work of queer anti-war organizers is so vital. Activists like Gold and Spade believe we could all stand to remember the ideological work of earlier queer struggles instead of the CIA or corporations. For example, the 1969 queer uprisings against police brutality at the Stonewall Inn in New York City (or the less-celebrated, earlier riots at Cooper’s Donuts in Los Angeles and Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco), considered by many to be the sparks that lit the modern gay liberation movement. Or the organizing in the 1980s and 1990s against the government and Big Pharma companies who refused to act on HIV/AIDS. Or the unrelenting voices of trans women of color like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Marsha P. Johnson, and Sylvia Rivera, who demanded the microphone when gay and lesbian groups refused to speak on transgender issues.

The world needs a queer perspective on U.S. aggression “now more than ever,” said Jung. Queer people have survived despite the narrow confines of an anti-LGBTQ society-at-large, and that has given many people facing widespread discrimination and violence the priceless ability to question the status quo while working toward a world with less suffering. “Whatever material or social appeal the CIA offers,” she said, “isn’t worth bartering that away.”

Can antifa build an effective broad-based anti-fascist movement?

Wed, 04/25/2018 - 13:01

by Sue Curry Jansen and Brian Martin

In March, Richard Spencer, a prominent white supremacist, cancelled his speaking engagements at U.S. universities, saying he was deterred by “antifa,” a loose international network of radical anti-fascist groups that aims to shut down far-right talks and rallies. For antifa members and supporters, Spencer’s capitulation was both vindication of their aggressive tactics and a sign of their success in opposing fascism.

These confrontations between far-right activists and antifa groups — on the rise since the election of Donald Trump — are often presented as involving two opposing values: free speech on one side and the danger of allowing fascists to appear in public on the other. What is missing in this framing, however, is an understanding of the dynamics of censorship and of nonviolent action as an alternative.

At the forefront of this clash of values is Mark Bray’s 2017 book “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” which provides the most comprehensive justification for antifa tactics available. It has sold briskly and received considerable attention among its target audience of antifa activists.

Bray readily acknowledges that “Antifa” was written “on the run” during the early days of the Trump era to meet the demand for information about newly visible anti-fascist activists. The immediate catalyst was the assault on Spencer by a masked man in 2017, which generated a popular meme and had many news outlets asking the question, “Is it okay to punch a Nazi?”

Responding in the affirmative, antifa activists believe that the ends (“stopping fascism before it becomes unstoppable”) justify the means: violence. The more thoughtful members of antifa add the qualifier “when necessary.” As Murray, one of Bray’s anonymous U.S. informants puts it, “You fight them by writing letters and making phone calls so you don’t have to fight them with fists. You fight them with fists so you don’t have to fight them with knives. You fight them with knives so you don’t have to fight them with guns. You fight them with guns so you don’t have to fight them with tanks.” Beyond punching Nazis, antifa tactics drawing significant media attention include “no platforming” — or blocking or disrupting speeches — and “doxxing,” which consists of publishing private information about a target on social media to encourage harassment.

Despite its genesis as instant history, “Antifa” is a serious book that raises fundamental questions about the viability of liberal tenets of free speech and the role of violence in political protests. Bray, a historian, visiting scholar at Dartmouth College and an Occupy Wall Street organizer, used his radical credentials to gain access to the antifa network, which generally operates in secrecy. He interviewed 61 active or former members of antifa groups from 17 countries. Supportive of the goals of antifa, but open to criticism of the movement, Bray argues that “militant anti-fascism is a reasonable, historically-informed response to the fascist threat that persisted after 1945 and that has become especially menacing in recent years.” The authorial voice he projects is humane and reflective, occasionally punctuated with references to his personal history and activist experiences.

The first two chapters are devoted to the history of fascism and anti-fascism, from the 1899 founding of the anti-Dreyfusard League to the early 2000s when antifa groups began to rethink their strategies in light of the rise of new far-right parties in Europe. While historical contextualizing is essential to understanding antifa’s “never again” rationale for preventative violence, Bray packs too many facts into too little space for readers without a deep background in European history to readily absorb and retain, making these crucial early chapters a hard slog. This is unfortunate because the subsequent chapters are accessible and illuminating. Chapter Three addresses the recent emergence, in response to the refugee crisis in Europe, of “pin-stripe Nazis”: nationalists who cover their underlying fascist tendencies with a veneer of respectability. They claim to be protecting democracy against its enemies while providing a cover for racism, Islamophobia and restoration of patriarchal gender regimes.

The remaining chapters focus on the theory and politics of antifa at more pragmatic levels: lessons to be drawn from history; no platforming and free speech; strategy, including internal criticism within some antifa groups; the dangers of machismo within antifa; fetishization of violence; feminism and antifa; nonviolent antifa tactics; militant anti-fascism and public opinion; antifa groups functioning as reserve police in some Nazi encounters; popular culture’s relation to antifa (via punk, hipster and hooligan subcultures) and much more. There are two appendices: One offers advice to recruits from veteran antifa activists, while the other provides a bibliography on North American and European works on anti-fascism. Unfortunately, the book lacks an index.

The conundrum of no tolerance for intolerance

Bray defends no-platforming, saying one of history’s lessons is that “it doesn’t take that many fascists to make fascism.” Mussolini and Hitler demonstrated that once fascism is legitimized, it can expand rapidly and quickly consolidate its power. Another is that, historically, fascists gained power legally. Therefore, Bray concludes that fascism must be stopped at its source.

