George Lakey, on how to build courage and cohesion. Also, the dangerous assumption that violence keeps us safe.

A series of useful and thought-provoking articles by the wonderful George Lakey…

A romanticized belief in violence renders people irrational to the point of hurting ourselves, over and over again. George Lakey February 26, 2022 The dangerous assumption that violence keeps us safe, Win Without War

One of the most popular — and dangerous — assumptions in the world is that violence keeps us safe.

I live in the United States, a country where the more guns we have, the less safe we are. That helps me to notice irrational assumptions that prevent creative thought.

The Ukrainian government’s choice to use their military to defend against Russia reminds me of the stark contrast between the choices of the Danish and Norwegian governments when faced with threat from the Nazi German war machine. Like the Ukrainian government, the Norwegian government chose to fight militarily. Germany invaded and the Norwegian army resisted all the way to the Arctic Circle. There was widespread suffering and loss, and even after the end of World War II, it took many years for the Norwegians to recover. When I studied in Norway in 1959 rationing was still in effect. Ukraine doesn’t need to match Russia’s military might to defend against invasion

The Danish government — knowing as certainly as the Norwegians that they would be defeated militarily — decided not to fight. As a result, they were able to minimize their losses compared with the Norwegians, politically and economically, as well as the immediate suffering of their people.

The flame of liberty continued to burn bright in both countries under occupation. Along with an underground movement that included violence, nonviolent struggles on multiple fronts broke out that did both countries proud. The Danes saved most of their Jews from the Holocaust; the Norwegians saved the integrity of their education system and the state church.

Both the Danes and the Norwegians faced overwhelming military might. The Danes chose not to use their army and relied largely on nonviolent struggle instead. The Norwegians used their military, paid a high price for it and then turned largely to nonviolent struggle. In both cases, the nonviolence — unprepared, with improvised strategy and no training — delivered victories that sustained the integrity of their countries.

Many Ukrainians are open to nonviolent defense

There is a remarkable study of the views of Ukrainians themselves on the chances of nonviolent defense and whether they would take part in armed or nonviolent resistance in response to a foreign armed invasion. Perhaps because of their remarkable success in nonviolently toppling their own dictatorship, a surprising proportion do not assume that violence is their only option. 

As Maciej Bartkowski, a senior advisor to the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, describes the findings, “Clear majorities chose various nonviolent resistance methods — ranging from symbolic to disruptive to constructive resistance actions against an occupier — rather than violent insurgent actions.”

Violence is sometimes effective

I am not arguing that the threat or use of violence never achieves a positive result. In this short article I’m setting aside the larger philosophical discussion while recommending Aldous Huxley’s remarkable book “Ends and Means” to readers who want to delve more deeply. My point here is that a compelling belief in violence renders people irrational to the point of hurting ourselves, over and over again.

One way we’re hurt is diminished creativity. Why isn’t it automatic, when someone proposes violence, that others say “Let’s investigate and see if there’s a nonviolent way to get that done?”

In my own life I’ve been faced with violence many times. I’ve been surrounded on a street late at night by a hostile gang, I’ve had a knife pulled on me three times, I’ve faced down a gun that was pulled on someone else, and I’ve been a nonviolent bodyguard for human rights activists threatened by hit squads.

I can’t know for sure the outcome of nonviolent or violent means ahead of time, but I can judge the ethical nature of the means itself.

I’m big and strong, and a while back I was young. I’ve realized that in threatening situations, as well as the larger confrontations we get into with direct action, there is a chance that I might have gained tactical victories with violence. I also knew there was a chance that I could have won with nonviolence. I’ve believed the odds are better with nonviolence, and there’s lots of evidence on my side, but who knows for sure in any given situation?

Since we can’t know for sure, it leaves the question of how to decide. This could be challenging for us as individuals, as well as for political leaders, be they Norwegian, Danish or Ukrainian. It’s no help to have a violence-loving culture pushing me with its automatic answer. To be responsible, I need to make a real choice.

If I have time, I can do the creative thing and research possible violent and nonviolent options. That could help a lot, and it’s the least we can demand of governments making decisions for its citizens. Still, developing creative options is unlikely to seal the deal because the situation before us is always unique, and predicting results is therefore a tricky matter.

I have found a solid basis for decision. I can’t know for sure the outcome of nonviolent or violent means ahead of time, but I can judge the ethical nature of the means itself. There is a clear ethical difference between violent and nonviolent means of struggle. On that basis, I can choose, and throw myself fully into that choice. At age 84, I have no regrets.

Editor’s note: The reference to the study on Ukrainians’ views on nonviolent resistance was added to the story after its initial publication.


Ingredients for building courage

While many of us will never face a terror situation like that of pre-1970s Mississippi, we all experience fear and learning how to handle it is important.George Lakey February 11, 2015  

One tool is knowing that courage is contagious: If I act more boldly, there’s a good chance I’ll inspire others to handle their own fear and step up. As profoundly social creatures, humans learn the art of courage in community. That may be one reason why the Southern civil rights movement set records for courage: much of the movement was based in churches, where community already flourished. For today’s movements — for climate justice, against incarceration, for school reform — it will pay to build community while we build our campaigns, which also build time for this.

“Expansion” is not a bad metaphor for courage. When we expand our bodies by breathing deeply, and expand our empathy by talking with people different from ourselves, we empower ourselves and support the courage we need to face actual danger. Fear is like a story that we make up. It has a beginning (now), a middle (the bold act), and an end (disaster). F.E.A.R. stands for: Fantasized Expectations Appearing Real. Knowing this invites an alternative: Use your imagination to make up a different story! I’ve learned to decide based on probability instead of fantasy, then focus on being present with my team. The physiology of fear and excitement is the same. Look to the affinity group, take the risk, and experience the courage.

The Selma to Montgomery marchers arrive in Montgomery. At center are Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King, with Ralph Abernathy's three children. (Wikipedia / Abernathy Family Photos)
The Selma to Montgomery marchers arrive in Montgomery. At center are Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King, with Ralph Abernathy’s three children. (Wikipedia / Abernathy Family Photos)

Viewers of the splendid film “Selma” might wonder, “Would I have had the courage in that situation to join protests that might leave me severely injured or worse?”

I learned something useful about courage from a lion tamer I met while doing a speaking tour in the Netherlands, a perspective quite different from what I read in Gandhi’s writings. Gandhi urged his people to become fearless, but I had doubts about my own ability to be able to give up my fear. The lion tamer invited a new way of thinking about it.

I met this unassuming Dutch man because he was my host in Utrecht. He was already retired from the circus, but when he discovered how interested I was in his career, he offered to show me scrapbooks from his work with tigers and lions.
One of the pages included a photo of him with his head between the jaws of an enormous lion. My breath stopped. I said, “What a brave man you are!”

“No, George,” he said with a smile. “My lion tamer colleagues are courageous, but I’m peculiar. For some reason, ever since I was a boy I’ve been in love with cats. When I work with a lion, I don’t see something scary; I just see a big pussycat.”

“To be brave,” he went on, “it’s necessary to be scared. When you’re frightened and do something anyway – that’s courage.”

The Dutch lion tamer’s perspective helped me, because I couldn’t imagine any personal/spiritual discipline that could make me fearless. What’s real for me is to acknowledge my fears and still choose to put myself in harm’s way. I’ve learned I can develop that quality the lion tamer defines as courage, and like all things we want to strengthen, I recognize that some days will be better than others.

Building courage behind the scenes

Context matters in building courage, and it’s significant that 1965’s Selma campaign built on the previous year’s Mississippi Summer. As a member of the training staff for the hundreds of mostly Northern college students who came to Oxford, Ohio, to prepare for their plunge into Mississippi, I watched the students become young lions ready to face Ku Klux Klan terror.

The students’ stated mission was to teach in Freedom Schools and organize African Americans to try to register to vote despite heavy repression. Their unstated mission was to draw the attention of the North to hardcore segregation and force the federal government against its will to support the right to vote. Northern students taking large risks would be attention-getters, and might even offer some measure of protection to the embattled field workers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, who had been in Mississippi since 1961. Even to take the bus to the training, most students would have endured strong opposition from family and friends fearful for their safety.

