Froze and reversed the arms race (June 12)

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 the United States is faced with a public health crisis, recognition of a long-stewing problem of  racialized police violence–and racial inequality in general, a steep economic recession, and a president abandoning the rule of law and democratic norms with reckless disregard for their importance.

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.

The new president, Joe Biden, has announced his intent to restore an arms control regime, but progress is always slow and difficult.


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?


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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What a guilty verdict can’t do

Almost everyone exhaled. A jury convicted the former police officer who murdered George Floyd, and everyone in the United States must have been tuned in.

In this image from video, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin is taken into custody as his attorney, Eric Nelson, left, looks on, after the verdicts were read at Chauvin's trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn.

It was an extremely unusual verdict; criminal prosecution of police violence against Black men is rare and conviction is even less common. And the facts of this murder were particularly egregious, not a flurry of bullets in a night time moment, but an extended, almost gleeful, act of torture, as a police officer strangled a man crying for help over nearly ten minutes in bright daylight.

The murder was unusually well-documented and broadly observed. Darnella Frasier, 17 at the time, recorded the last moments of Floyd’s life on her phone, because she couldn’t do anything more; it was a courageous act. The video went viral, reaching a mass audience trapped at home in what turned out to be the early part of the Covid pandemic.

George Floyd’s death sparked the resurgence of a Black Lives Matter movement and produced hundreds of demonstrations across the United States, immediately most visible in Minneapolis.

Protesters marching in Minneapolis on May 26, 2020, the day after Floyd's death. A protester's sign reads, "Justice for George Floyd" and "#I CANT BREATHE".

The protests in the streets put pressure on the legal system to do better. In response to the protests, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz appointed the state’s Attorney General, Keith Ellison to lead the prosecution, rather than leaving it to Hennepin County’s district attorney.

AG Ellison recruited an all-star team of attorneys and forensic experts, sparing no expense in supporting a vigorous and extensive prosecution, as well as charges more severe than initially floated by the county prosecutor. The prosecution presented 45 witnesses, and offered comprehensive rebuttals of every defense raised. Those witnesses included the Minneapolis chief of police, who testified that the murder violated both standard procedures and training.

Would all of this have happened without the protests? We can’t rerun history, but there is little reason to believe that police violence against Black men would be prosecuted and punished. The list of names of victims whose police killers never faced criminal justice is long….and continues to grow.

So, the activists should claim a victory, and note that it’s a small one….so far. The court system, at best, decides cases, not causes. A police officer who abused his position and killed a man lost his job and is now in jail. This is the way the system is supposed to work after the system has broken down, hiring and retaining and arming exactly the wrong person.

It’s a bit of accountability, but not justice, and a tiny tiny step toward more meaningful reform. The courts won’t change the routines of policing in Minneapolis or the rest of the United States, and most of those claiming victory know that there is much more to be done.

We sigh with relief only because we know it could have been so much worse.

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Cases, Causes, and the next wave of Black Lives Matter

Outside Chauvin trial, protest, media and pleas for peace – Twin Cities

Judge Peter A. Cahill, presiding in Derrick Chauvin’s murder trial, denied a defense motion to sequester the jury. Chauvin, working as a Minneapolis police officer, strangled George Floyd to death last year. His defense wants to keep the rest of the world out.

Following a few other highly publicized instances of white violence against Black people, Floyd’s killing sparked a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, visible in hundreds of overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) peaceful demonstrations across the United States.

Activists came to the demonstration with a range of goals, but prosecuting police who kill was a baseline demand–starting with Chauvin. They want the killer punished, and they want much more.

After the trial started, in neighboring Brooklyn Center, a police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright, a 19 year old Black man who was unarmed.

Chauvin’s attorney, mounting a zealous defense, wanted to keep the jury from learning about another local instance of racialized police violence and, perhaps, recognizing a pattern. News from Brooklyn Center couldn’t help his client. News of the nightly demonstrations in Brooklyn Center, featuring skirmishes with police, incidents of looting, tear gas, and rubber bullets all intensify attention.

