The Nonviolent Army Revisited

About three and a half years ago I wrote one of my first Future Hope columns about the April 16, 2000 nonviolent civil disobedience action in Washington, D.C. directed at the IMF and the World Bank. I dubbed the 10,000 or so of us who participated in that powerful action “the nonviolent army,” following my observation of the way in which the action was organized, undertaken and led.

For the next year and a half that “army,” that direct action movement, was a dynamic and powerful force, manifesting itself at corporate party conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles in the summer of 2000 and at the FTAA meeting in Quebec in April, 2001. Two years ago preparations were underway for another action in late September, 2001, again directed at the IMF and World Bank in Washington, D.C.

The 9-11-01 terrorist attack seriously disrupted those plans, and the “war on terrorism,” the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, led most in that movement to shift their focus to trying to stop the militaristic and repressive response to 9-11.

But things are changing. This week there are actions happening in Cancun, Mexico outside of the WTO ministerial meeting. And a major mobilization has been underway for months in connection with the planned FTAA meeting in Miami Nov. 20-21. Part of that mobilization includes plans for essentially nonviolent, disruptive actions by direct action groups from around the U.S.

This is a good thing. I hope the actions are well organized and effective. I hope they are carried out in a spirit which appreciates that the purpose is not primarily to physically shut down the FTAA meetings but to draw attention to the urgency of our demands, our righteous anger against corporate globalization that is killing people and our eco-system, the absolute necessity of turning away from this suicidal path.

It seems to me that there are three major, complementary tactics, forms of organization, approaches to movement-building that are needed, and needed on a consistent, on-going basis, if we are to have any hope of achieving the kind of fundamental, systemic changes—revolutionary changes—necessary in this country and world:

-The basic work involves organizing, consciousness raising about the possibility of systemic change and leadership development with grassroots people, primarily working class people, whether it be through trade unions, community organizations or issue-based work. We should strive to make those organizations as a whole committed to these objectives, but whether they are or not it is essential that there be individuals and collectives of activists within them who are clear that these are tasks they must integrate into their day to day work as much as possible.

-We need a primarily, but not solely, independent electoral vehicle that runs candidates at all levels of the political system, articulating a coherent progressive alternative to Democrat/Republican, corporate-dominated politics and economics. We need a party which can draw increasing numbers of people into a new way of thinking and, over time, a new way of acting when it comes to politics. Right now the Green Party/US is the best vehicle that we have for this electoral expression. Over time there needs to be either a much broader Green Party or a new electoral alliance that involves the Green Party but which is more strongly based in and co-led by labor, the black and Latino movements, community organizations, and other constituencies.

-And we need an activist, in-the-streets, mass movement which engages in large legal demonstrations, boycotts and strikes, hunger strikes, and the kind of “nonviolent army” direct actions we saw in Seattle and since. This third prong of struggle is needed to push the envelope, to underline the urgency, to keep the overall independent progressive movement honest. Without it, the primarily electoral party runs the risk of becoming more a vehicle for the advancement of individual politicians than a vehicle for the advancement of the needs and demands of the people.

Those who understand the importance of an on-going “direct action network” need to regroup and organize themselves not just for the next action but for the longer term. There are lessons to be drawn from the successes and failures of the past 4-5 years of this wing of the progressive movement. How can the spirit of Seattle be recaptured and married with political/organizational forms of organization locally, regionally and nationally that are connected to struggles at the grassroots but which are also able to mobilize mass nonviolent direct actions on a regular basis against corporate and other targets? Are there local models that have been developing over the past few years that are doing just this? How have they functioned? What can be learned from them to spread them elsewhere? How can regional and national forms of organization be created that minimize bureaucracy, which are deeply democratic and transparent, but which are wise to the dangers of government infiltration and disruption?

Perhaps there are discussions already going on along these or similar lines. I hope so.

A political opening has developed over the summer. The Bushites are on the defensive on many fronts. The Democrats, pushed by the peace movement and candidates like Kucinich and Sharpton, are using more progressive language and rhetoric. Within this context there is space for regroupment and getting organized. Let’s use it wisely and well.