In this podcast I talk with George Lakey, author, educator, and expert in nonviolent direct action. We speak about how polarization opens up possibilities for great social change, the power of nonviolence, and the many ways we can participate in making a difference.
Find out about George’s books, including his latest—Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right and We Can Too, and How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning—on Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.
Read more of George’s opinion pieces on the website Waging Nonviolence.
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George Lakey is an activist, sociologist, writer and renowned expert in nonviolent direct action. A Quaker he has co founded and led numerous organizations and campaigns for justice and peace.
George has trained activists around the world in the principles and practice of nonviolent direct action and has taught at several institutions of higher learning, including the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University and Swarthmore College.
George is also the author of several books, his most recent being Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right and How We Can Too and How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning.
So, George, I have been looking forward to speaking with you for quite a long time, you’ve been on my mind, understandably, given the state of the world and our country at the present time. And so I just first of all want to thank you for taking the time out of what I’m sure is a busy schedule to talk with us today. So thank you.
Thank you for asking me.
And I’d like to just start off with asking you when you look at the times that we find ourselves in, what do you see—both the the parallels and the possibilities?
Oh, you want both! [Laughter]
[Laughter] Well, whichever one you want to emphasize. We probably have an understanding of the perils, and I have a sense that you see very clearly the possibilities.
And, you know, I have to admit that the look at today, this political moment, has been a real journey for me, because a dozen years ago, I was also paying attention to what’s going on. And since my training is in sociology, I’ve been particularly interested in the degree of cohesion of any system. That’s what sociologists look at, we look at cohesion, and we look at division, and we wonder how things are going. And a dozen years ago, things did not look great for the United States, because the polarization was also showing up then. But of course, now it’s much, much more intense.
And the judgment that I made at the time a dozen years ago was that polarization is bad news. And as I thought that if people are thinking screaming at each other and nobody’s listening, then that’s not good news for making progressive change. And I was convinced of that. And on the other hand, I was also doing research at that very time for my book Viking Economics. And finding that Norway, Sweden, Denmark, went through an enormous change process, that is that they were not in great shape 100 years ago, in fact, they were in bad shape, so much bad shape that the Danes were leaving, and especially Swedes and Norwegians were leaving their countries, just giving up on their countries, very, very sad, heartbreaking kinds of situations for many families who didn’t expect to see their family members ever again, when they left those shores.
And that was the kind of thing going on century ago. And then those countries turned themselves around and now they’re at the top of the charts for all kinds of measures, you know, of well being, of equality. Democracy, individual freedom, they have more individual freedom than we do. They’ve just got so much shared prosperity, they gave up poverty. So they turn themselves around.
So my big question, as I was researching them was, well, when was it that they did this? And how did they do it? And I found out that they did their big move in the 1920s and 30s, which was exactly the time when they were experiencing their greatest polarization in modern history. How could that be? That was a direct contradiction to my belief. I don’t know about you Patricia, but I don’t particularly like to have my beliefs contradicted. [Laughter]
[Laughter] You and a lot of people, yeah!
This was a terrible situation, right? And especially, I mean, like, maybe if I were working on the White House staff, I wouldn’t have to pay attention to data. I could just continue with my judgments, right?
[Laughter] . . .my beliefs, but since I My training is social science, I have to pay attention to data. And so what was I to do with this? And so I looked at the US, you know, near, very near and asked myself, well, what’s going on in polarization in our 20th century? And I found that in the 1930s, we were the most polarized that we had been in the first half of the 20th century, actually, we were in terrible shape in the 30s. And with regard to polarization, Nazis were able to fill Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1938. And the Ku Klux Klan was riding high.
And on the other hand, it was the glory period of the American Communist Party. Well, how could all this be? All that polarization. And at the same time, the 1930s was the greatest period of progress that we made in the in the first half of the 20th century.
Okay, so my belief is, you can see it’s getting really torn up, but I have to fast forward to the 60s and 70s, which brings us to a time when probably some of your listeners remember, the 60s and 70s, the rebirth of the American Nazi Party. I saw Nazis on the streets at demonstrations where I was and confronted them.
So the Nazis were were back, the Ku Klux Klan riding high, bombing black churches in Alabama, Mississippi, killing people. And at the same time, there was really strange stuff going on the extreme left, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Weather Underground, that kind of thing. So we had tremendous polarization. People had the Thanksgiving dinner problem, I can’t invite my relatives because they’ll fight about Vietnam,
. . . a hugely contentious issue, and the civil rights movement was very contentious. And at the very time of our greatest polarization in the second half of the 20th century, we also made the great progress that we made in that time, the biggest progress that we made in that half century.
