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People Power

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From winning concrete improvements in people’s lives to toppling dictators, people power is a method that works. Every successful social change movement in US history has had a key element of people power and mass direct action; abolition, women’s suffrage, workers, civil rights, anti-Viet Nam war, anti-nuclear, Central America solidarity, global justice, and other recent movements. It was in the heat of struggle by communities of color and poor and working white communities that people-power methods were developed in the US. But people power is more than just a set of civil-disobedience and direct-action tactics. It is a different understanding of power and a wide range of organizing and tactics based on that understanding.

The conventional view of power sees some people holding power-the Bush Administration, Corporate CEOs, generals-whom the rest of us need to appeal to, influence, pressure or replace if we want to change things. Those in power in the US want us to believe the conventional view of power; that we are powerless because they control the money, police, military and the corporate media.

People-power, in contrast, sees power as a fragile relationship. Those in positions of power are dependent for that power on the compliance of the people they hold power over. When people organize themselves to withdraw their cooperation, the power holders’ grasp on power begins to weaken and crumble. If people sustain their resistance we can assert our power, force changes or even topple those in power. People power is true democratic power, providing the basis for all citizens to participate in governing ourselves.

People Power Strategy and Tools

A few key elements that can make a People Powered strategy succeed, (based on Direct Action to Stop the War’s 3 day shutdown of the financial district at the beginning of the Iraq war):

  • CLEAR “WHAT” AND “WHY” LOGIC: Shut down the financial district to impose a cost on stealing our wealth and destroying our communities and planet.
  • BROADLY PUBLICIZED: Front page news stories, repeated lead up actions and press conferences, street posters, tens of thousands of flyers, a widely utilized website and broad community mobilizing made sure a huge portion of the city knew what was planned and why.
  • MASS TRAINING AND MASS ORGANIZATION: A few thousand people received trainings, at schools, churches, at rallies, well over a thousand people were directly involved in the organizing-in affinity groups, working groups, public meetings.
  • DECENTRALIZATION: Mass organization does not mean the groups need to be part of one organization or network. Allied can support the strategy, and participated in the action without coming to an organizing meeting or bothering to identify as part of the organizing nucleus. We can work across sectors by developing relationships of respect, negotiating agreement on time and space of activitiesand  strategizing and collaborating whenever possible on a common framework of action.

People Power Analysis

Pillars of Support/Oppression: Empire

A people power strategy to identifies the key pillars of support of empire,-the sources of power-without which the empire could not continue?

Samples of Pillars Include

  • Government: officials, policies, regs
  • Media
  • Security State:
  • Banks/Corporations/Industry:
  • Public Consent

Samples of Pillars of Liberation:

  • Direct Democracy Councils
  • Social Media
  • Cooperative Economics
  • Food Sovereignty
  • Restorative Justice

Some elements to identifying key pillars:

CLEAR: Can you describe the people, group/s or institution/s that make up the pillar? How does this pillar, entrain us into cooperating with it.  What are the means of control?  What do we fear?

EFFECTIVE: If this pillar of support is weakened or removed will it move us significantly towards achieving our long range goals of ending the empire  ?

IMPACTABLE: Can you actually impact this pillar? Can you imagine a campaign that would begin to weaken and might eventually remove this pillar?  What tactics support mass non-cooperation strategies.  It is important to remember that pillars are round.  If you imagined it with inner rings – the center = people in power, the next ring out is how they keep us cooperating and the outer ring is the beliefs and “values” they promote or use to attract.

The next step is developing campaigns that can weaken and remove these pillars. It may be that your group or network can focus on just one pillar or one aspect of one pillar. In choosing which pillar we can effectively organize around we might consider the following criteria:

STRENGTHS: Is your group in a good position to focus on this pillar-does it use your groups’ strengths, skills, experience, connections, geographic location?

MOTIVATION: Are you excited and motivated to work on this pillar?

CAPACITY: With our time, skills and people, can we have an impact on this pillar and identify some short-term achievable “milestone” goals along the way?



