Sojourner's Blog

October 8, 2011

The Onion Theory of Nonviolent Protest

History is not an accident, it is a choice.” — Bayard Rustin

The purpose of Nonviolent Resistance is to affect peoples’ thinking and build political movements for social change. From that perspective, Nonviolent Resistance is a broad concept encompassing education, organizing, alternative social structures, personal-witness, noncooperation — and, of course, direct action protests.

Some nonviolent actions are large-scale (boycotts, mass marches, strikes, civil non-cooperation, etc) others are engaged in by small groups (pickets, sit-ins, freedom rides, occupations, etc). Regardless of size, the point of a demonstration is to influence people towards affecting some kind of social/political change. When we study the actual impact of nonviolent protests it’s like peeling away the layers of an onion, with each layer representing a different audience. From the core to the outer layer, the effect of a nonviolent protest on each audience varies in the number of people who are influenced, the intensity of the effect, and our control over the content of the message they receive.

At its simplest, the four basic layers of the protest onion are:

1. Participants. The nonviolent resistors engaged in the protest.

2. Observers. The individuals at the businesses or institutions the protest is targeting, and the uninvolved bystanders who encounter or observe the protest.

3. Grapevine. Those who directly hear about the protest from some other person whom they know (including through personal social media such as Twitter, FaceBook, & etc).

4. Media. Those who learn of the protest through impersonal mass media.

Participants.

Participants are the first (inner) layer of the audience onion. For most small-group actions this layer is the least in numbers, though that might not be the case for a mass action. Nonviolent Resistance affects the people who engage in it more deeply than anyone else, and with participants we have the greatest control over the content of the experience.

When you’re a veteran of protest politics it may be hard to remember how your first mass march, your first sit-in, your first arrest affected you. But over and over in their Veterans Roll Call statements on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website, people talk about how their participation in the Freedom Movement permanently changed and shaped their lives. In some circumstances and for some people, taking part in direct action is a profound expression of defiance and courage, for others it can sometimes be a living rejection of the conformist societal norms that previously governed their lives. In some instances, nonviolent protest can be life-changing affirmation of dignity and self-worth — I AM a Man — and a living experience and expression of human solidarity — I Am Not Alone. And, of course, actively planning and participating in a protest provides a depth of political education that no leaflet, speech, article or manifesto can match.

For participants, direct action organizers have the greatest control over the message they experience. In this context, “message” is far more than just the content of the slogans, speeches, signs, and leaflets that express the event’s politics. As we all know, “Actions speak louder than words.” Therefore, the “message” of a protest is a compound of the explicit politics conveyed by words, and the implicit content conveyed by what we do, the way we interact with and treat each other (and those whom we encounter), the emotions we share, and the bonds that we (hopefully) build. Unfortunately, some leaders concentrate so much on planning an action’s explicit political content (words), and how the media will view the demonstration, that they overlook the importance of shaping how it affects those taking part. Which is one reason we see so many sterile, boring, repetitive we-speak-you-listen-and-occasionally-chant rallies.

Of course, over time the personal effect of any given action tends to decrease as someone repeats that kind of protest. Baring some unusual circumstances, someone’s 10th sit-in affects their consciousness less than did their first. Which is why repeating the same action over and over with the same people often leads to diminishing returns. Though, of course, sometimes dogged stubborn repetition is necessary (a strike or boycott picket line, for example). But even in those cases, a creative nonviolent resistor can, and should, look for ways to vary the experience of the participants.

Observers.

Observers are the second layer of the audience onion. Observers include both the people at the institution/businesses the demonstration is targeting and the passers-by who happen to encounter it. These people have a direct, personal experience of the action, but for most of them it is at one-remove from the participants. For small-group protests the number of observers is usually greater than the number of protesters, and that might be the case for a mass-action as well. The effect of the action on observers is less intense than on the participants, but greater than with the two outer layers. And we have less control over what they experience and how they perceive our message.

