Sojourner's Blog

October 16, 2013

The March on Washington 50 Years Later

On a sweltering August day in 1963, I listened to Dr. King speak his dream, articulating the highest aspirations of our Freedom Movement. My heart soared, and to this day I am still moved by those words no matter how often I hear them.

But now, 50 years later, as the media tributes and commemorations flood the airwaves I am struck by their thundering silence on the issues of economic justice, poverty, and income-inequality that formed half of the protest’s bedrock core.

The March on Washington was a march for Jobs and Freedom. Dr. King, A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis of SNCC, and James Farmer of CORE, all insisted that the march must be as much about economic justice as about social segregation. We marched that day to make 10 demands on American government and society (see ). Half of those demands addressed economic issues such as a living minimum wage, jobs and job training, fair labor standards, and an end to employment discrimination. The first portion of Dr. King’s speech — the part which the media and the politicians never quote — spoke to issues of wealth and poverty and income inequality.

Today, as we know full well, those issues are still with us, still unaddressed, still festering. Now, 50 years later, issues of economic justice, income inequality, and systemic poverty still remain the taboo topic of political discourse in America. Fifty years ago we assumed that the roots of poverty lay in discrimination and lack of opportunity. Today we understand that such issues are also inextricably bound to the realities of political power, the enormous disparity of influence between the wealthy few and working many.

Year after year, anti-union laws and court rulings cripple the ability of hard working people to earn a living-wage, while pro-business legislation and government policies encourage and subsidize the outsourcing and offshoring of jobs in a race to the bottom of lower labor costs. Housing and urban renewal policies result in the poor paying greater portions of their income for substandard housing than the affluent do for luxury accommodations. Political dis-investment in education, public works, transportation, and public health steadily widen the income gap and disproportionately impact the poor. Despite rhetoric about “family farms,” federal agriculture policies and subsidies are designed to enrich corporate agribusiness and impoverish small subsistence farmers. Business and consumer “protection” laws and international treaties are written to favor corporate profits at the expense of We the People.

One of the March demands was to raise the federal minimum from $1.15/hour to $2.00. When you adjust for inflation, $1.15 in 1963 is equal to $8.78 in 2013. Yet today, the federal minimum wage is only $7.25, significantly lower than what it was 50 years ago. After adjusting for inflation, the $2.00/hour minimum wage called for by the marchers would be equal to a minimum wage of $15.27 today, more than twice what it actually is. Congress sets the minimum wage. It is corporate political power that keeps it low, and the only way to raise it is by building popular people power.

Dr. King understood this relationship between economic justice and political power. In a lecture shortly before his assassination in 1968 he said, “The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty.”

August, 2013

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October 14, 2013

Taxes and Liberty Poles

When I was a kid they taught me all about the American Revolution, “No Taxation Without Representation,” the Stamp Tax and the Boston Tea Party. Yay! Go Yankees!

But for some reason (an oversight, no doubt), they left out the context. Those taxes our ancestors were protesting were imposed to finance imperialist war. From the 1740s through 1760s, Britain fought the Dutch, French, and Spanish to conquer Canada, seize sugar islands in the Caribbean, take Senegal & Gambia in Africa, and grab Bengal & Pondicherry in India. That required a massive expansion of the British Army & Navy, first to take and then to hold those prizes against rival powers and local resistance.

But the riches and wealth from those colonies went only to the British 1%, the aristocrats and merchant princes who owned the East and West India companies, the plantations, and the mines. And, of course, the slaves, serfs, & indentured servants forced to work them. Since they controlled Parliament, they arranged a tax system where they paid very little and the 99% were bled dry for their benefit.

The resulting tax protests didn’t just occur in America, there were protests, riots, and uprisings in Ireland, Scotland, and England itself. The “Boston Massacre” we read about in school, for example, was called “massacre” in memory of the “St. George’s Fields Massacre” in London two years earlier when 15,000 people protesting taxes and denial of free speech were fired on by Redcoats.

One of the tactics of popular resistance used on both sides of the Atlantic back then was erecting “Liberty Poles” on public and private property as protest symbols and rallying points. Some of those poles were very tall, and all of them were hung with signs and symbols of protest. When the authorities tried to cut them down, sometimes they were defended, occasionally with violence, but more often with what we would today call nonviolent mass action. If a pole was taken down, a mass action was mobilized to put up a new one. The authorities discovered that it was much easier for the protesters to erect new poles than for the Redcoats to take them down against public opposition.

Ah well, just a curiosity of history I suppose. So glad all that sort of injustice and abuse is long in the past.

