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“Don’t Shop While The Bombs Drop!”

Re-thinking Movement Strategy

by Paul Rockwell
Oakland, California

Last November, the day after Thanksgiving, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert turned on his TV. Suddenly images of maimed and dead Iraqis came across his screen. The “unspeakable carnage in Sadr City” was followed by another set of images -- crazed, uncontrollable holiday shoppers, highways to shopping centers crammed with cars burning oil from the Mideast, impatient consumers standing in lines outside stores before sunup. Crowds cruised through shopping malls like schools of hungry fish, spending money they didn’t have on things they didn’t really need.

The American people spent $22 billion on that single day last year. Not one dollar really belonged to the spenders. Americans owe half a trillion dollars on their soaring war debt.

In the consumer chaos, shoppers seemed oblivious to the U.S.-caused holocaust in Iraq. The ability of war-makers to continue wars, even when they seem unpopular, depends on the insularity of empire. It is no accident that, in the midst of catastrophe and tragedy, the Commander-in-Chief tells Americans to go shopping.

For Herbert, there is a connection between conspicuous consumption and conspicuous indifference. Herbert was so upset by the images on TV, he sat down and wrote one of his most insightful, impassioned columns (November 27, 2006):

He wrote: “There is something terribly wrong with the juxtaposition of gleeful Americans with fistfuls of dollars storming the department store barricades and the slaughter by the thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians, including old people, children, and babies. The war was started by the U.S., but most Americans feel absolutely no sense of personal responsibility for it. The indifference is widespread. It enables most Americans to go about their daily lives completely unconcerned about the atrocities resulting from a war being waged in their name.

“The war has now lasted as long as the American involvement in World War II. But there is no sense of collective sacrifice in the war, no shared burden of responsibility.

“Iraq burns. We shop.”

Imagine a different kind holiday season this year. Imagine a national, anti-war consumer boycott, a challenge to Americans to make peace the center of their lives. Imagine huge shopping centers surrounded by picketers with banners and signs that say: “DON’T SHOP WHILE THE BOMBS DROP!” Imagine vigils, prayer meetings, carol-singing, even trade-fairs near department stores.

Visualize a new scene. As consumers approach picket lines, they receive a flyer that invites them to join the austerity boycott:
“There are times when consumerism insulates all of us from the consequences of our own decisions, when shopping for ourselves becomes an act of indifference to the suffering and tragedy of others, a tragedy for which American citizens bear some responsibility. Is it right for us, today, to make illegal war abroad and go shopping as if nothing horrific is taking place? “Today we urge you to take one small step beyond your comfort zone, to break from the money ritual, to put down your purse, or wallet, in order to mourn the deaths of our soldiers; to lament the slaughter of Iraqis, who never threatened the sovereignty of the U.S.”

At a picket line, each individual is forced to make a moral choice—to make a connection between personal life and what is taking place in Iraq; between war and peace.

One angry consumer crosses the line and tears up the flyer. All day he is upset by the audacity of the peace movement, which interrupts the joy of shopping. He tells his friends: “I didn’t start the war. Those radicals should take their case to Congress.” He goes home and complains about the picketers, and his wife, suprisingly, disagrees. She never really liked the war but did not dare to talk about it at home. Suddenly the whole family is embroiled in discussions that should have taken place in 2003.

Another consumer reads the flyer, talks with a picketer, then joins the boycott. She tells her children by her side that peace is the only gift that really matters this year. She says she will promote the boycott at church, and she says, “I don’t go to demonstrations because I am not very radical, and I don’t have the money to travel. I felt helpless for a long time. Now I can help do something to stop the war.”

Slowly public disillusionment dissolves. The boycott begins to generate a sense of empowerment, as thousands of people, most for the first time in their lives, become agents of change through their own direct action.

