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What's the Secret to Success for Nonviolent Movements? Try Solidarity.

Instead of "going it alone," movements can amplify their message, leverage collective power, and build strength by seeking solidarity from aligned organizations and groups.

Lebanese demonstrators dance to music by DJs as a protest movement takes over the country. (Photo: Al Jazeera/Twitter)

There’s a secret to success for nonviolent movements for change: solidarity. Instead of “going it alone,” movements can amplify their message, leverage collective power, and build strength by seeking solidarity from aligned organizations and groups. Movements can also mobilize thousands of people into tangible, game-changing strategies by consciously designing solidarity actions to support their primary campaign.

Look at Oakland’s Solidarity Schools. During the 2019 Oakland Teachers Strike, a team of volunteers got involved in a much-needed solidarity action: delivering lunches to school children. In Oakland, California, 75 percent of the district’s 37,000 students relied on school lunch. Not wanting the kids to go hungry; the food bank, parents, teachers, and students worked together to organize and distribute lunches for the duration of the strike. This helped the teachers maintain their refusal to work without dividing the community over hunger issues. Solidarity efforts also included alternative schooling and child care. After several weeks, the teachers won their radical demands that ultimately benefited the entire community.

Solidarity strategies can increase the chance of success for your campaign by widening the impact of your actions. Recently in Nonviolence News, I reported on a story from Finland. Postal workers went on strike for two weeks, but their victory wasn’t won by the massive backlog of undelivered holiday packages. The clincher on their struggle occurred when the airline and transport industry workers held a solidarity (or sympathy) strike, grounding over three hundred planes and causing chaos in the capital. As the strike impacted businesses and people across the country, the head of the postal service came under fire for mishandling the postal workers’ strike. The workers won their demands, thanks to the solidarity of other transport workers.

Nonviolent struggle succeeds or fails by the rate of participation in actions that tangibly impact the ability of the power holders to conduct business-as-usual. In fact, studies show that any movement that successfully mobilizes 3.5 percent of the populace into acts of noncooperation (boycotts, strikes, walk-outs) and intervention (blockades, sit-ins, occupations) always wins their campaign. And, sometimes, success comes with even fewer people. So, scheming up those solidarity strategies makes a lot of sense for your movement.

Take Standing Rock, for example. Not everyone could leave their jobs and families, pitch a tent in freezing weather, and take a physical stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, in North Dakota. But all of us could support the legal fund, organize supply caravans, and (perhaps most importantly) take action against the 17-plus banks funding the Dakota Access Pipeline. Across the country and around the world, the protests outside of bank branches gave those of us horrified by the scenes of police repression at Standing Rock a way to turn outrage into action. We held signs. We delivered petitions and confronted bank managers. We organized our friends and colleagues to move our money and close our accounts. This put powerful pressure on the banks, forcing some to pull out of the DAPL project. While the pipeline at Standing Rock moved forward, a cascade of other fossil fuel projects lost their funding both in the United States and around the world. Also, the efforts during the Standing Rock campaign gave a boost to other fossil fuel divestment campaigns, leading to a ripple effect of institutional divestment. With greater mobilization around the solidarity strategy of moving our money out of the banks, we might have been able to defeat that pipeline project entirely.

The successes of the early U.S. labor movement relied heavily on solidarity and their solidarity actions were breath-taking in scope and generosity. To use just one of hundreds of examples, during the 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Bill Haywood and others organized massive support for the striking women. The solidarity efforts included relief committees, soup kitchens, food distribution stations, volunteer doctors, and weekly benefits for strikers. The list of demands was translated into over 50 languages for the multi-national immigrant workers. The most dramatic of solidarity actions was arranging for several hundred children of striking workers to go to supporters’ homes in New York City. This kept the children safe, housed, and fed while their mothers faced arrests, evictions, reduced income, and beatings for participating in the strike.

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These tangible forms of solidarity can mean the difference between success and failure. Showing support for the cause with demonstrations can also boost morale and determination. Just this past week, cacerolazos (pots-and-pans banging protests) erupted in twelve Latin and South American countries, including Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Peru, and Ecuador. The united demonstration was organized to acknowledge the shared struggles of the people against widespread economic inequality, corrupt governments, and violence against Indigenous populations. Organizers even distributed a cacerolazo app – in case you weren’t by your kitchen, you could join in with a cellphone simulation.

Occasionally, solidarity actions up the ante on issues, and connect immediate crises to the underlying causes. In the wake of the massive Australian bushfires, citizens chose to do more than send blankets and meals to those who lost their homes. Rejecting the “sending thoughts and prayers” rhetoric of the politicians, Australians organized solidarity sit-downs to demand disaster relief and climate action. In this way, they went beyond simply calling for relief while ignoring the root cause: they connected the fires to global warming, and the human-made climate crisis.

For movement organizers, thinking about solidarity strategies ahead of time can improve your organizing. Who are the people who can stand up for your cause? What allies can’t be arrested, but would love to help organize relief efforts for those who can? What sectors of society could engage in solidarity strikes or walk-outs to broaden your impact? Who can demonstrate to boost the morale of those taking direct action? What groups align with your cause and could have a direct impact on your power holders? What could those groups do to pressure them?

These are important questions for all of us to ask. Get creative with the answers. Solidarity comes in a million shapes and sizes, and it can be the secret to success.

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