Sojourner's Blog

January 31, 2010

Nonviolent Resistance & Political Power

[This article is written from the point of view of "Tactical" nonviolence See Two Kinds of Nonviolent Resistance for a comparison of "Tactical" and "Philosophical" nonviolence.]

During the Freedom Movement of the 1960s, we did not protest simply to vent to our anger and alienation. We took action to change society. Our sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and mass marches were grounded in an analysis of political reality that led to the strategy and tactics of Nonviolent Resistance as a means of winning actual changes. As the Freedom Movement evolved, so too did our analysis of political power — an analysis that is relevant to this day.

We understood that the injustices we opposed were deeper and more complex than just some bad people with racist ideas. Beneath the surface of segregation and denial of voting rights lay a “white power-structure” of wealthy individuals, powerful corporations, and influential politicians who derived significant economic and political benefits from systemic racism, and therefore they used their power to establish, extend, and maintain the Jim Crow system. Which meant that in order to change that system, we had to understand what political power is, where it comes from, how it is generated, and how it can be used to change society.

Political Power

In this context, “political power” is defined as the ability to change — or maintain — some aspect of society or government-policy.

Government exercises power through legislation, court rulings, regulations, police & military force, spending priorities, and so forth. But the actual content of government policy is largely influenced and directed by political forces from outside government. In other words, while government both generates and wields political power, it also responds to political power. By analogy, the engine makes a car move, but it’s the driver behind the wheel who decides where it goes. Sometimes government decides for itself where it goes, but most of the time it is steered by political pressure — political power — applied to it from the outside.

(Though government is closely associated with this definition of political power, it is not the only means by which political power affects society — culture and economics, for example, both respond to — and influence — political power.)

When we look at political power in the abstract, we see three sources, or kinds, of political power:

  • Money-power. The power to grant or withhold money, investments, or other economic rewards. To buy PR and advertising to influence public opinion or to exercise corporate control over communications media. To bribe politicians with campaign contributions or other enticements. To simply pay people to do X or not to do Y.The primary holders and wielders of money-power are wealthy individuals, large corporations, and in some contexts government itself. Money-power is the dominant force in most democracies — particularly the United States.
  • Violence-power. The essential nature of violence-power is: “Do what you’re told to do, and don’t do what is forbidden, or you will be jailed, harmed, or killed.” Police, prison, military action, “private security,” terrorism, and so on are all forms of violent political power used to control or influence society. Violence power can be either actual violence or simply the threat of violence.In a democracy, government is the primary holder and wielder of violence-power, though there are some non-governmental forms such as mob or terrorist violence (the KKK during the 1960s, for example).
  • People-power. The power to organize protests that affect public opinion and change the cultural context. To elect or recall politicians. To engage in boycotts and other forms of economic pressure such as strikes. To create and deploy our own “alternative” media to challenge the lies and present a different vision. To use cultural forms such as song, theatre — and in today’s world, video and the internet — to speak truth to power (in the Southern Freedom Movement, for example, our freedom songs were as powerful a force for change as were our protests and the two were inseparably linked).In a democracy, the primary wielders of people-power are membership organizations, mass movements, and unorganized individuals acting in concert. People-power is the only real power that those of us who are neither rich nor at the top of government have.

These three kinds of political power are neither separate nor distinct, they are closely related and mutually interactive:

  • Money can buy violence (government violence, private “security,” strikebreakers, etc)
  • Money can buy or elect political leaders, and manipulate popular consent
  • Violence (or the threat of violence) can be used to obtain money (taxes, for example)
  • Violence can be used to coerce popular consent
  • People can raise and withhold money (boycotts, forexample)
  • People can defend themselves against violence (either violently or nonviolently)

Money-Power

Money-power is constant and implacable but not omnipotent. Money-power never rests and never takes a day off, it exerts its political pressure 24/7. The politicians who set government policy do so primarily in response to money-power. As a general rule, it is money-power that sets their agenda and guides government actions.

