The anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall and the complications of movement influence

East German citizens climb the Berlin wall at the Brandenburg Gate as they celebrate the opening of the East German border, November 10, 1989. REUTERS/FileWhen East and West Germans danced atop the Berlin Wall 30 years ago this week, I was Front Coverin my living room in Boston, making final corrections on what would be my first book. I’d written about the nuclear freeze movement, which briefly captured national attention in the early part of the 1980s.

The bellicose and extremely expensive military posture of the first stages of the Reagan presidency allowed an antinuclear weapons movement to grow beyond the traditional peace movement’s fundamentalist core to include a broad swath of American life. One million people marched in the streets of New York City in 1982 to protest nuclear weapons in general–and Ronald Reagan in particular. Their efforts were amplified by allied movements across Western Europe, as well as a smaller group determined to challenge the Soviet Union at the same time.

Disarmament demonstration in Amsterdam, 1981

European Nuclear Disarmament (END) was a vital component of this transnational movement. Founded by a group of activists and intellectuals, including the great historian E.P. Thompson, END was based on the premise that the peace protesters in the West shared a common cause with the human rights dissidents in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. END stalwarts organized ongoing contacts between these groups, wrote and spoke, organized international conferences, and enlivened much of the other activism sweeping the West.

Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common

Anyway, I had learned that the nuclear freeze movement succeeded in changing the way the Reagan administration talked about nuclear weapons. Instead of casually describing potential ways to win a nuclear war that might cost 50 million American casualties, Reagan announced that nuclear war was unwinnable and must not be fought. The US scaled back the massive increases in military spending of the first Reagan years, and the administration revived the arms control process it had initially disparaged.

Mostly, the administration was working to take the steam out of the movement, and Reagan floated arms control proposals that his advisers were certain would be unacceptable to the Soviet Union. But in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and–for his own reasons–accepted everything Reagan proposed. The advisers unsuccessfully urged Reagan to back away from his own proposals once they became possible. The superpowers agreed to ban all nuclear weapons from Europe (at that time, the Soviets had some, and the United States none), and signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement–in force from 1987 until the Trump administration formally withdrew earlier this year.

The resurrection of a sort of superpower detente afforded reformers some space to organize in Eastern Europe, and in 1989 popular movements toppled state Communist governments in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and East Germany (see above). Many of these activist leaders were exactly the people END leaders had been coordinating with for years before. The sequence of revolutionary events was closest to the blueprint END’s founders had imagined.

So, I had to decide whether to emphasize the successes of the freeze–injecting restraint into the administration’s policies and resurrecting arms control–or its failures–American foreign policy returned to normal, including large standing military forces and nuclear deterrence. The Germans destroying the wall with small hammers reminded me that movements can set into motion a stream of effects they may not be able to predict and certainly can’t control. I went with the success.

The anniversary reminds us that the faith the democratic activists have to maintain in the face of repeated setbacks is ultimately essential and wise. When movements win, activists get less than what they wanted, and never on the timeline they demand, but that doesn’t mean their efforts don’t matter.

Protestors march in Dresden

Olof Palme march for peace, Dresden 1987

How we remember history DOES matter. The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall also marks the installation of a statue honoring Ronald Reagan, who once asked for the wall to be torn down. That’s not the way I’d call it. At his best, Reagan responded to Western popular movements. Organizers in East and West worked for what became the 1989 transition for decades prior. These persistent protests might be harder to commemorate than a famous speech, but they’re far more important to remember.

 

 

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Again, on the influence of movements

A teacher waves a poster that reads “My Mama don’t like you and she likes everyone” during a day of action at the Kentucky State Capitol on April 13, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky.Protest campaigns usually get much less than what they ask for, but they can still matter.  Take a look at Alexia Fernández Campbell’s great piece at Vox on the Kentucky teachers and yesterday’s gubernatorial election.