We organized the training into one-week “batches” — about 400 the first week and a similar number the second week — on the campus of Miami University in Ohio. The training relied heavily on role-playing, reflection and intense discussions with SNCC workers, some almost as young as the students.

With the first week’s graduates already on their way to Mississippi we welcomed students for the second training. We’d barely gotten started before we were all called into the auditorium to face somber-looking project leaders on the stage. They told us that James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were missing. The first was a SNCC worker; the other two were students who had been sitting in those very same auditorium seats the previous week. We feared the worst. The bodies were found later.

Even though that was 50 years ago, I vividly remember sitting in the auditorium thinking that by nightfall most of the students would have left for home. No one could be ready for a tragedy that struck so soon.

I was wrong about the students. They responded to our revised training format: multiple venues for emotional work, including one-on-ones, small groups singing under campus trees, larger groups listening to stories from the SNCC workers and others. The hours went by and community grew; almost no one seemed to leave. We gradually returned to workshop mode while gently making space for the expression of fear, grief, doubts about nonviolent discipline and anger.

By the end of the week most of the students went on to Mississippi. The excellent PBS documentary on Freedom Summer shows what happened there. (You can read about the campaign on the Global Nonviolent Action Database.) SNCC’s and the students’ courage — plus that of black Mississippians — put voting rights on the front burner and created the context for the 1965 breakthrough catalyzed by the Selma campaign.

Tools for overcoming fear

Many of us will never face a terror situation like that of pre-1970s Mississippi, but most of us do experience fear and might like to learn how to handle it. One tool is knowing that courage is contagious: If I act more boldly, there’s a good chance I’ll inspire others to handle their own fear and step up. As profoundly social creatures, humans learn the art of courage in community. That may be one reason why the Southern civil rights movement set records for courage: much of the movement was based in churches, where community already flourished. For today’s movements — for climate justice, against incarceration, for school reform — it will pay to build community while we build our campaigns.

An often unacknowledged feature of the civil rights movement’s preference to wage campaigns over time rather than one-off protests is that a campaign gives time for people to inspire each other to greater boldness. I distinguish between courage and bravado. When people do bravado they deny their own fear, pretend there is little or no risk, and count on impulse and adrenalin to see them through. I’ve seen plenty of that in one-off protests, but in campaigns we’re more likely to see actual empowerment — “ordinary people” who don’t identify as activists getting in touch with their authentic conviction and courage.

Training workshops accelerate the building of courage, especially if trainers help participants become aware of the difference between the “comfort zone” and the “learning zone.” Training for Change facilitators admit they are doing less than their best when they allow people to stay in their comfort zones. Learning happens when participants, although objectively safe, are uncomfortable.

“Expansion” is not a bad metaphor for courage. When we expand our bodies by breathing deeply, and expand our empathy by talking with people different from ourselves, we empower ourselves and support the courage we need to face actual danger. Fear is like a story that we make up. It has a beginning (now), a middle (the bold act), and an end (disaster). F.E.A.R. stands for: Fantasized Expectations Appearing Real. Knowing this invites an alternative: Use your imagination to make up a different story!

There’s an additional method that works for me. I’ve put myself in physical danger multiple times (knives drawn, even a gun) and I have knowingly risked my life in social action. Although I have a good imagination and can fantasize dreadful consequences as well as anyone, the truth is that each time I’ve had no way of knowing what would be the real-life end of the story. I’ve learned to decide based on probability instead of fantasy, then focus on being present with my team.

Re-framing to channel the energy

The good news is that we’re not at the mercy either of our fantasies or even of the adrenal gland that pumps hormones as if there’s something really scary out there. I once asked a concert pianist for his feelings about a high stakes concert, and he said his usual condition before any concert was the rapid heartbeat called stage fright. “In conservatory they taught us how to handle that,” he told me. “Find the button that turns fear into excitement.”

The physiology of fear and excitement is the same. “When I reframe by turning that heartbeat into excitement, I play a better concert,” he explained. “If for some reason the adrenalin isn’t pumping some night, I’m less alive and it’s a flatter performance.” In social action we have a huge advantage over the solitary recitalist on a stage — we can have support from those who are quicker to push their excitement buttons and give us that look of reassurance. Look to the affinity group, take the risk, and experience the courage.

George Lakey has been active in direct action campaigns for over six decades. Recently retired from Swarthmore College, he was first arrested in the civil rights movement and most recently in the climate justice movement. He has facilitated 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national and international levels. His 10 books and many articles reflect his social research into change on community and societal levels. His newest books are “Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians got it right and how we can, too” (2016) and “How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning” (2018.)TAGS: CIVIL RIGHTSCIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENTGANDHIHATE CRIMESNONVIOLENCE IN THE FACE OF VIOLENT ATTACKPROTESTSTRAININGUNITED STATES MORE BY GEORGE LAKEY


The dangerous assumption that violence keeps us safe and Ukraine doesn’t need to match Russia’s military might to defend against invasionShould fighting for democracy take priority over building powerful social movements?

Throughout history, people facing occupation have tapped into the power of nonviolent struggle to thwart their invaders. George Lakey February 25, 2022

As with so many around the world, including thousands of brave Russians protesting against their country’s brutal invasion of neighboring Ukraine, I’m aware of the inadequate resources for defending Ukraine’s independence and wish for democracy. Biden, NATO countries, and others are marshalling economic power, but it seems not to be enough.

Granted, sending soldiers in would only make it worse. But what if there’s an untapped resource for wielding power that’s hardly being considered at all? What if the resource situation is something like this: There’s a village that for centuries has relied on a stream, and because of climate change it is now drying up. Given existing financial resources, the village is too far from the river to build a pipeline, and the village faces its end. What no one had noticed was a tiny spring in a ravine behind the cemetery, which — with some well-digging equipment — could become an abundant source of water and save the village?

At first glance that was the situation of Czechoslovakia on August 20, 1968, when the Soviet Union moved to re-assert its domination — Czech military power couldn’t save it. The country’s leader, Alexander Dubcek, locked his soldiers in their barracks to prevent a futile set of skirmishes that could only result in wounded and killed. As the troops of the Warsaw Pact marched into his country, he wrote instructions to his diplomats at the U.N. to make a case there, and used the midnight hours to prepare himself for arrest and the fate that awaited him in Moscow.

However, unnoticed by Dubcek, or foreign reporters or the invaders, there was the equivalent of a water source in the ravine behind the cemetery. What tapped it was the previous months of vibrant political expression by a growing movement of dissenters determined to create a new kind of social order: “socialism with a human face.” Large numbers of Czechs and Slovaks were already in motion before the invasion, acting together as they excitedly developed a new vision.

Their momentum served them well when the invasion began, and they improvised brilliantly. On Aug. 21, there was a brief standstill in Prague reportedly observed by hundreds of thousands. Airport officials at Ruzyno refused to supply Soviet planes with fuel. At a number of places, crowds sat in the path of oncoming tanks; in one village, citizens formed a human chain across a bridge over the river Upa for nine hours, inducing the Russian tanks eventually to turn tail.

To many observers in other countries who had wondered about the potential of tapping nonviolent power for defense, August 1968 was an eye-opener.

Swastikas were painted on tanks. Leaflets in Russian, German and Polish were distributed explaining to the invaders that they were in the wrong, and countless discussions were held between bewildered and defensive soldiers and angry Czech youths. Army units were given wrong directions, street signs and even village signs were changed, and there were refusals of cooperation and food. Clandestine radio stations broadcast advice and resistance news to the population.

On the second day of the invasion, a reported 20,000 people demonstrated in Wenceslas Square in Prague; on the third day a one-hour work stoppage left the square eerily still. On the fourth day young students and workers defied the Soviet curfew by a round-the-clock sit-down at the statue of St. Wenceslas. Nine out of 10 people on the streets of Prague were wearing Czech flags in their lapels. Whenever the Russians tried to announce something the people raised such a din that the Russians could not be heard.

Much of the energy of the resistance was spent weakening the will and increasing the confusion of the invading forces. By the third day, Soviet military authorities were putting out leaflets to their own troops with counter-arguments to those of the Czechs. The next day rotation began, with new units coming into the cities to replace Russian forces. The troops, constantly confronted but without the threat of personal injury, melted rapidly.