This view of money-power may sound radical to some, and perhaps it is, but it is not a new concept. In 1787, John Adams one of America’s Founding Fathers, and the 2nd President of the United States wrote: In every society where property exists, there will ever be a struggle between rich and poor. Mixed in one assembly, equal laws can never be expected. In 1837, Abraham Lincoln wrote: These capitalists generally act harmoniously, and in concert, to fleece the people. And in 1911, Helen Keller, wrote: The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, for the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor.

Few of us have money-power in the political sense. We don’t have the kind of money it takes to buy Senators with campaign contributions, or threaten city councils with loss of jobs by closing plants or withholding investments. Nor can we finance radio talk shows or appoint retired government regulators who have served us well to cushy directorships. And we don’t own or control major media outlets.

Through advertising and rhetoric they want us to believe that by buying things we empower ourselves and achieve happiness. But most of us who drive a new car or live in our own home do so through debt, not wealth. Consumer debt isn’t money in the political sense, and consumer debt does not generate money-power — quite the opposite, it makes us vulnerable to the money-power of others.

But money-power is not monolithic, and only rarely is it entirely united around any particular issue. During the Freedom Movement of the 1960s, money-power was split. The local/regional money-power in the South — plantation owners, corporations relying on cheap non-union labor, local financial institutions — was extremely hostile to the Freedom Movement. Acting through the White Citizens Council, local money-power waged economic terrorism against Blacks who challenged segregation and demanded the right to vote. But elements of national/international money-power saw economic opportunity for themselves in opening up the South to their investment which required (among other things) a stable rule-of-law and an end to racial “disturbances.” Some elements saw great advantage in breaking the “Dixiecrat” stranglehold on the region’s economy and politics. And other elements, such as chain stores like Woolworths, were pressured around segregation issues by people-power consumer boycotts organized by northern students.

Violence-Power

Government wields enormous violence-power at all levels — with its police and military and by the threat of violent repression and prison. Ruthless, sustained, violence-power backed by money-power can often suppress people-power movements. In the 1960s, government violence-power exercised through sheriffs, cops, and state troopers was a primary method of maintaining segregation and political control in both the North and the South. But at the national level during the early and mid-1960s, repressive violence was largely latent, and infrequently used for political purposes — at least overtly — except in cases where they could claim they were “defending” civil society from violent political “outlaws.” One of the reasons we used nonviolent tactics — and loudly proclaimed our nonviolence — was to minimize, and if possible prevent, governmental violence-power from being used in a sustained way to suppress us.

Back in the early and mid-’60s there were Movement organizations and individuals who on occasion used self-defense against racist attack. Some of us combined nonviolence and self-defense as the situation warranted to defend ourselves from KKK terror. But that limited self-defense was the extent of our violence-power.

Then in the late ’60s and early ’70s some leaders and organizations, primarily in the North, publicly turned away from nonviolence as the strategy of social change. They heaped scorn on Nonviolent Resistance, glorified guns, and urged “armed struggle” or other forms of offensive violence. In most cases, this was little more than posturing. Bombastic rhetoric aside, we had no real access to violence-power in the political sense, then or now. Neither then, nor now, could we successfully use violence to deter police oppression or ensure justice. We could not then, and cannot now, wage a successful violent revolution against either Wall Street or Washington. We cannot use a pistol to force a slumlord to turn on the heat, or put a corporate polluter in prison, or prevent a friend from being deported, or stop an illegal war for oil, or adequately fund a school system, or … you fill in the blank.

Those few who actually committed some small acts of political violence — or threatened to do so — failed to achieve any significant amount of violence-power. They succeeded only in isolating themselves from potential supporters, and gifting both local and national government with convenient political cover for ruthlessly suppressing them. This has been the political reality for a long time. As far back as 1900, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”) had an adage: “Watch the man who advocates violence,” because he was either a nut who is dangerous — or a police agent.

While political violence in the U.S. is a form of political suicide, today’s music and entertainment glamorizes violence and gangster culture and encourages us to use violence against each other. But killing neighbors, abusing spouses, burning local stores, breaking windows, and waging turf-wars against other powerless people, only makes life in our communities that much worse — that much more unbearable. Not only does communal violence not generate any political power to improve our lives, it provides convenient pretexts for police suppression, isolates potential allies from each other, and divides us against ourselves in ways that block development of people-power.

