9 extraordinary ways to use the tools of your trade in protest

Fifteen years ago this month, the French sheep farmer Jose Bové revved up his bulldozer and dismantled a McDonald’s. No matter how you slice it, this is one of the most memorable instances of a worker using the tools of their trade to take direct action. It all came about because he was beyond distraught at the United States for levying taxes on his beloved Roquefort cheese in retaliation for European farmers refusing to import U.S. hormone-fed beef. “McDo’s ,” as Bové called it, was the ultimate symbol of the destruction of French cuisine, embodying the problems with corporate globalization.

When called to trial, he came by oxcart, carrying a large wheel of locally-produced Roquefort cheese. These and other actions that featured agrarian tools and products helped to plant Bové as an international symbol of small farmer and community resistance to corporate globalization.

In honor of his outstanding use of implements of his trade, here are nine more examples of farmers, janitors, musicians and fire fighters wielding their own ordinary tools in extraordinary protests.

1. Milking non-cooperation

What can dairy farmers do when faced with falling milk prices and threats to the survival of their farms? If you were in one of the EU countries in 2009, you might have dumped 3 million liters of milk in your field rather than sell below production cost. Or you might have flowed into the street with your cows in tow to spray would-be arrestors with udderly beautiful streams of milk. In 2013 in Berlin, hundreds of tractors and cows blockaded the German Chancellery and covered police and onlookers with hay. There was nothing cloudy about this message: EU ministers put in place emergency cash relief and reinstated some subsidies at the blockaded “Milk Summit.”

2. Burning protest and foaming non-cooperation

In recent years, whenever Belgian firefighters have attempted to talk to their prime minister about working conditions and budget cuts, they have been met with barbed wire and riot police. They faced this stand-off with the tools they knew best: their arsenal of water cannons, foam throwers and even fire. Provocative images of police blanketed in foam and burning piles tended by those who should be extinguishing the flames added much oxygen to the protests, and communicated the firefighters’ great displeasure — as well as the necessity of their services, now being used in direct protest of the government.

A protest of janitors with their mops and buckets in Miami in 2006. ( Flickr/SEIU)

A protest of janitors with their mops and buckets in Miami in 2006. ( Flickr/SEIU)

3. Sweeping interventions and enacting the future

In Los Angeles, on Justice for Janitors day in 1998, marching with brooms and mops was part of a campaign to sweep unfair wages out the door and win union contracts; in 2012, 17 cities held similar protests across the United States with buckets and mops to increase poverty wages. Similarly, sanitation workers in Vijayawada, India, marched for a clean sweep in October 2013, demanding an increase in minimum wages.

Across the globe, when janitors have demanded fair treatment and have had their concerns swept under the proverbial rug, they have picked up their brooms and mops and threatened to sweep their targets from power. Marching in the streets and gathering in public places with their cleaning tools does more than clear up the issues. It enables them to go from being the invisible supporters of a system that treats them unfairly to a powerful public presence.

4. Instrumental protest

Though not uncommon to have music and song at demonstrations, professional musicians and singers can reach new notes when employing their creative skills in targeted ways.

Recent scores include a quartet from the San Francisco’s Symphony ‘s brass section with signs that read “Management is out of tune!” during a strike in 2013.

That same year, the politically radical chamber orchestra and choir Lebenslaute, or Life Sounds, participated in the weekend-long shutdown of a German military base that houses U.S. nuclear weapons. Dubbed “Instruments for Disarmament,” it was the first time in 16 years of resistance to the nuclear weapons that the base was completely closed to traffic. Media coverage included the headline “Rhythm Beats Bombs.”

In London, professional vocalists who support Palestinian rights refused to stay home singing the blues when the Israeli orchestra came to town. Instead, Beethovians for Boycotting Israel took their debut performance to the concert hall, singing out in small groups, offering a counter-concert until escorted out.

Concerned about the climate, and the construction of yet another ski resort, 50 Canadian orchestra members hiked up the Farnham glacier to perform. The original composition, “Requiem for a Glacier,” composed by Paul Walde of Victoria, features slowly increasing tempos reflecting the increasing temperatures on the glacier over the last few decades. Although the permit went through for the ski resort, the performance was captured for use in several art installations and continues to educate and motivate climate action.

