July 29, 2012

The Species of Activism

The following is a lecture I gave at the annual "Peace of Mind" conference on behalf of New Hampshire Peace Action in the spring of 2010.

With my online persona, I blog, I make videos, and attend conferences, and do other things.
In real life, I work full time in a factory, I play in a band called “Theodore Treehouse” and serve on the Maine Green Independent Party steering committee. I’m much more boring in real life than my online persona makes me seem. When Will Hopkins asked me to fill this slot for Yael Petretti, I had no idea what I was going to do. He joked that this part of the conference would be changed from “Compassionate Listening” to “How the Punk Patriot is going to save the world.”

I’m not here to tell you how I’m going to save the world though. Not only is that incredibly vain, it’s an absurd thought that one person on their own can save the entire world. But what isn’t absurd is that one person can make a profound difference. You can make a profound difference on a global scale, or you can make a profound difference on a local scale. You can make a difference, and what you choose to do with your life DOES matter.

To do that, I’m going to talk a little bit about where I come from. I’ve always been a political activist. It was an accident. When I was a child, my mother was sort of politically active, and I went with her to political events. I vaguely remember attending meetings at churches and town halls. I remember more vividly walking door to door with her, and watching her talk to people in our neighborhood. I remember it being a problem that people would dispose of toxic fluids down the storm drains. I remember going out with my mother and spray painting stenciled warnings in front of storm drains telling people not to dump their paint or other toxic fluids there.

When I was in middle school, I was living in a rural community in the Bangor area of Maine. Our town council was made up of conservatives to believed that raising taxes was one of the seven deadly sins. They wanted to cut taxes, and cut spending, across the board. Our school was not well funded to start with. We barely had an art program, and our music program consisted of a woman who visited several schools in our general area, wheeling in an electronic keyboard and passing out the lyrics to Abba songs, and she’d have us sing the main melody line while she played keyboard. I don’t remember learning much about music, nor did I feel particularly culturally enriched, but this seemed to satisfy the requirements of the school board, and it was a monthly interruption to math class-- for that reason alone we enjoyed it. Otherwise it was pure torture.
One member of our town council pushed very heavily the idea that the ballooning costs of public education was the cause of all our budgetary woes, that we as a town were going broke, and that we couldn’t afford to keep spending, and sought to cut spending across the board. Because of our Town Council’s proposed budget, our school was facing the reality that it might have to close down for most of the year, or maybe even entirely. A small group of people decided, and rightfully so, that this-- was complete bullshit. The final straw. Behaviour by our town council that was totally unacceptable. For a while there was a lot of vitriol from people on both sides of the fence. Those on the conservative side of the fence agreed that the School was too expensive and that taxes were too high.

The progressive side of the fence decided that education was important, and we shouldn’t neglect our kids, that education was valuable.

This group of like-minded women who knew one another through their kids involvement in Boy Scouts, through after school activities, they got together to do something about this. The town librarian, a handful of concerned mothers, including my mother, got together and started holding meetings to talk about what to do. They held meetings at people’s houses. They held meetings in the public library.

They decided what they’d do, is something radical, crazy even. They would go to the town council meeting, get on the speaker’s list, and COMPLAIN. And they did.

The delinquent kids of my school, whose parents both worked, or came from single parent households, leaving them with nothing to do at home until late at night, they would hang out at the library. They would normally skateboard and commit acts of minor vandalism. They were natural rabble rousers. Our town librarian had to regularly go outside and yell at them. So naturally they become good friends. When our librarian approached them and asked them if they would like to complain to the town council about how much our school sucked, they thought that sounded like a great idea. They even agreed not to cuss in their speeches.

The conservative blowhards on the town council decided that they had heard enough, and began parroting all sorts of stupid conservative talking points. One of them said to one of the mothers who had the floor, “Ma’am, the fact of the matter is, our school is not going to produce any rocket scientists.”

The other mothers organized their kids, and their kids’ friends. We got together to rehearse our speeches. We all went to the next town hall meeting wearing handmade t-shirts that said, “FUTURE ROCKET SCIENTIST.” We each got on the speakers list to talk about how much the school sucked due to underfunding, how important education is to our future, and how a small property tax increase would raise a huge amount of money for the school solving a lot of our funding problems. We asked,

“How often do you hear people rallying and asking you to RAISE their taxes?”