People-Power

Our culture glorifies and exalts both violence-power and money-power while ignoring or discrediting people-power. Most people do not believe that ultimately government rests on consent of the governed and therefore they remain unaware of the potential power they hold. This idea was first articulated in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. … That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

Every 4th of July the nation celebrates this Declaration with fireworks, flag waving, and patriotic speeches. But almost never do any of the orating politicians actually quote any portion of the Declaration to their audiences — or explain what it means. Yet, despite our rulers’ desire that we remain ignorant, docile, and obedient to their commands, throughout our history some individuals and organizations have successfully used strategies of Nonviolent Resistance to mobilize people-power around a wide variety of issues. The Freedom Movement being just one example.

People-power movements apply political power to directly influence government, pass legislation such as the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, affect spending and taxes, and so on. But people-power can also change the social/cultural context within which all political power is exercised. Prior to the Freedom Movement, for example, overt, explicit, racism was a common aspect of American society. “Nigger” jokes were on the radio and “Blackface” stereotypes on TV, derogatory racial images were an everyday part of commerce, and politicians used explicit racist appeals in campaigns and cited racist ideology in legislative debates. If you questioned or criticized such overt racism you were, at the very least, considered to be an un-American crank — and probably a Communist. The Freedom Movement fundamentally changed our cultural context so that what was normal in the 1950s is now utterly unacceptable. Disney, for example, made Song of the South (after Bambi and before Cinderella), an animated feature film filled with racial stereotypes that are so offensive today that the Disney Company has never re-released it nor made it available for home video. Other people-power movements have made similar profound changes in how our society views women and women’s roles and how we view the global environment. And today, ongoing people-power movements continue to struggle over issues as varied as immigration and sexuality in its many varied forms.

But since the ’60s, efforts to mobilize people-power have been only partially effective in some areas — women, environment, and gay issues, for example — and largely ineffective in other areas — foreign policy, war, economic justice, covert racism, etc. In part, this is because money-power is constantly active in influencing government, while people-power is intermittent and most of the time largely latent. And in part it is because people-power today has become weak and divided. One reason for that weakness is our failure to fully use the power of Nonviolent Resistance.

Both wealth and government do everything they can to maintain their power by making us feel helpless and confused. One way is by telling us that in a democracy it is only through elections that we the people wield power. But for the most part, candidates are chosen, and issues framed, by money-power. Political parties and candidates for office are influenced by money when they are running for office and after they are elected. Few of the many volunteers who actively work in electoral politics have any actual voice in selecting the candidates, crafting their positions, or shaping the subsequent legislation. The only real role most of us have is voting on election day. The result is that today we have two “money parties” that both represent the interests of the giant corporations and the wealthy few — one of those parties supports “liberal” social policy such as a woman’s right to have an abortion, and the other opposes those rights. But no party represents our interests against those of the wealthy.

Yet, people-power can be exercised through elections — at times people-power has been powerful at the ballot box — but only when there are organizations and movements that educate and mobilize people around their interests OUTSIDE of the electoral process.

People-Power and Nonviolent Resistance

Which brings us to direct action and Nonviolent Resistance. By and large, the strategies of the Freedom Movement — and the strategies of most successful reform movements — were the strategies of Nonviolent Resistance.

In modern times there have been instances where Nonviolent Resistance was used to overthrow authoritarian governments, but Nonviolent Resistance is more commonly used to reform some aspect of government or society — the U.S. Civil Rights Movement being a case in point. Whether the goal is revolution or reform, the purpose of nonviolent tactics and strategies is to create a political dynamic that organizes and mobilizes people-power while at the same time limiting and restricting the ability of opponents to suppress the movement with violence and money-power.

