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

Sun, 10/15/2017 - 12:00

by Brandon Jordan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tue, 10/10/2017 - 12:09

by Skanda Kadirgamar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from the front lines of anti-colonial pipeline resistance

Mon, 10/09/2017 - 09:17

by James Rowe and Mike Simpson

A bridge leads to the entrance of the Unist’ot’en territory in British Columbia, Canada. (WNV/Jeff Nicholls)

The Standing Rock standoff over the Dakota Access Pipeline was a reminder that colonization, and resistance to it, both exist in the present tense. Fossil fuel pipelines that despoil indigenous lands and waters have become key flashpoints in long-standing anti-colonial resistance.

An important precursor and inspiration for the Standing Rock camp is an indigenous occupation in northern British Columbia, Canada. For the past eight years, the Unist’ot’en clan have reoccupied their traditional territory. When the camp began in 2009, seven pipelines had been proposed to cross their territory, as well as their water source, the salmon-bearing Morice River. But thanks to Unist’ot’en resistance, oil and gas companies have been blocked from building new fossil fuel infrastructure. The lesser known but wildly successful Unist’ot’en encampment holds crucial lessons for anti-pipeline and anti-colonial organizers across North America, or Turtle Island, as many indigenous nations call it.

We visited the occupation this summer. Upon arriving, visitors must undergo a border-crossing protocol. There is only one way in and out of Unist’ot’en territory – a bridge that crosses the Morice River. Before being allowed to cross, we were asked where we came from, whether we worked for the government or the fossil fuel industry, and how our visit could benefit the Unist’ot’en.

We explained that we are both settlers, people living on and benefiting from indigenous lands. We also expressed our willingness to help in whatever ways were needed during our stay, such as kitchen duty, gardening and construction. Finally, we shared our commitment to decolonization and climate justice, and our appreciation for how Unist’ot’en land defense accomplishes both; it returns indigenous lands to indigenous peoples while blocking fossil fuel infrastructure that threatens the entire human estate. After a short consultation, clan members welcomed us to leave Canada and cross into Unist’ot’en territory.

Five pipelines already defeated

The Unist’ot’en occupation has already contributed to the cancellation of five pipelines, including Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project – a multibillion-dollar development that would have pumped bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands to Canada’s Pacific coast. The two proposed incursions onto Unist’ot’en territory that remain are both fracked gas pipelines: Chevron’s Pacific Trails and TransCanada’s Coast Gaslink.

Unist’ot’en spokesperson Freda Huson explained to us that the tireless work of supporters, including indigenous people from other nations along with settler allies, is a central reason why the camp has endured and grown, knocking pipeline proposals over one by one.

Despite these successes, Huson has been struck by the exhaustion of frontline occupiers — not just on the Unist’ot’en front line, but elsewhere, including Standing Rock. Since starting their occupation, the Unist’ot’en have hosted an annual action camp for supporters wanting to learn about the struggle. Huson dedicated this year’s action camp to the theme of healing. As she explained to us, “the health of the people is vital to keep the resistance moving forward. We believe that if we heal the people they will be healthy to make decisions to heal the land.”

The action camp as a place of healing

This year’s action camp featured workshops on burnout, healing from trauma, indigenous approaches to conflict resolution, and, on the first day, an exercise in awareness.

This first activity was facilitated by Huson and her partner Smogelgem (a hereditary chief of the neighboring Likhts’amisyu Clan). During this exercise, we were blindfolded, spun around and then guided by a partner to a tree of their choosing. “Be with the tree, make a connection” were the simple instructions. After our partners returned us to our starting points, we removed our blindfolds and went searching for our newfound evergreen friend. Every single participant found their tree. Smogelgem then explained that the land is living and breathing. We are always in relationship to it, but our relations to the land can be intentionally deepened, so that we come to experience trees, water and animals as friends, even kin.

The pithouse on Unist’ot’en territory. (WNV/Jeff Nicholls)

After completing the workshop, we walked to a traditional pithouse that was recently built on the precise GPS coordinates of Chevron’s proposed pipeline. Huson and Smogelgem plan to live in the pithouse once it is complete (and outfitted with comfortable furnishings and energy-efficient lighting and appliances). Their vision is for more Wet’suwet’en people to join them back on the land, living and renewing their culture. The Wet’suwet’en Nation is comprised of five clans, including the Unist’ot’en people.

Once the two remaining pipeline threats are defeated, Huson and Smogelgem will transition the camp into a full-time healing and cultural center for indigenous people recovering from the ongoing trauma of colonization. Indeed, the largest structure at the camp, a three-story building that includes a dining hall, industrial kitchen, and counseling spaces, is called “The Healing Centre.”

The Unist’ot’en Camp has always had a dual purpose: resisting pipelines while nurturing Wet’suwet’en culture. Like the water protectors at Standing Rock, the Unist’ot’en Clan has been careful to clarify that their settlement is not a protest. Rather, it is an occupation and assertion of their traditional territory — a site from which to resist further colonial extraction, while also practicing a culture and economy that is inseparable from the land.

According to Huson, “our people’s belief is that we are part of the land. The land is not separate from us. The land sustains us. And if we don’t take care of her, she won’t be able to sustain us.”

Huson explained to us that she lived away from her people’s territory for 20 years due to colonization. “I lived on reservation, got educated and worked as an economic development officer for 14 years,” she said. “Once I decolonized and reconnected to my territory, I felt my spirit come alive. When family visit, they don’t want to leave.” She wants to share with others the healing that she has experienced by being back out on her people’s land.

Indigenous resurgence and embodied social change

The Unist’ot’en Camp is exemplary of what indigenous scholars such as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Jeff Corntassel (Nishnaabeg and Cherokee ancestry, respectively) call “indigenous resurgence.” According to Corntassel: “Being indigenous today means struggling to reclaim and regenerate one’s relational place-based existence by challenging the ongoing destructive forces of colonization.” He notes that ceremony is a key way to “reconnect to the natural world.”

There are deep resonances between indigenous resurgence and the focus on ceremony, mindfulness and healing practices that are emerging in radical social movements across Turtle Island. Settler activists are finding that different healing practices, such as meditation and yoga, can help reduce burnout, heal the traumas caused by oppression and increase organizational effectiveness. Daily meditations, for example, played an important role at Occupy Wall Street. These resonances between indigenous resurgence and the growing social movement interest in non-Western healing practices have the potential to facilitate new solidarities between indigenous activists and settler allies.

For example, Hajime Harold is a teacher, activist and longtime supporter of Unist’ot’en land defense. During this year’s action camp, he led daily exercises in qigong, a traditional Chinese healing system that integrates breathing, meditation and physical postures. As a Japanese Canadian, Harold experienced racism growing up in Kelowna, British Columbia. These painful experiences sensitized him to injustices, including those related to colonialism. His heart has been opened, too, he said, by learning qigong, which has increased his capacity to act in solidarity with those whose challenges are different from his. For Harold, qigong helps practitioners better connect with themselves, other people and the earth. He experiences qigong as resonant with the indigenous traditional teachings that he is familiar with.

Similarly, scholar Michael Yellow Bird (from the Sahnish and Hidatsa Nations) sees indigenous ceremonial practices as aligned with mindfulness meditation, and crucial to what he terms “neurodecolonization,” or transforming the embodied traumas that colonialism leaves in its wake.

Building settler solidarity on stolen native land

Despite the similarities between indigenous resurgence and mind-body practices of settler social movements, there is still a vital element of decolonization that is regularly missed by settler activists: land. To whom does the land rightfully belong? Who has decision-making power over it?

Over lunch at the Unist’ot’en Camp, indigenous scholar Edward Valandra (from the Oceti Sakowin Oyate) asked us a simple question: “What is the first thing you do when you get out of bed each morning?” We immediately thought of our various morning rituals (meditation, yoga, a cup of coffee). Valandra patiently watched as we pondered his question; then he leaned in. “I can tell you exactly what you do each morning. You step out of bed onto stolen native land.”

The regular failure of settler activists to grapple with the land question means that even radical social movements are constantly at risk of reinforcing colonial structures and social relations. Consider Occupy Wall Street. The different occupations that sprang up across the continent in 2011 to protest profound disparities in wealth rarely acknowledged that they were happening on already occupied land. Moreover, as scholars Eve Tuck (member of the Aleut indigenous community) and K. Wayne Yang have argued, “the ideal of ‘redistribution of wealth’ camouflages how much of that wealth is land, Native land.” Without a focus on the repatriation of land to indigenous peoples, a seemingly radical call for redistribution can quickly become a continuation of colonial dispossession.

Decolonization may feel unsettling to some, as it means the return of land and governing authority and the renunciation of settler privileges. Nevertheless, indigenous-led front lines from Standing Rock to Unist’ot’en are drawing a growing number of settlers who grieve colonial injustices, feel anxious about climate destabilization and crave a deeper connection to the land upon which they live.

Julia Michaelis is the camp’s chef. If food critics visited front lines, the kitchen at Unist’ot’en would be brimming with five-star reviews. Julia explained to us that she loved being at camp because every step she takes while there — from chopping onions to facilitating nonviolent direct action trainings — is in the service of decolonization. For settlers, relating to the magnitude of colonial injustice can be overwhelming. But at a front line like the Unist’ot’en camp, a simple chore like washing dishes is transformed into an everyday act of decolonization.

A bunkhouse at the Unist’ot’en camp. (WNV/Jeff Nicholls)

In a blog post about his experiences of healing at the camp, settler activist Will Falk recently reflected on how “every chore, every conversation, every action at the camp comes with a fullness of meaning I have never found anywhere else.” For Falk, this meaning is rooted in the traditional teachings that inform the camp.

According to Unist’ot’en Clan member Karla Tait, many supporters (both indigenous and settler) have “come out to Unist’ot’en land and found it to be a healing experience, to live on the land and have a connection with the natural world and our teachings.”

Supporters at the camp are making a connection with Unist’ot’en people, whose ancestors have been in deep relationship with the land since time immemorial. Being in good relations with people whose living traditions emerge from thousands of years of reciprocal relationship with the land allows for a depth of environmental connection, a groundedness on the Earth, that many supporters have never before experienced.

As environmental educators, we have learned a variety of contemplative exercises designed to deepen human connection to the land and facilitate a desire for stewardship. But we learned at the Unist’ot’en Camp that there is no substitute for the groundedness that comes from being in good relationship with the specific peoples upon whose lands you are living. Developing that relationship means fighting for the restitution of indigenous lands and authority.

Post-colonialism?

The Unist’ot’en Camp offers a glimpse into what post-colonial relations between indigenous peoples and settlers could look like on Turtle Island. The land is Wet’suwet’en territory and governed by Wet’suwet’en law and systems of governance, but the camp welcomes visitors of all backgrounds who are keen to respect, abide by and learn from the laws of the land.

Members and supporters of the Unist’ot’en camp showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter. (Unist’ot’en Camp)

As stated on the Unist’ot’en website: “People of all races, religions, nationalities, classes, genders, orientations and gender identifications are welcome to support the grassroots Wet’suwet’en people in defending their land.” This connection across difference is practiced actively, a key part of the healing ethos of the camp. Indeed, one of our favorite activities at camp was “Femme Friday,” when everyone was encouraged to wear makeup and nail polish to make the environment more welcoming and celebratory for two-spirit people and genderqueer allies. Indigenous resurgence can look like a hereditary chief in red nail polish.

After eight years of anti-colonial resistance and the defeat of multiple pipeline projects, the Unist’ot’en Camp is still building momentum. Their winning formula is this: indigenous land governed by indigenous people, with consistent support from settler allies. This approach, deployed at Standing Rock and other indigenous-led front lines, is helping to ensure a livable future by stopping the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, while also sowing seeds for a different world — one in which the deep wounds to land and people inflicted by colonialism can finally heal.

How the Vietnam War prepared Puerto Ricans to confront crisis

Fri, 10/06/2017 - 12:06

by Michael Stewart Foley

Members of Movimiento Pro-Independencia de Puerto Rico picket the White House in March of 1965. (Claridad / Biblioteca Digital UPR Río Piedras)

This week, as Puerto Ricans feel once again like a White House afterthought, it is hard not to conclude that Puerto Rico matters to Washington only when mainland political and business leaders need to conscript the island itself for some larger financial or military purpose.

Consider the impact of Vietnam War policy on Puerto Rico. Thanks to a new Ken Burns documentary and Hurricane Maria, the headlines have us talking simultaneously about Vietnam and Puerto Rico for the first time in 50 years. Today, few Americans remember the impact of the Vietnam War on Puerto Rico. Yet the war struck the island with the force of a political hurricane, tearing at Puerto Rico’s social fabric, raising the same questions of colonialism that are again in the news in the wake of Maria, and fueling its independence movement.

Not unlike Puerto Rico’s recent fiscal crisis, the Vietnam War brought into sharp relief the island’s unequal status as a territory of the United States, particularly after President Lyndon Johnson escalated the war in 1965. Draft-age men in Puerto Rico were subject to the Selective Service Act and called for induction into the U.S. military — even though they had no representative in the Congress that passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and even though many did not speak English.

A political cartoon published by Claridad in August of 1968.

As a result, Puerto Rico’s independence movement quickly condemned the war and called for widespread draft resistance. In July 1965, Claridad, the newspaper of the Movimiento Pro-Independencia de Puerto Rico, or MPI, published its first antiwar and anti-draft column, stating: “Because Puerto Rico is an American colony, Puerto Ricans are obligated to serve in that country’s army, are used like cannon fodder in imperialist wars carried out against defenseless peoples, wars in which Puerto Rico has no interest.”

One week later the MPI called on Puerto Ricans to resist the draft and condemned American aggression in Vietnam as a guerra sucia — a “dirty war” — against “the heroic people of Vietnam.” In response, students for the first time protested outside the Selective Service’s offices in San Juan.

Soon, the MPI likened its own quest for independence with that of the United States’ enemy in Vietnam. As reported in Claridad, the MPI “expressed its full solidarity with the National Liberation Front in its just fight for independence from North American imperialist dominance” and called on the United States to honor the 1954 Geneva Accords, to withdraw from Vietnam, and “guarantee the independence and neutrality of all of Indochina.”

For the MPI, the draft represented a “blood tax,” a “taxation without representation” that Americans aware of their own revolutionary heritage should have understood. Independentistas pointed to the composition of local draft boards (which were called “juntas” in Spanish) as proof. According to Selective Service Director Lewis Hershey, draft boards were “little groups of neighbors,” best suited to look out for America’s sons. But the MPI complained that the local boards were made up of “members of the richest families, statehood proponents … members of the Lions Club, Rotary, Exchange, Citizens for State 51 and other fiends” who “funneled” the poor into the military. These draft board members were Puerto Rican mandarins, agents of the colonizers.

An image published in the Fall of 1970 by the U.S. Committee for Justice to Latin American Political Prisoners.

In 1965 and 1966, long before a coordinated draft resistance movement took shape stateside, 33 members of MPI and two others refused to be inducted. Prosecutors indicted them promptly. When they went to trial in federal court, the proceedings were conducted in English — which often meant that some of the best Puerto Rican lawyers were unavailable — and if one wanted to appeal a conviction, the appeal was heard 2,700 miles away, in Boston, also in English.

In August 1966, the first Puerto Rican draft resistance case, that of Sixto Alvelo Rodriguez, came to trial. Alvelo won support not only from the MPI — which enlisted the radical New York law firm Rabinowitz, Boudin, and Standard for his defense — but also from mainstream supporters who formed Comite de Defense Sixto Alvelo. More than 200 students signed a statement in support of Alvelo, pledging that they, too, would refuse induction. In September, the court asked Alvelo’s draft board to re-induct him (it never did) and dismissed his case and all other MPI draft resistance cases.