Marshall McLuhan made famous the now-hackneyed cliche, “The medium is the message.” For a protest action, it’s more accurate to say that “The medium is a crucial component of the message,” as important as the signs, leaflets, chants, and speeches. One aspect of a demonstration’s “medium” is the tactics employed — rally, picket-line, sit-in, occupation, etc. Another, and probably more important, aspect is the demeanor and discipline of the protest participants. During the Southern Freedom Movement, young, Black, protesters nonviolently defying segregation with discipline and determination was a message in and of itself beyond the content of the specific demands, targets, and rhetoric. When Malcolm-X organized Black Muslims to protest police brutality in Harlem by facing the precinct station in silent, orderly rows, their quiet discipline was a powerful message delivered through a nonviolent medium. A message quite different, and far stronger, than rowdies smashing windows, spraying graffiti, or setting trash fires as we occasionally see today.

In essence, nonviolent direct action is speaking truth to power. Our society conditions us to accept and obey both custom and authority. A protest says “NO!” “No!” is the most powerful word in the English language.

No! We don’t accept segregation any longer!
No! We won’t allow ourselves to be abused
No! We won’t support a war for oil in Iraq!
No! We won’t allow Wall Street to rule our lives!

When people see others saying “No!” through a protest, it (hopefully) awakens in them the realization that they too can say “No” in their own lives. This is one of the most important effects that a demonstration can (and should) have on observers. But in order for that effect to occur, the action has to be designed to encourage sympathy and support rather than fear and opposition.

Obviously, bystanders are not the adversaries against whom the protest is directed. And in most cases that is also true of the people who work at the institution or business being targeted because they are rarely the decision-makers. Therefore, it does no good (and some harm) to direct rage, hatred, and hostility at bystanders, clerks, and mid-level bureaucrats. Of course, for some kinds of disruptive nonviolent actions those who are inconvenienced are, in a sense, unwilling and unhappy participants who will probably have at best a mixed reaction and at worst quite a hostile one. But even for them, our stance should be one of education, not anger at those who do not bear responsibility for the abuses we are protesting.

Yet before we can begin education we have to allay fear. It is astounding how many people are made nervous and upset by even the most peaceful nonviolent demonstration. By definition, a protest is a defiance and disruption of social order, and that violation of everyday tranquility is frightening to some folk even when there is no threat whatsoever of violence. The problem for us is that what people fear they come to hate and oppose. (Which exposes the fundamental fallacy of terrorism whether committed by a government or an underground band — yes, in the short-run terror can violently coerce people into obedience, but in the long-run it creates ever more enemies.) So for us, an essential rule of effective nonviolent direct action has to be: Don’t frighten the observers!

Which brings us back to education, because that which is strange and unfamiliar is for many folk frightening. In this context, signs, chants, and speeches are not all that effective. For one thing, at a half-block or across a wide avenue, the chanted words become hard to make out even if amplified, and at that distance signs start to become unreadable. But even if the words are perfectly clear, they’re still part of an “us-them” paradigm which contributes to observer fear. Therefore, nonviolent protest organizers need to assign some of their best people — those most able to communicate with strangers on a friendly, non-hostile basis — to work the periphery of the action handing out flyers, talking to bystanders, answering questions, and even, if feasible, explaining the underlying issues to those being inconvenienced.

3. Grapevine. I heard it through the grapevine!

Those who hear about a protest, and form an impression of it, from someone they personally know are the third layer of the audience onion. Hopefully, the number of people who hear about an action should significantly exceed the number who participate in it or directly observe it. But because they are hearing about it at second or third hand rather than experiencing it themselves, the intensity of impact is less than with participants and observers, and our control over the content of the message that comes through to them is greatly diminished.

In the real world of people-power politics (to say nothing of commercial advertising), word-of-mouth is far more effective than media sound bites or column inches. Word-of-mouth can be via conversations (face-to-face or phone), or through some social media such as FaceBook or Twitter. The key point is that the information comes from a personal acquaintance because that kind of connection usually carries more weight and greater influence than anything received from the mass media (even if the person they’re hearing from did not personally participate in, or observe the demonstration).

