When in Doubt, Sit Down!

Against the Current, No. 200, May/June 2019

Martin Oppenheimer

How We Win:
A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning
By George Lakey
Melville House, 2018, 215 pages plus resource list and footnotes, $16.99 paperback.

HOW DO YOU slow down coal mining corporations that despoil the earth through mountain-top removal? You get a group together, invade the lobbies of banks that fund the corporations, and sit down. That’s what George Lakey’s Earth Quaker Action Team did when it got the PNC bank to stop financing the industry.

PNC’s change of heart followed sit-ins inside bank lobbies, disrupting business and at the same time educating the public about what this form of mining does to the environment and to nearby communities. This did not happen spontaneously. It followed research into corporate links, training, prior publicity, and careful organization.

George Lakey has been an advocate for using nonviolent tactics and strategies in the furtherance of progressive causes for some sixty years. He is an activist, author, community organizer, trainer and teacher and has a distinguished rap sheet going back to civil rights days.

The core of How We Win is the Global Nonviolent Action Data Base (GNAD) that Lakey and his Swarthmore College students began in 2006. At this point it consists of 1100 campaigns, not all exclusively nonviolent and not all successful. A number are used to illustrate various tactics described in this book.

Lakey is not a fan of on-off rallies, which he considers venting. Nor does he think much of instant mass protests triggered by social media, arguing they don’t build long-term challenges to existing oppressive structures. And he is not for investing energy in major party electoral campaigns. Their results aren’t worth using up valuable resources.

Yet rallies do build morale, and perhaps he should be more open to at least some carefully selected electoral work after November 2016. And he does tell us that organizing a march beats calling national conferences. Unity, he believes, is built around the walk, not the talk.

Lakey leads us through nonviolent campaign stages from the initial grievance through (hopefully) success. The 2018 West Virginia teachers’ and staff strike is a good illustration of how winning depends on getting allies involved and changing neutral parties into allies.

Unlike many public sector strikes, the workers were supported by their communities. State officials then saw themselves increasingly isolated and gave in on all of the strikers’ demands. Those demands were clear and focused on targets with the power to change policy. The ever pragmatic and down-to-earth community organizer Saul Alinsky would have cheered.(1)

Lakey’s objective is for campaigns to grow and escalate, leading to real transformations in society. He warns against being coopted with minor window-dressing reforms, which happens not infrequently.

Nonviolent  Action

Lakey’s book describes some of the more interesting strategies used in nonviolent campaigns. One is that of “action logic,” where “the action is the message.”

North Philadelphia neighbors lacking garbage service collected the trash themselves and sent the bill to City Hall. When nothing happened, they next collected the trash and deposited it there. Very soon garbage collection was resumed.

Southern Black students modeled good behavior and did not hit back when sitting in at lunch counters, which highlighted the thuggery of those harassing them. The contrast of images was a significant plus in media coverage.

But it is critical that disruptions not hurt those not responsible. Blocking commuter traffic to protest the war in Vietnam just turned people off to the message. Blocking ICE detention center buses, on the other hand, focuses directly at the appropriate target.

The Data Base lists Gene Sharp’s 199 methods from picketing to such tactics as exposing the identities of infiltrating agents.(2) The list is wide-ranging, suggesting a very generous definition of nonviolence that includes a great deal of what most people would consider simply a lack of violence (as in most labor strikes and even plant takeovers).

What happens when some demonstrators get violent? Lakey’s rule is that a campaign will always be portrayed in the media and perceived by much of the public as if it were its most violent part. Violence gets media attention — and turnout shrinks if some demonstrators get violent.

Add to the mix provocateurs sponsored by private organizations or police, and then violence even against property (breaking windows, etc.) leads to campaigners being smeared as violent people requiring violent restraint. Of course both police and vigilantes attack nonviolent demonstrators too, but the data, Lakey insists, show that casualties will be fewer and that overall campaigns not tainted by violence have a far higher success rate.

But does this hold at the macro level? Lakey claims that since 1970 “dozens of dictatorships have been brought down by strategic nonviolent campaigns” despite the protection of the military. (83) The Data Base lists 27 cases but there is no “control group:” cases where dictatorships are brought down by violent means.

While many of these cases do hold up well as examples of nonviolent overthrows, a number did involve some violence. Nor is there much attention to the later history of even successful overthrows. The New Jewel Movement in Grenada overturned the Eric Gairy dictatorship following years of nonviolent protests, but only after the NJM leadership voted for armed action in March 1979.

The People’s Revolutionary Government that was established was overthrown in 1983 by a military junta, followed by an invasion by the United States. A parliamentary government took over after troops were withdrawn. This was hardly a clear-cut success for nonviolence.

It is hard for some advocates of nonviolence to see the numerous social factors that might limit or inhibit its success. It works less well if at all when a campaign confronts a dictatorship that is able to “black out” knowledge of it. Or when a campaign confronts attackers like Nazis who are violent, organized, believe in the inherent inferiority of the campaigners, and have a significant base of support.

Like many other utopian ideas (including socialism!) nonviolence is not susceptible to scientific proof. If a campaign fails it must be because it has not been promoted long enough, or it wasn’t carried out properly.

Nonviolence and Self-Defense

Nonviolence is not the same as pacifism, which has more to do with a basic personal commitment than “just” a set of tactics in campaigns.

George Lakey is a pacifist and as such abjures the use of arms even in self-defense. However, he agrees with Gandhi that if you can’t think of a way to defend yourself nonviolently, it’s okay to get rough. He opposes the use of armed self-defense in the civil rights movement not just on moral but also on pragmatic grounds: he believes it will increase violence by white supremacist organizations such as the Klan.

