Interview with George Lakey, writer at wagingnonviolence.org and author of "Strategy for a Living Revolution” and "Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right-and How We Can, Too".



Women gained the right to vote in Britain and the United States through direct action campaigns. Greenpeace used direct action to arouse the world to pass a ban on commercial whaling. Independence-minded people in Ghana and Hungary campaigned and overthrew imperial rule. Students in the United States and Britain pushed their colleges and universities into divesting holdings in fossil fuel companies. Puerto Ricans forced the U.S. Navy to stop using their islands for target practice.


Direct action is hardly a new technique. The GNAD, a searchable online database of campaigns developed at Swarthmore College, shows that successful campaigns have been waged for millennia, by workers, farmers, neighborhoods, indigenous peoples, and many other kinds of groups. Mass nonviolent direct action campaigns have even overthrown dictators in many countries—including tyrants backed by military power.


As a concept, however, such campaigns remain outside mainstream political discourse. A nonviolent direct action campaign typically makes a demand for one or more specific changes, identifies an opponent or “target” that can respond, and generates a series of nonviolent tactics that escalate over time.


Considering the drama often accompanying the campaigners’ actions, it’s curious that the concept of a “nonviolent campaign” remains little known. When people talk about how to mobilize power, direct action campaigning is usually ignored. Some will think of volunteering for someone running for office—a different kind of campaign. Most people find that the options that occur to them are lobbying, letterwriting, circulating petitions, or going to a protest.




Protests are well known, and popular. The trouble is, when I look back on the oneoff protests I’ve joined over the years, I don’t remember a single one that changed the policy we were protesting. In February 2003 I joined millions of others around the world on the eve of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The protest did get a huge front-page headline in The New York Times, but Bush needed only to wait until we went home.


The New York Times said the global anti-war protest indicated a “second global superpower,” but the Times overestimated. A one-off protest is for venting, not for exerting power. On that day I realized that the protest would not prevent Bush’s war, because the protest’s leadership didn’t tell us what we could do next, and how we would escalate after that—how we would take the offensive. The leadership didn’t offer us a campaign.


Bush had a plan to persist. We did not. Even today, the peace movement has not recovered from this false start, despite the American majority’s fairly consistent opposition to the war. Because of the poor strategic choice to mount a one-off protest, discouragement and inaction followed. In order to build the kind of power that creates change, we needed a direct action campaign that harnessed a series of actions into an escalating sequence. The typical protest is organizationally hollow, unsustainable, and not really a problem for a strong opponent, which above all fears our staying power.


The campaigns of the civil rights movement, for the most part, had that staying power. Open violence was widely used to resist the demand for justice; local and state law enforcement joined the racist resistance. The federal government usually refused to back up the movement, or even to protect the participants.


Despite those odds, a decade of campaigns achieved major changes. Each civil rights campaign had its “target”: a department store or restaurant or school board or bus company. As the community organization teachers at the Midwest Academy point out, a target is an entity able to say “yes” to the campaign’s demand. When a campaign inspires other campaigns, the sum of them becomes a movement. Today we see the same phenomenon: a cluster of campaigns related to a theme becomes a movement, like the struggle for a living wage or the fight against oil and gas pipelines.


Campaigns are very different from protests because they are built for sustainability and escalation. The four brave Greensboro, North Carolina, students who ignited the civil rights sit-in movement on February 1, 1960, did not plan a oneoff protest; they understood that they could not desegregate the lunch counter without returning again and again, no matter how often they were arrested or beaten up. What’s more, these were black students who knew full well that black people take extra risk when they do civil disobedience.


One reason why observers wonder if the Black Lives Matter activists have staying power is because it is unclear how many of the local protests against killings by police are transforming into genuine campaigns with winnable demands, targets that can yield those demands, and a strategy for growth and escalation. After all, without that transformation, there is no reason to expect an increase in justice, despite the heartbreak of continued killings of unarmed black people. Systemic abusive police practices, rooted in a culture of impunity, are impervious to expressions of outrage; it takes sustained power to force a real shift.