The weakness of money-power is the illegitimacy of actions and policies designed to benefit the wealthy and powerful few at the expense of the many. The strength of nonviolent people-power is inherent in the word “NO.” “No” is the most powerful word in the English language:

No, we won’t accept segregation
No, we won’t silently stand by in the face of injustice
No, we won’t believe the lies of President Bush
No, we won’t submit to corporate domination our lives

By mobilizing nonviolent popular action, we use our strength against their weakness.

Violence, on the other hand, pits their strength against our weakness. In modern society, both money-power and the state are well prepared for political violence with police, courts, jails, military, intelligence agencies, private security and so forth. Violence plays on their field, on their terms, under their rules. Time and again, small violent groups have been ineffective at generating political power and proved to be counter-productive in advancing their cause. Not because they were small — small nonviolent groups have sometimes achieved great success, the lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides being two examples — but because they tried to rely on violence-power rather than people-power.

To be politically effective using people-power, you have to build mass popular support. But in our society, building popular support based on violence won’t work for two reasons:

  1. Repression. The state is well-organized and over-equipped for suppressing violence. Those in power would prefer that there be no resistance or opposition to their rule. But if there is going to be resistance, they prefer that it be violent because they can quickly destroy violent opposition. Yet few police forces are equipped or trained to effectively contain Nonviolent Resistance, and often times it confuses and confounds them because it is so at odds with what they expect and are prepared for. Yes, they can beat and arrest nonviolent protesters, but that does not necessarily suppress a nonviolent movement or the ideas behind it. Which is why undercover cops & FBI COINTELPRO agents who infiltrated Movement organizations always advocated the most violent acts, and were the most vehement in disparaging Nonviolent Resistance.
  2. People fear and oppose violence. Most people will defend themselves if attacked, but unless driven to utter desperation they won’t commit offensive violence, and they don’t want their children doing it either. Obviously, you can train and discipline people to do violence — that’s why militaries and police have elaborate training camps and academies — but it’s not easy. Official, state violence may be “As American as cherry pie,” but despite the media’s gangster glorification, civil disorder and citizen violence are broadly rejected by all levels of society, and only a tiny fraction of the population will engage in it. But if properly organized and led, people will exercise their rights as citizens to advocate a cause they believe in — whether that be boycotting buses in Montgomery or facing down the Klan, posse, and state troopers in Selma for the right to vote.

So there is this contradiction: Our mass culture tells us that to take effective action you have to be violent, but in our society today social change through violence does not work. Nonviolent Resistance breaks this contradiction by providing a method of mobilizing people-power to create social change.

— Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2008

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January 30, 2010

Letter to Parents of California College Students

Filed under: Education — brucehartford @ 11:49 pm
Tags: , , ,

1/8/10

Why We’re Protesting ~ A Letter to Parents

As you know, students, faculty, staff, and community supporters are protesting at colleges and
universities across the state. We are writing this letter to explain why.

Our protests were triggered by the enormous cuts in education spending and the huge tuition increases that politicians claim were forced by last year’s economic crisis. But that’s not true. For years, officials have been shifting money from education to prisons. Governor Schwarzenegger acknowleges that, “30 years ago 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education and three percent went to prisons. Today, almost 11 percent goes to prisons and only 7.5 percent goes to higher education.”

Back in 1960, the politicians in Sacramento enacted a promise to the citizens of California. It was called the “Master Plan for Education,” and it required, by law, that all qualified students be able to attend a public college—tuition free. For years that promise was kept, but then they started getting around the law by calling it “fees” rather than “tuition.” Between 2000 and 2008 (way before the economic crisis) tuition at UC and CSU more than doubled. In 1960, student fees at UC and CSU were roughly $150. This year at UC they’re $11,000 (a 7000% increase), and at CSU they’re $4,900 (a 3200% increase).

For many students and their families, especially those hard hit by layoffs and foreclosures, the dream of a college education has been priced out of reach. And for Blacks, Latinos, and others who have historically faced discrimination, the hope of higher education is being denied as economic barriers are re-segregating opportunity in California.