Last year teachers in Kentucky called in sick and marched on the state capital to protest low salaries, poor conditions, and cuts in their pensions. They were part of a larger campaign of teachers protests in red states, which took off first in West Virginia, and then erupted in Oklahoma and Arizona, quickly including activism and strikes in other locales with stronger teachers unions. Kentucky’s Attorney General, a Democrat, Andy Beshear endorsed their demands and spoke at some of their rallies.

Last night Beshear claimed a narrow victory over incumbent governor, Matt Bevin. These days, it’s big news when a Democrat wins a governor’s post in a very conservative state. Teachers rally in the Kentucky capitol in Frankfurt.Campbell shows how the teachers’ efforts last year were part of last night’s story. Teachers led the opposition to Bevin’s austere budget last year, focusing on proposed changes to their staying out of school and filling the Capitol instead.

Kentucky instituted a pension reform, providing for much stingier payments to new teachers, and cut education spending overall. More than that, Governor Bevin attacked the teachers, even suggesting their strike would mean that more children would be sexually abused. Really. The teachers successfully pressured the overwhelmingly Republican legislature to override

The teachers pulled public focus to their concerns, and underfunded education more broadly, and their efforts forced Bevin and his allies to address their issues–over and over again. Bevin responses, in particular, were incendiary, and helped tank the incumbent’s popularity.

Teachers took offense, and thousands poured efforts into Beshear’s campaign, contributing money–and lots of time, making phone calls, knocking on doors, driving voters, and holding signs. Beshear encouraged them by putting education at the center of his campaign, promising raises and dedicated funding streams for education.

Teachers aren’t the only ones who care about education in Kentucky, and Bevin made enemies on other issues–and lost on style points as well; he was very unpopular. Trying to save a Republican ally, Donald Trump appeared at a large rally in Rupp Arena in Lexington, asking voters to support Bevin to support his own presidency.

Beshear, a moderate Democrat whose father had been a popular two-term governor, squeaked to a victory by about 5,000 votes. The teachers should claim some of the credit, but they didn’t do it by themselves. And Republicans easily won every other state-wide office, and they maintain large margins in both houses of the legislature. It’s not a revolution, a sea change, or a wave election.

The new governor will have a tough time delivering on a large education agenda, but he will make Republicans fight him on education funding and face whatever consequences Kentucky voters are willing to deliver. He’ll also be able to weigh in on budgets, voting rights, and drawing new districts. It’s not nothing.

Grassroots and activists and Democratic pols rejoiced in Beshear’s win. They know it will be easier to get allies to sign onto the education agenda and electoral campaigns. It’s hope.

They also hope that Mitch McConnell, nearly as unpopular as Bevin and up for reelection next year, realizes the Democrats can organize in Kentucky, and might show up at the polls.

Social movements affect change, but not all they want, not when they want, and not by themselves.

It’s not nothing.

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The moment…globally. Contagion is a demonstration effect.

Citizens are taking to the streets around the world, animated by many different grievances, but mostly concerned with some vision of democracy.

More that one million people have turned out to protest corruption in Beirut, with allied protests across Lebanon.

 

 

The government in Chile has declared martial law in response to disruptive, and often violent protests, mostly focused on large hikes in the costs for public transit.

Protests in Hong Kong have continued over the last six months, and both the government and the demonstrators are escalating.

 

 

The origins, organization, grievances, and likely outcomes of all these efforts are different, but the public struggle for some kind of justice is underneath all of it. We can know more faster about each effort than ever before, as activists post their triumphs and challenges on social media.

The drama and the sheer volume of protest encourages people elsewhere with grievances to take to the streets. Courage and commitment is inspiring, even if it’s scary. And the prospect that street politics might be a route to influence anywhere makes change seem possible.

One message of each demonstration is: you can do it too!

