In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Subtitled A Toolbox for Revolution, the anthology Beautiful Trouble offers advice on how to plan and execute successful protest actions. Coeditors Andrew Boyd and Dave Oswald Mitchell have assembled the wisdom of many activists and troublemakers like themselves into a book about what works and what doesn’t, how to recruit people and keep them engaged, and where to direct efforts for the greatest impact. The following selections are just a few that, for us, brought clarity to old concepts and introduced new ones. Beautiful Trouble is published by OR Books and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. To learn more, visit beautifultrouble.org.
Drum circles are incredible! Hanging out in the park with a mix of friends and strangers, creating rhythms together, communicating intuitively, and making a big and beautiful sound that fills the park. It’s amazing.
Or so I’ve heard.
My actual experiences with drum circles are entirely different. At best, they’re tolerable, but more often they’re torture. I’m trying to hang out in the park with my friends, and these self-indulgent dipshits won’t stop banging on their goatskins. No one else cares except someone in a tie-dyed sarong who will apparently jump at any opportunity to sway with her arms in the air.
Being part of a drum circle is one thing; experiencing it from the outside, quite another.
Way too often, activism is like a drum circle. Viewed from the outside, it can be painfully unimaginative, solipsistic, and annoying. For the people involved in the creation of an action, however, the experience can be rewarding and transformative — even if everyone else walks away confused or annoyed.
One way to reach your audience is to entice them to become participants by expanding the creative part of the action to include as many people as possible. Come up with ways for observers to meaningfully involve themselves, rather than expecting them to stand mute before your expressive outbursts.
Instead of strictly planning an action, think of creating rules to a game — one that is rewarding and fun to play. How can you create parameters within which large numbers of participants can meaningfully contribute, act, and create? An open framework that allows participants the freedom to bring in their own ideas and solutions?
The call to occupy Wall Street operated in this way, offering only a date, a core slogan, and the instruction “Bring tent.” Flash mobs are no different: set a time, a location, and a few basic rules, and let things take their course. These actions can expand to include thousands of participants and still deliver a provocative experience to participant and observer alike.
Whatever the nature of your action, it’s worth looking for ways to make passersby feel that it’s more about them than about you — no matter how good a drummer you are.
• Steve Lambert cofounded the Center for Artistic Activism, has developed workshops for Creative Capital Foundation, and is a faculty member at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
To varying degrees all tactics might be concrete and communicative. When activists confuse the two, the results can be counterproductive.
A tactic is concrete to the degree that it seeks to achieve a specific, quantifiable objective. For example, antiwar organizers may seek to blockade a port to keep a shipment of weapons from passing through. There is a specific goal, a tangible cost for the port and the companies that use it, and a way to evaluate success: either we stop the weapons or we don’t.
A tactic is communicative insomuch as it communicates a political position, set of values, or worldview. A mass march in response to an injustice can fall into this category. Communicative tactics can be useful for exciting the base, building networks, seeking to sway public opinion, or scaring a target, but often do not have a specific, measurable goal. Success is more qualitative.
To succeed, concrete tactics must force a response from the target. Communicative tactics might have a target but can also work without one.
While some actions can be both concrete and communicative, it is important to understand the difference. People often get discouraged because they take part in a communicative action and expect a concrete outcome. It’s better to be clear from the beginning about the difference, so that everyone knows how to measure, and contribute to, the action’s impact.
Consider an Occupy Wall Street effort to blockade the entrance to Goldman Sachs. At the action-planning meeting, because there was no clarity about whether the action was communicative or concrete, at first the discussion was circular and unproductive. Some wanted people to lock arms in a human blockade; others wanted to up the ante by using chains and other “hard gear.” Using gear has the benefit of staying power (it’s more difficult for the police to remove you), but it carries a much greater risk and is more difficult to deploy. It became clear the group had neither the time nor the numbers to blockade every single door. Therefore, if the action was conceived as concrete (trying to shut down Goldman Sachs), it would fail because it could not achieve a realistic, instrumental outcome. If it was communicative, however — a symbolic act to amplify a message — it could be successful. Furthermore, a communicative action might have a powerful expressive outcome by building the resolve, connection, and commitment of participants and offering them a cathartic, transformative experience. When participants agreed to carry out a communicative action, the staying power of the blockade gear was no longer needed: there was no tactical advantage to holding the space. Instead the group decided to go with a human blockade, which played better in the media (a main indicator of success for them in this action). If activists hadn’t assessed the purpose of their action and understood their goals, they likely would have made less-strategic choices.