But the issues are deeper than the just the cost of education. So many professors have been let go that this Spring no new students will be admitted to the CSU system, and total enrollment will be slashed by at least 40,000. At the Community Colleges 250,000 students will be “turned away.” Those who do manage to get into a school are discovering that required classes are no longer available so they have to attend an extra year to graduate (and pay yet more tuition). And class sizes are doubling which means less individual attention, less chance to ask questions, and less contact with the remaining teachers.

A fundamental issue that has nothing to do with economic crises is how education funds are spent and how the decisions are made. At the same meeting where they jacked up tuition, the UC Regents also gave hefty pay raises to the executives and senior bureaucrats. Apparently $500,000 a year isn’t enough, so the wages of janitors have to be cut and librarians laid off so that the top managers are not inconvenienced. And why are there so many of them? Fifteen years ago UC professors outnumbered senior managers by two and a half to one, but today there are actually more high-paid administrators than professors.

The real issue is not the current economic crises. The real issue is that politicians in Sacramento have quietly abandoned the principle of publicly-funded higher education for all. Over many years they have steadily moved our system of public colleges away from education-for-all towards the model of expensive private schools—with tightly restricted and highly competitive admissions. The word for this is “privatization.” It is a word that means converting public colleges to the model of private universities. It is a word that means higher education will only be available to the affluent.

We are writing you this letter to ask you to stand up for your sons and daughters, and the public education that they must have to survive and thrive in the 21st Century. It’s time for parents and taxpayers to demand that public education be restored and expanded for all. It’s time for parents to become involved.

For more information:
In Defense of Quality Public Education – California
California Faculty Assoc.
Council of UC Faculty Associations

Letter to Parents of Children in California Public Schools

Filed under: Education — brucehartford @ 11:43 pm
Tags: , , ,

January, 2010

California Public Schools in Crises ~ A Letter to Parents

We are writing you this letter to ask you to stand up for your sons and daughters, and the public education they must have to survive and thrive in the 21st Century.

Last year, the politicians cut public school funding by more than $5,300,000,000. This year they tell us they’re going to cut even more. They justify themselves by citing all sorts of statistics, but education is not about statistics, it’s about children. And most parents know that their kids in public school are not receiving the education they need. We don’t need to be mathematicians to know that:

  • Class sizes are too large because there’s not enough money to hire teachers, and too much is being spent on managers and bureaucrats.
  • Many schools are in such poor repair as to be unsafe, with not enough money for maintenance.
  • There are constant and worsening shortages of materials, supplies, and equipment.
  • Enrichment programs in languages, sports, art, music, and other areas being slashed or eliminated.
  • Pre-Kindergarten and Adult Education programs areas being slashed or eliminated.
  • Critical positions such as nurses, librarians, counselors, and janitors are being eliminated.

They tell us that these cutbacks are because of the current economic crisis, but that’s not true. They’ve been cutting public education for years, long before this latest crises. Proposition 13 was supposed to relieve citizens burdened by excessive property taxes, but most of the benefit went to big business and commercial landlords. Corporations used to pay the majority of education-related taxes, but their share has steadily been reduced so that now individual taxpayers have to carry most of the load, and there is no longer enough money to adequately fund public education even in the good times, let alone the bad.

They tell us that public education provides equal opportunity for all, but every parent in California knows that there are rich districts and poor districts, “good” schools and “bad” schools. And despite all the rhetoric and promises, everyone knows that public schools serving Black and Latino communities get the short end of the stick, that non-white students receive unequal punishment and discipline, and that educational inequality is part of a pattern that cannot be separated from job discrimination, inadequate housing, lack of health care, and unsafe streets. In the words of Dr. King, the promise of equality in America is “… a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.

They tell us that the only way to hold schools and teachers accountable is by imposing one-size-fits-all regulations decreed by distant bureaucrats. But children are not standardized assembly-line parts, and neither are individual schools or school districts. Who can best determine what each child needs, the parents and teachers who see them every day, or officials in Sacramento and Washington? Yes, kids have to be educated to meet the requirements of the 21st Century. And they also need an education that helps them grow into thoughtful and caring individuals capable of living productive, meaningful lives and function as empowered citizens in a democratic society. But teachers and parents must have a voice in how each school and classroom achieves those goals. Instead of centralizing total control in the capitol, local communities—parents and teachers together—need the power to hold the system accountable and to support those schools and programs that are succeeding, and to change those that fail to educate the children.

