George Lakey: Want radical actions? Build strong action groups!

Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C., on February 17. (Flickr/Ted Eytan)

I’ve been reading some of the critics of the past few weeks’ events in the climate movement and found myself in agreement with Peter Rugh and David Swanson. Predictable civil disobedience and feel-good rallies alone aren’t enough. Climate justice needs radical demands backed up with mass nonviolent direct action. The question, though, is: How do we get to that point?

I remember a strategy workshop where we explored obstacles to people taking risks and doing edgy actions. Palestinian exile Mubarak Awad reflected on his own experience under the Israeli occupation and his conversations with others living under dictatorship. “Use every opportunity,” Mubarak said, “to get people moving in the streets. Religious processions, funeral marches, whatever,” he said. “Help people get the experience of crowds moving together. They need the tactile experience of solidarity.”

In this country it’s not only fear that freezes us; it’s despair. The rhetoric about how climate change will destroy us has done its work all too well, especially when reinforced by descriptions of the might of the fossil fuels industry and its bought politicians. An obstacle to the kind of movement we need is psychological, and Mubarak’s advice is useful, adjusted to our circumstances: We need to get people out of their isolation and into tactile contact with the many who, together, can generate power.

From that point of view what mattered at the rally on February 17 in Washington, D.C., wasn’t the rhetoric from the platform but the “break-out” that people experienced who were there. “Everyone expected it to be small because of the cold and it was, like, wow, 40,000 people stood out in the cold, freezing,” one first-time rally attender, Swarthmore College student Elaine Zhou, told the Swarthmore Phoenix.

“I think rallies are just a great experience, especially because Swarthmore students can sometimes get trapped in the bubble here,” student Patrick Ammerman said in the same article. “Having conversations with people who might be living on the front lines or might be organizing in a completely different community and seeing the diversity of groups represented really helps you bring something back to Swarthmore.”

The most direct action-oriented civil rights strategists in the civil rights movement knew both fear and despair intimately. Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph organized events of tens of thousands in Washington in the late 1950s so that young African Americans could march close to each other. The marchers then went home to form action groups and create the 1960s sit-in campaigns across the South.

As Dick Cluster put it in the title of his book, “They should have served that cup of coffee!” “They” were the Southern 1 percent, and the “coffee” was what those at the sit-ins ordered. The civil rights movement roused white college students, senior citizens, Chicano farm workers in California, Puerto Ricans in New York, mental health consumers and other groups to turn the 1960s into a nightmare for the national 1 percent.

Who would have guessed that such tame marches in late 1950s Washington, with moderate-sounding rhetoric at rallies, could open the door to the explosive 1960s? I was there in 1958, and I didn’t guess. When I met Bayard Rustin, though, I learned their secret: Building a mass direct action movement is not so much logical as psychological.

Getting out of the bubble

The “bubble” that the Swarthmore student referred to is what traps action groups, which is one big reason why it’s smart to alternate the differentiation that defines a good action group with the joining that helps build the mass movement. Eileen Flanagan has explained how the Earth Quaker Action Team negotiated that choice in recent weeks, and after contributing to the mass movement side of things EQAT — pronounced “equate” — is now returning to its focus: demanding that PNC “Bank Like Appalachia Matters!” (BLAM!)

EQAT’s 200-mile march last year concluded at the towering PNC headquarters in Pittsburgh. Organizer Zach Hershman invited the 150 people present on the wide sidewalk to role-play civil disobedience right on the spot. He said that if PNC refused our demand to give up funding mountaintop removal coal mining, the next time EQAT came to Pittsburgh it would have to escalate, and now was the time to practice.

Surrounded by media, police, pedestrians and noon-time traffic, the crowd divided into “protesters” and “police” and practiced a sit-down with arrests.

Afterward, during the debriefing, Zach asked people to raise their hands if they had ever really risked arrest. Few hands went up. After some final cheer-leading the event concluded. I turned to my neighbor — a perfect stranger to me — and remarked, “You didn’t have your hand up.”

“Right,” she said. “I remember the civil rights movement, and I thought they were doing the right thing and I should join, but I was too scared. And then later came the anti-Vietnam War protests, and I thought they were right too, and that I should join, but I was too scared.”

“What about now?” I asked.

She smiled. “I’m not scared any more.”

Getting ready for heavy-duty confrontation

I agree with critics of the February 17 rally who say that more confrontational tactics are needed for climate justice. The Pittsburgh woman reflects a modest growth of readiness. But the critics indulge in wishful thinking if they believe that tens of thousands of people are ready or even motivated to do that at the moment. I even wonder if we have right now enough radical activists who are sufficiently skilled with crowd interventions to ensure that the confrontations go well.

I believe that it’s our job, as self-identified activists, to train ourselves for the unpredictable dynamics of mass actions so we can help out when people do shake off their fear and despair. The training we need includes practice in operating together in crowds.

An example of the pay-off of such training comes from the 1986 historic sit-down at the U.S. Supreme Court. The LGBT movement was furious with the court for deciding that Georgia police were right to enter the bedroom of a gay man’s house and arrest him and his partner for having sex. They began to mobilize for the largest civil disobedience in the history of the Supreme Court.

Members of Movement for a New Society decided to join in the planning and execution. We were an action network with a lot of experience with confrontation. So when the day came, instead of sticking together, members of Movement for a New Society fanned out in pairs or threes to join a number of the affinity groups that had been formed during the trainings.

My affinity group had a dozen people. Just before the action started, a lost-looking guy came looking for a group. We had only a few minutes to include him before the signal came to move out and sit down.

The hundreds of glove-wearing police were nervous; AIDS had everybody scared back then. We tried to lighten the atmosphere by chanting, “Your shoes don’t match your gloves.” They were not amused. They made the arrests group by affinity group, and as the police got closer to my group our newcomer freaked out. He turned beet red; the whites of his eyes were shining with fright. He began to hoot loudly: “Hoot! Hoot! Hoot!”

The MNS members in our affinity group saw he was in danger of being beaten to a pulp by the police — there’s nothing like fear meeting fear. Several of us protected him with our bodies while talking to him as reassuringly as we could, while others explained loudly and firmly to the police that we were taking care of him and that he would be okay if they would let us do our job.

Our guy kept hooting, but at least he wasn’t flailing, and he accepted our body-to-body shielding operation. The police backed off a minute to decide what to do. They then carefully arrested us in a way that enabled our shield to stay intact around our guy, and together we moved into the waiting police bus. Once on the bus with the police outside guarding, our guy relaxed and re-entered his right mind in time for the processing.

I realized later that the day was a win/win/win/win: protect someone from severe injury, reinforce the affinity group model, get respect as radicals who serve the movement and build credibility for the LGBT cause.

I see the incident’s relevance for today: we showed the utility of trained activists in confrontational crowd situations. Extreme weather may bring the crowds soon to overcome their despair and do direct action for climate justice. Let’s practice joining so we can be ready.

Want radical actions? Build strong action groups – Waging Nonviolence.

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