Froze and Reversed the Arms Race, June 12 anniversary

I’m reposting this reminder about the massive nuclear freeze march, part of an important campaign in the 1980s. Of course, nuclear weapons are not the most salient story today, when a war rages in Ukraine and hundreds of thousands of Americans march against gun violence. Just for starters.

But there are lots of lessons in the freeze campaign. Not the least of these is that movements (sometimes) matter, and don’t get credit for their efforts unless organizers claim it. The June 12 demonstration made international news in 1982, but is generally edited out of popular histories of the Cold War or the Reagan era. (See if you can find anniversary remembrances in your media feed today, and tell me if I’m wrong.)

bulletin of atomic scientists 2020 doomsday clock 100 seconds to midnight

The threat of nuclear war isn’t gone, and more than a few developments in the Trump era have made it more pronounced: The United States abandoned an arms control treaty with Iran that was working, while pursuing a kind of detente with North Korea that hasn’t worked. The United States also announced that it would no longer abide by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, negotiated in the mid-1980s, and announced that it was withdrawing from an “Open Skies” verification accord first proposed by Dwight Eisenhower, and in force for decades. Bilateral and multilateral negotiations on nuclear arms control have largely stalled.

It’s an urgent moment.

The Federation of Atomic Scientists, an expert group that has promoted nuclear safety and arms control since the end of the second World War, maintains a “Doomsday Clock,” signaling its perception of the nuclear danger. In 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office and the freeze campaign took off, the clock was set at 4 minutes to midnight. In 2012, when I first wrote the appreciation below, the Clock was set at 5 minutes to midnight. 

Today, the Doomsday Clock is still set to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest to apocalypse that it’s ever been.

Today’s debate is about the promise that members of the Senate have negotiated an agreement on a very modest set of gun safety reforms that might grab the needed sixty votes to pass the chamber. Activists and observers are all sorts are ranting about whether this is enough. The freeze story offers some clear lessons on the benefits of partial victories, gracelessly accepted, and the impermanence of any gains. You can skip to the end to see.

So:

Thirty (nine) years ago today, one million people marched in the streets of New York City to protest the nuclear arms race in general and the policies of Ronald Reagan in particular.

  Organized around a “nuclear freeze” proposal, the demonstration was a watershed for a movement that seemed to come out of nowhere, not just in the United States, but throughout what was then called Western Europe.

Of course, movements have deeper roots.  Relatively small groups of people have been protesting against nuclear weapons since the idea of nuclear bombs first appeared.  On occasion, they’re able to spread their concerns beyond the few to a larger public.  Such was the case in 1982, when Europeans rallied against new intermediate range missiles planned for West Europe, and when Americans protested against the extraordinary military build-up/ spend-up of Ronald Reagan’s first term in office.

The freeze proposal, imagined by Randall Forsberg as a reasonable first step in reversing the arms race, was the core of organizing efforts in the United States, which included out-of-power arms control advocates and radical pacifists.  Local governments passed resolutions supporting the freeze, while several states passed referenda.  People demonstrated and held vigils, while community groups in churches and neighborhoods organized freeze groups to discuss–and advocate–on the nuclear arms race.

The freeze figured in large Democratic gains in the 1982 election, and Ronald Reagan ran for reelection as a born-again arms controller.  Most activists didn’t buy it, but after Reagan won in a landslide, to the horror of his advisers and many of his supporters, he negotiated large reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the United States and what used to be called the Soviet Union.

The arms control agreements created the space in the East for reforms, reforms that spun out of control and eventually unraveled the cold war and the Eastern bloc.

US/ Russia nuclear warheads

The world changed.

It was both less and more than what most activists imagined possible.

Do you want to call it a victory?

Update:

The nuclear freeze movement was the subject of my doctoral dissertation and my first book

The issues in it remain relevant.

The story shows the long and complicated trajectory through which social movements affect influence. That’s the topic of my newest book.

There are a few simple lessons that merit repeating today:

  1. It’s never one event, action, demonstration, statement, or lawsuit that makes the difference; rather, it’s an accumulation of efforts.

2. All victories take forever.

3. And they’re never enough, and certainly not necessarily permanent.

The work is important, and it must continue in order to be effective.