They tell us that charter schools are the answer to all our problems, but both charter and public schools get their funds from the same inadequate source. Pitting public and charter schools against each other in a losing battle for dwindling resources diverts us from the real issue—Sacramento’s refusal to provide a quality public education to all.

Now is the time to take action.
For more info:
In Defense of Quality Public Education – California
.

Activists and Activism

Activists and Activism

[Presentation by Bruce Hartford to high school and college students at the "Civil Rights Movement and Social Justice" panel of the 40th Anniversary of the Black Student Union/Third World Liberation Front student strike for Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State College in 1968. Originally posted to Civil Rights Movement Veterans website.]

Bernice Johnson Reagan of SNCC and Sweet Honey in the Rock called the Civil Rights Movement the “borning movement” of the 1960s because out of the Freedom Movement was born the many disparate movements of that era including:

The student rights and academic freedom movement
The Anti-Vietnam War Movement
The Womens’ Movement
The Chicano Movement
The many other ethnic & nationality movements
The Environmental Movement
The Farmworkers Movement
Tenants’ rights movements
Community movements
The Gay Rights Movement
And many other movements

One thing these movements had in common is that they were all built and led by people we call “activists.” Of course, not everyone uses that term. Some folk call us:

“Trouble-makers”
“Agitators”
“Shit-disturbers”
And if they really want to cut us low, they call us “Community Organizers.”

But whatever you call us, activists are the people who make things happen. Activists are people who:

Read about and study issues and politics
Organize and attend meetings
Discuss and plan strategy
Pass out leaflets
Knock on doors
Circulate petitions
Speak in public
Engage in protests
Build community organizations
Work on election campaigns
Run for office
and so on

Come Tuesday, many of us hope that Barack Obama is elected President. If that comes to pass, his election will be a major milestone — a huge milestone — on our long journey towards justice, freedom, equality, peace, real democracy, economic-fairness, and let’s not forget saving the planet from the ruthless greed of the polluters and exploiters. But activists understand that there’s a fundamental difference between a milestone and a finish line. When you cross a finish line the event is over, your work is done, it’s Miller-time. But when you pass a milestone, even a major milestone, there’s still another milestone a mile down the road. And another after that, and so on down the long years. For activists there are no finish lines — only milestones.

One of the characteristics that defines an activist is the drive — the passion — the committment — to do something. To take action. Activists don’t always act, but on perceiving a problem, learning of an injustice, becoming aware of an abuse, our first instinct is to ask, “What can I do? What should I do?” For any given activist at any given time the answer may well be “nothing.” Often there is no effective method of addressing the problem and no single individual has the time or energy to address all the world’s ills simultaneously, but when confronted with an issue, activists at least ask themselves if there is something they can and should do.

In a sense, to be an activist is to resist the debilitating disease of “permission-itis.” From childhood through school and into adulthood, Americans are conditioned against doing much of anything without first obtaining permission — permission from parents, teachers, pastors, managers, officials, and “leaders.” But activists understand that seeking permission from authority to challenge that authority is a contradiction in terms. So activists act — and worry about permission later (if at all).

The 1st Amendment guarantees free speech — but only to those with the audacity and courage to assert that right. The cops want us to think we need their permission for a nonviolent picket line, sidewalk rally, or other peaceful expression of free speech — but it ain’t true. Yes, to block a street with a mass march or use amplified sound a permit is usually required, but that is the exception, not the rule. Similarly, school principals and deans — even here at S.F. State — may believe they have the authority to control thought and speech on their campus — but that’s true only if you let them.

