Twenty years ago, the United States Presidential election was undergoing a crisis. On Election Night, November 7, 2000, the nation waited with bated breath as Florida was first announced for Democrat Al Gore, then Republican George Bush, then backpedaled completely, claiming the results too close to call with confidence. That night, the count in Florida saw Bush winning by just 1784 votes, automatically prompting a machine-recount. Three days later, the automated recount results showed Bush leading again, but only by a scant 327 votes. The Gore campaign requested manual recounts in four counties, in part citing possible malfunctions with some of the voting machines and the “chads,” the bits of paper hole-punched out of ballots. Some ballots seemed to have “hanging chads” and other incompletions, leading to possible miscounts with the machines. All of these requests were legal according to Floridian law, and reasonable given the extremely close margin between the two candidates as well as the outstanding issues with the automated counting machines. The Gore campaign organized a legal team to argue his case in the Florida Supreme Court, and was granted the deadline of November 25 to complete the recount. Gore seemed to have won the legal case, and as the recount went ahead, the corrected results seemed to be counting in his favor.
Meanwhile, however, a team of lawyers and other paid operatives of the Bush campaign and the Republican Party arrived in Florida. Well-coordinated and seasoned from working the campaign trail, they set about organizing protests among locals, trying to rile up conservatives and especially Cuban-Americans by conjuring up stories of leftists stealing elections. By November 22, with just three days left to count over 650,000 ballots, the officials at Miami-Dade County decided to focus on the 10,750 ballots that could not be read by the machines. By their own admission, Republicans expected the county to go to Gore. And so, as the counting continued, dozens of protesters led by those Republican operatives kicked, punched, and shoved themselves onto the floor of the building where the ballots were being counted, attempting to halt the process. According to the Democratic Chairman of Miami-Dade County at the time, Joe Geller, he was unable to even test his hypothesis about the machine errors due to protesters harassing him, accusing him of stealing ballots. While some Republicans maintain that most of the protesters were locals, there were enough Washington-types prominent in the crowd for the incident to be named for the distinctly conservative and expensive style of dress of most of the participants: “the Brooks Brothers Riot.” Among the Republican operatives involved were Roger Stone, former member of Nixon’s reelection committee, and current Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz. These besuited thugs intimidated the Miami-Dade County Board with such a sudden and shocking show that the Board unanimously suspended the recount hours after the encounter. The Board was convinced that continuing the recount would be perceived as illegitimate by the public, and that that negative perception might damage the democratic process as a whole -- ignoring the fact that calling off the recount actually disenfranchised thousands of voters, and that stopping the count of all official votes is fundamentally anti-democratic.
The recent reports coming out from Michigan, Arizona, and other battleground states of protesters attempting to disrupt or otherwise influence the electoral results through intimidation share some similarities with the Brooks Brothers Riot of 2000: mostly white, conservative, rowdy. Perhaps the most immediately noticeable difference is in the clothes: someone dubbed one of these ballot count disruptions in Michigan the “JC Penney Riot.” But focusing so much on the aesthetics of the protests ignores the most important difference between the Brooks Brothers Riot and these 2020 disruptions: the riot in 2000 was planned, organized, and executed by political operatives with months of experience on the presidential campaign trail. They knew each other, had worked together, trusted each other. With far less participants than in the large pro-Trump rallies being held now, those few Brooks Brothers rioters coordinated their demonstration so effectively that they got what they wanted within hours. These protests today, whether organized by locals on the ground or people within the Trump administration, so far do not seem to be nearly as well-organized. While President Trump has called for voter intimidation for weeks, it appears that he has not put in the work to actually organize such efforts. On the other side, however, national groups like Protect the Results, Election Defenders, and Choose Democracy have been preparing for weeks to ensure the elections are safe, accessible, and legitimate for all. Those groups have been analyzing the threats to the election, training people in de-escalation and nonviolent action, and coordinating with local groups for local efforts. The relative lack of voter intimidation, conflicts, and other issues this year despite calls to do so can likely be credited in-part to these groups. And if some of the present pro-Trump demonstrations continue to grow and even organize themselves, these same groups will still be here ready to respond.
We must remember that politics is about power. Foreign observers have said that the institutions of American democracy are more fragile now than ever. Americans themselves openly worry about an imminent second civil war. But American conservatism has always held the rest of the country hostage against itself, using violence or the threat of violence to coerce society and government. Proud Boys and Oathkeepers are just some of the more recent incarnations of the long history of organized American racism and xenophobia. In 2019, Twitter made controversial news when it was revealed that executives at Twitter refused to implement an automatic content filter for White supremacy and neo-nazism because too many currently seated US Republicans would be kicked off the platform. A refrain circulating the internet goes: “Racism is so American that when you protest it, people think you are protesting America.” Perhaps we should not be so shocked that racist gangs and militias like the Proud Boys and the Oathkeepers have been praised repeatedly by the sitting President, and that members are often indistinguishable from “normal” community members. Maybe with the collective trauma of 9/11 -- and all the other disruptions that followed -- most Americans forgot about the Brooks Brothers Riot as just one more issue among the seemingly endless problems that plagued the 2000 election results in Florida. But it should have been a wake-up call. It’s long since time to examine our history honestly, without excusing or brushing aside the repeated pattern of right-wing violence as legitimate expressions of political power.
Sources & Further Reading:
Berman, Ari. “How the 2000 Election in Florida Led to a New Wave of Voter Disenfranchisement.” The Nation. 28 July 2015. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/how-the-2000-election-in-florida-led-to-a-new-wave-of-voter-disenfranchisement/
Cox, Joseph and Jason Koebler. “Why Won’t Twitter Treat White Supremacy Like ISIS? Because It Would Mean Banning Some Republican Politicians Too.” Vice. 25 April 2019. https://www.vice.com/en/article/a3xgq5/why-wont-twitter-treat-white-supremacy-like-isis-because-it-would-mean-banning-some-republican-politicians-too
Gabbot, Adam. “Two decades after the 'Brooks Brothers riot', experts fear graver election threats.” The Guardian. 24 September 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/sep/24/us-elections-2020-violence-fears-brooks-brothers-riot
Heye, Douglas. “I was in the 2000 ‘Brooks Brothers Riot.’ Trump supporters are way out of line.” The Washington Post. 5 November 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/11/05/trump-stop-count-maricopa-detroit-protests/
Kim, Richard. “Why The Brooks Brothers Riot Matters Now.” HuffPost. 5 November 2020. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/brooks-brothers-riot-trump_n_5fa44256c5b623bfac4d4043
Miller, Michael E. “‘It’s insanity!’: How the ‘Brooks Brothers Riot’ killed the 2000 recount in Miami.” The Washington Post. 15 November 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2018/11/15/its-insanity-how-brooks-brothers-riot-killed-recount-miami/
Shuham, Matt. “‘Brooks Brothers Riot’ Redux: GOP Sends Supporters To Swarm MI Vote-Counting Center.” Talking Points Memo. 4 November 2020. https://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/brooks-brothers-riot-redux-gop-sends-supporters-to-swarm-mi-vote-counting-center
Steinbaum, Marshall. “Brooks Brothers Riot.” Jacobin. 22 September 2016. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/09/trump-brexit-racism-xenophobia-globalization-gop/
Wolf, Cam. “The Brooks Brothers Riot, the J.C. Penney Skirmish, and the Changing Republican Uniform.” GQ. 5 November 2020. https://www.gq.com/story/brooks-brothers-riot-2020
On October 20 of last year, Bolivians cast their ballots in their national presidential election. Evo Morales of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party was expected to win, granting him a fourth term to continue the leftist policies that have thus far resulted in impressive economic growth for the country. Crucially, this economic growth has not occurred at the cost of the indigenous poor peoples of Bolivia, as right-wing governments of the past had attempted, but hand-in-hand with the economic and social uplifting of the people of Bolivia. With such socially and economically just policies already working for 14 years, President Morales and MAS enjoyed overwhelming support in the country -- especially among Indigenous and Mestizo peoples, which together constitute the majority of Bolivia’s population. But 21 days later, after the opposition contested the legitimacy of the election results and started targeting MAS party members and their families, chief commander of the Bolivian armed forces General Wiliams Kaliman publicly requested that President Morales resign his position, and Morales soon after fled the country. Right-wing senator Jeanine Anez was then able to declare herself interim president in a move supported by the US government, misconstrued by mainstream Western media to seem more legitimate, and openly joked about by billionaire capitalist Elon Musk who happens to have interest in the country’s lithium supply.
Along with the greed behind the plan to sell Bolivia’s national resources for their own personal short-term gain, we must also consider the coup leaders’ racism. Much has been made of the relatively high number of coups and coup attempts in Bolivian history, and some have attempted to frame the one last year as more of the same in a country that just can never seem to make democracy work. But while it is true that much of the 20th century saw Bolivia wracked in political crises or military dictatorships, the most recent power-grab by the right-wing coalition in the country was the first in over 39 years. It was also the first successful rebellion against the latest Constitution of Bolivia, approved by public referendum in 2009, which defined Bolivia as a unified plurinational and secular (not Catholic, as it was before) country and thereby enfranchised Indigenous groups to exercise local autonomy and participation in government on their terms. As right-wing White descendants of European colonizers, most of the 2019 coup leaders, including Jeanine Anez, had on multiple occasions said out loud, tweeted, or otherwise indicated their sense of racial superiority, disdain for Indigenous cultural practices, and fantasies of violence against Indigenous and Mestizo peoples. The coup leaders clearly identify with the predominantly White global elite over the actual people of their country, evidenced by their desire to privatize and sell off the government-owned industries, reversing the MAS socialist policies which have lifted myriad Bolivians from poverty. But if that were not enough, it is simple enough to find records online of Anez and others in her circle dehumanizing Indigenous and Mestizo Bolivians with terms like “poor Indians” and “satanic.” Indeed, that language is not always meant to be figurative: some, like early coup leader Luis Fernando Camcho, are connected with fascist paramilitary groups like the Santa Cruz Youth Union, which advocates for separation from what they consider a heathen state.