Protests are usually organized to express grief, anger, or plain opposition to an action or policy. If the event is well attended, a protest may be repeated. Campaigners, by contrast, plan from the start to do a series of nonviolent actions and continue until the goal is reached.


Campaigns give us feedback on how we’re doing, so we can refine our tactics. The impact of one-off protests is tough to measure, making it hard to see how we can improve. Campaigns, more than protests, benefit from training, and training develops participants for the long run. Training incorporates new participants and meets specific needs, like better communication across barriers of race, class, and gender.


Training promotes a robust learning curve, essential for the campaign to win and also for grooming future leaders. True, winning may take weeks, or months, or years. British students maintained a boycott of Barclays Bank that took 18 years to force the bank to divest from apartheid South Africa. Most campaigns secure their victories in a much shorter time. America’s earliest recorded nonviolent campaign after European settlement was in colonial Jamestown, Virginia, when Polish artisans—the first non-English settlers—campaigned for the right to vote equally with the English. The Poles won their demand in three months.


I know of no country that has undergone major change through one-off protests. Opponents realize that no matter how many people participate in sporadic protests, participants will go home again. Winning major demands requires staying power and, as this guide will share, much else besides.




Nonviolent campaigners know what they want: clean water in North Dakota for the Dakota Sioux people, the Dream Act for students brought to this country as children by undocumented immigrants, a cleanup of chemicals for the neighborhood of Love Canal, university paraphernalia made by workers who are treated fairly with safe working conditions. When indigenous tribes in California occupied Ward Valley as part of their campaign to preserve sacred land, they prevented the establishment of a nuclear waste dump.


Campaigners also know who can make the decision they need. Alice Paul led the National Woman’s Party direct action campaign for suffrage and targeted President Woodrow Wilson. As the film Iron Jawed Angels reveals, the women in their demonstrations during World War I compared the president to the German emperor, calling him “Kaiser Wilson”! When, many years later, I interviewed Alice Paul, she said she remembered being confident that President Wilson could make the difference in persuading a balky Congress to pass the 19th Amendment so women could vote. She was right. Her group picketed the White House—at that time unheard of—and once arrested, went on hunger strikes. Her 1917 escalation of the campaign brought the vote to women

in just three years.




The 1960s civil rights movement became expert in locating and sequencing its actions for a campaign in such a way as to increase the pressure on their target. When President John F. Kennedy refused Martin Luther King Jr.’s request for support for a civil rights bill, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) made an unusual strategic decision. Instead of doing what was customary, which was to focus action in the nation’s capital in order to gain a victory there, the SCLC decided to escalate in Birmingham, Alabama, at that time a major industrial city. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a member of SCLC, had for years led an ongoing campaign in Birmingham for equal accommodations.


In spring 1963, SCLC brought additional organizers and trainers to town, along with the charisma of Martin Luther King Jr., to join the local struggle. The campaigners escalated their tactics, confronting the segregationists’ police dogs and fire hoses with nonviolent discipline. The federal government was drawn in by the level of dislocation of the city. As numbers in the campaign grew it became possible to “invade” the downtown business area, creating a crisis and forcing business owners to negotiate. An agreement was finally reached, which held despite the violence from spoilers who hoped to maintain tight racial segregation.




The 1963 success in Birmingham elevated the civil rights movement to a national level. That sequence began in 1955 with the Montgomery bus boycott, significant for Alabama but not yet for the South. In town after southern town, small campaigns were waged in the following years with modest successes.

After the four college students initiated their sit-in campaign in Greensboro, students in other locations quickly followed suit. Within a month there were student sit-ins around the South and a small solidarity campaign at Woolworth stores in northern cities as well. In 1961 the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) launched a different campaign, the Freedom Rides, to integrate interstate buses. By 1963’s Birmingham campaign, participants were calling it “the Freedom Movement,” and it grew very rapidly from there.


This is only one of many examples of how multiple campaigns create a movement with power that no one campaign could develop.