The independence movement interpreted the court’s ruling as a major political victory. The MPI speculated that Alvelo’s case revealed “one of the most tyrannical manifestations of our colonial subjugation” and that Washington had backed down in the face of the threat of thousands of induction refusals in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Ricans attending the Fifth Annual Youth Conference of the Pro Independence Movement in Santurce on January 21, 1967. (Claridad / El Mundo, Biblioteca Digital UPR Río Piedras)

At the same time, however, the Selective Service continued to call Puerto Rican men for induction, and support for the draft resistance movement continued to go mainstream. On Mother’s Day in 1967, Puerto Rican mothers organized a protest against the draft in San Juan. The Puerto Rican Bar Association passed a resolution in 1968 calling for the exemption of Puerto Ricans from compulsory U.S. military service, and one year later, the Puerto Rican Episcopal Church passed a resolution at its Diocesan Convention condemning both the war and the conscription of Puerto Ricans.

Federal prosecutors ultimately indicted more than 100 Puerto Rican men, most of whom were convicted. On the day that Edwin Feliciano Grafals — a 26-year-old MPI member who described himself as a “nonreligious conscientious objector” — became the first Puerto Rican draft resister convicted since World War II, students at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras burned down the campus ROTC building. Six weeks later, 10,000 Puerto Ricans marched through San Juan protesting against the draft. “This is the time to decide; you’re either a Yanqui or you’re a Puerto Rican,” MPI leader Juan Mari Bras told the crowd. “Not one more Puerto Rican should convert himself into a criminal by fighting against the Vietnamese people.”

In the end, Puerto Rico’s draft resistance did not end the Vietnam War nor did it win independence. But it did help to prevent further escalation of the war in 1968, and it brought many Puerto Ricans both to the antiwar movement and to the cause of independence. Moreover, draft resistance in Puerto Rico combined with draft resistance throughout the United States to compel the Nixon administration to introduce a draft lottery and, ultimately, end conscription altogether.

Protest against the draft in Puerto Rico and throughout the United States worked because it targeted an institution that few could defend as fair. Today, with the federal government seemingly unable to deliver post-hurricane relief to Puerto Rico in a manner equal to its assistance in Texas and Florida, we have yet one more example of discrimination against a people who right now need only compassion, sympathy and generous aid.

The devastation of Puerto Rico’s recent fiscal crisis (a crisis rooted in mainland lending policies) has now been compounded by natural disaster. It is in moments like these when, as during the Vietnam War, the second-class treatment of Puerto Rico by Washington is most obvious. The island itself has been treated as a conscript by successive U.S. governments for more than a century, for far too long.

The question is how islanders will respond to Washington this time. Will they protest? If so, what form will the protest take? Now may be a good time, in fact, for Puerto Ricans (and for the rest of us) to look to the island’s resistance to the Vietnam War as a model worth following. Fifty years later, it is worth remembering the place of Puerto Rican draft resisters in the American tradition of dissent. And it is worth remembering its place in a tradition of resistance to American colonialism. By escalating protest against the war and by risking their own freedom, Puerto Rican draft resisters kept alive the notion that resistance is a valid mode of citizenship.

New Yorkers picket Trump Tower in support of Puerto Rico

Wed, 10/04/2017 - 14:00

by Ashoka Jegroo

Protesters chanted and played bomba drums outside of Trump Tower on Tuesday. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

A crowd of about a hundred protesters picketed outside of Trump Tower in New York City on Tuesday in support of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, while also protesting colonialism and the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria. The protest occurred on the same day as President Trump’s first trip to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria destroyed much of the island two weeks ago.

“We’re here denouncing not only Trump’s visit to the island. We’re denouncing what’s going on right now and how politicians from both parties are using Puerto Rico as a ping pong ball. They are not helping my country,” said Norma Perez of Call to Action On Puerto Rico. “Also we want to denounce the payment of [Puerto Rico’s] debt. This is not the time to pay any debt. Just take the debt with you, allow us to be free, and we can move on and be an independent country without the colonialism, without everything they are imposing on us in Puerto Rico.”

The protesters, many of whom were Puerto Ricans from the island or the diaspora, demanded an end to the Jones Act, a law imposed by the United States in 1920 that only allows U.S. ships to deliver goods to the island. Protesters were also calling for an end to PROMESA, a 2016 U.S.-imposed law that put a 7-member fiscal control board (colloquially known as “la Junta”) in charge of resolving the island’s more than $70 billion government debt crisis. They started picketing at around 5 p.m. and — with the sound of bomba drums ringing in the New York air — chanted anti-fascist, anti-colonial and pro-Puerto Rican independence slogans.

“We need to denounce colonialism and the imperialism of the United States,” Perez said. “We have PROMESA. We have all this devastation from this huge hurricane. It’s been more than 100 years of being a colony of the United States, and they are not treating us as citizens. So it’s not only about Maria.”

A protester displays a sign depicting the economic exploitation of Puerto Rico. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

Since invading Puerto Rico in 1898, the U.S. government has facilitated the exploitation of the island for both its own interests and the interests of U.S. corporations, essentially pushing Puerto Rico into its current dire economic situation. Yet, U.S. politicians and businesses are blaming Puerto Rico for the crisis and have installed a colonial control board to oversee its finances.

President Trump’s comments and actions during his visit to the island on Tuesday only further illustrated this colonial relationship. With 95 percent of Puerto Rico lacking electricity and Oxfam harshly criticizing the administration’s response to the hurricane, Trump still managed to praise himself and blame Puerto Rico. “I think we’ve done just as good in Puerto Rico [as the government did in response to Katrina], and it’s actually a much tougher situation,” he told reporters outside the White House before his trip. “But now the roads are clear, communications starting to come back.”

But even though the roads were clear, Trump claimed that Puerto Rico’s truck drivers were not doing their part. “We need their truck drivers to start driving trucks,” he told the New York Times. “On a local level, they have to give us more help.” He also contrasted Hurricane Maria’s devastation with “a real catastrophe like Katrina,” claiming that, because only 16 people had died, “everybody watching can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.” These comments echoed Trump’s tweets on Sept. 30 claiming that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them” while federal workers were “now on Island doing a fantastic job.” In a series of tweets on Sept. 25, Trump also made sure to remind Puerto Rico of the “billions of dollars … owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.”

For the protesters outside Trump Tower on Tuesday, Trump’s comments continued a long tradition of colonizers disrespecting the colonized.

“What we did here today is send a very clear message to the Trump administration and to the politicians in New York City that the people in New York — who want to see an end to colonization and support independence — will not be disrespected and will not sit by while our people are being disrespected by this president,” said Frank Velgara of the Pro-Libertad Freedom Campaign. “His statements and his behavior are reminiscent, historically, of the prime ministers in India — when Britain colonized India — or the French in Algiers.”

A protester holds a sign in support of Puerto Rican independence. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

After speakers denounced both major political parties, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a well-known Puerto Rican Democrat, showed up at the protest but was not well received. Her support for the rezoning and gentrification of Spanish Harlem and the Bronx, as well as her support in 2015 for adding 1,297 new cops to the NYPD, made her persona non grata at the demo. At one point, protesters surrounded her chanting “No rezoning!” and “El Barrio no se vende!” Although protesters called for her to leave, she stayed at the protest with her bodyguard until it ended at around 8 p.m.

“I don’t know who advised her to come here because it’s not that kind of rally,” Velgara said. “But you see Melissa is used to coming to rallies of progressive groups and non-profits and the minute she shows up, she wants the mic. And we were not going to give her the mic. She played a key role in freeing [Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera] along with [Congressman Luis] Gutiérrez. That’s fine, but they’re kowtowing to Trump, and we can’t support that.”

Radio Dispatch interviews Jeff Abbott on Guatemala’s uprising

Tue, 10/03/2017 - 16:10

by The Editors

On the podcast Radio Dispatch, Molly Knefel interviews Jeff Abbott about the ongoing uprising against corruption in Guatemala, which he reported on for Waging Nonviolence last week.

Combating online abuse with the principles of nonviolent resistance

Mon, 10/02/2017 - 13:22

by Brian Martin

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Online harassment is on the rise, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. While that may not seem surprising — since even the president of the United States regularly engages in it — researchers are, nevertheless, perplexed, given the many widespread efforts to combat the phenomenon.

An examination of these efforts, which have been the subject of several books in recent years, may yield a better understanding of not only what’s working and not working, but also what’s missing — namely an approach that relies more on individual and collective empowerment, as opposed to legal and police action.

Online harassment as a crime

Danielle Keats Citron’s 2014 book “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace” is a comprehensive account of online harassment directed at women. Citron uses three case studies to illustrate the seriousness and seeming intractability of the problem. In one case, a woman was targeted by various anonymous individuals, perhaps including her university classmates, who spread horrendous lies about her, sending them to family, friends, her teachers and later her employers. The harassment continued for years.

A key theme in “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace” involves comparisons with sexual harassment and domestic violence. Decades ago, these were not seen as issues of importance. Sexual harassment was seen as something women at work just had to accept, and likewise domestic violence was invisible as a social issue. Then along came the feminist movement. Sexual harassment and domestic violence were given names, stigmatized as wrong and even contemptible, and criminalized by the passing of laws.

Citron says cyber harassment should be treated the same way. In all three forms of abuse, women and men can be victims, but women are much more likely to be targeted.

Citron is a lawyer with extensive experience with abuse online. She devotes considerable attention to legal remedies, but the overall message is that they are inadequate even when they can be brought to bear. Another avenue for redress is via complaint mechanisms provided by service providers. However, in many cases, harassers are anonymous and change their online identities. For example, on Twitter it’s possible to set up a new account within minutes, so shutting down the account of an abuser may provide only temporary relief.

Some targets of abuse go to the police, but this is usually disappointing, as many police do not understand the online world. For example, they fail to appreciate the importance of Twitter for some women’s work and how harassers can abuse the service. Police may suggest going offline to avoid the abuse, but this is unrealistic in an online world. It is like suggesting never going outside because of the risk of assault.

The misogyny of online abuse

Emma Jane is an academic at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, where she researches online harassment of women. Before this, for two decades she was a well-known media commentator under the name Emma Tom. Before the internet, she and other female figures in the media were used to receiving hostile written letters. But something changed in the 1990s after she started adding her email address at the bottom of her newspaper columns. The abuse she received in response to her columns became more insistent, graphic and voluminous. She started saving all this abuse, not knowing what to make of it.

In her research, inspired by her own experience and based on interviews and other evidence, she is quite clear that online harassment targeted at women is intended to tear them down and drive them off the internet. She has written several academic articles about the phenomenon and a 2017 book titled “Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History.”

Jane addresses the frequency of online abuse, its gendered features, the weakness of the rationales for doing it, the terrible consequences for targets and the failure of institutional channels to address it. She terms the inadequacy of police and service providers to address abuse as an “epic fail” — Jane has a delightful turn of phrase and manner of plain-speaking.

Unlike most other commentators, Jane gives many examples of some of the worst abuse received by women. That is why the subtitle of her book refers to a “brutish” history: to read examples of abuse can be disturbing even when you are not the target. By presenting graphic examples, Jane challenges the usual dismissals of this form of harassment as just a normal part of the internet. To get a feeling for the sort of abusive messages women receive, visit Random Rape Threat Generator (note: this is explicit and confronting).

Jane also gives special attention to academic work in the area, castigating scholars for not addressing an important topic or, when they do, not taking the abuse seriously. For example, incorporating rape and death threats in the category of “trolling” reduces their seriousness.

The problem with rationalizing abuse

Bailey Poland is a writer and editor who became interested in cybersexism and wrote the book “Haters: Harassment, Abuse and Violence Online” published in 2016. It is a comprehensive, scholarly treatment. Poland learned about the problem in part through her own experiences of coming under attack. She recounts the stories of many other women harassed online.

Some cases have become notorious, most prominently what is known as Gamergate. Zoe Quinn, a game developer, was abused online and openly complained about it. This led to a huge increase in abuse and threats, in turn triggering a countermovement. Gaming is highly male dominated, and women working in the field are regular targets.

Poland takes aim at the many justifications for cyber harassment and at the advice regularly given to women. One often-repeated mantra is “Don’t feed the trolls.” This assumes that trolling is the problem, but trolling is not an accurate description of rape and death threats. Not feeding the trolls means not replying to abusers, on the assumption that they get their kicks by seeing their target squirm: without replies, they should tire of the game and give up. The problem with this advice is that it doesn’t work. The attackers continue as long as their target is online, and may escalate by sending abuse, threats, and derogatory comments to family members and employers.

(For insights about trolling, see Whitney Phillips’ book “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” Phillips argues that trolling can’t be addressed on its own because it draws its energy from damaging behaviors in mainstream culture.)

One of the rationalizations for abuse is that “everyone gets harassed.” In other words, women shouldn’t complain because men are harassed too and, anyway, it’s just part of the way the internet works. Poland reports on studies showing that although many people are harassed, women are harassed far more, and furthermore much of the abuse aimed at them is specifically about gender.

Another regular piece of advice is to block the harassers. This is all very well, but is not protection from the harmful effects of abuse. When damaging claims are posted online, they can hinder a woman’s job prospects, because employers often do a Google search on the names of prospective employees. Blocking harassers also takes time; some of them create several new identities every day.

Harassers cloak their actions in the righteous mantle of free speech. In their eyes, it seems, sending unsolicited derogatory comments is an exercise of free speech, and to protest against such messages is an intolerable restraint. Setting aside the fact that rape and death threats are not legally protected speech, one of the consequences of online abuse is the silencing of targets. Indeed, silencing women seems to be the purpose of much of the abuse. This is a serious restraint on their own free speech. If the goal is a public forum where people can express their views, then moderation and respect for others are crucial.

To get a handle on how to respond to cyber harassment, Poland turns to a perspective developed by feminists in the early days of the internet, called cyber feminism. Some women use privacy settings for protection. Groups of women have set up closed online networks for sharing information, including about harassers. A few, for example Lindsay Bottos, use art to challenge online harassment.

But the burden of responding to online abuse should not rest only on women. Poland cites work by Leigh Alexander on what men can do. The first step is to not engage in cyber harassment themselves. Men can also provide one-on-one support for targeted women, focusing on a woman’s work (not just the harassment) and intervening online to draw attention away from the target.

Poland usefully refers to the activism of several U.S. groups, including Working to Halt Online Abuse, End to Cyber Bullying, Crash Override Network and HeartMob.

The psychology of abusers

Citron, Jane and Poland cite studies about typical perpetrators, but it seems to me that more could be done to understand what drives them. It is not sufficient to look at the effects of their harassment (namely, women driven off online spaces) and assume that is why perpetrators do it. Roy Baumeister, in his book “Evil: Understanding Human Violence and Cruelty,” looked at what is known about the psychology of Nazi camp guards, serial killers, and other perpetrators and concluded that usually they feel justified in their actions, feel they are the real victims, and do not think the consequences of their actions are very significant. If the same analysis applied to perpetrators of online harassment, it implies they do not think sending rape and death threats to women is a big deal and that their targets deserve what they get. This is not far from the usual rationales provided.

But why are women targets? One explanation is based on the psychological process of projection, in which a person unconsciously rejects a part of their self or behavior and attributes it to others. For example, a man might reject his own attraction to other men, fearing it, project it on to gay men and sometimes attack them.

All people have, as part of their personalities, both masculine and feminine aspects. Some men may not want to recognize their feminine side. Instead, they project it onto others, onto women, naturally enough, and then try to destroy it. In this picture, powerful and prominent women would be the most likely targets. This perspective seems compatible with a perpetrator pattern called DARVO — deny, attack, reverse victim and offender — in which perpetrators deny their own abuse, blame it on the target and say, when they are criticized, that they are actually the ones being abused.

The point of gaining a deeper understanding of the psychology of abusers is to come up with more effective responses.

Insights from nonviolent action

In acting against online abuse, what can be learned from the theory and practice of nonviolent action? This is not straightforward, because nonviolent action most commonly involves collective action in public spaces against identifiable opponents. Cyberabuse typically targets individuals, often in private spaces, and many attackers are anonymous. Nevertheless, several of the key features of effective nonviolent action — non-standard, limited harm, participation, voluntary participation, fairness, prefiguration and skillful use — are relevant to countering cyberharassment.

The most commonly recommended response to online abuse is to report it to authorities, something each of the three authors find is usually unhelpful. A nonviolence-inspired response needs to be something else, something non-standard.