As the 2019 Bolivian political crisis developed, many of these fascist paramilitary groups took to the streets. Some may have been involved in violent attacks and arsonry targeted at Morales, MAS members, and journalists. When the right-wing of the country coalesced behind Jeanine Anez and MAS began organizing protests against the new unconstitutional government in response, Anez made Decree 4078, which called on the Bolivian armed forces to assist in “the defense of society and maintaining public order” while exempting such participants from criminal liability. In the subsequent weeks, at least 25 people died of gunshot wounds and two of other causes, while hundreds were injured in clashes with law enforcement. A group of workers organized a march, only to be stopped by soldiers shooting into their ranks and killing nine. Road blockades and mass rallies were attacked by riot police, soldiers, and helicopters with live rounds. MAS, not fully realizing what had happened until it was too late, began negotiating with the new coup government in an attempt to stop the violence. Negotiating with the coup leaders, however, only legitimized the unconstitutional government and temporarily quelled much of the popular resistance.
As the negotiations between MAS and the coup leaders continued and the dust settled, protests dissipated, but frustrations grew. The MAS leaders compromised with the coup leaders, and for several months convinced their supporters to accept the new reality. During that time, Anez and her allies have removed Bolivia from multiple international political and economic organizations, expelled people from foreign countries (including the 700 Cuban doctors that provided the foundation for Bolivia’s new free healthcare system), threatened disenfranchisement of largely Indigenous areas, relaxed covid-19 restrictions against the advice of health officials, and privatized key industries in Bolivia. But by July of 2020, after the fourth postponement of the promised new general elections in just 8 months, the people of Bolivia demanded the immediate resignation of Jeanine Anez as well as general elections to be held in September. The Pact of Unity, a national coalition of powerful trade unions and Indigenous groups supporting MAS, called for a general strike and widespread sabotage. Boulders were scattered across highways, trenches dug into rural roads, and mountain passes dynamited -- the number of blockaded roads in Bolivia reaching over 200 in just a few weeks, with some cities completely shut down. The state responded with threats of military repression, and then encouraged right-wing paramilitary groups to attack roadblocks, resulting in dozens injured. Despite the mass rebellion, both MAS and the Anez administration decided to stick with the postponed election date in October. The Bolivian Workers Center (COB), the country’s largest trade union federation, eventually called for an end to the strike, and the Pact of Unity announced the demobilization of protest actions.
It may be tempting to think that the protests against the coup in November 2019 and July-August 2020 were inconsequential and ended in failure. The leaders of the trade unions, the Pact of Unity, and even MAS itself gave in to the demands of the coup government on multiple occasions long before popular resistance broke. But it is notable that after the uprising of July-August 2020, the date of the general election was not moved again. The coup government, despite their nominal command of the police and armed forces, was unable to even muster up a final attempt to retain power before the landslide defeat they suffered at the polls a couple weeks ago. The radical popular resistance exhibited across the country by the diverse multitudes of Bolivia reminded their supposed leaders in MAS that such strategies are what put MAS into power in the first place. Perhaps it is easy to say now with the benefit of hindsight, but with 14 recent years of wildly successful socialist economics and decades of organized allied social movements shaping the country, the leftist, progressive, and just forces of Bolivian society are too well-organized and entrenched to be defeated so easily. In the face of such commitment to Bolivian democracy, the long-term viability of Anez’ coup government never stood a chance.
Blair, Laurence and Cindy Jimenez Bercerra. “Bolivia protesters bring country to standstill over election delays.” The Guardian. 9 August 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/09/bolivia-protesters-bring-country-to-standstill-over-election-delays-covid-19-evo-morales
“Bolivia begins the week with an indefinite general strike and roadblocks.” Monthly Review Online. 6 August 2020. https://mronline.org/2020/08/06/bolivia-begins-the-week-with-an-indefinite-general-strike-and-roadblocks/
De Marval, Valentina. “Did Bolivia’s interim president delete anti-indigenous tweets?” AFP Fact Check.15 November 2019. https://factcheck.afp.com/did-bolivias-interim-president-delete-anti-indigenous-tweets
Ferreira, Javo. “Coup and Resistance in Bolivia.” Left Voice. 12 January 2020. https://www.leftvoice.org/coup-and-resistance-in-bolivia
“Healing the Pandemic of Impunity: 20 Human Rights Recommendations for Candidates in the 2020 Presidential Elections in Bolivia.” Amnesty International. 2020. https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/AMR1828712020ENGLISH.PDF
Mackler, Jeff and Lazaro Monteverde. “Bolivia: Anatomy of a Coup.” Popular Resistance. 26 November 2019. https://popularresistance.org/bolivia-anatomy-of-a-coup/
McEvoy, John. “Fear, confusion, and resistance after far-right coup in Bolivia.” The Canary. 12 November 2019. https://www.thecanary.co/global/world-analysis/2019/11/12/fear-confusion-and-resistance-after-far-right-coup-in-bolivia/
Narai, Robert. “Bolivia's right-wing coup government is facing resistance.” Red Flag. 19 August 2020. https://redflag.org.au/node/7329
Snider, Ted. “Morales’s Coup Fits a Long Pattern in Bolivian History.” Truthout. 11 December 2019. https://truthout.org/articles/moraless-coup-fits-a-long-pattern-in-bolivian-history/
Shaw, Danny. “Behind the Racist Coup in Bolivia.” Council on Hemispheric Affairs. 11 November 2019. https://www.coha.org/behind-the-racist-coup-in-bolivia/
In the past week, the internet has been abuzz about the decisive victory Luis Arce and his Movement for Socialism (MAS) party won on October 18. And as well it should: the victory signals the return of democracy to Bolivia after last year’s far-right coup ousted President Evo Morales and other MAS party members from their positions. The internet being what it is, however, some facts and histories have become conflated and unsubstantiated rumors are being repeated as fact. Let us look into the brief history of Bolivia for context as to what happened last October, what happened just last week, and its relevance to the United States.
Bolivia has had a history of political instability and human rights violations particularly perpetrated against Indigenous peoples. Like much of Central and South America, that history begins with the near-complete destruction and subjugation of Indigenous civilizations through Spanish colonization that lasted for about 300 years. In the 19th century, with the European empires in crisis following the Napoleonic Wars, and inspired by the United States and Haitian revolutions against colonial rule, wars of independence were waged successfully across Spanish-American territories (Bolivia is named for the legendary Simon Bolivar, “the Liberator”). But, like in the United States, the pre-existing White male landholding elites led these new nations, with Indigenous peoples in almost every Latin American country designated second-class citizens. This was the case in Bolivia, as well, despite Indigenous people making up the vast majority of the population. Wealthy landowners forced Indigenous people into peasantry to work their estates and mines. The natural resources of the region, silver and then tin in Bolivia in particular, brought foreign investors and trading partners. Meanwhile, conflicts between the elites, seeking to consolidate or carve out some land and power of their own, brought even more violence -- Bolivia lost more than half of its land to neighboring countries in the 19th century following independence.
After thirty years of free-market economics that collapsed with the Great Depression in the 20th century, Bolivia followed the shift in much of the world toward greater suffrage. More wars over land and resources were fought, strengthening the importance of the military in Bolivian society. At the same time, political parties like the popular Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) emerged including persons of Native and mixed descent. Over the course of the 20th century, the Bolivian military intervened in the government on multiple occasions, almost always as right-wing reactions to the success of left-wing politicians and parties. At least one, the dictatorship of General Hugo Banzer from 1971-1978 was materially supported by the United States through CIA Operation Condor, and only brought down when four women started a hunger strike that inspired a national movement of nonviolent resistance. Right-wing coups continued to plague the people of Bolivia as they repeatedly tried to establish a peaceful, lasting democracy, while foreign multinational corporations gradually privatized more of Bolivia’s resources. It was not until the early 2000s, with the Water War of Cochabamba that saw Indigenous people fighting back against the privatization of municipal water, and the Bolivian Gas War over the ownership of the natural gas mines, that a new movement of Indigenous socialist organizations emerged, with labor activist Evo Morales at its head. Morales and MAS campaigned on a promise to finally empower the marginalized groups in the country; when he won the presidency in 2006, Evo Morales became the first Indigenous head of state in South America. Since MAS and Morales took leadership of Bolivia, to the shock and reluctant admiration from the neoliberal western powers, the socialist policies of de-privatization and public ownership of industries have fulfilled that promise, vastly raising the standard of living for the poor, while simultaneously improving the Bolivian economy. According to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, extreme poverty was reduced by half, and the country’s GDP grew by almost 5% per year.
So, if things were going so well for Morales and MAS, how did this coup occur? First, for all the good Morales has accomplished -- and the list is impressive -- many leftists believe he probably should have taken a step back at some point to promote (and advise) a new face of his party. In 2016, the results of a national referendum seemed to agree that presidential term limits should be enforced. To many even in his own party, it did not matter that the Supreme Court later struck down the referendum based on the American Convention of Human Rights, and that Morales was legally permitted to run for a fourth term -- his image was already starting to sour.
Fast forward to the Bolivian election of October 2019: reasonably assuming that the vast majority of rural Indigenous voters would overwhelmingly choose Morales, MAS declares victory before all the ballots are counted. The right-wing opposition quickly pounced, using the opening to claim manipulation and fraud. The far-right quickly fell in line behind notoriously racist legislator Jeanine Anez, who declared herself interim president. The police turned on Morales, killing dozens in street protests with Morales supporters.
