Reportback: How We Win by George Lakey

by Sam Jaffe, Boston DSA

On March 30, Boston DSA along with other activist organizations in the area co-sponsored a talk by George Lakey on nonviolent direct action training. Lakey has been involved with nonviolent direct action campaigning for decades, starting with the Civil Rights movement. He helped lead a successful campaign by the Earth Quaker Action Team to get big banks to divest from mountaintop removal coal mining. The workshop on Lakey’s latest book was designed as a culmination of his sixty years experience in grassroots organizing. The advice he gives comes from a variety of Nonviolent Direct Action (NDA) campaigns he has participated in and helped mentor. And he passes on this advice through his methods of Direct Education, which have been adapted and used in some of the most celebrated NDA campaigns, including the Mississippi Freedom Summer.

The workshop itself was split into three parts. The first was an Introduction to Lakey’s own thinking and experience with NDA.

Intro to Nonviolent Direct Action

Setting his work in the context of today, he shared his belief that the extreme polarization of today’s society holds tremendous opportunity for change. Sharing recollections from his younger years, he stated how he had inaccurately “thought that increased polarization was a problem”. Further research revealed this to be the opposite, as political progress both in Scandinavia and in the US followed moments of great polarization. Lakey pointed to the two periods in American history of great polarization to prove this point, citing the progressive economic change of The New Deal in the 1930s and the radical social change that brought civil rights legislation into being in the 1960s.

He then turned to the four factors of successful campaign:

  1. Being pro-active and driving political agenda
  2. Clear demands
  3. A clear target for these demands
  4. A set of escalating tactics


Benefits of NDA Campaigning

The second part of the workshop focused on creating small-group brainstorms on the benefits and needs of nonviolent direct action campaigning.

These could be broadly summarized into:

  1. Creating different levels of participation and responsibility, allowing for people to join at the level they felt comfortable.
  2. The self-empowerment of carrying out nonviolent direct action
  3. Creation of public spectacle by crossing social boundaries, encouraging media amplification and forcing people to take sides in a public conversation
  4. Nonviolence makes a campaign more supportable because of credibility given by grounding it in a history of successful nonviolence
  5. Creating fun practices and inclusive planning procedures
  6. Creating tactics that respond to the political moment and attract necessary coalition partners


Campaign Planning

The final part of the workshop was a larger group campaign planning session, with groups looking at free mass transit, media coverage on renewable energy, and an ongoing anti-gentrification campaign in Dorchester to prevent the housing development Dot Block.

Using Lakey’s formulation, the anti-Dot Block group created a rough campaign plan, which for strategic reasons makes sense not to explicitly describe. This session then ended with a brief Q&A with George, which started with a question on how we might create fundamental change under the context-driven time pressures.

Speaking from his experience in North Philadelphia, George emphasized the need to build in multiple forms of justice within any campaign. By making an explicitly environmental issue also an issue of economic and racial justice, it could unite different movements and constituencies, helped further by the inevitable repression these movements will face.

Only through the creation of multiple campaigns and multiple movements would the sort of equitable change be created. In this he emphasized the need for two qualities- small step-oriented goals and effective facilitators and conflict resolvers which would work to maintain moral and keep different movements united.

The Book

In case you’re keen to find out more, here’s George’s book which was the basis for this workshop. If that tickles your fancy also note there will be a repeat of this workshop on May 7th.

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