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Joanne Sheehan of War Resisters League and War Resisters International joins Nonviolence Radio to share insights and strategies for resisting militarization and ending war through nonviolence, with a focus on current events of the war in Ukraine. In this episode, she encourages us to think of war itself as a crime against humanity, and then explores with Stephanie and Michael how specific nonviolent strategies might be used in Ukraine today.
A lasting peace, Joanne suggests, requires that these strategies be coupled with constructive program, a concerted effort to build up just and supportive infrastructures that will endure beyond efforts to stand up to present violence:
…constructive program needs to be transformative. So, I think at the root, that’s the first thing that it is, right? It’s really creating an alternative or a parallel to what presently exists. And then saying, “We’re going to do that with some values. We’re going to do that with values of empathy, equity, environmental concern, nonviolence, kind of community empowerment.”
In this way, constructive program works beautifully with more active forms of resistance; as people engage in the deliberate dismantling of violent and oppressive forces (through noncooperation, demonstrations, etc.) they are simultaneously building the future community they want and need. Local people, as experts on their own wants and needs, lead the efforts of constructive program and thus are empowered, which is essential, especially at times of great violence and upheaval.
Stephanie: You’re at Nonviolence Radio. I’m your host, Stephanie Van Hook from the Metta Center for Nonviolence.
Today, we’re sharing an interview we conducted on March 8th, which is International Women’s Day, with Joanne Sheehan. She’s with War Resisters League and War Resisters’ International. And we spoke about the crisis in Ukraine, and about how to end war with nonviolence.
Joanne: I’m Joanne Sheehan. I live here in Norwich, Connecticut. I have worked with the War Resisters League and War Resisters’ International for many decades now. And I am the coordinator, organizer and nonviolence trainer for the New England Regional Office of War Resisters League. So, it’s really been my home for a very long time.
And I think at this point in time, it’s really that war is a crime against humanity. That international declaration that we have in War Resisters is really important to me. And particularly, reminding ourselves what that means to really be a crime against humanity.
Stephanie: What does that mean to you?
Joanne: Well, I think that we’re seeing that now. Right. I think that when there is war against any people, first of all, you dehumanize them. They’re no longer considered humanity to you. So therefore, you’re allowed in your own head to justify the violation of those people for whatever your reasons are.
You know, we are an anti-militarist group, and we are an organization that believes in radical revolutionary nonviolence. And it really is seeing the humanity on all sides.
And I think that right now, talking about Ukraine, we can see that. We can also see the inhumanity – on some level, on all sides – that war brings us. Everything from the way that black and brown people have been treated and their needing to get out of Ukraine. The fact that all men 18 to 60 are mandated to stay in Ukraine – there are conscientious objectors who are, you know, so many of them are staying and are involved in nonviolent social civil defense.
But there are people who are trying to get out and who are or stopped from that. So kind of all freedoms also are limited when we get into that kind of militarized space, which affects everyone involved in the war.
Stephanie: The War Resisters League is the oldest secular-pacifist anti-war organization in the United States, founded in 1923. So, it’s about 100 years old. I asked Joanne to talk about a bit of the history of the War Resisters.
Joanne: War Resisters’ International just celebrated our 100th year. And War Resisters League is going to turn 100 in October of 2023. So they’re really long time organizations, started right after World War I, when they understood the inhumanity of war. But I did co-found the War Resisters League chapter in New England back in the mid ‘80s.
When I was involved in a lot of work here in New England, I moved up here to be part of the community for nonviolent action. I got very involved in the occupation of the Seabrook nuclear power plant in 1977. I came to New England already as an experienced nonviolence trainer. And so, I got involved in that way, and then I got involved in an affinity group and spent 13 days in the Armory. And we kind of, you know, continued to do a lot of work around anti-nuclear power, anti-nuclear weapons, and organizing around those issues.
I lived near the submarine base in Groton, Connecticut, and so that’s been a real focus of our work in opposition to nuclear weapons and looking at economic conversion opportunities and what that means. Because, you know, these are my neighbors. These are people who have those jobs, not because they want to build nuclear weapons, but because they need jobs. So that kind of part of it has always been important to me.
I’ve played a lot of different roles in the War Resisters League nationally. I first got on the executive committee when I was in my twenties and living in New York. I then was on the national committee and created the War Resisters League New England, really, because the work I was doing out of Community for Nonviolent Action was very regional. And it felt like that’s kind of where I should be putting my resources, particularly as a nonviolence trainer. So, I’ve been doing that for a long time.
I was nominated to be on the International Council of War Resisters sometime, I think, in the late ‘80s. And I just found doing international work so important, so enriching for my work, so important for our perspective as people in this country who get so isolated and with so much kind of like, “Oh, the United States, the beast.” You know, that we live in “the belly of the beast.” What does that mean to really listen to other people from around the world and work with people?
