The long walk for justice

Memorial in Delhi to Ganhi's Salt March. By Tom Jordan, via Flickr.

What do Native Americans, Costa Ricans, Thai villagers, Hispanic students in U.S. colleges, Indian independence activists and Maasai women have in common? They’ve all organized long marches as part of campaigns for justice. Their campaigns’ very different choices about how to use the tactic raises strategic questions for us today. In some campaigns the long march was used primarily to heighten awareness, while in others it was to gain new allies. Sometimes it was used to launch other kinds of direct action. It has also been used at the end of a campaign, to escalate the pressure (just as a general strike is sometimes used). But what conditions make a long walk a truly effective tactic in a campaign, rather than just a chance to get some good exercise?

For me, that question is personal right now. On April 30, I will begin a 200-mile walk to the Pittsburgh, PA, headquarters of the PNC Bank to challenge its funding of mountaintop removal coal mining. The march is organized by the Philadelphia-based Earth Quaker Action Team as part of its BLAM! campaign: Bank Like Appalachia Matters! For that reason — and with the help of the Global Nonviolent Action Database — I’ve been reviewing the ways in which long marches like this have been used by others, with varying degrees of success.

One of the most recent long walks was taken by four Miami College undocumented students who walked from Florida to the U.S. Capitol in support of the immigration reform proposed in the Dream Act. They called their 2010 march The Trail of Dreams. They not only ended up expanding support for the legislation, but also stimulated five students to add an additional walk of 250 miles from New York to Washington, timed to arrive at the same time as the walkers from Miami. Although the Dream Act was not passed, the action certainly increased the momentum behind it.

In 2009, Tanzanian police set fire to eight Maasai villages to evict 3,000 people who were living on traditional land that the government secretly leased to a wealthy businessman from the United Arab Emirates for his hunting and recreation. Widespread protests were stonewalled by the government. Thousands of women in the region then decided to march back to the village area in April 2010; despite arrests and blockades along the way, 1,500 women made it. The women had as allies a network of NGOs, three leaders of which were arrested as well.

Also in 2010, Costa Rican protesters marched from San Jose to Las Crucitas, over 100 miles, to overturn a government decision that permitted open-pit gold mining. The stakes were high: A Canadian subsidiary wanted to mine an estimated $1 billion gold deposit, even though it would remove 600 acres of yellow almond trees — the main food for the endangered green macaw. The march, along with an occupation, hunger strike and other actions, forced a Congressional vote to ban all new open-pit mining projects, and in a court case the protesters won a ban of the Las Crucitas mine.

Most U.S. activists have heard of the 1965 Selma–Montgomery march in Alabama that brought to a peak a national crisis that forced the U.S. federal government to pass a voting-rights law to allow African Americans to vote in the South. The strategy in the previous cases I’ve mentioned was to use the long march as a “wake-up call” to mobilize a broader campaign for their cause. But in the 1965 civil rights movement, the long march was placed strategically at the end of the campaign, to escalate the pressure when allies around the U.S. were already mobilized.

A variety of tactics had already been used before the march: Alabama blacks showing up at voter registration offices even though they wouldn’t be allowed to register; sit-ins and picketing of white-owned businesses; short marches (sometimes even escalating to night marches — a highly dangerous tactic in that context); and other tactics usually involving tense confrontations and thousands of arrests. The young black protester Jimmy Jackson was shot and killed by police, and the white Unitarian-Universalist minister James Reeb was beaten to death.

The rising storm of protest around the U.S. forced the Attorney General in Washington to begin working on a voting-rights bill. President Lyndon B. Johnson urged Dr. King to de-escalate in view of the increasing violence. King, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and others in leadership believed that more pressure was needed. They planned a five-day march from Selma, which had been the center-point of the campaign, to Montgomery, the state capital of Alabama — since voting laws are usually decided by the state government.

The march would be extremely dangerous, passing through rural areas “owned” by the white terrorist organization Ku Klux Klan. Three hundred trained people were allowed to go the whole way, with the understanding that thousands could join on a day-by-day basis. Eight thousand people left Selma for Montgomery on March 21. Demonstrators marched through rain, singing and chanting, arriving safely on March 25, although the Ku Klux Klan murdered one more protester as she drove back to Selma.

This successful campaign spotlights two important strategic decisions: one was to place the timing of the walk near the campaign’s end, as a functional alternative to the tactic chosen in some labor-based campaigns: the escalatory general strike. The other was to base the campaign in a location other than where the power holders sit (in Alabama, the state capital, and in the U.S., Washington, D.C.). Because empowerment was a fundamental theme for civil rights organizers, emphasizing the grassroots rather than the seat of official power — and forcing the power holders to deal with the results — was often seen as most effective.

The Selma–Montgomery march was directly influenced by knowledge of the March to the Sea in India led by Gandhi in 1930. In that case, the long walk initiated the entire campaign: the Salt Satyagraha. The 240-mile march began at Gandhi’s ashram and ended at the sea, where the marchers made salt in defiance of the British Empire’s monopoly of salt manufacture. While the country was already well-organized and probably didn’t need the march to mobilize, the leadership wanted drama to kick off the campaign. The drama was provided by suspense: would the British arrest Gandhi or not? It was a classic dilemma demonstration. If the British arrested Gandhi they would make him a martyr and prove correct his claim that their presence was repressive and illegitimate. If they didn’t arrest him, he, the “Great Soul,” would be the first to make salt and defy the British. Either way, the British were in trouble; the campaign continued on a mass scale for two years and paved the way for India’s independence.

In Thailand, a rural campaign to re-open the Pak Mun Dam, whose construction had turned out to be an economic and ecological disaster for the region, used the long walk in the middle of the campaign. In 2000 the Assembly of the Poor first did a series of protests that culminated in seizing the dam and building villages there, preventing dam workers from gaining access. Although they had studies by academics and the World Commission on Dams to back them up, they realized that their struggle needed more allies, including among the urban poor, working class and middle class. So 150 representatives of impacted villages participated in a long march of 400 miles to Bangkok to win more allies. Once there, they began a hunger strike, created a mock village outside the seat of government, and did a “die-in” to dramatize their outreach.

Their success in winning allies even among the middle class resulted in the government not only compromising substantially — opening the dam gates four months each year — but also effectively ended new dam construction in the country.

In 1978, 26 Native American activists walked 3,000 miles in what they called the Longest Walk – from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Thousands of people joined them at various points along the way. Symbolically they were reversing the Trail of Tears that marked the history of so many tribes, ejected from their homes by white supremacy and made to walk westward. Practically, they were walking to catalyze a new level of energy among allies, against the threat in the U.S. Congress. Congress was considering a set of 11 bills that would — once again — injure indigenous people in the U.S. The Longest Walk succeeded in blocking the bills.

The Global Nonviolent Action Database contains more campaigns that used long walks. Many activists have used this method, turning it into a tactic — as militaries use the term — by attaching it to a very specific objective. Campaigners in various situations have placed the long walk in the beginning of a campaign, or the middle or the end, making it serve one or another of a variety of campaign needs. Its strategic flexibility makes it tempting.

A downside is that effectiveness requires a great deal of organization, and many protest groups simply don’t have the infrastructure to carry it off to get what they want. I’ve known long walks that were intended to build allies but didn’t because the walk attracted hyper-individualists with nothing better to do than string along with the walk and alienate the potential allies along the way. Depending on the culture, those who initiate a long walk need to have serious skills in organization and conflict resolution. Depending on the level of danger, they also need skills in training. I was once called in to assist a group whose long walk resulted in several injuries and deaths among the walkers; we worked hard to build the capacity of the organization in nonviolent self-defense. In future walks, no one was killed.

The long walk is not the only method that has advantages and challenges to implement — most do. However, campaigners who rely simply on marches and rallies risk death by boredom, which is one reason why one of the most effective recent campaigns I know of began with a solemn agreement never to hold a march or a rally! Maybe a long walk is for you. Maybe you’d like to join us on ours? Follow #greenwalk and #m16 on Twitter for more details.

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