February 14, 2013

The Roots of Poverty

Fifty years ago, Black and white college students active with the Civil Rights Movement undertook freedom sojourns in rural communities of the deep South. For many of us, our starkest and most enduring memories of that intense time are not of KKK violence, mass protests or filthy jail cells but rather images of devastating, intractable, systemic poverty. In 2005, TV images of Katrina’s aftermath forcefully reminded us once again that beneath America’s celebrated affluence lie rural and urban wastelands of abysmal poverty and human suffering.

The mass media presents us with two opposing views of poverty’s root causes:

To oversimplify, and in a sense caricaturize, the view of the political right is that there are two kinds of poor folk. The “deserving poor” (orphans, accident victims, those with debilitating illness, etc.) for whom we should provide some ameliorative charity. And a much greater number of “undeserving poor” who live in poverty because they are lazy, shiftless, alcoholic, drug addicted, or are sexually promiscuous women who engage in serial pregnancies. Providing assistance to the undeserving poor just enables their life-style choices and encourages them to remain permanent social parasites feeding off the hard work and taxes of “productive” citizens.

Again to oversimplify, the liberal view is that in most cases the root cause of long-term poverty is lack of opportunity. Inadequate education, lack of job training, no child care, inadequate public transportation, no jobs available, or jobs denied because of race, gender, or some other form of discrimination. And therefore the corresponding solution is to supply opportunity by ending discrimination, providing education, training, child care, transportation and investing public and private funds to create new jobs.

I and many other civil rights workers initially held the liberal view. But once involved in the Freedom Movement we quickly learned that while discrimination and lack of opportunity are certainly important factors, lack of political power (broadly defined) is a deeper, and more fundamental root cause of systemic poverty. In this context, “political power” refers to the ability to change (or maintain) some economic aspect of society. This kind of political power can be expressed via elections, lobbying, economic action (boycotts, strikes and mutual aid), and all the varied tactics of nonviolent direct action.

Year after year, anti-union laws and rulings cripple the ability of workers to earn a living wage while pro-business legislation and government policies encourage and subsidize the outsourcing and offshoring of jobs in a race to the bottom of lower and lower labor costs. Housing and urban renewal policies result in the poor paying greater portions of their income for substandard housing than the affluent do for luxury accommodations. Political disinvestment in education, public works, transportation, and public health disproportionately impact the poor to their detriment. Despite rhetoric about “family farms,” federal agriculture policies and subsidies enrich corporate agribusiness and impoverish small and medium farmers. And business and consumer laws are written to favor corporate profits at the expense of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

The result is that most poor people have productive jobs — often multiple jobs — and they are working longer and longer hours, but they remain mired in permanent poverty. This is not caused by lack of opportunity alone, it’s also caused by lack of power to change the systems, policies, and practices that create and continually recreate poverty.

In essence, the liberal “lack-of-opportunity” view was the intellectual foundation that underlay the federal “War on Poverty” programs of the 1960s. Despite LBJ’s rhetoric, empowering poor people was not included in those programs and when people in the field made efforts in that direction they were immediately reined in by both local and national power brokers.

Such was the case with the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), one of the earliest and most successful Headstart programs. Among its organizers were a number of Freedom Movement veterans who favored training and hiring actual poor people to staff the centers (as opposed to professional educators with college degrees). They organized poor parents to take active decision-making roles in both the education of their children and broader community affairs.

The CDGM came under immediate and intense political attack from the Mississippi power-structure led by Senator Stennis who accused it of being “Communist” — not because the alphabet blocks the children played with could be used to spell “red,” but because it was empowering poor people to exert some influence and control over their own lives. Bowing to political pressure, Washington soon defunded CDGM, replacing it with a program where middle-class professionals provided services to the poor who were expected to consume and accept what was given to them as passive clients.

Dr. King understood this relationship between poverty and political power. In a lecture shortly before his assassination he said:

The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty. — The Trumpet of Conscience, Beacon Press.

 That was the underlying vision of his Poor Peoples Campaign, to build a national, multi-racial alliance of poor people to fight on their own behalf. Not to plead for more charity or welfare, but to demand and win economic justice.

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.”

February 12, 2010

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

Filed under: Mass Movements — brucehartford @ 8:48 pm
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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 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.

February 9, 2010

100 Years of Nonviolent Struggle

Those who dispute the effectiveness of Nonviolent Resistance claim that “Nonviolence cannot work in America.” Nonsense. Nonviolent political struggle has been the fundamental engine of social reform throughout our history. Let’s take a stroll down Memory Lane —

Shazam! Through the magic power of imagination (and the historical record) we’ve travelled a century back in time to the year 1910. Let’s look around, what do we see?

