Above Photo: Lorie Schaull/flickr/cc
From defense to offense in an age that demands deep strategy and mass mobilization
As mass demonstrations against President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban rocked airports across the United States last weekend and after a week of mass demonstrations against Trump’s memo pushing for the Dakota Access and Keystone Pipelines, I asked George Lakey, an author and organizer with six decades of experience in movement training and strategy thinking, to share his thoughts on these most recent developments, the overall threat posed by Trump, and the resistance that has grown up in opposition. Last week, Lakey wrote A 10-point Plan to Stop Trump and Make Gains in Justice and Equality. The piece went wildly viral as people respond, “In short, there’s good reason to see the Trump era as an opportunity not only to stop him, but to make major gains in justice and equality.” In this inteerview goes deeper on how we can do this.
The year I was born (1963), Lakey co-wrote the ‘Manual for Direct Action,’ used widely in the heat of the Civil Rights movement. As a teenager joining the anti-nuclear direct action campaigns in the early 80’s, I learned about organizing mass nonviolent direct action—organizing practices Lakey and his fellow revolutionaries in the Movement for New Society helped develop in the ’70’s and 80’s—which I and others drew on to shut down the WTO in Seattle in 1999 and to shut down the San Francisco Financial District (Wall St. West) the day after the Iraq War began in 2003.
Lakey, co-founded Earth Quaker Action Group, is currently on book tour for his visionary new book, Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right and How We Can, Too. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
From Defense to Offense Against Trum
David Solnit: You make the case that being reactive to Trump, and focusing on defending past gains hands the initiative to the opponent, giving them them the upper hand. Instead you advocate taking the offense and organizing direct action campaigns (a pressing issue, a clear demand, and a target that can yield that demand.) Is there a way we can both respond to Trumps urgent attacks—on immigrants, pushing for Dakota Access and Keystone Pipelines, etc.—that also takes the offense and feeds into ongoing direct action campaign?
George Lakey: Point 2 of the ten-point plan suggests that activists strengthen connections of civic institutions with targeted populations so those institutions can leap to the defense. Some parts of our body politic are geared to defense—they are the white blood cells whose job is to resist infection—and if they are slow to act it’s a good idea for activists to stimulate them.
On the other hand, we may not be needed for that!
In my town, Philly, a city councilwoman, Helen Gym, led 4- to 6,000 people to the airport yesterday to protest Trump’s order only two days previous to prevent migrants from seven Muslim countries from entering even if they had visas or green cards. Many mainstream people participated including our state’s Democratic senator and a couple of Congressional reps. It was great—the immune system at work!
Activists can borrow a page from ecology, and realize that there is such a thing as political ecology, including a division of labor! Ecologists know there’s more to a system than one part, so my strategy point is, if the defense part is doing its job, why should activists do it? If we’re not needed for defense work even as catalysts, we are free to do what the defenders almost never do—take the offensive!
The good news is that we don’t have to do everything. The young 1960s organizers in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) knew they didn’t have to become lawyers—the NAACP was providing civil rights lawyers—and that what was needed to win was both the defending lawyers and the offensive force of SNCC.
There are multiple ways of taking the offensive. A campaign involves both demand and target. Instead of demanding that Obamacare be saved—a defensive demand—the demand can escalate to demanding a single payer health care system for the U.S.: “Medicare for all.”
Regarding the pipelines, campaigners can shift target from the government, escalating to target all the banks that finance Dakota Access, or Keystone XL. That’s what Earth Quaker Action Team did regarding mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. We turned down the suggestions that we go after the EPA and its permitting process and instead we chose to target the number one financier of blowing up mountains—PNC Bank—which happened to be the seventh-largest bank in the nation. We won by going on the offensive.
This example also clarifies a language problem about the word “defense.” In everyday usage, Lakota people campaigning against the Dakota Access Pipeline are conducting defense—protecting their water and the sacred Earth. When we’re talking strategy, however, we see that they can protect in one of two ways: defense, or offense. They in fact chose offense, going beyond fitful protests to a sustained campaign that escalated on multiple dimensions including the degree of sacrifice people were willing to make in order to win. They won a battle, and if they stay on the offensive they might win “the war.”
One way of escalating would be for a national council to form that could take a big picture of all the potential pipeline fights in the U.S. Then the council could announce: if the Dakota Access pipeline is not abandoned by a particular date, two more pipeline fights will be initiated in places where they are not yet underway.
This offensive threat of staged escalation raises for the opponent the spectre of an increasing number of fronts on which they would have to fight, as people continue to be mobilized across the nation.
Becoming familiar with the prime years of the civil rights movement is really helpful. (Aside to white readers: it really is OK for us to learn from the experience of black people. White anti-Vietnam war activists were very reluctant to do that, but let’s just go ahead and do it now. Watch Selma and Freedom Song, and read “Why We Can’t Wait,” for starters.)
During the civil rights movement the only way the federal government could stave off continued growth of local campaigns (lunch counters, movie theaters, swimming pools, parks, libraries, buses, schools, etc.), campaigns that dislocated more and more sectors of Southern life where segregation was legal, was to pass a national civil rights law. The fear of growing nonviolent disruption became greater to the Democratic power elite than the fear of offending Democratic segregationists, a major part of their base.
Despite the chorus urging the civil rights movement to “slow down,” its choice to stay on the offensive gained it victory after victory. Later, the LGBT movement demonstrated the same dynamic. It’s hard to see why we wouldn’t want to follow their example.
Solnit: What might it look like for our groups, movements and even movements-of-movements to adopt common vision—like the Movement for Black Lives Platform—and how might we integrate it with our campaign organizing?
