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Training for Change

Mass Action Since Seattle
7 ways to make our protests more powerful

George Lakey, Director, Training for Change


Seattle, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles: each of them experiments in mass direct action for justice and environmental sanity. Each has drawn thousands of committed people who care deeply about a better world, for their own back yard and for the planet. Each has involved risk, pain, and suffering, as well as moments of profound connection, creativity, and community. Historians will mark 1999-2000 as a time when the river of change ran more quickly.

Jump ahead to a specific section
1. Create more dilemma demonstrations
2. Decide specifically whom we're trying to influence
  3. Use campaigns more often, to become proactive rather than reactive
  4. Shift our understanding of the role of mass media
  5. Heighten the contrast between protesters and police behavior
  6. Take a powerful attitude toward the prospect of state repression
  7. Fully commit to strategic nonviolent action explicitly
  Conclusion: solving problems builds the movement
Each city's action has also invited controversy and debate about tactics and strategy. In the "morning after" period in which people lick their wounds and organize legal defense against continued state repression, it's easy for resentments to flare and defensiveness to flourish. The challenge is: how to be honest about differences of views, how to allow the authentic debates to happen, and still not lose ourselves in divisiveness?

However much we may need to disagree as we dialogue about our future, two points of unity stand out for most activists:

  • the System needs major change, and compared with those who consciously fight us to preserve the unjust status quo, we activists objectively are allies of each other;

  • we will all benefit from a rapid learning curve in which we learn the most possible from each round of struggle and stay flexible and ready to give up what doesn't seem to be working.
  • In that spirit, I write about some ways to sharpen future mass direct action scenarios. We can fully appreciate the hard work and sacrifice that has gone into each of these recent experiments (and others, such as Windsor, Eugene, Minneapolis) and still act on our freedom to make different choices for next time as we learn more about how to make social change in the twenty-first century. And even though this paper is about the future and uses some of this year's examples, I'll also weave in direct action examples from the past in order to honor our ancestors and to reduce the near-sightedness that comes from only knowing about the activist culture immediately around us.

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    1. Create more "dilemma demonstrations."

    This form of direct action puts the power holders in a dilemma: if they allow us to go ahead and do what we intend to do, we accomplish something worthwhile related to our issue. If they repress us, they put themselves in a bad light, and the public is educated about our message.

    Many examples can inspire our creativity. Most readers will know that some campaigns to save old-growth trees have set up these dilemmas. If, for example, the protesters are allowed to sit in the trees, the trees are saved. If the protesters are stopped violently, the public is educated and new allies can be won.

    During the 1992 power holder celebration of the anniversary of the Columbus horror, an informal group of us decided to take advantage of a visit of replica ships Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. We paddled canoes into the middle of the harbor crowded with sailboats and media and raised our banners against racism and slavery. Police boats pursued us immediately, which turned the attention of the crowd to the drama of watery arrests of us and our signs. The corporate media coverage turned out to be centrally about our message rather than reverence for Columbus. For the power holders, whether to arrest was a dilemma: if they let us protest, we spoiled the party, but arresting us got the message out to even more people!

    African American students in the South were very creative with such tactics, for example sitting at the lunch counter asking for coffee. If they were served, racism took a hit. If they were either attacked by civilians or arrested, racism also took a hit. The sit-inners didn't even need the signs they brought in order to make their point. The power holders were repeatedly put in a dilemma: whatever they did resulted in lost ground for the status quo.

    I wouldn't say that it is always easy to create such tactics, and there are times when stopping traffic may be the best we can think of. The difference, however, is very clear if we take the point of view of the bystander or the television camera. When the police drag away protesters who are blocking a city intersection, what is the message of the protesters? The World Bank has policies that hurt people? Maybe, if the bystander or television viewer is willing to make several logical steps or leaps of imagination. There's no reason to expect that bystanders and TV viewers will work hard to make those connections, especially when the excitement is in the physical conflict itself between arresting officers and activists.

    One way to spur our creativity, so more of our tactics actually put the power holders in a dilemma, is to picture to ourselves what the actual point of confrontation will look like to curious bystanders who are not already on our side. The scenarios we then develop will have more power and clarity of message.

    One place to look for dilemma demonstration ideas is the community work that activists are already doing. Community gardens, for example, might be planted in places which need reclaiming. In the midst of the Seattle action some activists did guerrilla gardening in the median strips of downtown streets and avenues along the wharf.


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    2. Decide specifically whom we're trying to influence.