And then came reports of police officers stopping and torturing Second Lt. Caron Nazario, a Black army medic (in uniform) who, fearful for his safety, drove to a well-lit gas station before stopping his car in response to police demands. Lt. Nazario fortunately survived to tell the tale–and to file a lawsuit.

Courts are set up to decide cases, not causes. Judge Cahill’s job is to help a jury figure out whether Chauvin committed a crime–not whether there is a widespread pattern of racialized police violence in the United States. And, really, even a conviction of a murderous police officer will do very little to change that pattern–at least over the short term. The Court can convict and imprison a person, but has neither the authority nor the capacity to change police practices across the United States.

Pressure builds to fire Brooklyn Center officer who killed Daunte Wright –  Twin Cities

Still, the legal system is an attractive target for activists. The adversarial process makes for good drama, and it’s all contained in an easily accessible spot.

Trials are relatively easy for activists to publicize and criticize, and easy for media to cover. And, unlike so much else in American life, there will be a decision at some point in the not too distant future.

The trial in Minneapolis provides a window to national attention that Black Lives Matter can use to remind a much larger public outside the courtroom about larger issues at stake. The Court won’t resolve them, but it can provide a platform. Indeed, activists staged demonstrations outside the Court House when the trial started, a reminder that there were larger issues at stake–and that people would be watching.

The trial also makes both activists and mainstream media more sensitive to new instances of racialized police violence–that likely would not get quite so much attention otherwise.

Police are almost never convicted of crimes for violent acts on the job. Activists may hope that a conviction in Minneapolis will make police departments more aware and change behavior. Last summer’s protests have already changed the climate such that local officials are eager to convey an image of intolerance for brutality. The officer who killed Daunte Wright has resigned, as have Brooklyn’s City Manager and Police Chief. The police officer who threatened and pepper-sprayed Caron Nazario was fired, and Virginia governor has ordered an investigation.

These moves are, really, very small steps–with limited significance by themselves. If, however, they can feed and engage an activist imagination, the world may change.

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Protest polarizes on voting: Corporate America takes sides

When a protest campaign works, it brings a spotlight to a problem, energizes people already active, and forces opponents to explain themselves–over and over again. Likely most important, a successful campaign engages a broader public and pushes people to take sides.

So, the Rep. Park Cannon’s dramatic challenge to the new elections law in Georgia was always bigger than Rep. Cannon–and extends well beyond Georgia.

The big bill (you can read it here), a Republican response to the razor thin margins of the presidential and Senate elections just months ago, aims to diminish Black and youth voting, while making it a little bit easier to vote in rural districts. It’s hard not to see partisan intent here: Republican legislators in Georgia voted for it, while Democrats voted against it; Republican Governor Brian Kemp rushed to sign it, while Park Cannon was banging on his office door.

It’s possible that both sides have miscalculated the electoral implications of new restrictions on voting (analyses can be found here, here, here and many other sites), and advocates on all sides have made mistaken and misleading statements on the bill’s contents–but the legislative intent is very clear. Republicans think restrictions will help them win more elections; Democrats think higher voter turnout will help them win.

Georgia went first, but similar bills making it harder to vote are percolating in almost all of the American states, introduced by Republicans, including more restrictive provisions that Georgia considered and balked on. Meanwhile the Democratic-led House of Representatives has already passed the For the People Act, which would prohibit most of those restrictions.

Protests inside and outside the Georgia capitol have made the politics of access to the polls far more visible, and forced a bunch of corporate entities to engage and take sides.

Most visibly, Major League Baseball announced that it was relocating its All-Star game from Atlanta to….somewhere else, as a way to demonstrate the sport’s values. Note, baseball has never been a hotbed of progressive activism, unlike, say, the WNBA. Could it be that baseball’s current leadership has a stronger commitment to voting rights than previous owners and commissioners?

Voting-rights activists call for a boycott of Delta Air Lines during a protest at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, March 25, 2021.
Protesters at Atlanta’s airport call for a boycott of Delta

Maybe, but that’s not a very good explanation. Whatever Commissioner Rob Manfred’s opinions on democracy and voting rights, he would be remiss if he failed to consider the opinions of baseball players (and owners and coaches) and fans.

