I write this note based on my own experiences as an activist, my studies of past activism (particularly that initiated by Black people during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements), and my observations of contemporary activism. I have some legitimate concerns.
As committed people concerned about challenging injustice and improving the lives/conditions of others, sincere activists are invaluable though often unappreciated. Activists represent the interests of “We the people,” the masses of citizens, by identifying and articulating important issues, and organizing people to meaningfully address and resolve them.
As such, activists are always ready targets for corporations, institutions, and individuals whose interests are threatened by our actions. We must always remember that we do not operate in a vacuum; the groups and people we expose and challenge use their resources and power to discredit us to the public, sabotage our campaigns, and generally neutralize our effectiveness. These tactics include but are not limited to false accusations and imprisonment, attempts to slander and defame, bribery, blackmail, blockages to employment, expulsion from school, bogus tax investigations, and even murder. Due to the exposure of clandestine, government-sanctioned operations such as CointelPro and MKUltra, and the subsequent embarrassment caused to the federal and local law enforcement agencies involved, attempts to sabotage activists tend to be subtle and sophisticated these days. Given this, there are things we activists must consider as we help people challenge injustice and inhumanity.
1. Activism involves a broad range of tactics and approaches
Marches, building takeovers, rallies, boycotts, petition drives, demonstrations and protests are large scale tactics designed to raise awareness of an issue, challenge the opposition, or force negotiations with the opposition. However, we should not employ a method just because it worked in the past or because it “is what we’ve always done.” Whatever route we choose should emanate from our goals, resources, and its anticipated level of success and effectiveness. It should be rooted in the culture of the people we organize and be relevant to them. Also, in this age of technology we should consider that there are other ways to express activism today. Creating an informative blog, newsletter or internet radio show can be equally effective as traditional methods of activism. Donating money to struggling community organizations or political causes is important. Creating and disseminating fact sheets about elected officials or people running for office, joining school boards and community councils, starting schools/after school programs, and fundraising for important causes are critical as well. Do not allow people to pigeonhole you into only one way of addressing an issue, or to make you feel that you are not committed because you choose a different course of activism.
2. Activism is most effective when it is proactive and ongoing
There are cases when we must respond to a specific incident like a piece of proposed legislation, or an act of police brutality for example. After all, activists want to if nothing else, resolve conflicts. Yet our activism becomes redundant and predictable if it always involves reacting to an incident. Many problems we confront are systemic and ongoing. They will not be resolved with one campaign or protest. Instead of reacting to an incident of police brutality, we can create a group that watches and records police interactions, a citizens review board, or some other group that addresses the issue consistently. Rather than addressing the issue of one prisoner, we can create an organization that advocates for political prisoners or exposes prison abuse or proposes prison reform in a consistent manner. Instead of reacting to every issue of racism or sexism on a college campus, we can create organizations to raise awareness and address such issues throughout the school year. Case in point: instead of reacting to one incident, a community organization can poll residents to determine what issue most affects them, what issue involves a clear and identifiable opponent, and is most winnable given their resources and willingness to participate. Then in a proactive manner, the organization declares that to be their issue and then devotes its energy to addressing it.
3. Leaders should develop other leaders.
One of the reasons that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was so effective in the 60s is because they focused on building leadership capacity within communities rather than attempting to “lead” them in a top-down manner. Every workplace, school, neighborhood, or institution contains people who are willing to get involved but don’t know how. Experienced leaders often tend to enter a situation, observe conflicts, and then dictate to people what they should do and how they should do it. Then they become the spokesperson and leader of the group. Many times, these individuals are sincere and committed. But what happens if that leader graduates, dies, is imprisoned, falls ill, sells out, or simply relocates? The movement or organization dies with them! It would be far more effective for experienced leaders to teach people the mechanics of organizing (identifying and prioritizing issues, holding meetings, writing press releases/conducting press conferences, public speaking, voter registration, negotiation, conducting protests, editorial writing, fundraising, etc.). In this way, they create a wide base of leadership capable of sustaining activism with or without one individual’s involvement. Activism should not be about ego or self-aggrandizement, but about helping a community to affect change.
4. Activists should be likeable, engaging, and should act with integrity.
Outside of being intimidated by the opposition, or lacking faith that they can be successful, a primary reason people do not get involved with organizations is because of their experience with corrupt and/or arrogant activists. If you deem yourself smarter, better, or more entitled than others, activism is the wrong path for you. If you leave people feeling unworthy, incompetent, or uninspired, you must change this or your leadership will be ineffective and people will lose faith in organizing. Sincere activists/leaders are humble, pleasant, listen well and take people’s concerns seriously, and inspire people to have faith in their ability to transform their lives and the conditions of others. When we observe people that are arrogant, intolerant, dishonest, or condescending, we should not join their organization or campaign regardless of what they are fighting for. At the very least, we should challenge their behavior and actions on behalf of the group and hold them accountable to the group.
5. Some so-called activists are really agents
This is a sensitive subject since so-many sincere and committed activists are labeled “agents” as a way of sabotaging their relationship with the community. Yet, history shows us that some people that yelled the loudest and were the most “militant,” were actually agents and informants working for the agencies and institutions we were fighting against! These people work to earn our trust, and then do things to undermine our cause. While we can never be completely sure of who these people are (we often don’t find out until several years later), trust and know that they exist in most organizations and on almost on levels of activism. They will often suggest that the group engage in reckless and dangerous actions that cause members imprisonment or physical harm. They might encourage the group to take actions they themselves are not prepared to undertake. Sometimes they will attempt to divert attention away from important issues toward silly or trivial ones. Or, they might spread malicious rumors about other members to create division within the group. This is an important subject for all serious activists, and there are things you can do to address this issue. Read this online handbook for more information.
- Resources For Community Organizers (politicalsocialworker.wordpress.com)
- Continuing Legacies of Resistance: Supporting Politicized Prisoners (indybay.org)