In effective nonviolent action, actionists try to limit the harm to their opponent. In cyberspace, this means not using abuse to counter abuse. It seems that few targets do this anyway. When they do, it is often counterproductive, as would be expected from nonviolence theory.

In nonviolent action, a high level of participation greatly increases effectiveness. Methods such as strikes, boycotts and rallies enable many people to participate regardless of age, sex and ability. In the online environment, the implication is to choose methods of resistance that enable greater participation. A first step is for targeted women (and men) to join together with allies to formulate a collective response. This might be making supportive comments, challenging ISPs that allow abuse and developing campaigns that allow safe participation.

One of the benefits of greater participation in nonviolent action, especially when people with varied backgrounds and experiences are involved, is more ideas about responding and more innovation in techniques. This suggests that campaigners against online misogyny should attempt to involve diverse sectors of the population, for example men as well as women, old and young, different social classes, social media newbies, as well as digital natives, and people from different cultural backgrounds. Especially important is building support among people who would not normally be interested in the social media platforms where abuse often occurs.

Taking the issue to broader sectors of the population has the prospect of getting to friends (online and off), neighbors, parents and children of abusers. This is the same broadening of concern that has been effective in stigmatizing sexual harassment offline.

Another important facet of effective nonviolent action is skillful use of methods. Responding to abusers needs to be done well, based on assessments of the psychology of the attacker, audiences, the likelihood of others joining in the abuse or opposing it and other factors. Developing skills requires guidance and practice. The implication is that targets of abuse need to reach out to others, gain support and, in particular, get help in improving responses. By improving skills in judging the motivations, intent, and psychological weaknesses of harassers, targets should be better able to judge whether to make a polite response, to not respond, to ask for personal assistance or to seek help in mounting a campaign. Similarly, skills can make a big difference when making a response to abusers, finding supporters and campaigning.

All too often, targets feel isolated and humiliated and attempt to deal with the situation on their own. Reaching out to others, and others being willing and able to help, are crucial for mobilizing support and for making better choices and responses.

The implications of ideas from nonviolent action for challenging online abuse seem, at one level, all too obvious: Get more people involved, including from different backgrounds; learn and practice skills; and work cooperatively to develop responses and campaigns. Yet, at another level, these implications are not obvious at all, given the continual attention to addressing the problem through laws and actions by police, ISPs and other officials. Rather than looking for authorities to provide protection, it may be more effective to aim at individual and collective empowerment.

Minnesotans rally to ‘Hold the Line’ against Enbridge pipeline project

Fri, 09/29/2017 - 14:39

by Brandon Jordan

Activists march toward the only public hearing on Enbridge’s Line 3 proposal in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Oil Change International/Matt Maiorana)

Hundreds of residents gathered in front of the Minnesota State Capitol in Saint Paul on Thursday for a rally to “Hold the Line” against a pipeline project called Line 3. Backed by the Canadian pipeline company Enbridge Energy, the inter-state project was the subject of the city’s only public meeting held later that day, and residents were firmly determined to make their voices heard.

With an hour to go until the public hearing, they marched over a mile to the InterContinental Saint Paul Riverfront hotel. Once inside, they argued against the project’s approval to the judge who will decide Line 3’s fate next year.

“It’s just nice to be in a sea of people who feel the same way that you do,” said Mysti Babineau of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe in northwestern Minnesota. “It gives me hope because a lot of these people I’m seeing nowadays are so young.”

Enbridge is proposing a replacement of its old Line 3, which was installed in the 1960s and is now considered to be inefficient and too costly to remove. Once decommissioned, the old Line 3 would be cleaned and left in the ground and a new $7.5 billion pipeline would be constructed. While taking a slightly different path through northern Minnesota, it would end at the same oil facility in Superior, Wisconsin.

Enbridge claims the project is the “best [way] to maintain system integrity while minimizing disruption to landowners and communities.” But many Minnesotans disagree and think the plans for both pipelines raise serious concerns — one of which is the violation of treaty rights. These rights, guaranteed by treaties signed over 150 years ago, include the right to hunt, gather and fish. If a leak were to occur with the new pipeline — which is not farfetched, considering the company’s history of over 1,000 spills — it would jeopardize these rights.

“They want to go through permeable soil that would be hard to clean up if and when there is a spill,” Babineau said. “Our wild rice that we gather every year, which is really important to the Ojibwe people, will be impacted by this line. It will go through the heart of Ojibwe country.”

Indigenous people aren’t the only ones opposed to the plan. David Johnson, a 70-year-old landowner in eastern Minnesota, first came to know Enbridge about two years ago, when the firm requested use of his land for their failed Sandpiper pipeline, which would have carried Bakken crude oil to the same Wisconsin terminal. The company flooded him with letters and phone calls, but he refused. They even offered him $1,000 at one point.

“I said, ‘When you get the thing approved, you can come talk to me here,'” Johnson recalled. “They said, ‘Well, we’ll take your land with eminent domain.'”

David Johnson, a landowner in Minnesota, tells the audience about the dangers of the Line 3 on the state’s environment. (Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light)

The Sandpiper project was withdrawn last year due to the falling price of oil, but Johnson — still angered by Enbridge and the damaging effects of its projects — is now opposing the company’s Line 3 replacement. He was one of the many speakers at Thursday’s rally in Saint Paul.

“I didn’t want to [be a speaker], but I love this land,” he said. “It’s a pretty isolated part of the county right on the edge of the vast wetlands. There’s lots of wildlife and very few people. I don’t want it threatened by the pipeline and their access roads and the potential leaks.”

Johnson was unable to join protesters in their march because of health issues, but felt “grateful for the groups that have done so much to fight these pipelines.”

One of those groups, the Northern Water Alliance of Minnesota, has been focused on the ways in which Line 3 will impact the state’s water resources. Retired architect Jim Reents, who volunteers with the alliance, has testified in front of numerous committees, collaborated with various environmental organizations and assisted in reviewing the effects of the project. What concerns him are the numerous problems associated with the old Line 3. In fact, he said Enbridge admits to over 900 “structural anomalies” with the pipeline.

To make matters worse, Enbridge has done little to stop such leaks. For instance, the firm didn’t reduce the pipeline’s capacity — following severe leaks in 2010 — until federal regulators ordered them to do so. Nevertheless, Enbridge called it a voluntary measure. Such carelessness, according to Reents, makes it difficult to trust that Enbridge’s new Line 3 will be any better.

“You’re talking about an alignment that essentially crosses the drinking water for the entire state and beyond in many cases,” Reents said.

Meanwhile, the crude oil that doesn’t leak from Line 3 will ultimately be burned, producing carbon emissions that threaten today’s youth and future generations. That’s why the Youth Climate Interveners — a group of 13 young activists under the age of 25 — filed for the right to intervene as an official party in a court case against Enbridge in November.

The group argued, without legal counsel, that the pipeline would have a drastic impact on their future. The social cost of the pipeline’s carbon emissions alone is anywhere from $52 to $287 billion, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

“The judge ruled that we did have standing,” said Akilah Sanders-Reed, a 23-year-old Minneapolis resident. “We were going to be impacted, and we have a right to have a voice in this process. That was really groundbreaking.”

While the next phase of the case is set for early November, Sanders-Reed urged the importance of the public hearings — nine are currently scheduled — across the state in highlighting Minnesota residents’ opposition to Line 3.

“If there were ever a pipeline that could turn Minnesota into a leader in clean energy, climate action and the way we treat indigenous rights — this is it,” she said.

She then pointed to the examples of resistance to the project happening across the state — from the indigenous resistance camps in the north to landowners like Johnson opposing the use of eminent domain to the formation of a coalition of activists that includes faith leaders and youths.

While the public hearing in Saint Paul lasted only a day, resistance to the line will continue. Activists plan to mobilize citizens to attend other hearings in the state, knock on the doors of residents to warn of the plan’s dangers, and take part in the November court case against Enbridge.

“There is no way we’re going to let it cross Minnesota,” Sanders-Reed said.

Guatemala rises up against institutionalized corruption

Tue, 09/26/2017 - 12:51

by Jeff Abbott

A man stands in the crowd with a sign that reads “Out with the corrupt deputies and government. Forward with the people.” (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

On Sept. 20, hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans demonstrated across the country against President Jimmy Morales and Congress. The protesters demanded the resignation of the president and congressional members, following new accusations of corruption and the repeal of anti-corruption laws passed in 2015.

“We are demanding that the president and the majority of Congress resign, and that they pass laws that modify the laws that govern political parties,” said Tomás Solaj, the indigenous mayor of Sololá. “We have the advantage right now.”

In Guatemala City, student groups and organizations that began during the 2015 corruption crisis marched from different points of the city to the Central Plaza in protest of the president and Congress.

“To President Morales and his friends in Congress, we the Guatemalan people have something to tell you: We are here, we see you, and we won’t rest until our government is freed from the powerful criminal groups that have hijacked it,” wrote members of the movement Justicia Ya in a press release on the protest. “We, Guatemalans, will no longer stand in fear. We are ready to build a peaceful, prosperous and transparent Guatemala.”

Eighty-five miles northwest of Guatemala City, in the largely indigenous department of Sololá, the indigenous authorities of the municipalities of Sololá, San Pedro la Laguna, San Juan la Laguna, Nahualá, Santa Catarina Ixhuatan, San Lucas Tolimán, Panajachel, and Santiago Atitlán organized a department-wide protest, blocking the Panamerican highway in Los Encuentros for eight hours.

A woman sits on the Panamerican highway with a sign that reads “I demand a change to the system that rewards corrupt and murderous people. No more impunity.” (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

And the protests have already led to major impacts in the government. Key governmental ministers have resigned, including those running the Ministries of Labor, Finances, the Interior and Health.

“We are here to tell the political class that we will not allow any more of their corruption and impunity, and that Guatemala deserves a better future,” said Julio Héctor Rodríguez Andrade from the Popular and Social Assembly, which formed during the 2015 political crisis. “Their corruption only leaves us with more poverty, the lack of education and healthcare, and poor highways. They rob everything, and the majority continue to live in poor conditions.”

The impacts of corruption are especially felt within the indigenous communities across Guatemala. Sololá is among the departments with the highest populations of indigenous peoples, and it is also among the poorest departments in Guatemala, with 85.4 percent of the population living in poverty, according to a 2016 report from the United Nations Development Program. According to the same report, the department also has low access to education and healthcare.

“Here, the congressional deputies do not bring anything to our communities, they only offer us things when they are campaigning,” said Checha, a resident of Los Encuentros, Sololá. “The only projects they carry out are to launder more money. But we receive nothing. This is the same corruption that we saw with Otto Pérez Molina. This is why we are rising up against them. We want a new state.”

These direct impacts of corruption have mobilized the communities to protest.

“We are indignant that all our taxes are stolen by these members of congress, all the while we must struggle each day to earn the money for our daily bread,” Solaj said. “The people know this is the case. How is it that we are still governed by thieves here in the 21st century? We can no longer tolerate this.”

Guatemala’s latest crisis

The actions add to the growing outrage following Guatemala’s latest political crisis, which began weeks earlier.

On Aug. 25, Morales traveled to New York to meet with U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. During the meeting, Morales and his associates complained about the actions of Ivan Velásquez, the Colombian-born lead investigator of the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG. They argued that the actions of Velásquez were impeding Morales’ mandate as president.

Days later, on Aug. 27, upon returning to Guatemala, Morales issued a video on social media declaring Velásquez a “persona non-grata,” and ordered his immediate expulsion from the country. He argued that Velásquez had meddled “in domestic affairs, which are the sole responsibility of the Guatemalan state.” The same day the presidential decree went before the country’s Constitutional Court, which overturned Morales’ decision to expel Velásquez.

“We have gone out to the streets to demonstrate because we do not want to see Velásquez go, and a new commissioner come in and drop the cases against those officials that face legal charges,” Solaj said.

The attack on Velásquez was viewed as an assault against indigenous communities and the struggle against corruption, since the lead investigator of CICIG is widely viewed as being a “friend” of the people.

“Velásquez is a person that has uncovered many cases of corruption in Guatemala,” Solaj said. “Because of this we have a former president, a vice president and former officials facing charges for corruption. In comparison, other commissioners from the CICIG have not done the same as Velásquez.”

Analysts suggested that the actions of Morales were an attempt to derail the case that CICIG and Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor office were building against the president. But despite the attack, the case moved forward, and as Morales met with the secretary general of the United Nations, Velásquez and Attorney General Thelma Aldana, issued their findings against the president.

In a press conference on Aug. 25, the investigators showed that the president’s National Convergence Front political party had received $325,000 in anonymous donations, and failed to declare $600,000 in campaign expenses. They recommended stripping Morales of his presidential immunity, and filing official charges against him for violating campaign financing laws.

The decision to strip the president of his immunity went before the Constitutional Court on Sept. 4. The court decided that Congress should be the body to decide to strip the immunity. The vote went before Congress on Sept. 11, with 104 of the 158 members voting to maintain the immunity. Two days later, using the argument of a national emergency, Congress passed decrees 14-2017 and 15-2017, undoing previous anti-corruption legislation and eliminating prison time if convicts could pay a fine. These actions only added to the popular outrage and led to the national strike.

A man holds a sign that says “We are not in agreement with the law approved by Congress.” (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

“These decrees said they could free those [officials] that are imprisoned,” Solaj said. “And Morales would not face charges for the accusations against him. Congress walked back the laws against corruption [by declaring a] national emergency.”

The reforms to the laws were repealed on Sept. 15, Guatemala’s independence day, amidst intense protests. Angry residents of Guatemala City blocked congressional members as they tried to leave, leading to a violent eviction of protesters by riot police.

Organizing the movement

The mobilizations and organizing have taken on different forms within the country. Initially, the urban sectors were slower to join the protest against the president and members of congress. But following the passing of the decrees on Sept. 11, urban residents quickly joined the protests.

Within indigenous communities, the Ancestral Authorities have played a critical role in mobilizing the residents that they serve. The indigenous authorities form an alternative government within the communities across the country that has existed for centuries. Their structure is based on the social organization of the Pre-Spanish Mayan communities.

“We are in constant communication with the 72 community mayors that serve the 83 communities within the municipality of Sololá,” Solaj said. “We hold assemblies in the indigenous municipalities to share information. When we need to [organize an action] immediately, we hold the meeting, and then the community mayors go back and share with the communities.”

This structure has led to an organization that stretches beyond just the town of Sololá, and now includes nearly every municipality in the department of Sololá. These efforts have led to a department that is becoming increasingly organized behind the indigenous authorities.

Members of the indigenous municipality of Sololá address the crowd in Los Encuentros, Guatemala. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

“The primary objective is to form new alliances with the other indigenous authorities in the department. We have managed to organize with seven or eight other municipalities,” Solaj said. “The people have confidence in us as authorities, they have more confidence in us than in Congress.”

Reforms and racism

The political crisis in 2015 that led to widespread protests, and the eventual resignation and arrest of President Otto Pérez Molina, his Vice President Roxana Baldetti, and many high-ranking officials contributed to the all too apparent need to reform the Guatemalan government. While some groups have called for a popular constitutional assembly to found a new state, legislators have debated a reform package for the country’s judicial sector within Congress since mid-2016. But these efforts have been plagued by further corruption, foot-dragging and racism.

In November 2016, a reform package went before the Guatemalan Congress for debate. Among the reforms were changes to the law that governs political parties, as well as the the legal recognition of the judicial authority of the indigenous Ancestral Authorities across Guatemala. The reform of Article 203 would have opened the door to the formation of a plural national state, where the indigenous authorities would have the autonomy to administer justice within their communities.

One of the key aspects to the reform was that no judicial bodies in Guatemala — except the Constitutional Court — could contradict or revise the decisions of the indigenous authorities. And the indigenous authorities in turn could revise the decision of the Constitutional Court.

But there was bitter debate over the reform within Congress and the national media. Specifically, commentators raised concern over the recognition of the indigenous authorities. This led to extensive accusations of racism during these debates. Indigenous authorities were repeatedly blocked from entering Congress by congressional security.

