Friday, February 10, 2017

How to Get in Trouble: Activism 101

The Denver Women's March, January 21. [Photo by Brad Weismann]
This is a personal story. There’s no claim to objectivity here. If you’re not liberally inclined, this story is not for you. The question I asked myself after Trump’s election, after a weeklong coma of disbelief, was: what should I do, in the face of massive, reactionary assault on what I consider to be essential American values? What can I do? And as Chris Edelson put it bluntly in the Baltimore Sun the other day, “This is not a hypothetical question.”

“What should I do?” I commit journalism; people were asking ME what to do. I had no idea. I know what my convictions are. I am an unreconstructed guilt-ridden and bearded white male liberal, raised during Vietnam, the Space Race, the Civil Rights movement and the aspirations of the Great Society. I’ve read enough history to know what a national crisis looks like. So, I know that sitting on the sidelines and invoking a nonexistent sense of impartiality is pretty hard for me, loudmouth fool that I am. So, farewell, sidelines.

Though I’d reported on social-justice movements, actions, and figures, I had not a clue as to how these organizations were created or maintained. How did they formulate a plan for social action? What does it entail? Who teaches it? What works?

So, I started asking people around the area. The response was spotty – oddly, some of the more established rights organizations were the slowest to respond. Some I’m still waiting on.

One who got back to me immediately was Scott L. Levin, the Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League. The 104-year-old organization was founded to protect Jewish people, but has since broadened its scope to advocate and educate on and about civil rights issues, and to facilitate human relations.

Levin said, “We’re tremendously busy these days. The amount of hate incidents have gone up dramatically. (This was late December, three weeks before Trump’s inauguration.)

“There is a lot of hate that’s going on online, and I think people need to call it out in real time when they see it. We have to take whatever steps are necessary not to normalize this behavior. We can speak up, we can continue to call on our leaders. It’s not who we are in Colorado.

“We try to tell people that words matter. The ADL has one of the state’s biggest anti-bullying program, in 50 schools. This is about changing the culture.”

I asked him how someone with zero knowledge could start.

“I think there are lot of things they can do,” he answered. “Engagement has to be done on a person-to-person level. Just even getting together with friends and acquaintances, talking through the issues of the day, gives you a place to start. Plus, it’s therapeutic. From that, you develop a group of like-minded people, then come up with a mission statement. In a very public way, too. We’re seeing all these public communities come together -- communities of color, LGBT – and when we unite we maximize and leverage our influence. This is a kind of time that we haven’t seen in our country for a few decades. A level of activism is called for beyond the normal. We’ve got to be prepared and do our work NOW.”

Then I talked to Evan Weissman (no relation – the question has come up before). He’s a nice, smart guy, who worked for years with Buntport Theater Company in Denver. He came up with the idea for Warm Cookies of the Revolution, a hybrid of civics and interactive fun that’s been holding events in Denver since November of 2012. The best description I can find of their methodology is in a previous interview I did with Evan:

“Of the Warm Cookies inspiration, he says, ‘I kind of was over the idea that we had to do things the way we had been. Protesting and organizing are important, but this is a different way to attract more people.

‘We want to have fun, but we don’t want it to be hokey – we don’t want to hoodwink people, or hit them over the head with a message. It’s a tough balance to work out – engaging ways to discuss important issues.’”

Warm Cookies has covered all manner of topics – voting, immigration, financial policy, and so – framed in participatory, un-stodgy ways. The group’s development now seems prescient. I got hold of Evan before the January 29 edition of the group’s “Sunday School for Atheists” informational meeting. The featured speaker was Dr. Erica Chenoweth of the University of Denver, an expert in international studies who made a quantitative study of political action, violent and non-violent, and their relative effectiveness.

“I’ve been incubating this recess,” he said in early January, as life started to crank up again for everyone after the holidays. “I don’t know where the story is or where it’s going. I have hope. Hope is what allows us to do action, otherwise we fall prey to cynicism, which is just retreat.”

OK, was he worried? “It depends how much stock you put into a national election,” he said. “That’s not the litmus test, however much they tell us that. The campaigns are run by people who get us to shop – and I don’t know that I buy that.

“I think we need to take it out of the realm of where people’s minds are set. We forget about our ownership. We own the community. If I say to you, ‘Make a list of everything you own,’ no one says the sidewalks, the radio waves, the library -- we just don’t l think like that. If we remember that we own these things, we can decide what is done with them.”

(I think about those thousands I marched with on January 21. It was a huge and impressive event, far larger than anyone had anticipated. How many were there – 100,000? 200,000? People kept streaming in that day, from all points of the compass, into Civic Center Park, walking in from farther and farther out as the parking lots and spaces filled, the trains and buses disgorging throngs, most bearing homemade signs – properly spelled and punctuated, for once. At least liberalism has that! An astonishing and peaceful display of commitment. But I worry, too. That was a cinematic kind of protest, that spontaneous outpouring of mass feeling that swells up right before the movie ends. Would less dramatic efforts be as well-peopled?)

“It’s about activating a sense of responsibility. I think the key,” he said, “is that’s all incremental. You have to start small. You have to do what you can do. If you’re trying to do the perfect thing, you’ll never get anything done.

