Martin Luther King Day, January 17, 2022

January 17, Martin Luther King Day, falls two days after what would have been King’s 94th birthday, a reminder of how young he was during his ministry. King was born when Betty White, who recently died at 99, was almost 7. It’s not that long ago.

Still, the holiday offers a good chance for politicians across the political spectrum to misquote or misinterpret King. Many advocates are trying to use the Federal holiday to drum up support for protecting Voting Rights–a strong commitment for King during his life. Others push for a day of service, really because it’s much harder to create a consensual feel-good moment out of a commitment to racial and economic justice and opposition to war. Here I repost a slightly edited version of last year’s post on the holiday.

Statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. with a light snow-covering

On the eve of the Martin Luther King Day holiday not long ago, the president of the United States announced, 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 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 now have a new president, and an African-American vice-president, but white supremacy has hardly disappeared into a Florida estate without its most visible champion.

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. That year, Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King day a national holiday, while 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.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial - Wikipedia

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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How punishment works

Jenna Ryan, who joined the Capitol insurrection on January 6, is putting a an upbeat spin on serving 60 days in federal prison for trespass. She’s announced on TikTok that she plans to exercise, do a lot of

yoga, eat healthy food, and lose roughly 30 lbs.

I’m not sure this is the typical prison experience.

Ryan hitched a ride from Texas on a friend’s private plane to attend the Trump rally, then got caught up in the moment. Initially, she denied any involvement, but there’s so much video! Then, she announced–on TikTok, that her white skin and blonde hair would keep her out of prison. Ulp. It’s dangerous to say the quiet part out loud.

Then she took a plea and apologized, sort of. Prosecutors intend to seek harsher sentences in trials, and there are plenty of pictures of people doing far more damage. Sometimes, it’s smart to cut your losses.

The judge was clear that he meant to make an example of Ryan. This makes sense. It’s not clear that she is on the verge of intruding on another Capitol, and there isn’t much sign that she’s going to learn a lesson of any kind. Punishment is about another audience–a broader American public.

At base level, sending Ryan–and hundreds of others–to prison for trying to overthrow the government–is about showing America that violent overthrow of the government isn’t okay. By showing would-be insurgents that invading the Capitol is risky. It’s disappointing to note that this message needs to be sent: at least a few of the invaders were astonished that they would pay a price for their efforts. Trump didn’t go with them and won’t help them.

Capitol police are shown using pepper spray and tear gas

Punishment also sets the boundaries of acceptable conduct, drawing lines between politics and crime. In principle, the law is supposed to draw lines based on conduct, not belief. That police, courts, and the government more generally have often fallen short of this aspiration doesn’t destroy the worth of this goal.

Punishment also draws lines between criminals and deviants and more mainstream politics and society. Effective punishment requires imposing costs–prison and fines–serious enough to send the message and separate criminals from dissenters–without punishing so severely to create martyrs.

Mostly, mainstream politicians have shied from publicly supporting the Capitol insurgents.

But we’re still in early stages. We’ve seen plea bargains so far. Next year will bring criminal trials for others determined to use the courtroom as a stage to announce their support for Donald Trump, claiming that their intense loyalty is, by itself, justification. They will raise money for criminal defense–and who knows what else–on that basis.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) speaks at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol Building on December 07, 2021 in Washington, DC. Greene, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) held the press conference to describe the alleged treatment of January 6th defendants in DC jail

Already, an insurgent group of four Republican representatives has held a press conference decrying the cruel treatment that the Capitol invaders have suffered. It’s hard to think that most Republicans want to be represented by Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar, and Louie Gohmert, but criticism from within the caucus has been muted. Republicans need to step up.

Gaetz and Greene plan to run for reelection in extremely safe Republican seats–and Gosar hopes for the same. Gohmert is running for higher office in Texas, where a Democrat was last elected to state-wide office decades ago.

The future of the American republic rides on where the line between acceptable dissent and crime is drawn. Courts will need to do their part, but we need to watch how many Republicans are willing to cross that line.

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Rittenhouse and more: verdicts versus signals

Courts decide cases, not causes. On the surface, the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha was only about a kid with an assault weapon who killed two men and maimed another. The jury, considering two weeks of testimony, videotapes, lawyers’ arguments, Wisconsin law, and a judge’s instructions, found Rittenhouse not guilty. Not heroic, appropriate, or helpful–just not guilty.

Sometimes, justice prevails in courts, sometimes the law carries the day, sometimes both, and sometimes neither. If the verdict here, dramatically unjust, followed Wisconsin law, something is wrong with the law, and state legislators should be rushing to fix it. This isn’t happening.

In the meantime, people far from Kenosha, most unlikely to be scouring criminal law statutes in Wisconsin, are figuring out just what the verdict means. Most of what’s being learned isn’t good.

