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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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 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.

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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