A huge crop art image protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline covers an 80 acre corn field outstide of Neligh, Nebraska, on April 12, 2014. (Flickr/Lou Dematteis and Spectral Q)

A huge crop art image protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline covers an 80 acre corn field outstide of Neligh, Nebraska, on April 12, 2014. (Flickr/Bold Nebraska)

5. (Not) corny protest

In the on-going battle over permitting of the Keystone XL pipeline that is slated to run toxic tar-sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico over the fragile Olgallala Aquifer, the farmers and native people in the threatened path created one of the biggest messages of protest ever. Cut into heartland corn, the image was the size of 80 football fields, featuring a massive design of a cowboy and Indian warrior, images of water and a sun with seven rays representing the tribal tradition of protecting seven generations and the renewable energy farmers, ranchers and tribes want on their land rather than a risky tar sands pipeline. Using tractors and combines as their tools, the Cowboy and Indian Alliance drew their line boldly — a culturally and occupationally appropriate message from the heartland.

6. Gaining traction

In 2011, Wisconsin farmers joined the anti-Walker, pro-democracy fight by organizing a “Tractorcade.” Part of a diverse 150,000 people who descended on their state Capitol to protest the governor’s budget bill that stripped bargaining rights from unions, and cut school and health care budgets, they physically represented people “pulling together” in support of an alternative budget.

Many years earlier in 1979, a reported 3,000 family farmers drove their tractors in the dead of winter to Washington, D.C., to protest farm policy. Just like the slow-moving tractors, policy changes were slow in coming. But when a snowstorm hit in February, the tractors were the only vehicles able to navigate the streets and help dig the city out — proving how much the country depended on farmers in real time.

In Greece, tractors, subways and buses were harnessed in demonstrations in January 2013. Transit workers went on strike, leaving buses idle in long rows at depots to silently communicate their grievances; others used tractors to blockade major highways to stop business as usual and demand support for farmers.

7. Creating the future we want now

In Washington, D.C., during the Days of Rage week of protests in 1995, janitors and allies took bold action to escape the invisible nature of their work and demand a fair wage and benefits. Janitors who worked in hospitals and clinics blocked traffic and risked arrest by setting up a medical station on a highway ramp into Washington, D.C. On the next day, school buses were parked across the lanes blocking traffic on a key highway bridge over the Potomac River to set up classrooms with desks and blackboards. These powerful public scenes of health care and schools provided visual lessons about Justice for Janitors work and needs, and were not able to be ignored.

When called out for blocking the bridges, SEIU President John Sweeney replied: “I believe in building bridges whenever [we can] be a full partner with our employers and a full citizen of the communities we live in. But I believe in blocking bridges whenever those employers and those communities turn a deaf ear to the working families we represent.”

8. A stitch in time

During the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile, many women engaged in a traditional tapestry form known as arpilleras, made from remnants of quilted cloth. Originally the women used this as a crafty way to support their families; but they soon recognized that the quiltings had more than financial power: They could tell the people’s stories of resistance and suffering under the regime and deliver these messages outside Chile even when a repressed press corps could not. This news served to galvanize anti-Pinochet sympathizers globally and resulted in both financial and political support for the resistance.

9. Any tool is a weapon if you hold it right

Whether it’s brooms, firefighting foam, school desks, or lab coats, using the tools of your trade can provide immediately accessible information to onlookers about the key issues. Harnessing recognizable instruments of your work infuses high-impact images with impeccable action logic. Even designing posters in the shape of a cello, a syringe, a wheel of cheese or a mop — or utilizing the items as billboards themselves — can do the trick. Actually doing your work — for example, setting up a clinic or milking cows or performing in an orchestra — in a new context where it becomes the blockade itself can be both symbolic and direct.

If all those benefits of using common implements aren’t convincing, consider this: Activists are almost always short on resources and time, so starting with what we’ve got — say, what’s in our locker at the fire hall or our cubby in the staff room — can give us a leg up on communicating our message loud and clear. Not only are the tools we use at work easily available, but they will also immediately communicate something powerful about who is taking action. And if we can use that tool in a way that actually impacts business as usual, then the resulting picture is worth more than a thousand words in campaign currency. As Ani DiFranco, an activist who wields songs, sings, ”Any tool is a weapon if you hold it right.”

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