Because Rittenhouse had come to Kenosha with a gun intending to defend a car dealership against a Black Lives Matter demonstration (about the police shooting of an unarmed Black man), he became a

hero to many on the right, who contributed more than enough money to secure Rittenhouse a top-flight criminal defense team. After the verdict, they tried to figure out what else they could do for him. A few Republican members of Congress announced that they would compete to hire the young killer.

Noting that Rittenhouse felt menaced by a few of the BLM demonstrators, some armed, his defense claimed self-defense. Because the men he shot shared more or less troubled and unsavory backgrounds, Rittenhouse supporters lionized the killer as a righteous executioner. Rittenhouse, of course, knew nothing about the men he shot, and we should be alarmed that anyone would suggest well-armed teens should stand in for the legal system and dispense street justice. Really.

Even more threatening: armed protesters opposed to BLM protesters will claim vindication not only for bearing, but also using, guns against the threats they fear. Knowing that at least a few of the white BLM protesters in Kenosha were armed themselves, the gun industry can look forward to more demand from across the political spectrum. Faux militia from the right will feel emboldened about standing in for the police. At least some on the left will see their own need for personal protection increase, particularly when out in public. And every demonstration will appear more dangerous to police officers charged with keeping public order and fearing for their own safety.

That something worse will happen is too easy a bet.

Meanwhile, courts chug along slowly processing the grievances that stem from politicized violence. In a courtroom in Brunswick, Georgia, three white men who armed themselves and chased down and killed Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger, have claimed self-defense in their trial. The laws in Georgia and Wisconsin differ, as do the facts in each case, and the judges and juries are independent. But activists on the right and left are watching, and will find patterns and take signals from the decisions.

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Justice for J6 sputters

The Justice for J6 demonstrators protest sputtered from the start, with turnout estimated at just a few hundred people, even after months of buildup. There were plenty of people there; Capitol police were abundant, National Guard were activated in reserve, and early pictures showed large numbers of men and women with cameras and microphones (plenty of press!) Local authorities put up fences everywhere around the Capitol. The institutions were far better prepared than the protesters.

Opponents of the campaign–and supporters of democratic governance or the rule of law took undue comfort, even pleasure, at the weak showing. The paltry performance says less about the strength of the radical right than you’d like to believe.

The Justice demonstrators had a difficult time with their demands. Ostensibly supporting people charged with crimes on January 6, right wing organizers slipped between defending everyone to defending those who hadn’t engaged in violence, to supporting those who may not have violated the law, to just standing up for Donald Trump.

Although more than a few of the hard right members of Congress defended the idea of defending the January 6 protesters, none of them showed up at the rally, or even the Capitol. It could be that Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar, Jim Jordan, and their gang realized the risk of all kinds of bad press following a weak turnout–or violence against police (again!). I suspect that Republican leaders warned them to stay away. Still, a few members shouted insurgent messages from outside the Beltway. (Rep. Greene blew up “socialism” with a .50 caliber rifle!)

It’s worth remembering that the radical right usually has a hard time generating numbers at planned demonstrations. Recall the sputtering Unite the Right demonstrations that followed the Charlottesville disaster, where tens of thousands of counterdemonstrators turned out to taunt dozens of conservative protesters. The mass rally in an urban setting is a critical part of the left activist playbook; not so much on the right.

The costs and risks of showing up at something like the Women’s March, where experienced organizers commit to stage a nonviolent rally, are far more limited than attending a rally targeted to racist gun rights protesters. People who knew better, including members of Congress, stayed away rather than take those risks.

But there are still plenty of people who are ready to rally (somewhere) behind Trump’s discredited claim of a stolen election. More than a few proclaim their readiness to take up arms for the cause, and a much larger number are willing to shout at local authorities who support mask mandates or to vote against anyone who questions Trump’s claims.

The radical racist right hasn’t been stamped out, and nearly 250 years into America, it’s unlikely to be. The key to domestic tranquility is to push the once-marginal movement back to the margins. In the past, mainstream Republicans have vacillated between exploiting the xenophobic racist right and denouncing it. Trump won the Republican nomination not only by capturing this faction, but by bullying most mainstream Republican politicians into welcoming the potential voters and their ideas. Saturday’s demonstration suggesting the prospects of putting distance between mainstream and radical conservatives. It’s an open question at the moment.

The prosecutions of the January 6 insurrectionists will be critical in determining what happens next.

Justice for J6' updates: Sparse crowd met with massive police presence at  right-wing rally - ABC News

Politically, the key issue is to split off the people willing to take to the streets with arms from their institutional allies and from potential supporters not willing to take those steps.

Failure to prosecute and sentence people planning to kidnap the Speaker of the House, for example, encourages others to take dramatic and disruptive action. Giving unduly harsh sentences to trespassers creates martyrs and (oddly) underscores the insurrectionists’ claims.

