“Power is the capacity to get others to do or stop doing something now, or in the future,” Dr. Moisés Naim told me, adding that “power is also a source of order, and a source of comfort for some people. Remember that the extreme situation where nobody has power, is anarchy… and anarchy leads to inferior social outcomes [versus] societies where structures and entities that impose power, limits and rules to create stability and prosperity.”
This, therefore, is the Faustian nature of our social contract. We (the people) agree to structures and entities that impose power, limits and rules to us and our community and in exchange, we expect those structures and entities to act in our best interest- delivering stability, prosperity and growth.
The reality however, is rather different, and we often find governments, corporations, and other actors in our world behaving against the best interests of those to whom they are responsible and accountable. Particularly in the modern era, inequities and injustices rarely go unnoticed and whether we look at the US Civil Rights Movement or protests against nuclear arms, President Donald Trump and even political corruption in Brazil, we see tens of millions of people worldwide committing to use non-violent direct action to achieve the changes they want to see in their world.
L.A. Kauffman has spent more than thirty years immersed in radical movements, as a journalist, historian, organizer, and strategist. I caught up with L.A. to learn more about how organised movements can create lasting change.
Q: Why do we need activism in society?
[L.A. Kauffman] Citizen activism has always acted as a corrective on governments, particularly those governments which only represent a small minority (rather than a broad majority). History shows us time and time again that when established institutions become unresponsive or undermine people’s rights, activism has been the way that people have been able to make gains- or protect those they already have.
Q: How effective is direct action?
[L.A. Kauffman] History is full of changes that were only made because of direct action. In the US context, you need look no further than the civil rights movement. Racial segregation would not have been dismantled the way that it was, to the extent that it was without the work of grass roots movements who were prepared to take risks and break the law- to fight unjust laws and create change.
In recent history, Act Up – the AIDS activism movement – has literally saved millions of lives by using targeted direct action to change the way HIV medicines were targeted and developed.
Q: How do governments push-back against direct action?
[L.A. Kauffman] Governments often push-back against citizens by using violence against them. People should always look carefully when they see reports of ‘a protest turning violent,’ because 90-95% of the time, the violence is from the authorities not protestors.
Worldwide,; whenever there’s a powerful upsurge of citizen activism you will see a corresponding upsurge of repressive techniques designed to discourage people, scare people, shrink movements and embroil them in legal consequences.
If a government decides to go all-out using force to stop a movement, there’s not a lot that a movement can do to fight back apart from staying strongly non-violent, to hold its ground, accept the consequences, and hope that public outcry will stimulate change.
Q: What makes protest effective?
[L.A. Kauffman] People often think that the most important gauge of a protest’s effectiveness is size, but I don’t. There’s a message in having a very large gathering of people, but when I look at what has created change most effectively over time? It’s not always the movements that have been able to mobilise the greatest numbers of people.
The movements that have managed to keep a strong strategic focus, that have been persistent, and bold in their use of tactics, are the ones which make the greatest impact.
Act Up would be a great example of a movement which never had very large numbers (compared to things like the Women’s Marches we’ve seen in 2017); they never mobilised more than the single digit thousands for an individual event; yet their persistence and focus paid off. They had absolute focus targeting those agencies that could make the changes they wanted to see- they were relentless in their tenacity. That combination really produces change over time. A single occasion where you have people out on the streets expressing their displeasure accomplishes something but rarely creates the kind of policy changes people are hoping for.
Q: What is the role of art, music & film in activism?
[L.A. Kauffman] The movements that sustain themselves the best over time are those that have culture at their core, that use art as a means of conveying a message, and use art-making as a means to mobilise a movement.
Many organisations have art builds beforehand, where people come together- and in many cases these are not just a way for people to get to know each other and collaborate before an action… but rather, they are a place where people work out their own political differences.
The people’s climate movement did a brilliant job of using the process of art making as a way to change the story about climate activism away from the narrow environmentalism that came out of majority white movements, to a profoundly inclusive vision of climate justice led by the communities most affected by climate change.
Societies are so large and complex, that you need a diverse ecosystem of resistance as well, using many kinds of tools.
Musicians and filmmakers play crucial roles in resistance. The best protests to be part of are the ones that feed the soul, as well as feed the change. These are the movements where there is something sustaining in the moment– a brass band playing in the street with you, people making music, a cultural richness that gives it a political richness too.
Art inspires, but art making and the process of thoroughly incorporating art into activism can strengthen movements in profound ways.
Q: What is the role of comedy and satire in resistance and protest?
[L.A. Kauffman] Ridicule, mockery and humour are some of the best tools of the powerless, they are weapons of the weak!
There’s a danger in activism of being too self-serious and self-righteous; understandably as you are often dealing with issues which are genuinely life and death, or where the gravity of the issue is strong.