Among the most vocal critics of the reform were the members of the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations, or CACIF, Guatemala’s notorious business association made up of the most powerful families in Guatemala. In February 2017, CACIF asked Congress not to approve the reforms, stating that the approval of the law would lead to further division between indigenous and non-indigenous communities.

On March 6, the indigenous authorities held a press conference in Guatemala City to announce their decision to withdraw the reform to Article 203. Their reasoning was that by doing so, they could save the reforms as a whole. But, in spite of ending their push to change Article 203, the entire reform package has stalled.

In response, the indigenous Ancestral Authorities of Guatemala announced their repudiation of Congress on March 23.

“We disavow Congress, since we have always pointed out its lack of legitimacy and because today we see its submission to the factual powers of this country,” wrote representatives from the indigenous communities. “That is why we call on the social and democratic forces of Guatemala to demand a process of purifying of the state bodies co-opted by corrupt and mafia-style business and military mafias.”

Saloj points out that the main issue is that members of Congress do not even follow the laws that they themselves speak of.

“Those in the state do not respect their own laws, but we in our community respect our laws,” he said. “We realized that we were sitting at the sides of the thieves, so we asked for the purification of Congress.”

Bronx residents lead anti-gentrification march to oppose rezoning plans

Sat, 09/23/2017 - 14:52

by Ashoka Jegroo

Bronx residents concerned with plans to rezone Southern Boulevard marches in Hunts Point on Friday. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

A coalition of grassroots groups marched in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the Bronx on Friday, alerting their neighbors to the gentrification plans of developers and local politicians. They were also sending a message to those local politicians, telling them not to not sell out the Bronx, while also calling for community control over land and housing.

The groups and residents involved in the march —  which included Take Back The Bronx, Mothers on the Move, People Power Movement and The Point — are particularly concerned with plans to rezone Southern Boulevard. Their march was intended as a rallying cry to get local residents to unite and fight against these plans.

“Today we had exhibitions of resistance,” said Shellyne Rodriguez of Take Back The Bronx. “We made a coalition to organize this march to try to get ahead of the Southern Boulevard rezoning that’s coming down the pipeline.”

According to a report released in March from the Regional Plan Association, Bronxites are at the highest risk of being displaced in New York City — with 71 percent of Bronx households in danger of displacement. Plans to rezone parts of the Bronx, which would allow wealthier developments to be built in poor and working-class areas, are supported by local politicians like City Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, Jr. and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., as well as Mayor Bill de Blasio. With the rezoning of Jerome Avenue in the west already in the works and politicians openly eyeing Southern Boulevard in the east for rezoning, the groups at the march wanted to begin organizing against the Southern Boulevard rezoning plan while the plan is still in its infancy.

“We’re next on the hit list in the Bronx, basically after Jerome Avenue,” said Chino May of Take Back The Bronx. “We want to build up resistance to that even before it gets off the ground and just make sure that it does not happen. We had to get people together to help raise awareness in the neighborhood and also flex a little bit on Rafael Salamanca to let him know ‘Don’t let this happen! If you sell us out, there’s going to be hell to pay.’”

Councilmember Salamanca has stated that he sees the Southern Boulevard rezoning plan as an opportunity to attract investment in the area that would benefit the community.

A protest sign depicting City Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, Jr., who is in favor of the rezoning. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

“That means investment in quality housing for a mix of working- and middle-class families, with a priority given to families who have called the Bronx home for many years, if not decades,” he said in a December 2016 e-mail to City Limits. “It also means investments into our schools, into our roads and bridges, into our parks and into programming geared towards addressing the needs of our community.”

Meanwhile, according to a recent analysis by City Limits, Salamanca accepted $6,175 in donations from people affiliated with the real estate industry. Many of the activist groups at Friday’s march have also accused Salamanca of having secret meetings on the rezoning where the public was not invited.

The march started at Hunts Point Plaza before it made its way to Salamanca’s office. A banner with the words “Take Back The Hood” led the march as participants chanted “Salamanca! Salamanca! We won’t let you sell us out! If you try to gentrify, we’ll give you something to cry about!” From the start of the march up to the point they approached Salamanca’s offices, police made things difficult for the march, following and pestered protesters over use of a speaker and a megaphone, as well as trying to keep protesters away from the front door of the offices.

“Every time we’ve gone to do anything outside Salamanca’s office, even as simple as flyering or going to talk to people, he calls the cops on us,” May said. “In the meantime, he’ll have backdoor meetings with the Department of City Planning and hand-picked nonprofits that he’s trying to flip to be on the side of the rezoning.”

Along with Councilmember Salamanca, Bronx President Diaz and Mayor de Blasio, the protesters also called out Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Alicia Glen and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito as corrupt politicians who enable gentrification. The march then made its way to the “I Heart The Bronx” mural — made by graffiti legends Tats Cru — where Rodriguez spoke about the commodification of Bronx culture and history for the purpose of attracting tourists and gentrifiers, while displacing the very people who created that culture. The march then arrived at some new developments being built on nearby Simpson Street, before heading back to Hunts Point Plaza, where the march ended and participants took the streets — all while being trailed by police.

Shellyne Rodriguez of Take Back The Bronx speaking in front of the “I Heart The Bronx” mural. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

A study released in June by the Association of Housing and Development showed that affordable housing is under threat in the Bronx with the Jerome Avenue and Southern Boulevard areas topping the list. For Take Back The Bronx, the solution to the problem is community control.

“It’s not enough to just defeat the rezoning and de Blasio’s housing plan,” May said. “Of course we have to do that, but we also have to put forward an alternative. That could look like repairing these NYCHA buildings and actually building more public housing. That could look like tenants taking over the buildings from the landlords, when the landlords are screwing them over and turning them into community land trusts or cooperatives. It could look like a whole bunch of things. But it’s going to take people literally seizing control of their neighborhoods and the buildings they live in.”

The storm after the Stockley verdict

Fri, 09/22/2017 - 18:29

by David Ragland

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Our hemisphere is enveloped by an unending series of storms of our nation’s making. The same destructive mentality that has created a climate primed for super hurricanes in the Gulf is also responsible for the climate of police violence in places like St. Louis, where protests have erupted in the last week.

In December 2011, Anthony Lamar Smith was murdered by then-St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley. With his partner joining him in a car chase, Stockley pursued Smith three miles through St. Louis, rammed Smith’s vehicle, approached with an unauthorized automatic weapon, and fired five deadly shots. Despite audio evidence establishing premeditation, in which Stockley boldly declared “I’m going to kill this motherfucker,” he was found not guilty in a verdict announced on Sept. 15, 2017.

Since the acquittal, protesters have taken to the streets throughout the city to disrupt business as usual. This region fostered the nonviolent resistance of Ferguson protesters who provided the pedagogy of resistance for the current wave of social movements in the United States.

Following the not-guilty verdict, the police presence swelled, and heavy-handed tactics were used to intimidate protesters. While the intention was to draw support to the police agenda, these tactics have angered many St. Louis residents and attracted new supporters to the protesters’ cause.

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As a St. Louis native, I was compelled to return home once again, as I have on dozens of trips over the past three years. I landed at St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Sunday afternoon, and walked out of the terminal to the warm embrace of Mama Cat, a.k.a. Cathy Daniels. Mama Cat, a professional chef, joined the protests in Ferguson in the immediate aftermath of Michael Brown, Jr.’s murder, providing constant food and sustenance for the activists in the streets.

Mama Cat and I then went to pick up donated supplies at Bishop Derek Robinson’s church, which is part of the Kingdom International denomination. As we entered the sanctuary, Bishop Derek was in mid-sermon and was distributing small pieces of paper to the worshipers. We were instructed to write three of our deepest hopes and prayers. One thing I wrote down was justice for black people. We were then asked to tear apart the papers and drop them into a wastebasket. We all did.

Bishop Derek announced that he had been moved to tell us that the things on our heart would be answered. While I’ve never been one to believe in miracles, this led me back to one of the protest chants, where the call-and-response proclaims “I know that we will win!”

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We picked up food for the protesters and headed out to an action downtown at the St. Louis Police Department headquarters. There were over 500 people, with lines of white allies blocking the intersections at both ends of the block. On the street, immediately in front of the police station, Pastor Cori Bush — a frontline protester in Ferguson who is one of the co-directors of the Truth Telling Project — spoke to the massive crowd. She called for a moment of silence and spoke to the serious nature of our gathering. After other activists and clergy spoke, we began a peaceful march toward St. Louis University.

Later that night, the police — using a method called “kettling” — moved in, trapping not only activists, but also residents and those passing through the Washington restaurant district in downtown St. Louis. With an increased police force, including the Missouri state police and the National Guard, over 100 people were blocked in on all four sides. The police closed in, pepper-spraying and dousing protesters with chemicals, before making numerous arrests.

During this police action, law enforcement provokingly chanted “Whose streets? Our Streets!” This chant has been used regularly by Ferguson protesters during the past three years, noting that the police and government work for us, the people. Among those arrested were journalists and legal observers, and we have now learned that a number of those arrested were ordinary residents not involved in the protests. As people emerged from the jail after being charged and locked up, many (who did not want to be identified) said their property was not returned and conveniently “lost.” A common refrain among residents, who initially supported police, was that they were now protesters. These actions have led to diminishing support for the police and provoked widespread calls for a change in police tactics.

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With acting police chief Lawrence O’Toole, a Republican-controlled legislature, governor and a mayor supported by the police union, there has been a concerted push throughout the mainstream media in St. Louis to support police. Gov. Greitens told reporters that citizens should be supporting the police because they have families and children at home. He mentioned nothing of the families who lost their sons and daughters to police violence or the protesters brutalized for speaking out. Police groups have also tried to intimidate businesses that support protesters in any way.

Law enforcement has also moved to silence dissent with their heavy presence throughout the St. Louis region and by intimidation — through arrests of both non-protesters and members of the media — as well as interference with protesters’ electronics.

Yet another important story that lies beneath the headlines is the militarism fueling gentrification, which stokes anger and poverty throughout the country. In St. Louis, many black residents are facing an existential crisis as their communities are displaced to make way for the creation of the new 100-acre National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency headquarters immediately north of downtown. Clearing these neighborhoods has wreaked devastation on the city, and the damage has disproportionately affected black residents and the homeless.

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After the daily protests in Ferguson slowed, many protesters shifted their focus to poverty. On a weekly basis, Mama Cat and Pastor Cori Bush would go downtown to feed and provide clothing for the homeless. Rev. Larry Rice’s New Life Evangelistic Center was recently forced to stop its direct services in the wake of ramped-up plans for gentrification, which followed the clearing of land for the federal agency.

With over 6,000 people expected over the Sept. 22-24 weekend in St. Louis for a national conference of police chiefs, it seems clear to me that the response to protesters is rooted in securing millions of dollars in tax revenue, jobs and new residents. All of this depends on eliminating the undesirables (poor people and black folks) who are not included in this development. The underlying sense that corporate profit and the police who protect it are more important than people is a glaring example of the intersection of Martin Luther King’s “triplets of evil” — materialism, militarism and racism. This moral deficit reinforces the problematic path of the current administration in Washington, which continues to wage war against people domestically and abroad to bolster the economy and put “America first.”

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Protesters are calling for as many as possible to join us in St. Louis this weekend and for the foreseeable future. If local and national administrations friendly to police can subvert the rights of protesters and the media without mass resistance and broader coverage by the national media, the police state that Washington is trying to usher in will have a more complete hold.

At a time where we are experiencing the most devastating effects of climate change to date, the possibility of mass deportation of DACA dreamers, and systematic violence against peoples of color and queer folk, our society is being called to effectively respond. We must choose between a police state — one that represents our addiction to war, the extreme materialism of capitalism and white supremacy — and nonviolent protestors in St. Louis who declare, “If there is no justice, there will be no profits.” While the storms we currently face might push some to bury their heads in the sand, many are resisting to support possibilities for transformation and provide hope for justice.

United opposition threatens half-century father-son rule in Togo

Wed, 09/20/2017 - 12:01

by Patience Nitumwesiga

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Thousands of Togolese protesters dressed in red opposition colors have been flooding the streets of the capital city of Lomé over the past month, shouting slogans that have gone unheard for 50 years. Hashtags denouncing dictator Faure Gnassingbé continue to circulate across West African social media. Activists young and old, male and female, are still fighting online and offline. Everyone is waiting to see what will happen next, including the regime, which wants Togo to remain the only West African country to have never experienced a democratic transition.

The beginnings of a 50-year dynasty


Shortly after Togo’s 1960 independence, Étienne Eyadéma staged a coup and ousted the country’s first elected president, Nicolas Grunitzky. He immediately suspended all constitutional processes and banned all political parties. Five years later, a referendum was held and Eyadéma ran unopposed, thereby confirming his rule as president and extending his military reign another seven years — until partial civilian governance was allowed in 1979.

Following his self-declaration of power, Eyadéma successfully thwarted several coup attempts. In one instance, in 1986, a group of more than 70 armed Togolese dissidents crossed into Lomé from Ghana with the intent to overthrow his regime, but state forces thwarted the insurgence. In 1990, riots were sparked by students distributing anti-regime literature. This led to a few months of violent clashes between anti-government activists and security forces, resulting in very little gain for the activists. Three years later, an attempt to assassinate Eyadéma was also squelched by Togo’s military.

Eyadéma’s ultimate downfall was a heart attack, dying in February 2005 en route to France for medical treatment. Given the more than 15,000 people he killed during his dictatorship, Eyadéma’s death was hardly a sad event in the history of Togo. What’s more, it led to the ascendance of his son — Faure Gnassingbé — as president.

Since 2005, Gnassingbé’s government has been characterized by incompetency and the severe repression of dissidents. The health sector has been particularly neglected, with Togo’s best hospital still lacking running water. Electoral processes have been fraudulent, at best. Protesters are frequently arrested and tortured. Already, during these September protests, at least two people have been killed by the state and no less than 15 have been jailed. One sign at a recent demonstration read: “Faure, how many more deaths to your credit?”

Opposition unites

Dictators often consolidate their reign with divide-and-rule tactics. Fractured oppositions present little threat to authoritarians. That’s why Panafrican National Party head Tikpi Atchadam built an alliance with the more popular National Alliance for Change. Together, both parties organized united inter-partisan protests against the Eyadéma dynasty.

Constituents supporting these two parties, as well as nonpartisan allies, flooded the streets with chants like, “Fifty years is too long.” Other slogans and hashtags surfaced, including “#FaureMustGo” and “Liberate Togo.”

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In response to the turnout on the first day of the general strike and demonstrations, Atchadam said, “You’ve always demanded a united opposition. It’s here from the youngest to the oldest; it’s here.”

While Togolese were rising up and making their demands clear, Gnassingbé was plotting to stop them. But rather than merely employ the typical brutal crackdown on his opponents, Gnassingbé had Prime Minister Selorm Klassou organize a pro-government rally. Few showed up, and Togolese activists mocked the state’s turnout at their own protests, which brought out over one million of the country’s seven million people. The state has continually attempted to censor Togo’s ongoing revolution. Internet slow-downs and blackouts have prohibited organizers from publicizing their successes and calling for the support of the Togolese diaspora, as well as the international community at large.

While the government disseminates its own propaganda to create the illusion that all is at peace in Lomé, groups like Faure Must Go! are claiming credit for the hacking and closing of government websites.

Togo’s opposition is not without regional support. Gambian allies who recently ousted their own dictator have been advising their Togolese comrades on how to force Gnassingbé to step down. Meanwhile, Ghanaian supporters at Togo’s borders are smuggling photos and videos from Togolose activists to the international media.

Women at the forefront


While the opposition party leadership is dominated by men, the inter-partisan revolution has been largely spearheaded by women.

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After spending the past year traveling through The Gambia and Burkina Faso – both home to recent successful national liberation movements – activist and blogger Farida Nabourema returned home to help plan and build the Togolese resistance.

“What people outside Togo haven’t understood is that this isn’t just a street festival, it is a revolution,” Nabourema told the Washington Post. “Sometimes we’re on the offensive, sometimes we need to fall back. The police are going door-to-door and beating people and tear gassing their homes. We are going about this carefully.”