• Joshua Kahn Russell is an organizer and strategist whose most recent publication is the manual Organizing Cools the Planet: Tools and Reflections to Navigate the Climate Crisis, with Hilary Moore.
Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.
— Bertolt Brecht
“Political art.” Easy to say, harder to create. Art seeks to explore the deep questions. Politics demands a clear direction and message. That’s a tough tension to manage. Sometimes quick gimmicks are called for; sometimes it pays to dig deeper — in our craft and in ourselves — to mobilize the unique potential of art.
“If I could tell you what it meant,” choreographer Martha Graham once said, “there would be no point in dancing it.” Unlike politics, which tends toward plain prose in endless repetition, art goes beyond explicit meanings to connect with that more elusive, soulful dimension of being human — a realm that must be engaged if we are to truly change the world.
Song has its own special powers. Singing together builds emotional ties and harmonies — literally and figuratively. Song makes us feel united in a way nothing else can. During the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989, the Estonian liberation movement used the country’s traditional songs in resistance work. At one juncture a full quarter of the country’s population sang together in the streets while facing down Soviet tanks.
Consider Picasso’s Guernica, a striking and visceral canvas painted in protest of the first aerial bombing of civilians. It is a strong-enough symbol of the senseless devastation of war that seventy years later the Bush administration felt compelled to throw a cloth over a tapestry copy of it when Colin Powell spoke at the United Nations to push for war with Iraq. Images from Guernica continue to resurface in antiwar marches the world over.
Advertising is the dominant art form of capitalism. In the late 1980s Gran Fury, an AIDS-activist art collective, used the power of advertising graphics to bring attention to the AIDS epidemic and move a critical social conversation in a direction it had never gone before. Their “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do” bus ads featuring same- and mixed-sex couples kissing were not only explicit in their visual content, but gorgeous, hip, and evocative.
Art invites us to think rather than telling us what to think. This is one of its great strengths, and if you make your art accessible and beautiful enough, people will want to follow where their thoughts go. And because they’re deciding where to go with it, they’ll more easily connect it to their own experience.
The right balance of art and message can move both hearts and minds. Striking this balance, however, can be difficult. Think about your audience and your goals. What do you want your art to achieve? Do you want to evoke sympathy? Provoke deep soul-searching on a given issue? Get people to call their senator? Art can help you do all of these things, but only when art and message are in balance. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when you’re able to say something so clearly that it hardly needs to be said at all, because it is embodied in the way you say it.
Creative communication can get lots of attention — so make sure to connect that attention to your desired action. Give people the tools to act on your issue, even if it’s just a URL or a phone number.
• Kevin Buckland is the “arts ambassador” for the grassroots global network 350.org. • Andrew Boyd is an author, humorist, and veteran of many creative campaigns for social change. • Nadine Bloch has walked hundreds of miles, trained volunteers, built giant puppets, climbed skyscrapers, dangled from bridges, juggled media, developed curricula, and sailed oceans, all in support of social and economic justice.
Let’s treat each other as if we plan to work side by side in struggle for many, many years to come. Because the task before us will demand nothing less.
— Naomi Klein, address to Occupy Wall Street
Too often the people doing the most to take care of the world do the least to take care of themselves, and a dedicated activist suddenly (or not so suddenly, for those who know the person best) burns out and disappears from public view. This scenario is common enough and represents a large-enough threat to our collective success that it warrants serious discussion. Specifically we need to talk about how to take care of ourselves and each other so we can stay involved for the long haul.
Whether we like it or not, activists are walking advertisements for our movements. If we are exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed, or unhappy most of the time, we make a life of activism look extremely unattractive to the average person. Virtually every activist has struggled with the question of how to get beyond preaching to the choir. A first step is to make “the choir” something lots of people will want to join.
