Quaker activist and master storyteller George Lakey chose these two pieces of writing for PN to show how stories from the past can stimulate today’s strategies. The first piece is an extract from his new memoir, Dancing with History: A Life for Peace and Justice (Seven Stories, December 2022). The second account adds to a campaign history included in Dancing with History.
Our baby had a fever. She lay in bed crying, turning her head from side to side, trying to find a cool spot. Berit hung the phone in its cradle and turned to me. ‘The night nurse said we should give her Tylenol.’
‘We don't have any in the medicine chest,’ I said. ‘I’ll go pick some up.’
I found a parking place on a residential street about a block from the store. It was past midnight; we’d been asleep when Christina woke up crying with fever. I hurried inside, made my purchase, and started back along a dark and nearly deserted street of typical Philadelphia brick row houses.
Ahead of me, I saw a group of young men hanging out on the sidewalk. For a second I thought it might be smart to cross the street to avoid them; this was a solidly African-American neighbourhood and for all I knew they might be turf-conscious and not that friendly toward a white guy. I shrugged my shoulders: It’s my right to walk wherever I want to, so I’ll just continue on the direct route to my car.
There were five or six of them, pretty much occupying the whole of the narrow sidewalk. As I walked into their space, one of them stepped up to me and pushed me against the wall of the closed-in porch attached to someone’s row house. Surprised, I stared at him as he pushed me again and said something I was too scared to understand.
Oh, shit! I thought to myself. I’m in trouble, and I’m clueless about what to do.
This felt really different from earlier confrontations, when I was threatened for my political views. At least I knew what not to do: show belligerence or, on the other hand, play the helpless victim. My activist training told me there’s always something creative to reach for, a way of being assertive, being human, and coming from a place of goodwill. What was it?
My heart pounded so loud that my ears didn’t seem to hear anything the young men were saying. My eyes registered the others in the group stepping closer to me, and I felt my anger rise closely behind my fear. My brain said something like, George, think of something to do!
Instantly I was transported back two years, to the Freedom Summer training in 1964. Reverend James Lawson, a battle-scarred veteran of the civil rights struggle, was explaining some techniques of response to attack.
‘Let me tell you about John Wesley, the English Methodist preacher,’ Lawson said. ‘He was used to being mobbed by hostile crowds and developed a technique for handling it. Wesley, first of all, threw off his hat so the crowd could see his face and he could see everyone in the midst of the chaos. He then scanned the mob to identify the “leader”. Wesley believed that every mob, however disorganised, had somebody within it who was a potential leader.
‘Once he got an intuitive sense of who that was, he forgot about everybody else and put all his energy into communicating with that one person. If the shouts were too loud for him to be heard, Wesley just did eye-to-eye contact, completely focusing on this person who was a potential leader. And, every time, that person would do something to turn the mob away from beating Wesley, and in effect save his life.’
Lawson’s story was what I remembered in that split-second, as the men held me up against the wall. Since I didn’t have any other ideas, I decided to try it out. I scanned the group of young men and, trusting my intuition, decided the ‘leader’ wasn’t the guy who was pushing me and getting in my face. (What was that guy saying? Why were my ears not working, only my eyes? And why were the others in the group coming in closer to me?)
I decided the leader was another young man, who was standing back a bit, with a thoughtful expression in his eyes. Channelling Wesley, I focused my energy on him. ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ I asked. I allowed my anger to show in my voice and, at the same time, held my hands out and down, palms open. ‘I came out to get some medicine for my baby.’ My voice rose. ‘She has a fever! She needs the medicine. Why are you hassling me?’
The guy who’d taken the initiative hit me a couple times in the shoulder, not very hard, as if mainly to get my attention. My heart went on pounding, but my backbone was straighter, and a calm was growing inside. I had a plan; I was acting. I looked more intensely at the guy I hoped was the leader.
‘I’m a dad,’ I said, raising my voice some more. ‘I’m trying to do right by my baby. She needs the medicine. I came to the drugstore over there.’ I motioned with my head in its direction. ‘Why are you stopping me? I need to get home!’
‘Hey, man,’ said the thoughtful-looking one to the guy who was pushing me. ‘Let him go.’
The pushing guy turned around to address the other. ‘Why? He got no business on our block.’
Another guy stepped into the argument. No one was looking at me anymore; they were looking at the pushing guy and the leader. My hearing faded out again as I continued to focus on the leader. He glanced at me, then turned back to the pushing guy and said something. Somebody seemed to agree with him – judging from the body language – and a couple of them turned their backs on me. It was all about their argument now, and I started to edge away.
I’m a huge white guy, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t suddenly invisible to them, standing in a small circle three feet away.
Still, no one did anything about my continued edging across the sidewalk into the street. Then, walking more rapidly, I headed down the centre of the street to my car.
My heart gradually calmed down as I drove home, praying my thanks to Jim Lawson and John Wesley and the entire tribe of Methodists – but most of all to the guy who, whether or not he really was the leader of his friends, stepped up at an excellent time.
