Standing with the Poor: The Street Spirit Interview with Vincent Harding

by Terry Messman

Martin was attuned to the Hebrew prophets, and that was their constant message: Don’t talk about loving God or being religious unless you stand with the outcasts and the weak. Jesus said the same thing. There’s no way to understand Martin’s urgency about standing with the poor without taking into consideration his deepest religious grounding.” Vincent Harding

Vincent Harding, c. 2013; photographer unknown.

Street Spirit: In your book, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, you wrote that the public seems most aware of the first part of Dr. King’s journey that culminated in his “I have a dream” speech during the March on Washington in August 1963. Yet, in the final year of his life, King attempted to build a far more militant movement that could challenge racism, the war in Vietnam, poverty, unemployment and slum housing. What are your reflections on Martin Luther King in the last year of his life?

Vincent Harding: Well, Terry, I think that he was, as much as anything else, a man in search. He was not simply repeating himself, but trying to develop himself. It was clear that he was responding to the world that he was living in, and the world that was coming into being all around him. I think that that element of being engaged with the world as it was developing is one of the most important things that I would see.

He was trying to speak to the developing Black consciousness that was rising up in the Black community. He was trying to speak to the younger people who probably, even more than they knew it, were responding themselves to the society’s tendency to see them simply as waste material. He was trying to understand ways in which he could help those young people to see a sense of purpose for their lives, beyond the explosive kinds of actions that they were engaged in, in the urban areas of this country.

And then, of course, he was trying to respond to his country’s imperialism and militarism. And that was something that he simply could not let pass him by. It was absolutely necessary to speak to what that militarism was doing to the country — especially as expressed in Vietnam.

Because he was a deep lover of his country, he felt that there would be no way in which he could be a person of integrity, and be silent about the damage that he saw us, as a nation, inflicting on ourselves and on other people. And, of course, in the midst of this period, he also tried to figure out how the wealthiest country in the world could respond to the growing damage that it was doing to its poor people. That whole question of poverty, and the response to poverty and the response to the poor, is another element, I would say, of his overwhelming concern.

I’d like to mention one other thing, though. And that is that if we’re talking about that last year, he is really constantly trying to understand what would nonviolent revolution be like in America. And, at least as important, how would he call the angry, explosive, young people into that kind of task — for the good of the country, for the good of themselves, for the good of the world.

This whole matter of the young people — their explosive energy somehow being called into participation in a nonviolent revolutionary change and struggle — that was something that was very much on his mind and heart, and that needs to be seen as crucial to those last years.

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Nonviolent Social Movements: The Street Spirit Interview with Stephen Zunes

by Terry Messman

Polish mural commemorating 30 years of the Solidarity Movement; Father Jerzy Popieluszko foreground; artist unknown.

In Bolivia in 1979, when there was a coup by a general named Natusch Busch, the whole country went on strike and 600,000 people massed in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, which was bigger than the total population of the city at the time. Trade union leaders and others walked into the president’s house, walked into his office, and they asked him, “What’s your program?” He looked at them, and then he looked at the 600,000 people out in the streets, and he said, ‘Yours!’” Stephen Zunes

Street Spirit: In your book, Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective, you and your co-authors described how nonviolent movements all over the world have undermined powerful systems of oppression through the mass withdrawal of cooperation. How can such a seemingly passive act as non-cooperation overcome a military dictatorship?

Stephen Zunes: Well, basically, for the state to operate, it needs people to carry out its orders — ranging from the security forces, to government bureaucrats, to sympathetic people in the media, to academics, and to many other people that may, in normal times, do the duty of the state, but can be convinced to be on the side of the people.

This is striking. I was in Bolivia a few years ago where they have had a long history of nonviolent resistance against right-wing dictatorships and neo-liberalism and all sorts of injustices. And it was amazing when I talked to everyone from illiterate peasants, to intellectuals, to people in the government, to urban workers — they’ll all tell you that the most powerful person in Bolivia is not the president or any elected officials, but the head of the trade union federation. Why? Because the unions can shut down the entire country.

So if there’s a general strike or other forms of mass resistance, it doesn’t matter if the government occupies various government offices, and has a monopoly of weapons, or, in some cases, a monopoly of media. If people refuse to obey their orders, then they don’t have any power.