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The mask

Demonstrators in the Central district of Hong Kong. Some protesters also wear masks to protect their identities.Tens of thousands of masked demonstrators turned up in Hong Kong in response to a new ban on wearing a mask in a protest. The show of masked solidarity was completely predictable. Outlawing the mask was all about intimidation, and democracy activists wanted to show they would not be intimidated.

Zorro (Guy Williams)

Image result for the lone ranger

The Lone Ranger (Clayton Moore)

Unmasked, in a world where cameras are everywhere, demonstrators will be easier to identify and prosecute, even long after the protest is over. If demonstrators know that they might be punished  much later, maybe, authorities reasoned, they would be less likely to protest. And just being caught in a mask becomes another criminal violation for the government to haul out to repress what has been an irrepressible movement.

Pussy Riot

Masked protesters are, of course, nothing new, and certainly not confined to Hong Kong. There are long histories populated by both the noble and the nefarious. In the comic book universe–and even in real life–both the bad guys and the good guys wear masks. The mask disguises the other life identity of the hero, and frees him from recognition, retribution, or inhibition. He becomes the cause.

In a place without democratic protections, demonstrators don disguises for protection, like Pussy Riot and their balaclavas, but their anonymity disappeared. Some of the members ended up in jail, some in exile.

Boston Tea Partiers dressed as Indians (1773)

Protesters also have many reasons for wearing masks, including–but certainly not limited to–temporarily confusing the police and avoiding arrest and criminal prosecution.

The costume or disguise–like the fake headdresses worn by Independence activists at the Boston Tea Party or the hoods worn by Ku Klux Klansmen–are an expression of an identity, building solidarity and inhibiting inhibition.

They can also be an expression of intimidation: the costumed  crowd may  be  capable  of  doing  things  your  neighbors–at  least  when  identifiable–would never  consider. It’s scary. In the event of chaos and confusion, the costume helps identify friends–and foes–and maybe a path to safety.

KKK rally

KKK rally

 

It’s important to remember that it’s not just government that can punish. Having your boss, your aunt, or your friends see you involved in some kind of collective political action can have harsh consequences as well.

 

Anonymous (Guy Fawkes mask)

Undisguised racist protesters at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 paid for expressing their political views. At least one protester lost a job at hot dog stand when his employers saw him pictured at the event. Another who gave a long interview explaining his views was banned from a dating site.

They had no reasonable fear of the local police or of the federal government, but conspicuous racism is still bad for at least some businesses. I can see why people of all sorts might hesitate before buying a hot dog from someone who marched with Nazis and Klansmen. It also doesn’t take much imagination to see why a dating site would want to make sure not to match an apparently volatile racist with anyone.

Protesters can wear masks and costumes in an effort to avoid outing their offensive political beliefs. What’s offensive changes over time and across communities. And cameras are everywhere!

A black-and-white bandanna printed with a blocky, digital pattern reminiscent of the common Arabic keffiyeh is one item in the Backslash kit, a package of devices that help protesters stay safe and connected during demonstrations. The bandanna's pattern can store messages that can be revealed with the Backslash app.

Backslash demonstration kit

There’s also physical protection. Increasingly, we see people hustling at airports or jogging outdoors wearing surgical masks to filter out some of the stuff in bad air, or to protect themselves from other people’s bacteria. This isn’t a political claim, just an effort to stop coughing.

Tear gas and pepper spray present more visible threats, and a scarf or even a gas mask, offers a bit of protection. Demonstrators bearing scarves can’t compete with well-armed and armored police forces, but a filter may buy enough time to get out without being badly hurt.

 

The pictures of the newest demonstrations from Hong Kong don’t look like anyone is trying to avoid identification. Instead, it looks like young people are donning masks to demonstrate their commitment to fight for democracy. I guess it says something about a government when we see who feels like they need to wear a mask.

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It’s not about Greta (about Greta!)