He contends that most antifa groups do not reject freedom of speech in principle, but they maintain that the struggle against fascism takes precedence. On this point, he quotes Joe, one of his respondents, who says, “The idea that freedom of speech is the most important thing that we can protect can only be held by someone who thinks that life is analogous to a debate hall.” Bray argues that no one actually lives up to the absolutist free speech standard that liberals use to condemn antifa. History, he points out, is full of examples of liberal abridgments of free speech, including some systemic ones, such as wartime press censorship, incitement-to-violence prohibitions, obscenity laws, copyright infringement and incarceration.

Bray argues that the liberal Enlightenment ideal of the best, most rational, argument prevailing in a free and open debate does not take into account the irrational and emotional appeal of fascism. Citing appeasement in the 1930s, Bray contends that liberalism has failed to provide a reliable bulwark against fascism. To be sure, free speech is fragile and liberalism’s failures are legion. That is why these positions do require radical interrogation in struggles for social justice. Free expression is, however, a fundamental feature of participatory democracy, whether liberal or socialist.

When Richard Spencer announced on Twitter that he was canceling his “college tour” because antifa had escalated its efforts and — in his view — police were not responding adequately, it seemed like a victory for antifa. If so, it was pyrrhic. Antifa’s tactics, which attracted hostile media coverage, did little to advance struggles against racism, patriarchal gender regimes, ableism and the other causes the movement supports. Intentional bureaucratic obstructionism by various university administrators may have done as much to undermine Spencer’s tour as antifa. For example, he decided to quit the tour when only 12 people showed up for his appearance at Michigan State University, which scheduled his talk during spring break when most students were away from campus.

Bray faults liberal free speech theory for its failure to live up to an absolutist standard of free speech and for its hypocrisy. Yet, in doing so, he unwittingly encounters the conundrum that has dogged free speech theorists for centuries: what Karl Popper referred to as “the paradox of intolerance” in his 1945 work “The Open Society and Its Enemies.” Any system that legally valorizes tolerance, regardless of its ideology, must — by logical extension — resort to intolerance of the intolerant. Like liberalism, antifa and Bray are also caught in this logical trap. As Bray puts it, “An anti-fascist outlook has no tolerance for ‘intolerance.’” Yet, antifa is founded upon aggressive intolerance of fascists.

Presumably Bray means no tolerance for racism, misogyny, homo- and transphobia, etc. Intolerance of intolerance is the socio-logic, if not the formal rationale, for the European Union’s controversial 2007 measure outlawing Holocaust denial. That precedent also points to the possibility of legalistic tactics that antifa could use in some national jurisdictions, although it does not have the machismo appeal of violent confrontation.

Democracy has always been aspirational. Free speech is a desired goal, though very unevenly realized in practice. Bray persuasively chronicles some of the many failures of liberal democracy and free speech, and underscores the importance of radical struggles for greater economic and social justice. Antifa’s binary framing of choices — speech or violence — does seem to give Bray pause at times, as it should. He contends that the society that anti-authoritarians seek to create would offer more opportunities for free expression than the liberal status quo. For antifa, that is a society inspired by revolutionary socialism; for Bray, preferably one that is anti-authoritarian and non-hierarchical.

Suppression of free speech is a method fascists use to consolidate power and amplify the reach of the irrational emotional appeals of their propaganda. Hitler, for example, quashed opposition, banning trade unions and opposition parties, and established the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, which controlled German media and cultivated anti-Semitism and the Aryan myth, most famously through films like “The Eternal Jew” and “Triumph of the Will.” Antifa, by seeking to suppress the speech of fascists, actually mimics their own techniques rather than providing an alternative.

Justifying violence on moral, not strategic, grounds

Bray’s history of fascism and anti-fascism gives the most attention to violence on both sides. Fascists in inter-war Italy and Germany used violence and so did their opponents. Bray recounts clash after clash. From the 1940s to the present, he portrays anti-fascism as a continuing attempt to prevent fascists and neo-Nazis from being able to organize in public, with anti-fascists assaulting right-wing protesters and speakers. In some cases, this goes further, with anti-fascists assaulting anyone just wearing fascist garb, or bombing the offices and homes of prominent right-wingers. Bray recounts these events, presenting no reservations about any tactics used.

Bray argues that fascists need to be cowed into submission before they gain any sort of profile, arguing that the failure of the left in the 1920s and 1930s was letting fascism grow without sufficient resistance, though his claim is questionable. Most of Bray’s arguments concerning violence are about justifying it. The limitation of this approach is that even if one believes a violent action might be justified, morally or politically, it still may not be the most effective approach.

Bray presents violence as the alternative to liberal approaches, which rely on rational discourse and policing. Certainly, liberalism has often failed to deal with right-wing threats. However, there is another alternative: nonviolent action, the strategic use of petitions, rallies, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and a host of other methods. This alternative has a rich history — including, for example, countering fascists using clowning. Bray can hardly avoid discussing nonviolent action because it is now used widely in contemporary social movements.

To his credit, Bray addresses nonviolent action. He spends much of his treatment countering the arguments about fascism presented by Erica Chenoweth, a leading nonviolence scholar and co-author with Maria Stephan of the acclaimed study “Why Civil Resistance Works.” Bray cites particular cases in his attempt to counter the findings of Chenoweth and Stephan. This is strange because Chenoweth and Stephan do not claim violence is never effective, but rather that a statistical analysis of violent and nonviolent anti-regime campaigns shows that nonviolent movements are more likely to be successful and to lead to freer societies years later.

More seriously, Bray does not come to grips with the assumptions underlying nonviolent action. As Chenoweth and Stephan show, and many others have argued, a key reason why nonviolent action is effective is because it enables participation by most sectors of the population, including women, children, elderly and people with disabilities. Anyone can participate in a boycott.

A second key reason for the effectiveness of nonviolent action is precisely its avoidance of violence. Many people see violent attacks on peaceful, non-resisting protesters as unfair, even inhumane. As a result, such attacks can recoil against the attackers, generating greater support for the protesters. This effect, called political jiu-jitsu, is reduced or nullified when protesters are themselves violent.

