from Hannah Strange:
This year, contrary to our past patterns, The Ruckus Society made a decision not to participate in the RNC “Crash the Convention” protests. We chose instead to support a camp hosted by YAWR (Youth Against War and Racism), a local group of youth organizing against military recruitment in the Twin Cities.
In the following letter, George Lakey reflects on the trend in mass mobilizations to support a “diversity of tactics” approach that, in his opinion, has little impact on making real change, but instead serves as a variation on bearing witness.
We wanted to share these thoughts with you, as they reflect a lot of what was discussed behind the scenes in our decision not to participate in the RNC protests as we have in the past, and instead to make a more strategic choice to develop the leadership of impacted youth, and support with a group we have more long term connections to.
Let’s Support Winning Instead of Witness
A Response to Betsy Raasch-Gilman’s
Reflection on the 2008 Protests at the
Republican National Convention
By George Lakey
As a long-time friend and comrade of Betsy Raasch-Gilman’s, I’d like first to honor the tremendous faithfulness she has shown in handling her part in the RNC 2008. She didn’t go into it naively but instead knew that it was a bad strategic move that was unlikely to have any political value. She didn’t want the RNC in her city, and didn’t want an incoherent mess of an activist response. She spent 18 months trying to minimize the damage to her city and her people, and I understand and honor the place that comes from.
At the same time, I have some disagreements with her and concerns, born partly from Training for Change experience in Philadelphia with the RNC in 2000. She and I have talked and she gave me feedback on the first draft of this essay, but my comments are my own.
In Betsy’s letter and attachment on diversity of tactics, she describes a tradition of ineffectual political action that might be called “witness,” full of politeness and conflict aversion. Witness is honored among the historic peace churches but also in other places, and is typified by the silent vigil. When I was working with Britain Yearly Meeting I met a cynical Quaker who defined witness as “standing up to be counted, then sitting down so you don’t rock the boat.” Betsy rightly joins Peter Gelderloos, Ward Churchill and other radicals who dismiss routine vigils and carefully contrived, no-risk civil disobedience gestures as irrelevant to the injustices they are meant to protest.
A Quaker, Betsy distances herself from that tradition of witness by sympathizing with another political tradition, that of the (mainly) young middle class anarchists who troop from location to location where powerholders can be found, staging their actions at those spots. I’ve sometimes worked with her in those mobilizations, where we facilitated workshops. The role of trainer gave us the political space to be friendly critics of these events, since the exercises and activities that we chose assisted the activists to reflect on what they were doing and get a bigger perspective, a view that we then hoped would motivate them to want to become strategic in their work.
The way Betsy writes about her experience at the St. Paul Republican National Convention implies a stronger identification with the militant traveling anarchist tradition than I’ve seen before, and that concerns me.
My experience is that most of the militant young anarchists that go from place to place to hold their ritual bashes (and not all militant young anarchists do so) are as non-strategic and unconcerned with social change as are most pacifists who hold signs at the county courthouse every Wednesday at noon.
Neither the tame nor the militant kind of witness advances the revolution in any way I can see. In fact, I would argue that the mobilizations-where-the-powerholders-meet usually set the revolution back. First, they don’t win allies for our cause because their message is hopelessly muddled by the character of the actions they do. Second, the mobilizations are giant machines for burning out activists. Many young people get disillusioned when they see that they haven’t accomplished anything despite the sound and fury. And third there is the trauma: how many (even if they continue their activism) fail to heal from the violence they endure, and then bring their traumatized selves to future activist efforts?
I found Betsy’s reflection a bit grim, because it implies that if we don’t like the tame version of unstrategic and ineffective witness, we should join the militant version of the same thing. Her description of, and vote for, “diversity of tactics” accommodates both kinds of witness: at the RNC, both the permitted march and the window-breaking. With “diversity of tactics” we end up with twice the ineffectiveness in one phrase, and goodbye forever to strategy! Is this really our fate: to endure the rest of the twenty-first century in endless repetition of ineffective militancy and ineffective non-militancy?
Betsy has considerable credibility among activists, as well as talent and deep knowledge. It would matter if she pointed beyond the two grim options in her letter to a third social change approach: strategic nonviolent direct action. That’s the tradition of Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez. It’s the tradition of some Quakers, too, like Alice Paul, Bayard Rustin, A.J. Muste, and Bill Moyer; when the criticism of witness comes up, she could proudly claim her identification with the strategic Friends, who are in the third tradition.
There’s plenty of Betsy in that third tradition, but one wouldn’t know it from this written piece. She writes, for example, “Innovation comes from the margins, not from the center. Nonviolent direct action practitioners could devise tactics that incorporate drama, tension, uncertainty, humor, beauty and danger – and we don’t.”