Heroic Swedish teen Greta Thunberg delivered a blistering address at the UN’s Climate Action Summit. It’s worth watching all the way through. In less than five minutes, Greta projects a sense of urgency and righteous anger. She’s right, of course, that attention to the fate of the earth shouldn’t depend upon the commitment of a 16 year old girl, who should properly be anxious about calculus or homecoming, rather than carbon.

A little over a year ago, Greta, then fifteen, read enough science to think that the climate crisis was severe enough to demand dramatic action. She started skipping school to protest outside the Swedish parliament. In fairly short order, other young people joined her, outside the Swedish parliament, and outside other parliaments, turning millions out into the streets to demand government action.

Greta sailed across the Atlantic to testify at the Climate Summit, to avoid putting more carbon into the atmosphere. A corollary benefit of the long trip was an extended opportunity to keep Greta and, more importantly, the cause in the news throughout the two week trip and eventful arrival in New York City. (Read Emily Witt!)

Since hitting New York City, Greta has been involved in an eclectic range of activist events, including the largest global climate strike ever last Friday, including an estimated 4 million participants–not all young. She is a visible part of a much larger and increasingly diverse movement.

The teen activists are a powerful force: they are mature and independent enough to be articulate and informed, but young enough to avoid excessive cynicism and entangling commitments, political and otherwise. (Think of the Parkland kids and the Sunrise Movement.) It’s coarse and creepy to question Greta’s integrity and sincerity–although Donald Trump, Dinesh D’Souza, and Fox News have done so. (Fox apologized.)

But we would not know about Greta’s concerns were it not for the much larger social movement she’s a part of. Her intense commitment, barely contained in a slight young woman with pigtails and excellent English, makes an attractive hook for coverage. But there are lots of other young committed climate strikers and activists. (Alexandria Villaseñor, of example, demonstrated outside the UN on Friday, for the 41st time!)

The massive strikes, and Greta’s speech for that matter, are exclamation points in a much longer and more complicated story. The young strikers return to their high school and college campuses and tell stories. Some will listen to scientific testimony, or even read articles. Some will get involved with political campaigns–or lodge questions at campaign rallies. Some will learn the issues and decide to dedicate themselves to  master engineering better battery storage or commit to more sustainable diets. Dramatic action is important, but the day to day is what will change the world.

 

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The debate protesters care about DACA

Protesters briefly interrupted the Democratic candidates presidential debate last night, knocking former Vice President Joe Biden a little further off his rhythm, and sending weary viewers to the Internet with one question: what were they yelling?

It was hard to make out their words, and broadcasters generally won’t refocus their cameras on unexpected protests.

What I saw on tv was men and women in suits staring at their podiums.

What I first saw on Twitter was criticism of the activists, who weren’t numerous and coordinated enough to get the message out.

Later, I learned the answer, reported by Nicole Narea at Vox. The demonstrators yelled, “We are DACA recipients! Our lives are at risk!”

(Narea also provides a good, brief, description of the issues at stake.)

Smart activists sometimes seize the platforms others create. Town hall meetings, campaign rallies, debates, and conventions are all chances to reach a larger audience than you could generate on your own, and maybe even sneak into a camera’s field of view.

When this works well, you draw attention to yourself AND your cause that extends beyond the event. (Sometimes , it doesn’t work so well.) Tea Party and Black Lives Matter activists were particularly adept at using crowds others had put together.

Explanations about DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children) came the next day in multiple mainstream news outlets, and on Twitter from@nakasec.

President Obama started the program when Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration failed. DACA recipients could work legally and were temporarily protected from deportation. President Trump canceled the program two years ago, promising a quick fix, which is nowhere on the horizon. DACA status is now even more precarious, hanging on  a few court decisions.

It makes sense for DACA recipients to protest. What’s more, normalizing the status of childhood immigrants, once called DREAMers, is by far the most popular element of any proposed immigration reform. Coming to America wasn’t their choice, but they grew up here, and can produce plenty of very articulate and accomplished poster children.