Some players and managers–and their organizations–had expressed discomfort about playing in Georgia in light of new restrictions on voting. At the same time, voting rights advocates called for boycotting Georgia businesses–to raise the costs of complying with the new voting restrictions. Playing an All-Star game in Atlanta risked tainting the sport by association. Instead, Georgians–likely including Atlantans who opposed the bill, will suffer adverse economic and social consequences. That’s how boycotts work. It will be tougher to carry the restrictions to the next round of states.

More than a few large businesses headquartered in Georgia soon found cause to express their commitments to voting rights. The CEOs of Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines–facing possible boycotts–issued strong statements against the bill and for voting rights. Large national companies issues similar statements, including Apple, Microsoft, Google and Citi. Surely, some Republican legislators in other states that value commerce and sports will be paying attention.

Tom's Old Days on Twitter: "Willie Mays complains about a Tony Clonninger brushback  pitch in a 1966 Braves-Giants game.#MLB #SFGiants #Braves #Milwaukee  #SanFrancisco #1960s…"

In a diatribe against “cancel culture,” the previous president called for a boycott of baseball–and of all the companies that had criticized Georgia’s new law and voting restrictions generally: Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, JPMorgan Chase, ViacomCBS, Citigroup, Cisco, UPS and Merck.

Trump wants to play hardball, but the strategy of broad boycotts of large corporations is likely to brush back most Republican politicians well off this plate.

The prediction here is that a photo of Trump quaffing a Diet Coke will bubble out in the next week or so; not that long ago, he was known to summon soda with a button on his desk, and consumed upwards of two six-packs a day.

But carbonation is less important here than polarization. As the contest over voting rights develops, it will be harder and harder for people–and businesses–to avoid taking sides.

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Cesar Chavez Day, 2021

Commemoration of Cesar Chavez Day is an annual ritual in California–and in Politics Outdoors.

It’s interesting to revisit last year’s post in particular, as it came in the early stages of a lock down which still (sort of) continues. It’s really not surprising that the same issues about labor, guns, and race continue. I’ve added some conspicuous updates and notes.

Image result for edna chavez speech, stephon clark

Less than a week after Edna Chavez, the charismatic seventeen year old high schooler from South Los Angeles, electrified a national crowd with a demand to end gun violence, Californians celebrated the legacy of another Chavez.

On my campus, we commemorated Cesar Chavez Day today, rather than March 31 (his birthday), by closing.  (This year, of course, the campus is barren. Once a week, I walk in to collect mail and remember that I have an office, routinely seeing just a couple of people in passing. It looks like it’s always closed.) The state established the holiday in 2000, and six other states have followed suit.  In California, the legislature calls upon public schools to develop appropriate curricula to teach about the farm labor movement in the United States, and particularly Chavez’s role in it.

A campaign to establish a national holiday has stalled so far (The Cesar Chavez National holiday website seems to have last been updated in 2008), but last year President Obama issued a proclamation announcing a day of commemoration, and calling upon all Americans “to observe this day with appropriate service, community, and education programs to honor Cesar Chavez’s enduring legacy.”

Political figures have many reasons for creating holidays, including remembering the past; identifying heroic models for the future; recognizing and cultivating a political constituency; and providing an occasion to appreciate a set of values.  Regardless of the original meaning, the holidays take on new meanings over time.  Columbus Day, for example, is celebrated as an occasion for pride in Italian Americans (e.g.), and commemorated and mourned as a symbol of genocide  and empire (e.g.).

Cesar Chavez’s life and work is well worth remembering and considering, particularly now.  His career as a crusader was far longer than that of Martin Luther King discussed (here and here) and he was far more of an organizer than Fred Korematsu (discussed here). Chavez’s Medal of Freedom was awarded shortly after his death in 1993, by President Clinton, but many of his accomplishments were apparent well before then.

