Creative Protest

Use Your Cultural Assets — A Principle of Creative Activism

Today I’m excited to share with you the second piece I have written for Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, a book-turned-website with tons of great resources for creative activists. This was an excellent exercise for me, because it forced me to take the ideas about culture that I’ve been exploring here and in my other work, and boil it down to some key pieces of advice. The full text is below, but for the full, interactive experience read it on the Beautiful Trouble website

“Never go outside the experience of your people. . . . Wherever possible go outside the experience of the enemy.”

— Saul Alinsky

Principle In Sum: By drawing on the cultural assets of the community, organizers can deepen the involvement of participants, disorient opponents, and shift the cultural terrain in their favor.

Radical social change groups can rarely compete with their opponents in terms of financial resources or institutional power. Instead, they must draw on what they do have: passionate, committed people willing to take action. The same is true in the cultural arena: opponents of social change efforts often have powerful cultural tools at their disposal, from dominant paradigms and frames to control of mass media (see THEORY: Cultural hegemony). To combat this, groups working for justice must recognize and build upon their own cultural strengths.

 All communities develop shared cultures — stories, symbols, art forms, knowledge, norms, and practices that hold the community together and shape its identity. These cultures offer rich resources for action, whether it’s youth organizers performing hip-hop street theater; Japanese-American activists repurposing traditional Taiko drumming; or Harry Potter fans drawing on the narratives of Rowling’s books to address an array of social justice issues (see CASE: Harry Potter Alliance).

If social change efforts are to be led by those most affected by injustice (see PRINCIPLE: Take leadership from the most impacted), then this principle calls for a particular focus on the cultural strengths of marginalized communities, or what researcher Tara Yosso calls “community cultural wealth.” In the face of ongoing oppression, communities develop many ways of strengthening themselves and resisting domination. They hone storytelling and communication skills, share counter-stories that challenge dominant narratives, create new art forms, and develop practices of mutual support. Many of the most powerful social change efforts, from the African-American civil rights movement in the US to the environmental justice movements throughout the world, have relied heavily on the cultural wealth of participating communities.

When communities draw on their own cultural assets to carry out actions, they strengthen their own membership while simultaneously disorienting and discomfiting opponents. They are playing by their own rules rather than accepting the existing terms of engagement. By inserting their own stories, perspectives, and practices into the broader dialogue, they are not just operating within, but actively shifting the cultural terrain (see PRINCIPLE: Know your cultural terrain).

Culturally specific practices can serve as a statement of cultural pride, and can strengthen collective identity. When the Idle No More protests spread across Canada and the United States beginning in 2012, organizers utilized Indigenous music, dance, and language as a way to assert the power and continued relevance of Indigenous culture (see CASE: Idle No More and the Round Dance Flash Mob). Utilizing shared cultural assets can also help to draw in others who are not yet onside politically, but who relate culturally. For example, given hip hop’s worldwide cache with young people, many see it as an effective tool for organizing across racial, ethnic, and national lines.

Potential Pitfalls

Exclusion: When drawing on culturally specific practices, there is always a risk of alienating not just opponents, but also people you would like to welcome into your effort. Then again, this is true of any cultural practice: protest marches, press conferences, sit-ins, and other organizing staples all energize some folks while making others feel excluded (see THEORY: Political identity paradox and PRINCIPLE: Make new folks welcome). If exclusion is an issue, it can be moderated by adapting or combining practices from different cultural communities; educating allies on the meaning of the practices; or carefully selecting practices that are welcoming. For example, the freedom songs of the African-American civil rights movement combined Black spirituals and white folk music as a way to assist in organizing across racial lines.

Appropriation: Organizers must also be aware of the dangers of simplification and appropriation. Cultures are complex and dynamic, with blurry boundaries and lots of internal diversity. They cannot be reduced to a small set of symbols or art forms. Those who are not directly involved in a cultural community may have a particularly difficult time understanding this complexity. Beware of appropriating aspects of a culture you do not fully appreciate or understand, no matter how pure your intentions.

Book Review — Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution

The playing field has changed drastically for activists and organizers over the past few decades. The initially revolutionary tools of sit-ins, marches, and boycotts have become standardized and — let’s be honest — predictable. With media saturation reaching record levels, new avenues for protest have opened up. But at the same time it takes more and more effort to get even a brief moment of media attention. And the problems we struggle against are often less visible than they once were. Long-running oppressions like racism have shifted towards more subtle and covert forms, and newer issues like climate change can often feel invisible and distant.

