Thursday September 17, 2020, Dave and I attended a webinar led by George Lakey on “What to do if there’s a coup.” Over 700 people from 34 states attended. It was excellent and encouraging. Of course, I hope there will not be a coup but, with what’s coming out of the White House lately, we can’t be sure. It’s better to prepare for that possibility and not need it than to be surprised and unprepared.
For those of you who don’t know George Lakey, he’s a Philadelphia Quaker who has written ten books on non-violent direct action and led over 1500 workshops in five continents. I met him at the Friends General Conference Summer Gathering years ago. Not only is he a very nice guy, he’s smart and experienced, deeply spiritual and skilled.
George opened with good news, based on the research of Stephen Zunes, professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco. Zunes is recognized as one of country’s leading scholars of US Middle East Policy and of strategic nonviolent direct action. Lakey reported that Zunes studied 12 coup attempts. Eight of the 12 were beaten back by non-violent protesters who didn’t prepare. His research indicated if they had prepared, more coups might have been overturned. This is truly good news.
Lakey outlined four ingredients in successful resistance to coups:
1. Wide-spread participation,
2. Alliance building between concerned individuals and groups throughout,
3. Maintenance of non-violent discipline, and
4. Clear conviction among all not to go along with the coup attempt.
He gave an example. In 1988, when the US was used to running Latin America, Nicaragua showed signs of resistance. President Ronald Reagan sent troops to Honduras to prepare to go into Nicaragua. The American people in great numbers gave a pledge to resist and prepared to go into the streets. The US backed down and didn’t invade.
Lakey suggested a pledge for us today: to vote and not to recognize the result of the election until all votes are counted. If a coup is attempted, we will prepare to go into the streets in protest. He referred us to the website https://choosedemocracy.us to declare this pledge. This website will serve as a clearinghouse for information, training sessions and much more as November approaches. If there is a coup and we’re wondering if this really is a coup, there will be a signal there.
George acknowledged this will take inner strength. He invited us to close our eyes and recall a tough time in our own lives we faced and overcame and as a result found the inner strength we needed. This newly discovered inner strength is with us now for whatever lies ahead. He encouraged us to share this memory with someone later. Had this workshop been in person, I imagine he would have given us a moment to share with someone sitting next to us.
He went on to talk about the strategic challenge. Our goal is to hold on to Constitutional order rather than change something. We need to anchor ourselves in the traditional reality of which we approve. For example, to count all the votes.
He warned us about the temptation to focus on the right wing of the current polarization and instead advised us to pay attention to the center. It’s the center’s weight that determines the outcome. If the center chooses democracy, we win. Whatever actions we take must play to the center: to those who care about stability, the managers, the conservators, those at the top who like to run things. We need to join those who like stability.
He told a story about the Soviet Union in 1991 when there was a coup to move that society to the right. Gorbachev was taken into custody. But Boris Yeltsin, President of Russia, an example of a local manger, a conservator, a politician, called down the coup. He called it anti-constitutional. He supported the center and the coup was defeated in four days.
George pointed out the coup timetable is shorter than other change movements. Usually just a matter of days are needed to undo a coup.
He suggested the target of our actions should be the political class, elected officials at all levels, mayors, town council members, county commissioners, and on up the hierarchy. In the US, political power is diffused. To mobilize the center, we ask them to refuse to accept the election result until all the votes have been counted, to make a pledge to that effect. Many will say yes to such a pledge. If not, we come back or camp out in their offices, etc., until they do. As to which elected officials to start with, do what’s easiest. If you know some of your local officials already, start there.
He addressed the risk of violence from the other side as we’ve seen happen in Portland. Those wishing to do violence want a big crowd. Don’t get a big crowd. Get a small group and visit the offices of elected officials. Consider reaching out to people outside your usual network. You’ll make new friends and widen the effort. As to timing, he suggested the day after the election as the best time to ask for a pledge not to accept the election results until all the votes have been counted. People will be in a state of high anxiety. The pledge will be seen as a reasonable request.
In the Question & Answer period, there were more questions than could be answered in the time we had. His daughter, Ingrid, helped cull and condense the questions.
What about armed militias other than the military? We have a great resource in the civil rights movement. He recommended we watch the film “Freedom Song” with Danny Glover. It’s historically accurate and instructive. Engage with violent people non-violently. Andrew Young, was church pastor in those days, heard the Klu Klux Klan was gathering in the woods and preparing something. He gathered the bravest in his congregation to go with him to the KKK and talk. It worked. People who arm themselves respect courage. However, this kind of conversation should only be done in a sizable group. But don’t underestimate our power. We have here an opportunity for us to expand, discover our courage and act from love.
What national coordination is currently happening? A lot of new alliances are forming daily between different organizations. A very hopeful sign.
Remember that the government agencies that have been subverted (ICE etc.) have inner divisions. Adopt an open attitude rather than see them as enemies. People inside these agencies are often unhappy. They are watching.
What about the bipartisan election commission proposal by Dan Coats?
It’s a good idea. Support it with Congress.
How much training in non-violent direct action do you need? It’s good to have some training. Soon you will have access to it through https://choosedemocracy.us. George and his colleagues will offer two four hour training sessions via Zoom. Pendle Hill has an upcoming training as well.
What does it mean to shut down the government? George told a story of 1920 Germany which was also polarized. Wolfgang Kopp led a coup. He went to the center government offices to take over and create a proclamation. No one was there. A wide spread strike was in effect. Two days later, the coup was over. The power of non-cooperation is great.
Find out what the center has on its mind, talk to them: managers, bank officers, local elected officials. Read the mainstream newspapers (Wall Street Journal for example). One time of recent non-cooperation, a strike, was when high school students walked out of school on Friday to protest the inaction on climate change. A one day strike can work and save your job. During WW II the Danes took a one day strike when occupied by the Nazis.
What about retired people? Root for the younger people. When an older person does something, it’s a big deal. Retired people have time to prepare. Be creative.
What if Trump wins? We’ll be in better shape to stop him from destroying things.
Read George Lakey’s articles at www.wagingnonviolence.org.
Also check http://www.activistforlife.org.