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March for Our Lives is Still Marching

https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2022/06/11/march-for-our-lives-dc-protests/

They’re back.

Teens in Parkland, Florida, who had survived the horrific Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in 2018, initially organized around the slogan, “Never Again.” They vowed to make sure no other kids would have to live with the loss and with the fear that had been forced upon them. They turned out to be resilient and effective organizers, supported by their parents and their community. They staged a demonstration in Parkland, then a lobbying trip to Tallahassee, and then another to Washington, DC. They followed with a much larger national rally in Washington, DC, a nation-wide school walk-out, then a national bus tour to register and motivate young people to vote. They even made it out here to Irvine.

They can claim credit for pressing the gun safety issue effectively, winning (modest) reforms at the state level (e.g., expanded background checks, age limits for purchasing some weapons), generating tons of publicity for the cause, raising a lot of money and establishing a powerful professional organization to support the cause, and inspiring countless other young people to take up the cause–and other causes. Swedish teen Greta Thunberg was one of them.

Never Again? Not quite. Or Not Yet. The young organizers picked a new name, March for our Lives, partly because anti-genocide activists had long been working Never Again. And the recent shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo–and, alas, countless others, including at schools, suggest that the end to the fear and the danger is a way off. (The activists against genocide still have work to do as well.)

So, after Buffalo and Uvalde, they’re back. March for Our Lives organized a large demonstration in Washington, DC, and hundreds of allied demonstrations across the country. (I pulled the map below off the group’s website, showing the location of planned actions.)

https://secure.everyaction.com/p/4X6lOpXbV0e3Ba9SGz3dvw2

And a lot of the no-longer-kids are back. Some have stayed consistently involved in the issue and maintained political visibility, while others took a step back. It’s hard to think that many high school students have any sense of just how much sustained effort it takes for a movement to effect change in American politics. It’s far easier to think that once you discover an issue and a solution and demonstrate a willingness to work hard, you’ll see impressive results quickly. (James Madison giggles in his grave.)

But these young organizers are a little older, some with college degrees, and they understand both the personal costs of political visibility (harassment and threats, to start), and the very long haul ahead to make the country a little safer.

Collectively, at least, they also understand the mix of messages needed to inspire and sustain a powerful social movement. Compare, for example, Jaclyn Corin’s appearance on the Tonight Show with X Gonzalez’s interview in the Atlantic Monthly.

Sitting on the celebrity couch, Corin emphasized hope, claiming credit for state law reform, and emphasizing how one person can make a difference through activism, organizing, lobbying, and elections.

In an interview with Elaine Godfrey, Gonzalez shows her anger and disappointment with Joe Biden and the Democratic Party, and the need to do more. They claim not to have hope, but explain that they’re writing a speech to deliver at the DC rally. “Anything is better than nothing.”*

It will take a mix of anger and some optimism to sustain this movement long enough to effect large changes. I don’t know that Corin and Gonzalez negotiated a balance in advance, but it seems like, together, they’re hitting that mix.

Note: I’m glad to have had the chance to write something a little longer about the prospects for longer term change. See “What the gun control movement can learn from the antiabortion movement,” at the Washington Post.

* Revised to reflect Gonzalez’s preferred pronouns.

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Celebrities talk about guns

Matthew McConaughey’s brief speech about the horrors of the last (at this writing) school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, made for a two-day story–at least. People will keep talking and taking pictures and arguing about the movie star’s take.

Of course, anyone can say anything they want about guns in the United States. Scroll through a few screens of any major social media platform, and it’s easy to find something inspiring or appalling. (There’s an abundance of passion, wisdom, and ignorance out there.) But virtually none of those posts will get any meaningful attention.

McConaughey is different because he’s a star. Celebrities carry their own platforms with them, the bigger the star, the brighter and broader the spotlight. There will be a burst of attention, and audiences will pick the celebrities who agree with their political stance, and then ridicule those who take an opposing stance. Virtually any news outlet or movement organization will promote the celebrities who take congenial positions–and then question the wisdom and talent of those who disagree, suggesting they “stay in their own lane” or “shut up and dribble.”

