Help Us Make Beautiful Trouble

There’s some beautiful trouble brewing, and Beyond the Choir has got caught up in it. We’re part of an exciting collaboration called Beautiful Trouble. It’s a collaboratively-written (and collaboratively funded!) guide for trouble makers. Check out the new video about the project:

Beautiful Trouble is an important new resource for people who are working for social justice. From the Beautiful Trouble Kickstarter page:

Beautiful Trouble will be a book & web toolbox that puts the best ideas and tactics of creative action in the hands of the next generation of change-makers, connecting the accumulated wisdom of decades of creative protest to the popular outrage of the current  political moment…

Beautiful Trouble will pull together an interlocking set of design principles, best practices, innovative tactics and case studies, that will enable anyone to pull off effective creative actions.

Doesn’t that sound like something you’d like to help publish?

Well, you can help! With just over 2 weeks to go, we are almost halfway to our Kickstarter fundraising goal of $12,000. But the deal with Kickstarter is that if we don’t raise all $12,000, we don’t receive any of the pledges! So if you like the sound of this project, it is really important that you give today if you can. And please forward and Tweet this post. Help put this valuable resource in the hands of the next generation of changemakers.

As a token of our gratitude, we’re offering some sweet incentives on our Kickstarter page, including:

  • early release books
  • copies of the infamous prank New York Times signed by The Yes Men
  • your name in the actual book with full co-publisher credit
  • and more!

It’s been a lot of fun to collaborate on this project so far. I can attest that the working draft is brimming with smart and creative action ideas, and “thinking tools” to help activists and organizers apply ideas strategically.

Andrew Boyd and friends at Agit-Pop have been leading the charge on this project, convening writing sprints that have been as fun as productive. The other organizational partners include The Yes Men/Yes Labs, The Center for Artistic Activism, SmartMeme, Waging Nonviolence, The Ruckus Society and Nonviolence International, and us, Beyond the Choir.

A lot of great folks have been working hard to make Beautiful Trouble possible, but the project needs funds too. Please, help to publish Beautiful Trouble today!

Thank you for your support!

Occupy Wall Street: Small Convergence of a Radical Fringe

Why haven’t the protests on Wall Street sparked a prairie fire of populist rebellion across the country? Why, when Adbusters called for “reinforcements” did these not magically arrive? Why, if the protesters represent the feelings of “99% of Americans” have so very, very few of those represented bothered to support the initiative in any way at all?

Isn’t just about everyone furious with Wall Street right now?

Yes, but turning latent sentiment into coordinated collective action is never as simple as a mere call to action.

But it’s easy to see how a contingent of radicals could come to believe the delusion that the right call to action at the right moment is how mass rebellions are ignited. This formula for instantaneous revolution ignores quite a few essentials, including context, organizing, and leadership.

Context matters. Wall Street is not Tahrir Square. The United States is not Egypt. We have very different cultures, economic conditions, and political structures. Just because something on the other side of the globe seems awesome and inspiring to you, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to replicate it here. And trying to do so shouldn’t be your starting place.

Organizing matters. A notable “Tahrir Square” moment in the United States was November 30, 1999, when over a hundred thousand people effectively shut down the ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. It was quite inspiring. Unfortunately, just like now, a lot of young radicals wanted to magically and formulaically replicate that everywhere, and attempted to do so at similar summits for the next two years, with diminishing returns. Seattle was only possible because of the grassroots organizing that had been steadily building in much less flashy, less glorious campaigns for the previous decade (e.g. anti-NAFTA organizing).

If your big introduction to collective action is a moment like November 30 in Seattle, it’s quite understandable, however mistaken, to try exclusively to replicate such magic. It’s like arriving at a farm during the harvest. Wow, all this delicious food is everywhere, and all you have to do is pluck it from the vine! You just want to keep harvesting and harvesting &#151 why would anyone try anything else?! That the harvest was only possible through planting, watering, and diligent tending (including weeding!) escapes your notice. And this isn’t entirely your fault; if the farm had more resources, your elders would be taking the time to give you a better orientation.