Finding ways to intervene with levity and humour can build strength and sustain a movement. Humour is one of the most powerful weapons of non-violent resistance.
Q: How is the right-wing using the tools of activism?
[L.A. Kauffman] Take a moment to look at the ‘Tea Party’ movement in the U.S. People are now saying ‘oh, we need a tea party on the left…’ forgetting that the Tea Party borrowed its techniques from the left in the first-place!
There’s a democratic ethos that runs through all of these activist traditions on the left, and when they’re embraced by groups that don’t share that ethos, they don’t work as well… they don’t have that same power and force when you have top-down organisations sending people out to organise a protest rather than people self-mobilising and organising their own political intervention.
The right can use things that appear to be like the tools of direct action and the left, but they’re mostly AstroTurf rather than grass.
Q: How important is digital media in activism?
[L.A. Kauffman] To have broad movements, to have inclusive movements, you have to have on-ramps. You have to have ways to get involved that don’t require much of participants and which are stepping stones to wider engagements.
A lot of people disparage online activism as clicktivism and think it leads to nothing more, but I disagree. Take a look at the women’s marches of 2017 for example, these began on Facebook, spread massively through social media, and provided an opportunity for literally millions of people to take a step past the digital world, enabling them to show up at real world protests in cities globally.
I’m also mindful to look back through history at the many movements who got their stories out without digital technologies, and how effective that was- and can still be.
There’s a wonderful story, that not many people know, about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. We’re all familiar with the idea that Rosa Parks sat down one day and refused to give up her seat. We also know she was a trained organiser before that, and wasn’t just a tired woman who was fed-up that day, she had a political strategy in mind. What people don’t know is that Montgomery had a network of women’s clubs who had been prepared and waiting for the moment where they moved towards a bus boycott. In just 12 hours they distributed 50,000 leaflets, in secret, all-across the city; the result? No African Americans rode the bus the following morning.
Organising shouldn’t rely on digital media, but to the extent people are using it now- we need to see it as an on-ramp, not a weakness.
When you have access to your own media, and you can set-up a livestream and so on, you may feel like you don’t have to go to all the hassle of preparing a press-release, press-list and getting journalists there. I see people using all the tools in the tool-box.
When we had the rapid-response protests on the day Trump instigated his Muslim Ban, we had live-streamers, traditional reporters and many others on the scene at the same time. People coming at this movement from a solid organising background are using all the tools they can, together.
Q: How important is noncompliance in activism?
[L.A. Kauffman] The tactic of mass noncompliance that includes boycotts is seeing a renewed level of interest.
We’ve had a series of days without immigrants for examples, with sectoral work stoppages that demonstrate the power of immigrant labour. On March 8th, we have a day without a woman coming up too. These are all ways of exploring what a strike looks like in an era where labour unions are not as strong as they once were.
Noncompliance is powerful, and can leverage individual power into a collective force.
Q: What would be your message for the next generation?
[L.A. Kauffman] Protest works when it’s done with intelligence.
You have to be willing to use the stronger tools of citizen engagement if you want to make an impact, particularly when the odds seem against you.
Within the toolbox of nonviolent direct action, there are a huge number of tools you can use including rallies, speak-outs, blockades, sit-ins, and other more disruptive ones.
At a moment when the threats are so severe and unrelenting, we need to look at that toolbox as a whole, and use all the methods we can, collectively, to get the change we need.
L.A. Kauffman has spent more than thirty years immersed in radical movements, as a journalist, historian, organizer, and strategist. Her writings on grassroots activism and social movement history have been published in The Nation, The Progressive, Mother Jones, the Village Voice, Salon, n+1, The Baffler, and many other outlets. She served as executive editor for the radical theory journal Socialist Review and as an award-winning national political columnist for SF Weekly, focusing on dissent and activism.
Kauffman was a central strategist of the two-year direct action campaign that saved more than 100 New York City community gardens from bulldozing in 1999; she masterminded the campaign’s most notorious action, the release of 10,000 crickets in One Police Plaza during a city land auction. She served as a street tactician, direct action trainer, and movement analyst during the turn-of-the-millennium global justice movement; her widely cited Free Radical column chronicled the movement’s upsurge and post-9/11 collapse.
Kauffman was the mobilizing coordinator for the massive February 15, 2003 antiwar protest in New York City, creating the event’s iconic “World Says No to War” poster, overseeing online outreach, and assembling the massive grassroots street operation that distributed more than 2 million leaflets in a matter of weeks. She continued in this role through the years of major anti-war protests, including those that greeted the 2004 Republican National Convention, crafting the coalition’s online and offline communications strategies. More recently, she coordinated successful campaigns to save two iconic New York City public libraries from being demolished and replaced by luxury towers. She is currently involved in a range of projects to resist the Trump presidency.