Dolores Huerta, 2009

As a young man, Chavez was an agricultural worker; by his mid-twenties, he became a civil rights organizer, working for the Community Service Organization in California.  With Dolores Huerta, in 1962 Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers.  Focusing on poor, mostly Mexican-American workers, Chavez’s vision for activism was right at the cornerstone of racial and economic justice.  Establishing an organization, however, is a long way from winning recognition and bargaining rights as a union.

Chavez was a tactician, a public figure, a charismatic, and something of a mystic.  Modeling his efforts after Gandhi’s successful campaigns, Chavez was an emphatic practitioner of active nonviolence.  He employed boycotts, strikes, long fasts, demonstrations, long marches, and religious rhetoric in the service of his cause.  He also registered voters, lobbied, and worked in political campaigns.  He was a tireless and very effective organizer for most of his life.

But holidays are best celebrated with an eye to the future, rather than the past.

On Cesar Chavez Day this year, we can think about the large and growing Latino community in the United States.  The 2010 Census reports that Latinos now comprise roughly 1/6 of the American population, and more than 1/3 of the population in California. This is the youngest and fastest-growing population in America today, and they are severely underrepresented in the top levels of politics, education, and the economy.   The civil rights map is at least as complicated as at any time in American history, but not less important or urgent.  (The struggle about the DREAM Act is reminiscent of the debate about Voting Rights 45 years ago. And the DREAM Act is still not done.)  The future of American Latinos is very much the future of America.

[2020: Through ill-advised, provocative, and racist policies, Donald Trump has done a great deal to make it easier to mobilize Latinos, and to forge a broader unity among the whole range of minority groups (racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, etc.). This organizing IS happening.]

[2021: The protests against racialized violence, particularly from police, which took off last summer, offered a promise of political unity among a vast range of Americans. But common cause among Asian Americans, Blacks, and Latinx people and allies require constant work.]

And Chavez saw the civil rights struggle as a labor issue.  When Chavez and Huerta started

their campaign, nearly one third of Americans were represented by unions.  The percentage now is now just about 10 percent, and less in the private sector.

And public sector workers, even if represented by unions aren’t doing so well.  The ongoing conflict in Wisconsin is all about weakening unions that are already making very large concessions on wages and pensions.  The campaign in Wisconsin is part of a larger national effort, which is playing out in Indiana, Ohio, Florida, and elsewhere.  Even in states where anti-union forces are weaker, state employees face lay-offs, wage cuts, and increased health and pension costs.

[The previous Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, was largely effective at hobbling organized labor in his state. Aided by an extensive organizing effort and backlash to many Walker policies, Tony Evers eked out a narrow victory in 2018. Wisconsin may now be a highly contested true swing state, but one without many swing voters.]

This year, the Supreme Court will rule in Janus vs. AFSCME, and court watchers expect the Wisconsin model to be immediately exported across the country. [The wildcat teachers strikes in West Virginia, and now Kentucky, with credible threats in Oklahoma and Arizona, offer the hint of a new resurgent labor… more later.]

[Janus turned out exactly as union organizers fear, and continues to haunt the national landscape.]

[The longer term fallout from organized teachers demanding better salaries and treatment hasn’t hit yet. The conflicts about opening schools safely and vaccinating teachers have opened all kinds of political rifts, and there’s some evidence more teachers are leaving the field–while states have yet to step up and make the job more attractive.]

But, we need to remember that you can’t attack teachers, nurses, police officers, and firefighters without hurting the people they serve: us.

Or should I say, US?

We commemorate the past to help guide the future. Edna Chavez, working in an urban setting far from Cesar Chavez’s organizing, carries the legacy forward, and adds more.

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Park protests to push politics and participation

If I had a nickle for every current state legislator I could name, I’d have to borrow money to get an afternoon coffee.

But I know who Park Cannon is.

Representing Georgia’s 58th district in the state legislature since 2016, Park Cannon was arrested for trying to knock on Governor Brian Kemp’s office door to question the governor. Gov. Kemp was signing a bill that restricted voting rights in a private ceremony.

Rep. Cannon wasn’t invited.

Governor Kemp signed the bill just a few hours after the Republican dominated state legislature passed it, surrounded by a select group of legislative allies–all older, white, Republican men. The photos commemorating the ceremony showed the bill’s champions assembled in front of a painting of a plantation.

