Building the Resistance from the Ground Up
Truth be told, the vast majority of working people in the U.S. have never even attended a local protest, let alone the sustained and cathartic Black Lives Matter outcry in 2020.
But we can’t wait for an invitation. Activists from a wide range of social movements are pointing the way toward a broad strategy that can build the resistance, defeat racism, reverse the devastating carnage produced by Trump’s administration, and rampant corporate abuses.
We can’t sit on our hands until single-issue organizations coalesce into a united front. Changing the balance of power through strategic nonviolent action is proving to be a critical tool right now in the workplace and in the community, according to those on the front lines.
It is from these building-block actions, as an integral part of our overall campaign strategies, that we can build for a new world in the shell of the old. That’s why Good Trouble: A Shoeleather History of Nonviolent Direct Action (Hard Ball Press) will come in handy.
Organized nonviolent resistance is a method of struggle outside of institutional channels (laws, courts, petitions, voting), without the use of injurious force or threat to others. It is open and direct conflict that exposes oppression. It is protest, resistance, or intervention to stop injustice and win control over our lives.
Such resistance, wrote sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, gains real leverage by causing “commotion among bureaucrats, excitement in the media, dismay among influential segments of the community, and strain for political leaders.” It can win short-term immediate goals, and strengthen our ongoing campaigns and movements for the future.
Rose Webster Smith thought she was alone when the local bank was about to foreclose on her family’s western Massachusetts home. Then she met up with Springfield No One Leaves, a community group that works to stop evictions. “Without direct action,” Smith recalls, “many of our members, including myself, would not have been able to buyback our homes. Direct action is the only way to change policies and procedures by putting direct pressure on the decision makers and doing so in a very public and strategic manner.”
“We will no longer tolerate the racist status quo,” says Josh Pawelek, a Unitarian Universalist minister, who found that prayer breakfasts and lobbying were not having the desired effect. “Someone asked, ‘with all our talking, have we really made a dent in racism in our region?’” Pawelek found new energy when he joined the direct action campaigns organized by a group associated with the National Poor People’s Campaign.
Pawelek says: “We will no longer tolerate mass incarceration, race-based health disparities, an urban Black unemployment rate three times the national rate. We will no longer tolerate police killings of young, unarmed Black men. I’m persuaded. Disrupting ‘business as usual’ through nonviolent direct action is not only a morally grounded response, it is morally necessary.”
Pamela Selders, an African American organizer and co-founder of Moral Monday CT, says that nonviolent action builds interdependent community relationships: “When our rights are continuously threatened and violated, I stand with others to say No. Stop. The further step I take with civil disobedience is my commitment to community in addressing the wrongs through resistance. Civil disobedience is a tool in that resistance.”
There’s a widespread sense of despair across the country that these activists have seen first-hand. Yet they have found that nonviolent direct action doesn’t only have an impact on powerful institutions: it can transform the sense of powerlessness felt by ordinary people. “One doesn’t need magical powers to be involved in working for change. It’s the old ‘if I can do it, anyone can do it’ idea,” says Deb Cohen, who first became active through the Occupy movement.
“Last year I traveled with nine other women to the border in Arizona, walking the desert to leave water for migrants and volunteering in a Tucson migrant shelter. The purpose of the trip was to witness, work, and report back and each of those components are equally important,” Deb learned. “Everyone can do something about something. Participating in direct action allows us, at the end of the day, to know that we did something.”
Rob Baril is president of the 28,000 member union District 1199 New England/ SEIU. These militant, progressive health care workers have a long tradition of direct action in nursing homes and hospitals. “Workers have been increasingly reluctant to challenge corporate authority by engaging in workplace organization,” he says. “From the start, District 1199 is clear with workers that ultimately, to even the unequal balance of power, they must form enough unity to threaten production by striking.”
“By uniting workers from different countries, language groups, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and job classifications, there is the potential to forcefully demand that employers treat workers with dignity and respect,” Baril continues. “We build worker confidence through small actions: group marches to demand union recognition from the boss, picket lines, press conferences, and other demonstrations that show black, brown, and white workers can overcome their divisions to unify and win.”
“I got heavily involved in the fight for the gay rights bills in my state,” says veteran AIDS activist Shawn Lang. “The bill had failed each year, and after each defeat, a candlelight vigil was organized. We always played by the rules. The last time it failed we had to decide what our course of action would be. There was a small group who wanted nothing to do with the passive candlelight vigils of the past and we formed a direct action group.” she recalls. “I read Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail which clearly and eloquently spells out when it’s time. This was our time.” The fight for civil rights was waged for two decades, but after two years of public direct actions, the equality bill passed.
Union organizer Puya Gerami understands nonviolent direct action in terms of power: “Direct action is a core tactic in our struggle to build collective strength, to create crises for the ruling class. This remains the truth in our own urgent moment. If we want not only to save democracy but also to expand it, then we will need many forms of mass protest—from marches to civil disobedience to workplace strikes.
Long-time labor activist Edgar Aracena sees unity in action as the political tipping point: “Facts and figures and experts can explain why things are, and how things may be, but only organizing and acting together at the workplace, community, cities, and prairies is what has won for working people. Direct action, in the end, might be what saves us from ecological destruction.”
