Tuesday, April 06, 2021

But what if they are attacking your grandmother?

You are advocating for a nonviolent campaign to get something done. Perhaps you would like police to stop shooting unarmed people of color. Or maybe you would like to try to stop a dirty tar sands oil pipeline. Or, for instance, you might be trying to shut down a military base that is shipping troops and weapons to some poor country.

Whatever your issue might be, whatever grievance you hope to remedy, you might find yourself with some irrationally violent opposition. What do you do?

Activists tend to extrapolate from the worst case scenario to everything else.

Hey here comes a pipe bomber at midnight to your home? He’s armed, with bombs, what do you do, just let him? Fast? Sit down? Boycott him? Go on effing strike? Hell no. You call the cops and you get your gun. Protect your family. 

OK. Fair enough. Defend your children by any means at your command. It’s your house. It’s your child. You do what you need to do. I used to own a gun, a bit more than 50 years ago. I get it.

Your home is not your campaign. 

Your campaign, on the other hand, if it bills itself as nonviolent, will take chances and risks and never react with violence under any circumstances. Those who commit to following the code of conduct knowingly commit to taking no violent act, even if it meant suffering horridly. That discipline delivers victories; it is the way of the peace warrior and I’ve seen it up close and personal many times.

It is imperative that we understand the serious difference between the personal and the political, the individual and the collective, the homestead and family versus the movement.

But we hear about the “Deacons of Defense,” armed Black people who protected homes, families, and Civil Rights Movement leaders from late night violence by the Ku Klux Klan. Yes. They did. Great. 

What we do not hear about is the Deacons of Defense marching open-carry alongside Civil Rights activists in Mississippi, which was uncontested in its position as the most violent of all domestic terrorism environments throughout the Civil Rights years. 

Why not? 

Because the leadership knew that armed protectors would engender enough fear in the white communities to shift public opinion away from the movement and toward the thin blue line that protects them. 

Because the leadership knew that their message of simple rights—to sit in any public place, to ride anywhere on the bus, to vote, to buy a home—is a message that will be lost if they resort to violence, even violent self-defense. 

This is why we do nonviolence trainings, to prepare people who are acting in the name of the campaign to maintain nonviolent discipline under all circumstances. Any breach of nonviolent discipline opens the movement to vilification and rejection. When we accept those risks as a member of a campaign, we do not concomitantly volunteer to refuse to defend our children. 

Indeed, there is no better way to defend your child than to convince society to correct policies that threaten your child. 

But let’s stop with the red herrings, the posits of disanalogous situations formulated to permit, if not encourage, violence. It is hurting campaigns now, just as it did in the past. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Agents sent to harm us

 There is a great deal of speculation these days about the possibility of agents provocateurs, the undercover agents sent to infiltrate social movements by police, sent by ideologues, sent by corporate interests, or by any party opposed to that movement. These agents would not merely spy on groups, they would attempt to destroy them.

How might they do that?

The common understanding of agents provocateurs is that they are sent to promote violence and thus give the police an excuse to crack heads. But that is only one of several functions that such an agent would perform. 

The overarching goal is to neutralize a civil society campaign that wants change, or it wants to protect something--a good law, some policy that favors marginalized identity groups, clean water, etc. There are many ways to attempt that goal, including but not limited to: 

  • provoke violence
  • discredit leaders
  • redirect campaign focus
  • promote internal conflict
  • push irrational views to media in the name of the group
  • influence poor financial management
  • alienate influencers and funders
  • ruin image of coalition
  • commit fraud in the name of the organization
  • create factions that split off
  • start harmful rumors about people or group intentions
  • promote an internal security culture that amplifies paranoia
Of course there are authentic ineffective activists who do all these things too, so it is inappropriate to accuse anyone of being an agent provocateur without absolute proof, but it is helpful to periodically remind everyone in the group that agents provocateurs engage in these actions for a reason--to harm or destroy a movement--and therefore everyone should attempt to avoid these destructive practices. 

Call in your less effective activists, please don't call them out. We need to work to promote the more feminist, nurturing styles of leadership that build an unstoppable mass movement. This is not easy and takes emotional maturity. Tolerate each other's mistakes and our own slips. We can do this but we need to do this together. 

Monday, November 09, 2020

Just give me some truth

 We are witnessing an era when social media has supplanted our normal news for many people, and our natural human tendency to engage in siloes of affinity groups thus amplifies the set of "facts" we tend to receive, and it also tends to deepen our distrust of other points of view. 

For example, I find it hard to accept friend requests from people who espouse hatred of identity groups that have been historically marginalized. Racism turns me off so completely that I choose to ignore friend requests from those whose timeline includes dogwhistle racism. Environmental protection is important to me so I tend to accept friend requests from those who espouse such policies. This often means I am creating a silo for myself in social media that feeds me analysis that confirms my bias against bias, my bias in favor of protecting the environment, etc. 