Leadership matters. In a call to action, it matters who is making the call. Their legitimacy among already constituted social identities matters. It will make a difference, for example, if the call to action is being made by the head of the AFL-CIO, by prominent religious leaders, or, say, by Adbusters. You’ve got to start with a realization that there are plenty of reasons why people would not want to go to Wall Street to take action. They have other commitments in their lives, including jobs and families. And they might get arrested or hurt. However, in moments of real social upheaval a surprising number of people often prove willing to make significant sacrifices… if they think their sacrifice might actually make a difference. People are more likely to believe their efforts will make a difference when they are being asked by leadership that has already earned their faith and trust. (This leadership can be institutions and organizations, not just charismatic individuals.)

These mistakes are not entirely the fault of the brave young radicals who are taking the streets. The smallness and fringe-ness of the Occupy Wall Street protests is symptomatic of a much broader cultural pattern. This is part of a world in which politics is more about individual self-expression than about strategic engagement. This helps explain why the freak flag flies so freely at the protests, and why protest “organizers” probably didn’t approach the leadership of the AFL-CIO or the NAACP to try to build buy-in from social bases that are bigger and broader than their own small self-selecting circles. Radicals, like a lot of other people, are caught up in their own self-selecting, self-reinforcing information universes. A few nodes in their network put out a call to occupy Wall Street, all their “friends” repost and retweet, and suddenly it seems that the whole country may just be on the brink of revolution.

Disintegration of the American Public (pt.1)

Kevin Drum has a post today at Mother Jones titled Everybody Hates Everybody Else. Based on a recent Bloomberg poll (see the pie/donut chart below), he concludes that:

…what it really means is that everybody hates everybody else. Democrats all think Republicans are responsible for screwing up the country, and Republicans all think Democrats are responsible. The only difference is that Republicans can’t decide who they hate more, Obama or Nancy Pelosi.

Half the country is a bogeyman for the other half of the country, and vice versa. Whoot!

Now, from the outset of any discussion of this phenomenon, I think it’s indispensable to name that this is not a symmetrical equation, with the two sides mirroring each other, both equally culpable in the same exact ways.

But disclaimers aside, I don’t think those on the progressive-leaning side of this culture war can be fully excused for our part. Nor do I think politicians are the only ones to blame. It’s really fun and easy&#151and quite understandable&#151for progressives to spend a lot of time pissing and moaning about conservatives and also about politicians. But it can be disempowering too. We are currently not organized in a way that gives us much leverage over many politicians, and we’re even less capable of influencing the attitudes of our hardest opponents. Focusing attention on the most extreme conservative statements of our hardest opponents can be an important thing to do tactically… from time to time. But to have our whole progressive media universe revolve around such stories is not only excessive, it’s also self-defeating. We get caught up in a story of being the powerless enlightened minority whose unfortunate fellow citizens are hopelessly backward. Now, while there may be some truth to this feeling, dwelling excessively on it is more a matter of venting than about changing something.

Don’t get me wrong. The need to vent is fully understandable. Venting helps us feel sane, and helps us feel connected with others who feel the same as we do. It’s part of the process of building our self-selecting progressive social circles. Venting about politicians and conservatives serves to signal others that we belong. We’re not so different than politicians in this regard. The modern public relations techniques employed by politicians are not much more than a scaling up of the signaling behavior all of us engage in intuitively, in our more manageable sized social groups. We’re signaling that we belong. (Sure, we’re also signaling our values.)

So yesterday I was talking with a friend who I know to be an excellent grassroots organizer at their college campus &#151 who has helped to win some impressive uphill battle campaigns. My friend was lamenting about a new class where he’s a teacher’s assistant. The class has a progressive-sounding name and course description, so my friend was surprised, disappointed, and somewhat alarmed that the group he’d been assigned was comprised almost entirely of jocks. I listened to a stream of jock stereotypes, before entering into quite an argument with my friend.

This is college, I argued. If you can’t reach out to people who have different interests and who cluster into different social groupings now, when will you ever be able to do so? This is exactly what’s wrong with our social change efforts, I thought to myself. Activism has become its own specialized thing, where self-selectors congregate and become content to associate mostly with themselves; who develop their own specialized signals of belonging; who, however friendly amongst themselves, tend to feel exclusive to outsiders; who too often become afraid to engage&#151to really, genuinely, deeply engage&#151people who are different from themselves, outside of their activist spaces.