So I My belief is just shattered, right? And I don’t know quite how to remold my way of looking at things until I happen to be on a book tour in Scotland for my book, Viking Economics—by that time it was published—and I was staying with a metal sculptor in Glasgow, a Quaker metal sculptor who was giving me hospitality, and all around his house were these beautiful, beautiful metal sculptures.
And I said, “Man, how do you do this? Metal is stubborn! Like how do you make it? Make it be what you’ve done with it?” And he said, “Oh, I’m happy to show you my secret.”
So he takes me out back, out in the yard. There’s the studio. He opens the door and proudly shows me his blacksmith’s forge. He smiled and said, “Yeah, yeah, I had to apprentice to a blacksmith to learn how to work with metal. Because you’re right metal is very stubborn. It has a mind of its own. It doesn’t want to do what you want it to do. So you have to melt it. You have to make it malleable. You have to make it so that if you’re a blacksmith, you can turn it into horseshoes. If you’re a sculptor like me, you can turn it into art.”
I said, “Thank you.” This guy was named John Creed”. I said,” Thank you, John. This is the metaphor that I needed in order to really, you know, recalibrate my consciousness so that I can look at polarization in a fundamentally different way. It, yes, it includes bad news. Yes, it does include more violence, more screaming at each other, more non-listening, all that stuff that we hate about it.
And at the same time, it is the malleability of society that happens as a result of polarization— things get loose, norms get broken, and not only by the White House. Norms get broken all over the place. There’re breakdowns of the ancient prejudices, like against transexual people, for example, just all kinds of things become in play that previously were crystallized and rigid, institutions melt.
And that’s why it was possible for the Nordics, to make huge changes that actually turned their countries around. We didn’t get that far with the 30s and 60s, we weren’t able to turn our country around, but we were able to make major changes at the time of polarization.
And so I, at 82 years old, I’m excited to be alive right now. Because oh my gosh, here we are again! And in my estimation, we’re moving into a period of deeper polarization than we experienced in the 30s in the 60s, which means bigger opportunity for change. And so I’m on fire. That’s why I wrote this new book How We Win. If we’ve got the biggest opportunity, well then we better use it.
Right and I love that metaphor in your book How We Win, of the heating up the metal and the heat, the increase in the heat and we know that you know, things are getting really hot! The heat is rising. And so it’s this beautiful moment, possibility, opportunity for us to make changes.
So when you talk about how Scandinavia turned itself around at the same period of time that Germany was also descending into fascism and the polarization, I know you’ve talked about this, written about it, how Scandinavia also had plenty of Nazism happening.
They didn’t go that route, and yet Germany did. And can you talk to us about what you see as the differences, and how non violence played a role in that, in that difference between the outcomes.
Well in Germany one outcome of World War One was that political groups kept weapons that had been plenty available during the war, had been floating around, and even armed units. And so the political parties entered their period of polarization in the 20s already ready for violence.
And it was so tempting for them to pick on each other, to bully each other when, you know when one was in the majority compared with the other. If you knew the tavern, for example, where fascists, where Nazis love to drink and you were on the left, you could go and and have a rumble, right, and if you brought more people than they had at the tavern, maybe you could beat up a whole bunch of them and so on. And and vice versa. If you were a Nazi, and you knew where the Social Democrats were, or where the where the communists were, you can go and have yourself bash, and that kind of thing was going on.
That was a huge mistake on the part of political political left in Germany, because what it did was it stimulated a breakdown of order. Now, a breakdown of order, that kind of chaos with its violence in the streets is out of control, and police and so on, really, really scares the center. Because, yes, polarization is the two poles, but there’s also always a big center, right? And that center may be shrinking, but it’s still very, very significant politically.
Well, that center was getting really scared for its own security, because it looked like societal breakdown to them. And so when the economic elite of Germany decided to hand over, and it of course was very scared because it had these tremendous stakes of money and property and privilege that were at risk for them. And so in this, you know, in this back and forth thing that was going on, and so they decided to go for Hitler, they handed the state over to Hitler, and then figuring, well, Hitler, is for law and order, you know, he’ll take care of that security problem. And, and as we know, he did with a vengeance.
Now, there’s, it’s actually much more complicated than that. But I think in terms of movement choices, which is one of the things we can most importantly learn from, we need to learn from that bad movement choice on the part of the German left to use violence and to participate in the back and forth of violence in the streets and so on, which some of my friends are interested in doing, frankly, and it’s a big, big mistake to do.
Yeah, and and I think there’s a perception in this country, that that the problem in Germany was that people just acquiesced and there was no you know, there was no response. There was no resistance or anything. And yet, what was actually happening was there was resistance, but it was a violent nature with which played into the hands of, of the authoritarian mindset.
Exactly. It played into the hands, the left was, you could even say was like, manipulated by the Right, right? Which is also what happens here.