An even more pernicious form of permission-itis is our reluctance to act without explicit agreement from friends, co-workers, and communities. For many, it’s not the fear of jail or administrative sanction that freezes them into paralysis, but rather the dread of jeers, sneers, frowns, criticism, and disaproval. But confronting this form of permission-itis can be tricky because effective activists understand that solitary action is usually futile, and actions by small cliques that offend or alienate those they want to mobilize are counter-productive and frequently self-destructive. To be effective, an activist has to strike a balance between the impulse to do something and the necessity of acting in ways that build support and unity among those whose eventual participation is essential for victory.

Perhaps the most debilitating form of permission-itis is our own internal hall-monitor that relentlessly cautions us that we cannot, we should not, we must not. There is a well-known observation by Marianne Williamson (often incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela):

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant and talented? Actually who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightening about shrinking so other people won’t feel insecure around you. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

In February of 1960, a tiny handful of Black students in the South screwed their courage to the sticking place and resolved to take action against segregation. Their audacious lunch-counter sit-ins defied not just the white power-structure and the Black college administrators, but also their own sense of inadequacy and dread of dire consequences. They had neither the permission nor the agreement of parents, pastors, or established community leaders — and most of their peers were at best indifferent and at worst contemptuous of those few foolish idealists willing to risk everything in some futile hope of changing that which could never be changed. But the sit-ins were planned, organized, and carried out in such a way as to eventually win broad support among the student body and within the Black community, while weakening and limiting the power of those adversaries determined to maintain segregation.

Which brings us to the necessity self-discipline. Those who would effectively lead or organize others must first master themselves. Anyone can act out anger, but mounting effective protests requires careful planning and strategic thinking. Anyone can shout rage and obscenities, scrawl grafitti on walls, and break store windows, but effectively speaking truth to power requires crafting a message that resonates with peoples’ lives and then devising some method of delivering that message which wins adherents instead of alienating potential supporters. The student sit-ins did exactly that, they were strategically designed to win a victory, not to vent frustration or strike some heroic, self-satisfying pose.

Equally essential is the self-discipline that puts the struggle and the community first. Oh yes, you can be an activist without that kind of self-discipline — there has never been any shortage of self-agrandizing “leaders” who serve their own egos first and others only insofar as doing so advances their personal ambition. But while ego-driven activists may be able to build successful careers, they are rarely able to achieve significant and lasting improvements in the lives of those they claim to represent. Freedom is not something you can give to others, they have to seize it for themselves. Pride and dignity cannot be bestowed as a gift from your generous hand, but rather must grow from within each individual. In the real-world — as opposed to the imaginary universe of the legal system — rights may be established through lawsuits and legislation, but until they are asserted by individuals in their daily lives they have no actual force or meaning. That is why the job of an organizer — an activist — is to build organizations that empower not just the leader but the members and the community as a whole — organizations that empower people to win victories for themselves.

But activists of whatever kind are — and always have been — just a small fraction of the population. Sociologists and historians tell us that only rarely does a social movement involve more than 5% of the affected population in active participation. Fewer than 7% of the American colonists actively took part in the revolution against the British. In 70 years of struggle, the largest Woman Suffrage protest was 8000 marchers in Washington, DC in 1913. The Selma Voting Rights struggle was one of the largest Freedom Movement campaigns of the 1960s. But if you add up all those who marched, picketed, sat-in, tried to register to vote, or just attended a mass meeting, it would total less than 10% of Dallas County’s Black population.

What all these movements of the 1960s teach us is that you don’t have to have tens of thousands to start taking action and effecting political change. Most times, movements like those of the ’60s are begun by small groups without significant popular support. You don’t have to start out with mass support. But you DO have to end up that way. If you don’t end up with the support of a significant portion of the population you won’t accomplish much of significance.

Going back to the Selma Movement, while less than 10% of Blacks directly participated in the Voting Rights campaign, the overwhelming majority supported those that did take action.

The first Vietnam protest I ever participated in was 11 people picketing the old Federal building on McAllister Street in 1964. At that time, only a small minority of population opposed the war. But…

by 1965 hundreds were actively opposing the war
by 1966 thousands were voicing their opposition
by 1967 tens of thousands were in the streets
by 1968 hundreds of thousands were resisting the war in a variety of ways — civil disobediance, GI resistance, draft refusal, economic boycotts, mass marches, nationwide moratoriums, election campaigns. And millions were sending letters, signing petitions, and voting for anti-war candidates.