This point is surely debatable. Charlie Cobb, who was an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1962 to 1967, makes a strong argument that “although nonviolence was crucial to the gains made by the freedom struggle of the 1950s and ‘60s, those gains could not have been achieved without the complementary…practice of armed self-defense.”(3)

Contrary to Lakey, Cobb states that “There was no meaningful difference between white responses to armed resistance by blacks and white responses to nonviolent resistance by blacks.”(Cobb, 241)

Lakey claims that SNCC survived against all odds in Mississippi without violent defenders. He quotes Bob Moses (now Parris): “It’s because we don’t have guns in our freedom houses, and everyone knows it.” (70)

This is contradicted by any number of participants. Cobb quotes Willie Peacock at a SNCC staff meeting in June, 1964: “…I placed guns (in the house) so that we could at least guard the Freedom House at night.” (Cobb, 178)

Then there is the testimony of several women SNCC volunteers. Janet Jemmott Moses tells us that in a Freedom House in Natchez, Mississippi, volunteer Annie Pearl stood guard at night with her .22.(4) Or Annie Pearl herself, describing what happened when a white telephone installer came: “We had the guns sitting out, the shotguns over here and the rifles over there, and he had to take note of that…” (Holsaert, 458-459)

The editors comment further: “After the summer of 1965, SNCC workers, their community supporters, and organizational allies were more public in their use of self-defense. Some SNCC field secretaries (organizers — M.O.) regularly carried weapons and displayed weapons in freedom houses…On the Meredith March SNCC workers insisted on being protected by the openly armed Deacons for Defense.” (Holsaert, 527)(5)

The Deacons were organized around the strategy of armed self-defense and provided armed guards at numerous civil rights events in the South. It is well established that many of the Black farmers who hosted volunteers owned guns and when they stood armed guard SNCC workers could hardly argue. Although there is no record that SNCC workers ever fired a weapon, some did take their turn on armed guard duty.

After a January 1956 bombing of his home in Montgomery, Alabama even Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had firearms in his house. According to Charlie Cobb, the journalist William Worthy, King’s adviser Bayard Rustin, and Glenn Smiley of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation all said they had seen guns in King’s home. (Cobb, 7)

Unity and Intersectionality

In the final section of How We Win we come to the questions of how to create a unified movement and which sector “is the number one contradiction that drives other systems of oppression. ” (192)

Lakey thinks the way to unify our movements is to “give up the rigid wish to rank issues and oppressions…” because “the compulsion to put one form of domination first” supports ranking everything, even men’s and women’s looks.

But no one on the left any longer proposes that class, race or gender is paramount as an organizing principle. Intersectionality (the idea that different oppressions intersect) is generally accepted.  Yet intersectionality should not be a substitute for trying to determine where the levers of power are located. This is critical in developing strategy no matter how much we might wish to sidestep it in order to attain unity.

In the anti-mountaintop removal campaign Lakey locates the levers of power (the interlock between banks and coal companies), so it is puzzling when he suggests that “middle class” activist groups would be more effective if they had working-class and “owning-class” representation. I doubt that including PNC Bank directors in the campaign’s decision-making would have been helpful.

Is it really true, as Lakey believes, that the U.S. civil rights movement “at its best” showed how cross-class leadership produced successful direct action campaigns? The 1960s interactions between gradualist, more bourgeois elements often identified with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and militant younger students and workers such as those in SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were more often conflictual than not.

Figures such as Rev. King and Ella Baker spent immense amounts of energy in attempting to overcome these divisions, ultimately to fail. Yes, a great deal was achieved despite these problems, but by the early 1970s SNCC was gone and CORE had become a Black Capitalism organization. Much of the Movement’s leadership was soon either dead or coopted into mainstream political structures.

How We Win contains many useful evidence-based lessons about what works and what doesn’t in campaigns. Lakey warns against adopting a “security culture” that obsesses about infiltration because it paralyzes activity. The answer is to do actions that don’t depend on keeping them secret.

He shows that it is better for a campaign to learn from the example of others whenever possible than to start from scratch. He warns against overly distinguishing one’s views from others (sectarianism?) while too much agreement doesn’t move a discussion forward (opportunism?).

The book emphasizes the importance of imagination in tactics including “stunt actions” that generate publicity. He reminds us that even as some campaigns fail, the movement as a whole can still win.

Lakey’s GNAD looks at specific civil rights campaigns in the 1960s and finds that while 17 failed, 39 succeeded and this dynamic led to national legislation forcing states to cease obstructing efforts to integrate public facilities and (when enforced) stop blocking the right to vote.

Many readers will find in How We Win a host of tools useful in local campaigns, even though they might not buy into all of Lakey’s formulations concerning nonviolence. That would probably be just fine with him.


  1. Reveille for Radicals (Vintage, 1969, orig.1946); Rules for Radicals (Vintage, 1972).
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  2. Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Porter Sargent, 1973).
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  3. Charles E. Cobb Jr., This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, Duke University Press, 2016, 1.
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  4. In Faith S. Holsaert and others (eds.), Hands On the Freedom Plow, University of Illinois Press, 2010, 268.
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  5. The march, organized by Rev. King and the SNCC leadership, continued James Meredith’s solitary “March Against Fear” after he was wounded in an assassination attempt in Mississippi June 6, 1966.
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May-June 2019, ATC 200