Bray is quite right to point out that many campaigns, categorized as primarily nonviolent, used some violence. But this does not mean the violence helped the campaigns. By the logic of political jiu-jitsu, it may have weakened them.

Throughout “Antifa,” Bray actually gives examples of when fascist violence was counterproductive for the fascists and examples of when anti-fascist violence was counterproductive for the anti-fascists. For example, in Sweden in the 1990s, “neo-Nazi violence provoked a harsh societal backlash.” Then, in 2000, a Swedish neo-Nazi, Daniel Wretström, “allegedly was killed in a fight with immigrant youth,” and was seen as a martyr for his cause. The neo-Nazis subsequently held an annual march in his memory. However, Bray does not dwell on cases in which violence is counterproductive and does not link them to a backfire process.

In terms of nonviolence theory, one of the shortcomings of much anti-fascist campaigning is that the use of violence limits participation. Bray notes the challenges that antifa groups have with excess machismo and the rise of feminist antifa (fantifa) groups in response. He gives no information about the demographics of antifa groups, in particular their age and ability profiles. It is reasonable to assume that most antifa activists involved in physical confrontations are young fit men, the same profile as most military forces and combatants in any armed struggle.

“Antifa” succeeds in its primary mission: providing English-language readers with an overview of the antifa network, its purpose, diverse international groupings, ideology and tactics. The book is an informed and revealing, yet one-sided, account of efforts against fascism. What it omits is a sustained discussion of strategy to counter fascism by any means except using force to deter or fight the presence of the far right in public spaces. This one-dimensional approach limits the potential for participation of many sympathetic people. Furthermore, it can even alienate potential supporters who might be won over and involved using less confrontational tactics.

Using violence sends a message that the way to oppose those with whom you disagree is to silence their speech. This can legitimate use of the same methods by opponents. Ultimately, suppressing free speech and using violence are not good ways to build the sort of free society Bray desires, because they fail to foster the attitudes and skills necessary for such a society to develop and flourish.

Growing up with the threat of pervasive violence

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 12:32

by Frida Berrigan

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This story was originally published by TomDispatch.

Guns. In a country with more than 300 million of them, a country that’s recently been swept up in a round of protests over the endless killing sprees they permit, you’d think I might have had more experience with them.

As it happens, I’ve held a gun only once in my life. I even fired it. I was in perhaps tenth grade and enamored with an Eagle Scout who loved war reenactments. On weekends, he and his friends camped out, took off their watches to get into the spirit of the War of 1812, and dressed in homemade muslin underclothes and itchy uniforms. I was there just one weekend. Somehow my pacifist parents signed off on letting their daughter spend the day with war reenactors. Someone lent me a period gown, brown and itchy and ill-fitting. We women and girls spent an hour twisting black gunpowder into newspaper scraps. I joked that the newspaper was anachronistic — the previous week’s Baltimore Sun — but no one laughed.

A man came by with a long gun, an antique, resting on the shoulder of his jerkin to collect our “bullets” and he must have read the gun terror written on my face.

“Wanna give it a try?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, stumbling to my feet, pushing my gown out of the way, and trying to act like I didn’t have broken-rifle patches, symbols of the pacifist War Resisters League, all over my real clothes. I felt a surge of adrenaline as I took the heavy weapon in my way-too-small hands. He showed me how to wrestle it into position, aim it, and fire. There were no bullets, just one of my twists of powder, but it made a terrifying noise. I shrieked and came close to dropping the weapon.

And there it was: the beginning, middle, and end of my love affair with guns — less than a minute long. Still, my hands seemed to tingle for the rest of the afternoon and the smell of gunpowder lingered in my hair for days.

Got guns?

One in four Americans now owns a gun or lives in a household with guns. So how strange that, on that day in the late 1980s, I saw a real gun for the first and last time. I grew up in inner city Baltimore. I’ve worked at soup kitchens and homeless shelters all over the East Coast and stayed at dozens of Catholic Worker Houses around the country — Providence, Camden, Syracuse, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles — every one in a “tough” neighborhood. I lived in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the mid-1990s, before you could get a $4 coffee or a zucchini scone on Van Brunt Street, before there was an Ikea or a Fairway in the neighborhood. All those tough communities, those places where President Trump imagines scenes of continual “American carnage,” and I’ve never again seen a gun.

Still, people obviously own them and use them in staggering numbers and in all sorts of destructive ways. Sensing that they’re widespread beyond my imagination, my husband and I have started asking the parents of our kids’ school friends if they own guns when we arrange play dates or sleepovers. We learned this from the father of a classmate of my 11-year-old stepdaughter Rosena. The dad called to make the arrangements for his son to come over after school. We talked logistics and food allergies and then he paused. “Now, I am sorry if this is intrusive,” he said, “but I do ask everyone: Do you keep guns in your house?” He sounded both uncomfortable and resolute.

I almost choked on my urge to say, “Don’t you know who I am?” In certain odd corners at least, my last name, Berrigan, is still synonymous with muscular pacifism and principled opposition to violence and weaponry of just about any kind, right up to the nuclear kind. But that dad probably didn’t even know my last name and it probably wouldn’t have meant a thing to him if he had. He just wanted to make sure his son was going to be safe and I was grateful that he asked — rather than just assuming, based on our Volvo-driving, thrift-shop-dressing, bumper-sticker-sporting lifestyle, that we didn’t.

“You know how kids are,” he said after I assured him that we were a gun-free household. “They’ll be into everything.”

And right he is. Kids are “into everything,” which is undoubtedly why so many of them end up with guns in their hands or bullets in their bodies.