I can’t tell you whether the tone-deaf composition of this tableau was deliberate, but it certainly didn’t help Governor Kemp’s claim that the bill wasn’t directed against Black voters.

Rep. Cannon had a better sense of strategy and composition, and at least a little bit of a flare for the dramatic.

Attorney for Georgia Lawmaker Calls Charges 'Overreach' | Political News |  US News

She refused to retreat when Georgia police stopped her from banging on the door, much less entering. They arrested the elected legislator, handcuffed her, and dragged her off to jail.

She was charged with two felonies, and was able to post $6,000 in bail in short order–although if anyone is sure to return for a court day to contest an arrest, it will be Park Cannon.

The dispute is about a Senate Bill 2, which requires sweeping changes in the way elections are run in Georgia, including requiring photo identification, limiting the use of drop boxes for ballots, reducing the time allowed to request an absentee ballot photo identification for an absentee ballot, and allows the state to take over the administration of local elections. There’s much else in the 100 page bill, and opponents have drawn particular attention to the restrictions on offering food or water to people waiting on line to vote, noting that some people in some neighborhoods can end up waiting for hours to vote (Guess which people. Guess which neighborhoods). Supporters (all Republicans) say it’s about ballot security. Opponents (all Democrats) say it’s about keeping Black people, poor people, and young people away from the polls. This is, of course, a recurrent dispute in American politics.

The 2020 election saw the highest voter turnout nationally in more than 100 years–though still notably lighter than in most rich countries. In Georgia, the new slant in turnout produced two Democratic US senators in run-off elections–and Democratic control of the US Senate. At once, SB 2 is Georgia Republicans’ response. But Georgia is just the first victory in a coordinated Republican campaign to tighten voting requirements–and limit turnout–across the country.

But this post is about Park Cannon. Although Gov. Kemp didn’t answer her knock, national media did. The image of Rep. Cannon, a small Black woman in a bright red blazer with matching mask, dragged away by police, went viral in no time.

A crowd gathers at City Hall for a rally Saturday, March 27, 2021, to protest the state's overhaul of election law and to show support for state Rep. Park Cannon, who was arrested on the day the governor signed the bill into law. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Coverage of the arrest and arraignment went national, and voting rights activists turned out to protest outside Atlanta City Hall. Interest groups immediately filed court challenges to the new bill. In addition to putting a spotlight on the debate in Georgia, Park Cannon sparked attention to similar efforts across the United States.

Such attention isn’t free. Park Cannon has already endured some physical discomfort, has had to come up with bail, and risks trial and maybe even jail time. But the payoff for the cause–and for Park Cannon is big. Now YOU know who she is (young, queer, bilingual, ambitious, brave); at this moment, she has 111,000 followers on Twitter.

I suspect you’ll hear from her again. And if Georgia actually makes the mistake of prosecuting her for knocking on the governor’s door, you’ll get to spend weeks learning about the struggle for voting rights.

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Happy birthday, Rosa Parks (2019)

It’s 2021, and Jeanne Theoharis has published an excellent op-ed reviewing Mrs. Parks’s extraordinary life.

Politics Outdoors

(In thinking about this repost, I want to encourage readers to take a look at the link to To Tell the Truth, the tv game show. These days, her face is far more familiar, but her long term efforts are even more obscured.)

Happy birthday, Rosa Parks!  Born on February 4, 1913, Parks was not a tired old lady in 1955, when she refused to move to the back of the bus.  She was an experienced and committed activist, deeply tied into the activist networks that animated the civil rights movement.  She wasn’t the only one who took a risk to challenge segregation laws in the South, but that hardly makes her less heroic.

Activism in the civil rights movement was hardly a career move for Rosa Parks. She paid a serious price over many years for stepping outside of expected norms of behavior and into history. Her role…

View original post 310 more words

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Greensboro sit-in anniversary, 2021

Today marks the anniversary of the start of the sit-in campaign in Greensboro, North Carolina. I’m always moved and encouraged by the audacity of those young men. (repost)

The anniversary is also a great reminder of the important leadership roles that young people have played in making social movements and social change. It’s particularly relevant when we’ve seen young people at the front lines, innovating, in the campaigns for gun safety, action on climate change, and –still–racial justice.