Celebrities take some risk of alienating their audiences or employers when they enter the political fray. Those with massive and reliable audiences (or “talent”) enjoy far more latitude than those without. (We must remember that the overwhelming majority of artists and actors are frustrated about their underemployment and have to come up with their own explanations for their status.)

And members of the audience draw their own lines about acceptability. I’ll happily watch a movie featuring Clint Eastwood or Susan Sarandon, even when I disagree with some elements of their politics. But Leni Riefenstahl? Eric Clapton? Maybe not.

It’s worth remembering that dramatic, athletic, or musical abilities are completely unconnected to political ideology or wisdom. And the more or less committed celebrity who draws a spotlight may obscure or misrepresent the larger movement.

Matthew McConaughey had more than his own star power. He delivered his speech from the White House press room, a platform unlikely to be granted to, say, Ted Nugent. The brief talk focused on the lives lost, and the personalities and unfulfilled dreams of the 10 year-olds and teachers killed at the Robb Elementary School. He didn’t take questions.

McConaughey published an op-ed in USA Today, outlining relatively modest “sensible” reforms in gun laws that would save lives, and justifying his presence in the political debate. He started with his qualifications: “I am a father, the son of a kindergarten teacher, and an American. I was also born in Uvalde, Texas. ” He makes the claim that he is not just another Hollywood actor and should enjoy more space in the debate than other celebrities, say, for example, Alec Baldwin.

The ongoing gun crisis in America is filled with people policing just who has the right to an audience, to have their views considered. I think it’s like the idea of “standing” in the legal system, the right to be heard. Unlike the law, however, the public sphere lacks explicit rules for standing. Living in America, we can find some of them:

Elected officials get audiences, as do celebrities from the arts, athletics, or business, regardless of their expertise on the law, the Constitution, public health and safety, or guns.

Rich people can claim the spotlight, again, regardless of experience.

Victims of gun violence, particularly including people who lost children, other relatives, or friends, claim standing in the debate by virtue of suffering harm. (This, by the way, aligns with the legal standard.) I am in awe of the grieving parents determined to honor their lost children by making the world a little better and safer, protecting others from what they’ve suffered.

And contenders argue about how much technical or Constitutional expertise one needs to have an informed opinion on appropriate policies–or whether parents or veterans deserve some special status in gun politics.

In movement politics, unlike the courtroom, standing is never unambiguous or uncontested. Effective activists have to make their case over and over, even knowing that people who disagree may never listen.

I’m glad Matthew McConaughey weighed in on the gun debate, and that his contribution expanded the window for discussion more than a little bit, but I have no illusion that he’ll change anyone’s mind. Still, encouraging those who agree is no small contribution.

Note: I’ve done some academic writing on this that might be of interest. Kaylin Bourdon and I wrote a long piece in the Emory Law Journal, “Social Movements and Standing in the American Gun Debate.”

Josh Gamson and I wrote a piece long ago on the celebrity problem, “The Challenge of Cultural Elites: Celebrities and Social Movements,” published in Sociological Inquiry.

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Sports are a platform for politics

Long ago, I helped organize a demonstration that drew about 10,000 people. Although all of the key organizers, who spent months in meetings and outreach efforts, viewed the turnout as success, I couldn’t help but think about the 33,000 people who turned out at Fenway Park for a baseball game 82 times a year. And, unlike Major League Baseball, we didn’t charge people to attend.

Big time sports come with a spotlight and a platform for politics and protest. It’s not new, and it’s usually laden with controversy. Think about the attention one-time quarterback Colin Kaepernick got for kneeling during the national anthem at football games. The loudest fans emphatically demand that politics be purged from the spectacle of sports–although they sing the anthem and cheer for the flag.

Sometimes, athletes can do a little more, and it depends upon the nature of the issue and the moment.

The National Basketball League has been the most visible of the men’s sports leagues to engage in movement politics, on Black Lives Matter and, just now, on guns. (Big time women’s sports have long been far more active!)