And War Resisters’ International has become really very international. When I first got involved, it was much more and in North America, Europe and India, and now it’s in both the north and southern hemispheres. I was chair of WRI for eight years, from ‘98 to 2006, I think. And so that was also a great honor and gave me even more opportunities to work with folks.
Stephanie: One myth about violence that pervades the collective imagination, that violence and war are just part of our nature. So, I asked Joanne Sheehan to comment on this from the perspective of the current war in Ukraine and her work in the War Resisters League.
Joanne: We’re wired to a fight or flight, right? And I think that that’s too much. That kind of wiring, you know, too often is about the fight, right? The flight we also have to kind of look at, particularly here as we are filming this on International Women’s Day, that kind of machismo masculinity that says, “Well, I can’t flee. So, my only other option is to fight.”
How we become anti-war is to understand what war is. I mean, I became anti-war during Vietnam. I’m in my early 70s. Vietnam was really building up when I was in high school. I graduated from high school in 1966, which is the first year that the draft was a very serious threat to men. On a personal level, I don’t have any brothers, but I had a lot of friends who were really struggling with what that meant. I lost a high school classmate in Vietnam.
So, I think that trying to understand what war was for my generation is kind of an important foundation for me. I founded War Resisters League in that process. And then working in War Resisters’ International, I see the same thing, right? I see people understanding either war or the militarization of their societies, their culture. So, we work with South Koreans. We have people from Turkey, we have people from Colombia, we have people from all over the world who understand what war and militarization does and has done to their society and to everyone who’s lived in that.
I’m also of Irish descent and so I have seen, particularly looking at Northern Ireland – although my family is from the south – what that meant. And that what we do – one of the lessons of kind of looking at words, well, how do we end war? Look at how we begin war. But I think not just how to end war – maybe a kernel of the truth of how to end war is to look at how wars are ended. And they’re not usually ended by “we won, and you lost.” That’s never quite the complete story, right? Even though it might even look like that, there’s a resurgence of opposition to that, there are people continuing to fight to remain free, etc.
And so, I think that we can look at those kinds of situations and look at what creates war and then look at how we move back from that. So, I think one of the lessons I’ve been thinking about right now is the horror that I hear as we understand what it means to have two nuclear powers in this oppositional place. What does that mean? I’m hearing people who never really thought about nuclear weapons going, “What?”
I heard an interview on the radio yesterday where someone was talking about small tactical nuclear weapons. One person said, “You mean like Hiroshima?” And the other person said, “No, we don’t make anything that small anymore.” And that kind of wake-up call to, “Oh, my God, really?” Like somehow people really not understanding what we have done. You’re now in the third version of updating nuclear weapons that began in the ‘50s, right?
We are now looking at the Columbia-class submarine to replace the Trident submarines, talking about where we are here. But within all of this, right? The billions of dollars going into upgrading the system supposedly from mutually assured destruction. But now we’re talking about like, yeah, “who might use it first, or what might that mean?” in the connection between nuclear weapons and conventional weapons.
So, then we have to kind of look at the build up of NATO, the new countries in Eastern Europe that say, “Oh, if you have it, I want it.” The military corporations, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman that want to keep selling this stuff going and convincing them to do that. Of course, they give them the technical assistance that says, “And this is how you pay for it, and this is how you can go to that country or this country or get this – this foreign aid,” right?
And so, all of that build up creates that imbalance of power again. And that that’s a piece of what’s happening and that people somehow think, “Well, the more weapons I have, the safer I’ll be,” is totally counterintuitive. But that’s a piece of – and so we are in a very frightening place right now, of people, I think, being able to make some of those connections as well as saying, “What is this all about again?”
Including the Russian soldiers that we keep hearing being interviewed who are like, “Why am I here? I thought I was on exercises,” or “I thought you were all really terrible and waiting for us, you know, in a terrible situation, waiting for us to liberate you.” Where have we heard this before? We thought they’d welcome us with open arms. We heard this, you know, I heard this in Iraq from the Bush administration.
And so, I think that the only way we’re going to learn is to really look at it and look at the effects of it. I’m aching for these people in war right now because we know the trauma that is being created. Now, whether that’s the kids leaving or the people staying, the people in the wars and all of that trauma. You know, I had a friend who lived under the bombs in Germany, has those horrible remembrances of needing to run as a child. And that affects people’s mental health their whole lives. And so, we’re really creating millions and millions of trauma victims within this.
And so, I think we just need to really be clear about that. And I do get concerned that in people’s desire to support Ukraine, that they are also now militarizing, right? Like the means are kind of funny, you know, Zelensky in his camouflage and Trump – you know, juxtaposed to a picture of Trump talking about bone spurs and the like.
There’s a lot of kind of dark humor around some of this, but it’s still becoming a glorification of the military, even though I think it’s really important to see. And I’m really glad the Metta Center that your resource list has this, it’s really important to see the amount of nonviolent resistance that is taking place on a daily basis. And I think that’s another piece that’s different.