Voting Rights:

  • Women are not allow to vote. Women who try to vote are sent to jail.
  • Blacks are denied the right to vote in the South, and face violence and economic retaliation if they try to vote in many areas outside the South.
  • In some states Mexican-Americans are legally prohibited from voting, and where they are (in theory) permitted to vote, they often face violence and economic retaliation.
  • The “Chinese Exclusion” acts prevent Asians of all nationalities from becoming citizens, so they can’t vote either.
  • Native Americans are legally considered to be citizens of “sovereign Indian nations” (meaning the reservations) so they too cannot vote.
  • Many states have poll taxes that limit voting only to the affluent.
  • In the Presidential election of 1910, the majority of American adults (perhaps two-thirds) are denied the right to vote in one way or another.
  • U.S. Senators are not elected by the people, but rather appointed by state legislators and governors. The selling of such offices to the highest bidder is commonplace.

The decades-long Womans Suffrage Movement, the campaign to end the poll tax, electoral reform efforts, and the voting rights campaigns of the 1960s, eventually ended these abuses. All of those successful campaigns were nonviolent.

Lynchings:

  • According to official reports, at least 76 people — most of them Black — are lynched in 1910 (that’s more than six a month). But many lynchings are never reported, so the actual number is unknown.
  • The number of Latinos, Asians, and Indians lynched in California average more than 4 per year between 1850 and 1935. No figures are available for the other Western states, but many lynchings are known to have occurred.
  • Labor leaders and organizers of all races risk being beaten, bushwacked or lynched by those determined to prevent workers from organizing or striking for higher pay.
  • In 1910, Congress again refuses to pass any legislation to limit or outlaw lynchings. Between 1900 and 1950 more than 200 anti-lynching bills are introduced in Congress (an average of 4 per year). All are blocked by racist Southern Democrats and conservative pro-business Republicans. Only rarely are those who foment or participate in a lynching charged with murder or any other crime.
  • The national press pays little attention to lynchings because they’re such a common event in American society. A significant segment of public opinion supports lynching as an effective and necessary means of keeping racial minorities, immigrants, and dangerous radicals in their place.

Today, while Congress has still not passed any anti-lynching legislation, lynchings are rare events widely covered by the mass media, overwhelmingly condemned by the public, and usually prosecuted. These changes in both public attitude and government response are the result of nonviolent political action.

Government in the Bedroom:

  • Under the “Comstock Laws,” the selling or distributing contraceptives in 1910 is a jailable offense in 30 states. It is a Federal crime to provide women with information about contraception through the mail, or to ship contraceptives across state lines. In Connecticut, it is a crime to practice any form of birth-control in the privacy of your own home.
  • Abortion is a felony everywhere, even in cases of rape, incest, or when necessary to save the life of the mother.
  • In 30 of the 48 states, the felony crime of “miscegenation” makes it illegal to marry a person of a different race. (But white men forcing sex on women of color is an accepted custom quaintly referred to in polite society as “paramour rights.”)
  • It is a felony for two men, or two women, to have consensual sexual relations with each other. Urban police departments are active in apprehending and incarcerating such outlaws.

From Margaret Sanger’s nonviolent civil disobediance in defense of a woman’s right to practice birth-control, to the efforts to legalize abortions which led to Roe v Wade, to the anti-racism struggles of the 1960s, to today’s fight against homophobia, inch by inch the government has been forced out of our bedrooms by the strategies and tactics of Nonviolent Resistance (though this struggle continues).

Race and Gender Discrimination:

  • In 1910, most parts of the South require segregation by law and it is common practice in many other regions of the country. Blacks, Latinos, Indians, and Asians, are refused service in restaurants, hotels, public swimming pools, and places of entertainment. Public rest rooms are marked “White Only” even in government buildings. Government services freely available to whites are often denied to people of color. In some areas, hospitals refuse to admit or treat non-whites. Public transportation is “back of the bus” and the “Jim Crow car” at the end of the train.
  • Job discrimination on the bases of race, gender, and in some cases nationality is the norm. For the most part, people of color are restricted to menial, hard-labor, low-paid jobs. The better occupations are explicitly “white.” At various times and places, immigrants of different nationalities also face forms of employment discrimination. Most jobs are culturally-stereotyped as “men’s work” or “women’s work.” “Women’s work” is paid less than “men’s work” — or paid not at all. With rare exceptions, the blue-collar skilled trades and white-collar professions are male-only and white-only. Where both whites and non-whites, or men and women, do perform the same job, whites and males are commonly paid significantly more than women or non-whites. In newspapers across the country job announcements often specify “White Only” and want ads in the Classified sections are frequently divided into four groups — White Male, White Female, Colored Male, and Colored Female.
  • The military is thoroughly segregated. Most police departments are all white, and it is unusual indeed to find a Black or Latino judge (since Indians and Asians can’t be citizens, they can’t be judges either).
  • In the South and some other regions, there are separate and cruelly-unequal school systems for whites and Blacks. Elsewhere, “defacto” school segregation is the norm, with district and assignment boundaries carefully drawn to create all (or overwhelmingly) white and non-white schools. Both north and south, white schools have significantly higher funding, better facilities, and newer textbooks than non-white schools. Except for the historically Black colleges, most institutions of higher learning simply do not admit non-whites, and many don’t admit (or strictly limit) Jews and other “undesirable” whites.
  • In cities across the country, housing segregation is the norm. Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and in some areas Jews, are restricted to ethnic ghettos with over-priced, sub-standard tenement housing. In liberal San Francisco, for example, no Latinos are allowed “north of the slot” (Market St), Chinese are limited to Chinatown, Filipinos to Manila Town, Japanese to Japan Town, and the few Blacks can only live in Hunters Point. In middle-class residential neighborhoods across the country, home deeds and rental contracts often contain “restrictive covenants” that make it illegal to sell or rent to anyone of an undesirable race or religion.

Today, racial segregation in public accomodations is a crime punishable by law, as is explicit, overt race and gender-based job discrimination. Even though urban police departments and judicial systems still exhibit obvious race-bias, they are at least integrated. And “open-housing” laws have driven overt, explicit, race-based housing discrimination underground in most areas. Obviously, struggles against these and other kinds of discrimination continue, but what progress has been achieved over the past 100 years has been won through nonviolent action.

Labor:

  • In 1910, the typical blue-collar workday is 10-12 hours with no overtime pay if you have to work longer. For rural labor, the workday is “can-see to can’t see” (up to 16 hours in the heat of summer).
  • Wages for most urban and rural blue-collar and domestic workers are just barely above the starvation level. Your children are likely to suffer from (and in many cases die of) nutrition-deficiency diseases. Workers are housed in rat and roach-infested tenements and shanties.
  • There are no paid vacations or holidays.
  • There is no unemployment insurance, so when Wall Street speculators create a depression or recession, the unemployed go hungry.
  • There are no workplace safety regulations and thousands are maimed and killed on the job every year. There is no Workers Compensation or Disability Insurance, so when you’re maimed on the job you get to beg on the streets for the rest of your life.
  • There is no Social Security, so when you’re too old to work, you have to be supported by your children, and if that option isn’t available, you don’t live long.
  • In 1910, the Supreme Court issues a ruling in the “Danbury Hatters” case that effectively makes it a Federal Anti-Trust crime for a trade union to negotiate or strike for higher pay. This ruling is then used for decades as the legal justification for police (and in some cases military) suppression of unions and strikes.

Today, despite the best efforts of “free market” politicians, there still remains a partial social safety net that was hard won over the past 100 years through the blood, sweat, and tears of struggle. Workers with union jobs can buy homes, own cars, and afford vacation travel. And even non-union wages are far above starvation level. The efforts that won these gains were predominantly nonviolent. Yes, from time to time workers on picket lines did defend themselves against attack by cops, goons, and scabs, but those incidents were the exception not the rule. Despite the fame bestowed on the violent exceptions, 99% of all successful strikes over the past century were nonviolent. And the rare cases where labor attempted offensive violence against people or property that usually led to a decisive defeat. Which is why the militant IWW (the “Wobblies”) issued the following warning to all their members: “Beware the man who advocates violence for he is either mad or a police provocateur.”

Public Health & Safety:

  • The average life expectancy of Americans in 1910 is 50 years (compared with almost 78 years today).
  • In 1910, enforcement the recently passed Food and Drug Act and meat inspection regulations are still being blocked by business lobbies, politicians, and a pro-business Supreme Court. These weak acts attempt to limit the “interstate transport of food which has been 'adulterated,' with ... the addition of fillers of reduced 'quality or strength,' coloring to conceal 'damage or inferiority,' formulation with additives 'injurious to health,' or the use of 'filthy, decomposed, or putrid' substances.
  • Nor is there any effective regulation of drugs and “tonics” that often contain dangerous additives, addictive narcotics, and slow-acting poisons. Efforts to limit the worst abuses are fiercely resisted by whiskey distillers and the patent medicine firms who are the largest newspaper advertisers in the country.
  • Health inspection of restaurants, saloons, boarding-house kitchens, and labor-camp mess halls is non-existent. Efforts at public sanitation are limited. Sewage systems and water treatment facilities are primative.
  • Deficiency diseases such as rickets, scurvy, beri-beri, pellagra, and goiter are wide-spread among both urban and rural poor with hundreds of thousands of children suffering — and often dying — from malnutrition. Public health officials such as Dr. Joseph Goldberger are excoriated by business and political leaders as “dangerous radicals” for claiming that deficiency diseases such as pellagra are caused by poverty and poor diet.
  • There are few public hospitals. If you’re poor and sick or injured your best hope is a pathetically under-funded “charity” hospital where your chances of contracting some infectious disease from other desperately ill patients are about equal to your chances of getting out alive.