And it was not just Bolivians who were mobilized. An entire machine of anti-Morales propaganda aimed at audiences outside of Bolivia appeared seemingly overnight. The Organization of American States (OAS), which was originally established during the Cold War specifically to prevent the rise of democratically-elected leftist governments like MAS, almost immediately claimed to have “deep concern” (at first without evidence) that cast further doubt on the election results. Over a million tweets seemingly from Bolivian accounts claimed to the world “there is no coup.” And the vast majority of American mainstream media fell for the racist, historically ignorant, and simply inaccurate narrative of a corrupt and anti-democratic Latin-American “strongman” finally being removed, even refusing to call it a “coup” at all: the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and even non-American liberal sources like the Guardian. Morales, his family, and others in his party were threatened with kidnappings, assassinations, and more. Morales fled to Mexico, and many others went into hiding.
But it later turned out that the OAS had fabricated any evidence of election tampering, and those tweets came from a massive bot network created by one US Army veteran and apparent right-wing troll Luis Suarez. The mainstream media was either racist, lazy, and/or simply expressing their neoliberal ideologies. And then there’s the tweet from Elon Musk. Last year, as the internet blew up over the Bolivian election crisis, in an example of what some call “saying the quiet parts out loud,” the celebrity billionaire incredibly announced his naked hostility to democracy when it suits the interests of capitalists like himself. Being accused of conspiring with the United States government to organize the coup against Morales in order to obtain lithium from the country, Musk flippantly responded: “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”
In the year since the coup, the right-wing government under Anez has allegedly kidnapped, murdered, and imprisoned MAS supporters in an effort to stamp out leftist politics in Bolivia. Less than a month after declaring the presidency for herself, and just a week after the military fired massacred at least 23 pro-Morales protesters during a nonviolent demonstration, Anez made Decree 4078 granting impunity for human rights violations committed by the Bolivian Armed Forces in maintaining “public order.”
Well, as MAS returns to power in Bolivia, with citizens decisively siding against the right-wing anti-democratic conspirators, many on the internet have dug up the old tweet, along with those claims that Musk himself, or at least the United States government was involved in organizing the coup. Despite some overtures from the Anez regime to foreign businesses to buy up Bolivia’s lithium (including to Musk), the hard evidence of collusion is scant, and mostly conjecture. The troll Suarez seems to have been a lone actor, and no hard evidence has emerged that the conspirators in Bolivia received material aid from the United States. Admittedly, the false claims repeatedly promoted by the OAS are difficult to ignore, especially considering President Trump’s personal support of the coup, as well as the explicitly leftist reasons for the existence of OAS -- but spreading propaganda and misinformation is not necessarily evidence of a premeditated conspiracy. Indeed, the fact that the OAS could not produce any evidence, even faked evidence, for weeks after announcing their “deep concern” indicates that the Bolivian coup was a happy accident for the OAS to take advantage.
Regardless of who organized the coup, many of the people who fanned the flames, especially outside of Bolivia, were based in the United States. Anti-democratic sentiments are exposing themselves with greater confidence -- just look at that Musk tweet. As the world’s premier “democracy,” last Cold War-era super power, de facto empire, and “leader of the free world,” we are in the strange position that what happens here has an outsized effect in the world. When we go to vote in a couple weeks, we must also consider the racist right-wing violence and undemocratic policies promoted by our own leaders -- there is more at stake than just the future of the United States.
“Bolivia: Jeanine Añez must immediately repeal decree giving impunity to Armed Forces personnel.” Amnesty International, 18 November 2019. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/11/bolivia-derogar-norma-impunidad-fuerzas-armadas/
Chocquehuanca, David and Bruno Sommer Catalan. “Bolivia’s Socialist VP Candidate: “‘The Coup Against Evo Morales Was Driven by Multinationals and the Organization of American States.’” Jacobin, 26 January 2020. https://jacobinmag.com/2020/09/bolivia-elections-david-choquehuanca-mas-morales
Derysh, Igor. “‘Cyber Rambo’: How a US Army vet aided the right-wing coup in Bolivia.” Salon, 23 January 2020. https://www.salon.com/2020/01/24/cyber-rambo-how-a-us-army-vet-aided-the-right-wing-coup-in-bolivia/
Johnston, Jake. “Data from Bolivia’s Election Add More Evidence That OAS Fabricated Last Year’s Fraud Claims.” Center for Economic and Policy Research, 21 October 2020. https://cepr.net/data-from-bolivias-election-add-more-evidence-that-oas-fabricated-last-years-fraud-claims/
Lambert, Renaud. “Bolivia’s coup.” Le Monde, December 2019. https://mondediplo.com/2019/12/02bolivia
Macleod, Alan. “Why the Bolivia coup is not a coup — because the U.S. foreign policy establishment wanted it.” Salon, 13 November 2019. https://www.salon.com/2019/11/13/why-the-bolivia-coup-is-not-a-coup-because-the-u-s-foreign-policy-establishment-wanted-it/
“Massacre in Cochabamba: Anti-Indigenous Violence Escalates as Mass Protests Denounce Coup in Bolivia.” Democracy Now!, 18 November 2019. https://www.democracynow.org/2019/11/18/bolivia_cochabamba_massacre_anti_indigenous_violence
Robinson, Nathan J. “Lessons From The Bolivian Coup.” Current Affairs, 26 November 2019. https://www.currentaffairs.org/2019/11/lessons-from-the-bolivian-coup
Rozsa, Matthew. “Elon Musk becomes Twitter laughingstock after Bolivian socialist movement returns to power.” Salon, 20 October 2020. https://www.salon.com/2020/10/20/elon-musk-becomes-twitter-laughingstock-after-bolivian-socialist-movement-returns-to-power/
Wilgress, Matt. “The Far-Right Coup in Bolivia.” Jacobin, 14 November 2020. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/11/bolivia-coup-evo-morales-jeanine-anes-indigenous-violence
[Content Warning: mention of extreme cruelty and violence, human rights abuses]
In 1987, Argentine military leaders started the Carapintada Mutiny against the relatively new civilian government, attempting to evade accountability for human rights violations perpetrated under the previous government. Argentina had suffered political instability throughout much of the 20th century, including multiple military coups, and this mutiny seemed to be the start of another powergrab. But the attempt failed, defeated not by the superior leadership of the civilian President Raul Alfonsin, but snuffed out by overwhelming numbers of citizens on the streets demanding an end to the violence and military rule once and for all.
In 1976, a right-wing military junta supported by US Operation Condor seized power in Argentina and terrorized the country for the next seven years in what the junta itself called the Dirty War. Drawing its authority in part from a secret decree from the previous government, the National Reorganization Process, or Proceso, removed President Isabel Peron, suspended Congress and the Supreme Court, imposed strict media censorship, and banned all political parties and unions. With all checks on power removed, the Proceso sent military and right-wing paramilitary death squads to torture and massacre or otherwise disappear an estimated 10,000-30,000 people over seven years. Victims included anyone suspected of being a guerrilla, trade unionist, leftist, or other dissident of either the Proceso or the neoliberal economic policies of Operation Condor. The regime also disappeared hundreds of pregnant women, murdering them after giving birth and distributing their children as spoils of war: some were raised in new families, others abandoned, and still others sold into human trafficking. The Proceso only came to an end in 1983 after mismanaging the economy and permitting widespread corruption for years, suffering a humiliating defeat in the failed invasion of the Islas Malvinas (AKA the Falkland Islands), and being pressured by the international community to reinstate democratic processes. In fact, it was the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, women whose pregnant daughters had been disappeared, who were largely responsible for bringing global attention to the atrocities.
Under pressure from all sides, the military junta permitted open elections in 1983, and the centrist candidate Raul Alfonsin won on a platform to bring the perpetrators of human rights abuses to justice. Shortly after taking office, President Alfonsin launched the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons. After a year of research, in September 1984, the Commission produced the “Nunca Mas” (Never Again) report detailing thousands of deaths and disappearances under the Proceso. The Trial of the Juntas officially began in April 1985, seven months later.
The trials were gradual and methodical, and many who were to stand trial retained their positions in the military in the intervening years. In the meantime, anxiety grew among those who had perpetrated the state-sponsored atrocities of the Dirty War. In 1986, the military successfully pressured President Alfonsin and the National Congress under threat of a coup to pass the Full Stop Law, which effectively granted immunity for the atrocities the Commission was meant to investigate. Even still, on April 15, 1987, Major Ernesto Barreiro was called by civilian court subpoena to answer for allegations of torture and murder as chief torturer at the La Perla concentration camp. Barreiro refused to comply, instead taking refuge in the 14th Airborne Infantry Regiment camp at Cordoba with support from the local commander. The mutiny quickly spread to other military bases and barracks. Soon, the Carapintadas (“Painted Faces”), so-called for their military camouflage, demanded amnesty for all alleged human rights violations as well as a change to the military authority.
President Alfonsin waffled on his response to the rebellion -- flatly refusing to negotiate at first, then later insisting on a compromise for “all the major political parties.” He even went on at a separate public address to call the mutineers “heroes of the Malvinas war,” a comment met with derision from the audience. Indeed, apparently dissatisfied with the government’s ambivalent response to the mutiny, Argentines themselves took action. Just two days after Barreiro’s subpoena refusal, about 500 civilians marched onto the Cordoba base, defying a tank placed there to intimidate them, and forced the surrender of the 80 officers there. Thousands more citizens besieged the Campo de Mayo facility, an infamous site of human rights atrocities, while 400,000 took to the streets of Buenos Aires in opposition to the coup attempt. The trade union federation called for a general strike, motorists waved Argentine flags and honked in support of protesters, and at least one massive street demonstration was happening in some major city every day. Protesters rallied around slogans: “Nunca mas” and “Long live democracy! Argentina!”
