What the anti-coup campaign taught us

Social movements saved the United States from a coup attempt by uniting hundreds of organizations to protect the election.

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It is not an understatement to say that social movements just saved the nation from a coup attempt. From Trump’s lies on Election Night onward, his campaign repeatedly tried to badger, bully and lie its way into staying in power. He nearly succeeded, and likely would have succeeded, if not for the hundreds of activist groups that mobilized. 

Pace e Bene heard the rumors of a likely coup attempt early-on. Starting in June 2020, Pace e Bene staff members began to exchange emails with other movement organizers about this new political nightmare: that Donald Trump might refuse to accept the results of the election and pull a coup.

Our staff member Ken Butigan penned a call-to-action urging our colleagues to encourage a coalition of groups to come together to address this danger. His concern was echoed by political science researchers who began issuing repeated warnings that Trump’s style of narcissistic authoritarianism had all the classic hallmarks of dictatorships throughout history. If we were smart, they said, we’d start organizing now to prevent a coup during the elections.

“Activists prepared for months, expecting Trump to steal the election. They were right, and (because of them) he failed.” – Stephen Zunes

Like many organizations, we were operating at maximum capacity. In this intense year of pandemics and protests, we had shifted to online trainings, moved our 1,000-person conference online, adjusted our strategies to respond to the pandemic crisis, and were gearing up for a massive week of 4,000 socially-distanced nonviolent actions in all 50 states and dozens of countries to build a culture of peace and active nonviolence, free from war, poverty, racism, and environmental destruction. 

The last thing we — or anyone — needed was this coup attempt. 

But, when Choose Democracy, Hold The Line Guide, and Election Defenders began to organize and mobilize, we were determined to do our part. Pace e Bene is a 30-year-old nonviolence organization. We’ve trained over 35,000 people in nonviolence and held over 1,000 trainings. We’ve been involved in campaigns to stop wars around the world, to halt coups and juntas in the Global South, and much more.

Like many of our colleagues, we knew that if a coup was attempted, it would happen fast. It could be intensely dangerous. And it would succeed if ordinary people were not prepared to engage in extraordinary nonviolent action. Rapid, organized response would be needed. We also knew that nonviolent action had stopped coups in the past, and offered the United States the best tools for thwarting a coup attempt today.

Hundreds of organizations pitched in to make this effort large, broad, and effective.

Time proved that our preparations were not in vain. Our concerns were not unfounded. From before the elections through to the inauguration, citizens organized by the anti-coup effort halted the Trump campaign’s many attempts to steal power. They halted the hamstringing of the post office, saving mail-in ballots. They countered the lies spewed out about widespread voter fraud. They pushed corporate media to keep the election process narrative straight and to break with previous election cycles’ habit of declaring a victor too early. They got people to the polls by planning to counter harassment and intimidation, and telling their community they’d be there to de-escalate things.

In key swing state Pennsylvania, they boldly and beautifully brought Joy to the Polls and danced in the streets. In Michigan, when election officials nearly threw out Detroit’s vote, they flooded that meeting with public comments and held a car caravan outside until the vote was certified. They organized peace teams to de-escalate the “Stop the Steal” protests that tried to shove their way into the places where votes were being counted. They rolled out “Protect the Vote” overpass banners and light brigades. They held a massive Twitter battle to counter lies with truth and facts. They fact-checked millions of posts spreading falsehoods aimed at keeping Trump in power. This list goes on. At every turn, the people rose up and insisted on democracy, truth, and that #EveryVoteCounts.

Along with the core campaigns that worked on this, hundreds of organizations pitched in to make this effort large, broad and effective. Pace e Bene did our part, and powerfully so. Here’s what we did to leverage our strengths in ways that worked for our organization and for the anti-coup effort.

We dedicated a staff person to follow the many trainings, announcements and suggested strategies coming from lead anti-coup campaigns. From before Election Day through Inauguration Day, we communicated these clearly and calmly to the thousands of people we work with. We connected people to the amazing trainings organized by Choose Democracy and Hold the Line. We made sure our organizers increased their local communities’ de-escalation skills with the Election Defenders, Meta Peace Team, DC Peace Team, and Nonviolent Peaceforce. Knowing that our organizers appreciated small group sessions, we scheduled a series of one-of-a-kind Nonviolent Action Labs. At these, two Pace e Bene staff members offered facilitated trainings, group discussion, and action advice to assist our organizers in figuring out how to respond in our local areas. In addition, we held three organization-wide trainings to disperse the most important points of the anti-coup defense strategies.

We also tried to do all this without reinventing the wheel. 

Wherever we could support another organization or campaign’s efforts, we did. Wherever we could uplift some of the incredible resources in nonviolent anti-coup defense, we gave them a shout-out. We kept an updated “Election Action” Resources Page where our Pace e Bene network could find dozens of hyperlinked videos, articles and more. We supported other organizations whenever it made sense (and it often did) and we crafted tailored tools and resources only when we had a unique need. We invited our people to tune into the webinars Nonviolence International put together sharing advice from global activists who had lived through coups and dictatorships. We passed out Beautiful Trouble’s 1-800-NVDA hotline number so they could call for direct action advice at any time. We put a dozen articles on our website from researchers and activists, like Erica Chenoweth, Maria J. Stephan, Stephen Zunes, Daniel Hunter, and George Lakey. We circulated Hold the Line’s pledges and asked our organizers to bring them to media, police and election officials. 

The anti-coup campaign taught us that we are stronger together. By using this style of multi-nodal organizing, we were able to tap into a synergistic momentum where the whole of our parts was greater even than their sum. The directives of Choose Democracy and Hold the Line to form affinity groups and work locally empowered us to also work as an organizational affinity group. By listening carefully to their clear strategies, we stayed connected to the broader movement. By adapting to meet the unique needs of our network, we offered useful services to our people. 

The anti-coup campaign taught us that we are stronger together.

This model offered us a glimpse of what truly effective “movement of movements” organizing might look like. It gave us new approaches for supporting other campaigns. It illuminated how to move in solidarity with a multi-stranded effort. It gave us a way to plug-in without overwhelming our limited staff resources. It also gave us hope, courage, focus, drive and a sense of solidarity with our fellow citizens. 

If we had to boil down our approach to a short tweet, it might read:
“Do your part. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Speak to your people. Work together.”

Trump’s coup of lies was just one of the many crises we face. As we rally to stop the climate crisis, ensure racial justice, push forward for economic justice and relief, organize to end all wars, and more, our experience with the anti-coup campaign will inform our ongoing work. We hope it inspires yours as well.

This story was produced by Campaign Nonviolence

Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.