That silo is fine, frankly, as long as I also get news from a diversity of other sources. I get mainstream stories from credible sources like the Washington Post (which is available to both students and professors for very cheap subscription rates of literally about 18 cents per day), occasional stories from the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Economist, Frontline, and more. I listen to podcasts while I do my daily walk, including some news via comedy by Trevor Noah, but also NPR Politics and Rachel Maddow. This mix can generate news that helps me contextualize what is going on, humanize all sides, and see the validity in whole or in part of views I do not share. I believe millions of Americans do that sort of eclectic information gathering and it helps us make more richly informed decisions. 

Sadly, however, other millions only stick to their silos and this whips them into selective facts, underinformed points of view, and misinformed analysis. It tends to make them more extreme and thus widens the polarization and creates worlds full of "alternative facts," a phrase coined by Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway and one that is indicative of the low respect for the truth characterizing Trump and his people. 

Lying to the public is something politicians and their close advisors have done forever. But the rise of fringe journalism that warps the truth (like Fox News or Alec Jones), along with the concomitant expanse of social media as the primary news source for many, has fed into our post-truth polarization. While it is trickier to stay credibly informed these days, the stakes are too high to avoid it if we hope to keep our democracy and avoid massive public violence.

Thursday, August 06, 2020


Gene Sharp called it a self-coup. 

Sharp was arguably the most influential theorist in the field of nonviolent social movement strategy of the 20th century. He and Bruce Jenkins wrote a short 72-page monograph on defeating coups d’√©tat, that is, the seizure of power in a sudden overthrow. It could be one generalissimo tossing out another, or a military grabbing power from an elected leader. 

The self-coup is a special category. It is also known as executive usurpation, the transmogrification of a democracy into a dictatorship by someone who had been duly elected but who was grabbing lifelong power and ending meaningful voting for his office. Hitler was an example, voted in and then did a self-coup. It may be argued that Ferdinand Marcos did something similar in the Philippines by getting elected and then, when it looked as though he might be defeated, declaring martial law for long periods. 

The self-coup is a serious threat to democracy in the United States right now.

Yes, we have a nice Constitution. Yes, we have done presidential elections even in wars from 1812 to 1864 to 1944 to 1968. Never missed one. Yet.

But preparations for the Republican domination-by-the-minority and the Trump Takeover in particular are proceeding apace. Will they succeed?

What have the Republicans been up to?

·       Gerrymandering has shifted power to the Republicans in many states so that, even though they are in an overall minority, they have a slight advantage in many Congressional districts and the gerrymandering lumps overwhelming majorities of Democrats in a few deep blue districts. Indeed, Democrats needed—and got—a supermajority in many states to elect so many to the House in 2018. The Republican-packed Supreme Court ruled that such shenanigans are Just Fine. 

·       They used abjectly dirty tricks to install two far right judges into the Supreme Court, first by denying Obama any chance to nominate a potential Justice—Mitch McConnell unethically delayed hearings until Trump was elected, at which point they shoved through Neil Gorsuch—and then by tampering with the investigative process into the next appointee, Brett Kavanaugh. Court challenges are stacked for Trump when it really counts. Relying on the Supremes to save our democracy is patently ill-advised. 

·       Voter suppression of demographics unlikely to vote Republican are ongoing, from the targeted removal of anyone ever incarcerated to the elimination of all registered voters who have an “improper” address—this often shuts out most or all tribal members who live on reservations that may not have “normal” street addresses, it cuts out people with no permanent address, and can also block people who move frequently. Indeed, says Georgian Stacey Abrams, 

who launched Fair Fight, voter suppression in the 21st century is enormously effective and less visible; she says it “looks like administrative error.” But it is intentional.

·       In areas where voters are perceived to be unlikely to vote Republican, there are often far fewer and far more inconvenient polling sites. When voting machine glitches are added to that problem, voting becomes less and less possible for those populations, as we saw especially sharply in 2020 primaries in Iowa and Georgia.

What if all these lowdown tactics still fail to garner the election Trump doesn’t like? There is a growing fear he will refuse to leave office, conducting his version of the democracy-abrogating self-coup. At that point, what will happen?

If Trump has the loyalty of a significant portion of both the armed agents of the state—e.g., armed forces, police, Border Patrol—plus a significant number of elected officials and bureaucrats, he may start to succeed. 

At that point, civil society either intervenes en masse or does not. We have been warned, frankly, and advised by Timothy Snyder on anticipating and overcoming this disastrous devolution of our democracy.