The OWS movement needs a strategy of how we are going to stop the US Empire/Corporate Control while organizing foe/implementing fundamental system change.  A people-power strategy framework identifies key pillars supporting the empire and wages a determined campaign to weaken and eventually remove those pillars. People-power strategies have been used successfully across of the world (Serbia, Philippines, Bolivia, etc) and in our own history (civil rights, United Farm Workers, etc).

This strategy can stop the US empire. In building this powerful grassroots movement we can also shift the direction of US policies  at home and abroad for the long term and begin to confront the causes of poverty, racism, inequality, war and more.



The world—and millions of us here—are thrilled to see so many people standing up to the rampant injustice in the United States.  But everyone is asking to what end and how.

Building from many movments before us we can see that they can be stopped by a people-power strategy that identifies the key pillars that support the empire and wages a determined campaign to weaken and eventually remove those pillars. Such an approach can also be a major step in weakening the systemic pillars of empire at the root of so many problems in our communities and in the world. Do we in the US have the guts and imagination?

A people-power analysis understands that power is not something that those in power hold, but is a fragile relationship between those in power and the rest of us. Our compliance forms the pillars on which their power depends. When we withhold our cooperation and organize determined movements to intervene, we can assert our power and force changes– or even remove those who refuse to make them. It’s not just a theory, though, it’s a well-developed method that’s been toppling authoritarian governments and winning major improvements in the lives of local communities for many decades.

The OWS movement could  adopt a people power strategic framework, analyze the pillars that support the empire and choose thoughtful campaigns with creative tactics to remove them, then we will know that they can add up to stopping the empire.

We are throwing a lot of words around here, so let’s define the terms:

Strategic Framework: a basic concept or plan for achieving long-range goals

Campaign: a series of activities to achieve specific goals-these can be both shorter range and longer range.

Tactics: a specific action intending to get a particular result often as part of a campaign

Adopting a strategic framework and choosing specific campaigns within that framework can give us achievable victories and milestones along the way. It can help us better understand how our local organizing or particular campaign fits into a bigger picture strategy to stop the empire. Stopping the US empire  must be central to our a longer-term struggle for a world rooted in justice, democracy and sustainability.

Political power-holders depend on many sources for their authority and legitimacy, including:

  • Authority: the belief among the people that the empire is legitimate, and that they have a duty to support it;
  • Human resources: persons and groups that are obeying, cooperating, or providing assistance to the empire;
  • Skills and knowledge needed to carry out the empire and supplied by the cooperating persons and groups;
  • Psychological and ideological factors which may induce people to obey and assist the empire;
  • Material resources: access to property, natural resources, financial resources, the economic system, and means of communication and transportation;
  • Sanctions or punishments: threatened or applied, against dissent and non-cooperation to ensure the submission and cooperation needed to carry out the empire.

All of these sources, however, depend on acceptance of the empire, on the submission and obedience of the population, and on the cooperation of innumerable people and the many institutions of the society. These are not guaranteed.

George Lakey describes the people-power strategy employed in former Yugoslavia, in his article ‘Strategizing for a Living Revolution.’ Otpor (“Resistance” in Serbian) began when hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of young people organized to rid their country of dictator Slobadan Milosevic. Impatient with the cautious ways of many of their pro-democracy elders, the youths organized in coffee bars and schools, posted graffiti almost everywhere, and used their street actions to embarrass the regime.

Milosevic counter-attacked. His police routinely beat up the protesters in the streets and more thoroughly in the police stations. His spies were everywhere. His monopoly of the mass media meant that Otpor was described as hoodlums and terrorists.

In October 2000 Otpor won; joined by hundreds of thousands of workers and professionals the young people threw Milosevic out. His party was in disarray, his police in confusion, his army was split.

Rather than buy into the top-down version of power that Milosevic wanted them to believe, they decided instead to picture Serbian society as organized into pillars of support holding up the dictator. If the pillars gave way, Otpor believed that Milosevic would fall. This alternative view of power became so central to Otpor that it was taught in all the trainings of new Otpor members. First, Otpor needed to ask: which are the pillars of support needed by the dictatorship? Then: what are the tactics and strategies that will weaken those pillars?