One astute member of the community decided that even more than persuasive emotional arguments, we needed to find out what the facts were. He did not believe it was true that the cost of education was ballooning, and decided to go to the town’s budgetary records held in the library, and look through the budgets for the past 30 years and enter it all into a spreadsheet. He found that expenses across the board were nominally flat, with an average fluctuation of 3 to 4%. But there was a bizarre anomaly: an account that appeared about 10 years prior, that was going up by one hundred thousand dollars every year. It was a reserve fund that the town council could use as a slush fund. And it had accrued about one million dollars over ten years. And this was back in 1990 when a dollar was worth about 40% more than it is today. The town council was taxing the town, and then not spending it on anything, at the expense of the public good.

He had a chart made up graphing the town’s expenditures. He made up a bunch of pamphlets with the same information. And two weeks before the referendum on the budget, he presented at a joint session of the Town Council and School Board. As soon as people realized that they were being lied to, it was an easy sell.

We organized the community, going door to door and explaining how the town council was taxing us and then not spending the money, and how they were lying about the school’s operating costs ballooning out of control. And we had the data to back it up. And my town rejected the town council’s budget by an overwhelming majority. In the next budget, we lobbied for, and won, our tiny property tax increase.

Nobody had to run for office. Nobody had to be impeached. It wasn’t a Democrat of Republican issue. It was just common sense, solid data, and math. It was good citizen ethic. We just did a voter education and a grassroots “Get out the vote” campaign.

We engaged in one of the forgotten parts of citizenship-- we LOBBIED. It’s a dirty word these days. But that’s only because too few of us do it. Too few of YOU do it.
Because of that experience, activism has seemed so natural to me. It’s just something that is part of every day life. Just like we are all supposed to brush our teeth and floss regularly to protect and maintain our dental health, we also need to be politically active on a regular basis so that we can maintain the health our democracy.


Let me tell you another story about somebody I know. I don’t actually know him directly, he is a good friend of someone who is, in turn, friend of mine. You may have heard of him. His name is Tim DeChristopher.

Tim DeChristopher was just an economics student living in Salt Lake City Utah. The Bush Administration was auctioning off public land for “energy exploration” aka strip mining. This land was owned by the public, land set aside during Theodore Roosevelt’s time for enjoyment by the public. And this auction and sale of this land was illegal. But the Bush Administration was a criminal government, they didn’t care much about the law, so it was happening anyways.

Tim DeChristopher and his politically aware friends heard about this auction going on. It was right around the corner from where they were already living and going to school. He and his friends decided that they needed to do something to stop it. So they came up with a plan to disrupt the auction.

They were going to go down and storm it, and then scream and yell and try to prevent it from happening. So he and his group of friends went down to the hotel conference room where the auction was happening. Just outside of the doors, his friends chickened out. But Tim decided he had to get in there and at least check it out. He figured he was going to go in, throw a shoe at the auctioneer, and then he’d get arrested, and that would be the end of it. But he’d at least bring some attention to the issue, and maybe delay it for a little bit.

What happened instead is much more interesting. He went through those doors into the area just outside, where he was greeted by a stern man in a suit. At this point, Tim thought to himself, “oh great, they’re not going to let me in.” But the man in the suit said, “Are you here to attend the auction?”
So after pausing just a split second, Tim responded, “why, yes, I am.”
The man in the suit asked him, “And would you like to bid in the auction?”
At this point Tim was thinking. “SCORE! I’m totally getting inside!”
“Why yes I would.”

And so the man in the suit handed him a bidding paddle with the number 70 on it.

So he went into the room, and he sat down in a chair with his paddle, and he began to look around the room. There were all sorts of old white men in business suits, and younger people like Tim, who were talking on cell phones, probably listening to old white men in business suits in offices far away from Salt Lake City.

As the bidding started, and plots of our public, federally protected land were being sold for $4 an acre, Tim decided that there was no reason that he shouldn’t bid too. He had a paddle. He had gotten inside legally. He had every right to be there, and every right to bid as well.