As with other social ills addressed over the past 100 years, advances in public health have been made as the result of nonviolent political action — largely by “women’s groups” — who force politicians and courts to protect the many from the ruthless greed of the few.

Enviroment, Public Education, Judicial Reform, Immigrant Rights, and so many other issues, all addressed and affected by nonviolent protest and nonviolent political action. Nonviolent strategies and tactics have been central to every successful social and political movement of the past 100 years. And violent strategies and tactics have not only failed in every instance, they’ve alienated the masses of people who have to be mobilized to effect change. Not only does nonviolence work in America, it’s the only thing that does.

Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2010. Noncommercial use with attribution is permitted.

February 1, 2010

Two Kinds of Nonviolent Resistance

Judging by what they show on TV and teach in the schools today, we mythical heroes of the Civil Rights Movement were self-sacrificing saints who loved our enemies and eagerly faced martyrdom with love in our hearts and a song on our lips. Nope. Wrong. ‘Taint so.

There were two different kinds of Nonviolent Resistance practiced by the Freedom Movement of the 1960s:

  • Philosophical Nonviolence. Those who were philosophically nonviolent did try to love their enemies and did try to refrain from any form of violence in all aspects of their lives. Politically they were pacifists and deeply studied in Gandhian creed. Dr. King, John Lewis, James Lawson, Bernard LaFayette, and others belonged to this group. The heart of philosophical nonviolence was taking action to oppose injustice and winning over one’s enemies through love and redemptive suffering. Yet, despite the media myths, philosophical nonviolents were always a small minority of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Tactical Nonviolence. Those who were tactically nonviolent used Nonviolent Resistance as a tool for building political power — in demonstrations, as an organizing technique & style, and as a political strategy to achieve specific goals. But it was a tactic, not a philosophy of life; and in other situations, — both personal and political, — other strategies and tactics might be used. We who were tactically nonviolent used Nonviolent Resistance because we wanted to win. We saw nonviolence as the most effective way to accomplish our goals through political means. By 1963 the great majority of Freedom Movement activists in CORE, SNCC, NAACP, and even SCLC, were tactically nonviolent rather than philosophically nonviolent.Those of us who were tactically nonviolent did not love our enemies, nor did we believe that our redemptive suffering would convert racists and segregationists to a new outlook of interracial brotherly love. Rather than changing hearts, our focus was changing behavior — through persuasion if possible, but if that was not possible then by coercion. On the broad scale that meant building political movements to win legislation, sway court decisions, and alter social values that would then force racist businesses, institutions, government agencies, and individuals of power to change their behavior regardless of their personal opinions. On a narrower local scale — a particular business that discriminated against people based on their race, for example — we would try persuasion, but if that failed we would try to coerce a change their behavior through disruptive nonviolent tactics such as a sit-in or boycott or shop-in.

But these two views were not hostile to each other — they were just different. Both groups worked well together, simply agreeing to respectfully disagree on it. Dr. King made it quite clear that he was not demanding that others adopt his personal philosophy of nonviolence, and we who were tactically nonviolent respected the courage and commitment of the philosophicals. The two views were not antagonistic because both encompassed the fundamental premis that nonviolence is about active resistance — not passivity. In the words of SNCC organizer and Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson Reagon:

Many times when people talk about nonviolence, they think of a sort of passivity, a peacefulness. If you are talking about the Civil Rights Movement and our practice of nonviolence, you have to think of aggressive, confrontational activity, edgy activity; action designed to paralyze things as they are, nonviolent actions to force change.” [Music in the Civil Rights Movement]

Most people are unable (or unwilling) to love their enemies or practice philosophical nonvilence in all aspects of their life — Mahatma Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings are few and far between — which is why it’s important to understand that you don’t have to be a Gandhi or a King in order to use Nonviolent Resistance as a strategy and technique of social change and struggle.

— Copyright © 2004, Bruce Hartford

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

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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