It is also important to ensure that pragmatic self-care is not seen as selfish or bourgeois. If we don’t take time to focus on our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves, we will burn out sooner or later. It’s almost guaranteed. Wouldn’t it be better to take regular breaks to nurture yourself than to get to the point where you have to take months or years off because you are too sick or depressed to be involved?
Activists are frequently motivated by guilt and will unconsciously use it to motivate others. Guilt is a dangerous motivator because it will never be satisfied and is rooted in a sense of external obligation rather than internal passion. A better motivator, for those who have some degree of privilege and feel guilty about that, is gratitude. Coming to this work from gratitude gives us energy without sucking us into despair and self-judgment.
These are deadly serious questions. Longtime Canadian activist Tooker Gomberg took his own life in 2004 after a long battle with depression and burnout. Before he died, he wrote a letter to social-change activists. Do the activism, he said, but don’t overdo it: “It’s honorable to work to change the world, but do it in balance with other things. Explore and embrace the things you love to do, and you’ll be energetic and enthusiastic about the activism. Don’t drop hobbies or enjoyments. Be sure to hike and dance and sing. Keeping your spirit alive and healthy is fundamental if you are to keep going.”
It is crucial to take a long view of activism, to remember those who came before us and those who will come after. This can help us build on the work of previous generations and learn from their mistakes and triumphs, so that we are not always starting from scratch. We cannot carry the weight of the world’s problems on our shoulders; we must simply accept, with gratitude, the opportunity to do what we can today.
Don’t be a flake. Often, when people suddenly realize that they need to take better care of themselves, they flake out on existing commitments and leave comrades in the lurch. Learning to anticipate breaks, plan for them, and not overcommit is an important part of pacing. It’s better to sit out a game or two than to drop the ball midgame.
• Tracey Mitchell facilitates creative and courageous conversations for community organizations. (facilitrace.com)
Dress like a Republican so you can talk like an anarchist.
— Colman McCarthy
People don’t care about protesters: Oh, there go those silly protesters again. What are they protesting this time? Look, the police are hitting them over the head! Well, they must have done something to deserve it.
It’s not quite that bad, but you get the idea. Based on what they see in the media, folks get a fairly fixed idea of what protesters look like — and the stereotype doesn’t usually lend itself to immediate sympathy for your cause. If you’re planning a mass street action and want to reach out to people who may not already agree with you, think about how you can undermine their stereotypes about protesters. Remember: protest is what you are doing; it is not your identity.
If you want schoolteachers, senior citizens, and office workers to get angry that a cop is hitting you over the head, dress like you’re on your way to their house for Sunday dinner. Make it easy for them to imagine themselves, or their kids, in your position.
Consider the aura conveyed by what you wear, whether that’s the civility and seriousness of civil-rights marchers in suits and ties or the calculated absurdity of “billionaires” in tuxedos. In all ten years that my group Billionaires for Bush protested in the streets, including in the midst of some running street battles with police, never did a single one of us get arrested. It undoubtedly helped that most of us were white, but it also helped that most of us were wearing tuxedos. In New York City we had a one-liner: “New York’s Finest would never arrest New York’s finest dressed.” And it was true. They never did. Of course, the action you’re involved in may not afford the luxury of tuxedos, or leave you a lot of room not to dress like a protester. It may require protective gear: bandannas or gas masks to protect you from tear gas; heavy clothing or even shields to protect you from billy clubs and rubber bullets. Even then, creativity can show the human and beautiful side of dissent. At the 1999 Battle in Seattle, many of the blockades were works of art, and many blockaders were creatively costumed. Or consider the Masquerade Project in New York, in which protesters decorated gas masks with multicolored sequins and feathers, or Tute Bianche in Italy, or the Prêt à Revolter collective in Spain, or the Book Bloc in the UK. On all of these occasions protesters wore creative yet protective protest gear, thereby subverting the official media narrative that protesters are violent, scary, and (worst of all) humorless.
Often the most effective protests are those that don’t look like protests. Perhaps to be effective — to quote a character in Peter Carey’s novel The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith — “you will have to make yourself into something beyond anyone’s capacity to imagine you.”
