I’ve known groups that limited themselves in the boldness of their actions, even though to reach their goals they had to step it up. School closings, prison construction, tuition hikes, fracking, drone mania — this is only a sample of the causes today that cry out for stronger resistance.
One reason that groups restrain themselves is because “bolder” means that they could get in over their heads without the resources they need when the pressure grows. In this column I’ll share some examples of how some movements in the past have handled this problem; one of the models might work for a group you know.
The International Workers of the World — the IWW, or the “Wobblies” — showed one way to expand its forces when it needed to. The IWW was a radical, mostly anarchist movement that flourished in the early 20th-century United States and Canada. While its strategic goal was to organize large industrial unions, it did a lot of the early agitation work in smaller groups. Because the 1 percent considered the Wobblies a menace, the police of the day often arrested them.
The Wobblies turned repression into an opportunity — the legendary “free speech fights.” A Wobbly agitator would come to town and find a street corner where workers passed by. Standing on a soap box, the organizer spoke until he was arrested.
An arrest would be the signal for other Wobblies in the region to catch a freight train and ride to town to replace that brother or sister on the corner. More Wobblies came, and the initial incident swelled into a campaign. By the time the police figured out what had happened, the jail was full, and the workers were roused enough to form a union!
I was a part of Movement for a New Society, a radical network of action groups and alternative institutions in the 1970s and 1980s, which adopted a variant of this mutual-aid approach. The network agreed that one of the responsibilities of each collective would be to respond to another collective that “called crunch” — that is, got into a situation over its head where aid was needed.
For example, in 1972 a Movement for a New Society group led a campaign in a North Jersey military port town, Leonardo. The goal was to build anti-war sentiment by trying to stop arms shipments to U.S. armed forces in Vietnam. The group began by trying to stop the trains that brought the weapons to the military depot by sitting on the tracks.
The drama of the action induced many to join, and the group escalated by adding a naval component: People were urged to bring canoes and other small craft and go into the sea to try stopping the munitions ships from leaving port.
U.S. Marines joined local police in attacking our blockade tactics, so reinforcements were needed. The Movement for a New Society group leading the campaign “called crunch.”
I was a member of the Movement’s outreach collective in Philly, and our group promptly met to decide how to respond to the crunch call. The group agreed that I should volunteer, and in two days I was in a carload of MNS-ers from various collectives on our way up the New Jersey Turnpike to Leonardo.
We were quickly put to work by the MNS-ers there who weren’t in jail, and I soon found myself in a canoe with a new friend paddling furiously toward a munitions ship.
We were stopped before we got there; a police boat pulled us out of the way. In the courtroom the arresting officer testified emotionally about risking his own life to save us from our likely deaths in a collision with a ship already picking up speed. Although my canoe partner and I were sentenced to jail time, others replaced us and the blockade campaign continued for months, contributing to the growth of the anti-war movement. Some U.S. military personnel were even inspired to refuse continued participation in the war.
That scenario went smoothly because we were part of a network and had some level of trust for each other. I’m not imagining that a “crunch” mechanism can be negotiated among people who don’t have some reason to trust each other and who don’t believe in mutual aid. Actually, trying to organize a network of many groups at the outset might be a mistake. The more organic way would be to join one existing group to another in an agreement for mutual aid, then add a third and then a fourth, and so on.
Mutual aid can work, as many of us have seen firsthand. But becoming more intentional about it can help us increase our forces and our boldness.
The power grid
A power grid assumes that the flow of electricity needs to grow and diminish over time in its various parts; when more is needed in one place, energy flows from other parts to the place that needs it. For instance, Denmark generates more wind power than it needs during some parts of the year, and the same is true of Norway’s hydroelectric power. The two countries are connected in a grid, so the abundance can flow across borders where it needs to go.
The civil-rights organization SCLC, or Southern Christian Leadership Conference, operated that way in the 1960s, and its grid model might work well in many contexts today.
The SCLC, based in Atlanta, was best known for its leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but I don’t think the model depends on a charismatic figure. A series of local action groups in the South became affiliates of SCLC, and they were expected to be developing campaigns that made sense in their local circumstances. If a local campaign escalated beyond the ability of people there to handle it — especially in terms of the level of violent repression — then national resources flowed to that campaign: mass media connections, relationships with institutional allies, the presence of Dr. King, money and organizers.
This model gave everyone a lot of strategic flexibility. It honored the local fights led by local people, and at the same time the model encouraged them to know they wouldn’t be alone if a fight got overwhelming. At the same time, the SCLC could pay attention to the national level of power — since power is organized nationally as well as locally — and partner with a local campaign strategically to bring a particular fight to national significance.
The classic (but not the only) example of this is told by Dr. King in his book Why We Can’t Wait, about the 1963 Birmingham campaign. King reportedly had talked with President John Kennedy about the necessity of White House action on behalf of civil rights, and Kennedy had turned him down for fear of harming his chances of becoming a two-term president.
A simplistic, mechanical strategy would mean that King might start a campaign in Washington to force the President’s hand, and indeed that is sometimes exactly the thing to do — as Alice Paul showed in the women’s suffrage campaign of 1917.