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Interview: Why Nicholson Baker is a Pacifist

by Nathan Schneider

Nicholson Baker; public domain photograph; courtesy of

Anyone who makes even a modest habit of speaking out against war in public soon runs up against the inevitable, supposedly unanswerable question: What about World War II? It’s meant to be the ultimate stumper. This was the “good war,” wasn’t it, the war waged by the “greatest generation” against the evil incarnate of Hitler and imperial Japan? There was simply no other choice before the forces of goodness and truth but to leap into the single most deadly undertaking in all of human history. Right?

That won’t work if you’re talking to Nicholson Baker. In an extraordinary cover story in Harper’s Magazine, “Why I’m a Pacifist: The Dangerous Myth of the Good War,” Baker explains how learning about World War II was actually a big part of what made him a pacifist in the first place. “In fact,” he writes, “the more I learn about the war, the more I understand that the pacifists were the only ones, during a time of catastrophic violence, who repeatedly put forward proposals that had any chance of saving a threatened people. They weren’t naïve, they weren’t unrealistic—they were psychologically acute realists.”

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Building the Positive Peace Warrior Network: The Street Spirit Interview with Kazu Haga

by Terry Messman

Kazu Haga is dedicated to spreading Martin Luther King’s vision of the Beloved Community to the next generation. Rev. King believed that his philosophy of nonviolent resistance could be effective not just in the struggle against segregation, but also in the struggle against militarism, and in the struggle against economic injustice.

Street Spirit: What led you to make Martin Luther King’s vision of nonviolent movement building such a central part of your activism and your life?

Kazu Haga: I took my first two-day training in Kingian Nonviolence in the fall of 2008 from Jonathan Lewis when I was living in Oakland. We were both working with an organization called The Gathering for Justice founded by Harry Belafonte. Kingian Nonviolence was to be one of the core strategies for that group.

Portrait of Kazu Haga; photographer unknown

So I took the workshop from Jonathan and I told him at the time that this philosophy was something that I always knew but just didn’t have the language to articulate. Jonathan Lewis had already been working with Bernard Lafayette for about 10 years at that point.

So after I took that training, it was weighing heavily on my mind, and then about two months later, Oscar Grant was shot. [Editor’s note: Grant, an African-American man, was fatally shot by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle in the early morning on New Year’s Day 2009 at the Fruitvale BART Station. TM]

I ended up on the steering committee of the Coalition Against Police Executions (CAPE), which was doing all the mobilizations after the shooting. So this philosophy of nonviolence was really heavy on my mind during that whole campaign and I really started to see how the anger and, at times, the hatred that was within the movement was starting to impact our work. The internal dynamics of our movement were starting to have an effect on the external impacts of the campaign.

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Occupy Our Homes Atlanta

by Terry Messman

Occupy Our Homes Atlanta is a great sign of hope for all people caught up in the shattering experience of eviction. Their actions give us hope that we can overcome, no matter how powerful and well entrenched the banks may be, no matter how many lawyers and lobbyists they employ.

After Rev. King was assassinated in 1968 while organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, he was buried in Atlanta. His widow, Coretta Scott King, established the King Center in Atlanta to preserve and pass on his legacy of nonviolent resistance to the interrelated evils of poverty, racial discrimination and militarism.


Prisoner #7089, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., mug shot taken by police after his arrest during Montgomery bus boycott.

Rev. King was assassinated while trying to mobilize poor people in a massive campaign of nonviolent resistance to secure affordable housing for all, full employment and adequate income for those unable to work; the Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged. When King was buried in Atlanta, his work was memorialized in the city of his birth, but the hopes for a Poor People’s Campaign seemingly were buried with him.

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The Nonviolence of Health & Healing: The Satyagraha Foundation Interview with Dr. Richard Hoofs

by Joseph Geraci


“Grow Healthy,” South Berkeley California mural;
by Youth Spirit Artworks; photo by Ariel Messman-Rucker;
courtesy of Street Spirit.

Satyagraha Foundation (SF): In your book, Prescription for Self-Healing (“Zelfgenezing op doktersrecept”) you refer to the ancient Greek, Hippocratic origins of western medicine and the principle, that “the action of healing must avoid harm.” The Gandhian term for nonviolence, ahimsa, can be translated as, “Do no harm”. Can we also speak of ahimsa as a principle for healing?

