George Lakey: nonviolent warrior

IssueApril 2012
Feature by Milan Rai

George Lakey. photo by John MeyerWe began with laughter, as George Lakey expressed his disbelief at the technology we were using. It was his first-ever internet video call: Skype had been installed on his computer only the day before, specifically for our interview.

Two hours later, with many questions still unasked, we were both on the verge of tears, as George haltingly recalled a transformational moment in his political and personal development, a process that stretches unbroken from the 1960s to his continuing activism today.

Co-founder of the ground-breaking radical community, the Movement for a New Society, which laid the basis for many of the facilitation and decision-making systems in common activist use today, George Lakey has spent much of the last 40 years training people – 1,500 people on five continents.

Much of that training has been in creative nonviolence. The man who persuaded Peace News to adopt the slogan ‘for nonviolent revolution’ in 1969 is as convinced of its relevance today, in the age of Occupy, as he was back then.

George said during the interview: ‘I’m 74. Am I burned out? I don’t think so. It is possible to struggle our whole lives long if we find ways of supporting ourselves so that we don’t burn out. We deserve not only “after the revolution” institutions that support our personal growth and our own vision, but we deserve in the process of struggle to keep growing and to experience the taste of liberation. As the Movement for a New Society used to say: “To live the revolution now”.’

We were grateful for the opportunity to discuss all these matters, as well as the shameful reaction in the US peace movement to his coming out as a gay man, the deficiencies of ‘middle-class pacifism’, George’s exploration of his working-class background, and much more.

We’re even more grateful that George will be discussing these matters at much greater length during his Peace News speaking tour of the UK in the summer, culminating in a day-long workshop on nonviolent revolution at Peace News Summer Camp.

A major victory

I’d been urged by others within PN to ask George first about his participation in a highly-successful nonviolent direct action campaign in 1971, against US arms sales to Pakistan, which was then brutally suppressing the attempt of East Pakistan to break away and become an independent state: Bangladesh.

The Philadelphia branch of Movement for a New Society had decided to try to stop US arms shipments to the Pakistani dictatorship. To do that, ‘we figured out that we needed to find the coercive power coming from the way in which the mechanism was operating’. Having established that a shipment of US arms was to be loaded soon in Baltimore, further south down the East Coast of the USA, they first tried to persuade the ships’ pilots’ association there to boycott the vessel.

‘So then we thought, well, the longshoremen [the dockers who loaded and unloaded ships] also have the ability to refuse, though East Coast longshoremen, as opposed to the West Coast longshoremen, tend to be right-wing.’

The group of about 15 activists hung around in dockyard bars for ten days or so, trying to win over the dockers. The longshoremen were unresponsive.

The group then switched gear, announcing that they would be blockading the arms ship, and gathering together canoes and small boats: ‘And so we were out there and we’d have a day for clergy practising, and a day for nuns practising, and a day for students practising, and a day for older people practising, and so we kept finding different angles to make it photogenic and worth the while of the mass media to actually cover. We were especially looking for television people to cover what one wag called our “dis-armada”.’

Most of the coverage was mocking, but: ‘We don’t mind bad publicity, what we mind is no publicity.’

Days and days of coverage had an effect on the longshoremen, who began to be more responsive to the group’s feelers.

George explained: ‘Of course, always in organising, you have to pay attention to the culture of the people you’re organising – and with unions in this country it’s the picket line that is basic to their culture. So after a couple of weeks of that kind of work, we were able to get them to agree that if we set up a picket line, they would refuse to cross it, and so we won.’

The group announced that when the ship docked, they would mount a picket line. The longshoremen announced that if there was a picket line, they would not cross it, and they would not load the weapons.

The first battle was won, but the ship then diverted to Philadelphia to pick up the weapons there: ‘So we dashed back to Philadelphia – well that’s our town so that was really great. It was very easy to organise a large disarmada in Philadelphia.’ The ship tried to load weapons, the group set up a picket line ‘right at the dock’. The local longshoremen had promised not to cross the picket line, so there was no loading.

‘In addition, because we had a sense of drama, we announced we would interfere with the freighter, and so when they would throw the hawsers [ropes] out on the dock to tie up, we’d grab the hawsers and jump in the water with them and so on. And of course our little canoes and so on were out there making a mess. It was a lovely time.’

The captain tried again in New York and Boston, enabling the group to build contacts with the longshoremen’s union in those cities also.