The players and coaches of the Boston Celtics and the Golden State Warriors wore orange “End Gun Violence” t-shirts, before their second Finals game during warm-ups and media chats. They were trying to send a message to the massive audience on television and the Internet. (ESPN estimates that nearly 9 million people tuned into the game–and stories and photos of the warm-up shirts circulated everywhere.) I’m not sure that the players changed anyone’s mind on guns, but the t-shirts and statements encouraged people already active on the issue–and maybe helped others take those next few steps to political engagement on the issue.

Do you need the game? Gregg Popovich, long time coach of the San Antonio Spurs, who didn’t get very close to the Finals this year, went to a San Antonio rally in support of survivors of the Uvalde school shooting instead. Demanding political action and putting the blame clearly on Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Republican legislators, Popovich was characteristically clear and pointed. No stranger to politics, Popovich is a smart guy, but he commands an audience because of his success as a basketball coach (even if this year wasn’t so successful).

Do you need to be a jock?

A climate change activist bought a ticket to the French Open tennis championship, and found her way onto the court during a semifinal match. She tied herself to the net, then waited to be cut free and carried off the court. The match was paused for a little while, maybe 15 minutes, as the players went back to the locker room, and the not quite cryptic message (in English!) on the t-shirt, “WE HAVE 1028 DAYS LEFT,” was projected across the Internet.

Does any of this matter? Sure, but it’s not all the same, and effects play out over long periods of time. Although video of the French climate activist is easy to find, her name is more elusive in mainstream media. She has no special status or access to audiences, and it’s a safe bet that few came to the stadium to see her. It’s pretty easy to clear out a nonviolent protester, even if she has determination and chains. But the image–and certainly the issue–can remain.

But the NBA stars have ready access to a large audience–one that includes people who say they don’t want to hear about something other than basketball. Still, the t-shirts and the speeches can help create a sense of consensus and of urgency that could well push up voter turnouts and encourage others–even those who can’t hit a jump shot–to take actions of their own.

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Dilemmas and Dynamics of Escalation (5)

Crisis provokes escalation.

https://thehill.com/news/senate/3503009-students-nationwide-walk-out-of-classes-to-protest-inaction-on-guns-by-government/

Escalation can mean more people engaging in action, taking on an approach that is new for them.

It can mean some people taking on more aggressive, disruptive, or risky actions.

The tragic school shooting at the Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, following closely on other mass shootings—at a grocery in Buffalo, New York, and a church in Orange County, California, reminded Americans that we’re living through a gun crisis.

And Americans are escalating everywhere.

Across the nation, students staged walk-outs from school to call for gun safety legislation. (Yes, there were even more walk-outs across the nation’s schools following the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School; but this one came quicker, with a more prepared and mobilized infrastructure.)

Beto O’Rourke, candidate for governor in Texas, disrupted current Governor Gregg Abbott’s press conference on the Uvalde shooting, blaming Abbott and his allies on stage for making it easier for anyone to get and carry guns in Texas. When forced to leave, O’Rourke took his own focused rant outside, effusively hijacking Abbott’s press conference.

O’Rourke again spoke to gun safety protesters outside the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Houston, a larger and more urgent demonstration than the convention usually draws. Several entertainers and politicians pulled canceled their planned appearances inside the convention center, citing timing—or even newly discovered differences on policy.

Politics? Markets? Conscience? It really doesn’t matter.

Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors hijacked his own press conference about the NBA playoffs to talk about guns, calling out the 50 (Republican) senators who refused to vote on two very modest safety measures passed by the House of Representatives.

Kerr, whose father was shot and killed in his university office in Lebanon, has spoken about guns and politics before. And O’Rourke has campaigned for office on gun safety before. But there was a new intensity and urgency for both.

But there was also more.

The Miami Heat called for a moment of silence before their playoff game, ending with a loudspeaker announcement: “The Heat urges you to contact your state senators by calling 202-224-3121 to leave a message demanding their support for common-sense gun laws.”

(That number, by the way, is a switchboard at the Capitol, and will get you to a US senator instead—like Florida Republican Marco Rubio, a staunch defender of easy access to firearms who is up for reelection in the fall.)

NBA athletes—and some coaches—have taken strong political stances in the past, but the strong endorsement by a franchise is more unusual.*

Even more unusual was a statement by the New York Yankees on Twitter that the team would use its social media to Tweet gun facts rather than game updates, angering more than a few fans.