• Andrew Boyd
I ain’t a Communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life.
— Woody Guthrie
Many activist communiqués employ the classical language of class struggle. This language not only often fails to engage, it may even alienate people who might otherwise be sympathetic. The majority of people in the global north do not identify as workers, and thus any appeal addressed to “workers” is unlikely to achieve results in these societies. As the industrial base of the economy has moved east and south, the language of class politics in the global north has gotten much murkier and more complicated. I propose that debt-centered organizing offers the potential to reinvigorate radical struggle in the twenty-first century.
The language of the labor movement emerged in an era when the power loom was the driving force of industry, nobility controlled the land and the state, and being a worker was torturous and inhumane. Most working people were direct producers. Today most people in developed nations are nondirect producers working in customer service, finance, and other administrative or technical fields. They are, therefore, no longer direct witnesses to the fruits of their labor being stolen from them and hoarded by capitalists, but rather are divided and subdivided in increasingly insidious ways.
People in the twenty-first century don’t conceive of the product of their labor as the actual goods sold by their employers; in their minds, the product of their labor is their paycheck. That is what they produce, and that is what is taken from their hands, not by their boss but by their bills, their debts, their taxes. This is one reason the Right has been so successful at channeling populist rage away from big business and toward big government.
Two decades of easy credit and bubble economics have left most people deeply in debt, often as a result of having to pay for essentials like education, child care, housing, and healthcare. This is a real opportunity for activists to make the case that capitalism simply can’t provide essential goods fairly and efficiently, that their debts are unjust and were forced on them. People are broke because the system is broken. We have no moral obligation to keep paying into a system that is not working.
The labor movement transformed the working conditions in developed nations and built the welfare state, and it did so by championing the demands of the organized working class. Today we have a debtor’s consciousness, united by financial stress and economic precariousness, with debt as its measure.
Realizing our collective power to withdraw our willingness to pay debts is potentially as system-shaking today as the power of the industrial working class to withdraw its labor was a century ago. Debt is a uniting condition that can mobilize the masses to fight for change.
The debtors of the world have nothing to lose but their chains. Debtors of the world, unite!
• Dmytri Kleiner is the author of The Telekommunist Manifesto and has started an initiative to create an International Debtors’ Party.
If you owe the bank a hundred dollars, that’s your problem; if you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem.
— John Paul Getty
What does noncooperation with our own oppression look like? Sometimes it looks like Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus, and sometimes it’s less visible — for instance, a coordinated refusal to make our monthly debt payments.
With wages in many countries stagnant since the 1970s, people have increasingly turned to debt financing to pay for healthcare, education, and housing. Banks have aggressively pursued and profited from this explosion of debt, fueling economic inequality, inflating a massive credit bubble, and trapping millions in a form of indentured servitude.
Most people feel obliged to pay back loans no matter the cost, or else fear the lasting consequences of default, but the financial crisis has begun to change that. After watching the government shovel trillions of dollars in bailouts and dirt-cheap loans to big banks, growing numbers of citizens view our debt burdens as a structural problem and a massive scam rather than a personal failure or a legitimate obligation. But asking politicians and banks for forgiveness is unlikely to get us anywhere, because our payments are their profits. What we need is leverage.
Enter the debt strike, an experiment in collective bargaining for debtors. The idea is simple: en masse, we stop paying our bills to the banks until they agree to come to the table. Because they can’t operate without these payments — for student loans, mortgages, or consumer credit — they’re under severe pressure to negotiate. Such a strike can be connected to demands to reform the financial system, abolish predatory and usurious lending, or provide direct debt forgiveness. Strikers could even pool some or all of the money they’re not paying and put it into a strike fund to support the campaign or kick-start alternative, community-based credit systems.
Coordination is the key. We can’t act in isolation, exposing ourselves to retaliation and division. Instead participants should all sign a pledge — either public or confidential — to stop paying certain bills. When enough people have signed up to provide real leverage, we strike. In the meantime we organize furiously, publicize a running total, aggregate grievances, collect outrageous debt stories, and watch the financial elite panic.