Older women are also saying enough is enough. Some have engaged in naked protests, thrusting their private parts at state agents. The resulting images received explosive coverage by West African media, particularly since such obscenities — in much of Africa — are considered bad omens for those on the receiving end.

For those living outside the country — and perhaps under other authoritarian contexts around the world — Togo’s revolution is not only worth following, but may provide inspiration, as well as lessons on resisting amidst persistent internet blackouts. In the words of Nabourema, “[Gnassingbé] has the power to decide how we communicate, but in Africa, we have an oral tradition. We don’t need the internet to organize.”

Broad coalition escalates campaign against London arms fair

Wed, 09/13/2017 - 13:08

by Andrew Metheven

A die-in during the preparations for the DSEI arms fair in London. (CAAT/Diana More)

In London, thousands of protesters have been taking direct action to shut down one of the world’s biggest arms fairs. The Defence and Security Equipment International, or DSEI, opened on Sept. 12, but the exhibition center where it is held was repeatedly blockaded during the week before it began, as activists took action to disrupt the preparations for the fair. Over a hundred people have been arrested, amid rumors that the setup of the fair was days behind schedule. This marks a major escalation on actions in previous years.

It appears that the sheer scale of the resistance over the last week overwhelmed the police and organizers of the event, as did the creativity and determination of the myriad of groups who were involved in the protests. Each day was organized by different groups that make up the Stop the Arms Fair coalition to allow them to plan their own actions alongside like-minded people with similar concerns. The various themes included Palestine solidarity, No Faith in War, No to Nuclear and Arms to Renewables, and solidarity beyond borders. There was also an academic conference at the gates, with a Festival of Resistance and War Stops Here seminar over the weekend.

Dancers block a vehicle as part of the “Festival of Resistance to Stop DSEI” on Sept. 9. (CAAT/Paige Ofosu)

This approach allowed groups and campaigns that have not typically worked together to find common cause in resisting the fair. Those who wanted to focus on their specific action were able to do so, confident that just as much energy was going into the other days of resistance. It also allowed people new to the movement to find a group of people they feel comfortable taking action alongside. As new faces become involved in the campaign, a sense of “positive feedback” has grown, as the energy put into one action reflects back in the work of many others.

Having such a diverse array of participants led to a wide range of creative and humorous actions, including the “super-villains picket the arms fair” action — the exhibition center where DSEI is held also holds regular sci-fi conventions — with a Dalek from “Doctor Who” reminding people of their legal rights before being arrested. There were also numerous cases of affinity groups working together effectively to put disruptive blockades in place. For instance, as a lock-on was finally removed from the road by a police cutting team during the blockade organized by faith groups, others rappelled from a nearby bridge to block another road.

Super villains take action against DSEI. (Twitter/@dagri68)

DSEI takes place in London’s docklands every two years. Over 1,500 companies take part, exhibiting weapons of war to over 30,000 people, including military delegations from countries with appalling human rights records and countries at war. Illegal equipment and weapons have regularly been found to be marketed at DSEI, including torture equipment and cluster munitions. It’s important to note, however, that those organizing against DSEI do not simply want a clean, legal or sanitized arms fair, they want to stop the arms fair altogether. DSEI is organized by a private company called Clarion Events, with the full support of the British government, which extends official invites to military delegations around the world.

Resisting arms fairs like DSEI is important, because they are one of the clearest, starkest manifestations of the arms trade; actual arms sellers marketing the equipment of war they build to militaries looking for the latest technology. Already this year, arms fairs in Spain, Canada, Israel and the Czech Republic have faced direct action from local campaigners, with Seoul’s ADEX and Bogota’s ExpoDefensa due to take place in the coming months.

Activists rappel from a bridge to block a road as part of the No Faith in War actions on Sept. 5. (Flickr/CAAT)

The arms industry — like all industries — relies on a social license to operate, which means that as well as receiving formal legal backing it also needs the support of wider society. This social license allows the arms industry to wrap itself in a cloak of legitimacy, and resisting the arms trade wherever it manifests is one clear way to challenge this social license.

At the moment, the arms industry assumes its activities are almost de facto legitimate, but that is in part because most people rarely, if ever, think about its existence or how it operates. Taking direct action against events like DSEI allow us to “point the finger” and draw attention to the wider arms trade, questioning it’s legitimacy, while also directly impeding its ability to function. A few weeks before the fair was due to begin the newly elected mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said he wanted to see DSEI banned, but didn’t have the power himself to stop it.

Clowns protesting DSEI on Sept. 9. (CAAT/Paige Ofosu)

Mega-events like DSEI can be relatively difficult to disrupt in a substantial way. That is one reason why the preparations for the arms fair were targeted, which is a relatively new strategy. The coalition also focused its energy on that stage in 2015, the last time the arms fair was held, and organizers saw the potential. The event’s weakest link is the logistical complexity of setting it up in the first place, and the potential this offers to a campaign of direct action and civil disobedience is clear. The apparent impenetrability of such a complex and well-resourced industry suddenly looks a bit more shaky as activists put their bodies in the way, rappel from bridges, and use lock-ons to coordinate blockades of trucks carrying equipment.

As arms dealers and representatives from militaries window shop for weapons over the next three days at DSEI, vigils and actions will likely continue, and throughout the week a radical art exhibit called Art the Arms Fair will take place close to the center. There is a real sense among organizers that a strong, active movement is being built that will be able to continue to show effective resistance to DSEI in the years to come.

Anti-pipeline activists across the country unite to #StopETP

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 11:23

by Brandon Jordan

Activists gathered outside ETP headquarters in Dallas, Texas on Friday. (Twitter/Ethan Buckner)

The company behind the Dakota Access pipeline and many other damaging fossil fuel projects — Energy Transfer Partners — was the focus of nearly 20 actions spanning 10 U.S. states last week. The #StopETP protests, which took place on Friday and Saturday, included a flotilla on a Louisiana bayou, a blockade of pipeline construction equipment in Pennsylvania and a demonstration outside the Texas home of CEO Kelcy Warren.

“It’s been impressive to see how many people have come together,” said Frankie Orona, executive director of the Society of Native Nations, a Texas-based grassroots group of indigenous people. “It’s inspiring to see how people want to keep this movement alive and keep ETP accountable.”

Orona explained that he and other activists in Texas spent weeks working with organizations and organizers throughout the country to create a weekend action against ETP. Even after the protest’s initial announcement more people joined in, holding their own events in solidarity.

“We’ve been planning it for quite some time,” Orona said. “We put out a message [to ETP] saying, ‘We haven’t forgotten, we won’t forget.’ We’re going to … hold ETP accountable for what they’ve done.”

Orona pointed to a recent lawsuit filed by ETP against Greenpeace International and several other environmental groups — accusing them of “eco-terrorism” — as a reason why activists are uniting against the company’s “scare tactics.” At the same time, however, it was also an opportunity for them to highlight their local pipeline battles.

Anne Rolfes, national director of Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a non-profit environmental group, participated in an event where people prayed near the site of the Bayou Bridge pipeline — a project that would connect the Dakota Access pipeline to oil refineries in Louisiana. She said organizers took “this step in solidarity,” in part, after seeing nuns in Pennsylvania organize against the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline.

A sign constructed promoting a September 9 demonstration in Louisiana to protest the Bayou Bridge pipeline. (WNV/Ethan Buckner)

Moreover, construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline risks serious environmental problems, such as potential leaks or explosions that would affect wildlife and people near the wetland ecosystems. Such environmental hazards aren’t new to Louisianans. Communities near the Mississippi River are part of what’s known as “Cancer Alley,” a toxic stretch of oil refineries and chemical plants between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Rolfes pointed to the recent climate-change-strengthened hurricanes in the Atlantic, as well as the catastrophic flooding in Louisiana and Texas, as further reason to act against the fossil fuel industry.

“The places we call home are becoming unlivable,” she said. “If it’s a question between an oil company or the rest of humanity’s ability to survive, we have to go with the rest of humanity.”

Meanwhile, in Ohio, the group Keep Wayne Wild — which works to protect Wayne National Forest — participated in a series of actions across the state. They not only targeted ETP’s Rover pipeline, which would go through the state’s only national forest, but also the Bureau of Land Management’s plan to auction off parcels for natural gas drilling. The fracked gas from this drilling would likely flow through the Rover pipeline and pose a threat to communities in its path.

Keep Wayne Wild organizer Becca Pollard said she hoped the #StopETP protests alerted potential affected communities to the dangers of ETP pipelines, while — at the same time — put pressure on government officials to oppose fossil fuel-friendly policies and projects.

“There’s a lot of decision makers in power who are not doing enough to protect the people they’re supposed to represent,” she said.

Residents demonstrating outside an IRS building in Columbus, Ohio, on September 8. (WNV/Becca Pollard)

On Friday, activists in Iowa made this point clear by delivering a petition to Gov. Kim Reynolds, demanding the removal of Richard W. Lozier, Jr. from the board of the state’s public utilities commission. In June, Lozier recused himself from any decisions involving the Dakota Access pipeline due to his past work with companies favoring the project. Weeks later, the board rejected an appeal to revoke the permit to build the pipeline.

“This is why we’re delivering the petition,” said Iowa activist Heather Pearson. “How can you have an appointed representative on a board who has to recuse himself from making decisions?”

Pearson said that residents are ready to rejoin the struggle against the Dakota Access pipeline and pointed to a pledge of resistance that has gained over 2,000 signatures. She also noted that the Iowa Supreme Court will hear a case brought by the Sierra Club and local landowners appealing the commission’s approval of the Dakota Access pipeline.

Despite the uphill battle against state officials, Pearson said “it is very heartening to know that there are people across the country who are willing to stand up, speak truth to power and stand up against the big money interests.”

Orona echoed these sentiments as he watched the #StopETP protests unfold. For him, the movement is “more than just Standing Rock — it is about the world.”

In that sense, the protests underscore the need to shift the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels toward alternative, renewable energy sources. Doing so would require corporations such as ETP to stop profiting off the future of people’s livelihoods.

“If we wait for our next generation to fight this battle, it might be too late,” Orona said. “Things need to change now.”

Mass mobilization stopped nuclear war before and it can again

Tue, 09/05/2017 - 14:02

by Duncan Meisel

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The Trump administration is reviving the threat of nuclear war in a way that no other U.S. presidency has done since the Cold War.

While the confrontation with North Korea’s expanding nuclear and ballistic missile program has taken center stage, Trump’s ham-fisted engagement with Taiwan, missile strikes against the Russia-linked Assad regime in Syria and the rapid push for a nuclear weapons modernization program all contribute to a new and unique climate of nuclear threats.

It’s easy to feel disempowered in the face of such chaotic and consequential decisions, but the history of nuclear weapons since 1945 is one of extensive and frequent interventions by organized people in the United States and other countries to stop nuclear weapons deployments and nuclear war itself.

No one knows this history better than Lawrence Wittner, professor of history emeritus at SUNY/Albany and author of the three-volume work “The Struggle Against the Bomb.” His work explains how — time and again, for over 50 years — one the world’s largest social movements used globally organized outrage to pull leaders with little moral compunction back from the brink of using the deadliest weapons on earth.

I recently spoke with Wittner about his seminal research to gain a better understanding of how the nuclear disarmament movement organized its most successful campaigns, how the world might be different without them and the lessons they offer a new generation that seeks to make the world a safer, saner place.

How determined were military leaders to use atomic weapons in various conflicts during the Cold War?

They didn’t take nuclear war lightly, but they certainly considered using nuclear weapons many times. Of course, the U.S. government used them rather casually during the Second World War. Japan was on the verge of surrender, and numerous U.S. military leaders told President Truman that he should not use them — including Gen. Eisenhower.

Once Eisenhower came to power, his administration developed the policy of “massive retaliation,” which meant that any aggression — nuclear or conventional — by the Soviet bloc in Europe would be met with nuclear war. The NATO policy was to respond to a conventional invasion of Western Europe with a nuclear first strike.

Use of nuclear weapons was considered by the Eisenhower administration during the Korean war and in defense of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist regime on Taiwan and other offshore islands. During the Vietnam War, the Nixon administration talked rather casually about waging nuclear war in Vietnam — or at least Nixon did. He ran this by Kissinger, who was horrified, but Nixon said he was just trying to get him to think creatively.

Then there was the case of the Reagan administration, which came into office talking quite glibly of waging nuclear war and was met by massive opposition.

What stopped government officials from taking nuclear action? 

I think their inclinations were challenged and blunted by popular protest against the bomb, which had made nuclear war so abhorrent to the public across the world, including in the United States, that they backed off their plans.

There were several retreats from the hawkish positions government officials had taken, and in some cases a dramatic turnaround. The Eisenhower administration never planned to halt nuclear testing since it assumed that U.S. national security was based on making advances in nuclear weapons. However, in 1958 — when it was boxed in by popular protest against nuclear testing — the administration halted U.S. nuclear testing without any treaty, and began negotiations with the British and Soviet governments on a test ban treaty.

During the 1950s, Eisenhower was confronted by Defense Department officials who said they had to get ready to use nuclear weapons to win small wars. They had long feared they couldn’t win a war in Asia fought with conventional weapons, and that was true — and therefore the only way they could win it was by employing nuclear weapons. Eisenhower and [Secretary of State] John Foster Dulles both responded, essentially: “We’d like to give you a green light, but the public won’t stand for it.”

In his book “Danger and Survival,” McGeorge Bundy — national security advisor to Kennedy and Johnson and an occasional advisor to Nixon — said that the U.S. government didn’t back off waging nuclear war in Vietnam based on the fear of retaliation by the Soviet Union or China, but rather because the world public wouldn’t stand for it. Popular opinion against nuclear weapons was so strong, the U.S. government would lose more than it would gain by using them. The public in the U.S. in particular wouldn’t stand for it.

The most dramatic example, however, involves the Reagan Administration. Reagan came to the White House as a very hawkish candidate, talking glibly about waging nuclear war. He had opposed every nuclear arms treaty signed by his predecessors. But thanks to the massive nuclear freeze campaign in the United States and the disarmament campaigns overseas, he retreated, and ultimately he adopted nuclear disarmament as a key part of his public policy. He began to say that a “nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought,” which was clearly an attempt to head off a popular movement.

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What were the things that drove peaks of mobilization against nuclear weapons? How did organizers take advantage of geo-political developments to grow?

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were very dramatic, and they were the most significant factors generating initial disgust with nuclear weapons and the desire to abolish them. The fear of nuclear war was great after 1945, and the groups that formed in those first years played on the horror of the bombings and their devastation.

The second dramatic growth took place in late 1950s and early 1960s, largely due to hydrogen bomb tests. They were symbolic of doom in two ways. First, they were a quantum-leap forward in power: They could be made a thousand times as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The public testing of these weapons symbolized the fate of the world, if they were ever used in war. And who could say they wouldn’t be?

Also the H-bomb tests themselves were sending vast clouds of fallout around the world. The scientist Linus Pauling estimated that 1 million people would die from fallout unless tests were halted. For many people nuclear war was rather abstract — it wasn’t being waged against them. But these explosions were occurring all the time, and people were being bombarded by radiation that was causing birth defects and cancer. Therefore, it wasn’t just war they had to fear, but the tests themselves.

Another mobilization peak took place in the late 1970s through the early 1980s, and that developed out of the revival of the Cold War that seemed to be on the decline after 1963. But Cold War détente was swept away by Reagan in the United States and Thatcher in Britain and Soviet leaders building new nuclear weapons and talking rather glibly about waging nuclear war. Peace groups could play on this theme and assail Reagan in particular as the “Mad Bomber,” the man who would unleash nuclear war. In place of nuclear threats and weapons buildups, peace groups demanded a halt to the nuclear arms race as the first step in building a nuclear weapons-free world.

Conversely, what accounts for the valleys of organizing? When did the movement shrink? 

The fear of nuclear weapons hadn’t gone away by the late 1940s, but there was little hope of getting rid of them thanks to the heightening Cold War. People also feared speaking up in the climate of being labeled subversives.