Who are “we?” Certainly not Susan B. Anthony, James Lawson, Greenpeace, Daniel Hunter. “We” is obviously the nonviolent witness crowd, who Betsy seems to identify with enough to feel apologetic for it and to react against it by going to the other witness tradition with the unstrategic militants, somehow skipping over the hundreds of thousands of U.S.ers (not to mention the millions in other countries) who actually meet her desired criteria.
The folly of diversity of tactics is easily seen if one asks: how would diversity of tactics have enhanced the sit-ins? The blockade that prevented U.S. weapons from being shipped to Pakistan to massacre Bengalis? Freedom Summer in 1964? A typical Greenpeace action? The overthrow of dictator Milosevic by Otpor?
A moment’s thought shows that not only would diversity of tactics not enhance those (and a thousand other effective nonviolent actions): diversity of tactics would be disastrous! In fact, the reason why Otpor developed a nonviolent code of conduct for its campaign was precisely because its leaders had not done so in a previous student movement and were defeated by – diversity of tactics! I’ve documented a number of social movements that started out with diversity of tactics and over time realized that diversity of tactics was defeating them, then established a discipline of nonviolent action and won!
In my experience the only places where “diversity of tactics” is taken seriously are where there is no coherent strategy and no sensible goal. In such an atmosphere, activists have little to discuss except tactics and, lacking strategic criteria, fall back on moralism (as does Betsy’s paper). At that point, “winning” has no meaning, and activists try to create meaning by focusing on the issue of inclusion/exclusion of other activists.
Inclusion has its appeal, if one has no hope of changing anything anyway. One might as well be inclusive. “Diversity of tactics” ends up being a cover for a militant-looking witness action – the politics of self-expression.
The third tradition – strategic nonviolent direct action – sets real goals that are politically relevant, aims to mobilize allies to achieve those goals, and devises a confrontive strategy to amass sufficient power to win. It has nothing to do with either the tame or the militant types of witness, because it is about winning and making change.
Something organizers in the third approach hold in common is the power of the campaign, that is, the mobilization of energy over a specific time period to achieve a specific objective, using direct action as the driving force of the effort.
The recent film about Alice Paul (“Iron Jawed Angels”) reveals the dynamics of a militant and strategic campaign, and reminds us that a direct action campaign often begins as marginal to the mainstream of a particular social movement. The National American Woman Suffrage Association was the NAACP of its day, and just as MLK had a difficult relationship with the NAACP, so also Alice Paul had a problematic relationship with the NAWSA.
One of history’s fascinations is the dance between strategic nonviolent campaigns and the rest of the spectrum of allies. It is a dance of hope. The dance of the witnessers – whether the militant kind or the mild kind – is a dance of despair.
Sometimes people of Betsy’s and my generation get confused about whether there’s a generation gap that makes it less likely that U.S. young people will passionately join nonviolent campaigns. Somehow we forget the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (dozens of campaigns), the student anti-apartheid campaigns on U.S. campuses in the ’80s, the anti-sweatshop campaigns of the ’90s, the Taco Bell campaign more recently, and the 2006 campaign success by Hispanic groups on the issue of immigration, a campaign that engaged far more young people than ever come to a party convention bash.
I don’t believe this is a generational question. Wanting to win is not the property of any particular generation, any more than “witnessing” is confined to one generation. As Betsy has pointed out, wanting to win may be influenced by class. If so, I don’t know why we’d want to channel our precious energy into middle class people who have the privilege of not caring whether they win or not!
There are masses of people of every generation who actually want to win. Most hold back from acting because organizers aren’t starting nonviolent campaigns that are attractive, have multiple entry points for participation, and have a strategy that works. Ask the sweatshop organizers: when they do the organizing, young people commit.
Something I do hear over and over from young people, on campuses and among young anarchists in Philadelphia, is the request for elders to share our experience and perspective. That insistence was so strong at the RNC convention in 2000 that militant students from Colorado took the initiative to set up a debate between me and Ward Churchill; the young protesters wanted the issues clarified through real debate.
I believe that, in their heart of hearts, most radical young people, including middle class young people, want to hope, rather than to flame out in despair. The only hope for substantial change in the U.S. is through strategic nonviolent direct action. Because Betsy in fact knows so much about the field and has the benefit of years of experience and contact with young people, I hope that she will rejoin the third tradition, stop identifying with “witness” (whether the tame or militant type), and share with young people the empowerment given by strategic nonviolent direct action.
- George Lakey, 10/20/08