But the issue has gotten precious little attention in the debates; all the Democratic candidates basically agree on recognition and some path to citizenship, and promise more comprehensive immigration reform. When immigration comes up, truly egregious treatment of refugees, particularly the separation of children from their families at the border, grabs most of the attention.

Protest is a tactic to bring attention to issues and people who get squeezed out of mainstream politics, and the DREAMers have been on the edge for a long time. I wrote this description of a protest at the Democratic National Convention in 2012! Even earlier, young immigrants at risk of deportation risked arrest to protest at Congressional offices. [The picture at left is from a protest outside (and inside) Senator John McCain’s office in 2010.]

It was the courageous efforts of young people staging protests at Congressional offices and elsewhere that pushed Obama to institute DACA in the first place.

A clever candidate seeking attention could reach out to these activists and grab the issue. We wait.

I don’t know if this blip of a debate protest will refocus national attention–there are so many provocations and distractions in the Trump era, but the issue and the activists won’t go away, and will keep trying.

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Repression/Concession Digression and Hong Kong

Social protest movements are messy collections of people and groups with different ideas about what they want and how to get it. They tend to do best when they can maintain some kind of unified presence in relation to authorities without smoothing out or resolving all of their own internal conflicts. It’s when the people who are mostly okay with institutional routes to change find common cause with people who are ready to go out in the streets that movements become powerful.

Successful movements are kind of like umbrellas…particularly in Hong Kong.

It’s not easy to maintain those connections. (Indeed, John Mok says that conflicts within the Umbrella Movement five years ago led to its decline.) Fights about strategy and ultimate goals with the people who are supposed to be allies can approach a vicious hostility usually only seen in feuding families.

Remembering that a diverse set of claims, political strategies, and people helps change the world helps a little.

Meanwhile, opponents work to undermine that movement unity. To break apart a social movement coalition, clever authorities deploy a mix of responses. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam is following the bust the coalition playbook right now. Joshua Wong, left, and Alex Chow, center, speaking to journalists outside the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong in 2018.On the eve of a large unpermitted demonstratation planned for last weekend, Hong Kong police arrested well-known activists like and visible pro-democracy legislators.

The strategy was to decapitate the movement and intimidate others from turning out to protest. In addition to criminal charges, demonstrators could–and did–face beatings and tear gas from police. Over 1,100 people have been arrested.

But Hong Kong could not silence the activists. Within days, Joshua Wong and Alex Chow (above) published a piece in the New York Times announcing that they would not be deterred, and if detained, tens of thousands of others would turn out anyway.

After yet another demonstration, Carrie Lam announced that she was formally withdrawing the extradition bill that was the trigger for the most recent weeks of protest. This was the first and most prominent of the activists’ formal five demands. They’ve also called for recognition that the people protesting are not rioting, and should not be subject to harsh penalties. They’ve called for the release of everyone arrested in the protests, and the dropping of all criminal charges. They’ve also demanded a formal inquiry into police tactics, and–the biggest one–the creation of meaningful universal suffrage in Hong Kong.

The government is not approaching concessions on any of these matters, and the activists have proclaimed that they will hold out for all five demands.

The political scissor move that Carrie Lam is trying to execute is intended to raise the risk and costs of continuing protests with increasingly harsh punishments, and Protesters throw back tear gas fired by the police in Wong Tai Sin during a general strike in Hong Kong on August 5, 2019. simultaneously undermine the apparent necessity of protest by giving in…a little. When the repression/concession balance works, fewer people are willing to take to the streets, with some working in institutional politics and others just leaving political action altogether. At the same time, fewer less connected protesters are easier to control. Movements fall apart, even when many organizers remain active.

In Hong Kong, it doesn’t seem to be working–at least not yet. The activists have been firm in resolve and courageous in the streets, in the airport, and elsewhere. Expect China, using Lam and whoever follows her, to continue to refine its mix of concession and repression until something gets those people to go home.

The activists know this.

 

 

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