Moral Monday & Retro Nonviolence Is Back (Again)
There’s some recent activist experience here in North Carolina that I think relevant to current discussion about protests and tactics, among Quakers and others
The Moral Monday protest campaign, aimed at the reactionary NC legislature and its stick-it-to-everybody-but-the-rich program, was by many measures, quite successful in its first season of actions, in the spring and summer of 2013.
Above all, on my list, its biggest success is a kind of “negative”, that is: it has not splintered and vanished; two years later its core of supporters is still there, and yesterday (April 29 2015) it began the work of regathering and relaunching for 2015, at the state capital in Raleigh.
This action was not heralded as the beginning of the Revolution, but rather another round in what has been seen from the start as a long-term struggle.
And Moral Monday (MM) is quite remarkable in other ways too. Not least because its style & organization have been so totally (almost) retro & throwback. Consider:
— The leadership came out of the state NAACP, which was considered old-fashioned & conservative by the 1960s civil rights activists of the Sixties (not without reason in many cases.). Yet the Sixties are gone, and their militant groups mainly gather in occasional reunions of scattered superannuated survivors. For all the jeers back then, today the NAACP is just about the only one left standing.
— MM decision making is distinctly un-Occupy (& un-Quakerly), done from the top by the NAACP leadership circle.
How have they carried off such an “un-democratic” project?? The short answer is simply that so far, they haven’t made any big dumb mistakes, especially tactically. Let’s review some of the wild goose chases they did NOT go on:
— First of all, the movement’s program was clear from the beginning. It was provided by the reactionary NC state legislature. (The list of the legislature’s odious acts would take much too long to list here: from racist vote suppression to Medicaid (non) expansion, assaults on schools and colleges, women’s right, anti-LGBT acts, etc.– the list goes on and on.) But this article gives a useful summary.
— Building on this, they guessed correctly that NC activists didn’t want to spend much or most of their “activist” time in endless meetings-about-meetings. That endless-yammer-yammer not only helped divide and kill off Occupy, it also drove away many from the New Left of the sixties. (Endless Meetings are not, after all, a 21st century invention; some of us Sixties survivors remember, and still have nightmares.)
— A key top-down decision has been that all of MM’s actions are strictly, dogmatically, by-the-book & old-school non-violent. None of this stuff about “diversity of tactics” and indulging “rebellions”. Those who want to promote that sort of thing, it has been made abundantly plain, can go talk about and do it somewhere else. More on this in a moment.
— Besides being nonviolent & non-destructive, MM actions have all been very carefully staged & choreographed, especially those which produced 900+ arrests in 2013 (that doesn’t count the ones yesterday, April 29, 2015, which numbered 20, comparable to the beginning of the 2013 campaign.)
I have to say that, watching all this, I was initially amazed. Hadn’t all that high-minded stuff vanished with Woodstock & the 70s?? Wasn’t that entire ethos a generation or two out of date?
Well, evidently not quite. But how did this happen? I see several factors, all related.
First, the leadership, particularly NAACP state president Rev William Barber, has some real charisma, especially in his preaching. And charisma still works, especially when combined with smarts, which he also has in abundance.
Secondly, amid all the retro continuity, there were some crucial innovations, three above all:
— One, Barber has insisted from the jump that MM is to be a multiracial struggle. Yeah, we white liberals still have lots of work to do on ourselves; but for MM the guilt-tripping has been back-burnered while the movement works to reclaim the state from the real reactionaries.
–Two, while Barber is a Baptist minister, and can pray Jesus with the best of them, he has also firmly insisted that ALL faiths and NO Faith have a place on the MM platform and in the struggle.
— And thirdly, bucking many of his black clergy peers, Barber has welcomed LGBTs from the start.
All these “innovations” have fit in seamlessly with the MM style. And as a bonus, because they were all there from Day One, none has became the derailing (endless meeting-type) distraction that they could and have been in so many other settings.
Moreover, additional benefits of strict nonviolent discipline have been evident from early on, in two particular ways:
On one side, it discredited the opposition efforts to discredit the movement.
A right wing NC propaganda outfit called the Civitas Institute got the early arrest records, and compiled demographic charts aimed at “exposing” the arrestees as riffraff “outside agitators.”
A database charted the arrestees’ ages, home towns, professions, interest group connections and political party affiliation. (Surprise: Most were Democrats.)
They even made up a “game” of “Pick the Protester” using mugshots. (After all, everybody looks like a criminal in a mugshot.)
But the data didn’t reinforce the attempt at mockery.
What it did “expose” instead, was a cohort of protesters who were largely middle aged, had settled careers and a strong propensity for civic do-gooderism, who paid taxes, mowed their lawns, recycled their trash and had no prior criminal records. Plus, 98 per cent of those arrested were NC residents.
(The “game” continues to be listed on the group’s website, but the link doesn’t seem to work anymore. The database is still there, though for some reason they quit updating it when I lined up to get arrested late in the session.)
Second, the lack of “trouble” at the MM protests — all that praying for “justice” and “fairness,” no property damage, no altercations with cops, not even much trash — kept “derailing” the right-wingers’ efforts to derail MM with an “Outsiders Rioting In the Streets” meme. That dog barked, but it just didn’t hunt; there was no quail there.
So the protests obliged the media to return, again and again, to the ISSUES. (What a concept.)
In June 2013, the state Republicans tried another ploy. They organized a “Thankful Tuesday” counter-protest in Raleigh. It came and went without incident, with hardly any notice, and without a repeat.
During MM’s initial active phase in 2013, polls showed a steady decline in support for the state’s right wing legislature & its reactionary programs. And media coverage favorable to the movement and highlighting its issues went nationwide and even international, as documented here.
Which leads to perhaps one of the most important outcomes of MM’s Retro Nonviolence: by keeping our (and the media’s) Eyes On The Prize; by avoiding so many self-derailing traps, the base of its support is still in place.
The 2014 election didn’t go well here: voter suppression is working for the state’s reactionaries, and there’s more of that to come. But one voting day every other year is not the only opportunity for citizen activism. And in 2015 North Carolina, Moral Monday is still here. Amazing. For a long struggle, survival and persistence look pretty much indispensable to me.
A couple final reflections: can Moral Monday be cloned and exported? There have been some initial forays into other states, and I hope so. Many of the benefits of its discipline and focus are simple to understand. But canny, eloquent leadership is not so easily reproduced.
(There have been recurring MM actions in Georgia, including dozens of arrests. And for that matter, the widespread — and widely ignored — efforts at peaceful intervention in Baltimore amid the recent unrest suggests a parallel upsurge there, which has yet to get its props.)
An additional thought looks back to the right wing demographic charts. and the showing that the MM movement’s core was mainly an older crowd. Maybe MM’s style was more familiar to them.
It was certainly reassuring: they (here I should say “we”) are willing to face the police, and the risks which go with that. But if as part of a “movement” we see provocateurs in masks start breaking windows and provoking fights with the cops, then the focus on official wrongdoing and oppression, which is why we’re there, quickly vanishes –and so do we. We may be old; but we’re not old fools.
(Interesting: there were plenty of younger folks at the MM 2013 rallies, but few among the arrestees. My guess is that hard times and job insecurity kept most of them on the sidelines. That’s another advantage of including many older folks: more of us are retired, and have no jobs to lose.)
This makes me wonder if what we’ve seen in Moral Monday could include the beginning of the Boomers’ Last Stand.
Maybe so. In which case, I say it’s not a bad way to go.