For the Kremlin, as well as for the Czechs and Slovaks, the stakes were high. To attain its objective of replacing the government, the Soviet Union was reportedly willing to convert Slovakia into a Soviet republic and Bohemia and Moravia into autonomous regions under Soviet control. What the Soviets overlooked, however, is that such control depends on the people’s willingness to be controlled — and that willingness was hardly to be seen.

The Kremlin was forced to compromise. Instead of arresting Dubcek and carrying out their plan, the Kremlin accepted a negotiated settlement. Both sides compromised.

For their part, the Czechs and Slovaks were brilliant nonviolent improvisers, but had no strategic plan — a plan that could bring into play their even more powerful weapons of sustained economic noncooperation, plus tapping other nonviolent tactics available. Even so, they achieved what most believed their most important goal: to continue with a Czech government rather than direct rule by the Soviets. Given the circumstances, it was in the moment a remarkable victory.

To many observers in other countries who had wondered about the potential of tapping nonviolent power for defense, August 1968 was an eye-opener. However, Czechoslovakia, wasn’t the first time real life existential threats stimulated fresh thinking about the usually-ignored power of nonviolent struggle.

Denmark and a famous military strategist

Like the ongoing search for potable water that can sustain life, the search for nonviolent power that can defend democracy attracts technologists: people who like to think about technique. Such a person was B. H. Liddell Hart, a famous British military strategist I met in 1964 at the Oxford University Conference on Civilian-Based Defense. (I was told to call him “Sir Basil.”)

Liddell Hart told us that he’d been invited by the Danish government soon after World War II to consult with them on military defense strategy. He did so, and advised them to replace their military with a nonviolent defense mounted by a trained populace.

Danes found a thousand and one ways to impede their use to the Germans. This widespread, energized creativity stood in stark contrast to the military alternative.

His advice prompted me to look more closely into what the Danes actually did when militarily occupied by next-door Nazi Germany during World War II. The Danish government knew of course that violent resistance was futile and would only result in dead and despairing Danes. Instead, the spirit of resistance developed both above and below ground. The Danish king resisted with symbolic actions, riding his horse through the streets of Copenhagen to keep up morale and wearing a Jewish star when the Nazi regime stepped up its persecution of the Jews. Many people still today know about the highly successful mass Jewish escape to neutral Sweden improvised by the Danish underground.

As the occupation ground on, the Danes became increasingly aware that their country was valuable to Hitler for its economic productivity. Hitler especially counted on the Danes to build warships for him, part of his plan to invade England.

The Danes understood (don’t we all?) that when someone depends on you for something, that gives you power! So Danish workers overnight went from being arguably the most brilliant shipbuilders of their day to the most clumsy and unproductive. Tools were “accidentally” dropped into the harbor, leaks sprang “by themselves” in the ships holds, and so on. The desperate Germans were sometimes driven to tow unfinished ships from Denmark to Hamburg in order to get them finished.

As the resistance grew, strikes became more frequent, along with workers leaving factories early because “I must get back to tending my garden while there’s still some light, because my family will starve without our vegetables.”

Danes found a thousand and one ways to impede their use to the Germans. This widespread, energized creativity stood in stark contrast to the military alternative of putting up violent resistance — carried out by only a percentage of the population — which would wound and kill many and bring stark privation to nearly all.

Factoring in the role of training

Other historic cases of brilliant improvised nonviolent resistance to invasion have been examined. The Norwegians, not to be outdone by the Danes, used their time under Nazi occupation to nonviolently prevent a Nazi take-over of their school system. This was despite the specific orders from the Norwegian Nazi placed in charge of the country, Vidkun Quisling, who was backed by a German occupation army of one soldier per 10 Norwegians.

Another participant I met in the Oxford conference, Wolfgang Sternstein, did his dissertation on the Ruhrkampf — the 1923 nonviolent resistance by German workers to the invasion of the coal and steel production center of the Ruhr Valley by French and Belgian troops, who were trying to seize steel production for German reparations. Wolfgang told me it was a highly effective struggle, called for by the democratic German government of that period, the Weimar Republic. It was in fact so effective that the French and Belgian governments recalled their troops because the entire Ruhr Valley went on strike. “Let them dig coal with their bayonets,” the workers said.

What strikes me as extraordinary about these and other successful cases is that the nonviolent combatants engaged in their struggle without the benefit of training. What army commander would order troops into combat without training them first?

I saw first-hand the difference it made for Northern students in the U.S. to be trained to go South to Mississippi and risk torture and death at the hands of the segregationists. The 1964 Freedom Summer considered it essential to be trained.

So, as a technique-oriented activist, I think of effective mobilization for defense requiring a thought-through strategy and solid training. Military people would agree with me. And what therefore boggles my mind is the high degree of effectiveness of nonviolent defense in these examples without benefit of either! Consider what they might have accomplished if they’d also been backed securely by strategy and training.

Why, then, wouldn’t any democratic government — not in hock to a military-industrial complex — want to seriously explore the possibilities of civilian-based defense?


In times of rapid change, victory comes to those who train for it

In times of rapid change, victory comes to those who train for it

If soldiers train for armed combat, why wouldn’t activists train for toppling the political-economic structure that’s killing our chance for a just future? The stakes are just as high. George Lakey June 30, 2020    

Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee sing outside a police department in Nashville, Tennessee as part of a protest against police brutality in 1961. (The Tennessean/Eldred Reaney)

One of the gifts of the Black Lives Matter movement is that it doesn’t pretend that a quick fix will solve the problem. The many signs of change — from NASCAR giving up the Confederate flag to the majority of Minneapolis City Council members resolving to dismantle their police department — are welcome, but not nearly enough.

Decades of failed reforms plus research into racism have come to the same conclusion: Only radical change will deliver what we need. The present whirlwind moment will subside. What then? How do successful movements dig in for a next stage of growth?

The young people who organized the Sunrise Movement built into its DNA a large commitment to training. No use taking on the climate crisis, they figured, if people are simply going to do “the usual.”

As Christopher Fry put it in a play of his, “Affairs are now soul-sized.” For many of us that means learning how to do the unusual.

If we were fighting an armed struggle, we’d likely want combat training. If we were solarizing a city, we might want technical training. And if we were going to turn around a political-economic structure that’s killing our chances for a just future, we’d want social movement training.

While elections can, on a good day, make reforms, only social movements can deliver radical change. Mainstream institutions in society back small reforms at most, so they teach the strategy and skills of electioneering. Movements are left to themselves to teach the skills that make for big change, and that’s where training comes in.

My first encounter with movement training was scary. I was a student volunteer in 1958 and one of my mentors, Charlie Walker, told me the single best training method he knew was standing on the street corner on a box speaking to whoever walked by. He would hook me up with “the best street speaker in Philadelphia,” he said, “a socialist named Carl Dahlgren.”

In addition to being scared, I was intrigued. Obviously training for activism is more challenging than traditional education, which usually keeps us pretty comfortable. Movement training might be more like combat training in the army. And that figures, I thought, because the stakes are higher for soldiers, and the stakes are higher for us.

So despite my nervousness I got in touch with Carl Dahlgren and volunteered for his next evening venture. On the phone I admitted my nervousness. He laughed.

Of course you’re nervous,” he said. “I still am myself. Every time. It’s only stage fright. If actors let stage fright stop them, we’d never see any plays. See you Friday night.”

By Friday night I was more nervous than ever, but turned up to meet Carl and the others. I carried a wooden crate down the street, and took my turn speaking. When I got down I was flooded with relief . . . and immediately forgot what I said.

It would take several more times before I could relax enough to respond to hecklers and hold my own. “Maybe,” I thought, “I can become an activist after all.”

The civil rights movement expanded our understanding of training

A few years later we were being called to combat — nonviolent style — in the civil rights movement. Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, needed to mobilize their courage, for sure, but also polish their skills: How do you deal with the white supremacists who come at you with violence?

How movements build strength through training

As shown in Danny Glover‘s absorbing film, “Freedom Song,” SNCC and the others used the training technique of roleplaying, which turned out to be hugely flexible in almost any situation.

In 1963 SNCC decided to take on the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, where the Klan was strongest. The KKK was for many decades America’s most powerful terrorist movement. The following year SNCC escalated and, with allies, launched the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. They attracted nearly 1,000 student volunteers from the North to spend the summer risking their lives by organizing voter registration and Freedom Schools.