    Using a term like "the public" is too simple a way to think about strategy (even though I just referred to the public in the previous section). "The public" includes many subgroups, some of whom are very important to the success of a campaign, some less important, and some not important at all. If we create a map of the political territory and decide who we most need to influence in what ways, we will create tactics that more frequently have the force that's needed.

    For example, a small group in the Movement for a New Society once threw a monkey wrench into a U.S. foreign policy objective by correctly figuring out who to influence through direct action. The U.S. was supporting, as it often does, a military dictatorship that was killing thousands of people. In fact, in Pakistani dictator Yayah Khan was killing hundreds of thousands of people in East Bengal who wanted independence. The U.S. government lied about its support, but the activists learned that Pakistani ships were on their way to U.S. ports to pick up military supplies for the continuing massacre. The group also realized that if longshoremen refused to load the ships, the U.S. government would be foiled.

    The problem was, the East Coast longshoremen were, if anything, politically inclined to support the government, and wanted to feed their families. The activists repeatedly tried to persuade the longshoremen to act in solidarity with the East Bengalis, without success. It was time for direct action. The group announced a blockade of the port which was expecting the next Pakistani freighter, and began practicing "naval maneuvers" with sailboats, rowboats and the rest of its motley fleet. The media gave ongoing coverage, and longshoremen witnessed on television as well as in person the strange antics of protesters who seemed to believe they could stop a big freighter with tiny boats. The tactic raised the longshoremen's motivation to listen and discuss, and they agreed that, if the activists created a picket line, the longshoremen would refuse to cross it!

    When the campaign succeeded in that city, the activists took it to other port cities and finally the International Longshoremen's union agreed workers would not load Pakistan-bound weapons anywhere in the U.S.! The blockade, initiated by a small group, succeeded because the group crafted direct action tactics specifically geared toward the part of the public that most needed to be influenced. (1)

    As we design campaigns focused on the World Trade Organization or capital punishment or the sex trade we need to create a political/cultural/economic map of "the public" and decide who we want to influence in what ways. Part of our power is in fact through making such choices.


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    3. Use campaigns to become proactive rather than reactive.

    Sometimes a strong reaction to a move of the power holders can be very powerful, as it was in Seattle. By mobilizing around the WTO meeting and disrupting it, tremendous gains were made. The negative side of globalization was put on the public agenda for the first time, something which all the organizing against the North American Free Trade Agreement failed to do. New ongoing alliances became tantalizing possibilities. The very unleashing of rebel energy itself was positive.

    Occasionally reacting is one thing; staying in a posture of reaction is something else. A good word for continuous reaction is "disempowerment." Mohandas K. Gandhi's first principle of strategy was to stay on the offensive. Having our action agenda dictated by where and when the power holders want to have their meetings is not staying on the offensive.

    Campaigns put us on the offensive. A campaign is a focused mobilization of energy with a clear objective, over a time period that can realistically be sustained by our constituency. Often the objective is in the form of a demand which a targeted entity can make a decision about.

    The United Students Against Sweatshops movement mostly works through campaigns, which is one reason why it is meeting with success. When these students choose their objective and identify the power holder whose position needs to change, a lot else starts to become clear. Who is going to oppose them most strongly? And who are their greatest potential allies? In the early part of the campaign they can open communication with the allies and have them already half on board by the time the campaigners start direct action.

    This is not a new idea. The victories of the civil rights movement that are now part of our activist lore were won through campaigns -- the Montgomery bus boycott, for example, or the Birmingham struggle of 1963 in which a major industrial city was dislocated in order to force the federal government to pass an equal accommodations bill. (2)

    Running a campaign is like taking a magnifying glass and holding it between the sun and a piece of paper. By focusing the energy of the sun, the glass ignites the paper. Successful campaigns focus on their target over time -- nine months, two years, even more if they have the people resources -- with a specific demand that seems achievable.

    One of the biggest victories of 1980s U.S. grassroots campaign organizing has been kept a secret from most younger activists. In fact, the collusion of the media and the schooling system has been so successful that I've rarely met a young activist in the current movement who knows about the successful fight against nuclear power in this country.

    The anti-nuclear struggle of grassroots groups was against an amazing array of power: the federal government (both civilian and military), the banks which were making major profits from loans to utilities, the utilities themselves, the huge companies like General Electric and Westinghouse which made the nuclear plants, the construction companies, and the building trades unions. The struggle was also against "conventional wisdom in the U.S.," which believed, in the beginning of the '70s, that nuclear energy was safe and cheap.