A debt strike is audacious, simple, and easy to participate in — easier than paying bills, since all you have to do is not pay your bills. It takes courage and social support but provides immediate gratification. Who doesn’t despise the monthly ritual of sending away precious cash to line the pockets of dishonest and destructive financial institutions?
Although a massive debt strike has not yet been organized, efforts are underway. People have been mobilizing for years to fight foreclosures and predatory loans. The Occupy Student Debt Campaign aims to gather a million student-debt refusal pledges. Another group is building a social pledge system to connect debtors by neighborhood, common lenders, and demands. Online social networks and story aggregators like Tumblr may soon become weapons on the battlefield of debt.
The outrage, organizers, techniques, and tools already exist, and the tactic has perhaps never been more justified. The debt strike is out there, waiting to take the world by storm.
While the initial sign-up is as easy as signing an online petition, unlike with a petition, there are potentially serious consequences. Defaulting on a loan lowers your credit rating, which can severely damage your future ability to get a credit card, rent an apartment, buy a car, or even get a job. Thus a successful debt strike will require support networks for strikers, the same way a union has a strike fund to support striking workers. Achieving the critical mass required for the tactic to be effective may also be a challenge. A debt strike works only at large scale.
• Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet.org, where she writes about economic justice and activism. • Matthew Skomarovsky is optimistic and googleable.
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
— Frederick Douglass
Since the early 2000s the Ontario Coalition against Poverty (OCAP), a radical antipoverty organization based in Toronto, Canada, has organized under the slogan “Fight to Win.” It’s a slogan packed with meaning: To win, you’ve got to fight. But the point isn’t to fight; the point is to win.
An organization run by and for the poor, OCAP has proven extremely effective in compelling politicians, welfare workers, and employers to grant concrete gains. In one of many successful actions, OCAP prevented a gas station from pumping gas until the employer came out with money owed to a former employee. Similarly, mass delegations of OCAP supporters to welfare offices have led to the reinstatement of benefits for low-income members. The coalition has achieved its goals because it recognizes that social change comes through struggle, which involves articulating clear demands and applying targeted pressure on those in power to comply with those demands.
© Robert Meyer
Nothing is more demoralizing to folks who have put many long hours into a creative action than to hear the target of the action say, “I can’t do that for you, even if I wanted to. The guy you want is next door” — and actually to have that be a true statement rather than a blow-off line. When we plan our actions and campaigns, we have to understand our targets and what makes them tick, taking care to focus on the person with the authority to meet our demands: to sign the check, to introduce the legislation, to cancel the contract.
Not every target is vulnerable in the same way. A blockade, occupation, or creative disruption may be effective against one target but not against another. What works once may not work a second time. We need to figure out where our targets are weakest, and where we are strongest. What actions can we take that are outside their experience? Nothing rattles targets more than something they aren’t prepared to deal with.
You might not have enough leverage to push your primary target at first, but your actions may help you identify a secondary target — an individual or group that can be pressured to exert influence on the primary target. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, for instance, won their battle by identifying and pressuring a secondary target (fast-food corporations) when their primary target (tomato growers) proved immovable.
We are creative folks. If we’re smart about where and how we apply pressure, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.
• Yutaka Dirks offers legal support to social-justice movements through the Movement Defence Committee of the Law Union of Ontario.
God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.
— Kurt Vonnegut
There’s a time to be angry. There’s a time to be reverent. There’s a time to be funny. And there’s also a time to be sweet, charming, and generous. In fact, that time is often.
A 2011 foreclosure auction in Brooklyn, New York, for instance, was movingly disrupted by protesters’ breaking into song. The song wasn’t angry; it wasn’t agitated; it was sweet, beautiful, and compassionate — even toward the auctioneer. That’s what made it so powerful: The protesters were grounded and determined. They kept singing their song even as the cops led them away.
When you lead with kindness, you’re more likely to be seen as the sympathetic character in the story. You’ve come in good faith. You’re trying to make things better. You come with smiles, gifts, and an open heart, and you are met with stony-faced indifference, scorn, or abuse. In the eyes of the public and the media, you are the good guys. You are the reasonable ones. This is not only a good tactic; it’s an assertion of your basic humanity against unjust and inhuman structures.