We go back to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, you know, and Gene Sharp’s work at looking at the research of what they did. You know, and the students turning the signs around so the tanks would get lost, right? And that’s still happening. They’re redoing the signs. All roads lead to The Hague you know, that was my favorite, I think.
And it’s not like people have had nonviolence training, although I’m guessing a lot do. We’ll find out later, right? I think during the uprising at Tahrir Square in Egypt, we heard that the people from Otpor from Serbia who did the resistance there had been meeting and talking and doing training. So as a trainer, I just want to shout out to folks who do that, have been doing that. I know Yurii from the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement there has talked about training, that they’ve been doing some training and thinking about this for a while.
So, I’m sure we’ll hear later about networks of connections that have been made there and that that’s really important. But there’s also this spontaneous kind of reaction of hundreds of people in towns going out and surrounding in the caravan of Russians that are coming in or just refusing to move and the like.
I think the more that that happens and the more they are able to hear of that and the more support they’re getting. Because everyone is not leaving. And some of the people staying are standing up and making it clear that they’re not going to be very governable under a different regime. And that there are ways of not cooperating.
And I think, you know, that was the whole message of what was happening in India, right? Like we need to non-cooperate with what is happening here. And so, we have so many more examples now of that level of non-cooperation than we had in the past decades. And particularly around Eastern Europe as well.
Stephanie: Since Joanne is a nonviolence trainer and has a long experience with trainings in nonviolence, I wanted to know how she might initiate and engage a training around nonviolence at this level of escalation and conflict.
Joanne: Well, I think some is learning. We always need to learn from what’s gone before us. What have people been doing, you know? There are amazing researchers out there, lots of them, who have been looking at, what does this resistance look like. Just like we’re doing training here, I’m a believer that you train for campaigns, not just for one-off actions.
And so, it’s really important that we not just train people to sit in the street. That’s one thing we can do. And I’ve certainly been part of having done that myself, right? But there may be a lot of other strategies that we need to kind of think about. What can you do kind of physically, like face-to-face, like the people who are going out and surrounding the tanks and the Russian trucks? Then there are things like changing the signs, which may be done in the middle of the night. So, both kind of help with a little humor, but also confuse.
So, what are those things that we can do? In what ways do you stand up against tanks? The woman who was giving out the sunflower seeds seems to me to have become kind of a real symbol of the humanity of saying, “Here I am, a person who lives here. Here is a symbol of this place’s land you are on. Here you are,” you know?
And so, some of these things are done by individuals. Some are done by large numbers. And I think that particularly that kind of – yeah, how do we do that kind of organized resistance? And then how do those people doing that get the level of support they need? Just like we hear, you know, military support needs to come in. What support do they need? People need support to be able to stay there. People need support to be able to eat. People need water.
There are 20,000 mercenaries going in. You know, we should have 20,000 nonviolent activists going in. You know, we should have other people willing to stand up with them as well.
It’s hard to say exactly, from where I sit, exactly what their strategy should be. But we can look at decades now – the Berlin Wall, whoever thought that would happen? We can look at how that has happened and how in Serbia, Otpor was able to use humor. I mean, they were in a different kind of a situation, but still they had a dictator, Milosevic. You know, how they were able to use humor, how they were able to – that was felt not split, but come together and kind of join together. That doesn’t seem to be a problem right now in Ukraine, from at least when I understand.
But how do you become ungovernable? I think there’s – also the context is different, right? So initial context is, how in some ways do you disarm the invaders? And the invaders seem to be primed for disarming at this point because they’re both a lot of young soldiers who are quite puzzled as to why they’re there. Or even the police, who I saw interviewed yesterday with three police who are apparently prisoners of war, who were also lied to.
So many people have been lied to about going in that they are primed for not dehumanizing them, but humanizing them and disarming them in that kind of way. And that sounds like, Lalaland on some level, but it’s been done and is being done. And we need to believe in that, and in that goodness and humanity of everybody.
And then also, you know, it’s like Barbara Deming, right? We reach out one hand, but we’re also protecting ourselves. We’re not just going out there and saying, “Roll over me with this tank,” right? That’s another reason why 300 people can be more effective than one. But yet we’ve seen from Tiananmen Square on, that oftentimes the tank driver can’t roll them over.
Stephanie: Nonviolence isn’t just about humanitarian efforts, and often humanitarian efforts and organizations tend to provide the kind of a Band-Aid for conflict in society instead of the deeper work that we also need to support in terms of ending the violence in the conflicts in the first place.
This falls under the realm of what’s known in nonviolence as constructive program. Joanne has a long background in interest and constructive programs. She’s helping to write a book about it right now. So I wanted to hear her perspective on the relationship between constructive program and humanitarian efforts.