Another decline came after 1963 when there was growing public complacency thanks to the signing of the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty. There was also the Vietnam War, which drew people’s attention away from the nuclear conflict and towards the U.S. government’s assault on this poor, third world nation. The major constituency for the nuclear abolition campaign was the peace movement, and the peace movement had moved to focusing on Vietnam. A lot of people simply turned away from the disarmament campaign and assumed their governments were solving the nuclear problem and could deal with other issues.

A third decline came in the late 1980s, and has continued right up to the present. That was based to some degree on complacency — after all, the U.S. and Soviet governments had resolved their differences, signed treaties, the Cold War came to an end, and the fear of nuclear war went down. But there was also some degree of exhaustion: By the late 1980s people had been campaigning for a decade or more, and so there was a desire to cultivate one’s own garden and let world leaders deal with the remaining nuclear dangers.

A common thread running through the entire post-1945 period is that people don’t want to think about nuclear war. When they’re forced to think of it, when they can’t escape it, they want to stop it. But when it’s not in the headlines any more and governments are growing more reasonable, they’d just as well not think about it. If nuclear war did break out today, you can bet more people would focus on it, but, of course, we don’t want that war to have to take place.

The peace movement’s challenge is to maintain its momentum and sense of danger — even though the world might seem safer and there are fewer nuclear weapons in the world. If the nations of the world are maintaining their arsenals, the struggle hasn’t come to an end.

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Do you think the moment we’re experiencing today with Trump and North Korea is potentially a driving force for another peak of movement energy? What’s different today?

It’s possible that there will be some revival of the nuclear disarmament movement, but we haven’t seen the surge of resistance yet. I’m a co-chair of the national board of the group Peace Action, so I’m very well aware of how peace groups are doing. While Peace Action isn’t doing badly, we’re certainly not yet experiencing the surge of action in the streets, such as when its predecessors, SANE and the Nuclear Freeze Campaign, were taking off.

One reason it’s not taking place is that the mass media rarely focus on the danger of nuclear war, and when they do focus on it, it’s the danger of some other country waging war on the United States. One day it’s Iran, another day it’s North Korea — but they don’t seem to get to the basic problem that nine countries have 15,000 nuclear weapons in their arsenals. It’s a worldwide phenomenon, as is the persistence of the idea of nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantor of national security.

Right now there’s also a sense that only Koreans are vulnerable, that most Americans aren’t at risk of being bombarded by nuclear missiles. At the height of popular protest in the 1980s, millions of people were in the streets — in part because U.S. and Soviet arsenals could reach both sides quite easily. That got people to wake up and realize that nuclear war wasn’t such a hot idea after all.

How big a role did fear play in these spikes of organizing? How can people dealing with fear of the Trump administration, or of North Korean nuclear mobilization, help direct that energy into making nuclear conflict less likely? 

I think fear has probably been the most important factor in mobilizing people. When you look at things psychologically, people should be afraid of nuclear weapons and nuclear war. It seems irrational to go bury your head in the sand and not worry about them.

But it’s also true, in two ways, that fear is dangerous. One is that it can be demobilizing, that people get so scared they’re scared silent. They become so frightened they retreat and they don’t feel powerful any more. They might take drugs instead of taking action.

A second danger is that, if people are scared of nuclear war, the hawks have an answer for them. They turn fear on its head: Yes, they say, nuclear war could be a bad thing, that’s why we need nuclear weapons to deter the bad Russians, Iranians, North Koreans and so on. This means fear may reinforce the desire for nuclear weapons rather than for getting rid of them.

For these reasons, the use of nuclear fear has to be very careful. Peace activists have to make the case that as long as nuclear weapons exist there’s no real security from nuclear war, and therefore we need to get rid of nuclear weapons. That’s the best case that can be made by nuclear disarmament forces: The arms race is a race no one wins.

What are some of the forgotten “paths not taken” of weapons not built or decisions not made as a result of anti-nuclear organizing? How might the world be different if those things had been built? 

The neutron bomb was being proposed during the Carter administration. This enhanced radiation weapon was designed to destroy people rather than property, and was scheduled by the Carter administration to be deployed in Western European nations. But once peace groups learned of it and began to focus on its terrible effects, this caused massive protests in Western European nations and, eventually, an unwillingness to support the neutron bomb deployment by their government officials. As a result, the Carter administration finally concluded that, if Western governments weren’t willing to stand up for it, the U.S. government wasn’t going to be the villain of the piece. So Carter canceled plans for its deployment.

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The MX missile was the jewel in the crown of the Reagan administration during its first term of office. Peace groups said that it was a first-strike weapon, and there was so much popular protest against it that Reagan couldn’t get funding through Congress. Eventually, a plan that began as 200 missiles barely slipped through with 50 missiles. That failure became the basis of the U.S. government’s push for strategic arms reduction treaties, for it meant the U.S. government couldn’t keep pace with development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. And the next best thing was seeing to it that neither country had those weapons. The best way to do that was to sign a treaty: the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which Gorbachev welcomed and showed him, in many ways, to be a peace person, strongly influenced by the movement.

Gorbachev had his own peace-oriented ideas, but he also received a large amount of information from the disarmament movement in the United States and around the world. He would take time out of his meetings with heads of state to meet with representatives of groups like the Freeze campaign, SANE, and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. So, Gorbachev and Reagan’s detente and the overall drawback from the nuclear brink were heavily influenced by the peace movement — not just through public pressure but also through direct engagement.

Are there other potentially winnable campaigns of this kind available to anti-nuclear weapons activists today that might limit the likelihood of the Trump administration using nuclear weapons?

It seems to me there are two ways to develop mass pressure on Trump and Congress in connection with the general problem of nuclear weapons.

The first has to do with the trillion dollar nuclear “modernization” program — the plan to upgrade the entire nuclear weapons complex, build new bombers and missiles and submarines and so on. That cost is so great that it provides the opportunity to reach people who are already concerned about the arms race or are satisfied with the weapons we already have and don’t want to bankrupt the country. So you can make demands for cutbacks in the “modernization” plan or stopping it entirely and mobilize a sympathetic constituency.

A second way is to focus on Trump’s mental instability: The fact that he’s a reckless, dangerous leader, who really shouldn’t have the button to launch nuclear war in his hand. That’s what the currently proposed Markey-Lieu bill seeks to address: Under its provisions, unless there’s a nuclear attack on the United States, the president cannot initiate nuclear war without a Congressional declaration of war. Since Congress hasn’t declared war since 1941, that’s a pretty big restriction.

Sen. Markey also introduced the SANE act, which provides for a massive cutback in the trillion dollar nuclear weapons program. These are two bills that Peace Action is supporting right now.

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What role did collaboration with people on the frontlines of nuclear weapons production, testing and usage play in the successes of the movement?

Hibakusha, the victims who survived the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, have played a very significant role — their testimony and example inspired people around the world.

Certainly, atmospheric nuclear tests, which were sending vast clouds of fallout around the world, had a major impact in terms of people nearest the sites. People in those communities in Nevada and Utah grew very wary and filed lawsuits against the federal government for damages.

Groups of veterans got together and formed atomic veterans associations, for many members of the armed forces had been sent to testing sites to get them ready for nuclear war. They were given very little protection. When they began to die from cancer or had children with birth defects, they filed lawsuits. This became another major headache for the U.S. government, and helped expand the constituency of the nuclear disarmament movement.

Then there were people working at or near uranium mining sites. Massive cancer outbreaks occurred among miners, who were often Native Americans. Their sacred land was being polluted and destroyed, and they began dying of cancer. They told horrifying stories and linked up with the nuclear free community movement.

Nuclear weapons production sites contaminated vast regions: the Hanford Nuclear Weapons Site is a nightmare. Finding something to do with nuclear waste is still a major problem. People living near these sites provided a massive cancer cluster, suffered terribly from the nuclear production process, and became active in the anti-nuclear campaign. By the 1980s and 1990s there were campaigns in these communities working in cooperation with peace groups that shut down many of these production sites.

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The most stunning success, in my opinion, of the anti-nuclear weapons movement is the push for a Nuclear Freeze and the effect it had on ending the Cold War. What happened through the ’80s with the Nuclear Freeze movement and how did that contribute to the end of this incredibly deadly standoff? 

I should start by saying that while there was certainly a very powerful Freeze movement in the United States, the movement in the rest of the world was not based on a nuclear freeze — it was based on abolishing nuclear weapons. There was some tension between the Freeze campaign in the United States and the other movements, such as Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain, which called for banning the bomb.

The Freeze was a bilateral halt to the testing, development and deployment of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union and United States. It was proposed by Randall Forsberg, who was a defense and disarmament expert. She wanted some kind of focus for the movement, which was engaged in diverse projects at the time. So she proposed the Freeze idea to a variety of peace groups and, though some of the more militant peace groups were wary, the major ones went for it and meetings spread to localities across the United States.

Different groups contributed their resources to it, but there was also an independent Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign that developed. It began to introduce and win propositions in favor of the Freeze in local town councils and state legislatures because people thought it made perfect sense. Polls showed that 72 percent of the American public backed it. Occasionally, these ballot propositions and city resolutions failed, but they mostly passed. Dozens of states, hundreds of towns, associations and groups that hadn’t otherwise taken a stand on foreign policy in the past endorsed the Freeze. Members of Congress introduced resolutions into the House and Senate — which the movement actually thought was premature — and the Freeze passed by a substantial majority in the House but not in the Senate, where it was blocked by Republicans.

In subsequent years, the Reagan administration was driven back from its hawkish stance and entered disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union. While there was no formal Freeze, there were governments that refused to accept cruise and Pershing II missiles. There were governments demanding the United States and Soviet Union get together to disarm. The Reagan administration felt itself besieged and began moving towards signing arms control and disarmament agreements.

Testing and deployment was stopped and — under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in 1987 — cruise and Pershing II missiles, as well as Soviet SS20 missiles, were banned from Europe. This was followed by the START treaty, which reduced ICBM numbers on both sides. Before long, Gorbachev and Reagan were strolling around Red Square talking about what good friends they were, and it was by and large the movement that was responsible for that.

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What do you think kept the anti-nuclear movement from achieving its final goal of disarmament? What is the lesson for us today? 

First, we should recognize that there’s been great success in reducing weapons arsenals from their high point of around 70,000 weapons to less than 15,000 today. That’s still 15,000 too many — but, nonetheless, looked at over time, that’s a real gain.

The central problem, though, is that for thousands of years there’s been a reliance on violence and war to solve disputes between competing groups. The assumption among government leaders is that the bigger the weapon, the more security you have — and the public often agrees. How do we counter that? The answer is to develop nonviolent organizations and global institutions that can provide other kinds of security for people.

Nonviolent resistance has been developed over time and popularized by Gandhi and the U.S. civil rights movement. That’s one way for people to engage in social struggle without killing other people or otherwise harming them.

On the international level it’s vital to have institutions that get nations to back off from conflicts with one another and resolve them short of an arms race and war. It means developing a stronger United Nations that can work to, and hopefully resolve, international disputes.

As long as people feel insecure, they’re going to be reluctant to give up their weapons and the option of violence. So we need to develop alternative means of security.

What do you think is next for people working against nuclear weapons? What are your hopes for the future? 

I’m a historian. I’m much better at talking about the past than predicting the future. So, I’ll focus on what I’d like to see happen. In my opinion, critics of nuclear weapons should convince other people that nuclear weapons provide more problems than they solve, that they are counter-productive. They should convince people that there are better ways to foster security than building nuclear weapons, threatening to use them, and employing them in war. If enough people devote themselves to the nuclear disarmament campaign, we can create a nuclear weapons-free world and prevent nuclear war. We’ve come part of the way, and we should finish the job.

What good are elections in East Africa?

Sat, 09/02/2017 - 13:11

by Phil Wilmot

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Kenyans concerned with social and political issues in their country gather in circles in public parks, standing in whatever space they can find, under the banner of Bunge la Mwananchi, or the People’s Parliament. Their evening public meetings open up dialogue and organizing opportunities as part of the group’s bottom-up structure for collaborative governance and cooperation.

Usually the police don’t disturb them. In the lead up to the August 8 presidential elections, however, the security apparatus cracked down on public debates and discussions, arresting a number of participants.

Raids on formal civil society organizations focusing on human rights and good governance themes continued even after the elections. Uhuru Kenyatta, the incumbent president, continues to harm any institutions critical of his brutality and fraudulent hold on power.

Forming in 1991, as global neoliberalism accelerated, the unemployed and underemployed allied themselves with other marginalized Kenyans to resist the privatization schemes of then-dictator Daniel arap Moi. They founded Bunge la Mwananchi, or BLM. Their movement grew through public education sessions and debates, where they discussed African liberation movements and the various social and political ills that they had been successful in confronting.

“BLM provides people with a platform to meet and discuss issues of governance, human rights and social justice,” said Wilfred Olal, who coordinates a campaign against extrajudicial killings by police. “We provide the space for activism for all Kenyans.”

At these meetings, the movement would utilize public parks. According to Gacheke Gachihi, a BLM coordinator, “The debates and lectures in the park were conducted on two benches that were facing each other, under the shade of a tree, giving it an organic feel.” Elders from the Mau Mau resistance to British colonial rule would also attend to enrich the dialogue.

The late Wangui Mbatia Nyauma, one of the founding members of Bunge la Mwananchi, addresses a meeting. (Twitter/@Bulamwa)

A number of allied movements were strengthened by this popular education approach, and they began using a variety of tactics, such as occupations and marches, to prevent land grabs, secure the release of political prisoners, and make other advances against the Moi dictatorship, which was eventually pushed out of power in 2002.

In the years between then and now, however, neoliberalism — protected by the iron fist of the state — has again taken root. With the friendship of Barack Obama and other Western and Eastern powers, the global north has sent a message to Kenyatta’s government that human rights abuses can continue as long as the commercial environment is favorable for investment. This political back-scratching allowed Kenyatta, with brutality, to steal last month’s presidential election.

Kenyans are nonetheless speaking out against Kenyatta’s bloody coup, which was annulled by Kenya’s Supreme Court on Sept. 1.

The predictability of elections

Kenya was not the only East African country to suffer a stolen election last month. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame reinstated himself just four days before Kenyatta’s own self-appointment.

Electoral processes across the region have become predictable. Those clinging to the thread of hope between themselves and permanent cynicism queue at the polls. The votes are “tallied” independently of any actual ballot count. Opposition parties and international vote monitors condemn irregularities and the violence meted out by an incumbent. The judiciary is bribed and intimidated, backing down from any fight, while foreign governments refuse to leverage any influence they have.

The international media is unfortunately no more an ally to East African movements like BLM. Their chief aim was to dig for stories of “post-election violence,” painting a bloody picture of Africa and entrenching the belief that no democratic structures exist. BLM and similar activist groups were conveniently omitted from the global narrative despite their fierce determination in resisting Kenyatta’s coup.

Even in the quintessential democracies of the world, we are witnessing a rise in distrust toward voting as a means of substantial change. Countries founded centuries ago on core democratic ideals are faltering.

How can we then expect young countries — founded in disregard of their indigenous governance systems a mere half century ago — to adequately replicate expensive foreign systems that are broken by design? Somehow we expect them to produce results that benefit the majority of their populations.

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The brand of democracy that characterizes East Africa is not working. In the August 4 election, Kagame, Rwanda’s de facto leader since the genocide of 1994, claimed to have won nearly 99 percent of the vote. Those who refused to vote for him routinely face harsh consequences: prison, exile or worse. Journalists who live to tell about it are blacklisted by the state.

Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s incumbent, claimed a more modest figure of 54 percent of the August 8 vote, but his tactics have been comparably draconian, with dozens of opposition supporters killed since election day as state security continues targeting dissidents.

“Nearly 50 Luo Kenyans have been shot for demonstrating against the election results,” Olal said. “The government has also threatened to shut down two human rights organizations.”

Given the wasted money and dashed hopes of these performance elections, there’s an argument that it might be better for these leaders to simply declare themselves dictator for life. This would offer a lighter financial burden for their taxpayers. Dictators refrain from doing this, however, because their regimes are economically padded by the more democratic societies in the global north who prefer to see at least the instruments of democracy — however dysfunctional they may be — before offering financial aid.