Social transformation is what happens in everyday spaces with all sorts of everyday people. Activism should not be it’s own magical refuge from the world, but a conscious intervention in the world &#151 woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.

We need to move beyond a culture of blaming and venting and dismissive attitudes. When you label someone a jock it makes you think you know a lot more about them than you do. It’s the same if you label them a hick. Or a conservative or a Republican. They become one-dimensional characters &#151 objects that we talk about, instead of human beings who we stretch ourselves to genuinely engage.

I’m not arguing that progressive change agents should spend all our time talking to our hardest opposition. That wouldn’t be a useful allocation of our limited time and resources. But the tendency to constantly talk smack about people who we deem to be less enlightened than ourselves doesn’t tend to stop with our hardest opposition. It tends, rather, to seep into everything and to unnecessarily cut us off from a lot of potential allies. It is the opposite of what grassroots organizing used to mean.

Safety of sticking to the script

Yesterday in his post Could Your Congressman Pass a Turing Test? Kevin Drum lamented how today’s politicians only seem to talk in “poll-approved talking points”:

…the other day I happened to watch a few old clips of politicians being interviewed (in this case, “old” = 30 years ago) and it reminded me &#151 again &#151 of just how mind-numbing their descendents are. This has become such a routine part of our daily lives that most of the time we barely even notice it, but honestly: everything, and I mean every last word, that comes out of politicians’ mouths these days is predigested boilerplate. It’s just an unending stream of stale, endlessly repeated, poll-approved talking points. Democrats and Republicans alike. Every single time. They simply never speak like normal people anymore.

…every few months I happen to notice this phenomenon again, and it seems freshly creepy every time. It’s easy not to think about it, but when you do, even for a few seconds, it’s pretty obvious that this just isn’t natural. Politics has always been partly about acting, but even politicians are supposed to be human beings for at least part of their lives. Within living memory they were, but no longer. What the hell has gone wrong with us?

Then today, as if answering Drum’s question, Kevin Cirilli of the Centre Daily Times digs into what happened when P.J. Crowley, former spokesman for Hillary Clinton, failed to stick to the talking points.

Crowley … called the treatment of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning “ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid,” at a Boston MIT seminar.

Manning, 23, is charged with leaking government files to WikiLeaks, a website that published classified international information. In March, he had been held for several months in the U.S. Marine brig in Quantico, Va., in what supporters say were conditions of isolation and deprivation that amounted to torture.

Crowley’s remark was so unexpected that a journalist at the seminar asked Crowley if it was intended to be on the record. He answered, “Sure.”

It was the end of a career in public service for Crowley – former spokesman for the National Security Council, witness to the Sept. 11 attacks and Persian Gulf War veteran.

“In those few seconds when I thought about whether to put my comments on the record, I wasn’t thinking about a future career,” Crowley said last week in a lobby outside of a classroom in Carlisle. “I just thought the question deserved an honest answer. [my emphasis]”

Facing intense political pressure, Crowley resigned three days later…

“I still think it was ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid,” he said.

There you have it. Clearly there are a lot of risks that come with speaking your mind freely and veering from the assigned script.  

Breaking the silence on race

Originally posted at Waging Nonviolence

Desmond King and Rogers Smith, writing in The New York Times of our current bipartisan silence on matters of racial equality, argue that the economic calamity of the United States is also a racial crisis. They say that it is not only justifiable, but also necessary, to evaluate policy choices partly on the basis of whether they are likely to reduce or increase racial inequalities.

King and Smith note the findings of the Pew Research Center that in 2009, the U.S. median household net worth was $5,677 for blacks, $6,325 for Hispanics and $113,149 for whites. In the same way, in July of this year the unemployment rate was 8.2 percent for whites, yet 16.8 percent for blacks. African Americans and those of Hispanic descent started far behind and they continue to trail. Democrats now rarely broach the subject of race, leaving “modern Republicans with little to criticize, lest they appear to be race-baiting, so they too keep quiet.” King and Smith contend that political leaders must openly recognize that neither ignoring race nor concentrating on it exclusively will bring progress.

This almost conspiratorial silence reminds me that there was a time when race was at the core of the U.S. national conversation. No citizen could ignore it. The nonviolent activism of the civil rights movement had roused the entire nation. The opponents of racial equality were not silent either—they dismissed civil rights workers as “outside agitators.” By their calculation, I was an outside agitator too, even though my father’s family had emigrated from England to colonial Virginia in the 1600s.