In 2012, my climate justice group faced a problem. We were campaigning to force a huge bank to stop providing the money needed to blow up mountains for coal, a devastating practice in the Appalachian region of the Eastern US.
The coal companies literally levelled mountains, releasing toxic materials into streams that provided drinking water for people downstream. The companies found that was a more efficient way of getting coal moving into industrial and consumer use, which then released carbon into the atmosphere, helping to wreck the climate.
The coal companies could reduce their workforce by using dynamite, but they borrowed the money for the dynamite and heavy machinery they needed to grab the coal.
We focused on the No 1 bank funding the practice, PNC. We started as a Quaker group small enough to fit into a living room, and grew as people learned about us and our preference for dramatic actions.
Our favourite was to go into a branch bank at a busy time of day, circle up and sit on the floor and hold a worship service, singing and preaching about reverence for nature and what the bank was doing.
We started with one bank at a time, then two at a time, then three and more as we grew. Each bank ‘invasion’ group knew whether it was going to stay to be arrested or be willing to leave when ordered out by the police. Each group was trained ahead of time so people had the confidence to be arrested if they were ready.
As the campaign grew, we realised that the bank was being rocked by our actions but they were so decentralised that we needed a new tactic to make a larger impact. Some of us knew the story of Gandhi’s 1931 march to the sea during his nationwide ‘Salt Satyagraha’ (salt campaign). Like ours, Gandhi’s campaign was decentralised and growing, using largely small-group tactics, but needed a dramatic focus to move to a new level.
He chose a tactic that gained its drama from the question, ‘What’s going to happen?’ – a long walk to the sea, the so-called ‘Salt March’. There he would lead the marchers in (illegally) making salt from the sea, thereby upsetting the British imperial government’s tax based on salt.
Gandhi was right. He started with a small group of marchers and as they walked the suspense grew: would the British try to stop them en route? Would they get to the sea and begin to make salt? Would more Indians join the independence movement?
He purposely chose a long route, to give more time for the drama to build.
“My activist training told me there’s always something creative to reach for, a way of being assertive, being human, and coming from a place of goodwill. What was it?”
By the time they got there, it seemed all of India was holding its breath, and remote villages who had not yet heard about the movement began to learn. The result was predictable: the movement became massive and the British took years to contain the mass of civilly disobedient Indians. Some observers sagely observed that this was the beginning of the end of British rule in India.
I realized that, in Pennsylvania in 2011, we were far from the mass consciousness that was then available in India, but the advantages of our doing a long walk to build the drama would help us grow. And so we launched our Green Walk for Jobs and Justice, 200 miles of walking toward Pittsburgh, rain or shine.
At almost all our stopping points we arrived at a local church or Quaker meeting in time for a potluck supper with local supporters, showed a video about mountaintop removal, were taken by members to their homes for bed and breakfast.
The next morning we converged on the local PNC bank branch for an action, then walked the 11 – 20 miles to the next stopping point.
By the time we reached Pittsburgh, our numbers had swelled, the newspapers were taking us seriously for the first time, and our action at the bank’s headquarters was one the bank could no longer pretend to ignore.
Just as in Gandhi’s case, where more years of struggle were needed before Independence was achieved, we also hadn’t quite reached the halfway point in our campaign. But as in India, an objective observer in the US might see that our group of activists had the boldness and stamina to be able to force America’s seventh-largest bank to give up funding mountaintop removal coal mining.
Meeting our challenges
From his first arrest in the civil rights era to his most recent during a climate justice march at the age of 83, George Lakey has committed his life to a mission of building a better world through movements for justice.
In Dancing with History: A Life for Peace and Justice (Seven Stories, December 2022), George describes the personal, political, and theoretical – coming out as bisexual to his Quaker community while known as a church leader and family man, protesting against the war in Vietnam by delivering medical supplies through the naval blockade in the South China Sea, and applying his academic study of nonviolent resistance to creative tactics in direct action campaigns.
From strategies he learned as a young man facing violence in the streets to risking his life as an unarmed bodyguard for Sri Lankan human rights lawyers, Lakey recounts his experience living out the tension between commitment to family and mission.
Drawing strength from his community to fight cancer, survive painful parenting struggles, and create networks to help prevent activist burnout, this book shows us how to find hope in even the darkest times through strategic, joyful activism.
George is taking his memoir on a 20-state book tour around the US (and Canada – and the UK, we hope). He describes the purpose of the tour like this: ‘Some of the best things we did in the violent, polarized ’60s came from developing a learning curve. Something special I bring is not only my successful lived experience from those days and since, but also a sociologist’s ability to make meaning of the successful experience of others. That’s what I’m offering: a learning opportunity so we can stop repeating mistakes and instead use our energy to the max! That’s why I’m calling the book tour the “Meeting Our Challenges Tour”. The tour is for activist empowerment. What better reason for an 85-year-old to leave the comfort of his house and go on the road?’