Insufficient alternatives

East Africans also find little hope in their opposition figures due to their similarities to the incumbent or the extremely squelched political space in their countries.

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For example, Rwandese opposition candidate Frank Habineza’s Democratic Green Party made six unsuccessful attempts to register and run against Kagame. Habineza’s running mate in the 2010 election campaign was found beheaded. It appears that no candidate can stand against Kagame without a rising death toll.

Other East African opposition figures are simply cut from the same cloth as their opponents. Kizza Besigye fought alongside Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in the National Resistance Army before Museveni took power. The two would later have a falling out. Besigye has stood against Museveni for four consecutive elections, without ever using any particularly creative or powerful strategy to ensure his vote is protected through popular struggle.

Raila Odinga, a three-time candidate for Kenya’s presidency, was born in 1945. Although he might be a prefered candidate for freedom-loving Kenyans, he is substantially older than Kenyatta and has not put forth a new vision for Kenyan politics that holds enough power to challenge Kenyatta, even if he can win an actual majority of votes.

“The cycle is the same here: old versus old,” Olal said. “Politics have been made very expensive by corrupt old politicians who lock out the youth.”

The point is that partisan politics no longer holds water, if it ever did in East Africa. Transformation of the political system can only come by means of a popular struggle, which must be undertaken by young people living on the African continent — a continent that looks far different than it did when those now in power were young.

Infiltrate the system with unlikely politicians

While members of the old guard who have defected to opposition parties challenge their fellow elders in the political arena, some new players are stepping onto the field. Their election is beside the point, however, as they are using the platform to rally their constituents to employ peaceful resistance for their own liberation.

Consider Robert Kyagulanyi, known by his artist name Bobi Wine, the “Ghetto President.” Born in the slums of Kampala, Kyagulanyi has spent nearly his entire musical career advocating for change in Uganda. While most artists with his level of popularity sell themselves as mouthpieces for the ruling party, he has stood firmly behind his lyrics, criticizing those who prolong their stays in power.

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In April, Kyagulanyi announced his intentions to run for a parliamentary seat as an independent. With ease, he defeated candidates from the ruling party and the leading opposition party, despite police interference during election day. Since his appointment, he has mobilized great crowds, even in more rural towns, advocating for peaceful resistance against the Museveni regime.

Few artists or activists pursue formal politics, but often those who do utilize the space for purposes of mobilization. Their point is often not to say that they will faithfully and humbly represent their constituents, but that their constituents are capable of representing themselves by building collective power.

Popular struggle without a charismatic leader

A new type of politician is not enough. After generations of living under dictatorships, patriarchy and gerontocracy, a culture of “let the big man handle it” has become deeply rooted.

This is why a change in president is also insufficient. Assuming Kyagulanyi ousts Museveni in the years to come, other social factors might still dictate a reliance on leaders, on the people at the top. No one person can solve the problems facing any nation.

Nor is mere activation of the masses sufficient. There is a drastic difference between joining Kyagulanyi’s passing caravan and forming grassroots structures that offer longer-term platforms to resist oppression and build up alternatives. Charisma will get people to the streets today but will not usually offer strong possibilities for power tomorrow.

Democracy is best practiced in conflict. The following of leaders — as most ruling party and opposition politicians in East Africa would prefer it — cultivates something entirely contrary to real democracy. It fosters a system and political culture that is highly patriarchal and hierarchical.

East Africa’s youth must decide whether they want to organize collective resistance or be co-opted by their elders. Now that some of the groundwork of a movement infrastructure is in place, young people sick and tired of the options they have been handed are better equipped than before to rise up.

Mass civil disobedience campaign obstructs one of Europe’s largest polluters

Wed, 08/30/2017 - 13:44

by Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

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Red and yellow circus tents rose over the Rhineland farmland of western Germany last weekend, as over 6,000 climate justice activists converged for a series of action days to protest coal mining in the region. This included a mass civil disobedience campaign called Ende Gelände (or Here and No Further), in which 3,000 participants illegally obstructed the coal mining infrastructure on Friday and Saturday.

Carrying bags of straw to protect against police batons, and accompanied by a brass marching band along with the occasional clown, activists fanned out in teams across the fields surrounding the Tagebau Garzweiler lignite coal mine and the Neurath power plant. One group entered the mine itself, while others lay on the railroad tracks to stage a blockade, preventing coal trains from delivering coal to the power plant. The mine and four main power plants in the area are operated by the German utility giant RWE, and the lignite mine is one of the largest sources of carbon emissions in Europe.

Participants were organized into 10 action groups, called “fingers,” each of which had planned their strategy ahead of time and deliberated in democratic assemblies to decide on a course of action. Within each finger, activists divided themselves into smaller affinity groups to discuss how far they were willing to go in the case of police confrontation and to keep track of each other during the actions.

Activists block the tracks used by coal trains. (Flickr / Tim Wagner)

On Friday alone, activists blocked the train tracks for nine hours, including trains delivering coal from the nearby Hambach mine, causing the Neurath plant to reduce its operations by 37 percent. Other independent actions complemented Ende Gelände, including a group of bicyclists who disrupted traffic by riding in a “critical mass” formation and a group of rock climbers called “Robin Wood,” who swung down from bridges passing over the railroad tracks. In one act near Hambach forest, the environmental organization Friends of the Earth organized a human chain of 3,000 people to create a symbolic “red line” against coal mining.

Charlie, a self-proclaimed anarchist who asked not to be identified by his full name, said the railroad blockade was his first time participating in an act of civil disobedience. “I was so psyched, so tense,” he recalled.

His group, the Pink Finger, left by bus on Friday morning, then walked through the farmland towards the railroad tracks — at which point they were confronted by police. “They immediately started pepper spraying us,” he said. “People were running, falling, the [police] were hitting us.”

He said the group was eventually “kettled,” or encircled by a chain of police, until they were allowed to leave under the pretense of joining a legally-registered demonstration a few kilometers away. They set off with a police escort, but soon broke free again, running across the fields to join another group that was blockading the tracks. Charlie said the activists were then pursued by police vans and even police officers riding heavy farm equipment in collaboration with local farmers.

“The farmers came with their tractors and the plowing equipment that cuts really fast in the front, and we saw police riding in the tractors with them,” he explained. The machines barreled within a half meter of the activists, attempting to corral them towards the police. Charlie said the uneven terrain of the potato fields made the situation extremely dangerous, as those running could easily have fallen and been struck by the machines.

Roughly half the members of the Pink Finger group made it onto the tracks in the end, where they played card games and discussed their next steps. It took two-and-a-half hours before police were able to remove them, harshly hoisting and tossing them down the dirt slope lining the tracks as protesters sang defiantly.

Police remove an activist who was blocking the coal train tracks. (Flickr / Pay Numrich)

The Pink Finger’s actions were part of the Ende Gelände civil disobedience campaign, but Ende Gelände was only one part of a wider event encompassing a number of groups and actions. Much of the weekend’s activity was based at the Rhineland Climate Camp, an event officially registered as a political rally that has taken place for the past eight years. The actions were divided into three main parts: the Replace Coal (KohleErSetzen) sit-in by JunepA, a youth network for political action; a legally registered protest action near the mine; and the civil disobedience actions of Ende Gelände. Other independent initiatives complemented the direct actions, including a Swedish documentary project called Disobedience Live, which live-streamed the journey of four activists taking part in the action.

This was the third year in a row of the Ende Gelände civil disobedience actions. In August 2015, over a thousand people entered the Garzweiler mine to obstruct operations. Then, in May 2016, 4,000 people blocked a coal mine and power plant in East Germany. Activists have targeted German coal infrastructure in previous years, including blockades of coal trains from the Hambach mine in 2011-2013, as well as the first blockade in the Garzweiler mine in 2014. Now the actions are becoming increasingly interconnected, attracting thousands more participants and growing more sophisticated in planning and strategy.

Eight hundred people were detained by police during the course of the actions this year, and nearly all were set free the same day as their arrest. Several hundred were injured and five went to the hospital, with reports of people being kicked, hit in the face and dragged with their heads hitting the ground.

A Swedish activist named Karl, who also declined to share his full name, was participating in Ende Gelände for the third year in a row. Karl, who wore a cast on his arm, had been struck by a police officer with a baton while participating in the Blue Finger group, which was surrounded by police near the railroad tracks on Saturday morning.

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Several participants linked police violence to the German government’s financial and political support for the country’s coal industry. The German government provides subsidies to companies like RWE, creating the impression among environmental activists that the police were not only enforcing the law, but also actively support RWE.

Despite his injury, Karl said it was a “liberating experience” to be joined by so many others willing to break the law and risk injury to draw attention to the urgency of climate change. “Civil disobedience is one of the ways we actually manage to put the issue into the forefront where climate change often is lacking.”

He said that Ende Gelände is effective because of the egalitarian structure with which strategies are developed. “What we saw this year is a lot of self-organization,” he explained. “The police work with a hierarchy, a top-down structure. There’s one mind making decisions. Here at Ende Gelände, we have thousands of minds making decisions.”

A diverse array of tactics and careful planning of strategy allowed for many groups to participate in the actions with varying levels of risk and preparation. On Saturday, a group called the White Finger was formed spontaneously by several people who took part in more intense civil disobedience actions the day before. The group set out to create a low-risk diversion for the police, aiming to draw resources and personnel away from activists blockading the railway tracks.

The White Finger led a convoy of 13 police vans on a humorous chase through the streets, accompanied by a guitarist and a juggler. Many local residents came out to wave to the activists, giving enthusiastic thumbs-up signs as they passed. The group ended symbolically in Holzweiler, a small town that has been abandoned with the expansion of the Garzweiler mine. Police barricaded the streets and told activists to turn back, despite there being no laws preventing people from entering the town. The activists spread out in front of the local church, where they held a democratic assembly deciding whether to try and break the police line or to return to the camp.

White Finger members form a human pyramid in front of police. (Twitter / @leonistawesome)

Members of the group brought out instruments, shared food, sang songs, performed acrobatics and held an impromptu poetry slam in front of the police line. The group’s energy and enthusiasm culminated in the formation of a wide human pyramid facing the police in a silly standoff, which was met with cheers and applause from locals who turned out in their cars to watch and take pictures. Activists adapted the popular German protest chant “We are peaceful, what are you?” and changed the words to “We are cute, what are you?”

Each finger was met with raucous applause upon returning to the camp. Teams of volunteer drivers brought detained activists back from the police station, and one tent at the campsite was especially dedicated for psychological and emotional support to activists who had experienced violent confrontation with the police.

The camp itself served as a training ground, democratic community and nucleus of activity throughout the weekend’s events. Emphasizing consensus, non-hierarchy and sustainable living, the camp included vegan meals, composting toilets, open workshops, live music, yoga classes and a bounce house for children. Activists and community members volunteered to cook and wash dishes, staff the information booths and clean the toilets. Decisions were discussed in large democratic assemblies, with live translations for non-German speakers.

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Before the August action days, the camp was the site of the “Degrowth Summer School,” a free four-day program covering topics such as sustainable development, system change and strategies for organizing. Funding for the summer school — which was supposed to come from the Foundation for Environment and Development North Rhineland-Westphalia — was canceled 10 days before it began, leading to a loss of 46,000 euros. The cuts occurred ostensibly because the program took place too close to acts of civil disobedience, which funders are often unwilling to support due to the illegal nature of the activity.

Ende Gelände plans to continue civil disobedience at the U.N. climate talks in Bonn later this year. According to activists like Karl, the movement for climate justice cannot simply advocate compliance with the Paris climate accords. The goal must instead be the dismantling of the fossil fuel infrastructure, as a 2 degrees Celsius rise in the global temperature already surpasses the threshold of catastrophic climate change.

“We need to work towards a just transition, and we need to do it now,” Karl said. “That’s what these people are putting their bodies on the line for.”

Strategic civil disobedience campaigns like Ende Gelände offer one example of how broad-based participation and creativity can be used to confront a daunting opponent, even one as powerful as the fossil fuel industry.

Why Nazis are so afraid of these clowns

Fri, 08/25/2017 - 11:23

by Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

The Finnish group “Loldiers of Odin” formed to protest the anti-immigrant Soldiers of Odin. (loldiers.com)

Trolls chanted in the streets the day of a planned neo-Nazi rally in the small ski town of Whitefish, Montana earlier this year. But they were not the trolls that residents had been expecting — namely, white supremacists from around the country, who had been harassing the town’s Jewish community with death threats.

These trolls wore bright blue wigs and brandished signs that read “Trolls Against Trolls” and “Fascists Fear Fun,” cheerfully lining the route where the neo-Nazi march had been slated to take place. Due to poor organizing and the failure to obtain proper permits, the demonstration had fell through, leading to what the counter-protesters gleefully deemed a “Sieg Fail.” So, locals held their own counter-event, gathering together to share matzo ball soup and celebrate the town’s unity, which — with a dose of humor and a denunciation of hatred — had successfully weathered a right-wing anti-Semitic “troll storm” and strengthened the community as a whole.

Using humor and irony to undermine white supremacy dates back to the days of the Third Reich, from jokes and cartoons employed by Norwegians against the Nazi occupation to “The Great Dictator” speech by Charlie Chaplin. In recent years, humor has continued to be used as a tactic to undermine Nazi ideology, particularly in the unlikely form of clowns — troupes of brightly-dressed activists who show up to neo-Nazi gatherings and make a public mockery of the messages these groups promote. It puts white supremacists in a dilemma in which their own use of violence will seem unwarranted, and their machismo image is tainted by the comedic performance by their opponent. Humor de-escalates their rallies, turning what could become a violent confrontation into a big joke.

Satirical imitation was used in Olympia, Washington in 2005 when a dozen members of the National Socialist Movement paraded around the state capitol to recruit members for the coming “race war.” They were met with clowns mimicking the “Seig Heil” salute and goose-stepping in a public mockery that drew attention away from the Nazi demonstration and undermined their image to would-be supporters.

Anti-Nazi demonstrators in Knoxville, Tennessee called themselves Coup Clutz Clowns. (redletterchristians.org)

In 2007, the group Anti Racist Action staged a full-fledged clown performance at a neo-Nazi rally in Knoxville, Tennessee. The clowns feigned confusion at demonstrators’ cries of “White power!” and called back, “White flour?” as they threw fistfulls of flour into the air.

“White power!” the neo-Nazi group shouted, and the clowns pretended they finally understood their mistake. “Oh, white flowers!” they cried out, handing white flowers to passersby, including some of the neo-Nazis themselves.

“White power!” they yelled again. “Tight shower?” the clowns called back, holding a shower head in the air and crowding together in a ridiculous attempt to follow the directions of the white supremacist group.

They tried once more: “White power!” And the female clowns exclaimed, as though they finally understood, “Wife power!” raising letters in the air to spell out the words and hoisting the male clowns in the air, running around and carrying them in their arms.

The clowns stole the show, and continued parading through the streets with the police smiling happily at their sides while the neo-Nazi group called off their demonstration several hours early. This action inspired clowns in Charlotte, North Carolina to also yell “Wife power!” at a white supremacist rally. They also held signs that said “Dwight Power!” next to photos of the NBA player Dwight Howard.

Anti-Nazi clowning can also turn into a wider community event, bringing local people together in solidarity and fun. A recent New York Times editorial highlighted an “involuntary walk-a-thon” in Wunsiedel, Germany, organized in response to an annual neo-Nazi march. The organizers drew chalk markers on the pavement marking the starting point, halfway point and finish line. Local residents and businesses pledged to donate 10 euros for every meter the white supremacists marched to a group called EXIT Deutschland, which is dedicated to helping people leave right-wing extremist groups.

Neo-nazis take part in the “involuntary walk-a-thon” in Wunsiedel, Germany in 2014. (Twitter / @exitdeutschland)

People came out to cheer the marchers the day of the event, flanking the route with signs that read “If only the Fuhrer knew!” and “Mein Mamph!” ( or “My Munch”) by a table of bananas offered to the walkers. This turned the marchers into involuntary supporters against their own cause, and brought the community together in unity to counter the messages of white supremacy.