Harness the Power
“Good Trouble,” as veteran civil rights activist Congressman John Lewis has stated, begins with hope and inspiration. It’s an antidote to fear and helplessness; it creates community. Strategic nonviolence requires planning and consensus. It prepares ordinary folks for bigger battles to come. As Shirley Chisholm said, we have to “organize the rage.”
Although nonviolent struggle is frequently dismissed in activist circles as ineffective and purely symbolic, there are literally thousands of examples of people who have embraced the strategy of “people power” on a local and national level.
My book Good Trouble: A Shoeleather History of Nonviolent Direct Action (Hardball Press, 2019) documents, for the first time, dozens of these examples utilized by a wide range of people, especially communities of color that are fighting for economic, social, environmental, and racial justice.
Focused mostly in urban settings, Good Trouble documents the work of public housing tenants to protect their kids from a hazardous river, welfare moms who set up a tent city to stop benefit cuts by the Governor, and a neighborhood that forced a restaurant owner to clean up his rat-infested property.
Other events demonstrate how the use of such action has exposed injustices and forced the powerful to make significant concessions: young black and white activists who challenged racist hiring practices by blocking United Parcel Service (UPS) trucks; anti-war veterans who occupied a cathedral during mass to expose church investment in weapons production; and an inmate sit-down strike triggered by inhumane jail conditions.
And there’s more: urban high school students published an independent newspaper despite escalating discipline; university students locked college trustees in a conference room until they approved Black student scholarships; displaced families occupied hotels and state offices; homeless men took over city hall to expose the lack of an effective housing policy; the lesbian community refused to cooperate with a federal grand jury witch hunt against underground activists; gay rights advocates faced down a bar owner who discriminated against “nonconforming” patrons. These are just a few of the creative, militant and successful examples of strategic nonviolence collected in the book.
What Stops Us
If active nonviolence is so powerful, why isn’t it utilized more often? Why can’t we mount a general strike that stops “business as usual?” Why do the BLM, Puerto Rican, and Sudan democracy campaigns, and the European student climate strikes attract millions of people, not just for a one-off rally but as a sustained presence can disrupt government and force real change?
One answer is the serious disconnect between our everyday lives and our own history. We focus on our immediate, often desperate plights, ignoring the lessons and inspiration of the past. Malcolm X put it best when he said: If we don’t think we have done anything, we will never be able to do anything.
In fact, if we learn our revolutionary past, and integrate it in our present work, we see how this action is so critical to confronting life-and-death struggles. The conscious, collective withdrawal of cooperation is at the core of a strike’s power, and for two centuries U.S. workers have used it to win better lives.
Union and nonunion workers have taken charge of their work lives, to make the boss do the right thing or stop him from doing wrong. In my healthcare union, we have a practice of ”walking in” on the employer to press for immediate action. It’s an effective, time-honored tradition. Workers learn what it’s like to engage in an action together and to overcome fear. But these walk-ins do much more: they set the stage for going on strike when necessary, multiplying the power of collective action many times.
Strikes have often shaken the ground beneath a complacent power structure and point to the efficacy of people power. As Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza has said: “Every successful social movement in the country’s history has used disruption as a strategy to fight for social change.”
New Laws Threaten Movement Actions
The more effective a strategy is, of course, the harder the government will push back. In eight states, laws have recently been passed to criminalize protests: Stiffer penalties for “unlawful assembly” or traffic blocking; unlimited use of force by police; increasing the property obstruction penalty from a misdemenaor to a felony; equating protest with terrorism. Besides those eight, six other states are now considering similarly drastic laws, euphemistically citing the need to “protect critical infrastructure.” In five more states the legislation has failed, but we can be sure they will be back.
Legal repression is not new. In the first decades of the 20th century, cities and states passed ridiculously broad sedition laws to stop labor organizing and groups like the Wobblies from reaching out to workers. For instance, six such laws were passed in the State of Connecticut, banning public display of red flags, wearing union buttons, or speaking contemptuously of the government. Legislation also indemnified the state’s national guard or a militia for killing a person engaged in an unlawful assembly.
In the 1940s the Smith Act was used to prosecute socialists and communists for advocating unlawful actions. In 1977, the federal criminal code overhaul known as Senate Bill One provided three years in prison for planning a protest or threatening property damage; government authority to eavesdrop and wiretap was expanded. The 2001 Patriot Act (now the USA Freedom Act currently serves a similar function,including indefinite detention of immigrants and surveillance without probable cause.
Deep grassroots education, organizing at the local level, and recruitment for bold action like strikes are critical measures needed to get people into the streets and keep them there. Civil disobedience requires “skin in the game” and generates a more intense level of popular resistance. Reminding people of their history is an important part of building that resistance.
As Rev. Josh Pawelek explains,”Reasonable people—not fanatical people, reasonable people—can be inspired to commit civil disobedience, to cause disruptions, to risk and take arrest if need be. But I hope for more than that. I hope we will be able to take some risks on behalf of creating a more just society,”