I joined the training staff, leading roleplays every day and watching the young volunteers grow in confidence and skill in nonviolent confrontation. We also taught skills in de-escalating tense situations, a skill many more Americans will need to learn today if we want to deliver public safety without police.

The hundreds of young volunteers were organized into many training groups. Because I was assigned to different training teams each day I saw that some of our training groups seemed to go deeper than others in the debriefs, and I began to form a hypothesis: The dynamics within a learning group might have an impact on the learning the individuals do, and some trainers seemed to know more about group dynamics than others.

Mobilizing a group to support deep learning

Most education and training formats bring individuals together for convenience, then ignore the power of the group. Traditional teachers and trainers see little besides the assortment of individuals in front of them.

Leaving the group out of the equation is a denial of human nature, indigenous cultures remind us. Humans are essentially social creatures, constantly influenced (mostly on subtle levels) by the dynamics of whatever group they are a part of.

The dynamics of a learning group might be neutral regarding the learning goals of the session, or positive, or negative. Under the surface there may be a power struggle going on between two would-be leaders, or a minority may quietly bail out because it sees no acknowledgement of its presence.

What I call the secret life of the group can be decisive in how much individuals do or don’t learn. A teacher or trainer may have brilliant slides to show and clever rhetoric and still have nothing but the most superficial impact to show for it.

‘Courage’ is a muscle developed through a series of successfully-taken risks. Each success expands the courage muscle, and loosens the self-limiting beliefs we walk around with.

For the next couple of decades I researched tools and designs that could turn an array of individuals who show up for a workshop or class into a pro-learning group. I experimented both in movement workshops and in courses I taught at the University of Pennsylvania. 

“You know I hated you by the middle of the semester, professor,” one student told me as we parted at the end. “I felt uncomfortable most of the time I was there.”

“I was a business major, so I thought taking peace studies would be an easy A,” he went on. “But you had me working harder than I’ve ever worked in a course.”

“So why didn’t you drop out?” I asked. He grinned shyly, then laughed out loud. “I don’t know. I guess I felt like it was win/lose between us and that if I left, you’d win. I didn’t want that.”

He paused for further reflection. “Or maybe it was that I didn’t want to drop out of the group.”

Activist training needs to develop courage

For many decades I’ve kept street speaking up my sleeve as a workshop activity for two reasons. First, it built my own courage as a newbie activist. Second, because it worked when I tried it in places as culturally different as black South Africa, Denmark, Thailand and New Zealand.

When I use it as a workshop exercise, however, I first make sure the group dynamics will support the individuals taking the risk. I also bring to a conscious level an observation that most people know already: that their biggest learnings happen when they are outside their comfort zones.

Afterward the debrief of a speak-out reveals relief, joy, excitement, group solidarity and surprise that “I could do it!”

Of course the key is risk. We can’t grow without going outside our comfort zones, which means tolerating the subjective experience of risk even if the activity is, objectively speaking, safe. “Courage” is a muscle developed through a series of successfully-taken risks. Each success expands the courage muscle, and loosens the self-limiting beliefs we walk around with.

Trainers and teachers who want to maximize learning get the group’s support for individuals to take risks, expand and grow. Each time that happens the group itself becomes stronger and more able to support even more fully the individuals who risk. The ropes course version of this process is often called experiential education, or adventure-based learning. Street speaking is a kind of ropes course for social activists, and there are other such activities in the direct education toolbox.

The risk of cultural imperialism

By the time black community leader Barbara Smith and I started Training for Change in 1991 we’d developed a good set of tools for working the group, but we were curious about whether they could cross cultural lines. Maybe they were limited — too “professional middle-class American.” I was freer to travel than Barbara, so other training partners and I tested our tools in workshops on five continents and diverse cultures, for example Mohawks within Canada and Indigenous Taiwanese.

We found, not surprisingly, that some tools worked in diverse settings and some did not — so we dropped the latter. We also picked up new learning tools in other cultures.

Today’s teenagers know intuitively what older people are discovering: In a time of rapid change, victory comes to the movements that have the strongest learning curve.

Our training approach became controversial in Thailand, where activists have considerable pride that their country was never colonized by any of the Western empires that tried. They worried that the Thai Buddhist group that was annually importing our “American” trainings was unwittingly engaged in cultural imperialism.

Before my next Thai workshop I was told by the sponsor that one of the participants would be a prestigious Thai Buddhist monk who’d been a Communist revolutionary in his university days. His intention would be to detect subtle western imperialist assumptions that might underlie the pedagogy we used.

Two-thirds of the way through our 10-day training the sponsor stopped the workshop and invited the distinguished monk to give us his opinion. The room went still, with all eyes on the older man in saffron robes. He looked around, smiled and said, “I have paid close attention to these experiential activities we’ve been doing and the assumptions underlying them. On reflection, I believe that they are completely consistent with what the Buddha himself would have wanted in support of our learning.”

Seeking a name for this kind of teaching and training

Our work reminded some people of the popular education of the Brazilian radical Paolo Freire, but our observations of popular education — at least as transplanted to the Global North – left out the conscious use of the group’s power to support individual learning. We needed a name other than “popular education.”

While we were looking for a name I noticed that a variety of experienced trainers who tried our approach for their own content reported that the added group power enabled them to reach their goals more fully and more quickly than previously. Four-hour workshops became three-hour workshops when they used our methods. So we called our approach “direct education.”

I wrote a book in 2008 to describe it: “Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Diverse Adult Learners.” The book includes a lot of tools — with attribution if we picked them up elsewhere — and stories about their use. While a new edition is set for release this fall, the previous edition in 2010 was picked up by some high school teachers who found direct education worked very well for teenagers, too.

In recent years I’ve noticed that more teenagers were showing up in my book tour audiences than ever before, and they had great stories to tell about their activist adventures. They know, intuitively, what older people are discovering: In a time of rapid change, victory comes to the movements that have the strongest learning curve. Training has become a priority for everyone.


2017 excerpt

…The 35 people in the room were exhausted, with the election countdown on their minds. Still, they responded to the invitation of the Hospital Employees Union, or HEU, to spend the morning together. I’d been asked by Jennifer Whiteside to facilitate the session because I have a long history of working with Canadian unions and movement groups, in British Columbia and elsewhere in the country.

The night before the workshop I met with a small group of leaders to learn more about the situation facing them. They didn’t want to wait until the election was decided to start developing a plan. By gathering people together ahead of time, they hoped to build connections and start building strategic unity. On the other hand, I could see they were in no shape to do so as long as they obsessed about what the political parties would do; they reminded me of some of my fellow Americans who obsess about Donald Trump and moves by politicians. People don’t do their best thinking when they are in a state of high anxiety and their primary attention is on others, whether the “others” are Trump, Hillary Clinton, the Liberals or the NDP. They give away their emotional — and psychic — energy to persons or events that they can’t control, instead of centering on their own power to act.

Because we clearly needed to shift individual attention to the enormous resource of collectivity, the next morning I abandoned the set-up of rows of tables and formed a circle of chairs instead. Seated one by one, the attendees said their name and organizational affiliation, as well as one adjective to describe their state of being.

After being introduced, I briefly reviewed the goals of the morning and asked them to form groups of four in which their partners would be strangers or bare acquaintances. Once they were settled, I gave them their assignment: When, in past years or decades, community groups or unions gained victories, what did they do that worked?

At first hesitantly, then more vigorously, the groups set to work. Toward the end of their time I told them to select one of their remembered cases to use for a skit to present to the whole group. With an escalation of nervous laughter, they set to work and chose a time that could be dramatized. Then we created a theater so we could watch as group after group went to the front to perform a skit, arousing frequent laughter by the audience.

The whole group was asked, while watching the skit, to discern what the skit showed in terms of successful practices. At the conclusion of each skit, a scribe listed the named practices on the wall under the label “What did we do?”

Four large sheets of paper gradually filled with the list of strengths and brilliance of British Columbian activists. These sheets of paper became the primary reference point for the rest of the meeting, replacing the feeling of scarcity that previously prevailed.

