Upping the Ante

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are those who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters. . . Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. . . The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”     Frederick Douglass, August 4, 1857


A couple of days ago I was watching a movie on TV with my wife, “The Man from Snowy River,” starring Kirk Douglas. It’s a movie that is set in Australia. At one point during the movie I went to the kitchen to get some wine for us to drink. As I picked up the wine bottle I had bought earlier in the week, I noticed that the wine came from Australia.


As far as I know, I’ve never gotten wine from Australia before, and I’ve seen very few movies that take place there. I commented to my wife that the odds had to be at least 1,000 to 1 that this would ever happen at the same time.


This was the second coincidence of similar things last week. The other one was much, much more significant.


On Wednesday I was on an encouraging call with a number of leading activists in the climate action movement. There was a good representation of key groups. There was unanimity that we needed to work together to encourage and coordinate nonviolent civil disobedience actions and that we were talking about them happening within months. There was positive discussion about goals, tactics and next steps and a decision to meet again by conference call in a week and a half.


Then, two days later, I received an email from Leslie Cagan, coordinator of United for Peace and Justice, reporting on the development of a new campaign, “The Declaration of Peace.” At their website, www.declarationofpeace.org, it is explained that the objective is “to declare peace by engaging in nonviolent action in cities and towns across the United States and in Washington, DC September 21-28 if these goals — immediate withdrawal of US troops and a comprehensive plan to end the US war — are not accomplished by International Peace Day, September 21, 2006. Nationally coordinated nonviolent activities will continue on a regular basis as needed until the United States withdraws from Iraq.”


As is made clear elsewhere on the website, nonviolent civil disobedience actions are central to the plans being made. 34 organizations so far have endorsed this effort.


I wonder if there are similar discussions happening within other movements. I do remember that when I was being interviewed on a radio show hosted by African American leader Ron Daniels a couple of months ago he asked me at one point, in the context of discussion about building a movement against the Bush administration, what I thought about the importance of risk-taking, direct action campaigns as part of that work.


This is all very good news.


There is no question that it’s time for us to up the ante as far as our tactics in the struggle for peace, justice and defense of our wounded ecosystem. Our history is full of examples of how risk-taking, nonviolent direct action has played an essential role in mass movements for social change. It was an integral part of the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s as Black people and their supporters sat in, prayed in, went on freedom rides and braved vicious KKK’ers and southern police forces who were quick to go on the attack. During the time of the anti-Vietnam War peace movement the burning of draft cards, the destruction of Selective Service files via raids on draft board offices, mass civil disobedience at the Pentagon, in the streets of Washington, D.C. and elsewhere—all  were necessary parts of maintaining the pressure on the government and keeping in the public eye. And more recently, nonviolent direct action was central to the development of the movement against the unjust and destructive actions of the World Trade Organization, the IMF and the World Bank.


Nonviolent direct action does a number of things. It is good for those who participate in it, keeps us honest and true to our beliefs, helps us sleep better. It is good for those who hear about the actions; some will consider why people are willing to take such risks and will be led to question; others may begin to speak up or take more significant actions themselves. Such actions often put the powers that be on the defensive, makes them have to respond. It is an overall shot in the arm, in a good sense, for the forces of positive social change.


Despite this, there will be some progressives who will be critical, or worse, people who are stuck in political or tactical ruts, with little creativity, afraid of the reaction of the government or just downright timid. We should listen to their concerns, engage them and try to win them over.


We must remember that the purpose of whatever tactic we use, whatever action campaigns we undertake, is to build, broaden and strengthen the movement. Genuine mass movements are made up of people who are at lots of different places. Some are just finding their voice, just getting into it, still “beginners.” Others are in it for mixed reasons and are inconsistent. Still others are seasoned and experienced, sometimes jaded, long-time organizers and revolutionaries who will stick with it whether the movement is tiny or very big. Nonviolent direct action must be done in such a way that all of these sectors of the broader movement can relate.


Let Frederick Douglass’ spirit and passion guide us as we move to the next level.