Lakey: The Movement for Black Lives Platform is not altogether comprehensive, but it covers so much of what needs to be done that 10 million Americans could easily spend the next five years campaigning on one or another of the demands to make it a reality!
Like Margaret Mead observed, such campaigns can often start with a small group, as happened with Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) when we started with a living room of people and expanded to thirteen states to force PNC Bank out of financing mountaintop removal coal mining. First, read the Platform and identify several of the planks that most motivate you, then talk with friends and allies about them and do the research suggested by the conversations.
Next, choose the plank that looks most promising. Bring the people together who have good potential for creating a team. This is where it gets complicated; read How to start a direct action group to make MLK proud, and Get beyond your friends. Do more research on that plank and how it affects the lives of people you can reach. Learn what others have done in campaigning on that issue. Devise a campaign strategy, beginning with formulating a specific demand you have a chance to gain from a specific target. Take your initial actions.
Each of those steps is empowering because you are the initiator rather than the reactor, and you know you are going for what you really want instead of simply trying to stave off disaster. People you want to bring into the campaign will note your positivity, and be attracted.
Gaining agreement on a vision is easier if it can be interpreted as common sense. My Viking Economics book gives a lot of examples of that. When you run into people who hold out for utopia, it’s OK to let them go. You need people who can at least roughly unite on a vision that can be understood in common sense terms. Even though the Nordics invented an economic model that was far in advance of anything previously practiced on a national level, it was still not “good enough” for some of the more radical Nordics active at that time. That’s OK. Let’s push the U.S. economic elite out of dominance, implement our alternative vision, realize we truly are that powerful, and then (if your vision happens to be as radical as mine) begin to struggle for an even more radical vision.
Addressing Racism without Getting Stuck
Solnit: How can working class (and middle class) activists and organizers to move to more liberatory ways for white folks to address racism within ourselves, our groups, movements and communities—and become better allies to People of Color?
Lakey: A new model is being developed by Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) that offers hope to activists who have wandered into a stuck and negative place that leaves them isolated in their righteous bubble instead of joining the masses of people ready for change.
First, EQAT is about direct action campaigning rather than discussion. Because action is primarily about behavior rather than language, it offers a fruitful container for unlearning racism. The advantage of a campaign is that it is an organic thing that over time offers countless opportunities for course correction and feedback; organizers can make any number of interventions to heighten the learning curve. Within a campaign, therefore, a culture can develop that actively supports liberation.
After winning its first campaign EQAT chose to add racial justice to its twin issues of climate and economic justice. Accordingly, its demand is that electrical utilities buy electricity from rooftop solar panels installed by local people in high-unemployment areas, especially those that have suffered decades of neglect because of race.
The largely-white EQAT carefully avoided the role of “organizer of the oppressed on their own behalf,” but instead made its demands on EQAT’s own behalf, as an activist group concerned for racial, economic, and climate justice. Understanding that communication channels needed to be open to people of color who were affected by our campaign, we held multiple conversations with them that were not transactional but simply opening relationships. At the same time, EQAT organized a series of workshops in which members could work on their own unaware racism, during which we discovered a racial cultural pattern within EQAT itself that could be usefully be unlearned, so we chose to work on that as well.
As the series of direct actions continued to confront the electrical utility with our demands, a multi-racial coalition stepped forward with its largely African American leadership convinced it should partner with EQAT in the Power Local Green Jobs campaign. (“Actions speak louder than words.”) The partnership in turn enhances opportunities for white EQAT’ers to work on their unaware racism even as they cooperatively work with people of color on the campaign.
Because we as white people are already in motion and have opportunities to support each others’ growth and effectiveness, we have an optimum opportunity to make a difference in the actual lives of people oppressed by racism. We also share a container for comrades where friendship can grow across racial lines when that is desired.
Learning from Europe’s Anti-Fascist Victories
Solnit: Can you tell us about your research on why the left lost to fascism in Germany and Italy and won against it Sweden and Norway and what lessons that experience holds for us in the US?
Lakey: For brevity’s sake I’ll compare Germany and Norway, who experienced severe polarization during the same years. Both countries had Nazi and Communist movements. Many Norwegians were flattered by the Nazi belief that the tall, blue-eyed blonde was the pinnacle of human development. Others vehemently denounced the racism underlying such beliefs. The Nazi parties in both countries had a paramilitary wing that sought to provoke violent clashes with leftists. The Norwegian Nazi Quisling reportedly held discussions with military officers about a possible coup d’etat. The more violence his party could stir up, the more likely that the waverers in the middle would opt for a “strong man” solution to the disorder, and Quisling offered that possibility.
The German left allowed itself to be drawn into street fighting with the Nazi paramilitaries and police. Compounding the problem, the left itself refused to unite behind a common vision, and the strife between communists and democratic socialists led to open fights between them as well. The left preoccupied itself with its differences instead of continuing to grow their movement.
The German middle classes were confronted with an impossible situation in the conflict between the left and the economic elite. The effort to choose among those in the middle was fogged by a situation of rising chaos and violence in the streets. Unsurprisingly, they went along with the elite’s choice of the “strong man” solution, not always because Hitler’s vision made sense to them but because he looked as though he could deal with the disunity and violence.
In Norway, by contrast, two major themes on the left were unity and nonviolence. The workers recruited farmers and middle class allies as they grew their movement. They refrained from violence while continually escalating their disruptive noncooperation and strengthened their infrastructure of cooperatives. Even while avoiding panic in the middle classes, the left movement made Norway ungovernable by the economic elite.
Although the two situations were more complex than I can describe here, the bottom line was that Norwegian fascism couldn’t triumph against the growing unity behind an appealing vision and the refusal to be drawn into violence.