The Huffington Post recently tried its best to give a positive frame for protesters of the Republican National Convention, calling them “a diverse coalition of senior citizens, religious leaders, community organizers, and activists in faded Occupy T-shirts.” All 200 of them.
It was a nice spin, but for most people the RNC protests will sail by without even a yawn. There’s little drama to a scripted protest against a scripted convention. Protests against the DNC will likely be just as uninteresting.
Contrast that to news coming out from Togo. There, a group of women are calling for a nationwide sex strike. Yes — for a week, women will keep their legs closed to men in order to force the resignation of President Gnassingbé.
The marches at the RNC pale in comparison to the Togo activists’ planned actions (or, more precisely, their lack of actions). While the contexts are completely different, their difference sheds some light into the choices discerning activists need to make on where we spend our time.
Laughing or gasping
Cultural activists, like the Yes Men, keep challenging us to think more creatively. At a training I led for their Yes Labs program, Yes Men co-founder Andy Bichlbaum told me, “If an action doesn’t make you laugh or gasp, we have to throw it out.”
The RNC protesters took a shot at it by melting huge chunks of ice written as “the middle-class.” But it doesn’t make me laugh or gasp. If inspiring is a goal, ho-hum actions should be stricken from our toolbox.
Too often, however, activists are stuck repeating the tactics they know. They then begrudge the media, or their comrades, or potential allies, for not getting it. At a direct action workshop I co-led with George Lakey in South Korea, we heard young movement activists lamenting that the press stopped covering their movement’s tactic: public suicides in the middle of a protest. How could the media and their allies be so callous?
With respect to the media, the answer was sad but simple: “News stories need to be news.” As much I detest the mainstream media, they give us a worthy challenge to be bold and unconventional.
During a recent campaign, I convinced the leadership to agree on an informal rule: “No marches, no rallies.” It reduced our temptation to add a few puppets or drummers to spice up a march or capture an editors’ interest. Instead, we had to look for actions that were powerful and spoke to our vision.
When it comes down to it, effective direct action doesn’t lie in tactics that are merely about expressing our minds and making a public spectacle; it is in our ability to organize people to break social scripts.
Enacting new scripts
Years ago I ran across a Christian Peacemaker Teams handout training people to de-escalate high-conflict situations. It explained that in any kind of confrontation, there are unwritten social scripts on how situations should unfold. The mugger may expect either a quiet, subdued victim or a screaming violent reaction.
Either way, the mugger knows what to expect and is ready to respond. But when the script is broken, unexpected things happen and new scripts become possible.
My sister, upon being threatened on the streets of New York City late one night, decided to act unexpectedly. She turned her face toward the stalker and started picking her nose and eating it. Disgusted, the would-be mugger/rapist hurried off.
Breaking larger-scale social scripts can be just as powerful.
Sadly, too many activists follow social scripts: anti-death penalty activists holding vigils on days of executions, gun control activists marching when someone gets killed, or anti-globalization protestors showing up ritually outside of international trade meetings. The RNC protesters are hardly alone in this dynamic.
The catch is compounded because too often activists misread history. Many (white, middle-class) activists encourage us to keep using the tactics of the civil rights movement. While I agree with the sentiment, I believe their racism has made it hard for them to learn from black leaders as strategists, not merely tacticians.
Too many activists have grabbed ahold of the tactics of sit-ins, marches and vigils but missed the point that those tactics at the time broke scripts written by racists (and enforced by whites’ violence and propriety, and blacks’ passivity and acquiescence).
Older folk may remember that the March on Washington was seen as a riot waiting to happen. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called up elected officials and celebrities and told them to flee D.C. during the march. The assumption was that black people are animals and cannot organize a dignified march. Likewise with sit-ins, the police and bystanders were off-script, uncertain how to handle these uppity folk. The result was that their racism showed — in potent violence.
Breaking social scripts reveals what underlies the smooth, shiny exterior.
The civil rights movement found those tactics by taking a piece of what a just society would look like — people sitting at lunch counters, traveling on buses together — and then going ahead and doing it. They acted out the world they wanted to see.
Just recently, the book Beautiful Trouble profiled a tactic I developed called the “public filibuster.” It’s the same concept: When government hearings don’t let us speak, we go ahead and do it ourselves — just like the procedural filibuster, except it’s ordinary citizens doing it, not politicians.
We can make a lot more waves if we take time to generate those kinds of meaningful actions, rather than just jumping right to another march — or whatever your movement’s scripted response is.
The RNC protests now fit into a neat social narrative: convention, crazy protestors, life goes on. It’s a far cry from the women in Togo taking on their patriarchal regime.
It’s not that a sex strike hasn’t been done before. Togo activists are trying out something Liberian women did in 2003, as depicted in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell. It worked for them; one leader of that movement told me, “When the men found out we weren’t going to have sex with them until the situation was resolved, they moved very quickly to help!”
The Togo women are aware that women taking control of their bodies this way is enacting a new script, and they have broken through Western media who generally stay silent on abuses of a repressive regime backed by the United States. In their own country, it has grabbed attention from the otherwise ritualized (and likely stolen) elections. The fact that the women are doing something unusual is worth talking about — much more so than if they had done just another ritualized action expressing their outrage.
So, when you’re looking for a new tactic, think about what ritualized tactics your movement already does and knock them off your list.
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There has already been some strident discussion on this piece on Facebook:
I’d surely like to see some suggestions for the alternative tactics. And exactly where could one filibuster?
I’ve decided to add to the comment above. 200 poeple? 200? That’s a crying shame. Where are the others? I know where I was– home and ill. But where are the hundreds, the thousands who must all surely know ,or at least suspect, what a Republican victory will meand for the poor and the middle class? Perhaps it is education and not demonstration that we need more of–and now.