Encouraged by the clear opposition to the mutiny by Argentine citizens, President Alfonsin finally took charge. He distributed a document to all the prominent members of Argentine society, asking them to “support in all ways possible the constitution, the normal development of the institutions of government and democracy as the only viable way of life of the Argentines.” Leaders of all the major political parties, civic organizations, labor unions, business groups, and the Catholic Church signed, effectively turning all corners of society against the coup. On April 17, President Alfonsin himself went to the citizen-besieged Campo de Mayo and negotiated the mutineers’ surrender, announcing later “The time for the coups has ended.” The mutiny had been defeated.
Or so it appeared. In actuality, the centrist President Alfonsin ultimately gave in to most of the mutineers’ demands. In the weeks after the mutiny, Alfonsin changed the oversight authorities for the military, as the Carapintadas demanded. Alfonsin also passed the Law of Due Obedience shortly after the mutiny, which granted amnesty for subordinates who may have committed atrocities while carrying out orders. Justice regarding Proceso-era atrocities would not be resumed until 2003, when the Full Stop Law of 1986 and the Law of Due Obedience of 1987 were ruled unconstitutional, over 16 years later. The people of Argentina defeated a nascent military coup and saved democracy in their country, but in the process let their ambivalent centrist government betray the very reason for putting down the rebellion in the first place. So let us remember to maintain scrutiny of our legitimate leaders even after illegitimate power-grabs are defeated and democracy is saved, lest we put off justice any longer.
“Argentina: The Full Stop and Due Obedience Laws and International Law.” Amnesty International, April 2003. https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/3f13d9d34.pdf
Blakemore, Erin. “30,000 People Were ‘Disappeared’ in Argentina’s Dirty War. These Women Never Stopped Looking.” History.com, March 7, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/mothers-plaza-de-mayo-disappeared-children-dirty-war-argentina
“Nunca Mas (Never Again): Report of Conadep (National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons).” Desaperecidos.org. http://www.desaparecidos.org/nuncamas/web/english/library/nevagain/nevagain_000.htm
Zunes, Stephen. Civil Resistance Against Coups: A Comparative and Historical Perspective. ICNC Monograph Series, 2017. https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/ICNC-Monograph-Civil-Resistance-Against-Coups.pdf
On Sunday, October 11, many of us will celebrate National Coming Out Day. Few, however, know that October 11 was chosen to commemorate the largest demonstration on Washington, D.C. up to that point: the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, AKA “The Great March” of 1987. Between 500,000 and 750,000 participants marched on the National Mall for a number of interconnected issues, not least of all demands for the Reagan Administration to finally acknowledge and address the ongoing AIDS epidemic that was disproportionately affecting men who had sex with men. The March encompassed six days of activities, starting with a mass wedding conducted for 2,000 same-sex couples in front of the IRS building. In many ways, we in 2020 share much with those Americans 33 years ago: a fatal disease spreads unchecked through the population as a far-right government callously and intentionally ignores the danger. But against all odds, in just a single generation, activists and allies rapidly transformed attitudes and policies toward queer people altogether, leading to increased research into HIV/AIDS, the adoption and later repeal of the “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy, the legalization of equal marriage, and countless lives saved from disease, homophobic violence, or suicide. And many of those who helped shape the course of our society got their start at The Great March in 1987.
It was a pivotal moment in queer history. The HIV/AIDS epidemic had started in 1981, but had been permitted by the Reagan Administration to absolutely devastate gay communities the entire time. People struggled for years to get help from the medical community, from the government, from anyone -- all while watching their loved ones die. Then in 1986, in the ruling for Bowers v. Hardwick, the US Supreme Court upheld the criminalization of “sodomy” between two consenting men in the privacy of a home. This regressive and outrageous violation of individual privacy spurred a new impetus for people to organize in protest. The group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was one such group to form in this time -- a leaderless organization dedicated to ending the AIDS epidemic through nonviolent direct action: conducting medical research or forcing the government to fund such research, direct treatment of sick people and advocacy for sick people, promoting safe sex and comprehensive sex education, and more. ACT UP played a significant role in The Great March of 1987, featuring prominently in the march itself, the main rally, and the civil disobedience action at the US Supreme Court. It was the first time ACT UP was covered in national news, but it certainly would not be the last -- after participants had returned home, local ACT UP chapters began popping up all over the country, transforming society.
Why was the Great March of 1987 so successful? After all, it was the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights -- what made this second one so much more successful than the first? The first march was held in 1979, ten years after the Stonewall Riots and a year after the assassination of Harvey Milk. Big names were in attendance: Allen Ginsberg, Audre Lorde, Congressman Ted Weiss, and more. The National Steering Committee mandated gender parity and 25% representation of people of color. A few other groups were contacted to support the March: Lambda Legal Defense Fund, National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, the National Organization of Women (NOW), and the National Gay Task Force. Organizers agreed upon a few specific demands unique and inclusive to all lesbian/gay people. Despite all that, only 75,000 to 125,000 participants attended -- a relatively small crowd compared to many other marches of the past couple decades. What’s worse, the event did not seem to inspire participants by and large to organize and take action on their own.
By 1987, the situation had changed dramatically. The HIV/AIDS crisis in the United States started in 1981, two years after the first march. In the first six years, at least 1,920 people had died from AIDS, each one represented by a 3 ft by 6 ft panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt first presented on the National Mall during The Great March, and the number was rising unchecked; when the Quilt was laid out for the first time, it covered an area larger than a football field. President Reagan himself did not publicly utter the word “AIDS” until well into his second term, and intentionally ignoring the crisis had become a de facto policy. But in the intervening years, queer activists had linked up with other social movements, learning from more experienced groups and coming to recognize the commonality of their oppressions. In preparation for The Great March, a new list of demands was made that included not just legal protection for people in homosexual relationships nor the mere repeal of all anti-sodomy laws, but also included a demand to end discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS (regardless of sexual ortientation), a demand for reproductive freedom, and a demand for an end to racism in the United States and apartheid in South Africa. In the months of organizing leading to The Great March, queer activists contacted not just big names to participate, but big organizations to endorse this platform. The list of groups endorsing the March in 1987 filled several pages, and included labor unions, civil rights groups, women’s organizations, religious groups, and elected officials at various levels. Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers and a leading figure in the Chicano civil rights movement, was a keynote speaker. Eleanor Smeal, three-term President of the National Organization for Women, was also a keynote speaker. In a speech at the March, Democratic Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson said, “We gather today to say that we insist on equal protection under the law for every American, for workers' rights, women's rights, for the rights of religious freedom, the rights of individual privacy, for the rights of sexual preference. We come together for the rights of all American people.” In a summary of how this new LGBTQ+ movement connected to other social movements, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington wrote in his endorsement letter, “The breadth of the issues highlighted by the March -- against racism and apartheid, as well as for civil rights -- is consistent with the historic thrust of struggles for civil rights in this country.”
Indeed, the March in 1987 was one the first times the LGBTQ+ movement exercised another American tradition: mass civil disobedience. Three days into the activities, ACT UP led the nonviolent action “Out & Outraged” in which activists attempted to enter the US Supreme Court to demand the reversal of the decision in Bowers v. Hardwick. Although the scene may have appeared chaotic to some, ACT UP had previously learned certain organizing practices from groups like the War Resisters League in order to safely and effectively perform actions -- some practices that many other groups still use today. For example, every participant was required to be part of an autonomous “affinity group.” This rule meant that no single individual could spontaneously join the action without their group nearby to keep the individual both accountable and safe. It also meant that there was a great amount of trust shared between members of the same affinity group. Affinity groups would be formed months in advance, and members would often train, learn, and work together on the same issues. These best practices in organizing, like the use of affinity groups, helped maintain safety, accountability, and focus while diverse participants carried on potentially dangerous actions. With these practices, the LGBTQ+ movement joined the ranks of more mature, experienced, and successful movements that had already won many successes with the same nonviolent action strategies.
Of course, the situation facing us now is not quite the same as in 1987. Because Covid-19 is a sickness of the breath, not the blood, and is thus much easier to spread than HIV/AIDS, we must exercise far greater caution. And yet, when George Floyd was murdered in May, people found ways to express their rage on the streets while staying safe. From 1981 to 1987, the United States tragically lost about 1,920 people to AIDS. The pain of those losses sparked a movement during a deadly epidemic that not only saved countless lives by pressuring a negligent government and speeding up HIV/AIDS research, but also helped to rapidly transform attitudes and policies toward queer people in the United States altogether. Sometimes, it is from pain and outrage that the most transformative movements grow. It’s time to let them come out again.