Thus, an important goal of nonviolent direct action is to be talked about in a positive (or at least neutral) fashion, one-on-one or over social media — “Did you hear about…

While violence on our part against people or property will certainly generate a lot of talk, that kind of negative buzz does not build mass political movements for social change, in fact it does the opposite. What gets the grapevine humming in a positive way are nonviolent actions that incorporate Audacity & Humor. Audacious nonviolence should provoke a “They did what!?” response that spreads far and wide. In this context, “audacity” means nonviolently breaking the paradigm of business-as-usual social behavior. Audacity is doing the unexpected. Audacity is violating cultural taboos in ways calculated to provoke a reaction without alienating potential supporters (or, at least, not alienating them too much).

When an audacious action is not feasible, sometimes humor is almost as effective. Laughter and ridicule undermine authority and diminish its ability to compel obedience. You can weaken, unbalance, and ultimately overthrow the king quicker by laughing at him than by screaming futile fury at him. Humor appeals to observers and potential supporters — rage frightens and alienates them. Humor disarms and confuses adversaries — anger triggers ingrained patterns of defense and counter-attack. Humor is more sustainable than anger because rage is exhausting, few people can sustain intense fury over long periods of time. Humor, however, is energizing, both in the short-run of a single protest, and in the long- run of an extended campaign.

Humor and audacity work hand-in-hand, reinforcing each other. Humor reduces and defuses hostile reaction to broken taboos, and nothing spreads faster by word-of-mouth (or Twitter tweets) than tales of audacious humor.

4. Media (if any).

Those who learn of a protest, and form an impression of it, through impersonal mass media (TV, newspaper, radio, websites, etc) are the fourth and outermost layer of the audience onion. If the mass media covers a protest, the number of people who hear of it that way will almost certainly be larger than any of the inner onion layers. But the impact will be far less than on participants, observers, and those who hear about it through the grapevine.

Leaving aside the small-scale media organs we ourselves might control (newsletter, website, YouTube clips, maybe a radio show), our influence over the content of what people hear about an action from the mass media is almost nil. The corporate media operates on its own — often hostile — agenda which rarely supports changes to the established order. I learned this the hard way back in 1964 when I saw 800 completely nonviolent protesters dragged out of Sproul Hall while the cops kicked and beat on them, and the headline in the morning paper read “Berkeley Students Riot!” And today, as I write this 47 years later, the mass media coverage of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests is telling the public that the demonstrators have no clear idea or purpose behind what they are doing even though their detailed 21-point “Declaration of the Occupation” has been all over the web for more than a week.

Therefore, given that the media may not cover a protest at all, and the low-intensity impact if they do, plus our inability to influence media content, nonviolent resistors cannot rely on the commercial media to achieve our ends or build a political movement for social change. Which means that the effectiveness of an action cannot be judged by the amount of media coverage it generates (if any). Nor should tactics be chosen based on assumptions of how much media attention those tactics will (or won’t) garner.

Since the purpose of a nonviolent action is to build a political, people-power movement, if it positively affects the first three layers of the audience onion towards that end it is a success regardless of media coverage. More than 90% of all the nonviolent protests conducted by the Southern Freedom Movement of the 1960s had no media coverage whatsoever, not a single radio sound bite, not a single newspaper sentence, yet they profoundly changed the participants, observers, and grapevine as well as their communities and the nation as a whole.

Yes, at times the media is needed to publicize an issue and the struggle around it. So sometimes it is appropriate and necessary to engage in protests designed for the media. But media-oriented actions are just one instrument in the Nonviolent Resistance orchestra, just as you can’t compose a symphony using only bassoons, neither can you build a movement using nothing but (or mostly) media-oriented events.

And, of course, the fact is that protests of all kinds are only one component of building a political movement for social change. Like the tip of an iceberg, demonstrations are what is visible to outsiders (and the media), but that tip exists on a foundation of outreach, organizing, conversations, education, meetings, planning, and many other forms of quiet, non-glamourous, hard work.

 — Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2011

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May 24, 2011

Re-Imagining Campus Protest Rallies

Now that the school year is winding down, it’s a good time to  look back, evaluate, and start laying plans for the Fall.