By the time this activity was over, the atmosphere in the room had entirely shifted from the anxiety of observers watching an oncoming train wreck to a group of leaders in touch with their own power. After the entire workshop was over, I heard one leader say, “I haven’t laughed this much in a month.”

How to use our power

The next step in the workshop was to form new groups (again, with people not so well known to each other) to address the possibility of the Liberals winning. Thanks to the skits and lists on the wall, their own strengths were now a resource they could use. At the end of their small group work, each group shared one initiative that might be taken if the Liberals win, this time simply stated, rather than presented in a skit. The scribe filled more of the wall with paper listing these action possibilities.

The possibility of the NDP winning the election was addressed next, but first I told them the sad story of the electoral win of Barack Obama in my country. I described how most of those who voted for Obama abandoned their president, rather than mount massive direct action campaigns early in his first term to make it possible to win the victories that were — at that time — available with an ally in the White House. I asked the Canadians if they wanted to follow the U.S. example and largely sit on their hands, expecting the NDP to take care of them.

The new small groups, again mixed with new people, went to work with a will and showed pro-active creativity in choosing actions they could take for justice in British Columbia.

We spent the final part of the morning together, as a whole group, making suggestions for how people there could create a coalition and reach wider to include even more constituents. Praise was heaped on HEU for taking an initiative most would think impossible within a week of an election. In the closing circle, in which each person shared one word to describe their condition, most chose “inspired.” For me, it was fun to watch people walk out of the room with a bounce in their step.

Why do we scare each other?

Not long after the November election in the United States, I attended a national gathering of young leaders from recent insurgent movements like Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers and campus fossil fuel divestment. I noticed that these strong young activists spent a lot of their informal time during breaks and meals scaring each other with gossip about Trump and “the latest” indications of impending fascism.

I was able to get the whole group’s attention and point out what I had witnessed. I observed that the job of authoritarians is to keep people in submission by scaring them — that, after all, is the goal of tweeting threats of violence, putting activists in prison, beating us up and militarizing local police forces. For authoritarians, violence is about getting what they want, which is to make us scared.

I told the young people that if they were going to do this work for Trump, they should keep a tab of their hours spent doing it and send an invoice to him. They could consider it a fundraiser for their group.

The next day many of the young people thanked me for naming a dynamic that dominates some activist subcultures and disempowers us. Everyone knows our situation is dangerous, I said. Think of joining a climbing party to go up Mount Everest: Does the guide spend their time telling the climbers all the places along the way where people got hurt or lost their lives, putting them in such a state of anxiety that they can’t climb well? Of course not. Effective guides focus on the task at hand, encourage the climbers to believe they can do well, and help them to visualize reaching the summit, i.e, winning. Organizers can learn from the wisdom of others who deal with danger.

As we informally discussed this dynamic and young people remembered their own life experience, it became clear to them that they make their activist subcultures toxic by their own choice to scare each other. They give their power to Trump, the bully, who is bound to be delighted if he hears about it.

Black young people in the civil rights movement of the deep South knew they would burn out if they obsessed about the terrorist Ku Klux Klan. At its best, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other civil rights groups had cultures that supported their members. Courageous cultures are created by centering ourselves on our strengths, our achievements and encouraging members to take chances with the support of the group. That can be as simple as performing skits, when — as the Canadians admitted to me afterward — no one wanted to go outside their comfort zones to do them. It can also be as simple as refraining from scolding each other and calling each other out. And, finally, it can be as simple as the abundant laughter that I remember so well as a young gay man in the 1950s — the releasing laughter I found inside a community of the persecuted.



How a neighborhood in Philadelphia learned that real safety lies in solidarity

Faced with rising crime, residents were forced to choose between leaving for the suburbs or demanding more cops — until activists presented a third option.George Lakey July 15, 2013  Embed from Getty Images

Break-ins, muggings and worse were definitely up in the neighborhood. Neighbors were justifiably worried, and they talked about two responses. One was to leave for the suburbs, where people were safer (and whiter). The other was to demand that the city send more cops.

We were new to the neighborhood, the 30 of us having just moved in to form an intentional community of activists. We didn’t like either of the two “solutions” the neighbors talked about.

Moving to the suburbs played into the hands of unscrupulous real-estate types who wanted to “turn over the neighborhood” — turn it from largely white to black, from largely homeowners to absentee landlords who would carve up the large houses into tiny apartments and collect rents while allowing the properties to disintegrate into slumhood. That was the history of a lot of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. In 1971 it was West Philly’s turn.

Demanding more police presence played into the hands of Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, the populist proto-fascist who had made his reputation by raiding coffeehouses while crusading against “hippies.” Rizzo won national attention with the photo of him attending a fancy-dress occasion with his billy club in his cummerbund. He’d lined up a group of Black Panthers on the street, stripped them naked after raiding their office and called it a strip search. Lately he’d been demanding more police officers to command. Did we really want our neighborhood to be Rizzo’s ally?

Our group felt the pressure as much as anybody — collective houses broken into, members assaulted on the street. Two of us, Lillian Willoughby and Ross Flanagan, formed a collective to develop a nonviolent alternative that would somehow respond to the racism inherent in the situation and the momentum toward “white flight” that was starting to build.

The collective started to go to the meetings in neighbors’ living rooms where people would tell alarming stories and shake their heads. Our members would get acquainted and show it was our problem, too. When the conversation turned to the demand for more police, as it always did, our members asked what the track record was. “What have the police done for you lately?”

After some disappointing stories on that front, people were ready to listen to an alternative.

“What if,” our members suggested, “we got together and took action to have each others’ backs? What if we formed block groups where we got to know each other so we could tell, if someone was loitering on the sidewalk, whether they were neighborhood folks or not? And the block groups could send their captains to regular meetings where we could come up with ways of becoming safer?”

“Right,” someone would say. “There might be a bunch of specific things we could do. We could agree to keep our porch lights on all night, and put lights in the backs of our houses, too, that could be on automatic timers. Everybody knows that light deters crime.”

At most of the living room meetings, people relaxed and started to generate ideas. “We could exchange phone numbers so if somebody needed to go to the store at night, they could ask someone to go with them.” “People who walk their dogs could talk with people they see on the street and be nosy about where they live; the word would get around that our neighborhood is getting together.” (That one brought laughter, and nods of approval.)

“How about we carry whistles, and if somebody scary approaches us, we just blow the whistle so people in their houses could come outside to see what’s up?”

“Better yet, there are those air horns that bicyclists use — they are so f-ing loud! If you’re too scared to blow your whistle, you can just press that button.”

If no one else brought it up, one of our members would point out that studies show that pedestrians make safe streets, and the practice of hiding behind the doors stimulates crime. Someone else would often say, “Well then, let’s walk around at night, in pairs during peak crime times; we can take turns.”

“And we can carry those air horns!”

Organizing equals safety

After months of having conversations, identifying strong community partners and holding tentative meetings of some block groups, the Block Association of West Philadelphia formed. The co-chairs were, very intentionally, African American and European American. Police were brought into the picture for the crime statistics and other information they could bring.

Car windows continued to be broken and street assaults continued to scare us. One skilled, ninja-like thief broke into our house and stole my wallet from my pants hanging on a chair in the bedroom — while I slept a few feet away!

Our collective, a unit of the Movement for a New Society, organized more blocks, with more meetings and more neighbors to join the teams nonviolently patrolling the streets.

I remember a neighbor showing up with a baseball bat to join me on our scheduled walk. We dialogued intensely while we walked back and forth from his house to mine, trying our best not to let male ego get in the way of the issues. At last he took the baseball bat back into his house and rejoined me for our patrol, carrying his air horn instead.

The neighborhood-wide agreement by that time was that we were to keep our air horns close to the front door, so if we heard a cry for help or sounds of struggle, we could dash to the door, grab the horn and run in the direction of the sound blasting our horn.

The way it worked, more neighbors would hear the horn, then grab theirs and run in the direction of the sound. Not one would-be thief or rapist was intrepid enough to stick around when they heard the loud blasts of our horns coming in their direction.

At the monthly meetings of block captains, police began to report declining crime rates. That was also our anecdotal perception.

Then a crisis came. A woman was murdered on the sidewalk outside the Movement for a New Society house where she lived. Compounding the violation in our racially tense neighborhood was that she was white and the murderer was black.

