An Open Letter to My Activist Friends

This post was updated on Sept. 22, 2020.

Dear friends and fellow activists,

I am relatively new to activism, but over the last few years I have been pretty actively engaged in a variety of causes, from the environment to anti-racism to gun control. In addition to writing, Most of my activism has consisted of planning and participating in protests and other forms of expressive activism.

When I first started participating in protests, it was exhilarating. It felt empowering. I experienced for the first time in my life the power of masses of people gathered for a cause. It’s not an exaggeration to say it restored my faith in democracy. It offered me an avenue for action outside of the more traditional modes of political participation (like voting), with which I had become disenchanted.

I never expected marching, by itself, to effect revolutionary change. Rather, I saw mass events as opportunities to raise energy and build solidarity, especially among those who participate, but also among those who witness from afar. When people would ask me if I thought events like the Women’s March and the People’s Climate March “accomplished anything”, I would respond that what those events do is to help people realize that they are not alone, that together they have power when they act collectively, and to motivate them to organize when they go back home.

I still believe all that.

However, over time, I have come to see another perspective as well. There’s three problems that I now see with much of the protesting which we progressives do.

#1 Progressive Protesting Is Divorced from Strategic Organizing.

I’ve noticed that a lot of protests-including some I have planned-are not part of a larger strategy for social change. They are reactive-like social justice “ambulance chasing”. The purpose of the action is often vague, something like “raising awareness”, and largely symbolic. Oftentimes, planners will call for further action or suggest “next steps”, but not always. And even when they do, it is usually not central to the event. Rather, most protests are focused on expressing outrage-kind of like a collective letter to the editor.

The problem with this is that we use up energy in a catharsis of outrage, and not much real organizing happens afterward. We judge success in terms of the number (not the constituency) of people who show up to the event, because the more people who show up, the more validated we feel in our outrage. If we’re lucky, we get an article in the newspaper or mentioned on the local NPR station, which is a little bit of semi-official validation. But nothing is really accomplished, either in terms of change to the policies or laws which affect people’s lives or in terms of organizing people for long-term strategic goals. At the end of the day, the people with power still have it and the people without power still don’t.

There is an element of theater to most protests and even civil disobedience. Permits are obtained, which often involves the city dictating where the protest can happen. The planners work with law enforcement to set the stage in advance and negotiate the terms of surrender. If traffic is going to be blocked, the police reroute it in advance so commuters experience minimal inconvenience. And then people show up with clever selfie-ready signs. There’s a kind party atmosphere. The media reports on it and we feel like celebrities for 15 minutes. And then everybody goes home.

There is an element of theater to most protests and even civil disobedience. Permits are obtained, which often involves the city dictating where the protest can happen. The planners work with law enforcement to set the stage in advance and negotiate the terms of surrender. If traffic is going to be blocked, the police reroute it in advance so commuters experience minimal inconvenience. And then people show up with clever selfie-ready signs. There’s a kind party atmosphere. The media reports on it and we feel like celebrities for 15 minutes. And then everybody goes home.

For some people, it’s a kind of hobby, what Tim Horras calls “lifestyle activism”. For others of us, it’s a way of assuaging our guilt about our multiply-privileged lives. But nothing really changes, because the protest isn’t connected to any deeper social movement.

One glaring example of this that I’ve experienced is weekend protests in front of government buildings. The planners schedule a protest for a weekend, so more people will show up, which will draw more media attention. But the protesters are marching down empty city streets in front empty downtown buildings and arrive at an empty City Hall or State House. Everybody has a good time and pats themselves on the back afterward. But the target of the protest, the people in power, weren’t even present. And that’s okay, because the real goal was a photo op. Any wonder that on Monday morning things go back to business as usual?

#2 Progressive Protesting Perpetuates Racial and Class Divisions.

Marching and protesting, at least as I have experienced it, is a largely Whitemiddle-class enterprise. It’s mostly performed by people with a significant degree of privilege. Those who are paid hourly or living in more precarious economic circumstances are frequently unable to attend such events. And the attendees are usually disproportionately White.

As a result, the planners show a preference for civil disobedience over direct action ( see here to understand the difference) for reasons that have a lot to do with race and class. First, protesting and civil disobedience are forms of self-expression and most of us middle class White people (especially men like me) feel entitled to speak our minds whenever and wherever we want. Protesting and civil disobedience validates our sense of entitlement by creating a relatively safe space for us to express ourselves.