I was among the few Caucasians who went to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1962, starting as a volunteer, and becoming a member of the staff in 1963. It may surprise some, but any white person working for SNCC, as Stokely Carmichael put it, “experienced the full force of racist hostility from Southern white politicians, police, and public opinion. … At moments of confrontation they were at as great a risk as any of us, and as ‘race traitors’ were sometimes in even greater jeopardy.” The column in the Times reawakened that moment when whites and blacks worked together in a mass movement, indignant and no longer accepting the cruel and sometimes barbaric practices of racial discrimination. First and foremost, we shattered the silence.

The risks were great, sometimes involving life or death. In a certain section of the black community in Danville, Virginia, police cars never followed the vehicles of civil rights workers. A particular street led across a deep ravine, an unpaved road beside the Dan River. The only route into or out of this neighborhood of the black community was along this high, treacherous, single road. When the police followed movement cars, as soon as they realized that we were heading for that particular lane, their cars would turn off and disappear. (I discuss this in more detail in my 1987 book Freedom Song: A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.) Within this section of the black part of town, everyone knew the SNCC workers on sight, white or black, and recognized the donated cars we drove. Civil rights workers from outside Danville stayed with black families who took us into their homes, sometimes showing courage merely by doing so, feeding us from their own slender resources. All of us, black or white, were protected within welcoming black communities that nestled us under their protection. One of my first tasks after being sent to Danville was to find my way through the city to this single road that led to safety. I learned every route to that escape.

Similarly, in Mississippi in 1964, I had 10 different routes to drive from our main office in Jackson to where I lived in Tougaloo, less than 10 miles away, in case I was under surveillance from the vigilante groups that operated with impunity. Mississippi silently condoned state terrorism. Having as much to fear from a police officer as from a vigilante, I worked out what I regarded as secret passageways into sections of the black community.

Once I reached sleepy Tougaloo, a hamlet that had grown up around a college established for freed slaves in the 19th century, I knew that the black community would protect me to the fullest extent possible. The means available for shielding us were very limited, but we were enveloped and concealed within a caring community. The local people called us Freedom Riders, whether or not we had participated on the 1961 Freedom Rides, and everybody knew us.

Most U.S. citizens no longer experience the fear that suffused the Deep South as a byproduct of its state-enforced racial policies. On the other hand, it has become easy to develop collective amnesia about a moment when quietude would have left unabashed institutional racism intact.

The Republicans had been at the forefront as the champions of racial reform in the 1860s, but the two parties have now switched their roles. The contemporary repositioning began with Barry Goldwater becoming the nominee of the Republican party in 1964, and for the Democrats started with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965. King and Smith write in the Timesthat nowadays both parties virtually agree not to speak about race—a conspiracy of silence that has become an impediment to the genuine racial equality deserved by the whole nation. This silence is based in part on hope and in part on pretense that an historic situation confounded by profound ethical dilemmas has been corrected. Those who advocate “colorblind” laws, and eliminating racially-conscious measures such as affirmative action—which were never meant to be permanent—forget that our society still needs such positive programs to reform centuries of discrimination. Both political parties should join together and agree to confront the continuing racial quandaries until resolved.

The country has much to be proud of, considering what the civil rights movement and ongoing exertions of countless individuals have achieved. Such successes redound to the entire people of the United States and are admired across the world. Yet it is, as King and Smith suggest, appropriate and essential to evaluate policy options partially on the basis of whether they may reduce or increase racial inequities.

They offer several examples of fitting approaches. For example, measures that are not openly targeted on race yet are selected partially because they will benefit nonwhites can become the basis for policy debates. Employment tests can be adopted that are evenhanded and inclusive, enabling employers to more accurately gauge a job-seeker’s potential. Both parties should energetically take on the debate over policies like these that could narrow the racial divide.

For many years, in studying civil resistance across the world, I have observed that the tools of public policy—charts, maps, policy papers, and statistics—are earning their way into the repertoire of methods of nonviolent action. This is no time for adopting a head-in-the-sand position. We must once more shatter the silence, and speak out about the data that show how the entire nation will benefit from racial equity.