These changes have arguably led to a new wave of creativity in political action, from flash mobs and critical mass bike rides to viral videos and culture jamming. People across the globe are taking action in innovative new ways — drawing on a long history of creative protest, but also responding to uniquely modern opportunities and constraints. Through this process, activists have developed an enormous amount of expertise and knowledge about how to do effective and creative protest.

Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution seeks to gather together, in one place, as much of this dispersed knowledge as possible. In doing so, editors Andrew Boyd (of Billionaires for Bush) and Dave Oswald Mitchell have produced a true treasure trove of collective wisdom. Authors include activists from a wide array of organizations — including Code Pink, the Yes Men, Ruckus Society, Justice for Janitors, Rebel Clown Army, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers — along with journalists, filmmakers, trainers, and researchers. Some of these authors have been in the struggle for decades, and here have managed to summarize their expertise into compact, easily digestible bits — with plenty of additional resources for those who want to go into more depth.

The 99% Bat Signal on the Brooklyn Bridge

The book is broken up into four parts. Section one, Tactics, includes descriptions of and practical advice about specific forms of public action — occupation, banner drops, invisible theater — as well as couple broader pieces on the concepts of direct action and strategic nonviolence. Section two, Principles, shares “hard won insights” about activism, such as “Brand or be branded,” “Make the invisible visible,” and (my favorite title), “No one wants to watch a drum circle.” Section three, Theories, does an impressive job of taking theories about social change — cultural hegemony, pedagogy of the oppressed, environmental justice — and summarizing them in ways that are practical and easy to read. Section four, Case Studies, offers examples of these tactics, principles, and theories in action. Cases include the Teddy-bear Catapult, the 99% Bat Signal, and the Lysistrata Project.

To be clear, this book is primarily about action. It is not a comprehensive guide to organizing a movement — it is about that small but vital place where an organizing campaign or movement meets the public sphere. Many of the authors are not organizers as much specialists in political action, coming from groups like the Yes Men and the Rebel Clown Army. That said, a number of chapters do touch on broader aspects of organizing. Harsha Walia, for example, writes about challenging patriarchy within your organization or group. And Joshua Kahn Russell from the Ruckus Society pens a few thoughtful pieces on basic organizing principles like “Take leadership from the most impacted,”

The arts certainly have a significant presence in Beautiful Trouble. The book includes examples of forum theater, guerrilla videos, massive human banners, and lots of public performance. But many of the actions in the book are not “artistic” per se. What they all share is a close attention to the form that protest takes. Authors advocate aligning the form of an action with its message, audience, goals, and overall strategy. They push a vision of protest that thinks beyond standard marches and rallies, to utilizing the broad range of tools open to activists. And they understands that political action functions at both the literal and symbolic level.

The Lysistrata Project, a global theatrical peace event

Beautiful Struggle speaks to two cultural faces of social change. First of all, many of the chapters are based in an understanding of dominant culture. Mainstream culture is seen mostly as a target for social change, but also as containing a set of resources — memes, narratives — that are ripe for usurpation. Secondly, a smaller number of chapters touch onmovement culture, particularly collective decision making and addressing power relationships within organizations. What the book lacks is attention to the deep and powerful resources embedded in existing non-dominant cultures. A good addition might be a chapter on something like counter-storytelling, a narrative technique that draws on long histories of strength and resistance in marginalized communities.

Because I didn’t want to miss anything, I read Beautiful Trouble in order, from front to back. But I do not recommend this method, because one of the best things about the book is its modular structure. Each short piece ends with a list of related pieces in the book, and web links to more resources. And if you are reading the ebook version (which I highly recommend for just this reason), these lists are hyperlinked. So you can wander, weaving between practice and theory, between the book and the web, forging your own path.

At the same time, this modular structure leads to some lack of cohesion in terms of understanding how these pieces fit together into an overall strategy. For this reason, I think it would pair well with a book like (Re)Imagining Change by SmartMeme that offers a method for embedding creative action within an overarching strategic narrative. (Members of SmartMeme author some of the pieces in Beautiful Trouble, which can give you a sense of their approach.)

The editors are planning to make all of this content available online, with additional pieces. And they are inviting others to submit their own cases, theories, tactics, and principles for online publication. So Beautiful Trouble will be able to grow far beyond the confines of the book, offering an evolving, collaborative, and ultimately invaluable resource for action.