Joanne: Well, constructive program needs to be transformative. So, I think at the root, that’s the first thing that it is, right? It’s really creating an alternative or a parallel to what presently exists. And then saying, “We’re going to do that with some values. We’re going to do that with values of empathy, equity, environmental concern, nonviolence, kind of community empowerment.” One of the complaints we’ve heard about some of those organizations is that there’s this hierarchy and that the local community, the local doctors, local medical people are disempowered, are kind of being told what to do, right? We hear some of those things after disasters, not usually right in the middle of them. But we know those organizations don’t really necessarily have a transformative vision.
I’m sure their mission statements, none of them say Band-Aids, except they might have Band-Aids and help pay for Band-Aids. Which, you know, I’m saying is that they are, by their nature, kind of Band-Aids in one way or another. “We’re going to go in and do this.”
I don’t know enough about all of the various organizations that do this. I don’t think that now is the time anyway to call up one or the other. Some seem more empowering than others. And that is not necessarily in that level of crisis either, when that level of what we might call mutual aid can rise to the surface. That takes a little bit more time. We’re in such an emergency and crisis.
But I think that in the long run, we need to be looking at where are there root causes of problems, and how did they get changed? Is that constructive program, or is there some other societal change?
I want to give one example. I’m from Connecticut. We’re a women’s basketball state – UConn Huskies, and I’m a big basketball fan. So Brittney Griner is being held, right? Why? Every story I’ve heard begins with, many of the women in the WNBA play overseas in the off season because they’re paid so poorly. That needs to be a structural change. Again, a call-out on International Women’s Day. WNBA needs to fight in the same way that the women’s soccer teams fought for equity. Women are putting themselves in jeopardy, in difficult situations, away from home for months on end because of that, right?
Now, that’s not necessarily constructive program, but it’s at least kind of looking at how do we begin to look at root causes and say, all right, if you’re going to have that – I’m not necessarily saying we have a totally alternative basketball system, but those things need to be changed. People need to really look at root causes, at what is not functioning or working, at all that really needs these kinds of alternatives.
What you don’t want to have to do – I guess I’ve never thought about it quite this way – constructive – well, I will say – constructive program and resistance go hand in hand. And in many cases, one gives rise to the other. People oppose the bad housing, the unfair rents, the lack of accessibility to mortgages by black and brown people.
And many times, that may end up becoming a community land trust, which is an empowerment model, which has the community on the board, which is run by and decided by the community. Those are examples. That’s an example. I’m involved in community land trust. So that’s an example of where opposing the unfair structures, the violent structures if you will, leads to a kind of creation.
So, I think that in the long term we can look at the role of constructive program building up Ukraine, the rebuilding of any country, actually. Building up the changing, transforming of any country.
I think it’s a good question. I need to think more about what it means when we’re in these kinds of situation? I mean, I think first, do no harm means first do no harm, right? Like, where are the people? Where are the aid groups that are saying, “Wait a minute, these Africans and Indians are not being allowed out of the country. We’re going to need to prioritize them. How do we do that?” How do they get reached out to and not just told, “Oh, gee, that’s too bad. That’s not really in our power. It’s up to the Ukrainians not letting you out or Poland not letting you in. Whatever.”
The first thing we have to do is say that we’re acting on values that say right now, at least in the immediate situation, this is not fair and we need to change that right now. And then we work at the structures that really need to be transformed so that they do not keep giving rise to these kinds of situations, which do keep rising up. And we do keep seeing that level of racism, certainly.
Stephanie: One tactic Joanne spoke to in this interview was the capacity for people who are under threat to become ungovernable. I wanted her to speak to the relationship between being ungovernable and the need for constructive program.
Joanne: I mean, I think, again, there are examples of that that are interesting, right? So, some is, yeah, where are there places, unions or other kinds of community groups and social networks that help people do that? You know, for people who have seen the film on Denmark,” A Force More Powerful,” it’s very interesting, because Denmark was not a situation where people went in and kind of did a lot of training or steeped themselves in what is Gandhian nonviolence, at all. Right?
But they did have a kind of social structure and network and unions that were in the shipbuilding, particularly, that created a way of communicating, created a sense of symbols, created a sense of creating networks. Networks that helped them get thousands of Jews out of the country under the nose of German soldiers, that helped them come up with strategies like saying, “Well, if you’re going to give us – if we can’t come out in the dark, we’re going to have to leave work early because we have to go tend our gardens.” And those gardens as we know, – or maybe people don’t know – but they are really allotments outside. We’re not talking about our backyard. So, we need to create this, right?
So, they already had some of those structures. They just insisted that they were going to continue to use those structures. They were going to continue to grow their own food, and they were going to unmask, say, “Well, we’re all getting out of work at 3:00 because we have to go home now.” So, if you get out of work at 3:00, you’re not making that German boat for them. You’re not making another warship. I understand they never finished a warship in the years. They somehow managed to never finish building the ships that the Germans wanted them to build, that the Nazis wanted them to build.
And so, some of the challenge that we have in looking at how to do constructive program is what networks do we have? What communities do we have? Are we developing them in a way that builds that level of trust, that builds that level of common values, that builds that understanding of how to move forward?