    Grassroots activists beat the combined power holders! There's not room here to describe the struggle, which often used mass direct action in brilliant ways to stop U.S. utilities from ordering any new nuclear power plants by the late '70s. The grassroots groups used a variety of tactics, from testifying at official hearings to civil disobedience. A favorite tactic was mass occupation of the site where the plant was to be built. The movement remained decentralized, yet each local area expanded through designing and implementing campaigns. (3)


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    4. Shift our understanding of the role of mass media.

    The mass media have certain patterns of behavior which are fairly predictable, and our movement needs to learn to use those patterns to our advantage.

    We need to understand that the mass media have always reflected the biases of their owners. This is not a new phenomenon. The white-owned media have historically been biased against people of color, straight-owned media against sexual minorities, and so on. I find it difficult for many middle class activists to empathize with working class people and their unions -- why? Middle class activists have been conditioned by the systematic bias of media owned by the wealthy.

    We free up our creative energy when we simply acknowledge that these biases exist, rather than go into righteous indignation every time we read or see a new piece that puts us in an unfavorable light. Once we acknowledge the reality, we can decide: for the next campaign we design, do we need favorable media coverage, or not?

    If we don't need it because, for example, the group we want to influence through direct action can get our message in other ways, then we can save ourselves some aggravation. We may be able to rely on the independent media, on the Internet -- even on street speaking and mass leafleting. It depends on who we need to reach. The Chinese students during their pro-democracy uprising in 1989 were facing a totally controlled mass media, so they used word-of-mouth and middle-of-the-night posterings and supplemented with faxes!

    If we do need some positive media coverage, we can learn how to get it. There's a whole art to this and some allied media professionals willing to lead workshops on it, but I'll state a few principles here.

    Today's activists can learn how to do that when we need corporate mass media for achieving our campaign objectives.

    5. Heighten the contrast between protesters and police behavior.

    One of the great things about our movement is that it understands the importance of drama in the social change process. The confrontations of Seattle and since assume what every playwright knows: the heart of drama is conflict.

    I'm not wanting to downplay the value of other kinds of social change work: day-in, day-out educational outreach, culture work, developing alternatives that show better, more community-centered ways of functioning, and so on. In my study of societies where social movements pulled off progressive change, though, nearly all of them required at some point major confrontations. Drama does what nothing else can do: it arouses the attention of otherwise occupied parts of the citizenry, it educates them on a gut level, it motivates them to find ways of acting that make sense in their terms, and it even attracts many of them into the movement itself. (4)

    Drama in the streets is, however, different from an off-Broadway play. A sophisticated theater audience might prefer characters to be multifaceted, without a clearly defined "good guy" and "bad guy." The social change drama of the streets cannot be so subtle: it really does come down to "the goodies" vs. "the baddies" -- in our case, those who stand with oppressed people vs. those who stand with greed, privilege, and domination.

    Of course political radicals already know who are on the right side in this play, but when we plan we can forget that most people don't make our assumptions! The moderate audience in the mainstream watching the drama in the streets is surprisingly open-minded about who are the goodies and who are the baddies. Maybe the goodies will turn out to be the protesters, and then again, maybe the police will be. Since drama motivates, some in the audience are curious to see who will turn out to be who.

    The protests at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia provide a clear example of this. Some widely publicized police violence prior to the convention damaged the police image. Those of us organizing the Convergence training in the week just before the Convention did effective media outreach, receiving highly favorable publicity. The result was, going into the Convention, that the burden of proof was on the police to reestablish their credentials as responsible and controlled, and the protesters occupied the moral high ground. A succession of three clearly peaceable marches in three days sustained this, even though the marchers on the third day had been promised arrest. The group organizing that third march, the Kensington Welfare Rights Organization, also took care not to be politically isolated, so that their civil disobedience would bring allies out in support. The police felt they had to back off the arrest threat on the third day, lest they confirm their image as "the baddies."

    The second phase of the Convention actions, beginning August 1, reversed roles. The police did not have to be lambs; in the context of public fears and expectations, they only needed to show restraint, flexibility, and control. This they did, avoiding tear gas, major pepper spray, rubber bullets, charges with or without horses. Protesters were caught without a style that would put them in stark contrast with the public behavior of the police. The protesters looked . . . well . . . disruptive. (Which we'd said over and over was our goal!) And the police were helping the public by getting traffic moving again. The police chief, who had on national television been on the defensive, became a folk hero. The Philly mainstream could breathe a sigh of relief that "our hometown police are much better than those brutal, out-of-control Seattle police, and where did these protesters come from, anyway?"

