Skip to content
View Featured Image

History Teaches That We Have the Power to Transform the Nation, Here’s How.

We live in a time of great crises on many fronts. As the economy continues to fail and extraction methods for energy become more radical and harmful to people and the planet, momentum is building for a mass uprising. Turkey is the most recent illustration that the event which sparks popular unrest cannot be predicted. We can only suspect that it is coming. So, we must be prepared.

Times of crisis also offer opportunities for real change. We can create an economy and society that are more just and sustainable. Alternatively, we can continue down the same destructive path. What type of society emerges from this unrest will be determined in large part by our actions.

The question we hear frequently is: How do people build power and ultimately transform the nation and the world in a way that is lasting and based on our values? Many people in the United States feel the task is futile, the power structure too strong, so that working for real, transformational change of the economic and political system is unrealistic.

The fact is, United States and world histories show that an organized and mobilized populace is what has always caused transformational change. This history is not taught in our education system or emphasized in the heroes we idolize in our culture, but it is so significant that it cannot be hidden from view. The country could not operate if the people refused to participate in its corrupt systems. The ultimate power is with us, if we let go of fear and embrace it.

Now that there is a history of more than 100 years of modern resistance movements, there is data to show what works and what doesn’t. As a result, we can develop a vision, a strategic plan and tactics that make success more likely than ever before.

100 Years of Resistance Shows What Works

On September 11, 1906, Mahatma Gandhi proposed a campaign of nonviolent resistance to stop discrimination against Muslim Indians working in South Africa. After a seven- year struggle using a range of tactics of noncooperation and resistance, the South African government was forced to change its policies. This was the beginning of Gandhi’s methodology of Satyagraha (devotion to truth) for overcoming an ingrained power structure supported by overwhelming military or police power with strategic resistance, civil disobedience and noncooperation.

Since then, there have been hundreds of resistance campaigns in the United States and around the globe from which we can learn and develop our own strategy, for our own times. There have been a variety of resistance actions including guerilla wars, insurgencies, terrorist campaigns and a wide range of nonviolent movements in which unarmed activists challenged violent governments.

There are enough lessons from this wide variety of strategies that we have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t, and we can develop a recipe with a good chance of success. In Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan publish an empirical study analyzing 323 violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2006. Among these, 100 were major nonviolent resistance campaigns which they found have increased in frequency and success in recent times. They find what a Dutch revolutionary found decades ago: “The more violence, the less revolution.”

The most striking finding of their research was that nonviolent resistance campaigns were twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as were violent campaigns. They define violent campaigns as armed resistance campaigns like guerrilla movements and insurrections. They looked at three broad categories of campaigns: anti-regime, territorial (that is, those waged for anti-occupation or self-determination) and others which did not fit these categories, like antiapartheid campaigns. Only in the second category did the success rate of violent resistance come even close to nonviolent. In the other two categories, nonviolent campaigns had much higher levels of success; in the third category, nonviolent campaigns had a monopoly on success.

The authors also looked at why some nonviolent campaigns succeed and some fail. The key factor was whether the campaign became a mass movement or remained a fringe movement. Mass participation seems to succeed because people joining the campaign from diverse segments of society gradually erode the government’s sources of power.

The Albert Einstein Institute, which has been examining resistance movements over the last 50 years, writes about the need to build a mass movement made up of key sectors of society. The nine sectors they focus on are youth, labor, religious and nonprofit groups, civil servants, media, business, police and military. These are the pillars that make up the power structure which holds the government in place. Strategy and tactics should be developed with the goal of dividing people within these groups and pulling them to the movement so the movement grows into a mass movement and the power structure is gradually weakened.

When we discuss “mass movements” we do not mean that a majority of the population needs to be active in the movement, but we do mean that the long-term vision of the movement needs to be one that has widespread support, and second, enough of the population is involved that it cannot be ignored – indeed, that it may reach a tipping point that cannot be stopped. For example, the long-term vision of our project,, is to end the rule of money so that the needs of the people and the planet come before profits. This is a broad vision that encompasses many issues and has widespread support among people in the United States.