The Proud Boys announced they were going to show up in, I’m from Philadelphia, the Proud Boys announced they were gonna show up in Center City, you know, with their, with their fascist inclined message, and then tons and tons of activists show up to, to, you know, to counter counter them, right?, at the counter demonstration.
Well, it turns out in most recent case, it was only a couple of dozen, very pathetic, who know, people, who could not have gotten an ounce of media attention if it hadn’t been for the thousands of activists who showed up in response.
And I say to my activist friends, you got played! You got manipulated! You are so easy!
You’re an easy mark. I could get on mass media any day. All I have to do is dress in a certain way and you and mouth some ridiculous stuff. And you’ll show up. Well, thank you very much. How about some discernment here? So this whole business about the right learning how to manipulate the left is something we have to be aware of, and we can do way, way better.
So getting back to. . .
the Nordics. The Nordics did not fall for it. Because the Nordics remembered who is actually controlling society, they knew, they saw through the the, they saw through the appearance of democracy that they had, because they did have Parliament’s you know, and free elections, but they knew that that was only the appearance of democracy because actually, it was the economic elite, the people on top, the billionaires and so on, they were actually running society.
So the Nordics by and large said, Look, we have to keep our eye on the prize, the prize. I mean, it’s not these, you know, poor, often out of work working class, you know, youngsters led astray by the fascist by the Nazis. They are not running society. I mean they are, they’re cast aside by society many times, and who really has the power is who we need to deal with.
And so they focused their attention on the economic elite and they shoved them aside, they shoved them out of domination, and that enabled them then to establish democracy and put themselves on the road that they’ve been traveling ever since.
That is the solution is to, what the what our civil rights movement used to have as one of my favorite songs. It was “Keep your eye on the prize and hold on.” Keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t get distracted by the folks who want to manipulate you. Keep your eyes on the prize, go after the economic elite because they have the reins of power. They’re the ones who are creating this incredible economic inequality, that is the driver of a polarization. And if you don’t like polarization, and I don’t like it, you know, if you don’t like it, then the way to deal with it is to do what the Norwegians did, which was threw the economic elite out as the dominator, and then they could create equality in their society and they generated so much equality, their politics got boring.
By the time I got there, see, I married a Norwegian in 1959. That’s a lot of years after the 20s and 30s. Right. By that time, they had reached such consensus in Norwegian society. I thought their politics were very boring.
Now some of my friends would say, let’s have boring politics for change!
The only route to getting there established in history anyway, is to deal with the people who are so intent on economic inequality. And the economic elite love economic inequality. Right. That’s why they were that’s why they support Trump even though Trump offends them in many ways. They nevertheless supported because he delivered that that big tax bill of a year and a half ago, that increases the economic inequality in the United States.
Yeah. So when you say the Scandinavian countries pushed the economic elite out of the way, how they do that?
They did it through a nonviolent revolution, that is to say they made their societies ungovernable through nonviolent disruption. And if the governors can’t govern, they’re toast. Right? So so they did that in somewhat different ways in different countries at different times. So I’m generalizing here, please understand. But in my book, Viking Economics, I sorted out what the different countries did.
But basically it was finding ways of nonviolent disrupting, like a favorite one in Norway was the industrial workers left to go on strike. And increasingly, you see more and more strikes year by year 1926, 27, 28, 29. I even put some of the statistics in the book the number of strikes continue to increase, increase increase.
Well, that goes after the economic elites’ pocketbook, right because the pocketbook of the economic elite depends on worker productivity. And if the workers won’t produce then they don’t get their money. If they won’t build the ships that Norway’s famous for, then the shipbuilders, the ship owners are not going to get their ships and so on.
So that was one of the major features. In Sweden some similar action happened as well as farmers creating co ops widely so they were withdrawing their participation in the privately owned dairy system, let’s use dairies for an example. And instead creating cooperative dairies so farmers would own their own dairy. And then they wouldn’t need to sell their milk and butter and cheese and so on to the, to the dairies. So that kind of work that was really very strategically targeted, was asking themselves, what does the economic elite need from us? And how can we deprive them of that in such a way that makes them fall? And that’s what they did.
So, so talk to us about I, think when people think about non violent action, they typically think of protests. So talk to us about the difference between protests and campaigns and why protests are typically fairly ineffective in the long run.
Well, again, if you think about the other side, which is what I always ask people to do, you know, just like the left needs to think about what’s the right wing trying to provoke us to do, so also progressive movements need to ask ourselves, okay, so what is the economic elite counting on us to do, and it’s basically counting on us to, to go along, to go along.
So of course, we don’t want to go long. So we do these one day protests. But what is the economic elite noticing? They’re noticing, the next day we’re going on to do our work, whatever it is. In other words, a protest means at the end of the day, you go home. Well, the economic elite and the government that it hires is not going home. They’re continuing the same policies right, day after day after day after day, okay.