    The great lesson to be learned here is that the drama of the streets cannot carry a complex analysis that requires long dissection and persuasion. The drama in street confrontations needs the simplicity of contrast between the protesters' behavior and that of the police.

    The symbols used to heighten contrast depend on the situation. Black student sit-inners wore dresses and coats and ties, and remained calmly seated at the counters while hysterical white racists hit them. Gandhi designed a raid on a salt works in which demonstrators calmly walked across the boundary where they were beaten down by soldiers. (5) Vietnamese monks sat in meditative positions in the streets of Hue, in front of tanks, to help bring down the dictatorship in 1963. Philippine participants in "people power" mass action overthrew a government partly with flower necklaces for the dictator's soldiers.

    Again, our power lies in our choices. We can choose to design our confrontations using appropriate symbology so that the part of the public we most want to influence will see us as the people standing up for justice. It's our choice.

    The Republican National Convention in Philadelphia again shows how much we need to learn about this dimension of direct action. The reaction of the membership of a largely African American activist group of poor and working class people to the direct action was significant. These Philadelphians use civil disobedience themselves, and are experienced in tactics of blockade and occupation, they also have their own experience with media distortion and police brutality. Nevertheless, the members felt no empathy or solidarity with the Convention disruption. The Convention direct actionists didn't set up the contrast between ourselves and the police to be clear and dramatic. Chanting "police state" is utterly unconvincing to bystanders who see with their own eyes an unusual degree of police restraint, especially if the bystanders know personally how bad brutality can get.

    Police are sometimes sophisticated enough to be quite intentional in reducing the contrast. The Albany, Georgia, police chief defeated the African American 1962 civil rights campaign led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Martin Luther King by carefully restraining his police and reducing the contrast. He astutely used his police to prevent Ku Klux Klan and other forces from beating up demonstrators, again to hinder black people from gaining the moral high ground. Dr. King applied the learning from this lesson in the following year's Birmingham, Alabama, campaign, and SNCC's most dramatic use of this lesson was in 1964 in Mississippi.

    The police strategy of lessening the contrast between their behavior and ours is one more challenge to our creativity. The British Empire tried a similar strategy during the mass direct action campaign in India called the Salt Satyagraha. Tired of beating and jailing demonstrators, they massed their police in the road in front of the marchers and did a nonviolent sit-down blockade! The marchers stopped and a stalemate ensued. After hours of uncertainty, night fell and allies of the marchers went off in search of food and blankets. When they returned, the marchers took the food and blankets and passed them over to the police. This proved too much for the police, who abandoned the street, and the marchers proceeded to a midnight victory celebration. It was another example of Gandhi's emphasis on staying on the offensive; when confronted with nonviolent resistance, the marchers escalated their nonviolence! (6)


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    6. Take a powerful attitude toward the prospect of state repression.

    Obviously, the purpose of repression is to induce fear, so people will give up fighting injustice. The power holders have a range of tactics up their sleeves: one example is setting a million dollar bail on Philadelphia protesters charged only with misdemeanors. Power holders are counting on the feeling inside us -- our fear -- to change our behavior so as to make us less effective.

    That's why one of the most fundamental choices any social movement makes is what kind of attitude to have toward repression. (7) It's natural for us to fear punishment, deprivation of liberty, losing our jobs -- we're only human, after all. It is so natural to be fearful in the face of repression that we may not know movements make choices about how to the threats of the state. In the workshops for the Republican Convention protests, many participants didn't know that there was a choice. They believed that all movements have the same attitude toward repression, which is far from true.

    Some movements see power holders inviting them to play what I call "the Fear Game:" authorities punish and threaten so that activists will respond fearfully. These movements choose a different strategy.

    For example, during the Montgomery bus boycott the power holders decided to play the Fear Game by leaking the word that they had a list of black leaders who were going to be arrested. The leaders decided to take a powerful, proactive attitude; they went to City Hall as a group and demanded to be arrested at once. They carefully expanded their numbers so that, more than likely, some individuals would not be on the list and could indignantly demand to be arrested rather than be insulted by not being considered a leader. More recently labor unions in Decatur, Illinois, made a similar move: hundreds of workers filled City Hall and refused to leave until the intended arrests were actually made.

    Consider the difficulty this puts the power holders in. If the people refuse to fear them, the power holders have lost one of their most powerful weapons! Another example comes from Poland, where after many years of Communist dictatorship a radical group of workers and intellectuals decided to depart from their activist tradition and create an open, above-ground organization for human rights. The move was a breakthrough which supported the growth of the mass Solidarity movement, resulting by the end of the '80s in the nonviolent overthrow of the dictatorship. (8)

    The choice to adopt a discipline of secrecy in which activists work may at some times and places be useful, but it is a choice that needs careful thought, especially when we consider that it is often not necessary even in full-blown police states. In the US., playing the Fear Game seems to be hurting the movement.