(The image for this post is a part of a collection assembled by Markley Morris, a LGBTQ+ activist and artist involved with War Resisters League, and is featured in the War Resisters League Perpetual Calendar. Full source for the image below. To see more pages from the Perpetual Calendar as well as to order your own copy, follow this link: https://www.warresisters.org/store/wrl-perpetual-calendar
If you would like to subscribe to the text-only Google Calendar version of the Perpetual Calendar, follow this link: https://calendar.google.com/calendar/embed?src=i10q0ba7d5vsn857rhopomg98o%40group.calendar.google.com&ctz=America%2FNew_York)
“Affinity Groups & Support.” ACT UP. https://actupny.org/documents/CDdocuments/Affinity.html
Butigan, Ken. “LGBTQ everywhere: the power of marching on Washington.” Waging Nonviolence. October 11, 2012. https://wagingnonviolence.org/2012/10/lgbtq-everywhere-the-power-of-marching-on-washington/?pf=true
D’Emilio, John. “The 1987 March on Washington Committee: The Chicago Chapter.” Out History. December 21, 2016. http://outhistory.org/blog/in-the-archives-the-1987-march-on-washington-committee-the-chicago-chapter/
“Jim.radke.3” Nonviolent Civil Disobedience at the U.S. Supreme Court, October 13, 1987. http://supremecourtcd.org/Photos.html#38
Springate, Megan E. “LGBTQ Civil Rights in America.” LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History. National Park Foundation, 2016: Washington, DC. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/lgbtqheritage/upload/lgbtqtheme-civilrights.pdf
Stein, Marc. “Memories of the 1987 March on Washington - August 2013.” Out History. http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/march-on-washington/exhibit/by-marc-stein
“Wedding, The.” Histories of the National Mall. http://mallhistory.org/items/show/532
Williams, Lena. “200,000 March in Capital to Seek Gay Rights and Money for AIDS.” The New York Times. October 12, 1987. https://web.archive.org/web/20070326092700/http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?sec=health&res=9B0DE7DA1E3CF931A25753C1A961948260
This past week, activists in Philadelphia made an incredible announcement: the city government had tentatively agreed to turn over 50 vacant homes to a community land trust, ensuring that those homes will remain affordable forever. This historic victory comes after six months of direct action: supported by a diverse network of activists, over 120 people in two homeless encampments protested the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), while 15 mothers and their children weathered threats of eviction from the formerly vacant homes they had moved into. Activists and organizers at various levels coordinated and sustained pressure on the PHA to lead to this tentative agreement. With over 5000 homeless people in Philadelphia, and with this present deal for the first 50 homes not yet finalized, much more work is still to be done. But the success so far is a model for many other communities seeking to secure permanent affordable housing and equitable economic development -- a model first pioneered by Black farmers on a 5700-acre tract of land in Albany, Georgia in 1969.
The first community land trust (CLT) was New Communities, Inc., organized primarily by civil rights activists in the late 1960s for Black sharecroppers who had lost their homes and jobs for registering to vote. It was an experiment in cooperation and collective resilience in the face of endless challenges. Like the recent efforts in Philadelphia and elsewhere, the creation of New Communities grew out of resistance and necessity -- and so did the movements around the world that inspired the CLT in the first place. Influences include the Gramdan village movement in India organized by Vinoba Bhave, who had worked with Gandhi, as well as the single-tax movement in the United States and the garden city movement in the UK. One key figure in the development of the CLT was Bob Swann, a founding member of the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action (NECNVA; predecessor of the Voluntown Peace Trust), who began to explore “nonviolent economics” when he was in prison as a war resister during World War II. Swann’s major theoretical contribution to the development of community land trusts was to put the “C” in CLT, emphasizing the importance of community control of the land they put in trust.
The “Peace Farm” that eventually became the Voluntown Peace Trust was an early experiment in some of Swann’s ideas for an intentional community, but it wasn’t until he began working with Slater King, president of the Albany Movement and a cousin of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles Sherrod, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and others from the civil rights movement that the first community land trust in the United States was born.
But what, exactly, is a community land trust? A community land trust (CLT) is a nonprofit corporation that actively acquires, holds, and stewards land for a place-based community, usually in order to provide affordable housing, increase food security, and equitably redevelop neighborhoods. The CLT acquires land with the intention of owning it forever, but any building on that land may be sold to an individual homeowner, a housing cooperative, a rental housing developer, or some other nonprofit, for-profit, or governmental entity. In addition, the CLT may also lease the land on which a building stands to the new building owner in a ground-lease, granting long-term exclusive-use rights to that land and a resale formula which maintains the permanent affordability while allowing limited equity. This means that one may buy, sell, alter, inherit, and even mortgage a building on land owned by a CLT.
CLTs are designed to be guided by and accountable to the community that lives in and around it. The size of the community can range from a single neighborhood to an entire county, and all adults who live within the community typically qualify as voting members of the CLT. A board of directors leads the CLT, with members drawn equally from three groups of stakeholders within the community: residents/leaseholders of CLT-owned land, CLT members, and public representatives who can connect to broader constituencies. Many CLTs actively seek to expand their land holdings, including community gardens, civic buildings, commercial spaces, and other community assets. There is a great deal of diversity under the umbrella term of “community land trust.” The fundamental purpose for the CLT, however, is always primarily to secure permanent affordable housing for people with low or moderate income in an equitable way.
From its founding in 1969 to 1983, many of the resident farmers of New Communities considered their land trust as a safe haven for other Blacks. The dozen or so residents of New Communities, as well as dozens more participating community members, grew and sold crops, raised and slaughtered hogs, operated a smokehouse, and even built a sugarcane mill. But a combination of systemic racism and bad fortune conspired against them. Racist Whites in the area boycotted their market and otherwise sabotaged New Communities. Blight and bad weather caused financial troubles to mount. Requests for an emergency loan from the federal Farmers Home Administration were consistently denied by local officials, despite the approval of similar requests from neighboring White farmers. Then, starting in 1981, a severe drought devastated the farms of southwest Georgia, exacerbating problems. When finally Washington officials forced local administrators to approve the loans, the assistance New Communities received was consistently too little, too late, and tied to arbitrary restrictions. New Communities persisted for a few years longer, but eventually lost the property to foreclosure in 1985.
The residents of New Communities were just some of the victims of the systemic discrimination by the Farmers Home Administration over several years, as was revealed in a national class action lawsuit brought by Black farmers against the FHA in 1997. As one judge wrote later, “In several Southeastern states, for instance, it took three times as long on average to process the application of an African American farmer as it did to process the application of a white farmer.” But the members of New Communities did not disappear, instead continuing to meet regularly even after losing the original property. The case against the FHA was eventually settled, and in 2009, New Communities was awarded $12 million in damages. The community land trust invested the money in a new 1600-acre property named Resora, some miles outside of Albany, GA, to pick up where they had left off all those years ago. After almost two and a half decades, their persistence paid off.
New Communities continues to foster and inspire community land trusts across the country and around the world as a model for permanent affordable housing and equitable economic development. They celebrated 50 years of resilience last year, hosting community land trust activists from around the country, supported by Grounded Solutions. Today, more than 330 CLTs exist around the United States, including the Southeastern Connecticut Community Land Trust (SE CT CLT), affiliated with the Voluntown Peace Trust.
Arc of Justice: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of a Beloved Community. Producer/Directors Helen S. Cohen and Mark Lipman. Open Studio Productions. 2016. https://www.arcofjusticefilm.com/
Breed, Allen G. “Black Farmers’ Lawsuit Revives a Dream.” The Washington Post. December 6, 2001. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2001/12/06/black-farmers-lawsuit-revives-a-dream/f286668f-67de-400f-a10b-051ba9bf47a7/
Elliot, Debbie. “5 Decades Later, New Communities Land Trust Still Helps Black Farmers.” National Public Radio. October 3, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/10/03/766706906/5-decades-later-communities-land-trust-still-helps-black-farmers
Lacey, Akela. “Philadelphia activists on verge of historic win for public housing.” The Intercept. September 29, 2020. https://theintercept.com/2020/09/29/philadelphia-public-housing/
Mills, Stephanie. On Gandhi’s Path: Bob Swann’s Work for Peace and Community Economics. New Society Publishers. 2010.
Black and Brown Workers Cooperative (who led the Philadelphia CLT campaign): http://blackandbrownworkerscoop.org/
Philadelphia Housing Action (latest info from the coalition of groups in the Philadelphia CLT campaign): https://philadelphiahousingaction.info/
New Communities, Inc.: https://www.newcommunitiesinc.com/
More on the history of CLTs: http://cltroots.org/
Video-lecture and slideshow on the history of CLTs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aC7YRbih4IY&t
Southeastern Connecticut Community Land Trust: https://sectclt.org/
On the gray and rainy morning of December 1, 1960, one hundred and fifty people gathered at San Francisco’s Union Square in excited anticipation: a diverse crowd of students, minor celebrities, the religiously-motivated, and others, along with a couple filmmakers and half a dozen people in news and media. The air was chilly, the wind blustery, and perhaps some in attendance were considering going home when, “As if by Providence, the grey ceiling opened and a stream of sunlight washed the Square as the marchers entered.” After a warm reception and a couple send-off speeches from community leaders, the walkers lifted their signs and strode out. No one, least of all the walkers themselves, knew if they would be admitted into Eastern Europe when they finally arrived, or if they would even find hospitality everywhere in their own country -- volunteers were out establishing contacts to support the Walk in California even as the walkers left Union Square. Thus, as flashbulbs burst from cameras and supporters chatted and laughed as they strode beside, and the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace began its 6000 mile journey.
The whole project took a considerable amount of work to organize behind the scenes. So much had to be coordinated: meals, meetings and interviews with the media, rendezvous with local supporters, and especially overnight housing. Bradford Lyttle, one of the principal organizers of the Walk, started the Walk with the others, but eventually found himself zipping on ahead in cars and planes to coordinate. Lyttle especially organized a good amount of media coverage: a 10 minute radio interview here, a two hour radio interview there. Filmmakers even set up an interview between Brad Lyttle and Rand Corporation representative Herman Kahn, who had recently published the book On Thermonuclear War.
It took the Walkers the entire first month to cross California and enter Arizona three days behind schedule -- a whole month of learning from painful mistakes and experience. They tested all types of boots and sneakers for walking -- Brad Lyttle estimated that the Walk wore out 200 pairs of shoes. They learned how to treat their blisters, and incorporated foot care into their routine. They learned the physical limits of their bodies, and that almost all of them would have to take the occasional break, at least until their bodies became used to walking an average of 23 miles every day. They learned that sending a car out a few miles ahead of the walkers to talk to the locals sometimes made the difference between free hot meals and empty stomachs. They learned the difference between coordinating in a small town versus a sprawling city: in Los Angeles, organizers had arranged for eight families scattered across the city to host the eight Team members, only to realize the difficulty of coordinating the transportation to each destination in a city like L.A. (especially before mobile phones). Perhaps most importantly, the Walkers learned how to work with each other. This “group of artists, intellectuals, mystics, anarchists and whatnot,” as Lyttle described them, learned to work through differences in opinions and make collective decisions -- despite the “desire for autonomous individuality [which] collides with our need for organization, resulting in relatively complete chaos most of the time.”