In the fall of 2011, the Occupy movement may have had several hundred thousand people actively involved in it. Some were only able to attend single events such as marches and were not involved on a regular basis. This represented only 0.1 percent of the population. It is evident that this number scared the power structure from reports on how the Obama administrationHomeland Security and the FBI workedwith police and mayors across the country to infiltrate, arrest and destroy the movement. If 0.1 percent of the population can have that kind of effect, what will 1 percent or 10 percent be able to accomplish? Occupy demonstrates that an organized and mobilized people can change the direction of the country.

Indeed, Mark Lichbach, a professor of government and politics, has written in The Rebel’s Dilemma, that when more than 5 percent of the population engages in sustained, coordinated civil disobedience, few governments can remain in power whether they are a dictatorship or a democracy. The path to reaching this 5 percent begins when people who are already active in resistance build solidarity and draw more people to the movement. As more people see the movement growing and that there is a strategy to win, they will have the confidence to join it. Achieving the 5 percent tipping point with a diverse cross-section of society then becomes well within reach.

Erica Chenoweth says that in her review of resistance movements the number of people that need to be actively involved is even smaller.  She says that in the last one hundred years, every movement where 3.5 percent of the population was active has won.

Chenoweth and Stephan point out the most important parts of the power structure to divide are the police and the military. Their review shows that the odds of success increase by 60 percent when security forces join the resistance movement. This demonstrates one reason why nonviolent movements are more successful than violent movements. The police and military unify against a movement when they are under attack, but not when the movement is openly and strategically sympathetic to the ways in which members of the police and military forces are ill-affected by the status quo.

This was demonstrated by Occupy Wall Street, in a scene almost everyone remembers during the second weekend of Occupy, when it was still struggling to get its footing. There was a protest in which the police divided the protesters and arrested many of them. Some women were being held under arrest behind an orange mesh fence when Officer Tony Bologna, wearing a white commander’s shirt, walked over to them and sprayed them in the face with pepper spray. A blue-collar officer standing nearby can be heard on video saying “I can’t believe he just pepper sprayed them.” That night, Lawrence O’Donnell, whose father was a police officer, discussed the incident on MSNBC supporting the protesters and criticizing the pepper spraying.

In that incident, we can see how nonviolent movements grow and weaken the power structure. The white-collar police commander was divided from the blue-collar police officer, the media came to the defense of the protesters and the public heard positive comments about the movement. Now, how different would it have been if the women were shouting “Kill the police!” or throwing apples or batteries at the police? The blue-collar cop would have said, “Thank goodness he pepper sprayed them!” and O’Donnell would have either ignored the event or criticized the protesters. We would have seen united opposition against us, rather than succeeded in dividing the power structure and bringing people to our side.

Two Tracks: Stop the Machine and Create a New World

To achieve transformational change, we must proceed on two tracks: protesting what we oppose, and building alternative systems to create the world we want to see. It is important for the public to see constructive action to build an economy and society which ensures that life will not only continue but will even improve if the movement succeeds. This strategy also helps to demonstrate the values of the movement.

We live in a mirage democracy, but the movement for real democracy, which could also be called “people power,” is growing around the world and within the United States. We can build a democratic economy where people have greater control over their economic lives, where workers own the businesses and wealth is shared in a more egalitarian way, an economy that is sustainable and restores rather than destroys the environment. We can transform the current system to a government that involves greater participation in decisionmaking, elections not controlled by money, and officials who represent the people, not just concentrated wealth. Projects related to all of these goals can be put in place now; indeed, they are being put in place.

Gandhi went back and forth between these two tracks throughout his lifetime. During his campaign to end British imperialism in India, he changed his emphasis in the mid-1930s, a dozen years before independence from the British Empire. His work focused on building economically self-reliant communities from below (Sardovaya, social uplift for everyone). This became an adjunct to the strategy of noncooperation and civil disobedience to unjust laws. Gandhian economics meant thousands of self-sufficient small communities with self-rule and the need for economic self-sufficiency at the village level.

We call this dual track approach, “Stop the Machine, Create a New World. The latter approach is important for many reasons and deserves more time and resources than the former because it builds community, solves urgent problems, and builds wealth for individuals and communities. We are literally building the kind of society in which we want to live. This dual-track approach has been put into a visual form in this Roadmap by the Metta Center for Nonviolence.