It’s important to watch the trials, the deals, and the sentences, and particularly the reactions from institutional Republicans.

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Occupy at 10 (3/3)

Occupy Wall Street: 700 Arrested on Brooklyn Bridge « Only The Blog Knows  Brooklyn

Occupy educated and politicized a generation of activists who spilled out into scores of loosely allied movements and American life. They represent a massive resource for every progressive effort that’s followed. Here’s the short story:

Occupy appeared to trace a meteoric trajectory across the political skies in the fall of 2011, emerging out of what looked like a marginal event in December, then spreading across the United States, then evaporating when ruthlessly cleared out by police in November. The people animating those hundreds of Occupations seemed to come from nowhere and disappear right back into nothingness.

Both of those images are wrong.

In New York City, Occupy Wall Street was initially staged by a group of activists who’d previously staged actions at City Hall, even constructing a shorter-lived occupation that summer, “Bloombergville.” When the Occupation settled in, experienced activists from many different well-established groups and movements flowed into Zuccotti Park, bringing their own histories and commitments. Labor unions supported the Occupation, sometimes because of political allegiance, sometimes hoping to generate numbers to ward off harsh policing, and some just hoping to benefit from the spotlight Occupy commanded.

The Occupations developed teams of coders with laptops, creating global streams for their meetings and events, finding an audience even when mainstream media wouldn’t cover them. Occupy reached people who never made it to an Occupation.

When Occupy Wall Street became the most visible progressive action in town–and in the country–lots of people and causes wanted in on it.

Occupations everywhere were based on prior activist networks, and developed distinct characters. In some cities, there was more than one Occupation, each with a distinct political style and focus. In some cities, labor was a strong presence, in others environmental concerns were visible; housing was a core issue in some places, but not others.

Political novices dropped in too, sometimes for a night or two, sometimes for a particular protest, sometimes sleeping outside for weeks and engaging in endless meetings about political strategy and maintaining the encampment.

Activists with different concerns and backgrounds knocked up against each other, repeating speeches with a human microphone, and building broader coalitions and personal networks. Groups maintained libraries, organized site maintenance and cleaning, and made and shared and talked about meals.

Occupy never developed a unified plan for what to do when police cleared out the camps; there was no exit strategy. In New York City, some veterans obsessed about the tactic, desperately trying to reenter Zuccotti Park.

But others spilled out into other movements. When a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida killed an unarmed Trayvon Martin, long time activists had more extensive contacts with a broader range of people ready to protest racialized police violence, and certainly cynical about policing in America. In Minnesota, Occupy Homes campaigned against evictions. In New York, one-time Occupiers developed a mutual aid approach to recovery from a hurricane, Occupy Sandy. Climate change crusaders targeting the Keystone Pipeline include Occupy veterans–and others who saw the encampments on streaming networks–or even television news.

First time activists were no longer novices; they left the Occupations having endured an odd and powerful education in progressive politics and activism. Experienced organizers left with broader networks to activate and longer contact lists of allies. Sympathetic spectators learned not to take for granted the inevitability of current political arrangements, and got a sense of what might be possible in the future.

The Occupy wave, demographic and ideological, will be passing through American politics for the next several decades.

Score a win for changing the lives of participants (and spectators).

The Occupy Wall Street protesters: What exactly do they want? | The Week
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Occupy at 10 (2/x)

It's been 10 years since Occupy Wall Street — What's changed?

Today is the tenth anniversary of Occupy’s first Occupation, and retrospective memoirs and evaluations are everywhere. The argument here is that Occupy mattered, even though the movement got little or less of what activists demanded in 2011. You can start with yesterday’s entry on stalling President Obama’s move to the right and altering rhetoric.

There’s more:

Occupy didn’t organize into more mainstream politics, partly as a matter of ideology, partly a function of hyper-democratic horizontal organizational structures. There were no formal demands and no Occupy-endorsed candidates for office.

But Occupy demonstrated a widespread concern with political and economic inequality that provided the promise of a base for entrepreneurial allies in more mainstream politics.

After the last of the Occupations was cleared out, Charles Lenchner, a tech. strategist from Occupy, organized Ready for Warren, an appeal for Massachusetts’ newly elected Senator Elizabeth Warren, to run for the Democratic nomination for president–against Hillary Clinton. When Warren ruled out a run, Lenchner started People for Bernie, which shifted the ask to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who took up the challenge and did far better than anyone anticipated. One effect of the campaign was to push Clinton to the left. Really.

For sure, Occupy didn’t recruit Warren and Sanders to progressive economic policies. Both had been in that camp for many years–way before many Occupiers were born. Warren tells the story of her conversion to progressive economics as a law professor in Texas studying bankruptcy–driven by the data. And Bernie was a progressive activist, as near as I can tell, since grade school. Certainly, he’s been giving the same speech–about fairness and gross inequality–since first running for office in the 1970s. Note: He updates the statistics–and, mostly, they’re getting worse.