So instead of the, these spasmodic protests, whether they’re once a year or once a week or whatever, but only just do the thing and go home, we need to do campaigns, and that was the brilliance of the civil rights movement because the civil rights movement in the sixties understood this campaign idea very, very well. They were the artists of campaigns. In 1955. Wow. In a period when almost nobody was doing anything significant. 50,000 black people in Montgomery, Alabama, stopped riding the bus. . .
Right, for a very long time
For a year!
Not a one day boycott.
Exactly! I mean, they could’ve make their protest statement. And it wouldn’t have mattered at all. But but the bus line was crippled for a year, it had very few riders because, you know, a lot of white people were driving cars, other white people were riding the bus, but that wasn’t enough to keep the bus line going. So the bus line was, was really pretty much destroyed by the black people’s consistency. And that’s what campaigns do. Campaigns do consistency. Sustainability is what people show through campaigns.
So You have have helped organize and have participated in a lot of campaigns. And can you just maybe share with us an example of one that you’ve been involved in? And how it unfolded?
Well a recent one, we’ll bring it way up from the 60s. Now we’ll talk about 2010 starting a campaign, which I helped to start with a bunch of people to force the bank in the United States that was the number one financer of mountaintop removal coal mining, to force them out of the business.
Mountaintop removal coal mining is a coal mining technique in which you actually blow up a mountain in phases you blow off the top, and you blow off the next layer, and the next layer, and next layer. It costs a fair amount of money to do that, but you save on labor because you don’t have to use many miners. It doesn’t require many workers. A dozen workers can blow up a mountain, believe it or not.
So the advantage of the coal companies, of course, is that they save on labor. But to get the upfront investment, they need to go to banks. So they go to banks and say, Hey, we want to blow up this mountain and give us the money. And banks have been saying, okay.
And we happen to have in the Pennsylvania area and mostly East Coast, but also out to the Midwest, a bank that was the seventh largest bank in the country, and it was the number one financer of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, We thought, whoa! Are we ever lucky, we’re sitting right here, in the midst of this of this bank, let’s force them out of the business!
So now, this was a group that could fit in my living room, right? I mean, we started in a living room. This is not a mass movement.
So my friends started calling me, who’d heard about this that “George, now you have really lost your mind. A living room of Quakers are going to stop the seventh largest bank from an income stream that they value. You’re nuts.”
So I said, “Well, we’ll see.” Because what I had the chance to do, and these were mostly newbies, to campaign, these were not veterans, these were mostly newbies. But what they had was a deep commitment, the ability to sustain themselves and the ability to grow.
So I figured, let’s work together and figure out how to grow, grow, grow and to show the bank a) we were not going to quit and b) that we were going to keep growing and messing with the things that they don’t want us to mess with.
That was another part of the process. We talked with Rainforest Action Network, which is a wonderful environmental organization that was happy to be our big sister, you know, because they had a lot of experience with banks. We didn’t know what we were doing. So we kept being on the phone with them. Well, what. . . do banks do this? Do banks do that? Do banks to this? And we figured out also through our own research, that this bank, for example, loved to recruit lots of customers from college campuses, figuring get them now as a youngster, you know, as a customer, you’re going to keep them for maybe for their life, that would be really good for us.
So they recruited like crazy in orientation, you know, when the first years come to campus and had their booths out. So we went to where their booths were, and stood alongside their booth. And when a kid would come up and say, Hey, I’m interested in being, you know, in having a bank, there’s “Oh, so glad you’ve come to us, the greenest bank in America.” And then we say, and now let us tell you what they really will do with your money.
So that’s certainly one example of many ways that we found out they were vulnerable, you know, they were they were, it was possible to, to find the places where they had weaknesses, and widen those weaknesses such that over a period of years, we started at such a small level, it took us five years to grow to 13 states. But when we did that, and as far as they could see, five years of growing, growing, growing, we were never going to stop. And it just became crazy from their point of view to keep on putting up with that level, increasing levels of disruption, non violent, of course, Quakers you know wouldn’t hurt a fly. So Quakers are in there being totally non violent and totally disruptive. And the bank says enough enough, we stop, and they even acknowledged that one reason they stopped was because of our pressure.
Yeah, yeah. I, I interviewed Eileen Flanagan, oh, maybe, I don’t know, a year or so ago, who was also part of that campaign. And it’s, it’s quite inspiring to know that a small just a handful of people can make such a tremendous difference. And you’ve mentioned, you know, Quakers wouldn’t, this group of Quakers wouldn’t hurt a fly. So, so So talk to us about how the basic principles of nonviolent action resonate with or express your Quaker beliefs.