Currently, people are building economic democracy – including worker-owned cooperatives, participatory budgeting, community supported agriculture, farmer’s markets, community banks and credit unions as well as local currencies and local investment networks, community land trusts, and more – so that people can strengthen their communities. In time, of course, national policies will need to be changed as well, in order to, for example: establish an open and transparent Federal Reserve that is democratically accountable, public rather than private creation of money, the end of corporate personhood, public funding of public campaigns, a new energy economy where every home, business and community uses energy efficiently and produces energy, the end of the destructive extraction economy, and so much more.

Instead of the corrupt and dysfunctional government in which we have the illusion of participating through elections and in which representatives are selected by Wall Street, people can build their own nonhierarchical democratic institutions that bring people together to solve community problems, pool talents, resources and energy, and allow real democracy to be practiced. This can happen at the local or national level.

During Occupy, the general assemblies were a form of participatory democracy. This experience could be further developed with community assemblies coming together to discuss the needs of their communities and beginning to solve their own problems. The process begins by looking at strengths and weaknesses, assessing resources that are already present such as abandoned buildings, and identifying those that need to be created such as community gardens and health centers. Every person in the community has something to give; as the founder of the Time Bank movement, Edgar Cahn, says, “There are no throwaway people.” The next step is to figure out how community needs can be met by building on those resources.

We also saw it in the instinct for mutual aid that came to the surface when disasters occurred. Whether it was Superstorm Sandy hitting the coasts of New Jersey and New York or tornadoes wreaking havoc in the Midwest, we have seen members of the Occupy movement come to the aid of those affected through Occupy Sandy andOccupy Oklahoma Relief. This kind of mutual aid in times of need is part of building the kind of society we want to see and provides an opportunity to organize new people and get them involved in the movement.

In addition to building the economic and political system we want, we also need to create our own subculture. As Progressive Review editor and The Great American Repair Manual author Sam Smith emphasizes, movements need to develop their own subcultures of music, art and theater so people are joining something they will enjoy being part of. Culture also builds camaraderie and provides ways to pull people to the movement. We reprinted a portion of Smith’s book in A Movement Manual.

Regarding the need to create the world we want, Smith quotes Jean Paul Sartre: “Values rise from our actions as partridges do from the grass beneath our feet.” In other words, Smith explains, “Sartre believed that existence precedes essence. We are what we do.”

We will write more about the transition to a new democratic and sustainable economy next week based on our interviews with Gar Alperovitz, author of What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, and Joel Magnuson, author of The Approaching Great Transformation: Toward a Livable Post-Carbon Economy. You can hear the interview at Clearing the Fog Radio.

So Many Choices for Tactics to Further the Movement

Within this two-track approach of building a mass, nonviolent and transformative movement, there are literally hundreds of resistance tactics that have been used successfully. Lists of those tactics can be found at the Albert Einstein Institute and the Global Nonviolent Action Database.When choosing tactics, thought should be given to choosing actions that build and further the movement, such as those that pull people from the power structure and get the message of the movement out clearly. Images, puppets, costumes, T-shirts and other materials can be used to convey the message. Creating a symbol or slogan that shows what the movement stands for in a catchy way can also help to convey the movement’s message. For example “We are the 99%” unifies people and shows that while we don’t have monetary resources, we do have people power. Often the only corporate media coverage a protest will receive is a photograph, so it is important that photos clearly portray the message of the action.

Humor may be one of the most powerful forms of protest by mocking the power structure or political leadership. When we interviewed people about developing strategy and tactics for the movement, Ralph Nader made the suggestion that “every city should have at least one court jester.” Just as court jesters in the Middle Ages could mock the nobility in ways no one else could, and just as Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert can say things the media cannot say, a town jester can mock government and the political establishment in a way that educates the public.

As one Egyptian protester told The Atlantic, “It’s easier to make them look ridiculous” than to confront the power structure directly “It’s very effective because it breaks the fear barrier.” Adel Iskandar, 33, a media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University told the Atlantic that sharing a laugh created “a sense of solidarity and camaraderie among those who supported the cause.”

Abbie Hoffman, a Youth International Party (or Yippie) protester from the 60s, was well-known for his use of humor, including dropping money onto the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, running a pig as a candidate for president, and the “levitation” of the Pentagon. These all got media attention, mocked the status quo and made political points.

