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Organizers of the Past

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This is a good remembrance of the Nicaraguan solidarity movement of the 1980s and how organizers did what they could to stop Reagan’s illegal actions there.

A few weeks later, a group of religious activists met at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in eastern Pennsylvania and created what they called “A Pledge of Resistance.” Those who took it promised that if the Reagan administration sent troops to Nicaragua, they would travel there in a nonviolent attempt to impede the invasion. Several dozen signed on, and the magazine Sojourners began to publicize the idea. In the summer of 1984, West Coast organizers inspired by the concept expanded and refined the pledge, relaunching it in the fall with the backing of a broad coalition that included the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Inter-Religious Task Force on Central America, and the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). In the new version, participants vowed to engage in acts of civil disobedience—such as occupations of federal buildings and congressional offices—should the US undertake any major military escalation in Nicaragua or El Salvador.

On October 9, organizers commenced the first mass public signing of the pledge. They placed a table and public address system in front of the Federal Building in downtown San Francisco, and hundreds of people showed up. “At the last minute, we decided we would have an open mic,” said Ken Butigan, an early pledge organizer who later became national coordinator of the campaign. “We thought maybe a couple of people would come up and say something about why they were signing.”

In the end, more than 200 people took a turn at the microphone, explaining in personal terms why they were taking the vow. These included individuals who had spent time in El Salvador and Nicaragua and had seen the suffering caused by US actions. “There were Vietnam veterans, people who had been doing sanctuary work with Central American refugees, people who were opposed to war,” all describing how they came to see their own government’s policies as requiring active opposition, Butigan explained. “It was really very moving.”

As many as 700 people signed the pledge that day, and in the weeks after, many more followed. Commitments poured in from throughout the country, and in December, organizers delivered more than 42,000 completed forms to the State Department, warning the administration of the resistance that military action would provoke. Within two years of the pledge’s launch, 80,000 people had signed.

There were several precedents for the pledge. Perhaps most prominent was the Vietnam War–era Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority, a 1967 petition that encouraged draft resistance and included among its original signatories Dr. Benjamin Spock and the Rev. William Sloane Coffin—who were subsequently prosecuted by the federal government for interfering with conscription efforts. But the Central American Pledge of Resistance was unique in linking disobedience to an invasion that had not yet happened. By providing a threat of future action, the pledge bore resemblance to the strike votes taken by unions to show unity and demonstrate workers’ readiness to walk off the job. “The innovation in the ’80s was that the pledge had a trigger event,” explained Jeremy Brecher, a social movement historian. “It was a very creative way of establishing a nonviolent deterrent.”

As it morphed from a tactical idea into a national organization, the Pledge of Resistance made use of a decentralized structure. A “Signal Group” met regularly in response to new developments to determine if and when the network should be mobilized. If they gave the signal, word would spread through 10 regional coordinators to 400 local chapters. These were based not just in large cities—Boston, San Francisco, Chicago—but also in many smaller areas, from Fox Valley, Illinois to Juneau, Alaska. By creating this infrastructure, the Pledge became more than a warning; it became a mechanism for preparedness. “If the United States invaded, we were not going to sit back and decide at that moment how to respond,” said Angela Berryman, who was then the associate coordinator of the Latin America and Caribbean Program at the AFSC and who served on the Signal Group. “We were going to be prepared to respond immediately. The pledge was an upping of the ante.”

The pledge had other important effects as well. Within the wider Central American solidarity movement, the Pledge of Resistance unified disparate participants around a single plan of emergency response, even as different groups continued their long-term projects. The solidarity movement was distinguished by the wide array of its activities, ranging from the strictly humanitarian to the intensely political, and it included devoutly religious groups alongside more secular ones. Organizations such as Witness for Peace took delegations of Americans to Nicaragua to see the situation firsthand; activists in the Sanctuary movement provided refuge for immigrants fleeing violence and persecution; religious congregations adopted sister cities in Central America and sent aid; activists lobbied Congress and organized speaking tours of people who had been directly affected and could share their stories with audiences in the United States. “Everybody was involved in different aspects of the movement,” Berryman said. And in this context, the pledge was “a way that we could call everybody together if the government escalated, and we could mobilize at a moment’s notice.”

In the comments on this blog and elsewhere among liberals, there is far too often a dismissal of any activism that is not voting. “Protests are for hippies! They aren’t effective! They talk about issues I’m not comfortable with!” This is pretty pathetic and disappointing. You’d think after all these years I’ve been writing about these issues here, people would realize that effective politics requires a variety of tactics, both inside and outside the political system. You need voting and you need people laying down in front of tanks. You need donations to political candidates and you need people pushing far-left ideas at rallies. You need smart electoral strategies and you need revolutionary ideologues. Of course, many of you do understand this.

Moreover, consider this movement in the context of the present. The only difference between the Trump administration and average everyday America is that his hatred affects more people directly than the general violence against communities of color and poor nations that has been part and parcel of American history from the first moments of European colonization. You feel desperate now. So do I. But how is this any different than Native communities have felt for centuries? Just because you weren’t moved to direct action before November 2016 doesn’t mean that others who were don’t have legitimacy in their outrage. They did what they could, the same as you might think you are doing. In the case of Nicaragua in the 80s, most Americans really couldn’t give a flip. Those that did mobilized the best way they could. That’s why I want to close with the end of the linked piece above.

In the end, the Central American solidarity movement could not stop the Reagan administration from supporting governments responsible for horrific crimes. Yet the movement assisted thousands of refugees, bolstered congressional opposition to White House foreign policy, supported Central American communities in their own resistance, and possibly even averted the type of outright military action that seemed imminent after the invasion of Grenada. “It really was proactive and preemptive,” Brecher said of the pledge. “It created a situation in which, as hot as Reagan and his pals were to go in militarily, the political costs in the US were high enough that they didn’t do it.” Instead of protesting an attack after the fact, an organized movement was able to act first—and in doing so it created a model that could prove its utility again before Trump’s time in office is over.

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