Our collective called other Movement for a New Society members to join them in an intense round of action: support for the stunned household where she lived, washing the blood off the sidewalk, communication with block captains, neighborhood-wide door-knocking, invitations to an evening memorial service at the neighborhood Methodist church.

Although few knew the woman who was murdered since she was new to the neighborhood, the church was jammed with neighbors. After a deeply moving, non-religious but very spiritual event, attendees filed out of the church doors to join in a candlelight procession around the neighborhood. It was one of the early “take back the night” events that became a feminist contribution to U.S. culture in the 1970s. The service and procession strengthened the neighborhood’s resolve to reject white flight as the way to solve its problems.

The Block Association of West Philadelphia grew, and the neighborhood finally stabilized as a community that could tolerate racial (and income) differences.

How to spread solidarity

Other Philadelphia neighborhoods with crime problems paid attention to our experiment, and some began to launch experiments of their own. A foundation funded a statewide outreach effort of that kind throughout Pennsylvania. Under the name “town watch,” the idea that grassroots initiative matters was also trending nationally.

Last year’s fatal shooting by a neighborhood-watch captain of teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., underlines how a grassroots effort can get sucked into the violent U.S. culture. There’s no guarantee that a grassroots initiative will always have the anti-racist, anti-violence character of the Movement for a New Society.

This lack of guarantee highlights a general weakness of alternative institutions as a tactic for change. Needed as they are, alternative institutions don’t necessarily develop in the best direction. For that, a broader strategy is needed as well, such as the one I propose in Toward a Living Revolution.

In the eyes of Movement for a New Society members, our experiment underlined the importance of training. If there were more Lillian Willoughbys and Ross Flanagans — organizers who had a profound understanding linked to excellent people skills — then such alternatives have a chance of yielding more nutritious fruit.

Still, the West Philly experiment may offer a breakthrough for people who reflexively believe in baseball bats, or revolvers. They might begin to see that safety lies in solidarity.


DANIEL HUNTER Analysis: Ukraine’s secret weapon may prove to be civilian resistance

Unarmed Ukrainians changing road signs, blocking tanks and confronting the Russian military are showing their bravery and strategic brilliance.Daniel Hunter February 27, 2022    A woman who stands down the Russian military in Henychesk, Kherson region. (Twitter/ukraine_world)

Predictably, much of the Western press has focused on Ukrainian diplomatic or military resistance to Russia’s invasion, such as the arming of regular citizens to patrol and protect. 

These forces have already proven stronger than Russian President Vladimir Putin has expected and are disrupting his plans with great courage. Take Yaryna Arieva and Sviatoslav Fursin who got married amidst air raid sirens. Right after their marriage vows they proceeded to sign-up with the local Territorial Defense Center to defend their country. 

History shows that successful resistance against a militarily stronger opponent often requires a wide variety of resistance, including from those who are unarmed — a role that is often given less attention, both by the mainstream media and by maniacal power-obsessed opponents.

Yet, even as Putin’s swift invasion of Ukraine has left a lot of shock, Ukrainians are showing what unarmed people can do to resist, too.

A photoshopped road sign bearing the Ukrainian government’s suggested message to the Russians: “Fuck you.”

Make it hard for the invaders

At this moment, the Russian military playbook appears to be focusing primarily on destroying the military and political infrastructure in Ukraine. The country’s military and newly armed civilians, as heroic as they are, are known factors for Russia. Just as the Western press ignores unarmed civilian resistance, the Russian military appears unprepared and clueless to this, too.

As people move past the shock of the past few days, it’s this unarmed part of the resistance that’s gaining momentum. Ukraine’s streets agency, Ukravtodor, called for “all road organizations, territorial communities, local governments to immediately begin dismantling nearby road signs.” They emphasized this with a photoshopped highway sign renamed: “Fuck you” “Again fuck you” and “To Russia fuck you.” Sources tell me versions of these are happening in real life. (The New York Times has reported on the sign changes as well.)

That same agency encouraged people to “block the enemy by all available methods.” People are using cranes to move cement blocks in the way, or regular citizens are setting up sandbags to block roadways.

Ukrainian news outlet HB showed a young man using his body to physically get in the way of a military convoy as they steamrolled through the streets. Reminiscent of Tiananmen Square’s “Tank Man,” the man stepped in front of speeding trucks, forcing them to veer around him and off the road. Unarmed and unprotected, his act is a symbol of bravery and risk.

Unarmed Ukrainian man blocking a Russian tank in Bakhmach. (Twitter/@christogrozev)

This was echoed again by an individual in Bakhmach who, similarly, put his body in front of moving tanks and repeatedly pushed against them. However, it appeared many supporters were videotaping, but not participating. This is worth noting because — when consciously executed — these types of actions can be rapidly built upon. Coordinated resistance can spread and move from inspirational isolated acts to decisive acts capable of rebuffing an advancing army. 

Very recent social media reports are showing this collective noncooperation. In shared videos, unarmed communities are facing down Russian tanks with apparent success. In this dramatic recorded confrontation, for example, community members walk slowly towards the tanks, open handed, and mostly without any words. The tank driver either does not have authorization or interest in opening fire. They choose retreat. This is being repeated in small towns across Ukraine.

These communal actions are often carried out by affinity groups — tiny cells of like-minded friends. Given the likelihood of repression, affinity groups can develop methods of communication (assuming the internet/cell phone service will be shut-down) and keep a level of tight planning. In long-term occupations, these cells may also emerge from existing networks — schools, churches/mosques and other institutions.


Ukraine doesn’t need to match Russia’s military might to defend against invasion

George Lakey makes the case for Ukrainian total noncooperation with an invading force, citing Czechoslovakia, where in 1968 people also renamed signs. In one instance, hundreds of people with linked arms blocked a major bridge for hours until Soviet tanks turned around in retreat. 

The theme was total noncooperation wherever possible. Need oil? No. Need water? No. Need directions? Here’s the wrong ones. 

Militaries assume that because they have guns they can get their way with unarmed civilians. Each act of noncooperation proves them wrong. Each resistance makes every tiny goal of the invaders a hard battle. Death by a thousand cuts.

No stranger to noncooperation

Just ahead of the invasion, researcher Maciej Mathias Bartkowski published an article with insightful data on Ukranian’s commitment to noncooperation. He noted a poll “just after the Euromaidan revolution and the capture of Crimea and the Donbas region by Russian troops, when it could be expected that Ukrainian public opinion would be strongly in favor of defending the motherland with arms.” People were asked what they would do if a foreign armed occupation took place in their town.

The plurality said they would engage in a civil resistance (26 percent), just ahead of the percentage ready to take arms (25 percent). The others were a mix of people who just didn’t know (19 percent) or said they would leave/move to another region.

The field of nonviolent resistance is heavy with examples of how the morale of soldiers gets reduced in the face of prolonged resistance, especially when civilians view the military as made-up of human beings that can be interacted with.

Ukranians have made clear their readiness to resist. And that should be no surprise to people familiar with Ukraine’s proud history and tradition. Most have contemporary examples in recent memory — as recounted in Netflix’s documentary “Winter on Fire” about the 2013-2014 Maidan revolution or the 17-day nonviolent resistance to overthrow their corrupt government in 2004, as recounted by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict’s film “Orange Revolution.”

One of Bartkowski’s key conclusions: “Putin’s belief that Ukrainians would rather go home and do nothing in the face of military aggression may be his biggest and politically most costly miscalculation.”

Weaken the resolve of the Russian military

Casually, people talk about the “Russian military” as if it’s a single-minded hive. But in fact all militaries are made up of individuals with their own stories, concerns, dreams and hopes. U.S. government intelligence, which has been surprisingly accurate in this moment, has asserted that Putin has not achieved his goals during this first phase of attack. 

This suggests that the Russian military morale may be a little bit shaken by the resistance they’ve already seen. It’s not the expected quick win. In explaining the ability of Ukraine to hold its airspace, for example, the New York Times suggested a range of factors: a more seasoned army, more mobile air defense systems and likely poor Russian intelligence, which appeared to hit old, unused targets. 

But if the Ukrainian armed forces begin to falter, then what?

Morale could swing back towards Russian invaders. Or they could instead find themselves met with even more resistance. 