“It’s like that saying, ‘Learn one thing and you learn everything.’ So you want to get in there and mix it up. The joy is in the struggle, when you’re working with people. Enjoy the rebellion.”

The Sunday School for Atheists session on “The Science of Effective Resistance” on January 29 was held in the McNichols Building at 144 W. Colfax. It was packed to capacity. There was child care, there were Spanish translators. Collapsible buffet tables at the rear of the space held multiple sign-ups sheets, surveys, requests for ideas, and information from a number of social-action causes. Off to the side was a massive array of treats, a kind of inspired potluck (hey, the group’s guarantee the presence of cookies is right there in its title) that kids and others made short work of.

The buzz was lively and friendly. Long-time local musician and activist Jamie Laurie got the crowd’s attention focused with some call and response action. Chenoweth’s presentation was brisk, engaging, and convincing. Evidently no one had ever done a study of the relative effectiveness of violent versus non-violent protest. Using a sensible methodology and wielding and impressive array of metrics, Chenoweth asserted that success rates of non-violent social actions were double those of violent ones. 

Reasons? First, the barrier to participation is lower. It takes a peculiar set of qualities to motivate someone to pick up arms, and inevitably aligns them with a group of like-minded individuals. “Participation in non-violence is easier for non-risk acceptant individuals,” she said. “Also, this allows for participation on a day-to-day basis. There are not a lot of casual insurgents.”

There’s a lower “cognitive barrier” as well. “This is not about converting people, melting hearts,” she said. “It’s about creating a coalition – and if you’re comfortable with everyone in your coalition, you don’t have a coalition. If you form a group, you will probably form an agreement in terms of goals and methods. Trust me – you will spend 95 percent of your time in meetings figuring those things out, and 5 percent in the actions.

“Instead of pushing at an issue, it’s more about pulling. You are pulling neutrals over to the role of passive allies, then to active allies.” (Funny, this is the same methodology used to get people to become season subscribers to arts organizations.)

“Eventually, you create links with those who constitute pillars of support for what you are opposing.” (As activist Srdja Popovic puts it in his 2015 book Blueprint for Revolution, “it is awfully hard to shoot people you know.”)

She had more advice for activists. She cited the example of activist and teacher of non-violence James Lawson, who before organizing spent nine months to a year visiting the people he wanted to help, going from door to door and “finding out what people care about, personally,” Chenoweth emphasized. “What were they ashamed of? What were they afraid of?” This approach ensures that the reasons and motivation for change come from the community itself, instead of being imposed from the outside. Developing communication and trust, and modeling the concept of taking care of one another, proceeds from this approach as well.

Chenoweth heartened the crowd with her estimate that it only takes the participation of 3 ½ percent of a total given population to create a critical mass that mandates change. “And, we never know when something might make a difference, so we have to keep doing it,” she added.

Meanwhile, organizations keep popping up everywhere, and it seems like show people definitely have an advantage in creating something that works in record time. A few weeks ago, theatrical stalwart Mare Trevathan innocently put out a query on her Facebook account wondering how she could set up a civics-education class. Her friends GerRee Hinshaw and Rebecca Aronauer had formed the group Said & Done for the implementation of one social-action event after the Women's March, and they invited Trevathan to build on their existing platform. Within a few days, two Civics 101 sessions were organized and completely filled. The two-hour sessions (the first one took place in Longmont last night) cover the three branches of government, what local involvement in the political process looks like, a rundown of basic rights, effective activism, and facing fears about taking action.

“We plan to put something of a ‘franchise’ plan (without the $ part) – a template people can take to make one of these themselves,” Trevathan wrote. Already, the production of similar events across the state and region are planned.

So, guess what? Resistance is highly doable. One act lays the foundation for another. Given who our current president is, the barrier has never been lower for political involvement. Any action helps. Remember how we were told that the sharing of partisan information digitally during the election just created an “echo chamber” that had no effect? Bullshit. Relaying and amplifying messages are good, though they are no substitute for in-person, analog, real-world actions.

So start something. Pick something, stay focused on one topic --reacting to every outrage leads to exhaustion – and every issue is intertwined with others, ultimately. Communicate; find common grounds, build coalitions. Persist. Progress is incremental and never guaranteed; sometimes the most mundane actions bring about the greatest change. And don’t be so damn serious – in today’s America, you are already in trouble with many of your fellow citizens, simply for believing what you believe. It’s going to get worse before it gets better – you might as well have as much fun as possible.

“Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” Deuteronomy 30:11-14


The sheer volume of information for would-be activists is cascading through the social system right now. Here are some places and works I found useful:

American Civil Liberties Union

Warm Cookies of the Revolution

For questions and information about the rapidly developing Said and Done: Civic 101 project, please contact Mare Trevathan at,com.

Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Administration
This guide, compiled by former coongressional staffers, is free and readily available online.

Blueprint for Revolution
Srdkja Popovic

Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict
Erica Chenoweth

Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution
Andrew Boyd

The Nonviolence Handbook: A Guide for Practical Action
Michael N. Nagler

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