At first his strategy was to drive up the price to ridiculous amounts. And he did. He started bidding like mad until there was just a few other bidders, and driving the price up as high as the other guys were willing to go. Where plots of land were once selling for $4 an acre, they were now selling for $50 an acre, being sold in tracks of thousands of acres at a time.

But then, Tim realized-- it wasn’t enough to stick it to these criminals by driving the prices up. This land was public land, and it belonged to the public, not the coal companies, not mining companies. That land that they were winning, they were still going to strip mine public property. They were still going to ruin the local ecosystem.

So he decided he was going to just grab up all the land he could, and keep it out of the hands of these goons. And so he did. After winning every plot of land from that point forward, somebody from the FBI came over to talk with him, and he was escorted out of the building, and the auction was halted. Tim was charged and sentenced to two years for “bidding without intent to pay.” Which is interesting, because the auction he stopped was itself illegal. But he stopped it.

He and his friends have started an organization called Peaceful Uprising, and have begun organizing climate justice actions around the USA.


Another activist you have probably all heard of: Bradley Manning. Bradley Manning was just a Private First Class intelligence officer. He found though, that he had access to damning information about our foreign policy. So he allegedly burned it all to CD-Rs and sent that information off to Wikileaks. A fairly small simple action. But one with huge, sweeping consequences.
Rosa Parks famously decided one day that she was sick of being treated like a second class citizen. So she decided she just wasn’t going to take shit from anybody anymore, and in a simple act of noncompliance that anybody could have done, she simply refused to move to the back of the bus. She also decided to dedicate her life to organizing, boycotting, striking, and mobilizing her community.

Cindy Sheehan, attending a Veterans For Peace conference in Texas, realized that she was just a few miles away from George W Bush’s ranch. So she and a few others decided that they were going to camp out on his front lawn and wait to ask the president, “For what noble cause did my son die?” The media took notice, and she became a hero. But she’s just a person like you.

Tim DeChristopher, Bradley Manning, Rosa Parks, Cindy Sheehan, are not that different than my School Librarian, my mother, or any of you.

The only difference between the people in the stories I’ve told you, and anybody else you know is the following:

1) These “heroes” found themselves in a position where they could do something to make the world a better place. It came with a certain amount of risk to themselves. But, and this is the most important part
2) They did it anyways.

They are not super-heroes. They are not Saints. They are just regular people like you and me. They got more press than most, but the DNA of what spurred them to action, the essence of what drove them to act, is no different.

This sounds too simple. It’s almost boring. So let me call it by something that sounds far more fancy: Leadership.

Why did they behave the way they did?
What if they had waited around for the Obama, or the Nader, or hero politician of their time to fight all their battles for them?
What if Rosa Parks had waited around for somebody else to be Rosa Parks?
What if Bradley Manning had waited for somebody else to be Bradley Manning?
What if Cindy Sheehan had waited around for somebody else to be Cindy Sheehan?
What if Gandhi had waited around for somebody else to be Gandhi?
What if Martin Luther King Jr had waited for somebody else to be Martin Luther King Jr?
What if Tim DeChristopher had been like his friends, and chickened out at the front steps?

Why did these people take action instead of waiting for some politician to do things for them? Why did they decide that THEY should be the ones to make a difference, instead of waiting around for some activist hero to do it for them?

One word: Leadership.

What does it mean to be an activist?

I think to be an activist, a real activist, is to be a leader. A sovereign individual. When you decide that you are in charge of your own life, that you have a role to play in shaping the world around you, that your life has value and importance, that things like justice and truth are important, when you invest your hope in yourself and your community, instead of investing it in politicians and activist heroes, you are a leader. And the best kind of leader is the kind of leader that inspires people who are not presently leaders to BECOME leaders.

Leadership is something we desperately need in this world.
Activism is something we desperately need in the world. We need people who are able to not only diagnose our societies ills, but who are willing to treat them.

The Species of Activism

These are the medicines we have at our disposal:
Lifestyle Activism
Theater activism
Electoral Activism
Direct Action

One thing that I’m frustrated by, is that people often get into arguments about which one of these types of activism is the right one. This is an incorrect way to think about activism. Each of these has limitations, and each has benefits.