The field of nonviolent resistance is heavy with examples of how the morale of soldiers gets reduced in the face of prolonged resistance, especially when civilians view the military as made-up of human beings that can be interacted with.

Tiny cracks are already showing. On Saturday, in Perevalne, Crimea, Euromaidan Press reported that “half of Russian conscripts ran away and did not want to fight.”

Take inspiration from this old woman who stands down the Russian military in Henychesk, Kherson region. With arms outstretched she approaches soldiers, telling them they are not wanted here. She reaches into her pocket and takes out sunflower seeds and tries to put them in the soldier’s pocket, saying that the flowers would grow when the soldiers die on this land.

She’s involved in a human moral confrontation. The soldier is uncomfortable, edgy and reluctant to engage with her. But she stays pushy, confrontational and no-nonsense. 

While we don’t know the outcome of this situation, scholars have noted how these types of repeated interactions shape the behavior of the opposing forces. The individuals in the military themselves are moveable creatures and can have their resolve weakened. 

In other countries this strategic insight has proven capable of causing mass mutinies. The young Serbians in Otpor regularly said to their military opponents, “You’ll have a chance to join us.” They would use a mix of humor, berating and shame to target. In the Philippines, civilians surrounded the army and showered them with prayers, pleas and iconic flowers in their guns. In each case, the commitment paid off, as large chunks of the armed forces refused to shoot.


The dangerous assumption that violence keeps us safe

In his highly-relevant text “Civilian-Based Defense,” Gene Sharp explained the power of mutinies — and civilians’ ability to cause them. “Mutinies and the unreliability of troops in repressing the predominantly nonviolent Russian revolutions of 1905 and February 1917 were highly significant factors in the weakening and final downfall of the tsar’s regime.” 

Mutinies increase as the resistance targets them, attempting to undermine their sense of legitimacy, appealing to their humanity, digging in with prolonged, committed resistance, and creating a compelling narrative that the invading force simply does not belong here.

Tiny cracks are already showing. On Saturday, in Perevalne, Crimea, Euromaidan Press reported that “half of Russian conscripts ran away and did not want to fight.” The lack of complete cohesion is an exploitable weakness — one increased when civilians refuse to dehumanize them and make attempts to doggedly win them over.

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Internal resistance is just a part

Of course the civilian resistance is one piece of a very large geopolitical unfolding. 

What happens in Russia matters a great deal. Perhaps as many as 1,800 anti-war protesters were arrested while protesting across Russia. Their courage and risk may tip a balance that reduces Putin’s hand. At the very least, it creates more space for humanizing their Ukrainian neighbors.

Protests around the world have added pressure on governments for further sanctions. These have likely contributed to the recent decision by the E.U., U.K. and U.S. to remove certain Russian banks from SWIFT, the worldwide network of 11,000 banking institutions to exchange money — and then to add more pressure by freezing Russia’s central bank’s reserves

A dizzying number of corporate boycotts on Russian products have been called by a variety of sources and some of these may yet gain speed. Already some of the corporate pressure is paying off with Facebook and Youtube blocking Russian propaganda machines like RT.

However this unfolds, the mainstream press cannot be relied upon to lift up stories of civilian resistance. Those tactics and strategies may have to be shared across social media and other channels.

We will honor the bravery of the people in Ukraine, as we honor those resisting imperialism in its many forms across the globe today. Because for now, while Putin appears to be counting them out — to his own peril — Ukraine’s secret weapon of unarmed civilian resistance is only just starting to prove its bravery and strategic brilliance.

Editor’s note: The paragraph about community members confronting tanks and the tanks retreating was added after publication on Feb. 27as was the reference to the New York Times reporting on road signs being changed. The paragraph on sanctions was updated on March 1 to reflect the latest news.

Daniel Hunter is the Global Trainings Manager at and a curriculum designer with Sunrise Movement. He has trained extensively from ethnic minorities in Burma, pastors in Sierra Leone, and independence activists in northeast India. He has written multiple books, including the “Climate Resistance Handbook” and “Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow.”TAGS: CIVILIAN PEACEKEEPINGTRAININGWAR


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March 16, 2021

10 ways we’re centering justice and equity in the Just Recovery Gathering

By Daniel Hunter, one of the Core organizers of the Just Recovery GatheringSHARETWEET

The Gathering is picking up pace with speakers, confirmed panels, and an agenda that makes me think about staying up all night to watch it all (but I won’t for my well-being!). We wanted to pause our work just long enough to say out loud a few of the ways we’re trying to center justice into the Gathering — hoping that may elicit some excitement and also identify additional things we need to be doing.

This isn’t a statement of us getting this right — it’s a statement of intent and how we’re trying to live up to that intent.

1. Intersectional work and frontline communities up front

Rather than a list of big green speakers, our list of plenary speakers leads with communities hardest hit by the climate crisis: indigenous, women, Black, Global South, and other frontline communities. We’ve worked hard to craft a list of speakers from an array of perspectives who live and breathe an intersectional approach to climate justice — not as an effort, but as who they are. We knew this would take time, which is why we started building panels since last September.

2. Partnering in growth areas

When 350 makes a list of “partners” we have our go-to partners. But good organizers know that whoever is in your circle isn’t enough. Our first partner to sign-on was Seed Mob, Australia’s first Indigenous youth climate network — with a reason. We’re aiming to use the Gathering to build relationships with groups outside our normal circles. This is both a global and regional effort of our team. We see this as a chance to make first-connection or strengthen connections with partners — which also helps us create a more diverse set of workshops and events.

3. Accessible platforms: language + physical accessibility

Turns out, the technology sucks for conference platforms. Our Technology Working Group struggled mightily through dozens of platforms to find a platform that both supported multilingual and was widely accessible for people with a range of disabilities (and didn’t quote us, seriously, $250,000USD for its services). The system we picked PheedLoop isn’t perfect, but it’s way better than other options. We’ve crafted this Guide for Accessibility for the Gathering to communicate upfront what people can expect. We’ve found technologies, like “Be my Eyes,” to give additional support outside of what the platform can offer. All of this we’re trying to transparently communicate on our website at the point of registration so people can know what to expect. I can’t promise it won’t be bumpy (actually, I’m pretty certain it will be bumpy) but we’re trying to expand who can attend and who we can support.

4. Then test with folks with disability. Then test again.

We’ve already asked some close colleagues to test our chosen system, such as folks with low internet access or folks who are blind and use a screen reader. They gave us some feedback which helped us pick the platform. And shortly we’ll do another, bigger test-run with even more folks to see what breaks, largely focused on accessibility.

5. Honouring cultural work in the conference

From the beginning, we planned cultural sessions in the design. We weave music, poetry, and art into the flow. Some have explicit times; others will emerge organically. And it turns out this has required us to really stretch. While our list of confirmed speakers grew quickly since November, our list of confirmed artists remained short. This required bringing extra capacity and effort — but it’s worth it. This opens doors for us in relationship-building in the future, and it grows how we move around our work. Our movement shouldn’t just talk about climate change, we should sing and dance it too.

6. Translate translate translate.

350 is routinely good at this because we have a devoted Translations team (many international organizations don’t have this!). But this is worth mentioning: we’re translating and providing interpretation as much as our budget allows. All of our plenary sessions will be translated into several languages and many of our workshops, too. That takes a lot of time and resource — but we know it’s worth it!

7. Support for internet access

We cannot solve the problems of internet disparity. But we’re trying to reduce the disparity — one way we’re doing this: We’ve allocated $5,000 per region to oversee an Equity Participation fund. Regions decide based on their needs how to support access: buying internet credits, supporting meals, or travel to the city where internet access can be gained. Wherever money is involved it gets messy — but organizing is about going where the need is and we’re trying to do that.

8. Pacing — yes, there are breaks

The traditional conference design is packed. And, yes, we’ll have some time that’s packed. But we’ll also encourage 2-hour breaks between our major cycles (not including 30-minute breaks within each cycle). That wasn’t for practical purposes — it’s a value to not over-stuff and signal to people we want them not to over-stuff, too. Breaks matter.

9. Intersectional everything

Our workshop topics and panels are not just a list of traditional environmental sector concerns. It includes issues of authoritarianism, Blackness, gender, intergenerational, mental health & and security. We’d love to keep growing in this direction — please let us know if you have an offering!

