All of us feel pretty powerless right now. And because of that, we are furious. We’re angry about Covid or we’re angry about the solutions to Covid. We worry about climate change (or worry about the leaders claiming the climate is changing).
If social media is anything to go by, we’re all angry about everything, and spending an inordinate amount of time demonizing anybody who doesn’t happen to share our opinion.
But mainly, we’re angry because we feel so powerless. We feel we can’t fix our broken government, our broken environment – our broken lives.
But you are not powerless. You are powerful beyond measure, and you will experience the extent of your power if you exercise it in a small group.
You have the power to say no to the way things are now and the power to say yes to the way you’d like to see them become.
Satyagraha, the philosophy of non-violence as developed by Gandhi, literally means “the force that is generated through adherence to Truth.”
Central to Gandhi’s methods is polite — that is to say, “civil”— disobedience. In Gandhi’s view, non-violent activism should utterly avoid hostile language, damage to property, secrecy or law-breaking for any but unjust laws.
If you and your group disagree with something, follow a path of polite non-cooperation in a civil manner. As Gandhi understood, the power of any law or leader depends upon the people’s agreement to obey it. If citizens simply refuse to obey the law, the law or leader loses its power.
That’s doubly so with the power of your wallet.
Consider what the citizens of Moscow did when they were faced with a new law requiring them to have vaccine passports to go to restaurants or other businesses in the city.
The entire population – whether they were in favor of vaccines or not – didn’t like the idea of a blanket mandate, so they simply stopped going to restaurants or any gathering places. Within a few weeks, the restaurants and businesses were crying to the government that their businesses were failing and screaming for it to do something. Soon thereafter, the passport requirement was withdrawn.
Notice: no violence, no name-calling, no stopping people from going to work or tussles with the police. Just peaceful boycott and the use of wallet power.
That’s what I call power – something far more powerful than any government.
As Gandhi said: “I believe that no government can exist for a single moment without the cooperation of the people, willing or forced, and if people suddenly withdraw their cooperation in every detail, the government will come to a standstill.”
When a cell phone company attempted to erect cell phone towers on my block, my neighborhood began a storm of civil protest, leafleting all the residents, getting petitions signed, writing letters to our council and Parliamentary representatives.
We prevailed. A tiny group of us stopped one of the giants of British industry and banded together in the process.
In 1969, a small group of inhabitants of Portland, Oregon, completely reversed the tide of urban sprawl and civic ennui in their home city by banding into a group, The Riverfront for People, and holding a protest of the widening of the riverside roadway. What they wanted, they said, was less highway, more pedestrian access to the river.
After two years of discussions, the Riverfront for People prevailed. Harbor Drive was demolished, Tom McColl Waterfront Park was created, and Portland still remains a model of accessible and friendly urban life.
In the UK, the Coin Street Community Builders, a group of local activists, joined together to successfully oppose large-scale development plans for expensive high-rise housing in a white working-class district of the South Bank along the riverfront of the Thames in London.
After creating a center for burgeoning businesses, the community group built state-of-the art public housing and a children’s center by donating some of the profits from the businesses they’d helped to create, including a luxury Harvey Nichols restaurant on the top floor of the Oxo Tower.
In this way, the Coin Street group made use of community private capital as a virtuous circle: to fund public services to the less fortunate without the need for a government handout.
That’s how powerful we are.
The other important point is how profoundly transformative banding together in a small group is for everyone involved, particularly in a crisis.
A day or so after Hurricane Sandy hit lower Manhattan in 2012, leaving most of Avenue C in the East Village under water, Zachary Mack, co-owner of Alphabet City Wine Company, wrote that no business along his street had been spared.
“As someone who saw it in person, the sight was at once surreal and horrifying,” he wrote. “Yet despite all of this, my spirits have never been so high.”
Within minutes of Zachary’s arriving at his wrecked store on the Tuesday, the day after the Con Ed transformer exploded, a group of three regulars showed up with flashlights and trash bags. “What do you need us to do? How can we help you?” they said.
Before long, Alphabet City Wine Company, open for business by candlelight, had become a command center, where neighbors and other business owners met and made plans. Strangers offered dry clothing to those who were soaking wet; chefs coordinated vast neighborhood cookouts to feed those locals in need for free; groups gathered around a battery powered radio for updates.
Morale was higher than it had been before the storm.
Every morning, the neighborhood would gather, drink hot chocolate provided by another business owner and formulate the day’s plans: who’d find gas for those cars still working; who needed to drive people to find shelter; who would be assigned the task of finding batteries or candles. By the following day, he writes, the residents had created a makeshift community center.
“Neighbors were meeting for the first time, passing information. Kids were playing with one another. People were shouting out random bits of news from their incoming texts or Twitter feeds. And probably best of all: locals installed a bike-powered cell phone charging station. Complete strangers sat and pedaled to give their neighbors the juice they needed to get back up and running,” he wrote.
When the basement of one of the neighbors filled up with water, he was surrounded by locals who’d stopped working on their own repair jobs to help out.
“Whatever preconceived notions others have about the spirit of community on New York City, I know that I’ll never forget the way I feel today. Alphabet City has long been my home, but it’s now given me a new sense of self,” he said.
“The people sitting next to me in Brooklyn tell me they look at the news and they sense desperation,” wrote Zachary. “I’m here to tell you that things have never looked or felt better on Avenue C.”
This is your moment, your opportunity to participate in great change and transformation.
Don’t squander it screaming into a faceless void. Go out there, get yourself a group, and be the change you want to see in the world.
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