I have chosen not to travel long distances to protest anything. The reason? I’m not interested in using large amounts of monetary resources or fossil fuels to go be against something or someone.
I am interested in creative, effective actions. I am engaged on a local level and online. I have conversations with people I really know, in person, asking questions about what they are concerned about and what they think we can/cannot do and why.
I try to listen first, to engage.
It feels better. And it seems to be more effective, at least on a personal and local level.
Anyway, that’s why I wasn’t there. I didn’t want to burn the energy— my own or the planet’s precious fossil fuels. I want to apply my energy, my resources– mental, emotional, physical– to inventing a world that I will enjoy living in and sharing.
I definitely agree that strategy is a direction that we should be moving in more. The ritualized protests, like the RNC, DNC or SOA, have looked like initiation rites for radicals to list their dissent instead of strategic moves toward change. It does feel racist the way we lean on the tactics of the civil rights movement without noticing the strategy underneath each tacit. Today, it would do us some good to think about the wisdom below the surface offered to us by a racial justice struggle in the civil rights movement.
I thought the piece was excellent, but then I know Daniel personally and have worked with him in a number of campaigns.
So clearly I disagree with the first two comments from Facebook (in order to be more effective, we have to assess our actions, and an aversion to “criticizing” our tactics is unhelpful). But I also take issue with a point in the third: Charles wrote, “We must use tactics.” On the contrary, I think we must use strategy. Daniel’s point about the civil rights movement using particular tactics because it exposed the systemic racism in the United States is key. There’s no such thing as a perfect tactic. The right tactic is the one that fits into an overall strategy, and tactics that make sense in one context can be disastrous in another.
I was part of National Convention protests that had the highest attendance ever by the most diverse population of protesters, dozens of affinity groups doing wildly creative things, hours and hours of colorful footage captured on video, and were overwhelmingly nonviolent. Sadly, it also had a record number of arrests and a dismaying amount of police brutality. Thanks to nationwide media coverage, it became a defining event of a generation.
No, wait, that last sentence isn’t true at all. The U.S. media mostly ignored this, so most Americans reading this probably thought I was referring to the 1968 DNC in Chicago. Actually my words refer to the 2004 RNC in New York City.
I have long found the “old scripts” to be an exercise in futility, but it’s pretty discouraging to see a fresh new script — several of them, in fact — that only a few dozen people witness. Getting the word out is pretty crucial, and it’s part of the genius of the Yes Men that they can make that happen.
The word got out in 1968 largely because Abbie Hoffman, having studied under McLuhan of all people, was ingenious with the media. Videographers got the word out after the fact in 2004, but in 2008 they were preemptively blocked by the police (and much of our footage of those events are low-res streams from cellphones). In 2012, shades of Mubarak, the police are actively zeroing in on livestreamers.
So yes, the new scripts are necessary, but getting the word out is crucial.
Like Ivan, I know Daniel as well from my Philly years. And while I question the role of perma trainers ( especially young occupiers going from occupiers to trainers without ever, you know, organizing), there is a whole lot of #win in here.
We’ve been trying to repeat Seattle 99 and nothing but Seattle will be Seattle.
Let’s be creative not lazy.
The idea of a sex strike goes back way beyond 2003. Check out Lysistrata by Aristophanes
Great discussion! Next time I’m in an action planning, I’ll remember the words “laugh,” gasp,” and “news” as measures of our potential effectiveness.
Some tactics are classic and unfortunately won’t be going out of style.. While I think it is important to find new and creative ways of registering dissent, take the strike for instance, where the sit down technique originated prior to the civil rights movement. It was about more than simply creating a splash and getting media attention, though that helps of course. It was meant to hit the bosses where it hurts, their wallets, and to impede production by asserting the workforces’ collective power as producers. It is hard to see anything matching the power of mass refusal, as I’m sure the women of Togo can attest.
While the RNC mobilizations were drudgerous, I wouldn’t chalk that up to a lack of creativity among the protesters and I think it’s generally important that people show up for these things. Instead I would like to know what were the forces involved; progressive Dems, anarchists, old Stalinist hardliners, Greens? What political climate on the left and more broadly in this country precipitated such a dismal turnout? In other words, the conditions on the ground seem to me a more constructive departure point for criticism.
The DNC will be worth keeping an eye on. Like the RNC it is being held in a right to work stronghold with xenophobic and homophobic legislation on the books. The Dems ignored calls to move the convention and it will be interesting to see what those who have received nothing but hollow promises from the party that supposedly represents them do; the undocumented, labor, the LGBTQ community and people of color. These are forces that will have an impact, not the mythical white people in black masks that both the left and the dominant press outlets tend to make a hoopla over.
One other comment on this post. A word of caution. We need to be careful not to tailor are protests too much around mainstream (and what use to be called, I think more accurately, bourgeois) media coverage. They have a different set of priorities and values that infrequently overlap with those of us struggling for social justice. Housing activists, for example, might want to move a family into a vacant home even if a member of that household has a history of drug abuse. Yet that family wouldn’t fit the nightly news expectation of perfect victims.
Many great thoughts here, Pete — thanks. I think it’s worth noting that there’s a certain elegance to a ritual protest against a ritual convention. Maybe the value of Daniel’s intervention here is that activists moderate their expectations, and not expect that performing a ritual will amount to anything more than that. It does seem better that someone is there reminding the powers that be that someone is watching and angry.
Example of public filibuster for the cause of higher education: http://youtu.be/f4yvODYSlRE