10. Telling you what we’re up to — and then listening to what we’re missing

We’re keeping our ears open! We’re going to miss a lot as a core group and are trying our best to keep up with the day-to-day. But issues of justice often don’t flow in the day-to-day of google docs, so if there are other things to discuss or feedback to give us — please let us know.



By Daniel Hunter, on behalf of Marcel Taminato, Thelma Young Lutunatabua, Bridget Burrows, Nicolas Haeringer, Cansin Leylim

Global Just Recovery Gathering Accessibility Guide

The Global Just Recovery Gathering is a 3-day online event of fun and effective training sessions, graced with amazing activists, leaders, and artists to energise us and find ways to design a new path for a better future for all. Diversity is at the heart of this event, and we’re committed to building an accessible and multilingual experience. 

We acknowledge that access to clear, easy to understand information and communication is crucial for enabling participation. While recognizing our limited resources and capacity, we have chosen PheedLoop + Zoom as a main platform due to its accessibility functionalities and we commit to strive for providing interpretation, live-captioning, Sign Language interpretation and other accessibility tools whenever feasible.

We also would like to invite you to be a part of making this possible! If you have any feedback, needs or would like to volunteer yourself for providing support, please contact by March 31st.

“As campaigners and organisers, we need to think of access with an understanding of disability justice, moving away from an equality-based model of sameness and “we are just like you” to a model of disability that embraces difference, confronts privilege and challenges what is considered “normal” on every front. We don’t want to simply join the ranks of the privileged; we want to dismantle those ranks and the systems that maintain them. … [We must] build across our communities and movements so that we are able to fight for each other without leveraging ableism”​ – Mia Mingus, a disabled, queer, women of colour (2011)

Summary of what we are offering at the Global Just Recovery Gathering:

(Updated April 2, 2021)

For all the plenary sessions (panels and cultural sessions) we offer:

  • Interpretation into the seven most requested languages (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, Indonesian, Japanese – plus German, Chinese and Bengali for some of these sessions)
  • Live streams and recorded sessions for later (better for those with low internet connections)
  • Live captioning in English by a human translator and those being auto-translated into the languages we had significant requests for captions (Spanish and French). We have also added Korean to some sessions, as this was one language we were not supporting and that we got a fair amount of requests for.

All of the Movement Stories and Workshops, they will be hosted on Zoom. We’ll offer:

  • Interpretation as noted under each session description*
  • Live captioning via Zoom’s auto-captioning service*
  • Prepping our 250+ session leaders to prepare accessible sessions with tips, such as reading slides aloud and adding captions
  • For people with visual disabilities, we encourage downloading “Be My Eyes.”

* These options don’t work in break-out rooms.

Because of no demand, we are not offering sign language interpreters. We are unable to support interpretation or captions in languages with less than a dozen people.

What we can offer:

We are stating as best we know what people can expect, knowing we will make adaptations as needs are known to us. The languages we will be working with for this event will be English, French, Indonesian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish, and interpretation and captioning will be provided in those according to demand.

We commit to include accessibility questions in our pre-registration forms, and will respond to those needs within our capacity and budget. Accessibility is a priority for us! The information you provide us may be shared with session leaders/facilitators.

We also commit to post on PheedLoop links about how to use the accessibility tools we provide.

 If you’re visually impaired:
  • PheedLoop is our event platform and has attempted to work smoothly with screen readers and states to be compatible with JAWS, NVDA, VoiceOver and TalkBack. In our beta-testing the experience is workable.
  • Once you enter our event platform you can choose accessibility adjustments by clicking on the icon of a person in a black circle/”Country” button in the top right corner. The adjustment options include:
    • Visually Impaired Profile: which enhances the website’s visuals
    • Blind Users (Screen-reader): Use the website with your screen-reader
    • Keyboard Navigation (Motor): Use the website with the keyboard
    • Adjustments can also be made to content scaling, size, highlights, colors, and color contrast.
  • If you would like visual assistance logging in to our event platform, we encourage you to use the Be My Eyes app. This free app will connect you with a sighted volunteer (who speaks your language) through a live video call.
  • We commit to providing oral descriptions of all charts and key visuals in all plenary sessions and are instructing our workshop leaders to do the same in their presentations.
 If you’re Deaf or hearing impaired:
  • We commit to provide live captioning in English in all plenary sessions and some selected workshops. The information will be available in the agenda on the website at least 2 weeks prior to the event.
  • We aim to provide Sign Language interpretation to all plenary sessions if requested up until 10 days prior to the event. If you require Sign Language Interpretation, please email informing which national Sign Language you require. The information about its availability will be present in the agenda.
 If your native language is not English:
  • We commit to provide live interpretation in all plenary sessions. The set of languages will be made available at least two weeks in advance of the event, in the agenda on the website.
  • We commit to provide translated live captioning in all plenary sessions and some selected workshops. The set of languages will be made available at least two weeks in advance of the event, in the agenda on the website.
 If you don’t have access to good and/or safe internet connection:
  • Acknowledging that internet connections vary in quality, safety and cost around the world, may be able to provide monetary support to some individuals or groups of participants, through a Participation Equity fund that will be managed and assigned by’s national teams. If you’d like to apply for this stipend and are not yet in contact with one of our national teams, please write to and we will connect you to the right person. We note, though, that 350 has limited funds and geographical coverage and cannot guarantee that all requests for financial support can be met across this global event.
  • We will broadcast the events on YouTube and Facebook, as those require less bandwidth (in those cases, though, other accessibility tools such as interpretation and translated simultaneous captioning are not available due to the platforms’ limitations). Plenary sessions will also be posted with captions afterwards.

General recommendations:

 To all participants:
  • As many of our participants won’t be native English speakers, please use clear and simple language. Speak slowly and avoid using abbreviations and jargon. This carries over to written communications using chat and webinar question functions. 
  • To assist blind or vision impaired people who may not yet recognise your voice, and also to assist interpreters and captioners, always say your name before speaking.
  • Avoid ableist and other negative language.
 To speakers:
  • Use a good microphone, they usually provide better audio than mics built into laptops or desktops. Poor audio quality can make it hard for interpreters, people with disabilities or with other native languages to understand you.
  • Choose a calm location to present your session, without background noise and with a good internet connection. Please test your internet connection well before your session, and if possible, have a back-up internet source available (like a wifi hotspot/tether from your mobile device) in case your primary internet source fails. will provide monetary support for quality internet access for speakers/presenters, if needed.
  • Make yourself familiar with the accessibility tools that will be available in the session you’ll participate in. If you have questions about these tools and/or what is/ is not available, please email
  • Don’t disclose the needs of individuals participating in your session, but do make the adjustments you’ve made clear to everyone.
  • Make slides with high visual contrast between text and background, as these are easiest to read. Give a brief overview of your presentation before starting, so that everyone can feel comfortable. Make note of sensitive content as appropriate and provide summaries of complex information.
  • To assist blind or vision impaired people, describe visuals and images verbally.
  • Give context to make references meaningful. Remember that jokes, experiences and cultural information are not universal.
  • Spell out acronyms and give plain language definitions for jargon, at least at the beginning of your presentation. 
 To hosts and facilitators:
  • Start with an overview of the agenda and technology, including procedures for commenting and asking questions. 
  • Remind participants to mute mics when not actively speaking, or mute for them, to prevent feedback and background noise.
  • Except for speakers, ask participants to turn off the video feature if they need to improve their overall call quality.
  • Read the questions or comments from the chat aloud before responding. You may want to ask a co-facilitator to support you with this. 
  • If you use tools such as Zoom polls, remember to make them accessible by reading the questions and answers. 
  • To assist blind or vision impaired people, describe visuals and images verbally.
  • When moderating a discussion, ask for people to raise their hand (either visually, or with the Zoom feature, or using a Zoom Reaction) to be called on. 
  • If using breakout groups, leave people who requested closed captioning in the main room. Discuss with Sign Language interpreters if they will go into breakout groups or will stay in the main room.
  • Decide how to use the pinning feature. Pay attention when to pin and unpin Sign Language interpreters as they switch.
  • Don’t disclose the needs of individuals participating in your session, but do make the adjustments you’ve made clear to everyone.
  • Make sure to thank interpreters and captioners at the end of the session.