“Kind of like Kickstarter, but for creative direct action!” So goes an explainer on a new project from The Yes Men, a troupe of political pranksters. The Action Switchboard, or A/S, as it’s called, was appropriately birthed from a successful crowdfunding campaign last year by The Yes Lab, a creative actions platform founded by The Yes Men — otherwise known as Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno. Now, A/S seeks to put the informal networks among activists — of trainers, photographers artists and more — to work.
Traditionally when people think of protest, the images that come to mind are of massive mobilizations: the World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, or last year’s People’s Climate March and Millions March NYC. But there’s a lot more to be done, the A/S team argues, than the resource-intensive work of bringing tens of thousands of people together. As they note on their website, “Ongoing, sustained creative actions are vital for keeping movements strong in between the big moments when we take to the streets.”
According to A/S director Michael Badger, Bichlbaum and Bonanno — wanting to build upon the success of The Yes Men’s actions, trainings and feature-length documentaries — found that people were constantly asking them how they could get involved with creative activist projects. So, in advance of their upcoming film “The Yes Men Are Revolting,” Bichlbaum, Bonnano and the rest of The Yes Lab wanted to be prepared with an answer, and a ready-made outlet for people to plug into once the documentary is released in June.
“The Yes Men have had a lot of success with introducing new people to activism in general,” Badger said. “And we want to now take that success to the next level by not just introducing them to it, but also giving them a way to actually get active themselves.”
The switchboard works by allowing activists to post “schemes,” or ideas for new protests, with the help of Action Switchboard facilitators. Along with the pitch for the action, organizers also post what’s required to pull it off — everything from donations to back-end website design to grassroots organizing. The crowdfunding, then, trades not only in money, but in highly specialized skills that can be hard to come by without knowing the right people. “Scheme leaders” use the switchboard itself, along with targeted emails, to recruit a “band of schemers” to drive projects forward. Once completed, the scheme remains available for viewing on the switchboard, and schemers post a publicly available report-back on what happened, and what lessons it might offer to other organizers.
Badger also sees A/S as a way to connect more experienced organizers with those newer to campaigning — not to mention skilled practitioners often siloed off in separate issue areas. “It has a lot of potential as a strategy for increasing the numbers of creative activists around the United States and the world, working on projects together,” he explained.
The Yes Men, appropriately, have made a name for themselves by making fools out of some of the world’s biggest, most nefarious corporations. In perhaps their most noteworthy stunt back in 2004, Bichlbaum convinced BBC World News that he was actually “Jude Finisterra,” a representative from DOW Chemical. On the 20th anniversary of a disastrous chemical spill in Bhopal, India — for which DOW subsidiary Union Carbide was responsible — Bichlbaum, as Finisterra, fictitiously announced that the corporation would liquidate Union Carbide and devote its $12 billion in assets to paying for medical care, environmental remediation and a thorough clean-up of the spill, responsible for thousands of deaths. Sheepishly, DOW was forced to admit that its real executives, in fact, had absolutely no intention of cleaning up their mess — only after losing $2 billion in market value as a result of the broadcast.
Requiring few participants and a savvy (if not convincing) press relations team, it’s these types of low-intensity, high-impact actions that the Action Switchboard attempts to foment. One of the most successful projects to emerge from A/S thus far has been the “Perfect Storm to End the Fossil Fuel Era,” initiated by We Are Cove Point, a group fighting fracking in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. In an action that captured considerable attention on social media, protesters from around Appalachia and the Northeast marched in front of Dominion Energy’s annual shareholder meeting dressed as Darth Vader and Storm Troopers to the tune of the Imperial March, Vader’s theme song in the “Star Wars” films. Organizers told media that the Liquid Natural Gas terminal Dominion executives were promoting at the meeting, held at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel, would be “comparable to building a Death Star.” For this, Badger said, A/S proved to be “a perfect tool for connecting the out-of-town organizers with passionate locals who could show up for their day of action.”
With any hope, the Action Switchboard will produce more than a few headaches for seemingly unshakable captains of industry.