“Do you question everyone about their guns?” I asked the dad. He replied that he did and, if they answered yes, then he’d ask whether those weapons were locked away, whether the ammunition was stored separately, and so on.

“Thank you so much. I think we need to start doing that too,” I said as our conversation was ending and indeed I have ever since.

It’s a subject worth raising, however awkward the conversation that follows may be, because two million kids in this country live in homes where guns are not stored safely and securely. So far this year, 59 kids have been hurt in gun accidents of one sort or another. On average, every 34 hours in our great nation a child is involved in an unintentional shooting incident, often with tragic consequences.

The National Rifle Association’s classic old argument, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” takes on a far harsher edge when you’re talking about a seven-year-old accidentally killing his nine-year-old brother with a gun they found while playing in an empty neighboring house in Arboles, Colorado.

Two weeks after we learn this new parenting life skill in this oh-so-new century of ours, my husband Patrick is on the phone with a mom arranging a sleepover for Rosena. I hear him fumble his way through the gun question. From his responses, I assume the mom is acknowledging that they do have guns. Then there’s the sort of long, awkward silence that seems part and parcel of such conversations before Patrick finally says, “Well, okay, thanks for being so honest. I appreciate that.”

He hangs up and looks at me. “They do keep guns for hunting and protection, but they’re locked up and out of sight,” he tells me. “The mom says that the kids have never tried to get at the guns, but she understands the dangers.” (He had heard in her voice apology, embarrassment, and worry that the guns might mean no sleepover.)

I grimaced in a way that said: I don’t think Rosena should go and he responded that he thought she should. The two of them then had a long conversation about what she should do and say if she sees a gun. She slept over and had a great time. A lesson in navigating difference, trusting our kid, and phew… no guns made an appearance. And we know more about our neighbors and our community.

Anything can be a gun

My son Seamus, five, received an Easter basket from a family friend. He was happy about the candy of course and immediately smitten with the stuffed bunny, but he was over the moon about what he called his new “carrot gun.” It wasn’t a toy gun at all, but a little basket that popped out a light ball when you pressed a button.

The idea was that you’d catch the ball, put it back in, and do it again. But that wasn’t the game my kids played. They promptly began popping it at each other. His little sister Madeline, four, was in tattle mode almost immediately. “Mom, Seamus is shooting me with his carrot gun!”

“Mom, mom, mom,” he responded quickly, “it’s a pretend play gun, not a real play gun. It’s okay.” He made popping noises with his mouth and held his hand as if he were grasping a genuine forbidden toy gun. It was an important distinction for him. He’d been a full-throated participant in the March for Our Lives in Boston on March 24, chanting with the rest of us “What do we want? Gun Control! When do we want it? NOW!” for four hours straight.

At the march, he pointed out that all the police officers managing traffic and the flow of people were wearing guns on their belts.

“I see a gun, Mom,” he kept saying, or “That police officer has a gun, Mom.”

Repeatedly, he noticed the means to kill — and then four days after that huge outpouring of youth-led activism for gun security, Stephon Clark was indeed gunned down in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento, California. The police officers who shot him were looking for someone who had been breaking car windows in the neighborhood and they fired 20 shots into the dark in his direction. The independent autopsy found that he had been hit eight times, mostly in his back. Clark turned out to be holding only a cellphone, though the police evidently mistook it for a tool bar, which could have done them no harm from that distance, even if he had wielded it as a weapon.

Maybe the police saw a weapon the same way my five-year-old son sees one. He can make a stick or just about anything else, including that little basket, into a “gun” and so evidently can the police. Police officers have killed black men and boys holding pipes, water hose nozzles, knives, and yes, toy guns, too.

Where does the violence come from?

Parkland (17 killed, 14 wounded). Newtown (28 killed, two wounded). Columbine (15 killed, 21 injured). School shootings are now treated as a structural part of our lives. They have become a factor in school architecture, administrator training, city and state funding, and security plans. The expectation that something terrible will happen at school shapes the way that three- and four-year-olds are introduced to its culture. Part of their orientation now involves regular “shelter in place” and “secure-school” drills.

At my daughter’s pre-school, the kids are told that they’re hiding from rabid raccoons, those animals standing in for marauding, disaffected white boys or men roaming the halls armed. As parents, we need to do more than blindly accept that these traumatic exercises are preparing our kids for the worst and helping them survive. Kids are vulnerable little beings and there are countless dangers out there, but they have a one-in-600-million chance of dying in a school shooting. We endanger them so much more by texting while driving them home from school.

After every episode of violence at a school — or in the adult world at a church, night club, concert, movie theater, or workplace like San Bernardino’s Inland Regional Center or the YouTube headquarters — there’s always a huge chorus of “why”? Pundits look at the shooter’s history, his (it’s almost always a guy) trauma, and whatever might be known about his mental health. They speculate on his (or, in the rare case of those YouTube shootings, her) political leanings, racial hatreds, and ethnic background. The search for whys can lead to hand wringing about hard-driving rock music or nihilistic video games or endemic bullying — all of which could indeed be factors in the drive to kill significant numbers of unsuspecting people — but never go far enough or deep enough.

Two questions are answered far too infrequently: Where do the guns come from? Where does violence come from?

Guns of all sizes and description are manufactured and sold in this country in remarkable numbers, far more than can be legally absorbed in our already gun-saturated land, so thousands of them move instead into the gray and black markets. Evidence of this trend shows up repeatedly in Mexico, where 70 percent of the weapons seized in crimes between 2009 and 2014 turned out to be made in El Norte. We have an estimated 300 million guns in this country, making us first by far in the world in gun ownership and some of them couldn’t conceivably be used for “hunting.” They are military-style weapons meant to tear human flesh and nothing but that — like the AR-15 that 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz legally bought and used in his grim Parkland shooting spree.