But Occupy demonstrated a ready and potentially active constituency for the songs people like Sanders and Warren have been singing for decades. The drummers at Occupy added a beat, and the protests everywhere turned up the volume.

Occupy boosted a range of progressive campaigns, including the Fight for $15, Justice Democrats, and the Democratic Socialists of America. Some campaigns were already established, and took the boost; some started as the Occupy activists spilled out into related political projects.

The political shift came with a shift in the political agenda, and newly salient grievances, like tax justice and the student debt crisis. The issues were bigger and more visible even after Occupy seemed to evaporate (it didn’t; see tomorrow’s post).

Can you imagine Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez successfully challenging an incumbent liberal Democrat deep in the House leadership without Occupy? (I can’t.)

So, Occupy helped build a stronger progressive faction within the Democratic Party, both within and outside government.

The time-honored political survival strategy for politicians in America is to navigate toward the center of their political base, and no one was more committed to this approach–and more adept at it–than Joe Biden. When the center moved, so did he, advancing an agenda far more ambitious on economic justice and taxation than Barack Obama even hinted at. Biden only pushes a massive infrastructure plan which includes action on progressive taxation, childcare, preschool, and the environment because of Occupy’s influence.

So, the scorecard now includes a check next to agenda setting and another next to political coalitions.

AdBusters Occupy Wall Street

There’s more to come.

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Occupy at 10 (1/x)

We are the 99%': but richest 1% will soon own two-thirds of world's wealth  | Share The World's Resources (STWR)

It’s 10 years ago September 17 that Occupy Wall Street commenced, and the decennial is a good time to see how (or whether) it mattered.

Kai Ryssdal interviewed me at Marketplace about just this issue, and politely asked me the obvious and critical hard question. (The whole interview is only 5 minutes, and you can click on it above.) The question: so, Occupy Wall Street protested against inequality, and ten years later it’s worse. Eh?

This is true. Here’s a graph of a measure of inequality (Gini coefficient) in the US from 1967 to 2018. The important thing to know is that the higher the number, the less equal the society. Or, the important thing to know is that the US is far more unequal than every other rich country. Or, the important thing to know is that Occupy’s emergence in 2011 came after an extended period of growing inequality, and inequality continued to grow–even after 10 weeks of Occupations across the US.

US Income Inequality: Latest Data - DataTrek Research

I wrote about Occupy a lot while it was taking place, but the last time here was in 2015, when I was assessing influence and trying to explain that the business of changing the world takes a long time, and activists need to link a sense of urgency with some kind of abiding faith and patience. The NAACP formed in 1908, started winning legal victories thirty years after, and saw legislative achievements in the 1960s. Yipes!

We tell shorter stories about movements (Rosa Parks sat down, the world stood up) because we lack patience and context, and the shorter stories are more inspiring.

So, how do we assess Occupy if it takes so long to find those measurable results in the Gini coefficient?

First, we have to remember that sometimes movements grow up to play defense, and Occupy didn’t come out of nowhere. Occupy followed the Arab Spring (fall 2010), the Madison, Wisconsin occupation of February 2011 (which failed to stop Scott Walker’s efforts to cripple organized labor), the 15M Indignados in Spain, and the Israeli summer protests for greater government attention to social welfare.

Occupy also followed the Tea Party movement in the United States, which failed to stop passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), but helped the Republicans make massive gains in the 2010 election, gaining control of the House of Representatives. Occupy came when things seemed to be getting much worse much faster.

And they could have. When the Republicans made similar gains after the first two years of the Clinton’s administration, Bill Clinton turned right, cut spending and programs, most notably AFDC (“welfare”), and saved himself.

President Obama might have done exactly the same thing, and just after the election, he talked more about the deficit and much less about ambitious policy reforms. In April of 2011 he gave a big speech about fiscal discipline. But a couple of months of Occupations was enough to convince Obama and his allies that there was an opposition to Republican reforms and support for more egalitarian policies that he could tap into.

On December 6, shortly after the last of the Occupations had been cleared out, Obama gave a bigger speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, affirming a commitment to reducing inequality and promoting economic justice:

I’m here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. (Applause.) These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They’re American values. And we have to reclaim them…. Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and it runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder. … it’s wrong that in the United States of America, a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker, maybe earns $50,000 a year, should pay a higher tax rate than somebody raking in $50 million. (Applause.) It’s wrong for Warren Buffett’s secretary to pay a higher tax rate than Warren Buffett.

So, credit Occupy on the defense with an important stop.

And score a win in political rhetoric.

Not enough, but not nothing—and more to come….tomorrow.
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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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