The Yes Men’s antics are examples of using humor to put transnational corporations and government in embarrassing situations. Their mission is to “use humor, truth and lunacy to bring media attention to the crimes of their unwilling employers.” To do so, they impersonate representatives of corporations and government to do an “identity correction.” They also create mock web sites that look like they belong to the target of their political message and then make the kinds of announcements that they think the target should be making. The Yes Men have impersonated the World Trade Organization (WTO) and many others, including Dow Chemical in a stunt where one of them appeared as a Dow spokesman on BBC accepting full responsibility for the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India. Their actions are examples of “motherhood and mismatch,” a tactic discussed more fully by Bill Moyer of the Backbone Campaign, in which an issue that is as sacred as motherhood is chosen and the entity being protested is exposed for violating “motherhood” and for a mismatch in not doing what it professes to do.

Other creative tactics focus on forcing an entity to be responsible for the effects of its actions. During protests against Bank of America’s foreclosures and evictions of people from their homes, protesters moved living room furniture into bank lobbies – couches, coffee tables, rugs – and literally moved into the banks.

As Nathan Schneider wrote in The Nation, rather than having internal conflicts about the use of different tactics, encourage diversity. He reported activist Austin Guest telling a group that rather than being negative about other people’s actions, “Add the things you do, so we can get a real diversity of tactics.” The result in his situation was lots of creativity with “ideas like a Song & Dance Brigade, a Naked Bike Bloc, a Male Prostitution on Wall Street Brigade (‘We will do anything for money!’).”

Among the most successful tactics are those that create a dilemma for the opposition, that leave it with a lose-lose choice and the movement with a win-win. An example is the lunchroom counter sit-ins during the civil rights movement. Protesters came into whites-only restaurants, sat down and demanded to be served. If they were served, they won and broke the color line. If they lost, the unethical and immoral reality of Jim Crow segregation was exposed. Either way, they won.

In 2012, Veterans For Peace organized a protest at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, during which they read the names of New Yorkers and Afghanis killed in the war. The memorial had a 10 PM curfew – a curfew only enforced when people were exercising their constitutionally protected rights to freedom of speech and assembly. The reading of the war dead and the laying of flowers went beyond the 10 PM curfew, putting the police in the uncomfortable position of arresting veterans involved in a somber, respectful ceremony or allowing them to violate the curfew. The white-collar commander insisted on enforcing the curfew and the blue-collar police looked very uncomfortable – especially when Jay Wenk, a World II Purple Heart Medal holder in his 80s, was arrested. The case goes to trial on July 8th in New York City.

Finally, the use of campaigns, rather than one-day events, allows for a series of escalating tactics, build-up of media attention and drawing increased participation. A one-day event can be useful to memorialize an important date like May Day, but a campaign that uses different creative tactics, symbols, and clear messages and increases the intensity of tactics allows for a movement to grow. For example, theWalmart campaigns have moved from city to city, held national days of protest and then built to a Ride for Respect to the annual shareholders meeting; meanwhile, low-paid fast food workers are moving their one-day strikes from city to city – New YorkChicagoDetroitSt. Louis and Milwaukee – and inviting local communities to stand with the workers.

What Are the Ingredients of a Successful Movement?

The goal is to build a mass movement that seeks transformational change. The issue of our era is the rule of money by concentrated corporate interests, the “looting class,” who put their profits ahead of the necessities of the people and the protection of the planet. People in the United States already support this agenda for change; the movement needs to be clear that we embrace it and know how to achieve it.

A successful movement proceeds on two tracks of protesting what it does not like and building what it wants and always pulls people from the power structure to the movement. It cannot be an armed insurrection that is violent because that will unite the power structure, rather than weaken it. Instead, strategic and militant nonviolence which leads to a misuse of power by the security state causes divisions within the power structure and increases support for the movement.

The movement needs to be diverse and built from the bottom up. As Sam Smith writes, movements are “propelled by large numbers of highly autonomous small groups linked not by a bureaucracy or a master organization but by the mutuality of their thought, their faith and their determination.” The grassroots base results in a diversity of tactics that make it hard for the police to predict what will come next, where the next action will be and who is organizing it. When diverse groups of people are involved and acting in solidarity, it demonstrates that there truly is a mass movement, which makes it harder for the opposition to pit one group against the other.

It is important for people to understand the ingredients of a successful movement because the opposition will do all that it can to divide, disrupt and undermine a movement that is making progress. People must be vigilant to keep the movement from being thrown off course.