    One consequence is the withholding of trust. To win, movements need to expand. To expand, activists need to trust -- themselves, each other, and people they reach out to. Think of the last time someone succeeded in persuading you to act. Did you pick up a vibe that they didn't trust you? You probably picked up the opposite energy, that of optimism and confidence that, once you got the information, you'd want to participate.

    A major dynamic I've personally seen in our movement is trustlessness. The Fear Game operates in worries about who might be an agent, who might betray us, who cannot be relied on. People don't tell their names, censor their interaction, hold back. The wariness is toxic because activists feed each other's fear. I've seen a black man who was on his way out of the movement in disgust because of what he perceived as white racism; the hostile vibe he perceived might instead have been because "He might be an agent!" This example shows how secrecy complicates movement life. White racism does of course exist where white activists gather, because we have been socialized by a racist culture. When white activists put up other barriers to entry into the movement, like fear of strangers, the barriers can easily be perceived as racism (which is also connected with fear of strangers!).

    Even within the boundary of color, trustlessness reduces the movement's growth. A woman of color cried as she told me about the refusal of a meeting of people of color to proceed until each new person, including her, had been vouched for by two others -- an institutionalization of trustlessness. When trustlessness is institutionalized, a movement is very easy to contain because it can't recruit outside the circles of those who define themselves as victims. Since many talented and effective people don't find it useful to define themselves as victims, they are unlikely to stuff themselves into the confining circles of conspirators however radical their views.

    The Fear Game also reduces the ability of direct actionists to develop and sustain alliances. Successful direct action movements develop an ability to attract allies. The role of ally is different from the role of campaigner. The job of campaigners is to take the initiative, to get the ball rolling; the job of allies is to come in and help push once it's rolling. In the U.S. we find a lot of activists who simultaneously are campaigning on one issue and are allies to other campaigns around other issues. This flexibility works well.

    Because the Fear Game generates trustlessness, protesters have a hard time trusting allies, even less than they can trust each other. They sometimes enter the confrontation stage politically isolated, having failed to reach out and open up the communication channels with people busy on other projects. Where all this comes crashing down is at the moment of state repression, which is when allies are often most needed and also when there is most confusion in the air. That's when activists, who refuse to trust the allies, say to the allies: "Trust us and do X, Y, and Z!" Then the protesters become disappointed and even furious when the allies don't immediately come to attention and salute!

    If playing the Fear Game initiated by the state reduces the internal morale of the movement, reduces its growth potential, and hurts relationships with allies, what's the point of the secrecy and stealth? For one thing, it makes possible certain direct action tactics that rely on surprise. We may be reluctant to give up those tactics. I also enjoy the emotions that go with plotting and scheming, and I may not be alone on that! Another reason why secrecy and stealth may appear in our movement is that they strengthen the boundary between Insider and Outsider. (9)

    Unfortunately, the security agencies also know the negative impact of secrecy on the movement, and work it to their own advantage. (10) They start out with abundant resources to put into spies and electronic surveillance, and the more covert we are, the more resources they can demand (thereby increasing the already obscene size of the security state). Not only is it an advantage to them in terms of increasing the power and affluence of their apparatus, but it also justifies their putting more people in our ranks, who help make decisions and sometimes exercise leadership. And the more aware we are of this, the more scared we become and the less we can trust each other, which is wonderful from their point of view. The basic reason they like the Fear Game so much is that they know they are sure to win it.

    Fortunately, we can make other choices. We can draw inspiration from the choice of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1963-64 to organize openly in Mississippi, perhaps the most violently racist state in the U.S. at the time. The largely-black SNCC workers dealt with men who were police by day and KKK by night; SNCC often lived in Freedom Houses that were unprotected in the countryside; they had no guns and everyone knew it; the federal agents refused to protect them; the Mississippi media were against them as were most clergy. SNCC knew they would be hurt, jailed, tortured, and some would die; they were not naive in choosing their attitude toward repression.

    At the very beginning of 1964 Freedom Summer, three SNCC workers were murdered -- James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman -- to scare away others who had volunteered. SNCC refused to go underground; they had a better strategy. SNCC's choice expanded the movement dramatically both in Mississippi and nationally, won powerful allies, and broke the political stranglehold of racism in that state. I would challenge anyone in today's movement to study SNCC's attitude toward repression in Mississippi in the summer of 1964 and then explain why our movement should play the Fear Game. The more powerful choice is openness.


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    7. Explicitly and fully commit to strategic nonviolent action.

    The vast majority of protesters in this current wave of mass direct action want to be nonviolent and see no reason to do anything else. The dilemma facing the designers of a campaign is: do we fully commit and be explicit about that, or do we soft-pedal the nonviolence? Choosing for a campaign is more important than for these short actions we've seen in Seattle, etc., because the stakes are greater in the course of a campaign of months or years. Before his Chicago campaign, for example, Dr. King and his organizers spent months negotiating with forces in the community to get agreement on nonviolence. King's organizer who was liaison to the gangs was personally beaten up many times by gang members to test his fidelity to nonviolence before they would seriously discuss and finally make an agreement.

    It is tempting not to take a stand on nonviolence. There may be moralistic pacifists around, mired in the past and more interested in preaching than acting; their obnoxiousness encourages organizers to just want to move on to the next agenda item.

    Some white activists hesitate to take a stand on nonviolence because they mistakenly believe that "it's a white thing." That would be a big surprise to the hundreds of thousands of people of color in the U.S. who have used nonviolent direct action in campaigns for over a century. (In 1876 in St. Louis African Americans were doing freedom rides against discrimination on trolley cars, to take one of thousands of examples.) Not to mention the role of nonviolence in the anti-colonial struggles in Africa and Asia. When we think of nonviolence, why do the names of Gandhi, King, Cesar Chavez, so easily leap to mind? They are only the tip of the iceberg. Actually, a far, far higher proportion of people of color have engaged in nonviolent action in the U.S. than have white people, and continue to do so year in and year out.

    The mass media and social studies courses haven't given us this information? What else is new? Only the study of social movements will return our heritage to us. (I won't even start with the myth that nonviolent action is inherently middle class -- that's even more off base than the myth that it's white.)

    It may help to remember that this discussion is not about pacifism, but about strategic nonviolent action. Many pacifists don't do direct action because they want to avoid conflict, and most people who do nonviolent action aren't pacifists. So the question is not on a philosophical level but on a strategic level: what makes sense for making change? (11)

    Some activists may fear that taking a stand could alienate some friends of ours who are radical and brave. And what about tolerance -- who are we to lay down the law? Isn't the movement to proceed by consensus, and there isn't consensus on this issue!

    Alienating our more militant friends is a tough issue, but dialogue would help. I've heard the Black Bloc, for example, referred to by protesters as if it is a rigid monolith which will always believe the same thing and must be deferred to. Another possibility is that Black Bloc wants as much as anyone to be more effective, can evaluate what's working and what isn't, and has internal diversity of opinion. (12) The approach in the African American community during the civil rights movement was useful. When a mass direct action campaign was being organized in a Southern city and consensus wasn't reached about strategy and tactics, people agreed to disagree, and respected each other's right to conduct their own operation. During the recent Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, an agreement like that was worked out for a planned action.

    Everyone "doing their own thing" in a mass action doesn't work because it's self-contradictory. If those who organize the action base it on strategic nonviolent action, they aren't being allowed to "do their thing" if others come in and do violence or even property destruction. The advocates of violence or property destruction are, when it comes down to it, being intolerant by not letting their comrades carry out their intentions. The only way that tolerance can work is by mutual understanding that different strategies will be used at different times or in different places -- sufficiently different so that the police cannot use one kind of action as an excuse to bash the other kind.

    Tactical disagreement is another diversity challenge that faces our movement. If some of our more militant friends aren't willing to "agree to disagree" but instead do confrontive tactics that endanger others without their consent, then the issue is no longer about strategy and tactics, it is about respect and needs to be tackled on that level.

    Doubt about our legitimacy in setting policy needs to be addressed inside ourselves, first of all. Is it OK for me to take initiative in working for change? Initiative is a kind of leadership. As I take initiative I do set a tone, and my words and actions attract some people and turn off others. I can't actually take initiative without finding that I have some responsibility for consequences. So if I'm willing to empower myself to act for change, then I might as well be mindful of the results of what I do and don't do. If I do (with friends and comrades) create a policy of strategic nonviolence, that has one set of results. If I don't, it has another set of results.

    I want to leave aside the question of armed struggle for another time, even though I find it fascinating and sometimes work in situations where it is a very live option. In fact, I've taught social change in the middle of a guerrilla encampment in the jungles of Burma; my students were soldier revolutionaries. The very different situation in the U.S., however, is: "If most of us want to be nonviolent anyway, how can we make the most of it?"

    The option to make a fuller and more explicit commitment to nonviolence has several advantages. For one thing, it takes the wind out of the sails of the state, which wants us to be violent and, if we're not willing to do violence ourselves, will pay people to do it in our name. There are too many sad stories of groups that learned this the hard way. In Philadelphia, for example, a group of youthful activists believed itself set up by the police because of its growing effectiveness. The police raided the house where the leaders lived communally; while the activists were being handcuffed in the living room the police "discovered" dynamite in the kitchen. The activists complained later, "We have never advocated violence." But the group had been unwilling to take a credible stand for nonviolence, for reasons similar to those advanced today.

    Mississippi police didn't even try to set up SNCC in 1964 because, as SNCC's Mississippi coordinator Robert Moses told me, "We don't have guns in our freedom houses and everyone knows it."

    It may be, as some of today's Philadelphia activists believe, that police agents were responsible for the property destruction which handed the moral high ground over to the police during the Republican Convention. Again, the movement was fairly defenseless against this kind of tactic because it could not achieve consensus on a stand against property destruction. As much as we'd like to blame police, in all honesty we have to look at how we helped to set ourselves up.

    Leaving the issues of nonviolence and property destruction ambiguous may not matter too much for the kind of event organized in Philadelphia or L.A., where most people fairly quickly return to the rest of their lives. People doing a campaign over time which is working to accomplish an objective, however, may have too much at stake to be wishy-washy about something that could undo all their hard work. (13)

    Some activists with a long-term commitment are also attracted to nonviolence as a basic personal/political ethic and way of life. One version of this is called "nonviolent revolution:" a personal politics that loves life enough to struggle and loves liberation too much to dominate or violate others.

    The biggest advantage of all to adding depth to our commitment to nonviolence is related to the flexible and decentralized character of the action style which worked so brilliantly in Seattle and replayed again in Washington, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. (14) The flexibility and decentralization can bring added power to mass direct action; it also brings chaos. The new physics teaches us that chaos can accompany system change. Easy for the physicists to say; they are theorists and not personally one of the atomic particles buzzing around! We protesters are the particles; we are the ones in motion and are faced with the challenge of how to stay centered in the midst of chaos.

    If we do manage to stay centered, we'll make better choices and stay more loving; when we're disconnected we easily get upset or scared or stuck in attitudes of hostility. An advantage of nonviolent action is that it is easier to stay centered while doing it. (15) Of course we'll still experience a roller coaster: flashes of anger, chills of fear, highs of elation, and other strong emotions. Centeredness is the ability to handle the feelings without becoming attached to them; it's letting them run through us rather than letting them run us.

    Doing violence or even the not-violence called property destruction doesn't support being centered. We need ways of participating in chaos with eyes wide open, fully aware, feet on the ground, creativity pulsing, and ready to connect.

    There are no guarantees: chaos is still chaos. My experience is that going into chaos with a nonviolent commitment increases the chance of being centered, which ultimately benefits everyone.


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    Conclusion: Solving problems builds the movement.

    Social movements grow through solving problems. As the movements grow, the problems grow, hopefully along with our capacity to solve them. If we continue to solve the problems that face us we will get to catalyze transformational change, making freedom and justice a possibility for all.

    The "new activism" that is expressing itself in the U.S. through mass direct action has, fortunately, some problems to solve. Here I'm suggesting some options that might work: creating dilemma demonstrations instead of relying on "disruption" (although they may sometimes be just as disruptive), making conscious decisions about who in "the public" we're most eager to influence, designing and implementing campaigns rather than simply showing up where the power holders decide, working more realistically with mass media, increasing the contrast between protesters and police behavior, taking the powerful attitude of openness toward state repression, and committing with more depth and explicitness to strategic nonviolent action.

    These options focus on direct action itself, and leave out many other questions of strategy and organization, for example, the importance of creating a vision of just alternatives. I look forward to participating in more dialogue on all these questions; we have much to learn from each other.


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    Many thanks to our readers! This article first went out in draft form and received helpful comments from many activists. Thanks to each of you. More comments, disagreements, affirmations would be welcome, addressed to me at Training for Change; I'll try to answer as many as I can.


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    These are the views of George Lakey and not necessarily those of Training for Change. For this article he draws on the experience of TfC's trainers, who led workshops in Seattle and Washington, D.C. TfC also played a major role in setting up training for the Republican National Convention protests in Philadelphia in August, 2000. For almost ten years TfC has been providing training services to grassroots groups in the U.S., Canada, Russia, Thailand, Cambodia, South Africa, Burma, and other countries, and has an active, neighborhood-based training program at its center in Philadelphia to which people come from many countries.