Well, it is important to me to stand up for what I believe, right, but I don’t want to just stand up, I want to actually change things. And that is, has sometimes not been Quaker practice. Sometimes, Quakers have contended themselves with just, you know, being on the right side of history, or that kind of thing. But I always want a lot more than that. And so I can point fortunately, to a number of examples in Quaker history, where we, we were, we won, we kept at it until we won.
For example, there was a Quaker invasion of Puritan Massachusetts, back in the day when period when Massachusetts was the theocracy, it was the Taliban of their day, and, you know, totally intolerant of other views, that kind of thing.
And so Quakers in England said, This is wrong. This is just not God’s will that some people should rule over other people’s consciences. That’s just wrong. We have to stop that. So they did an invasion by land across from Rhode Island, and they did an invasion by sea by taking shipped wages to Massachusetts.
And the poor Puritans. They were besieged by these Quakers. They started calling Quakers, ravening wolves. You can imagine. This is not the oatmeal box, no. Ravening wolves attacking our Puritans. And we won but it took, again, it took years. It took tremendous persistence, and it took deaths actually. In that case the Puritans hung people on Boston Common, hung Quakers in order to try to make their point, which was stay away, stay away.
And Quakers continued to come to the colony. And finally by the time they hung the fourth one, which was a woman, which in those days, you know, that was one of the sides of sexism, you don’t mess with women in the same way that you can take on a male dissenter, you can’t do that to a female dissenter, but they did.
And that broke the back of the Puritan resistance. And we won.
So it’s it’s cases like that, that I as a Quaker look to, for examples of how powerfully we can act and still be strictly non violent in the approach that we use. Non violence according to Gandhi being a situation where if there’s going to be violence, it’s going to be directed at us, that is we are willing to take the violence on in order to create a mirror that the opponent who’s doing violence to us can look at and say, Oh my gosh, maybe I better rethink this. This is a problem.
Yes, and one of the things that I really value about the Quaker outlook is that there is the divine spark within each of us. And Gandhi’s stance that the liberation of India wasn’t just for the Indian people, but also for the British. . .
Who, oppression oppresses the oppressor. They they lose their humanity in the process of oppressing
So one can see it as a movement that is for the liberation of all people.
Of all people. Of all people. Think of those slaveholders who were enslaved by slavery, dependent, made dependent on others when they could have been independent people. They could have been independent people and instead they were making themselves dependent on the labor and the labor of others. Even for the rearing of their children. Outrageous. Think about those moms and dads who had every right, from a humanist point of view, to experience the full joy of being parents. I’m a parent, I’m a great grandparent actually. So many children have been in my ife. And I, how awful would it be for me to hand that off to slaves and not experience the ups and downs and all the growth that’s available to us as parents, but that’s the extremity to which slavery took white people. It’s an awful system.
Yes. For me, it’s really helpful to keep that in mind to understand that, that keeps me from thinking in terms of us/them and them as the “enemy” but to actually see that by intervening, by doing what I can, what we can, to make a difference, it is for the well being of all, even though you know the people that are that are being opposed don’t see it that way.
Yeah. So when you have trained people and been involved with people who are doing nonviolent direct action, maybe for the first time, first of all, how do you equip people to manage fear, their own fear and the fear of others? I mean, not the fear of others, but the fear that others might have that they encounter.
You may have noticed a youngster getting scared at some point. And they’re really, the little ones especially, are likely to put their hand out looking for another hand to hold. Deeply human, deeply human. If there’s something scary, which might be lightning striking nearby or whatever. It’s wonderful to reach out hoping that your hand will be held.
So that’s number one. Number one is look for others. And these are scary times. And this is a really important time for us not to continue to act out the American script of individualism.
Bill McKibben told me that when people come up to him after he’s spoken about the climate emergency, and, and a typical question would be, well, what would you say to me? What can I do as an individual to to deal with this climate crisis? And Bill likes to say, Well, first of all, you could stop being an individual.
Yeah, absolutely. And in isolation, fear escalates. When we’re alone we do feel more afraid.
Exactly. So part of the trainings are really from even from the get-go, like a favorite workshop tool that I use at the get-go is to put people in buddies. Okay, this is gonna be your learning buddy for this workshop. So you’ll be you’ll have each other you know, on breaks, and you have each other to consult with, constantly raise the questions with, and get the support from. And maybe some of what we do in the training will be hard on you. Good. You’ve got your buddy, turn to your buddy. [Laughter] Yeah, so that’s a really, really important part.
Another part is to role play the situations that are most likely to be scary in the anticipated action. So it’s always good to do actions— design actions ahead of time, I think. Spontaneity has its role, but it’s also very useful to design as much as you can, so that you can spot the moments or the particular actions or the aspects of the scenario that you expect might be most scary for people. And then those are the ones that you role play in training ahead of time.
So for example, this group that took successfully on the bank We absolutely every time we did an action, we first did a training. So the newbies, for example, who had you know, who heard about a group, wanted to join it, but didn’t have experience yet. They were right, right there in the training, you know, along with more experienced people. And we would go through the spots in the action that would be most likely to be scary. And they had a chance to experience that ahead of time.
And role playing is a wonderful, wonderful device that the civil rights movement used very, very strongly, even in situations of course for them when they were facing the Ku Klux Klan, and no help was around from local law enforcement. They were on their own with the Ku Klux Klan, right? And they role played, role played, role played.
Yeah, I was a trainer for the Mississippi Freedom Summer 1964. And it was very much a part of that process of creating the role plays and then debriefing them in which people get to acknowledge their fear because another thing that keeps us so scared is when we don’t acknowledge the degree of fear that we have. If we acknowledge the fear we do have, then it’s not as likely to increase because we’re acknowledging is as we’re experiencing it.
Right, right, right. Yes. So you and you mentioned the civil rights movement, which of course, it’s such a powerful example of, of what non violence can bring about. And in that there’s also this element of when people of color do actions, they’re much more at risk than white people are. And so to me, it almost amplifies the the responsibility you know, for people who are not at as much risk to step up.
Yeah, that’s what got me arrested the first time was that there was a mass insurrection going on near my city, in a town called Chester, where there were, Chester was probably half black by then or 40% black anyway. And it was a highly, it was a city that was a small industrial city that was full of segregation.
And so they were doing, you know, one of these classic campaigns and I was watching it on TV and realized that almost everybody that I saw in the in that struggle in that campaign was black. And I thought this is ridiculous. It’s not like black people invented racism. I mean, something I as a white person, it’s my ancestors who invented racism. I’m still infected by it still today. And why am I letting? I mean, anybody looking at this TV would think that it’s black people who invented racism, and that’s why they’re taking responsibility to take care of it. But no, no, we did. We white people should take responsibility.
So I got so I jumped in my car and went out and got arrested with them because I wanted more white people to be experiencing that, that repression. And so I was, for the first time beaten by police and so on. And it was a really, but I got by very light and, you know, lightweight kind of repression. And I think you’re right that my white skin also gave me so privileged in that situation.
I do have to say that there been some picket lines, when, especially in the deep south, where often segregationists would regard white people who sided with blacks as race traitors. That concept was around, you know, you’re betraying your white race if you join with blacks in a demonstration. So in places where that culture existed, then sometimes it would be the whites say in the sit in at the lunch counter or whatever, who would be singled out for extra special beating up because it was even more infuriating and even way segregationist could say, well, you can understand why blacks would do this because you know, they want coffee, or whatever. But what is not understandable is why white person would do that. And let’s really beat that person up.
Yeah, yes. So when you have worked with people and trained them and been involved with them in nonviolent direct action, what changes do you see in people who participate in movements like this?
Oh, they get stronger. Yeah.
With exceptions. There have been some in the civil rights movement, I think, especially who did not take care of themselves and weren’t supported by the movement to take care of themselves and burned out and were left with trauma. So there have been some sad, there have been some heartbreaks in which people experienced repeated beatings for example, repeated jailings, and were suffering in ways that that were not remediated. There were some therapists who made themselves available at Harvard, outstanding nationally known Harvard psychologists went, went down there and did therapy like crazy for a while. And there were some people who tried their best, but it wasn’t anything like enough to meet the need. And so some people were hurt, and became alcoholics afterward or whatever, you know, various trauma.
But those were the, those are the exceptions. And by and large people experience themselves with a new sense of power.
For example, I was on a trolley with my son who was at that time about 11 going downtown, and it was just after the the public transportation system said no smoking. So the signs had gone up, but people weren’t used to it yet right? sitting behind my seat was a guy who lit up. So ordinarily, because I don’t usually pick fights, unless they’re political, or you know, they’re really important to, you know, some interpersonal thing really needs to be dealt with. But that was a casual kind of thing. I would have let it go if I were by myself, but I noticed my son looking at me, Hey, here’s my Dad, what’s my dad gonna do?
You can’t back down if your son is looking at you, right? So I turned around and asked him please to put his cigarette, stub his cigarette out. And he looks at me says “You’re kidding, right?” This guy did. And I said, “No, I’m not kidding it. There’s even a sign up front now that it’s a new rule. And so we’re not allowed to smoke now.” And he said, “Huh,” and stubs it out, and he’s curious, and he sees my son eyeing us and he sees me.
And he says, “So I gotta say, this is reminding me of something, especially with your boy here.” I said. “What’s that?” He said “When I was the age of your boy, I was in the Birmingham children’s march with Dr. King. That’s what I was doing?” And my boy, my boy knew about this you know, this struggle, and his eyes got big as saucers. And I think mine were a close second. And this guy totally lit up. He was an African American guy, and he totally lit up, telling the story.
