Monday, June 07, 2010

Nonviolent losers win again

The tendrils of revolution always reach back to the root of unity and the contest between greed and grievance. In 1994, Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler's study of nonviolent civil society gave us 12 conditions that comprised those of a successful nonviolent revolution. Since then, in our bumpersticker, attention-deficient disorder mediated culture, Ackerman has reduced that list to three. One of those is unity.
Coalition has long been the holy grail of movements. Dr. Bernice Reagon, astonishing Sweet Honey in the Rock musician, Smithsonian musicologist, and civil rights movement veteran, said, "If you're comfortable in your coalition, it's not nearly broad enough."
A case study is the long effort to help us move bicycles into transportation prominence from their normal regard as marginal, silly, juvenile, impractical and irrelevant. The bike world actually discovered Ackerman's principle on their own for a minute and stitched together the kind of coalition needed in the moment to get the job done.
In his excellent book Pedaling revolution, Jeff Mapes describes the history of the uprising that took place resulting in the 1991 highway bill, a traditional porkbarrel stew of oil industry, road construction corporations, trucking, car maker and commerce interests. Various cycling associations--Rails to trails, transit activists, environmentalists, and local officials simply trying to preserve what they had without more huge asphalt projects--formed the Surface Transportation Policy Project and one of the founders, David Burwell, says, "We called it the losers' coalition" (Mapes, p. 47)
Over the years this losers' coalition has garnered large increases in fed funding for bike lanes, bike trails, and many other improvements that are beginning to create sections of bike networks. The losers' coalition has helped convince Congress to bring $427 million to that task by 2004, a small amount by highway system standards but a huge help to making bikes a viable alternative for many more Americans.
Whether your wish is to stop the oil industry from wrecking our environment, overthrow a dictator or get your school board to stop allowing military recruiters to access grade schools, there is no substitute for joining together with other losers until your surround and prevail, that is, win.
My coalition criteria are minimalist. Are the potential partners willing to at least operate nonviolently for the course of the campaign in question? If that answer is yes, we can work together. That one question is enough. All the rest is negotiable as we walk the braided path toward victory together--or pedal it in our growing critical mass.


Ackerman, Peter and Christopher Kruegler (1994). Strategic nonviolent conflict: the dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century. Westport CT: Praeger Publishers.

Mapes, Jeff (2009). Pedaling revolution: How cyclists are changing American cities. Corvallis, Or: Oregon State University Press.

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