Richard Hoofs (HOOFS): Absolutely we can apply ahimsa to healing. The first principle for a doctor or health practitioner is not to harm the patient. Every doctor swears an oath to this. The word heal, in fact, comes from the root to make whole, or to become one again, and by this I mean to reconnect with the source, to the light within. To reconnect with this source and light within is a sacred event. It is healing.

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Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement: The Street Spirit Interview with Dr. Bernard Lafayette

by Terry Messman


Dr. Layfayette discusses nonviolence with activists; International Day of Peace, Sept. 2012. Photo by Howard Dycoff.


From my conjecture and my observations, the assassination was designed to stop the work of Martin Luther King. And the reason I went and prepared myself for this work is because I wanted to make sure that those who attempted to assassinate Martin Luther King’s dream — missed.” Dr. Bernard Lafayette


Street Spirit: You were the national coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign. How did you become involved, and in light of Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 before it could even be launched, what do you feel about its outcome?

Dr. Bernard Lafayette: At that time I was working with the American Friends Service Committee in Chicago. They had hired me as director of the urban affairs program, which was the first urban affairs program the Service Committee had. We originally set it up for three months to see what would happen. As a result of the work we did in Chicago for three months, they hired me permanently.

So I continued as the director of that urban affairs program and we established other urban affairs programs around the country. The reason the AFSC wanted to do this was to experiment with nonviolence in the northern urban areas to see how nonviolence could apply to the violence in the North.

What we did was organize gangs and we got them involved in the movement. We trained gang members from the West Side of Chicago because they wanted to be involved. So we trained them to be nonviolent marshals on the marches for fair housing because they already were an organization and they had leadership.

They had already encountered many scars from past activities, and so they could knock down the bricks and bottles and missiles and things that were thrown at the marchers. They would be a wall between the marchers and the hecklers.

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The Occupy Movement Stands at the Crossroads: Street Spirit Interview with George Lakey

by Terry Messman


“A nonviolent movement”;
Poster art by Vaughn Warren

If we do stuff that justifies — in the eyes of the uncommitted — the repression of the state, we will certainly lose. And the uncommitted are most of the 99 percent. We need a lot more of those people. But the only way to win them over is through strict adherence to nonviolent struggle.” — George Lakey

The diametrically opposed strategies of nonviolent resistance versus violent rebellion have seemingly always divided those building social-change movements. The age-old clash between these irreconcilable approaches has erupted anew into a matter of paramount concern for almost everyone involved in the Occupy movement.

Occupy Wall Street has flowered into a nationwide movement that has done more to focus the eyes of the nation on the cruelties of poverty and economic inequality, than any movement since the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. Showing inspiring courage, vision and creativity, tens of thousands have joined Occupy’s daring attacks on the greed and corruption of Wall Street firms, big banks, and corporate capitalism.

Along with rebelling against the unjust domination of the wealthiest 1 percent, Occupy also has demonstrated a heartening level of solidarity and support for people struggling with poverty, homelessness, foreclosures and unemployment. Yet, this young movement already finds itself at a crossroads. While many Occupy activists are deeply dedicated to the principles of nonviolent resistance, a large number have supported the “diversity of tactics” approach, and justified property destruction and physical attacks on the police and media reporters. Everything is at stake for the Occupy movement: its future direction, its chances of success, its identity, and its very soul.

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Discovering the Unexpected Power of Nonviolence: The Street Spirit Interview with Erica Chenoweth

by Terry Messman

We found that during the period of 1900 to 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns are about twice as effective as violent ones in achieving their goals. We also found that these trends hold even where most people expect nonviolent resistance to be ineffective—for instance, against dictatorships and highly repressive regimes.” Erica Chenoweth

In a groundbreaking effort to systematically study and compare success rates of violent and nonviolent social-change movements, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan carefully researched 323 social-change campaigns from 1900 to 2006. Chenoweth and Stephan’s astonishing finding is that campaigns of nonviolent resistance are nearly twice as likely to succeed as violent uprisings.


“Silent No More”. Poster art by Nora Tryon

In their book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, the authors found that far greater numbers of people from more diverse parts of society joined nonviolent campaigns than violent ones. This greater level of participation translates into more people who can demonstrate for change, and withdraw their cooperation from an unjust regime.

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“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi