There’s an old activist adage: We have more power than we think. It’s true, but finding it can be tricky. Fortunately, people around the world are showing us how to tap into our political, cultural, economic, social and other kinds of power to make positive change in our world.
You know that line: Governments rule by the consent of the governed? Well, power comes from the consent of the governed, too. We may need to add an adjective to “consent” — it might be reluctant, coerced, frightened or uninformed consent — but ultimately, we go along with the plan. We show up for work, school, shopping, etc. We keep doing what we’re told. We obey the laws, even if they’re unjust. We behave ourselves, even when the house (or world) is on fire. Our participation and cooperation with the day-to-day activities of our society is what keeps our society running. It’s when we refuse to participate in business-as-usual that we find power for making change.
Think about workers going on strike. Usually, people say the CEO has all the power. But once the workers stop production, they have power, too. By withholding their labor, they’ve found a way to leverage their work in exchange for demands. The same applies to students who won’t go to school, shoppers who boycott, sports players who refuse to take the field, activists who block roads, communities who lock down to pipeline construction equipment and more.
Here are several stories that illustrate how people found ways to seize power — in most of these cases, quite literally. These are five stories about people who are seizing the gears of electrical power to protest privatization, poor service, low wages and the climate crisis. How might their strategies apply to your community?
Send a warning
India’s power engineers and workers have planned a one-day strike to protest privatization schemes. The strike is a warning shot in a broader struggle and could involve up to 1.5 million workers. Organizers say that privatization would benefit big corporations while forcing millions of poor people to either lose power or pay higher rates. Announced months ago, the one-day strike was scheduled to take place on Jan. 8, 2020. Both the announcement and the actual strike are ways of showing how workers have the power to make political demands on behalf of whole nations of people.
Disrupt the system
Nigerian youth were fed up with their power utility. Blackouts frequently plunge the capital city into darkness. The power company, which can produce up to 13,000 megawatts daily, often only generates 4,000 megawatts. The shortages shut down businesses and interfere with daily life. To protest, Nigerian youth occupied the utility’s offices in protest, resulting in — you guessed it — a massive blackout. This ironic, disruptive action illustrated how ridiculous the situation had become and pressured the government to take immediate action to resolve the power shortages. By occupying the power company offices, the Nigerian youth found disruptive power through which to pressure officials to make meaningful change.
Get specific and strategic
France’s electrical workers had been on strike for weeks when the Christmas season arrived. With blackouts hitting the country, they decided to hone their strategy: They reconnected poor families’ homes and kept mega-corporations, police stations and government offices in the dark. This put the impact of the strike on those who deserved it and could bear it, while supporting the people who weren’t causing the problem.
Take back power — literally
In 2005, the small German town of Wolfhagen decided not to renew its contract with a private power company. Instead, the town contracted with a public utility and went 100 percent renewable in 10 years, building a solar power park and a wind farm. This is a rare, but inspiring example of how we can use local governing structures to grasp both political and electrical power.
Build alternative power
Faced with the frustrating reality that national governments are moribund when it comes to dealing with the climate crisis, the climate-justice movement Extinction Rebellion is building alternative power with citizens assemblies. Denouncing the failure of traditional political power structures, they are empowering citizens to take matters into their own hands. With citizens’ assemblies, Extinction Rebellion is trying to build a political force strong enough to challenge the old system with something new. It’s a daring vision, but not without precedent. In the 1760s, a plucky set of colonies set up their own town halls, congresses and governing bodies. A decade later, the Continental Congress of the American colonies had enough effective power to declare independence from the monarchy of Great Britain. In the early 1900s, a man named Mohandas K. Gandhi would similarly establish the Indian National Congress with his associates, using parallel governing structures, alternative institutions and nonviolent direct action to achieve independence.
These are a few of the many stories of how people can effectively find power to make change. Every week, I collect 30-50 news stories for Nonviolence News. Many of these illustrate the creative and inspiring ways we can tap into our power together and discover power in unexpected places. The secret to challenging and transforming injustice is to find the many kinds of power we have to withhold our consent and participation in business-as-usual. When we stop playing along, we start pushing our world to make change.
We provide educational resources on the safe and effective use of nonviolence, with the recognition that it’s not about putting the right person in power but awakening the right kind of power in people. We advance a higher image of humankind while empowering people to explore the question: How does nonviolence work, and how can I actively contribute to a happier, more peaceful society?
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