Woolworth sit-in

There was once a store called Woolworths.  It sold dry goods, mostly cheap stuff, including paper and pencils.  Many Woolworths also housed a cheap restaurant where you could get coffee and a grilled cheese sandwich, also cheap.  Fifty-three (61!) years ago today, a
Woolworths in Greensboro, North Carolina, was the site of a new phase in the civil rights movement, the beginning of the sit-in campaign.

On Monday morning, February 1, 1960, Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond, wearing their best clothes, went shopping at the Woolworths, bought some school supplies, then sat down at the lunch counter and tried to order coffee.  The four young men, freshmen at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College,  knew the store wouldn’t serve food to black people, so they waited.  Woolworths shut the lunch counter down.

The next day, black and white students filled the lunch counter at Woolworths, and by the end of the week, every lunch counter in downtown Greensboro was filled with students protesting segregation–and organizing a boycott of the downtown businesses that practiced segregation.  Over the next weeks, sit-ins spread across the segregated South, led by student activists.

The four freshmen, no not the singing group, had all been active in the NAACP’s youthcouncil, but none of them saw the large organization as a good foundation for a more activist and confrontational phase in the civil rights struggle.

Pushed by the heroic Ella Baker, the NAACP launched an initiative to create a new student-based civil rights organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which staged dramatic education and direct action campaigns across the South for most of the rest of the decade.

Today is a great day to commemorate the sit-in movement, but anniversaries can be slippery.  When I tell the story to my classes, I usually start with the long Sunday night conversation when the brave young men talked themselves into action.  You could start the story much earlier, with the sit-ins organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized decades earlier, or with the sit-down strikes organized by the Industrial Workers of the World at the start of the 20th century, even before the founding of the NAACP.  You could also start the story with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Rosa Parks, or the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.  The Greensboro students knew all those stories.

Anniversaries help us remember important events and twists in history, but they invariably simplify longer and more complicated stories.  The drama of the Greensboro sit-in makes for a good entry into thinking about the civil rights movement, and into thinking about how regular people sometimes make history.  The names of Baker, Blair, McCain, McNeil, and Richmond are not particularly well-known today, not like those of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, John Lewis (who would lead SNCC), or Thurgood Marshall.  The names of the thousands of young people crusading against segregation with them are even lesser known.  But movements are only possible and potentially effective with people willing to take risks without counting on seeing their names in the history books.

Woolworth lunch counter

The lunch counter itself, or at least a portion of it, has been reassembled at the American Museum of National History (Smithsonian) in Washington, DC.  There are only four seats on display.  When we think about the civil rights movement, however, we need to extend the counter a long way.

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Conservative activists have to take sides

When a line is drawn in the dust and you must decide whether to cross or not, most folks peek to see who they’ll be standing with before taking a step.

The Capitol invasion drew a line in the dust, and the prosecutions may dig it into a trench. (At the same time, Republican politicians in Congress are furiously working to fill in that hole.)

Let me explain:

Social movements are most difficult, volatile, and potentially powerful when they unite a broad coalition that extends from the margins to the mainstream. Protesters in the streets find common cause with allies in government and draw cheers from at least some people watching from a distance and may occasionally throw in a petition signature, a few dollars, or a vote.

Such broad coalitions are extremely difficult to maintain; authorities work to split them up, greatly aided by the charms and obstacles of institutional politics.

For the past few years, Donald Trump provided a crude unifier for such a broad coalition. White nationalists heard racist dogwhistles, while business conservatives and institutional Republicans worked hard to ignore blustering bullhorns. Without much of a clear agenda beyond his self-interest, Trump somehow convinced people in the streets that he worked for them, and Republican politicians that they needed him.

Such beliefs should be even harder to sustain than before.

President Trump did not include the names of any of the Capitol invaders in his collage of pardons and commutations. It would have been easy to find the names–it’s been pretty easy for the Justice Department prosecutors filing charges.