Other European cities have employed clowns to counter anti-immigrant groups. For example, the “Loldiers of Odin” formed in Finland to counter a citizen patrol called Soldiers of Odin. The clowns danced around the streets the same nights that the patrols went out in the community, bringing acrobat hoops and a hobby horse. They also danced around the “soldiers” while playing in the snow. Their actions countered right-wing propaganda of making the streets “safer” from immigrants by bringing humor and silliness to their actions.

Clowning as a tactic of creative resistance was first developed by a group of U.K. activists who started the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, or CIRCA, in 2003. Mixing slapstick humor and improv theater with civil disobedience, the group had — at its height —over 150 trained clowns in Edinburgh, and their tactics were adopted by activists across Europe and the United States.

Humor has wide-reaching potential beyond clowning in countering neo-Nazis. It can be employed in the form of a serenade, like the sousaphonist who played his instrument to a crowd of Confederate flag-wielding marchers in Columbia, South Carolina. There’s also the parody song “Tiki Torch Nazis,” written and performed by a couple from San Francisco, that went viral after Charlottesville and hilariously undermines the serious image neo-Nazis strive to present. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, a group called the English Disco Lovers, or EDL, uses its acronym along with dance music and 1970’s style wigs to subvert public gatherings of the racist English Defense League.

English Disco Lovers protest the racist English Defense League. (Flickr / Tim Buss)

To build on past successes of anti-Nazi clowning, activists and local organizers can draw on the creativity of the community to devise actions and events that mock white supremacist ideology and those who support it. This could be done in the form of a carnivalesque “Fascist Fair,” complete with a dunk tank and jousting match. It could take the form of dressing up in costumes that satirize the labels white supremacists have given counter-protesters, like vermin or Communists. Events can draw in various local groups, from marching bands to theater troupes to intramural sports teams so that resistance to white supremacy becomes a community expression of solidarity, like in Whitefish, Montana.

Counter-demonstrations can employ a tactic called détournement, or culture jamming, to draw on existing cultural symbols that resonate with a wider audience. This could involve staging a humorous match in which one side represents neo-Nazis dressed as Death Eaters from Harry Potter, and the other side represents Gryffindor, or the Avengers, or Wonder Woman and the Amazon warriors. Their marches can be accompanied by a mass choir drowning out their chants with refrains of “You’re So Vain” or JoJo’s “Leave (Get Out).” They could also be met with “Flash Mobs Against Fascist Mobs.” The street where the march is planned could be covered in rainbow paint and glitter that will coat the bottoms of their shoes.

Beyond the marches themselves, clowning can undermine Confederate statues and symbols when their removal would lead to an escalation of violence, as activist David Swanson has suggested. Dressing up Confederate statues as clowns or jokers with signs like “You must be joking!” mocks the statue itself and undercuts the veneration of historical figures who represent the country’s legacy of slavery.

Other creative tactics can be used to counter neo-Nazi propaganda with less direct confrontation. Activists around the world have turned Nazi graffiti into art, like the #PaintBack campaign transforming Swastika’s into cartoon animals.

These actions not only deflate the macho image of neo-Nazis to their own supporters — which is strengthened by violent confrontation — but they also engage the community in planning fun collective actions to counter hate and intolerance. Humorous counter-demonstrations unleash a storm of creativity, as activists and local groups collaborate to design creative actions together. In the end, the actions bring communities together against hate speech. Since humor and clowning can incorporate so many community members — children and the elderly, musicians and athletes, politicians and school teachers — they draw everyone into a joyful, silly expression of solidarity. That’s something a band of tiki torch-wielding neo-Nazis don’t stand a change against.

Don’t feed the trolls — how to combat the alt-right

Tue, 08/22/2017 - 13:16

by Kazu Haga

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Nazism and white supremacy are forms of violence. Let’s start there.

The constitution does not protect violence, and I’m happy to see that the California chapter of the ACLU has taken a stand against protecting the “free speech” of hate groups.

But with or without marching permits, it is clear that public displays of hatred are a growing trend in the United States. And as much as I don’t want to give these groups more attention, it is also clear that simply ignoring them is not going to make them go away.

So what do we do?

Many communities seem to have embraced the militant tactics of Antifa, so much so that it seems like it’s already an expectation that every alt-right rally will turn into a violent battlefield.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if these tactics are giving the alt-right exactly what they want. Is it possible that we could be winning small battles while losing the war? Is it possible that as we celebrate Nazis getting punched, their numbers are growing as a direct result of it?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I would even admit that a portion of the blame for the rise in violence has to go to those of us committed to nonviolence for our failure to come up with the type of assertive response necessary in these urgent times.

And I do give a lot of credit to Antifa activists, for as much as I have major disagreements in strategy, they have had the courage to put their bodies on the line. When the levels of hatred are as extreme as they are, our responses to it — nonviolent or otherwise — has to match its intensity, and Antifa has done that.

But as these battles rage on (the alt-right has planned rallies this weekend in San Francisco and Berkeley), it’s critical that we not get dogmatic and are able to evaluate our strategies.

Violence has a simple dynamic that Rev. James Lawson once described as, “I make you suffer more than I suffer.” If we think that punching Nazis and pepper spraying them will make them suffer so much that they go away, I’m afraid that we are severely underestimating their commitment to their cause.

Right or wrong (spoiler: they’re wrong), they feel like their culture is being threatened and white people are being oppressed. As the adage goes, “when you are used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” If members of the alt-right already feel like they are being oppressed (and they do), using violence to shut them down may only make them dig down even deeper into their hole and fight back even harder.

What ‘works?’

As I’ve written before, “we shut their event down” is a poor measure of success if it comes at the expense of growing their base. Is it possible that when we confront these hate groups with violence, that we are actually empowering them?

Over 14 years after President Bush announced “Mission Accomplished” on the deck of an aircraft carrier, the war in Iraq rages on, with one result of the U.S. invasion being the formation of ISIS. And that can be the unintended consequence of violence: when the other side is convinced that they are “right,” and when they feel like they are the ones being oppressed, violence against them is the best recruiting tool they can ask for.

While that is an extreme example, there are countless smaller examples of this dynamic, and it goes both ways. Milo Yiannopoulos’ book became the number one seller on Amazon overnight after his speech was shut down at UC Berkeley. The Birmingham campaign in 1963 exploded when Bull Conner attacked children with fire hoses, giving the movement one of its principal victories within days. After the Alabama state troopers attacked civil rights marchers in Selma, the number of marchers grew ten-fold within two weeks.

While many mocked and celebrated the original “punch-a-Nazi,” I’d never even heard of Richard Spencer until he got punched. Now he’s a national hero to many. If that interview had gone on without incident, almost no one would have seen it. It would have been just one more video of Spencer talking on YouTube. Instead, it became a rallying cry for the alt-right.

When white supremacists gather, I get that our initial impulse is to do everything we can to simply shut them down. But it’s very possible that attempts to do so are giving the alt-right exactly what they want. To feel like they are being victimized, to feel like their way of life is being threatened, to gain media attention to legitimize their movement, to demonize the left and to gain more and more recruits for their cause.

Of all the places in the country where they could go, there is a reason that this coming weekend will mark the third time in six months that the alt-right is coming to the San Francisco Bay Area: Because they know they can count on a fight.

And while there are many involved in Antifa who are as dedicated as anyone to defeating white supremacy, I also wonder sometimes if some others want to fight more than they want to win.

So what do we do?

Perspective

Part of what we need to do is to keep things in perspective. Part of that perspective is that this is a serious moment in history. Charlottesville escalated to a point where a woman — Heather Heyer — was killed, and many more could have easily died.

And even that is just an outward expression of a system of white supremacy that is killing people every day. So calls for people to “just get along” isn’t going to cut it.

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When San Francisco mayor Ed Lee says, “I ask that when they chant of hate, San Francisco chants of love,” I am not sure he understands that. We cannot simply offer free hugs to Nazis and hope they change their minds.

At the same time, we should keep this in mind: We are not the resistance.

All over the country, confederate memorials are coming down. This was beginning to happen even before Charlottesville. Even GOP leaders are distancing themselves from comments made by Trump, something we would not have seen a couple of decades ago.

As slow as progress can feel at times, things are changing. As a nation, we are making progress. And it is the alt-right that is reacting to those changes. Their worldview is being threatened by progress, and they are the ones resisting.

A friend of mine heard Angela Davis speak some time ago, and that was her message to those involved in the “Trump resistance.” We need to remind ourselves that we are the majority, and they are the ones resisting the changes our society is going through. While we need to meet the urgency of this moment, we can also allow ourselves time to breath and not feel like the world is collapsing around us.

Maintain the moral high ground

This is ultimately a battle for the morals of this country. It is about right and wrong.

Most people like to think of themselves as moral people, and while white supremacy runs deeper than the average person realizes, most people would not identify as Nazis or white supremacists.

In a battle for morals, imagery and messaging is everything. If we lose the PR battle, even if we are ultimately on the right side of justice, we may give the alt-right ammunition they desperately need. And if we don’t provide them with that ammunition, their movement will struggle to gain momentum.

When you see images from nonviolent movements confronting forces of injustice, the images are very clear which side is on the right side of justice. When you see images of the alt-right confronting Antifa, that’s not so clear.

And this is not in any way to make a moral equivalency between the two as Trump has repeatedly done. One side are Nazis and white supremacists. The other side is fighting Nazis and white supremacists. There is no moral equivalency there.

What I am suggesting is that rather than meeting violence with violence, we need to expose their violence. Trump is finding himself more and more isolated as he continues to expose his violence. We need to do the same with the alt-right, and fighting them with sticks makes that harder.

Build mass popular movements

I grew up in Massachusetts and am a die-hard Boston sports fan. And I’ve always been a little embarrassed by the long history of racism there. That’s why I was so proud of my home state this past weekend when counter-demonstrators so outnumbered the alt-right that they were completely drowned out.

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And that is the best way for us to win — by surrounding these hate groups with so many people that they can’t get their message out. By showing them and the country how isolated they are. By embarrassing them to the point that they don’t want to come out in public again.

If we outnumber them five-to-one, ten-to-one, twenty-to-one, a hundred-to-one, then we won’t need to use violence to stop them. Our mere presence will, like it did in Boston when 40,000 people showed up to counter “a few dozen” alt-right demonstrators. “Boston right-wing ‘free speech’ rally dwarfed by counterprotesters does not make for an effective recruitment tool for the alt-right.

Violence limits the number of people who are willing to come out to these types of events. We can’t let the alt-right feel like this is anything close to an equal fight. And if those of us on the radical left are the only ones showing up to counter-protests, that’s the sense that they will get. We need the masses to win, and we need to maintain nonviolent discipline to turn the masses out.

While the actions of Antifa are getting support on my social media feed, we know that social media can be an echo chamber of limited political views. The masses do not support violence, and that needs to be part of our calculations.

Creative nonviolence

We also need to stop thinking that going head-to-head is the only option we have. There is so much diversity within nonviolence, and we are doing ourselves a disservice when we don’t fully utilize our creativity.

My favorite example of this is a dilemma action where the German town of Wunsiedel turned a Nazi march into a walk-a-thon for an anti-hate group organization. Residents committed to donating money for every meter that the Nazis marched. When the marchers came to town, the residents welcomed them, celebrated and thanked them for raising money to fight Nazism.

Or when clowns showed up to counter a KKK rally in Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s hard to fight when the other side is dressed like clowns, and the images don’t make for good recruitment either.

Or what if instead of trying to stop them, we mix in with them with signs opposing hate? If our signs outnumber theirs, again their photo-ops would become useless.

What if we hold massive banners and completely surround them, not letting anyone see them?

What if instead of shields and sticks, every person came with instruments, pots, pans, air horns and drums and completely drowned them out without actually trying to stop them?

What if we go to the site of their rally the night before and somehow transform the site itself? Maybe paint the entire ground a bright rainbow?

What if we coordinated the “Yes, You’re Racist” Twitter feed and tried to take pictures of everyone who shows up at the event? Members of the alt-right have already had their businesses boycotted, been fired from work, had their accounts suspended from Airbnb, social media and even the dating site OK Cupid.

Action vs. inaction

At the end of the day, the most important thing for anyone reading this is to be ready to mobilize every time the alt-right gathers. The fewer counter-demonstrators there are, the more likely it will be that violence will erupt. The more counter-demonstrators there are, the more likely that the alt-right will simply run away.

For those of us committed to nonviolence, it is easy to criticize people who have played a role in escalating violence. But if we are not at least in the streets with them, then our criticisms ring hollow. If we believe that we can defeat hate by building a popular movement, then we need to get into the streets and create one.

Violence vs. nonviolence is an important question, and a complicated one. A less complicated one is the question of action vs. inaction. Regardless of where you stand on nonviolence, if you stand for inaction you are helping hatred gain steam.

How movements dissolved Trump’s business councils

Fri, 08/18/2017 - 13:00

by Daniel Hunter

An activist protesting Disney’s involvement in Trump’s business council in February. (Twitter / Working Families Party)

In these fast-moving times, it’s easy to miss the slow burn ingredients of a movement victory.

It’s been widely reported that President Trump’s business advisory councils have fallen apart. Many sources have even talked about how the CEOs involved began fleeing like rats from a sinking ship. But what you may not know is that this is actually a movement victory.

Behind the scenes, before words of condemnation were put into Trump’s mouth, three CEOs began talking about how Trump’s response was inadequate. They were the CEOs of Pepsi, IBM and General Motors: Indra Nooyi, Ginni Rometty and Mary Barra. All of them women.

They began calling on other CEOs to quit the panels. According to one inside source, “If you were a customer-facing business, you definitely were feeling the heat.”

Why customer-facing? Well, there we have to point the finger at groups that have been pioneering corporate targeting, like Rainforest Action Network, SumOfUs and Color of Change. Corporations are looking over their shoulders in new ways.

Specifically, Color of Change launched a campaign called #QuitTheCouncil in January. They targeted Uber, Tesla and Disney after Trump introduced the Muslim ban and pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. With the support of other allies, Color of Change got those three CEOs to pull out.

According to Color of Change campaign manager Jade Magnus, “We focused on companies that have a public commitment to diversity and public commitment to affirmative action that weren’t walking the walk, but continued to collaborate with Trump. We wanted them to take a stand and choose either to stand on the side of the consumer or stand with Donald Trump and every single issue he represents.”

Corporations were worried.

It should not be a surprise that it was women CEOs taking up that mantle. Older, white executives, like former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, wanted to keep the council together and just weather the storm.

Instead, it was a brown woman, Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi, who led the way and kept pushing.

This is not to say that these CEOs are with the activists now. Instead, it’s important to note that they are where they are because of activists — namely the movements that pressured corporations to hire more women for leadership roles. It was a slow strategy, using agitating groups and inside groups.

To cite one example: In the world of socially responsible investing, activist investors have increasingly made diversity and leadership in executives a criteria for choosing funds. The result has been a slow but noticeable shift in the number of women in executive and board level positions.

The erosion of the glass ceiling for women is good for social change. So were the movements that encouraged more African-American leadership, as shown by the first public acts of the council after Trump displayed his empathy with Nazis and fascists. It came from one of the few African-Americans on the manufacturing council: Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier. He publicly quit, claiming “a responsibility to take a stand against violence and extremism.”

Whatever we can say about Frazier’s timing, the result was swift. Trump attacked him publicly with his typical blustery accusations.

To recap: We have women organizing behind the scenes, led by a woman of color. We have a black man taking public action and getting attacked.

Gender and race dynamics don’t always unfold like this, but it certainly isn’t uncommon.

The CEO’s actions spurred others. The women drew in more CEOs and eventually organized a call where “each panel member was called upon to speak, in alphabetical order.” The result was the decision for the council to disband.

In that spirit of pre-emptive break-up, Trump broke up the council and claimed it was his own move.

But the die had been cast. The stage had been set.

No, it was not Trump. Nor was it some “well-meaning” CEOs. It wasn’t even a single contemporary campaign. It was many movement actions over the ages that led us to the place where a business council quits because a president defended Nazis and fascists.

These are the steady pieces that make for the building of a new culture. Although we’re not there yet, we should claim the victories along the way, as well as honor those who helped make them possible.

 

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