I think during the pandemic we saw some of that. We saw some communities really coming together and really understanding, Again, we’re in an emergency situation that needs that to happen now. But the pandemic has also led, I think, to more people saying there really is a value in this local food. There really is a value in supporting local farmers and there really is a problem with agribusiness.
So people are beginning to see more what the community answers are to some of these problems, and what are the things that we have more control over. And we can say, “No, we don’t want all those poisons on our food.” And they should become more affordable. It’s not just a matter of high-priced health food stores.
Stephanie: I recently read a headline that suggested that the war in Ukraine is being fueled by hatred of Russia and hatred of Russians. And with the concern of xenophobia in our world today, of government acting for people without the permission of people. I asked Joanne to speak to how to separate people from their government and how to build a broad movement in that regard.
Joanne: Yeah – how do we separate out the people in a country from their leaders? I have seen other people do that, do that to us, do that to me as an American, when we don’t do it to them, right? I mean, I remember at the beginning, it was just at the beginning of the Iraq war and I was in Northern Ireland as my son was studying there.
I met a group of folks at a pub, of course. My son introduced me. And of course, they were clear where I was from. I remember this one guy stopped the second – he was trying to figure out what to say. And he says, “My sister lives in Queens. I really love your people. I really hate your government.” You know? It was like – that’s such a healthy response, right?
You know, again, the Vietnamese that was not uncommon at times to hear certainly people who did a lot of work in Central America found that as well, right? The difference between the people and the government. And I think that’s a really important thing that we have to do in terms of anti-militarism, right? I mean, I see the Russian people as victims of this as much as I see the Ukrainian people.
As much as I am very much into boycotts, these sanctions that are meant to hurt the government and the elites are really hurting the average person who is going to be having a much harder time just getting food on the table, right? And so, I think that’s again, that’s where war is a crime against humanity, not just a crime against the people who are being attacked, but a crime against everybody who was involved.
And so, as we again remember Barbara Deming’s recognizing the humanity of – these people aren’t even the opposition. I do not see the people in Russia, and I see the people who are in favor of it don’t even think it’s happening. It’s not that they’re in favor of it. They don’t need to deny it’s happening. It’s like if you’re only watching government news, they closed everything else down. They don’t understand. They’re totally brainwashed. I think the other problem here is this nationalization piece of it, right? Which goes hand-in-hand with militarism.
I mean, you can see over my shoulder I have a War Resisters League banner there. And it’s gold. I put the blue sky above it, but I won’t hang a flag. I wouldn’t hang any flag. And so, I think because that is a kind of level of saying you’re better than the other or the others.
And so, I think it is a matter of how do we support the resistance of Ukrainians without demonizing Russian people? Kind of creating that clear binary of there’s good people and there’s bad people. I think that nonviolence says we can’t do that. It really tries to cut through that, and say, “No, it’s not about people are all good and people are all bad.” It is about really challenging that.
And there are so many more nuances to this conflict. I mean, I have to say – and I think most of us would say – I’m floored by what changes have gone on in the last two weeks, right? I didn’t think all these decisions would be made. I didn’t think that there would be – I’ve never seen anything that’s happened so quickly in terms of people’s changing of mind, coming together, all of those kinds of things.
There’s clearly a level of it going too far. You know, we’re not known for nuances. And for a lot of people, this is beginning to understand this, right?
Like they couldn’t have probably told you where Ukraine was on a map. That’s an education opportunity for us. And we better take it, right? Education opportunity for us to kind of go, “Okay. No, it’s not binary. It’s not. And we should not.” There are little bits of truth here in terms of the relationship between Ukrainians and Russians and commonality. But yet also different, right? There’s that understanding of who they are. And so, in any of these situations, we have to recognize that balance and not demonize the poor weavers and pattern makers anywhere, right?
Stephanie: I also wanted Joanne’s input and insights into the need for the peace movement to be welcoming to new people at this time. People who before may not have been against war but have opened their eyes, have seen something different in this one. And how to introduce them into the peace movement without being unwelcoming.
Joanne: One of the things that I developed early on, or maybe it was because I developed it – I became a feminist in my late teens, early 20s – was my dislike of hierarchies. And it’s not just hierarchical governments, it’s hierarchical thinking. And I think that attitude that, “I know more than you do, and you need to not only recognize that, but I’ll be condescending towards you to prove that somehow. You or me, I’m not sure, right?” That kind of condescending approach is bad organizing.
It’s bad human relationships. It’s not going to ever get us to where we want to be, which is to have more people want peace, understand how to do that in so many ways. And I do think that there’s just a lot of propaganda out there. The news media follows and covers what they want, which is much more of what’s happening on the military front. And the adoration of Zelensky in all segments of society. So then people are like, “Well, why don’t we just give them this airspace thing they want, you know?” It’s like, “Oh, no, no. Let’s understand some of this.”