The invaders who broke windows, looted Congressional offices, carried white supremacist flags, and fought police officers took selfies and livestreamed their efforts, later posting them on social media when they returned home.

They thought that God or Q or Trump was on their side, and that they were safe in public insurrection. Not so much. The Lord continues to work in mysterious ways, and doesn’t routinely weigh in on matters of vandalism. Q has gone silent, congratulating followers in the fun they’d had and the friends they’d made. And Trump deserted them to save himself.

Sure, Trump promised that he would march with the protesters to the Capitol to intimidate opponents, but he went back to the White House. Sure, candidate Trump encouraged violence against protesters at his rallies, promising his would-be protectors in the stands that he would pay any legal fees. They heard, but no checks or legal referrals were forthcoming. Trump’s worried about securing his own defense attorneys, and at least some of his once-faithful are disappointed.

Partly because of a massive military presence in Washington, DC, massive crowds of disappointed Trumpians didn’t turn out to protest on inauguration day. But it wasn’t just the intimidation of well-trained, well-armed troops. Across the states, where capitols were marginally less militarized, promised rallies in support of the defeated president fizzled. What happened?

Trump’s supporters learned their efforts could bring unpleasant consequences: criminal prosecution, lost jobs, and social ostracism.

  • Demonstrators saw that they would not be welcomed as heroes when they came home.
  • Would-be revolutionaries learned that their prospects for success were much much worse than they’d led themselves to believe.
  • People who thought they were committed to protecting the Constitution and law and order, no matter how poorly defined, were reluctant to sign onto kidnapping politicians or killing police officers.

To be sure, some of the faithful will hold fast and find camaraderie and courage in more distant corners of the Internet, perhaps in training exercises in the woods or meetings around kitchen tables. But there will be fewer of them, more distant, and they will have a much harder time reaching a broader public.

Absent the almost protective umbrella of a tweeting president which supported largter more enthusiastic crowds, they won’t seem like the powerful, wise, or attractive allies that they once were.

Few people will want to stand on their side of the line.

A larger number, I’m sure, will do as Q’s handler suggested, return to their lives, which might include some politics, but maybe not. They might recall their revolutionary moments and friends with fondness–or perhaps realize that they’d been misled and exploited.

QAnon and the storm of the U.S. Capitol: The offline effect of online  conspiracy theories

That’s how movements divide in decline, and it makes them easier to repress, ignore,and generally marginalize.

Republican politicians are mostly trying to stall the same process of fragmentation within their own ranks. To be sure, many members of the House, secure in well-crafted and safe districts, can continue to support some imagined vision of Trump or Q. But Republicans who have national aspirations are concerned about the social approbation the Capitol invasion brought, and actively worried about business leaders who may refuse to fund them.

The near horizon isn’t so sunny. True believers in the streets or woods or basements, unable to create crowds, are liable to find more extreme tactics more attractive–particularly if their political allies can’t convince them of another route to meaningful influence. And any extreme act is likely to make it harder and harder to maintain, much less attract, support from those not already on the margins.

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Martin Luther King Day, 2021

January 18, Martin Luther King Day, falls three days after what would have been King’s 92nd birthday, a reminder of how young he was during his ministry. Here I repost a slightly edited version of last year’s post on the holiday.

On the eve of the Martin Luther King Day holiday last year, the president of the United States announces, emphatically, that you can’t find anyone less racist than he is. If you’re suspicious of such proclamations, perhaps it’s just that you’ve learned to distrust people who laud their own honesty, their color-blindness, their respect for women, or concern for the poor. Like the salesman who claims the nickname, “Honest,” Donald Trump has never succeeded in fooling most people, just enough to sell the next condo or secure the next loan. Then some large number of elected officials and voters who knew better chose to look the other way, and Trump won the 2016 election.

The office of the presidency, however, starts with obligations to all Americans, and it doesn’t end there. Trump is hardly the first US president to harbor racist thoughts or sentiments, but he’s displayed less worry about revealing them to large audiences, often through words, and consistently through deeds.