Here’s just one example of how it worked in Serbia. One pillar of support for Milosevic was his police. Otpor systematically undermined that pillar. The young activists knew that fighting the police would strengthen police loyalty to Milosevic (and also support the mass-media claim that the young people were hoodlums and terrorists). So they trained themselves to make nonviolent responses to police violence during protests. One of the slogans they learned during their trainings was: “It only hurts if you’re scared.” They took photos of their wounded. They enlarged the photos, put them on signs, and carried the signs in front of the houses of the police who hurt them. They talked to the cop’s neighbors about it, took the signs to the schools of the police officers’ children and talked with the children about it. After a year of this, police were plainly reluctant to beat Otpor activists even when ordered to do so, because they didn’t want the negative reactions of their family, friends, and neighbors. Through the assertive outreach of the activists, relationships were built with the police, even into the higher ranks. Another concept they used to reinforce their commitment to nonviolence while facing brutality was to say “Whether you are in blue jeans or a blue uniform you are victims of Milosevic. And there is no point in having violence between victims and victims.”

Milosevic counter-attacked, branding this growing movement a “terrorist organization.” His police routinely beat up the protesters, in the streets and more thoroughly in the police stations. His spies were everywhere. When the movement ripened into a full-fledged non-violent insurgency in Belgrade, many police were sent out of the city by their commanders while other police simply watched the crowds take over the Parliament building.

In the lead up to the 2003 US invasion, as the world protested and pressured the warmongers to stop, some parts anti-war movements began to turn towards a people-power approach. In Ireland, a campaign of protest and direct action at Shannon Air Force Base successfully stopped it from being used as a major refueling stop for troop and supply flights on their way to Iraq. In Britain some dockworkers refused to load supplies for the US war. In Italy activists blocked trains moving supplies for the war. In Turkey, mass protests forced the government to refuse to let the nation be used as a staging base for the invasion, which US war planners had taken for granted.

This pillar of the empire can be weakened through aggressive, relentless and innovative anti-corporate campaigns. These campaigns can create economic, political and social cost to profiting from empire so that these corporations may be forced to pull out from profiting from the Iraq empire. 


CORPORATE CAMPAIGNS: Anti-corporate campaigns can include pressuring and publicly confronting the Board of Directors, stockholders, subcontractors, suppliers, customers, shareholders, CEOs, employees, and surrounding communities. We can draw on the experience of cutting edge multi-faceted strategic corporate campaigns against corporation like Home Depot, Office Depot, Citicorp, and Victoria’s Secret.

DIRECT ACTION: This could be mixed with the mass direct action tactics used against Bechtel, Lockheed-Martin, Chevron Texaco and SSA Corporation at the Oakland Docks. It could also involve pickets, public education, and media campaigns.

ASSERTING COMMUNITY SOVEREIGNTY: Another possibility would be to use the approach developed by local community challenges to corporate power by asserting their sovereignty; LA has voted that corporation are not person, this is spreading.  Wayne, PA banned corporations who consistently violate any regulatory laws; Mendocino, CA passed a voter ordinance that bans GMO’s from the county, Jane Anne Morris in her recent article “Try This at Home” describes a powerful challenge to corporate power in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, “People in a number of townships decided that corporate hog farms are a threat to their well being and passed laws banning them.” Local communities using voter initiatives or City or County Councils could pose a serious challenge to corporate war profiteers if they, for example, passed laws forbidding their city from doing business with (this includes even issuing a business permit) or simply banning corporations who engage in acts of torture, war crimes or crimes against humanity (Massive evidence that the US and many of the corporations involved have committed and continue to commit war crimes is readily available).


A Note on International Financial Institutions

The World Bank has been one of the primary pushers of economic globalization in the developing world. It has used loans to force countries to sell off resources, privatize industries and slash social services. This is leading to the deaths of millions of people

every year. Economic violence is every bit as deadly as military violence. This economic war must be stopped.

The US Empire uses corporate globalization, with the help of institutions like the World Bank, IMF, WTO, and the G-8 in combination with military training, bases and interventions to advance its aims. The result of the Empire’s economic and military mechanisms is a growing gap between the rich and poor in the US and throughout the world, especially in the developing countries. It is of the greatest importance that our movement confronts the Empire’s integrated military and economic agenda as these policies devastate the life support systems of the Earth.