So, yeah, how do we? When I start a nonviolence training, the first thing I say is, “There are no stupid questions.” I want people to ask anything. The only reason you don’t know this is you’ve not been in the circle before to explore it, and there’s no right answer, anyway. Not only no wrong question, but it’s not like, “Oh, and we’ll give you the truth here.”
These are, as Barbara Deming said, “Explorations.” Nonviolence is an exploration, one that has just begun. And I think we’re further along in decades in that. But we’re still doing that and we’re still trying to figure these things out, right? So, I think I did a lot of work for about 14, 15 years around counter-recruitment work in high schools. And that turned into a lot of youth empowerment work. My feeling was always like, let’s figure out how we figure these things out.
We have to do that with people no matter what their ages. If they’re new – if they’re new to this. You know, I have some in-laws of various ways, you know, folks married to various people. My family is pretty radical in a lot of ways.
But other folks who feel comfortable enough to sit down and ask a lot of questions right now. And I think that’s really important – like, “What do you think about this, and what do you – and just nothing else, but what do you think about this? Or how do I – you know, I’m not sure I think the same way as you, but I want to know why you’re thinking like this and how you’re doing that.”
You know there’s been a lot written lately, not even just on this, but just kind of like positions on the left, right? We’re in a big spectrum. If we get all of us, we’re not, you know, we don’t all agree.
I think for me, one of the reasons that I have embraced doing so much work with War Resisters League is that the foundation of anti-militarism and promoting nonviolent action is kind of key, right? And it’s not just nonviolent action, it’s nonviolent attitude which means we do have to be welcoming. And we do have to be open and also realize that if we are still in this experiment of understanding the truth and what nonviolence can give us, that we can’t be condescending towards others and thinking, “Well, you don’t know this, how could you not know this,” right?
When I think about organizations, these movements, War Resisters League in particular, I think about where the most amount of people have come into an organization like this. If you graph it, you’ll see Vietnam, Central America, women’s movement, you know, work around Women’s Pentagon Action, Seneca.
Kind of like when there was a particular energy that was happening, when people were able to come together and say, “Okay, you know, this is a war we need to oppose, or there’s a continental walk for disarmament and social justice. Or there’s a Seabrook, you know, the anti-nuclear power movement.”
I could feel that in terms of who’s friends on Facebook and how people connect and the like, there’s a great concern about how many nuclear power plants are in Ukraine and how much a number of us know about where they are, how they are unsafe and what that means. But so that the people come in. And that’s the hopefulness, that people do come in during those times and it’s not just a matter of the elite.
I think the other thing is, do we have a basic understanding of empowerment and community? Are we hearing all the voices and hearing the voices of those who are most affected and hearing the voices of people who want to know more to not be negatively affected? We need to create spaces that allow that kind of thing to happen. And not be dogmatic about the answers.
Stephanie: One thing that nonviolence trainers know is that there are risks associated with nonviolence. And that’s not necessarily known to people who engage spontaneously in nonviolence without training, without any background. So I wanted Joanne to speak to understanding the risks that people take when they choose nonviolent action.
Joanne: Nonviolence is about power. It’s about wielding power in a different way. And so, when we wield power, if we’re going to be effective, then the people who we are standing up against may well use their level of violence against us. And we need to be prepared for that. In one of the nonviolent training for trainers that I went to that was part of the Clamshell Alliance – of folks opposing nuclear power plant in New Hampshire – one of the trainers is Wally Nelson. Wally Nelson was one of the first nonviolence trainers in this country, a black man who had refused to fight in World War II, who was in prison, who came out, who was part of the first Journey of Reconciliation and was one of the first Congress of Racial Equality nonviolence trainers.
Wally understood what it meant to be nonviolent on the streets, right? He understood the level of risk. He understood people died during the Civil Rights Movement in terms of standing up for their rights. And Wally taught us how to roll ourselves into a ball, how to protect ourselves if the police brought dogs and horses. Like how to prepare for the possibility of violence, not to just sit there and saying, “You know, all we are saying is give peace a chance,” or “No nukes,” or whatever the message is, right?
Be prepared. That doesn’t mean we treat those police – whether they have dogs or not – inhumanely. Right? What it means is we’re prepared. We’re putting ourselves on the line. We are exercising our power, and we better understand how to do that.
When we were doing the trainings for Seabrook, one of our support people was like, “I just don’t think I can do it. I don’t think I’m ready.” The night before, when we were all there at Seabrook, she said, “I’m going to do it. Can I be part of the affinity group?” She went off in the corner, threw up and came back and said, “I’m okay, I’ll do this,” you know? And she was amazing. And she was one of the first people who was put on trial, and she stood up to it all, right? We’re all in different places.
There are times when it also needs to not be that macho, “Hey, I’ve been arrested a lot. I’ll be here and, you know, follow me.” But I do think that when we really understand the people who have engaged in nonviolent campaigns, engaged in nonviolent movements, that’s when we really see how much pain and suffering many of them went through. The civil rights movement being the one that probably most of us in this country are aware of. Looking at what we think of even the Nashville lunch counter sit-in, you know, we think, “Oh, it’s very nonviolent.” Their lawyer’s house was bombed.