Second, protesting and even civil disobedience is something middle class White people can do with a minimal amount of risk. There is a bit of a thrill that comes with breaking social norms and minor laws, we are largely insulated from most police abuse, and we can afford a legal defense if we really need one. And we can expect to be treated fairly (or even leniently) by the court system. What is perceived as Thoreauvian civil disobedience when it is performed by middle class White people is just labeled “crime” when done by less privileged people, and treated as such.

Third, protesting usually doesn’t bring us into direct contact with poor people or people of color, which makes many White middle class people uncomfortable. Oftentimes, the people most impacted are not at the protest, and the protest happens far away from places where the most impacted people live. We block traffic and get arrested all within the safe space of our middle class neighborhoods or in front of government buildings which are shrines to our privilege.

True direct action, on the other hand, is usually pretty scary. It doesn’t always turn out large numbers or get media attention. Other people, even progressives, tend to be less sympathetic to direct action, because it can involve breaking serious laws. And direct action involves real risks. Without the numbers or the media presence, the police are more free to abuse protesters. And because the impact is real, so are the legal consequences.

#3 Progressive Protesting Happens In An Echo Chamber.

After a few years of attending activist events, I noticed that I was seeing the same faces all the time. Whether it was an environmental rally, a gun protest, or a peace vigil, the same people would show up. This is a function of what Tim Horras calls the “activist networking model”.

“wherein activists from one organization agree to attend the events put on by activists from another group with the expectation that the latter will reciprocate by attending in return the favor. This often creates a comical scenario 20 different organizations ‘endorse’ an event at which only 40 people show up.

“The final outcome of this model is to create an ‘activist circuit’ where the same dozen or so single-issue activists attend each others protests in a round-robin of stagnant or diminishing numbers. Even when political pressure turns up the volume (i.e. an issue is newsworthy or politically salient and therefore drives larger attendance at the events organized by the activists) the lifeless cycle of activist networking eventually brings down the numbers of attendees back to pre-crisis levels.”

When we plan protests and other activists events, we don’t reach beyond our usual social circles. The more activist we become, the more our social circles are limited to other activists. And so, predictably, the people who show up today’s environmental protest are the same people who showed up for yesterday’s health care reform rally.

Facebook, which is one of the primary tools of most progressive leaders, just makes this so much worse, because Facebook’s algorithms are designed to create echo chambers. And so we end up talking to ourselves and attending each other’s events and never really connecting with anyone else. This is validating, of course, because everyone already agrees with us. But our organizations don’t grow, because the people attending our events are already (over-)committed to one or more activist organizations. And when we do gain a few people, they are usually more middle class White people.

So what do we do instead?

Now, if you’re feeling criticized by all this, just know you’re not alone. All of what I’ve been describing applies to me and what I’ve been doing for the last several years.

What’s the alternative? Well, I don’t think we necessarily should give up protesting. But we need to treat it as one tool in our activist tool belts, rather than as some kind of universal multi-tool, which it isn’t.

We need to start organizing- really organizing, not just mobilizing. Mobilizing is short-term, high-energy, and tends to focus on self-expression and symbolic action. Organizing is long-term, harder, and not as sexy. Mobilizing creates spectacles. Organizing creates community.

I also think we need to consider direct action as a serious option more frequently than we do. Protesting and getting arresting for blocking traffic may be useful tools sometimes. But they are safe tools. And safer tools tend to be the less effective ones, kind of like dull knives. Direct action is like a sharp knife; it’s is scarier, but it’s often more effective for that very reason.

If we really want to fight the fossil fuel industry, we should consider the example of the valve-turners, five activists who, in October 2016, shut down 15% of the oil flowing into the U.S., in what was probably the most cost-effective direct action in history.

Or, if you’re White and you want to fight police abuse, then consider the next you see a person of color pulled over, getting out of your car, recording it on your phone, and when the police tell you to leave, refusing. Get some of your friends to do the same thing and after not too long, those police officers may start to reconsider how important that “broken taillight” really is-and maybe a few fewer people of color will die.

Or, if we want to stop the sale of AR-15s in your community, instead of helping to plan a protest outside the county fairgrounds where the gun show is happening (like I did), consider organizing a broad-based boycott of the fairground’s most lucrative events-like the county fair.

What about the echo chamber that is activist networking? Well, I can think of one thing different we can do. It is something which is uncomfortable for a lot of White middle class people. That is to actually go to the places where the most impacted people live-or better yet, ask to be invited. And then talk to them-or better yet, listen to them. Listen to what matters most to them. Don’t go in with an agenda, trying to figure out how to mold their needs to our program. Find out how they want to be helped. And then start building around that. Figure out how to use our privilege to actually make a difference in their lives.