This country, in other words, is a cornucopia of guns, which — honestly, folks — doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the Second Amendment.

Where does the violence come from? I’ve already shared my inexperience with guns. Now, let me add to it my inexperience with violence. I don’t know what it’s like to have to react in a split second to or flee an advancing perpetrator. No one has ever come at me with a gun or a knife or a pipe, or anything else for that matter. And I count myself lucky for that. In a nation in which, in 2016 alone, 14,925 people were killed due to gun violence and another 22,938 used a gun to kill themselves, it’s a significant thing to be able to say.

And yet, I know that I’m the product of violence (as well as the urge, in my own family, to protest and stop it): the violence of white privilege, the violence of American colonialism, the violence of American superpowerdom on a global scale… and that’s no small thing. It’s a lot easier to blame active-shooter scenarios on poor mental-health screening than on growing up in a world layered with the threat of pervasive violence.

Power is about never having to say you’re sorry, never being held accountable. And that’s hardly just a matter of police officers shooting black men and boys; it’s about the way in which this country is insulated from international opprobrium by its trillion-dollar national security state, a military that doesn’t hesitate to divide the whole world into seven U.S. “commands,” and a massive, planet-obliterating nuclear arsenal.

And don’t think that any of that’s just a reflection of Trumpian bombast and brutality either. That same sense of never having to say you’re sorry at a global level undergirded Barack Obama’s urbane dispassion, George Bush Junior’s silver spoon cluelessness, Bill Clinton’s folksy accessibility, George Bush Senior’s patrician poshness, Ronald Reagan’s aura of Hollywood charm, and Jimmy Carter’s southern version of the same. We’re talking about weapons systems designed to rain down a magnitude of terror unimaginable to the Nikolas Cruzes, Dylann Roofs, and Adam Lanzas of the world.

And it doesn’t even make us safe! All that money, all that knowledge, all that power put into the designing and displaying of weapons of mass destruction and we remain remarkably vulnerable as a nation. After all, in schools, homes, offices, neighborhoods across the country, we are being killed by our kids, our friends, our lovers, our police officers, our crumbling roads and bridges, our derailing trains. And then, of course, there are all those guns. Guns meant to destroy. Guns beyond counting.

So what might actually make us safer? After all, people theoretically buy the kind of firepower you might otherwise use only in war and pledge allegiance to the U.S. war machine in search of some chimera of safety. And yet, despite that classic NRA line — “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun” — are we truly safer in a nation awash in such weaponry with so many scrambling in a state of incipient panic to buy yet more? Are my kids truly on the way to a better life as they practice cowering in their cubbies in darkened classrooms for fear of invading rabid “raccoons”?

Don’t you think that true security lies not in our arming ourselves to the teeth against other people — that is, in our disconnection from them — but in our connection to them, to the web of mutuality that has bound societies, small and large, for millennia? Don’t you think that we would be more secure and so much less terrified if we found ways to acknowledge and share our relative abundance to meet the needs of others? In a world awash in guns and fears, doesn’t our security have to involve trust and courage and always be (at best) a work in progress?

As for me, I’m tackling that work in progress in whatever ways I can — with my neighbors, my town, my husband, and most of all my children, educating them in the ways violence scars and all those weapons just increase our journey into hell, never delivering the security they promise.

Science is an underutilized tool for progressive change

Sat, 04/14/2018 - 11:51

by Michael Nagler

(Metta Center for Nonviolence/Sergio Garzon)

#BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #Enough: These manifestations of resistance are starting to give hope to dark times, especially as activists, particularly the young, learn that large demonstrations and protests — what nonviolence scholars have called the “effervescence of the crowd” — need to be developed into long-term, sustained campaigns. At times like these, it’s only natural to try to “stop the worst of the damage” — as environmental activist Joanna Macy would say — and neglect the big picture, where we need to go long-term. Yet, it’s the long term where nonviolence really shines.

As Gandhi noted, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were “able to show the immediate effectiveness of violence … But the efforts of Buddha’s nonviolent action persist and are likely to grow with age.” And he reassures us that, despite appearances, nonviolence is actually the fastest way to bring about lasting changes — changes that sometimes appear miraculous. Some call them miracles, but as Gandhi explained, “All miracles are due to the silent and effective working of invisible force. Nonviolence is the most invisible and the most effective.”

It’s time, then, to step back and look at the big picture. For some decades now, we have been going through a “spiritual crisis,” as I argued elsewhere, and that crisis can be seen as a struggle for the core narrative of our culture. The real “culture war” is between the “old story” that tells us we live in a random universe made of physical particles and an emerging story. This story is, in part, being recovered from a long (and often forgotten) tradition of human wisdom that says, “No! We live in a meaningful universe pervaded by consciousness. We are deeply interconnected with one another and the planet on which we live.”

Activists today should be aware of this underlying struggle, for it underlies virtually every issue we’re facing. The shift to a new story, which people have been working out for many years, would resolve most of those issues almost automatically. People who are aware that they are deeply connected with others will know that violence is intolerable and totally unnecessary. The fact that American servicemen and women are committing suicide at the rate of 20 a day shows that a dim awareness is growing: Inflicting suffering on others inflicts oneself with Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS), or more familiarly, “moral injury.” People who are aware of their inner resources, aware that their deepest needs are to seek relationships of mutual aid and service, will themselves shrink from damaging the environment.