All of this marks another period of intensified debate on guns in America. It’s happened before, generally in the wake of a tragic shooting: assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968; the shooting of President Ronald Reagan in 1981; school shootings at Columbine (1999), Sandy Hook (2012), and Parkland (2018)—a very partial list. But progress takes a very long time, and attention usually shifts before advocates win even very modest reforms.

Maybe this time is different. The key issue is whether gun safety advocates–American citizens, can extend this period of escalation and attention.

*Note: The gun issue isn’t new in the US or in professional basketball. In 1997, Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington team, changed its name to “Wizards” from “Bullets,” a reaction against glorifying gun violence.

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Dilemmas and Dynamics of Escalation (4)

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-61382289

Candle-lit vigils, peaceful marches, or more forceful demonstrations outside the homes of Supreme Court justices determined to end legal abortion probably won’t change many minds—certainly not the minds of the targeted justices. But reproductive rights activists have been assembling outside the homes of conspicuously anti-abortion justices since the draft Alito opinion overruling Roe v. Wade dropped.

This is an escalation made by moving the site of protest from the workplace to the homes of targets, and it’s nothing new. In response to protests of all sorts, the Supreme Court had just put up high fences to keep protesters quite a distance away.

Taking the issue to the homes of the justices is an escalation, to be sure, but in the context of a half-century of abortion politics, it’s a relatively modest one. Nearly a decade ago, in a case about “sidewalk counseling” on abortion, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that opponents of abortion had the right to try to dissuade women seeking to enter Planned Parenthood clinics.

Massachusetts had passed a law providing a 35 foot “buffer zone” around clinics so that clients could come and go without too disruption or fear. The Court ruled that 35 feet was too much space. That counseling didn’t change many minds either.

Surely, the justices, far more insulated and far better protected than the women at clinics, are far better protected, and would want to ensure that their domestic peace didn’t interfere with anyone’s free speech rights.

Abortion opponents used their free speech rights to post the names and pictures of doctors that they thought were providing abortions and publish books detailing strategies for sabotaging abortion clinics. Those Constitutionally protected actions inspired others to bomb clinics and shoot doctors. Or even the home of Harry Blackmun, the justice who wrote the opinion in Roe.

Speech matters.

Public assembly outside the home of a justice may make the people inside uncomfortable, family and friends as well as the justices. It’s hard to think that any of the hyper-conservative majority will be intimidated or persuaded to change their minds. Justice Clarence Thomas, mostly angry and defensive about the Court these days, forcefully announced that the justices would not be bullied.  Of course.

Senator Mitch McConnell explained that a critical decision from the packed Court that went against public opinion didn’t bother him. After all, he said, that’s the way the system is supposed to work—and often does—pointing to an unpopular decision protecting flag burning from the 1980s. McConnell was a little right this time.  He then went on to blame Democrats and the left for promoting disrespect for the Court by doing things like demonstrating outside the justices’ homes, trying to pull the focus off abortion.

More important than the mostly disingenuous critiques of the home protest tactic are the other protest and political actions it’s meant to inspire—including large demonstrations and directed voting. Those effects will play out over months and years.

There is, of course, always a risk of backlash to the home protests, direct and indirect. Just a few weeks ago, the US Freedom Convoy tried to escalate by protesting outside the home of Buffy Wicks, who serves in the California State Assembly. The protesters were met by counterprotesters well-equipped with eggs, no doubt compliant with California standards for humane production and food safety. 

https://sports.yahoo.com/video-shows-people-convoy-being-111848813.html
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What Wins Look Like: Dobbs and the Anti-Abortion Movement

Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked abortion opinion generated widely disparate reactions. Supporters of reproductive rights are—rightly—concerned about the burdens new restrictions on abortions will impose on women, particularly those already less advantaged. They’re seeking strategies to manage the difficulties and to undo the coming crisis.

Anti-abortion activists are celebrating, a little, and thinking about next steps to advance their agendas.

And institutional Republicans are railing against the unprecedented release of a draft Supreme Court opinion while a final decision is still in process. (Their shock and awe at a departure from normal procedure is all about distraction until they can find a way to claim credit and manage the inevitable political backlash.)