    1 This campaign, which has more to teach us about direct action than there's room to go into here, is described blow-by-blow by Richard K. Taylor, "Blockade" (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1977). This campaign in solidarity with Bangladesh happened in 1971-72. Back to text

    2 One of my favorite books by Martin Luther King, Jr., is "Why We Can't Wait", the behind-the-scenes story of the Birmingham campaign. The book also includes his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." (Book available in various editions.) Back to text

    3 There are trainers who can lead workshops on campaign design. For more information on the successful antinuclear struggle, see Bill Moyer's paper which is a must-read for direct action strategists, "Movement Action Plan," available from the Social Movement Empowerment Project, 721 Shrader, San Francisco, CA 94117. Bill's model has been picked up by a number of movements, for example the whole issue of World Rainforest Report for Sept. 1994 in Australia is devoted to MAP. You'll find a summary in chapter two of "Grassroots and Nonprofit Leadership: A Guide for Organizations in Changing Times", by Berit Lakey, George Lakey, Rod Napier, and Janice Robinson (Gabriola Island, B.C., Canada: New Society Publishers, 1995). Back to text

    4 More on this dynamic is in my book, "Strategy for a Living Revolution", which was revised as "Powerful Peacemaking" and published by New Society Publishers in 1986. Back to text

    5 The historically accurate version in the film Gandhi is worth watching repeatedly. Back to text

    6 A good source for learning from the master strategist Gandhi is the television documentary "A Force More Powerful", which also includes the cases of Danish resistance to German Nazi occupation, Polish resistance to Communist dictatorship, and the Nashville sit-in movement. Available from Public Broadcasting System, which aired the program in September 2000. Back to text

    7 To read about one choice, called security culture, read the article on the Tao website or the excellent Earth First! piece on the website of one of their Canadian chapters. The article "Security Culture" states its basic assumption at the beginning: "To minimize the destructiveness of this government harassment, it is imperative that we create a 'security culture' within our movement." Some movements, operating in much more dangerous situations than the U.S., Canada, or Western Europe, have found that security culture maximizes rather than minimizes the destructiveness of government harassment. Back to text

    8 This is one of a long list of dictatorships that have been overthrown by nonviolent "people power," despite the state's using military repression to defend itself. Just in the past few decades mass nonviolent action has played a decisive role in ousting one-party states and dictatorships in: Bolivia, Haiti, Argentina, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, the Baltic States, Mali, Malawi, Madagascar, and Benin, and prevented military-backed coups in Thailand and Russia. See Stephen Zunes, Lester R. Kurtz, and Sarah Beth Asher (eds.), "Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective" (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1999). Back to text

    9 Fortunately we can create many, many tactics that do not rely on surprise. One resource to jump-start our creativity is Gene Sharp's book "The Politics of Nonviolent Action", where he describes 198 tactics that have been used historically (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973). Back to text

    10 During the movement against the Vietnam War F.B.I. documents included a discussion of the importance of making activists believe there was "an F.B.I. man behind every mailbox." During a spokescouncil meeting preparing for the protests at the Republican National Convention, an activist took a break to call an anarchist house in West Philadelphia and learned from activists there that, when they randomly took their phone off the hook, they heard the spokescouncil meeting! Back to text

    11 Actually, I believe that a healthy movement includes a lively discussion of pacifism, too, because it represents such a dramatic break from the dominant cultural theme of violence/militarism/sexism/imperialism that we see from playgrounds to movies. Back to text

    12 An example of Black Bloc interest in dialoguing with the movement is the statement put out by the Bay Area Black Bloc dated October 7, 2000. Their e-mail address: BlackBloc@ziplip.comBack to text

    13 I don't mean that violence and property destruction are the same discussion. Principled pacifists and nonviolent actionists Daniel and Philip Berrigan are well known for their use of property destruction, for example. And believers in assassination might not consider property destruction valuable. Back to text

    14 Betsy Raasch-Gilman emphasizes the freshness and innovation of this approach in her paper, "Chaos Theory and Nonviolence: A Trainer's Report on the WTO, IMF and World Bank Protests." Back to text

    15 Barbara Deming develops this theme and applies it to macro-level change in her important and practical book, Revolution and Equilibrium (NY: Grossman, 1971). Back to text

    Copyright © 2000 George Lakey Training for Change

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