Perhaps the most serious fiction of the old story is that we are helpless, determined by our genes, hormones, inherited “instincts” and outside forces — all of which science is rapidly debunking, giving us back agency. When we read Gandhi saying, “we are the makers of our common destiny,” we can know that he is no longer a voice in the intellectual wilderness. Quantum physicist Henry Stapp, for example, wrote in a 1989 paper, “Quantum Physics and Human Values,” that “man (or woman) can no longer be seen as a deterministically controlled cog in a machine.” He then goes on to say, “The quantum conception of man resembles, in certain limited respects, the image set forth in various religious systems. Hence it may be able to tap the powerful resonances evoked in humans by such beliefs … The assimilation of this quantum conception of man into the cultural environment of the 21st century must inevitably produce a shift in values conducive to human survival.” More recently, he added, “Perceiving oneself to an integral part of the mental whole tends to elicit a feeling of connectivity, community and compassion, with fellow sentient beings, whereas the materialist message of survival of the fittest tends to lead to selfish, and even hateful, actions.”

Ever since cell biologist Barbara McClintock began showing in the 1950s that genes are not unchangeable packets of information that control the host organism, but are instead themselves controlled by other elements, scientists have steadily liberated us from the limitations of our biological inheritance. Biologists can now trace the exact pathways by which our beliefs and attitudes affect the expression and even the life span of our cells (see this not uncontroversial talk by Bruce Lipton).

At the Metta Center, we have been excited about the cultural, and therefore the political, potential of “new science,” as it’s called, to facilitate the paradigm shift we need to bring about the conversion of modern societies to peace and justice. We would like to now offer, in a beta version, a resource to help activists familiarize themselves with the most helpful findings. And we welcome your feedback!

To be clear, we are not recommending that activists should drop their other activities on whatever issue. Nor are we of the belief that promoting science — or the science and wisdom tradition parallels — will bring about the great shift by itself. People are far too invested in the status quo today to be moved by mere arguments and evidence. As Gandhi famously said, “Things of fundamental importance to the people must be purchased with their suffering. You must be able to appeal not only to reason, but to the heart also.” Which is exactly what nonviolence does. But you must have a vision of the world you want — we all really want — to get people inspired to seek it.

In addition to being a sine qua non for desired change, knowing and promoting the new story has two strategic advantages. First, it can be non-confrontational, what I call a “stealth” strategy: Tell people to give up their guns or stop making war and you get violent resistance; tell them they’re not separate fragments in a meaningless universe and they’re likely to believe you, little realizing at first that they’re on track to give up guns and war of their own accord. Second, it can pull us together, without having to abandon the particular projects (no longer “silos”) we’re working on. Like Gandhi’s charkha (spinning wheel), it’s something everyone can do, symbolizing the essential unity of our efforts.

The old story of a random, material universe was demoralizing and dead wrong, but it was internally consistent. It built up from a physics of material particles to the competitive evolution of the early Darwin (never mind that he repudiated it later) and the dismal, alienated self-image that is today retarding human progress. This appearance of consistency made it look all the more plausible and has helped it hold sway to the present day — even though it violates our deepest intuitions of who we are and what we want to become. And that may be its worst effect. “Contemplate your true nature,” warned the great Bengali mystic Anandamayi Ma, “or else there will be want, wrong action, helplessness, distress and death.”

The emerging, or “new” story is just as consistent. It builds up from a physics of unity and consciousness to the biology of cooperation and the psychology and neuroscience of the empathic human being as a meaningful part of a great unity, capable of crafting her or his own destiny and capable of offering nonviolence and responding to it when offered. I entirely agree with Joanna Macy that we have to “stop the worst of the damage,” but has there been anything more damaging than the demoralizing image of ourselves held up by the old story? And, after all, quite apart from its political usefulness, the new story is a powerful way to overcome our own demoralization and burnout, as you’ll see from the talking points we’ve offered here. Knowing it should be part of our toolkit and sharing it with whoever will listen should be a critical complement to our activism.

How free lunch and daycare are bolstering the Oklahoma teachers’ walkout

Tue, 04/10/2018 - 12:49

by Max Zahn

Students at Taylor Park in Oklahoma City holding bagged lunches. (Oklahoma City Public Schools)

Oklahoma City elementary school teacher Madeline Scott told her students about the statewide teacher walkout on the last day of classes before it began on April 2. Their reaction surprised her.

“The students were weirdly supportive, even though they are 10 years old,” Scott recalled. “They said, ‘We do need glue sticks.’”

She said one student, Miguel, was anxious. “What am I going to eat?” he asked. Miguel, a fourth grader at Adams Elementary, depends on school for free breakfast and lunch. Scott said his four siblings do, too. (Scott declined to give Miguel’s last name.)

“Will there be food for all of us?” he asked. Scott assured him there would.

Since Monday last week, thousands of Oklahoma teachers in at least 50 school districts have refused to work until the Oklahoma Legislature gives them a $10,000 raise, a $5,000 raise for support staff and $200 million in additional education funding. Each day, hundreds of schools have closed.

Days before the walkout, the legislature passed a $6,000 teacher pay raise. Teachers said it wasn’t sufficient. On Friday, lawmakers passed two additional tax bills that generate $42 million in education funding, though the legislature also repealed a hotel tax that raised $47 million as part of the original pay-raise measure.

The Oklahoma Education Association, the top union in the state, vowed to continue the walkout this week, urging the legislature to raise an estimated $100 million through the closure of a capital gains tax loophole.

Despite widespread school closures, districts have supplied meals to students and connected them with daycare providers. In West Virginia, striking teachers paid out of pocket to buy food and deliver it to students. But in Oklahoma, school administrators have coordinated a large-scale effort, in collaboration with community organizations, to help vulnerable children and their families. The provision of these services shows how the teachers’ bosses — superintendents, school boards and principals — have quietly bolstered the teachers as they enter a potentially lengthy standoff with the Republican-controlled legislature.

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“To support the teachers, I need to make sure they don’t have to worry about the kids,” said Rebecca Kaye, the acting superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools, the largest school district in the state. “Our community jumped right in with both feet to take care of our students.”