During the long student strike here at San Francisco State, my guess is that less than 1% of the student body attended planning meetings, passed out leaflets, organized picket lines, and did the other work necessary to call and maintain a strike. And no more than 1500 to 2000 — well under 10% — walked the line, attended the rallies, or marched on the Administration Building. But a clear majority of all the students honored the strike by not attending class.

The Freedom Movement — the “borning movement” — inspired a generation of participatory activism. A particular kind of activism. An activism rooted in community organizing, an activism focused on building popular support through effective education. Media images of the 1960’s are all dramatic protests, clenched fists, massive marches, and great oratory. But that’s just the visible portion of the iceberg. It misses the invisible 5/6ths underneath that made those dramatic moments possible. That invisible 5/6ths is the careful and thoughtful organizing and education performed by grassroots activists.

Stokely Carmichael of SNCC once observed that:

All real education is political. All politics is not necessarily educational, but good politics always is. You can have no serious organizing without serious education. And always, the people will teach you as much as you teach them.

But he wasn’t talking about the standard model of education with a teacher instructing docile students what to think, and they regurgitating pat answers on a test. Nor was he referring to making fiery speechs, shouting slogans to a crowd, peddling newspapers, handing out leaflets, or writing manifestos or position papers — though those activities have their place. He was referring to a kind of education which is mutual and interactive. A kind of education that occurs outside of classrooms and into the communities. A kind of education in which you learn as much — or more — from the people you’re working with than you teach them. A kind of education that is the antithesis of arrogance. A kind of education in which everyone is both teacher and student. A kind of education that understands that ideologic theories always have to be adjusted to the is-ness of real realities.

As intellectuals — particularly when we’re in an academic milieu — we have a tendency to give primacy to the detailed content and internal consistency of theories, ideas, and ideologies. And this sometimes leads us to devote great attention and far too many hours to:

Arguing over every word of a leaflet, resolution, and position paper
Insisting that everyone use only the approved jargon
Debating and refining the “correct” analysis and line

But back in the day, when we stepped off campus into the real world of communities grappling with real problems, we discovered what became a truism of the Freedom Movement — that effective activists and organizers move people not by the brilliance of their analysis or the elegance of their theoretical formulations, but rather by the content of their character — their courage and compassion, their honesty and integrity, the value of their given word, their willingness to learn as well as teach, and the respect they show to others — even those with whom they may have some disagreement.

Unfortunately, in the years after the S.F. State strike, I regret to say that those were lessons from the Freedom Movement that I and many others forgot or ignored as the ’60s turned into the ’70s. Some of us began thinking of ourselves as “revolutionaries.” Real revolutionaries — real activists — learn and adapt and grow and change. But some of us became too arrogant to do that.

We acted as if our theories and ideologies were a revealed and immutable truth that only we held.

We spent most of our time arguing with each other.

We published flyers and newpapers read only by ourselves.

We became harangers rather than organizers.

We engaged in tiny provocative actions that provoked only fear and anger rather than building support.

And some of us treated everyone who disagreed with us — even if only in slight degree — as enemies to be defeated rather than as allies to be welcomed. As a result, we ended up with many enemies and few friends. That’s not political activism — it’s political masturbation. It might feel good while you’re doing it, but it produces nothing, changes nothing, and challenges no one.

But for all of our errors — and there were many — we activists of the 1960s did get at least one thing right. We understood that if we didn’t like the history we were watching on TV and being taught in school it was our duty to go out and make some history of our own.

And we understood that positive social change comes not as a gift from those on high, but rather as something forced up from below by mass activity and “people power.” Which is why one our slogans used to be: “Where the Broom Don’t Sweep the Dirt Don’t Move.

A lot of dirt has built up over recent years. A lot filth has accumulated in the halls of power. I hope that at least some of you young ‘uns are ready to do some sweeping.

Copyright © 2008, Bruce Hartford

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