Do they need healthcare? Yes, campaign for Medicare for All, but also consider starting a network of health care providers independent of insurance companies andthe government. (There’s precedent for it.) Do they need food? Fight for food stamp programs, okay, but also consider finding some open land and turning it into a community garden. Do they need protection from deportations? Rally for DACA, by all means, but also consider forming a rapid response network that activates when I.C.E. shows up in a Latinx community. (A group I met in Indianapolis has done just that.) In short, we can build institutions to help people meet their own needs in ways that capitalism and the government either can’t or won’t.

It’s not sexy. It’s not cathartic. We don’t don’t get to “feel heard”. It probably won’t get in the newspaper. But it’s real. It has the potential to deliver real results-results which give people real power and make their lives better in real ways. It’s what Dr. Bones calls “leftism with benefits”, improving the lives of the exploited and oppressed in the here and now rather than begging elected leaders to do it. Rather than demanding change from the people who have created the very conditions we are protesting, we need to just start building the world we want to live in right now.

As Nadia C. has argued in her provocatively titled article, “Your Politics Are Boring As Fuck”, we need a new vision of progressive politics, one which is relevant to our everyday lives, and the everyday lives of our neighbors, a politics which has immediate and obvious benefits to people who need them. The revolution may not be a tea party, but free coffee on the sidewalk can be a form of insurrection.

I’m not sure what all that looks like. But I know it’s not what I’ve been doing. I hope you, my friends and fellow activists, might help me find a new way.

One thought on “An Open Letter to My Activist Friends”

  1. I’m rushing, as I have an event starting tomorrow and I’m in the middle of packing. But as someone who has been doing grassroots organizing on environmental issues (mostly) since the late 80s, let me get out these points.

    1) You’re right about street protest, in every particular. It is very rare for these to be effective at all, in any way, except to give participants a sense that they are “doing something”. Even Occupy failed to capitalize on the unusual traction it achieved in the media by failing to have a coherent, narrow policy goal and a next-step organizing strategy.

    2) Reality testing is everything. The only way to know whether your ideology has a chance in hell is to float it with people who are not in your echo chamber. That means VOTERS and prospective voters. Canvass neighborhoods. Take a phone poll in the jurisdiction that is going to make the decision. These kinds of grassroots activities scare the shit out of decision makers when they hear about them, and they will give you a solid sense of how realistic your goal is.

    3) If your goal isn’t attainable in the short term, identify a progressive step and fight like hell for it. AND DO NOT GET INTO A CIRCULAR FIRING SQUAD OVER “PURITY”.

    4) Decisions don’t get made by “the public”. They get made by elected officials and the people they appoint. That means that–as fucked-up and unfairly weighed as they are–elections are still the most important component of social change. If you want a better world, you need people in the decision-making chairs who agree with your values.

    5) Turning out a bunch of people who agree with you to a public meeting or hearing is great…but only if that crowd represents a larger universe of voters who will punish decision makers if they get it wrong. I’ve been to far too many such meetings where the wrong thing got done despite fierce support for the right thing in the room, because the decision makers knew going in that the crowd didn’t have political organizing skills, resources and discipline.

    6) Don’t be intimidated by people in suits, and don’t assume that they oppose you. Lobby officials directly. Build a constituency big enough that the official has to meet with you her/himself, not send a staffer. (I have proposed a workshop for Pantheacon on “How to Lobby Your Elected Officials” which will go into far more detail on this than I can here).

    7) Have a media strategy. Letters to the editor, op/ed pieces, meetings with editorial boards and press conferences are important ways to get your message out. Yes, the media is slanted pro-capitalism and pro-advertiser, but you’d be surprised at how much support even a hostile story can build for you. You can meet with advertisers to see if you can elicit their support, too–that one REALLY screws with the minds of newspaper publishers.

    8) Really short version: don’t just “stand for something”. WORK. Making change is a laborious, Sisyphean, uphill climb. You almost never win the first time you try. Don’t give up.

    9) Spread love around. Appreciate EVERYONE who helps. Avoid having your cause pigeonholed as that of one or two spokespeople. Show diversity in your representation, and make sure you have engaged all the pertinent constituencies in your community about your issue. Particularly, ask yourself: am I talking to the underrepresented? People of color? The LGBTQI community? Native people? Poor people? Do that.

    10) DO VOTER MOBILIZATION ON ELECTION DAY. Get out your voters. Even if you don’t win you can scare the ones who do into sitting down to make a deal.

    11) Finally (there is so much more, but I need to go): LISTEN TO EXPERIENCE. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Organizing is a skill set. Labor has it. Many other constituencies don’t, so much. Be willing to listen and learn as much as to speak your passion for your issue.


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