One of the great challenges is the current managed democracy, because many people are not fully aware that both major parties serve Wall Street. When it comes to electoral politics, we agree with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who never endorsed a candidate or publicly stated membership in a political party. Dr. King said, “I feel someone must remain in the position of non-alignment, so that he can look objectively at both parties and be the conscience of both – not the servant or master of either.” Just as he was working to end segregation when there were two political parties that supported Jim Crow segregation, we need to end corporate rule when there are two political parties that make up a corporate duopoly owned by big business interests.

As Lance Selfa makes clear in his book, Democrats: A Critical History, people need to understand that the Democratic Party is where progressive movements go to die. This is evident today in the union movement which made tremendous gains when it remained independent of the Democrats, but since joining the Democrats has seen its power and membership dwindle. It is also true with the civil rights, women’s, environmental and peace movements.

History shows that building an alternative to the duopoly, even if it never wins an election, is a path to change if it shows that it has enough electoral support to affect the outcome of the election. This was true of the abolition parties before the Civil War, the Populist Party of the late 1800s, and the Progressive, Bull Moose and Socialist Parties of the 20th century. None of these won elections, but they changed the direction of the country. In addition, direct democracy through voter initiatives has been a successful way of bypassing the two parties and bringing issues to the people where important breakthroughs have occurred. Changes are needed to make elections, especially at the national level, viable tools for real change.

Opportunities to Build Resistance

To build a mass movement, we need to seek opportunities for solidarity among people working on a variety of issues. One such opportunity is the negotiation of the largest trade agreement in history, The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This agreement is a global corporate coup that will affect efforts to protect the environment, workers’ rights, consumer rights, health care and indeed virtually every issue people are currently working on. If we join together to stop the TPP before it goes to Congress in October, it will be a defeat for transnational corporate power. When we win this battle, we can build on it for future battles.

There are other issues around which we can build solidarity. Austerity and the current automatic budget cuts of sequester are affecting all Americans and presentanother opportunity to build the movement to the 5 percent tipping point. The impact is growing every week and will grow even more in the future.

Beyond these major issues, we need to continue to fan the sparks of resistance wherever we see them. We cannot count on the corporate mass media to cover the growing culture of resistance, but instead must continue to build the independent and citizen’s media. is one web site that covers the ongoing revolt in the United States and around the world. It also provides resources and tools for activists, from those who are new to activism to those with experience.

In addition, we need to be ready when the next wave of mass resistance arises. Movements are not linear. Rather, they are a series of waves of different sizes, rising and falling. As climate activist Tim DeChristopher said after he was convicted for falsely bidding on illegal oil and gas leases:

Every wave on the ocean that has ever risen up and refused to lay back down has been dashed on the shore, but it is the very purpose of a wave to rise up, because once it rises up above the horizon it finally has the perspective to see that it’s not just a wave, that it’s a part of a mighty ocean. And the sharpest rock on the wildest shore can never break that ocean apart; they can never wear that ocean down, because it’s the ocean that shapes the shore. That’s what we’re starting … With wave after wave after wave crashing against that shore, we shape it to our vision.

When the next tidal wave develops, we need to be prepared to shape the nation toward our vision. We are in a time when the people are awakening, not only to the dysfunctional and corrupt nature of the government and big finance capitalism economy, but also to their own power. Multiple crisis are coming to a head at the same time, causing a great turning – the climate crisis, ecological collapse, the end of cheap energy, the failure of nuclear power, the wealth divide, the collapse of corporate capitalism, and at the same time an undercurrent is growing not only of protest but also of building an alternative democratic economy. Systems are failing and new systems are developing.

The rule of money is a powerful opponent of democracy, but a mass movement, united to build power in the people, can transform the country in ways that today we can only imagine.

This article was first published on Truthout and any reprint or reproduction on any other website must acknowledge Truthout as the original site of publication.


Kevin Zeese JD and Margaret Flowers MD co-host on We Act Radio 1480 AM Washington, DC and on Economic Democracy Media and on UStream.TV/ItsOurEconomy, co-direct It’s Our Economy and are organizers of Their twitters are @KBZeese and @MFlowers8.

Sign Up To Our Daily Digest

Independent media outlets are being suppressed and dropped by corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for our daily email digest before it’s too late so you don’t miss the latest movement news.