Brad Lyttle was likely exaggerating about the chaos -- or perhaps he was accurate and it was exactly that creative individuality that also accounted for some of the Walk’s success. The Walk certainly attracted unique people. Bea Burnett was one early convert to the Walk. A corporate spokesperson who had been inspired by marchers at a meeting in San Francisco, Burnett threw herself into the project. At first, she volunteered for the advance work of securing food and housing for the walkers -- in the first week of the Walk, she even convinced local businessmen at a shopping center to give the walkers free lunches and haircuts. Barton Stone, a Buddhist who attended a meeting during the send-off for the Walk in San Francisco, was another early joiner. Others, like John Beecher, an eminent poet and English professor at Arizona State University, and his wife Barbara Beecher, an artist, had been developing their own pacifist feelings for some time, and took the Walk as their opportunity to finally commit to those feelings and do something. At a vigil at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, ten men and women dressed in white and blue and calling themselves “Children of Light” joined the walkers. On Christmas 1960, Joan Baez showed up and played a short concert for the walkers -- she had visited Polaris Action in New London with Pete Seeger just a few months earlier.
Most of January was spent in Arizona, where local receptions were less welcoming. In California, the Walk could usually get a platform, if not a sympathetic audience, at the universities; the worst the walkers would get was mild condescension at what the audience perceived as pacifist naivete. In Arizona, such privileges could not be guaranteed; en route to a speaking engagement organized by sympathetic faculty members of Arizona State University at Tempe, a crowd of over 50 hostile students threatened the walkers with violence if they attempted to proceed toward campus. Even after the marchers convinced the students to let them pass, the audience that ultimately attended the talk heckled and booed the walkers while holding signs like “EXTERMINATE THE ENEMY.” Members of the Team noted the influence of Barry Goldwater, The Arizona Republic, and the John Birch Society, creating a toxic atmosphere of isolationist conservatism and violent paranoia.
Even the churches, reliable for a meal or place to spend the night in much of California, largely denied the Walk any help in Arizona. Time and again, advance workers would request assistance from individual church leaders as well as larger religious associations. Quakers and Unitarians were often most likely to answer the call, but it was no less disappointing when other denominations refused them. Some individual ministers who had initially welcomed the walkers even had to reverse their offers out of pressure from their hostile congregations. On the nights they couldn’t find shelter, the walkers camped.
Arizona was where the walkers first experienced media blackouts regarding the Walk. In Tucson, a reporter told Team member Scott Herrick that the owner of the main Tucson daily had ordered that the Walk be ignored. Some of this institutional hostility could be explained by individual prejudices of locally powerful men, but the walkers began to suspect that a more coordinated effort might be organizing against them. Reports began to filter in about the FBI spreading rumors and false characterizations about the walkers to local military leaders and law enforcement, sending directives condemning the Walk and suggesting a “hands-off” policy to the media, and warning local chambers of commerce and ministers’ associations not to lend aid.
Sometimes, these FBI directives were quite successful. Despite some moments of generosity and humanity along the way, the unfriendly pattern established in Arizona held throughout much of the American Southwest. But some communities perhaps never received the FBI message. When the Walk arrived in Alva, Oklahoma late on the evening of February 21, 1961, the walkers were not expecting what happened that night. From Brad Lyttle’s words about that night:
“We had camped at a railroad overpass about a mile north of Alva. Immediately, people began coming to talk to us. There were several ministers who were interested but did not feel we were ‘safe’ enough to take in. Many students came. By the time we finished supper, cars were parked lining both sides of the highway and caused the police a bit of a traffic problem. What a scene. More cars continued to arrive. Our fleet of odd-looking vehicles parked around the green and orange tent, by camp-fire; guitars and singing, foodboxes, lanterns and paraphernalia strewn around. A crowd of fraternity boys parked up on the hill, gathered in a band, with torches. One boy had a bugle, another carried an improvised sign saying WORKERS ARISE. STAMP OUT THIRST. DRINK BEER. They walked yelling and jeering down to the camp, and became part of the crowd. At one time there were about 100 people, mostly students, from Northwestern State Teachers College gathered around our fire, but we must have talked to many more than that, for the crowd kept changing as some left and others came. These students were as a whole much different from others we had spoken to. They were more curious, open-minded, tried harder to understand what we were saying, less antagonistic. I got the impression too they were less informed about world affairs, not as ‘sophisticated’ as, for instance, the students in California. Many of them understood and agreed with us up to the point of taking personal action. They regarded Allan Hoffman and Betty Blanck [two Team walkers] as particularly curious specimens because of their frank atheism. Often they got sidetracked into theological discussions.
“There were Five or six groups gathered around nuclei of two or three walkers. People drifted from one group to another. These students asked very intelligent questions which were obviously aimed at understanding, rather than discrediting what we said.
“By 12:30 AM most of the crowd had left and many of us fell asleep exhausted. Dr. Beecher said that the last ones didn’t leave until 2:30 AM. He said it was one of the greatest experiences of his life.”
Lyttle, Bradford. You Come with Naked Hands: The Story of the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace. Greenleaf Books, Raymond, New Hampshire: 1966.
Peace of History
Around this time in September sixty years ago, three peace activists met at the Hygienic Restaurant (now Hygienic Gallery) in New London, Connecticut to plan the next steps in the campaign for nuclear disarmament. What they decided on was ambitious, unprecedented, and potentially dangerous: they were going to spread their message of peace across the United States, Western Europe, and the Soviet Union -- on foot. Over coffee and eggs in that historic restaurant on Bank Street, the idea for the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace was born.
Since June 1, 1960, the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) had been in New London and Groton, CT for Polaris Action, a summer-long campaign to disrupt the production of nuclear-armed submarines at General Dynamics: Electric Boat and to educate the public about the dangers of the nuclear arms race. Most participants traveled in from other places and, according to the Hilary Harris documentary Polaris Action (1960), included “men and women, old persons and the very young, ministers and atheists, Negro and White, ex-servicemen and conscientious objectors.” Some picketed and marched with signs promoting peace. Others leafletted the workers of Electric Boat. Scott Herrick, a peace activist with a considerable personal fortune, sailed his sloop Satyagraha up and down the Thames River with the words “End the Arms Race; Polaris Action” on its sails. A few boarded the floating dry docks by rowing or even swimming over to talk to workers on the job and to hold “vigils of conscience.” Despite the signs around these facilities threatening a fine of up to $10,000 or 30 years in prison for trespassing, as well as the resignation of one research director as a result of the protesters’ arguments, no trespassers ever got arrested.
And now summer was over, and Polaris Action hadn’t ended in the spectacular, highly publicized arrests that they had expected. So the three men at the Hygienic Restaurant -- Bradford Lyttle, Scott Herrick, and Julius Jacobs -- discussed what to do next. The anti-nuclear project here in New London-Groton was shaping up to be a long-term campaign; Bob and Marj Swann (who would later be founders of VPT) had recently committed to continuing with it. Lyttle, Herrick, and Jacobs were restless for the adventure and high drama of the next big action, and felt that the future of Polaris Action was in good hands without them. But where to go next? Brad Lyttle proposed taking up the challenge presented to them by so many Electric Boat workers: “Buddy, you’re in the wrong place. Go and talk to the Russians.”
The three men knew of only one other attempt by Western peace activists to demonstrate in a Communist country. From July to November, 1951, Ralph DiGia, Bill Sutherland, Art Emery, and Dave Dellinger (later to be one of the Chicago Seven) attempted the Paris to Moscow Bicycle Trip for Disarmament. The trip was sponsored by the Peacemakers, who also provided training workshops in nonviolent action during Polaris Action. The three made it as far as the Soviet Army headquarters at Vienna before being turned away, but not before leafleting many soldiers and civilians.
There was good reason to think the Communist countries would welcome the Western pacifists this time. The three men, working with CNVA, would organize the walk with more support, more participants, and more publicity. The Communist world had already established the World Peace Council, which primarily argued that the Communist governments were peaceful and that the Western capitalist countries were the aggressors. Lyttle had already been arrested in the US for protesting the Atlas nuclear missile. Herrick and Jacobs had risked life and freedom for protesting the Polaris submarines, backbone of the new US nuclear naval policy. By the time the walkers got to Eastern Europe, the whole world would be watching. It would make bad propaganda for the Soviets if they mistreated these high-profile pacifists.
No peace walk of this scale had ever been attempted before. The last record was the 125-mile stretch from New York to New London: the one held a few months previously that had brought Jacobs and so many other Polaris Action participants to New London in the first place. Previous walk speeds averaged 15 miles/day up to 21 miles/day. The route they eventually settled on would require an average of 23 miles/day, covering roughly 6000 miles in 10 months if they wanted to reach Russia before winter. They would start on December 1 in San Francisco, head south for the winter to leaflet military industries around Los Angeles, then east to the Titan missile bases in Arizona and New Mexico, as well as the Strategic Air Command bases in New Mexico and Texas. As early spring arrived, the group would head north to Chicago, then east to Cleveland and southeast to Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. After one more swing up northeast to Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, and New York City, they would fly to the UK and proceed on through Europe.