A lot of the leadership for the solidarity campaign came from Sultana Krippendorff, a Bengali woman married to a US academic, who asked the group to arrange for her to address the international convention of the longshoremen’s union.

Using their new contacts, the group secured 15 minutes for Sultana Krippendorff to address the convention: ‘She was given 15 minutes, an incredibly eloquent person, there was hardly a dry eye in the house, we got an unanimous vote that all the ports in the US would be closed to ships that wanted to pick up weapons’ for Pakistan.

A group of 15 activists had won a major victory, greatly reducing the number of weapons received by the Pakistani dictatorship, ‘because our strategy was not simply to make a protest and then go onto another issue; our strategy was to really figure out who had the coercive power in this situation that can be used nonviolently.’

Climate action

I moved on to asking George about the recent focus for his activism on climate change. He has been part of Earth-Quaker Action Team (EQAT), targeting the PNC bank in the US for its support for mountaintop-removal coal-mining.

This is a highly capital-intensive way of mining (blowing the tops off mountains then using huge machines to extract the coal). Using a similar strategic analysis, the group realised that the companies involved relied heavily on financial support from banks, which might be persuaded to withdraw.

They’ve been occupying branches of PNC bank for the last few years, and building alliances: ‘as you can tell from my previous story, allies are critical, any group of protesters who think they can do anything by themselves are out of touch with reality.’

PNC are now worried, and have a policy of closing branches as soon as EQAT show up.

The high point of EQAT actions so far was their contribution to a day of action in Washington DC called ‘Appalachia Rising’ (people in the Appalachian mountains have been hardest hit, with rising cancer rates and other social impacts). EQAT took over ‘a gorgeous marble bank near the White House’ and built a mountain top on the floor – ‘and totally freaked out the bank manager’.

Other groups have already chased JP Morgan Chase away from funding mountaintop-removal. Getting PNC bank out of this area is winnable. George comments: ‘Most people are not attracted, at least in the US political culture, by losing. And so, we like to win.’

All of which I found very thought-provoking and very relevant for activists everywhere.

Middle-class pacifism

We turned then from particular campaigns, however ambitious, to the tantalising overarching framework of ‘nonviolent revolution’. During our interview, George confessed that he himself sometimes finds the idea astonishing: ‘There are days when I say: “George, are you just bullshitting yourself? Come on, you can’t be serious.” ’

I’d been very struck by George’s distinction, in an interview with Andrew Cornell for the book Propose and Oppose, between revolutionary nonviolence and what he called ‘middle-class pacifism’. In his interview with PN, George expanded on his earlier remarks:

‘The function of the middle class is to manage, and nurture the working class on behalf of the owning class. So, it is bred into the middle-class people from when they are little bitty people that management is key.... So, do you know any managers who have moved ahead in their careers because the people they are managing are constantly conflicting? No. The sign of a good manager is conflict resolution. The sign of a good manager is to have people working cooperatively together in a harmonious way.

‘Middle-class pacifism has a very strong interest in the common ground, in reconciliation. For example the Fellowship of Reconciliation, it’s built into the title. “Let’s find a way to come together”, that’s very strongly the concern. So that is hugely a value in the middle class, harmony and common ground.’

The trouble with this approach is that: ‘ “Only harmony” is really insanity. “Only harmony” is death. So there also needs to be conflict. So the nonviolent revolutionary tradition is one in which the emphasis is not on harmony, it’s on conflict. Polarisation is the meat and drink – or for vegans the tofu – of life. We have to have polarisation.’

According to George, ‘Dr King was in that tradition. When he got the Nobel Peace Prize, there were a lot of people criticising because they said: “Wait a minute, we had harmony in our town and then Dr King came to town, and there was all that conflict, and there was blood on the streets. And the guy gets a peace prize for that?”

‘So it comes to the very basic question of the definition of peace? Is peace about harmony, or is peace about conflict?

‘King said: peace is about conflict. Because peace is a concept that includes justice. And you can’t have justice without conflict. You have to struggle, you have to polarise the situation in order to get something done. So that is a very major distinction.’

In his interview with Andrew Cornell and Andrew Willis-Garcés, George added another distinction: ‘Lots of pacifists are okay with capitalism and nonviolent revolutionaries are not. They are strongly anti-capitalist and often anti-state.’

George Lakey getting arrestedNonviolent revolution

The concept of ‘nonviolent revolution’ has quite a history.

In our conversation, George cited radical pacifists AJ Muste, April Carter and Michael Randle. Muste’s work goes back to the 1920s. Radical pacifist Barbara Deming wrote her essay ‘On Revolution and Equilibrium’ in 1968. Fellow US activist Dave Dellinger wrote a book called Revolutionary Non-Violence in 1970.

