Long-Distance Runner: George Lakey Reflects on a Half Century of Activism

John Tarleton Jun 25, 2012

How do radical social movements emerge, grow and ultimately change society for the better? George Lakey has explored these ideas for the past half-century as an organizer, a theorist, a civil disobedience trainer and an author of eight books on nonviolent direct action including Powerful Peacemaking: A Strategy for Living Revolution

After the New Left imploded at the end of the 1960s, Lakey was one of the co-founders in 1971 of the Movement for a New Society, a small but influential network of several hundred activists who popularized a number of practices now taken for granted within anti-authoritarian movements in the US including consensus decision making, spokescouncils and unlearning oppressive behaviors.  Lakey later founded Training for Change an organization that has taught skills for building nonviolent movements to thousands of activists around the world. Now retired but as busy as ever, Lakey will appear in New York City this Tuesday at a joint fundraiser for The Indypendent and Waging Nonviolence along with culture jammer extraordinaire Andy Bichlbaum of The Yes Men. 
John Tarleton:  There has been a tremendous upsurge in protest movements around the world during the past 18 months. Why do you think that is, and what do you see as distinct about this moment?
George Lakey:  There are a number of contributing factors but surely one is the economic crash of 2007-2008. Most people hope that when a calamity happens the authorities will take care of it and they won't have to rouse themselves to take care of it themselves. The poor response we've seen has aroused people to realize we're going to have to take care of our own future rather than depend on existing power structures. 
JT: What do you think about the emphasis on horizontalism in present-day movements like Occupy?
GL:  The anti-leadership impulse gets strengthened when existing leadership doesn't respond well. So there's a lot of sense, for example in the Occupy movement, for people to take that moment to question the role of hierarchy. On the other hand, what we found in Movement For A New Society was that the hierarchy can have its uses in action situations where judgment calls need to be made for the safety and effectiveness of large numbers of people.
As we experimented, we became flexible about when to use particular tools of decision making and organization. For most of us it wasn't a kind of rigid adherence to consensus and to participatory forms because we realized that the nature of the task also influences the way decisions need to be made. It was understandable that many people in the Occupy movement who were discovering these tools for the first time were so excited about the possibilities of  the horizontal that they forgot about the uses of the vertical.  I think over time people will realize that we need more than one tool to accomplish a very difficult task.
JT:  What do movements like these ones that have risen up in the last couple of years need to do to be able to see through their demands for fundamental change?
GL:  First to realize this is about the long run rather than the short run, that change doesn't happen very quickly. Knowing that we need to treat ourselves and each other in a sustainable way so that we can be available in the longer term, that would be a huge gain. 
Another thing that we maybe have more problems with in the US than in some countries is the importance of developing a vision of what we want instead. Also we need to learn how to reassure larger numbers of people since we can't do this alone. As self-identified actors, we can't bring about a revolution by ourselves so we need to pay attention to the kinds of reassurance that larger numbers of people need in order to join a movement for fundamental change. Another thing that needs to be done is much more conversation about long-term strategy. There are people in the Occupy movement who scorn long-term strategy and imagine that we can just make this up as we go along. Yet, research done on peoples' struggles around the world shows that very often victory goes to the movements that have, at least at their core, some people who like to think about strategy. 
JT:  How did your experiences in the Civil Rights Movement shape the lifetime of activism that has followed?
GL:  The Civil Rights Movement was hugely formative for me. One way it affected me was watching an extraordinary leader  in Dr. King and then watching lots of other people give extraordinary leadership who never got the name recognition but who were in there with tremendous courage and tremendous talent. My first time being arrested was in 1963 when the Civil Rights Movement came to Chester, Pennsylvania,  a small city near Philadelphia that was highly racist in structure and could have been somewhere in Alabama but it happened to be in Pennsylvania.
We filled the jail with highly militant energy. Our unity, our singing, our heart, our spirit was contagious and inspiring to the other inmates and kept the warden on the defensive. I was so lucky to experience my first time in jail as an empowering experience rather than a disheartening experience. 
It can be very distracting to fight the people that we happen to run into, who happen to have a job keeping their families together by being jailers, for example, or police officers. One way the Civil Rights Movement helped was teaching me to keep my eye on the prize, the prize being who really holds power in our society. 
Keeping that firmly in mind enables a movement to stay on the offensive. One of the things that distresses me in the Occupy Movement sometimes is when people get so distracted by the personal injuries and brutalities that they experience from the lower levels of authority that they forget about or appear to forget about who's really calling the shots.
JT:  Did you all succeed in changing Chester?
GL:  It changed to some degree. Unfortunately it turned out that the leader of that struggle was on the take and so the movement did not go as far as it might have which is another vote for anarchists' insistence on transparency in leadership.
JT: You have  kept going during the 50 years since. What sustains your optimism and your energy for this work?
GL:  I cry a lot. (Laughter) Sometimes in the morning I sit at my kitchen table reading the newspaper and have a good cry. I think we need to, as activists if we want to sustain ourselves, get deeply acquainted with our emotional life and give ourselves permission to feel the despair. It's only human to feel discouraged and despairing in the light of the huge wash of bad news. 
We probably carry a larger share of the bad news than many of our fellow citizens do so we need to give ourselves extra care  in listening to each other and also ourselves, recognizing that we can feel this deep despair. Take Dr. King – he was very well acquainted with his own despair and willing to show that and then call us to the other side of the despair because at the other side of the despair is hope.
JT:  And that hope has sustained you through all the years?
GL:  Yes. Plus the comradeship of deeply loving comrades. 
JT:  What role do grassroots media projects like Waging Nonviolence and The Indypendent play in sustaining radical social movements?
GL:  They enable those of us who choose to be on the edge to stay in touch with each other and to share our thinking and share our news and that's extremely important. They are also important because they present the edge to the folks who are just catching onto the importance of social change. Organizations like The Indypendent and Waging Nonviolence present such a high quality of integrity and good work that we're appealing to others. When alternative media is ramshackle or slipshod, if there is no care for accuracy, then the people who are paying attention and wondering if they should they join the edge are likely to be turned off by poor quality work.
JT: How have you been doing since you retired from your position as Director of Training for Change? 
GL:  I'm really freed up. Even though I've published eight books, I still regard myself as a pent-up writer because I haven't had as much time for that as I'd like. Now I do.  
I'm working on a book for example on Norway, which will be a contribution to my concern about the lack of clear, compelling vision I mentioned before. Norway is a country in which the 99% overcame the power of the 1% and have created a kind of laboratory in which the rest of us get to look in and see what are the experiments that seem to pan out. 
The other thing that I'm freed up to do is more activism so I can get arrested again, which is not exactly the heart and soul of activism, but it's an expression of the freedom that we have from other kinds of responsibilities when we are able to risk arrest. I love being an activist again.
For more about the June 26 house party at which George Lakey will appear on behalf of The Indypendent and Waging Nonviolence, click hereTo see his weekly columns, click here
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