There’s yet another story here: what a social movement victory looks like. If the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision follows Alito’s draft, even with softer language, it will be a massive win for the anti-abortion movement, one that’s nearly 50 years in coming and that almost didn’t happen. It provides a reminder about how hard and long social movement activists have to work to make anything happen. This win is partial, dependent upon many factors well outside the control of anti-abortion activists, and also provisional.

The anti-abortion movement has been fighting this reproductive right since before the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. The decision was a defeat for abortion foes, but also a provocation that helped the movement grow.

Anti-abortion forces grew with the religious right in the 1970s. It arrived at the same time as electoral reforms that effectively encouraged candidates for office found to finance their campaigns with the passionate support of issue activists. In the 1970s, anti-abortion activists spectacularly failed to make progress on a Constitutional amendment, but succeeded in limiting federal funding for poor women (Hyde Amendment.) And, since the 1970s, they’ve faced an abortion rights movement as committed and often as active.

By the 1980s, abortion politics became increasingly partisan. Virtually any viable candidate for national office had to adopt the preferred policy of their party. Surely, it’s possible that George H.W. Bush searched his soul to discover that he really opposed abortion—but a desire for the Republican presidential nomination lit that search. Jesse Jackson’s shift to support for abortion rights similarly came shortly before his first campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

For decades, Republicans talked about abortion to mobilize funds and working class voters, while delivering very little. Somehow, anti-abortion activism continued, innovating new tactics, often disruptive, confrontational, and divisive—even within the movement. Activists protested outside clinics—and sometimes bombed them. Some trailed doctors, occasionally shooting and killing them.

Activists who wanted to escalate without violence blockaded clinics through “rescues” and engaged in “sidewalk counseling,” which looks a lot like yelling at passersby and showing photos. All of this made it more difficult and more expensive to provide a standard component of medical care.

https://timeline.com/photos-of-anti-abortion-protesters-supporting-clinic-attacks-286a565fed90

And there was plenty of politics. Ending abortion was a reliable fundraising plea. Anti-abortion groups supported candidates and continued to demand action. In states with legislative conservative majorities, this meant ongoing efforts to find ways to make accessing abortions more difficult and costly, and recurrent lawsuits. Nationally, it meant more pressure for the Republican Party to actually deliver on its promises by appointing judges who would overrule Roe.

Candidate Donald Trump renounced his earlier support for abortion rights and made the promise Republican politics demanded. Religiously motivated activists made a bargain, ignoring the candidate’s copious moral failings in exchange for the promise of committed judges and justices.

In 2016, Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to consider any Democratic nominee to the Court, hoping to invigorate evangelical passions for the coming election. Bizarrely, those passions were enough to win Trump the Electoral College—but not the popular vote. Trump entered office with a Supreme Court vacancy, one justice ready to retire under the right circumstances, and another deathly

ill. None of this had to happen; it was basically good luck for a persistent and opportunistic movement.

But it’s not over.

Anti-abortion activists have a longer agenda to work through, and reproductive rights advocates promise a newly invigorated and active movement that will protest, litigate, and do politics. A movement victory, even a major one, isn’t an end, but an invitation for more activism.

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Kent State Anniversary (repost)

(This is a repost of a report on the Kent State shootings, on occasion of the 52nd anniversary. It’s almost hard to remember a moment when students were present on college campuses, much less assembled together in groups. At the end, I’ve added a bit on Neil Young’s emblematic song, which helped keep the memory alive.

As I write in 2022, when young people have been at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter and Climate Change movements–and are likely to be newly engaged in intensifying battles over reproductive rights, it is important to see the histories of contention on college campuses.)

It’s the anniversary of the killing of four college students at Kent State University. Young National Guardsmen opened fire on students protesting the war on May 4, 1970, discharging more than 60 rounds in roughly 13 seconds.  They killed four students: Allison Krause, 19, and Jeffrey Miller, 20, were part of a nonviolent protest that university authorities promised to ban; Sandy Scheuer, 20, and William Schroeder, 19, were walking to class.  The National Guardsmen also wounded nine other students, some severely.