Word spread quickly. Participants were organized into eight “Team” members who would walk the entire route, and various “supporters” who would join temporarily. All participants had to agree to a “Discipline” to maintain safety and order. Specific slogans for signs were decided upon in advance, as well as iconography: notably, the walkers decided to prominently feature the circular nuclear disarmament symbol which had only been invented two years earlier in the UK. (Story of the nuclear disarmament / peace symbol here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/voluntownpeacetrust/permalink/10157689009237978)
As with any such organizing effort, all of this needed money and support. The men were confident that thousands of dollars could be raised at meetings and events after the participants had succeeded and returned home, but they needed funding to start. The proposal that the three men presented to CNVA required a budget of about $54,000 for transportation, food, equipment, communication, salaries and office overhead expenses for support staffers. Among the needed equipment were boots, winter clothes, rain protection, a gas stove, lanterns, pots & pans, groundcloths, first aid / snake bite kits, a flare gun to signal in case of an emergency, and sign frames, much of which would be loaded up in Herrick’s 1955 De Soto station wagon -- the walkers would go on foot, but most of their provisions and gear would be driven for them. All of this would come to be supplemented by “Gifts in kind and hospitality… donated in incalculable amounts” along the walk itself. The peace movement had perennial financial issues, but after Herrick proved his commitment by personally pledging $6000, the CNVA Executive Committee agreed to sponsor the walk in early November.
For the next few weeks, Lyttle, Herrick, Jacobs and supporters worked furiously to organize enough to make the December 1 start date. Funds were raised via appeals to the CNVA mailing list, at rallies, and in private conversations. The average contribution was $8; the highest was Herrick’s $6000. At some point, Hilary Harris Films, Inc. decided to accompany the walkers with cameras and their own equipment in a Volkswagen minibus -- they had already shot footage that would become Polaris Action, and the footage they would get on the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace would make up the 1962 documentary The Walk. Word continued to spread, and the organizers continued to reach out to other peace organizations and sympathizers along the planned route for assistance in the walk. As a result, volunteers continued to sign up to help secure donations as well as churches and private residences for the walkers to stay the night. The American Friends Service Committee and Acts for Peace in Berkeley, in particular, helped to organize support for the walkers. Bob Pickus, director of Acts for Peace in Berkeley, organized a send-off including a press conference for the participants, which by his own estimation was the best press conference about pacifism in Berkeley ever up to that point. On December 1, the eight Team participants set off from San Francisco, determined to walk to Moscow.
Renowned pacifist A.J. Muste wrote two pieces to promote the project. Here is the first, “The Walk’s Meaning,” in its entirety:
Readers will, we think, readily see the symbolism involved in this project. That people are stirred by seeing pacifists who walk for peace has often been proved in this country and abroad. This is a walk across two continents. The message of unilateral disarmament will, by means of this walk across the US and Europe, reach great multitudes, suggesting that peace recognizes no national boundaries; the call for unilateral disarmament goes out to all people. If by next spring, as is very likely, a serious effort to supply NATO with Polaris missiles is under way, West European pacifists will certainly welcome support from US pacifists who have practiced direct action and civil disobedience here, and our walk will be coordinated with their efforts. In particular, we who have, through many projects over a number of years, called for unilateral action by the US, now show that we are prepared to exert every effort to bring that message also to the government and people of the Soviet Union.
“Anti-war activists march to Moscow for peace, 1960-1961.” Global Nonviolent Action Database. https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/anti-war-activists-march-moscow-peace-1960-1961
Lyttle, Bradford. You Come with Naked Hands: The Story of the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace. Greenleaf Books, Raymond, New Hampshire: 1966.
“Pacifists Picket Atomic Submarines in a Rowboat.” The New York Times. August 26, 1960. https://www.nytimes.com/1960/08/26/archives/pacifists-picket-atomic-submarines-in-a-rowboat.html (pdf version available upon request)
Polaris Action. Hilary Harris Films, Inc. 1960. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WjEXGm5hx4
“Timeline of a Life of Activism.” Ralph DiGia Fund for Peace & Justice. http://www.ralphdigiafund.org/life-work-of-ralph-digia/timeline/
After decades of Native and allied activists raising the consciousness and educating the public about the myths and truths about early European colonization of the Americas, starting in June of this year, Christopher Columbus statues started to topple all across the United States. Less than three decades ago, such a trend would have been unimaginable. In fact, during the 1992 “celebrations” of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first transatlantic voyage, activists in eastern Connecticut focused their efforts not on the removal Columbus statues, but on another target: Captain John Mason, “Conqueror of the Pequots.” The colonial leader’s 9-foot tall, 2-ton heroic bronze statue stood for more than a century in Mystic, CT over the place where he led the massacre of 400-700 Pequot people of all ages and genders, mostly noncombatants. In the end, the Pequot leadership was assassinated; the Pequot name was forbidden; and the roughly 200 survivors were hunted down and either taken in by their former Native rivals, the Mohegans and the Narragansetts, or else enslaved by the English and sold to far away places. In simplified terms, the Pequot survivors who were taken by the Mohegans to the west became the Mashantucket Pequots, and the ones taken by the Narragansetts to the east became the Eastern and Eastern Paucatuck Pequots.
(To learn the story of the massacre itself, please visit the websites for the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center as well as the Battlefields of the Pequot War project.)
The efforts to remove or relocate the John Mason statue that began in 1992 was not the first such attempt. Year earlier, starting in the 1970s and continuing into the mid 1980s, Raymond Geer of the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots led an attempt to remove the Mason statue, but did not gain much traction at the time. The Mashantucket (Western) Pequot Tribal Nation was only granted federal recognition in 1983, very narrowly having almost lost the entirety of their reservation land to the State of Connecticut a few years earlier. The Eastern Pequots and Paucatuck Eastern Pequots, two separate groups, unified and became recognized by the Department of Interior in 2002 -- only to have that recognition revoked in 2005 due to fears of a new possible casino on reservation land.
In the 1970s-80s, indigenous groups such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the United American Indians of New England began publicly challenging the racist assumptions inherent to Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, but the full effects of those consciousness-raising campaigns would not be felt for years. In this period, the Pequot population that lived on reservation land was growing but still quite tiny. Geer had few allies to turn to when he made his attempts against the Mason statue, and this first attempt failed.
But by the 1990s, changes in the broader culture were apparent. The recently federally-recognized Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation completed phase 1 of the planned Foxwoods Resort Casino in 1992. Columbus Day “celebrations” were held across the country for the 500th anniversary just as more Americans than ever before started to realize the problems with honoring a figure like Columbus. And in that same year, Wolf Jackson of the Eastern Pequots asked the Southeastern Connecticut Coalition for Peace and Justice (SCCPJ), which had initially formed to oppose the First Gulf War, to help renew the campaign to remove the Mason statue. This time, the effort was built on alliances. The SCCPJ itself was composed of diverse groups including the Catholic Diocese of Norwich, Veterans for Peace, and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Wolf Jackson and the CCPJ circulated a petition that summer about removing the statue, which collected over 900 names agreeing that the statue is “an inappropriate commemoration of a massacre of over 700 men, women, and children and represents a distortion of history which is extremely offensive to many citizens, particularly Native Americans.”
At first, none of the councils of the three Pequot tribal nations would officially endorse the move, despite the common opinion of Pequots that the statue was offensive. Complicating matters was the bitter rivalry between the Pequot tribes, especially between the darker-skinned Eastern Pequots and the lighter-skinned Paucatuck Eastern Pequots, that made forming a united front very difficult. But after two years of building alliances and healing old wounds, cultivating community support and exploring many possible options for compromise, the demand to remove the statue spread to more people and became impossible to ignore. The petition was presented to the Town of Groton, where there were allies on the Town Council. Despite the growing demand to remove the statue, a descendant of John Mason spoke in favor of keeping the statue on the massacre site.
By then, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, suddenly a big player in Connecticut politics, had ended their initial silence and proposed not just the removal of the statue, but its relocation to the in-development Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. The Mashantucket Pequots even offered to pay for the statue’s removal, relocation, and storage while the museum was being built. The Town of Groton ultimately voted to follow the Mashantucket Pequot proposal, but the lawful owner of the statue, the State of Connecticut, instead moved it to Windsor, Connecticut, one of the towns John Mason founded. In May 1995, supporters of the campaign gathered at the statue’s location to witness its removal. The ceremony was one of Native unity and community power. Present were Pequots from all three tribal nations; Mohegans and Narragansetts descended from the old Pequot enemies; and members of SCCPJ and the neighborhood community. Rick Gaumer, SCCPJ member and a former resident of the Voluntown Peace Trust in the late 1970s, was in attendance of the ceremony. After working for the removal of the statue, he discovered that he was a descendant of Nicolas Olmstead, a soldier who followed John Mason’s command to burn the village. Rick spoke at the ceremony, describing how the burning of villages in Vietnam had made him a pacifist, bringing him to this place. A year later, the town of Windsor celebrated the “return” of their hometown founder. It was a solution that Wolf Jackson said he “could live with.”
Now, the old question of what to do with the problematic statue is haunting Windsor. The statue has been a target of vandalism since it was moved to Windsor, and the most recent act of vandalism occurred within the last few months. On September 7 of this week, the Windsor Town Council voted 5-4 to take it down from its prominent position at the Palisado Green and move it to the Windsor Historical Society -- a decision difficult to imagine without the momentum of the many recent successes taking down Columbus statues right behind it.
When Raymond Geer made his attempt to remove the John Mason statue in the 1970s and 80s, perhaps his society was not quite ready to hear him out. But within a decade or so, things in eastern Connecticut began to change. The 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas heightened the attention and scrutiny paid to colonial history, and raised consciousness of the European invasion that led to the genocides of indigenous peoples. The successes of the Mashantucket Pequots and other Native groups along with the 500th Columbus anniversary created a unique cultural moment in eastern Connecticut in the early 1990s -- a moment that Wolf Jackson and the SCCPJ used effectively to complete their campaign. The 400th anniversaries of the founding of Jamestown (1619) and the landing of the Mayflower (1620) have similarly focused some people’s attention on the violent realities of White supremacy and capitalism, bringing coalitions of people together who are now removing statues and dispelling historical myths. Like Wolf Jackson and the SCCPJ, our present challenge is to use our own cultural moment -- and together create a more just society.