Lifestyle activism: It’s the kind of activism preferred by folks who feel totally ignorant about politics, and as a result totally disenfranchised from our systems of power. Buying organic food, wearing sweatshop free clothes, and eating a vegan diet are all noble things to do. Changing your diet to include more local food is also a noble thing. But some people don’t have that luxury. For instance, you cannot buy romaine lettuce in the bronx. In some parts of Chicago, you cannot buy a carrot. Your grocery store is 7-11. People living there don’t have the luxury of eating a vegan diet. They eat what they have available to them, which is a lot of dinty moore beef stew and fast food.
Riding your bike instead of taking your car will save you money, but 3/4ths of the US’s greenhouse gases come from processing and burning coal and other fossil fuels for electricity. More than half of that electricity goes to private industry-- factories, and even... power plants. For instance, Nuclear Power requires the consumption of electricity, which comes from burning coal. Riding your bike will save you money. But it won’t change this.
What lifestyle activism can do is start important conversations about issue that you care about. It also allows you to be an example for others to follow.

Theater activism: This is the form of activism that we are all probably most familiar with. We go to protests, we hold signs, we give speeches, we chant chants, we get into the media. The term “theater activism” makes it sound like it’s phony. It’s not. It’s an important tool in the tool box. Now theater activism is not unimportant. Theater activism raises awareness about your issue. It builds momentum. It brings people together into one place so you can do education, and organize them for education or electoral work later down the road.

Education: This can be as simple as having casual conversations with the people you know, or it can be as concerted an effort as going door to door to every home in your neighborhood and having a thousand conversations. It can be standing on a street corner and handing out pamphlets. It can be making YouTube videos. It can be updating your facebook status. I’m sure you can think of plenty more examples.

Electoral activism is another important tool in the toolbox. There are a lot of people who think that electoral activism is the be-all end all of activism. These people are usually partisan jerks who think everybody needs to vote Democrat, even if the Democrat is just as crooked as the Republican. I think that these people are wrong, but that’s another issue. Cindy Sheehan engaged in electoral activism when she ran as a Green Party candidate against Nancy Pelosi. Many of us wanted, and still want, to see George W Bush and Dick Cheney stand trial for war crimes. Nancy Pelosi refused to move forward on impeachment proceedings, and continued to vote to authorize funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cindy Sheehan wanted to call her out as a two-faced phony. So she ran against Nancy Pelosi in 2006. Ralph Nader was sick of seeing Democrats move further and further aligned with Corporate interests, and more and more against human interests, which is why he ran for President in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008.

Once you get your candidates into office, you have to hold them accountable. Or maybe there are people in office who disagree with you, and you want to change their mind. You can do this through lobbying them. Which is basically just another way of saying, “talking to them.”
I’ve lobbied for a few bills in the Maine State House, not as a hired representative of any organization, but as a concerned citizen. People think that if you go to lobby your representative, that they won’t bother listening to you. I’ve found the complete opposite to be true. Elected representatives, in my experience, are desperate to hear from people who aren’t paid to have a point of view. If you make an effort to speak your mind to your elected officials, whether at a committee hearing, or in a one on one meeting in their office, you will be heard.
(talk about IRV bill experience)

Direct Action:
Lastly, Direct Action is a form of activism that comes to mind when people say “activism.” Occupations, sit-ins, etc. In terms of escalation, it’s the last peaceful method of protest. In it’s most broad definition, it’s when you do something that directly prevents something from happening. It might be Matthis Chiroux laying down in the middle of the street outside Fort Hood to stop the buses carrying troops to be deployed. It might be members of environmental groups camping out in the tops of trees in old growth forest. It might be the activists at the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999, forming human chains, blocking entrances and intersections, shutting down the WTO convention. It might be activists occupying the SEC building this October, or occupying Wall Street this month on the 17th. Or it could be as small as stepping between two people who are fighting and breaking it up.

All of these are options for you as you set out to tackle problems you come across.
So if being a leader means being an activist, what does it mean to be an activist? It means that you are in control of your own life. That you are participating in systems of power. That you have taken control of your own destiny. That governing is something done by you, not to you.
I would just ask you all to join me in a saying something that for me, has carried me through times of doubt and struggle. “We have a duty to fight. We have a duty to win. We must love and protect one another. We have nothing to lose but our fear.”

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