The campus protest rally with a handful of fiery speakers and  some mass chanting is a staple of protest  politics — a traditional method of expressing  opposition and anger. But as we’ve seen this past year, when it’s  repeated over and over with the same speakers, the same rhetoric,  the and same slogans its effectiveness diminishes and the number  of participants declines.

It’s now clear that the campaign to defend and reform public  higher education is going to be a long hard road. A struggle that  can only be won by building a broad-based mass movement. Mass  movements don’t just happen, they are built by committed activists. But as a general rule, most people don’t become  politically active from listening to speeches, reading websites &  leaflets, or receiving emails & tweets. Organizations and  movements are built by conversations and involving people in  activities — activities that are more substantive  than listening to rally speakers or shouting slogans in a group  chant.

Creativity is a pillar of nonviolent direct action. We  need to apply some creative thinking to the traditional campus  protest rally so as to more effectively involve people in active  participation. For example:

Speak-Out Circles. One technique that proved useful  during the long student strike at S.F. State in 1968 was to  occasionally replace the noon rally with speak-out circles.  Instead of making the usual speeches, we called on people to form  small circles of 6-12 where everyone was encouraged to discuss  the issues. Pre-assigned circle-leaders spread out, raised their  hands, and shouted “form a circle on me.” When folk gathered  around, the leader asked: “Well, what do you think about  [whatever]?” and encouraged dialog. Dialog and discussion were  the keys, not the typical “I’m-the-expert-you-listen-to-me” mode  of speakers/teachers to passive audiences & classes. When done  successfully, speak-out circles allowed strike supporters to  discuss and debate with uninvolved students and opponents.

Inevitably, some circles didn’t jell and dissipated, but  others became lively, loud, and argumentative and attracted more  and more people to gather around. (Yes, encouraging those who  disagreed with us to speak was part of the method.) When a lively  circle became too large, and people were becoming frustrated  because they wanted to contribute their opinions and weren’t  getting an opportunity, a new leader pulled some away to start a  new circle — “Let’s start a new circle over  here!” On our best day, we once built up from an initial 3 to  eventually 11 circles all going at once. The entire lawn in front  of the cafeteria (now the student union) was a bubbling ferment  of ideas and passion and involvement.

Speak-out circles were most effective when something  particularly controversial had just occurred (usually by us) and  people were already buzzing, but they could be used at any time.  More students were moved to support the strike from their  participation in the ferment of those circles than from our  typical we-speak-you-listen rallies. And organizers used them to  spot potential activists for longer conversations, personal  invitations to committee meetings, and so on.

Big Post-Its Campaign. Today we can buy pads of easel- size Post-Its made from newsprint paper. They’re used at meetings  where ideas are written down large and stuck up on the walls.  Instead of a typical noon protest rally, how about bringing out  some big Post-It pads and a bucket of Sharpies and ask people to  write down their own ideas on the issues and post them up on the  walls and glass of nearby buildings. Have cadre prepared to start  it off with some well thought out provocative statements and be  the first to post them up. Be sure to date each statement,  photograph them, and put them up on the internet to share with  other schools (that way they won’t be lost if the administration  orders them torn down).

Use rolls of Blue Tape to reinforce the paper’s sticky back so  that the Post-Its stay up even on concrete walls (brick walls  usually won’t work even with tape). Using Blue Tape is important  because it’s designed to not damage underlying surfaces. Our core  message is that the power-elites are trying to destroy public  higher-education and we don’t want to make it easy for them to  divert the discussion by accusing us of vandalizing school  buildings.

(For those of you with an interest in ancient history, look up  “Big Character Posters” which were powerfully used in the Chinese  Democracy Movement of the mid-1970s until the government  suppressed them.)

We used to say “If you don’t like the history they’re teaching  you, go out and make some of your own.” If these ideas from an  old geezer find no favor in your eyes, create some of your own,  because we all need to start thinking out of the box.

February 1, 2011

The 5-95 Split

The 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 of 1965 was one of the largest Freedom  Movement campaigns of the 1960s. But if you add up all those who  marched, picketed, sat-in, went to jail, tried to register to  vote, or just attended a mass meeting, it totaled less than 10%  of Dallas County’s Black population.