Fortunately, it was a long trolley ride. So we got a lot of the story. And it was obvious, and he even said it, he said it. “It was the big experience of my life, experience of my life, and he was totally turned on man. And, and that’s, I will never forget him because it was such an example of somebody who may have had a kind of a lackadaisical life right now, you know, it didn’t turn out maybe the way he wanted it, but he had had that day of shining glory, but those days of shining glory And that’s that’s the bigger, more dramatic story way, what I think happens in smaller degrees for many, many people and many people told me that I feel at my most powerful when I’m taking on the tough problems rather than ducking them.
And knowing that I’m making a difference. It’s beautiful.
You You mentioned earlier about following the script or not following the script of being an individual. And I do see that we follow so many scripts that we are just handed and we sort of follow them unquestioningly. So as you work with non violent action, what do you see as the role of creativity and play and breaking out of those scripts? How, what role does all of that play for you?
Oh, it’s huge. It’s huge. I often advise groups, you know, that are campaigning groups. And I’ll say creativity is not something we all need to expect of ourselves. You know, there are people who are particularly gifted with creativity. So if it doesn’t turn out that your group has in its membership, a bunch of creative people, it’s okay. Y’all know somebody, y’all know. Y’all know that y’all remember that friend of yours in college who was a drama queen, or whatever. Whatever, you can find creative people I know that you can. Get get their advice. Maybe they won’t join the group, but maybe they will be consultants for you and get them in on the creativity, because creativity is the spark that lights the whole group, and also comes up with the tactics that are sometimes the most creative and most effective with regard to your opponent, and you know, more likely to get you to win.
And so I’m a very, very big believer that getting unscripted, becoming creative is very important. We also routinely in this group, I keep referring to that took on the bank, play games in our meetings. So we’ll have you know, once again, month, you know, general sort of church basement kind of meeting general membership meeting. But we don’t have a drab agenda that lets people go to sleep No, we sing. And we do and we play games.
That’s great. Y
Interspersed, you know, with the agenda items in order to keep ourselves kind of loose. And from from that springs, at our current campaign, there were doors, corporate doors, so we decided it would be fun to block. And so we blocked them by doing the Electric Slide. Do you know that dance? group dance? [Laughter] Oh my god. We had a couple of hundred people in front of their doors. People couldn’t get out because we were blocking the doors. But we were blocking doors while we’re dancing, doing this line dancing. And there were you know, there were six year olds and there was old me I didn’t know how to do that. My feet were all over the place, and I was chuckling at myself. You know, and then they were all the groovy people, and they were totally knocking it. We were partying, partying. That was that was our blockade. [Laughter]
[Laughter] Yeah, I really I do see play play as one of our superpowers.
It’s one of our superpower.
Yeah. So you know that what we read in the media is not really very playful or creative. So when we engage with media and are consuming news, what what advice do you give people about that, our exposure to the media?
Oh, be very. . . Be your own mental health advocate. Be careful, be careful. There are various distractions that will that will not do well for you. One is the kind of political junkie distraction which of course is really hyped these days by mass media because they want to get as much out of the electoral campaigns as they can and that’s why they start so early.
In Denmark, the typical national election campaigning period is five to six weeks. And no advertisements allowed on TV. [Laughter] And they get way higher citizen participation in their voting that we do. Yeah. So we we drag it out, get as many billions of dollars out of it as possible. And it’s possible, though to get hooked, it can be addictive. So that’s one of the things watch out for.
But also people can get addicted to bad news. So I raised the question about, for example, one of the shows that I would love to give our leadership, it’s a show called Democracy Now, and it’s a lot of alternative radio stations and TV. And I would love for them to give leadership, but so much gloom and doom that we see on that the week after week after week, and I just kind of wonder why do we want to fill ourselves up with bad news? If we want to be at all creative. Creative people, and positive goal setters and goal achievers do not weigh themselves down with bad news about all the reasons why they can’t possibly do it.
Yeah. Right. Exactly It’s just demoralizing. Yeah.
Yeah, as the enemy is working at that, so we don’t even have to do that ourselves.
So I know a lot of people listening probably have never participated in any sort of non violent action and maybe even have a hard time imagining themselves doing something like that. And there are different roles. I know in your book you mentioned there are different roles for making change, like direct service and advocacy, and can you just speak to some of those?