Agitation Devoid of Hate

While the austerity boycott is devoid of hate and hostility -- those who cross picket lines are treated with respect -- it is an agitational tactic that is in keeping with the teachings of Dr. King about the need for social confrontation. Along with a national boycott of Woolworth's, King launched dozens of local economic boycotts throughout the South.

“Non-violent direct action,” King writes, “seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue....I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth...tension of the mind. We must see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

Persuasion, Non-Cooperation, Civil Disobedience

In his monumental three-volume work The Politics of Non-Violent Action, the most exhaustive survey of non-violent strategies in print, Gene Sharp distinguishes between three phases of social justice movements: persuasion through protest-lobbying; mass non-cooperation (the austerity boycott falls in this category); and non-violent intervention, often called civil disobedience.

The first phase (persuasion) includes marches, pickets, rallies, petitions, phone-banks, e-mails, direct lobbying of politicians, symbolic acts, armbands, graffiti, guerrilla theatre, teach-ins, petitions, banners. Code Pink, one of the most creative message-senders in the movement, unfurls banners at conservative conventions and hearings, using theatrical tactics to gain media attention. Such tactics are not designed to actually shut down the system, but to send a message to power holders. One of their recent posters directed at Congressional Democrats reads: “Lead Us Out Of Iraq.” Persuasion tactics extend beyond verbal expression but stop short of mass non-cooperation.

Non-cooperation, the second phase, includes economic, social and political boycotts, refusal to pay taxes or fines, student walkouts and strikes, labor strikes, refusal to comply with established social behavior, slowdowns, divestment campaigns such as the withdrawal of bank deposits, and the refusal to recognize the authority of leaders elected in corrupt elections. Non-cooperation is an essential feature of almost all social movements against entrenched power.

Intervention includes direct-action tactics, disruptions designed to actually impede “business-as-usual.” Tactics include sit-ins, mill-ins, reverse trials (where defendants put the accusers on trial), non-violent obstruction and interdiction (like lying down in front of a moving vehicle). Intervention tactics are radical. They often bring swift and severe repression. They require discipline and preparation of public consciousness.

In many movements there is a tendency for activists, frustrated with the slow pace of the persuasion stage, to leap into civil disobedience, to pass over the stage of non-cooperation. After all, throughout the course of history, power-holders have rarely yielded voluntarily to non-violent persuasion, notwithstanding the creativity and dedication of demonstrators. According to Sharp, it is the flow, the merging of persuasion and non-violent non-cooperation that makes the final difference between victory and defeat. Sharp writes: “A ruler’s power is ultimately dependent on support from the people he would rule. His moral authority, economic resources, transport system, government bureaucracy, army, and police -- to name but a few immediate sources of his power -- rest finally upon the cooperation and assistance of other people. If there is general conformity, the ruler is powerful.”

Our current peace movement, which began with historic, huge worldwide mass demonstrations before the invasion of Iraq, has still confined itself primarily to a demonstration-persuasion stage. The U.S. movement is focused on pressuring Democrats to turn to peace.

Bush invaded Iraq in defiance of public opinion, and he carries on the war in defiance of public sentiment. We have learned that, contrary to what many of us believed when the early demonstrations took place, public opinion is not (as The New York Times put it) a “second super power.” In itself, public opinion does not end wars. Only when public opinion is converted into an active, material force does peace sentiment reach “critical mass.”

Most victorious modern movements -- the labor movement in the 30s, the civil rights movement and farm workers’ movement in the 60s, the historic anti-apartheid movement -- made use of economic boycotts. With the important exception of the GI resistance (see, our peace movement has yet to enter the stage of non-cooperation.

What would it take for the peace movement to challenge the American people to withdraw their cooperation with war makers? What would it take to transform Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa into a time of national reflection, penitence, mourning, and a striving for real peace and good will to humankind?

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
sharing all the world....

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
and the world will live as one.

“Imagine,” John Lennon

Published in In Motion Magazine September 17, 2007

Paul Rockwell is a columnist for In Motion Magazine. He can be reached at:

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