*BUT* these struggles by a small activist cores succeeded because  they won the political support of the great majority. Going back  to the Selma Movement, while less than 10% of Blacks directly and  actively participated in the Voting Rights campaign, the  overwhelming majority supported those that did take action and  they honored the economic boycott that was a significant element  in the eventual victory.

During the long student strike for Third World Studies at San  Francisco State in 1968, we never had more than 1% of the student  body attending planning meetings, passing out leaflets,  organizing actions, or doing the other work necessary to call and  maintain a strike. And no more than 2000 — well under 10% —  walked the picket lines, attended the rallies, or marched on the  Administration Building. But a clear majority of all the students  honored the strike by not attending class. That mass support was  not an accident, it was the product of years — repeat, YEARS  — of patient education, consistent organizing, and a long  series of escalating protests all designed to educate and build  mass support.

The key point is that the 5% who are activists achieve victories  by winning political support among the 95% who are not activists  (and never will be activists). We don’t have to start out with  majority popular support, but we DO have to end up that way. If  we don’t end up with the support of a majority of the population,  we won’t accomplish anything of significance. Which means that  our strategies and tactics must be shaped towards the goal of  winning support among the 95% who are NOT activists. That is the  criteria by which we have to evaluate our strategies and tactics.

Tactics that alienate, or frighten, the people whose support we  need to win are counter-productive. What people fear, they come  to hate, what they come to hate, they oppose. Tactics that treat  the people we need to educate as if they were enemies turns them  into enemies in fact.

Kwame Ture (Stokeley 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.”

May 6, 2010

SNCC & Today’s Education Struggle

Filed under: Education — brucehartford @ 12:07 am
Tags: , , , , ,

At the 50th Anniversary conference/reunion of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Raleigh, NC, we gray-headed Freedom Movement veterans met with more than 50 college activists from a number of HBCUs, and young activists from organizations such as the Young Peoples Project, The Gathering For Justice, and other groups. The topic was today’s education fight. A number of the plenary speakers including Jim Lawson, Harry Belafonte, Bob Moses, and others raised education-related issues, and there were well-organized small-group discussions on the topic.

Starting from the premise that a quality education is a fundamental human right, we looked at two questions:

  1. What defines a quality education?
  2. Should we have a constitutional amendment ensuring the right to a quality education?

The main points that I took away from the discussion:

  1. The fight for a quality education from pre-K to PhD is a key civil rights struggle of the 21st Century.
  2. Framing the issue around “quality education” raises the problem of defining “quality.” The power-structure defines a “quality education” as one that trains young people to be docile and productive hired laborers in an economy that serves the interests of the elite. But for us, a “quality education” is one that prepares young people to be sovereign citizens of a democratic society. So perhaps a better way of stating our goal is “democratic education” or “empowering education,” rather than “quality education.”
  3. The phrase “sovereign citizens of a democratic society” uses the word “citizen” in the broadest sense — making no distinction between “legal” and”illegal,” or social security card vs green card vs no card. “Citizen” is used in the “We the people” sense that all who contribute, work, and live in a community are citizens of that community regardless of arbitrary divisions imposed by the power structure.
  4. At root then, a “quality education” is a question of political power. A very few special schools for the elite (Andover, Punahou, Harvard, Yale, etc) inculcate in their students the assumption that they will be the rulers of tomorrow and prepare them for the acquisition and application of political and economic power. But the schools of the many do the opposite — they instill a sense of political powerlessness. At best the schools for the many prepare young people for a life of hired labor, at worst they don’t even do that. But even the “good” schools that train well-paid hired labor cannot guarantee that those “good” jobs won’t disappear as soon as the power elite can find someone somewhere to do that work at lower wages and greater profit.
  5. The Freedom Movement of the 1960s won victories by exposing the contradictions between the best aspirations of American traditions and the racist/exploitative realities, and by organizing and mobilizing masses of people to demand that America live up to its promises. Can we do the same around education? Can we make the Constitution a tool for reaching/educating/organizing large numbers of people who are not (yet) radicalized, by demanding that a “quality education” be made a constitutional right like free speech, freedom of religion, trial by jury and the right to own a gun?
  6. The very first words of the Constitution are: “We the people … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
    It does not say: “We the President”
    It does not say: “We the Congress”
    It does not say: “We the Supreme Court”
    It does not say: “We the states”
    It does not say: “We the citizens”
    It says “We the people … do ordain and establish…”