We will have a new president, and an African-American vice-president, but white supremacy will hardly disappear into a Florida estate without its most visible champion.

The last hours leading up to the inauguration of a new president are filled with worry about armed white nationalists attacking not only the Capitol, but state capitals across the country.

It’s worth considering the resources and possibilities Martin Luther King’s memory gives us in combating those who would restore what he fought against.

One of the hard-won achievements of the civil rights movement was the establishment of King holiday. This means that Americans expect any president to pay respects to the man, and even more, to the movement. Tradition really is powerful, and activists are wise to attend to establishing new ones.

If Donald Trump displayed less appreciation or enthusiasm for the King holiday than, say, pardoning Thanksgiving turkeys, that’s no mystery or surprise.

Each holiday event is a moment, unlikely to capture much attention in the White House during the rest of the year.

For the rest of us, however, the King Day reminder is an alert. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many many others, put work behind their words on social justice, often facing great risks and paying serious penalties. Their heirs continue today.

Martin Luther King died young enough and dramatically enough to be turned into an American hero, but it was neither his youth nor his death that made him heroic.

To Build a Mature Society: The Lasting Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s  “Beyond Vietnam” Speech — The Gotham Center for New York City History

In his rather brief public life, beginning in Montgomery at 26, and ending with his assassination at 39, King consistently displayed rhetorical brilliance (on the podium and the page), strategic acumen, and moral and physical courage.

The effort to honor Martin Luther King with a holiday commemorating his birthday started at the King Center, in Atlanta, in the year after his assassination.  States began to follow suit, and by 1983, more than half celebrated King’s life with a day.  In that year, Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King day a national holiday expressing ambivalence, acknowledging that it was costly, and that King may have been a Communist.

The King holiday was about Martin Luther King, to be sure, but it was meant to represent far more than the man.  King stands in for the civil rights movement and for African-American history more generally.  I often wonder if the eloquence of the 1963 “I have a dream” speech winds up obscuring not only a man with broader goals, but a much more contested–and ambitious–movement.

The man and the movement are ossified into an iconic image, like a statue, which locks King and the movement into the politics of 1963-1965.  We accept King’s dream, that little children will play together, and that people will be judged by “the content of their character” (a favorite phrase on the right).

The image, like a statue, is available for appropriation to advocates of all political stripes, and the establishment of the holiday itself represents an achievement of the civil rights movement, winning the holiday if not broader economic and social equality.

Before the transformation of the man into an icon, King transformed himself from a pastor into an activist, a peripatetic crusader for justice.

But the pastor didn’t disappear; rather this role grew into something larger, as King himself transformed himself from a minister into a an Old Testament prophet, one whose primary concern was always the people on the margins, the widows and orphans, the poor and hungry.  In standing with those on the margins, King courageously used–and risked–the advantages of his privilege, pedigree, and education.  He also knew that he risked his safety and his life.

In his writing, King used his education and his vocation to support his political goals.  In the critically important “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he cited both the Constitution and the Bible in support of Federal intervention in local politics to support desegregation and human rights.  (We know that other activists now use the same sources to justify pushing the Federal government out of local politics.)

King explained that he was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, because he had nonviolently defied local authorities in the service of higher laws, the Constitution and the Gospel.  This was not like making a provocative statement on one’s own [profitable] radio or television show.  There were real costs and severe risks.

King was never less than controversial during his life, under FBI surveillance during his political career, and vigorously criticized by opponents (for demanding too much and too strongly) and allies (for not demanding more, more vigorously).

When he was assassinated outside a Memphis motel in 1968, he was standing with sanitation workers on strike, straying from a simpler civil rights agenda.  He had also alienated some civil rights supporters by coming out, strongly, against the war in Vietnam.  And Black Power activists saw their own efforts as overtaking King’s politics and rhetoric.  By the time he was killed, Martin Luther King’s popular support had been waning for some time.

Posterity has rescued an image of Martin Luther King, at the expense of the man’s own broader political vision.

Ironically, in elevating an insurgent to a position in America’s pantheon of historic heroes, we risk editing out the insurgency.

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