Book Review: “How We Win: A guide to nonviolent direct action campaigning”

by George Lakey. Melville House, Dec 2018.

Reviewed by Anelise Vaz

George Lakey has been an active campaigner and activist for years, and the main argument in his new book, to be released in the UK this month, is that our political moment of extreme polarization requires new conducts of campaigning in order to achieve real progressive change. The author lays out movement-building strategies that may be applicable to a variety of causes.

He claims that protests, although emotionally satisfying, rarely produce change. Marches and rallies are good for mobilising numbers of people, but they are also likely to raise questions in participants and observers minds about the effectiveness of what is being done: ‘How is this march going to change anything?’ Also, in an increasingly polarised world, there are higher chances of conflict with other activists of opposing causes, that can even escalate to a physical confrontation. It is important to acknowledge this new polarised and radical political setting and shift from one-off protests to campaigning. He cites the US civil rights movement, which was surrounded by violent extremists and powerful opposition but succeeded by strategically focusing on campaigns rather than episodic protests. He describes the difference between a protest and a campaign: a “one-off protest is for venting, not for exerting power.” Campaigns, on the other hand, “are built for sustainability and escalation.” But they should develop and follow a clear goal rather than an overall general concern “like climate or war or poverty” or ending racism. It is much more effective to identify a specific demand for change, a target and an escalating series of actions that build the campaign – “a series of actions over time that will build power.”

The civil rights movement, in which the author actively participated, used this method: each campaign had a clear target, like a restaurant, a department store or a political entity. Sustained direct actions bring more allies into the struggle. “As the civil rights movement matured, it was able to force the federal government to become, against its will, a movement ally through campaigns designed with that effect in mind. Birmingham in 1963 and Selma in 1965 are examples.” The Birmingham campaign started as a commercial boycott, aiming to pressure business leaders to open employment to people of all races and end segregation in public facilities, restaurants, schools, and stores. It then progressed to peaceful walks of students to the City Hall. The police responded with mass arrests and the use of water hose and attack dogs on the students, mainly children and teenagers. The movement caught attention of both national and international media, forced the city administration to end segregation laws and paved the way to the Civil Rights Act bill, which passed into law in the following year. In 1965, the march from Selma to Montgomery, to register black voters in the South, started with violent resistance as Alabama state troopers met the group with whips, tear gas, and beat them back to Selma. The brutal scene was captured on television and enraged many Americans. Hundreds of activists headed to Selma to join the voting rights march, which then had the protection of federalized National Guard troops. British anti-slavery activists also used the power of direct action campaigning to force their country to abolish the slave trade in 1807 after strategies that included a boycott. He cites many other historical and contemporary examples: “British direct-action campaigners forced the cancellation of the 1970 South African cricket tour by disrupting the previous year’s tour by the Springboks.” “In 2014, the University of Glasgow became the first university in Europe to divest from fossil fuels after a year’s direct-action campaigning by students.”

Non-violent action campaigns are not guaranteed to succeed but have higher chances than protests. Additional activities related to the campaign are also needed to make a fundamental change, such as promoting economic and social alternatives and stimulating cultural and personal transformation.It is also essential, to gather support, that a group’s actions and goals are expressed in ways that make sense to people outside of the group because awakening public support is one of the most important strategies of successful campaigns. “When a campaign inspires other campaigns on the same issue, the sum of them becomes a movement.” Campaigns are important not only because of their possible achievements, but also because they encourage the growth of movements, and movements can go “well beyond what any campaign or single movement can do.”

This book is an inspiring and useful guide to community organizers, activists and those interested in social movements and on how ideas can turn into actions able to promote real change in the world.

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