George Lakey discusses social justice movements

Social justice activist George Lakey spoke at Red Emma’s on Thursday, Nov. 15. to promote his new book, How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning. Lakey, who has been active in nonviolent protest movements since the 1950s, shared advice and strategies that could create more organized and effective activism today.

“We activists in the United States have developed a strategy counter to that – ‘let’s go out and make a spasm of expression. We hate this, we hate that.’ I loved the Women’s March, but I was under no illusion that I could do a thing to actually change the situation in America,” Lakey said.

Lakey thought that it was better for activists to look for small victories in order to build a culture of winning. He explained how his book detailed the importance of people focusing on a clear target in order to sustain their efforts to make a change.

Lakey pointed to Mahatma Gandhi’s success at removing the British from India as an example of a successful social justice movement.

“[Gandhi] went back to India, and says ‘let’s throw the British out.’ But that was the biggest empire the world had ever known. So Gandhi said let me first try to understand the people of India,” he said.

Lakey said that Gandhi made an effort to learn about the conditions of the Indian people and found that they believed they were inferior to the British. According to Lakey, Gandhi searched for small social justice campaigns that he knew he could win in order to rebuild the peoples’ confidence.

“He looks for campaigns to wage that maybe would have a chance of winning. And he was able to win a few of them. And the rumor mill spread the word that it was possible to win sometimes. And then the movement was spread to the point of national campaign to kick the British out of India,” Lakey said.

Lakey also criticized the strategy of one-time protests. He argued that people need to form campaigns with specific targets and a series of actions, which would make people listen to protesters’ demands.

“It would be more efficient to take that talent you have, your energy, your skills and put it into winning campaign. Then maybe that will make more of a difference to society,” Lakey said.

Lakey also spoke about the importance of different social justice movements joining together and helping each other. He pointed out that because there is a variety of different types of campaigns forming, it could be beneficial to all movements if they were to create a combined effort.

“My book proposes that we create the conditions to which those movements that are generating response can succeed. Those unite and take on the elite,” Lakey said.

He noted, however, that there was no clear way in which to organize various social justice movements in a simple way.

Lakey also advised student activists to engage with existing protests in order to create an education system that would promote activism in the country.

“What I tell people is that it is there for students to go to action groups and demand that there be an internal learning mechanism that supports students to learn the max for their future. And I challenge older people to create an atmosphere of that kind that enables young people to learn from older people and vice versa, because we also have a lot to learn from you,” he said.

Eva Wingren, fundraising and wealth distribution chair of the organization Showing Up For Racial Justice, thought Lakey’s advice was useful in her own work.

“I always really appreciate when people approach activist work with a sense of positivity and focus on the vision and a really long historical timeline,” she said. “That’s the kind of thing that brings younger people like me into the program. If I have 30 or 40 or even 50 years to devote to this, I do want it to be a place where we win, a place where we build community and it feels good on a daily basis.”

Eric Miller, member of the Greater Baltimore Socialists of America, agreed.

“I loved the event,” he said. “I had not heard of George before, but he sounds like an awesome organizer and somebody I really look up to in my own organizing work. So definitely a model that we could work with.”

Miller noted that the book could benefit the community because many of the tactics described are applicable to movements in the city.

“His book, and the things he was talking about, were very relevant to the work we do organizing communities in Baltimore,” he said.

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