Yeah, it was a Quaker sociologist and activist named Bill Moyer, who was on Dr. King’s national staff years ago, he was a very astute observer of social movements. And he said that successful social movements, which is what he preferred to write about, he didn’t enjoy so much analyzing unsuccessful ones. But he said successful social movements tend to get four roles played in the course of their work. One role is the role of the helper, that is the person who likes to do direct service. So for example, that climate concern if you’re concerned about the environment, these are the people who will, you know, go around getting people to put solar on their rooftops, that kind of thing, or go around, doing cleanups organizing neighborhood cleanups on the stream that runs by that kind of
Tree planting, that sort of thing.
They love being direct, right? Getting something specific that the end of the day they can say, look at this specific things that I did, right? So that’s the helper, and that shows up in every every social movement. Think in the civil rights movement, all those people cooking chicken dinners in the church. Because an army, an army trumps on its on its stomach, right? Whether it’s a non army, Army, you’ve got to have the kitchen going, right. So you’ve got all these people in the kitchen. Thank you. Thank you. So that those are the helpers. And then another role, very important is the advocate role. The advocate role is who especially like to go to people in authority and speak truth to them. So they like to go to city council meetings or go to, you know, do lobbying with the mayor, or lobbying with city with National Congress, people, whatever. Those are the folks, lawyers are very often advocates because they’re in court. We’re trying to advocate for point of view, you know, with a judge. So advocates, advocates like being in that vertical relationship with somebody with greater authority or greater power and try to convince them that change is possible. Advocates can be very helpful to even in direct action when they’re people getting arrested, because it’s very useful to have a lawyer on your side when you’re, you know, when you’re being tried for some some nonviolent act.
So there’s that to the first of all, I said, help her and then I said advocate, then the third one is organizers, organizers love to get lots of people out. And for them, the wonderful day is when they got more people this time than last time. So they can be very helpful both to the helpers and to the advocates and getting a mass lobby instead of just a couple of people lobbying. So they love to they also are builders of coalitions, getting the different groups that are on different issues to see their common interest and then get them together so that they form coalitions. Organizers are amazing.
You could consider those folks also the connectors, right?
Absolutely. Connecting, they know how to put the tissue together to make a body. And then finally there’s the rebel. And the rebel is classically you know, the Dr. King, the Gandhi, the Alice Paul, who this is 100 years since we got women’s suffrage in this country. She was the one who really pulled it over the top over that suffrage issue. She was a rebel rebel rebel. There’s a new book out I just I read about her in which she took every opportunity she got to confront the president and polarize the situation a little bit more. She did it and she drove Woodrow Wilson just that crazy, and forced him to go from, oh, yes, sufferage. So that’ll be something we can deal with after the First World War is done to: This part of the war effort, we’ve got to free our women. Like that amazing, amazing story of Alice Paul, I hope, I hope your listeners will look into her. But anyway, she’s another classic example of the rebel. And all four of those roles are likely to get farthest, and the campaign and the movement will get farthest when those roles are in sync, or at least not wasting valuable time criticizing each other.
Yeah. Thank you, because I imagine people can imagine being in one of those roles, even if they’re not a rebel at heart, but they can certainly make a contribution.
So as we finish up here, George, what one thing might you want people to really come away with from this conversation about being in these times right now, to really take to heart in this moment.
Stop being an individual. Find people, even if it’s a small group as a living room group and find, find and talk to them ahead of time, in order to help yourself discern whether they want to play the role that you want to play. Maybe you’re helper, maybe you want to help other helpers get in the living room, or maybe you are organizer, you know. So study those roles and consider what what most floats your boat because we can stress ourselves and actually, you know, burn ourselves out. If we’re consistently doing something that’s not really us.
There are of course, plenty of people can play two or more of those roles. So I don’t want to discourage that. But on the other hand, just to say, it’s a little easier, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience, to operate from the place that you’re most comfortable.
And then get other people together and then figure out how can we, what might be missing in our area that isn’t being carried forth, you know, well .So maybe, maybe people are are not working on solar as a tremendous opportunity for employment for low people without jobs. So maybe your helper group could find out who are the people who don’t have jobs, but could learn some of the relatively low skilled, because maybe they’re without skills, job skills, maybe low skilled work that could fit into a solar operation. And you can build a whole solar offensive out of that kind of work. Yeah, so getting together with other people and figuring out what you can do in your area that’s not being done as well or maybe not being done at all. And that suits you and going forth proudly.
Well, George, I really want to just again, express my appreciation to you for for not only taking the time to do this, but for all of the work that you’ve done and all the lives that you’ve inspired across the world, and the difference that you’ve made. So I just, I’m very appreciative of you. And on this podcast page, I will include some links to some of your work so that people can find out more about you and be inspired by your writing and your contribution. So, again, thank you very, very much for being with us today.
You’re so welcome, and thanks for your great questions and your, I love your humor, your sense of humor. [Laughter]
Well it goes both ways. [Laughter]
All right George, thank you so much. Take good care.
Thanks. You too.