The following is an excerpt from George Lakey’s book “How We Win”. George Lakey will be facilitating his How We Win workshop on Saturday, May 11 from 2-5:30pm in Burlington. Learn more about the program and register online here. Copies of How We Win and Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right-and How We Can, Too are available for purchase at the Peace & Justice Store.
Nonviolent direct action is a set of tactics that go outside conventional means of advocacy, like running for office, going to the courts, doing media campaigns, and the like. Community organizers sometimes call nonviolent direct action “street heat”—blocking entrances, boycotting, fasting, tree-sitting, planting gardens where a pipeline is supposed to go, and hundreds of other kinds of actions.
Today, teenagers for gun control, women for equality, African Americans for safety from unaccountable police, indigenous people for respect for their land and traditions, teachers and other workers for a living wage, grandparents for climate justice, and more—millions of people—are going beyond lobbying to insist on change.
Direct action flourished in the 1960s. Martin Oppenheimer and I were then graduate sociology students active in the civil rights movement, and Marty went on to a distinguished career as a teacher and writer led by concerns for justice. In 1963, he and I noticed that some activists were learning very rapidly from others’ experience. Others were not, sometimes making mistakes that were dangerous and even fatal.
With movements expanding rapidly, organizers were too busy to download their wisdom into a manual. Some groups were failing to achieve their goals not because they lacked numbers and heart but because they made needless mistakes.
To assist more people to get in on the movement learning curve, Oppenheimer and I wrote A Manual for Direct Action, just in time for the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer.1 Veteran civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin wrote the foreword. A black organizer in the South told me with a smile it was like a “first-aid handbook—what to do until Dr. King comes.” The book was picked up by other 1960s movements, too.
In the past two years I’ve traveled to over 100 cities and towns in the United States, England, and Scotland with my latest book, Viking Economics.2 I was asked repeatedly for a new direct action book that addressed today’s situation. On both sides of the Atlantic most people are losing ground. That’s also happening literally, in coastal areas where the seas are rising. Governmental legitimacy is declining and trust is evaporating.
It’s a good time to take a fresh look at what has worked in times of trouble, and share what I and my fellow activists have learned about successful campaigning that gives hope for the future.
And so, what follows is a different guide from the one Marty and I wrote over 50 years ago. Then, movements operated inside a robust U.S. Empire that was used to winning its wars and a Britain that, however hesitatingly, was moving toward social democracy.
Now, the U.S. Empire is faltering, the economy is fragile, and even some populations’ average life expectancy is declining. On the other side of the Atlantic, a dis–United Kingdom struggles with major questions of where to go from here. Wealth inequality skyrockets on both sides of the pond, and major political parties are caught in their own versions of society-wide polarization.
The goal of the book is to offer movement-building approaches that win major changes rather than small reforms. At the same time, campaigns need to involve the many participants who hope that sufficient change can come through a series of limited reforms.
In building those movements, it helps to avoid competition between direct action campaigners and those who address problems in other ways, like doing direct service and building alternatives or being policy advocates. This book helps direct action campaigners establish productive relationships with those whose contributions to the movement utilize different skill sets.
I believe that building successful movements now requires fancier dancing than back in the day. This book suggests ways to accelerate movements’ learning—from their own experience and from each other. Because a movement’s learning curve depends on how healthy its organizational forms and processes are, this book is not only about strategy and tactics, but also about what goes on inside the groups that wage the struggle.
One thing is easier now: creating instant mass protests. Social media’s ability to increase our power to mobilize is so dramatic that it can cause us to forget that mobilizing is not the same as organizing. Also, that one-off protests, however large, are nowhere near as powerful as sustained campaigns.
This book also offers a process that supports you, with others, in setting goals that are meaningful for your group. Successful goal-setting takes into account the cultural moment and how the goal fits into the group’s larger vision.
It is possible to wage campaigns that move you closer to bringing about the transformational change you want. This book gives you examples, explains their innovations, and leads you to other resources that will help you start and conduct successful campaigns.
“I keep hearing people again and again saying how much hope it raised in them,
and renewing them to keep doing the work!”
How We Win Workshop
Explore: What makes nonviolent direct action campaigns relevant now? How to build stronger campaigns? How to build a movement of movements that can deliver really big changes?
Expect: Experiential activities, activists on your issue, small group work, a big picture, affirmation of your own power.
Copies of How We Win and Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right-and How We Can, Too are available for purchase at the Peace & Justice Store.