“1637 - The Pequot War.” The Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Connecticut. https://www.colonialwarsct.org/1637.htm
Gaumer, Rick. “Reminder of the violence that founded a nation.” The Day. July 20, 2020. https://www.theday.com/article/20200720/OP03/200729992
Goode, Steven. “State will move John Mason statue and take it to historical society; monument honored colonial leader of attack on Pequots.” Hartford Courant. September 9, 2020. https://www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/city-officials-discuss-removal-of-controversial-statue-in-windsor/2301219/
“The History of the Pequot War.” Battlefields of the Pequot War. http://pequotwar.org/about/
Libby, Sam. “For one Pequot, statue’s removal is vision come true.” Hartford Courant. May 11, 1995. https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-xpm-1995-05-11-9505110513-story.html
Libby, Sam. “THE VIEW FROM: MYSTIC; An 1889 Statue Leads to Second Thoughts About a Battle in 1637.” The New York Times. November 29, 1992. https://www.nytimes.com/1992/11/29/nyregion/the-view-from-mystic-an-1889-statue-leads-to-second-thoughts-about.html
Libby, Sam. “Where a Statue Stands Is State’s Decision.” The New York Times. July 24, 1994. https://www.nytimes.com/1994/07/24/nyregion/where-a-statue-stands-is-states-decision.html
Louie, Vivian and Sam Libby. “Groton Statue Stands at Center of Debate.” Hartford Courant. October 4, 1992. https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-xpm-1992-10-04-0000111690-story.html
“The Pequot War.” The Mashantucket (Western) Pequot Tribal Nation. https://www.mptn-nsn.gov/pequotwar.aspx
Purdy, Erika M. “Windsor council votes to remove controversial statue from Palisado Green.” Journal Inquirer. September 9, 2020. https://www.journalinquirer.com/towns/windsor/windsor-council-votes-to-remove-controversial-statue-from-palisado-green/article_6c12a68c-f2b0-11ea-a772-6fc4cbb99145.html
Shanahan, Marie K. “John Mason Statue has a Homecoming.” Hartford Courant. June 1996. https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-xpm-1992-10-04-0000111690-story.html
“Town Officials Discuss Removal of Controversial Statue in Windsor.” NBC Connecticut. July 12, 2020. https://www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/city-officials-discuss-removal-of-controversial-statue-in-windsor/2301219/
Underhill, John. “Newes from America; Or, A New and Experimentall Discoverie of New England; Containing, A Trve Relation of Their War-like Proceedings These Two Yeares Last Past, with a Figure of the Indian Fort, or Palizado” (1638). Electronic Texts in American Studies. 37. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/etas/37
A Peace of History
While the rest of the world celebrated the labor of working people on May 1, Americans will observe Labor Day on Monday of next week. But what is it that we will be celebrating, exactly?
On May 4, 1886, the Haymarket Affair occurred: a complex incident to which we will return another time. For now, the important thing to know is that violence broke out at a street protest, labor leaders were blamed, and following an openly biased trial, the state executed five of the eight labor leaders in what is now generally considered to be a miscarriage of justice. The entire affair was international news. In 1889, the Second Internationale (a coalition of socialist, anarchist, and labor groups from twenty nations) dubbed May 1 “International Workers’ Day,” co-opting the ancient European spring festival May Day for its proximity to the Haymarket Affair anniversary. Meanwhile, the Haymarket Affair became an important touchstone for many young participants in the socialist, anarchist, and labor movements in the United States as well. As the narrative in the general public gradually became more nuanced and sympathetic -- recognizing the executions as unjust “judicial murder” -- the U.S. government saw the commemoration of the incident as an existential threat. And so by 1894, President Grover Cleveland had thrown his support behind the alternative date in September, purely for anti-socialist/anarchist propagandistic reasons, specifically in an attempt to bury the memory of the workers’ tragedy and stifle the movement.
Today’s main story begins in 1986, a century after the Haymarket Affair, and concerns the longest sustained nonviolent action in Connecticut’s history. In the 1940s, workers of the Colt Firearms company in Hartford, CT were finally able to organize a union. Four decades later, at the height of the Reagan era, the Colt company was harassing union members and rolling back gains in blatant efforts to shut down the union. During the four-year-long strike that followed, a number of peace activists joined the struggle in favor of the union workers, despite the inherently violent nature of the products the workers were meant to build. At first glance, this may seem completely self-contradictory, but the pacifists followed a different narrative, a more leftist analysis: under capitalism, the workers do not choose what they build, and are thus better understood as victims of worker-exploitation than as warmongers.
President Grover Cleveland helped to bury the story of Haymarket, of the miscarriage of justice that followed, and of the left labor movement that was killed in Chicago. Much of U.S. foreign and domestic policy over the next century would be determined by the same xenophobic, anti-left, and anti-labor prejudices that led to the Haymarket executions. While we recognize the history of injustice perpetrated by the U.S. government against working people, we also recognize their perseverance despite it all. Today, many working class people are on the front lines of this pandemic, struggling for better pay and working conditions while trying to stay healthy. This Labor Day, let us remember and celebrate the heroic struggles of working people of the past, and let us thank and defend working people now.
The Colt 45: Peace Work with a Union Label
May 13, 1986
The Colt Firearms factory has been producing guns since the 1800s, from pistols to Gatling guns and now, M-16 automatic weapons. The Colt name is known worldwide. Workers at Colt have tried to establish a union since the turn of the 20th century, and finally succeed in the 1940s.
Now, in 1986, they are in a life or death struggle with a company that will do anything to break their union, United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 376. Colt intends to rollback the gains made over the years by the white, black, and Puerto Rican workforce. “We are not claiming that we are losing money, nor were we basing our proposals on the Company's financial condition,” admits the company’s top negotiator.
Colt workers have already been protesting on the inside for more than a year against poor treatment and blatant attempts to bust their union. Led by shop chairman Lester Harding, activists have been disciplined, suspended and fired for nonexistent infractions. In response, they print the names of the fired workers on their shirts, and parade in the plant during break time to communicate their anger.
Once the strike begins on January 24 1986, the 1,000 strikers attempt to stop scabs from entering the factory and taking their jobs. Frequent scuffles on the picket line are met with overwhelming force by the city police. There are many arrests during the strike’s first months. At one point UAW leader Phil Wheeler is slapped with inciting a riot, a serious felony charge.
The boss at Colt knows that public opinion is important in this fight. He thinks he can sway that opinion with full-page newspaper ads. He harps on the picket line conflicts, laying the blame solely on the strikers. He explains how reasonable his negotiating demands are, and how unreasonable the UAW is.
Thanks to the newly formed Labor /Community Alliance, the propaganda falls flat. On May 13 1986, forty-five community activists, elected officials, clergy members, teachers and others converge at the Colt factory on Huyshope Avenue, Hartford. They sit down, blocking the parking lot entrance and the scabs attempting to enter the factory. The group is dubbed the “Colt 45,” an ironic take on the company’s most famous product.
The civil disobedience is no picnic. The Hartford Police captain in charge of the cops on the line has been accused of acting against the strikers from the beginning. The workers are proven correct when he quits the police force during the strike and takes a job as the new head of security for Colt.
The nonviolent Colt 45 action is only one of many community support events and marches organized during the record four-year struggle. Critical to the strikers’ morale is the solidarity they get from other unions and the city and state lawmakers, who support a successful nationwide boycott of Colt products. In fact, the strike itself is the longest sustained nonviolent action in Connecticut history.
Included in the Colt 45 are a number of peace activists. Is this some mistake? No, they say. They issue a public statement signed by many of the most locally prominent anti-war figures, who explain that union jobs are good for families and neighborhoods. They understand that workers have no power to choose what they make in this society.
The activists want to build relationships with unions and rank-and-file workers to find common ground and ultimately achieve “economic conversion,” the process by which industry changes to peacetime production. There are only two sides in this fight, and they choose the workers.
In 1990, UAW 376 wins big. The company finally gives in after labor court decisions have found that Colt has been a massive law breaker. Workers win $10 million in back pay and benefits. All strikers can return to their jobs. A coalition of the state government, private investors-- and the UAW-- have bought the company.
Thirty years later, union veterans, community activists, and college students hold a “commemoration of courage” to celebrate the Colt strikers’ victory. At first, some openly question the event’s purpose: do they really want to remember those hard times? But still, many strikers and their spouses attend. When asked about good memories from their historic strike, they answer “the Colt 45.”
(Good Trouble: A Shoeleather History of Nonviolent Direct Action is a riveting chronicle of stories that prove time and again the actions of thoughtful, committed people can change their lives and their country. It is a brisk, inspiring primer for veteran political activists and newcomers alike.
Civil Rights struggles. “Fight for $15” strikes. Tenant occupations. LGBT campaigns. Each of the 40-plus examples in good Trouble focuses on the power of organizing and mobilizing, relevant in any context, and serves as an “emergency tool kit” for nonviolent action.
Excerpt republished with permission from the author.)
Kohn, Sally. “Why Labor Day was a political move” CNN. http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/01/opinion/kohn-labor-day/
midtowng. “Knights of Labor” Progressive Historians. https://web.archive.org/web/20070930082656/http://progressivehistorians.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=2041
Thornton, Steve. GOOD TROUBLE: A Shoeleather History of Nonviolent Direct Action. Hardball Press, 2019. https://goodtroublebook.com/
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