The protests at Kent State were part of a wave of protests that swept across American college campuses on May 1, a Friday, the day after President Richard Nixon announced that he had already ordered American air forces to expand their bombing to Cambodia.  (Roughly a week earlier, after operations had already commenced, Secretary of State William P. Rogers testified before Congress, explicitly denying any intention of expanding the war to Cambodia.)

In Kent, protest and disruption spread into the town that night, with bonfires set in the streets and altercations with police.  The mayor declared a state of emergency, ordered the bars closed, and asked the governor for help in getting everything back under control; the National Guard arrived at the University on Saturday. Students planned a demonstration for Monday to protest the presence of the Guard on campus.  University officials tried to cancel the demonstration, but students assembled anyway. The Guardsmen ordered the students to disperse, then used tear gas before opening fire.

It was terrible, and there is still a great deal we don’t know about: why the National Guard was on campus in the first place? why the order to fire on unarmed students hundreds of feet away? Who gave the order? or, was an order even given?  There’s a lot of writing, and a lot of controversy, still.  A good start is a summary, including an annotated bibliography, by two emeritus professors at Kent State, Jerry M. Lewis and Thomas R. Hensley, of Sociology and Political Science, respectively.

The shooting of unarmed students on a public college campus fostered a sense that the country was coming apart.  It was followed by a police shooting of student protesters at Jackson State in Mississippi, where Philip Gibbs, 21, and James Green, 17, were killed, and 12 other students were wounded.

President Nixon established a commission, chaired by William Scranton (formerly governor of Pennsylvania), to report on campus unrest. Published in September, the Scranton Commission answered few of the pressing questions about Kent State or Jackson State, but observed that campus unrest seemed to decline when the war in Vietnam seemed like it was winding down, and escalated after the bombing in Cambodia started.

The war and the demonstrations continued for a while, tapering off when the draft ended the next year.  Authorities developed ways to control dissent, on campus and elsewhere, without using live ammunition against protesters involved in large demonstrations.  Demonstrations generally became less threatening, less disruptive, and less dangerous.

The Kent State and Jackson State killings remain tragic exceptions to more routine protest politics. It’s a good sign that they stand out in our memories.

One reason the memory remains is a powerful and idiosyncratic protest song, recorded within just a few weeks of the event. Days after the Kent State shootings, Neil Young wrote, “Ohio,” a song mourning the deaths. Apparently, he was shocked by photos published in Life magazine. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young released the song, which called out President Nixon and ended with the repeated line, “Four dead in Ohio”  (lyrics). The song reached the top 20 in the United States and Canada, and appeared on several albums by Young and by the group; they often performed the song in their occasional reunion tours over the past half-century.)

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Dilemmas and Dynamics of Escalation (3)

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/scientists-stage-worldwide-climate-protests-after-ipcc-report-180979913/

People who want strong action to combat climate change have many options beyond self-immolation–which isn’t a good choice at all. Within a broad movement that includes the full spectrum of advocacy and protest actions–from talking to neighbors to ecosabotage–with all sorts of politics and protest in between–you can see individuals testing out strategies for escalating the fight.

More than 1,000 scientists staged protest actions around the world in April 2022, as part of Scientist Rebellion. There were teach-ins and demonstrations, where scientists got to wear their lab coats outdoors, and there was also much more: protesters chained themselves to a White House fence in Washington, DC; Spanish protesters threw fake blood; German protesters glued themselves to a bridge.

Their reasons: desperate times call for desperate measures. On the Rebellion website, Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion lab, announces: “We are currently heading directly towards civilizational collapse.
We need to switch into climate emergency mode as a society.”

On April 6, Los Angeles police arrested Kalmus and a few others wearing lab coats who had chained themselves to the doors of JP Morgan Chase, protesting the financing of fossil fuels.

People make individual decisions about how they can be most effective and how much risk they’re willing to take, and their calculations change over time. Individual activists usually start with modest efforts–going to a meeting or demonstration, or writing a letter–and find ways to escalate over time as they decide that the urgency of the moment demands more.

More than a thousand scientists coordinating sometimes disruptive protests across two dozen countries represent a sliver of the working scientists concerned with inaction on climate change, but a bigger and more aggressive sliver than ever before. There’s a growing sense of urgency, and of futility in depending upon science and facts to carry the day.