But the power-grid model offered another possibility. King went to the Birmingham affiliate of SCLC, led by the warrior-pastor Fred Shuttlesworth. SCLC resources flowed there, and Alabama became the site for the struggle that tipped the country. With the industrial city of Birmingham dislocated by nonviolent struggle, President Kennedy was forced to back legislation that became a landmark in the fight against segregation.
The route to contradicting despair
All over the country, officials are now following the U.S. 1 percent’s instructions to flush public education down the toilet. The resistance by Chicago teachers last fall sparked interest many states away and could have been used as this kind of opportunity; for a brief moment, the fog of despair lifted.
Significantly for us today, the SCLC’s power-grid model was not only a back-up plan for affiliates. It was a strike against despair, which is just what students and parents and teachers need now — and people in debt, and climate justice activists.
Local action groups are critical for many reasons, but they are not enough on their own to fight powerful, highly-organized opponents. The power of the 1 percent is being wielded more effectively on a national level than ever before, and increasingly on an international level, too. Networks and other large movement structures need to understand the synergies of multi-level organizing and get their groove on. Small action groups, meanwhile, need to find ever more creative ways to band together and support each other in the fights to come.
Waging Nonviolence is hiring a writer to interview leading movement figures and analysts and produce one Q&A-style article per week. The writer will work with our small editorial team to identify the interview subject each week. For the most part, we’ll be looking to hear from activists, organizers and scholars who can shed light on… More
By melding theory and practice, Philadelphia’s Vanguard S.O.S. are building skills and collective power.
The 1958 voyage of the Golden Rule offers important strategic lessons on how to confront an overwhelming evil and win.
This is no plan at all. You’re advocating that which will never work. CANVAS tactics plus outdated tactics are not the answer, because this is what the government wants us to do, and will lead us down a dead-end road.
King never used the raised fist, which represents anger, and neither should we.
AJ, I think we think alike. See my comments.
Just to clarify, George’s column did not say anything about advocating the symbolism of the fist. He just mentioned the IWW, and the image was added to illustrate that fact.
I will keep repeating that democracy power in the form of democracy strategy +
democracy mustle is the only way to end America’s ruinous corpocracy. Take a look at the Democracy Power Page of http://www.uschamberofdemocracy.com If you agree with what it says, please promote democracy power.
In Napoleon’s campaigns, the use of large armies were coordinated as they marched through a territory. Usually four separate groups went in a loose square formation, leading with a corner. As the four groups were roughly of the same composition, when a change in direction was needed, say to the left, then what was on the left and to the rear of the leading group now became the leading group with the others assuming their new positions. Of course, each of the four groups had their own scouting forces acting as buffers.
With this type of formation, whenever contact was made, it didn’t matter much which group was contacted because the groups were equal in abilities. Surprise is greatly reduced by this type of formation. As surprise is normally of great concern when operating with many unknowns, its reduction is paramount.
In Napoleon’s better years, his intense planning involved timing to perfection. Knowing what the troops were capable of, his abilities did the rest – concentrating forces at the desired location thought to be the prime spot to disrupt the opposing forces. This is basic strategy and tactics – disrupt your opponent.
While some aspects can be more important than others, relying on specific ones too much may not be the best choice unless certainty is inescapable.
Studying military history pays off if one understands it correctly as it’s applied to Non-Violent uses.
Employing forces in an action is strengthened by knowing the capabilities of those forces by all involved. Cohesion and confidence are paramount pluses when its time to act more intensely, while contingencies are waiting in reserve.
There seems to be a semantics difference here.
Militant to me is the wrong path. Militant borders on violence so that a switch to violence could occur without warning.
While I’ve been immersed in military history throughout my life, have supported the use of military force once, grew up after WW2, I realize violence or militancy is not a solution without great risk at best. Violence to end violence is the stupidest thing our governments do. While considered in the first thoughts, the thought of force is tempered by reason and restrains the use of something which is easily countered en mass.
I’m not certain as to what George is conveying in the article’s title.
Another term with problems is this ‘diversity of tactics’ used by some. To my way of thinking, diversity of tactics is a very sound idea, but my version is quite different than how its been used. This term was another good way of expressing an idea, but has been hijacked by some people, leading the term into the negative.
And, as I’ve noticed there’s a row over the clenched fist.
Furthermore, while I’m here, there are many terms being used which mark people as belonging to certain groups even though people use them independent of any group, as I do. It seems no speech is safe speech in these hyper-charged days.
As is the human fate or condition, speaking the same language and growing up in the same country still creates strangers, unknowable for the most part.
Just for the record, the IWW still =is=. Check out iww.org for our current work. We’re putting a lot of effort into organizing food service and temporary workers right now, as those are areas where workers are badly abused, labor laws are routinely violated, and the general public suffers. Did you know that food service workers aren’t generally allowed sick days? Do you really want your sandwich made by someone who’s ill? How long before we have a Typhoid Mary-type situation because employers won’t allow sick employees to stop handling food?