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Renowned Activist Visits Pittsburgh To Spread The Word On Nonviolent Campaigning

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Sarah Kovash
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90.5 WESA
George Lakey's new book is titled "How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning."

A veteran of social activism since the 1960s is coming to Pittsburgh to help organizers of the future.

George Lakey is a life-long activist whose first arrest came in 1963, at a civil rights demonstration. Two years later, he published “A Manual for Direct Action,” a guide book for activists. And for more than half-a-century since, he has continued helping to organize campaigns for peace, LGBT rights, the environment and more; his latest arrest came just last year, at a protest to convince a Philadelphia-area public utility to embrace renewable energy.

Author and activist George Lakey speaks 7 p.m. Tue., March 19, at White Whale Bookstore, 4754 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield.

Lakey recently published an update to his “Manual” titled “How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning” (Melville House Publishing). He visits Pittsburgh for a book talk Tuesday and a sold-out workshop for activists the following day.

Lakey was born in the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Bangor. In college, he converted to Quakerism and became a pacifist. He came out as gay in the 1970s – after the Stonewall riots, but well before many activists or other public figures were willing to do so.

As an organizer, Lakey makes a key distinction between simply “mobilizing” for protest marches – even big ones, like the Women’s March in January 2017 – and the sustained campaigns he says create real change through tactics like hunger strikes, boycotts, and blockades.

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Activist and author George Lakey.

“In organizing, you are not only getting people into the streets, you are getting them to continue the struggle,” he says by phone from his home in the Philadelphia area. “So it’s not 'we go out and we make a statement and we go back home, and our opponent knows we’re gonna go back home.' But instead, no, we continue to act and we continue to escalate, actually. And that’s where the decider, whoever you’re dealing with, needs to really think twice: Do we want this to go on and on and on, and continue to escalate?”

Technology from email and cell phones to social media has made mobilizing people much easier than back in the day, acknowledges Lakey, who recently retired as a visiting professor at Swathmore College. But getting people to commit to campaigns that might last years is often still a struggle. He says campaigns must have achievable, short-term goals; an iconic example is the year-long Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s that desegregated that Alabama city’s public transit.

Campaigns must also create a sense of empowerment among campaigners. He cites his own experience with the Earth Quaker Action Team, which helped pressure PNC bank to disinvest in mountaintop-removal coal-mining in Appalachia.

Activists stuck with the five-year-long campaign “because we were expanding, we were making gains, and people were experiencing in their own lives a growth in personal power, a growth of sense of confidence that they could change things.”

Lakey’s sold-out workshop here is organized by the Battle of Homestead Foundation and the Peace and Social Concerns committee of the Pittsburgh Friends Meeting.

His appearance Tuesday at White Whale Bookstore, in Bloomfield, is free.