George developed his own re-framing of nonviolent revolution while in the UK in 1969-1970, in an attempt to ‘put people more in touch with each other again’. At that time, ‘Peace News was in a kind of unsatisfactory way trying to speak to those [different] constituencies [within the peace movement] without moving the dialogue along’. He saw PN then as ‘an open place where that re-framing could be useful.’

‘One reason [this version of nonviolent revolution] is attractive to a lot of radicals, including within the Occupy movement, is because it’s a framework that invites unity rather than disunity.’

His aim was to create a framework that could leave some of the questions that tend to divide us, to leave them to ‘reveal the answers for themselves, in the length of the struggle itself.’

George set out a five-stage process of revolution, starting with political education, which he calls ‘cultural preparation’; developing naturally into organisation-building; which leads to confronting the powers-that-be in stage three; which builds into the capacity for mass non-co-operation (as in the Arab Spring); and finally culminates in stage five, ‘establishing, rooting, anchoring the new society’ in new institutions that can carry out socially- and economically-necessary positive functions.

Discussing stage five, George remarked: ‘As the Egyptians now are realising – and this has been realised over and over - it’s one thing to create a power vacuum, and to throw out a dictator, it’s another thing to create an alternative set of institutions.’

Is it really possible to fill the vacuum and to create alternative institutions? George points, as he did in the last issue of Peace News, to the example of Norway and Sweden, where years of mass nonviolent struggle (including general or near-general strikes) created fundamental change:

‘Under the leadership of the working class, both countries built robust and successful economies that nearly eliminated poverty, expanded free university education, abolished slums, provided excellent health care available to all as a matter of right and created a system of full employment.’

After waves of nationalisation and strict regulation, ‘there are still some owners, there is still an ownership class in Norway and in Sweden but their political power is nothing like it used to be 80 years ago’.


Which moves us squarely onto the issue of class.

George tells a story against himself in the opening pages of the second edition of A Strategy for a Living Revolution, where he writes about a direct action that he led at a helicopter factory outside Philadelphia in the mid-Sixties. Workers and townspeople pelted the demonstrators with eggs and tomatoes, and some protesters were roughed up.

A year later, the trade union at the Boeing factory wrote to a Philadelphia newspaper expressing the workers’ distaste for the work they were doing, their reservations about the Vietnam war (where the helicopters were being used) and their wish for anti-war allies.

The union then worked on a conversion plan to turn their skills to civilian uses, to help build housing units in the area. Their plan, developed with a local architect, was turned down by the management, which pointed out that the profit rate on social housing was a fraction of that which could be gained in military production. The management continued to lay off workers until the factory was a shadow of its former self.

George remarked: ‘Where was I? I and other peace leaders had not responded to the letter in the newspaper by making contact with the workers. We did not know that they were now challenging Boeing management on what was to be produced at the plant, so we could not be an ally to them. We were elsewhere making a moral point about the war. I now shake my head at how limited I was!’

All of this is the more striking because George himself is from a working-class background. He told me how he was ‘brought up in a blue-collar family, working-class, in rural Pennsylvania.’ His parents ‘were each of them forced out of high school in order to work for the family to enable the family to survive, very hard times’: ‘My parents did not want me to go to college, they didn’t want me to betray the working class by becoming one of those stuck-up boss types.’

George said: ‘I gained so enormously from that background. I don’t know of an organisation that doesn’t benefit from having more working-class people in it. Except organisations like unions which only have working-class people in them, because they then benefit from having middle-class people in them.’

‘One of the advantages of my having been brought up in the working class and then moving into the middle class, which is what I’ve done, is that I have been able to acquire some of the skills of middle-classness at the same time. And I appreciate that because both classes have so much to bring to the table to building strong organisations.’

In the next instalment of this interview, we’ll deal properly with George’s role in the Movement for a New Society (MNS), and its seminal role in creating the group process tools that are now taken for granted throughout western activist circles.

To close this chapter, let’s have George’s final words in the interview, responding to my question about his description of MNS as a group with lots of working-class leadership but a middle-class tone:

‘I think people brought it [the middle-class tone] with them from the various past associations , whether in the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the infant environmental movement, the women’s movement.

‘All those were sources for those initial activists.

‘The tone in all those movements was middle-class. And so the people who had been brought up working class had learned to “pass” as middle class people in their previous activism, so middle-classness was the common denominator in the organisation that we built.