There were all of these kinds of threats that were made against people and people continued. Certainly the Freedom Rides is another example where there was a high level of violence and bombing of the bus and beating of people and the like. So, we need to know the whole picture. We need to understand that. And we need to go into it with our eyes open.
And we need to assess things. We need to understand when we’re going into a situation, you know, am I in a right-wing county? What kind of intermediaries, what kind of peacekeepers, peacemakers, whatever. However, whatever word we’re comfortable with, what are the kinds of things I need to prepare for to understand?
So that’s where strategy comes in, right? Strategy means understanding your context, understanding what you’re going through. Understanding if you’re doing a walk through the South in the 1960s, as was done so often, what you’re doing, where you are, how do you arm yourselves with nonviolent answers and nonviolent approaches. How do you protect people? You’re right. Even though Wally Nelson would say nonviolence is neither a fight nor a flight, there are times when people, for their own humanity, need to protect themselves and leave a situation. And that needs to be okay.
That’s not flight from the struggle, it may be, “I need to walk away from this right now. I’m not able to do that.” But at the same time there are people who – like Sue – will step up, will say, “I can do this now. I feel like I’m prepared, and I’m in community. And I’m in my affinity group and that will happen.”
I really believe in strategy. And you know, I’m very inspired. We had a War Resisters League meeting in the early 2000s where we brought in conscientious objectors from around the world, International CO Day’s May 15th, we brought folks in. I think that was a time that a lot of people in the States were saying, “You know…” – it was after Seattle, after 9/11 – “what is nonviolence here? Is this all about privilege? Is it all about only what white people can do?”
And then the Colombians came. They were like, “Nonviolence is our power. Nonviolence is our power. Understand that in our context,” right? People from around the world were coming from really difficult situations. I’m talking about the power they have is in their strategic nonviolence. I think that’s, again, why I feel like being involved in international movements and understanding what’s happening. We got stuck in our own head here in the antiwar movement, in the left too much, I think, sometimes. We need to be a little more humble and a little more listening to what other people have to share with us as well.
Stephanie: In this next part of the interview, Michael Nagler, who has been on the interview with me but has been silent, gets a chance to speak with Joanne directly.
Michael: Joanne, thank you so much. That was just so rich. That was wonderful. And I’d like to hear more. I’m particularly interested in the nonviolence that is happening in Ukraine.
Joanne: War Resisters League now has on our website – we actually link to your resource list – but we have put up on our website, if you go to the homepage WarResisters.org, you will see various different resources and links. But there were, for quite a while, people who were trying very hard to collect what was both happening in Russia and in Ukraine. I have not checked to see if it’s been updated in the last few days. I know it was being updated until around at least March 3rd, I think I did notice that it was still getting new things.
We heard, for example, that Alayna Popov who is the coordinator of the Conscientious Objectors of Russia had been picked up. We’re concerned about her, but it was one of those sweeps. So, they’re detaining people, not arresting people when they do these demonstrations and sweeps. Most people are home by the evening, but they’re trying to frighten people, clearly. They’re trying to stop people from doing this, and people are continuing to do it. And I know one of the people who – do you know Stellan Vinthagen?
Michael: Very well. Yeah. Good friend.
Joanne: So Stellan, somebody had written and asked, “Where do I find out more about all of these conflicts?” And he wrote back and said, “Where do we find out more about all this resistance?” Right? Like, here are some places it’s gathering. But clearly, that’s where peace researchers are most needed. Stephanie mentioned Erica Chenoweth. You know, we know that there’s folks who have done a lot of this. But right now there are many hundreds of things, at least scores of things happening every day right now.
And on weekends, maybe hundreds of demonstrations. Thousands of people in Russia are engaging in those demonstrations. And apparently, kind of like what’s happened in this country over the years too, there’s also sweeps of the sidewalk. I mean, if you’re trying to get to the store, and you’re on the sidewalk in this demonstration and you walk by, you may also get detained – this is apparently one of the things I heard was happening over the weekend. I mean, it’s hard to keep up. It’s a full time job right now, updating those things.
Stephanie: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And it’s heartbreaking. You know?
Joanne: Yeah. I mean, I think the interesting thing too, is kind of the different goals at some point between – in Russia, I guess one of the things I hope is happening is just that it’s spreading the word that’s not allowed to be spread because of censorship, in other ways, right? And as those numbers grow, or at least as they persist, even if they don’t grow in numbers, people are still out there. They’ve not stopped – these detainments – have not stopped them from doing that.
In Ukraine, it’s a matter of people saying, “No, you’re not getting a foothold in my town. Right? To` them, that’s like standing up and then in some places making those connections with the Russians. And now there’s this third body of Russians who are being interviewed – I saw some stuff on MSNBC last night. Russians were being interviewed. We see a lot of pictures and some of it at some point begins to – is this propaganda?