Oklahoma’s education establishment has supported its teachers, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of labor studies at University of California, Santa Barbara. “In that sense it’s not just a movement of the employees, but their employers,” he said.

Across Oklahoma, 62 percent of public school students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, which amounts to 366,000 kids. Due to high student poverty levels, Oklahoma City Public Schools and Tulsa Public Schools, the two largest districts in the state, qualify for a federal program that subsidizes free breakfast and lunch for every student. The state ranks 43rd in food insecurity, the proportion of households who at a given time do not know the source of their next meal.

“Many kids don’t have enough food at home to get through the week,” said Katie Fitzgerald, the chief executive officer of Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. “They depend on their schools.”

On March 7, the Oklahoma Education Association announced a teacher walkout scheduled for April 2. That gave schools almost a month to prepare for a possible closure. “We immediately began collaborating with our faith and nonprofit community,” said Deborah Gist, the superintendent of the Tulsa school district.

Throughout the walkout, thousands of teachers have stormed the capitol, and over a hundred are in the midst of a seven-day 110-mile march from Tulsa to Oklahoma City. But as the walkout enters its second week, these meal and daycare offerings may prove crucial for preserving community support.

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Since the walkout began, at least 150 sites in Tulsa are providing food and other services for the 41,000 students in Tulsa Public Schools and thousands more in neighboring districts. In the Oklahoma City school district, 107 bus drivers are taking 40,000 meals each day to over 70 sites, said Kaye, the superintendent.

“School buses will act like a mobile food delivery unit,” she said. “They will deliver sack lunches at one site, pick up more and go to another site. It’s a really massive undertaking.” Kaye is holding a nightly conference call to make adjustments as needed. In the Oklahoma City school district, bus drivers and cafeteria workers are not walking out; they are delivering and serving these meals, Kaye said.

Many other school districts have coordinated meals for students, including districts in rural areas such as Clinton Public Schools, in western Oklahoma.

“In smaller districts with less capacity there’s an even greater need,” Fitzgerald said. She explained that her organization, which serves an area that spans two-thirds of the state, has spent $300,000 to put together a network of between 15 and 20 hot meal sites, as well as a fleet of trucks that deliver 20,000 boxes of food over 14 days. Each box contains pasta, mac and cheese, peanut butter, canned fruits and vegetables, tuna, Vienna sausage and milk, among other items.

If the walkout lasts more than two weeks, each additional day will cost the group $25,000, Fitzgerald said.

The provision of daycare is just as important as that of food, said Scott, the elementary school teacher in Oklahoma. “It’s a huge advantage for parents to know their kid is safe,” she said. “Free childcare will make this walkout go a lot more smoothly.”

The Oklahoma school district posted a list of 40 community organizations that offer daycare, of which 16 are free and open to all children. One of the free providers, Henderson Hills Baptist Church, signed up almost 200 students. “The demand from parents has been overwhelming,” Pastor Chris Wehunt said. “Our website shut down.” Students attend a morning service, followed by bible study and camp-style games.

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In Tulsa the daycare offerings, spearheaded by the Tulsa Area United Way, include 10 full-day providers for up to 1,900 students. “The walkout is a disruption for working families that rely on the normal day-to-day schedule of their children at school,” said Gist, the Tulsa superintendent. “Organizations have stepped up to provide safe and engaging activities for students.”

Representatives of Oklahoma Regional Food Bank and Henderson Hills Baptist Church said their organizations do not side with or against the teachers. “We’re here for the kids,” said Wehunt.

Kaye and Gist, the superintendents, said the efforts intend not only to take care of students but to support teachers. “Even though there are short-term challenges like the nutrition and interrupted school,” said Gist, the superintendent of the Tulsa school district. “The long-term benefits are more important.”

The teachers have not set an end-date for the walkout. But Kaye acknowledged that she and her colleagues don’t want to spend long running a food service operation.

“We hope all the political drama is resolved quickly,” she said. “We want to get back to the business of teaching.”

How do you tell the kids that Grandma is in jail for resisting nuclear weapons?

Fri, 04/06/2018 - 13:47

by Frida Berrigan

The seven members of the Kings Bay Plowshares, who entered the Georgia naval base on April 4 to protest nuclear weapons, white supremacy and racism. (WNV/Kings Bay Plowshares)

“Our grandma is in jail,” Madeline tells a woman wrestling a shopping cart at Target.

“She went over a war fence and tried to make peace,” Seamus adds helpfully. “They arrested her, and she is in jail now.”

“Where?” the woman asks, looking from them to me in disbelief and maybe pity.

“We don’t remember,” the kids say, suddenly done with their story and ready to make passionate pleas for the colorful items in the dollar section over the woman’s shoulder.

“Georgia,” I say, but I don’t have a lot of energy to add detail to my kids’ story. They hit all the high points.

“There’s a lot going on these days,” she says. I agree, and we move on into the store and our separate errands.

I was happy not to say more at that moment, happy to avoid a sobbing breakdown at Target, happy to wrestle one little bit of normal out of a very abnormal day.

My mom, Liz McAlister, who turned 78 in November, had been arrested deep inside the King’s Bay Naval Base in St Mary’s, Georgia in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Along with six friends, she carried banners, statements, hammers and blood onto the base. They started their action on Wednesday, April 4: the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Their statement made connections between nuclear weapons, white supremacy and deeply embedded racism. It is a long statement, but given that they were carrying it into a free-fire zone — where military personnel are authorized to use deadly force — there was no particular need for brevity: “We come to Kings Bay to answer the call of the prophet Isaiah (2:4) to ‘beat swords into plowshares’ by disarming the world’s deadliest nuclear weapon, the Trident submarine. We repent of the sin of white supremacy that oppresses and takes the lives of people of color here in the United States and throughout the world. We resist militarism that has employed deadly violence to enforce global domination. We believe reparations are required for stolen land, labor and lives.”