Sharp and Jenkins warn that sometimes a foreign power may have a hand in this (or, to quote Trump, “Russia! If you are listening...”). 

When we look at cases in Serbia, Chile, the Philippines, and other instances of self-coup, we see the necessity of loyalty shifts or security defections. At this key moment people power either draws the loyalty of the armed agents and government officials or it does not.

In most of these cases the masses of people knew that the election was being stolen because the vote, as they knew from being there, was overwhelmingly not for the sitting ruler, and they decided not to allow it. They rose up in mass nonviolent nonco√∂peration and saved their democracies. 

They did not rise up against the police and military, which was crucial, because if there is one way to adhere the loyalty of armed agents to the self-coup leader, it’s the resolve that forms amongst those armed agents when they are under attack. This is a key component of the success of nonviolent action in many cases, and certainly critical in stopping the self-coup. 

There are many more lessons from such nefarious episodes, but bear in mind that without serious opposition this underhanded and anti-democratic attempt is historically often successful. Without robust citizen involvement, it certainly can happen here. Our democracy is already badly eroded under Trump and his confidence in his ability to grab what he wants is either met by serious nonviolent resistance or he may well pull it off.

Friday, July 03, 2020


We are in another time of the superpatriot, the true believers in obedience to the Commander-in-Chief, to every armed agent of the state, and a zealotry that values the American flag above the lives of dissenters.  
May I take this moment to declare myself a matriot?
I pledge my allegiance to Mother Earth and Her stunning, living diversity of creatures great and small, to her brilliant palette of skin tones and array of physical and mental abilities amongst one encompassing race, humankind. 
I bow to the Earth flag but I don’t value any cloth over any life. 
The Fourth of July is a great time to reflect on our Interdependence, on our duty to our homeland, our home planet, and the generations to come. 
The day is a time to respect protest and resistance, something done quite broadly in colonial America for approximately a decade leading to the Declaration. 
It is a time for more of us to continue and extend the dissent begun by the colonists, and to also dissent from them. 
So yes to celebration, but no to valorizing guns and oppression. 
Yes to corn on the cob, but no to military parades. 
Yes to freedom, but no to oppression. 
Yes to democracy, but no to voter suppression. 
Yes to protection of life, but no to armed occupation of some neighborhoods by police who don’t live there.
Last night about 15 of us spent more than two hours planning for a youth-led July 4 rally and walk to support Black Lives (Also) Matter. There were pastors, police, parents, nonviolent peacekeepers, and high school kids. 
At one point the deputy spoke up about the possible roles of law enforcement. He was clear, gentle, and respectful. 
One of the pastors asked the youths to offer their ideas. 
There were two African American girls, one Latinx girl, and one white girl. Each said, in her own way, that please, police, do not be there. We are afraid of police. We are trusting our nonviolent security team to keep us safe. 
None of them were strident or speechifying, all were respectful, and one quiet-voiced African American girl was even apologetic, saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t help it, I am afraid when I see police.” 
The deputy graciously thanked the girls for their honesty and said, “You are brave.” 
This is a fraught moment in America. It is not time to double-down on flag-waving, dehumanizing, and dividing. If that is patriotism, I most emphatically reject patriotism. 
I offer matriotism as my alternative. We can do this instead of some of the toxic nationalism we see.
We should be loyal, but loyal to all humans and loyal to the clean water, clean air, and healthy, safe environment every girl and boy requires now and forever. Our “Call to Duty” is to preservation and enhancement of the equity and ecological wonder that is their birthright.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Happy Interdependence Day

Over the years, the traditions and cultural feelings associated with holidays change; Mothers' Day began as a peace holiday and morphed into a gauzy Hallmarked thank you to Mothers in general, Veterans' Day began as Armistice Day commemorating the cessation of bloodshed and the beginning of peace and prosperity but transmogrified into pure gratitude for armed forces, and Columbus Day is slowly converting to Indigenous Peoples Day of acknowledgement that we in America all live on land once occupied by the Original nations who were victims of genocide and massive theft. 
So! Holiday change is the only thing permanent, to be a bit Buddhist about it. We might open ourselves to new possibilities.
Trump wants to hijack the 4th of July for his campaign and is willing to steal $2.5 million out of the National Park Service funds to run today's DC event, where he will speak despite decades of presidents showing respect for the public event by graciously choosing not to orate in that event. Trump's 4th is all about Dependence on his version of the strongman rule, flanked by military posturing with tanks and fighter jet flyovers--did Putin help him plan this?
Instead of Independence Day, can we consider moving our thinking toward Interdependence Day, a day in which we acknowledge that all deserve a place of safety, that all deserve refuge from war, that all deserve health care, and that all deserve an education, and that we are absolutely dependent on the health of our environment, our food, our air, and our water every day?
Celebrating the interdependence that creates our beautiful diversity and our magnificent strength makes so much more sense than the xenophobic militaristic bombast that we now see. As Trump moves against migrants, homeless, women, and even the families of military members who seek citizenship through active duty in combat zones, we can decide to transform our day to our most hallowed values of respect and care, honoring the contributions of all.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Pushing students, pushing myself