Just think of the iconic sixties moment: the antiwar protester putting a flower in the soldier’s gun barrel. Or more recently, the “99 percenters” from Occupy the Boardroom who set up pen-pal relationships with the country’s top bankers. When they were stopped by security from delivering their letters in person, they folded them into paper airplanes and sailed them over the heads of the cops toward the bank’s headquarters. For some, cars parked in bike lanes would be reason enough to slash a few tires, but not for the Bike Lane Liberation Clowns, who instead approach drivers and kindly implore them to leave. Those who remain are given fake “this could have been a real ticket” tickets, warning them they’re in violation of New York City parking rules.
It’s naive to think that power will change its ways because of a sweet appeal or a considerate gesture or a paper airplane. But, at the same time, it’s a core element of nonviolent philosophy to recognize the humanity in everyone and seek to connect with it. The more we humanize politics, the more likely we are to win. The bureaucrat who secretly agrees with you is more likely to quit and lend his or her skills to the revolution. The cop who’s been given cupcakes and coffee by a member of the Granny Peace Brigade is that much closer to refusing an order to pepper-spray a group of college students linking arms. The foreclosure auctioneer, touched by a song, isn’t going to slam that gavel down quite so hard the next time. And members of the public, witnessing all of these actions, are more likely to be moved to action themselves. All of these things don’t interrupt the workings of power on their own, but at a human level they matter, and over time they add up, sowing seeds of beautiful trouble, and creating allies in the most unexpected places.
Dave Oswald Mitchell
In “Beautiful Trouble” [May 2014] Steve Lambert says that “no one wants to watch a drum circle” and refers to the drummers as “self-indulgent dipshits.”
Sheesh. I suspect a couple of his chakras are blocked, or maybe he’s just a jerk with a big ego.
If the drumming is too loud, Lambert should move farther away. If the park is too small, he can go to a different one. Or, even better, he could try looking at the expressions of pure joy or utter tranquillity on the faces in the circle as the inevitable unifying trance takes hold. See if he can feel the moment when all become one. The last thing the drummers are there to do is judge each other.
Lambert seems to pat himself on the back for being unable to see the beauty in such a simple activity. He comes across as the most irritating kind of professional activist: a righteous one with an extremely limited perspective.
Drum circles are activism personified. They pull people in and spread love through visceral rhythms that resonate throughout our bodies, whether or not we are conscious of it. Imagine a world in which everyone (except Lambert, of course) comes together once a week to participate in a drum circle. How violent or judgmental a place do you suppose that would be?
Steve Lambert responded to Ginger Chulack’s letter in an emotionally abusive manner [Correspondence, September 2014]. Chulack, too, was rude when she implied that Lambert was “a jerk” and egotistical. Both the letter and the response were unkind and unwarranted. Neither Chulack nor Lambert served their arguments well. I am left wondering why The Sun chose to allow this public display of disrespect.
I hope readers will be led to reflect on the finer aspects of discourse, and to think about how to stay true to their beliefs without alienating others. As an elementary-school teacher I have taught my students to ask themselves before they speak or write: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?
At first I thought Ginger Chulack missed the point of my essay, but then I read her letter more closely, and I’m almost embarrassed to say that I have made a complete 180. Let me explain why. It’s not because I love drumming. Point taken, I get it, it’s fun. But, honestly, what I like is having sex in public places. I mean, I like it a lot. I’m a guy who is not afraid of public displays of affection: some kissing, some necking, sliding into second base, a little dry humping — and when it escalates further, I think, Let’s just go for it right here at the bus stop or the playground. Why wait till we get back to the car?
Yes, a good, sweaty love-making session in full view of everyone is the ultimate expression of pure joy and visceral rhythm. I don’t understand why people have such hang-ups about sexual pleasure. It’s as if self-gratification were something we needed to balance with how civilization works. But civilization is just part of the oppressive system that holds us back! The way to solve our problems is to do whatever makes us happy, whenever and wherever we feel like it, whether it’s drumming or fucking. Am I right?
I seriously want to thank Chulack. If she had not taken the time to explain drum circles to me, I would still be the irritating, self-righteous, narrow-minded jerk I was yesterday.