They walked onto King’s Bay Naval Station just hours after Saheed Vassell was shot and killed in a barrage of bullets by New York City police officers, just hours after hundreds of demonstrators filled the streets of Sacramento for another day, shouting “Stephon Clark, Stephon Clark, Stephon Clark” and demanding accountability after the young father of two was killed by police officers on March 18. These seven white activists know that when you are black in this country, your own corner, your grandmother’s own backyard, is a a free-fire zone more dangerous than any military base.

There is indeed a lot going on these days.

The statement continues: “Dr. King said, ‘The greatest purveyor of violence in the world (today) is my own government.’ This remains true in the midst of our endless war on terror. The United States has embraced a permanent war economy. ‘Peace through strength’ is a dangerous lie in a world that includes weapons of mass destruction on hair-trigger alert. The weapons from one Trident have the capacity to end life as we know it on planet Earth.”

Carmen Trotta and Liz McAlister holding a protest sign on the Kings Bay Naval Station. (WNV/Kings Bay Plowshares)

Kings Bay is the largest nuclear submarine base in the world at about 16,000 acres. It is the home port of the U.S. Navy Atlantic Fleet’s Trident nuclear-powered submarines. There are eight in total, two guided missile submarines and six ballistic missile submarines. These submarines were all built in Groton, Connecticut — right across the river from our home in New London. Each submarine, my mom and her friends assert, carries the capacity to cause devastation equivalent to 600 of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima, Japan.

“Nuclear weapons kill every day through our mining, production, testing, storage, and dumping, primarily on indigenous native land. This weapons system is a cocked gun being held to the head of the planet. As white Catholics, we take responsibility to atone for the horrific crimes stemming from our complicity with “the triplets” [of evil]. Only then can we begin to restore right relationships. We seek to bring about a world free of nuclear weapons, racism and economic exploitation.”

That is not the end, you can read the whole statement and their indictment of the United States on their Facebook group.

These sorts of actions — called Plowshares — have a nearly 40-year history, since my father and uncle and six others broke into the King of Prussia plant in Pennsylvania in 1981 to “beat swords into plowshares.” They struck at nosecones with hammers and marked the weapons with blood to reveal the human costs and mess and suffering the weapons are built to wreak in the world.

My father participated in five of these Plowshares actions in his lifetime and helped organize countless others. Committed conspirers, steeped in active nonviolence, have carried out more than 100 of these actions since 1981. This is my mom’s second action. She and her current co-defendant Clare Grady, were part of the 1983 Griffiss Plowshares in upstate New York.

My parents estimated that they spent 11 years of their 27-year marriage separated by prison, and it was mostly these actions that kept them apart and away from us. Countless life events in our family — birthdays, graduations, celebrations of all kinds — were stuttered by the absence of one of our parents. I say this with pain and loss, but no self-pity. Dad was able to attend my high school graduation, but not my brother’s. We went straight from my college graduation to visit my dad in jail in Maine. I missed all the raging keggers, sweaty dance parties and tearful goodbyes that marked the end of college for my friends to sit knee-to-knee with my father in a cramped and soulless room. On chairs designed for maximum discomfort, I tried to share my momentous day and all my 22-year-old big feelings while ignoring the guards and the room crowded with a dozen others doing the same thing. We wrote thousands of letters. They often crisscrossed each other so that there was a constant weaving of story and sharing across the miles.

So, when I explained that grandma was in jail to my kids — 11-year-old Rosena, 5-year-old Seamus and 4-year-old Madeline — I felt the weight of a lifetime of missing and provisional family experiences, frequently lived in prison visiting rooms and through urgently scrawled letters.

I tried to figure out a way to talk to them that would make sense and, in thinking it through, I realized that none of this should make sense to anyone! Nuclear weapons? Absurd! Police brutality and white supremacy? Senseless! Plowshares actions with their symbolic transformation and ritual mess making? A foolhardy act of David v. Goliath proportions!

So, I didn’t try to make it make sense. I just forged ahead, grateful that they had some context: We had participated in the Good Friday Stations of the Cross organized by Catholic Worker friends at our local submarine base a few days earlier, and — the night before — we had gone to hear a dramatic reading of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

“Hey guys, know how we went to the sub base on Friday? Grandma was arrested in a place like that late last night. She is in jail now. She and her friends broke onto the base to say that nuclear weapons are wrong. Remember how Dr. King talked about just and unjust laws?” They nodded and remembered that King said “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” I told them that Grandma thinks that nuclear weapons — things that can destroy so much life on our planet — shouldn’t be built and protected and paid for when so many people are hungry, so many kids don’t have good schools to go to, so many people don’t have good homes. I went on and on.

“Wait, these nuclear weapons… They are war things?” Seamus asked.

“Yep, they are war things, bud.”

“Good for grandma,” he said, and that was the end of our serious conversation.

Mom and her friends are charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass and two felonies: possession of tools for the commission of a crime and interference with government property.

The kids and I didn’t talk about the kind of jail time that could mean for their grandma. It is all I am thinking about right now, but they moved on, imagining out loud and with a lot of enthusiasm how grandma got by the attack dogs and police officers they had seen at the Groton Submarine Base. They were sure there was a similar set up in Georgia. “Grandma needed a ladder and a cheetah,” said Madeline. “A cheetah is the only animal that can outrun dogs and police officer’s bullets.”

I am pretty sure no cheetahs were involved in the Kings Bay Plowshares, but I am happy my daughter sees her grandmother as a fierce and powerful anti-war activist astride a wild cat.

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