February 12, 2010

The Rubber Band Theory of History, and The Water Strategy of Social Change

Filed under: Mass Movements — brucehartford @ 8:48 pm
Tags: , , ,

The way that political change and social advancement is taught in school it often gives the impression that progress is achieved steadily — like going up a ramp — each year society improves, each year is better than the last. And those dead heroes of the distant past who worked and struggled for greater justice and democracy marched bravely forward to inevitable victory. It’s a warm and comforting illusion, but in the real world it’s rarely the case.

American abolitionists fought against slavery for decades, but slavery did not gradually decline year after year until it faded away — rather it was destroyed in the cataclysm of the Civil War. From its inception in 1909, The NAACP struggled decade after decade to win voting rights for Blacks, with little progress to show in the Deep South. SNCC and CORE began combining voter-registration and direct-action in 1961, and year after year — a time that to us “twenty-somethings” seemed interminable — nothing was gained, the number of Blacks registered in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana barely changed. Then like a sudden bolt of lightening came Freedom Summer in 1964 and a few months later the Selma Voting Rights Campaign, the March to Montgomery, and passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But those flashes of sudden lightening did not occur in a vacuum, they were based on, and grew out of, the years and decades of struggle that preceded them.

The struggles to abolish slavery and win voting rights both illustrate the “Rubber Band Theory of History.” Imagine a block of wood sitting on a table. Attached to it is a long chain of rubber bands. You pull on the rubber bands hoping to move the block, but they just stretch and stretch and the block doesn’t move at all. You pull some more, and stretch the bands tighter, and nothing happens. You pull some more, and then suddenly the block moves so fast that it bangs you in the fingers. Sometimes.

Sometimes it works that way — but sometimes you pour your heart & soul into moving the block, you stretch and stretch the rubber bands, you march, you picket, you go to jail, but the block never moves. You achieve nothing. Which is why activists need to keep in mind Rabbi Tarfon, and the Tao of Social Struggle.

Which brings us to the “Water Strategy of Social Change.” Contrary to the deeply held beliefs of some, there is no instruction manual for achieving political reform (let alone, revolution). There is no easy how-to pamphlet, no simple 12-step program. Social struggle is like water flowing to the sea. If something dams the water, it goes around. If it can’t go around, it goes over, if it can’t go over, it goes under, if it can’t go around or over or under, it eats away at the blockage until it dissolves.

The Water Strategy recognizes that social change is an art, not a science. It’s a Darwinian process — you try something, if it works you reinforce it, if it fails, you try something else. That which succeeds survives and thrives, that which fails become stagnant political backwaters thinly inhabited by sterile dogmatists and irrelevant ideologues.

February 11, 2010

That Darned “Why did you…” Question

Why did you become involved in the Civil Rights Movement?

When I and other Freedom Movement veterans speak to schools, churches, and other groups, we are often asked the “Why did you…” question. It’s a fair and reasonable question, but it always makes me a bit uncomfortable. For one thing, it’s impossible to provide a clear, simple, 60-second answer to a very complex set of motivations. But beyond that, there are deeper problems.

To begin with, as a white activist, what I’m often being asked — either explicitly or implicitly — is why am I as a white person involved in fighting for racial justice? And I suspect that lurking behind that question are two equally invalid assumptions:

  • First, there is the assumption that racism and discrimination was (is) a Black problem that Blacks have to solve. It wasn’t and isn’t — it’s a white problem. Blacks did not deny themselves the right to vote or have a cup of coffee at a lunch counter, nor did they create separate and unequal school systems, or “white-only” jobs, or segregated housing. And they didn’t lynch themselves. Since whites were (are) the source of the problem, whites therefore have to be part of the solution.
  • The second incorrect assumption is that it’s self-evident why Blacks were involved in the Movement, and therefore only whites need to be asked, “Why did you…?” But the truth is that while most Blacks approved of and voiced support for the Movement (unlike most whites), only a small fraction attended a mass meeting, took active part in protests, attempted to register to vote when it was a dangerous act of courage, or even just signed a petition or contributed money to a civil rights organization. And this is not surprising, social scientists tell us that few reform movements ever involve more than 5% of the population in active participation. Yet if only a small portion of Blacks were personally involved, then it is not obvious why those who put their lives and livelihoods on the line did so — and we’re back to the “Why did you?” question.

So, okay, it’s fair and reasonable to ask both Black and white activists the “Why did you?” question, but for me it’s still the wrong question. For me, the more important, and certainly more interesting, question is to ask all those who were adults in the 1960s why they were NOT involved in the Freedom Movement. Some day, I’d like to be in the audience and ask a panel of the “silent majority” who did nothing: “What part of “With liberty and justice for all” did you not understand? Was there something in “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” that you disagreed with?

Overt racists will, of course, loudly defend their belief in white-supremacy — that’s old news.

But what about the millions of living-room liberals, some of whom wrote an occasional check in the privacy of their den, but few of whom spoke up publicly, and fewer still ever raised a picket sign — why didn’t they?

The great “moderate majority” avow their love of American freedoms, how then do they explain their silence of generations as those freedoms were denied to citizens of color? They were certainly not shy about voicing their disapproval of nonviolent protesters asking for those same freedoms — that was a big part of the famous “white backlash” — so how do they square their actions and inactions with their oft-stated principles?

And what about the flag-waving patriots who throw an hysterical fit if someone burns a flag, or dares criticize any action of the American government (the self-appointed leader of the “free world”). How do they justify their utter failure to defend the freedoms they proclaim so fervently (to say nothing of their vigorous hostility to those of us who were demanding justice and equality)?

When are those questions going to be asked?

And while we’re on the subject, the media closely questions political candidates of a certain age about their military service (or lack thereof) during the Vietnam era, but how come they’re never asked what they did to defend freedom during the Civil Rights era?

Copyright © 2008, Bruce Hartford

February 10, 2010

Nonviolence and the Tao of Social Struggle

Holding to nonviolence in the face of violent opposition is not the hardest part of engaging in Nonviolent Resistance. Once there is a will to take up nonviolent direct-action, training and group solidarity can solve the problem of remaining nonviolent when provoked or attacked. The hardest part of Nonviolent Resistance is overcoming apathy, discouragement, and despair. The hardest part of Nonviolent Resistance is committing yourself to take action and resist.

There’s nothing I can do.
I have no power or influence.
You can’t fight City Hall.
One person can’t do anything.
Nothing ever changes, the rich get richer and the poor get children.”

This isn’t a new problem. As recorded in the Talmud, a couple of thousand years ago Rabbi Tarfon (circa 70-135ce) taught:

You are not required to complete the task [of healing the world’s ills], but neither are you free to avoid it.

At that time, their world was in a world of hurt:

The Jewish revolt against Rome had failed.
Jerusalem had fallen, and the city put to the torch.
The Temple of Solomon was destroyed.
Thousands were slaughtered, the gutters ran red with blood.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews & Christians were enslaved.
Tens of thousands were tortured to death in Rome’s coliseum for the  amusement of the mob.

There was enormous despair. Tarfon’s response was:

You are not required to complete the task [of healing the world’s ills], but neither are you free to avoid it.”

Later Talmud commentaries expanded Tarfon’s dictum:

You don’t measure your individual contribution against the totality of the task. You measure your contribution against the totality of your life.

Measured against the pain and injustice that exist in the world, the contribution of any individual — even the greatest individual — is infinitesimally small. You don’t have control over the world, but you do have control over how you lead your life. Healing the world [in Hebrew “Tikkun Olam“] can form:

No part of your life,
or a small part,
or a great part,
or you can dedicate your life to fighting for justice and making the world a better place

That is the choice a Nonviolent Resister has to make.

January 30, 2010

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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