How many, like the Russian soldiers, are taken by the Ukrainians and the first thing they do is give them a phone and have them call their mother, right? So, apparently, there’s like a whole series of those out there, right? But these three – I don’t know if you saw it. It was kind of late – of three Russian police who were captured, and who are basically not only saying, “We were lied to,” but just kind of had this like, “Whoa, wait a minute,” you know? And “I’m not saying this under duress,” they kept saying, “this is – this is wrong. We shouldn’t be here. This shouldn’t be being done. And we don’t know if we’ll ever be able to go home again.”
Michael: Yeah. Yeah.
Joanne: We talk about nonviolence, right? Do we have the strength to do this? And then we think, you know, the most difficult situation in some ways is people – Russians who go there and say, “I’m sorry,” and then aren’t able to go home. Right? They have their families here. So, I mean, again, that’s why this level of war – it’s inhumanity in so many of these kinds of situations.
The other piece that we have to look at here was the promotion of war through military contractors. In this case, we can clearly see the buildup in Eastern Europe that has taken place in the last 20 years.The amount of fighter planes and the like that these countries have. That creates rather than prohibits war, right? That that level of over arming oneself on both sides, just as that’s that piece of it, and you get – and that’s interesting, and we didn’t talk about this before, but when you asked about the demonizing of Russians, how it’s being called, “Putin’s war.”
I think that is some effort by some to not call it, “Russia’s war.” Right? To make that differentiation between him and his autocratic regime and the people. We have to remember, as we remember when people rose up, that it was the mothers who said, “Why is my son dying in Chechnya?” It’s the mothers who got that level of strength. And we see that so often, right? The Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. You know, the grandmothers rising up. Kind of like, where are they? What is happening? Stop, right? They have been through so much, so much pain, that they are willing to risk a lot by standing up.
So, I should say that I am working with a team of folks, part of War Resisters’ International, that includes Stellan, on putting together a handbook on constructive program. And we’re kind of specifically looking at it as a handbook. There are good stories out there. Andrew Rigby just wrote a book on constructive program. There’s some other things that have been developed a little bit more, there are a number of other people who did the Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns at War Resisters’ International.
So really, we feel that we want something that helps, with some exercises, with some perspectives, not just stories of what’s happened. We’ll have some of them in there, but we feel like there’s some good stories there. We’re still kind of working on it, but I’m also on the training team, and it’s like, “How do we help people?”
And I think the interesting thing about constructive program is that it also does draw people who care about an issue who necessarily wouldn’t go out and think of themselves as nonviolent activists, who might not get involved even in the heavier demonstrations, but who want to create something, who want to be part of that, and who understand this as a big change.
And so, I think we’re also trying to really be – that’s where your question, Stephanie, how are you open to a lot of people? This isn’t just about people who are kind of immersed in the resistance, right? It needs to be open to everybody. And oftentimes, I’ve certainly found in the Community Land Trust Movement, it’s people who need a home are the people who show up, right?
They may have not a lot of politics or a lot of analysis, but they’re like, “What? I am paying X amount for rent and I think I can get a mortgage less than that from what you all are saying.” You know, that kind of, how do I do that?
At the beginning, as we were organizing the one we have here in southeast Connecticut, you would say, “Well, what can you do for me?” And I’m like, “Oh, no. This is a community members organization. It’s what can we do together? It’s not what are we going to do for you.” That’s not the model that we’ve got here. This is not a simply nonprofit, hierarchical white people sit on the board or do charity work kind of group. That’s just not what it is. I think that’s kind of the challenge for constructive program, right?
That it is about the people most affected making decisions and coming together in a structure that really empowers people, not just tokenizes, you know, letting a few on the board kind of thing. So, I think let’s give Bob Swann a heads-up. Another war resister who did some amazing things.
Michael: Yeah. Gandhi actually felt that unless you did your constructive program first – in other words, if you did what you could, then calling on other people to do it for you was going to be fruitless.
Joanne: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.
Michael: Right. Well, I could just say thank you again.
Stephanie: Thank you so much.
Joanne: Yeah, this was great. Thank you. You know, I think one of the things about being interviewed is it kind of makes you do some thinking in advance. And then your questions were great. So, it kind of made me have quite a few thoughts together that I hadn’t thought about before.
Stephanie: So, we really enjoyed our time together, Joanne. And I hope we have more.
Joanne: Yes. Thank you very much.
Stephanie: You’re at Nonviolence Radio. I’m Stephanie Van Hook, and we’ve been speaking with Joanne Sheehan from War Resisters League and War Resisters’ International.
We want to thank our mother station KWMR, to Matt Watrous, and Annie Hewitt, who helped prepare the show for Waging Nonviolence, the Pacifica Network. And to you, all of our listeners, until the next time, please take care of one another.