It’s heavy out there. Neo-nazism is on the rise. The gap between rich and poor grows ever larger. Protections for women, people of colour, LGBTQ people and immigrants are under attack. Meanwhile, the planet is simultaneously freezing and burning. Yet George Lakey couldn’t be more optimistic.
The civil rights legend bounces around his kitchen in suburban Philadelphia as the icy winds whistle outside. “It’s a huge opportunity. Huge,” he grins, waving his long arms inside his cosy cardigan. “I am grateful that, at age 81, I am around and vigorous enough to be able to participate in the political process because this is, in my judgment, the biggest opportunity for major change, in my country, in my lifetime. A bigger opportunity than the 60s and 70s.”
Lakey should know. An activist from the age of 12, the sociologist and writer has been manning the barricades for close to 70 years. For an unfailingly polite Quaker, he has quite a rap sheet. He was first arrested in 1963 while protesting in the US’s segregated south, and was most recently arrested in 2018 at a rally demanding more green energy. There have been “a lot” of arrests in between. He helped sail a ship to Vietnam filled with supplies for peace activists during the Vietnam war, led peacekeeping workshops in South Africa with the African National Congress during apartheid, acted as an unarmed bodyguard for human rights defenders in Sri Lanka and has campaigned for same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights.
To help a new generation of activists, Lakey has just published How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning. It’s a step-by-step guide to the methods and campaigns that have led to progressive change, and an update to A Manual for Direct Action, a handbook for activists he published in 1965. Activist friends had told him they need a guide to help the teens in Florida demanding gun control, Black Lives Matter protesters, trans rights activists and the rainbow coalition of insurgencies that have sprung up in reaction to Donald Trump and the rise of the new right.
He said he didn’t want to do it, then completed it in five months. Now he is off on a 20-state tour to promote it, as he did for his 2016 book, Viking Economics, which put forward the Nordic countries as a model for a better world.
Not since the 1960s has there been a better chance for real progressive change, says Lakey, and there are some strong parallels. “The 60s and 70s were also highly polarised,” he says. “It saw a rebirth of the American Nazi party; the Ku Klux Klan was riding high. National Rifle Association memberships statistics rose enormously. It was a very big time for the right and for the extreme left.
“Polarisation, instead of making a society stuck, seems to heat up society and makes it more volatile. And so that means a lot of ugliness comes to the surface, a lot of violence, a lot of nastiness. And at the same time, the sheer volatility enables us to make major changes that otherwise cannot be made.”
Lakey hopes that it will be possible to roll back a decades-long power grab by the economic elites that began under Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and other rightwing politicians.
The crushing of the unions and the rise and rise of big money put progressives on the defensive, he says. That was a big mistake: instead of pushing for more, they hunkered down to protect what they had. And they lost. “It’s counter to folk wisdom, which says the best defence is offence. It’s counter to what any general would tell you. It’s counter to what Gandhi would say. He was constantly talking to his people about why they must stay on the offensive.”
Part of the problem, Lakey believes, is that in the US in particular many of these issues, from women’s rights to labour and the environment, were being taken up by the Democratic party, which is “clueless strategically” and whose big-picture thinking has also come to be dominated by the economic elite.
One notable cause that wasn’t picked up by mainstream politics until recently was LGBTQ rights. Even Barack Obama was against same-sex marriage before 2012. “The Democrats didn’t want to touch us with a 10ft pole,” Lakey says. Politicians betrayed their friends and their own convictions “because it was toxic politically to associate themselves with the gay cause”.
But LGBTQ people, Lacey believes, benefited from their independence, which allowed them to campaign outside the system. That campaign, outlined in detail in his book, and the fight against nuclear power offer two examples of how progressives can win. Realisable goals, nonviolent protests, targeted campaigns, remaining true to your values – history has lessons to teach us, he says. His biggest fear is that we may not want to listen. “We have a profound dislike of learning from our own history,” he says.
There is plenty to learn from Lakey’s personal history. Born in 1937 into a slate mining family in Bangor, Pennsylvania, he was briefly marked out as a potential child preacher. That was a big deal, “equivalent to being a piano prodigy or something”, he says. And his working-class community were excited about the celebrity his calling might bring to their church.
At the age of 12 he was asked to give his first sermon. He prayed and prayed for a subject. “The message I got was to preach about it being God’s will that there be racial equality,” he says, smiling broadly. “In total innocence, I preached that, hoping that people would be delighted and proud of me, and say: ‘Oh, this boy has the makings of a preacher.’” The all-white congregation disagreed. His words were greeted with silent disapproval. It was the end of his preaching career.
At university, he decided it was time to find a new church and joined the Quakers. But the pacifism proved problematic. “My family was very pro-military,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a pacifist. Especially after I realised my gayness. One thing was enough.” A year later, having read everything that he could find about pacifism, for and against, Lakey was a pacifist, too.
“I just was so driven by not only a heart that said killing another person is just plain, fundamentally wrong, but also the pragmatic arguments that came about from the extraordinary successes that I found in history when people boldly tried nonviolence and it worked,” he says.
And then there was Lakey’s sexuality. At university he had met, fallen in love with and married a Norwegian foreign student. “I already knew that I was strongly attracted to men, but I was strongly attracted to her. And so I married her telling her that, telling her about my attraction to men. I was in the closet. Nearly everyone was in those days.”
By the early 1970s, the couple decided their situation was untenable. “We were being put on a pedestal and I wouldn’t have been there if they knew I was gay. We had adopted cross-racially, these cute black children. And we were living in this rough neighbourhood. So here were these wonderful, urban-pioneer idealist Quakers, you know, with the biracial family and the international family. And we were cute!”
The Lakeys decided he had to come out. The reaction was everything they expected. The pedestal was removed and Lakey’s guest-speaker spots dried up.
Things have changed “hugely” thanks to activists, he says. But this is no time for complacency. Society may seem more accepting, but “I don’t trust it”, he adds.
Which is why he believes now is the time for action. “We’re dealing with thousands of years of oppression. How fast do societies really change their ways?” he says. “Germany looked amazingly progressive in the 20s, in the Weimar period, right? With a very strong gay liberation movement and a lot of intellectual work being done. Berlin was celebrated by Christopher Isherwood. And then, of course, the gay people were sent to concentration camps.
“It’s not like I’m predicting [Nazi] Germany, but … I think the movement still has a lot of work to do. I think as long as there are so many gay teenagers killing themselves, we have a lot of work to do.”
And, again, Lakey is full of hope that change is possible. “That doesn’t mean that I’m not enormously sad about the ugliness that goes with it. I cry over the morning newspaper in the kitchen. It’s highly distressing to me that we have to be so hard on each other, that we project our pain upon others … And yet to overlook the opportunity is to just experience the pain. And that would be a tremendous defeat on our part.”
George Lakey’s How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning is published by Melville House