‘We were surprised actually when.... Well, our first major encounter in dealing with oppression was dealing with the women’s movement and feminism. So we struggled very, very hard. Lots of pain, lots of breakthroughs for a year or two. And the next that we tackled was homophobia, heterosexism.

‘So we worked on that at least a year, collectively, very hard. And then the one after that that we tackled was classism.

‘And the people leading that process actually were middle-class people, taking a leadership role in all that. They created a process in which people were asked to go back to their roots. And so those of us brought up in working-class homes found ourselves in the same corner of the room.


‘And we looked at each other and said: “What!” It was phenomenal. “Your folks also.... Your table was set with jelly glasses? You didn’t have actual glasses bought from the store as water glasses, they were jelly glasses? You also wanted to go to sleepover camp but you couldn’t because your family couldn’t afford it? You were lucky if you could go to day camp? Your people didn’t go on vacations and you also mostly socialised with relatives rather than ‘friends’?

‘We had all these lifestyle things in common, and then as we looked deeply we also found more and more assumptions about the world and how the world works, in common. “What? You were brought up to think life is struggle?” “What? You were brought up to think that you weren’t entitled to anything? That you were going to have to work, work, work, to get anything at all?”

‘At the same time, five feet away, were middle-class groups, saying “What?” And there were all these discoveries going on.

‘I can’t tell you how exhilarating it was, for us to find each other. It was as exhilarating as for gay people to find each other, or women to find each other in the early days of the consciousness-raising second-wave feminist movement.

‘And so it’s really fun telling you about this, because it is coming back to me in such a rush.

‘And then the next process that our facilitators took us through was – this was over months of time – we were to keep meeting in these class identity groups and to keep making these discoveries and to start reporting out to the whole.

‘And they said: “Working-class people, you get to be first to report to the whole. What are your discoveries? This will be your ‘speak out’. Take the floor.”

‘We were scared. We were scared. And so there we were, I will never forget, we were probably 15 people across the front of the room.

‘Everyone else was sitting, we were standing, and we were being egged on by the facilitators to speak out, and they kept asking these deep probing questions, we were in tears....

‘I want to cry now, across the Atlantic Ocean, about our saying these deeply intimate things and sharing these deep assumptions that we were making, and these, the middle-class people, our comrades, our dear sisters and brothers, sitting on the floor not saying a word.

Whoever heard of middle-class people not saying a word?

There they were listening, listening, respectfully, while we spilled our guts.

‘This is so moving to me.

‘This went on for hours. At the end, the facilitators finally said “Okay, okay, you can go upstairs, you working-class people. Thank you for being so deeply honest, you are very brave people. Go upstairs, take a break, be with each other. The middle-class people will be down here with facilitative help to sort out what it is they learned.”

‘So we went upstairs, held each other, and cried, and held each other. And then we started laughing and laughing and laughing. The transformation was enormous, as we came to terms with “us” as a distinct identity within the larger Movement for a New Society.

‘We were prepared to die for any of those other people downstairs if they called for our help. We were prepared to get in a canoe, to stand our ground beside them if police were whacking heads. I mean I literally risked my life with my comrades, with my middle-class comrades. And there they were, listening to us, listening to who we were, at a depth that we hadn’t even known existed a few months ago.

‘And so the release, the laughing, we were hysterically laughing for the longest time. And finally the facilitators came upstairs and said, “OK, we invite you to come back, and you don’t have to, you can stay up here with yourselves. But you can also come back if you want to.”

‘And so we thought, OK, well we know that we can meet again here tomorrow, let’s agree we’ll come back here tomorrow night. We are going to be here, just the bunch of us, bring some beer. So we go back downstairs. And we’re shy, we’re shy. Because we have been exposed, we’ve exposed ourselves. We’re shy, we’re feeling naked in front of our comrades and a big circle is created, a standing circle. And everybody is asked very briefly to say something that was meaningful for them out of the evening.

‘Almost all of us were crying, because we had been to a sacred place and I’ve forgotten, of course, most of those comments.

‘The comment I remember, and I guess what I have written about, was the comment that a British person said, she said:

“I thought that the leadership of the Movement for a New Society was middle-class, because when I came from Britain, and tried to fit in, I thought that this is a pretty middle-class outfit. When I saw the lot of you working-class people standing up in front and sharing, I realized that among you are many of the primary leaders of MNS.”

‘It never occurred to me that was true. I was very moved by that.’

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