In March of this year, The New York Times published a long piece on debates within science about appropriate professional action. Three climate scientists had published an academic journal article calling for a moratorium on climate science research. It’s not that everything is known, but the very substantial body of accepted scientific wisdom on climate had yet to exert much influence on policy. They wrote, “Given the urgency and criticality of climate change, we argue the time has come for scientists to agree to a moratorium on climate change research as a means to first expose, then renegotiate, the broken science-society contract.”

Of course, scientists don’t all agree. There are important questions to answer and studies to be done, and information to be communicated. Scientists who enter the political arena fear, reasonably, being marginalized or ignored because of their political views. Finding a path to maintain a professional identity that carries with it some modicum of respect from mainstream politics and culture while simultaneously underscoring a sense of urgency appropriate to the moment is no easy task. Scientists work through it at different paces, coming to different–provisional–conclusions.

But, we need to remember that climate change isn’t a new issue for everyone, and that some very accomplished scientists have long ago embarked on a more explicitly activist path. James Hansen, who served as Director of the NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies for more than thirty years started long ago, and moved through a series of escalating steps at a deliberate pace: Hansen published his first article on global temperatures in 1981, first testified before Congress in 1988, and found increasingly visible outlets over the next decades to criticize government inaction and the fossil fuel industry. There were additional appearances before Congress, talks at universities, interviews on mainstream media, and a TED talk. As far as I can find, Hansen was first arrested at a protest in 2009, with actress Daryl Hannah, trying to block a coal company’s mountaintop removal in West Virginia. He’s protested and been arrested many times since.

Lots of younger scientists are beginning their own political lives far earlier in the careers, starting where Hansen ended up. It’s unlikely that they’ll all take a quarter century to move from publication to arrest.

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Dilemmas and Dynamics of Escalation (2)

Wynn Bruce set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court toward the end of Earth Day. He was evacuated by helicopter and died in a hospital the next day.

Concerned with government inaction on climate change, and deeply immersed in Buddhist traditions, Bruce chose a dramatic and painful death to demonstrate sincere convictions.

The picture, at right, is from The Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center, where Bruce was a frequent volunteer and participant in meditation retreats. The Center posted a memorial–and will post more about his life and efforts. His friends say they knew about his concerns, but not about his plans to self-immolate. Had they known, they stress, they would have tried to stop him to prevent pain and suffering.

Surely, Wynn Bruce knew that, and didn’t tell in advance. He also knew that, despite commitments to avoid suffering and violence, there had been dramatic instances of religious people self-immolating to protest mistreatment of the Vietnamese and Tibetan people.

He surely knew that Norman Morrison, a Quaker, had burned himself to death in front of the Pentagon in 1965, protesting the war in Vietnam, and that David Buckel, a civil rights attorney, had self-immolated in Prospect Park in 2018, protesting climate change. And he must have known that the Mohamed Bouzazi’s self-immolation in 2011 had been the spark that ignited the Arab Spring.

On his Facebook page, Bruce had written about irreversible climate change and threats to the earth, quoted Martin Luther King, and praised young activist, Greta Thunberg.

It’s hard to describe a suicide as strategic, but it’s very clear that Wynn Bruce’s death was purposeful. By choosing an extremely painful way to send a message, he meant to demonstrate commitment and sincerity, as well as a sense of urgency.

So, here’s the dilemma of escalation: Decades of science, political action, cultural struggle, and protest have–as yet–failed to generate anything approaching an adequate response to the reality of climate change. Whatever you’ve been doing hasn’t been enough, so there’s a search for something more. Self-immolation, thankfully, will not be a common choice, but the search for a way to demonstrate commitment more effectively doesn’t follow a predictable or obvious path. Wynn Bruce chose to take the pain on himself rather than imposing it on others.

In the aftermath, the rest of us can argue about impact. Every bit of speculation on Bruce’s frustrations or mental health suggests that his message missed the target. But, to the extent that conversation moves to threats to the Earth, Bruce has left a mark.

Many others are searching for, and trying, other ways to escalate.

Much more to come.

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