Each academic year I average about 300 students in my various classes. The only one I teach every term is my undergrad nonviolence course, which always fills. This summer term I'm at 45 students, for example, from many majors across campus, which I regard as perfect. They are smart, in from Sociology, Political Science, Anthropology, English, Education, Engineering, Criminology, Business, Public Administration, Women's Studies, Black Studies, all the wondrous other fields in the School of Gender, Race and Nations, etc. Plug in the eclectricity!

This is the first week of summer term. We introduce ourselves, we watch the 1982 Gandhi film with Ben Kingsley, and we read the first 12 pages of A Force More Powerful by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall. Students post at least a half thousand words on either or both. 

Now is when I like to try to set the outer rails on the wide path to success in my course for all students. So, I am as clear and frank as I can be, for better or worse. I can think of no more important field of study and I keep trying to get my teaching right after all these decades. This is my effort today, in this term.

To help them think about how to approach learning and theoretically applying what we learn: 
Happy Thursday, as we close in on the last days of Week 1. The weeks are a bit busier in the summer, as we stick 11 weeks of material into just 8 weeks.
I regard our challenge in the field of Nonviolence to be to construct hypotheticals informed by history and creative thinking. 
By this I mean that the challenge as I see it, academically, is to ask of any conflict scenario, "How can this be at least hypothetically be resolved using only nonviolent methods?"
Constructing that nonviolent path in our minds is fed by three streams: our understanding of nonviolent theory, our grasp of the contours of nonviolent campaigns that have succeeded historically, and finally, by our imagination. Knowledge of the theory and history is crucial, but not often enough under the most trying circumstances. Einstein, who had plenty of knowledge, said that, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." We need it all if we are going to transform our bleeding, sometimes very unjust world.
So! In our course, we have free speech, but we only get academic credit for applying these three streams to our arguments. Since reading my posts is required, I know you are all now cracking my brain and will earn excellent grades!

My first response to their responses to the film (which included a worry that the Gandhi film was inaccurate in that Gandhi seemed too calm and reasonable almost all the time, and that some random writer had called Gandhi a "manipulator") and the reading (which was really well done): 
Very good posts to begin, with some good challenges. 
Excellent close read of the Ackerman and DuVall introduction, with astute and inquisitive observations. You extracted a great deal from the short read. I do want to note that in our text, the authors bracket the stories with the intro and conclusion, in which you find short but powerful bursts of theory. The stories are really the data, only written in lively page-turning style. It's the best Intro to Nonviolence text I've ever found and its findings have held as empirical and case study research has poured in ever since. I'm glad you made the note of the connections between code of conduct, ethical standards, and strategy. It is absolutely key.
The Gandhi film is actually quite accurate, historically, though I agree that Ben Kingsley's portrayal may be more saintly than Gandhi actually was. Indeed, this course doesn't rely on Gandhi's personality in any way and if that is any problem in the film, it's pretty much irrelevant. What I love is the critique that Gandhi was "a manipulator." Um, yeah...that was his role, if he wanted to liberate India. Manipulate people by telling the truth. Manipulate social forces by revealing to them that they have power. But the film, long as it is, didn't cover a great deal of even more profoundly positive aspects of Gandhi's life.
For example, the film starts and ends with his assassination and never explains much the motives of the assassin and his confederates. I would analogize them very roughly in our modern context to the man who sent pipe bombs to Democrats, liberal celebrities, etc., or to the mass shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, or the mass shooter in 2017 at the mosque in Quebec City. It was a hate crime, done by a Hindu nationalist who was enraged that Gandhi expressed love for Muslims. Gandhi was "manipulating" the new liberated Indian government to make reparations to Muslims for what had been done to them in the split of India from Pakistan and in the bicommunal violence of the greatest refugee flow in human history. Hindu nationalists--still active and still memorializing Gandhi's assassin to this day--hated Gandhi for his attempts at justice, at forgiveness, and reconciliation. So these Hindu nationalists still traduce Gandhi's memory and engage in serious manipulation of the facts. 
Was Gandhi a perfect saint? Nope. Was anyone, ever? Do we throw out decades of astonishing accomplishments that have changed human history for the better because we find a flaw in his personality? If so, the world has no one worth emulating and never has. I hope we aren't that cynical.

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